"It's not funny."
"I'm sorry, Buck, but it is. It really is funny."
Bucky wiped more of the iridescent black goo off his face, scowled at his hand and then scowled at Steve. "Fuck you."
"Language!" Tony said gleefully.
Bucky scowled at Tony. "Fuck you too." He wiped his hand clean on Steve's uniform.
"Not so funny now, huh?" Bucky spread his arms, grimacing down at himself. "Jesus. Even my boots are soaking with it."
"Way to take one for the team, Bucky." Clint lifted his hand to clap Bucky on the shoulder, then obviously thought better of it. "I'm taking a different Quinjet home."
"I did tell you not to go too close," Natasha said.
"How else was I gonna stuff the grenade in its maw, huh? None of you losers were doing anything."
"Yeah. We were just fighting off its sixty billion disgusting offspring so you could get close enough to lob a grenade at it. Definitely not doing anything," Clint said.
"Hey, I was trying not to be eaten." Tony shuddered theatrically. "You're just lucky I taste better than you, Furiosa."
"I just wasn't dumb enough to get that close." Bucky wiped uselessly at his armor.
"Until you shoved a grenade up its ass," Natasha said, then gave Bucky a little smile when he glared at her.
"Missed a spot," Clint said.
"You're going to have to go through decontamination when we get back to the tower," Bruce said apologetically. He was in a terrycloth bathrobe with his hands jammed deep in the pockets. His feet were covered in dust from the pavement.
"Kill me now," Bucky groaned
"You too, Tony," Bruce added around a yawn.
"Oh, fuck no." Tony had his own smears of goop on his waist and legs. "Come on, Bruce—this crap's on my armor. It's not even touching me."
Bruce shrugged, hands still in his pockets. "Better to be safe."
"So gross." Bucky flicked goo off his hands, watching morosely as it splattered on the pavement. Clint danced backwards to avoid it. Bucky glanced up at Steve through his lashes, then suddenly launched himself at him.
"Bucky, no!" Steve tried to backpedal and raise his shield, but it was far too late. Bucky wrapped him in a bear hug, then gave him a big, wet kiss on the cheek before rubbing his hair all over the side of Steve's face.
"I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, STEVIE!" Bucky rocked Steve back and forth, clinging to him.
"I hate you," Steve said, then sighed and hugged him back.
"Is something wrong, Buck?"
"What?" Bucky looked up at Steve, blinking, then seemed to realize he'd been absently rubbing the left side of his jaw and dropped his hand. "No, it's fine." He gave Steve one of his bright, toothy grins and took another mouthful of cereal. "Juff zore," he said as he chewed. "Just sore," he repeated after he swallowed. He shrugged. "Must've took a hit to the face I didn't know about."
"You sure you're all right?" Steve leaned closer, trailing his fingers along Bucky's jaw. Bucky's mouth twitched but he stayed still until Steve sat back. "I don't know. You didn't have a bruise and nothing seems to be wrong now. But if it's hurting, you should go to the infirmary and get it checked out."
"It's fine." Bucky ate more cereal as if to prove it.
"I know you don't like doctors—"
Bucky's huff was eloquent derision of Steve's understatement. "I probably cracked a tooth during the fight. It'll heal by tomorrow."
"That was two days ago. If you cracked a tooth it should've healed by now. Not started hurting."
"Maybe it got cracked and then cracked more." Bucky rolled his eyes at Steve's worried expression. "All right. If it gets worse I'll go to the doctor, okay? Stop giving me your damn puppy-eyes. I ain't gonna drop dead from a toothache."
Steve rounded his eyes and made his face earnest for all he was worth. "I just love you so much, Bucky."
Bucky smirked. "Punk."
"Language," Steve said.
Bucky shook his head. "You know, that's not even funny anymore."
"Okay!" Tony rubbed his hands together. "Let's do this thing. Just remember not to kill me."
"Depends how annoying you are." Bucky smiled sweetly at Tony's look.
"Remember what I taught you, Tony," Natasha said. "There are plenty of ways to take him down, even if he's bigger than you."
"A lot bigger," Bucky said.
"Oh, screw you Edward—!" The 'Scissorhands' part burst into a (extremely manly and reasonable) scream, because Bucky chose that millisecond of Tony's distraction to come at him exactly like the cyborg death-juggernaut Tony was supposed to be sparring against. Tony yelped and dodged away from Bucky's first punch, trying to hammer his fist into Bucky's kidney the way Natasha taught him.
They'd agreed that Bucky wouldn't go easy on Tony other than pulling his punches so he wouldn't actually put him in the hospital. Tony could go all out, since he was still practicing. Tony was good at hand-to-hand, but he was no Clint or Natasha. It was pretty much a given that he might bruise Bucky a bit, but there was no way he could break him.
Case in point: They were both only wearing exercise clothes, but Tony's hand felt like he'd bashed a wall. Bucky didn't even twitch in reaction, the dick. He just spun into a kick that barely nudged Tony yet still managed to make him stumble back a step. It hurt like hell.
Tony grabbed Bucky's leg because Natasha had taught him to always fight as dirty as required to stay alive. A good twist and yank got Bucky onto his back. Bucky grunted in what Tony told himself was pain, not annoyance. Just like Tony told himself Bucky didn't give him an extra second to scramble away.
"You should've attacked while he was down," Natasha admonished.
Bucky sprang to his feet and did that windmill thing with his left arm like he was making sure it worked.
"He looked winded," Tony said, then grinned at Bucky's snort of laughter before he dove out of the way of his next hit. He aimed his kick for Bucky's groin and yelled "Ha!" when Bucky threw himself into some kind of complete overkill of a flip to avoid a boot to the junk.
"Too much dancing. Close up." Natasha eyed Bucky, who'd backed up instead of attacking. "Are you bored, James?"
Bucky pulled his left hand away from his jaw, then spun his arm again. "He looked winded."
Tony didn't scream this time. He waited until Bucky was almost on top of him again, then aimed two quick punches to his stomach. He wasn't fast enough for the follow up to Bucky's jaw, but Bucky was moving slowly enough—thank you, Bucky. Fuck you, Bucky—that Tony could pivot out of the way of Bucky's shove, then grab Bucky's left wrist with both hands. The idea was to use his momentum to throw him to the mats.
The next thing Tony knew, he was on his stomach on the floor, blinking stars out of his eyes. He'd been stunned enough times to recognize it. Never got any funner, but at least he didn't think he was concussed this time, yay.
"Tony!" Natasha ran over and helped him up to his knees. "Are you all right?"
"I'll live." He shook his head to clear it. "What the ever-loving fuck?" He glared at Bucky. "What the hell part of the 'don't kill me' did you not understand?"
"I'm sorry!" Bucky stood against the opposite wall, about as far away as he could get without leaving the building. He held his left arm with his right. He was breathing the way Tony did after the Battle of New York, during that horrible winter where even talking about the city made him want to crawl out of his own skin. "Oh, God, Tony. I'm sorry. I-I didn't—"
"Whoa, whoa. It's okay, Bucky. It's fine. No harm done. I'm all right, see?" Tony stood up, thankful Natasha was right there to make sure he didn't wobble. "Stirred, but not shaken, all right? You rang my bell a little, but I'm still ticking. Or something."
"What happened?" Natasha's keen gaze fastened on Bucky's left arm and he dropped it immediately. She went to him, reaching for it. "Is your arm damaged?"
Bucky sidestepped, pulling his arm away from her. "It's fine," he said way too quickly. He moved away from the wall and rolled his shoulders back, letting his arms hang. "Tony just kind of...turned it the wrong way. It startled me for a second. I didn't mean to hit you."
His apology was the only thing that didn't sound fake.
"You sure I shouldn't take a look at it?" Tony asked. "If it got twisted that easily, there may be something wrong with it."
"It's fine. Leave it." He sounded polite enough. But he had don't-fucking-touch-me eyes, and Tony really wasn't interested in getting on the wrong end of that again.
He backed off. "All right. Have it your way, Hook. But if your arm falls off the next time we go up against Squidward, it's on you."
"Noted." Bucky managed something in the same zip code as a smile, then looked at Natasha. "Are we done here?"
She pursed her lips, then said something to him in Russian that Tony made a mental note to ask J.A.R.V.I.S. about later. Whatever it was, it was pretty clear Bucky didn't want to hear it, since his answer sounded more like a petulant growl than, 'Gee, thanks. You're right'.
"All right," she said, nodding reluctantly. "See that you do." She went up on her tiptoes and kissed Bucky on the cheek, then turned to leave the practice room.
"So, what was that about?" Tony said the instant she was out of earshot.
Bucky shrugged. "She just made me promise to go to you if it got worse. I did."
"Which you totally lied about," Tony finished for him, because it was so obvious. He lifted his hands. "Hey, far be it from me to tell you what to do with your body, but I am the guy who rebuilt that wing of yours. And if it's not right, I really want to fix it. I take pride in my work, y'know? And seriously, if it falls off in the middle of a battle, that'd just be awkward. Or while you're having sex with Steve. That'd be really awkward."
"Jesus Christ, Tony." Maybe Bucky's laugh was a little forced, but his blush wasn't. Score. He took a breath. "All right. If it gets worse, I promise that I will come down to your workshop and annoy you until you fix it. All right?"
Tony narrowed his eyes. "Are you lying? You're totally lying to me, aren't you? You faker! I am so disappointed in you right now. Seriously. I thought we bonded. I made you hot chocolate and we had a movie night, and you made me tea and let me goob all over your manly chest. And now you're telling falsehoods." He shook his head sadly. "My heart's broken. Seriously. I am, like, dying from a broken heart right this second."
"Would it make you stop talking?"
"Oh, ha-ha." Tony rolled his eyes. Bucky laughed for real, which was definitely better than his don't-touch-me-or-I'll-kill-you face. "Seriously, though. You know you can trust me, right? I mean, I've replaced your arm once already, and then practically rebuilt it with that Dr. Canadian-in-space-guy. This isn't my first lefty rodeo."
Bucky rubbed his jaw. "It still gives me bad memories sometimes. The arm getting worked on." He shrugged. "I guess I just…need to work up to it."
"Oh, hey, I get you. Believe me. Every one of us has something we'd all rather run screaming from." Tony patted Bucky's shoulder—his right shoulder, just in case.
Bucky nodded. "Thanks, Tony."
"Anytime, Gobber." Tony patted his shoulder again. "So what say we blow this popsicle stand?"
"You go on. I'm gonna see how my arm's doing." Bucky lifted his left arm, turning it a little. "Seems okay, but…"
"You know where to find me," Tony said. "Have fun playing with yourself." He sauntered to the elevator, grinning at Bucky's extremely rude reply.
Bucky sagged in relief when Tony finally left, sliding down the wall until he was sitting on the floor. He held his left arm across his body with his right, keeping it very, very still.
Bad idea to agree to spar today. Bad, bad idea. Bucky had completed missions while in more terrible pain. It was amazing what you could push through when the punishment for failure was so much worse. But he hadn't needed to do that for over a year now. He'd gotten used to not being in pain, remembered what it was like to be human.
Soft, hissed nastily inside his head. No surprise the voice was in Russian.
If he didn't move his arm too much he could handle the pain. And if he was prepared for it, then using his left arm was okay, too. Agreeing to spar with Tony had been stupid, but it was fine until Tony grabbed his wrist and yanked. Thank God he hadn't hit Tony too hard.
Bucky didn't know if it was the dumbest or most pathetic part or what, but it wasn't even his arm that hurt. It was in his fucking face. The left side of his jaw. 'Referred pain', Zola had called it, that time half his arm had been blown off and he was begging them to let him die.
Referred pain. Like it wasn't real. It was real. God help him, it was real.
When he wasn't moving, like this, it didn't feel much worse than a cavity or a cracked tooth. He'd had enough of those. But when Tony yanked on his wrist, it was like lightning all the way to the top of his skull….
"No. No. Stop. Stop it." Bucky gritted his teeth in his already-aching jaw and banged the back of his head on the wall behind him, until the repetitive discomfort dragged him back to the present. Not that the present was much better, but at least no one was holding him down or digging into his arm and he wasn't disintegrating—
And that, right there, was why Bucky hadn't asked Tony for help. Not this time. Because he remembered how the pieces of the machine would wrap around his head, feeding lightning into his brain. And then the agony that whited out everything as his mind was torn apart. He remembered every single excruciating second of it, and he couldn't make the remembering stop or shove it away right now. Not when it hurt exactly the same.
He knew no one would ever put him in the chair again. He knew he was safe here. He knew Tony could fix his arm without hurting him. Of course he did. But it didn't make a damn bit of difference to the terror that shook him like a dog at just the thought of sitting down and stretching his arm out for Tony to fuck with. Might as well stretch out his neck to have his throat slit. Hell, that'd be easier.
Easier to die. Yeah, he was losing his fucking mind.
The pain wasn't going away, either. He knew that whatever was wrong was getting worse. Soon everyone would notice something was off, not just Tony and Nat. And then what the hell would he do?
For years they had to drag him to the chair because of how hard he fought. They had to drug him into incoherence, disable his arm, bind him in chains he couldn't break. He still fought with everything he had, because nothing was worse than the lightning and pain and the white emptiness afterwards.
He fought for years, until he'd lost so much of himself that he had nothing to fight for anymore.
Bucky knew he was safe here. But he couldn't shake the absolute, perfect certainty that if he let anyone even touch his arm, he'd be obliterated. James Buchanan Barnes would cease to exist, annihilated by the lightning and pain.
And Bucky would rather die. It was that simple: he'd rather fucking die.
The floor Steve shared with Bucky was dark when Steve came in. That wasn't an issue, between his exceptional eyesight and Manhattan's ambient lighting. It wasn't even that unusual, except the TV and stereo weren't on, and he could tell right away by Bucky's breathing that he wasn't asleep.
"Bucky?" Steve quietly shut the door behind him, then padded into the living room. Bucky was lying on his right side on the couch, wearing the moose hoodie. He was clutching his left arm tightly against his body. His breath hitched like he was in pain, and Steve instantly remembered Bucky rubbing his jaw the morning before. "Bucky, what's wrong?"
"Hey, Steve," Bucky rasped. He didn't try to sit up. "Must'a fallen asleep waiting for you."
"Don't bullshit me." Steve knelt in front of the couch. "Are you sick?" He tried to touch Bucky's forehead to gauge his temperature.
Bucky flinched, then sucked in a breath. "Sorry." He closed his eyes and let Steve touch him again, staying perfectly still.
There was sweat dotting his hairline, but his skin wasn't overly warm. "What's going on? Is this because of your jaw?"
"M'jaw's fine," Bucky said, which would've been easier to believe if he wasn't curled up and unnaturally still and breathing like he was badly hurt.
"Then tell me what's wrong." Steve let his worry and frustration seep into his voice. "Or at least let me take you to the infirmary."
"No!" Bucky drew back. "No. I don't need the infirmary. I'm fine."
"I know you're not!"
"Steve." Bucky said his name quietly, but with a vehemence that Steve always paid attention to. "I am not going to the infirmary. If you try to force me, I will fight you."
He was deadly serious, Steve could hear it. "Okay."
Steve sat on the floor. He couldn't card his fingers through Bucky's hair with his hood up, so he settled for resting his hand carefully on Bucky's head. "Is this all right?"
"Yeah," Bucky rasped. "You don't have to stay."
They both went silent for a few minutes. Steve didn't want to spend the night sitting on the floor, but he'd slept in worse places. "You can go to sleep if you want, Bucky. I'm not going anywhere."
"'M not tired," Bucky said, which had to be another lie, but Steve didn't bother calling him on it. "Can I ask you something?"
"Always," Steve said immediately. "Anything."
"How come you can still get into airplanes?"
Steve blinked as he parsed out the question. "You mean, after the Valkyrie went down?"
"After you crashed it, yeah."
"Right. After I crashed it." Steve grimaced, even though of course Bucky knew what he'd done. "You're asking why flying doesn't terrify the shit out of me."
Steve considered the answer. "It did scare me at first. A little, anyway. But it was never so bad that I couldn't handle it. The Helicarriers almost never bother me, because they're so large it doesn't feel like they're in the air until you look out a window. It's hard being on the smaller Quinjets sometimes, but only when there's a lot of turbulence or a sudden drop in altitude. But the reason for that…I think it's because it was my choice, when I crashed Red Skull's plane. I was in control of it. Literally. Until it hit the ground. So, getting on other planes…it's not so bad."
"Okay," Bucky said softly. Steve had no idea what he was thinking.
"Trains are bad," Steve said. He'd never told anyone that, and he could hear Bucky's tiny sound of surprise. "Not subways, because they're too small and always full of people. Which is lucky, because that would be really inconvenient." He smirked a little. Bucky stayed completely silent, listening. "But I haven't even tried to get on a real train since I woke up. I'm not sure I'd be able to."
"Sucks," Bucky said.
Steve caressed Bucky's head with his thumb. "If it starts inhibiting my life, I'll do something about it. Otherwise…." He shrugged. "I can handle not liking trains."
He felt Bucky's twitch of a nod then they lapsed into silence again. The night wore on outside the window, brightening by increments with the creeping of the dawn. Steve kept up the gentle movement of his thumb over the hoodie, waiting for Bucky to fall asleep, but he didn't.
"I'm scared," Bucky said finally. "I'm really scared, Stevie."
"I know you're scared, Buck. That's all right. There's nothing wrong with being afraid." Steve licked his lips. "Whatever's going on with you…I know you're in pain, but if you don't want to do anything about it, that's your decision. It's your body, and no one here wants to take your choices from you. But…" He drew in a breath. "But if it comes down to you dying… I can't do that, Bucky. I'm sorry. I know it's your body, but I won't be able to stand back if it means losing you.
"I can't lose you," Steve said softly. "Not again. Not even if you end up hating me."
"I could never hate you," Bucky said. "I love you."
"I love you too," Steve said, and hoped to hell he'd never have to find out if Bucky was right.
Bucky dreamed about 1943, being captured by Hydra and the first time they used the machine on him. There was no specialized chair connected to the apparatus then, just him restrained in an ordinary metal chair bolted to the floor. They wheeled in the machine and manually wrapped it around his head. He nearly broke his own neck, straining against the strap around his throat to keep his head still.
He couldn't see who turned it on, but it started with a low, ponderous hum that rose in pitch, higher and higher until Bucky couldn't hear it. And then, the lightning—
Bucky woke up screaming.
"Bucky. Bucky, it's okay. It's all right. You were dreaming. It's just a nightmare. You're safe…."
Steve stood in front of the couch, haloed in morning light. Moving at all hurt, and moving his left arm felt like cold death rattling through his bones. Bucky reached out anyway and slapped his hand around Steve's wrist, groaning with effort and pain. His arm was numb again, like it'd been when the Red Room first put it on him. But his skull was full of lightning, starting from his jaw. "Help," he panted. "Steve, help."
"Okay," Steve said breathlessly. "I'm here. What do I do?"
Bucky licked the sweat off his lips, tried to swallow down the fear that threatened to choke him. "I need Tony."
Steve nodded quickly, then reached for him. "Let me take—"
"No!" Bucky shook his head then gagged at the flare of pain. "No. Here. Please."
Steve looked around helplessly. "He'll have to work on your arm with you on the floor."
"Please excuse the interruption," J.A.R.V.I.S. cut in, "But I've taken the liberty of informing Sir of your condition. He's bringing his tools."
"Heard that, Buck?" Steve said with the worst false cheer ever. "He'll be here any minute and then he'll fix you right up. You'll be fine."
Bucky was in too much pain to answer, but he squeezed Steve's wrist a little, hoping he'd understand.
"I'm very sorry, Captain, Sergeant," J.A.R.V.I.S. said. "Sir informs me that he can't fix damage to Sergeant Barnes' arm on the floor. The angle will be wrong. He requests that you come to the infirmary. Or, failing that, his workshop or Dr. Banners' lab."
"No," Bucky whispered. "Can't…."
"It's all right. You don't have to," Steve said immediately. "We'll figure something out." He set his jaw, thinking. "The common floor!" he burst out. "The big table—we can put you on that. Would that work, Buck?"
"Da." It took him a moment to realize he'd spoken in Russian.
"It's okay," Steve said. "It's fine. Whatever language is fine. I just need to know if you can still understand me. Can you understand what I'm saying?"
"Great." Steve gave Bucky one of his ridiculously over-bright smiles again. "Can you walk?"
"No." It came out as, Nyet.
"That's fine. I'll carry you." Steve looked at his wrist. "You need to let go, Bucky."
Bucky steeled himself and pulled his hand back, clutching it to him and breathing through his nose so he wouldn't puke.
Steve stood long enough to kick the coffee table skidding to the wall, then reached for Bucky. "Ready?"
Bucky twitched a nod before he remembered he was still in the moose hoodie. "No," he gasped out. "Not yet. Take this off." J.A.R.V.I.S. had to translate it into English.
"Tony can cut it off you. I'm not putting you in more pain for a stupid hoodie. I can get you a new one."
"No," Bucky said. "My shirt. My choice. Take it off."
Steve scowled at J.A.R.V.I.S.'s translation. "You're a fucking stubborn punk, you know that?" He grimaced. "You'll need to sit up."
Even with Steve helping him, just getting upright left Bucky shaking with pain. He did his best to help Steve manipulate his right arm out of the sleeve, but then all he could do was grip the arm of the couch and try not to scream as Steve maneuvered the hoodie over his head and off his left arm. Bucky was sobbing in agony by the time Steve finished. His tee-shirt was soaked through with sweat.
"I really hope that was worth it," Steve said quietly.
"Worth it," Bucky choked out.
"I'm going to pick you up now," Steve said. "I'll get your knees first. Put your right arm around my neck."
He lifted Bucky as quickly and efficiently as he could, murmuring apologies the whole time. Steve tried to hold Bucky's left arm still, but when he touched it Bucky screamed.
"S'okay," Bucky slurred. "S'not your fault." He didn't know what language he was speaking anymore. Probably Russian—that had always been his lexicon of pain. The A.I. repeated what he said anyway. Bucky leaned his head heavily against Steve's shoulder and turned his face into the crook of his neck. "Just…make it quick. Please." J.A.R.V.I.S. repeated that too.
"I'll get you there as fast as I can. I promise," Steve said.
He kept his word—of course he did—and J.A.R.V.I.S. made sure the elevator was there immediately and descended as fast and smoothly as it could. It didn't matter. Just moving at all hurt so badly that Bucky pressed his open mouth to Steve's collarbone to muffle his screams.
By the time they got to the common floor, he'd stopped screaming and started begging to die.
Bruce was already there when Steve carried Bucky out of the elevator. He'd pulled the table into the living room, and he was just finishing wiping it down with something Steve assumed was antiseptic. Bruce's eyes went huge when he saw them.
"Oh my God," he said quietly, which was as close to true shock as he ever got without turning green. He wordlessly helped Steve settle Bucky on his back on the table, taking Bucky's head as Steve lowered him. Bucky moaned and thrashed, his eyes rolling. He kept murmuring in Russian when he wasn't crying out in pain.
"What happened? J.A.R.V.I.S. said his arm was hurting him, but this doesn't make sense. I thought damage would register as mild discomfort."
"I know." Steve stroked Bucky's hair back from his forehead, hoping Bucky was at least aware of the gentle contact. "All I know for sure is that his jaw was hurting him a couple days ago, and now this. But it has to be because of his arm. Last night he was holding it still against his body, and I couldn't touch it. It's just gotten worse, really quickly."
"I hope Tony can figure this out. Help me get his shirt off." Bruce had bandage shears. Steve kept Bucky's right arm still while Bruce cut his tee-shirt off, then had to pin Bucky down when Bruce cut off the left sleeve, because Bucky tried to shove him away. "What's he saying?"
"I don't know," Steve grit out. The weak litany was heartbreaking enough without a translation.
"He is pleading for you to stop hurting him," J.A.R.V.I.S. said. "It seems that he currently believes he's still a captive." The A.I. sounded apologetic.
"Where the fuck is Tony?" Steve knew his anger was both misdirected and unfair, but Bruce didn't react to it.
"He was gathering supplies when I got here." Bruce looked helplessly at Steve. "He should be in the infirmary. They have painkillers—"
Steve shook his head. "Nothing works on us. We burn through it."
"Sir is on his way, Captain," J.A.R.V.I.S. said.
The elevator opened a minute later and Tony came running, bag bouncing on his shoulder, only to skid to a stop when he reached the table. "Holy fuck." He gaped at Bucky, then shook himself and dragged over the coffee table. He set his tools on it. "What happened? He was fine yesterday. Okay, he wasn't fine, but he wasn't like this." Tony bent, came up with a remarkably ordinary-looking electric screwdriver. "J said it was his arm. It's his arm, right? Because I have no fucking idea how to fix anything else."
"It's his arm," Steve said. He'd gone back to stroking Bucky's forehead. Bucky seemed marginally more comfortable now that no one was touching his left side. "It's damaged, that's all I know. It must've happened during the fight, but I don't know how or when." He took a breath. "I'll need to hold him down."
"Oh, FML." Tony nodded miserably, then stood back and waited while Steve positioned himself so that one arm was across Bucky's chest, the other holding Bucky's right arm. Bucky cried out as soon as Steve so much as touched the skin near his left shoulder, then bucked and kicked, trying to escape.
Bruce practically threw himself across Bucky's legs. "Do it fast or get the others," he said to Tony.
"I've taken the liberty of contacting Agents Romanov and Barton," J.A.R.V.I.S. said.
"Great. Squish the Winter Soldier party on the common floor." Tony glanced at Bruce and Steve. "I'm going to take the access panels off."
Steve clenched his jaw. "Do it."
All Tony did was use the electric screwdriver to open up Bucky's arm, but Bucky howled like Tony was stabbing him.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry! It's almost over!" Tony had his left hand around Bucky's wrist, using all his weight to keep his arm still. Tony looked close to tears. "Just one more. It's almost over, now. That's it, it'll be fine—Jesus Christ!" He yanked his hands away and leapt backwards, gaping in shock and horror.
As soon as Bucky's arm was free he threw his fist into Steve's face. Steve jerked back with the blow, eyes streaming. Bucky wrenched away from him, yanked his legs out from under Bruce and scrambled off the table.
Something fell out of his arm. Something moving.
Bucky staggered badly once he was on his feet. He pinned his left arm to his body again, then lurched a few steps. His legs gave out and he sat heavily on the floor.
"Bucky!" Steve dropped to his knees beside him. "Oh my God, Bucky. Your arm—!"
Bucky was breathless and shaking, his eyes wild. But when Steve reached for him he snarled something at him in Russian, voice deadly.
"He's warning you not to touch him," J.A.R.V.I.S. said.
"No shit," Tony murmured.
The elevator opened, spilling out Natasha and Clint, both looking like they just rolled out of bed. "What the hell's going on?" Clint demanded.
"Bucky's arm is full of maggots," Tony said. He stomped on the black, wriggling thing on the floor. It burst under his sneakered foot.
"Maggots?" Clint stopped dead. "Why the fuck does Thor never have to deal with this shit?"
"Shhh." Natasha came closer, circling the table in a wide arc. She crouched down in Bucky's line of sight, as unthreateningly as possible given who she was. She said something softly in Russian.
Bucky shook his head. His response sounded angry, but his expression was still terrified.
"He thinks he's being tortured," Natasha said. "He wants to know what he's done."
"Oh no," Steve breathed. "Bucky. I'm so sorry," He reached for him, unable to stop himself.
Bucky jerked back, then hissed in pain.
"This is horrible," Bruce murmured. "Tony, help me with the table."
Tony, Bruce and then Clint pulled the large table farther into the living room, opening up the space around Bucky, Natasha and Steve. Bucky startled when he heard the heavy scrape along the floor, but then he just watched, wary and silent.
"Bucky, we're trying to help you. There's something really wrong with your left arm. Tony's going to fix it. Can you understand me?" Steve said.
Bucky gave him a tiny, watchful nod.
"Cap's telling the truth, Bucky. No one here but us lonely dragons," Tony said. "You've got…there are honestly disgusting alien monsters infesting your arm. That's why you're in pain. We need to get them out."
Bucky blinked slowly at Tony, then looked at his arm. His wide-eyed horror was just another dark turn of the nightmare that had started when Bucky woke screaming. He began clawing at the inside of his arm, making awful, breathless whining noises of fear and pain.
"No! No, don't!" Steve dove for him, yanking his right hand away, and then grabbing Bucky's left wrist when Bucky took another swing at him. Bucky's fingertips were black with alien fluid. Steve jerked back when Bucky tried to smash his already-bleeding nose with his forehead. "Stop! Please, stop, Bucky. You're making it worse!"
Natasha stayed where she was, but she said something to Bucky in Russian, calm but ferocious.
Bucky stared at her, then at Steve. "Let go," he panted. "It hurts."
Steve let him go immediately. Bucky clutched his left arm across his chest again.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Bucky. No one wants you to be in pain, but something terrible's happening to your arm and if we don't stop it it'll just keep getting worse," Steve said.
"Do you know where you are?" Natasha asked.
Bucky nodded. "Help me."
"We're trying," Bruce said. "We're trying, and it's hurting you like hell, but right now it's the only thing we can do."
"We have to get the infestation out so Tony can repair the damage," Steve said.
"Will it stop hurting, when it's gone?"
"Yes," Tony said with conviction. "I promise, I'm going to make it stop hurting."
Bucky blinked and tears ran down his face. He looked completely unraveled. "I don't want to die."
"You won't." Steve managed to keep his voice steady. "You won't die. Nobody's dying, Bucky."
"It's just pain," Natasha said. "You know pain. You can survive it."
Bucky's jaw twitched. He swallowed, and there were still tears in his eyes, but he lifted his head, his expression hardening. "Get them out."
"That's the plan." Tony looked at the table, then at Bucky on the floor. "How do you want to do this? Back on the table? Or—"
"Hold me," Bucky said to Steve. "Make sure I don't hurt anyone."
Steve nodded. "Anything." His throat hurt.
"Awesome. Great." Tony tapped out a beat on his jeans while he scanned his collection of tools on the coffee table. "I only brought one pair of forceps." He looked at Bruce. "Can you—"
"No," Bucky said. Everyone looked at him. "Clint."
"You know where the kitchen torch is. Get it."
"Fuck me," Tony breathed. "You're not serious."
Bucky ignored him. He looked at Steve. "Give me your belt."
Steve's hands shook as he undid the buckle and yanked the belt out of the loops on his trousers. He folded it and gave it to Bucky.
Clint came back with the torch and a lighter. "This is gonna fucking suck," he said to Bucky. "You know that, right?"
"Yeah." Bucky swallowed. "Don't let me hurt anyone," he said to Steve.
"I won't, Buck. I promise."
Bucky put the belt in his mouth. Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky's chest, making sure to pin his right arm. Tony took the torch and lighter from Clint. "Hold his arm still," he said to Bruce.
"Will I need gloves?"
Tony shook his head. "It won't get hot on the outside. Help Steve," he said to Clint and Natasha.
Natasha took Bucky's right hand, gripping it in both of hers. "It's just pain," she said. "You'll survive this. It's just pain."
"You ready, Buck?" Tony asked.
Bucky turned his face away and squeezed his eyes shut.
Tony lit the torch. "I really hope you'll forgive me for this," he said, and directed the flame into the open cavity of Bucky's arm.
Bucky woke up on the couch on the common floor, lying underneath a fleece blanket with his back against Steve's chest. His feet were in Natasha's lap. Bruce, Tony and Clint had taken up the other chairs. Thor was there too, in earth clothing. He'd claimed the entire loveseat. How to Train Your Dragon played quietly on the television, but no one seemed to be watching it.
He wasn't in pain.
Bucky went still, focusing inward. He felt normal. Wrung out, but normal. His jaw ached from clenching it for days, and the muscles of his left shoulder were a little stiff from holding his arm still for so long. But that was it. Nothing else hurt him.
He experimentally clenched and flexed his fingers, waiting for the pain to rip through his skull. His hand moved sluggishly, like there was a loose connection somewhere, but there was no pain. It was fine.
He was fine.
"A few months after Clint brought me in, I completed a mission with a broken ankle, and then went right back out on another one. No one knew until I stopped being physically capable of walking," Natasha said. "The Red Room trained us to never admit weakness. I was terrified that Coulson would punish me for being careless enough to get hurt, once I couldn't hide my injury anymore."
Bucky blinked at her, though she hadn't lifted her eyes from the game on her phone. But she let go long enough to give his shin a gentle squeeze.
"I finished a mission with internal bleeding," Clint said. He sounded almost proud of it. "Nat and I brought in the target, and then she had to carry my ass to the evac site when I passed out."
"He came close to bleeding out internally," Natasha murmured.
Clint shrugged. "I grew up with a brother who beat on me regularly for anything, then laughed when I cried. I learned pretty fast not to let on when I was hurting. Ever."
"Pepper found out I was dying by accident. I mean, she accidentally found out I was dying. Not that I was dying accidentally. Though it was by accident," Tony said. "I used to have a reactor in my chest, acting like a bigass magnet to keep bomb fragments from skewering my heart. The power source for the reactor was poisoning me. I couldn't figure out how to tell the woman I love I was dying, so I just chickened out."
"I don't have to tell you about all the broken bones or bullet holes I never bothered mentioning," Steve said. He rubbed Bucky's chest, as if in a decades' old apology. "They always healed within a day or two, so I didn't see the point in worrying anyone."
"'Cause you're a punk," Bucky rasped. "You think I liked knowing you were hurt but you never sayin' anything? Dumbass."
Steve smirked. "How many times were you injured and never told anyone?" he asked gently.
"I knew it wasn't natural, how fast I was healing," Bucky said. "I didn't want to be a lab rat. I'd had enough of that already."
"I know, Buck." Steve kissed the top of Bucky's head.
"I regret not being here earlier when you had need of me. And I also must confess I have no such stories to share," Thor said. "On Asgard, it is customary for a warrior to fight until they are no longer able, but the one time I was so overcome, I was also incapable of hiding it." He stood and came over to crouch next to Bucky, so their faces were almost even. Thor pulled something out of his pocket and held it out. It was a tiny, silver Mjölnir, like a charm for a bracelet. "Among the Aesir, it is common to bring an injured warrior a gift to cheer him. I chose this, to remind you that you are always worthy of Mjölnir, even when you do not feel it." He gently folded it into Bucky's hand before going back to his chair.
"Thank you," Bucky said softly.
"I don't, ah, really get injured," Bruce said. "But I…occasionally need to be coaxed back to civilization. When I forget that there's more to me than just the Other Guy."
"I like the Other Guy," Bucky said.
"Ditto," Tony said.
"We all like the Hulk, Bruce," said Natasha.
"The Hulk is part of you, but he's not all of you. We know that," Steve said.
"So, TL;DR, we're all stupid when we're hurting," Tony said. "Except for Thor, because apparently fighting until you drop dead is perfectly acceptable where he comes from. And Bruce, who is physically incapable of being injured so he's just stupid about everything else."
"Hey," Bruce said.
"It hurt the way the chair did. When they wiped my memories," Bucky said. His face flushed hot with shame. "That's why I…couldn't make myself get help. I knew it was stupid. I knew there was no chair here and you guys would never hurt me like that. But it didn't matter. I was too scared."
Steve wrapped Bucky in his arms. "It makes sense that you were scared, Buck."
"Steve's right," Bruce said. "Fear isn't always rational. And after what you'd been through with Hydra, it's more than reasonable that you'd have difficulty with anything that reminded you of it."
"You did get help though," Clint said. "I mean, you let Tony burn the little fuckers—"
"—which we are not going to talk about. Ever." Tony shuddered.
"There were, um, aliens in your arm," Steve explained when Bucky blinked at him. "They were eating it. That's why it hurt so much. Do you remember that?"
Now he did. Bucky threw off the blanket, looking at his arm. There was a line of blackened metal bordering where the panels attached, but the arm was sealed; nothing to see.
"They're gone," Natasha said. "Tony burned them all out with the kitchen torch."
"Do you remember?" Steve asked. "It was your idea."
Bucky nodded slowly, then looked at Steve. "I hit you. I'm sorry."
"You were in so much pain you didn't know what was going on. You thought we were torturing you. You were just trying to get away." Steve rubbed Bucky's chest again, until Bucky relaxed against him with a sigh. "You were out of your mind, but you were the one who decided to use the torch. You were so brave, Bucky."
"Didn't feel like it," Bucky said softly. "I just didn't want to die."
"Sometimes for a heavy heart, it is most difficult to turn towards the living," Thor said. "Far easier to give up and sink among the sorrow and pain. It's to be commended, that you didn't." He sounded like he spoke from experience.
"Thank you," Bucky said. It still didn't feel like he'd done much of anything other than wait too long to finally man up and get help, but he wouldn't insult Thor by arguing.
"So, yeah, aliens." Tony shuddered again. "Which we aren't talking about. Except for how it turned out that the big heap of tentacles wasn't trying to eat me. Just, uh, lay eggs. And I think I just threw up in my mouth a little."
"Apparently you helped it, when you blew it up," Natasha said.
"And your arm was closest, after you made it eat grenade," Clint said.
"Which is why you are never, ever, taking point if we fight Cthulhu again," Tony added. "And also why McKay is coming here in a couple days to help me rebuild your arm from the inside out." Tony leaned forward with his hands clasped between his knees, looking earnest and guilty. "Your arm was never supposed to do more than bother you a bit when it was damaged, just so you'd know something was wrong. That's it. You shouldn't've been in pain at all, let alone screaming fucking agony like this. It shouldn't've happened, and I don't know why it did. But I swear I'm going to fix it so it never happens again."
Bucky frowned at him. "It's not your fault. My jaw always hurt like fuck if the arm was badly damaged."
Tony stared at him. "And naturally you never thought to mention this."
Bucky shrugged. "It never came up."
"It was a weakness. And you don't disclose weaknesses. To anyone," Natasha said.
"Yeah." Bucky nodded.
"Not even your friends?"
"Especially not your friends." Bucky looked away, then forced himself to meet Tony's eyes. "It's not…it wasn't because of you. I just never thought about it."
"He never told me, either," Steve said.
"Jesus, that's fucked up. Understandably fucked up, but still. Fucked up." Tony took a breath, then clapped his hands together and rubbed his palms. "But! Now that I know this is an issue, it'll be easier to fix it. Believe me, once we're done with you, your arm could be automatized and you won't feel a thing."
"That probably isn't as reassuring as you're going for," Bruce said.
"Thanks, Tony," Bucky said.
Tony waved him off as he stood up. "Don't thank me. You're going to have to deal with McKay."
Bucky smirked. "I've already dealt with him. I can handle it."
"Famous last words, Bucky."
I know I already thanked you guys, but McKay was talking a lot so I wanted to make sure you knew how much I appreciated it. You both did a hell of a lot of work on the arm, but I know you did most of the design.
The arm feels terrific, even better than before. And I trust you that even if it gets blown off it won't hurt too badly. (Don't worry—I'm not going to test it.)
Hopefully we won't have to fight another urban kraken anytime soon, but if we do, I know we're set. I'll just let it eat you first. (Not a joke.)
I saw this the other day, and I bought it because it made me think of you. From one not-so-lonely dragon to another.