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Keep You Going Through the Show

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The first time Bucky breaks his fingers, Steve thinks nothing of it.

They’re sitting in the booth at the Shawarma Palace, still bloody and bruised from the latest mission. It’s become a tradition now, shawarma after battles, one that Steve was eager to introduce to his best friend. Tony has the menu spread out on the table, explaining the various options for wraps, when Bucky reaches down and starts snapping his own fingers like twigs.

He’s so casual, so expressionless, that Steve thinks he’s only popping his knuckles until Tony cringes and grabs Bucky’s wrist. “Whoa, whoa. Hey. What are you doing, Robocop?”

Bucky glances from Tony’s stunned face back down to his hand. His brow furrows like he doesn’t understand, and his left hand resumes its work, straightening the fingers of the right. “Setting bones.”

Steve understands immediately. “You busted your knuckles up?”

Bucky nods. “I tripped in the field. Punch landed wrong.”

“It’s the serum,” Steve explains to Tony, who’s still staring with fading horror and mounting confusion at this casual bout of self-mutilation. “That’s the downside to accelerated healing. Your bones start to set themselves before you can get them realigned properly, and once they do, you have to break them again.”

“Oh,” says Bucky, with a little, almost sheepish smile. “Sorry, Stark. I thought you knew. Sometimes I forget not everybody’s a, what did you call it, a ‘freaky efficient Soviet kill-bot’?”

“Yeesh.” Tony releases Bucky’s wrist, shaking his head. “Remind me of this if I ever get jealous of your super steroids.”

“What should I remind you of when you’re jealous of my pretty face?” Bucky asks, and his broken hand is forgotten in everyone’s laughter.

*

The abandoned HYDRA base where Steve and Bucky are sent to gather any remaining intel turns out to be not so abandoned. They end up on the wrong side of an IED that knocks Bucky through a wall before it knocks Steve out. He’s only fully unconscious for a minute at best, but that’s long enough for the splinter cell agents to lock those damn magnetic cuffs around his wrists and ankles.

Head reeling as he’s dragged, Steve tries to focus. There are four men hauling him. No doubt there are more waiting wherever he’s being taken. Bucky was blasted through an exterior wall and they were five stories up, so he can’t count on immediate backup. Assuming that Bucky’s in a state to radio for aid, any assistance is half an hour out by Quinjet. Whatever these people are planning, it involves keeping Steve alive for now. He can endure half an hour. He blinks, trying to clear his head, waiting for an opportunity to present itself.

As it turns out, he only has to endure for five minutes. The men flanking him have barely made rendezvous with the rest before there’s a whir of color and Steve’s own shield smashes into an agent’s skull.

Bucky’s in the doorway, a slightly bloody lip the only visible sign of injury. Steve had thought the shield clattered to the floor beside him when the explosives went off, but that must have been the head injury at work; even for a super soldier, a five story fall would hurt a hell of a lot without the shield to dampen the impact.

“You became the world’s first super soldier,” Bucky tells him, flipping a knife in his hand like a bored schoolboy would toss a pencil, “and I’m still always saving your ass.”

There’s a spatter of gunfire, a whirl of darkness around the room, and Steve watches the Soldier quickly and cleanly slit every throat before he retrieves the shield. The light is coming back into Bucky’s eyes by the time he slams the vibranium into the cuffs, knocking them to pieces.

“You call for backup?” Steve asks, massaging his wrists.

Bucky nods, extending his hand and hauling Steve up. “Not that we needed it, but I kinda crushed the car when I landed on it. So our ride home’ll be here in about—” He glances at his watch. “Twenty minutes. Wanna see if we can salvage anything?”

“How much of that blood is yours, Buck?”

Bucky taps a hole in his sleeve where a bullet grazed him, then wipes his hand over his mouth. “That’s it. Unless there’s something internal.”

“I somehow doubt it.”

Bucky has the faintest limp now that he isn’t fighting. Steve thinks nothing of it until the Quinjet arrives. Bucky just fell out of a building, after all. Even with the serum, he’s damn lucky to walk away with a sprain.

Once they’ve boarded, though, the medic asks about their injuries and Bucky says “I broke my ankle” with all the urgency and emotion he might use to request a bottle of apple juice.

“What?” Steve asks.

“I broke my ankle,” Bucky repeats, settling down for the medic to examine him. “Landed on it when I broke the car. Might have cracked my tibia too. I’m not sure. Definitely snapped some ribs.”

Steve just stares. Bucky must have limped at least a mile around the base. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“It wasn’t mission critical.” His friend shrugs. “Hey, while you’re up, could you get me some water?”

Swallowing back all the admonishments on the tip of his tongue, Steve nods. “Sure thing, Bucky.”

*

“He never even flinched.” Steve frowns, staring at the vending machine without actually seeing any of the options. “If he’d just told me, I’d have had him sit down until extraction.”

“It could be a kind of fawn response,” Bruce offers. They’re in the hospital lobby, waiting for Bucky to have a cast put on. Steve would be supervising the procedure, but Bucky had called Steve a mother hen and shooed him out. “He avoided punishment if he was useful to his captors. He couldn’t be useful if he was injured. So he learned to ignore injuries.”

“So he thinks I’ll punish him for getting hurt?” Steve lets his head droop against the machine, sighing. “Goddamn it, Buck.”

“Hey.” Bruce’s hand is on his shoulder. “Of course he doesn’t think that. But old habits die hard. He might not even be aware of it.”

“It could be bravado, you know,” Tony says. He’s seated in one of the waiting room chairs, flipping through his phone. “May he just wants to prove he can handle himself now. Or maybe he didn’t want you to worry, Cap. How did he used to handle pain?”

Steve doesn’t think back on the war. He remembers the fifth grade, a fight on the playground when Bucky had taken a hit meant for Steve and ended up with a knee full of gravel. He’d been all smiles and talk when the nurse picked the wound clean, disguising tears and cringes with laughter. “Like a punk.”

“Well, there you go.” Tony pockets the phone, standing. “Just ask him if he’s injured next time. Cut off the tough guy act before it can start. And move over, I want a Snickers.”

So Steve does. Asking “Bucky, any injuries?” after every mission becomes an unconscious action. And most of the time, the answer’s no. Bucky’s a super soldier, after all, and a skilled one. Steve tries not to think of where those skills came from, tries to focus only on the good they do now.

Sometimes, the answer isn’t no. Sometimes the answer is “fractured collarbone” or “concussion” or “deep tissue friction burn.” Without fail, the reports are delivered in that same blank monotone, as if Bucky’s talking about someone else’s body. Steve tries not feel the horror that wells up inside him at Bucky’s nonchalance. He forces himself to act as casually as Bucky while he administers first aid and sends Bucky to the medics. One day, Steve tells himself, Bucky will be comfortable enough with the team to let them know he’s in pain. To understand that there’s nothing to hide.

And then a building comes down on top of them.

It’s another alien invasion. The creatures are called Skrull this time, not Chitauri. They had started their incursion by disguising themselves as humans but once the infiltration was discovered, they had resorted to all out war. Bucky and Steve are helping with the evacuation of a hospital until the roof collapses on them. Steve ends up pinned under a support beam, his breaths coming in too shallow.

Bucky is beside him; Steve can’t turn his head to see him due to the debris, but he can hear him breathing.

“Steve,” Bucky says. “Are you okay?”

“Having trouble...breathing,” Steve gasps, struggling to shift the beam. It’s no use. His arms are stuck.

There’s a clang of metal on metal and a vibration down the beam. He takes it Bucky’s reaching out. “If I lift it a little, you think you can help?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I’m not hurt. Are you—”

“Just a second. Let me—” There’s a pause, a muffled grunt, as if Bucky’s buried his face against the floor, and a loud pop. “Ah. There. I can get the leverage now.”

“Bucky.” Steve ought to be worried about suffocating, but the last time he heard that sound, they were on the helicarrier and he’d just wrenched Bucky’s arm from the socket. “Did you dislocate your shoulder?”

“I’m pinned too.” The sound of metal on metal again, and the beam starts to shift millimeter by millimeter. “Only way I could move enough to save your ass. It’s fine.”

The last time Bucky had dislocated his shoulder, he’d screamed loud enough to make Steve’s ears ring. Is that what it takes for him to express pain? Severe emotional duress on top of his injuries?

“It’s fine,” Bucky’s saying. “I can reset it, I can—oh.”

“Oh?” Steve repeats. The beam’s movement stops. It’s not yet raised enough for him to help lift it. “What’s oh?”

“I—” Bucky pauses. His breathing is almost as rapid as Steve’s. “I think my lung collapsed.”

How—” He cuts himself off when he feels it. There’s warm liquid seeping into his clothes. For a second Steve thinks—prays—that Bucky’s wet himself from pain, but he smells copper, not ammonia. “Buck, what happened?”

“There’s some kinda strut jammed through my ribs,” Bucky explains. He grunts and the beam is lifting again. “It wasn’t bleeding ‘til I moved.”

“Then stop moving!” Steve hisses, scrambling desperately to free his arms.

“Then you’ll suffocate and I’ll bleed out.” If not for the panting, Bucky would sound like he’s talking about the damn weather. “This way, you’ll be free and then you can apply pressure to my chest.”

Bleed out?” Finally his arms can move and Steve shoves with all his strength, scrambling to get loose. “How much are you bleeding?”

“I’ve lost, uh, half a liter, I think. My breathing’s all screwed up, it’s making my heart rate go haywire.” He cuts off, coughing. The coughing sounds wet. “You—you’ll be free before it gets bad. I’m okay. It’s not dangerous until I get confused.”

I think you’re confused now, because nothing about this is okay, Steve does not say. There’s no sense in working Bucky into a panic and accelerating his pulse. He must be struggling to stay calm as it is. Grunting with effort, Steve pulls free, surveying his surroundings.

There’s much more than half a liter of blood on the floor. It spills from Bucky’s abdomen and his mouth, foamy and vivid on his lips. He isn’t even curled around the impalement wound. He just lies there, flesh arm pinned behind him, his face as blank as it is chalky. He stares at Steve as though nothing’s wrong.

And only now does Steve begin to comprehend how very wrong things actually are.

*

As soon as Bucky’s healed, the testing begins.

The doctors tried to tell Steve not to worry. They’d pointed out, while wheeling Bucky into surgery, that blank stares and a lack of response were symptoms of shock. “Wait until he wakes up,” they’d said. “He’ll be begging for morphine, you’ll see.”

But he hadn’t. And Steve had insisted on scheduling testing long before Bucky woke, anyway. He knows what shock looks like. He’s witnessed it more times on the battlefield than he cares to count. That wasn’t shock on Bucky’s face.

HYDRA—or the Soviets—destroyed Bucky’s ability to feel pain. Maybe they severed nerves, maybe they implanted some sort of inhibitor in his brain. His body doesn’t tense at injuries. He never even grits his teeth. Steve’s never heard him scream since the helicarrier, and those sounds could have been borne of stress.

Whatever they’ve done, there must be a way to repair it. If there isn’t, Steve’s going to have to ban Bucky from the field. It’s not safe to send him out this way. He’s too much of a danger to himself.

The doctor guides Bucky to sit on the examination table, pulling a small, spiked instrument out of a sterile bag. “This is a Wartenberg wheel, Bucky,” she explains, holding it out for him to examine. “It tests nerve sensitivity. I’m going to roll it over your skin. You should feel itching or tickling or a faint stinging, okay? I want you to tell me if there’s anywhere you don’t feel it.”

The doctor points to a scale on the wall. It starts with a smiling face at zero and ends on a crying face at ten, counting up by twos. “See that chart? You shouldn’t feel anything more than a two. If it becomes too uncomfortable or painful to continue, let me know, all right?”

“That’s a chart for pain?” Bucky asks.

“That’s right.”

“It has a lot of numbers,” Bucky says, biting his lip.

She runs the wheel over the healed surgical site. Bucky says he can feel it. He doesn’t twitch at the spikes or the cold metal. The doctor says some people don’t. Steve has to admit that after all Bucky’s been through, even if his nervous system were properly functioning, the wheel would hardly register.

She runs the device down all of Bucky’s natural limbs, up his spine, across his abdomen. He never reports a loss of sensation. He never tenses. His pain rating is consistently zero.

The doctor runs a series of noninvasive examinations before ordering an EMG and nerve conduction study. “It evaluates the function of your nerves and muscles to make sure they’re working properly,” she says. “We’ll start by attaching a few electrodes to your hand. Then we stimulate the nerves with a small electrical impulse—”

“I don’t like electricity,” Bucky says quietly, tensing up. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, Steve sees fear in his eyes.

“It’s comparable to a little shock from static electricity,” the doctor soothes. “And the test is over almost instantaneously.”

“I’ll be right there with you, Buck.” Steve lays his hand on Bucky’s shoulder, rubbing just the way he knows Bucky likes. He doesn’t melt into the touch. He doesn’t even lean toward it.

“Remember the pain chart?” the doctor asks. “You wouldn’t feel anything over a one, Bucky, that’s—”

“I don’t like electricity,” Bucky repeats, wrenching his eyes shut.

The doctor says a mild sedative won’t disturb the test results, so that’s what they give him.

The electrode portion takes a minute at best and before it begins Bucky’s left hand is squeezing Steve’s, eyes shut. Then the stimulation is applied and he opens his eyes, staring at his hand as though he can’t believe it.

“Doing all right?” Steve asks.

“It doesn’t hurt.” A little smile plays around Bucky’s mouth.

The test’s second portion requires sticking a needle into Bucky’s musculature to measure the electrical impulses. The technician asks about the level of pain afterward, offering a Tylenol for any discomfort.

“Zero,” says Bucky.

The results come back normal, so they turn their focus to his brain.

Measuring the activity with an fMRI is out of the question thanks to Bucky’s prosthetic, so they use a combination PET and CT scan. Bucky balks at the sight of the scanner; Steve has to let the nurses demonstrate the process on him before Bucky’s willing to lie down. Once the radio transmitter’s in his blood stream and the scan has started, Steve moves into the observation room with the technician.

“I don’t see any lesions,” the tech says, studying the images taking form on the screens. “Let’s see where the disruption occurs when the stimulus is introduced.”

In the scanning room, a nurse begins digging into Bucky’s hand with a needle.

“Oh,” says the technician, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “Do you see that?” He points to an area of the brain that’s gone bright.

“What is it?” Steve asks. “Some sort of blockage?”

“No, that’s the expected brain activity for a pain response,” he says, leaning in for a closer look. “He might not be moving, but he’s feeling all of it.”

*

Steve knocks on the door of the dressing room where Bucky’s changing back out of his hospital gown.

“Come in,” Bucky says. He seems so calm as Steve opens the door. It’s as infuriating as it is horrific.

Steve tries to look as though he hasn’t just quietly vomited twice into a wastebasket while watching the scan. “How are you feeling?”

“Hungry.” Bucky straightens the hem of his T-shirt. “Hey, have you ever had Thai food? Everyone keeps telling me I need to try it. If you know any place that—”

“Why did you lie, Bucky?” Steve’s voice is so calm, so soft, that it hardly seems like it belongs to him. He’s trying not to shake. He’s angry enough to go out and wring every HYDRA agent’s throat, but HYDRA’s not here. Bucky is. And it’s not Bucky’s fault that they damaged him so badly, no matter how frustrating trying to understand his thought process can be.

“Huh?”

“Why did you say you couldn’t feel the tests?”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t feel them.” Bucky tilts his head. He looks so confused, so innocent. “I said they didn’t hurt.”

“They did hurt you. Being stabbed in the hand hurts. Walking on a broken ankle hurts. Getting a metal rod shoved through your lung hurts you.” Steve forces himself to breathe. “Who told you to act like it doesn’t? You’re free now, Bucky. No one’s going to punish you for showing pain, not ever. You’ve suffered enough, you don’t need to be afraid anymore.”

“But the mission—”

“There’s no mission worth hurting you.” He wants more than anything to reach out, to wrap his arms around Bucky and hold him until he understands. But Bucky’s drawing in on himself, his eyes downcast and darting. Steve’s seen that look before: it’s how Bucky responds to conflicting orders. “None.”

“It doesn’t really hurt,” Bucky insists.

“Buck, I know that it does.”

His arms crossed, Bucky won’t look up. “No. I can still function. It’s only real pain when the functionality’s lost. That—that chart? For pain? The one the doctor had.” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not pain until it’s killing you. The only options should be zero and one.”

Steve can only stare at him. He’s numb. That seems to be his own body’s defensive reaction in the face of Bucky’s traumas. Without it, he could well have just crumpled and died upon realizing that while Bucky was still alive, he didn’t even know his own name. “What the hell did they do to you?”

“They didn’t hurt me.” It’s a refrain Steve’s heard time and again, and it never fails to make him see red. “They just—taught me. That’s all.”

“Taught you what?”

“It was a long time ago,” Bucky mutters. His eyes are far off. “I don’t know when, exactly. I think I’d just learned to follow orders without fighting. Without questions. And there was this fireplace they let me sit in front of when I was good. Only spot in the whole facility that wasn’t freezing. One day, one of my handlers dropped something in the fire—maybe a ring of keys? Something metal. He told me to get it out for him. So I did, but he threw them back in and said, ‘Right hand this time.’”

“They made you burn yourself.”

“Not that time. I was too fast.” There’s a twitch at the corners of Bucky’s mouth, the way he used to look when he’d coaxed a date out of a stubborn girl. “Then they buried the keys in the embers and said to dig them out. Right handed. And I—I started to, I did, but my hand was blistering and jerking and I pulled it away, asked to use the other hand.”

There are a thousand words boiling in the back of Steve’s throat, mostly comfort and apologies. He bites them down, lets Bucky continue.

“He said there was no use in a weapon that was afraid of injury. He said that they’d teach me not to be scared anymore, they’d help me recognize what pain really was. And I didn’t want to be scared. I was always scared. So that’s when it started.”

Bucky falls silent. His eyes are still looking back over the decades.

“When what started?” Steve prompts.

“The resistance training. I think it took six weeks, one for each of the categories. They’d start mild and work their way up until—”

“What categories?” Whatever the answer, it’s going to hurt like hell. Steve braces himself, waiting.

“Categories of torture,” Bucky says, as though it should be obvious. “Sharp, blunt, hot, cold, loud, and mental. They’d give me more and more of a technique until I didn’t cry or whine or cringe anymore. So for example, they’d take a knife or a match or a—” He pauses, searching for the word. Bucky’s vocabulary outside of tactics and weaponry is still developing. “The other night when we made tacos? What was that thing that you used on the cheese?”

“A grater?” Steve’s going to be sick again. It doesn’t matter that there’s nothing left to vomit, it’s going to happen anyway.

“Yeah, that. They’d put it somewhere that didn’t feel so strongly until I stopped reacting. Then they’d put it somewhere that felt more, until they worked up to the hands. There’s a lot of nerves in the hands. Things like that. And then they’d repeat it all, but with a blindfold.”

Steve’s eyes are stinging. He struggles to keep his breathing level.

“Why are you sad?” Bucky asks. “It helped. I’m not afraid anymore.”

Steve doesn’t answer. He just grabs tight onto Bucky and refuses to let go.

*

As is so often the case, Steve’s in over his head. He calls Sam as soon as they’re back in the car, asking if the man knows any local Thai restaurants and if so, is he free for lunch?

The discussion doesn’t start until after they’ve placed their orders.

“I don’t understand,” Bucky says. He’s stirring the straw around in his glass of water, looking blankly between the pair of them. “You want me to cry and stop fighting at the first sign of damage?”

“No, Bucky.” Sam’s pouring sugar into his tea. His hands are very steady. He’d winced when Bucky recounted the grater story on the drive over, but only just. “If you want to fight, you can fight as long as you feel well enough to do so.” He pauses, reconsiders. “Within reason. What we’re saying is that you don’t need to hide what you’re feeling. It’s all right to say that you’re in pain. No one’s gonna judge or punish you for that, okay?”

“But that’s not pain.” Bucky’s frowning. Steve’s hand slides over his, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “It’s not pain unless it’s mission critical.”

“So what is it before that?”

Bucky shrugs. “It’s a signal.”

“A signal for what?” Steve asks. He’s running his fingers over the back of Bucky’s steel hand. He’s not sure how much of the touch Bucky can feel; sensation in the prosthetic is muted. It’s always been such a striking reminder of Bucky’s captivity, gleaming and whirring and impossible to miss. Only now does it occur to Steve that the metal arm may have been the least painful part of the imprisonment.

“To try harder.”

“It’s a warning,” Sam corrects. “It’s a sign that something’s happening to damage your body, something to be avoided. Ignoring it until it becomes life-threatening is unhealthy. It’s dangerous.”

“I don’t ignore it.” Bucky takes a sip of water, fingers tracing patterns in the condensation down the side of the glass. “I’m aware of it. I keep track of my injuries and report them to a handler if they become critical. Anyway, the handlers watch for damages too. Steve always asks if I’m hurt.”

“I’m not a handler, Bucky.” Steve’s hand tenses involuntarily. Bucky doesn’t seem to feel it, but it’s not as though he’d show it if he did.

“Fine, my friends keep track of it.”

Steve feels a new wave of nausea at the thought that Bucky might consider “friends” and “handlers” interchangeable. Bucky’s still speaking.

“And you’re good at keeping track. Some of them were pathetic. Once I got shrapnel in my leg. Pinched a nerve going in, so I couldn’t feel a thing. And there was blood all down my leg but Rumlow didn’t notice because my pants were so dark until I was starting to faint from blood loss. The look on his face...” Bucky giggles to himself.

Steve doesn’t think he can speak without shattering into pieces, so Sam’s left trying to make Bucky see reason. “Bucky, the things you feel aren’t meant to be just monitored. You’ve have instinctive, protective reactions like flinching or favoring an injury conditioned out of you. I’m not saying you have to cry. I’m saying you don’t have to suppress your body’s natural responses.”

“How would cringing and limping help the mission?” Bucky asks.

“Forget the mission for a second, would you? Your comfort matters too.”

Bucky just stares.

Steve tries to gradually acclimate Bucky back into acknowledging pain. When they spar, there are often bruises or abrasions. Sometimes, if a punch lands incorrectly, there are minor fractures. Every time Bucky ends up with an injury, however mild, Steve will ask him to describe how it feels.

Every time, Bucky stares at the floor and shuffles his feet. Usually, Steve can coax something out of him. “Sharp” or “ache” are the most common descriptors. Occasionally Bucky refuses to speak at all. He never asks for any sort of pain killer. He never accepts when one is offered.

Bruce suggests they let Bucky handle first aid on the next mission. If Bucky sees the rest of the team admitting injury and pain, he reasons, then Bucky may become less hesitant to acknowledge his own body’s signals.

It seems like a good enough idea. Until Tony ends up with a scrap of his own suit driven into his arm and Bucky dismisses the idea of pain relief.

Steve doesn’t find out until later, when Natasha informs him. He finds Tony drinking, his fingers shaking around the glass. He’s very pale. The wound’s been expertly cleaned and stitched. But there’s a premeasured local anesthetic injection in the first aid supplies for each of them, and Bucky hadn’t bothered to retrieve Tony’s.

Steve thinks of the last time Tony suffered through un-medicated surgery to remove shrapnel. His hands are shaking now as well. Goddamn it, Bucky.

“I told him it hurt,” Tony recounts. “He said that it couldn’t, not really. I told him it did and then he went into some—some damn fable about foxes.”

“Spartan foxes?” Natasha asks.

A nod.

“They used to tell it to me too,” she says. “That was a popular motivator in the Red Room.”

Tony doesn’t answer, pouring himself another drink.

*

The silence is crushing in the apartment that night.

Steve’s standing in the kitchen, slicing zucchini for lasagna. They bought the cheese pre-shredded. They haven’t had taco night for going on two months now.

Bucky’s at the stove, pushing ground beef around in the skillet. He’s watching; Steve can feel his eyes.

And because Steve doesn’t trust himself not to say something he’ll regret if he opens his mouth, it’s Bucky who breaks the silence.

“You’re angry,” he says.

“Yes.” Steve tries to concentrate on keeping the slices even.

“Why are you angry?” Bucky asks, guileless. He has no idea what he’s done wrong and that ought to reduce Steve’s desire to reach out and shake him, but it doesn’t. Not at all.

“Why did you do that to Tony?” Steve demands, stilling the knife.

“I cleaned his wound.” Bucky turns away from the stove to face him. Steve still isn’t looking up. “That’s how the medics always did it. What’s wrong? Did it get septic?”

Steve resumes the chopping. He’s leaving little grooves in the cutting board with each slice. “You didn’t give him anything for the pain.”

“He didn’t need anything.”

“That’s not your choice.” Each word is punctuated with a slice. The grooves in the wood are deep.

“You can’t give it just because they ask for it,” Bucky says. “Then they’ll think they can have it whenever they want.”

“He can have it whenever he wants it, Buck. You can have it whenever you want it.”

“I don’t want it,” Bucky says immediately. The meat is sizzling in the skillet behind him. It seems unnaturally loud, as though they’re all cramped in a much smaller room.

“Fine! But you can’t make that choice for anyone else.”

For a minute, Bucky’s silent, turning back to the stove. Steve tries to breathe, tries to pretend that his friend understands and that’s the end of it. Until Bucky speaks again. “Why does it matter so much? Even if it did hurt, it can’t still hurt now.”

The knife ends up lodged in the cutting board. Steve meets Bucky’s eyes for the first time since the mission. He’s completely sincere.

“It matters,” Steve says, as calmly as he can, “because Tony’s been held down and had shrapnel pulled out of him before, and he almost died. What you did brought all of those memories back, Bucky. That’s why it matters.”

“But that’s stupid.”

“What?”

“He wasn’t anywhere near death this time.” Bucky shakes his head, brows knit in confusion. “If he’s been through worse, this shouldn’t have bothered him. That’s weak.”

“Bucky,” Steve says. “Stop talking.”

He doesn’t. “It’s like the fox.”

Steve doesn’t answer.

“Back when I was scared of things, there was a commander who would tell me about the fox.” Bucky’s stirring the meat again, so damn casual. “It made me feel better. I thought it would help Tony.”

“What fox?” Steve asks, because it’s that or scream.

“There’s a place called Sparta,” Bucky says. “And they used to have the best warriors in the world. They knew how to train great soldiers.”

Steve bites his tongue until blood threatens to drip from between his lips.

“There was a training exercise for the Spartan boys. They had to steal something and successfully conceal it. And one boy stole a fox. When the owners came looking for it, he hid the fox under his coat. And the fox was struggling to get away. It started to bite the boy under his coat, but the boy didn’t move.

“The owners stayed for a long time. The fox bit through the boy’s skin and into his organs. It gnawed all the way to his ribs. But he never moved or cried or made any noise. When the owners left, he collapsed. And he was bleeding out and his friends called him stupid, to have let himself die so horribly over something so avoidable. And before he died, he said ‘better to die without yielding to pain than to gain a life to be lived in disgrace through weakness of spirit.’”

There’s a stretch of silence. Bucky turns off the stove.

“And you like that story?” Steve asks.

“It’s beautiful.”

“It’s not real, Bucky.” He wrenches the knife free and starts slicing again, hard and fast and uneven. “It’s a lie they told you so that you’d think it was admirable to sacrifice yourself for whatever they asked, no matter how pointless.”

“All I have are stories.” And finally Bucky starts to look angry. Hurting his friends doesn’t spark emotion, but apparently insulting his torturers does. “I don’t have any memories, Steve. What makes your stories any better than theirs?”

The only reason Steve doesn’t shout “Mine are true” is because the knife slips.

It comes down full force across the fingers of his left hand, rocking back up on its own accord once it strikes bone. For a second there’s a perfect line across his skin, pale pink tissue on display like meat on a butcher’s counter. Then the blood starts to spill.

The knife clatters to the floor by his feet. Steve presses his right hand over the wounds, whirling, searching for a dish towel. There’s blood flowing, splattering on the floor and leaving stains down his pants.

Bucky grabs his wrist. “Feel it.”

“Let go—”

There’s a blur and he’s pinned by the metal arm against the refrigerator. His blood’s on Bucky now, too. There’s so much of it. “Look,” Bucky says. “You wanted to hit me. Now you don’t. Because you’re busy feeling that.”

“Bucky, I’m bleeding, you have to—”

“You’re a super soldier.” Bucky’s pushing on the wounds with his right hand, applying pressure, but he’s digging in his nails and Steve’s vision is going white. “You’ll be all right. Listen. You have to feel it.”

“It hurts—”

“It was part of the conditioning,” Bucky says. “Cut, then a little deeper, then deeper still, until they hit bone. It’s easy to cry when something hurts. It’s easy to be angry when someone cuts you. If every part of you is focused on staying calm, on not reacting at all? It’s exhausting. Even more than that when they expect you to keep running and fighting.”

Steve shoves at him ineffectually, head lolling to the side. “Bucky—”

“It takes so much concentration to stay on your feet.” Bucky’s staring at blood spilling on the floor, but his eyes are half a world away again. “To remember that it doesn’t really hurt you. There’s no room for anything else.”

He steps back. Steve slumps to the floor.

“If I didn’t have that,” Bucky says, “if I could take a pill or a shot and make it all go away? Then I’d be alone in my head with my thoughts. And maybe I’d think it had hurt. And maybe I’d think I was angry. And then I’d realize how much it hurt and how angry I was, how fucked up a person must be to react to injuries this way, and there’s no conditioning in the world that could keep me together after that. I’d break, Steve. I’d fall apart.”

He picks up the knife with his left hand and rests the right on the counter. Steve realizes what he’s planning the second before he acts. “Bucky, don’t—”

And Bucky opens up the same cuts in his own flesh. He doesn’t flinch. He stares calmly at his mutilated hand before holding it up to display to Steve. “I need this,” he says simply. “I need this or I’d never stop screaming. So fine, I’ll give our friends painkillers. I’ll call the paramedics now. But don’t ask me to cry, Steve. Don’t ask me to say that it hurts. It can’t. The boy didn’t die until he let the fox out.”

Then he walks away. Steve can only stare after him. He can’t begin to react through the hurt.