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a line that goes all the way

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There’s a line that goes all the way

From my childhood to you.

Can’t you find a way?

-The National, Empire Line


About six months after he left Bucky in cryostasis in Wakanda, Steve got a text from an unidentified number: He is awake and well, and wants to see you.

He nearly went AWOL on the mission right then and there: it was just an old HYDRA base in rural Latvia that had picked up new occupants. Small fry stuff, stuff that wouldn’t have merited the Avengers’ attention before the Accords, stuff that didn’t even make the world news wires, and wouldn’t even when they blew the base up and left the HYDRA wannabes on Interpol’s doorstep. But Sam and Natasha wouldn’t thank him for ditching them, and the text was clear: Bucky was fine. Steve had gotten a status update just a couple weeks ago, and Bucky had been fine then too, the Wakandan scientists hopeful that they were close to removing the trigger words. Only a little longer now, one of the texts had read, and Steve had exercised every last bit of his self control to keep from texting them back every day, every hour: is it now? Is he okay?

Now he dug deep for some hidden well of patience, put his phone away, and finished his part of the mission with, admittedly, uncharacteristically vicious haste. He ran at nearly full speed to the rendezvous point to wait for Sam and Nat, just to have an excuse for how desperately fast his heart was beating.

He took cover in a copse of woods, where the night air was heavy with the promise of winter’s first real frost, and read the message again and again while he waited, as if it would reveal some deeper meaning. It was good, right, that Bucky wanted to see him? The text could have read he’s ready to see you, and that would have made Steve worry about how well Bucky truly was, whether Bucky had only asked to see Steve out of some feeling of obligation, but if Bucky wanted to see him...

He sent a text back: thanks. Will be there ASAP.

He started mentally calculating travel times to Wakanda, how best to get there. They had the quinjet, but Steve and Nat both preferred using it as little as possible, given what a risk it was every time. There were no direct commercial flights to Wakanda, but he could get a flight to Kinshasa, then drive and hike into Wakanda...another text came, this one encrypted. It took Steve a few minutes to run it through the Wakandan decryption protocol he’d been given, and when he did, it yielded a set of coordinates. Morocco, if Steve’s mental map was right. Easy enough to get to Morocco from here, though it would probably take longer than Steve wanted.

The second he heard Natasha approaching, he told her, “Blow it and let’s go.”

He could feel more than see her go tense and still, like some wild cat whose prey had spotted her. Sam swept in low and quiet from his last aerial sweep.

“Are we made, is someone coming?” asked Natasha.

“All clear according to Redwing,” said Sam. “What’s up, Steve?”

“We’re good, all clear, just—I’ve gotta get to Morocco.”

Six months on the run, and they’d all developed a whole new, more terse language with each other. It was as if, to talk about the things that mattered most, they’d all automatically agreed to shave language down to the bone, no fat, no muscle, nothing scavengers and hunters could pick apart. They’d know what it meant that Steve said I instead of we.

“Everything okay?” asked Sam, pulling his goggles up to peer at Steve more closely.

“Yeah. Yeah, he’s awake and he’s okay, transport will be waiting for me there.”

It would be days, probably, before he actually laid eyes on Bucky, but already his heart was galloping, rushing headlong towards that moment, and he got the feeling it’d keep up the brutal pace until he finally saw Bucky safe and well. He pressed a hand to his chest: easy, almost there.

Natasha tapped away at her phone, and the base blew up with a dull whump. “Let’s get to Morocco then.”

It took three endless days to get to the coordinates, which turned out to be in an old demolished airfield in Casablanca. Natasha snorted with a quickly suppressed laugh when she saw it, but didn’t explain, just smiled.

They shed their tac gear in favor of civilian clothes, and played tourist in the balmy, charming city until nightfall, when the yearning call to prayer echoed across the entire city. They waited later still after that, until the next call to prayer wound its way through the full dark, and then Steve spotted the briefest shimmer in the air: one of the Wakandan royal Talon jets in stealth mode.

Sam clapped him on the back and gave him a light shove towards it. “Meet you in Cape Town in a couple weeks. You’re due some leave, soldier. We all are.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” he said, because Sam wasn’t wrong. But Steve didn’t know if he’d need the full two weeks yet. That would depend on Bucky. “Call me if anything comes up.”

“Have fun, Ilsa,” said Natasha when she hugged him, and Steve finally got the reference.

Casablanca, of course. He’d seen that before becoming Captain America, even. Whoever chose this pick-up point had an off-kilter sense of humor, maybe, or it was just a coincidence. Probably just a coincidence. Steve didn’t think the parallels worked. Because that would make Bucky Laszlo and, yeah, okay, sure, he’d thought Bucky was dead for awhile, and then Bucky had been on the run, sort of like Laszlo, and now Steve was running off to go see him, but they weren’t married, Steve wasn’t the Ilsa here, and who was even Rick in this scenario...

“Wait, who’s Rick in this scenario? It better be me,” said Sam, which drew Natasha’s immediate objection.

“The movie already has a Sam!” she said.

“Oh, just because he’s the black guy? I see how it is. This is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Sam said, making Natasha cackle.

“We’ll always have Paris!” Steve said with a sloppy salute, then turned to jog towards the talon jet.

“Oh, now he wants to be Rick! That doesn’t work, he stayed in Casablanca!”

“Here’s looking at you, kid!” Natasha called out as Steve kept jogging, now with a smile on his face.

He’d expected to be greeted by just the Talon’s pilot, but there were three other Wakandans sitting in the passenger bay, all in civilian clothing. The sight brought Steve short.

“Uh, hi,” he said, and was answered with quick grins and nods.

The pilot turned around with a grin of her own. “They are Wakandan War Dogs,” she said, in answer to Steve’s obvious confusion. “I am running a taxi service, it seems! Buckle up, Captain. It will be a short flight.”

She was right: the flight was short thanks to the talon’s speed, and the conversation made the time pass faster still. Either the Wakandans didn’t recognize him, or they didn’t care, because they just cheerfully asked what disaster warranted his extraction on a Moroccan airfield in the dead of night.

Some of us are just due for leave, Phakamile,” said one of the women with a friendly swat to her colleague’s shoulder.

“Yes, we are not all on the run from every poacher south of the Sahara,” said the other, and that kicked off a round of raucous stories until they arrived in the Golden City in the small hours of the night.

Only the sight of the sprawling city appearing out of the night-dark jungle as if from nowhere, like a crowded galaxy twinkling in the void of space, rendered them all silent for a moment. When Steve glanced at the talon’s pilot, she was smiling, and the War Dogs all let out happy, relieved sighs, as if they’d just dropped heavy bags from their shoulders after a long journey, and could smell a home-cooked dinner waiting for them. They were all home. Steve took a deep breath past the tightness in his chest, and tried not to think of just how long it had been since he’d been anywhere close to home. Soon, maybe, he hoped, and breathed deep and steady through the ache.

The silence didn’t last long.

“I am going to be first in line at Ziri’s food stand,” said Takama dreamily, and this led to volleys of cheerful argument about where to get the best street food.

Steve was glad for the distraction, anything to avoid obsessively rereading the opaque ten words of the message that had sent him here, as if the words weren’t already endlessly circling around and around in his head, chased by questions he had no answers to yet. Were the triggers gone? Was Bucky going to be awake for good, no more cryo ever again? Did it even matter, set against that he wants to see you?

Once they landed, right in a courtyard near the Citadel, the War Dogs waved and headed off to their own destinations, and Steve was left with a palace guard and his own thoughts. He followed the guard on autopilot, and paid little attention to the hushed grandeur of the Citadel at night. He was going to see Bucky again soon. His breath and heartbeat came too fast for his and the guard’s brisk walking pace. It was late, was Bucky awake right now? Would they let Steve stay with him even if he wasn’t?

Shit, maybe he should have been thinking about what to do, or say, when he saw Bucky again. He’d fucked it up before, he was pretty sure. He remembered the chilly and furious glare Bucky’d leveled at him during that fight in his apartment, Bucky’s every brutal and graceful blow practically screaming miserable anger. Steve winced. Yeah, he had fucked it up. Maybe it hadn’t been either of their faults, maybe the circumstances hadn’t allowed for anything else, but Steve had brought a damn fight to Bucky’s door, same as always.

Even apart from that, Steve hadn’t had much chance to talk to Bucky before he’d gone back into cryo, and they sure as hell hadn’t had much time to talk during the whole mess with Zemo and then Tony. He’d gotten a couple precious smiles out of Bucky, sure, and the assurance that Bucky remembered enough to know Steve, to know himself. But Bucky had maintained a careful, quiet distance otherwise, and had up until just before he’d gone into cryo.

It’d be different, this time. God, Steve hoped it’d be different, now that he wasn’t bringing Bucky some new fight or disaster. This time, Steve wasn’t bringing anything other than himself. He wasn’t sure if that was better, or worse.

Surely it had to be better than the last time at least. The last time, he’d spent less than a week with Bucky, most of it spent on the run and fighting, and then he just lost Bucky again. First Peggy, and then the Avengers and his shield, and then Bucky, loss on top of loss, and really Steve should have been used to it by then. He wasn’t, though. He’d felt instead like his life was a broken compass needle spinning and spinning and spinning, uncoupled from all its cardinal directions.

He’d wanted to offer Bucky another, better way, anything but cryo, but he hadn’t had another way to offer, could point to no better direction towards safety. The compass needle had just kept wobbling wildly. Maybe that was part of why Bucky had stayed away in the first place, to spare both of them the terrible choices left to them.

Maybe Bucky would still want to stay away. Maybe Bucky wanted to see Steve now to ask him to let Bucky go, or maybe Bucky wanted a clean break from the past, a new start. Steve wouldn’t begrudge him that, so long as he knew Bucky was safe.

No matter what happened, it would be enough to know Bucky was safe and well. If that was all Bucky could give him, it would be enough.

When the guard he was following stopped in front of a doorway in a quiet, seemingly empty wing of the palace, Steve startled, too caught up in his own thoughts.

“The king will see you in the morning, and then you will be taken to your friend,” she said.

“He’s not in the Citadel? Is he somewhere else in the city?” Even if Bucky was asleep, Steve had hoped to at least lay eyes on him.

“No, he is in a village near the border. The king will take you there tomorrow.”

Steve wanted to ask more questions, but he doubted the guard would know all the answers, and he ought to let her get back to her watch, or her own bed, so he mumbled his thanks as he went into the guest room she opened for him.

He didn’t sleep, though he did lie down in the plushly appointed bed to give it a try. He gave it up for impossible after half an hour and five increasingly improbable scenarios about seeing Bucky again, and instead just sat in the room’s window seat to wait for the dawn. The message had said Bucky was well. Steve could handle anything else, so long as Bucky was okay. But what if—what if they’d had to take all of Bucky’s memories to get rid of the trigger words. What if he still needed—or wanted—to go back into cryo. What if they were strangers to each other now, after so long and so many changes.

And forget about all of that, what if the message wasn’t true at all? What if they’d been wrong to place their trust in King T’Challa, and in Wakanda? T’Challa seemed like a good man, honorable and kind, and with Wakanda’s unveiling to the world, he was doing good work. Steve, Sam, and Natasha had received T’Challa’s support while on the run too, in the form of intel and the occasional assist from Wakanda’s War Dogs. But it was desperation more than trust that had driven him and Bucky here, and on sleepless nights, Steve couldn’t help but wonder if they’d made the right choice.

Whenever he asked Natasha, she always said you made the best choice available. Which wasn’t the most reassuring thing to hear, given the available options.

Even before Siberia, even before he’d found Bucky again, Steve had known: there were few, if any, good options for keeping Bucky safe.

After a year of fruitless searching, when the only certainty he’d had was that Bucky was well enough to keep himself off everyone’s radar, friend and foe alike, Steve had worked through all the possibilities and come to the grim conclusion that their two best options were going on the run, or the kind of nice facility Tony had talked about, where Bucky would be assessed and treated and imprisoned in all but name for who knew how long. Steve had prepared for the first, socking money away and setting up a couple of his own safe houses. The second...well, he’d always figured there was a giant sword of Damocles hanging over that option, and now it had finally fallen.

So Natasha wasn’t wrong. Wakanda was the best available option, better than any other Steve had ever imagined. Bucky’d thought so too, had laid it all out for Steve, calm and dispassionate: Wakanda and its people had no ties to HYDRA or even any other governments, they were secure and hidden from the world’s eyes, they could help make him safe. Do you have any other options? Bucky had asked him, and Steve had said, no, and Bucky had slipped away again—not to fall, but to freeze, and to wait.

Steve didn’t want Bucky to keep slipping away before he could even get proper hold of him. He wanted the chance to tell Bucky just what it was he wanted, because Bucky had said he knew, but Steve wasn’t so sure he did.

When Wakanda’s sky blushed vivid with the sunrise, Steve was left with that one raw want that held steady despite all his worry: that with this reunion, he and Bucky could be SteveandBucky again. There was no going back to the kids they’d been in Brooklyn, Steve knew that. But maybe, this time, there would be no Captain America and Winter Soldier between them, nor even Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes. Maybe this time, there would be no looming disaster, no war, no fear. Maybe they could meet again, finally, as just Steve and Bucky, in whatever new form that took in this new century, in this new country.

Maybe he’d finally, finally get his best friend back.

And if Steve had a deeper want than even that, one buried deep and dormant, denied water and air and light—that didn’t matter.

Just when Steve was about to go looking for T’Challa, protocol and manners be damned, a member of the king’s guard—the Dora Milaje, Steve thought they were called, he should probably remember to call them that—came to get him. She took him down to the courtyard, where a royal Talon jet was already waiting, T’Challa and a young woman with elaborately braided hair standing in front of its open bay.

“Captain Rogers, I hope I have not kept you waiting too long,” said T’Challa, the warm smile on his face pretty immediately easing Steve’s wilder worries. He offered his hand for a handshake and Steve took it. Steve didn’t know him too well, but he didn’t think T’Challa would be smiling like that if something were wrong with Bucky.

“Not at all. Thank you for the pick up in Morocco, Your Highness.” Steve smiled and nodded at the gangly and pretty woman at T’Challa’s side.

“My sister, Shuri,” said T’Challa. “She has been overseeing Sergeant Barnes’ treatment.”

She seemed awfully young for that, but Steve held his tongue, and accepted her enthusiastic handshake and beaming smile.

“I am sorry it took so long! But we had that unpleasantness with the usurper, and then setting up the new outreach programs, and working with brains is a delicate business, it took some time to run all the simulations with the algorithms…anyway, come! Bucky is waiting. He’s been trying to play it cool, but he is bad at it, I know he wants to see you.”

Steve followed T’Challa and Shuri into the Talon, heart already beginning to pound fast with excitement and nerves as they all took their seats. When the Talon rose into the air, the motion was unnoticeable except for the changed view from the cockpit, so the swooping and fluttering in Steve’s stomach were pure nerves.

“Is he—how is he? Can you tell me if he’s—”

“He gave me permission to tell you the basics,” said Shuri, and abruptly he could see that young or not, she was a princess and a leader in truth. She sat straight-backed and almost prim, hands folded together neatly, gaze direct. “So: the trigger words have been successfully removed. Because I am a genius, it was painless, and done by the time he woke from cryostasis three weeks ago.”

Relief and dismay made his stomach flop around uncomfortably. “Three weeks?” Steve had been hoping to be here not long after Bucky came out of cryo. Three days had felt too long as it was. But Bucky had been awake for three weeks?

“He spent most of the first week sleeping,” said Shuri. “Cryostasis doesn’t allow for the kind of REM cycles that aid healing and processing, and his brain needed to do that after the removal of the trigger words. We also spent that first week on treatments to encourage healing of the rest of the damage to his brain, and did some clean up work around the site of his prosthesis so that he can have a new one placed easily when he is ready. Then we just had to make sure the trigger words were fully neutralized. Bucky wanted to be totally sure.”

“Oh.” That made sense. And it sounded like Bucky through and through, to keep quiet and wait until he was sure things were okay. Bucky’d done it often enough when they were younger: kept silent about some problem or another—being short on rent thanks to buying Steve’s medicine, or trying to find a better job—until he’d solved it and could present Steve with the solution. “The damage…?”

Shuri leaned forward, her fists clenching as if she wanted to punch something.

“From that barbaric mind wiping machine. Have you blown all of those up? I hope you’ve blown all of those up.” Steve nodded, and she relaxed and continued, “Some of his memories of his time with HYDRA are gone for good, they never had time to enter long term memory before he was wiped, and there are other memories from the war and earlier that are also beyond recovery, at least so far. But! As far as Bucky and I can tell, he has most of his memories back now.”

“So he’s—he’s okay, he’s—”

“We have healed his mind, as much as is possible—” said T’Challa.

“Which is a lot, because as I said, I am really very good—”

“And his body is healing as well—”

“—I am working on a new prosthetic for him, though Bucky says he’s alright without one for now—ha, get it, all right? Because he only has—”

“Shuri.” T’Challa gave his sister a quelling look, which did nothing to dim her grin. Steve grinned back. “But there are hurts of the spirit too, Captain, and it is our hope that some peace will help heal those as well. That is why he is in one of the Border Tribe villages.”

“Okay. Is there anything—what can I do to help?”

“You will have to ask the elders about that. I think you being here will probably be enough, honestly.” Shuri gave him a narrow-eyed look. “Other than that, you have to let him rest more, he tires easily still. Your super soldier serum is great and all, but the brain takes up a lot of energy at the best of times, more so when it’s still healing and reforming connections.”

Steve nodded, still feeling at sea. It was wave after wave of good news, and Steve honestly didn’t know what to do with it. He had to see Bucky.

“Alright. Thank you. I don’t know how I can even begin to—”

T’Challa and Shuri shook their heads in unison.

“None of that,” admonished T’Challa. “What debt there is between us, and between Sergeant Barnes and I, it is already settled. I know too well the regret and shame of not offering help when I could have. I will not—Wakanda will not—do so again.”

T’Challa’s words rang with both sincerity and authority.

“Helping out a couple broken down old soldiers isn’t exactly up there with educational outreach and aid to refugees. We see it out there, all the good you’re doing. If Bucky or I put any of that, any of you, in danger...”

T’Challa just raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “We are in no more danger protecting you two than we already were. Vibranium has always proven tempting to those who would do us harm. Compared to that, protecting Bucky is simple. If you must, consider the sanctuary you find here to be aid given to an ally.”

“Not sure fugitives make for good allies,” said Steve, and Shuri rolled her eyes.

“Dangerous or not, I would do this no matter what,” added Shuri. “Our baba put me in charge of the Wakandan Design Group because he said I ought to use my gifts for something more than making mischief and driving my tutors to despair. So. I am using my gifts.” She lifted her chin, and the look she gave him was both regal and challenging. “No one else could have helped him like this. Anyone else would have hurt him more, it took one look at his scans to see that, and that was…unacceptable to me. I was happy to do this for Bucky, Captain Rogers. Alliances have nothing to do with it.”

“Shuri,” chided T’Challa.

“What? You gave me that broken white boy as my project, do not complain when I am responsible about him,” she said primly, smoothing out her skirt.

“Ah yes, so responsible. The first thing you did when you woke him up was show him those vine videos or whatever they are called.”

“It wasn’t the first thing,” said Shuri with a smile that was somehow simultaneously reassuring and devilish. “I made sure he was warm and well first. And there was a therapeutic purpose to the vines! What could be more different from his time with HYDRA then being woken with a hilarious vine compilation?”

“Uh, what’s a vine compilation?” asked Steve

Shuri got a disgusted look on her face. “What have you been doing since you got defrosted?”

“Shuri!” said T’Challa, his tone of fond exasperation speaking volumes about his relationship with his little sister. Steve laughed, and T’Challa turned back towards him with a pleased smile. “See, it is as I told you right after he went into stasis: he is safe and protected here, if in sometimes unorthodox ways.”

The words, and T’Challa’s obvious sincerity as he said them, were just as much of a comfort as they had been when T’Challa had first said them, just after Bucky went into cryo.

He sat with Bucky as a Wakandan doctor went over the cryostasis procedure with him. She explained things clearly and calmly, about how the stasis would be painless and immediate, how coming out of it would be a careful process, but that he would be unconscious for almost all of it, stasis transitioning to a restful sleep until his body temperature came back up. She asked for Bucky’s consent to do brain scans while he was in stasis, which Bucky gave, and then she asked about the trigger words.

“If we can remove them while you are still in stasis, would you consent to that?”

“Is that something you can do?” asked Bucky.

“Princess Shuri will have to take a look at your file and the scans, but based on my very preliminary assessment, it would certainly be my preference, and I believe it would be possible. If not in stasis, then certainly while you remain unconscious.”

“So he’d just...wake up and they’d be gone.” It sounded like a fairy tale.

The doctor nodded. “I feel that is the option that will most reduce the risks on all fronts. To your safety, to ours. Would that be acceptable to you?”

“Yes. Whatever you need to do,” said Bucky, his voice soft.

The doctor smiled at him. “Very well then. The chamber will be ready in a couple of hours.”

It wasn’t enough time.

“Still not too late to change your mind and come on a prison break with me,” Steve joked weakly. Bucky’s answering smile was thin, and he shook his head.

“Tell me your plan,” he said, and there were other things they should have been talking about, weightier things, but this was easy, so Steve went along with it.

He ran through the plan with Bucky, listened to and incorporated Bucky’s suggestions, and when that was done, they fell into a tense silence, too aware of the swift running of time towards the moment when time would stop for Bucky.

“Don’t try to go it alone,” blurted out Bucky. “I mean—stick with your friends, okay? Don’t—don’t try to be a lone fugitive. Take it from me, it—it’s not fun. You got better options than I did, so don’t throw ‘em away.”


“And apologize to Stark, for god’s sake.”

“He tried to kill you. He blew off your arm.”

“Honestly, he maybe did me a favor there,” said Bucky with a weak grin. “And you know he wasn’t really in his right mind, after seeing that—what I did. Don’t hold it against him, Steve, please.”

“Yeah. Yeah, okay. I’ll, uh, write him a letter or something, okay?”

“And maybe follow up with that nice girl you kissed, though I guess dating might be hard while you’re internationally wanted—”

“Oh jeez, Buck—no, that was—it was just a dumb, heat of the moment thing, and I shouldn’t have—”

Steve winced to remember it. It had been a nice enough kiss, but when Sharon had pulled back, she’d had something of a wry look in her eyes, and for a split second, a dizzying kind of deja vu had overtaken him: kissing another blonde woman, and Peggy’s furious glare in response. Yeah, Steve doubted anything between him and Sharon would go anywhere. Bucky rolled his eyes.

“Fine, suit yourself. Oh, and you’re not allowed to mope around my freezer, Rogers. That’s just weird and useless.”

Steve was definitely going to mope around Bucky’s freezer, at least a little, but he nodded anyway. “Any more orders?” he asked Bucky.

Now Bucky smiled, equal parts sweetness and sorrow, but still deep enough to make his eyes crinkle up. Steve’s heart banged against his ribs like a prisoner rattling a cage.

“Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” Bucky said.

Fuck, if Steve started crying now, he wasn’t going to stop. And he’d be damned if the last Bucky saw of him before going into cryo was him crying. He had to be strong for Bucky.

“You’re taking all of the stupid with you, you jerk.”

That should have been when Steve pulled Bucky into a hug, but when he made an abortive twitch towards Bucky, just the first intention of movement and touch, he saw Bucky flinch minutely, heard the hitching intake of his breath, and he stopped. Bucky squeezed his eyes shut. Steve thought maybe his lips trembled a tiny bit before Bucky’s expression smoothed out again. The moment hung in the air like the sting after the crack of a whip.

Well. That was alright. Bucky was injured, and had been so badly hurt, and it had been so long since they could pull each other into easy, loose hugs. And anyway, if he held Bucky now, Steve didn’t think he’d be able to let him go. Maybe Bucky knew that too.

So Steve hung back while the medical staff checked this and that, and he hung back as the cryochamber hissed open, and he hung back while Bucky smiled up at him, a small, pained thing barely deserving of the word, and told him that this was what was safest, for everyone.

The moment the chamber closed, Steve regretted the distance. He should have given Bucky one last memory of warmth before the ice.

When it was done, when Bucky was in cryo, Steve found himself unable to leave. He lingered in the room, but he couldn’t stand to look at Bucky himself. His chest wasn’t rising and falling in the cryostasis tube, and Steve couldn’t—he couldn’t—it was impossible to look at that and not panic. He couldn’t think of Bucky not breathing, and not panic. So Steve didn’t look. Then when he made it outside, T’Challa was waiting for him, assuring him that Wakanda would protect Bucky, and still, Steve couldn’t quite leave.

“There is a jet ready to take you to the prison your friends are held in, Captain Rogers,” said T’Challa.

“Right. Thank you. I’ll—just another couple minutes.”

“Of course,” murmured T’Challa.

He had to go get Sam and the others. He had to get back in touch with Natasha. He had to—how the hell could he leave Bucky here, vulnerable and in the hands of near-strangers. How could he leave Bucky at all.

He put his hand over his eyes and breathed in and out, too fast and too shaky by far. Even with his eyes covered, he could feel the weight of T’Challa’s eyes on him. Get it together, Rogers.

“The readings are all normal. Everything is going just as it should, just as we expected. He is in stasis, but he is fine, he will be fine,” said T’Challa, low and soothing.

“Okay. Uh, thank you. I just—I’m not sure I can leave him,” said Steve, almost apologetically, glancing at T’Challa.

“He said you’d be like this,” said T’Challa with a kind smile. He pulled something from his pocket, a piece of paper, and handed it to Steve.

It was a note, in Bucky’s handwriting, his neat and blocky draftsman hand: I TOLD YOU NOT TO MOPE, ROGERS. Steve laughed, then cried, just a little, before he got himself under control again. T’Challa rested a hand on his shoulder.

“I know it is hard, to leave your heart somewhere so far from you. But I swear on my father’s memory, he is safe and protected here.”

He ought to have objected, ought to have told T’Challa, ‘I’m not leaving my heart here, Bucky’s just my friend—’ but any such denial tasted as sour and bitter as bile in his mouth, a lie Bucky didn’t deserve and that Steve couldn’t let pass his lips. Bucky wasn’t ‘just’ anything. The word friend wasn’t big enough to hold what Bucky was to him. It was just the only word Steve had.

Maybe T’Challa had it right. Steve was leaving what was left of his heart here, he was, and it was a comfort that T’Challa understood that. Steve clutched the note and nodded at T’Challa, not yet trusting his voice.

“We will set you up with a secure communication link, so you can check in with us about his status. And we will contact you immediately as soon as Sergeant Barnes has been healed, or if anything should go wrong.”

Steve got the distinct feeling he was being managed, and he wanted to bristle at it, but T’Challa really was being very kind, and Steve’s gut was telling him he could trust him. His gut hadn’t steered him wrong with the Howlies, or the Avengers, or Sam. He’d have to trust it again.

When the Talon touched down in a field beside a lovely lake, Steve’s nerves got the better of him.

“Should I have brought him a present? Oh god, I should have brought him a present.”

Shuri blinked at him. “What.”

“Is he—does he need anything, or—he’s got a sweet tooth you know, I should have brought him some chocolate—”

“I think your presence will be gift enough, Captain Rogers,” said T’Challa kindly as he shepherded Steve out of the Talon and towards the small round houses over by the lake, still yards away.

Fuck, why couldn’t they have landed closer? Steve’s eyes were already scouring the round houses and the lake and the village commons, looking for Bucky. Even this early in the morning, the sun pounded down bright and hot, so maybe Bucky was inside, out of the heat. Maybe he was still asleep. Steve’s heart was beating so hard he felt like it was making a good effort to throw itself free of his rib cage and go looking for Bucky itself.

“And he knows I’m coming, right, he asked for me—”

“Oh merciful Bast. You have even less chill than he does,” said Shuri with wonder.

Steve was about to retort with a smart ass comment about having been frozen for the better part of a century, which had to count as chill, only to have all words fly right out of his head the moment he saw Bucky coming out of one of the houses. It still gave him a brief jolt of alarm to see Bucky’s familiar form lacking his left arm, but Steve spared a couple seconds to note that, arm or no arm, Bucky walked with his usual easy grace.

It was more than the lack of an arm that rendered Bucky’s silhouette newly unfamiliar: he was wearing Wakandan clothes, a long tunic and some sort of scarf over his shoulders, and his hair was still long, almost to his shoulders now. Steve took in every detail, with the same desperate relief as a first breath of air after a long dive. Bucky looked in Steve’s direction, his hand up to shade his eyes from the bright morning sun, maybe making his own fast appraisal of Steve and the changes six-odd months had wrought in him. The second he spotted Bucky’s growing smile, he started running.

Back when they were kids—before the scarlet fever had made Steve’s heart too unsteady, before they’d shed the unselfconscious innocence of childhood—Steve used to always run down the three city blocks that separated their tenements to see Bucky, heedless of the way it had made his lungs heave, and Bucky, chubby-cheeked and laughing, had run to meet him too.

That had been the first summer of their friendship, charmed and golden, sweeter by far than every piece of candy they’d scrounged pennies to buy. Steve had been so scared then, that Bucky would tire of him, that he’d ignore Steve in favor of his other friends, that he’d turn cruel or thoughtless like all the other kids inevitably had. But Bucky hadn’t. He’d run to meet Steve just about every day that summer, and in the odd logic of children, somehow that had convinced Steve that Bucky really was his best friend. Maybe Bucky remembered that now, because here was Bucky, running to meet him again.

They crashed together ungently and ungracefully, both of them wobbling perilously before they steadied, but it didn’t matter, because for the first time in years or decades, Steve had an unhurt and conscious Bucky in his arms again. It wasn’t so much a hug as it was a concerted effort to meld their bodies together, as if both of them were trying to fill each other’s empty spaces, to overlap and become some newer, better whole. Bucky’s face was shoved in against Steve’s neck, and Steve had a noseful of Bucky’s hair, which smelled really nice, woodsy and sweet, and they both just—held on like that.

“Hey Steve,” mumbled Bucky, and made no movement to let Steve go.

Steve held him tighter. “Hi Buck.”

He couldn’t tell if it was Bucky’s heart pounding so hard, or his, but he could hear and feel that they were both breathing hard and shakily. They still didn’t let go. This was the way Steve should have greeted Bucky at every reunion they’ve ever had. Every reason he hadn’t seemed frankly stupid, now. It should have been like this, every time. So that Bucky knew: he was wanted. He was missed.

“I missed you,” said Steve. “Shoulda said it before. I missed you so goddamn much.”

“Sorry,” said Bucky, voice thick with tears. “Sorry sorry sorry sorry.”

“God, what for, shut up.”

Bucky laughed a little into the skin of Steve’s neck, and the feeling sent a melting thrill down Steve’s spine. “You know what for. I missed you too. Don’t—don’t think I didn’t. That I don’t.”

“I know.”

Maybe this was when they should have let go, but Steve didn’t, and Bucky didn’t. They just breathed together, slower and deeper now, in sync. When Bucky finally loosened his grip, he did so only after one last rough squeeze, and a sigh, deep and pleased. Steve let him go, but not far. One look at Bucky’s face, and Steve’s knees just about went weak, because Bucky was smiling, wide and bright, his eyes sparkling with both joy and tears. Steve smiled back, so widely that he was using muscles that he was pretty sure had atrophied from disuse. Maybe they’d start getting a proper workout again. Maybe his face would just stick this way. That could be okay.

Bucky brought his hand up to Steve’s bearded cheek, and Steve leaned into his warm, broad palm.

“You look like those old photos of your dad with this,” Bucky said, and something in Steve that had been long closed up tight, broke open—not with violence, but gently, like a bud shut tight against the cold night blooming open with the first touches of sunlight. Bucky was the only person alive who’d know that, who’d see the resemblance. Bucky was the only person who’d know why it mattered.

“Yeah?” asked Steve in an unsteady voice. “You look like Jesus, straight outta some Renaissance painting.”

Bucky threw his head back and laughed, and that—that was not at all Christ-like. No painting had ever captured a joy like that. Steve, helpless, brushed Bucky’s hair back, and just—looked. Stared, really. Bucky looked different. The long hair, sure, and the beard, but even apart from that. Even during the war, there had still been some baby fat on Bucky’s face, the lingering remnants of boyhood, but all that was gone now. Age and hardship had honed Bucky’s handsome face into a new, startling beauty, and Steve hadn’t been there for the transition, hadn’t been there to see the new lines settle there, hadn’t seen when this quiet ache had made its home in Bucky’s eyes for good.

Steve had seen every other change on Bucky’s face from childhood to adulthood, had committed them to paper with graphite and charcoal, and on a couple rare occasions, with paint, with varying levels of skill. Bucky as a smiling, apple-cheeked boy, Bucky as a gangly adolescent, Bucky as a pomaded and neatly pressed young man who’d turned every head in a dancehall. Even Bucky as a lean and watchful sergeant. But Steve had missed this, the months and years that had given him this Bucky. He hadn’t been there to see how this Bucky came to be. In this moment, the years they’d been robbed of pressed down on him, a weight heavy enough to nearly drive him to his knees.

“What’s that look for, Steve?” asked Bucky, his hand falling from Steve’s cheek, brow furrowing. Steve didn’t let him step away, put a covetous hand on Bucky’s hip to keep him close.

“Nothing. Sorry. Just—feel like we’re two old men all of a sudden. When did that happen?” said Steve, trying for a joking tone and missing by miles.

Bucky just smiled, crooked and sweet. “When we made it to the 21st century, I’d guess. What, you complaining? I’m sure as hell not.”

“Why not?”

“You’re alive. Made it past 30, old man. Was a time everyone was telling me you wouldn’t. So.” Bucky shrugged, then tilted his head to study Steve, who was putting all his effort into not bursting into messy tears. A miracle on top of a terrible miracle, to have both Bucky back, and Bucky’s pragmatic joy. “We’re alright, Steve,” Bucky said, softly.

Steve rested his forehead against Bucky’s, and willed himself to believe it.


“Well, more or less,” said Bucky, those new lines of pain around his mouth showing themselves.

He pressed a soft kiss to Steve’s forehead, an achingly gentle version of the rough affection he’d shown Steve so many times when Steve was laid up in various sickbeds, and there it was. The heavy bags dropping from Steve’s shoulders, the creak of the door and the sound of Bucky humming along to something or other on the radio, the smell of Bucky’s pomade and one of his throw-everything-in-the-pot stews. Home home home, transformed now here under the joyous, burning sun of Wakanda to be this version of this man. Steve could’ve gone to his knees and kissed the ground in abject gratitude.

“C’mon, let’s get out of this sun, you’ll burn something awful.”

Steve blinked and realized that yeah, the hot sun was already warming the back of his bare neck, and sweat prickled at his hairline. “Yeah, of course. Uh, let me just—” he gestured vaguely back at the royal Talon.

In his haste to greet Bucky, he’d left his pack in the jet, and when he turned back now, he saw T’Challa and Shuri standing by the jet, a few other Wakandans and Dora Milaje gathered around them. Shuri grinned broadly at them, giving them, or maybe just Bucky, two very enthusiastic thumbs up. Bucky snorted.

“See, what did I tell you?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Bucky told her once they reached her, with the same indulgent fondness he used to save for his little sisters. They spoke quietly to each other, so quiet Steve couldn’t make out their words as he ducked inside the jet to grab his pack, but by the time he came out again, they were speaking in normal tones.

“Now I can’t call you grumpy cat any more! Look at that happy face,” she said, and pinched Bucky’s cheeks, which were indeed still creased with a smile.

“Shuri, knock it off!” said Bucky, grinning even wider, and batted lightly at her hands as she cackled and dodged.

Steve didn’t know what he’d expected, but this wasn’t quite it. He glanced at T’Challa and the other Wakandans to gauge their reactions. Judging by their amused smiles, and the Dora Milaje’s still relaxed stances, no one was mortally offended or surprised by Shuri and Bucky acting so familiar with each other. Maybe this was just Shuri’s way with people. It was certainly the furthest thing from HYDRA imaginable.

“I’m not just here to bring you your bestie, Bucky,” said Shuri, and tipped her head towards the cluster of houses by the lake. “Check up?”

“Sure,” said Bucky, then looked at Steve. “Uh, you can come with, if you…?”

“Yeah, of course, but only if you want…”

Bucky’s smile turned smaller now, but no less genuine. “It’s fine,” he said, and led Steve to the house by the lake.

The little round house had a low doorway, and only a reed curtain in place of a door, but it was spacious enough on the inside. On first glance, it all seemed cozy and traditional. But as he followed Shuri and Bucky through the doorway, he saw a faint sheen of glowing blue and felt a tingle pass over his skin. A door that was more forcefield than door, then. A closer look at the interior of the house revealed what Steve was beginning to recognize as Wakanda’s characteristic melding of the ancient and the futuristic: handcrafted furniture and textiles right beside sleek wireless lights and appliances. The neat stacks of books scattered all around the living area were pure Bucky though. He wondered if Shuri or T’Challa had provided the books. Maybe there was a library nearby.

Shuri’s Dora Milaje guard stationed themselves at the doorway as Shuri and Bucky sat on the one low-slung couch in the room, and Steve stayed standing, hovering awkwardly. This seemed like a familiar routine to Bucky and Shuri: Bucky pulled a necklace out from under his tunic, one with three dark beads strung on it, and Shuri touched her similarly beaded bracelet to the center bead. Both of them took on a glow. That wasn’t just jewelry. Steve peered more closely at the necklace. With what seemed like nothing more than a few twitches and twists of her fingers, Shuri pulled up a holographic display above her wrist.

“Kimoyo beads,” she explained to Steve. “Traditionally we wear them on a bracelet on the wrist, but obviously that presents some accessibility difficulties for Bucky, so I put his on a necklace for him. I’m starting him off slow on account of how he’s so old, so he’s just got the prime, comm, and translator beads for now.”

“Prime bead?” asked Steve.

“First one all Wakandans get, starting when they’re babies,” said Bucky. “Health monitoring, emergency beacon, all that.”

Steve couldn’t decipher the hologram hanging in the air, but Shuri obviously could, and flicked from display to display with such speed Steve wondered how she was reading any of the data at all.

“Is there…what is there to monitor? I mean, you said Bucky’s okay—”

Shuri gave him a reassuring, if distracted, smile, before returning her attention to the holograms. “He is! But I have poked around in his brains a fair bit, fixing HYDRA’s evil, and it wouldn’t do to be careless about that. The prime bead monitors Bucky’s vitals for any signs of seizures or aneurysms, anything like that. I’m also keeping an eye on his sleep cycles…” Shuri peered at the hologram, now showing a chart of some kind. “…Which are just as they should be.”

“Don’t make that face, Steve, I’m fine, it’s all just precautionary,” Bucky said to Steve, then he turned to Shuri. “And really? You sure? Because I’m still sleeping way too much.”

“You’re sleeping as much as you need to. I told you, it’s good for you!” She expanded a hologram, a shining and glittering representation of a brain, full of bright webbed lights. “Look at all these neurons and synapses, connected up to each other again!”

Bucky sighed. “Yeah, okay.”

With one twist of the bead, the hologram disappeared. “All your vitals are fine, though maybe you should drink some more water. And one more thing—” said Shuri, then launched into a string of horribly familiar Russian words.

Steve tensed up, and the Dora Milaje stepped closer, but Shuri rattled the words off in a breezy tone, and Bucky just closed his eyes and held his breath until she was done.

“Ready to comply?” asked Shuri.

Bucky let out a long, controlled breath, and opened his eyes. There was no hint of the Winter Soldier’s blankness there. “Nope.”

“Excellent. I’ll be back next week for your next check up.”

“Thank you, Shuri. You sticking around for a bit?” Bucky asked.

“T’Challa and I are speaking to the elders here, yes. I doubt they’ll let us leave without a meal. You two have fun catching up though!” she said, already on her way out the door.

Her absence left an awkward silence, before he and Bucky both tried to fill it at once.

“How long can you stay?”

“Is it alright if I stay with—” They both laughed. “Two weeks, if you’ll have me.”

“Of course I’ll have you. I told you. I—I missed you. Hope you won’t get bored though,” said Bucky with an apologetic grimace. “I really have been sleeping a lot. And there’s not a ton to do out here on the border.”

“You’re here. It’s enough.”

Bucky shook his head, as if to himself, then smiled up at Steve. “Alright. C’mon. Let me show you around.”

There wasn’t much else to see in Bucky’s little house: just a bedroom and bathroom, plus a small kitchenette that was part of main seating area. The bedroom took up what must have been a quarter of the round house, and its curved exterior wall was more window than wall, looking out onto a serene view of the lake and trees outside.

“You’re in the house next door. Mandisa’s visiting her grandkids, so—”

“I could stay with you. I mean, if that’s okay. I’d like to. Um.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “What, you wanna sleep on the couch cushions, like when we were kids? I’ve only got the one bed.”

“Sure. Or—we used to double up? I just—I’d like to stay with you.”

Steve winced as soon as he said it. He was pushing too much, probably, Bucky deserved to have space, if he wanted it. It was just that Steve wanted to hoard every moment of Bucky’s presence, after so unbearably long without it. Bucky tilted his head and studied Steve, his eyes thoughtful, but his mouth curved up into a smile.

“Yeah. Yeah, okay. I’d, uh, like that too.”

They ended up back on the couch, with mugs of some sweet and spicy tea Bucky had made, and Steve settled in to catch Bucky up on the last six months. There was more than that to catch up on, there was years worth of life and distance, but for now, they stuck to the last six months, starting with busting Sam and Wanda and the others from the Raft.

At first it was hard to get the words out, to make it sound like something other than a debriefing, and Steve had the unsettling realization that he couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d just talked to someone about himself, about his life. Sam and Nat were living this life with him, so there wasn’t much call to talk about it with them, not like this anyway. Even when they did catch each other up, Steve tended to keep the conversation focused on practicalities like what safe house was still secure and how this or that mission had gone. None of that was especially relevant to Bucky right now.

It wasn’t as if Steve had forgotten how to have a normal conversation though, right? He didn’t only talk about work and being a fugitive Avenger, he and Sam and Natasha shot the shit plenty: to pass the time, to keep from going crazy, to cheer each other up. He could do the same with Bucky, surely. And yet, here he was, telling Bucky about last month’s successful destruction of an old HYDRA lab.

“Far as I can tell, this really isn’t sounding all that different from your actual job as an Avenger,” said Bucky, sounding somewhat bemused. “Only now you’re not getting paid for it and might be arrested on top of that.”

“Uh, yeah, pretty much. HYDRA’s still out there though.”

Bucky looked away, frowning. “Yeah. I know.”

“Um. We spent a couple weeks in Mongolia.”

“A vacation?” asked Bucky, in tone so dry Steve honestly wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.

“No. Uh, no, there was a lead on some guy Natasha knew from the Red Room…”

So okay, Steve was definitely out of practice at the seemingly simple task of just telling someone about his day, much less about how he’d spent the past few months of his life. Bucky noticed, judging by the furrow on his brow, and Steve faltered. Jesus Christ, why did he keep giving Bucky mission reports? Why the fuck couldn’t he just stop and talk to Bucky about anything else? Maybe they could just go back to hugging. Steve hadn’t fucked that up.

“Steve. Is something wrong?”

“I—no. I just—I gotta be boring you. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”

The line on Bucky’s forehead deepened, and he shook his head. “You’re not boring me. But alright. Not much to say about when I first came out of cryo. I was pretty out of it. Then I woke up here, and it was...confusing, but, uh, good. I felt...nothing hurt.” Bucky shrugged. “Since then, I’ve just been...recovering some more, I guess, helping out around the village. Reading. Shuri said I had a lot to learn, and she wasn’t wrong. Though I think maybe we’ve got different ideas about what’s worth learning. She sends me a ton of, I dunno, funny videos and things. Internet stuff.”

“What, you don’t like funny cat videos?”

“Oh, I like funny cat videos just fine,” said Bucky with a grin. “But I think I’ve got more to catch up on than just that, especially here. What’s your favorite future thing? Don’t tell me it’s funny cat videos, you hated that stray that hung out on our fire escape.”

“I didn’t hate that stray! It’s just that whenever I put something out to dry out there, he’d get his fur all over it—”

“Yeah, yeah, now c’mon, favorite future thing, tell me.”

It was one of the most common things people asked him, to the point that Steve had a lot of answers prepared, each different depending on who was asking. Captain America’s answers tended to be different from Steve Rogers’. Most of the time, Steve gave the answer that would lead to the least amount of additional questioning: vaccines or expanded civil rights or the eradication of polio. But this was Bucky asking, and Steve could tell him the somewhat embarrassing truth.

“Using the internet to have food delivered,” he admitted.

With how much he had to eat, it was a chore keeping himself fed, and he was far from the world’s best cook. He’d stuck to takeout for a while, but all too often, it had led to a lot of awkward is that Captain America? moments, followed by the signing of menus and taking of photos. Then he’d discovered the wonders of online ordering, and how he could pretty much have any and all the cuisines of the world delivered right to his door, at nearly any time. Delivery people rarely ever bothered to look at his face as they handed the food over, and so Steve got to try Thai food and Ethiopian and pizzas will all sorts of toppings in the privacy of his home, in amounts that would have made the average diner boggle.

Bucky, of course, got it. “Oh, your shitty cooking,” said Bucky in a downright nostalgic tone. “Delivery’s better than automats or having people stare at you, huh?”

Steve didn’t bother to defend his shitty cooking. “Yeah, pretty much. And getting to try all those new foods.”

They traded best future things back and forth for a while, before they were interrupted by some curious visitors.

“Incguka, who’s that?”

A small group of children clustered around the door, poking their heads in. To Steve’s admittedly unpracticed eye, they all seemed to be some indeterminate age, less than ten but older than five, some with their faces painted.

“That’s my friend Steve,” said Bucky, tolerant and amused.

The kids chattered among themselves in Xhosa.

Steve ventured a wave and said, “Hi.” The children gave a staggered chorus of hellos back.

“Did you want to come in?” asked Bucky, and they rushed through the door to peer more closely at Steve. None of them seemed to recognize him as Captain America, but then, why would they.

A torrent of questions spilled out of the kids, only most of it in careful English, and he and Bucky did their best to answer, until someone came to fetch the kids. A woman with thick twists of salt-and-pepper colored hair poked her head into the house.

“You have lessons, children! Stop bothering your White Wolf, come along!”

“Aww, it’s okay, this is educational too, kind of,” said Bucky.

“Don’t encourage them,” said the woman, but she was smiling. “Come on, out, let Ingcuka talk to his friend!”

The children ran out, calling out polite goodbyes like it was nice to meet you and thank you on their way out. Bucky watched them go with a smile. He’d always been good with kids. All that practice with his little sisters and cousins. That felt like a different lifetime now, but Bucky clearly still had the knack.

“White Wolf? Why do they call you that?”

Bucky looked faintly embarrassed. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to accept that it’s just a codename,” tried Bucky.

“No,” said Steve, sensing a story, and Bucky sighed.

“There’s this Wakandan cartoon for kids, where all the characters are animals. Mostly African animals, you know, elephants, rhinos, lions, that kind of thing. It’s meant to be educational, teach the kids about the animals, respecting nature, sharing, that kind of thing.”

“Uh huh....”

“Well, sometimes, the cartoon has animals from far away show up…”

“Like a wolf.”

“Yeah, like a wolf. And everyone learns about a new kind of animal and a new place, and valuable lessons about friendship are learned, blah blah blah. When they explained to the kids about a new, different kind of person coming to the village, they said, ‘just like White Wolf sometimes stays with the Pride’ and so…” Bucky shrugged, grinned ruefully. “I’m White Wolf now.”

“That’s adorable,” said Steve.

Bucky groaned, covered his face with his hand. “If anyone asks, it’s a codename, Steve. It pretty much is, most people here call me that instead of Bucky anyway, for security reasons.”

“Uh huh. But it’s a codename from an adorable kids’ cartoon,” said Steve, delighted, and gave into his laughter. “You gotta show me the cartoon, c’mon Buck, please.”

“I know there’s a Captain America cartoon,” grumbled Bucky, getting up to get a tablet. “And it’s way more embarrassing than this, I just wanna remind you.”

He pulled up the cartoon for Steve and heaved a put-upon sigh. Steve didn’t understand what the bright cartoon characters were saying, since it wasn’t English. It was visually arresting enough to be interesting anyway: the animation style was unlike anything else he’d seen, and he couldn’t tell if it was hand-drawn or digitally rendered. More important though was how damn cute the White Wolf character was.

“This is the best thing I have ever seen,” declared Steve.

“If you tell any of your friends about this, I will tell them about that time you and Becca managed to injure yourselves trying to learn how to dance.”

Steve winced. Yeah, no, Natasha could not find out about that. “Fine,” he said, but he wondered if the Wakandans had any White Wolf-related merchandise.

They talked for what must have been hours, about shared memories, about their new friends and experiences, until Shuri came back to summon them for lunch, which turned out to be a communal, picnic-like affair in the center of the small village. Steve suffered a brief paroxysm of anxiety at the realization that he was dining with royalty in a country whose customs he didn’t know. With his luck, he’d commit some faux pas, horribly offending the Wakandans and mortally embarrassing Bucky.

He needn’t have worried: the village adults were pretty engrossed in conversation with T’Challa and Shuri, and assorted village children swiftly piled Steve’s plate high with food. Bucky nudged him with his knee and lifted an eyebrow, a silent command that said follow my lead. So Steve duly ate just the way Bucky ate, and answered the children’s many, many questions as best he could. Which wasn’t very well, judging by the suppressed hilarity that sparkled in Bucky’s eyes, but he apparently did well enough for the adult villagers to not immediately drive him from the village.

Maybe it was the company, or the hot golden light of the sun, or maybe it was just the food, some spicy stew with greens and spongy bread, but Steve thought that lunch was possibly the best meal he’d had in the 21st century. He felt, oddly, like he’d been hungry for a long, long time, and only now was he finally full again. Even the water tasted better. Maybe it was all the vibranium in the soil.

Once the meal was cleared away, T’Challa and Shuri left, and the day turned quiet, and syrupy slow with the sun’s clinging heat. Steve and Bucky retreated to the welcome cool of Bucky’s small house.

Bucky yawned and rubbed at his eyes. “Think I need a nap. Sorry.”

“Hey, no, of course. Princess Shuri told me I had to let you rest still,” said Steve, and awkwardly followed Bucky to his bedroom, just in case—hell, he didn’t even know. “Uh, I could use a nap too. Jet lag.”

“Okay,” said Bucky. Sleepy as he was, he still lowered himself onto the low-slung bed with grace, and Steve stumbled after him to kneel then sit on the bed. “Take off your shoes, Rogers, gonna get the bed all dirty,” he mumbled, and then he was asleep, with somewhat worrying rapidity.

Bucky used to be a restless, light sleeper. That wasn’t in evidence now, with Bucky already breathing deep and slow, his face soft and slack. But Shuri had said his sleep was fine, and necessary. Steve tried to sleep too, because he really was kind of jet lagged and he hadn’t slept last night besides, so he duly closed his eyes and tried to match the peaceful pace of Bucky’s breath. It was relaxing, but sleep didn’t come.

He fished his phone out of his pocket—carefully, so as not to wake Bucky—and texted Sam and Nat: he’s fine, doing well. I’m gonna be here for two weeks, will meet you at rendezvous. He checked on Bucky to make sure the motion hadn’t woken him, and smiled to see the ease on his face, the rise and fall of his chest. Steve just watched for a while, soothed by the return of this once-familiar sight and sound. It had been a long time since he’d sketched anything beyond the odd doodle in the margins of reports or newspapers, but the urge was rising in him now to capture this quiet, perfect moment, to learn the changed contours of Bucky’s face with each line and stroke of a pencil. He had no paper though, so instead he committed the sight to memory, and hoped it would warm the memory of seeing Bucky in cryo.

Steve must have drifted off into a doze eventually, because he startled awake when he heard and felt Bucky shift in the bed beside him.

“Sorry,” murmured Bucky. “But you probably oughta get up if you want to get any sleep tonight.”

“What time is it?”

“About five.” Bucky got up, and smoothed his bed-rumpled hair and clothes. For a moment, Steve wanted to draw him back down to the bed, just to keep him close. “C’mon, you up for a walk? Sunset over the lake’s so pretty you’ll wish you had a canvas.”

They didn’t head for the lake right away. Bucky showed him around the small village first, and told him what he knew about the other villagers.

“About half of them are retired War Dogs, from Wakanda’s intelligence service. The other half are working folks who want to raise their kids outside the city, in the country.”

“They’re, uh, alright with you being here?”

Bucky shrugged. “Seems like. Shuri told them I’m, um, a POW and refugee recovering here at the king’s invitation. I figure the old War Dogs know what’s up, but everyone’s been kind. Mostly I’ve just talked to the elders and the kids so far.”

“You managing okay without your…” Steve gestured vaguely at Bucky’s left side.

“Robot arm?” finished Bucky with a small grin. “Yeah, Steve. Gets annoying sometimes, but it’s fine. Hurts less, anyway.”

“The old arm hurt?”

“Yeah, told you, Stark might’ve done me a favor with that. The weight of that thing hurt. Shuri says she’s working on a new one that’ll be lighter. I’m fine without for now. The villagers and kids help out with anything I really need both hands for.”

Steve nodded, and wondered what else he didn’t know about just what Bucky had endured since getting free of HYDRA. Would Bucky have said anything, if Steve had found him before all this?

“So you’re okay here? Because if you’re not, we can leave, you can come with me and Sam and Nat—”

Bucky looked at him, squinting in the still-bright light of the setting sun. “Was that always the plan?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you found me. Without a SWAT team surrounding us, I mean.”

“I—sort of. Tony—he said there was a facility upstate, that you could…get help there while we got everything sorted out.”

“You believed that?” asked Bucky, voice mild, expression calm.

“It seemed like—the best option. Apart from going on the run. So. Maybe it’s all worked out better this way.”

“Maybe,” said Bucky quietly. “And yeah, I’m okay here. It feels…safe, I guess. And I don’t feel like a weapon here. No one really knows who I was, what I was, so it’s…easier. To be…whoever the fuck I am now.”

Steve hadn’t even thought of that, but he should have. If it had been hard for Steve, waking up in the future to the knowledge that he’d become more flat, patriotic symbol than man, how much harder was it for Bucky, who’d become both a symbol and a ghost story, with incomplete memories?

“Do I make it harder? Buck, you don’t have to be that guy from the 30s, I swear.”

“You don’t make it harder. Or—not in a bad way.” Bucky touched his shoulder, too briefly. “Hey, let’s go down to the lake. It’s gorgeous there this time of day. All times of day, really, but the sunsets are really something here.”

The lake really was beautiful, and serene even with all the living sounds of bird calls and croaking frogs, and the steady natural music of swaying plants and lapping water. The setting sun turned the water into a sea of sparkling, glowing jewels with a flame-colored tint, like it was a shattered mirror to the sun in the sky. A cool breeze blew off the water, damp and verdant with the smell of river plants and mud, welcome after the heat of the day.

Steve idly wondered if oils or watercolors would capture the scene better. Bucky had been right; he itched for a canvas to capture the fleeting sunset beauty. He took a quick photo with his phone instead. Then he looked at Bucky and took a photo of him too, of his solemn but peaceful profile, gilded and warmed by the sun. Bucky rolled his eyes when he noticed, but he smiled too, and Steve took another photo to capture it. It turned out a bit blurry, and full of lens flare from the setting sun. Steve didn’t care: the photo was still perfect.

They watched the sun set in silence, standing close enough together that Steve could feel the warmth of Bucky’s body. It was nice, it was easy and peaceful, but the silence stoked and stirred up the ashes of all the things Steve shouldn’t have left unsaid, before.

“I’m sorry,” he told Bucky.

“What the hell for?”

“For not having any good options for you, for us. For always bringing you a fight. I don’t know—I don’t know what happens from here, Buck,” he admitted.

The Accords were still in effect, and as long as General Ross was involved with them, they were unlikely to become any more just or acceptable. Steve was still an international fugitive, and would be for the foreseeable future. He could live with that, but Bucky deserved better. Bucky deserved peace and healing, and there was little of that to be found on the run.

Bucky leaned against him, as if he’d have thrown his left arm around Steve’s shoulder, if he’d still had it.

“What happens next is: we spend a couple weeks together. Call it a vacation. We’ve never had one of those before, right?”

Steve shook his head, and put his own arm around Bucky’s shoulders, tucking him in close so their hips touched too. No, they hadn’t ever gone on a vacation before. One ill-advised day trip to Atlantic City didn’t count, and neither did leave when they were on the Front.

“Yeah, alright. A vacation. And after that?”

Bucky turned towards him with a raised eyebrow. “I’ll still be here. Got shit to work out still. You do what you gotta do.”

And what is it that I gotta do? Steve wanted to ask. But it wasn’t fair to ask Bucky that. Steve was doing what was necessary. Accords or no Accords, Avengers or no Avengers, there was still work to be done, people to protect, weapons to destroy.

Steve tried for a smile. “Sam’s been calling us the Secret Avengers. So I guess I’ll be secret avenging.”

“What a shitty name. You’re not secret, you’re on the run. Tell Wilson he’s not allowed to name anything.”

“Yeah, well what would you call us?”

“I don’t know, the Renegade Avengers? That sounds a lot cooler.”

“Sounds like something outta one of your old pulps,” Steve said, and was rewarded with a bright grin from Bucky.


“Guess I’ll have to come up with a new superhero name too then.”

“And a new costume,” said Bucky, nudging him before slipping free of Steve’s arm to start walking back towards the village. Steve missed his warmth already. The breeze off the lake made him shiver. “C’mon, we should get back before it gets too dark. It’d be embarrassing as hell if we got lost out here.”

“I can come back,” blurted out Steve.


“After I leave. I can—I can come back. Visit again. I want to. If it’s okay with you.”

“Course it’s okay with me. Steve, come on. You didn’t think it was goodbye forever after two weeks, did you? And it’s 20-goddamn-16. Cell phones exist.” Bucky pulled out his kimoyo beads and waggled one of them at Steve. “Shuri tells me this thing can be set up for secure connections to you.”

“Oh. Right. Yeah, no, of course. We can—call each other.”

Steve was an idiot, of course he could call Bucky. Bucky would be out of cryo and Steve would know where he was, and they could just—talk. Whenever. No waiting for letters, no staring into the dark at night wondering how Bucky was doing, if he was okay. No waiting for status updates from doctors, no wishing he could just look at Bucky, reassuring himself of his continued presence in the world. For the first time in a while, Steve was struck anew by the wonderful strangeness of the 21st century: no matter how far away Bucky was, Steve could still talk to him. His heart hadn’t quite caught up to that reality.

Bucky watched him have that realization with a wondering, crooked grin. “Jesus, you’re still a dramatic asshole, huh? Everything’s gotta be all or nothing. Yeah, we can call each other. Can’t promise I’ll always have anything interesting to say, but—I’d like it if you called.”

He ducked his head down, tucking a stray piece of his hair back behind his ear, and Steve smiled, wishing he’d taken a photo of that too. Which reminded him—

“I can Skype too. That way we could, you know, see each other? Video calls.”

“There you go then. It’ll be like you never even left.”

Though each day stretched out long and sweet, an expanse of minutes and hours simultaneously as present and unreachable as the horizon, the two weeks taken together somehow passed too quickly. Steve spent the whole time never further than a few yards from Bucky, nearly always with him in sight, or in arm’s reach. Bucky didn’t seem to mind Steve’s clinginess, and even matched it, especially at night, when he curled up close to Steve, often ending up with his hand clenched tight in Steve’s shirt, or loosely gripping Steve’s hip, as if to keep Steve there.

Steve would have been happy to stay, even though his full bladder demanded he get up. Instead, he waited until he couldn’t stand it, in the vain hope that Bucky would wake up too, then he extricated himself carefully so as not to wake Bucky, a delicate task. Even when he got Bucky to let go of his shirt, gently loosening his fingers’ grip, sometimes a still-sleeping Bucky just held onto Steve’s hand instead. One early morning, caught by some sudden, tender impulse, Steve kissed Bucky’s knuckles before lowering Bucky’s hand to the bed again. Bucky stirred, making some sleepy snuffling noises, and Steve froze, hoping desperately that Bucky was still asleep, because he did not want to be caught doing something so—so—sappy.

The amount of time Steve spent watching Bucky sleep was sappy enough as it was. It was just to ensure Bucky was getting the rest he needed, Steve told himself. He didn’t want to wake Bucky too early by getting up himself. And what if Bucky started having a nightmare? His sleep was mostly deep and undisturbed, but sometimes he grew restless and a few touches from Steve, or some murmured reassurances, soothed him back to seemingly untroubled sleep.

And okay, maybe Steve just liked looking at Bucky’s dumb face. He’d missed it, after all, and he’d almost lost the chance so many times.

When Bucky did finally wake up, long after dawn, he was as hilariously grumpy as he’d pretty much always been in the morning. Bucky’d never been a morning person, and there was a comfort in seeing his familiar drowsy scowl, an expression that was pretty much exactly the same as it had been when he was eight years old. Only it was significantly funnier now, given what a mess Bucky’s long hair tended to be in the mornings.

The first morning, Steve tried very hard not to laugh at Bucky, and failed.

“What,” growled Bucky.

“Sorry, sorry, just—your hair. C’mere for a sec,” he said, intending to help Bucky get his wild bed head under some control, but Bucky dodged and headed for the bathroom.

“I can still comb it with one hand,” he said, glaring at Steve, and closed the bathroom door. Yeah, some things really hadn’t changed, thought Steve, still grinning.

When Bucky came out with damp hair and freshly scrubbed pink skin, his grumpiness level was down from enraged-bear-woken-from-hibernation to toddler-who-could-use-a-snack, and he consented to letting Steve tie his hair back for him. Steve snuck in an opportunistic hug too, and had to suppress another laugh when he felt Bucky’s grunt of mild rage against his shoulder.

“So you’re still an insufferable morning person,” Bucky grumbled.



Bucky made them both breakfast, some form of sweet and hearty porridge, along with some truly excellent coffee. Just as it always had, one cup of strong coffee dissolved the last of Bucky’s grumpiness, so that he finally smiled at Steve.

“Good morning,” he said, wryly apologetic. “Sleep alright?”

“Yeah, perfect,” Steve answered.

And for two weeks, that was pretty much the routine.

They spent their days together hanging around the village, taking long walks around the countryside and lazy boat rides in the lake, as they told each other stories about their last two years and traded shared memories. They both, by mutual unspoken agreement, stuck with lighter stories about their past and adjusting to the 21st century. Steve had plenty of questions about why Bucky had stayed away from him for so long, and the occasional sharp glance from Bucky told him Bucky had questions of his own, but neither of them were willing to puncture the bubble of peace just yet. And anyway, they were filling their days easily enough, sometimes helping out around the village with whatever tasks could use some super strength, sometimes playing games with village kids or doing some gentle training with the old War Dogs.

They ventured outside of the village a couple times too, going to the Golden City, where Steve took Bucky to Ziri’s food stand, and all the other restaurants the War Dogs had mentioned on the trip into Wakanda, and Bucky took Steve to see some of the city’s historical monuments that he’d been reading about. Even the most ancient of them still seemed living and vital, incorporated into the city as the centuries passed, not tucked away behind cordons and glass.

Mostly though, they stuck to the village, because Shuri was right, Bucky tired easily. Despite all the assurances from Shuri at Bucky’s next checkup, it worried Steve. He tried not to let on, and he thought Bucky probably didn’t notice, but the rest of the village sure noticed Steve’s restless roaming and prowling during Bucky’s afternoon naps. After a week, one of the village elders, Oluchi, lost patience with him and told him not to fuss.

“He is here to heal, and to rest, and he is resting. Don’t fuss so, no one has ever looked so worried about a healthy man’s naps.”

They were taking a sedate walk around the lake while Bucky took one of his afternoon naps, because Oluchi claimed Steve’s presence was required, in case she ran into any crocodiles. Steve doubted that. Cloud of white hair or not, Oluchi looked like the kind of woman who could handle a crocodile on her own, and he suspected the intricately carved vibranium rod she was using as a walking stick was more properly a staff. The walk was just to keep him occupied, and an excuse to talk to him about Bucky.

“Is there anything I should be doing? To help him?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Don’t disturb his rest with your stomping about.”

“I’m pacing outside, aren’t I?” Steve retorted, then flinched and winced, half-anticipating a smart rap from that walking stick. Oluchi had that look in her eye, familiar to Steve from the many ruler-wielding nuns whose patience he’d tested in school. “Uh, sorry ma’am.”

She didn’t knock him with her staff, so he offered her his arm and she graciously took it. “You are here for Bucky, and that’s enough. He is smiling much more often, did you know?”

He knew now. Though he supposed he should have known already. His phone was pretty rapidly filling up with photos of a smiling Bucky. He ducked his head and smiled at the thought, and Oluchi patted his arm.

“Can I ask what you and the elders are doing? Princess Shuri said something about healing the spirit, but I don’t know what that involves….”

“Your friend’s mind, his spirit, have been terribly violated, and gravely hurt, in ways not even the Princess’s advanced scans could ever show.”

“I know. God, I know.”

In his weaker moments, he wished he hadn’t read so many of the Winter Soldier files, wished he didn’t know all the ways Bucky had been so brutally unmade. But whether he knew or not, Bucky had endured all of it. Steve could bear knowing some small part of his suffering. Oluchi grasped his hand and squeezed tightly.

“He is far from broken, and he has worked hard to recover himself, even on his own. I am pleased to be able to help such a man. No offense to your people, Captain, but Sekhmet knows I do not trust those barbarians outside Wakanda to help Bucky. Shutting people up in locked rooms, isolating them, giving them drugs and having doctors talk and prod at them…” She shook her head.

“You make it sound like a prison,” said Steve with a wince, even if it was nothing he hadn’t thought himself.

The lurch of nauseous unease in his stomach caught him by surprise though. She made it sound a lot like Steve’s experience too, after he’d woken up in the future: closed room after closed room, shut up with SHIELD doctors and psychologists as they assessed him and briefed him, before sending him to the Retreat to “take some time to adjust.”

“Isn’t it? Isn’t that all that was offered to your friend?” She looked at him keenly, and took his silence as answer enough. “No, that is not how we do things here. I specialize in this, you know. Sometimes War Dogs are captured or imprisoned, hurt in ways that cellular regenerators or nanites cannot reach, in mind and in spirit. That is what I help with.”

“You’re a psychiatrist?” asked Steve, the faintest of alarm bells ringing in the back of his head.

Every session Steve had ever had with SHIELD psychiatrists had felt more and more like he was some specimen under glass, pinned like a dead bug, on display for the doctor to study. If anything like that was what was in store for Bucky…

Oluchi waggled her head back and forth in a considering way. “That is the closest analogue, yes.”

“So you’ll be treating Bucky.”

“You make it sound so clinical. You can call it that, yes. But I think we have different models for ‘treatment.’” Some distaste colored her voice as she said the word, then Oluchi gestured towards the village. “We won’t be sitting in an office, talking. Healing requires community, Captain. It requires living in the world, living with and through the help of others for those things one cannot do oneself. I don’t think it is ‘treatment,’ when one of us sits with Bucky when his sleep is disturbed to ease the nightmares, or when the children put his hair up, and tie his shuka, or help him with anything else that needs an extra hand. When I go on walks with him, like this, and speak with him—or not, if he wants silence—that isn’t ‘treatment.’”

“And that’s all—enough?” asked Steve, because it sounded deceptively simple, laid out like that.

“For now, yes. To be integrated into a community again, to be helped and to help others, without fear of harm: it is a fine start for his healing. When he trusts me and the other elders some more, we will see about how best to ease the deeper hurts of his spirit. Sometimes speaking is enough. Or maybe we will help him fashion a new story out of his pain. The stories we tell ourselves about our life matter, offer us ways forward. Until then, he will have peace and rest. And, I hope you will not consider me presumptuous, your love.”

Steve flushed, and swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat.

“He’s always got that.”

On the eighth day, when they were lazing by the lakeside with books, the vacation-like bubble of good cheer and peace popped. Bucky, of course, was the one to pop it, which was a perverse, painful sort of relief to Steve, like a splinter being torn free of flesh. Bucky’s clear eyes and steady aim weren’t limited to the scope of a rifle. He’d always seen straight to the heart of Steve.

“What was it like for you, after they pulled you out of the ice?”

Of course Bucky had noticed one of the things Steve had talked around. Steve had talked around it for a reason; it hadn’t been a pleasant time, and it wasn’t as if there was much that could be said about grief. It just was. Still, Steve set his book down, and sat up properly. Despite the hot late afternoon sun breaking through the leaves of the tree that shaded them, the question brought its own chill.

“Confusing, I guess.” He looked over at Bucky, who’d put his own book down in his lap and was now looking at Steve with keener attention than he’d afforded to the book. Bucky was still sitting against the tree, seemingly relaxed, but the deep furrow of worry on Bucky’s forehead gave Steve a familiar swoop of guilt in his stomach. “Why, what made you think of it?”

“You haven’t talked about it, is all. And I dunno, guess I’ve been thinking about how coming out of cryo this time has been...nice. Better. For me. It, uh, didn’t used to be like this, obviously. So, was it—were you—SHIELD was HYDRA, and SHIELD were the ones who got you out. I’ve been worrying, I guess.”

“Oh, hey, no, Buck,” said Steve, and reached out for an attempt at some reassuring touch. Only Bucky’s knee was in reach, and Steve ended up giving his knee an awkward sort of pat. “It was—it was fine. No one hurt me. I don’t remember anything about the, uh, actual defrosting. I wasn’t conscious for that. I just woke up in some fake hospital room done up to make it seem like the 40s. They were trying to ease me into the 21st century, I guess. I thought it was some Nazi plot, busted out, ran right into Times Square. Kind of a shock. But it was fine.”

Bucky frowned, apparently not at all reassured. Steve wished he’d just make some joke and change the subject, but no luck. “What’d you do after that?”

“A lot of briefings, doctors looking at me. Then I spent some time alone at the Retreat.” At Bucky’s questioning look, he clarified, “A cabin SHIELD used for, uh, enhanced people who need some time away. Bruce—the guy who turns into the Hulk, you haven’t met him—he built it. It was out in the woods near Canada, it was nice. Isolated, quiet.”

“So you were just alone. In a cabin in the middle of nowhere.”

Bucky’s flat tone made Steve’s hackles rise. It wasn’t his goddamn fault he’d been alone. There hadn’t been anyone else. He hadn’t had anywhere else to go.

“What’d you do after Insight?” Steve countered, maybe angling for a fight, or a change of subject at the least. What did it matter now, what Steve had done after waking up in the 21st century? Those first months had been miserable and lonely, but they were over, and there was no use dwelling on them.

Bucky didn’t take the bait for a fight. Instead he looked down and away, picking at the blanket spread out under them, and answered Steve’s question.

“Went to ground in an old HYDRA safe house, waited out the withdrawal from the drugs they had me on. I don’t really—I don’t remember too much about that time. It was like having a real bad fever, I guess. When I was a little better, I went to the Smithsonian. To—to see. If it was real. What you said, about me, about us. Then I got the hell out of the States.”

“You should’ve come to me then,” said Steve, but Bucky shook his head. The dappled sunlight through the leaves cast strange shadows on his face, and a stray shaft of sunlight lit up one of his eyes to a blue like the center of a flame.

“It wasn’t safe. For either of us,” he said, looking Steve straight in the eye.

And yeah, that was the rational choice, maybe, but— “Fuck safe. You should’ve come to me then.”

“Yeah, well, you shouldn’t have just gone into goddamn solitary confinement, meek as a lamb to the slaughter.”

“It wasn’t—that’s not what it was. It was just—secure, and peaceful, and I didn’t have to talk to anybody—and what about you, you were—”

Steve didn’t know why the hell Bucky was fixating on this; alone or not, he’d been miles better off than Bucky had been. God, just thinking about Bucky alone and in pain, confused…

“Right. You’d just lost everything, and they left you alone. They made sure you were alone. Even I was still around people once I shook off the worst of the HYDRA bullshit.”

“It was just a couple weeks, for god’s sake. It was fine, I was fine. And I don’t know where you get off lecturing me about this when you were the furthest thing from fine and didn’t get help from anybody—”

Now Bucky glared at him with furious incredulity. “You were fine? Straight off the goddamned battlefield, just about everyone you ever knew dead, and you’re telling me you were fine? What fucking bullshit, Rogers. Yeah, I was nowhere near fine, and you don’t fucking see me pretending I was. I just figured it wasn’t safe to get help. From anyone.” He laughed, raw and pained and nowhere near amused. “Ten words to turn me back into a fucking thing, I wasn’t wrong.”

“You ran away from me! For two years! I was going crazy, imagining the worst, worrying you were dead, again—”

He was shouting, he realized distantly, as some birds in the nearby reeds scattered and took flight.

“I wasn’t running from you!” shouted Bucky, and that made Steve shut up out of sheer surprise. Bucky struggled to continue. “Or—that’s not only—I was waiting. I was—waiting to get better, to—remember more. I felt like—like a fucking ghost, like half of a fucking dead man, and not even the good half, and I thought—I can’t go to Steve like this. I have to get my shit together some more, then I can—and I waited, and waited, and tried, and it wasn’t—I wasn’t better enough. I was still more empty spaces than an actual fucking person. So I stayed away. I’m sorry, Steve. But I’m still not sure it was the wrong call.”

Bucky was pressed against the tree now, curled into himself, misery clear in the slump of his shoulders. He blinked and scrubbed at his eyes—fighting back tears, and mad at himself about it, just like always when he was this upset. The sight made tears well up in Steve’s own eyes, out of sympathy and frustration both, but the unhappy twist of Bucky’s mouth made all of Steve’s anger fall away. Steve scooted closer, and when Bucky didn’t flinch, scooted closer still until their knees touched.

“I wasn’t fine,” Steve offered. A ceasefire. “I haven’t been fine since—since I lost you, pretty much.”

Bucky closed his eyes for a moment and leaned his head back against the tree trunk, weariness writ large on his face. “I haven’t been fine since before the damned war, I think.”

He opened his eyes and smiled at Steve, small and very sad, a glint of grim humor in his eyes. In that moment, he seemed impossibly distant from the bright and laughing boy Steve had once known. His heart pounded and strained, caught in a tug of war between grief and love.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t see it then, I should’ve let you go home.”

“No, I chose to stay. What did you expect me to do, go home and leave your star-spangled, new officer ass on the Front, ’til I heard about you crashing a plane into the Arctic?” Bucky nudged his knee. “No way.”

Privately, Steve thought that wouldn’t have been so bad as all that: Bucky would at least have lived, would have been spared all his suffering under HYDRA. He knew what Bucky would say to that though: not without you.

“Okay, okay. Then you should’ve asked me to wait for you. Called me, sent me a postcard, anything. Just—I’d have waited, Buck, I swear. For as long as you needed.”

“As I recall, patience isn’t one of your strong suits,” said Bucky fondly. “But yeah. Maybe.”

“Can we—can we stick together from now on, Buck? I mean—I know I have to leave Wakanda next week, I know you have to stay and we’re still fugitives, but—it hasn’t worked out so great, us being apart. So can we…” can we be steveandbucky again, he wanted to say, but found that his courage didn’t extend so far, because what if Bucky said no—

Bucky didn’t say no. Bucky smiled, wide and deep enough that it reached his eyes, but Christ, still so sad.

“Hasn’t always been up to us, has it?” he said, terribly gentle. “I want that though. To, you know—”



They smiled at each other, like idiots, and Steve figured the sun was to blame for the rising heat in his face, and the rosy cast to Bucky’s.

Leaving Bucky in Wakanda gave Steve a pretty profound appreciation for how hard it must have been for Bucky to ship out that first time, all those years ago. Bucky had done it with a smile and a hug then, and said he’d be home before Christmas, the downward slant of his mouth revealing it for a hopeful lie, the same lie being repeated at every other parting. Steve was bad at hopeful lies. He just had the truth.

“I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back, but I’ll call when I get to Cape Town. And whenever? I don’t—time zones. But—texting!” he said, and winced into Bucky’s hair, because what the hell, Rogers, complete sentences would help.

It was just that Bucky was pressed in close against him and Bucky’s hair still smelled really good. Steve had put it up for Bucky earlier that morning, but he hadn’t done the best job of it, because wisps of it were already slipping free of the bun. He’d have had to let go of Bucky to fix it though, and he’d rather keep clutching at Bucky’s broad shoulders. Who knew when he would next have a chance to give Bucky a hug.

He should have let go, probably, but Bucky had a pretty tight grip on his shirt.

“Yeah, yeah, you can—call whenever. I’d like it if you—”

“And you can call too!” Steve interjected. “I mean, I might not be able to answer right away, but—”

“This is the most tragic thing I have ever witnessed,” said Shuri from behind him. Bucky hooked his chin over Steve’s shoulder, presumably to glare at her. “What? Don’t give me that look, white man. I don’t mean tragic tragic. Seriously, he’s not leaving forever. No, this is tragic because of…everything else. Wow.“


“It’s touching too! But, you know, maybe wrap it up? You have been hugging for…quite some time now. Captain Rogers has places to be, I have a very impressive arm I wanted to show you…”

“Okay, I gotta go, I guess,” Steve said, and made his arms let Bucky go. He couldn’t keep the royal Talon jet waiting here in the palace courtyard forever.

“Stay safe,” said Bucky, bright-eyed, but still smiling.

Steve tucked some of the hair that had come free of its—evidently subpar—bun back behind Bucky’s ear. He smoothed it back, slow and careful, just for good measure and definitely not just to keep touching Bucky’s soft hair. Bucky turned his face into Steve’s hand, eyes fluttering closed for a scant second. Steve stopped breathing. Before his brain could formulate anything more than a jumbled mess of half-formed possibilities and desires, Bucky started talking again.

“God, who am I kidding,” he said, his voice straining for lightness. Steve let his hand fall away. “Don’t do anything too damn stupid, is what I mean. Stick with Wilson and Romanoff, they’ve got at least a little more sense than you.”

“Yeah, yeah. You stay safe too, okay? Rest up as much as you need. And—call me. If you need anything. Or even if you don’t.”

“I will,” said Bucky, then gave Steve a push towards the jet.

Steve went, smiling, but just like the last time he left Wakanda, he couldn’t help but feel like he was leaving the better part of his heart behind.

On the jet to Cape Town, his mind fixed on those few seconds: Bucky’s incongruously pretty eyelashes dark against his cheek, the warmth of his skin against Steve’s palm, the mountain river color of his eyes. The way his lower lip looked like the perfect resting spot for Steve’s thumb.

Thinking of that unlocked a cascade of other small moments from the past two weeks: the moment of absolute relief when he woke up in the mornings, Bucky in bed beside him; the way Bucky stepped close and tipped his head down when he let Steve tie his hair back for him, and the way Steve could feel the heat of Bucky’s breath against his cheek or neck when he did; every single time Bucky said his name, low and rough and tender, as if it were something precious; Bucky’s new stillness in quiet moments, how it somehow made Steve have to catch his breath.

And every single time he’d caught Bucky watching him with that look on his face that Steve had yet to fully parse beyond how it teetered bright and blade-keen on the line between joy and sorrow, a look that left him feeling tremulous and unearthed, as if someone were blowing gently on the dust and dirt that covered once buried parts of him.

Steve wanted to sketch all of it, every single one of those moments. He wanted to get them down on paper, let his hand and pencil make sense of them, make them permanent. Maybe if he had them all in physical form like that, he could have a collage that turned into a legible whole. Maybe if he could look at it all, spread out flat, he would understand what was inside of him, and between him and Bucky.

The moment Sam got a good look at him, he took off his sunglasses and said, “Wow.”

“What, what is it?”

Natasha’s eyes were unreadable behind her sunglasses, but she echoed Sam. “Oh, wow.”

“What?” Steve patted at his hair, looked down at his clothes. Everything was fine, as far as he could tell. He still looked like an unremarkable backpacker, just like Sam and Natasha did, one of dozens of tourists milling around Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

“Is Wakanda that nice a vacation destination? Did you spend your whole time there at a spiritual retreat, achieving nirvana?” asked Sam.

“What? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You’ve got a glow, Rogers,” said Natasha, lowering her sunglasses to give him a warm and amused once-over, before exchanging a meaningful glance with Sam. “Don’t worry, it’s a good thing. C’mon, I booked us an Airbnb. Wanda’s there already.”

“Found us a new mission already?” he asked Natasha.

“Sam found this one,” she said, with a nod towards Sam.

“Just some more HYDRA mad science clean up, in Kazakhstan. Might involve some enhanceds, so I thought we’d call Wanda in, just in case,” said Sam.

Natasha directed them towards a taxi cab rank over by some stately hotel.

“When do we have to be wheels up?” asked Steve.

“A couple days, maybe three,” she said, and flagged down a cab for them. “Depends when my guy can get us fuel for the quinjet. So there’s plenty of time for you to tell us all about your vacation.”

Their Airbnb was an apartment in the City Bowl, the part of Cape Town cupped gently between Table Mountain and Table Bay, in a slick, recently renovated apartment building. Perversely, Steve would have preferred a rundown safe house in the bad part of town; it would have felt more secure, even if the level of anonymity was the same as the nice Airbnb thanks to Natasha’s skills. He trusted that Natasha knew best when it came to this kind of thing though, so he didn’t say anything, just hefted his pack on his shoulders and followed Sam and Nat into the building.

At the apartment, Wanda greeted him with a beaming smile and a hug, accepting his kiss to her forehead with a faux-annoyed scrunch of her nose, and when she pulled back, she peered at him closely for a moment. Her eyes stayed their usual hazel color, so it was just a normal searching look, but even so, Steve suppressed the urge to fidget. He suspected too often that she didn’t need her powers to see straight into him.

“You look different,” she said.

“My hair’s growing out…?”

She shook her head, then tilted it to study him more. “No, that’s not it.”

“He just got back from Wakanda after seeing his bestie Barnes,” said Sam, heading straight for the couch in the living room.

“Sergeant Barnes is awake and well then?” asked Wanda.

“Yeah, he’s doing great in Wakanda,” said Steve. He missed Bucky already, but the knowledge that Bucky was safe and not alone, the fresh memories of him smiling in the sunshine, eased the ache some.

“Ah, that’s why you look different,” said Wanda with a sly grin. “Look at that smile.”

“What, is that a new thing? It’s not a new thing!” he protested. “I smile!”

“Not like this, you don’t,” said Natasha. She went up on tiptoes to give him a kiss on the cheek on her way to the living room. “It’s a good thing! Just new.”

“Whatever,” he muttered, fighting down a blush.

“I’m glad they were able to help your friend,” said Wanda, and gave him a kiss on the cheek too. “And I’m glad you had a nice vacation. You deserved it.”

“If you say so.”

Once they’d all swept the place for any bugs and settled in, Steve ducked out onto the tiny balcony to call Bucky like he’d promised to do. Shuri hadn’t given him a kimoyo bracelet to take with him; they’d both agreed that it wasn’t worth the risk of implicating Wakanda or endangering Bucky if Steve was ever caught or incapacitated. Instead she’d given him a new phone. It looked like a standard smartphone, and worked like a smartphone, with the expected functionality and apps. But it got service everywhere, had a battery that would last days, and was secured with uncrackable Wakandan encryption. Most important to Steve, it had a direct, secure line to Bucky. All the other impressive features Shuri had packed the phone with were secondary, even the camera that somehow seemed to work in any and every light condition.

Bucky picked up the line after just a couple rings. “Hey, Buck.”

“Hey, Steve,” answered Bucky. The sound of Bucky’s voice, so close in his ear and so clearly curled around a smile, loosened up the tense muscles of his back about as well as a massage would have. “You get to Cape Town alright? Everyone on your team okay?”

“Yeah, we’re sticking around here for a few days, gonna plan our next op, wait for a refuel. We’re headed to Kazakhstan next.” He hesitated, unsure how much detail Bucky wanted, or needed.

“What’s the op?” asked Bucky, nothing but casual interest his tone.

“Just what Sam calls HYDRA mad science clean up. Wanda’ll be with us too, so it shouldn’t be a problem. So how was Shuri’s lab, has she made you a new arm yet?”

To Steve’s relief, Bucky accepted the change of subject without protest.

“You gotta come see Shuri’s lab next time you come visit, it’s amazing in there. Not just the tech, even, she’s got some real nice art up on the walls and in the hallways. There’s this mural, you’d love it. I’d’ve sent you a picture, but I swear, you gotta see it in person. A tiny phone picture isn’t gonna do it justice.”

Maybe Natasha and Wanda were onto something, because Steve could feel a bare twinge of unfamiliar strain in his cheeks as he smiled, wider than the muscles of his face were apparently used to. He couldn’t help it though: Bucky had seen some art, and thought of him. As for why his heart was drumming out such a fast tempo, well that was probably just thanks to the balcony’s height and the majestic view of Table Mountain rising in the distance. Probably. Maybe.

“Next visit, then, if Princess Shuri is okay with it.”

“You kidding? She loves showing off her lab,” said Bucky. “She loves showing off about fifty different prototypes for a prosthetic arm too. I keep telling her it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, how much innovation do you really need in an arm, but she’s insisting.”

“I dunno, could be cool to have an arm full of gadgets,” mused Steve. “Can opener, grappling hook, flashlight…”

Bucky snorted. “You think she sets her sights so low? Though yeah, flashlight, that could be useful.”

“Corkscrew, scissors, ice pick…”

“Oh, you wanna turn me into a regular Swiss Army Bucky, huh?”

“Spatula…” continued Steve, and jackpot. Bucky burst out into a peal of bright laughter. Steve tipped his head back and smiled up at the clear sky. “So did you get to try any of the prosthetics?” he asked once Bucky’s laughter eased off.

“Yeah, a few. Shuri fixed up the port in my left shoulder back when I first got out of cryo, so I can pretty much plug any of her prosthetics in and go. I’m just…not ready for a new one yet.”

Steve wasn’t sure he understood what Bucky meant by that. Surely it’d be easier for Bucky to have two hands again, even if he was getting along okay with just the one.

“It doesn’t hurt or anything, does it?”

“Nah, just—uh, had a couple bad moments, I guess, when Shuri was helping me try some of the prototype arms on.”

Steve narrowed his eyes at Bucky’s vague and evasive tone. “You okay, Buck?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, it was fine, Shuri helped. Just—” Bucky broke off, took in what sounded like a careful, deep breath. “Bad associations. With HYDRA.”

With the arm HYDRA had forced on him, he probably meant. Shit, Steve should have stayed just a few hours longer, been there with Bucky, because yeah, now he saw why Bucky might not be ready for a new prosthetic yet. He hadn’t chosen the first one, hadn’t had any say in it at all. If he needed to take his time to choose a new prosthetic, or even if he didn’t want a new one at all, Steve would do his best to make sure Bucky got what he needed.

“I can be there next time,” Steve offered. “If you want.”

“Maybe,” said Bucky softly. “Thanks.”

There was a too-long beat of silence, almost awkward. It was strange, talking to Bucky without seeing him, realized Steve. Strange and new, better than delayed letters but with some of the same opacity. Bucky’s face had always done a lot of his talking for him, or at least, Steve had always thought so.

Too weird to switch to a video call now, probably, so Steve just barreled ahead and asked, “What’re you up to for the rest of the day?”

“Don’t laugh, but I was gonna try to go fishing on the lake. The kids wanna go, and I might as well be the adult supervision.”

“I’m not laughing! Why would I laugh?” asked Steve, struggling not to do just that.

“Like we aren’t both thinking of that time our dumb asses tried fishing in the East River.”

Ha, that had been fun. Even if all they’d fished up had been some old boots.

“Oh no, I was thinking of that time in France, when Frenchie insisted there’d be trout at that time of year, but what you really caught were some eels—”

Steve lost the battle against his laughter. Bucky, never a fan of slithering slimy things, had shouted and tried to toss the eel back in the river. The thing had been writhing around so much that he hadn’t managed it, and had instead ended up chucking it at his fellow fisherman Dum Dum instead. After a hell of a lot of slapstick flailing around, Bucky, Dum Dum, and the eel had all ended up in the river as the rest of the Commandos rolled around laughing.

Bucky groaned. “Why’d you have to remind me?”

“This’ll go better than that, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, I hope so,” said Bucky with a laugh. “I’ll call it a success if me and the kids don’t fall in the damned lake.”

Natasha tapped at the balcony’s sliding glass door, and gestured inside. Time to start planning their mission, looked like.

“Hey, I gotta go, mission prep time. I’ll call you again before we leave?’

“Sure. Say hi to your friends from me,” he said, and disconnected the call.

“Bucky says hi,” Steve announced to the apartment at large as he ducked back inside.

Judging by the files spread out across the coffee table, the living room was being drafted into service as their makeshift war room. On closer inspection, some of the files weren’t files at all, but takeout menus and tourist brochures. Wanda was sitting cross-legged in front of the table, picking carefully through the assortment of takeout menus.

“You should’ve put him on speaker phone, I wanted to say hi,” she said.

“You should’ve Skyped him, I wanted to see if he’s got the same honeymoon glow as you do,” said Natasha. She was sprawled in an armchair, leafing through a large notebook with Guest Book embroidered on the cover.

“I thought we were gonna start prepping the mission,” said Steve.

“Yeah, yeah, we will, but first: vacation photos. I wanna see Wakanda,” said Sam, and made a grabbing hands motion for Steve’s phone.

“You could’ve come with me,” said Steve.

Of course, Sam didn’t stir himself from his sprawl on the couch, so Steve rolled his eyes and walked over to give him the phone and join him on the couch. He picked up one of the files, because at least one of them should try to get this prep session back on track, but when he saw it was all in Cyrillic, he set it back down to watch Sam go through his photos.

“And get in the middle of you and Barnes’ epic reunion?” asked Sam, already swiping through photos. “Nah. That’s not being a good wingman.” After a minute or so, he looked up at Steve. “Steve. Did you take literally any photos of Wakanda, or are they all of Barnes looking like white Jesus?”

“They’re not all of Bucky!” Steve protested, because he distinctly recalled taking a lot of photos of the lake and the landscape, and the Golden City. And, okay, Bucky had been in a lot of those photos, but they hadn’t been of him, per se.

Natasha and Wanda went over to the couch to peer over Sam’s shoulders.

“Wow. I mean, nice pictures. If we weren’t all fugitives, I’d say definitely put them up on Instagram so everyone could be jealous of your great vacations and hot boyfriend—”

“What. We’re not—that’s not what—”

Wanda flapped a hand at him, still looking avidly at the photos. “Everyone knows that’s what Instagram’s for.”

“And yeah, Steve, most of these pictures are of Barnes,” finished Natasha. “He looks good. Like white Jesus, yeah, but good. I’m glad the Wakandans are helping him.”

“Now that’s what I care about. Pictures of food,” said Sam. “The street food in Wakanda is amazing, isn’t it. Jesus, that looks good.”

Sam kept swiping, now through what Steve knew were photos of his and Bucky’s brief culinary tour of the Golden City. He stopped abruptly, and lowered the phone to look at Steve with narrowed eyes.

“Wait. I’m not gonna see something I shouldn’t, am I?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, are clothes gonna start coming off in these pictures or—oh, there it is, the hundredth picture of Barnes looking at the sunset.”

“That’s—no! Why would clothes be coming off—he’s my best friend, not—”

“Steve.” Sam handed Steve’s phone back to him with a head shake that was equal parts disappointed and disgusted. “You’re really gonna stand there and tell me this whole aura of happiness and good cheer you’ve got happening is just ‘cause you saw your best friend again. Uh uh. Barnes’ company can’t be that good, not unless you’ve also been getting a good d—”

Natasha gasped in mock outrage and covered Wanda’s ears, as Wanda giggled. “Sam! Not in front of the children!”

Steve’s traitorous face flushed fever-hot, and his too-sharp memory provided him with the phantom sensation of Bucky’s skin against his, his strong body holding Steve close and tight even with just one arm. The memory of his lips—how they’d felt against his forehead, soft and warm, and how they’d looked, smiling or not.

It’s not like that with us, Steve maybe should have said. We didn’t even kiss. I just missed him so much, for so long. But the words got tangled up in his heart and in his lungs, in his throat; they were woven into the muscles there, and were carried in his blood and breath too, quiet and vital. Letting them out would feel too much like being cracked open to reveal some internal wound not even he knew the full dimensions of. How bad is it, doc, he’d have to ask, and he suspected the answer would be you’ve got it so bad, it’s terminal, pal.

He’d been quiet too long. The smile faded from Natasha’s lips and she and Wanda seared him with twin looks of knowing realization. Sam’s face was transitioning from surprise to understanding, and Steve wasn’t sure he wanted to know what it was that Sam had just understood. His heart went fast and unsteady, just like it did when people looked too long at him lately, recognition rising in their eyes.

“What happened to mission prep? Come on, let’s get to work,” he said, and tried to put on something approaching a professional, Cap-like face on again.

Of course, then he looked down at the photo on his phone screen: Bucky, the smallest curve of a smile lifting one side of his mouth, his eyes alight with a quiet kind of happiness, and a view of the sun setting behind the mountains, as it turned the Golden City golden in truth. The slanting rays of the sun caught on Bucky’s hair, picking out rich copper highlights. It was a pretty damned good photo, Steve thought.

How many pictures of the sunset do you need, Steve? I swear that’s gotta be the five hundredth one you’ve taken so far, Bucky had said, and Steve had made some excuse about capturing the colors.

He’d just missed Bucky, that was all. This was the relief and joy of having him back, finally, safe and mostly sound. Once he got used to having Bucky back for good, surely then his heart would catch on, would go back to a steadier pace, would stop feeling quite so raw and tender, would stop swelling at every small provocation like Bucky smiling or laughing or looking at him. His mind would stop fixating on and hoarding every small moment in exquisite detail, assured that there would be no shortage of opportunities to have all these small moments again and again. The wound of Bucky’s loss would heal, as all wounds did, and it would heal clean, because he had Bucky back.

“What was that about getting to work?” asked Wanda, all innocence.

“Right, yes,” he said, and turned the phone’s screen off. He looked up to see Sam lowering his phone. “Did you just take a picture of me?”

“Evidence,” said Sam. “Don’t worry about it. So, Kazakhstan!”

A few hours later, his phone chimed: he had a new message from Bucky. It was a photo of a somewhat damp Bucky and a couple wildly grinning Wakandan kids, all of them holding up freshly caught fish. The smile on Bucky’s face was almost disbelieving, possibly at the fact that he’d managed to catch a fish.

A laugh bubbled up in Steve’s throat. Pictures really were worth a thousand words: just one picture, and Steve could imagine exactly how that fishing trip had gone.

How’s it taste? Steve texted him, and got another photo in return, of the fish now scaled and cleaned and cooked. Grilled, it looked like, folded up in some sort of leaf, and with some spice rub on it.

Spicy, Bucky answered, and Steve sent him a photo of their own takeout spread from a nearby braai restaurant. He made sure to find the most unflattering photo of Sam eating the barbecue possible, and sent that off to Bucky too.

He got a rapid three letter response back: lol.

Steve blinked in surprise. Since when did you get up to date on text speak, old man Barnes?

Since i got a crash course from a teenager, Bucky texted back. Lol she told me you don’t know what vine is. What have you been doing with your life.

Before Steve could respond, he got a very short video file from Bucky: a guy saying “look at the buns on that guy,” a rapid cut to a man lying on the floor covered in hamburger buns, and then another rapid cut to a police officer saying “it’s the comedy police, that joke’s too funny!” “I’m not going back to jail!” shrieked the first man, pulling out a toy gun, then the video ended.

Steve laughed, more out of baffled surprise than anything else. He played the video again, all six seconds of it. Yeah, he thought fondly, that was pretty in line with Bucky’s dumb sense of humor.

I’m beginning to suspect you and the princess aren’t the best influences on each other.


After two weeks of using Skype, Steve was ready to declare it a modern marvel and the absolute best thing about the future, apart from vaccines and his friends. Not only could Steve call Bucky pretty much any time, and nearly always get an answer, he could call Bucky and see him.

The first few times were awkward what with both of them getting used to the mechanics of it: how to angle the phone, when and where to make their calls from, what to talk about. Steve maintained that these were normal bumps on the learning curve, but Sam and Shuri both made fun of them for their initial Skyping issues.

“Steve? I can’t see anything, do you have the camera enabled?”

Steve was treated to a close up of Bucky’s eye as he apparently tried to figure out why he couldn’t see Steve.

“Yes, I have the camera enabled, and I can see you, I don’t know what’s—”

“Oh my god, this is like watching my grandma try to facetime with her great-grandkids,” said Sam, snatching the phone from Steve. He tapped at something on the phone screen.

“You’re not Steve,” came the faintly accusatory sound of Bucky’s voice.

“Nice to see you too, Barnes. Or should I say White Jesus.”

Steve poked his head over Sam’s shoulder, and oh, okay, yeah, now that little display that was supposed to show his end of the video call did in fact show Sam and him, instead of blurry darkness.

“You had the wrong camera enabled, and you were covering it with your hand,” said Sam, and handed the phone back to Steve.

“Thanks, Sam.”

Sam retreated to his end of the hotel room, ostentatiously shoving headphones over his ears. Sometimes privacy was in short supply on the run.

“Sorry about that, Buck. How’re you doing?” he asked, and from there it was just like it had been back in Brooklyn, both of them talking about their days, what they’d done and who they’d seen.

Bucky even still wandered and puttered around as he talked, heedless of whether that took him out of sight of the camera or not. At least now that particular habit wouldn’t get them yelled at by the neighbors. Back then, Bucky had pitched his voice to carry during his rambles, to make sure Steve heard him even with his bum ear. Steve had appreciated it, but he’d appreciated even more when Bucky had finally plopped down beside him on their lumpy couch to talk low and close near Steve’s good ear. Now, Bucky wasn’t beside him, and his warmth was conspicuously absent. But having him on a screen that Steve could tuck close to himself was almost as good.

Well, it was good when the both of them could manage to get Skyping to work right.

They had a few calls where Bucky kept losing track of where, precisely, his kimoyo bead’s camera was pointed, treating Steve to views of Bucky’s empty kitchenette or to odd angles of his face, or even letting the string of beads roll off the damn bed or table, until eventually Bucky gave up and asked Shuri for a regular smartphone that paired with his communication bead.

“I cannot believe you are asking me to downgrade your technology,” she said during Bucky’s test call to Steve. For some reason, Steve was the one getting the stink eye from Shuri through the video call.

“I’m getting kind of sick of looking up Buck’s nostril because he can’t figure out how to position the kimoyo camera,” said Steve.

Bucky scowled at him, and wow, Shuri was right. That expression did make him look like that one grumpy cat from the internet. Steve just grinned at him in response.

“It’s hard to work the kimoyo beads with just one hand!” objected Bucky. He was looking at Steve from over Shuri’s shoulder as she paired up the kimoyo beads with the new phone. “This is easier.”

“The kimoyo beads have voice activation features!”

“I just want something that’ll stay still on a table, and whose camera I can use right on the first try.”

Shuri sighed, sounding mightily put out.


Now Shuri turned to glare at Bucky, and appeared pretty immediately derailed by the big pleading eyes Bucky was giving her. That look, Steve reflected, really shouldn’t have been effective on a grown man’s face, and yet.

“Ugh, fine, there, I’ve paired them up. You’ll still get the calls on your kimoyo bead when your phone’s not on you, and when you want to take the call on the phone, just tap it to your kimoyo bead.”

“Thank you,” Bucky told her, with a quick kiss to her cheek.

Shuri’s lips twitched into a small smile, even as she flapped her hand at Bucky, shooing him away from her lab bench. “You’re welcome. Now out! I have more important things to do than be tech support for two grandpas!”

Even with all the technological road bumps evened out, they still ran into some human error problems when trying to stay in touch. Bucky usually texted Steve before he called, to make sure Steve wasn’t mid-mission, or that he wasn’t too many hours ahead or behind. When Steve couldn’t talk or answer right away, Bucky often sent Steve a series of texts anyway, like he was sending Steve short letters about his day, or his night.

Can’t sleep, but hard to mind too much when the night sky is so clear here

No one warned me about monsoon season :( got drenched on my way back from the market

Mihlali thinks I should learn how to ride a horse. no???? There are hoverbikes???

Update: riding a hoverbike is the coolest fucking thing I’ve done in the future so far

Hell, sometimes, Bucky sent him actual letters; Bucky had a tablet he could write on with a stylus, which was easier for him than typing, so Steve got the occasional chatty letter too, albeit in digital format. Steve, on the other hand, tended to send Bucky photos, or to call Bucky whenever he was reasonably certain he had time and privacy enough to make the call. Sometimes that didn’t work out so great.

Like the time Steve realized he might have miscalculated—or, really, entirely failed to calculate—the time difference. Bucky answered the video call with his face barely visible through the sleep-tangled mess of his hair and the darkness of his bedroom.

“Steve? Are you okay, is everything—”

“Yeah, everything’s good! Shit, sorry, were you asleep?”

Bucky squinted a bleary eye at him. “Yeah, because it’s—” he brought the phone close to his face, briefly providing Steve with an up close view of his nose. “3 in the morning, what the fuck,” groaned Bucky.

“Right. The time difference, shit.”

Now Bucky was awake enough to glower at him, though said glower was hard to see between the dim lighting and the voluminous mass of his hair.

Steve. Learn. Time zones,” growled Bucky, and ended the video call.

Steve winced. Yeah, he’d deserved that.

Can you talk right now i have something important to show you

Steve’s heart gave a couple unsteady thumps. They were moving out to do some recon on some possible dealers of Chitauri weapons in about ten minutes, but he could spare a few minutes for Bucky, and if something was wrong, he’d spare more than a few.

Yeah, you okay?

Yes calling now

After a few seconds, the Skype notification made its little blooping noise, and Steve accepted the call. He was greeted by Bucky’s wide, excited eyes.

“Steve, look,” he whispered, then swapped to his phone’s other camera to show Steve one of the village’s livestock enclosures, where a rhinoceros was munching placidly on some grass. This was, admittedly, a somewhat impressive sight. The rhino was huge. Were Wakandan rhinos bigger than other rhinos? Steve suspected they were. What Bucky probably considered “important” though, was the small goat perched on the rhino’s back.

“Buck,” hissed Steve. “Don’t tell me you put a goat on that rhino’s back just for a photo!”

“What? No! Monty hopped up there all on his own!”


“He’s got a real distinguished kinda face, like Monty did. And clearly, he’s about as crazy, jumping up onto a rhino’s back like that.”

And okay, that was fair enough, thought Steve, remembering the time Monty had flung himself out of a tree and onto a German tank to toss a grenade down its hatch.

“Maybe you should get it off of the rhino?” suggested Steve, visions of poor Monty being trampled under the mighty rhino’s feet dancing through his head.

“Hmm. Maybe,” said Bucky, and kept the phone camera trained on Monty the goat and the unnamed rhino.

After a minute or so, the rhino ambled along to a new patch of grass. Monty the goat stayed steady on its back.

“Wow,” whispered Steve.


There was a knock on the door of the jeep Steve was in. “Steve, we’re moving out in three,” said Natasha. She paused when she saw Steve peering at his phone. “That Barnes?” she asked.

Steve just nodded and angled the phone screen towards her. “Huh,” she said.

The rhino continued to amble along, Monty the goat perfectly balanced on its back, until the rhino reached the shade of a tree. Then, with surprising daintiness, Monty leapt from the rhino’s back into the tree, where he took up a new precarious-seeming position amid the tree branches, and started nibbling on the tree’s leaves.

“Holy shit,” said Steve.

“I’m feeling the strange urge to clap,” said Natasha.

Bucky turned the phone camera back around to show his face. “Hey Romanoff.”

“Hey Barnes. Things are pretty exciting in Wakanda, I see,” she said, her mouth softening into the suggestion of a smile.

“I think the vibranium in the soil makes the goats smarter,” mused Bucky.

“Maybe so,” said Steve. “Hey, I gotta go, Buck. Thanks for showing me Monty, though.”

Bucky arranged his face into an expression of wide-eyed seriousness that never failed to tempt Steve into laughter. He associated that expression far too strongly with getting up to mischief in church or school.

“Of course. Told you it was important,” said Bucky, and that did it, that set Steve off into a gale of laughter. Bucky grinned. “Stay safe,” he said, and ended the call.

Natasha watched him as he put his phone away, still smiling. “I think I can count the number of times I’ve heard you really laugh on one hand,” she remarked.

Steve didn’t know what to say to that, so he just shrugged. He hadn’t had a lot of reasons to laugh, before.

“I’m glad you got him back.”

“Me too.”

“Hey, Buck, how are—where the hell did you get that shiner?”

Steve’s habitual smile at seeing Bucky pretty much immediately dropped off his face when he saw the dark bruise overtaking Bucky’s right eye and cheekbone.

“Don’t worry! It’s fine, I’m fine, everything’s okay here,” Bucky said quickly.

He didn’t look like he was lying, but clearly something had happened.

“Did one of the goats headbutt you or what?” asked Steve, hoping for a benign explanation. “Because if they did, maybe it’s time for some goat stew.”

“No, it wasn’t a goat, the goats are all total sweethearts.”

Steve was pretty sure Bucky was the only person in the world who’d ever call goats “sweethearts.” No matter how goddamned ornery or mean an animal was, Bucky could still nurture a soft spot for it. Case in point: Steve, who’d pretty much been a surly alleycat for the first months of their friendship. But if it wasn’t the damned horrible goats...

“Aww, were you sparring, did someone get a lucky shot in? Just because all the War Dogs in your village are retired doesn’t mean—”

Bucky winced and cut him off. “No, it was—listen, we’re all fine, I’m fine, me and Lindiwe and Mihlali took care of it—”

Steve felt his stomach drop. “Took care of what? Are you safe, is—”

“Yeah, I’m safe. They didn’t come for me.”

A dozen nightmarish scenarios rushed into Steve’s head, and adrenaline flooded him. He started calculating how long it would take to get back to Wakanda, how to get Bucky out, where to go after that. It’d be a long haul from here in Bishkek, but Steve could probably manage to be in the Golden City in a couple days. Sam and Nat could stay in Bishkek, or Steve could rendezvous with them later…

“But someone came,” Steve said, and sat on the edge of the safe house’s single, sagging couch, ready to grab his go-bag and get to Bucky.

“Just some wannabe tech and vibranium smugglers. We handled it, and no one got hurt worse than this,” said Bucky, gesturing to his black eye.

“They didn’t come for you,” repeated Steve.

The adrenaline was still pumping through him, enough that he wanted to get up and run, straight to Bucky if he could have. But they hadn’t come for Bucky. Bucky was on the screen in front of him, and he was fine. Bruised, but fine.

“No, Steve. They didn’t come for me,” said Bucky, too gentle. Then he gave Steve a crooked grin that was trying just a little too hard to be carefree. “They got a pretty big surprise when the one-armed white guy came at ‘em with a pitchfork though.”

“You—you fought them,” said Steve faintly. He sat back on the ratty safe house couch, his bed for the night, and the couch retaliated by jamming an errant spring into his lower back.

Bucky’s brow furrowed. “Yeah, I fought them. They were ten armed guys trying to raid the village, thinking it was easy pickings, what was I gonna do, let them—”

Ten?!” said Steve, the word coming out as a sort of strangled whisper-shout.

Sam and Nat were asleep in the safe house’s one bedroom, just one thin wall away. Or they had been asleep, anyway. Maybe they weren’t now that Steve was making all this noise.

“Almost even odds,” remarked Bucky dryly, a cocky smirk on his face, like it was a joke, like he was talking about some dumb, overconfident asshole he’d decked in the YMCA’s boxing ring.

“That’s—you are missing an arm. You took on ten armed guys, while one-armed, where you’re supposed to be safe—”

Steve’s head filled with terrible visions of Bucky, down an arm and being swarmed and overtaken by armed smugglers. A very small part of Steve’s rational brain tried to provide the counter-image of Bucky tearing his way through the better part of a heavily armed and armored SWAT team in Bucharest, but the rest of Steve’s brain wasn’t having it.

“Hey,” snapped Bucky, narrowing his eyes. “One arm or not, I am still a soldier. I’ve still got all those skills that made me the Winter Soldier. I never fucking wanted them, but I have them. So I can take care of myself, and I can sure as hell hold off ten guys for long enough to make sure the village children get somewhere safe, and for backup to arrive.”

“Right. Okay, fine, just—Jesus, Buck, you’re in Wakanda to avoid fighting—”

“Who said I’m in Wakanda to avoid fighting? And just what the hell did you expect me to do?” demanded Bucky.

“Run and get help!”

Bucky barked out an incredulous laugh. “You’re telling me to run from a fight when there are innocent lives at risk? You? Do you even hear yourself right now! And what were you doing yesterday, Steve, huh?”

“That’s not—” Steve tried.

“No, tell me. What were you doing yesterday.”

Steve shook his head, looked away from Bucky’s furious glare. So he’d seen that news report. Steve had hoped it wouldn’t be picked up outside of Turkish media, or at least that it’d be buried under the news of assorted natural disasters and a wave of sexual assault scandals. No such luck, apparently.

“Taking out a terrorist cell in Ankara that was trafficking in stolen old SHIELD weapons. But that’s not the same thing.”

“Oh?” said Bucky, his voice gone dangerously low and even, his expression still but his eyes burning. Bucky rarely got loud when he got mad. He mostly just went terribly still and quiet, and that was when Steve should have known to tread carefully, like some deer or rabbit who suddenly sensed the presence of a wolf. “How is it not the same thing. I’m interested to know.”

“I went looking for this fight, okay? I didn’t get ambushed somewhere I was supposed to be safe, where I’m resting and recovering. You shouldn’t be—”

“Just say what you goddamned mean, Steve. I’m too broken for this, is that it?”

“Don’t put words in my mouth!” retorted Steve. “You’re not broken! I never said that! I just think you shouldn’t have to fight any more. I thought you didn’t want to.”

Bucky sighed and ran his hand through his hair, some of the fight going out of the set of his shoulders. He looked Steve in the eye, solemn and a little challenging, his mouth and jaw tense with determination.

“I don’t want to be a weapon any more. If I can fight, for a good reason, to help actually keep people safe…I’m okay with that. Or—I will be.”

“You’re not now?”

Bucky shook his head, short and sharp, and looked up, blinking fast, as if to keep tears from spilling over. “No.”


“It’s fine. I’m—I’m gonna talk to Oluchi tomorrow. Just—it was so easy. Kinda like hearing those fucking trigger words, you know? Just a switch flipped, and I went from baling some damn hay to nearly killing ten people. And I can’t tell if that’s a thing HYDRA put in me or if it was always there, and I don’t know what would be better.”

Steve wished he was there with Bucky. Any reassurance he could give via video call felt hollow. He wanted to be in Bucky’s cozy house to patch him up, put ice on that bruise. He wanted to make sure Bucky slept with an extra blanket tonight, or had a cup of tea, because he looked kind of cold just now. He wanted to go do a perimeter check of the village and then stand watch over Bucky’s rest, just in case.

He had to settle for this though, some words that he hoped would help.

“You did it to keep the village safe. That’s all you, Bucky Barnes.” Steve sighed. “That’s always gonna be you. I just wish you didn’t have to fight. You don’t have to fight. If there’s anyone that’s earned some rest, some peace…”

“It’d be you. You’ve given enough. But I don’t see you stopping,” said Bucky. His small smile was equal parts fond and sad, and Steve could barely face it.

“Yeah. There are still things I need to do, work that’s not finished. I’ve got a responsibility, now that SHIELD’s gone, and with the Accords,” he said, because shield or no shield, he still had a duty. Stopping now would be quitting, giving up, when his team still needed him and when there was still so much to fix. “But you don’t have to follow me into this one, Buck. I’m not gonna be alone, and you should—”

“For fuck’s sake, Steve,” interrupted Bucky, annoyed. He leaned forward towards the camera with a scowl. “Has it occurred to you that it’s not about you? That I can have reasons for wanting this that aren’t about following your dumb, star-spangled ass?”

Steve recoiled a little from the small phone screen, and tried not to flinch. “Right. Of course,” he said stiffly. Bucky softened, more exasperated than pissed now.

“I don’t mean I’m ditching you, get that look off your face. You need me, I’ll be there. But eventually, I’m gonna wanna know that I can fight as just me, okay? Use all this shit for good, try to make some of it right.”

“Alright,” said Steve, dredging up a small smile for Bucky. “You promise you’re not hurt? You’re all safe now?”

“Promise. The Dora Milaje and Border Guard came to get the smugglers, and none of us got any worse than a little banged up. You? News didn’t mention anything, but you all got out okay, right?”

“Yeah, we’re all fine too, back under the radar. We’re in an old safe house of Natasha’s, in Bishkek, safe and sound.”

“Good,” said Bucky, then he yawned, which set Steve off too. They’d been on the move since the raid on the terrorist cell yesterday, and Steve hadn’t slept yet, too focused on getting them somewhere reasonably safe.


“Yeah. Fuck, it’s barely sunset, but yeah.” Bucky brought his hand up, as if to rub at his eyes, then winced and stopped himself before he could touch the bruise.

“Put some ice on that, Buck, for god’s sake.”

“Doesn’t seem worth it, it’ll heal up in a couple hours,” grumbled Bucky, and he had a point. The edges of the bruise were already turning faintly green and yellow. A few hours of sleep, and the serum would take care of the rest.

“Fine, but at least get some sleep, you’ve had a long day.”

Bucky nodded and scooped his phone up from where it had presumably been propped up on the kitchen table, then headed for his bedroom.

“You should get some sleep too,” he said as he walked. Steve could almost pretend he was there with him, following Bucky to the small bedroom and its low bed piled high with comfortable pillows. “Or do you have to stay on the move?”

Steve propped his own phone up on the cheap coffee table beside the couch, and lay down on the couch. It was a tight fit, but he had pillows and a thin blanket, which meant this was far from the worst place he’d slept since going on the run.

“No, Natasha wanted to lie low here for a few days at least. It’s a shit hole, but no one’s looking for us in Bishkek, so…” Steve was loathe to let Bucky go, not even to sleep. It was late enough here that he really should sleep though, if he could manage it on this couch that seemed determined to poke its springs in all Steve’s tender parts. “Could we—could you stay on the line? You don’t have to talk, just—keep the call on.”

“While we’re both going to sleep?”

“Yeah. Like—like those dumb tin can and string telephones, kinda.” It wasn’t quite the right comparison, but the memory unraveled sweetly as he said the words, and he smiled at Bucky. “How you’d talk to me with ‘em when I was too contagious for Ma to let you in my room, and my throat hurt too much to talk.”

They hadn’t been dumb at all, actually. Steve, lonely and miserable and sick, had missed Bucky horribly during those seemingly endless bouts of illness, and Bucky had come by every day anyway, despite always being turned away by Steve’s mom. When Bucky had come up with the idea to use the tin can phones, Steve’s ma had laughed in delight and declared him the cleverest boy in Brooklyn. Steve had secretly agreed as he held up the can to his good ear and heard Bucky chattering away at him, faint but unmistakably there, the line connecting them even with Steve’s closed bedroom door and the width of the entire apartment between them.

“The tin can phones! I remember that,” said Bucky, as an answering slow smile dawned blinding and bright on his face, and he laughed. “Okay. Sure, why not. Maybe it’ll even be better than you actually being here, so you won’t steal my pillow.”

“One of your three pillows?”

Bucky set up his phone on the bed and arranged said three pillows to his satisfaction. “I need all of these,” he insisted, and yawned again.

“Good night, Buck.”

“Good night, Steve.”

Bucky turned off his lights with one tap to a kimoyo bead, and in less than a second, the camera adjusted to the new low light. Enough moonlight filtered in through Bucky’s window that Steve could still see Bucky’s face clearly, and thanks to the near-magical Wakandan technology, with enough detail that it was pretty damned close to actually being there. Close, but not quite.

If Steve were actually there, he would have brushed away that errant strand of hair falling across Bucky’s cheek. He would have brought Bucky some ice, or a cold wet towel at least, to ease the dull, throbbing pain of the still unhealed bruise on his face. He would have breathed in deep to gather in the comfortable and comforting smell of Bucky in bed, of clean sheets and the lingering woody sweet smell of whatever he put in his hair. It certainly would have been preferable to the musty odor of this couch.

Keeping watch like this was next to useless, given that he was thousands of miles away from Bucky. Steve couldn’t do much of anything, after all. Still, he stayed awake until Bucky fell asleep, and watched as his mouth finally relaxed, all the faint lines of strain and worry on his face smoothing out. Steve wouldn’t have minded seeing that every night.

Steve fell asleep too, eventually. His dreams sank him gently into a warm darkness lit by one bright line that hummed and pulsed in a familiar rhythm. With the certainty of dreams, Steve knew he had to follow that line, but he tumbled into deeper sleep before he could.

Something was poking Steve in the head. Either the couch had escalated its attacks, or this was his alarm for the morning.

“Steve, get up,” said a voice. Steve groaned.

“Is that your phone? Is your Skype call still on? Jesus. Okay, I’m mad about how cute this is.” Steve smacked at the poking appendage. Sam’s hand, apparently. “Rise and shine.”

Steve cracked open his eyes and saw his Skype call with Bucky was in fact still connected. Bucky’s black eye was entirely healed, and he was snoring faintly into one of his pillows. His hair was, of course, a total mess. Steve’s hand twitched with the urge to comb it into order. He muted the call instead.

“Shhh,” he told Sam. “Don’t wake him.”

“Seriously? Whatever. Congrats on the junior high milestone of falling asleep while talking to your crush. I got grounded for that on account of how much our phone bill ended up being, but guessing that’s not an issue here.”

“He’s not my crush, he’s my best friend,” groaned Steve. He wasn’t awake enough for this conversation.

Sam crossed his arms and stared down at Steve in exasperated disappointment. “I don’t know what’s worse, you actually being in this kind of denial, or you lying about it to yourself and everyone else.”

Steve started the process of trying to get up from the couch, which was proving difficult. The cushions didn’t want to let him go, and he could feel warning pokes from the ominously creaking springs. Sam didn’t seem inclined to help.

“I’m not in denial. I told you, he’s my best and oldest friend, and I thought he was dead, for years. I’m just happy to have him back,” Steve insisted. “This is normal.”

Probably. Maybe. Whatever, it was normal for Steve anyway.

“Uh huh. Okay. Well, food for thought: we are best friends, Steve. You and Barnes? That’s something else. Like, we are fugitives on the run from the law, and you still look happier than I’ve ever seen you now that you’re talking to him all the time. Are you?”

“Am I what?”


It was one of the first things Sam had asked him: what makes you happy. And Steve hadn’t had an answer then. Was he happy now? Steve wasn’t sure. He felt a lot like he had during the war, he supposed: like he was doing the right thing, with the right people. And okay, it was amazing to know that, after everything, Bucky was safe and well, and even if they were apart, Steve loved that he could still see him and talk to him, loved being able to exchange dumb messages and pictures near-instantly, and if you put that all together, maybe it all meant that Steve was something like happy.


Surely there was something wrong with him if he was happy now that he had no job and multiple warrants out for his arrest.

“Oh for—you don’t have to brood and wallow in guilt about it,” said Sam, rolling his eyes and finally offering Steve a hand up. “I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I get it, okay? I can’t be throwing rocks in this house of glass, I’m the idiot who left a stable job I liked to run around playing superhero with your dumb ass. What makes us happy isn’t always what’s safest. Just think about it, okay? You got your guy back. Don’t waste that chance. Not everyone’s that lucky.”

Steve did think about it, because Sam was right: not everyone was so lucky. Lucky maybe wasn’t quite the right word, since it felt obscene to classify anything about what had been done to Bucky as lucky. But Steve knew what an inexpressibly rare and precious thing he had in Bucky’s return and recovery. He knew that most people, like Sam, hadn’t gotten and wouldn’t ever get their loved ones back.

So yeah, Steve was happy. But Bucky had pretty much always been the best thing in his life. Even when he’d been sick, even when they’d been dirt poor, even when they’d been in miserable, fetid foxholes, having Bucky at his side had made it all okay. It wasn’t any different now. That had to be the “something else,” Sam thought he saw between Steve and Bucky, surely.

Nearly three months passed in what felt like fast forward: calls and texts with Bucky, staying on the move with Sam and Natasha, and sometimes Wanda, running what missions they could while dodging the authorities. It couldn’t last. Something would upend their lives again, some new disaster would strike, or maybe they’d even reach some resolution with the Accords.

Though Steve kept the flip phone with him almost all the time, Tony never called. Sometimes Steve almost did; he thought—hoped—that Tony would be willing to talk things over by now. But then he looked at Sam and Nat and Wanda, and remembered the Raft, Wanda collared like an animal and Sam beat to hell, and he realized he couldn’t risk it.

Some of their missions were risky enough as it was.

There was a month-long stretch that was especially brutal, where one mission gave them a lead on another, too time-sensitive to ignore, then another, and all the while they were dodging and outrunning the authorities. Steve only had enough time and safety to send Bucky a few quick check-in texts every couple days or so, and he didn’t worry too much about Bucky’s vague responses back. Steve missed the little glimpses into Bucky’s life, sure, but Bucky probably didn’t want to distract him.

Just hold out until March, Steve told himself. Just another couple weeks.

He’d told Sam and Nat that unless the world was ending, he was going to be in Wakanda for Bucky’s birthday. He’d missed too damn many of them, and this was technically going to be Bucky’s 100th. Steve had what he hoped was the perfect present and everything. He was going to do whatever it took to be back with Bucky by March 10th.

When they finally had enough downtime and safety to be sure they weren’t about to be shot or arrested, Steve texted Bucky the second he got some privacy. If said privacy was in the poky bathroom of the one-room vacation cottage in Malta they were squatting in, well, Bucky wouldn’t mind, and Sam and Natasha would just have to deal.

Hey, i’ve finally got some downtime, skype you in five?

Bucky answered quickly: everyone okay?

We’re all good, just tired. You? Haven’t heard much from you the past couple weeks.

You were busy, didn’t want to distract you. I’m okay

Steve frowned down at his phone. It was hard to tell with texts, but this seemed...terse, for Bucky. Was he mad at Steve? None of their missions had made the news, and Steve hadn’t been seriously injured or anything, so it wasn’t likely to be that. Before he could ask, Bucky texted again.

Actually i’m not. But i don’t want to talk about it. We can skype, but please don’t ask me to talk about it

Steve skyped Bucky immediately of course. The second the call connected, he nearly asked Bucky to do just that: are you okay, what’s wrong, are you safe. Bucky cut him off before he could.

“I’m not hurt, and I’m not sick. Just—can you please not—” Bucky’s voice was rough and tight, like the words were being squeezed out painfully.

“Yeah, of course,” Steve said, and scoured Bucky’s face for any clues as to what was wrong. There were dark shadows under his eyes, and he looked the kind of exhausted that had nothing to do with his body. His beard and hair were looking a little wild too, but that could have just been the consequence of a long day.

The look in his eyes was familiar though: it was the same look of haunted exhaustion that he’d let slip in Siberia before he’d noticed Steve was looking. Steve wanted to know why the hell that look was back, and who or what put it there. But Bucky had said he didn’t want to talk about it.

“Sorry about calling you from the bathroom, I promise I’m not taking a dump in here, it’s just the only private room in this place.”

A smile flickered too briefly across Bucky’s lips. “And here I thought you were just multitasking.”

Steve smiled back, and hoped he didn’t look too obviously worried. “So, uh, I can catch you up? If you want?”

“Sure. Should I go to the bathroom too? In solidarity?”

“Ha ha. I know it’s kind of late though. You can go to bed, I won’t keep you long.”

“No, I—just, can you talk. Please. I’m not—I’m not up for that, but I want to—to listen. If that’s okay.” Bucky winced. “I know that’s shitty, sorry.”

The sheer effort it seemed to be taking Bucky to get those words out made Steve’s throat tighten in sympathy, and made his worry flare bright and sharp. Steve didn’t think he’d ever heard Bucky sound like this. Was this better or worse than Bucky’s deft deflections and moody silences during the war? Steve wasn’t sure.

God, he wished he was there with Bucky. If nothing else, Steve could have brought him a cup of tea and a blanket.

“It’s okay,” he told Bucky. “Tin can phones again, remember? I remember once you talked at me for about an hour about the Donnelly twins nearly getting arrested.”

Now the still too-quick smile almost reached Bucky’s eyes. He propped up the phone somewhere—the table by his couch, apparently—and lay down on the couch. “And here you are, about to tell me how you nearly got arrested.”

“Pretty much,” admitted Steve, and started talking.

Though it was a close thing sometimes, he tried to avoid veering into a dry mission briefing. Instead he focused on the absurd details, like having to hide in a sprawling antique shop in Lisbon and constantly sliding into French or Spanish when he was trying his best to speak Portuguese. He also got a good fifteen minutes out of how much he fucking hated boats, and all the indignities of that particular awful sea voyage across the Mediterranean were retroactively worth it for the way Bucky’s eyes sparked with small flickers of amusement.

Eventually, Bucky fell asleep, though it didn’t look restful. His brow was still creased with some pain or sadness, and he was going to get a crick in his neck in that position.

“Buck?” murmured Steve. “Buck, c’mon, get up, go to bed in your actual bed, you’re gonna regret it in the morning otherwise.”

Bucky didn’t stir, and Steve wasn’t entirely willing to wake him. Bucky looked like he sorely needed the sleep, uncomfortable position or not. He waited a few minutes, in case Bucky woke, then a few minutes later still, just because he didn’t want to leave Bucky. He wasn’t really there, couldn’t do much of anything to ease whatever pain this was, but still. Steve didn’t want to leave him.

He wondered why Bucky wasn’t okay, and why he didn’t want to—or couldn’t, maybe—talk about it. He wondered just how long Bucky hadn’t been okay, what Steve had missed while going from mission to mission. Had something happened? Had the attack on the village last month set Bucky’s progress back?

Another voice over the phone line interrupted Steve’s fretting, and he jumped and tensed. “Bucky?” called out the voice softly. Steve relaxed: that was Oluchi’s husky voice.

“He’s asleep,” said Steve quietly, and Oluchi came into view, bending over the phone to peer at the screen. She smiled warmly when she saw him.

“Steve, hello. You are well?” she asked, keeping her voice low as she picked up the phone and walked somewhere she presumably wouldn’t wake Bucky.

“I’m fine, ma’am, thank you for asking. And you?” asked Steve, because no matter how worried he was about Bucky, he had some manners.

“I’m well, thank you. I’m glad you were able to call Bucky, he has had a difficult couple of weeks.”

“He said he wasn’t okay but that he didn’t want to talk about it. He said he’s not hurt, or sick, but can you tell me what’s wrong?”

“He’s facing some very hard things. Healing is not all rest, you know. Some of it’s hard work.”

“Oh. Should I—can you—”

“He will tell you when he is able,” said Oluchi, gentle but firm.

“Right. Of course. Um. I wanted to tell him—or, if you don’t think it’s a good idea—I was going to try to come for a visit in a couple weeks?”

“I think that’s an excellent idea.”

“Should I come sooner?”

Oluchi gave him a lightly chiding look. “This is no emergency, and he doesn’t need fussing over, Steve. He is well looked after already. I came to make sure he had food, and that he was getting some rest, and tomorrow Mihlali will go with him to check on the grazing fences, and the children will ask him for help with their math lessons. And he and I will speak some more, and that may be hard, but he will not be alone. This is a community, remember?”

Steve got the feeling he was being managed and soothed, like a fussy child, and part of him rebelled, but the rise and fall of Oluchi’s voice, and the peaceful day she described, really did ease some of Steve’s worry. Bucky wasn’t alone.

“Okay,” said Steve, and took a deep breath. “I remember. Thank you, ma’am.”

Oluchi snorted quietly. “None of this ma’am business, now. Call him tomorrow. And you go get some rest too.” She squinted at the phone screen. “Somewhere not in a bathroom.”

Per Oluchi’s gentle order, Steve called Bucky the next evening. On the screen, Bucky still looked the kind of sad that had Steve feeling faintly frantic with the desire to fix it, or at the very least, to wrap him up in a blanket, or a hug.

“Hey Steve.”

“Hey Buck,” said Steve, then hesitated. “Feeling better today?”

Bucky shrugged. “Got some sleep,” he said.

“Still not up for talking?”

“Not really.”

“You could, you know. I mean, if you wanted to? You could talk to me, about—about anything. About the stuff you’ve been through, if—”

Bucky made an incredulous noise, not quite a laugh. “Steve. What good would that do either of us.”

“You never said a damn thing, after Azzano. That didn’t seem to work out so great. So, I’m just saying, you can talk to me. I—I’ve read a lot of Winter Soldier files, you know. So it’s not like I don’t know.”

Steve knew. In often sickening detail, Steve knew. And yet even that was only a small portion of the hell Bucky had lived for far too long.

“I’m not sure you do,” said Bucky, a distance in his voice and eyes that Steve didn’t like. “But I hear you.”

Silence sat between them for a long moment, heavy and dark.

“I’m, uh, gonna come back for another visit in a couple weeks. If that’s okay.”

Finally, some real brightness sparked in Bucky’s eyes, harsh lines of tension on his face easing just a little. The sight was about as welcome as the sun after a week-long blizzard.

“Yeah? Course it’s okay,” said Bucky with a small but true smile. Then he winced. “Uh, I might be a downer, I guess, so if you don’t want to deal with—”

“Bucky,” Steve interrupted with vehemence. “I don’t care. I don’t need you to be...I don’t know, anything other than how you are, okay? You don’t need to put on a happy face or anything. Just like how you always stayed with me even when I was sick as hell and spitting mad about it.”

Bucky looked down and nodded, his hair falling forward to render his expression unreadable. Steve found himself leaning closer to his phone screen, as if that would help him see better, and his fingers itched with the urge to reach for Bucky. Not even Wakandan technology was advanced enough for Steve to touch Bucky from so far away though. After a second, Bucky looked up again, tucking his hair back.

“Okay. Text me when you’ve got an ETA,” he said.

Steve nodded, and hoped Bucky wouldn’t catch on that this was a birthday visit. That, Steve wanted to keep a surprise.

A few days later, Steve got an email from Bucky. Like all his emails, it was handwritten with a stylus on his tablet, an old-fashioned letter in digital form. Though Wakandan technology surely had the capability of transcribing the handwriting into typewritten text, neither Bucky nor Steve bothered. Steve liked how it felt like getting letters from Bucky during the war, and Bucky seemed to like maintaining the distinction between his casual texts and his more detailed letters.


I’m sorry about the other day.

I still don’t want to talk about it with you and I’m not sure I ever will. Not all of it, anyway. I can’t see that it would do anything but hurt both of us. But Oluchi says I can’t be mad at you or upset with you for not getting it when I haven’t told you what it is you’re not getting. And she’s not wrong.

So this is all I’m gonna say about it, and I know you, so I know you’re probably going to want to talk about it with me, but please don’t turn this into an argument. Please.

What’s hardest for me about what happened to me isn’t remembering all the torture and the experiments and the ‘training.’ And now that I’ve got most of my mind back, the amnesia’s not the hard part either. And I guess this might make me a monster, but knowing that I was used to kill people isn’t the hardest thing either. That, at least, is the part of this whole fucking nightmare that I’m used to by now, and believe it or not, getting most of those memories back actually kind of helped. Oluchi says that’s because it stopped the memories from retraumatizing me every time they came back and I can process it all in a healthier way or something.

I’m stalling. Sorry.

Here’s what’s hardest: sometimes I don’t know how to live when I know how completely everything can be taken from me.

I know what you’re going to say, what you’re probably about to call me and say: that I’m safe now, that the triggers are gone, that it’s never going to happen again, that I won’t be wiped, that you’ll never let HYDRA or anyone else have me ever again. That it’s over.

Sometimes I can believe that. Sometimes I can’t.

Oluchi says some part of me must have always believed, or hoped, that I could be safe and free, because I’ve always fought hard to stay alive. I guess so.

Some days it’s just too fucking hard though. Some days it feels impossible. So that’s what you need to know, I guess. I don’t expect you to make it better, and I’m not sure you can. So don’t go charging in like this is a fight you gotta win. It just is what it is.

I made you a promise though, and you have to know that I will never, ever willingly break it.



Steve’s first instinct was, in fact, to call Bucky and he nearly did. But what the fuck could Steve say to him after reading that? How could he let this mess of love and grief and fury and pain out in any way that made sense to Bucky, or that could help him? So instead he sat at the latest safe house’s lopsided card table with his head in his hands and breathed, measured and careful, to keep from crying.

“Steve, you okay?” asked Sam, and Steve nodded. “Is Barnes okay?”

Steve shrugged, not lifting his head. He needed to get himself together or he didn’t know what Sam would read on his face. “He sent me a letter.”

“Did he Dear John you? If he fucking Dear John lettered you, I am gonna fly my ass to Wakanda and beat the shit out of him, I don’t care if he’s only got one arm—”

Steve laughed, or tried to anyway. “No! No, he didn’t Dear John me, for god’s sake, Sam. No, just—he’s been having a hard time lately. He told me why. And I’m not handling it so great, I guess. I wanna help him, or fix it, but—”

“You can’t.”

“I can’t.”

“Just tell him you hear him, and you understand.”

“Okay,” said Steve, and stared down at his phone.

He tried typing out, thank you for telling me, but that sounded somehow too dry, so he deleted it. I’m glad you fought, I’m sorry you have to keep fighting even now. No. That didn’t feel right. I would give anything to make it better. What help was that to Bucky now? He stared down at the phone some more.

“You can use those exact words, you know. ‘I hear you, I understand.’ Maybe add in an ‘I love you,’” said Sam, exasperated. “Platonic, even.”

“He’d panic if I texted him I love you,” muttered Steve, because Bucky, not entirely inaccurately, would absolutely assume that Steve was on the brink of death if he texted him a contextless I love you.

“Oh for—okay, well, try some emojis then, I’m sure there are some that convey ‘thank you for sharing your trauma with me, I love and support you.’”

Steve, to his shame, actually did open up the emoji menu. He scrolled through the entire thing. “No, there really aren’t.”

Sam sucked in a noisy breath and let it out in a gusty sigh. “That was sarcasm. Right, I’m going to get us some food. If you haven’t expressed some form of support for your man by the time I get back, I’m taking your phone and sending nothing but eggplant and peach emojis, I swear to god.”

Steve wasn’t entirely sure why that was a threat, but didn’t doubt that it was, in fact, a threat. He stared at the phone screen some more and watched the cursor blink. Fuck it. Bucky knew Steve, he’d understand whatever embarrassing nonsense came out of his mouth. He skyped Bucky.

When Bucky answered, he looked wary and guarded, the way he had in his apartment in Bucharest. Judging by the view behind him, he was sitting at his small kitchen table, and Steve could imagine just how Bucky had spent the time since sending the letter: waiting anxiously for Steve’s text or call in response, girding himself for a fight, or a conversation he didn’t want to have.

“Hey,” said Bucky, too much anxiety in the single word.

“So I was trying to figure out how to answer your letter and I couldn’t, all my texts sounded dumb, but I did read it, and—and I get it. And thank you. For telling me. I know it can’t have been easy,” Steve blurted out, and to his relief, Bucky’s shoulders relaxed.

Bucky nodded, and looked down, inhaled a long and shaky breath in before looking up again. He smiled at Steve a little. “You could’ve texted me just that, you know,” he said.

“It didn’t look right as a text,” grumbled Steve. “I considered some emojis, but none of those looked right either.”

Steve,” said Bucky through the hand now covering his face.

“I know, okay!”

“I poured my damn heart out in a letter, and you were about to send me emojis back—”

“I know! Why do you think I called you!”

“You are such a disaster,” marveled Bucky, grinning.

Steve scowled at him, then admitted, “Sam said if I hadn’t ‘expressed some support’ by the time he got back, he’d take my phone and send you back a bunch of eggplant and peach emojis. Which I don’t get. What do eggplants and peaches have to do with anything?”

Bucky burst into a gale of laughter, his whole body shaking with it. Steve had no idea what he’d said to merit that reaction, but he found himself grinning wildly anyway.

“You’re kidding, right?” managed Bucky when he caught his breath.

“No! What do they mean, Buck, c’mon, tell me.”

Bucky giggled silently some more, and to Steve’s total delight and fascination, turned bright red. “If you don’t know, I’m not telling you. Get with the times, old man.”

“Buck! C’mon, please!”

“No!” he insisted, then rested his cheek on his hand and smiled at Steve, his eyes still shining from his earlier laughing fit. Steve’s heart gave a funny little stutter, and pounded and bounced like a happy dog’s tail. “Thanks,” he said, softly.

“So, do you feel, you know, supported enough, because otherwise Sam’s gonna send you god knows what…”

“I do, actually,” Bucky said, then rolled his eyes as his smile turned wry. “I kinda wrote the letter not expecting it to help, but, uh. It did. Oluchi’s gonna be smug.”

“I’m glad it helped.”

When March 10th rolled around, Sam joined Steve for his visit to Wakanda. Partly just for practicality’s sake; Steve was taking the overland route this time, and he needed someone to spell him at the wheel of the Jeep, and to keep an eye out for tails and unwelcome attention. Mostly though, Sam just wanted to see Wakanda.

“Don’t worry, I won’t third wheel you for your dirty weekend or whatever,” Sam told Steve.

“Okay, first of all, it’s not even the weekend, and second of all, I’m visiting for Bucky’s birthday, not a dirty weekend.”

“Uh huh, sure. Anyway, you have your romantic weekend on the farm or whatever, and I’m gonna play tourist in the Golden City.”

Steve sighed, and gave up on trying to convince Sam of the platonic nature of this trip.

The Wakandan border wasn’t obviously secured in any way, even now that Wakanda had revealed its true nature to the world. Most of the terrain did the work itself, rendering Wakanda too remote and physically inaccessible in its most heavily jungled and mountainous borders. But there was a seemingly more permeable part of the border along the plains, and that was where Steve and Sam were headed.

It only seemed permeable, of course. Mere minutes after they crossed the invisible line that meant they were in Wakanda, the Border Guard appeared.

“State your business, foreigners!” bellowed one of the guards as she approached, riding on the back of a rhino. When she spotted Steve’s face, her voice and posture turned friendly. “Oh, Captain Rogers, hello. We were told to expect you.”

“That rhino is bigger than this jeep,” hissed Sam, trying and failing to look nonchalant.

“It’s friendly. Probably,” Steve told Sam, then parked the jeep and got out to greet the Border Guard.

The guard gave some command to her rhino and with surprising grace given its size, it kneeled and she hopped down. For all her outward friendliness, her keen eyes still gave him and Sam a careful once-over, and she consulted something on her kimoyo beads’ display. Whatever she saw satisfied her, and she strode forward. Once the introductions were made, and once Sam had carefully pet the rhino, the Border Guard captain jumped back on her rhino.

“Follow me then. Your White Wolf is in the Golden City, Captain Rogers. We have some hoverbikes back at camp, you can leave the jeep with us and ride those into the city.”

“Hoverbikes?” said Sam.

“You fly with literal wings, and hoverbikes are what’s impressing you?” asked Steve.


Okay, hoverbikes were pretty fucking cool, thought Steve as they zipped towards the Golden City. The hoverbikes’ HUD directed their route across the rolling plains and over the verdant jungles, through an opening in the dome-shaped shield over the Golden City, where the hoverbikes’ autopilot programs took over to get them safely to a dock without crashing into any trains or other vehicles.

Sam dismounted with a whoop. “Holy shit, I never want to ride a regular motorcycle ever again.”

Steve didn’t disagree, and grinned when he saw Sam immediately start examining everything around him with wide-eyed interest. Their hoverbikes had brought Steve and Sam to a dock down at the foot of the Citadel, and there was a bustling late morning crowd going about their business, eyeing Steve and Sam (mostly Steve) with curiosity. One of the city’s mag lev trains zoomed past, and Sam’s head whipped around to follow its course with open wonder. A couple Dora Milaje looked on, faintly indulgent. Steve straightened when he recognized one of them, only narrowly suppressing the urge to salute.

“General Okoye,” he said, settling for what he hoped was an appropriately respectful nod.

“Captain Rogers, Mr. Wilson, welcome. I know you are here to visit your friend, but the king and I would like a quick briefing with you today while you are here at the Citadel.”

“Of course. Is there an emergency, or—?”

“No emergency, and your friend remains safe. No need to worry, Captain,” said Okoye with a brief but warm smile. “We just think it would be to all of our benefits to share some intelligence.”

“Understood, ma’am,” said Steve, then hesitated. It was unlikely that the briefing would take all day, and Bucky was in the Citadel, but what if they all got caught up in meetings and meals… “Uh, just—could I see Bucky first? It’s only that it’s his birthday, and I wanted to make sure I gave him his present today—”

“Really, Steve?” said Sam.

Steve elbowed him, but otherwise ignored him.

“Well, if it’s his birthday,” said Okoye dryly and Steve flushed. She raised an eyebrow and continued, “We don’t intend to keep you in meetings all day, Captain. But of course. He is waiting for you with the King and Princess Shuri anyway.”

On the way to the palace, Sam peppered Okoye with questions, which she seemed to take in good humor. Her pride in her country shone out of her, and it gave Steve a brief pang of homesickness for Brooklyn, the last place he’d known and loved the way Okoye loved Wakanda. He let the feeling pass; he’d give up the Brooklyn he’d known a thousand times over to have Bucky instead.

When they arrived at the palace, they got the chance to clean up and change out of their dusty and travel-worn clothes before meeting with T’Challa and the others. Compared to the Wakandans, Steve still felt faintly grubby in his clean jeans and button-up shirt, but it wasn’t as if life as a fugitive allowed for a wardrobe that included formal attire. Still, he had the wild thought that he should ask for an iron and iron his shirt at least. Did they even have irons in Wakanda? Maybe their closets just automatically ironed their clothes for them. He wouldn’t have been surprised.

Steve was about to start poking around the guest suite for an iron or futuristic iron substitute when Sam banged on the door. “Yo, you done making yourself look pretty for your BFF?”

“That’s not what I’m—just a minute!”

Steve made sure his collar was straight and that his hair was as neat as it was going to get, then he turned to his pack. He set aside rolled up clothes and assorted supplies, and pulled out Bucky’s present from where it was packed carefully at the bottom.

The gift bag he’d gotten in Kinshasa was somewhat wrinkled from being folded flat, and some of the tissue paper that would fill the bag was torn, but that was okay. It was the gift he was putting inside the bag that mattered anyway: five beautifully bound blank journals, bought from markets all over the world and carefully selected to make sure they’d lie flat on their own without needing a second hand to hold them open, and a dozen ballpoint pens. Steve had drawn some sketches onto the notebooks’ endpapers too: the view of the lake from Bucky’s house in the Border Tribe village, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Howlies around a campfire, a few others. They weren’t fine art or anything, and who knew if Bucky would even like them. He hoped Bucky would.

At the very least, Steve hoped Bucky would get a laugh out of the other part of his present: a cheap, hilariously awful Captain America-themed spiral bound notebook, and the most ridiculous birthday card he’d been able to find, with the help of Wanda.

Steve wrapped it all up carefully in tissue paper, then put it in the bag. It wasn’t much, really. It was a hell of a lot less than Bucky deserved, and it was small consolation for the notebooks Bucky had lost, still sitting in some evidence locker somewhere. If Steve could have, he’d have given Bucky back every single thing the last century had taken from him, and more besides. But most of those things couldn’t be bought back at any earthly price.

He’d have to give Bucky new things and new memories, happiness enough to overtake all the loss.

They were shown to a part of the palace Steve had never been in before, to a room that looked like a study or office, homier than he’d expected of a royal study in a palace. T’Challa, Shuri, Okoye, and a couple Dora Milaje guards were there already, and of course, Bucky, who was peering at the books on the shelves, a thoughtful furrow on his brow. Steve had, technically, seen him just yesterday when he’d skyped him with their ETA. And yet it was somehow different to have Bucky in arm’s reach, to see the whole of him like this: his broad shoulders and long legs, the relaxed ease in his frame. Though he wasn’t exactly formally dressed, he still looked significantly nicer than Steve did; he was wearing one of the collarless tunic-style shirts Wakandan men seemed to favor, in a soft-looking shade of cloud grey, the empty left sleeve neatly pinned up, and slacks rather than the sturdy work pants he favored when in the village.

“Captain Rogers, Mr. Wilson, welcome,” said T’Challa, and Steve wrenched his attention away from Bucky to greet T’Challa properly.

He got through a hello and thank you before his eyes found Bucky again, and then he got, maybe, a bit distracted on account of how when Bucky turned to face him, everything about him practically lit up with his bright and unshadowed smile. Steve smiled back, relieved and grateful. Bucky was having a good day then. Maybe Steve could make it even better. It was his birthday, he deserved to have the best day possible.

Steve pretty desperately wanted to go straight to Bucky, but he had manners, so instead he introduced Sam to Shuri and duly made courteous small talk as Bucky ambled over to join them at the chairs by the desk. Shuri cut the pleasantries short in favor of peering and poking at the gift bag Steve was carrying.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Uh, it’s for Bucky. Hi, Buck,” he said, and set the bag down on the desk for Bucky. “Happy birthday.”

Bucky blinked, tilting his head. “Birthday?”

“It’s your birthday and you didn’t tell us?!” said Shuri.

“March 10th. You’re a hundred years old, old man,” said Steve.

“No shit?” Bucky said with a wondering kind of laugh. “I hadn’t even really noticed the date.”

“Yeah, that’s how you know you’re old,” said Sam. “When you stop even noticing your birthdays. Congrats Barnes, you’re a real senior citizen now.”

“Happy birthday,” said T’Challa with a warm smile, as Shuri made a strangled sound of frustration.

“Your hundredth birthday and you didn’t even notice!” she exclaimed, fingers moving rapidly over her kimoyo beads. “That will not do, Bucky. We are celebrating.”

“Aww, Shuri, no—”

“Shuri yes! What do you Americans do for birthdays again? Cake, yes? What’s your favorite?”

“I don’t think it even counts as my hundredth birthday, what with all that time in cryo, and anyway, I thought Wakandans didn’t celebrate birthdays—”

“We don’t, but we do celebrate milestones like people coming of age and people turning one hundred years old, Bucky. Also I like cake. So. What’s your favorite cake?”

“His favorite cake is chocolate,” said Steve, grinning when Bucky gave him a not especially heartfelt glare. “C’mon, open your present.”

He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from fidgeting. He just ended up bouncing on his toes instead as Bucky reached into the bag and pulled out the tissue paper wrapped bundle, which he started unfolding with care until he revealed the first notebook. He pulled it free of the tissue wrap and opened the cover.

“Oh,” breathed out Bucky. His fingers traced the lines of the sketch of the lake on the inside cover, light and gentle, as if he were touching something fragile and precious. “Steve...”

“They’re just notebooks. Blank, for you to write in. Like the ones in your apartment in Bucharest? If, uh, you want to write in them, you can—I don’t know, do whatever. I hope you like them? Or, if there’s something else you wanted, I can—”

“No. This is perfect,” said Bucky, and looked up, eyes shining. “Seriously, Steve. Thank you.”

Bucky pulled him in for a hug, and Steve held him close, close enough to feel Bucky’s chest rise and fall with his breaths, a motion that seemed as if it should be as vital to the world as tides. Here again, the proof beneath Steve’s hands that his universe made sense again: Bucky was alive and well. He sighed in relief, nearly in sync with Bucky.

“I’m glad you like it,” murmured Steve.

“I’m glad you’re drawing again,” said Bucky, his voice low and private in a way that made Steve want to keep him this close forever.

“I’m pretty out of practice,” Steve admitted.

“Then the present I got you will help,” said Bucky, and Steve could very nearly feel Bucky’s smile, Bucky’s mouth was so close to his ear.

Steve held back a shiver and pulled back just enough so he could see Bucky’s face. “Present? What for? You didn’t have to get me a present.”

“We kind of forgot about Christmas, earlier, and I’ve missed a lot of those, and your birthdays too. Figured you were due for a present. It’s not much…” Shuri brought out a bag from behind the desk, and Bucky gave it to him with a grin. “And I’m realizing now we kinda got each other the same thing.”

Inside the bag was a finely bound sketchbook, the paper thick and creamy, and a handsomely made leather case that held a set of colored drawing pencils: two dozen colors, all of them rich and bright, an unimaginable luxury to the Steve of seventy years ago.

“This is amazing, Buck. Thank you,” he said, and reeled Bucky in for another hug.

He didn’t particularly have any plans to let him go any time soon, but then Okoye cleared her throat, and Steve and Bucky jumped like they’d been caught passing notes by the teacher.

“Many happy returns, Sergeant Barnes. May your next century bring you more joy than the last. Captain Rogers, if we could have that meeting…?”

Steve flushed and let Bucky go. “Of course, ma’am. Sorry.”

“No apologies necessary. If I’d known this was such a special occasion, I’d have pushed this meeting back,” said T’Challa with a grin that was more boyish than kingly. “This really will be a brief meeting though, and then Shuri will probably have some plans for you…”

“Oh, I will,” said Shuri, in far more dire tones than a birthday party demanded, and left the study.

“Uh, do you need me here, because I feel like I should keep her from planning anything too crazy…” said Bucky, looking after Shuri anxiously. T’Challa shook his head and waved him off.

“Good luck with that. If you can keep her down to a cake, you’ll have worked a miracle,” he said, then turned to Steve. “Now, I wanted to discuss the proliferation of Chitauri and other alien weapons with you…”

The meeting was, as promised, fairly short, and afterwards they headed to one of the palace dining rooms for lunch, which had now become an impromptu birthday party for Bucky. Bucky had apparently had mixed success in keeping Shuri from going too over the top: there was a large cake with candles obscuring nearly its entire surface, some streamers, a giant holographic HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY message, and Bucky now had a very fetching shiny ribbon tied around his simple ponytail.

Bucky greeted them all with a look that was equal parts exasperated and fond. “I tried my best and negotiated down to this,” he told them.

“I don’t know why you refused the live band. I understand a birthday song is a tradition of your people!” said Shuri, arm in arm with the Queen Mother.

Now Steve definitely wished he’d worn something nicer. He had no idea if this was everyday clothing for her or not, but the Queen Mother looked resplendent in a green and white gown. Steve had no idea how to address her.

He settled on, “Ma’am, it’s an honor,” which must have been alright, because Sam echoed him and she smiled and greeted them both.

Bucky, meanwhile, was still bickering good-naturedly with Shuri over appropriate birthday celebrations.

“Shuri, I know you know what birthday song is the tradition of my people, and it’s not a live band performing the greatest hits of the 30s,” said Bucky, rolling his eyes.

“You know what’s a birthday tradition of our people?” asked Sam. “Birthday punches,” he said and jokingly lunged for Bucky, who dodged.

“I’m an elderly amputee, Wilson, that’s cruel!”

Steve maybe should have put a stop to that, but Sam was mostly just shadowboxing at Bucky, and Bucky danced out of the way with an agility that was decidedly not elderly. And though he’d never admit it to either of them, he thought it was pretty funny how Sam and Bucky turned into bickering kids around each other. When Sam managed to get one light hit in, he cheered.

“Ninety-nine to go!”

“Oh, now you’re elderly? Who just spent an hour trying to convince me this doesn’t count as your hundredth birthday?” demanded Shuri, and the Queen Mother’s mouth twitched into a smile.

“Ah, what have I told you about respect for your elders, Shuri?” she said, and the spark of mischief in her eyes made her look more like her daughter’s sister than her mother.

Surrounded by royalty or not, lunch was a light-hearted affair that felt more like a family meal than anything formal. Bucky seemed comfortable and happy, so Steve was too, and T’Challa and the Queen Mother were warm, gracious hosts. When Sam asked about what he should do and see in Wakanda, everyone was happy to answer him, talking over each other in a rush.

The Queen Mother laughed. “After so long hidden, I suppose we are rather eager to share our beautiful country with those who can appreciate it,” she said when Sam looked overwhelmed by the torrent of information.

When the main meal was over, Shuri brought the cake out—no small task judging by how she hefted it up with a small grunt—and plopped it in front of Bucky. She clapped, and all the candles on the cake flared to life, so suddenly that Steve and Bucky both flinched away from the bright flare of light.

“Woah,” said Sam.

Bucky squinted suspiciously up at Shuri, who was now filming with her kimoyo bead. “Will these actually go out if I blow on them?”

She widened her eyes in a mostly convincing display of innocence. “Of course they will! That is the tradition, is it not? Along with the song and making a wish?”

“We don’t have to sing the song,” tried Bucky, but Steve wasn’t having it.

He threw an arm around Bucky’s shoulders, only partly to make sure he wouldn’t try to make an escape from the indignities of birthday celebration and said, “Oh yes we do. Happy birthday to you…”

Bucky sighed but he leaned against Steve and waited out the song with beleaguered patience. When it was over, he stretched forward cautiously and tried to blow out the candles. His first tentative breath didn’t seem to do anything, and he raised an eyebrow at Shuri.

“I know you’ve got stronger lungs than that!” she said.

“If this blows up in my face…”

“That would be a waste of good cake,” said the Queen Mother mildly, and Shuri nodded.

This seemed to ease Bucky’s suspicions, and he blew hard at the candles. The flames, if that’s what they really were, wavered this time, before they gently dissolved into a sprinkling of glittering stars like silent fireworks that hung in the air above the cake for long seconds before drifting down. It must have been some form of advanced technology or another, but to Steve, it might as well have been magic.

Bucky laughed in delight, and beamed at Shuri. Steve silently resolved to get a copy of the footage Shuri was filming. “That’s incredible. Show me how it works?”

As they ate the delicious cake, she did just that. She also gave Bucky some new kimoyo beads to add to his necklace, ones with functions beyond the basic ones he already had.

“I was going to give you these anyway, but now you can consider them a birthday present. I put them on child settings to help you learn how to use them.”

“Thank you,” said Bucky dryly.

When the impromptu party ended, Steve and Bucky left Sam in the Golden City to play tourist, and took a hoverbike back to the Border Tribe village. Bucky was a warm weight leaning against his back, his arm wrapped around Steve’s waist. It was a short ride with the hoverbike’s speed, and yet Steve wanted to draw it out. The honey-golden light of late afternoon poured over Wakanda’s plains and savannah, pooling to form a molten glow in its rivers and lakes, and the sky was clear and endlessly blue, the flying easy.

He wasn’t so certain about his ability to fly and land the hoverbike once it started getting dark though, so he followed the HUD’s directions to the village, and landed in the open field beside the lake. Well, he tried to land anyway. He couldn’t quite get the hang of making the hoverbike stop hovering, and they ended up landing with a rough thump when he finally just turned the thing off while they were still four feet in the air.

“Nice landing,” said Bucky as he dismounted with a smirk.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Steve, bumping Bucky with his shoulder before he unpacked their things from the bike’s saddlebags.

They walked to Bucky’s house in comfortable silence, and Steve let the day’s contentment settle over and into him, a balm against harsher nights.

“Good birthday?” he asked Bucky as they approached the doorway.

Bucky shrugged, his eyes creasing up into a sweet, secret kind of smile. “Not bad.”

The inside of the house was cool and quiet, and Steve sighed in relief as he set their things down by the door. The house seemed largely unchanged since Steve’s last visit, still neat and cozy, full of evidence that Bucky lived comfortably here: a blanket folded on the couch, Bucky’s tablet on the kitchen table, the kettle on the kitchenette counter, his boots and sandals by the door. Steve felt a longing tug of something like homesickness, but he wasn’t sure for what.

“Hey, you never looked at all your notebooks,” said Steve, and picked up the gift bag again.

“Did you put a sketch in all of them?”asked Bucky, rifling through the bag as Steve held it for him.

“Yeah, all except one,” he said and waited until Bucky found the last notebook.

“Wow,” he said when he pulled it out. Captain America sparkled up at him, sloppily covered in glitter and with body proportions bordering on the grotesque.

“Figured the art on the cover was masterpiece enough, you know?”

“Oh, I’ll say,” said Bucky, squinting at it. “Aww, it’s got my favorite Cap outfit though! The one with the tiny shorts. You don’t still wear that in the future, do you?”

“No, and I never will,” vowed Steve.

“Someday I’ll find archival footage of one of those USO shows, Steve,” said Bucky with a mock scowl.

“I will burn down the Smithsonian’s exhibit on me before I let that happen,” said Steve in his most serious Captain America voice, and Bucky laughed and dropped the notebook back into the bag.

“Oh, hey, I got you a couple other things too,” said Bucky as he walked over to the kitchen table.

“Really? Buck, the sketchbook and pencils were already more than enough, you didn’t have to—”

“I missed a lot of Christmases and birthdays, didn’t I?” he said, looking over his shoulder with a wry smile. “And I wanted to get you these, but, uh, maybe you won’t like it, or—”

“I’ll like it, come on. Show me,” said Steve, and joined him at the table.

Bucky pulled a medium-sized crate out from under the kitchen table. It looked like it had been shipped in from somewhere else, customs stickers in different languages all over it. Bucky lifted the lid off, and pulled out a couple canvases, a folded up easel, then tubes of paint, paint brushes, a palette. A mini-art studio in a box.

“Bucky,” breathed Steve.

“I know you can’t exactly take all this with you, what with your vigilante outlaw lifestyle and all, but I thought—for when you’re here. And for—after. You can start painting again. I—I, uh, always wanted to get you all this as a present before. But the nicest paints were so expensive, and something always came up…anyway.”

Steve tore his eyes away from the gift to look at Bucky, who was wide-eyed and biting his lower lip, hand picking at and twisting the hem of his shirt; anxious, as if there was any reason to think that Steve wouldn’t love anything Bucky gave him. Steve felt razed by affection, knocked down to just his foundations, everything else ready to be rebuilt in a newer, better form.

Bucky, I—”

“You don’t have to—or, maybe I wasn’t remembering it right, maybe painting isn’t something you want to do—”

“No, I—it is, I love it.”

I love you. He held the words back, just barely. Not because he didn’t mean them, because he did, and in this moment, he meant them maybe more than ever, but because just then the village children came rushing into Bucky’s house, all chattering and throwing themselves at Bucky.

“Ingcuka, you didn’t tell us it was your birthday!”

“Princess Shuri says you’re a hundred years old, is that true?”

“Do you always get presents on your birthday? Why don’t we get presents on our birthdays?”

“I brought you a present!”

“It’s just a rock, that’s not a—”

“It’s a pretty rock!”

Bucky smiled and laughed, and addressed all the kids’ questions about birthdays and presents with practiced ease and sweet patience, and Steve welcomed the distraction. He needed the time to get a hold of himself.

He ran his fingers over the tubes of paint, the beautifully made paint brushes. For after, Bucky had said, and it was both promise and hope. The paints were perfect and lovely, but Steve knew: that promise and that hope were the real gifts. He thought of Bucky’s letter, his painful admission that sometimes it was too hard to believe in safety, in peace, and yet here was Bucky, believing. Here was Bucky, alive after incomprehensible pain and torture, holding onto some small hope that there could still be an after, for both of them.

He looked over at Bucky, who was sitting on the floor now to listen intently to the four children surrounding him. It was hard to keep track of the conversation, half in Xhosa and half in English as it was, but Steve thought the gist of it was the kids asking Bucky about what birthday parties were like and what they thought should be included in them. Steve loved him.

That wasn’t news, no. Not entirely.

But Steve could admit now that he loved Bucky in just about every way it was possible to love a person. Steve could see no use in denying it anymore. If Bucky was brave enough to hope, still, after everything, and give that hope to Steve too, then Steve could goddamn face this truth. He’d thought this kind of love just wouldn’t come again, after Peggy: no one else had stirred up anything stronger than a faint echo of the giddy and ferocious, heart-pounding thing between them. But maybe it didn’t need to come again. Maybe it had already been there, so deep and ever-present that Steve hadn’t entirely noticed it, hadn’t let himself notice it.

He was noticing it now.

Every time he’d held Bucky today, he hadn’t wanted to let go. Every time he’d looked at him, he hadn’t wanted to look away. This feeling wouldn’t pass, he realized, and looked at the curve of bare skin where Bucky’s neck met his shoulder. He wanted to fall to his knees and bury his face in that curve, taste the skin there. Instead, he just sat at the kitchen table, and hoped his face didn’t give him away.

Eventually, a voice from outside called for the children, and they rushed out as quickly as they’d rushed in, giving Bucky quick kisses on the cheek or hugs and waving to Steve on their way out, and then Steve and Bucky were alone again.

“Sorry about that,” said Bucky, and he rose gracefully from the floor.

“What for? They’re cute, and it seemed educational,” said Steve, striving for normalcy.

“Every time I think they’ve run out of questions for me, they prove me wrong,” said Bucky with a grin, and headed for the kettle. “Want some tea?”


Bucky puttered around in the kitchen making the tea, and Steve picked up one of the paint brushes, twirled it in his hand. It was weighted beautifully. Steve could imagine himself painting with it, though just now, looking at the straight line of Bucky’s back, his hair curling in its short ponytail, he could think of no better subject than Bucky.

“How long you staying for this time?” asked Bucky, and set a mug of tea in front of Steve. He’d gotten the hang of carrying two in one hand, and didn’t spill a drop.

“Just a few days. I just wanted to make sure to be here for your birthday, really. Didn’t think too far ahead past that,” said Steve.

“Steve Rogers, not thinking ahead? Unprecedented,” teased Bucky with a raised eyebrow. “Well, you’re free to do whatever, but some of us gotta work for a living. I’m getting started on putting up some goat cheese tomorrow.”

“You a farmer now, Barnes?”

“Uh huh. Makin’ small batch artisanal goat cheeses, they’re all the rage,” said Bucky, and Steve laughed.

Bucky didn’t seem to notice any change in Steve. The rest of the day and night passed gentle and easy, and Bucky seemed so settled and happy that Steve wanted to hold the day in warm amber, preserved in golden sweetness, untouched by the wild mess of want in Steve’s heart. Not yet, Steve told himself. Give it just a little more time. Time to figure out what the hell to even do about this.

It felt different, going to bed together now that he knew how wholly he wanted Bucky, but Bucky was seemingly unaware and unbothered, his routine mostly the same. Except that when they went to bed, they usually started off the night with Bucky facing Steve’s back, or vice versa, a gesture towards some small measure of privacy in close quarters. Tonight though, Bucky faced Steve, some unreadable softness in his eyes.

He reached up to put his warm, broad palm against Steve’s cheek, and everything in Steve went still.

“Thank you. For today,” said Bucky, soft and solemn.

Steve wanted, very badly, to turn his head and press a kiss to Bucky’s palm. He settled for covering Bucky’s hand with his own.

“You’re welcome,” he said, just as soft.

The heat of Bucky’s touch lingered long after he pulled his hand away. It seemed as if it took longer than usual for Bucky’s breathing to deepen into the slow pace of sleep. Steve listened and looked out at the dark landscape through the large bedroom windows, and didn’t sleep for what felt like a long time.

The next afternoon, Steve got a call from Natasha.

“We need to be in Colombia ASAP, I’ve got a line on a Chitauri weapons deal going down in Bogota in a couple days.”

“We’ll have to take the quinjet,” said Steve, and set his paintbrush down.

“Yeah. I’ll pick you and Sam up in Nairobi tonight. Can you get there?”

“Should be able to, yeah.”

“I’ll have coordinates for you in a couple hours,” she said, then paused. “Sorry to cut your trip short.”

Steve looked out at the lake, serene and still in the heavy heat. He’d just gotten started on painting it. Bucky and Oluchi were walking along the shore together, barefoot, tiny waves lapping at their feet, their heads bent together in conversation, Oluchi gesturing volubly with her staff. Steve had planned to include them in the painting. He sighed. Next time, then.

“It’s alright,” he told her. “I was here for Bucky’s birthday, that’s what was important. Sam though...he’s gonna be pissed his tourist trip is getting cut short.”

Natasha snorted. “God forbid our international vigilantism cut into his vacation time. He’ll live,” she said, and hung up.

“Buck?” he called out, and Bucky and Oluchi turned towards him. Steve jogged down to the lake. “I just got a call from Natasha. I gotta go.”

“Renegade avenging to do?” asked Bucky. Steve didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing that Bucky didn’t seem especially disappointed.

“Sounds a hell of a lot cooler when you put it that way,” said Steve with a snort.

“Hell yeah, it does. You need a new cool superhero name too.”

“I like the sound of Renegade,” said Oluchi, and Steve grinned at her.

“Captain Renegade?” he suggested.

“That just makes you sound like a pirate,” said Bucky, scrunching up his nose in disapproval. It was a stupidly cute look. Steve’s stomach gave a nervous, lovesick flutter.

“Arrr,” he said, like an idiot, and Bucky laughed. The lovesick flutter upgraded to a flock of birds. “I’m really sorry to cut this trip short. I didn’t even manage to finish one painting for you.”

They started heading back to the house. “It’s okay. Not like the painting’s going anywhere,” said Bucky.

Bucky and Oluchi helped him pack up his easel and supplies, then too soon, Steve was loading up the hoverbike’s saddlebag with his pack.

“I’ll call as soon as I can,” he told Bucky, then tried very hard to keep from making their hug weird. Bucky gripped him tight, like he always did, that edge of roughness in it that Steve had always loved, proof that Bucky had never thought of sickly Steve Rogers as too fragile to bear it.

It would be an asshole move to kiss Bucky now, wouldn’t it, right before he was leaving for god knew how long? Yeah, that would be an asshole move. He’d figure out what to do on his next visit. Don’t look at his lips, don’t look at his lips, he told himself when they stepped apart, and kept his eyes on Bucky’s. Which was also a mistake. The bright sunlight and the olive color of his shirt revealed the ring of greenish grey at the center of his irises, like a secret only Steve was close enough to see.

“Alright,” said Bucky. “Don’t get killed and don’t get caught.” He tucked a stray piece of hair behind his ear before Steve could do it for him. “And thanks. Again. For the birthday visit.”

Steve nodded and hopped on the hoverbike. If he stayed any longer and he’d do something dumb. “See you soon,” he promised, and took off.

Sam was not happy about his Wakandan vacation being cut short. He stayed plastered to the Talon’s window, watching Wakanda recede into the distance.

“I barely got to eat any food,” he said mournfully.

The Dora Milaje piloting the Talon gave him a side-eye. “You were shoveling food in your mouth right before you got onboard,” she said.

“And it wasn’t enough! I was gonna go on a hike!”

“We’ll come back,” said Steve, patting Sam on the shoulder. “Also, I’m in love with Bucky.”

Sam’s attention didn’t waver from the window. “I wanted to try the Wakandan equivalent of a holodeck! A holodeck, Steve!”

Steve squeezed Sam’s shoulder. “Did you hear me? I’m in love with Bucky,” he repeated, now faintly panicked, because what was he going to do about it? Just—tell Bucky? Kiss him and see what happened? What did people even do when they realized they were in love with their best friend?

Sam flopped back into his seat and gave him a withering glare. “That is news to literally no one but you and Barnes.”

How,” hissed Steve.

“After you two left yesterday, the Queen Mother said you two were, and I quote, ‘charmingly besotted with each other.’”

“Oh no,” said Steve. “What do I do?”

“Jesus Christ,” groaned Sam.

Should I do anything?”

“I want to be excluded from this narrative,” said Sam grimly.

“Fine, I’ll talk to Natasha about it,” said Steve, and sulked the rest of the flight to Nairobi.

Steve was a professional, so he waited until after Natasha had finished her briefing on the situation in Bogota to bring it up.

“Natasha, I’m in love with Bucky,” he told her. She didn’t look away from the quinjet’s HUD.

“Uh huh.”

“I’m serious.”

She made a minute adjustment in their course. “Yeah, I know.”

“So…I should do something about it?”

“Probably,” she said, shrugging.

“Is he—does he feel—”

“Steve. That guy lights the fuck up when he sees you,” said Sam.

Steve narrowed his eyes at him. “I thought you were excluding yourself from this narrative.”

“So Barnes has the honeymoon glow too, huh?” asked Natasha.

“Oh yeah,” said Sam.

“Fine. Let’s say he has—feelings,” Steve conceded, though that still seemed pretty damned uncertain to him. “Is it fair to him, to us? To start something when we’re fugitives, and I’m on the run, and he’s still recovering?”

The timing just didn’t feel quite right, but Steve suspected that was a convenient excuse.

“People do long distance,” said Natasha, flat and conversational, like they were talking about the weather and not the love of Steve’s life.

“I guess…”

Steve considered it. Considered kissing Bucky, the next time he saw him, considered doing more in their bed than just sleeping. Considered not suppressing a good two-thirds of his impulses to touch Bucky. Considered telling him that he wanted to believe in the implicit promise of those painting supplies, in after, that he’d do everything he could to get them there.

If he waited for the right time, who knew how long he’d be waiting for.

“You’re right,” he told Natasha. “I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna tell him, next time I’m in Wakanda.”

Sam sighed. “Thank fuck. I’m happy for you, but please never provide us with details.”

“Absolutely provide us with details,” said Natasha.

“Thanks,” Steve told her. “You’re really good at this.”

“She’s—what? She didn’t do anything!”

Natasha shot Sam a smug and slightly dangerous look, her mouth curving up into one of her sphinx-like smiles.

“Hmm. You’re welcome. I expect an invite to the wedding.”

Bogota ended up being a mess, one where they only narrowly avoided being caught by Ross’s men. Steve got shot in the arm, Sam and Natasha only barely got clear of the warehouse full of weapons they’d blown up, and all in all, they were in a sorry, bedraggled state by the time they fled Colombia in the quinjet. They only had enough fuel to get away to Guatemala, and then they were grounded until they could rustle some fuel up without attracting undue attention.

“Rough op?” asked Bucky the second he saw Steve’s face on the Skype call.

“Yeah, kinda,” said Steve, then cast about for a topic of conversation that wasn’t Bogota or how he was in love with Bucky. Steve was committed to telling Bucky he was in love with him, sure, but doing it over Skype really didn’t feel like the right way to do it.

Bucky patiently watched him flounder through attempted small talk before taking mercy on him.

“There’s a flock of cranes that’s stopped by the lake, wanna see?” asked Bucky, and at Steve’s enthusiastic and relieved affirmative, he went outside with his phone.

It was early morning in Wakanda, and Steve could hear the dawn chorus of birds, the lapping of gentle waves and the swaying of trees and reeds. The lake reflected the blushing pink of the climbing sun, and wisps of mist were dissolving as Steve watched. Just as Bucky said, there was a flock of pale cranes at elegant rest along one side of the lake.

“You’re my own personal nature documentary, Buck,” whispered Steve, as if he were there too, trying not to disturb the cranes.

“Yeah? I’ll definitely call you next time I see a spider then.”

“No thank you.”

“Really? But they’re so big here.”

Why did Steve love this asshole. He pursed his lips to stop the smile Bucky would otherwise surely be able to hear in his voice.

“I said no thank you, I swear to god, if you send me photos of giant spiders, James Buchanan Barnes—”

“Or maybe the beetles? They’re really—”

“I will never step foot in Wakanda again, ugh, you’re the worst—”

So, being in love with Bucky or not, things were pretty much the same as they’d always been between them, and their calls and texts settled back into their normal rhythm. Steve wondered what would change if—when—Steve told Bucky he wanted more.

Steve’s next visit to Wakanda was less of a vacation than the first, and with no special occasion like Bucky’s birthday, Steve had no particular cover for monopolizing Bucky’s time. He arrived in the village in the morning, when the day’s work was already in full swing. Bucky greeted him as happily as always, and Steve had to admit that maybe Sam was right: Bucky did light up when he saw Steve. But then he always had. Even half-delirious in that lab in Azzano, even in Berlin after recovering from being triggered into the Winter Soldier.

That probably meant something.

Steve very much wanted to explore that further, but mid-morning in a bustling village was absolutely not the right time. Since Bucky was completely physically recovered from the lingering effects of his treatments, he now worked alongside the retired War Dogs in helping to keep the village running, which meant Steve chipped in too. Mostly this consisted of the idiot-proof work of packing up vegetables and the assorted other goods the village produced for either the village’s own use or to send out to the Wakandan marketplace. To Steve’s mild disappointment, all the actual buying and selling—or bartering? Steve honestly wasn’t entirely sure how the Wakandan economy worked, only that T’Challa, Shuri, and the village elders all tended to look confused whenever Steve mentioned trying to pay them back for anything he ate or was given on his visits—all exchanges, at any rate, were apparently done via kimoyo beads before a truck made the rounds of the small border villages to pick up and drop off goods.

When Bucky noticed Steve’s slightly crestfallen expression as he loaded the truck, he grinned. “Aww, did you want to haggle?”

“Maybe,” muttered Steve.

He didn’t miss haggling, per se, given that some weeks, it had meant the difference between eating or going hungry during their leanest months back in Brooklyn. There’d just been an undeniable satisfaction to the process that was absent in this loading and unloading of goods. He wouldn’t complain though: no one went hungry in Wakanda.

Steve thought that maybe once that was done, he could spirit Bucky away for a walk or something, but Bucky also helped out with the village’s livestock. Steve kept his distance then rather than help out. He mistrusted goats, and the feeling was mutual.

“They’re perfectly nice goats,” Bucky tried to convince Steve, as one chewed hatefully on Bucky’s shirt. Steve squinted at it, trying to figure out if it was Monty the rhino-riding goat. Bucky just gently pulled his shirt free and shoved a carrot in the goat’s mouth.

“I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a nice goat,” said Steve. The goat bleated, as if in agreement.

Feeding the chickens was about Steve’s speed when it came to dealing with farm animals, but it seemed that job was taken by some children who barely came up past Steve’s knee, so Steve just beat a tactical retreat whenever it was time to tend to assorted animals. The sound of Bucky whistling Star-Spangled Man with a Plan followed after him, which Steve didn’t dignify with a response. Somehow, Bucky managed to make a whistled tune sound sarcastic.

Whether or not Steve was cut out for all the parts of country living, seeing Bucky so integrated into the life and community of the village banished what small reservations Steve had left about Bucky taking refuge in Wakanda. It was a different life than anything either of them had ever expected, to be sure. They were city boys: growing up, farming had been a thing that had happened somewhere else, far away, for the most part. But Bucky was happy to learn about it, and happy to help with the village’s communal garden and small livestock farm.

“Country life’s agreeing with you, Buck,” said Steve at the end of the day, enjoying the easy, loose set of Bucky’s shoulders, the relaxed sprawl of his long legs on the couch.

“Yeah? Not sure how much of a farmer I am, but it’s nice to be useful,” said Bucky. “Gets me out of my head too, you know? Got more than enough to keep me busy, anyway.”

Steve didn’t doubt it. Between farming, his voracious amounts of reading up on Wakanda and the world at large, keeping in shape with the old War Dogs, and talking with Oluchi and the other elders, Bucky had more than enough occupation. He had a lot of company too, to Steve’s mingled joy and dismay. Before Steve could even think of broaching the whole “I’m maybe-definitely very in love with you” subject over dinner, Bucky’s neighbor came in.

“Bucky, I brought food!”

“Aww, Mandisa, you didn’t have to,” said Bucky when the tall, willowy woman came in carrying a steaming, delicious-smelling pot.

“Nonsense. Your friend is visiting, of course you could do with more food.”

“Well then, you’ve gotta stay and eat with us,” said Bucky, because of course, and there went Steve’s chance to make a declaration tonight.

Which was fine. Mandisa regaled them with tales of her grandchildren and her work on the biochemistry of the unique compounds found in the flora of the Wakandan jungles. Bucky seemed fascinated. Steve was busy staring at his mouth.

When Mandisa left, Steve thought he might have his chance, but Bucky headed straight for his tablet.

“I’m just gonna look a few things up,” he said, and within a few minutes, he was surrounded by projected screens showing plants and molecules.

Yeah, Steve had lost him for the night. He sighed, and smiled.

“You know, I used to keep a notebook with a list of things to look up.”

“Used to?” asked Bucky absently.

“Fell out of the habit. Got used to just looking stuff up on my phone. Guessing you’ve got a pretty full notebook still?”

“Uh huh. There’s just so much to learn about, and it’s all right there...”

“Internet, so awesome,” murmured Steve, and settled down on the couch, pulling out the sketchbook and pencils Bucky had given him.

He started sketching the scene, both like and unlike their old apartment in Brooklyn. The focus of the sketch was, as ever, Bucky, Steve’s perpetual favorite subject. The warm glow of the room’s low lights and the shifting colors of the projections around him made him seem almost otherworldly. Steve drew until jet lag caught up with him, when his yawns outnumbered his pencil strokes.

“You going to bed soon?”

“Uh huh, in a minute,” said Bucky, which meant in a couple hours, probably.

What would Bucky say, or do, if Steve went over to him right now and leaned down to wrap his arms around his shoulders? Would he lean back, tip his head up for a kiss? Would he duck his head to hide a smile and chide Steve for distracting him? What new things would Steve learn about Bucky, if they turned SteveandBucky into a new and wholly different form?

Timing, Steve reminded himself, and went to the bedroom. He fell asleep quickly, surrounded by sheets that smelled like Bucky. He thought maybe he woke when Bucky came to bed, but that was probably just the confused muddle of dreams, because surely Bucky wouldn’t have let Steve roll over and hold him so close. It had to be a dream’s hazy desire that gave him the sensation of Bucky’s hand over his, their fingers twined together.

The next day was even more busy than the last. Steve was starting to pretty intensely regret his past self’s decision to tell Bucky that they “didn’t have to do anything special,” for this visit. You don’t have to make any plans, Buck, I’m just happy to spend time with you, he’d told Bucky last month, and Bucky had smiled and said me too. Sure, that had made Steve’s heart go all soft and wobbly at the time, but now he was thinking they should have made at least one plan that allowed for some one-on-one alone time without the entirety of the village in the vicinity. Steve really didn’t want to try coming clean about his feelings with an audience watching.

Today’s task was to build a house for a new War Dog retiree who would be joining the village. Steve and Bucky both watched in fascination as the foundation and the guts of the house’s plumbing and wiring were constructed with nanites, directed via kimoyo bracelet. After that, the building process was straightforward enough, and Steve and Bucky’s strength came in handy. The whole thing took on a party-like air, with frequent laughter and the occasional song, though the work was undoubtedly still work.

“Who’s the house for?” asked Steve as he lifted up a beam for the house’s frame.

“Lwazi! We all thought he’d never leave the field, not while he was standing anyway. He’s been a War Dog for nearly sixty years now,” answered Mihlali as he directed Steve on where to place the beam.

“Eighty-something and he’s still out in the field?” asked Bucky. He was carrying one end of a support beam as Lindiwe carried the other, and between their collective three arms, they got it positioned right.

“Look who’s talking, old man!” said Mihlali with a grin that revealed all the cheerful wrinkles on his face. “Yeah, He’s been politely refusing to retire for about fifteen years now. T’Chaka gave up on trying to convince him some years ago. He’s fit, and he’s well, so…”

“A restless soul,” proclaimed Oluchi. She and a few other villagers were sitting nearby, weaving the reeds that would help form the house’s roof. “And one who feels the sorrows of the world keenly. He always felt there was more work to do in the outside world than in Wakanda, helping those in need. But he told me that now that Wakanda has revealed itself, he can rest easy, and help from here.”

“Rest!” snorted Lindiwe, tossing the thick salt and pepper twists of her hair over her shoulder. “I doubt Lwazi will do any such thing. He will be petitioning the Council for all manner of things: taking in refugees, new training programs, sending delegations near and far...And Ingcuka, prepare to be Lwazi’s new project.”

Bucky looked up, alarmed. “What?”

Mihlali flapped a hand. “Ah, not in a bad way. But HYDRA, you know. He ran into them a few times, since he’s been stationed in Europe for some years. He took it upon himself to…eliminate some of them.”

“Self defense, of course,” muttered Oluchi, and the other Wakandans murmured agreement.

“Can you blame an old man for wandering into old warehouses, and, perhaps, seeing that they were full of Nazis moving materiel and ordnance, then defending himself from such dangerous people…vigorously defending himself, even…” said Lindiwe with a tone of affected breeziness as she hefted another beam with Bucky.

“Yeah, I did some ‘self defense’ like that too,” said Bucky with a raised eyebrow.

“Anyway, he will be thrilled you’ve gotten yourself free of them, might ask you if there are any others in a similar position. If he offers to go with you on any field trips to just take care of HYDRA bases, super quick, you should probably say no.”

“It is,” Mihlali intoned, “never just a quick side mission with Lwazi.”

“I thought the War Dogs did mostly intelligence work,” said Steve. A number of the retired War Dogs looked distinctly shifty, or made shrugging motions.

“Well, yes and no,” said Lindiwe. “Certainly we gather a good deal of intelligence!”

“Officially, yes,” added Mihlali. He gestured to Bucky and Lindiwe to place a beam that would support the roof. “Unofficially...we are no Avengers, what with your fighting aliens and killer robots and all, but we do what we can out there.”

“It is hard to be a War Dog and remain uninvolved,” said Lindiwe, serious now. “Still, we all retired at a sensible age—”

“And now we get to do far more interesting things than keep up a cover!” finished Mihlali.

They got the house’s frame up by they time they took a break for lunch and to wait out the worst of the day’s heat. Steve was definitely wilting under the day’s heat already, enough so that one of the village children peered at him and asked, “Are you supposed to be so red?”

“No he isn’t!” called out Bucky from across the courtyard, then lobbed a tube of sunscreen at him like it was a football. “Put more of that on, for god’s sake!”

Steve scowled over at Bucky, but he did start slathering some on. “I’m just gonna sweat it off anyway,” he muttered, and went to join Bucky and Lindiwe in the shade of one of the awnings set up in the courtyard.

Bucky was squirming strangely against the awning’s pole, reaching his hand back behind his left shoulder.

“Buck, you okay?” asked Steve.

He grimaced, and stretched to reach some spot on his back from a different angle. “Yeah, I’m—”

“Ey, turn around, what are you, an elephant trying to scratch himself against a tree?” said Lindiwe, slapping lightly at Bucky’s hand. He stopped contorting himself trying to reach some spot on his back, and she scratched gently at the back of Bucky’s shoulder. “Are you using that salve?”

“Yes! It just—still itches—to the left more, please.”

Steve felt an irrational, definitely insane urge to slap Lindiwe’s hand away from Bucky’s back and take over backscratching duties himself. Other people are allowed to touch Bucky, he told himself sternly, and forced himself to stop squeezing the tube of sunscreen quite so forcefully.

“What salve?” asked Steve, because he hadn’t noticed Bucky putting any salve on, but then it wasn’t as if they took showers together.

“You know how when our skin’s healing up from a burn or something, it itches like crazy?”

Steve nodded, because he did know. His—their—healing factor was a blessing, mostly, but the accelerated healing could get distinctly uncomfortable: the tingling itch as skin knit back together and burns healed, the fidget-inducing, inescapable discomfort of bone fusing whole again, the odd feeling of overheating somewhere deep inside as internal injuries healed.

“Some of the scarring around my left shoulder’s finally healing up right, and it’s just—down please?—itchy sometimes,” said Bucky.

“Put the salve on tonight,” ordered Lindiwe. “Your man is here to help, isn’t he? You’ll catch hell from the princess if she finds you’ve irritated the skin more. Better?”

Bucky stopped fidgeting. “Yes, thank you,” he told her, then grinned sheepishly over at Steve. “The indignities of the one-armed,” he joked.

“I feel like I’ve seen you scratch at your back with a knife, and that was when you had both hands, so I’m not sure this is worse,” said Steve.

That night, Bucky came out of the bathroom shirtless, holding a small pot of what Steve assumed was the salve.

“Could you…?”

The sudden expanse of tanned skin and lean muscle on display was distracting enough that Steve waited just a beat too long to answer Bucky, long enough that Bucky’s mouth took on an uncertain tilt.

“Of course,” said Steve. “C’mere.”

Fuck, he hoped Bucky didn’t think he was put off by the absence of Bucky’s left arm. One arm or not, Bucky’s body was still the kind of beautiful Steve occasionally got wild urges to immortalize in sculpture, never mind that stone and marble weren’t his preferred media. Though if Steve were honest with himself, the real deterrent wasn’t how hard sculpting was, it was that Bucky would be enormously smug about it, forever.

Bucky handed Steve the salve and joined him on the bed, and Steve dragged his attention away from the dip and rise at the base of Bucky’s broad back—which might as well have already been a work of art—and focused instead on where the flesh of Bucky’s left shoulder ended and the metal began, dark vibranium now rather than the brighter metal of the HYDRA-made arm. This then was probably the clean up work Shuri had mentioned before Steve’s first visit. The port where a prosthetic would go was still capped with a sturdy, waterproof cloth covering to protect it though, just as it had been before Bucky had gone into cryo.

After Siberia, Steve had seen the angry, inflamed scarring at the seam of Bucky’s shoulder where metal met flesh while the Wakandan doctors tended to Bucky. He’d thought it was new damage at first, from Tony blasting off Bucky’s old prosthetic, but when he’d come closer, he’d seen the pitted scars’ age, and felt sick. Bucky hadn’t had any scars anywhere else, just as Steve didn’t. For a wound to leave a scar so serious suggested that it hadn’t ever healed, not wholly. Now though, the scarring was much less deep, some of the scars already the white of a fading scar, the rest of them still pink like they were on their way to healing.

Steve carefully applied some of the pale green salve to Bucky’s warm skin. This is medicinal, he told himself sternly, and kept his touch gentle and clinical. It was just—Bucky had a lot of skin on display. Just—a lot. His back was so broad, and beautifully muscled, and every spot on it looked like a nice place to rest his hands, to feel the heat of his skin. No. Focus, Rogers.

“This okay?” he asked.


“It doesn’t hurt, right? Now, or—”

“No, no pain. Just the damned itching, and sometimes it tingles. A bunch of the nerves around there used to be dead, I guess, they’re coming back online now that stuff’s finally healing up.”

Even though Bucky said it didn’t hurt, Steve kept his touch light and careful as he put the salve on, making sure to pay special attention to the more pink scars that seemed like they might have been irritated. Bucky’s breathing stayed steady, which Steve took as a good sign. He wasn’t sure what to do about the tension he could feel and see along Bucky’s neck, at odds with his calm voice and breath. Maybe this was more uncomfortable for Bucky than he was willing to admit. Steve finished up quickly.

“There,” he said when he was done. “Gimme your hair tie, I’ll put your hair up. Maybe you can wake up looking less like you stuck your finger in an outlet.”

Bucky snorted, but duly fished a hair tie out of his pocket and handed it to Steve. Steve finger combed through Bucky’s still shower-damp hair, and maybe spent a little longer doing so than was strictly required. It was just that Bucky’s hair was soft and thick, and he could see and feel some of the tension leaving Bucky’s neck and shoulders as he combed gentle fingers through Bucky’s hair. Once whatever tiny tangles remained were gone, he separated Bucky’s hair into three sections for a braid.

“Are you braiding my hair?”

“Uh huh.”

“Real sleepover we’re having here then, huh?”

“Yup,” he said. Bucky didn’t quite have long enough hair to do it properly, but Steve managed to wrestle Bucky’s hair into a respectable enough short braid. “Looks real pretty, Buck.”

“Thank you,” said Bucky dryly, shooting Steve a quick smile from over his shoulder. He pulled his feet up onto the bed and turned to face Steve. “Here, hand over the salve, you’re red as a tomato. You’re gonna be itching and peeling something awful in about an hour otherwise. Didn’t I tell you to put more sunscreen on?”

“It’s fine, it’s already healing—” tried Steve, but not too hard, because now they were face to face and Bucky was gently smearing some of the salve onto Steve’s cheeks and nose.

The cool tingle of the salve did feel good, and it smelled clean and sweet, almost like chamomile, but Steve barely noticed either of those things. He was held still as a deer in headlights by the sight of the faint freckles dusting the bridge of Bucky’s nose. Steve was pretty sure he hadn’t seen those freckles since they were both kids. Their reappearance poked at some raw, tender spot deep inside him.

“We’ve turned into old Mr. and and Mrs. Dawson from down the hall,” said Bucky softly, his mouth twitching into a smile.

“How so?”

“What, you don’t remember old man Dawson’s shouting? ‘Come put my ointment on Annie, I can’t reach my back!’”

Steve laughed, the memory catching him by surprise. “Oh, I remember. Did we ever figure out what he needed the damned ointment for?”

“No,” said Bucky. “Turn around, let me see the back of your neck.”

The thought of Bucky’s fingers on the back of his neck almost made him shiver. When Bucky applied the cool salve, he had to suppress a violent shudder instead thanks to the sting of the burned skin.

“Shit, ouch!”

“Shut up, you baby, it’ll feel better in a second,” chided Bucky, but the touch of his fingers remained light and gentle. Steve sighed and let his head fall forward. He felt Bucky’s thumb brush the top of his spine, slow and careful, and god, Steve didn’t know why that was doing it for him, but it was, all of his skin felt shivery and tingly, the sensation rolling out with each sweep of Bucky’s thumb, with every press of his fingers against the muscles along the side of Steve’s neck.

He couldn’t help the small noise that escaped his mouth when Bucky brushed aside some of the hair at the nape of Steve’s neck. A shuddering shiver rolled along the entire length of his spine. Bucky went palpably still behind him.

“There, done,” he said, his voice gone hot and rough.

Okay, now’s as good a time as any, thought Steve, and turned around to—to make a declaration, or maybe kiss Bucky, or something, but when he turned around, Bucky was bright red and wide-eyed.

“Did you—uh, did you get a sunburn too?”

“Uh, what? No.”

“You’re really red. Here, let me—”

“No! Um, it’s fine. Not a sunburn. Um. I’m gonna go—look some stuff up? About—architecture. Houses? Because we—the, you know, framing today. Uh. Yes. I’ll come back to bed in a bit,” he said, then fled so fast Steve didn’t even have time to say anything.

What the fuck. So. Okay. Maybe now wasn’t the best time. Shit, had he upset Bucky? Had Bucky been able to tell what Steve was about to do? The questions went round and round Steve’s head.

He was awake when Bucky came back to bed, though he pretended not to be. Bucky eased in under the covers slowly, as if to avoid waking Steve. He could feel it, when Bucky paused before he lay down, could feel the slight shift in the bed as Bucky moved a tiny bit closer.

“Get it together, Barnes,” he heard Bucky whisper to himself, nearly inaudible, before he finally lay down behind Steve.

Steve didn’t know what the hell any of it meant, whether it was good or bad.

The next day, Bucky had an early appointment with Shuri to test out some prosthetic arms.

“I told you you had to see Shuri’s lab, didn’t I? You can get a look at my potential new arm too.”

None of last night’s sudden awkwardness was in evidence. Bucky smiled at him the same as always, his eyes crinkling sweetly in that way that proved it was a genuine smile. His hair looked soft and wavy since he’d taken it out of its braid. Steve very much wanted an excuse to touch it again.

“Yeah, yeah of course.”

As Bucky promised, the Wakandan Design Group’s lab was amazing, and Shuri did love showing it off. Walking around in her gleaming lab, Steve almost felt as if he’d rocketed whole centuries forward into the future.

“Feels like a spaceship in here,” he told Bucky quietly, and Bucky grinned widely.

“That’s exactly what I thought! C’mon, let me show you that mural I told you about.”

Bucky took him past all kinds of wonders: a recess in the floor filled with black sand that a scientist was using to build what looked like models, the windows looking into the glowing depths of the vibranium mine that filled the mountain, another scientist manipulating what looked like light itself, with just her hands. Tucked along the end of the hallway and curving along its wall was a sweeping, vibrant mural. Steve went slack-mouthed looking at it, the harmonious colors almost too much for his eyes to take in. He could have spent hours, or even days, examining every detail of it, parsing the new-to-him art style.

“You were right,” Steve told Bucky. “I do love it.”

“You wanna stare at it some more, or do you wanna help me pick a new arm?” asked Bucky, so Steve dragged himself away from the mural to go look at arm prototypes.

“Because Bucky is boring and wants ‘just an arm, to do normal arm things,’ I have used the results and feedback from the last round of tests and narrowed the options down to three prototypes,” said Shuri, and directed them over to a lab table that had three prototypes hidden by cloths.

She whipped the cloth off of the first arm to reveal a prosthetic that was eerily indistinguishable from a flesh and blood arm.

“Is that…real skin?” asked Bucky.

“Not living tissue, no,” said Shuri. “But it acts much the same as skin: same sensitivity, and it feels pretty close to real skin to the touch. It’s the most advanced version of a technology we developed for those who were born without limbs due to genetic defects, or due to abnormalities in fetal development, anyone who’s lost a limb, really. A lot of those patients just wanted something as close to the real thing as possible in form and functionality. I had to make some adjustments to get this to play nicely with your existing nerve function and port.”

Bucky reached out to touch the arm with a tentative and testing kind of touch, then frowned.

“No, not this one.”

Shuri nodded, unbothered. “Next!” she said, and revealed another prosthetic with a flourish. “This one is your lightest option, easiest to take on and off. It won’t stand up to superheroics, but it is ‘just an arm, to do normal arm things,’ like you said. If you like it, we can make any aesthetic changes or tweaks you want, I just wanted to show you a prototype.”

This arm was a slim and sleek thing, made of some matte, dark material. The pads of the fingers had some other material on them, likely to facilitate a sense of touch. To Steve’s eye, it looked much like the most advanced prosthetics available to people outside Wakanda, only more advanced still, like this was the ideal those other prosthetics were aiming for.

“Maybe,” said Bucky, after he hefted it experimentally with his right hand, testing its weight.

“And, no pressure, but here is my favorite! It’s most like your previous arm, only better in every conceivable way, of course. Lighter, more sensitive to touch and temperature, made of vibranium, which is obviously the best...”

Shuri kept going on about technical specs that went well over Steve’s head. But even so, he could see why it was Shuri’s favorite: it looked like an arm, a work of art, and a weapon all in one. Gold detailing shone out amid the dark bluish gray of the vibranium, and there was an organic kind of flow to the plates of metal. Bucky smiled when he saw it, but it was too close to the same small, somewhat grim smile he used to favor his old rifle with. As beautiful as this prosthetic was, Steve almost hoped Bucky wouldn’t choose it. He should have been able to just have a prosthetic arm, with no need to consider how strong it was, how effective a weapon it could be. But Bucky had made his position clear: he would fight again, when he was ready, or when he had to.

“Yeah, this one,” said Bucky.

“It’s gorgeous, Shuri,” said Steve, and Bucky nodded in agreement.

When Bucky finally looked away from the prosthetic, he gave Shuri a warm smile that had her beaming back at him. Whatever his feelings about what he might have to use that arm for some day, he was at least happy to show his gratitude to Shuri.

“What’s the gold for?” asked Bucky.

“The aesthetic.”


“What what? It just looks nice.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes at her. “Really?”

“What, you don’t want to look nice? An arm can’t look nice? Arms can look nice, even when they’re robot arms! Especially when they’re robot arms! Don’t tell me you think it’s not masculine or some such white nonsense—”

“No, I like it, it’s nice,” Bucky assured Shuri, bemused. “Just—is there a reason you picked gold in particular?”

“If there is another precious metal you would prefer—”

“No, this is good. Really, I love it. Thank you.”

Bucky’s soft-voiced sincerity was, as ever, devastatingly effective. Steve always felt faintly vindicated when he watched other people turn soft or flustered in the face of it, as Shuri did now when she reached out to give Bucky’s hand a quick squeeze and a pat.

“You are very welcome,” she said, her smile more shy than mischievous for once.

Steve watched Shuri and Bucky test out the arm. It attached neatly and easily to the port in Bucky’s shoulder, and though Steve kept a close eye on Bucky in case he wasn’t handling it well, Bucky was fine, evidently too focused on and fascinated by the prototype arm to let any bad memories of HYDRA overtake him. Shuri walked Bucky and his new arm through some tests of function and sensation, taking notes and readings all the while, until she declared herself satisfied.

“Okay, you don’t need to keep it on, you know, permanently, if you don’t want to yet. Or ever! But if you could please keep it on for the next week, I would like to get usage data, and your feedback: strength, sensitivity, if it’s too heavy, if it’s painful at all.”

Bucky wiggled his left hand’s fingers, then rolled his shoulder. “Yeah, okay.” He held his new hand out to Steve. “Can I…?”

“Uh, sure,” said Steve, and put his hand in Bucky’s. The vibranium was smooth and warm, nothing like skin, but not wholly machine-like either. Maybe Steve just thought that because he knew it was Bucky’s hand. Bucky held his hand delicately, an amazed smile growing on his face.

“Your skin is warm,” he murmured. “I can feel that you’re warm.”

Shuri clapped. “Yes!”

He brought his hand up to Steve’s face, still so careful, and drew light fingers down Steve’s bearded cheek. Bucky laughed, short and delighted, almost disbelieving, and Steve was suddenly, viciously glad that this was one of the first memories Bucky would have of using this new arm. Steve smiled at him, turned his face into Bucky’s palm, about to take a risk, a bigger risk than any parachute-less long fall he’d ever taken: he moved to press a kiss to the center of Bucky’s smooth palm, but before he could do more than breathe out against the vibranium, Bucky inhaled sharply and let his hand fall. His eyes went wide and bright, his lips parting, and Steve thought, maybe now, maybe—

“So, good sensitivity then?” asked Shuri, and they both jumped.

Jesus Christ, what had Steve been thinking. As if the princess’s lab was the right time or place to—

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s—it’s amazing, Shuri, thank you.”

“Alright, out of my lab, out! Go, I don’t know, lift heavy things. Have...moments somewhere else.”

Steve’s face went hot, and Bucky gave her a startled, harried kind of glare, then headed out of the lab at a clip that was just short of a jog. Steve rushed after him.

“We should go back to the village. Help finish Lwazi’s house,” said Bucky. He flashed a quick nervous grin at Steve. “Test out this new arm.”

“Right, of course,” said Steve. His gut wavered uneasily between nerves and disappointment. He had no idea what was going on in Bucky’s head right now.

They went back to the village, where the work on Lwazi’s house was still going strong, with even more of a party-like air now. Bucky’s new arm was greeted with cheers and congratulations, which Bucky accepted with a gruffness that was pretty easily belied by his faint blush at all the attention. Steve tried and failed at not finding this adorable.

Steve did all the work that was asked of him, but he also watched Bucky. He watched him carry furniture and paint walls, lift up village children, clear loads of debris and dirt, all testing both the new vibranium arm’s strength and its control, all with the same care that he’d touched Steve with. Maybe, Steve hoped, this was all Bucky would ever have to use that new arm for. And maybe they were getting close to the right time, because Bucky kept looking at him with something like intent wonder, and a sharp sort of pensiveness that left Steve nervous about just what it was Bucky was seeing in him.

“New arm doing okay?” Steve asked him at the end of the day.

Bucky stretched, rolled his shoulders. The vibranium plates of his left arm shivered and shifted, the gold shining bright. This absolutely could not have been the intent of Shuri’s design, but Steve found it an incongruously appealing sight.

“New arm is doing great,” Bucky said, and they smiled at each other like that was the best thing either of them had ever heard. He stepped closer to Steve. “Hey, let’s—”

“Ingucka! Captain! Come, come, welcome Lwazi to the village! And eat, what a spread there is for dinner!”

Steve wanted to scream and throw himself in the damn lake. Mihlali came over, throwing his arms over both their shoulders and guiding them to the village commons, where a party was gathering.

“Oh, you know, we were thinking of maybe just—” tried Steve.

“The whole village must welcome new people! Just as when you joined us, Bucky, remember? It’s so important for the community, and I know Lwazi will be so happy to meet you.”

“Of course we’ll come to help welcome Lwazi,” said Bucky, and Mihlali grinned at them, giving their backs hearty pats before heading for one of the tables loaded with food.

God damn Bucky and his over-developed sense of duty and community. Maybe they could leave early…They followed Mihlali, drawn by the delicious smells emanating from the tables.

Bucky walked close beside him, close enough that their hands touched.

“Sorry it’s been such a busy few days,” he said.

“It’s okay, I don’t want you to drop everything just because I’m visiting, Buck.”

Bucky shook his head. “You drop everything to come visit me.”

“It’s more shore leave than dropping everything. Really, don’t worry about it. I told you, I’m just happy to spend time with you.”

“Tomorrow’s gonna be just us,” promised Bucky. “I, uh, made plans. If that’s okay?”

“Course it’s okay,” said Steve, and felt pretty proud of the way he held in the relieved sigh he wanted to heave out. Finally.

“You don’t even know what the plans are.”

“Doesn’t matter,” insisted Steve, and Bucky laughed.

“Just for that, I oughta tell you my plans were us mucking out the stables together.”

“I’d love to shovel horse shit with you, Bucky,” said Steve in his most earnest Captain America voice, and Bucky knocked him with his shoulder, the vibranium one, so it actually hurt a little.

“Yeah, yeah, sure you would. No, there’s a small canyon, ‘bout half an hour’s hoverbike ride from here. If you hike in for a couple hours, there’s a pretty amazing waterfall. I thought we could go, have a picnic?”

“That sounds really great,” said Steve.

Also, it sounded like a date. A picnic, alone, surrounded by natural beauty? That had to be a date. He looked at Bucky, tried to find an answer in his expression. But Bucky was reaching for a plate to fill with food, his only tells the way he tucked some hair behind his ear and the faint flush coloring his cheekbones. The way Steve remembered it, Bucky had never been shy or awkward about asking women on dates or for dances. He couldn’t tell if it was a good thing or a bad thing that Bucky seemed shy now. He supposed he’d find out tomorrow.

Tomorrow, Steve told himself. Tomorrow’s when you’re finally gonna make your move, Rogers.

It was easy to put thoughts of the next day out of mind at the village dinner and party. Lwazi’s welcome was pretty raucous, and Lwazi himself was a hell of a lot of fun to listen to and talk to. His professorly and dignified demeanor was at hilarious odds with some of the wild stories he told and that were told about him, and all the old War Dogs seemed to delight in drawing out ever more unlikely tales from Lwazi. Steve and Bucky even got the chance to tell a couple old war stories of their own. Before they knew it, it was past midnight, and the party was only just starting to break up. Their offers to help clean up were waved off in favor of pressing leftovers into their hands.

“We’ll clean up properly tomorrow morning,” said Lindiwe with a bleary wave. “Especially since you two won’t be hungover tomorrow morning.”

“Jealous?” asked Bucky with a smug grin, and Lindiwe slapped at him half-heartedly before pushing him towards his house.

“That was fun,” said Steve, almost surprised, as they headed back to Bucky’s house.

“Parties are fun,” said Bucky. “Should I be worried about how surprised you are that parties are fun?”

“One of the last parties I went to ended with Ultron attacking us. It was fun before that, I guess.”

“Jesus Christ. Well, no murderous robots have shown up yet, but the night is still young.”

Murderous robots continued to not show up, and they got ready for bed with the pleasant drowsiness of the very full and happily tired. Steve was more than ready to go sleep, if only Bucky would stop tossing and turning as he tried to situate himself comfortably in bed.

“Buck,” groaned Steve. “Just pick a side, for god’s sake.”

“It’s weird with two arms again,” muttered Bucky, before finally settling down on his stomach, left arm shoved under one of his three pillows.

Steve spent a couple hazy minutes wondering if they’d still be sleeping together tomorrow night, or if they’d be doing something other than sleeping, but he fell asleep before he could contemplate it more.

He woke up gasping and panicked, heart pounding fast with horror. The nightmare was already fading into senselessness: something to do with the shield, it having a life of its own and crushing Tony’s neck in that fight, flying from his hands to hit Bucky, to sever Sam’s wings, to slam against Natasha. The visceral horror of all that violence was already fading, faster with the feel of a gentle hand stroking his hair, then resting cool and careful on his sweaty forehead.

“Shh, it’s okay, Steve. You’re okay.”



Steve turned towards Bucky blindly, and ended up with his head nearly in Bucky’s lap, his arm thrown across Bucky’s legs. Bucky was sitting up already, face half-shadowed in the moonlight coming in through the windows.

“Shit, sorry,” said Steve, and moved to roll away from Bucky, give him some space, but Bucky moved his cool vibranium hand to the back of Steve’s overheated neck. Steve sighed, and stayed. “Did I wake you?”

“No. Maybe I set you off, actually. Bad dream woke me up earlier.”

Steve’s own bad dream returned with a vengeance, and he shuddered. It felt dumb, but his damn shield had felt so malevolent in the dream. The dread of it lingered, left him feeling cold and off-balance. Steve was glad he didn’t have the shield anymore just now, and had Bucky instead, who was warm beside him, his voice a steady anchor of calm.

“You okay?” Steve asked, and Bucky hummed in answer, pulling the sheets back up over Steve.

“It’s the usual, I’m fine,” said Bucky, still in the same soft and low tones. When Steve looked up at his face, his expression had that careful stillness that probably read as neutral to anyone who didn’t know him. Steve wasn’t fooled; he saw the weary pain in Bucky’s dark eyes. “Are you okay?” Bucky asked Steve.

“Yeah. Yeah, of course. Just a weird, bad dream. What time is it anyway?”

“About three.”

Steve groaned. Three AM was the worst time to be up: too late to have much hope of falling back asleep, too early to do much of anything else. Bucky seemed to have given up on sleeping again, judging by how he was still sitting up.

“You aren’t gonna try to get some more sleep?”

Bucky shrugged. “No, don’t think so.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

Bucky’s expression warmed, finally, and his mouth lifted in a small smile. “Wanna know what I do when I can’t get back to sleep?”

“I’m guessing you read,” said Steve, craning his head to eye the small stack of books on the floor by Bucky’s side of the bed.

“Okay, yeah, but other than that.”

“Go for a run? It’s what I usually do. I try to wait until dawn though.”

Bucky wrinkled his nose. “Ugh, no. I mean, I guess I walk the village perimeter sometimes. No, I go for a swim in the lake. Wanna come with me?”

His ma used to call this time of night the witching hour, when spirits and people were up to no good. Here in the village, the dark didn’t feel especially ominous though. Frogs croaked and crickets chirped, and the moon was waning but still more than bright enough to light their way to the lake. The silence of the village was a resting kind of silence, the soothing hush of knowing people were in their beds, fast asleep, full of good food and good cheer after a party. The dread from Steve’s earlier nightmare fell away, the fear and horror already hard to grasp again. This was real, this was what mattered: following Bucky’s silent footsteps down to the calm lake, feeling the cool air on his skin, walking under the starry sky.

When they got to the lake, Steve stopped in his tracks. The lake was a clear mirror to the stars above it, only a slight ripple in the water and the reflections of the reeds and trees revealing it to be a reflection rather than a portal to the night sky.

“Oh wow,” whispered Steve.

“Yeah. This is why swimming at night is my favorite,” said Bucky, and started taking off his clothes. He grinned back at Steve. “Makes me feel like I’m up in space.”

Bucky stripped down to just skin, and waded into the water at an agonizingly leisurely pace, giving Steve plenty of time to ogle his bare ass and his strong thighs, and even his dumb skinny calves, and how his whole body was lovingly limned in moonlight. He was leaner now than he had been in Bucharest, Steve couldn’t help but note. He’d shed some bulky muscle now that he was living a more peaceful life, and it looked good on him, a happy compromise between the Winter Soldier and Bucky’s old welterweight leanness. He looked like a perfect sculpture brought to life.

Don’t make it weird, Steve told himself, and busied himself with taking off his own clothes. This was far from the first time he’d seen Bucky naked after all; they’d lived in close enough quarters both before the war and during it that it had been hard to avoid, and that was apart from the times they’d gone swimming at the Y together. So his dick had absolutely no reason to be getting all excited.

It was just that this was the first time seeing Bucky naked since he’d realized he wanted him, and Steve didn’t know if it was that knowledge, or the beautiful strangeness of the lake’s reflected starlight that turned Bucky’s body into a secret territory Steve wasn’t sure he had permission to know. Bucky dived down under the surface, dark water rippling in his wake, and Steve took the chance to get in the water without Bucky seeing all of him. Dumb to be shy now, probably. But still, in this moment, he felt like skinny Steve Rogers again, small and laid too bare before Bucky, who always saw too much.

The lake’s water was cool, but not unpleasantly so after the initial shock of cold passed. He waded then swam in, until he had to paddle to stay above water. Bucky resurfaced, looking far too refreshed for 3 AM, sleek and happy as an otter.

“Am I gonna have to worry about anything taking a bite outta me in here?” asked Steve.

“Just the flesh-eating piranhas,” said Bucky. Steve gave him a flat glare and he smirked. “Nah, nothing dangerous in here. Water’s pretty deep in the center of the lake though, so maybe don’t go much further than this.”

Between bones rendered more dense thanks to the serum and Bucky’s vibranium arm, they both had to expend some effort to stay floating. It was more than worth it though. Floating on his back, looking up at the night sky packed so densely with stars, Steve understood what Bucky had said earlier: it really did feel like he was up in space, weightless.

Eventually, the sensation became almost vertiginous, disorienting, so Steve swam a few leisurely laps across the lake, avoiding the deeper parts where colder water ran in a slow current under the surface. This was better than a run, Steve had to admit. It calmed something in him that long, punishing runs only briefly eased. But then, maybe it wasn’t the water and the swimming at all. Maybe it was just sharing the private small hours of the night with Bucky. Everything was better, when he was with Bucky: late nights and war and parties and peace.

When he surfaced from his last lap, he looked around for Bucky and found him back on the shore, sitting on a towel with his knees drawn up, still naked, wringing out his hair. The seams of gold in his left arm gleamed softly in the moonlight, and for a moment he looked strange and unknowable, wholly new. Steve paddled towards shore to join him. There was no particularly graceful way to come out of a lake while naked, and Steve nearly dove back in when he saw Bucky’s eyes on him, intent but unreadable as Steve walked out of the lake, lakewater still lapping around his ankles. Goosebumps rose all over his skin, partly from the cold, but mostly, Steve was sure, from the weight of Bucky’s stare. Some desperate, scared and wanting thing filled Steve’s chest, like he was still underwater in the lake and starting to need air again.

Steve slicked his wet hair back from his forehead and opened his mouth to say something, anything to turn the moment familiar again, but before he could, Bucky rose to his feet in one easy, fast movement, and strode towards him. Maybe Bucky was about to toss him in the lake, Steve thought wildly, then he didn’t think much of anything at all because Bucky was kissing him. Both his hands were cupped around Steve’s face and he was kissing him, and just as Bucky went tense and made the first tiny move backwards, Steve got with the program and kissed him back.

They kissed sloppy and rough, deep, with a wildness that had Steve wondering giddily just how long Bucky had held this back. Steve didn’t know where to put his hands when the entire expanse of Bucky’s bare skin was available to him, so he kept stroking at random: his back, his waist, his hips, his shoulders. Bucky kept his hands on Steve’s face and neck and just kept kissing him, on the mouth, on his jaw, on his neck.

“I had a plan,” said Bucky between kisses. “God, sorry, I had a plan, and this wasn’t it—”

“I had a plan too,” gasped Steve. “I was gonna—”

“—I was gonna do this right, tomorrow, at the waterfall—”

“Yeah, me too, I was gonna finally tell you—”

Steve pushed at Bucky until he walked backwards out of the water, and they tumbled down onto the towel, which put a whole lot of their parts in very distracting proximity to each other. Steve moaned, and Bucky gasped, arching up into him, before putting his hands on Steve’s hips to hold him still.

“Wait, wait wait wait,” he said, and they both paused, breathing hard, shivering from the chill of their wet bodies, and from the new sensation of this much closeness. “What were you gonna tell me?”

Steve looked down at Bucky, at his flushed cheeks and wide, dark eyes, the water still gathered on his eyelashes like dew, his kiss-swollen lips. Steve had never seen him like this before. His hazy, ill-defined fantasies had shied away from such details, out of shame, or denial, and he hadn’t known, not really, how Bucky would look. His imagination had failed him, brushing close then jerking back, as if burned by a flame. Now he knew. Now, finally, he could bring a hand up to Bucky’s bearded cheek, rest his thumb on Bucky’s soft lower lip.

He had no speech or pretty words for this moment, so he just said, “That I love you.” Bucky’s lips parted under Steve’s thumb and Steve had to dart down for a couple quick kisses. “That I want you.”

Bucky squeezed his eyes shut as if in pain and let out a long, shuddering breath. “Did you—did we—before. Was this, were we—because, fuck, if this is one of those things I don’t remember—”

“Oh Bucky, no,” said Steve. “I was an idiot, a dumb idiot, and I didn’t realize, before.”

“Me neither, I don’t think. But—me too. I love you. I—want you, I want this.”

They kissed again, more slowly now, tentative and exploring kisses. Steve let his weight settle on top of Bucky, and Bucky went loose and relaxed under him, all of him bare and laid out for Steve, unimaginable feast after too-long famine. They were both getting hard now, and Steve couldn’t help rocking against Bucky a little, everything in him coming undone at the small wanting noises Bucky was making against his mouth. All that time Steve had spent waiting for the right time when he could have had this instead.

“So, night time swim, under the stars, this wasn’t your plan?” asked Steve between kisses, learning the taste of Bucky’s skin.

“No, ah—told you, the picnic tomorrow. Was gonna be a goddamn gentleman about it, if you can believe it, but god, then you had to—fucking come out of that lake like, like—” Bucky let out a frustrated sort of moan and pulled Steve even closer, his grip drifting tantalizingly close to Steve’s ass.

“Can we—can we—” Steve broke off gasping when his cock slid along Bucky’s.

“Can we what?”

“I don’t know, fuck, I’ve never done this before, just—”

Steve learned what Bucky’s smile felt like against his pounding pulse. “I thought you had a plan,” said Bucky, low and rough against Steve’s skin, and it rocketed through him just as strongly as if Bucky had kissed him there.

“There was—oh god—a lot of room for improvisation in my plan, I didn’t really think—”

Bucky pulled him down, then rolled them so Steve was on his side and Bucky was behind him. “I did,” he said, right against Steve’s ear, following it up with a biting little kiss, and Steve shuddered and moaned. “I thought about it a lot, in detail. Did my research.”

Of course he did. Steve could imagine it now, Bucky as rapt and attentive as he was when looking up whatever new future thing had caught his interest. Bucky touching himself, maybe, thinking about what he wanted to do to Steve.

“Show me,” said Steve.

“Here, put your legs together,” said Bucky, and positioned Steve to his liking, sliding in close against his back, close enough that Steve could feel his hard cock against his ass. He rocked against it in an experimental kind of way, and Bucky groaned. “Not that, not yet,” he said, and pushed his cock between Steve’s thighs instead.

The skin on the inside of his thighs felt suddenly oversensitive and he focused on the sensation, the glide of hot and hard skin, the drag of friction and slide of wet skin. He was open-mouthed and gasping even before Bucky wrapped his arm around him, the right one, and took Steve’s cock in hand.

“Bucky,” Steve begged, he didn’t know for what, and Bucky hushed him, stroked up and down Steve’s cock loose and easy like he was getting to know it.

He was wet with precome in Bucky’s grip already, and wet between his thighs where Bucky was thrusting back and forth, from the water yes, but from Bucky’s own precome too, and knowing that made the sensation all the better, made Steve feel even hungrier for this. When the rhythm of both Bucky’s movements matched up, Steve threw his head back on Bucky’s shoulder and gave himself up to it. He wanted to be held in this moment forever, turned into a throbbing live wire of sensation caught and surrounded by Bucky, his strong body behind Steve, his hand just tight enough around Steve’s cock. Bucky was breathing hard, Steve could feel his hot breath against the back of his neck, could hear the slap of skin on skin, all of it a rhythm that felt as natural and inevitable as waves crashing onto shore.

Steve felt it when Bucky came, a pulse and a throb, a spill of warm liquid between his thighs. His own building orgasm made him shake, and Bucky soothed him with quick kisses to the back of his neck, his shoulder.

“Almost there,” he said. “What do you need, faster, harder? C’mon Steve, tell me.”

“Slower,” moaned Steve, because he didn’t want this to end, wanted to stretch it out, and Bucky, bless him, obliged him.

“You feel so good,” whispered Bucky, slowing his hand’s pace down, swiping his thumb over the tip of Steve’s cock. Steve floated, lost in the sensation, his whole life and world shrunk down to the steady sweep and stroke of Bucky’s hand over his cock, too much and not enough.

He didn’t know how long it was before he was begging, “Please, please,” and Bucky laughed, breathless.

“You said go slow.”

“I gotta come, Buck, please,” said Steve, embarrassed to find he was close to tears.

“Shh, shh, I got you,” said Bucky, and tightened his grip, sped up. Steve came with a sob, with an orgasm that seemed to both clean and empty him, everything but the two of them rendered distant and unimportant.

Bucky rolled him over to face him, and held him, kissing him sweet and deep. Steve pressed in close and kissed him back, unwilling to let go of the moment just yet. Reality intruded with an especially loud frog’s croak.

“Fuck. Fuck, someone’s gonna see us,” said Steve, and got up, panicked. Bucky fell back against the towel, laughing.

“We’ve still got an hour or so ’til dawn, Steve,” he said, but he got up too, and with a few long strides, dived back into the lake. “C’mon clean yourself off a little, then we’ll go back before any early risers catch us.”

And okay, yeah, Steve was decidedly sticky and a little muddy, so he joined Bucky in the lake to wash up. They dried themselves as best they could with the one mostly dry towel remaining, then put on their pants, grabbed their things, and ran for Bucky’s house. They went straight back to bed, of course.

“Show me what else you planned,” Steve said, and kissed Bucky again, still drunk on the night and on the new knowledge that he could have this. “All of it, everything.”

Bucky met him with lips and hands that were just as hungry as his, but he pulled back and looked Steve in the eye, solemnity back in his expression.

“Why the rush?” he asked. “Don’t we have time?”

“I’m only here for another few days,” said Steve.

“I know. But after that, when you come back. And the time after that. And maybe—”

Maybe someday Steve could stay, or Bucky could go with him. Bucky was asking for a promise without asking for it outright, and the preemptive resignation in the downturn of his mouth made Steve’s heart twist and ache. He wanted to make every promise in the world to Bucky, wanted to throw out words like forever and soon. But the universe broke their promises for them, every time. Still, they had to hope, didn’t they? Steve thought of the canvas and the tubes of paint, and the journals he’d given Bucky to fill. Bucky still hoped. Steve could hope too.

“Yeah. Yeah, of course, Buck. We have time.”