"It's nothing," were the words Steve was greeted with when the door finally opened.
He eyed the faint red line that had been a split lip when they first stepped off of the Quinjet, the yellow that had been a deep purple across his best friend's brow. Superficial, at least for them, and so he nodded and let himself in the rest of the way.
Bucky sighed, but walked back towards the small kitchenette in his room, a glass and a half empty bottle of aged Scotch on the counter. Unlike Steve, his version of the serum let him feel the effects of alcohol, at least a little. Unlike Steve, he'd clearly like that little to turn into a lot.
Steve watched him as he stepped up to the counter, the limp from earlier nearly gone completely. The gash on his forearm had been reduced to an angry scab, left exposed by the short sleeves of the t-shirt he wore.
The shirt exposed something else as well, something Steve wasn't sure Bucky was even aware of. The cotton stretched tight across his muscular build, tighter still over the rounded metal of his shoulder. It was fresh, clearly changed since their mission, but it wasn't nearly as clean as it could be, dots of red seeping through the light gray fabric where metal joined flesh.
"You're hurt," Steve pointed out.
Bucky rolled his eyes at his grasp of the obvious and poured himself what was clearly not his first glass. "Yeah, we covered that with the greeting," he grunted before he tossed the majority of the amber liquid back.
"Your shoulder," Steve said by way of clarification. It must have been bad if it was still bleeding, but he didn't remember his friend even favoring it when he had grabbed a pack from Clint and then ended up grabbing Clint himself only hours before.
Bucky looked down at his shoulder and grimaced. "Shit," he said, plucking at the fabric. He seemed more upset at the shirt than the injury.
Steve stepped closer, not dumb enough to block him in, but still stupid enough to push his luck. "Let me take a look at it?" he tried. Then, because they knew each other's faults far too well, he added, "It'll make me feel useful and I'll back down on the mother hen routine, I promise."
Bucky sighed the sigh of the long-suffering. He tossed back the last of his drink and clunked the glass down hard enough that it really should have shattered had it not been one of the set Stark had gifted him with months before, citing restockage costs under his breath. Reluctantly, Bucky grasped the hem of his shirt and yanked it off over his head. He tossed it to the side and stood there waiting, letting Steve do a full assessment of everything that had been previously hidden.
There wasn't much, really. A few more fading bruises, a handful of tiny scabs that were probably already healed. His body armor had clearly done its job everywhere it was supposed to save for one place that tended to be the most exposed on the best of days. It was really just the shoulder. Just the tiny pools of red settled deep in the uneven scar tissue that marked where man became machine. Just the place that Steve knew from past experience varied between permanently numb and hyper-sensitive depending upon the stimulus it was presented with. Just the place he knew Bucky was pensive about on a good day.
"Come on, let me clean that up for you," he offered. He tilted his head towards the bathroom where he knew from past experiences a full med kit was kept.
"It'll heal," Bucky said, and started to reach for the bottle again.
Steve grabbed the glass and took a step back, held it in front of him like trying to lure a small child with candy or maybe a horse with a carrot. "Yeah," he agreed, offering a hint of a smile when Bucky leaned slightly towards the prize. If he was falling for such an obvious ploy, there was a good chance that bottle had been full only a short time before. "But this way you'll heal even faster. Won't have to fight infection at the same time."
Bucky glared at him. When he grabbed the bottle and shuffled a full step forward, Steve knew he had won. "Punk," he said without heat.
Steve led the way to the spacious bathroom and flipped on the light. It was evident Bucky had already done some self-assessment as the med kit was already open, tweezers and gauze and other things strewn about though he couldn't say for certain if any of those had actually been used. A glance at the trash showed the wrappers for some antiseptic wipes, so there was that at least.
He turned back around and motioned for him to take the only seat available. Bucky sat heavily on the closed toilet and took a drink directly out of the bottle versus the glass Steve still held in his hand. There were matching clinks as both were set on the side of the sink, but he clearly wasn't stupid enough to let the bottle go.
In the harsher light of the room, Steve finally got a good look at the damage. The skin had been damn near torn away from sections of the metal but, as Bucky had said, was already healing on its own. What struck Steve was the wrongness of it all. There was no part of the mission that would have accounted for such wounds, at least not that he had seen or that anyone else had reported. And if the gash on his arm was already healing, there was no reason for the smaller wounds to remain.
Unless they had been far more severe to start with.
Unless they were far more recent.
"Buck?" he prompted. Now that he was suspicious enough to look for it, he saw the signs. Signs that he didn't like. Signs like the flecks of red-brown against the white porcelain of the sink. Signs like the dark half moons under the slivers of his friend's neatly trimmed fingernails.
"It's nothing," said friend grunted, repeating his greeting from earlier.
"Not what I asked," Steve replied.
The silence stretched on long enough that he really no longer expected any answer, at least not one he would consider coherent. He ran the tap to bring the water to a comfortable
temperature, soaked a washcloth while letting some of the dried flecks dissolve and rinse away. He was about start the actual cleaning process when Bucky spoke again, voice distant and detached.
"Missed the shot. Had the agent lined up perfectly, flat of his nose right in the crosshairs, and I didn't take it," he whispered. He shook his head, hair falling into his eyes, but he didn't move to push it back. "Two other guys had Wilson pinned down, wasn't sure if his wings would work in such close quarters. I altered my position and took them down instead."
Steve smiled and laid the cloth atop the worst of the damage, let it soak up what it could. "Sam thought that was you," he admitted. Wilson had complained that he had them both right where he wanted them, but it was in good spirit, clearly thankful for the assist.
"I left position and the agent got Barton," Bucky said now, quieter still.
Clint had been higher up than even Sam, giving the team a clear view of the playing field and taking shots as needed. The grating where he had tucked himself away had been less than stable to start with, but no one had questioned that the marksman could make it work for himself. Two good shots to key locations had that limited stability taken out from underneath him, a mad grab for some thick metal cable saving the day. He had lost some skin and some patience in the act, but otherwise had come away relatively unscathed.
"Clint's fine," he reminded him as he moved on to the next area that he felt needed attention. Bucky gave him a look, and he amended that to, "Well, relatively fine. He'll be as obnoxious as usual in a day or two, probably sooner. This was barely a scratch compared to that explosion last month."
It had been the first time Barton had been on the roster again since said explosion. As they had left, Wilson had been teasing that someone else could keep the archer safe this time because he lost a decade or two of his own life watching the fall that had taken him out of commission for so long. Steve had volunteered Bucky, who had simply nodded while Clint rolled his eyes.
"You do know that wasn't your fault, right?" he prompted, connections whirring in his mind. "You weren't actually assigned as Barton's babysitter - there's nothing anyone could do to warrant that level of punishment."
He had thought his joke was funny. He started to rethink that when Bucky hunched over and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "An order's and order."
Steve stopped his ministrations and grabbed his friend by both shoulders, tried to turn him to make him look him in the eye even though he still glanced away. "No, it's really not. Not here. This isn't Hydra, you know that, right? I thought we were past that. You do what you can, and you did. You saved Sam's life, and Clint got a scratch or two; it all worked out in the end."
Bucky tensed at the name of his former captors, enough so that Steve let his hands fall away to give him room, to stop him from feeling quite as trapped, even if it was just by a memory.
He stood there, waiting, letting Bucky mull that over. Of course, stubborn mule that he was, his friend just stared off into space, expression unreadable. That was fine though, Steve would just wait him out. He had done it before and he would do it again. Maybe this time he'd actually not get a black eye for it.
An eternity later, Bucky spoke. There was no emotion to the words, no inflection, only something that might pass for resignation if you tried real hard. "As the Asset, you followed orders or you failed. Any straying, any dalliances, were punishable. Civilian damages were ignored so long as they had not been previously deemed of value, but those to other agents, to your handlers..." There was a pause as he swallowed, and Steve wondered if he longed for the burn of alcohol to go along with it, but the bottle was left forgotten at the side. He didn't have much time to actually contemplate that, or to make the offer, before Bucky continued, "Punishment came in three forms: being wiped was the most obvious, but there was also the possibility of damage to that which you thought to be more important than your orders and, finally, damage to the Asset."
"You're not going to be wiped," Steve promised, maybe a little too fast and a little too forceful for his own liking.
Bucky turned to him now, eyes not quite as empty as before, but reflecting a darkness Steve was not wholly comfortable with. "And you're not about to hurt Wilson because he needed saving."
"We're not about to hurt you either, Buck," Steve said, searching for a hint of the man he called friend in the being in front of him. He still got like this sometimes, face blank and emotionless, the epitome of the creature Hydra created versus the true man he was inside.
There, the tiniest flicker of the corner of his lips. Almost a smirk, but not quite. He stared at Steve now, even though his eyes were still not completely focused. "You never could," he agreed.
It was then that Steve noticed Bucky's hand had drifted upwards, not to his shoulder but to the tender skin just beneath it. The curve of his fingers matched the thin line of scabs, pressing deceptively lightly, but just hard enough to break the thickened mess and cause fresh blood to flow. He didn't flinch, but his pupils contracted slightly at the contact, involuntary and telling all the same.
"Buck?" Steve prompted, questioned, and hoped to draw him back to full reality.
Bucky ignored him though. Instead, he slowly and methodically pressed against the tender tissue, dug deeper when it resisted. Steve reached for his hand to stop him, but he had finally reached high enough for the tips of his fingers to brush against the damp cloth still draped over him. He paused, clearly confused by its presence. He lowered his gaze to the offending object and frowned.
Steve took his chance where he could get it. He grabbed both the cloth and his friend's hand at the same time, voice far quieter than he intended when he requested, "Stop?" Shadowed eyes turned in his direction, a hint of recognition blooming. "You're not the Asset, and you didn't fail. There's no need to punish yourself."
Bucky yanked his hand away and let the cloth fall into the sink, but Steve felt the subtle way that hand shook before it was removed from his grasp entirely. "What, you a shrink now too?" Bucky scoffed, accent thickening as he returned to himself more fully. "Don't remember reading 'bout you getting that degree, or any really, so..."
Steve picked up the washcloth solely so he could toss it at him. It hit dead center across his chest, and he said, "Not a shrink, but been to enough of them since I came back. Starting to think I should drag you along for a time or three to see if it makes a difference."
He thought of how much it had helped just to talk to others. It had been Sam's suggestion and, considering nothing else had worked, he figured he'd give it a shot. They didn't have his specific experiences, but still understood because they had gone through their own traumas, had their own dark places that they needed to drag into the light. Sometimes the others kept the stories vague, other times they went into horrific detail simply so at least one other person on the face of this earth might know what had happened. He was too public of a figure, too easily recognized to think they didn't already know his story, but they let him tell it all the same.
He dragged his fingers through his hair as he dragged himself back to his own reality, ignoring the fact they were still slightly damp from the cloth and focused on the man before him, wondered what if anything might help him find that glimmer of his own. "Seriously, Buck, if you're punishing yourself for this crap..."
This time, when Bucky scoffed, it was brittle and harsh and chilled something deep inside that he rather would prefer to ignore. "You think that this is punishment?" he asked, gesturing to the fresh injuries with blood-tinged fingers. "This is nothing. That damned serum might fix the scars, but it doesn't mean I didn't feel them in the first place. Do you know what it's like to have electricity course through every cell of your body? Every nerve ending on fire, sparks jumping off your permanent reminder of what they did to you until you have to close your eyes just to not have to heal those too? To have your skin flayed open, muscles torn back until they reach the bone? Left in a room for days without food, having to set your own broken limbs so that they might heal properly even though you know they'll just break them again for daring to challenge them? That is punishment. This? This is just a reminder."
He paused to catch his breath, chest heaving and spittle frothed at the corners of his lips. Steve forced himself to take advantage of that moment, to not freeze and let it pass by. To not busy himself imagining everything his best friend had just said and get lost in it and lose what might be his one chance. He reached forward, awkward and clumsy and with probably too much force given Bucky's current injuries, and wrapped him close, held on tight, buried his face in hair that smelled of sweat and dusty warehouses and everything else. "You're not there anymore," he promised, words muffled and probably unintelligible . "Never again, okay? You're never going back there again. Not if I have a say."
Bucky's own words were spoken into his shoulder, reverberated through every part of him when he repeated, "This is just a reminder."
Steve shook his head. "No more reminders. You're not there anymore. You're not that..."
Bucky pulled back slightly, as much as Steve would allow, which really wasn't far. "But I was, Stevie. As much as they did to me, do you have any idea how much I did to others? Do you even want to know?"
He already knew far more than he needed to, far more than he ever thought he should. "Doesn't matter," he insisted, even though he knew that was a lie as the words slipped past his lips. It did matter. Maybe not to him, but to a hell of a lot of others.
Bucky picked up on that because of course he did. "You can't make it go away just because you don't like it. What I did... I have to make things right. Might not ever, but I've got to try." He looked up at him then, so earnest and insistent, and Steve knew he believed that to the bottom of his heart. When he no longer did, well, that's when they'd know Hydra had won.
"But not by hurting yourself, okay?" he tried. "Not anymore. We'll take Hydra down, make them pay. But not with your blood for theirs." When Bucky glanced away, he shook him lightly by the shoulders until he was certain he had his attention again. "Promise me?"
"Can't promise that," Bucky said truthfully, and they both slumped a little at that. One certainty since his return was his outright refusal to lie to his friend. Obfuscate, yes. Lie, no. There was the slightest quirk to his lips though, so Steve waited him out. "Can't promise I won't do this again, but I can promise to try not to? Maybe try to try? Might slip, but that's the best I've got right now."
Steve pulled him tight again and nodded, knew he'd be there to pick him right back up again if needed. Knew he'd be needed more often than either one of them would admit. "That's good enough, Buck," he agreed. "It's good enough."