The bad guys were nearly gone and Bucky laughed, sighting down the barrel at the last gray speck sprinting away from the complex, when a bullet slammed into his shoulder. It ripped through skin and muscle and into bone in an instant, leaving fire and agony in its wake. His gun dropped from nerveless fingers, and he went down with a grunt of pain as red washed over his eyes.
“Fuck,” he said, curling up like a pill bug in the mud.
Pain sparkled across his tightly closed eyelids, and the gunshot kept ringing in his ears.
He should have been doing something - moving, responding to the voices in his earpiece asking if he was okay, anything, but all he could do was breathe and clutch at the wound with his metal hand while the pain crawled through his shoulder, making itself known in drips and drabs through the shock clouding his mind.
The sound of gunfire and shouting continued around him; all he could focus on around the haze of pain was the dirt smashed into his face, the dig of tac suit buckles in his stomach and chest as he curled, the bruises his metal fingers were going to leave in soft flesh. He heard Steve’s voice on the coms, frantic, trying to reach him, and Sam’s voice cutting through, “I’ve got Barnes, Cap, you focus on getting the prisoners out!”
The next thing he knew, Sam was landing in Bucky’s little sniper nest in a rain of leaves and twigs and rushing towards him. “Hey, Barnes, Bucky, man, fuck that’s a lot of blood, please tell me your supershit can heal this.”
Bucky tried to laugh at the babbling, and flecks of bloody spit speckled Sam’s suit. Sam didn’t even flinch.
“Course I’m fine,” he slurred, though the way his body was still attempting to curl around the wound belied the attempt at comfort.
“Like fuck you are,” Sam said, crossed arms tightening into a self-hug.
“I’ll be fine,” he amended. Sam glared at him.
Bucky forced himself to hold out the metal arm, since the flesh one didn’t want to move. “Help me up?” he asked. Sam swooped down before the words were fully out of his mouth.
Sam’s hands were warm and rough with callouses where they wrapped around Bucky’s sides to steady him.
Bucky almost collapsed again as soon as he was up, but Sam held him securely in strong arms. Mission success came through the coms in both their ears from Steve, who followed up with an ETA on the arrival of T’Challa’s quinjet, and Bucky only really heard half of it. Most of his attention was on making sure his knees didn’t buckle out from under him again.
He wasn’t sure it was a winning battle at this point.
It was just the three of them on this mission, a stupid little jaunt to take out some arrogant little Hydra pissants who couldn’t fucking tell when they were already defeated. It wasn’t supposed to be dangerous.
Awareness wavered. “Woah!” Sam said in his ear, “I got you.” His arm tightened around Bucky’s waist.
Teeth gritting, Bucky forced his legs to work, forced himself to follow this tinny sound of Steve’s voice updating them on the arrival of the quinjet.
The walk to the quinjet stretched out impossibly long, a journey of a thousand impossible miles, and then ended all at once – between one blink and the next, forested outdoors gave way to hard metal benches and smooth gray walls. Sam was sitting next to him where he slumped against the back wall, taking supplies from a first aid kit, and Clint waved from the pilot’s seat as they took off. In the next blink, they were flying.
Sam stabbed Bucky with a needle full of specially made painkillers, and then he was flying too.
Bucky missed their arrival back in Wakanda, due to passing out from the pain. For the next indeterminate amount of time, he drifted in and out of consciousness in the same infirmary where he’d spent his last stint as a human popsicle, before the doctors had figured out how to yank the programming words from his brain like so many weeds in a garden. Steve spent a lot of time hovering over him, of course, but Sam was often there, too. More than once, Bucky woke up to Sam curled up in the chair next to his bed, one hand resting on Bucky’s flesh hand where it lay above the covers, needles stuck into blue veins and keeping him pumped full of fancy future drugs.
What could have been hours or days or weeks later for all he knew, Bucky woke up and stayed awake long enough to process more than light-color-sound-pain-sleep, though his head still felt stuffed full of wool.
“The fuck happened?” he asked the dozing form of Sam by his head. The words came out slurred and heavy, but Sam startled awake anyway, flailing ungracefully. Bucky winced when he tried to snort with laughter, and his vision blurred
“You’re awake!” Sam said, and - duh. Course he was awake. Trust Sam to start off with the one fact Bucky already knew.
“No shit,” he slurred. Sam made a face at him, and Bucky blamed the drugs still in his system for the dopey way he smiled back. The expression turned serious when he realized his shoulder still hurt like a bitch even under the dull feeling of the drugs. “So what the fuck happened?” he asked again, taking his time to form the words a little more clearly. “I’ve been shot before plenty of times, and it’s never knocked me out like that.”
Sam stared at the floor and the wall and the tubes hooked in to Bucky’s veins - everywhere but Bucky’s eyes. Bucky’d probably have been more annoyed if he weren’t so high. The docs must have worked out a new formula, because Bucky hadn’t felt high like this since 1938, when one of Steve’s artist friends had brought Mary Jane to their apartment and Bucky learned it wasn’t the name of his girlfriend. He giggled, actually fuckin’ giggled, and tugged on Sam’s hand. “Sam,” he said, drawing it out, “what happened?”
A woman in a white lab coat slipped through the door before Sam could ignore him some more and bustled over, and Sam had another not-Bucky place to look.
“Mr. Barnes,” Dr. Nongoqo said, staring at him over a clipboard, “it’s good to see you awake.”
Oh goody. Another person to tell him shit he already knew.
She consulted the clipboard, flipped a few pages, and finally gave him the answers he’d been waiting on. “Hydra, it seems, has been running experiments on modified neurotoxins that attack the enhanced biology of the recipients of the serum developed by Abraham Erskine, as well as variants thereof. The bullet that entered your shoulder was coated in the neurotoxin; if it had hit any vital organs, you would likely be dead right now. As it is, you’ve been slipping in and out of consciousness with risk of coma for the past five days, and your healing factor has been dramatically slowed. You did have an infection when you arrived back in our hospital. It’s taken us the past three days to develop the right antibiotics to clear that.”
Bucky giggled again. “Sounds like I’m fucked.”
The language earned him a glare from Dr. Nongoqo, though it softened quickly into a smile. Most of the doctors had ended up fond of their gruff supersoldier patient during the weeks where he’d spent more time than not in their care while they fixed up his head.
“The toxin interfered with your accelerated healing and you will still feel weak for several days due to the severity of the infection, but that just means now that we’ve cleared the bacteria, you should heal at a normal rate. Now that you’re awake, we’d like to monitor you for another day, at which point you’re free to leave our beautiful hospital into the care of a friend. Captain Rogers and Sergeant Wilson both offered to help you recover-“
“Wilson can watch over my pretty ass if he’s offering,” Bucky said before Dr. Nongoqo could finish her spiel. Much as he loved Steve still, always would, he could only shudder in horror at the thought of all the graceless mothering he’d have to endure if he were placed under Steve’s care for however long it took this fuckin’ Hydra bullshit to wear off. For all the bitching and moaning Steve used to do whenever he had to be taken care of, on the rare occasions Bucky could remember getting sick Steve would turn into an unholy soup-making, hovering terror. The asshole couldn’t even cook for shit, which was impressive when all the cooking they did was throwing shit in a pot and boiling it.
“Oh,” Steve said, and Bucky really was high as shit because he did not notice Steve arriving at all while Dr. Nongoqo talked.
He flapped one hand in Steve’s direction, or at least tried to. It was the metal hand, so it mostly responded to his commands. He didn’t think he could move the flesh arm if Director Pierce himself showed up and commanded it. “Y’can’t be fussing over me all hours of the day, y’ve got a world to save,” he said to Steve, who did the thing with his eyebrows that made his face look all pinched and sad. Bucky determinedly ignored the kicked puppy face, and looked back to the doc, who was smiling down at her clipboard instead of saving him from social blunders.
“Y’can’t argue with me, anyways,” he mumbled, as the walls started doing the foxtrot in his peripherals. “I’m sick, and going back to bed.”
Steve’s big mouth opened, but Bucky was too busy making good on his promise to hear anything else.
There was more work to be done before Bucky could be discharged the next day. Of course he couldn’t be lucky enough to wake up just in time to leave. Time dripped past him like molasses as Dr. Nongoqo went over the medication pumping rainbows through his veins, and outlined to Sam in strict terms all the things he was not allowed to do for himself. Steve hovered the entire time, getting underfoot like a big dumb puppy dog. Finally, after minutes or hours or a few more days, it was hard to tell with his head all fuzzy and the walls swimming around him, he was allowed to trade his hospital bed for Sam’s spare room in another wing of the palace.
Sam and Steve supported him on either side back to Sam’s rooms (rooms that were bigger than all the places he and Steve lived during the depression put together, he thought, and Sam felt so solid and nice and warm at his side). Sam apologized for not shooting the enemy sniper earlier while they made their slow, limping way down the halls, and Bucky snorted a pained laugh.
“I’m surprised at you, Wilson,” he said, leaning harder into Sam’s side. “Here I thought Steve’s guilt complex was gonna rear its ugly head first, but you actually beat the big lug to it.” Steve shoved at his other side, nearly toppling all three of them to the floor, given that Bucky wasn’t quite up to standing stable under Steve’s super soldier strength yet.
“Fine, I won’t feel bad for you,” Wilson shot back, and Bucky forced his lips into a grin.
“Nothin’ to feel sorry for, pal,” he said, grateful for whatever superdrugs were keeping him from feeling the full force of the pain from his wound.
“He’s right, though,” Steve piped up, deep voice directed at the floor. “We should never’ve let this happen.”
Sam leaned around Bucky to raise an eyebrow at Steve, and then turned his stare on Bucky. “Yeah ok,” he said, “if I sounded like that when I apologized, then you’re right. It does sound dumb.”
Steve directed a wounded look at Sam this time, but he and Bucky both ignored it.
It took about half an hour to get Bucky settled in Sam’s spare room. Steve wouldn’t stop wringing his hands and asking if Bucky was comfortable until Bucky threatened to shove a foot up his ass and damn his recovery. After that, Sam shoved Steve out of the room.
Bucky was fairly sure Sam returned from seeing Steve out to ask him about soup or pillows or something, but darkness was creeping back over his vision by then, and the lure of sleep was a siren song he couldn’t ignore.
He woke up to a cloud-like bed and a note on the nightstand. His eyes felt gritty, the medication thinner in his body when it wasn’t being constantly dripped directly into his blood through an IV, and his shoulder ached. It took a few fumbling tries to open the note and make his eyes focus on it. The note was thankfully brief, and written in big, blocky letters that were easy to read once he’d blinked the grit from his eyes and made the room focus.
You fell asleep before I could offer to feed you, and Doc said you needed rest so I left you alone. If you’re hungry when you wake up, just shout and I’ll bring you something. If you’re not up to shouting, there’s also a cellphone in the top drawer of the nightstand, with all the numbers you need programmed in. Hope you feel better man,
Sam Wilson, Falcon
Just as the note said, Bucky found a flip phone in the nightstand. Scrolling through it brought up three contacts, labeled Patriotic Puppy, Falcon, and Doc. He snorted, stabbing his thumb at the Falcon contact.
The tinny sound of the other phone ringing came through the speaker for a few seconds before Sam showed up at his door. “You rang?” Sam said blandly, leaning on the doorframe.
“I think I was promised soup.” Bucky grinned at Sam, who’s eyes softened.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, “you were. Gimme a minute and I’ll have your soup.”
Five minutes later, Bucky had a steaming bowl of chicken soup on a tray in front of him. He also still had superdrugs dripping through his veins, and it took a few tries to get the spoon successfully from the bowl to his mouth, even using his metal hand. The whole time, Sam watched him from the wall, smirking and offering zero help. Bucky appreciated it more than he knew how to say.
After the fifth spoonful ended up on his chest instead of in his mouth, warm but not boiling thankfully, he waved Sam over and grunted at him with hand gestures till Sam got the message, raising the tray off Bucky’s lap while Bucky inched himself up into a sitting position. Finally, he waved at Sam to put the tray back down and grinned at his success. Now he could stick his face right over the bowl and drop soup back into it if it failed to hit his mouth. His right shoulder ached and burned from all the moving around, but he had a lot of practice in ignoring pain.
“You need anything else?” Sam asked, while Bucky continued getting half the soup in his mouth and half all over the tray in spite of his improved position.
“Why? You looking for more excuses to wait on me?” Bucky asked, narrowing his eyes at another spoonful of soup as it splattered against the edge of the bowl.
“Nah,” Sam said, nonchalant. “Just that Steve’s already called me like three times today asking if there’s anything he can do to help.”
Bucky looked up in alarm. “No. Nope,” he said. “I don’t need anything else.”
The sound of Sam’s laughter was warm in the room, washing over Bucky’s sweat slick, feverish skin, and he wanted to curl up in it and stay there forever. “When I’m better,” Bucky started, doing his best to collect the threads of his wandering thoughts, “I’ll cook you dinner.” He studiously avoiding looking at Sam, spoon clinking against the bowl as he stirred soggy noodles around yellow broth. “I’m a pretty awesome cook, or I was.” Sam was quiet, next to him. “Bet I’m a way better cook than you, at least.” The words came out wrong, more croaking and shy than the teasing lilt he was aiming for, but Sam laughed again anyway.
“I’ll hold you to that,” he said.
Sleep was stealing back over Bucky’s vision. He twisted the metal hand into a thumbs up, and Sam took the bowl before he could fall asleep in his food.
The next few days passed similarly. Bucky got very tired very quickly of the constant rounds of broth and sleep. The ache in his shoulder hardly bothered him anymore – he got used to pain fast, and it wasn’t like his other shoulder wasn’t already a mess of pain all the time anyway, but being confined to bed rest while his shoulder healed at a normal human rate was a new torture.
Sam came around to check on Bucky most times he was awake. Most of the time, Steve was with him; a few times Sam was busy and only Steve showed up.
After a few days, once he was able to stay awake for more than an hour or two at a time and keep down more than soup and go to the bathroom without any help, Bucky finally asked the question he’d been too scared to ask since coming out of cryo and getting his head fixed up.
“Are you ever gonna ask me on a date, or are we just flirt till we’re both old and gray?” he asked.
Sam raised one eyebrow, surprise quickly crushed under sarcasm. “I’ll flirt till I’m old and gray, but I’m pretty sure I’m gonna be dust and bones before you get a gray hair, old man.”
“That’s not an answer to my question.”
Sam looked away. “I kinda figured you were waiting on Steve to ask you out. You guys were old sweethearts, right?”
Bucky did a great impression of a fish. “Steve and me?” he said. “Course not. Steve was always pining after dames who were too dense to look at ‘im twice, then he was mad about Carter, and now he’s pining over her niece. No room in any of that for us to get together, even if he did like men.”
Same gave him a look. “You didn’t actually say you didn’t want him.”
It was Bucky’s turn to look away. “Sure, I always thought he was real damn amazing. Still do. Had a crush on him once when we were dumb kids and I couldn’t believe how none of the dames could see what I could see. We’ve both been through a lot, though, changed a lot, and that crush? It ain’t there anymore. I love ‘im, always will, but we’re never gonna be together like I used to dream of, and I ain’t mad about that. You though - you’ve definitely been flirting with me, and when dreams change into something as pretty as you I’m not gonna be mad about that either.”
He looked up at Sam through his lashes, doing his best to give him a lascivious once-over while still disgustingly sweaty and gross from the days spent sick in bed. Sam sat down on the edge of the bed, fingers fidgeting with the bedcovers. “You don’t think Steve’ll kill us both with those sad puppy dog eyes of his if his new friend steals away his old best friend?”
Bucky reached out a hand to touch Sam’s arm, running his fingers down over the back of Sam’s hand to still his movement. “I think Steve’d be thrilled if his two best pals had someone to love. I mean sure, he’s an idiot and he might go all misty eyed and worried and need some reassurance we aren’t gonna abandon him, but he’ll be happy for us. He’s a good guy. Expects a lot of his friends when it comes to standing up for truth and justice and all that, but he wants ‘em to be happy too.” The words earned Bucky a grin that showed off the cute gap between Sam’s front teeth.
“You might actually not be as dumb as you look, Barnes,” Sam said, and Bucky smiled back.
“I only got some of my brains fried out,” he said, glad that Sam didn’t flinch away the way Steve did whenever he joked about what had happened to him. “I can still string a few smart sounding sentences together, when I concentrate real hard.”
“Yeah?” Sam asked, turning his hand over to tangle his fingers with Bucky’s. “I was just surprised you could string words together at all.” Bucky would have replied to that, but Sam, the dirty cheater, leaned down and cut off Bucky’s words with his mouth.
It wasn’t the worst way to lose an argument.