Chapter 1: November, Lebanon
The chatter of the crowd is jubilant and friendly, with the band on stage setting the pace for the dancers moving in pairs. They use the steady beat as a veil of propriety as they press their warm bodies in close. Steve knows Bucky is in the crowd somewhere, sweet talking a girl and maybe her friend into sharing the floor with the two of them.
‘I saw him just a minute ago,’ Steve thinks as his eyes scan the crowd. In a chorus of laughs, he can hear Bucky’s above the rest, and he pushes through the crowd of bodies, seeking the warm sound like a boat coming into port.
“Bucky?” he calls out, but the sound of his words only echo in his head. God, why does his voice sound like that, like it’s underwater someplace far away? Steve gives his head a shake, concerned he might have another ear infection coming on. But it’s been years since the last time he was sick.
“Hey punk!” he hears from the other side of the room. Steve smiles and sighs in both irritation and relief; Bucky’s voice is coming from where he was standing just a moment ago. He rushes to the front of the hall in a quick burst only to meet an impossible press of bodies, as if all of Brooklyn were on this one patch of the dance floor tonight.
Everyone, it seems, except Bucky.
“Bucky?” he calls out again, over the crowd around him.
“Are you ready for our dance?”
Steve turns in surprise at the sound of Peggy’s voice. He didn’t know she would be here tonight. She looks as beautiful as always, her soft mouth a vivid red and her chestnut hair pinned back. It’s a rich color Steve has always liked, ever since he saw it on–
Steve twists his body, quickly reminded of why he is here in the first place. Why he came out tonight. Why he would go out any night.
“The war is over, Steve,” Peggy whispers behind him, her voice somehow carrying over the noise and laughter. “We can go home. Imagine it.”
“No, not without Buck—”
Steve woke with a start, reaching for the shield that lived by his side. He groaned as he met empty air, flexing and curling the fingers of his shield hand. Maybe one day he would get used to not having it nearby. Slowly, Steve sat up, his sweat-damp shirt sticking to his skin. The weather was too cool to explain the condition of his clothes, and he blushed, embarrassed.
The other occupants of the cramped hideout had likely noticed his nightmares, and Steve glanced across the space to see if they were watching him now. Sam and Natasha seemed engrossed in an ongoing card game across the room. If they had heard him make noise in his sleep, they hid it well, and Steve was once again grateful they were his companions. People who lived lives like theirs accepted the occasional nightmare as a part of the job. Still, his dream had left him feeling… naked.
“You got lucky, Sam,” Natasha said across the room.
“Ohhh, luck, that’s what we’re calling it now?”
“Best out of eleven?”
“... why the hell not?”
Steve chuckled quietly at their banter and massaged the center of his chest where a dull pain gnawed beneath the skin. Years ago, that pain would have meant trouble: pneumonia or a trip to the hospital. But as time passed since the Raft, Siberia, and the Accords, Steve knew better.
The pain he felt clawing its way out of his chest wasn’t physical.
The trio had been in Lebanon for weeks while they waited to intercept a Chitauri weapons sale. The one-room apartment Natasha had found for them wasn’t the best place they had stayed, but Steve had seen worse. The building was old, the paint chipped away, they used a bucket in the bathroom to shower and slept on the floor, but it was quiet, had few families, and filled with people who mostly kept to themselves. For them, it was perfect.
The missions were harder and the time in between longer than before now that they lived outside of the Avengers compound, covering their tracks to avoid detection. Sam and Nat handled the change in fortune well. For that, Steve was genuinely thankful, though he felt he had no right to be. He was the reason they were living like this in the first place. They would never say that to him, of course, but he felt it just the same.
“Do you really think you could make me do something I didn’t want to do, Rogers?” Nat had said to him after the first few months and countless apologies from Steve.
“She does have a point. You should give us a little more credit than that. I mean, you’re cute, but you’re not that cute,” Sam added.
“And I’ve been meaning to try something different with my hair. This is as good a reason as any.” Nat’s wink and Sam’s warm smile helped ease some of the worry that Steve had carried since the Accords. It hadn’t gone away entirely, but it helped.
Since then, they fell into a rhythm: follow up on a lead about some nefarious activity, correct the situation, lay low. The trio varied their patterns as much as possible and apart from Wanda’s periodic check-ins and Steve’s calls to Wakanda, kept their contact with the outside world to a minimum. They all had their moments, but Natasha and Sam seemed to fall into their new lives seamlessly. Steve could probably find a groove, too, if only he could get some sleep.
Stretching the tired muscles in his neck, he peeled the sweat-stained shirt over his head and ran a hand through his long hair. He grimaced at the dirt and moisture the new length seemed to attract so quickly, but he knew it served a purpose. The world didn’t want Captain America anymore, or at least Steve couldn't be the Captain America the world wanted. And after months without a haircut or shave, only his size gave him away.
“Lumberjack Cap,” Sam called him the other morning. They both laughed, but if he was honest, Steve kind of liked it. He had never thought about his hair beyond the standard military cut and apparently the bearded look was trendy now. Besides, he had always enjoyed the unshaven, long hair look on other men. It made them look tough and vulnerable at the same time. Besides, Bucky seemed to pull it off well enough, so Steve figured he’d give it a try.
They slept in shifts now, and since Steve usually took the night watch, it was early afternoon when he rose from his makeshift bed. Judging by the light, he hadn’t managed to stay down very long. Steve knew trying to get back to sleep was a fool’s errand, so Steve tidied up his corner instead. It was a few hours before their next meal, so he didn’t bother checking the small fridge. He ached to run and feel the burn of his muscles, but there were too many people out at this time of day, so he settled on pacing the floors.
The pacing was a new habit since Steve didn’t go outside much during the day. Nat had once called him a guard dog, the way he would watch the perimeters. She stopped joking about it when she caught the grimace that had flickered across his face before he could wrestle it into a more affable expression.
I know you like to think of yourself as a guard dog, Stevie, but you look more like a stubborn poodle.
The memory of Bucky’s voice and his warm chuckle cut with a precision that stopped Steve in his tracks. The spot in the center of his chest ached as he wondered, not for the first time, why the memory stung. Bucky was okay. Steve had found him, Bucky had remembered him, and now he was sleeping peacefully in the safest place on Earth.
“Yes, I TOLD you!” Sam’s voice across the room cut into Steve’s thoughts, as he slapped a winning hand on the table. Still shaken from the intrusive memory, Steve shook back the hair that had fallen into his face.
“Trying to shake out some cobwebs?” a voice called out just over his shoulder.
Steve jumped slightly at Natasha’s sudden proximity, which she pretended not to notice. Instead, she handed him the nutrition bar she was carrying. Palm up, he observed.
“Take it,” she said. “I’m gonna go for a food run in a bit, but we all know you’re a growing boy.”
“Haha, you're hilarious. Thank you, but no, I’m not taking your food away from—”
“Do we need to do this every time? I will not starve. You, on the other hand, just might,” she argued, opening his right palm and placing it there before walking away. “Thanks for making mama proud.”
She returned to her card game and a quiet Sam — who was definitely not eavesdropping — welcomed her back with an easy smile.
“You ready, because, this time, I've got the secret sauce.”
“Whatever you say, Sam. My turn to deal.”
Steve's stomach grumbled gratefully as he peeled open the wrapper in his hand. Maybe Natasha was right, and that’s why his thoughts were so cloudy. Perhaps he just needed a snack.
Chapter 2: December, Wakanda
Bucky and Shuri both adjust to their new normal in Wakanda.
Thanks for stopping by and to the lovely ArchOfImagine for the beta!
The warm water rushed down Bucky’s back in the chilly Wakanda morning, soothing his muscles. Steam fogged up the window beside him, and he lazily wiped the condensation to enjoy the view of the lake near his cottage. The modest home sat on a bluff over the water, and while the window made it feel like he was bathing outside, he remained hidden from view.
Bucky didn’t indulge much when he was on his own: a candy bar here, a piece of fresh fruit when he could afford it. He didn’t want to become accustomed to luxuries he knew could easily be taken away. In his experience, pleasure made people weak, and when things went wrong, the weakest were the first to break. The war taught him as much; Hydra made sure the lesson took.
Some days he was almost grateful for what they made him, even if he would never say those words out loud. But after the things they did to him, and the things he’d done to others, Bucky Barnes was devoid of any fantasies of what life was supposed to be like.
But, in a warm shower in Wakanda, Bucky allowed himself to enjoy the moment.
Bucky blinked, bringing himself back to the present. The water running over his skin was still warm, but the wrinkles in his hand told him time had passed more quickly than he had realized. Reluctantly, he turned off the unending supply of hot water and enveloped himself in one of the towels hanging by the shower door. There was a drying device adjacent to his shower stall that eliminated the need for the fabric, but Bucky was relieved when his hosts provided him with a more traditional option.
“Old-fashioned,” T’Challa’s sister Shuri had called it, but as Bucky wrapped himself in the soft, fluffy cocoon, he couldn’t care less.
After toweling off, he wrapped himself in a length of colorful fabric that covered his shortened limb and draped across his chest before bypassing the full-length mirror that covered one of the bathroom walls. Bucky didn’t have much need for mirrors; there wasn’t anything in them he particularly needed to see. He had a vague memory of enjoying his reflection before: of glossy hair, cigarettes, and dancing, of a young man who wouldn’t leave the house without making sure that every hair was just so.
You’re beautiful, Buck. Now can we just go?
Aw, Stevie, are you getting all sweet on me?
With all that wax, I doubt a hair on your head could move if it tried. Now can we go before Ms. Brewster yells at us for hogging the bathroom again?
See, the thing is… you can’t rush perfection.
Bucky stalled in his steps, jarred by the memory’s clarity. That was happening more frequently now. The memories that had been bubbling up lately were usually pleasant, to be sure. But after so many years of memories coming to him in only faint whispers, their sudden clarity and volume since waking up in Wakanda was new.
A mixture of emotions worked their way through him as he padded over to the windows that ran along the lounge area. He liked this space. When he first arrived with Steve after Siberia, they had taken him to a suite in one of the city’s looming towers. But when Shuri saw the way Bucky took in the unending landscape, his things were quietly moved to this location overlooking the lake.
The cottage was smaller than the suite had been, which worked just fine for Bucky. He didn’t own anything really, so he didn’t need much space. And the remote location, while unnerving to some, soothed him. It was easier to track other people’s movements at night when the surrounding area was quiet. City centers had all kinds of noises, day and night. Here, the sound of the goats, children playing, and the wind blowing kept him company in the dark. Not that Bucky felt much of a threat from the people of Wakanda, but certain habits die hard.
It had been weeks since Bucky had woken up in that warm bed by the side of the lake. Everyone had been hospitable yet cautious. Bucky understood. In fact, the wide berth he was given only strengthened his already great admiration for his host country.
But, even though his small lakeside cottage seemed secluded, he knew there was no way his hosts would leave an outsider, let alone the Winter Soldier to wander the streets of Wakanda without some surveillance, no matter how hospitable the welcome. Bucky's eyes scanned the crevices in the walls, the plants by the window, and the goats outside his front door. If he was being watched right now, he hadn’t figured out how. Then again, the technology here was so advanced, Bucky had no idea what to look for. Putting off the search for another time, stepped outside to begin his chores for the day.
Shuri clicked away from the small window on her office display that showed her a live feed into Sergeant Barnes’s living room. She wanted to give the man as much privacy as possible, and the motion sensors and single room visual feed were a compromise between complete freedom and Okoye’s original plan. Given his history, the on-person tracking devices Okoye suggested had seemed counterproductive to the young scientist.
Eventually, she was hoping they could do away with the surveillance entirely, but considering their most recent troubles, Shuri understood the need for a more vigilant approach.
“At least he’s pleasant to look at,” Nakia had said when the issue was first brought up, a mischievous grin on her lips. Shuri blushed and rolled her eyes, not wanting to admit that the same thought had crossed her mind.
“Stop it, Shuri, and get back to work,” she said aloud in her now-empty lab. She had too much work to do to dwell on the aesthetics of their guest’s face.
“Yes, baby sister, get back to work,” a voice responded close behind her.
“Ah! Don’t do that to me! Can you at least make a little noise when you walk into a room like that?” she squealed, ducking and dodging as her big brother angled to bring her into a warm embrace.
“But where would be the fun in that? I thought that’s what sneakers were for anyway,” he said, releasing her from his arms and giving her shoulder a firm pat. Shuri and her brother had always been close and affectionate with each other, but ever since the uprising, she noticed her brother preferred to embrace when he used to clap hands or give her a peck on the forehead when he used to punch her arm.
It was fine when T’Challa first recovered from his injuries, but now the gesture reminded her a bit too much of their older aunts and their pinchy hands. She had planned to say as much, but the last time Shuri grimaced at her brother’s affection, their mother had given her a warning look that Shuri knew meant that it was best to allow her brother’s more sentimental instincts. Since then, she grinned and let bore it, hoping that her brother’s sappiness would fade once the shock wore off.
… And, if she was honest, a part of her, a tiny part, had grown to appreciate her brother’s more loving behavior.
They survived a battle. It was fought and won, but the arrival of their cousin and the violence that ensued had taken a toll. Bodies were buried. Scars were left. And though Shuri did not regret joining the fight, it didn’t stop the pain that she felt seeing the bodies of Wakandans strewn along the earth that day.
There was invisible carnage, too. News of W’kabi quietly leaving his home had spread quickly. Okoye would never speak of it, but Shuri could see the heartbreak in her eyes. Shuri still worried sometimes about the Border Tribe, but her brother chose to forgive because he was a generous and merciful king.
“And to what do I owe the pleasure of your company, your highness?”
“Very funny, Princess. I am simply coming by to check in on my favorite sister.”
“Your only sister… and..”
“...and I wanted to know how our new visitor was adjusting.”
“Well, you could have asked him yourself, but,” she continued as T’Challa opened his mouth in rebuttal. “But, he does seem to be adjusting well. It will take time, though.”
“Good, good,” T’Challa turned to exit the lab. “Please keep me updated as to any changes.”
As she watched her brother leave, Shuri wondered how he juggled it all. Her father, her mother, her brother, and herself: everyone around her had a role they were fit to play. They were all pieces of the bigger picture that created the home she had loved. But the weight her brother bore was heaviest of all.
When Shuri had seen the sleeping man they called the Winter Soldier in her lab those months ago, she wondered what kind of man he was and who he would be when he woke. She saw the scars along his chest leading to his left shoulder and the lines on his face. He was a handsome man, with his wavy hair that looked of silk and muscles that spoke to an impressive strength. Though his face was young, Shuri had seen the images etched in his mind when extracting his memories, so many filled with violence and pain that went well beyond his hundred years.
So, she helped the white man with long brown hair because that’s what her brother had asked of her. Because she knew she could do it better than anyone else, and her entire life she had been surrounded by warriors and never once stopped to think about what dreams might haunt them when they closed their eyes at night.
Chapter 3: January, Lebanon
Steve, Natasha, and Sam are on a mission in Lebanon when Steve slips up.
Welcome back and please mind the tags. Brief description of violence in this chapter.
The mission was a success.
It was almost too easy, setting the trap and getting their hands on the Chitauri weapons. It made Steve wonder about the people they met on these missions, the arms dealers who were willing to trade in alien weapons and blood for money. Officially, the Avengers no longer existed. But even if they couldn’t call themselves the Avengers, old habits died hard.
“We have our reasons, right?”Steve had asked when they first started their modest operations.
“Why does anyone do anything, Steve?” Natasha shrugged. “Money, security, love. We do what we do, and these guys out there, people who want to get rich off of other people’s pain, they’re gonna do what they do.”
Steve thought back to that conversation a lot these days.
We have our reasons, right?
Steve didn’t know why he did what he did, why he had to keep fighting. Before, he had been following orders, working towards the greater good. But some days, it felt like Steve did what he did because he just didn’t know anything else. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. Though he usually felt sure about what was right and wrong, the boundaries in his mind had started to blur since the Accords.
And sometimes it made him slip.
“He probably would have used that if you had given him a chance.” Natasha’s voice cut into his thoughts from the seat across from him. Sam drove the nondescript van while Steve and Natasha sat in the back, away from any prying eyes.
Steve hummed in agreement, but he and Natasha both knew that didn’t entirely explain what happened today. Yes, Steve had to disarm the kid. He was young and strong, with more bravado than sense. If Steve had hesitated, the weapon in his hands would have killed them all and taken out the whole block. The kid was much stronger than he looked, which made Steve wonder if perhaps there was more pumping through his veins than human blood.
But that didn’t explain why Steve’s fists still came down after he had dazed the kid long enough to pull the weapon from his hands. Or why his fists kept pounding the body below him until Sam’s loud voice made Steve finally register the mess of a person below him.
And it definitely didn’t explain the thrill that coursed through his body when Steve saw the blood and matter staining the dark material of his gloves, his heart pounding and his breathing heavy.
‘Good,’ a voice inside him said at the sight. A wave of revulsion came over Steve in response, and his eyes darted around the room as if to check if anyone else could hear his thoughts. The look on Sam’s face, a mixture of concern and a little bit of fear brought Steve back to the present, and he took in a deep breath, willing his heart to slow down.
“We’ve gotta go,” Natasha called out from across the room, standing over a few of the kid’s buddies.
Steve pushed his warring feelings aside and extracted the large weapon from the body below him. Sam kept quiet as he lifted the gun from Steve’s hands and placed it inside a protective case. They still had to take it to be destroyed and now was not the time for conversation. Steve wiped his shaking hands on the closest piece of fabric and followed his teammates outside.
Back in the van, Steve cleared his throat and focused in on Natasha’s words.
“I know he would have used it, Nat,” Steve mumbled, eyes fixed on the passing scenery.
“Good,” Natasha replied, watching as Steve clenched and unclenched his still gloved fists. Lowering her voice, she added, “we can all get a little carried away sometimes. The adrenaline, it can keep you alive. And... we’re good at it, what we do.”
“I don’t... we’re good at our jobs, Nat. This is my job. We’re helping people.”
“Yes, we are. And... sometimes doing bad things to bad people can feel... good. Doesn’t make you a monster, Rogers.” Natasha replied in a soft voice that she knew only Steve would be able to hear, she added, “we all have our reasons.”
Chapter 4: March, Wakanda
The Wakandan plains stretched out before Bucky as he tended to the goats near his cottage. They belonged to a family nearby, but the more time he spent around them, the more the animals saw him as a part of the family. If he had been asked months ago, Bucky wouldn't have said that feeding and cleaning up after a group of loud, smelly animals with funny eyes would have been high on his list of favorite activities, but it was easily the highlight of his day. Bucky was learning all sorts of things about himself lately.
So far, he knew he liked hot showers, watching the sun rise and set over the lake, going for a run when he couldn't sleep, and, of course, the goats. He was learning that he preferred the taste of certain foods over others but wasn’t versed enough in culinary language to communicate that clearly. Besides, the food he received here beat anything he had eaten in recent memory or anything he could make on his own, so Bucky accepted whatever was sent his way with a smile of gratitude.
Bucky wanted to stay and soak in the view a little more, but he remembered he wanted to find Shuri and ask a question about his treatments before the day got too late. Besides, Bucky thought with a smile, there would be time to watch more sunsets.
“What is this place?”
“Yes, and hello to you too, Mr. Bucky. I am fine, thank you for asking. I’m not busy at all, why don’t you come right in?” she replied without looking up from her work table. Even with her back to him, Bucky could hear the smile in her voice that told him his appearance was anything but an intrusion. If Shuri didn’t want him in her space, Bucky was pretty sure he wouldn’t have made it into the building without being stopped by one of the many people assigned to keep an eye on him.
After taking a moment to complete the task in front of her, Shuri turned to face him as he waited at the edge of her lab.
“This is my lab, Sar- Bucky. You’ve been here before.”
Bucky smirked. Shuri just wanted to respect her elders; it was nice. He was the same way when he was her age, he thought to himself with a chuckle. The fact that he could even recall something from that time stunned him momentarily into silence.
“Bucky,” Shuri implored when he fell silent. “Is something wrong? Do you need to sit down?”
“No, I’m fine,” he said, a pocket of laughter bubbling up inside of him. “I actually— I actually think that I am fine… Anyway, this is where you work? It looks different than what I remember.”
Shuri looked around the space as if taking it in through fresh eyes.
“We’ve had to make some changes. The last lab, the one you saw before, it sustained damage. But yes, I work here with many others.”
Bucky hadn’t known Shuri long, but he knew enough to catch the tension that crept into the corner of her eyes when she mentioned the word ‘damage.’
“Well, a lot of other people may work here, but from what I can tell, you’re the boss.” Bucky gave his best, most charming smile (from what he could remember... he thought he could remember it working). He hoped he could ease some of the worries he saw furrowing Shuri’s brow. Bucky had overheard whispers of an uprising while he was in cryo. Whatever happened, it was apparent the people were eager to move past it, Shuri included. Perhaps reminding his host that she was surrounded by people who were looking out for her would help.
“The guards said it would be okay if I came down to visit.”
“Of course,” she laughed. Bucky watched as she tried to shake off the tension. “Of course you can come to visit Bucky. I’m sure this place seems very strange to you.”
“Strange isn’t exactly the word I’d use,” he countered. He wanted desperately to look around the room and find out just how everything worked, but he knew he should probably focus his attention on his host before poking around her lab. “It seems... exciting,” Bucky motioned around at the bright lights, colors, and devices left about. They could heal the sick and power their city from this lab, but the space still felt warm and inviting. “I mean,” he chuckled, keeping his sculpted arm tucked close to his side so he wouldn’t be tempted to touch, “there are a lot of things that have seemed strange to me over the years. I’ve learned to take it in stride.”
“Yes, I suppose you have.”
“But, whatever all of this does,” he nodded his head toward the room, “it helped fix whatever was put in my brain, so I’m assuming... magic?”
“Magic? Pssh! Science! I did not think of you as the superstitious type.” Shuri’s eyes lit up as she leaned in with a conspiratorial tone, “would you like me to tell you how I did it?”
Judging by the look of sheer joy that spread across her face, Bucky knew better than to refuse the offer. A quick nod from Bucky and Shuri was off to the races, explaining how she had to modify some of their equipment to extract Bucky’s memories while allowing him to rest peacefully. She mentioned something about specific brain waves, circadian rhythms, synapses, neurons, and all sorts of things that he only had a vague understanding of… Well, he didn’t understand any of it, really, but as he watched her move about the lab, gesturing wildly and full of life, he couldn’t bring himself to interrupt.
“The most important thing I wanted to be careful of was that I disturb as few of your memories as possible. The trigger words were connected to deep-seeded attachments, they had to be for them to stick, and I wanted to make sure we didn’t remove anything we didn’t have to.”
“Wait, wait, so… were you able to actually see my memories as you were working?”
Shuri stopped her hands mid-air as she gestured to illustrate a particularly tricky part of the process. “Well… yes. That is why I made sure the team working with me was as small as possible. I did not want to impose on your privacy any more than necessary. Only I had access to any visual feeds. But it was important that I was able to see what I was working with because I didn’t want to remove anything that made you... you. In the process, we were able to diminish the impact of many of the memories that were created during your... when you... when you were working under duress. Luckily, your mind is strong and resilient. Some of your older memories may come back stronger than ever.”
“I have noticed that some of my older memories have been a bit... louder. But they’re nice, so—”
“GOOD! Yes, that was the plan, a quiet, happy mind, is the best for recovery. I think I read that on Instagram once.”
Bucky chuckled. He wasn’t sure exactly what an ‘Instagram’ was, but he understood her meaning. “I, uh, just hope you didn’t have to see anything embarrassing when you were poking around in there.”
A strong blush colored Shuri’s face as she ducked her head. “We have an excellent education system, Sar— Bucky. I have extensive knowledge of human anatomy and… the things that people do.”
He had been joking, but her sudden need to avoid his eyes caused a lance of embarrassed heat to flash through his body. Since some of his older memories had started to resurface, Bucky had noticed a marked… shift in the way some of them made him feel. There were a few in particular of him and Steve sharing a bed in Brooklyn or under a blanket on the floor as they shared the warmth that sprung to mind. Of course, his mind immediately went to those memories, wondering if she had seen them and noticed how strong they were or how they made him feel.
Of all the places his mind could go right then, it felt silly that his mind jumped to that. Shuri knew about his time with Hydra and was kind to him anyway, so that couldn’t have been a surprise. Anyone connected to his dating life before that was either dead or in a nursing home by now, so while he’d rather she hadn’t seen any of those private moments, it didn’t bug him much. But Steve was still very much alive. Something about someone else peering in on his thoughts about Steve felt… wrong.
Shuri waved her hand, grabbing Bucky’s attention back. “Hey man, I didn’t mean to worry you like that. I was joking. Look, I am a professional. There’s nothing I saw or didn’t see that you have to worry about… Besides, whatever it is you are worried about, I am sure there is a group of people on the internet who are into it, too.” Her face was a stoic mask of sincere concern until the crack of laughter split her face with a broad smile.
“Alright, alright, I was just coming by to say hi. I didn’t sign up for this.”
“Oh,” she wiped tears of laughter as they started to collect at the corners of her eyes. “You should have seen your face! As soon as I said ’anatomy!’”
Bucky waited out Shuri’s fit of laughter. It was actually kind of nice having someone around who knew how to laugh. Humor hadn’t exactly been a priority for him in the past, and there was something innocent about the way Shuri moved through the world.
“Well, I just came by to say hello, so…” Bucky turned to leave.
“You know what? I was just finishing up here. Do you want to take a walk with me?” Shuri closed down her workstation and led Bucky out of the lab
“Where are we going?” Bucky asked once they made it outside. He paused for a moment and tilted his face to feel the sun on his skin.
“Do not worry… Bucky, we can stay here a little longer if you would like,” she said, slowing her steps.
He had wanted to stay and soak in the sun and the view a little more, but, hearing the invitation, Bucky realized he didn’t need to. There would be plenty of time to watch more sunsets.
“No, it’s okay. I’m okay. We can go. ”
“Good. There’s someone I think you should meet.”
Chapter 5: May, Istanbul
The noise of the train is loud around them, but they know better than to risk being heard. Steve gives a silent nod, and they begin moving together into the next car. Almost immediately, they spot the soldier, his glowing blue weapon in hand. It’s like the ones Steve saw at the camp, but larger. Steve moves to adjust the grip of his shield, but when he looks down, his arm is empty. Why would he come here without his shield?
The dark train car is flooded with light and Steve can see the snow-covered mountains in the distance. The man with the gun is gone, but so is Bucky. Steve rushes to the sound of a voice and sees Bucky hanging on to a piece of the destroyed car, trying not to fall to the ground far below.
“Grab my hand!” Steve reaches out his arm while holding on to something solid. He inches out, stretching as far as he can just as Bucky reaches out to grab ahold. He almost has him, can just reach him until—
Steve lurched forward in his bed, his heart pounding and breath coming quick. For a moment, he couldn’t make out why the room was so dark when it had just been light. He rubbed his eyes, trying to find his bearings and sat up straighter while he forced himself to take in slow breaths.
That’s right. The train was years ago.
The buildings around him were tan with hints of turquoise and red, not brown and covered in snow. Natasha and Sam were with him, and Bucky was in—
“The ruler of Wakanda, King T’Challa, appeared today before the UN security council, just a few months after the death of his father, the former King T’Chaka.”
Steve’s ears perked at the news broadcast.
“What the hell is the leader of Wakanda doing on international television?” Natasha asked in the distance.
What the hell, indeed. Steve remembered King T’Chaka making an effort to become more visible shortly before his death, but from the look of the broadcast, T’Challa wasn’t just putting in a little bit of face time, he was poised to introduce the world to the real Wakanda, not just the facade.
The fact that Wakanda and the Black Panther had remained secret for hundreds, if not thousands of years was honestly rather impressive to Steve. And once he saw the nation in person, he understood their desire to remain hidden from the world. Sometimes Steve wished he could do the same thing, himself.
“Why the sudden change?” Sam chimed in as the broadcast droned on about Wakandan outreach centers and global initiatives. “I thought low-key was supposed to be their style.”
“I don’t know,” Steve replied. “But whatever it was, it must have been something big.” A wave of panic hit Steve, drowning out the sound of the TV as Natasha and Sam watched the broadcast with sharp attention.
One thought coursed through Steve’s mind, and right now there was only one person who could assuage his fears.
“Captain Rogers,” the warm voice greeted. Steve didn’t detect any sounds of stress or anxiety, but he knew there were limits to a phone conversation.
“Your Highness,” he replied as he strolled down a quiet street. Natasha was close by, perusing the local market for their weekly food run while Steve was on his phone just past a busy cafe.
“It is always a pleasure to hear your voice. I trust that you and your companions are safe?” T’Challa’s voice purred.
Though they hadn’t known each other long, T’Challa’s concern touched Steve. It always felt genuine. And after everything that happened over the last few months, just knowing there was someone out there who would ask after their wellbeing meant a lot to Steve. He was grateful to consider the king an ally.
“We are, thank you. And you?”
“Everything is well. The outreach centers have been keeping us very busy.”
The remainder of the news broadcast awakened the panic in Steve that had briefly been quieted. “Yes... I heard the announcement.”
“Ah. Well, it is good that you are still able to stay connected to the happenings of the world, wherever you are.”
“It’s been a necessity,” Steve replied, his shield hand clenching and releasing as he spoke. “It’s important to keep track of what’s going on around us, in case we need to change our location or—”
“—In case you are needed.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from you, Captain. The pull of responsibility is strong. It never really leaves us… But, I suspect that you are not calling to discuss the burdens we share.”
“I remember you father’s humanitarian efforts. But outreach centers, STEM research… it seemed a bit of a surprise, given—”
“—Given my nation is supposed to be nothing but farmland and hungry people?”
“Well… yes.” Steve forced himself to speak calmly, even as he could feel his pulse picking up.
“My elders were very wise. But sometimes the world reminds us that change is necessary. Rest assured, Captain: Sergeant Barnes is still safe.”
Steve felt a wave of heat burn through his chest as his posture became more rigid at the sound of T’Challa’s words. Swallowing, he thought through his next words carefully.
“There was a challenge to my title.” Steve licked his lips as T’Challa paused to collect his thoughts. “Lives were lost. I will not lie to you and say that it has not been a difficult time for my people and me. But at no time was Sergeant Barnes in harm’s way.”
Steve lowered his head as his free hand came up to pinch the bridge of his nose. Several thoughts raced through his mind at once, like how irrational it was for him to be so alarmed over the life of one person while they were discussing the loss of so many of T’Challa’s countrymen. Or how the admiration of T’Challa’s people had seemed so unshakeable and genuine during Steve’s brief visit. The fact that a rift in his homeland had turned violent was surprising to Steve. He knew that whatever had happened, he was only hearing the part of the story that T’Challa felt comfortable enough to share, which just made him speculate about the parts he kept private. And T’Challa was right, his first thoughts went right to Bucky, about whether he was safe or not when Steve knew there was a bigger picture here.
Taking a deep breath in through his nose and out through pursed lips, Steve opened his eyes and settled on the words he knew were wisest. “I am very sorry for your losses. I know that could not have been easy for you.”
“Responsibility asks much of those who accept it. Though it can be heavy, it is a privilege nonetheless. But do not worry, Captain. I would have contacted you immediately if there had been a need.”
A huff of air blew past Steve’s lips as the corners of his mouth pulled up. “That transparent, huh?”
“Sometimes, Captain… transparency can be good. It helps people know they can trust you.”
“However I can be of service.”
“You always are. Even when the world doesn’t know it, you always are.”
Steve’s eyes closed as he swallowed, thankful his face was hidden over the phone.
“I know I ask every time, but—”
“—Sergeant Barnes is resting well. The process of extracting memories while still maintaining the mind’s integrity is a delicate matter. It is better not to rush. But I assure you if anyone can—”
“—It is Princess Shuri.”
“I may be a bit biased in my opinion.”
“No, you are… you are right, T’Challa. Your Highness. Thank you.”
“You are most welcome, Captain. Now, if you could please excuse me, I have a meeting I must attend.”
“Thank you for your time, your Highness.” Steve disconnected the call before placing his phone back in his pocket. His hand gripped the device tightly before he reminded himself that the material was more delicate than it looked. His suddenly empty hands vibrated with energy, aching for something to grab onto.
A loud burst of laughter from the nearby cafe caught his attention and Steve’s eyes refocused, taking in his surroundings more clearly. In the distance, he could see Natasha finishing her errands, and Steve knew to allow a few minutes before following her back to their apartment. That gave him a little bit of time to gather his thoughts before he returned to more observant company.
Checking his watch, Steve started to walk back slowly, eyes to the ground. The nagging feeling at the back of his mind didn’t give way, but perhaps some fresh air and a walk would help.
Steve knew Natasha was good at her job, but he would probably never grow accustomed to how well she could sneak up on him. He adjusted his stance and continued his stride towards the safehouse.
“Don’t worry, the coast is clear. I checked.”
“Of course,” Steve replied as he shouldered some of the supplies Natasha handed him.
“So, did he explain the sudden change in his worldview?”
“There was…” Steve shuffled through his mind for the right words, “a conflict. Had to reevaluate some things.”
“Hm… is it anything we need to be worried about?”
Steve smiled at Natasha’s “we”. She never came out and said it, but Steve suspected Natasha and Bucky had crossed paths more than either of them let on. Based on her reluctance to share more and the nature of both Natasha and Bucky’s previous work, Steve knew their encounters were likely hostile. Her willingness to treat Bucky with compassion now spoke volumes. Once again, he felt a wave of warmth laced with guilt move through him as he thought of how much their friendship had cost the people around him.
“Steve.Is it anything we need to be worried about?” Natasha repeated.
Steve considered the question as the gravel crunched beneath his feet. “No… no, if Bucky were in danger, or needed to be moved, T’Challa would have said something.”
“Good. How do you think the world will respond to the real Wakanda?”
“You mean to spaceship cars and a mountain of vibranium? It should go over great.”
“Was that sarcasm, Steve? Glad to know me and Wilson can have some sort of influence on you.”
They walked the rest of the way home while Natasha filled in the details about their new location, Steve chiming in here and there. Anything to keep him from grabbing the quinjet and flying to Wakanda himself was probably a good idea.
“Yes, brother?” Shuri’s image replied from one of T’Challa’s kimoyo beads.
“I understand the reasons, but I am not so sure how much longer it is appropriate to lie to Captain Rogers about his friend.”
“Brother, I simply want to make sure that the current treatments have worked before we introduce my patient to any triggering stimuli.”
“And how long do you think his recovery will take?”
“Soon, brother. I will let you know as soon as that time arrives.”
“Please do. In the meantime, we will allow the White Wolf to rest as much as needed, but please let him know some people might appreciate an update.”
“I will, brother.”
Chapter 6: August, Wakanda
The afternoon sun came down hot as Bucky knelt to the ground to catch his breath. He and Okoye had been sparring for the past few hours, and sweat dotted his back and face while she only seemed to glisten.
“It is okay if you need a break,” she said, her spear planted firmly in the ground.
“She just doesn’t want to get in trouble for harming an elder!” Shuri shouted from the edge of their working space. Shuri insisted that she could do her work on her tablet just as easily outside as she could indoors, but Bucky suspected she just enjoyed watching him get his butt kicked.
“Do not listen to her. Your balance and speed are strong and improving. But I suspect you may be pulling some of your punches?”
Bucky smiled as Okoye handed him a drink of water. He liked this. When Shuri first introduced them, Okoye barely spoke a word, wisely seeing him as a possible threat. She still did, Bucky could see that, but over the past several months her demeanor toward him had changed from icy distance to genuine respect. They were both soldiers and didn’t need to talk much to find common ground. When she approached him one day and suggested they start sparring sessions in her downtime, he accepted graciously. It helped him stay sharp in shape, and Okoye said the variety kept her on her toes while she learned his strengths and weaknesses. As the head of the Dora Milaje, though, Okoye didn’t have much free time. Bucky didn’t know the details of her personal life, but he suspected there was a reason she preferred to spend those few hours trading blows with a one-armed assassin rather than at home or with friends.
“Thank you,” he replied as he stood back to his feet. It was nice, the exercise and banter. There was only so much he could do with his one arm against all of Okoye’s strength, but he surprised them both sometimes. And using his strength and skill for just exercise felt good.
“Are you sure you want to get back up?” Okoye turned to Shuri, “should he be getting back up?”
Shuri set down her work and stepped in closer, looking at Bucky’s sweaty brow. “You do look a little winded. Is your shoulder bothering you?” she asked as she reached out to examine the shortened limb.
“Hey, I’m fine! I’ve just been fighting one-handed against Wakanda’s greatest warrior for hours, and I’m still alive. I thought you two would be impressed!”
At the word ‘impressed,’ Okoye rolled her eyes and turned her back to gather her things. “I think that’s enough for today, thank you. The next council meeting will begin shortly. Good day, Sergeant Barnes. Princess.”
Once she was out of earshot, Bucky turned to Shuri with a questioning look.
“She wants you to know that you only made it that far because she let you get that far.”
“Well, I don’t think anyone could doubt her skill.”
“That is correct,” Shuri replied.
“Anyway, the shoulder feels great,” he rolled and stretched the joint as he spoke. “No phantom pain, no circuits malfunctioning.”
“Of course there is no pain or malfunctioning! How bad do you think I am at my job?” she squealed as her fist landed firmly on Bucky’s flesh shoulder.
“Ow! You know, you’re a lot stronger than you look,” Bucky mused.
“I take my work very seriously and if there is anything wrong—”
“So if I don’t feel pain, you’re going to hit me until I do?”
“What? No… you have a strange sense of humor, you know?”
“I meant because you asked me if it hurt, then you hit me— you know what? Nevermind.” Joking about Shuri’s skill was off limits; Bucky knew by now that the teenager took her work very seriously.
“Indeed,” Shuri replied, “But seriously… I think that you are ready.”
Bucky turned to gather his sling before placing it over his capped limb. It was lunchtime, and the two started back in the direction of his cottage.
“You can do anything you want—,” she started
“—Well, almost anything.” There was still the matter of an international manhunt to consider.
“Well, yes, there are some considerations to be made. But the point is, you have choices. You have so many choices, Bucky.”
“You’re right… I do,” he smiled. When he first left Hydra, freedom had felt like a burden, a blanket of fear and confusion. For the first time since then, it felt like something he could get excited about. Bucky knew how to survive. Suddenly, he felt like he was being offered something more.
“So. If you could do anything, be anywhere in the world, where would you be?”
“Oh, are you guys kicking me out?”
Shuri shook her head at the suggestion. “No, never. My brother has grown rather fond of you and the children like talking about the White Wolf and his goats. But what do you want?”
Bucky took a deep breath as he let out the first thing that came to mind “I love it here.” He looked over at Shuri, seemingly pleased with his response.
“... Then you should tell your friend.”
The mention of Steve brought a wave of guilt over Bucky. He had been awake for months, and he still hadn’t reached out. “Thank you for—”
“—lying? You’re welcome. You’ll have to thank my brother, though. He says not telling Captain Rogers feels wrong. I keep telling him that reintroducing stimuli from your previous life could be triggering if we try it too soon.”
Shuri wasn’t wrong. Bucky worried about that himself. The last time he saw Sam, it was clear he wasn’t exactly thrilled that Bucky was around. He was almost positive Natasha thought he was to blame for the Avengers splitting up.
And Steve… he had so many thoughts about Steve. A lot of the memories that had been coming back to him in the last several months were from their days back in Brooklyn. Most of them were comforting. Some of them were confusing. The memories themselves weren’t complicated, per se, but the way they made Bucky feel was. He would think about something Steve would say, or the way one side of his mouth would turn up when he laughed, or the way his arms would feel when they would wrap around Bucky in an embrace. Those thoughts came to him in the middle of the night, while he was lying in bed, or in the shower as the water wakened parts of his body long forgotten. Bucky didn’t know what to make of that, and most certainly did not want to discuss them with a sixteen-year-old, no matter how smart or mature she was. Honestly, Bucky didn’t want to address those thoughts with anyone until he could figure out what they meant.
“Thank you. For everything.”
“My pleasure! You know I love collecting broken white boys! You just happen to be my favorite.”
“Your favorite? How many have there been?”
“Ah,” Shuri clapped her hand onto Bucky’s shoulder as they walked. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
“It’s from a television show— you know what? Let’s get some alicha. I know the best place.”
“So, my sister says that your recovery is going very well.” T’Challa used some injera to sop up the remnants off his plate, his demeanor calm and relaxed.
“Yes,” Bucky replied, making sure to swallow the rest of his food before continuing. “Things have been… I feel great. Shuri has been an incredible help. I couldn’t have done any of this without her.”
“Our Shuri is very talented. There are many things we could not do without her,” offered Queen Mother Ramonda.
“Do you hear that, brother? I am irreplaceable.” The young princess glowed under their praise.
T’Challa smirked, a facade of irritation thin as he looked at his baby sister. “Yes, little one, we all know that you are one of a kind.”
“Little one! How little do I—”
“—Sergeant Barnes,” T’Challa refocused on his guest. “Since your recovery has been coming along well, I believe it is appropriate I ask: have you made any decisions as to what you would like to do in the future? Our land is vast and our resources considerable. However, if you should decide you would like to continue your journey elsewhere, we will wish you well on the next step on your path.”
Bucky paused, considering his words carefully. He looked around the table, at Shuri, T’Challa, their mother, Okoye and the Dora Milaje lined along the walls.
“Yes, I have. But first, I need to make a phone call.”
Chapter 7: August, Bruges
There was a small space on the roof of their building where they could see the town center and its looming church clock. The breeze was welcome, and on a clear night, a person could look out onto the whole city without being seen. They were all excellent at paying attention to details, but Steve could hear and see farther out than Sam and Natasha. And from here, when his mind was clear, he could keep a decent watch from several directions at once. It was nice.
Sam’s footfall and the sound of a couple clanging beer bottles grabbed his attention. He sat down next to Steve, holding out one of the containers to his friend. Steve accepted the offering with a smile.
“You know one thing I did miss about service? Traveling. I mean, when would I ever get to come to a place like this?”
“I’d say you’ve put on some miles,” Steve replied, taking a sip. Even though the alcohol didn’t have any effect on him, he still enjoyed the flavor. It was comforting, both mundane and luxurious. Mundane because of how available it was to him now, and luxurious because of all the years that it wasn’t.
Where did you even get this, Buck?
Aw, come on, Stevie! You didn’t think I’d let you go through your whole birthday without making you take a drink, did you?
But Buck, how much was this?
…Look, Mr. Rassmesson is giving me a few extra shifts down at the docks this summer so you can call me Mr. Moneybags. Now drink.
“Hey. Hey! You okay, man?” Sam interjected.
“Yeah. Uh, yeah, I’m fine,” Steve responded as he resisted the urge to soothe the ache in his chest. He didn’t want to give Sam any reason to worry. Judging by the concerned look in his eyes, he wasn’t pulling it off too well.
“Alright, well, if you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t push you. But I’d much rather get it out now than have it explode on that quinjet.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
“—Steve. Stop. It’s been a year,” Sam cut in. “A year since we started doing this. We’ve been around each other longer than that. And I’ve never seen you like this.”
“How am I, Sam?”
“Angry. Sad. Tired. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you barely sleep anymore.”
“We all get nightmares sometimes.”
“True. But are you going to tell me that it's not happening more than usual?”
Steve kept his gaze towards the town center, his eyes trained on the clock. After a sip from his beer, he gave a small shake of his head.
“I thought so,” Sam continued. “You don’t need to tell me everything that’s going on in your head. But something is, and it’s clouding your judgement. Look, we deal with bad guys. A lot. And it is different now that we’re on our own. But you’ve been acting out, Steve. Your mind is fuzzy.”
Steve brought up a calloused hand to scrub over his bearded face. “I just need to get some sleep.”
“I dunno if that’s all it is, man.”
“What do you mean?”
“How long has it been now since you’ve been able to talk to him?”
Eyebrows furrowed, Steve turned to Sam, shaking his head. “We’ve gone longer without seeing each other before.”
“True, but,” Sam continued, careful not to look at Steve. “Look, the only way for me to say this is to say it, so... You blew up your life for him. You left everything— a lot of us left everything, and then he just split—”
“I can’t say enough how sorry I am—“
“—No, Steve, I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty. Me, Tasha, Clint, Wanda, all of us. We all made our choice. We knew what we were doing, Cap.” Seeing Steve’s flinch at his old title, Sam corrected “—I mean, Steve. And I know that he did what he did so he didn't have to worry about hurtin' anybody, but...it’s okay if you feel... a little left behind.”
There wasn’t much either of them could say after that, and they fell into a companionable silence. Sam’s words were hard to hear, but Steve couldn’t dismiss them out of hand. Was that how he felt, left behind? It didn’t seem fair or right for him to feel that way. Shouldn’t he just be happy that none of them were sitting in prison? How did he have the right to feel bad when he knew Bucky was where he wanted to be. Yes, he was in a cryo-sleep, but he chose to do that. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Steve didn’t have the answers to the different thoughts that warred in his head, so when Sam didn’t speak, he simply sat back against the wall, sipped his beer, and looked out at the starry night.
Several hours and beers later, the pair was about to call it quits when Natasha strolled up to their rooftop hideout.
“You boys need some company?”
Standing up, Steve brushed off the back of his pants. “I might be heading in.”
“I’m gonna stay out for a little bit, if you’d like to join me,” Sam smiled.
“As long as there’s one more drink for me.”
“You got it,” he replied, tossing a bottle towards Natasha.
Steve was crouched, angling himself to slip back into the window that led into the attic when he felt a buzzing from his burner phone. He froze, half in and half out of the window as he scrambled for the device. Only two people had the number. The world wasn’t coming to an end, so it likely wasn’t Tony. That meant—
“Hey Steve, you caught in the window there?”
Steve didn’t respond, his eyes glued to the text message displayed. It wasn’t until he felt Natasha pulling the phone from his hand that he realized they must have been asking him questions while he straddled the windowsill.
Natasha looked at the message, then turned to Sam.
“It’s time to go.”
Chapter 8: Natasha, Bruges
While Steve and Sam get ready for their departure, Natasha ties up a few loose ends.
This is a brief chapter from Natasha's POV. We're heading back to the main story after this.
Natasha waited for her local contact in an old playground while Steve and Sam readied the quinjet to head to Wakanda.
None of this was a part of a plan.
As a rule, Natasha didn’t make a habit of thinking much about the future. In her experience, spending too much time thinking about the future was a good way to get your heart broken. Or killed.
But even with her modest thoughts about what could be, she didn’t think she’d be here, with Steve and Sam, crossing the globe from one decrepit building to the next.
She didn’t exactly mind, per se. It wasn’t her first time on the run, and her mind was made when she stopped T’Challa in that air hanger in Germany. And since leaving the Compound, Natasha realized she kind of liked having Steve and Sam around.
It was the best possible outcome of the circumstances presented to them, and Natasha was okay with that. She was adaptable. It was one part of her programming she was happy to keep. It had kept her alive and her mind sharp.
Natasha knew why she did what she did; it’s how she was built. There was no better place for her to be. She enjoyed her time at the Compound with the full team. But, things change. She knew how to keep walking, keep one foot in front of the other. It was just who she was.
She wasn’t so sure about Steve, though.
No, scratch that. Natasha knew a lot about Steve. The man was honest and wore his heart on his sleeve.
Ever since Steve burned down his life (and a few others’) to save his old friend, it became an unspoken rule that no one was supposed to talk about it. Everyone knew Steve could be stubborn and the Accords had pricked that healthy cord of paranoia he had been nursing since DC. If asked, Steve would say that the blow-up with Tony was about the Accords, and nothing more.
But Natasha knew better. Things changed once Barnes had gotten involved. And when Steve left Siberia with his battered friend and no shield, it was clear that he was willing to leave everything and everyone behind if Barnes asked him to.
So when Barnes decided to stay in Wakanda, Natasha watched the light in Steve slowly dim. Their missions were important to them all and Steve still knew how to be a soldier, but it became more evident as time went on that Steve Rogers was a mighty fine soldier who wasn’t sure how to just be a man anymore.
“Are you sure they’re just friends?” Natasha asked Sam not long ago. He almost choked on his drink, so it was probably the first time the idea crossed his mind. But the more time that went between updates from T’Challa, the more agitated Steve became. The first few months on the road, Natasha thought that maybe they should stay in Wakanda for some time until both she and Sam decided that seeing Barnes in cryo would likely cause Steve more damage than good.
Natasha saw the signal for her contact across the yard. As soon as this was done, she could meet Sam and Steve at their rendezvous, and they would be on their way. She wasn’t sure what would happen when Steve saw Barnes after their latest separation, but whatever little preparation she had, she knew Steve had even less.
Chapter 9: Welcome to Wakanda
The team arrives in Wakanda
Once the coordinates were given, Steve didn’t need to be in the cockpit. If it wasn’t his turn to pilot, he usually would move around to stretch his legs while Natasha or Sam manned the quinjet. But since their early morning departure, Steve had insisted on remaining close by even after Natasha let him know in no uncertain terms that she would be piloting them to Wakanda.
“I’m perfectly capable of getting us there, Nat.”
”As am I, and I can do it without being distracted. Go relax, Steve.”
He gave a minor huff, unbuckled his seatbelt and moved towards the back of the quinjet. Maybe with someone else at the wheel, it would give him time to ready the space for… what? Bucky’s return?
When they had stopped in Wakanda after the Accords, Steve accepted T’Challa’s hospitality with great relief and appreciation. But though the king’s resources were vast, everyone had their limits. Though Bucky was his own person, Steve knew that T’Challa’s helping Bucky was more of a favor to Steve than anything else. He didn’t want to stretch the king’s hospitality too far.
It hadn’t been discussed, but Steve assumed that once Bucky woke up and had time to recover, he would join Steve, wherever he was. He wished his living situation was more stable, but just having his friend back would make all the difference in the world. Besides, if recent events were any indication, Steve knew that even the reclusive Wakanda was not immune from the chaos of the world.
‘It’s not like you could keep him much safer, running around from place to place.’
As if he could walk away from the nagging thought, Steve paced around the quinjet, checking supplies and materials. Sam allowed a wide berth as Steve checked and rechecked their provisions.
“It’ll be nice, not having to look over our shoulders for a while,” Sam chimed in after a long silence.
“Mhhmm,” Steve hummed. Being on the run wasn’t easy. It would, in fact, be nice be somewhere that didn't have danger lurking around every corner. Even if just for a bit. “I don’t want to draw any unwanted attention their way, though. They’ve been through enough, lately.”
“Well, if they can keep an entire nation hidden from the world for a thousand plus years, I doubt we’re going to change any of that. Besides, it sounds like now they’re ready to be seen.”
“Yes, it does.”
“They know what they’re doing, Steve. If they didn’t want us there, they wouldn’t invite us at all.“
“Yeah… um, I’m gonna go check on Natasha.” They both knew Natasha didn’t need any help, but Sam still nodded, understanding.
“Right, okay, Steve.”
After what felt like days to Steve and hours to everybody else, the quinjet touched down on the same spot that it had over a year ago. From what they could see, the Capital hadn’t sustained much damage during their conflict. But that didn't mean the injury wasn't there. Steve knew all too well that sometimes scars went unseen.
"My flying was that bad, huh?" Natasha smirked as Steve rushed towards the opening hatch. Steve saw the comment for what it was and allowed himself to laugh for her sake.
‘Calm down, you don’t want to seem too eager,’ she was saying. As much as he hated to admit it, Steve knew she was right.
“Here we go,” she said in warning as the hatch opened. A greeting party flanked both sides of the runway with T’Challa centered at the end of their path. Steve squared his shoulders and made his way towards the king. Etiquette meant his attention should be trained solely on the royal family in front of him, Steve couldn’t help the sweep of his eyes as he searched for the man who had called him there.
“Captain Rogers.” T’Challa’s hand reached for Steve’s.
“Your Highness.” The handshake was quick, yet firm. Steve stepped aside while Natasha and Sam took their turns greeting the king. He was about to turn around, see if he could spot a pale face amongst the crowd when a voice called out to his left.
The sound around him seemed to cut out as he turned, honing in on that familiar voice.
Bucky wasn’t sure what he expected when Steve arrived, but the royal welcome was far beyond what he imagined. It was nice, really. Clearly T’Challa and Steve had respect for one another and, more importantly, Steve deserved the fanfare. It seemed only right that Bucky put his best foot forward, as well.
With a new outfit and styling session mandated by Shuri (“We don’t have to cut your hair, but can I at least have my friend Nala do a little something?”), Bucky was ready.
At least, he thought he was. Whether it was nerves, excitement, or a mixture of both, seeing the quinjet touch down, Bucky suddenly felt a wave of nerves roll through his stomach. He instinctively reached to his right where Shuri would usually be, then remembered that she was closer to the head of the greeting party with her brother. Taking in a steadying breath, he pressed his sweating palm to the leg of his pant instead.
He could do this. There was no reason to be nervous. Steve was his friend. They would both be happy to see each other, and everything would go—
—The quinjet doors folded open on an electric hum and almost immediately, Steve stepped out, leaving Natasha and Sam several steps behind. At least Bucky thought it was them. Natasha’s hair was platinum instead of a vivid red, Sam had more facial hair than he remembered and Steve—
It took Bucky a moment to take in all of Steve. He was the same size as he remembered with similar clothes. His uniform had clearly seen some wear: the colors looked faded, and it was missing the ‘A’ on the shoulder and the signature star on his chest. But his face…
Steve’s face was framed by long, dark blonde hair that fell in his face when the wind blew too hard. His face was covered in a beard Bucky didn’t even know Steve was capable of growing. It was thick, and dark in a color that made the pink of his lips even more vivid.
Bucky’s mouth suddenly went dry, and he felt himself swallowing, willing the moisture to return.
‘Get a grip. Quit acting weird and go say hi to your friend… Your friend. Now stop staring at his mouth.’
After the welcomed guests greeted their host, Bucky took a moment, stepped around the line of the Dora Milaje that blocked him from being seen, then gently cleared his throat.
Chapter 10: The Grand Tour
“This is amazing, Buck.”
The view from Bucky’s cottage was spectacular. After Steve, Sam, and Natasha were shown to their separate quarters and Steve had a chance to change and eat, Bucky was eager to show him where he was staying. At least, he seemed eager to Steve. By most people’s standards, Bucky was downright subdued, but Steve saw gait in his step. Whatever he saw, it was enough to satisfy Natasha’s protective instincts as she guided Sam away to give the two some privacy.
“You take care of all of them?” Steve pointed to the goats that were grazing on the bushes just outside.
“Yeah, well,” Bucky shrugged his left shoulder, “I do what I can. Their owners were a little wary at first; then they figured it was another hand to help, literally," Bucky shrugged his shoulder. "Eventually they figured 'why not'? They're probably watching me, but I don't mind. It's smart. Besides, the goats are good company. ”
There was a glimmer in Bucky’s eye as he spoke about his neighbors and the animals that made Steve’s lips curl up in a smile.
“I’m sure they’re happy to have you around, Buck.”
Steve’s eyes darted around the richly colored living room. The decoration was sparse, but everything in the space felt warm and inviting. Each little piece made him want to touch or draw. Instead, he glued his hands to his sides to resist the urge to touch Bucky’s things without invitation and sat down on the plush, scarlet sofa that looked out the window. Bucky sat down next to him, leaning on his elbow.
“So, tomorrow, I’m getting this guy replaced.”
“Tomorrow?” Steve sat up straighter.
“Doesn’t that seem a little fast? You just woke up, wouldn’t it be better to wait just a little bit?”
“Yeah…” Bucky hesitated. Steve wondered why he suddenly felt the need to avert his eyes. Maybe he didn’t want to speak ill of their hosts' plans? Perhaps he didn’t feel like he had a choice?
“Bucky, if you want to wait, we can do that. I know what they’re offering to do is amazing, and T’Challa has been extremely generous, but you don’t have to have another procedure right away if you don’t want to. We can leave right now if you’re feeling pressured—”
“—Hey, hey,” Bucky held up his hand in a calming gesture, “I don’t. I don’t feel pressure at all. Really.”
“Yeah, in fact, this feels like the perfect time.” Bucky reached out his hand and placed it on Steve’s shoulder as he exhaled. “I’m happy you’re here.”
The words went straight to his head, and Steve felt a little off-balance as he took in a breath.
“I’m...I’m glad I’m here, too, Buck. Real glad.”
He felt a pat on his shoulder before Bucky brought his hand back to his side.
“So, tomorrow,” Bucky started, “will you be there? You know, when I wake up?”
“Of course!” Steve wanted to keep his excitement in check, but it was getting harder for him to play cool. “I’ll be right there when you go to sleep and when you wake up.”
“Good… So now that that’s settled, do you want a tour of the place?”
Steve smiled. “Absolutely.”
“Great. I should probably show you how the bathroom works.”
Chapter 11: "How do you feel, Mr. Barnes?"
“How do you feel, Mr. Barnes?”
Bucky could imagine Shuri’s face before he even opened his eyes, so used to her playful tone by now that he knew the surgery had been a success. Bucky opened his eyes and caught her twinkling eyes amongst several other pairs who were no less familiar than Shuri’s, but held themselves in a more formal reserve than the teenager.
Bucky took a moment to orient himself before responding. Initially, he planned on staying awake while they worked, and was pretty adamant on the idea until Shuri explained that she didn’t want him to experience any pain while she and her team created new nerve connections. When he insisted he could withstand the pain, the look in her eyes told him that even though he could stand the pain, she couldn’t stand inflicting it.
“I promise you, Bucky, no one will do anything to you that we have not agreed to ahead of time. There is a chance you may experience a lot of pain. I know you’ve been... that you are very strong. But I cannot focus if I’m worried about any pain that may break through any local anesthetic. Please, trust me.”
And he did. It didn’t make much sense to Bucky that a sixteen-year-old kid should make him feel safe, but she did.
“And I’ll be here the whole time, Buck,” Steve’s voice rang out behind him. Between the two of them and the team of people at Shuri's side, he knew he was in good hands.
“All right,” Bucky said as he laid down on the operating table.
His worries seemed for naught as Bucky came to what felt like seconds later. In the past, waking up from anesthesia had always been... well, torture. There was confusion, pain, and panic when he finally remembered where he was. The air always felt cold, and the people around him hard.
Now, the air was jubilant. Bucky knew there were people around him, but the room felt… warmer somehow. Safe. As Bucky slowly became more aware of the space around him, a tickling sensation on his left fingertips caught his attention.
Keeping a bubbling of excitement to a subdued hum, Bucky could tell that Shuri was apparently not as interested in maintaining a poker face.
“Did you feel that?” she asked, almost bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“Shuri, give the man a moment to breathe,” her brother said from across the room. “I am sorry, Mr. Barnes, sometimes my sister can get ahead of herself. Please, take your time.”
Chuckling, Bucky slowly allowed his attention to move down the bed to the feeling that had caught his attention earlier. On the left side of his body, where an empty space had been, Bucky noticed the soft sheen of a polished, darkly colored metal. The material looked firm and yet hard at the same time, like matte, buttery leather. As his eyes scanned down, he caught the glimmers of gold, metallic shimmer where the vibranium plates connected.
In his hand was a small plastic… toy? It looked like an altered baby and had neon hair that stood straight out of its head. The hair must have been the tickling he felt earlier.
“I wanted to test your sensitivity levels, and Father brought one of these back from America a long time ago. I thought maybe it would be a nice memory for you. I think they call it a 'troll' doll?”
“It’s hideous,” Bucky croaked out. He didn't have the heart to tell her the creature was probably after his time, so he smiled and pushed himself into a sitting position, already feeling more alert than he expected.
Bucky sat on the observation table in Shuri’s lab as he flexed and released his new hand, transfixed by its smooth movements. As he turned over his hand, the light caught the golden lines in between larger plates of matte navy blue vibranium that adjusted silently to his actions.
Steve watched as Shuri released a sigh of relief. Though Bucky’s old arm was forced upon him, it had been a part of him for so long. They all knew the vibranium arm would work mechanically, but there was always a chance Bucky could reject his new limb. At the very least, it could take a while for him to adjust. But, if the excitement that danced in his eyes as Bucky examined his new arm were any indication, Shuri wouldn’t have to worry much.
“I still want to run a few more tests to make sure that everything is running exactly how I want it to, but so far—“
“—so good.” Bucky’s eye’s met Shuri’s as he grinned ear to ear. “You did good.”
“Do you feel any pain, Buck?” Steve stepped in closer from his spot on the edge of Shuri’s workspace. He had been there during the procedure and while Bucky slept. Far enough away for Shuri and her team to do their work, but close enough that everyone knew he was watching.
Bucky looked at Steve as he tested the movement of his new shoulder. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “I mean, my pain threshold is high, but—“
“—where? Where does it hurt?” Steve rushed in closer, placing himself at Bucky’s side. He felt Shuri stiffen as he moved in closer, but her face was a pleasant, neutral expression. He knew he was probably getting in the way, but Steve promised Bucky he would be there to make sure everything was okay.
“No, NO,” Bucky laughed, looking between the two of them. “I’m fine, really.” Hopping off the table, Bucky rolled his shoulders back. “See? No pain. Even the weight of it,” he extended his arm and smoothly tested its range of motion, “it feels balanced like it’s been there the whole time.”
“My sister’s skills are truly remarkable.” T’Challa’s voice cut in as he stepped farther into the room. “You look well, Sergeant Barnes. Vibranium suits you.”
“You know, I might have to agree with you there, your Highness.” Bucky couldn’t take his eyes off his new limb, smiling.
In fact, Bucky hadn’t stopped smiling since he woke up. His grin just seemed to glow a little brighter when he spoke to T’Challa and especially Shuri. It took Steve a little taken aback if he was honest. He hadn’t seen Bucky smile like that since…well, he couldn’t remember when.
“Thank you. Both of you.”
“You are very welcome Sergeant B—”
“—Bucky,” both Bucky and Shuri interjected. An excited giggle left the young scientist’s lips as Bucky averted his eyes to the ground. Progressive society or not, it was probably not a good idea to interrupt the king of a country who was personally hosting you as a guest and just had his younger sister fit you with a new arm using the most precious resource on earth.
“Bucky,” T’Challa corrected. Leaning in closer, he added, “and there is no need to thank me, consider it a gift.”
“Okay, so if everybody is satisfied, could you all please leave so I can complete my work?... That includes you, Captain Rogers.”
“This place is great, right Steve?” Bucky beamed as he, Shuri, and Steve walked along a bustling street. Beautiful goods hung from the various stalls, some high tech and others simple. Smells wafted from other stands that made Steve's mouth water.
But as nice as the scenery was, Steve wasn't so sure this was the best activity to do so soon after Bucky's procedure. Steve had suggested that maybe it would be best for him to take it easy for the rest of the day and hitch a ride, but Bucky insisted that the fresh air and a walk would be better. So, they took the scenic route back to Bucky's cottage. After much consternation on Steve's part, Shuri came along to keep them company and an eye on her patient.
“Remember when I took you to Ms. N’Yami’s booth?” Shuri chimed in as they passed some colorful booths with foods Steve had ever seen
“Oh, was that the one with the—” Bucky’s face scrunched in disgust as Shuri bent over with laughter.
“You were the one who said you could eat anything.”
“—To be fair—”
“—you just didn’t think I’d do it!”
“Oh, I know better now!”
Steve watched while the two carried on, smiling politely. “What was it?” he asked after a moment passed.
“Oh, Steve,” Bucky turned to him, gripping his bicep with his flesh hand. “She,” Bucky gestured to the young princess, “thought it would be a good idea to get me to try one of Wakanda’s specialties during our first outing.”
“Wha! Hey, you said that you had seen it all; I wanted to show you something new!”
“Yes, but I wasn’t expecting a fried tarantula the size of my fist!”
“At least it was fried,” she countered.
“True, and it wasn’t half bad, actually.” The two locked eyes before bursting into another fit of laughter.
Steve stood on the side as he watched them laugh, their eyes brimming with life. It was good to see Bucky so alive and vibrant... he just couldn’t help but feel like he was a little on the outside of things. He waited for a lull in the conversation like a kid on the side of a double dutch match.
“Wow, so new foods, a new place to eat and sleep, and this new guy all in a couple of weeks,” Steve gestured gently to Bucky’s vibranium limb as the other two caught their breath.
“What? Oh, no, that was months ago! We’ve moved onto other food groups now,” Shuri wiped the tears of laughter that threatened to fall from her eyes. They had reached the beginning of the pathway that led to Bucky’s cottage on the outskirts of the capital, and she paused to take one more look at a booth near the path’s entrance, oblivious that the other two stood frozen a few steps back.
“Hey!” She shouted when she noticed their absence. “I just want to take a quick look. Don't worry; if I take too long, I'll catch up in a minute.”
“Months ago?” Steve stood, stock still, his jaw locked, before looking between the two of them. His face was a mixture of confusion, anger, and hurt. Shuri’s smile faded once she realized her slip.
“What I meant was—” she started.
“—It’s been about a year, Steve.” Bucky cut in, moving to place himself between Steve and the younger girl. Steve wondered if he even realized he was doing that.
The silence stretched between the three of them, and while the crowd was thinner at the edge of the market, Steve saw Bucky catch the stray looks people threw in their direction as they passed. Shuri probably saw them, too.
But Steve could only see Bucky as the initial flurry of emotions gave way to a lingering wave of pain. His brow knit together as if that one part of his body was trying to put together the information he had just received. After an agonizing moment, Steve clenched his fists before turning and walking away, continuing down the path towards Bucky’s home.
As the door to Bucky’s cottage came into view, Steve realized that his mindless walk brought him to the last place he should probably be right now. He wanted to burst through the door and look for answers, clues, anything that could tell him why his friend had been lying to him for months. He stared at the door, his hand itching by his side. There was undoubtedly some way he could get inside if he really wanted.
Taking a deep breath, Steve backed away from the door. Violating Bucky’s space wasn’t exactly rational and would likely backfire. But the momentary consideration didn’t abate the waves of heat Steve felt coming off of him. He wanted to punch something, to hit. He didn’t know where to go, so he walked down to the lake nearby, hoping to stay out of view long enough to find something to break.
When he couldn’t find anything suitable within reach, he paced, his hand running through his hair repeatedly. He was so caught up in his steps that he missed the approaching footfall behind him and startled, fists raised when he heard a twig snap just behind him.
“Princess Shuri, I—”
Shuri lifted her hands in a placating gesture. “My brother is not here; you can just call me Shuri.”
“Okay. Shu—OW!” Shuri knew her fists were not the strongest Steve had ever felt, but the shock of the blow seemed to catch him off guard. “What was that for?”
“Because you scared the crap out of me!”
“Wait, I scared you? Didn’t you just sneak up on me?”
“Yeah, but I thought you all had that superhuman hearing or something. I thought you heard me coming!” Steve looked away in what looked like a look of contrition as she continued. “Look, I’m sorry… I wasn’t supposed to say what I did. And before you ask, he’s waiting for you back at his room, no he does not know I am here, yes, I told him I was going back home, but I decided to look for you. So, I lied. AGAIN.” She took a breath, collecting steam.
“But what the hell are you doing over here, man?!” She exclaimed. Her hand hurt like hell from the hit, but she refused to show any weakness now. She did, however, make a mental note to ice her hand as soon as possible.
“Look… It is not my place to meddle in your business. But I think that you should go back and talk to him. He’s been waiting for you for a long time.”
“Princess—SHURI,” he corrected, holding his hands up in a placating gesture. “Shuri, yes, of course, Bucky is my friend, but to say that he’s been waiting for me sounds like a stretch. It doesn’t exactly sound like he’s been waiting for anything. It sounds like he’s been pretty happy here on his own.” Steve’s eyes flicked to the ground.
Shuri shook her head gently with an exasperated sigh. “Haven’t you ever been so nervous to do something because you wanted it to be perfect, because you wanted to be perfect, that you kept putting it off?”
“What,” Steve’s eyes flicked up as they met hers, “why would he feel like he needed to be perfect for me?”
At this, Shuri simply stopped and stared at the tall, muscular man, dumbfounded. “You know, I have been around a lot of strong, brilliant people my whole life, and you know what? Sometimes you lot can be so stupid you miss the most obvious answers.”
“Go and talk to your friend, Captain Rogers.” With that, she patted him on the shoulder, then walked away to find some ice for her hand.
Natasha stood on the quinjet with her arms crossed, listening to Steve recount the events of the last few hours. They had only been in Wakanda for a couple of days, but she was already dressed in the local garb as if she had been living there for years. The civilian clothing felt out of place on their makeshift home, but somehow Natasha made it work. Sam was sitting nearby, seemingly doing what he could to keep his best poker face.
“So he’s been awake almost a year now?” Steve nodded. “And every time you would call, they were all—”
“—Lying about it? Yeah.” Steve's fists clenched and unclenched by his sides.
“But it was his idea?” Sam chimed in.
“I don’t, I don’t know. I think so.” The thought made Steve’s stomach start to turn.
“Let’s look at this logically. What reason would T’Challa have to keep that from you, Steve?” This was one of the things Steve loved about Natasha. If he ever lost his head, he knew she would ask the right questions. When he first knocked and her door and she saw the look on his face, she immediately started walking toward the quinjet. There was little chance of being overheard and they could make a quick escape if necessary. “Do you trust T’Challa?”
“He has done this before, Steve.” Sam’s voice was barely a whisper, but they all heard him.
“He has,” Natasha agreed. “But you thought this time was different?”
Steve nodded again.
“Okay… considering past events, and what Princess Shuri told you… I think you need to go talk to him, Steve.”
“And if you need it, just say the word, and we’ll be there. For whatever.”
Steve’s eyes closed as he willed his fists to relax and took in a deep breath. He wasn’t sure what he was afraid of, but right now Steve wished he was going into battle rather than to the edge of town.
Bucky paced back and forth in his small living room. He wanted to go out and look for Steve, but he knew that since he had walked away, it probably meant he wanted to be alone. He just stood there as he walked away, feeling like a coward as he watched that look flash across Steve’s face. He’d seen that look before, a mixture of sadness and hurt.
There was something else there, too. Something Bucky never thought he’d see on Steve’s face. Disappointment.
Bucky had spent a lifetime time lying and inflicting pain. By now, he figured he’d be used to seeing that look. But something about seeing it on Steve left him dumbstruck. He watched as his friend stood stock still in front of him. It didn’t even look like Steve was breathing, and an ancient part of Bucky was about to tell his old, asthmatic friend to breathe when the blond turned and walked away.
Shuri had tried to apologize for the slip-up, but Bucky had stopped her before she could start. This was his mistake. And now he had to answer for it.
It was almost sunset when Bucky heard Steve’s footsteps outside his door.
He opened the door before Steve had the chance to knock. The look was still there, but it was different somehow, harder and distant as if he was trying to brace himself for whatever was about to come next. Bucky stepped aside, and Steve stepped in. They were both silent as Bucky closed the door behind him.
Bucky stood by the door, his hand glued to the doorknob, until he burst forward in a rush of movement, heading to the kitchen to get them both a glass of water. He held out the first glass to Steve, relieved when he accepted the offering.
“I, uh…” Bucky stopped, then took a large gulp from his water, draining the glass before moving to refill it. “Do you want some more?”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.” Steve hadn’t even touched his water, Bucky realized. His window of opportunity was dwindling. He had to get on with it.
“Shuri had nothing to do with it. Or T’Challa. They told you what I asked them to.”
The look on Steve’s face remained the same as if he hadn’t spoken at all. Bucky was about to ask him if he understood when Steve quietly replied. “Okay.”
“Okay… So don’t be mad at them.”
Steve’s face pinched together. “Mad?”
“Yeah. I can see you’re mad and—”
Steve abruptly set his glass down as he turned towards the door.
“Hey! Don’t walk away from me, Steve!”
“I’m not walking away from you, Buck, I just—”
“You’re just, what? Cuz from where I’m standing, your back is facing me, and you’re moving to the door.”
Steve spun around to face Bucky, his eyes averting his gaze as his fists clenched and released by his side.
“Look at me Steve,” Bucky demanded.
Bucky watched as Steve took a deep breath and released the grip of his hands, forcing himself to look Bucky in the eye.
‘Why is this so hard? Just apologize.’ Bucky thought to himself as he watched the pain and worry dance across his friend’s face. He almost wished they could fight, punch, or scream. A fight would be easier. A fight, they could do in their sleep. This was something else.
“I’m sorry, Steve. I’m sorry. I should have told you.”
“You don’t have to apologize to me, Buck.”
“Don’t lie to me, Steve. Please,” Bucky pleaded. “I know you’re trying to help, but, don’t lie.”
Steve watched as a weight seemed to leave Bucky’s shoulders, but the sadness left in its wake pulled at that old pain in Steve’s chest. He wanted to scoop him up in his arms and make it go away, but he wasn’t sure that was wise.
Taking a fortifying breath, Steve took a step closer and raised his hand until it touched the fingertips of Bucky’s flesh one. When Bucky didn’t move away, he kept it there.
“Thank you, for apologizing. And… I’m happy that you’re happy here. This place,” Steve’s eyes danced around the cottage, “…it suits you. You seem happy.”
“But you’re not?”
“What? Why would you say that?”
“Geez Buck, I dunno,” Steve said, releasing his hand as he walked over to the plush red couch. “Do I look unhappy?”
“You look tired.”
“We move around a lot, it's different now, that’s all,” he started as his body sank into the furniture. “And I put them in this mess, so I gotta make sure they're okay.”
“Sam and Nat couldn't stay in the States anymore. And they’ve moved around most of their lives now, so you know, it just makes sense. So we keep moving.”
“And you? Does being a 'shadow Avenger' make sense to you?”
"This isn't funny, Buck."
"I'm not trying to be, Steve. Does this way of living make sense to you?"
The question shocked Steve. It felt like one he had been asked before, in one form or another. He licked his lips as he searched for the right words.
“When I found you before... I had been this person for so long and… then suddenly Peggy was gone, then Tony. I Iost you, then I found you, then I lost you again... And I know, I know, Buck,” Steve quickly added as he saw the words form on his friend’s lips. “Being here, I brought you here, but being here, on your own? That’s your choice, and that’s okay...”
Steve felt his eyes well up, and he stared out of the window, willing himself to calm down. He stared out at the lake, looking but not seeing as his thoughts danced around his head. There was a dip in the cushions next to him, but Steve didn’t look up. He didn’t have to, to know that Bucky was watching him closely.
The weight of Bucky’s stare fell heavy on Steve. Those welcoming grey eyes that had always felt like home suddenly felt like too much. Steve felt flayed alive. Like no matter what he said or didn’t say, Bucky would see right through him, whether Steve wanted him to or not.
He didn’t feel the tears rolling down his cheeks as he looked at the Wakandan sunset. It wasn’t until Bucky’s flesh fingers entwined with his that he noticed them at all.
“I’m sorry, Buck...”
Bucky waited patiently, his thumb gently rubbing over Steve’s knuckles.
There was a hitch in Bucky’s breath as Steve gripped his fingers hard and curled himself into his friend’s broad chest, pressing his tear-stained face into his shirt, trapping their connected hands in between.
This was home.
The warmth from Bucky’s body flowed into Steve as he felt whatever fight he had left drain out of him. He didn’t want to fight anymore. He didn’t want to push. Steve allowed himself to be held and wept.
He wept for the time they had lost.
He wept for all the questions he didn’t know how to ask.
He wept for all the answers he couldn’t give.
As Steve’s tears soaked through his shirt, Bucky slowly brought his arm around to enclose Steve in warmth. He tugged gently on Steve’s back until Steve was seated more securely onto his lap. When he had weighed no more than a wet dog, Steve hated giving his weight to his friend. Even when Steve twisted his ankle on their way home, he ignored Bucky’s hand, insisting on making his way himself. But the thing was, Bucky could take the weight. He could then and he could now.
He pulled Steve in even tighter and allowed the sobs to rack both their bodies. He could be that for Steve if that’s what he needed. Bucky rested his chin atop Steve’s golden hair as he felt Steve’s free arm snake around his left side, pulling him in tighter and responding to his touch. They sat together, not speaking, and allowed each other’s warmth to fill in the empty spaces.
Bucky felt Steve’s body move with him as he slowly eased them both down onto the couch. When he looked down to check on him, Bucky saw Steve’s eyelids start to droop over his blue eyes. Bucky held him there, in his arms, until the sobs began to die down. And when he felt Steve’s breathing changed to a steady rhythm that signaled sleep, Bucky leaned down and gently pressed his lips to Steve’s forehead.
‘This,’ Bucky thought,‘is home.’
The slow rise and fall of something warm beneath him was the first thing Steve noticed. The second was the gentle pull of someone else’s hand combing through his hair.
A wave of embarrassed heat pulled through his body, and he allowed his eyes to open slightly, taking in what looked like the mid-afternoon sun.
“What?” his voice graveled out. “How… what time is it?”
“Probably around two.”
In the afternoon? They had been there on the couch all night and morning.
“Hey,” Bucky began as Steve started to move to sit up. “Don’t worry. It’s not like either of us has to be anywhere.”
Steve appreciated Bucky’s efforts to comfort him, but as his waking moments ticked by, he couldn’t help the sense of growing apprehension as he became more aware of exactly how close they were. Steve’s legs were wrapped around one of Bucky’s. As his eyes traveled up his body, Steve saw the smooth, golden, hard planes of Bucky’s warm chest. It wasn’t until he caught a glimpse of the gnarled flesh near his left shoulder that it registered that Bucky was missing his shirt. When had that happened?
Seeing his reaction to the marred flesh, Bucky’s fingers dropped from Steve’s hair.
“Sorry. It gets warm in here. I usually don’t wear anything at all but—”
“—No, Buck, you don’t have to apologize.” Pushing himself upright, Steve adjusted his shirt in an attempt to tidy up. Though his anxiety eased a little, he couldn’t help but lament the loss of contact. “I shouldn’t have stayed this long; I didn’t mean to put you out—”
The sound of his old nickname pulled Steve up short as Bucky sat up next to him. Bucky didn’t seem embarrassed like Steve. In fact, he looked more comfortable in his skin than Steve could remember seeing him since… since before the war.
Now that he finally had some sleep, Steve could see it clearly. The small lines around his eyes that looked like they had been used to smile. The way he seemed to laugh more freely. The thickness and shine to his hair. The even, golden tan of his skin that spread all the way down the defined, hairless planes of his chest and complemented his dark, brown nipples that—.
Steve cleared his throat as he averted his gaze. He was imposing himself in his friend’s space as it was. There was no need to become a creep on top of it.
“Thanks for letting me stay here last night.”
“You needed to sleep. I wasn’t going to kick you out,” Bucky said, a smirk brightening his face. He was radiant. The sight of Bucky’s easy smile and open stance made Steve’s mouth go dry. The feelings of jealousy and desire he had been trying hide since his arrival came flooding back to him with such force that he closed his eyes and turned away from his friend, hoping he could spare him from his confusing thoughts.
“Hey,” Bucky said, his flesh hand reaching up to cup the side of Steve’s face. “It’s okay, Steve.”
Stunned by the contact, Steve sat frozen in place as Bucky shifted closer. He could hear a voice inside him told him that they shouldn’t be that close, that Bucky didn’t mean to do that and he should back away. But he found himself stuck to his spot on the couch.
“I’m—I’m gonna try something, okay, Steve? Just tell me to stop if you want me to.” He didn’t know what Bucky was talking about, but Steve couldn’t move if he tried.
“I trust you, Buck.” Steve’s eyes flicked down to Bucky’s lips, waiting for him to explain himself. No words came, but he watched as Bucky’s lips parted on an intake of breath.
‘God,’ he thought, ‘his lips look so soft. When did they get so soft?’
Steve felt the heat of his breath only to realize it was Bucky’s he felt hot across his lips. The feeling sent a jolt of electricity through his body, and he licked his lips as if he could taste the sweetness of Bucky’s air on his tongue. His eyes tore away from Bucky’s lips as they traveled over the stubble and weather-worn skin to meet his eyes. The black of his pupils had swallowed the grey of his eyes, and Steve felt a fresh wave of heat lance through his body as Bucky’s grip tightened along the side of his face and neck.
“It’s okay, Stevie. It’s okay.”
The words of encouragement cut whatever was tethering Steve in place, and their lips crashed together in a meeting of wet heat. He felt Bucky’s flesh hand pull him in closer as Steve wove both of his arms around Bucky’s strong, naked back. The feeling of his skin under his hands was intoxicating, and Steve tilted his head, opening his lips and touching the tip of his tongue to Bucky’s sealed mouth. His request was answered eagerly, and Steve felt a groan rip from deep inside his chest as the wet tip of Bucky’s tongue lightly touched his. The scratch of Bucky’s beard felt good against his own, and he opened his mouth further to deepen the kiss. Wrapping his lips around the meat of Bucky’s tongue, he gave it a gentle suck. Bucky responded in kind, exhaling on a groan as his vibranium arm grabbed at the thin cotton of Steve’s shirt.
Steve had heard that sound before, years ago, when Bucky would bring home a date after a long night of dancing. They were never trying to be loud. Bucky was too considerate for that. But in the dead of night, their thin walls only did so much.
You like that, doll?
Ngh, baby, you feel so good
“What? What is it, Steve? Oh god, I’m sorry, I—,” Bucky stammered as he started to pull away. “Is...is this okay? You just gotta tell me and—.”
Before he could get too far, Steve reached out and pulled Bucky back in close. His hands palmed over Bucky’s hard chest, up the sides of his neck, over the pebbling of a dark, hard nipple and the same deep rumble Steve heard those years ago, he could feel under the palm of his hands.
“Yeah Buck,” Steve said, breathless, “this is absolutely okay.”
Bucky didn’t know what he was doing. If someone had asked him how he thought his day would go, this would not have been it. He’d always loved Steve; he was his best guy. When they were younger, he had loved the blue of his eyes and the way they would crinkle at the corners when he got mad. He loved watching him draw and the way his hands made magic on the page. But that was just because he loved Steve, his friend.
Sure, he had been having dreams. And yes, the feel of Steve’s body against his all night had left him thinking about how to clean his weapons to keep his body calm, but he never planned to act on any of it. Steve was his friend. His friend.
But when he looked into Steve’s eyes and saw the blue of his eye being swallowed up by black, and how his long lashes drooped as his eyes followed Bucky’s lips, something inside of him snapped.
Lifting Steve’s shirt over his head, Bucky gently pushed Steve down along the length of the couch. Laying atop his exposed skin, Bucky allowed Steve’s body below him to warm his muscles.
“God, you feel good,” he said as his legs spread around Steve’s hips.
Below him, Steve smiled. “You feel pretty amazing yourself.
Two strong hands trailed along the muscles of Bucky’s back. When Steve’s fingers found the scarred flesh near his shoulder, they stopped. Eyes fixed on the place where vibranium met flesh; Steve lifted his head to place a kiss the meat of Bucky’s shoulder.
“Oh—,” Bucky gasped as Steve’s lips touched the sensitive skin.
“S’okay?” Steve asked, pulling away.
“Yeah?... Yeah, I think so, do it again.”
A grin pulled across Steve’s lips as he brought them back to the seam of Bucky’s shoulder. His lips brushed at the gnarled flesh before the tip of his tongue gently laved at the spot.
The feeling of Steve’s wet tongue on the sensitive skin sent a shock through his body, and Bucky bore down, squeezing his thighs tighter around Steve. A hot breath escaped Steve as he moaned in response, his lips continuing their exploration. Intrigued, Bucky gave his hips another tentative roll.
“Oh—Jesus, Buck,” Steve’s hands gripped the sides of Bucky’s hips. The pressure was strong, almost painful. It was nice. “Wait, wait, if you keep doing that—”
“—Yeah?” he asked as he rolled his hips again, more confident. “Keep doing this?” A part of him thought maybe they were moving a little fast, but the more his growing hardness met with Steve’s muscular thigh, the more difficult it was for him to stop. The answering hardness he found rubbing against him as Steve’s body began to respond only spurred him on.
“A-ah, Buck,” Steve gasped as his lips trailed up Bucky’s neck latched on the soft flesh of his earlobe.
Bucky let out a huff of air as his flesh hand gripped the back of Steve’s head hard to slot their lips back together. If he were thinking clearly, he would do this slowly, reverently. He would kiss every part of Steve’s body slowly in exploration. But now, all he could think was ‘more’ as he pulled up and undid the fastens of Steve’s pants.
If Steve objected to Bucky’s sudden haste, he didn’t say as his hands fumbled to undo the ties of Bucky’s pants in kind. Bucky rolled to the side to push his pants past his knees and sat back, pulling Steve’s pants down as the blond lifted his seat. Sufficiently shed of their clothing, Bucky laid back down as he allowed his aching hardness to nestle in next to Steve’s, the sudden heat and feeling of Steve’s bare flesh against his erection making him groan in pleasure.
His grey eyes locked onto Steve’s blue, his pupils blown wide as he stared open-mouthed back at Bucky. He watched breathlessly as a look of confusion and wonder painted Steve’s face. They laid there, still for a moment, as their bodies adjusted to the new sensations. Bucky wanted to remember this, the look on Steve’s face. No matter what happened after, he wanted to remember this image forever.
He brought his head down gently into a kiss that quickly deepened into something harder and wetter as he resumed rolling his hips. When Steve turned slightly to get some air, Bucky leaned back and reached his flesh hand between their bodies, cradling Steve’s head with the other. His flesh hand trailed down the warm, writhing torso below him before taking them both in hand, forming a tunnel with his fist. The size of them together was almost too much for him to fit, but he managed. Steve’s hot breath spilled over his shoulder as he rolled his hips, allowing his wet tip to drip along Steve’s. The sight was transfixing, and they both angled to watch.
“Oh, god, Buck,” Steve gasped as his strong arms wrapped around Bucky’s tanned back. Steve bent his knees, allowing both of them more leverage as they rocked together into the tight grip of Bucky’s fist. A pressure began to build low in his belly as Bucky pumped his fist in time with the sway of their hips, spreading the wetness of their excitement along their slipping skin.
A sheen of sweat broke out across his back as his skin slid across Steve’s. Bucky squeezed his eyes shut as Steve let out a punched breath. Wet warmth spilled out over his hand, and he pumped faster, allowing Steve’s release to ease the way. Soon, the pressure inside him came to a head, and he came over his tightened fist and the warm skin of Steve’s panting stomach.
Collapsing, Bucky allowed his heart to slow in rhythm with Steve’s, the steady beat a comfort against him as he buried his face in the warm crook of Steve’s neck. Without looking, he reached out for the closest piece of clothing and gently wiped down their stomachs before falling back into Steve’s warm embrace.
Inside the bathroom, Steve let the cold water drip down his face as he stared at his reflection. Bucky had made a point earlier to mention the drying device by the sink that looked nothing like a drying device to Steve. It actually seemed pretty straight-forward, but Steve went ahead and wiped his face with the hanging towel instead. It was simple. And it was what he knew Bucky used.
When Steve stepped out of the ensuite to find Bucky, sitting patiently against the headboard of his bed, his pants and shirt were back on and his hair tidy. Something about his relaxed position and bare feet made him seem softer, maybe even happier.
“So, I guess we have to talk about this now, huh.” The gravel of his voice was creeping dangerously close to a growl, and Steve cleared his throat, trying to stay focused.
“Sure...Yeah Buck, but…” Steve stepped forward and stopped just at the foot of the bed.
“Should we be talking about this in here. On your bed?”
A bright smile lit up the canvas of Bucky’s face. “Hey, we were in the living room before, and that didn’t seem to make a difference, but,” he gestured out to the hallway, “we can go in the kitchen if you want. Or go for a walk. I doubt the goats will listen.”
“No, no,” Steve chuckled, as he sat down on the edge of the bed. “Here is good.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, unsure where to start.
“I didn’t plan on... that.” Bucky licked his lips as he continued, “I know you were having a bit of a rough time. I don’t want you to feel like I took advantage—.”
“—are you kidding, Buck?”
“Oh, no!” Steve’s eyes grew wide as he realized how his words must have sounded. “I mean, you didn’t make anything happen. I guess it was something that I wanted… I just never..."
Bucky’s eyes flicked down to the ground as he seemed to consider Steve’s words. “I don’t know what I would have wanted... before. Want wasn’t something I've thought much about until recently.”
Steve nodded. “And now? Do you think about it now?”
A mischievous look danced in Bucky’s eyes as the corner of his mouth curled up. Steve wanted to bite that lip raw. He retrained his eyes to Bucky’s, focusing on his words instead.
“I want to stay, Steve. The people have been good to me here and… I think I can make a place here.”
“Oh.” Steve tried to keep the disappointment out of his expression. It still smarted, though, and the old pain in his chest began to build. “What will you do with your time?”
“I have a few ideas. But...I also want… I also want you.”
“Oh.” Steve blushed, averting his eyes as he smiled. “That’s...yeah.”
“Don’t feel like you have to respond or… We don’t have to make plans or anything. I haven’t exactly thought this all out, but… it’s important that I say what I want.”
Steve paused as the weight of Bucky’s words struck him. Taking a breath, he swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Buck, if this is what you want… why did you lie for so long? Why did you want me to stay away?”
Bucky’s squared his shoulders as he struggled to find the right words. He knew the question was coming, but it didn’t make it any easier.
“You, Steve...” Bucky paused to lick his lips and start again. “I didn’t know what I wanted. When the memories started coming back, I started to feel things. Maybe they had been there this whole time, I dunno. And it felt... good to want something like that.”
“—let me finish... We’ve been family our entire fucked up lives. You will always be family to me, Steve... but I never asked you to rip your life apart for me. Your other friends? Your shield?... Howard’s kid?”
“That’s not, that wasn’t you, Buck,” Steve shook his head as if he could shake off the memory.
“But it was, Steve. It was. And you lied for me. I'm grateful, but…”
“...but you never asked me to do that.” Steve’s voice was barely above a whisper.
“No, I didn’t. I didn't ask you to find me, Steve. I didn't ask you to do what you did. I'm glad you did, but... Then when I started having these dreams, the idea of being next to you again... it was too much. You are a stubborn son of a bitch; you know that, Stevie? I know you’ll always be there." Bucky's head dipped as he took a moment to collect his thoughts. "Even when I don’t think I’m worth it, I know you’ll be there... But I just needed to be for a little bit. Without you.”
“I'm pretty sure I can do this on my own now. I just don’t want to.”
“You could have just said that, Buck.”
Bucky chuckled softly as he shook his head, “‘Hey Steve, thanks for everything, but I think I need some space right now. Oh, by the way, I’ve been having these crazy dreams about blowing in your tactical gear. Anyway, see you later!’”
Steve blushed, and Bucky watched him adjust himself at the word ‘blow.’
“Steve, when do you ever mind your own business? It’s okay. It's what's great about you. You couldn’t stay away from a fight even if it could kill you. Especially when it could kill you.”
“‘I don’t know if I’m worth all this, Steve.’ Is that what you're talking about?” Steve’s hand reached out for Bucky’s. “I don’t believe that, Buck. You deserve someone who believes that.”
Bucky took in a shaky breath. “Well, I'm working on that. But my point is... I don’t need you to save me anymore, Steve. Are you okay with that?”
Steve opened his mouth to make a denial, but Bucky watched as the words stuck in his throat. He had always been a terrible liar.
“You know I don’t think of you as weak, right Buck? You’re the strongest person I know.”
“Thanks,” he smiled as he dipped his head. “That means… thank you, Steve…”
“So, then, where does that leave us?”
Bucky’s face lit up in a wide grin as he bit his bottom lip, looking up at Steve through his dark lashes. “I have no idea, but I’m really glad you’re here.”
Chapter 16: Spring, Wakanda
Thanks for taking the time to stop by and read the story. It's been amazing process and thank you to everyone involved with the bang!
Thank you again to my lovely beta ArchOfImagine
The hours in Wakanda turned into days, the days into weeks. No one said anything to suggest they noticed the change between them. It was too soon, and too fragile of a thing to Steve and he wanted to keep things simple while he and Bucky navigated the new terrain. But everyone could see the subtle shift in Steve’s demeanor. He was calmer, his smiles were brighter, and while Steve still didn’t sleep through the night every night, the fact that Bucky was by his side made it easier to bear.
Natasha didn’t blink when Steve quietly moved his things into Bucky’s cottage, but he thought he could see a gentle smile on her lips when Steve told them he’d be staying a little longer than initially planned.
“So, you’re staying here, together?” Sam asked.
“I, uh… I think that’s the plan,” Steve responded, a light blush coloring his cheeks.
“Like, together, together?”
“Don’t be such a prude, Sam,” Natasha interjected. “Besides, I told you so.”
“Wait, you guys talked about this? When?”
“A while ago,” Natasha shrugged.
“Um, don’t you think that would have been useful for me to be a part of that discussion?”
“You had to get there on your own, baby bird. You had to get there on your own,” Natasha replied as she gave Steve a playful pat on the cheek.
Sam raised both his hands when Steve looked at him like a betrayed man.
“Hey, don’t look at me, man. I’m as surprised as you are. Well, maybe not as surprised. It’s actually pretty obvious now that I think about it, but… are you sure this is a good idea, man? And before you start, Nat, it’s not ‘cause I’m a prude, I just… are you sure the two of you are ready for this? Y'all don't exactly strike me as the casual type.”
Sam wasn’t wrong. They had been through a lot. Steve had no idea what they were doing, but just like that moment in Siberia, he knew his answer.
I don’t know if I’m worth all of this, Steve
“I don’t know, Sam. But I’ll figure it out.”
“Okay,” Sam nodded. “Then, I’m happy for you, man.”
“We’re both happy for you, Steve. But remember, I know how to kill a man and make it look like an accident. Tell Barnes he better remember that.’
Natasha’s open threat was the closest thing to a blessing Steve was ever going to get, and his eyes welled up in gratitude. He still didn’t believe he deserved family as good as this, but Steve was damn happy that he had it.
After Sam and Natasha left for their next mission, Bucky and Steve fell into a new rhythm together. Bucky had had time to integrate into Wakandan society in a way that worked for him. Now, with his guidance and Shuri’s enthusiasm, it was Steve’s turn.
During the day, Bucky invited Steve to tag along on his chores if he wanted. The White Wolf’s special friend entertained the local children, and T’Challa seemed to appreciate having an ally nearby.
At night, the two spent hours testing the waters of their new dynamic and the strength of the furniture in Bucky’s cottage. After the first couple of months, Shuri even offered to set them up in a new cottage. It had a lake view just as good as the one they had now, and modern amenities that she claimed were “to die for.” When they politely declined, insisting that the current space would do just fine, she discreetly countered that maybe a space with better soundproofing and furniture that was specifically designed to handle “the wear and tear that might come about from those with enhanced... abilities,” Bucky shut his mouth and packed up their things as quickly as possible.
As the time ticked on, it became clear to them both that Bucky was right. Steve couldn’t turn it off. Not completely, anyway. He was the same scrappy kid who couldn’t stand a bully back in Brooklyn. He tried to avoid Natasha and Sam’s occasional calls, but Bucky could see the current of impatience that ran through him whenever he thought he was letting his friends down. Steve had put down his shield back in Siberia, but Bucky knew it was only a matter of time before the need would call him again.
“But, I don’t want to leave you here by yourself, Buck.”
“Steve, first of all, I’m not alone. Second, you’re coming right back. And when you do,” Bucky stretched out his muscled torso along their bed for emphasis, ”when you do, I’ll be waiting for you.”
Steve’s hand instinctively moved to the exposed patch of skin, as if he still couldn’t believe he was allowed to touch. “Well, what are you going to do while I’m gone?”
A devilish grin painted Bucky’s face as he bit his lower lip. That always seemed to make Steve lose his train of thought, and Bucky was starting to enjoy his newfound talents.
“Don’t worry about that, Steve.”
Steve raised his eyebrows as he visibly tried to focus on his boyfriend’s words.
“Saying it like that kind of makes me worry, Buck.”
“No, no,” Bucky chuckled and sat up on the bed until their eyes were level. “Look, I’ll be doing a lot of the same, taking care of the goats, keeping the neighbor’s farm intact and…”
“I’ve been talking to T’Challa and Okoye more about how I can help out around here. And... there’s a group, the Hatut Zeraze. They're like a sort of... police.”
“A police force? Bucky, are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Hey, they’re more than that. Look, I think I could make a difference there. These are my people now. Okoye’s got a handle on the Kingsguard, but nobody has more experience here dealing with the outside world than I do and... I know what I'm good at, Steve. I'm okay with that. This time it's my choice.”
Steve nodded, “That’s... that's great, Buck.”
“Thank you. And you need an outlet, so you don’t get stir-crazy.”
“I don’t get—”
“—And Natasha and Sam will be here in a little bit.”
“You talked to them already?”
“They said they needed you for a quick mission and thought it’d be better to reach out to me first.”
“Yeah,” Steve sighed, “that is definitely true.”
They both knew they could never stand completely still, and the burner phone in Steve’s pocket was a constant reminder of the promise Steve gave Tony those many months ago. But with each other by their side, they both felt like they could be something more they were before. And eventually, Steve was finally able to get some sleep.