“I'm sorry, Captain Rogers,” Shuri says, and for a horrible lightning-struck moment Steve thinks she's telling him that Bucky didn't make it, that something went disastrously wrong between the tube and the table, the softly glowing stone plinth where Bucky was meant to be made whole; and then Bucky comes around the corner in his white scrubs, radiant, and Steve feels his heart drop back into his chest where it belongs.
But: “I'm sorry,” Shuri says again. “The structure of the brain is so interconnected, so intricately woven, I fear that—”
Something in her tone finally penetrates the haze of relief. “The triggers?”
“Gone,” Shuri says. “And a great deal of damage has been repaired. But there have been consequences. Sergeant Barnes—” She looks at Bucky, who smiles at her and shrugs. “We discussed the possibility of such a thing before the procedure,” she tells Steve. “He was prepared, and accepted the risks. We will do everything in our power to repair what has been done. On this you have my word.”
Her voice cracks, and Bucky darts forward suddenly, shaking his head. He puts his hand on her shoulder, then lays his palm flat on his chest—and then makes a fist and pounds it hard, twice, right over his heart. The look on his face is stern but fond, an expression Steve hasn't seen since 1943, directed at one or more of his sisters when they thought the world was ending over baseball scores, or their homework, or a boy; Bucky hadn't ever let anyone get away with self-pity. That look would usually be followed up by C'mon, pipsqueak, let's go for a walk, but what Steve guesses Bucky's saying now is more along the lines of: You didn't let me down.
“Thank you,” Steve says out loud. Because Bucky—
Because Bucky, apparently, can't.
When it comes to Wakandan neurology, Steve doesn't get a crash course so much as he gets a crash pad—the ground's a long way away. He's never thought of himself as stupid, but not only is science here leaps and bounds more advanced than anything he's been exposed to in the States, even the ways they conceptualize it make him dizzy; there's no separation of church and state where healing is concerned. Steve learns pretty quickly that Wakanda's a place where it makes sense for medicine to be a function of religion, especially when that religion's got more know-how about the human body than the western world altogether, and not coincidentally, where the limits of the human body go a lot further than Steve had ever previously assumed—and being what he is, Steve's assumptions went a long way. Even then, it doesn't really sink in until he's watching two young priestesses chant the quantum spin-state of Bucky's molecules into alignment so Shuri can, in her words, “take a few pictures.”
Seeing the virtual impression afterward, turning sedate circles over Shuri's workstation, its surface flashing with simulated colors as it catches Bucky's thoughts in real time: Steve has to look away. There's something too naked about it, he decides. Like seeing the fingerprints of God. Bucky, grinning like a kid, trying to turn the projection upside down with his hand halfway inside his own brain, clearly doesn't agree.
They call Bucky's condition akakuthethi: without speech. Which isn't the same thing as vala isandi, the inability to make noise, because Bucky isn't strictly mute. It's the part of his brain that produces language that's been compromised, not his vocal cords. He can make sounds just fine, even if they're backwards and upside down and completely unintelligible as words, so mostly he doesn't bother, unless he's trying to get someone's attention or emphasize a point. It's not all that different from the War, when after a while Bucky'd largely resorted to grunting, gesturing, and throwing things while he was herding the cats, since ranks were next to meaningless on missions, last names were being over-employed as cuss words, and “James!” made four heads turn. (Or none.)
The main difference is that these days, Bucky's acting a helluva lot less like the world's most highly-strung sheepdog. Steve's learned to be grateful for a lot of funny things over the years; preferring a one-armed, vocally-challenged, international-fugitive version of his best friend because that version is, against all the odds, both healthier and happier—well. That barely makes the top ten.
Which isn't to say that one or more of those conditions couldn't be improved.
“You're lucky,” Dr. Mbelu is saying, when Steve tunes back in. “Insofar as lucky is a state of mind.”
Bucky grins at her with a lot of teeth.
Dr. Mbelu grins back. “Your being young is especially helpful. The most common cause of dysphasia is strokes in the elderly, and these are neurologically devastating.” She talks quickly and uses her hands a lot, reminding Steve, with a pang, of Tony and Bruce. “Wakandan genetics tend to produce less strokes overall, but when they do strike us, they are much worse than average. Both the receptive and expressive communication centers are frequently targeted, so you might think of it like a city around which a wall has been built so that nothing can get in or out. Those afflicted are unable to speak, to understand the speech of others, even to read—” Steve looks at Bucky just in time to catch his horrified grimace. “—Your case is considerably more straightforward,” Dr. Mbelu finishes gently.
“I would've thought you folks wouldn't have anything like that here,” Steve says. “I mean, I've seen burns disappear, people regrowing hands—”
“Mm,” Bucky says, and squints, pinching his fingers and shifting like he's moving pegs on the world's smallest cribbage board.
“Precisely,” Dr. Mbelu says. “The body is an extremely delicate system at the best of times, and the brain is several magnitudes more so. And there are some things still beyond our grasp: some mental illnesses, some cancers, a handful of neurological disorders. Like all specialists, I hope that one day I will be out of a job.”
Siphe Mbelu—MD, DSc, FWCN, semi-retired—is currently Bucky's speech therapist. Specifically, she's his neurologist, and has been since an hour before Bucky arrived in Wakanda, but since all the practical neurology work at the moment involves late-night coding and running simulations of Bucky's mimeographed brain, she's taken on the task of helping him communicate in the meanwhile. Or in preparation for, God forbid, permanence. She doesn't think the latter's likely; she maintains that even if they can't reach in and repair the damaged tissues, between Bucky's age, his healing factor, and his residence in the most medically sophisticated country in the world, there's no reason why he shouldn't be able to make significant improvements, given time and hard work.
Steve didn't mean to horn in on their sessions, but Bucky'd made a persuasive argument—i.e., he'd grabbed Steve by the arm, dragged him into the room, and shoved him into the nearest chair at an angle designed to produce maximum spin, all to the tune of Dr. Mbelu saying: “And you must be Captain Rogers.”
Steve has the sneaking suspicion that these early sessions are more for his benefit than Bucky's, because Bucky doesn't seem to need much help, so far. Within twenty-four hours, Bucky'd tracked down a school for Deaf kids just south of the city, and after an afternoon of being climbed on, swung off of, and used as a stepladder to get into the highest branches of the lemon tree in the school's courtyard, the kids and a few of their teachers had managed to determine that Bucky could mimic spoken words, but only for a short time after hearing them; that he could draw and use arithmetic, but not write out words or sentences; and that he could retain and use some sign language, but only signs he could make with one hand and weren't too abstract. The more the signs looked like what they represented, the easier Bucky found them to use. Charades with rules. He'd come to Steve's room after, filthy, grinning, covered in sticky fingerprints, his hair one big knot, and they'd stayed up half the night establishing a little vocabulary that was, in all fairness, mostly animal signs and rude gestures. Bucky'd kept smiling and touching Steve's hands, his shoulders, and Steve couldn't tell whether Bucky was glad he could touch somebody without worrying about hurting them, now that the arm and the triggers were gone, or if it just helped to get his point across. Steve hadn't been able to resist leaning into each and every one of them.
“What's it feel like?” Steve had asked, as the sky was turning sherbet colors with the sunrise, salmon and tangerine streaking across the veld.
Bucky'd frowned. After a moment he'd gestured at his head, then shaded his eyes with his hand, and pointed out at something in the invisible distance, and again, and again; then he'd dragged one finger from his temple to his mouth and mimed fumbling things, dropping them on the floor, scrambling to pick them up, tossing them over his shoulder with an exasperated expression.
“It's clear in your head,” Steve guessed, “But when you try to talk it gets all mixed up.” Bucky gave him a thumbs-up. “Doesn't it make you—I dunno, frustrated? Anxious? I would be.”
Bucky'd shrugged beatifically, his whole body relaxed on top of the pillows he'd stolen and sprawled all over at the head of Steve's bed. He hadn't gestured or signed anything else, but Steve thought he could figure that one out just fine.
I've had worse, Bucky was saying. Compared to the rest of it, this was a piece of cake.
Still, Steve feels like he should've been expecting the panic attack.
In their last few sessions, Bucky's waved Steve off but hasn't quite gone to the extent of telling him to leave, so Steve's mostly been working on his isiXhosa grammar in the quiet corner of Dr. Mbelu's office that he thinks is meant for children. He's neck deep in tonologies when it happens, so he misses the context; all he knows is that Dr. Mbelu is herding Bucky in her no-nonsense way towards the balcony doors, so he jumps up and follows. When they get outside, onto the balcony that's more like a platform, a huge ring around the whole floor, Bucky takes off into the foliage and disappears while Steve is still gawping like a peasant at the greenery. He's seen the arboretum rings from the ground—most of the skyscrapers have a few of them, like bracelets made out of jungle—but he hasn't experienced one in person yet. The air in Wakanda generally is the cleanest he's breathed since waking up in the twenty-first century, and even compared to that, this feels like dunking into a cool river on a hot summer's day.
Steve allows himself a few greedy breaths, and then he says, “Is he gonna be all right? Should we—”
“Come,” Dr. Mbelu says, and leads him to a bush with coral blossoms that look like drippings of molten glass. She takes off one of the two blanket-sized shawls she wears around her shoulders and flicks it open on the ground. At her direction, Steve sits first so she can use his shoulder as leverage to get down. He can't say for sure, but he thinks she's a lot closer to his and Bucky's age than T'Challa's, even though there's no gray under her headwrap.
She stretches out her legs and sighs, digging her bare heels into the mossy undergrowth that covers the platform. Steve, who hasn't worn shoes in two weeks and isn't sure he'll ever be able to go back, does the same. They sit quietly together for long minutes, listening to the rattle of palm fronds in the morning breeze and the peeping of unseen birds.
“Many of my dysphasic patients,” Dr. Mbelu says at last, leaning back on her hands, “Say that they experience a feeling of wanting to communicate a concept so desperately that it feels as though they're choking on a metaphysical object—even a physical one, at times. Some of them vomit, the feeling is so strong. The brain doesn't understand why some part of it is constrained. The body abhors a paradox.”
“And that's what happened to Bucky?”
“Something similar,” Dr. Mbelu says. “He has been a model patient, and I do not necessarily mean this as a compliment. I expected that it was only a matter of time before a complex topic emerged that could not be easily communicated through gesture. He is very intelligent,” she adds, “Your friend. I believe that he has hidden this from himself for a very long time, because in the past his intelligence has been used by others as a weapon, but he is now coming upon a future in which he might use his mind for himself once again, and this will be frightening—and frustrating, in his current state.”
“He can probably hear you,” Steve warns, feeling his cheeks heat. “Our hearing's...real good.”
“I'm counting on it,” Dr. Mbelu says. Louder: “Was I right?”
Bucky ghosts out of the bush to Steve's left and scares about ten years off his life. He swats Bucky's hip in sheer reflex, then flinches. This Bucky is still, in some ways, half a stranger, and there are moments when Steve doesn't know where their limits are, where their edges have gone, how much he can act like it's been a couple of months instead of seventy years—and to what extent he still needs to earn Bucky's trust before he's allowed to pretend nothing's changed. But Bucky doesn't seem to mind: he swats aimlessly back and stretches out on the ground next to Dr. Mbelu's shawl, digging around in his pocket, and flips an envelope at her with the attitude of a cat knocking a vase off a shelf.
“Ah,” Dr. Mbelu says, framing it between her index fingers and thumbs. “Umnyama. Congratulations, James. A letter of acceptance from them is high praise indeed.” To Steve's look of confusion, she clarifies: “Umnyama University. The main campus is on the edge of the city; you'll recognize the abalone domes. They specialize in engineering, physics, philosophy of science...”
“Buck,” Steve says. He can't help the thrill in his voice. He reaches out and squeezes Bucky's elbow. “You're gonna go back to college?”
Bucky twists his wrist and shrugs, looking away. Then he looks back, making a noise that's almost a snarl, and swipes his hand like he's catching a bug, bringing it fiercely to his belly. Steve can't remember if it's one of Bucky's cobbled-together gestures or a Wakandan sign, but either way, the meaning's clear. I want to.
“And you will,” Dr. Mbelu says sternly. “Even if you never regain your voice, no university in this country will turn you away. If you are able to express in any way that you understand, in practical terms, the material being taught, then you will be welcome. Much of science requires no spoken language at all. And if you are behind in a mathematics class through no fault of your own, then in my opinion there is only one thing you will ever need to say to your professor.”
Bucky cranes his neck to look at her.
She makes a very rude gesture.
Steve chokes; Bucky laughs. Steve loves Bucky's new laugh, which doesn't have anything to do with the damage in his brain, just the lower, rougher thing he's acquired over decades of not having very much to laugh about—the laugh he now uses all the time, for everything, for things Steve hadn't thought were funny until he heard Bucky's hoarse hah! in his ear, flooding something innocuous with joy.
Steve had, at more than one low point after waking up, spent a lot of time wondering whether his capacity for joy had been stunted, somehow. As if happiness had been dangling inside his chest at the end of a long cord, and when Bucky died someone'd cut it; or frayed it, maybe, so after a while he was afraid to touch it, or put more weight on it than it could take. Steve wants to tell Bucky about that feeling, because it's the only way he can think of to explain what Bucky means to him, how glad Steve is that Bucky's alive and near, but he can't think of a way to say it without placing too much of himself on Bucky's shoulders. It's a lot of responsibility, Steve thinks. Knowing you're holding onto the end of that cord.
Bucky's not an idiot, Steve reminds himself, as he realizes guiltily that he's been staring at Bucky with a concussed smile on his face for at least a minute. Bucky shoots Steve an indulgent look and pats his bare ankle. It feels like tolerance for a moment, but Bucky leaves his hand where it is as he turns back to Dr. Mbelu and their session continues, informally, in the suspended wild: his thumb stroking back and forth over the bone.
Bucky's favorite time of day is the evening, when the night market unfolds and the ntsomi performers set up their tents to tell fantastic stories. It's almost a martial art, more movement than words, the older performers making slow shapes out of their hands and feet and the younger ones leaping and twirling in the air, miming old battles or imitating the monsters that, they say, live under the mountains, or between blinks, or on the other side of the rain. Steve enjoys the stories, but Bucky loves them; he wraps his arm around his knees and leans forward, his whole body alight, even right up to the edge of trembling. Steve remembers how Bucky'd had the same greyhound-sharp attention in the movie theaters, like he'd rather up and die than miss a single thing on the screen: the hum of energy under his skin and his bright, bright eyes. Steve had missed whole plotlines, sometimes, looking at Bucky instead. He's not surprised to find that neither of those things have changed.
But Steve's favorite time of day is first thing in the morning, just after dawn, when the streets are nearly empty and only the engineers are working, shoring up the banks of the River Amasiko where it cuts through the heart of the capital. No one stares at Steve when he runs, here. He treks up into the hills and waves back at the kids in the Ngwane family's vineyards, races down through the baobab grove, over the peninsular bridge that looks like it's made of spun sugar, slowing just in time to catch Mr. Gamede's bakery barge as it floats towards the market square, trailing yeast and sugar and lemon peel through the slow-waking streets of the city. Now that Bucky's relearning how not to be a dawn riser, half a dozen steaming pastries wrapped in a leaf are the best way to pry him out of bed before the sun hits the top of the panther tower. Still, some mornings Steve practically has to sit on Bucky's chest and waft a cup of nearly-coffee under his nose like it's 1939 and they're both about to be late for work.
Once Bucky's managed to get his feet on the floor, they eat crammed together on the window seat, watching the transport ships and the bustle below, their fingers sticky with honey and candied sugar grains as big as kosher salt. Even when Bucky starts going to classes four hours out of the day and Steve starts mending fences for the goat-herders, they still have their mornings and their evenings, the quiet before the rush and the sociability of the streets, times when the sun is half-hidden and the lamps are lit and the world feels just a little unreal; when neither of them, Steve suspects without asking, feel quite like themselves. It's both the strangest era of his life and the happiest Steve can remember being.
At any other moment, before the War or after, this much down-time would've found Steve crawling out of his skin, but he finds himself wishing that these heady days won't ever end, an impossible summer that goes on and on and on. Maybe this is what it feels like to grow up, he thinks: except he's never felt so young.
The way Bucky tells it later makes it sound a lot more cinematic than it probably was.
Set the scene. Umnyama University, late afternoon. It's the last day of the month; the Border Tribe are burning iwintili along the riverbank to stir ash into the soil, and between the smoke and the setting sun, the light that comes through the windows is nearly the color of pomegranate seeds. Bucky is kneeling at one of the low student tables, half-on and half-off his cushion, dutifully taking notes— (“Doodling,” Steve corrects, and when Bucky tries to look offended: “Buck, you got a photographic memory, you haven't taken a note since second grade.”) —while the professor manipulates a topology hologram in the middle of the circle. All of a sudden there's a commotion in the hall, and Shuri bursts into the room, waving a data tablet above her head and shouting the Xhosa equivalent of “Eureka!” with Dr. Mbelu close on her heels.
“All right,” Steve says, “First, I kinda doubt they interrupted your class, because your professors are all terrifying.” Bucky raises an eyebrow but doesn't argue. “And also, Shuri doesn't need to shout. As soon as she gets within ten feet of anybody, they sit real still and think Oh no, it's the princess, if I don't pay attention she's gonna strap rockets to my shoes—”
Bucky shoves him, so Steve shoves back, and they wind up wrestling so determinedly that they roll off the bed onto the floor. In the aftermath, Steve's got a skinned knee and Bucky's hair looks like he shoved his thumb in a socket, but since he's got Steve pinned on his back with an arm under his chin, Steve bites his lip and tries his best not to laugh out loud. When Bucky grins and lets him go, Steve reaches up without thinking to push a particularly heinous tangle out of Bucky's eyes—and freezes. For an instant, framed by the curve of Steve's hand, Bucky's expression is tender and soft, as if someone came around between heartbeats and filed off all his burred edges. Steve would call it startled if it wasn't so gentle. A second later it's gone so thoroughly that Steve convinces himself he must have imagined it, as Bucky grumbles and tosses his head like a horse, unsuccessfully re-positioning the bird's nest on top of it. Steve clears his throat and drops his hand.
“So,” Steve says, “What actually happened?” and gets his ear flicked. “Ow! Fine! I'm gonna take a shot in the dark and say it was kind of an anticlimax.” Bucky pulls a face and mimes— “You just pressed a button? Jesus. What's next, elbowing a switch?” Steve blinks when Bucky snaps his fingers next to his own temple. “Oh. It's done? But you're not...”
“Time,” Bucky says effortfully. “Gotta—large.” He makes a gesture Steve can't interpret, grimaces, and shoots Steve an expectant look.
Steve waits to see if he'll try to finish, then guesses, “You got a long way to go.” Bucky flaps his hand and rolls his eyes, looking relieved. After a moment, he offers a thumbs-up. “But Dr. Mbelu thinks you'll make a full recovery.”
“Shell.” Bucky jerks his head. “Should. Should should. Time. Work.” He makes a sweeping motion like he's hauling on a rope or hoisting a sail. Distinctly: “Pre-pos-itions.” And then, apparently exhausted, he flops back down on Steve's chest.
Unsure of his welcome, Steve puts his hand on Bucky's back. It's the right call: when he starts rubbing up and down Bucky's spine, Bucky sighs and goes totally boneless. Steve can't really breathe, but what's a little respiratory distress between friends? He can't remember Bucky ever feeling so warm and relaxed, and their bodies haven't been this close in space since the War. Even then, it doesn't count, probably, if you're bivouacked together in a hole. The last time was barely three weeks before Bucky fell, and they'd talked about inconsequential things, the weather and the mission and whether Dernier's recent knee injury was going to give him hell on the way up the mountain; and afterward Steve had wished for—well, for a lot of things, but he'd wished especially that they'd talked about something else in the close dark of that foxhole when they'd had the chance. How the war wasn't what Steve had imagined, how nothing was; what had happened to Bucky on that table; if they were both as scared as Steve, in the privacy of his own heart, felt all the damn time.
After a while Bucky makes a dissatisfied noise and rolls off, tugging Steve part of the way with him. The result is that they're both laying on their sides on the rug at the end of the bed. It's woven out of slender yellow reeds, and Steve fancies that it still smells like the riverbed, silty and vinegary and cool. Bucky's wearing a much more serious expression than the situation seems to call for.
“Good?” Bucky asks. “Good here?”
“Yeah, I'm comfortable.”
Bucky shakes his head. “Here,” he insists, “Here; here.”
Oh, Steve realizes: Wakanda. “I love it here,” Steve says, with more honesty than he intended. He loves it more than he ever expected to, and maybe more than he should, although how much of that is because of who he's laying beside on the floor—that particular ratio he doesn't think he can be objective about.
“Y-you,” Bucky starts, and shakes his head again. He points at Steve, then at the ground, followed by the one-handed sign they've developed for Sam, thumb hooked and fingers spread like wings. The sign flies off into the distance. The sign for Wanda does the same, and Clint, and Natasha, and—
“You think I want to leave?” Bucky gives Steve an exaggerated, ironical look, eyebrows climbing. “My friends went home, so you think I—what? I'm lonely? Buck, I hate to be the first one to tell you this, but there's this amazing invention called the internet, you can use it to talk to people, you should try it some time.”
Bucky glowers and grabs Steve's borrowed kimoyo beads, hooking them around his toe and sending them scooting across the room. While Steve's still processing that, Bucky holds up one finger, then wraps his arm around his torso and mimes an absolute, almost comical misery.
“How the hell can I be sad?” Steve says, baffled. “You're here! How can you not—” But the sudden cracked-open expression on Bucky's face says that he didn't know, or not entirely, until the words came out of Steve's mouth. It feels like a mallet to the heart. Christ, has Steve been such an awful friend that Bucky'd somehow come away with the impression that he wasn't—that he didn't—
“I robbed the Smithsonian,” Steve says, “I took a bullet to the back; I dismantled an entire God damn extra-governmental organization—” and Bucky snorts and makes a little wheel-rolling gesture with two fingers. “Hey! Whether I'd've done it anyway's beside the point. I did it for you, asshole.”
Steve will think later: if he hadn't been watching so closely, if he hadn't practically been memorizing every individual atom around Bucky's eyes, he would have missed it. Through that cracked-open look, like someone twitching a curtain and not quite managing to get it closed again, Steve catches the smallest, warmest flicker of hope. A lamp lit in a room he hadn't dared to dream was occupied.
There's every chance he could be imagining things. Every chance he could be seeing his own hope reflected back at him, or a species of hope wrongly labeled by a desperate taxonomist; Steve's familiar enough with the feeling. He could be ruining everything he's gained over these last, these perfect Wakandan months: the end of his impossible summer.
But sometimes you just have to take that leap.
“You know—” Steve says: “You know I love you, right?” Something strange and hard happens on Bucky's face, but Steve blunders forward anyway. “God damn it, Buck, I'd marry you if it meant I got to stay close to you, if it meant I got to see you every day—”
Bucky snarls and flops violently onto his back, breathing hard through his teeth for nearly a minute while Steve waits, and waits, and dreads. When Bucky hits the ground with the side of his fist, Steve is certain he's about to sit up and walk away for good, but as quick as a snake Bucky rolls over and plants a kiss against the corner of Steve's fallen-open mouth. It's hardly the way Steve imagined it, when he let himself imagine. Laying on an itchy rug across from Bucky's stormy, belligerent expression, his thumb tucked under his fingers, white-knuckled, like he's ready to throw a punch. When Steve reaches for him, Bucky tenses finely all over, and then the miracle happens: the softness rising back into his face, the tenderness Steve was certain he'd imagined. And a little anger, still, that he isn't sure how to deal with.
Steve scuffs his thumb across Bucky's cheekbone and says, “What is it?”
Bucky grabs Steve's hand and presses it harder against his skin. His eyes are dark. “Say.”
“I don't—” Bucky snatches Steve's hand away and brings it to his own chest, thumping it against his sternum, glaring. “Oh. Hell. Sorry, Buck. I love you. Is that— Hey. I love you.”
“I love you,” Bucky echoes. It sounds like he has a mouthful of marbles; it's the best thing Steve's ever heard. Then, clear as anything: “Asshole.”
All of a sudden Steve gets it: Of course you'd wait until I couldn't say it back, Bucky's telling him. Oh Christ almighty, Steve thinks, and can't smother the hysterics when they start. Bucky pretends to kick him and tries to look foreboding, but his face is already crinkling up. “I didn't mean to!” Steve yelps as Bucky kicks him for real, pushing him to the edge of the rug, scrubbing at his head with rough affection. Steve flails at him and scoots backwards, gasping laughter. “I didn't plan to—”
“Hah!” Bucky crows, when he has the circle to himself. He crosses his legs and thumps his left shoulder, imperious as a king. “Mine.”
“What,” Steve says, “What's yours; the rug?” and Bucky crawls on top of him and says, “No, no. Not rug,” smug as shit—and proves it.
“I hate you,” Bucky says.
“You don't,” Dr. Mbelu says reasonably. “You are choosing a convenient proxy on which to project your frustration with my terrible flashcards. If you can tell me what this is, you can go.”
“Not terrible. You,” Bucky counters. “I told you. Indlulamthi. Eats plants, chews cud. Has a long neck. Kosher. Protected,” he adds, when Dr. Mbelu raises an eyebrow.
“Very good,” Dr. Mbelu says, “And excellent work on using an article, but I'm going to need it in English before I let you out of the office.”
Bucky cusses her up one side and down the other. Steve, working on the top of the mural in the kids' corner, tries not to fall off his stepladder and mostly fails. When he regains his footing and looks over his shoulder, Bucky's glaring back, although whether it's to check if Steve's laughing or a plea for help, Steve can't tell. “You're on your own,” Steve says. “What do I look like to you, a biologist?”
Bucky narrows his eyes but doesn't comment on the rhinoceros Steve's just abandoned. He turns back to Dr. Mbelu and says, “Hint,” like a man asking to be shot in the foot.
It's another two minutes before Bucky shouts “Giraffe!” and Dr. Mbelu tosses her flashcards in the air like confetti, reaches across her desk to accept Bucky's murderous high-five, and chucks them both out of her office. “Enjoy,” she adds dryly, as they leave the irrigation-cooled medical tower and hit the scorch of late afternoon; it's like walking into a wall. The weather folks say the heat wave should be over by the end of the week, but in the meantime, it's like living in a frying pan. Hand-in-hand they make their way down to the Amasiko, where the river and the overhanging acacias bring the temperature down by a couple of degrees.
“Well, happy six months,” Steve says. Bucky glances at him. “Since you started seeing Dr. Mbelu. Do you think we should get her some flowers?”
“Flower bomb,” Bucky mutters, then: “Yeah. Those, those—amakukhulume. Fire. Her favorite.”
“Flame lilies? The red ones, right? How the hell'd you find that out?”
“Asked her son.”
“Her son,” Steve says, pretending to be scandalized. Which he is, a little. Ndala's a smooth operator and looks like a movie star. “When were you talking to her son about flowers? Should I be worried?”
“Nah,” Bucky says. “You got charms.”
“Oh? Like what?”
Bucky shoots him a look like he knows Steve's trying to make him practice his elocution and isn't actually fishing at all. Steve can see the moment Bucky decides to humor him. “Smile,” Bucky allows. “Good smile. I like that. Painting, when you paint, like your focus. Hands. Soothing. Very nice. Like to watch,” and he leers; Steve hip-checks him. “Like your, your, humor. Sense of humor. Funny guy. Like this,” Bucky says, rubbing his knuckles against Steve's beard.
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Dis—dis—disparate. Distinguished. I like it.”
“Nat says I look like a startled hobo.”
Bucky makes an airy gesture. “Russian. No taste.” Clearer: “Who're you tryna impress?”
“Oh, obviously T'Challa,” Steve says, grinning, “I got queenly aspirations, Buck, I can't help it,” and resigns himself to being pushed into the river.