“Careful now,” Steve says quietly, watching Clint and Natasha’s retreating backs. Steve holds out a hand, helping Bucky dismount from the van. The shoes on Bucky’s feet—Clint’s dirty old sneakers that he swore he lost three months ago—are a tad too large for Bucky and might fall off with the wrong movement. Steve’s trying not to think too hard about Bucky’s injuries, his circumstances, his amnesia. He has to save that for later, wait for some time he can safely process the confusing blend of grief, joy, horror at their reunion. Right now, Bucky needs to get into the safehouse, get treated for his injuries, and recover.
“Thank you, Steve.” Bucky smiles trustingly at him and follows where Steve leads, never letting go of Steve’s hand. The shock blanket is wrapped around his shoulders, and it’s just long enough to provide some protection for his bare calves. There were no spare pants in the van, only Clint's old shorts.
Steve narrates quietly, “We’re at a safehouse. We can all rest here until we figure out what to do next.”
“Okay, Steve,” says Bucky. There’s something odd in his tone—almost robotic, canned, like he’s repeating a response without really engaging in the conversation.
Steve leaves Natasha and Clint to finish securing the house as he leads Bucky to the bathroom.
“Let’s get you cleaned up. How about a nice warm bath, pal? I’ll get it started for you.”
Bucky’s eyes light up as he smiles. “Thank you, Steve.” He adds shyly, "You're the best."
Steve’s usual rejoinder rises up—“Don’t try to flatter me, Buck, it ain’t gonna work”—but he swallows it down, focusing on adding liberal amounts of foaming bath oil into the tub. Thank goodness Stark stocked the safehouse, as Stark's definition of “bare essentials” tends to include luxury items. Steve wipes discreetly at the tears in his eyes, then turns and says, “All yours, pal. Go on in. I'll get the door.”
Steve was planning to leave to give Bucky some privacy, but when Bucky lets out a soft whimper, he whips around quickly. Bucky’s standing in the tub naked, his abused body on full display as he shifts from side to side like he’s dancing on hot coals.
“Bucky? What is it?”
“Hurts,” Bucky gasps, “F-feet. S-sorry.” He quickly lowers himself into the tub, curling his knees up to his chest as his eyes land on Steve’s face. “It’s nice, Steve. Thank you.”
“Can I take a look at your feet, Buck? Are they injured?” Steve tries not to panic. There was gravel in the path at Pierce’s house, and Bucky hadn't been wearing shoes until he got in the van. Steve hopes the walk didn’t cause any permanent damage.
Something must show on his face, because Bucky frowns and leans forward. “What’s wrong, Steve? Don’t be upset. I’m okay. This is really nice.”
Steve’s smile is a little watery, but it’s the best he can do. “I’m glad you like it, Buck. We’ll get to work on patching you up after the bath, how’s that sound?”
“Good, Steve,” says Bucky, and he darts a glance upward through his curtain of hair. “Maybe you can wash my hair?”
Bucky smiles again. “Thank you, Steve.”
Steve pushes the door shut, then grabs a small bucket and fills it with the warm water from the faucet. Bucky freezes as Steve approaches, his knuckles white against the lip of the tub.
Steve halts. "What's wrong?"
Bucky chews his lip anxiously, “Please—please don't hold me under? I'll be good. I'll stay still."
Steve's breath hitches. "Of course I won't, Bucky."
Bucky sighs in relief, sinking back into the foam. "Thank you, Steve."
Steve takes a deep breath and counts down in a soft voice, making sure Bucky's eyes are closed before pouring the water over Bucky's head. He squirts some shampoo into his palm, then gently rubs it into Bucky's hair, taking care not to pull too hard as he runs his fingers through the tangles. Bucky whimpers at a particularly hard tug, and Steve whispers, "I'm sorry, Buck," looking around desperately for a comb or a brush. There is none. He waits until Bucky has relaxed again before continuing.
Grease and grit slew down Bucky's back as Steve rinses the shampoo out. Steve does a second rinse with another bucket of water, then starts to massage conditioner into Bucky's roots. Bucky moans and practically melts into the tub. "Thank you, Steve."
"Least I can do," says Steve, his voice hoarse. "You took care of me throughout my whole childhood."
"Yeah," says Steve. "You were the best friend I could ever ask for." And more, thinks Steve, but Bucky's not in any state to hear that. He taps Bucky's knuckles gently. "Sit up a bit so I can rinse this out?"
Bucky hums and obeys, sighing as the water washes over his scalp.
Steve watches the lines smooth out on Bucky's face as the tension slowly drains out of Bucky's body. When the water gets lukewarm, Steve steps into the tub, still clothed, and helps Bucky do one final rinse in the shower, supporting most of Bucky's weight against his own. Steve's eyes linger on the bruises and welts dotting Bucky's body, stark and visible on his clean skin. There are faint, thin white marks along Bucky's left pec, traveling in a precise line up to his collarbone and around his shoulder, and bile rises in Steve's throat as he thinks about how they could have gotten there.
After Steve helps Bucky dry off, he gently pushes Bucky down onto the closed toilet seat and pulls out the first aid kit. Fury floods Steve's veins as he examines the welts marring the soles of Bucky’s bare feet. He stands, taking a moment to take some slow, calming breaths, and then he carefully washes his hands and opens an alcohol wipe. “This is going to sting,” he warns.
Bucky's expression turns nervous as Steve kneels in front of him, and he stays silent and tense as Steve quietly wipes his feet. Something hot and wet hits Steve's forehead, and he looks up to find tears dripping down Bucky’s face.
“I’m sorry, Buck,” Steve breathes, his voice cracking. “I’m so sorry. Let me bandage you up and then get you some painkillers.” He swiftly slathers Bucky’s feet with antibiotic ointment and wraps them in gauze, and then he pulls out the emergency ibuprofen they keep in the bathroom cabinet and hands two pills to Bucky.
“Here,” he says. “Let me go get some water. I’ll be right back.”
Steve’s heart pounds as he speed-walks to the kitchen, where Clint and Natasha are conferring softly at the kitchen table. They fall silent when he enters, and he ignores their pointed stares at his dripping clothes as he grabs a bottle of water. When he returns to the bathroom, he finds Bucky staring at the pills, hunched over like a puppet whose strings have been cut.
Bucky looks up at Steve, eyes wide with pure terror. “Steve, please,” he whispers. “I—I’ll be good. Please don’t make me.”
Steve’s heart shatters. “Bucky,” he says, forcing his voice to be even, “what’s wrong?”
“N-nothing,” Bucky says, trembling. “S-sorry.”
“It’s okay, Bucky,” says Steve, reaching out a hand and dropping it when Bucky flinches. “It’s okay. What don’t you want to do?”
“The p-pills. I’ll be good. I’ll do whatever you want, please.”
Steve has to take a minute to process all the horrifying implications of Bucky’s begging. “Okay, Bucky. Okay. You don’t have to take them.” Steve plucks the pills from Bucky’s sweaty palm and flushes them down the sink, but Bucky’s terror doesn’t abate. “Hey, how about some water, pal? It’s bottled—not even open yet. It’s clean. No drugs. You can start drinking it whenever you want, or not drink it at all."
Bucky's breath hitches. His hand shakes as he takes the bottle, which almost slips from his grip as he tries to uncap it. Steve almost offers to help, but stops himself at the last minute, and he silently rejoices when Bucky finally gets the bottle open and takes a cautious sip of water.
"Steve," says Bucky softly after he's drunk half the bottle.
Bucky reaches out and clumsily grabs Steve's hand, lacing their fingers together. "Please don't make me wake up."
Steve sucks in a sharp breath. "What?"
Bucky blinks, his brow furrowing, and then he shakes his head. "Never mind." He looks so afraid as he asks, "Will you stay with me, Steve?"
"Always," Steve says, and this time he can't help the tears that trickle down his cheek. "I'm with you to the end of the line, pal, remember?"
Bucky makes a soft, shocked noise, his eyes dawning with slow realization. "I do," he says with wonder, and he lifts his eyes to meet Steve's gaze. "Steve?" he whispers.
"Yeah, Buck?" Steve asks, hope rising in his chest.
"Are you real?"
Steve gently squeezes Bucky's hand. "Yeah, Bucky," he says, his voice hoarse. "I'm real. And I'll stay with you as long as you want me to."
Bucky's breath shudders, and his shoulders shake with silent sobs. Steve cautiously pulls him forward, letting Bucky's tears soak into his sodden shirt as he gently strokes the back of Bucky's neck.