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Lay Down Your Weapon

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Prelude: Steve

- Another Home by August Wilhelmsson, 2016.

 

“My brother says you can have entry coordinates,” Shuri says, doing something with her kimoyo beads that involves a lot of tapping and swiping and twisting. “If you ever need a place to crash, you’re welcome here.” She gives him a look. “That was a figure of speech, just so we’re clear.”

Steve’s phone pings in his pocket and sure enough there’s an encrypted message there, with coordinates. Then the sounds of the shower cut off and Steve’s head turns, automatically, towards the closed door. Bucky’s in there, washing off the last of the cryo smell. Steve feels hyper aware of that, of everything Bucky is doing, like Steve’s a radio receiver tuned into Bucky’s frequency. He always has been.

Steve clears his throat and looks back to Shuri. “I promise I won’t crash anything anywhere.”

The kid makes a face, pulling her mouth to one side, cocking her head. “I’ve read your files. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Captain.”

Steve scratches the back of his head, bashful. “I'm... not really a Captain anymore.”

A burble of laughter escapes Shuri’s mouth before she claps a hand over it.

“You’re a terrible liar, Steve,” Bucky calls, through the door. “Don’t even try.”

“What?” Steve says, taken aback. “What?” he calls, louder, in Bucky’s direction.

The door slides open halfway, Bucky leans out, his flesh fingers curved around the edge. He’s got a towel wrapped around his waist, and Steve wonders briefly how he managed it one-handed. His hair is dripping onto his shoulder and he’s so…

Much to Steve’s eternal mortification, people have described him as having a body like a Greek god, like he’s carved of marble. Hard and cold and austere. It makes him cringe to think that he used to imagine Bucky the same way. Bucky -- who is here, and alive, and smiling at him -- looks so warm; all soft skin and dripping hair and so… touchable. Not like a statue at all: like a well-worn stuffed animal, familiar and crying out to be held. And…

Steve wants to.

He swallows.

Bucky is grinning, a broad, beatific smile. “Pal,” he says. “They never made you a Captain--” which is fair, the title was completely honorary, and by now, with promotions and whatnot, he’s probably a general or something. Or he was.

Bucky is still smiling. He shakes his head. “You’ve always been like this. You’re always gonna be like this. They can’t take that away from you.”

 

 

 

1: Bucky

Oh, call me any time and every time you're losin' it
And tell me anyone and everyone who makes you feel like shit
Because you know anybody, everybody else can lie
But honey I won't see you with a, see you with a broken set of eyes

I swear that you are, you are the future
I swear that you are, you are the future
And the future looks good

- Future Looks Good by OneRepublic, 2016.

 

“I apologize for the accommodations,” T’Challa says, with that uniquely Wakandan smile; it’s a ‘wait till you see this’ smile, equal parts proud as a parent and eager as a kid who just bought the whole damn candy shop. “The accommodations” are a guest suite bigger than anything Bucky has ever lived in ever, with more gadgets and amenities than even Stark could dream of. T’Challa knows full well that these accommodations don’t need apologies, and Steve is already looking around the room like he can’t believe his luck.

Bucky is immediately drawn to the bookshelf. It has tchotchkes, yeah, but it also has books -- paper ones. Not that he doesn't love a tablet, but you can't just pick up someone's tablet and start flipping through. It's frowned upon. He likes being able to look at a bookshelf and tell something about a person.

“We can’t thank you enough,” Steve is saying. Bucky runs a finger over the spines. Most are in Wakandan, but there are a fair few English titles, as well as Russian and Chinese and -- geeze is that Greek?

Hey how about that. Looks like that Tolkien guy wrote more than just the one book. Bucky wonders if Steve's read them.

“We will help you find a home here, if you wish,” T'Challa is saying. To him, Bucky realizes when he looks around and sees that the king is staring at him. “A place of your own, I mean. But for now, the doctors advise you to stay close.”

“The doctors?” Steve says, perking up like a hunting dog called to attention. “Why?”

Bucky looks back at the bookshelf. “Still got half a century of Hydra tech wired into my spine, Stevie,” he says. Who the fuck is Harry Potter anyway? Bucky's spent so much time reading about PTSD bullshit he missed--

Steve makes a strange little sound, not that anyone but Bucky would notice. It’s quiet: a sharp, wheezy sound, smothered at once. But it hits a trigger in the back of Bucky's mind labeled “asthma” so it sends his head snapping around like he's possessed.

Steve's fine though, no sign of breathing troubles. But then, with his shiny superserum racehorse lungs, there wouldn’t be.

“Yes,” T'Challa is saying. “We can help you safely remove the remnants of their technology.”

Bucky’s not sure how he feels about that. “Don't suppose you can grow my arm back, huh?”

T'Challa smiles. “Something tells me my sister plans to do you one better.”

“Excuse me,” Steve says, quiet and exquisitely polite.

No. Correction: Captain America says it. Not Steve. Shield or no, that's the Captain talking.

Bucky watches him leave, tracks the movement with his eyes while doing his best to not let on that Steve's behavior is freaking him the fuck out. T'Challa either doesn't notice or (more likely in Bucky's opinion) has the decency to pretend he doesn't notice.

“It’ll be nice to have the option, I guess,” Bucky says, with regards to the proposed arm replacement. He can’t bring himself to feel too excited about the prospect. There’s a screeching, metallic part of his brain that will always associate the Arm with a mission -- despite all the work he did to reverse that kind of thinking. And he really doesn’t like to think about how much surgery is gonna be involved in getting it replaced. That sends his mind flying fast down dark passages in his brain where carefully locked doors--

“Sergeant?”

Bucky pulls his eyes back to the king -- which is when he realizes that his gaze had drifted away. “What?”

“It is, perhaps, not my place, but…”

Bucky goes tense, ready to take the hit, whatever it is. You can’t stay here. Hydra’s Asset can’t just get away with this. You have to--

The silence lingers a beat too long. T’challa’s gaze narrows slightly, like he knows something. He runs a finger over his bottom lip, contemplative. “You remind me of my grandfather.”

That wasn’t what Bucky was expecting at all. If Steve were here, he might say something like well I suppose I’m old enough, pal. But Steve isn’t here, and making jokes never seems appropriate around people who knew him first as The Winter Soldier.

T’Challa covers the awkward pause gracefully. “Around the time your people were discovering the power of penicillin, we were learning how vibranium could be used to heal. Suddenly, injuries and illnesses that would have been fatal were not. The healing powers of the Black Panther could be shared with un-enhanced citizens. It was a miracle, they said. Everyone was so eager -- except my grandfather. He urged caution.”

Bucky figures he can guess why. He shrugs his bum shoulder without really meaning to.

T’Challa nods. “Within ten years the country was facing a health crisis that vibranium couldn’t fix. When you survive something no human should have been able to survive, and it leaves no scars, sometimes that is worse.”

Bucky clears his throat. “If you’re worried that I’ve got 1940s hangups about therapy, let me tell you that most of my hangups got pretty well drummed out of me.”

“You are not the only one who heals too quickly, Sergeant.”

Bucky chuckles weakly. “You don’t gotta tell me.” Steve almost certainly does still have a hangup or two from the 40s, plus a couple dozen that he invented just for himself.

“I do not want to see you -- or him -- receive anything less than the best care while you are here. And if you need space from each other in order to do that--”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Bucky says, underestimating by probably 1000%. If he and Steve are codependent it’s because of how they came to be here, in the future. To everyone else it's just the passage of time, for him and Steve it's a natural disaster that took out their entire peer group. They’re each the only ones with the slightest inkling of what the other has been through. To separate them is to isolate them. But at the same time…

“If you’re sure,” the king says.

T’Challa’s not wrong. Steve’s hurting and Bucky’s hurting and Steve’s hurting worse because he can see Bucky hurting and Bucky doesn’t have the damn resources to deal with much more than what he’s already got on his plate.

“I’ll think about it,” Bucky says. “But I don’t think it would be a good idea.”

“Very well.”

 

T'Challa excuses himself soon after that -- he's a busy guy. King and all. He can't just hang around with Bucky and Steve all day. As soon as he's gone, Bucky goes to find Steve. He didn't spend seventy years as a glorified bloodhound without picking up a few odd tricks. He can always find people, even when they don’t want to be found.

Steve is in the hallway, just standing there, staring at the wall. Bucky scrunches his face up. “The fuck you doing?” he says.

Steve’s head snaps up, almost inhumanly fast. For a moment he’s… it’s like he’s seeing something else. Someone else. Then he blinks. Shakes his head. Gives a little self-deprecating smile. “Thinking.”

“What about?” Bucky asks suspiciously.

“Truth. Justice. The American Way,” Steve says. “What else is there.”

“Thought that was the other guy.” Bucky isn’t buying what Steve’s selling here, but he’s willing to let it slide for now. “C’mon. M’starving, and T’challa said the staff will make whatever we want. Think they’ll do steak and potatoes if I ask real nice?”

 

Turns out they will. The steak is not cow, and the potatoes are not potatoes, and the whole thing is drowned in a spicy yellow sauce that isn’t anything like the thin gravy of their youth, but Bucky isn’t complaining.

“You know,” Steve says, halfway through the meal, “I really thought I was gonna get the chance to catch up this time.”

Bucky frowns at that, looking up from where he's trying to figure out how to cut a steak one handed. He squints. “What are you talking about?”

Steve shrugs, those big shoulders rolling. “Nothing I guess, just… you're a year older. Only then I went into the ice. Came out. Thought I'd caught up.”

“Caught…”

And then it hits Bucky. He can see it, in his head: Steve, one year out of the ice, realizing that he was older than Bucky would ever get to be. Because he's a fucking sap.

“But turns out…” Steve pokes his yellow curried potatoes. “I was out for three years, you'd been in and out, adds up to about seven years.” Steve looks up and smiles, but it's not an uncomplicated look. It's that special Depression Era smile. That ‘I'm joking to keep from crying’ smile. “And this time you were barely under a few months. So you're five years older than me. Ain't fair, Buck. I call it cheating.”

“You'd fucking know, Mr You Can Trust Me To Deal I’m Captain America,” Bucky grumbles. He gives up trying to cut the steak. It's just the two of them and who gives a shit.

Steve wrinkles his nose a little when Bucky just grabs the bloody steak with his hand and starts gnawing on a corner. “Anyway,” Steve says. “I was looking forward to being older than you.”

Bucky watches him like a hawk, eyes sliding from the hunch of Steve's shoulders, to the wrinkles between his brows, to the way he tucks his elbows in as he saws away at his own steak.

No he wasn't, Bucky thinks. He wasn't looking forward to going on without Bucky. He wasn't looking forward to celebrating birthday after birthday while Bucky carried on with his icy slumber.

“Doesn't really matter though,” Bucky points out.

“Yeah, says you. You're older.”

Bucky chews this over along with the steak. He's frowning at Steve and Steve's frowning at him frowning and Bucky feels like the two of them are having different conversations, somehow.

And then oh.

Oh.

Steve doesn't know. How would he? He thinks that all cryogenics are like Wakandan cryogenics. He thinks that Bucky was just napping all those years he was under. He thinks he just got lucky, himself. Hibernating like a fucking squirrel or whatever under all that Arctic ice. He doesn't realize.

They did die, both of them. In Bucky's case, over and over and over and--

Death doesn't work on them anymore. But Steve doesn't know that.

Bucky chews a little longer than necessary to buy himself time.

Selfishly, he doesn't want to be the one to tell Steve he's going to have to watch his friends die around him. Again. He doesn't want to tell Steve that it's going to be Tony first, probably, but Sam and Natasha won't be far behind. Everyone in his life is going to end up like Peggy, one way or another.

Everyone except Bucky. Or. What’s left of him, anyway.

Bucky swallows, and makes himself smile. “Don't worry, Stevie. I'll buy your beers for you.” He doesn't need to tell Steve right away. Let the poor sucker live a little.

Steve's frown clears away immediately and isn't that a sight. The fond exasperation there -- it might as well be that pub in 1942 or a dance hall in 1939 or their little shoebox in 1937.

Bucky grins, mouth full of steak, and Steve groans and throws his napkin.

 


 

Bucky wakes up and for a second, he has no idea why. He’s -- in the guest quarters in Wakanda. He was asleep, not dreaming yet. So what--

Then he hears it: an old familiar-unfamiliar sound.

Steve, not breathing right.

Bucky is out of the bed before he can register that this isn't asthma. Can't be. Can it? He's banging on the door of Steve's bedroom the next moment. “Steve?”

The only reply he gets is more high, whistling breathing, stuttering in Steve's chest. He shoves his hip against the door, hard, and it bangs open.

Steve is, for some phenomenally stupid reason, sleeping on the floor next to his perfectly good bed, with the blankets folded up around him like a bedroll. He's lying on his back, and he could almost be peaceful, except for the way his breathing is tight and panicked, the way his eyes are flickering fast under the lids, the way his hair is starting to stick to his forehead.

Oh, Stevie.

It's a little awkward to get down on the floor next to Steve, but he does. When he grabs Steve's shoulder and shakes, the big palooka comes awake with what might generously be called a punch. Bucky could've dodged that before the serum.

“Hey. It's okay. It's me. You're safe.”

Steve stares at him in bleary incomprehension. And then his face falls. “Bucky,” he says and he sounds--

He sounds gutted. Winded. Like he's still bleeding from somewhere.

“Yeah, Stevie. S’me. You know where you are, pal?”

Steve doesn't answer, just hauls him into a desperate hug, like he never wants to let go. Like if he lets go, he might fall.

Or maybe Bucky will.

Bucky curls his one arm around Steve and lets him cling. “Okay. You're okay. I gotcha.”

Steve's breath is hitching and wheezy. His heart is pattering fast like bird's wings beating against his ribcage. Christ, if it weren't for the fact that he's the size of a brick shithouse, it could be 1935 again.

“The fuck are you doing on the floor, Rogers?” Bucky asks, gruff.

Steve shakes his head. “Beds’re too soft.” His voice is sleep-slurred.

“For your bonehead? Yeah I get that. Howzabout you give it a try though, huh?”

He hears Steve swallow. “M’fine.”

“Sure ya are. But I’m bunking with you tonight and my old man knees ain’t wild about all this crawling around on floors shit.”

Steve makes a grumbly, cranky sound. “M’not a baby, Buck. I don't need you to--”

And god, that’s Old Steve through and through. Bucky needs to head this off at the pass, or Steve will dig his heels in and refuse to sleep all night. “Maybe I need, okay, pal?”

Steve pulls back and looks at Bucky. Bucky tries not to let anything show, and then remembers that this is Stevie. He doesn't have to do that shit anymore. “I’m tired, man,” Bucky says, and lets Steve see how true that is. “Just wanna sleep. Don’t fight me on this, okay?”

“Of course,” Steve agrees, because he’s good like that.

They haul the blankets back up onto the bed and climb in together. The last time they did this was during the war. A fair bit has changed since then, but not the essentials.

Steve is lying in the bed next to him, looking up at the ceiling, eyes wide open and staring. He’s on Bucky’s left side -- guarding his vulnerable flank -- which means that Bucky can’t elbow him, so he kicks him instead. Gently. Ish. “Y’alright?”

“Yeah,” Steve lies.

Bucky allows it. “You wanna talk about it?”

“Not really.”

“You wanna talk about the other thing that’s botherin’ you?”

“Which other thing? Do you want the list alphabetically or chronologically?”

Bucky huffs. “I’m thinking specifically of the thing that freaked you out so bad you had to go stand in a hallway for ten minutes.”

Steve tightens his grip on the covers. “Nah, I think I’ll just keep bottling that shit right up, thanks.”

Bucky can’t help letting out a little burble of a laugh at that. It makes Steve grin at him. “You are un-fucking-believable, pal.”

“I am a miracle of modern science.”

“You’re a miracle of last century’s science.”

“You’re a jerk, Barnes.”

“You’re a pain in my ass, Rogers.”

Bucky looks over just in time to see Steve looking over at him. They’re grinning like kids. A feeling too big to contain wells up in Bucky’s chest. He thinks about what T’Challa said. ‘If you need space from each other,’ but that would mean losing this feeling that fills up the hollows between his ribs. Bucky is so grateful for it, for Steve, that he can barely fucking breathe.

“Christ I’m glad you’re here, pal,” he blurts.

It’s true. All that time on the run, two goddamn years, remembering himself, rebuilding himself. The seventy years before, sleeping and forgetting and killing... He never stopped missing Steve.

So it's true, but it's not the sort of thing a fella should say. Steve's the straight man in their comedy routine, not Bucky.

Steve swallows, makes the face he makes when he’s trying really hard not to have an emotion. It always makes him look real pissed off, like the whole world is being A Disappointment. It’s part of the reason people don’t always like Steve when they first meet him, like they think he’s being real judgy, even though he’s the least judgmental guy Buck ever met. Short of literal Nazis, Steve Rogers will give second chances out like they’re goddamn candy and it’s Halloween.

“I’m glad you’re here too,” Steve says at last. His voice only shakes a little. Bucky kicks him again under the covers.

“How am I supposed to get any rest with you bein’ all maudlin at me, huh? Go the fuck to sleep. You can be maudlin at me in the morning. I’ll still be here.”

 


 

And he is. They both are.

By the morning, they’re sleeping back to back like they always used to in those tiny cots and bedrolls. It’s really fucking nice, actually, because Steve is still like a hot water bottle, and having the whole warm expanse of his serum-enhanced back pressed up against Bucky’s is like lying on a heated table -- and Bucky’s back is basically one huge cramped up knot, and has been since the early fifties, when some asshole decided that his one arm really should weigh about fifty pounds more than the other one.

And --

Christ. It’s dumb, but it had been something else to have Steve’s body against his all night long. Not even sexual, that’s not the point.

The point is that in the sweltering summer of ‘44 he saw a vulture on the tin roof of a barn in the south of France. It looked about as happy as a vulture could look, with its wings spread out wide, soaking up as much sun as possible. A greedy black thing trying to glut itself on warmth, like it had never been warm before and might never be warm again.

In the summer of ‘44, Bucky had been faint from heat and exhaustion, and unable to comprehend what the fuck the vulture was on about. The Bucky of 2016 definitely gets it. He wants to put on some shades and soak up Steve like a sunbather. Wants to wear all black wool so as to maximize Steve absorption and retention. Wants to bask until he melts and evaporates like an ice cube dropped on a hot sidewalk. He wants to completely cease to exist in the onslaught of Steve’s unrelenting warmth.

“Mmmbuck?” says a gravelly voice from the other side of the bed.

Bucky grins. “Morning, Sunshine.”

Steve sighs. He always used to sound put upon when Bucky called him that, but now he just sounds… content. Like he's smiling. “Mm.” There’s a sound -- Steve rubbing his face against the pillow, if Bucky were a betting man.

Steve’s phone chirps.

Steve groans and leans away from Bucky’s back, all that hot-bottle warmth gone. Bucky sighs, missing it immediately. While Steve is fumbling with his phone, Bucky rolls onto his back and stretches with his one arm and the shorted out stump. The shoulder joint rolls and clicks at him. His back pops and clicks too, but that’s accompanied by exquisite relief, rather than a vague uneasy sense of wrongness.

“Hm.” That’s a more thoughtful sort of hum. Captain America’s brain must be (slowly) engaging. “It’s Shuri. Says you should head down to the lab after breakfast. Also something about… vans? White ones? No, now she’s saying that was for someone else. How does she text so fast?”

Bucky looks up and finds Steve is squinting at him, bleary and sleep mussed.

Fuck. He loves this dumb punk so much it kind of hurts, right in the middle of his chest, right under his sternum. A tight squeezing fist of affection, twisting hot and fierce.

“Ask her when we get down there.” Bucky rubs his eyes with his one hand and yawns. “S’for breakfast?”

Steve’s stomach growls so loudly that they both crack up.

 


 

In the lab, Bucky kind of wishes that he could laugh about this part.

They’re looking at a hologram of Bucky’s torso, a kind of 3D X-ray. This ghostly, faceless version of Bucky floats in mid air, rotating slowly. The bones are shown in bright solid blue, the muscles are translucent, and everything else -- everything that isn’t organic -- is red, red, red. The red lump at his shoulder: all that remains of his prosthetic. Thick red lines run to bulky red masses -- those must be the attachment points, the bracing. The ribs on his left side are completely plated in red. There are bunches of red wires that spiral out to hook into his spine, and deep set red pins holding the reinforced plate to his shoulder blade.

Christ, his body is a fucking warzone.

He jerks his chin at the image slowly rotating in the air over the table. “Who left all that junk in there, huh?” The joke comes out flat. “What a mess.”

“Very rude of them,” Shuri agrees. “Downright inconsiderate.”

“And Nazis are usually so polite,” Steve says, but he looks sick.

Bucky shouldn't have dragged him in here. But God, he didn't trust himself not to freak out and do something awful. It's a lab, still. There were gonna be doctors, he thought.

Except in the end the lab felt more like the high tech version of that garage he used to work at and the only doctor in sight was a sixteen year old girl. Smartest damn kid Bucky had ever met, sure, but nothing like what he was expecting. What he was dreading.

“I'm guessing this isn't just a tour of local Hydra atrocities,” Bucky says.

“No. I wanted to talk to you about removal--”

“Nah I'm fine,” Bucky says, very casual and far too quick.

Shuri pulls her lips to one side. “Sergeant Barnes--” she starts. “All this -- you must be in incredible pain.”

Bucky stares at her, a little baffled, if he’s honest. He shrugs one shoulder, and then the other. “Ain’t so bad.”

Steve’s chair scrapes against the floor as he stands sharply up.

Bucky’s eyes track him as he walks over to the window and looks out at the vibranium mines. Steve knows what Bucky’s talking about. He must. He knows what it’s like to be in pain long enough that you just… get used to it. Stop really feeling it. 

Except that you don't, of course.

Shuri’s brows do a complicated little dance of concern. “But it could be better.”

Bucky makes a face. “Gotta be honest, kiddo, I’ve kinda had my fill of surgery, you know?” He waves his hand demonstrably at the hologram of his metal-riddled skeleton.

Steve gets out his phone, even though it wasn’t buzzing, and says “Excuse me,” quietly, before fleeing the lab like it’s on fire.

“Sergeant Barnes,” Shuri says, drawing his attention back from the door Steve just made his hasty exit through. “If I may speak frankly… this would not be surgery as you have known it.” Her face is serious, somber. “We have anesthetics that work on the Black Panther, I am confident that they can be modified for your metabolism. It would take several surgeries, probably, but each one would be less than a day. In and out in a few hours, back on your feet by the next morning. This is Wakanda, not Hydra.”

“I know,” Bucky says with an aborted half shrug. It’s easy to say these things. But even the mention reminds him that this is a lab. That they have scans of his insides, no secrets, no privacy. They’ve been in his head, for fuck’s sake. There’s a cryo tube somewhere in here.

“Your standard of living would be vastly improved if you just let us--”

Just let us use you one more time, Soldier, just let us adjust the dose, just let us up the amplitude.

“--let us help you.”

Bucky swallows thickly and has to remind himself that it’s just him and Shuri here, no guards, no guns. He’s safe. Even one armed he could overpower her, easily--

He freezes in place. He’s hit violently with the mental image of what he could do of what could happen to this brilliant kid if he lets himself slip. The crash of glass, the crack of breaking bone, the smell of blood. Steve isn’t here to stop him, to hold him back. He locks his muscles, he can't let that happen and Steve isn't here to stop-- Where the fuck is he--

“Sergeant?” Shuri says, in a small, quiet voice.

It jerks him out of the spiraling thoughts, but the churning wake leaves him feeling a little queasy. They don’t call them intrusive thoughts for no damn reason. Christ.

“Kiddo -- sorry.” He runs a hand over his face. She's so fucking young. Jesus. But that's no reason to be disrespectful. “Ma'am, not that I don't… appreciate all’a this. Everything you've done. But it's.” He rakes fingers through his hair, pushing it back out of his face.“There's more than trigger words in my head. You know?” He lets his hand fall, and feels the stump of his shoulder give a half hearted calibration loop.

Her mouth gives a sad little downtown at the corners. “Oh.”

“Just let me think about it, alright?”

“Of course,” the girl says, brightening somewhat. “And of course we won't do anything without your consent. That goes without saying.”

Bucky chews back the urge to say you'd be surprised how often it doesn't because she's a kid. Just a kid.

“In the meanwhile. We can treat your pain in ways that don't involve surgery, if you're interested?”

She looks so fucking hopeful.

Bucky makes himself smile. “Thank you. That sounds good.”

 

Twenty minutes later, he's got a bag of some fancy tea that's apparently more effective than morphine and nowhere near as addictive.

He has to take a minute to breathe as soon as the door shuts behind him. His head is still echoing with that image of what didn’t happen, but could have happened. He’s angry at Steve for not being there, when he really could’ve used him at his back, and he’s angry at himself for feeling like he needed Steve there, and he’s angry at Hydra for making him need Steve in the first place and --

He takes a minute to breathe and try to let it go.

Eventually he has to give that up and find Steve.

Steve’s around the corner in the hall outside Shuri's lab, sitting on a bench with his fingers steepled in front of his mouth. He's staring at the opposite wall, doesn't even blink when Bucky wordlessly sits next to him.

He's on the wrong side to sling an arm around Steve, but he nudges his knee against Steve's and he can actually see the moment Steve blinks back into himself from wherever he went. He doesn't move except for the fluttering of his eyelashes and a slight, shaky inhale.

Steve slowly sits up and back. His hands only shake a little bit when he lets them fall into his lap. “Heya Buck,” he says, without looking over.

“Hey pal,” Bucky says, wearily. “You okay?”

Steve takes a soft, shuddering breath in and lets it slowly out. “Am I okay. How much pain are you in right now?” he asks, in that exceedingly calm voice that means he isn't calm at all.

“Come on, man, don't do that.” Bucky doesn’t really want to do this, not right now.

“It's a simple enough question, Bucky--”

Not that Steve’s ever let a single thing go, not once. “And now he's giving me Captain voice. Great.”

“Yes or no, are you in pain right now?”

“None of your damn business, Rogers,” Bucky grumbles.

“Isn't it? Hydra had you -- all those years, and that's on me, Bucky.”

“Funny, I don't remember you being there in the room when they grafted that sucker on,” Bucky says, hanging on to his sense of humor, even if it has gone thin and mean-edged. “I take it you were in observation?”

Steve makes a low, hurt sound and stands sharply up, walking away from the labs at a brisk pace.

Bucky jumps up to follow. “Cuz I'm pretty sure the only people in that room were me and Hydra,” he continues, relentless. “But hey, you wanna stick your nose in where it don’t belong, go for it. I ain’t ever been able to stop ya before, why should that change now, huh?”

“Bucky.” Steve turns, heading towards the halls that go up and out into the countryside. He’s got his hands shoved in his pockets, walking fast down the empty hallway, scrolling Wakandan text floating on the walls to the left and right. “You know what I mean.”

“After a century? Yeah I think I do.” Bucky lunges forward, grabs his shoulder with his one good hand, and turns him. “It ain’t all about you, Steve.”

Steve bats his hand away, glaring, and it’s just the same glare that Bucky first saw in 1930: stubborn as hell and twice as contrary. “I don’t think--”

“But you do, sometimes.” Bucky pokes him hard in the chest.

Steve scoffs. “Since when?”

“Since always.” Bucky throws his hands -- hand -- up. “‘Oh everything is my responsibility, everything bad that happens is because I didn’t stop it, everything is my fucking fault, up to and including my friend’s goddamn medical problems.’ It ain’t self-sacrificing, it’s self- centered. Quit trying to take credit for shit you didn’t have nothin’ to do with, you egotistical sonuvabitch.”

Steve rears back a little and silence falls between them.

Bucky doesn’t back down, just keeps glaring at Steve, eyes narrowing to laser focus.

Steve clears his throat a little, shakes his head. “Jesus, pal. You gotta be such an asshole about it?”

“Just trying to speak your language, Rogers,” Bucky snaps back.

Steve folds his arms tight across his chest, tucking his hands under his biceps like he’s scared to touch. “I can’t help feeling like I--”

“You just said 'I’ twice in less than one sentence, pal.”

“That's how sentences work, James.” Steve's going red in the face now, angry and flustered and defensive.

“Then maybe you should stop talking and listen, huh?” Bucky glares and waits until he's sure Steve isn't going to interrupt. The stubborn set of his all American jaw isn't particularly promising on the listening front, but maybe if Bucky talks real slow, and uses small words, Steve will actually hear what Bucky's telling him.

“All this shit?” he waves his one hand at himself; the trainwreck of his body, the missing parts and debris. “It's mine now. My body, my decisions, my fucking aftermath, yeah? It's all mine. The shitty parts are mine too.”

“Anything that hurts you hurts me, Bucky,” Steve says.

“No!” Bucky snarls, taking a step forward into Steve's space, all rage and snapping teeth. “I’m taking ownership of this, got it? That's not your pain to feel, Steve. It's mine. You don't get to take things from me, not things that are mine, not even my pain. I've had enough of people taking things from me.”

Steve goes dead white. And that's when Bucky knows that Steve gets it -- really gets it.

“That pain is mine . If I decide I want to share it, I get to decide who with and how much. The choice to go forward or not, that's mine too. The blame? The fault? That may not be mine but it sure as hell ain't yours pal.”

“Bucky--” Steve stammers out. “I didn't mean -- I would never--” Steve's face is agony. “But when you’re hurting -- that hurts me. I don’t mean to make it about me, but I can’t -- I can't just turn that off.”

“I know you can't. I just want you to quit blaming yourself. It ain't helping.”

“Helps me remember to do better,” Steve mutters.

Bucky could laugh. “No. It doesn't. It eats you up, and I'm stuck here watching it eat you up and what fucking good does that do anyone, huh? Christ, Steve, you been like this as long as I can remember, but God I'm so fucking tired of you thinking you ain't worth--you don't even realize what it--”

The words bottle up in his throat, a hopeless log jam of inarticulate feelings.

A tentative hand touches his bicep; just the lightest brush of fingers. Bucky makes himself take a breath. Then another, but slower. He tries to think how to explain it.

“Take your time,” Steve offers. “I’m listening now, okay? I hear you.”

Bucky grinds his teeth. He squeezes his eyes shut. He’ll think clearer without Steve's dumb face hogging up all his thought processes.

“I know you think you don't deserve shit. Think you gotta be paying off some cosmic debt. I know you think you still got something to prove, and that's what keeps you going. But, Steve... I don't think you get what that takes away from you,” Bucky says, slow and fumbling.

“What do you mean?”

“You remember…” Bucky winces hard. “The day we stopped Billy Thompson?”

“Ain't likely to forget it,” Steve mumbles, looking away.

“Yeah. Well. When all was said and done, we're heading back to your ma’s, again. And you're bleeding all over my best Sunday shirt. Again. And I told you that you were my best friend. And you looked so guilty about it, like you'd done something awful by being the best guy I knew. Like you'd stolen me outta God's cookie jar and Sister Agatha caught you at it.”

The words come easier now that he's telling a story, like he's pulled the cork from the bottle or something.

“I ain't a cookie, pal. I'm a human being, despite the efforts of some very tenacious motherfuckers. I was just some sorry asshole telling you that he liked you better than all the other assholes. And you felt so fucking guilty about it that you forgot to say it back.”

Steve blinks. “What?”

Bucky stares at him. He really didn’t know, did he. “You didn't say it back, you bastard. You know how long it took for you to tell me that I was your best friend?”

Steve merely shakes his head. But he’s wide-eyed, like he’s running back through every conversation they ever had, searching.

Bucky leans in, so Steve can't miss this bit. It's important. “Two thousand and fucking fourteen. Jackass.”

The predictable guilty look rears its ugly fucking head. Self recriminations. Bucky can see Steve turning inward, closing in on himself.

“Hey.” Bucky snaps his fingers in front of Steve's face. “Missing the point,” he informs Steve.

Steve refocuses. “What is the point?”

“You can’t carry my bullshit for me, and I can’t carry yours, see? We both got our hands full, I figure. But we’re both… finding our way, right? We’re in this together, right?”

Steve looks like he might cry, but he thinks that would only make it worse.

Bucky hesitates only a moment before putting his hand on Steve's shoulder. “Who’s gonna help me find a way through this if you’re too busy kicking yourself for something that ain’t even your fault?”

Steve ducks his head. He gives a very slight little nod.

Bucky pulls him in and gently knocks their heads together. “Okay?”

Something in Steve deflates. Some cord pulled tight snaps loose. “Okay.”

“Now let's go get some lunch, punk, I'm starving.”

 


 

That night, Bucky dreams about the surgeries.

Except this time they aren’t just taking his arm, they're taking all the rest of him too. He's paralyzed. He can't move, can't feel it, can only watch, helpless, as they take and take and take.  In the end it's the workmanlike way the guy in the bowtie says: “he won't need these,” and he's holding Bucky's lungs and he can't breathe he can't breathe he--

“Bucky, wake up. Wake up!”

Training freezes his limbs, prevents him from lashing out at the Handler (he's done that before, there was punishment). His eyes are wide open now. He isn't supposed to sleep, he must not sleep. The Handler did not give permission to --

“Bucky?”

Call sign. His eyes snap to the Handler, who is crouching by the bed, hands raised in a non threatening pose, eyes wide, hair mussed.

Hair. Mussed? It's all flat on one side, sticking up on the other. Not stylishly unkempt. Slept in.

Bedhead.

Handlers never have bedhead.

“Bucky?” The Handler says again, desperate and hopeful and --

Steve.

“Steve?” he says, to confirm.

“Yeah Bucky, it's me. Can you breathe for me?”

Bucky flinches hugely at the memory of his lungs sitting slick and spongy in some man's hands, about to be tossed aside like broken parts at the auto garage. He shudders, and shudders, and Steve's hands hover uselessly.

“Pal,” Steve says, more alarmed now. “You gotta--”

“Don’ say’t,” Bucky slurs, teeth chattering. “Jus’-- Steve, please--” He can’t articulate what he needs, what he--

Steve surges up like he can’t hold back any longer and climbs into the bed. It’s a clumsy scramble of limbs, but he curls his arms around Bucky, curls his whole body around Bucky and Bucky sucks in a breath, at last, like his lungs are back where they belong.

“You’re alright,” Steve tells him. “You’re alright, I got you.”

 

Twenty minutes later they’re sitting on the couch, and Steve has managed to make hot chocolate without setting anything on fire.

“Sorry, pal,” Bucky says. “You don’t have to stay up with me.” He doesn’t want to go back to sleep. He doesn’t want to see whatever else his subconscious is waiting to throw at him.

“I know. But I’m gonna,” Steve says. “Just… Is there anything I can do?”

Bucky shakes his head. “This is fine. This is good.”

Steve bumps his knee against Bucky’s. Bucky bumps back.

For a moment, they’re just silent together.

Bucky swallows. “It’s one of those… Cure might be worse than the disease situations, you know?”

“The surgeries?” Steve asks, because he might be an idiot, but he’s not all that slow, not really.

Bucky nods, tight-lipped.

“That’s what you were--” Steve tips his head awkwardly towards the bedroom.

Bucky rolls his eyes, but nods again.

Steve’s brow furrows. Then his eyes go wide. “You don’t… remember--”

“I remember plenty, Steve.”

Bucky closes his eyes, because he has no desire to watch whatever journey Steve’s face is about to take through the lands of guilt and self-recrimination.

“But you know Shuri won’t--”

“I know,” Bucky says quietly. There's a feeble flutter of rage, but he's just... too tired. He should explain, though. He knows he should. Bucky rubs his forehead with one hand. He’s still unpleasantly clammy, but he hadn’t been feeling up to a shower. “While I was…” He winces, because it’s not like Steve’s got a monopoly on guilt and Bucky left him. “...away, I spent a lot of time… tiptoeing around my own brain. Not just cuz of the triggers, you know? Sometimes things would be… too much. And I’d have to go… away.”

Steve swallows, thickly. “Like, um.”

Bucky looks over and sees Steve lick his lips. “Like?” Bucky has to prompt, after too much silence.

“There’s ice in everything now, you know? This one time, Clint took us to some drive through place called Sonic. And we got these drinks, with little balls of ice in them. Everyone in the quinjet, crunching them between their teeth. Me too. It makes this. Sound.” Steve looks a little embarrassed now.

“Stevie,” Bucky says softly, and for the first time -- stupid -- he thinks of it. Steve under acres and acres of ice. Frozen.

Steve shrugs one shoulder. “And I kept…” he shakes his head and looks down. “Thought Wanda was messing with my head, maybe, without realizing it. She’s a kid, she does that sometimes, but she wasn’t even there for that mission. And then we were back at the compound. I had no idea how we’d gotten there. I don’t think anyone even noticed, but I talked to Dr. Kapplebaum about it, later. She said. Dissociation, flashbacks, stuff like that.” Steve looks up, meets Bucky’s eye. “That’s what you’re talking about, right?”

Bucky swallows. “Yeah, pal. That’s what I’m talking about.”

“Anything makes you feel like that, you just tell them to stop, they will,” Steve says. “You know they will.”

Bucky makes a pained face. “Steve. What if I don’t tell them. What if I make them. What if I come to and it’s not you and Sam with my arm in a vice, what if it’s that kid and all those people who helped me, and they’re dead? One arm or not, if I--”

“I’ll stop you.”

Bucky leans back a little to look at Steve. “Will you? What hurts me hurts you, you said.”

Now Steve winces. “I know I did. It does, but… We’re going through this together, like you said.”

“Like I said, huh?”

Steve gives him a look. “I can admit when I was wrong. I’ve grown, since 1930, you know.”

Bucky snorts. “I’ll say.”

“Stop deflecting and let me finish. I ain’t gonna risk you hurting that tiny genius T’Challa calls his sister, and I sure as shit ain’t gonna let anyone hurt you. I’ll be there, Buck. Every step of the way. No matter what.” And that’s a tone that brooks no fucking argument, but it ain’t the Captain’s voice either. That’s Stevie: the rough and rusty iron ore core that the serum refined to shiny, featureless steel.

God Bucky has missed him.

Bucky’s mouth trembles a little. He swallows. “I was a dick earlier,” he says. “Yelling at you. That was an asshole thing to do.”

“Yeah it was,” Steve says. “But I left you alone in there because I was upset and I shouldn’t have done that. It was selfish.”

“I left you alone for two years.”

“I left you alone for seventy years, what’s your point?”

“I did it on purpose, though.” Bucky feels lower than dirt.

Steve’s face does something complicated and unparsable. Instead of saying anything else, he puts an arm around Bucky’s back and shoulders and pulls him in close. Bucky hunches down and Steve puts his chin on top of Bucky’s head. “I’m sorry,” he says, and Bucky knows that he means it with every ounce of him.

“I’m sorry too,” Bucky says, and means it all the way back to 1930 when they first laid eyes on each other.

Steve sniffles, which Bucky knows to mean I forgive you. And Bucky squeezes to say I know. He also turns his head a little and takes a deep breath because -- yeah so fucking sue him -- Steve smells good. By “good” Bucky means “just a little ripe” and to Bucky that smells like Back Home, because Bucky is disgusting and so is Steve, but at least they’re disgusting together instead of being disgusting alone.

“It’s not gonna be easy,” Bucky warns.

“Never was,” Steve points out. “But hey. If there’s a way forward, we’ll find it, right?”

He’d said that on the front lines, and behind enemy territory. He’d said similar things in Brooklyn, facing up against bullies and ballooning rent and a looming war.

Bucky’s mouth twitches in a smile. He nods. “Right. Alright.” His smile settles, widens. He knows his line here. He knows what he’s supposed to say when Steve starts talking like this. He slides into place like a gun in a holster. Just there, covering Steve’s left flank, looking over Steve’s shoulder, watching Steve’s back. Following Steve’s lead.

He lifts both brows. “So what’s the plan?”

 


 

After breakfast and coming up with a plan of attack, Bucky dozes on the couch while Steve reads. Steve has read those Lord of the Rings books before, as it turns out, but he seems happy to read them again.

Bucky wakes up a couple hours later to find that Steve isn't there. He must have stepped out, but there's a note on the table that will probably tell Bucky where and when he'll be back. Bucky stretches and bumps his hand against something draped over the arm of the couch. It's The Return of the King. Curious, he picks it up.

At the top of the page, there’s a very faint pencil mark, almost too light to see. Just a dot, next to a line of dialogue.

‘Come on, Mr. Frodo,’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you…’

“Un-fucking-believable,” Bucky mutters. But he’s smiling.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

2: Steve

Bend your chest open so I can reach your heart
I need to get inside, or I'll start a war
Wanna look at the pieces that make you who you are
I wanna build you up and pick you apart

Let me see the dark sides as well as the bright
I'm gonna love you inside out

- “Inside Out” by The Chainsmokers, 2016.

 

“I’ll be right here the whole time,” Steve says, holding Bucky’s gaze.

Bucky is on his side on the hospital bed, his good arm curled under him with his vulnerable side exposed. It had taken them three tries to get him into the room, another two to get him lying down, but now he’s here and whatever they dosed him with is finally overwhelming the enhanced adrenaline they’re both “blessed” with. Bucky’s face has gone slack, a little vague. He blinks at Steve, heavy and slow, like a sleepy cat.

“Any hinky shit--” Steve starts.

A soft laugh from Bucky. “Y’sound like Sam.”

Steve wishes Sam were here right now. But they don't want to impose on T'Challa's hospitality. “Yeah, I learn from the best. Any hinky shit, I’ll kick their asses, right?”

“Mmmyeah.” His eyes are more closed than open now, like the lids are too heavy.

Steve looks over at Shuri, who’s watching the monitors. She looks back at Steve, exasperated. She’d warned him -- warned them both that Bucky’s metabolism might have developed some level of resistance, since Hydra had pumped him so full of drugs for so long. She spins her hand in the air, like go on, go on.

“You... want to go over the plan again?” Steve asks.

“Okay.”

“Well. Since it turns out the vibranium magic won’t work on you--”

Bucky pouts at him. “Steve,” he says, accusingly.

Steve laughs. Of course even half-unconscious Bucky cares about that detail. “Alright. Turns out the vibranium science won’t work on you.”

“Hmph.”

“Seein’ as how you’ve spent the last seventy years building up a resistance. But they still got tiny robots and lots of fancy scanners and, I think lasers? That are gonna chop up all that junk and clear it out.”

“Steve?”

“Yeah, Buck?”

“Tired.”

“You can sleep, you know,” Steve says. “That’s kinda the whole point.”

Bucky’s eyes are closed now. He takes a breath in, hums. “‘Kay,” he says, at last.

Steve watches him breathe for a moment, then looks to Shuri again. She checks the monitors, then checks the dosage on another machine. It’s within the upper end of the range she predicted and read out to them earlier. She shrugs. “Well. It isn’t as bad as it could be. If you’ll stand over there, Captain.”

Steve nods and backs away to a corner of the lab.

“Alright people! Let’s get to work.”

 


 

When they’re done, they clear the lab floor and Steve sits with Bucky for the last fifteen minutes, while the sedation wears off. He got to change out of his sterile stuff too. Wakandan lab coats don’t look too much like lab coats to Steve, but no one thinks it’s a good idea for a lab coat of any kind to be the first thing Bucky sees when he wakes up.

They’ve taken off the outer layer of plating on his shoulder, and removed a lot of the electronics underneath. They’ve got another black cover cupping the stump, but Steve had seen -- there was flesh under there, white and red scar tissue with bits of metal sticking out, like shrapnel.

“The next bit is going to be difficult, but the hardest part will be getting the implants on his spine and ribs out,” Shuri had told him, looking tired. “We’ll have to put him under for longer next time.” And then she had left him alone in the lab, waiting for Bucky to wake.

Steve is scrolling through his phone in order to resist the urge to get out his sketchbook and draw Bucky like this. He’s on his back now, completely lax and soft, breathing steadily with his lips slightly parted. If he were drawing this (which he isn’t) he’d make sure the shading showed how soft and smooth his good shoulder looked, compared to the flat black covering the other shoulder, all the way down to where the scars start. He’s not drawing it (because that would be Weird and possibly invasive) but if he did, he’d draw the jawline in steady, bold strokes, and the dimple in his chin, and the line between his brows, and the--

Bucky takes a breath, slightly deeper than the last, and turns his head towards Steve.

“Bucky?” Steve says, sitting up a little straighter. He puts away the phone he’d stopped looking at (in favor of fantasizing about drawing Bucky, God. This was already getting out of hand.)

Bucky doesn’t reply right away, but he does try to roll over. He’s always hated sleeping on his back.

“Whoa there, Buck,” Steve says, reaching across him to press on his good shoulder. “Other side pal. Don’t want to roll onto that side, trust me.”

Bucky makes a grumbly sound, and pulls his chin in and makes a face like -- like a grumpy baby--

Fuck.

Steve covers his mouth and tries not to have an aneurism about how cute it is.

Slowly, he lifts his phone and snaps a picture.

The quiet shutter sound makes Bucky’s eyes slit open.

“Asshole,” he growls. He lifts a hand and rubs his face. “How’d it go?”

“Good,” Steve says. “They got most of the external components off, like we talked about.”

Bucky turns his head to look blearily at his left side. His throat clicks when he swallows, and then he looks away. “Good...” It sounds almost like a question. Bucky’s still not fully with it, obviously.

“You wanna rest some more?” Steve suggests, gently. “I’ll keep watch.”

Bucky just closes his eyes again: no muss, no fuss. He just trusts Steve. He rolls over on his right side, showing Steve his vulnerable back. With a sweet little sigh, Bucky tucks his arm under the pillow, and drifts off once more, in order to sleep off the last of the anesthesia.

 

The second time Bucky wakes up, he immediately stumbles off to the bathroom and starts puking. Steve is momentarily frantic, but Shuri comes running in and tells him it’s totally normal -- the anesthesia hits people that way sometimes. Next time, they can use anti-nausea meds.

When he comes out of the bathroom, grimacing, Buck is a little more with it. Shuri runs some tests and scans. There’s no sign of infection, and the few small incisions they had made are already starting to heal. Once they’re sure that the anesthesia is completely worn off, Steve and Bucky go back to the guest suite.

 

Bucky sits at the kitchen table while Steve makes sandwiches. Bucky is now starving (what with the puking and all). Shuri had assured him that the nausea was done with, and he should feed his healing factor as many calories as it wants.

While Steve puts together sandwiches, Bucky takes the black sleeve off his arm and examines the stump. There ain’t much there, just the stub of his shoulder. Steve’s read the file: it’s less than he was found with, he knows. Less than he had when they started working to attach the Arm. Because they took more pieces of his friend, even after everything he’d already lost. Now, it’s an ugly mess of scar tissue maybe the size of his fist, all irritated skin, and bits of clipped off metal and capped off wires. Everything’s taped over with gauze and smeared with something purplish that’s supposed to prevent infection.

“Huh.” Bucky sounds intrigued, not traumatized or shaky. When Steve turns, holding a couple of plates with frankly frighteningly large sandwiches, Bucky is peering at the bare stub with obvious curiosity.

Steve tries to imagine how Bucky sees it. This is all that’s left of Bucky’s arm, which he lost, which he probably hasn’t seen in fifty years or more. This is what was under the hunk of machinery that was the best weapon he ever had. And to Bucky -- because he’s Bucky -- this is the foundation on which a miracle of science and technology was built. He’s almost certainly trying to figure out how it worked.

Steve sets down the plates and takes a seat himself, picking up his own sandwich.

“Didn’t think there was anything left under there, you know?” Bucky says, twisting his head around a bit, trying to get a look at the back side too. “Lucky Stark didn’t aim any higher, huh?”

Steve freezes, sandwich halfway to his mouth. In a flash, he can picture Bucky, not just struggling to breathe through the pain of the loss, not just bleeding from the cuts on his face and his bloodied nose, but from the arm too.

He puts the sandwich back, appetite evaporated like morning mist.

And then Bucky looks up, and sees Steve’s face, and winces. “Sorry,” he says.

“Not your fault,” Steve points out.

“Not yours either,” Bucky says, nudging his toes against Steve’s leg.

“I know,” Steve says. If he says it enough, eventually it’ll start feeling true.

 


 

The next surgery is scheduled for a few days later. Now that the plating is off, they can get a clearer picture of what’s in there, and make a plan for how to get it out. Bucky is calling it “the de-Hydra-tion process” because he’s a huge dork, which Steve had somehow forgotten.

The upshot is that Bucky spends most afternoons in the lab with Shuri. He’s pushing himself, being in the lab that much, and Steve would be worried but… well, he knows he can’t stop it. People have described Steve as stubborn; they ain’t wrong, and well... Bucky and Steve have more than the superserum in common. Where Steve’s stubbornness tends to manifest as a bullheaded determination, Bucky’s is expressed through a laserlike focus bordering on fixation. So Bucky goes to the lab even though labs scare him, because he’s got a project and that means he’s got his blinders on.

Steve takes it upon himself to take care of other things for Bucky: namely, his legal status. He talks to T'Challa while Bucky talks to Shuri. Wakanda has never granted asylum before, there's no precedent. Right now, Steve and Bucky are personal guests of the king, but that will only go so far, especially given the fact that Steve's a fugitive and Bucky is… well. Whatever he is.

Bucky's been cleared of wrongdoing as far as the Vienna bombing goes but that doesn't answer the question of whether he's culpable for what the Soldier did.

With some help from Shuri, Steve sets up a secure line and sends reports of what Shuri found to Bernie Rosenthal, who's still working to build a case for Bucky, so if the time ever comes for a trial, they're prepared.

“We could probably do the same thing to set up a line to Judith,” Steve mentions over dinner one night, watching Bucky carefully.

Bucky's head snaps up, his eyes wide. God, Steve can almost feel the hopefulness coming off him in waves. “Yeah?” Then his expression shuts down a little. “Wouldn't that put her in danger?”

Steve cocks his head and does Bucky the justice of really considering it. “She already in danger, pal. They all are.” The fact that they’re Bucky’s family makes them targets, full stop. For the media, for people looking for the Soldier, for Hydra -- they’ve had a protection detail since 2014, and that’s probably not going to stop any time soon.

Bucky knew that, of course he did, but Steve can see that it's one thing to know and something else to hear it. There's a flash of raw hurt that shutters quickly over. “Talking to her gonna make it worse?” Bucky asks.

He's trying to be gruff and practical about it. Steve has to look down at his own plate to hide how much that gets to him. He studies the bite size pieces of meat and vegetables swimming in some kind of sauce and…

He takes a deep breath. “She’s 74, pal. Some things are worth the risk.”

Pain flashes over Bucky's face again, a glimpse of depths before the light glances over and hides it all again. If Steve had thought anything about Buck's time as the Soldier (he tries very hard not to) he might have expected it to make him better at hiding his emotions, but thinking back… he's pretty sure the opposite is true. Sure, there are times when Bucky just shuts down completely, but that’s not a mask, that’s just him turning off. It's like Buck's too tired to perform anymore, like he doesn't know how to put on the swagger and the smile the way he used to. Maybe it's that there's more to cover up than any mask could hope to hide.

Bucky nods. And then looks like he wishes he could take it back. “Will she… Do you think she’ll…”

Steve can guess what Bucky isn’t saying. “She's fantastic, Buck. She'll want to talk to you,” Steve assures him. “They all will.”

Bucky winces a little. “Sure about that, pal?”

Steve thinks back to the few precious Thanksgivings he'd spent with Judith and her family. He smiles a little at the memory of how much they'd all laughed; that persistent Barnes good humor and down-to-earth kindness. Steve had needed that, when he came out of the ice. He suspects Bucky could do with a dose of it now.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I'm sure.”

 


 

But he still gets in touch with her first, just to prepare her, so she isn’t surprised. He doesn’t want to risk it going wrong, not when Bucky’s still kinda fragile. She’s delighted to hear from him. By the look on her face, she’d been worried. When he sidles up to the question of hey I can set it up so you can talk to Bucky too, if you want she looks like she wants to smack him upside his dumb head with one wrinkled hand. Of course I want to talk to him, she says, through the Skype window. He’s family.

“Good,” Steve says, relief and affection flooding through him.

“You’re both idiots,” Judith tells him. “ Do I want to talk to him? What kind of question is that.” She huffs and waves one hand dismissively. “I’ve got to go, I’m meeting Dani for brunch. Can’t hang around waiting for you old coots to get your shit together. Will you call back tomorrow?”

“It’ll have to be the day after tomorrow,” Steve says. Bucky’s got his last surgery tomorrow, and it’s gonna be a rocky one.

“Both of you?” Judith presses, watching him beadily.

“If I can get him to sit still. I’ll tie him down if I have to.”

“If that’s your kink, son. But I don’t need to know about it.”

He goes beet red in an instant, and she grins wickedly, winks, and ends the call before he can do more than splutter.

Steve shakes his head and leaves the guest quarters a minute later to go find Bucky.

 

To his surprise, he isn’t in the lab; there’s just Shuri, hunched over something that looks like it could be an arm. He doesn’t say anything about that, though he has some trouble taking his eyes off it.

“Where’s Bucky?” Steve asks.

“With the Black Widow,” Shuri says.

“Nat’s here?”

“T’Challa invited her. At Sergeant Barnes’s request.”

“He really prefers Bucky, you know.”

She clicks her tongue and sucks a breath through her teeth. “I have been told I need to learn respect for my elders. Neither of you set a very good example,” she accuses.

“What can I say. We’re from Brooklyn. Where are they?”

“And they call me impatient. They’re in the library.”

“Thank you,” Steve says. His eyes flick back to the device in front of her -- she’s attaching black cables to a gold-tinted skeletal structure and the whole thing is definitely arm-like. “Does Bucky know about that?”

She makes a vaguely scolding sound and waves at him. “There is no harm in being prepared, just in case he changes his mind.”

“I’m just saying, you don’t need to hide it from him. I bet he’d be more comfortable with the idea of having a new arm, if it was an arm he’d built himself.” He shrugs. “Just a thought.”

She actually looks up from her work, considering, and Steve leaves her to it, heading back to the palace, and the palace library.

 

Outside the library door, he pauses, a little guiltily, and listens.

“--if you could check on them, I’d be real grateful.” Bucky’s voice.

“Of course.” Nat sounds shaken, more human than he’s ever heard her. “Shit. Of course I will.”

“She wanted to tell you herself, ya know,” Bucky says. “But she couldn’t risk the girls.”

“I’ll be careful.”

“I know you will, Natashka.”

She makes a soft sound that might have been a laugh, if it didn’t sound so full of tears.

Bucky says something soft then, in his terrible, terrible Russian.

“Ugh, that’s awful. Stick to English.”

“Hey, I still had ice in my brain when I learned Russian, cut me some slack.”

Steve knocks on the door.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, and Steve pokes his head in.

“Hey,” he says. “I was just… Hi Natasha,” he adds.

“Hi Steve,” she says, smiling. There’s no sign on her face that she’d been at all overwhelmed a minute before. She’s damn good and always has been. “I was worried I wasn’t gonna get to see you before I had to leave.”

“You gotta go?” Steve says, a little crestfallen. He’s missed her.

“Can’t stay,” she says. “Sorry.”

“It’s no problem,” Steve says. “Oh Bucky, I talked to Judith, she really wants to meet you. You know. Over Skype, anyway. Um. Day after tomorrow?”

Bucky looks like he’s steeling himself. “Yeah.”

“And I think Shuri might have something to show you, in the lab,” he adds.

Bucky nods. “Ok.” He looks back at Nat. “It was good to see you, Natashka.”

She says something in Russian that Steve doesn’t quite catch, and they hug. Which is… unusual. Bucky usually keeps a healthy bubble of personal space around him, only seems to want to get close to Steve, and Nat isn’t exactly what you’d call the hugging type.

They both walk away from the hug like cats who’ve just tripped over their own feet, stoutly ignoring that anything happened, and Bucky heads left out of the library, towards the lab.

Steve watches Bucky go -- it’ll be good for him to have something mechanical to focus on between now and tomorrow. It’ll get him out of his head.

“Walk me back to the Quinjet?” Nat requests.

Steve shakes himself out of watching Bucky, returns his attention to her. “Of course.”

They turn right out of the Library, and Steve very carefully doesn’t look back the way Bucky went.

“You should know,” Natasha says with military crispness, like she’s giving a report. “Clint and Scott have decided to take deals, so they can go back to their families.”

“That’s fair,” Steve says. “Can’t blame them. What about the rest of you?”

“Sam’s gonna miss his sister and her kids, but it’s not the same. Family isn’t really a problem for Wanda and me.”

“How’s she holding up?” Steve asks.

“She’s getting there. Sam’s helping her.”

“Sam’s very helpful,” Steve says. God, he misses Sam. He misses Wanda. He’s missed Nat. “You really can’t stay?”

Natasha lifts one shoulder and lets it fall without changing her expression. “T’Challa’s already in an awkward position, hosting you two. I don’t want to strain his hospitality.”

She’s right. He knows she’s right, but it’s still hard to hear. It makes his insides twist with guilt. He looks away.

“Don’t you dare think about leaving his side,” Natasha says, a little sharply.

“What?” Steve says. “God, no, of course not.”

“Not until he’s stable, Steve, he needs you much more than we do.”

Steve laughs a little bitterly. “You got it backwards, but I’m not going anywhere.”

She gives him a questioning look.

“I think I make it worse, sometimes,” Steve makes himself explain.

Natasha gives a minimalist smile that hardly moves her lips. “That is your specialty. But trust me, you are helping. At least for now.”

“Gee thanks.”

Steve watches her on the sly as they come around the corner. They’re almost back at the hangar where the Quinjet is, and he’s always wondered… he’s not jealous of their relationship, the connection the two of them have, but it’s… hard to get a bead on, sometimes. He’s not sure what exactly they are to each other. He’s not sure they know, either. “He calls you Natashka,” Steve says, curious.

Nat tsks and rolls her eyes. “And you call him Bucky. And he calls you Stevie. Americans. I honestly think he was the only one in the Red Room who didn’t know he wasn’t Russian.” She glances back, but Bucky is long gone, of course. “How’s it going, by the way? All the… medical stuff.”

“Well as can be expected. Better than we thought, so far,” Steve says. “There’s just one more surgery to go, and then he’s Hydra-free, 100%. We’ll see after that.”

“Just the one more?”

“It’s not gonna be an easy one,” Steve admits, thinking of all the metal left inside Bucky’s body, all the delicate neural attachments and cruel metal plating.

“Well…” The door to the hangar opens and there’s the quinjet. For a minute, Steve’s legs almost carry him up the gangplank out of sheer habit, but Natasha turns and gives him a lazy goodbye salute and Steve remembers that this isn’t his place, not right now. “Let me know how it goes.”

 


 

It goes well, at first.

It’s grueling, and kind of horrible to watch, even if they’re using the smallest possible incisions and doing something with nanotech that Steve doesn’t fully understand. It’s still… painful to watch, even if Bucky is so out of it as to appear dead. Although, that’s probably part of why it’s so painful to watch.

And then, when they’re about to start closing up, Steve sees Bucky’s fingers twitching.

It happens so fast after that--

Someone says: “Wait, he’s--”

And Steve reacts. He gets out of the chair and pulls Shuri back from the table, while doctors scramble back and away as Bucky lurches off the table and flops to the floor like a beached, and slightly bloody, whale. He scrabbles at the surgical cap covering his hair, rips it off.

“Go, go, go,” Steve says, pushing Shuri and the doctors towards the door. They rush for the exit, and when Steve glances back he just catches a glimpse of Shuri’s face, her wide frightened eyes, before she’s hustled out of the room by a herd of doctors.

He looks back and finds Bucky dragging himself upright, legs shaking in his thin white scrub pants. His back is covered with rusty smears, butterfly stitches holding the incisions closed, but there’s still so much blood . Bucky whirls to face Steve, hair lank and swaying.

He’s got a scalpel.

He points it at Steve and his hand doesn’t waver even as he has to brace his stump against the wall to keep himself upright. His brows are drawn together over eyes gone dark and glassy. His pupils are all blown, and he’s blinking hard, trying to focus. His jaw is clenched tight shut, and his legs may be unsteady, but Steve knows a fighting stance when he sees it.

Steve raises his hands. “It’s just me, pal. No one else here. You’re safe.”

Bucky blurts something.

Something in Russian.

Steve may have taken some time to learn Russian in 2014, but it takes him a moment to decipher the garbled mess that comes out of Bucky’s mouth, because it barely passes as Russian. It’s Russian, but his accent is worse than Steve’s and his words come out in all the wrong order.

But Steve’s pretty sure he asked for orders.

“No orders, pal,” Steve says in a low voice, keeping very still, keeping his hands raised.

Bucky tightens his grip on the scalpel and repeats his request. The words come out in a different order this time, same awful accent -- Russian filtered through a drugged up haze and a Brooklyn accent thick as paste. It’s harsh, and angry sounding. Everything about him screams threat, screams come closer, I fucking dare you. But he’s breathing hard through his nose, and there’s white around his eyes. His eyes…

It’s like DC all over again, when everything about the Soldier’s body was aggression and rage, was unstoppable violence, except his eyes, wide over the mask, dark with panic, flickering with fear.

“Come on, Bucky. You know me. You’re safe, you’re in Wakanda. No orders anymore. Remember?”

“Нет,” Bucky says, shifting so his back is braced against the wall. His knees aren’t shaking anymore and Steve knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s fully back on his feet and if Steve doesn’t talk him down before then, he’s going to be stuck fighting his best friend. Again. “Я не помню,” he insists.

“Yes. You do remember,” Steve counters. “You definitely remember things, that’s okay, that’s good.”

Bucky’s gaze seems to sharpen at the words. He blinks. A muscle in his jaw relaxes.

“Yeah?” Steve says, sensing an opening. “Yeah. You are. You’re good. You been doing real well. I’m proud of ya, Buck.”

The scalpel lowers a fraction of an inch.

“You remember who you are?”

Bucky shakes his head, but Steve’s not sure if it’s a denial or if he’s just trying to clear his mind.

“Okay,” Steve says, deciding to just roll with it. “You remember who I am?”

Bucky mumbles something in Russian, something incoherent. It sounds like handler, which makes Steve’s stomach go tight with distress.

“I ain’t your handler, Buck,” he says softly.

Bucky shakes his head again, hair swaying around his face. He licks his bottom lip and tries again. “Я - твой.”

I'm yours, he said. Steve tries to keep breathing around the lump in his throat. Bucky doesn’t mean it -- not like that.

“Я - твой,” Bucky says again, more certainly. “Куратор. Твой...”

Steve blinks and his mouth falls open a little as he deciphers that bit of word salad. “You’re my handler?” he asks, stupidly.

“Да,” Bucky says, watching Steve closely. Like it’s a test.

“No,” Steve protests. “No, you’re -- a friend, Bucky. You’re my friend.”

The scalpel snaps up again, unwavering and pointed at Steve’s face, and Steve raises his hands a little higher.

“Okay!” He says. “Okay, yeah, you’re kind of -- I mean if you look at it from a--” He can’t help sounding a little indignant about it. “--a certain point of view, I guess, but--”

Bucky rolls his eyes.

“Hey,” Steve protests, weakly. “I don’t need a handler, I’m--”

“Punk,” Bucky says, sounding like his tongue is thick in his mouth.

Steve’s heart is in his throat.

Bucky swallows. Licks his lips. His words come slowly, with long pauses, like he’s gotta think about it. “You do. Need a -- a handler. Jump. Outta planes. Otherwise.”

“Jerk.” Steve swallows. “Back with us, there, pal?”

“Kinda,” Bucky says, drawing out the k-sound, almost stammering over it.

“Can ya… put the scalpel down for me?”

Bucky drops it almost before the sentence is out of Steve’s mouth.

“Ya wanna lie back down, let the doctors finish cleaning ya up?”

Bucky is white as a sheet. “Not really, pal.”

“Captain, Sergeant--”

Bucky startles hugely as Shuri’s voice comes out of the speakers in the ceiling.

“Sorry. The doctors say that Captain Rogers could finish up easily enough, given Sergeant Barnes’s healing factor.”

Steve hasn’t taken his eyes off Bucky, and Bucky hasn’t taken his eyes off Steve either. “I’m game if you are?” Steve says, like Shuri’s suggested that they try a new place for dinner.

Bucky swallows. Swallows again. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Steve agrees. “Shuri? What do we need to do here?”

“There’s wipes to clean up the blood, and a salve on the table, in the purple tube. All you need to do is dab it on over the incisions. Wash your hands, to be on the safe side, but it’s all pretty foolproof.”

“Foolproof ain’t Steve-proof, trust me,” Bucky says. He sounds more like himself now.

“Just lie down on the table, will ya?” Steve says, going over to the sink to wash his hands. He turns his back to Bucky, lets him into his blind spot, deliberately.

He can hear Bucky let out a gust of breath and shuffle over to the table. Steve spends maybe more time than necessary washing his hands, but when he turns, Bucky is lying on his stomach, head turned so he can keep Steve in his line of sight. Steve moves to the table very deliberately. There’s a rolling tray of instruments; he taps it with his toe and it rolls smoothly over to where Bucky is lying. Bucky’s eyes follow him.

“Okay,” Shuri says. “Start with the wipes, clean up the blood and disinfect the area before you apply the salve.”

Steve pulls out one of the little wipes -- they don’t smell like anything, which given his sense of smell, is impressive. “Okay?” He asks, kinda vaguely holding the wipe in Bucky’s direction. Bucky lifts his hand from where it’s resting on the table up by his head, and twirls it lazily, in a kind of yeah, yeah, get on with it gesture.

Steve realizes, belatedly, that he’s standing on Bucky’s left side. His vulnerable side. He briefly considers moving to the other side, but then decides fuck it. He starts swiping the wipe over Bucky’s skin, working around the incisions, cleaning away the rusty stains of blood. The incisions are all small -- as small as the doctors could make them. They’d had to do it the old fashioned way (according to Shuri) because of Bucky's lingering resistance to vibranium, and concerns about what sort of unstable alloys Hydra might have used. The old fashioned had still involved microsurgery with robots and things. The result was a constellation of tiny incisions, barely bigger than papercuts, already healing.

“Did they get it all?” Bucky asks.

“Yeah,” Steve says softly. “Shuri ran the scan twice to be sure. They got every last scrap. You’re all you now.”

Bucky’s shoulders relax a little. Steve scrubs intently at some flaky dried blood to one side of Bucky’s spine and Bucky makes a little -- sound. Steve freezes, but Bucky doesn’t lash out or say anything. If anything, he seems to be… melting. A little. All the tension is going out of his shoulders.

“Buck?” Steve says, just to be sure.

“Mm.” Bucky has turned his face away. Steve figures that’s as good a go ahead as he’s going to get. He remembers that Bucky’s hair had been under the cap because there had been some tech near the base of his skull. Steve very slowly lifts Bucky’s hair off his neck. There are a couple incisions up there, and some blood. He drags the wipe up and Bucky tips his head, arching into the touch like a cat.

Steve swallows. “Oh. Kay. Uh. Shuri?”

“Purple tube,” Shuri reminds him. “Just dab it over the incisions, let it soak in.”

“Right,” Steve says, trying to focus on the next step instead of the line of Bucky's spine shifting and curving as he relaxes further.

The stuff in the purple tube smells a little earthy, a little woody somehow. He was expecting it to be cool, but it’s warm and a little tingly. He rubs it between his thumb and forefingers, then carefully dabs some on an incision near Bucky’s lumbar.

Bucky sighs, a faint hum at the back of his throat.

Steve swallows again. This is all. Fine. No problems here. Just… Bucky’s back. Like summers at Coney Island, or lounging around shirtless on the floor of the apartment when it was too hot to exist in three dimensions.

Except that Bucky is now twice as broad and all muscles and the muscles are turning into putty under Steve’s hands and Steve has never wanted to be a sculptor before but he wants to get his hands all over Bucky in just the worst way.

That is… not appropriate. Now is not the time. Not at all.

He dabs the purple stuff liberally, working his way up towards Bucky’s neck and shoulders, until all that’s left is the spot on Bucky’s neck. Bucky fumbles his own hand up to help. He pulls his hair up, tipping his head so Steve’s got better access to the back of his neck and Steve swallows for a third time. He smears the purple stuff over the incision there with his thumb, hyper aware of the way his hand and fingers curl around the side of Bucky’s neck.

Bucky’s fingers slide out of his own hair and his arm thumps on the table, like he just fell back asleep.

“Buck?” Steve says quietly. “Bucky? You alright?”

Bucky’s hand curls into a loose fist. He lifts his thumb.

Steve lets out a breathless huff of laughter. “Okay. Good. Um. All done here.” He uses one of the wipes to get the last of the purple stuff off his fingers. “Shuri?”

“Just lie there for a few minutes, Sergeant Barnes. Just until the salve is fully absorbed.”

“Mmmkay.” Bucky sounds drunk.

“You sure you’re alright, pal?” Steve asks.

Bucky nods. Or. Maybe just scrubs his face against the soft surface of the padded table. It’s... Hard to tell for sure.

It’s probably the sedative, Steve thinks. He’ll keep an eye on it.

 

Bucky sleeps for another twenty minutes or so, and when he wakes up, he’s clearly back to his full faculties. He’s got this little furrow between his brows the whole time he’s getting his proper clothes back on. He keeps rolling his stump shoulder oddly, reaching around to rub at his side and his collar.

“It shouldn't hurt,” Shuri says, watching him with a creeping worry in her expression.

“It doesn't hurt,” Bucky says. It could be amiable, but Steve knows that inflection. He'd said it himself, a lifetime ago, trying to explain what the new body felt like. It doesn't hurt, Buck. There's an unspoken anymore.

It might not hurt, but Bucky can’t settle. They get back to the guest quarters, and Steve lets Bucky check the perimeter three times before he intervenes.

“Come on, pal, you don’t gotta do that--”

“Yeah I do,” Bucky says, and heads for the windows again.

Steve trails after him, watches helplessly as Bucky checks the frame, tests the locks, taps the glass.

“Bucky,” he says.

Bucky ignores him.

“Bucky, come on. You’re safe.”

Bucky just shakes his head and moves onto the next window.

“You’re good, Buck, you’re alright, just--” Steve reaches out and grabs Bucky’s good shoulder, without really thinking, and--

Bucky freezes. Suddenly the air between them is thick with tension. Steve goes still, then, slowly, pulls his hand back.

He clears his throat, awkwardly. “Sorry.”

Bucky turns, and his expression is guarded. Unreadable. “Don’t be,” he says, very flat.

“I shouldn’t have--”

Bucky’s face twists with frustration. “It’s fine,” Bucky says, with meaning and intensity. It’s a new look in his eyes. Steve’s got no context for it from before, but he’s come to understand it. It’s Bucky’s I’m trying to tell you something but words are hard look.

“Alright, what is it?” Steve asks.

Bucky sighs and looks up at the ceiling, like maybe it can tell him what to say. “I don’t…” Bucky stops.

Steve waits a second, but then says: “Come on, Buck, serum didn’t make me telepathic. If you need something from me, you gotta ask.”

Bucky grimaces. Neither of them were exactly good at expressing their needs, and that was before all the brainwashing and trauma.  “The thing you did. Earlier. Was good.”

Steve did a lot of things earlier today. Bucky was there for a lot of them. “You’re gonna have to be more specific, pal.”

“It felt safe,” Bucky says. “The. When you. With the hands and the. Salve stuff. It was quiet.”

Steve thinks back, to the way Bucky had turned to putty under him, the way he’d dozed off so easily, like there was hardly any difference between being awake and being asleep. “You want me to… what, give you a backrub?”

Bucky shrugs his shoulders. He’s gone red. Steve’s probably pretty red himself. Bucky scrubs one hand over his face. “It’s just…” He sighs and looks up at the ceiling again, like it’s easier to talk if he doesn’t look at Steve. This just leaves Steve free to study the lines of Bucky’s neck, his collarbones, his--

“No one really touched me, at Hydra.”

Steve sees red, a little. The fact that no one touched him makes him think about how they might have touched him, and that’s--

“Don’t make that face.” Bucky has his eyes closed now, but it’s not surprising that he knows what face Steve is making. “I just. No one touched me, because when they did, I tended to… get… stabby.”

Steve can’t help the nervous bark of a laugh that bubbles out of him.

Bucky opens one eye to glare.

“Sorry,” Steve says.

“Ehhh, it’s okay. It’s a little funny.” Bucky looks down. He’d be wringing his hands if he had a second one, Steve thinks. “Anyway. Touch wasn’t… safe. For a long time. Earlier felt… safe. That’s all.”

Steve considers. He remembers, the hug, after Bucky first woke up from cryo, the way they’d just held onto each other for long, long minutes. Or the night Steve had the nightmare, and they’d lain side by side for the rest of the night. Or the night when Bucky had a nightmare and Steve had tried to make himself a shell around all of Bucky’s soft and vulnerable parts. He remembers Buck coming out of the shower after cryo, looking warm and rumpled and soft, and the way he’d sighed when Steve was rubbing the salve in.

A little awkwardly, Steve opens his arms, offering.

Bucky shuffles in, and Steve folds him up in a loose hug, trying it out. Bucky shudders a little, and drops his head onto Steve’s shoulder. “Fuck,” he says. Steve can feel the tension slipping out of him.

“You coulda asked,” Steve grumbles.

“Oh yeah, that’s not awkward.” The words burble out of him like a laugh. “ Hey pal, you know how I was a murdermonk for seventy years? Seems like the quickest way to get my fucked up head to stop panicking is if you lay hands on me. Do a guy a favor and just lie on top of me for a while?”

Steve tries, valiantly, not to read anything untoward into that. “I mean. I can do that.”

“Be my goddamn hot water bottle,” Bucky says, and then his head jerks up. He pulls back a little. His eyes blink. “Huh. I’ve said that before.”

Steve swallows. “Back in the war.”

Bucky blinks again, fast, like he’s processing. “Huh.” He looks up at Steve, those big blue eyes. “Well. Whaddya say, pal?”

Steve considers it. God, he should say no. Bucky’s recovering, and this is going to mean more to Steve than it does to Bucky, and Steve is setting himself up for a world of hurt here but…

But he’s never been good at denying Bucky anything.

It’ll be for Bucky, he thinks to himself as he smiles. “Sure,” he says, and tries not to think about how the longing is going to sit in his chest like a chunk of ice all night long. “Why not.”

 


  

Steve steps out in the morning to give Buck some space before their call with Judith. Bucky seems to do an awful lot of napping, especially when he’s had a couple cups of that painkiller tea Shuri gave him. She encouraged him to take plenty today, so Bucky is actively napping in a sunbeam when Steve scribbles a note and leaves it where Bucky can easily see it. He wants to check in with Shuri and see if she found anything concerning, whether there’s anything he and Buck need to know about.

“Captain,” she says when he pokes his head into the lab -- the very scary Dora out front had waved him through. “Just the man I wanted to see.” She scoots back from her table and rolls in one smooth glide across to another table. “Come over here,” she says.

Obediently, Steve crosses over to stand behind her with his hands shoved into his pockets. “What is it?” se asks, unable to hide the tremor of anxiety he feels.

“Don’t worry. Nothing bad. Or, well. Not anything that’s going to affect anyone going forward.” She picks up a little clear container and shows it to him. Rattling around inside are dozens of odd little bits of metal, like soldering, or something. Some of them are attached to the remains of wires. “Take a look at these.”

He looks. “What are they?”

“Neural interfaces,” she says. “I think.”

“You think?”

“They’re not like our neural interfaces,” she says. “They’re not like anything you use outside Wakanda, either.”

“These were inside Bucky?” Steve asks, scowling at the little blobs of metal rattling around inside.

“Yes, but that’s not the point, Captain.”

“What is the point?” Steve asks.

“The point is that I’ve never seen anything like them,” she repeats. “Never. Have you?”

Steve frowns at her, at the serious expression on her face. “No. But I’m not exactly… I haven’t done a whole lot of work with… neural interfacing?”

“I thought you might have seen something like this in New York,” she says.

“In New York?”

“In 2012,” she says.

His eyebrows go up. “You mean the Chitauri?”

She nods.

“No.” Then he frowns, thinks back. He’d seen some schematics that Bruce and Tony put together; dissection notes, that kind of thing, trying to work out how they flew their scooters. There was something almost reminiscent… “Maybe. Wait. You got pen and paper?” He asks.

“I’ve got a sand table.”

She shows him how to draw on the sand table with his finger, and he sketches out everything he remembers from the few glimpses he got in labs and briefing packets. The computer somehow renders that into an actually pretty detailed 3D model that Shuri hauls around with her fingers.

“This is good,” she says. “You’re… really good,” she adds, clearly impressed.

Steve still isn’t comfortable with praise. He winces a little. “I got a… what do they call it. Eidetic memory.” He winces more, because eidetic memory makes it extremely clear that what do they call it is an affectation. “Does it help? The…” he waves at his little drawing.

“Yeah,” she says. “I should recruit you to work in the lab, you might be useful.”

“That’s more Bucky’s thing than mine,” Steve says.

Shuri hums and pulls up another 3D model, this one clearly an enlarged rendering of the interfaces she pulled out of Bucky. She sets them to rotating side-by-side, and actually… if he squints and turns his head a little…

Shuri's voice is a contemplative murmur. “These two have more in common with each other than with anything we’ve got.”

“You saying Bucky had Chitauri tech in his body?”

“No, we checked the origin of the materials. The interfaces were made right here on Earth, for sure, but the design is… not.”

“So Hydra got their hands on some alien schematics and decided to put them in Bucky?” Steve says.

Shuri winces. “Yes. I think so.”

Steve rubs his forehead.

“Sorry.”

“Will there be any… side effects?” Steve asks, thinking of the way the Chitauri had all dropped dead when the mothership went down. “Could there be kill switches we don’t know about?”

“No, nothing like that,” Shuri says. “They did not have that level of sophistication when this was manufactured. Frankly I’m surprised they were able to recreate what they did with what they had. These…” she waves at the two interfaces -- the one Steve drew and the one she found in Bucky’s body. “These aren’t even designed to interact with human nerves. And that’s good news, believe it or not. If he ever decides that he wants a new arm, I could make one lighter, faster, stronger, and with none of the calibration issues he had with his old one. We’ve come a long way since the fifties.”

“We’ve got no evidence that the Chitauri had ever been to Earth before, Steve murmurs. “So how did Hydra get their hands on Chitauri designs in the fifties?

“That is an excellent question, Captain,” Shuri makes a face. “We’ve been going through the data dump -- the trouble we’re running into is that Zola tended to take credit for any invention that passed through his hands, including...” she waves her hand at the tech they pulled out of Bucky -- the tech apparently designed by space aliens. “...that.”

“Which,” Steve guesses, “makes it hard to figure out where it really came from?”

“Which makes it hard to figure out where it really came from. But again -- this is good news, Captain.” She waves her hands and the models disappear. “And you can tell the Sergeant that we see no signs of complications following the removal.”

Steve’s phone pings. He pulls it out and finds a message from Bucky. It just says:

i think i should call her myself.

by myself i mean.

Steve’s eyes go wide.

“Is he ok?” Shuri asks.

“Yeah, no he’s fine,” Steve says distractedly. “He’s just um. I gotta… Sorry, I’ll talk to you later.”

Steve’s already texting back as he walks out the door. Why by yourself? He asks.

In case she (The text cuts off, then a moment later continues in another message, like Bucky accidentally hit send mid-sentence.) wants to talk to her uncle, not Cap’s best friend.

They don’t think of me like that, Steve texts back. But he adds: but it’s a good thought. You want me there? Not there-there, but close by?

He stops himself from adding whatever you want, I’ll do it because 1) that is a pathetic, desperate thing to say and 2) Bucky already knows. Steve’s striding back towards the palace and the apartments, all his attention focused hard on the screen in his hands. The dots appear, and vanish, and reappear, and vanish again.

yeah.

Steve waits, but in the end that’s all that he gets. He frowns, thinking.

I’m on my way, he sends back.

k

Steve walks a little ways further, thinking hard, trying to put himself in Bucky’s shoes. He’s barely gone twenty paces when he pulls out the phone and says:

You don’t need me to hold your hand. But I’ll be in the other room?

The dots appear and disappear enough times that Steve swears that Bucky is trying to communicate his embarrassment about this whole situation in Morse. But eventually, he settles on:

Thanks, Stevie.

And that makes the tightness in Steve’s chest ease slightly.

 


 

It is. Very awkward, but Steve pretends, with dignity, to read The Return of the King for the fourth time since he came out of the ice while Bucky sits in his bedroom and sets up the Skype interface and works up his courage and pretends that Steve can’t hear every damn thing that’s about to happen.

Maybe he should step out onto the little balcony. Maybe that would be better.

But in the other room, he can hear Bucky taking steadying breaths, the way he used to when he was lining up a shot. Then the telltale buzz of a Skype ringtone. And then:

“Hey kiddo.”

“Oh.” Judith’s voice is tinny, but audibly breathless. “Oh hello. Wow. Ah shit, I was going to be cool about this.” Bucky’s laughing, nervous, and so is Judith. “I was going to be -- Aw fuck,” she says.

“Oh my god,” he says.

“Oh my god,” she agrees. “Hi.”

There’s a perfect split second of silence and then:

“You must have--”

“You must have--” Bucky stops, but Judith doesn’t “--so many questions, I was going to say,” she finishes.

“I um. I was going to say the same thing.” Bucky’s gone all subdued. Steve can almost see him curling in on himself.

Judith tsks, a sound that’s always accompanied by her waving her hand in the air like she’s batting away a fly. “Like I haven’t heard all the stories a million times.” Steve could kiss her for it. Like the only stories that matter are the ones that come before 1945. “Come on, I’ve got so much to tell you. I mean, what do you want hear first? Scott versus the squirrels? Grandma and the Worst Rabbi Ever?”

There's a long pause, and Judith starts to say: “Oh crap, I'm sorry, Uncle Bucky, I didn't mean to--”

“W-were they--” Bucky cuts himself off, and Steve’s heart is way, way up in his throat, a tight knot that he can barely breathe around. “Were they okay? While I was gone? Were they okay without me? Were they happy?”

A long pause.

Of course this has been what was preying on Bucky's mind. Were they okay without me? Steve closes his eyes. He knows how he felt after Bucky fell. Like the sun had stopped shining, or -- no. Like he wanted it to, like he wanted the world to stop spinning, but the sun still rose and the world still turned, and that was worse. How dare the world go on without Bucky in it?

There’ve been plenty of maudlin quotes about the light that went out of the world when Captain America went down with the Valkyrie, but it wasn’t like that. He was just turning out the lights because the party was already done.

“No one’s happy all the time,” Judith says. “I ain’t gonna lie to you and say you weren’t missed. They missed you like hell. We made the best of it. Barneses always do.” It’s not something they used to say, back home, not that Steve can recall. Either it wasn’t something they shared with him or it wasn’t something that got said until later. From Bucky’s silence, Steve’s guessing it’s the latter.

“Like the time with Jeanie and the Senator’s wife, let me tell you--” Judith starts, and Steve closes his book and stands up.

She’s got this.

They’ve got this.

 


 

Steve's gotten to the Scouring of the Shire and he's definitely not overidentifying with Frodo Baggins when the door to the balcony slides open and Bucky shuffles out.

Steve looks up. Bucky’s hair is hanging down, hiding his face, but his eyes are decidedly red and his shoulders are turned in in a way that’s becoming familiar.

“Hey,” Steve says, and wordlessly scoots to one side on the lounger. It’s a huge wicker thing with brightly patterned cushions and it’s comfy as hell, with two seats and a long part like a chaise. Steve’s sitting with his legs stretched out on the chaise part.

Bucky fidgets in place, then sits on the sofa. Then he scoots with his back tucked into the armrest part and his knees pulled up.

Steve goes back to his book and doesn’t ask how it went.

After a while, Bucky stretches his legs out and pokes his bare toes against Steve’s thigh.

Steve does not know what that means.

He decides he doesn’t need to know what that means.

He lets his hand fall and he squeezes Bucky’s ankle.

Bucky curls up on his side and stares at nothing for a long time. Steve keeps reading his book and squeezing Bucky’s ankle and if he hears sniffling he ignores it, because he knows that’s what Bucky wants from him right now.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

3: Bucky

Wonderful wonderful
Wonderful wonderful
Motherless child I am with thee, thou wast never alone
Maybe I'm dirty, maybe I'm unworthy
Motherless child, can you hear me? I will give you a home

- “Wonderful Wonderful” by The Killers, 2017.

 

It can’t last forever, of course. And it shouldn’t, Bucky knows. Logically. He can’t stay wrapped up in a Steve-cocoon indefinitely. He can’t keep asking Steve to stand like the shield between Bucky and every little shock that might throw him off balance.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t really fucking nice to have Steve there to just -- hold him down when it feels like he’s about to fly apart at the seams.

But he’s gonna have to start doing that himself sooner or later and… well, two months is a long time for Steve to go between punching bouts.

 

“I could stay,” Steve says, for the eight billionth time since Sam called to say that they’d found some gunrunners in Russia who were trading in Chitauri debris and the official Avengers couldn’t touch them but he and Nat were thinking maybe…

So here they are, Steve in his uniform, with his gear bag over his shoulder. He’s hovering in the doorway, staring back at Bucky. Nat will be touching down in the Quinjet any minute now. “They can handle it on their own, I don’t have to go.”

“No, you don’t,” Bucky says, with a tired little smile. “But you can and you want to and you’ll feel awful if you don’t.” Bucky raises both brows expectantly. “I know the Black Widow threatened to take your fingernails if you abandoned me, but you’re not abandoning me, I’m saying you can go, you nitwit.”

“If you need me, I can—”

“Need you to get outta here is what I fucking need,” Bucky grumbles, but he’s grinning, and Steve does too, helplessly. “Go on, get outta here, world needs saving.”

“Alright, alright, I’m going,” Steve says, going out the door at last.

Bucky leans out after him. “At least take a goddamn sidearm!” He calls down the hall.

Steve just flips the bird over one shoulder, and doesn’t look back.

 


 

Bucky is extremely determined to be Absolutely 100% Fine with Steve being gone. But there’s bound to be an adjustment period, right? So he’s not going to kick himself too hard if he spends 90% of that first day waiting for Steve to check in. He’ll start working on reducing their codependency… tomorrow.

When his kimoyo beads start chiming to let him know there’s an incoming call, he scrambles to get to the screen. He prefers the screen to the kimoyo beads, because the kimoyo communicator isn’t really designed to be used one-handed, and anyway, Steve’s gonna be calling from his secure phone. Kimoyo beads outside Wakanda draw attention.

Because Steve is calling from his secure phone the first thing Bucky sees is a shot of Steve from the nose up -- just that beak, his frowny eyebrows, and his hair, which is getting long again, flopping across the concerned wrinkles on his forehead. Heck, from this angle, he could practically be his old self. Bucky grins and sees the wrinkles on Steve’s forehead clear immediately.

“Hey pal,” Bucky says, settling in on the couch in front of his screen, folding his legs up under him. “How’s things?”

The screen shakes and shifts and Steve from the nose to the shoulders reappears. “Okay,” Steve says. The background behind him shifts and shifts as he walks around and Bucky sees enough blurry walls and bed to guess that Steve is at a motel. “We’re settled in here, cover’s secure. Nat and Sam are doing recon right now.”

“That’s a sitrep,” Bucky says patiently. “How’s things?”

“Oh.” Steve visibly thinks about it. “Good,” he says. “It’s really cold here though. Not crazy about that.”

Because of course, it’s warm down here on the equator, but out there in the frozen North it’ll be the dead of winter.

“How are you doing?” Steve asks. The background jolts again, and settles. Steve’s sitting down now, Bucky guesses. He shuffles around and a headboard comes into view over his shoulder, the corner of a pillow.

“Okay,” Bucky says. “Taking it easy today, just… thinking about stuff. Reading.”

“Still thinking about that arm?” Steve asks.

Which -- okay, yes, but mainly about Steve and how much he misses the dumb mook, but the ‘do I or don’t I want a new arm’ question has crossed his mind once or twice. “Yeah,” he allows. “Shuri’s coming up with non-osteo-integrated options for me. Chafing’s gonna be a problem. Serum let you get callouses and shit?”

Steve grimaces. “Eventually.”

Bucky matches his grimace, remembering the way his skin had stayed soft in his army boots, blistering over and over and over, after Kreischberg. “Yeah, same. Anyway. You know Shuri. She won’t be satisfied unless there’s a perfect option and even then I think she probably won’t be satisfied until she figures out a way to make it better.”

“Sounds like Shuri,” Steve says.

There’s a pause. Bucky glances away, around the room, looking for something to say. The thing is, they’ve been around each other so constantly since Bucky woke up, they got nothing new to say. Bucky doesn’t actually want to talk to Steve, he just wants Steve here.

He looks back at the screen in time to see Steve look away, and knows -- just knows -- that Steve is feeling the exact same thing.

Which, somehow, makes it easier for Bucky to say “Hey you remember that time when--” and then they’re off to the races, and it’s like Steve isn’t even on the other side of the world.

You know. Almost.

 


 

Bucky is Definitely 100% Fine with Steve being away on mission. He is The Most Fine.

The trick is keeping his brain busy, keep moving forward. He’s in Shuri’s lab so much anyway, for tests and the like, that he starts lending a hand (ha ha ha) wherever he can. “Gotta be here anyway, might as well make myself useful,” he says. He might have expected to react badly to that; being in a lab. But Shuri’s lab is not like any lab he’s ever spent time in. It probably helps that everyone who works there is visibly, obviously not Nazis.

When he isn’t in the lab, he sometimes Skypes with Yelena and the girls. It’s good to talk to them; they’ve left Bucharest, and Nat helped them set up in a new city (Bucky doesn’t know where, for Security Reasons.) The girls still sometimes get him to help with their math homework. He Skypes with Judith too — they drink tea and reminisce and he can hear his voice drifting back in time and space. Sad it might be, but he always feels more like himself after talking to her. More like Bucky Barnes.

And of course Steve calls every night like clockwork, but…

It’s not the same.

But Bucky is Fine, and he is Not At All Stressed, and he totally sleeps, and definitely eats normal meals and…

He doesn’t realize that he’s been shuffling around in a haze until one day he’s in the lab and Shuri says, all casual and shit: “Your boyfriend seems to be done blowing shit up in Rostov-On-Don. I expect he’ll be coming back in a couple of weeks.”

And Bucky takes a full breath for the first time in what might be weeks. He can picture it, in his head: the Quinjet landing out in front of the palace. He’ll be there waiting, get Shuri to tie his hair back so it isn’t whipping around his face. The ramp will descend with a whirr and Steve will be there, smiling. And Bucky will smile back.

Whatever expression is on his face, it makes Shuri laugh at him.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Bucky says, way, way, way too late.

“Yeah okay,” she says, mocking. She pokes him in the ribs. “Fourteen more days. Come on old man, enough of your mooning, let’s get to work.”

 


 

It is eleven days until Steve is due back at Birnin Zana.

Bucky wakes up from a dream that’s half memory. Soft, lazy sounds and the feeling of gentle hands blur into the feeling of cotton around him, his face pressed into the pillow and a happy hum in his throat as his hips move lazily and--

He comes awake with a start. He’s in his guest apartment in Wakanda. He spent yesterday getting a checkup in Shuri’s lab. She’d been so fucking pleased that he was healing up fast. And he’d stayed up late, Skyping with Steve. And then he’d fallen into bed, feeling warm and happy and nothing hurt. Now, it’s morning. The city is just waking up; morning sounds of shopkeepers opening up and people getting their breakfasts filter in faintly from outside. It’s morning in Wakanda’s capital city, and he is…

He rolls onto his side to look down at himself.

Huh.

That hasn’t happened in. A while.

For a moment, he just stares and waits for it to go away.

It doesn’t.

Only after a moment of dumbfounded staring does it occur to him that this hasn’t happened in seventy years, he should take advantage of the situation.

 

He takes advantage of the situation.

Three times in a row.

The first time, all he can think is holy shit, holyshit, HOLY SHIT!

The second time, he runs through some of his racier memories; soft touches between rough sheets, and hurried hands in back alleys, and mouths, and--

The third time he thinks about Steve, and has to bite his bottom lip to keep from crying out.

By the time his body decides he’s done for now, Bucky feels more relaxed than he has in years. The sun is fully up outside, and the early morning bustle has subsided into a late morning lull. Bucky feels boneless (ha, ha ha) and his brain is quiet for once, like a sun-warmed rock in the middle of a still lake. He stretches languidly, and thinks vaguely about going back to sleep.

His kimoyo beads chirrup at him from the bedside table, reminding him that he’s got another appointment with Shuri. He’s got time to shower.

That’s... good.

 


 

When he gets to the lab, there’s a guy already there, and the sight of him sets Bucky quietly onto the balls of his feet. This guy: he’s no lab tech. He’s huge, with his already broad shoulders draped in thick silver furs and armor that seems to be carved from shiny dark wood. All of it is held in place with thick black leather. He holds himself apart from everything around him, like he’s standing in a dung heap, not the technological wonderland Bucky’s come to know and love. Bucky’s just about to ask who he is and what he’s doing when the guy turns, sees him, and curls his lip.

He says something in a language Bucky doesn’t know. It’s not Xhosa, which he’s been making an effort to learn, but it sounds derogatory.

“Hi,” Bucky says, slow and wary and soft.

The guy’s nostrils flare, but before he can say whatever he’s thinking, Shuri comes bustling in from another part of the lab. She’s got her arms full of her panther gauntlets. She’s been working on improving them, and teaching Bucky the basics of working with vibranium while she does.

“Ay, what are you doing here?” She says, scowling at the big guy.

“Meeting this--” and again he says it, something that Bucky doesn’t understand. It sounds like shah, and then some words too fast, something that might mean in the baby’s room?

Shuri makes a scolding sound and goes to her table, dropping the panther gauntlets. She doesn’t turn her back on the guy, though. Bucky shifts his weight a little, still wary.

The big guy turns to look at him, eyes half lidded and head tipped back. “You may call me Lord M’Baku, leader of the Jabari.”

Bucky remembers that the Jabari are one of the tribes, and not necessarily a friendly one. He's a little surprised that this fella is allowed to wander through Shuri's lab, but he guesses that Lords can go pretty much wherever they like.

“I’m Bucky. Pleasure to meetcha.” He doesn’t hold out his hand, though. Wakandans don’t seem to do that, except with close friends. Bucky suddenly realizes that he doesn’t know much at all about Wakandan culture. He’s been so focused on, well, not killing anyone accidentally, that he hasn’t had much time to learn about anything else.

M’Baku’s lip curls again. “I know who you are, Outsider.”

“Lord M’Baku,” Shuri says, pulling his attention away from Bucky. “What brings you to my lab?”

M’Baku turns away from Bucky and leans on his staff. It’s sharpened wood, like maybe it’s ceremonial, but something about the way he handles it makes Bucky think it’s not ceremonial. “I am here to ask to your face if you have... acquired any Jabari artifacts,” he drawls, looking around the lab like he’s expecting to find what he’s looking for just lying out where anyone could see. “Weapons,” he adds, apparently to clarify.

Shuri bristles and spits something in Xhosa. “You know I don’t,” she adds, probably for Bucky’s benefit.

“I know I have forbidden you, I don’t know what you have done despite my decrees. Impudent kitten.”

Shuri clicks her tongue and breathes through her teeth -- it’s an odd mannerism that Bucky has noticed before. T’Challa does it when he’s not thinking and frustrated. Ramonda does it when she’s annoyed. Unfortunately for Shuri, just now, it does sound a little bit like a spitting, hissing kitten.

M’Baku grins, shifting his weight from one side to another in a lazy move full of power. Bucky mirrors him without really thinking about it.

“Why are you even asking?” Shuri says, obviously as irritated with herself as she is with him.

“I have my reasons,” M’Baku says, looking around, all aloofness suddenly. Bucky can’t help noticing the way his fists tighten on his spear.

“What reasons are they?” Shuri asks, sounding more serious.

“Jabari business, girl.”

Shuri says something under her breath in Xhosa that’s definitely rude. “Look around all you want.” She picks up her panther gauntlets again and holds them to her chest. “You won’t find a single splinter of Jabari wood here.”

“I certainly hope not,” M’Baku says, with mocking gravity.

Shuri’s eye twitches. “Come along Sergeant. Let’s leave Lord M’Baku to his search.”

Once they’re more or less out of earshot, Bucky leans in. “It could be a ruse,” he reports. “Might be here to steal your tech.”

“That one?” Shuri scoffs. “No.”

“Are you sure?”

Shuri lifts one brow and cocks her head. “He’s more likely to smash my tech to pieces, but he respects T’Challa too much. For now, at least.”

Bucky glances over at M’Baku, and frowns a little, but lets it slide.

 

He does his best to focus and listen to what Shuri is teaching him, but it’s hard with M’Baku pacing around in the background, looking in cupboards and turning over bits of tech. Eventually, the Lord of the Jabari deigns to leave, and Bucky relaxes a little.

“What was he calling me?” Bucky asks, after M’Baku leaves.

Shuri wrinkles her nose. “It doesn’t translate well. He called you a set-animal.”

“A what?”

Shuri sighs. “It’s an old mythological creature. Set is not an evil god, but nor is he fully good, and his animal is… well it is a lot of things. We Wakandans know it as an animal that can almost pass as any animal, but always causes trouble. We have a story about the set-animal getting into the nursery and… well. To call someone a set-animal, is...” she shakes her head. “It’s rude, is all.”

“A fox in the henhouse,” Bucky says, nodding.

“More like wolf in sheep’s clothing?” Shuri suggests innocently, and the lab tech behind her sniggers.

“Really?” Bucky says, and then looks at the lab tech, who puts his hands up as though to say I didn’t say it. “Really?”

 


 

It’s two days until Steve is due back.

Bucky is definitely fine.

He maybe hasn’t slept when he stumbles into Shuri’s lab at about three in the morning, just wanting to look at something other than the ceiling of his guest quarters for a little while. He’s been reading through some research on neuroconnectivity and he can do that in the lab as easily as his bedroom. The internet tells him it’s a bad idea to do work in the same place where you sleep.

He comes into the lab on the lower level -- the route from the palace, rather than aboveground. The lights are already on and Shuri is there. He frowns. “Kiddo?”

She looks up. Her hair is piled on top of her head with none of her usual care, and instead of her usual labwear, she’s wearing a loose purple hoodie and brightly patterned pants that can only be pajamas. She does have her feet shoved into her lab shoes. First rule of lab safety. No toes out. And, amusingly, she’s wearing one of her dozens of choker necklaces. This one is black and decorated with white beads, and covers her whole throat, almost like Dora armor. Stylish even at 3 am in PJs.

“White Wolf,” she says. Bucky sighs. He doesn’t know how Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing became White Wolf, but the nickname appears to be sticking. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Bucky says, crossing over to the station where she’s working. There’s a design for a new panther suit there.

Shuri quickly closes the tab. She shrugs. “Had some ideas. Wanted to get them down before I forgot.”

Bucky is very adept at telling when someone is lying to him. He squints. “How often does this happen? These -- ideas of yours.”

“Three times in this past week,” chirps Griot, the lab’s AI.

“Tattle-tale,” Shuri mutters.

“Often enough that we’ve set up a night shift,” says a soft voice from the upper level of the lab.

Bucky turns, liquid-smooth and ready to move. The Dora leaning on the railing by the upper door is in full uniform. Bucky doesn’t recognize her, but she clearly knows who he is. She nods slowly at him. “Sergeant Barnes.”

He wishes they’d stop calling him that. “Hi,” he says. He notices the silver on her shoulders and at her neck. “Lieutenant...?” He’s not sure it’s right, but like they call Okoye general, all the other Dora seem to be lieutenant.

She cocks her head slowly. “Nareema.”

“My babysitter,” Shuri says.

Nareema’s eyes go a little distant, like she wants to roll them, but has better self-control than that.

“Nice to meetcha.” He hesitates, and turns his body back to Shuri, without really taking his eyes off Nareema. “Mind if I…” He lifts his tablet a little. “I was gonna do my reading.”

Shuri is already hunching back over her workstation. She waves vaguely. There’s a couple of comfy armchairs on the other side of the lab, and Bucky helps himself to one.

He has a little trouble focusing. He can’t see the door or Nareema from this spot, but he can see Shuri’s back. Her shoulders are nearly up around her ears and it doesn’t take a genius to know that she’s tense. She’s usually so cheerful, always smiling. For the first time, Bucky realizes that -- of course -- it has to be an act. Kid lost her father, watched her brother die, had to flee the palace, brought her brother back from the dead, fought in a damn war… And she’s just a kid. She’s entitled to a few nightmares, same as him.

Bucky tries to focus on his reading.

And then; the door opens.

Bucky’s head goes up -- he can hear the Dora moving on the upper level; her crisp steps. He sees Shuri straighten, turn in her seat to look at the door that Bucky can’t quite see.

“Ungubani?” Nareema snaps.

And then she lets out a war cry.

Shuri jumps out of her chair, snatching up her gauntlets -- never far away anymore.

“Intruder alert!” calls Griot. His omnipresent, polite voice suddenly goes glitchy and unnatural. “I-i-intru-uderrrrr,” and audibly shuts down. The lights flicker.

Shuri is fumbling to get the power source in place on her gauntlets. “Get out of here!” she hisses to Bucky.

Yeah right, like that’s gonna happen.

Icy cold calm settles around Bucky like an old coat: comfortable and familiar. Maybe it’s a coat he never really took off.

He sets his tablet aside and toes out of his shoes, padding silently to put the central segment of the lab firmly between himself and the door. He puts his back against the curved, colorfully painted wall. Shuri glares at him and waves frantically from behind her sand table. He ignores her. This is protection detail and she is the target.

Something smashes against the floor on the upper walkway of the lab. Nareema shouts and the sounds of the fight dissolve into coughing. The clash of weapons stops. Bucky looks down at his feet, sees a mist curling around them. The mist thins but keeps rising, to his shins, his thighs--

It tickles a little when he breathes it in. Doesn’t even make him sneeze before the filters kick up and the air in the lab clears.

Gonna have to come up with a formula stronger than that if you want to take me down, honey, Bucky thinks.

Then he looks up and --

Shuri stares back at him through blank white panther eyes. The choker is gone, and in its place is a high collar -- not unlike the collars that the Dora wear, but this one extends down and covers her chest, covers her whole torso now, the unmistakable criss-crossing pattern of vibranium nanite body armor.

It also covers the face. It's crawled up her neck and over her jaw. It covers her nose and mouth with flat black and her eyes with reflective white lenses, angled like a cat's, before ending just above her eyebrows and below her hairline.

It makes him long for the comfort of something to cover his face--

No, that’s not right.

Focus.

This isn’t—

He’s not the Soldier, and that’s not a target, that’s Shuri. He shakes himself all over.

Focus.

He listens. Footsteps. Two sets of footsteps. Heavy. Fighters, Bucky figures. They move along the upper level, down the ramp -- cautiously, but not slow. He looks to Shuri, lifts two fingers.

The panther mask gives him nothing, but Shuri waves with a gauntlet. She points up and mimes firing. He looks up and sees.

The lights. His night vision is excellent -- presumably so is hers, in that mask. They can use that.

He nods. She darts away towards a far corner of the lab, staying ducked low behind tables. If he changes position, he take them from the other side, draw their attention. Even one-armed and barefoot, he can still fucking help. He moves silently on bare feet, keeping the central column of Shuri’s lab between him and the footsteps as they come down the ramp.

There’s a woman’s voice and a man’s voice, talking softly in something that isn’t Xhosa. Might be Yoruba, or something like it. The footsteps break up, and suddenly there’s the sound of smashing equipment and breaking glass. They’re destroying Shuri’s work.

An icy fury slithers all through his already cold calm.

Bucky pads away from the wall and vanishes into a shadowy space on the other side of the lab. He waits. He listens.

The woman is talking, saying -- something… The dialect is unfamiliar but The Soldier was deployed to Nigeria a couple of times, and had at least rudimentary Yoruba. It’s something about fire. About vibranium. Instability. Something--

They’re going to torch the lab, thinks a clinical part of his brain. There’s enough raw vibranium in here that if they can get a reaction started it’ll take out the whole lab, along with everything -- and everyone -- inside it. He can hear Mr. and Mrs. Didn’t Bring Strong Enough Gas making their way around the lab. Hopefully Shuri is getting herself in a better position to take out the lights.

He slides further along the wall, staying in the shadows and moving silently. Then they come into view; one from the left, one from the right. They’re working fast, smashing tech and laying out what can only be explosives. Don’t look like any explosives he’s ever seen. They look like root bulbs, but who the fuck knows out here.

He glances to the upper walkway and sees, through the grating, Nareema slumped on the ground next to a smashed pot -- whatever it was they had used to gas the place. Clearly they hadn’t wanted to tangle with a Dora.

On the far side of the lab, there’s a crash and the sound of a panther gauntlet firing. The lights flicker but don’t go out.

Mr. and Mrs. About To Get Their Asses Beat exchange a look. They’re wearing wooden gorilla masks with some kind of woven filter over the mouth, like a gas mask, and their shoulders are draped with thick fur and smooth wooden shoulder guards, like M’Baku’s.

They move at the same time, the unmistakable gait of fighters, ready to converge on Shuri’s location.

No way. No fucking way.

“Hey assholes!” Bucky barks.

They whirl to face him, bringing their weapons to bear on him — a smooth wooden spear and a club to match.

The gauntlet fires again on the far side of the lab.

The lights in the lab go out.

The Soldier gets to work.

He ducks a blind swipe from the club and comes up swinging. His knuckles split on a wooden mask as hard as steel, but it goes flying, skittering across the floor. He feels a line of fire bloom on his side when the spear, jabbed wildly in the dark, finds its mark across his vulnerable flank. He twists, grabs the spearhaft with his hand and spins, ripping it out of the woman's hands.

He tosses it away across the lab, knowing that it’ll just get in his way. The club would be a better option -- easier to wield one-handed.

Their eyes must be adjusting to the dark now, because they divide and circle him. In the split second they have to decide and move, Club comes up on his right side and No Spear comes at his vulnerable side. Mistake. Club has no mask to protect him. Bucky lets the club thump against his side, unblocked -- it’s worth the cracked ribs to get a chance to get a punch in on Club’s temple. Guy drops like a rock.

Bucky grabs for the dropped club but a grunt behind him makes him turn. The woman os heaving a whole goddamn lab bench up over her head, the muscles standing out in her arms.

“Oh sh--”

The bench comes down on his head.

Things go

a little vague

after that.

 

He is being hauled around, hauled up by the front of his -- his tac suit -- handlers are always doing that. Hauling him around like luggage, like cargo. He tries to focus on the -- there’s a mask, glaring at him, big teeth, eyes within eyes.

And then something like the shockwave from a nearby explosion hits them both and he goes down, spinning away, hitting his head on the corner of another table.

 

Everything goes sideways and floating again. Blurry voices and lights exploding painfully bright behind his eyelids and the floor sways under him like the deck of a ship. He tries to find a hold, but his fingers are dull and slow to respond.

 

He has to respond.

He needs to get up.

He needs to stand clear so the handlers can--

“Don’t move,” someone is saying. “You idiot, don’t move you have a head trauma.” They sound.

Worried.

He drifts.

 

“Sergeant,” someone is saying. It’s not for him. “Sergeant Barnes?” It’s a woman’s voice.   “Bucky,” she says.

He blinks his eyes open. There’s a woman’s face hovering over him. She’s frowning, leaning on a staff. A Dora, but she’s not in uniform. She’s wearing loose pants and a tank top that shows off the muscles in her arms. “You back with us, soldier?” she asks, frowning. She’s got a face made for frowning and geometric patterns shaved into her hair. She’s holding a spear.

“Okoye,” he says, mechanically, identifying her too slow. “General.” He squeezes his eyes shut for a second. His head is killing him. “Sorry. Yeah. I’m here.”

“Are you? You know your name? Where you are? What year it is?”

“Barnes, James Buchan—“ He winces, cuts himself off. “Bucky. I’m in Wakanda. Shuri’s lab.” He pauses, considering. “It better be 2016 or I’m gonna lose it.”

He’s never heard the general laugh before. “It’s 2016.”

“Thank fuck.”

Then his eyes snap open and he tries to sit up when he remembers. “Shuri—“

A firm hand presses him back down onto the table. “Peace,” the general says. “She’s fine, she’s just making sure our prisoners don’t—“

Heavy, stomping footsteps reverberate around his tender skull and he lifts a hand to his temple. He hadn’t appreciated how softly Okoye was speaking until Shuri starts shouting at him.

“Broken white boy, next time I tell you to run you had better run.”

“Ow,” Bucky says, piteously.

“I hope it hurts. You deserve it. If you’ve given yourself new brain damage, after I worked so hard to fix your old brain damage, I swear to Bast.”

“Ahhhh be nice to him. He saved your life.”

Shuri squawks. “He did not!”

“He saved it a bit,” Okoye says.

“Hold still,” Shuri orders. “I can’t use the first aid bead on you so I’ve got to—“ Equipment hums somewhere near his temple. First the left one, then the right. He flinches away from it. Thinking of buzzing — crackling — pain.

“Don’t move,” Shuri repeats.

The humming gets louder and he cringes away harder, gripping the side of the table hard enough that he feels it give under his flesh fingers.

“Bucky?”

That’s Okoye. He squints one eye open to look at her.

“Still with us? Tell me where you are?” She says it firm, but quiet. Shuri makes a little gut punched sound somewhere over him.

“Oh Bast I’m sorry—“ She starts.

“Let him speak. Sergeant?”

“Bucky,” he says. “I’m in Wakanda. It’s 2016.” He’s lying down. He’s not in the Chair. It’s 2016. It’s 2016.

“Has someone called Captain Rogers?” Okoye asks.

“He’s already on his way. Sergeant Barnes, I’m sorry about the noise—“ It’s still buzzing it’s still right next to his head. “It’s to help with your headache. Feels better?”

He blinks. The lights seem… less bright. His head isn’t throbbing quite so bad, actually. “Yeah,” he says.

“Good. Okay, let me just — Griot, run a scan for me?”

“Of course,” says the ever-present AI.

“Whoa,” Shuri says, a moment later. “That bone density of yours is really something, isn’t it.”

“Tellin’ me I gotta thick skull?” Bucky mumbles.

“I’m telling you you don’t have brain damage. Take it slow.”

He’s already sitting up, but he does take it slow. His ribs twinge and he hisses, putting a hand to his side. It comes away wet. “Huh.”

“Infirmary,” Shuri says. “Don’t even think about arguing with me.”

 

By the time they get to the infirmary, Nareema is awake but disoriented and Shuri is still wearing her panther gauntlets and armor, though with the mask retracted down to her jawline. Bucky sits patiently where they tell him to sit and lets the doctors check him out. They still can’t use their fancy vibranium tech on him, not yet anyway, though Shuri says his sensitivity is getting better, slowly. Even without their little magic beads, their medicine is lightyears beyond what anyone else has, and Bucky doesn’t need all that much.

He looks down at his knees, his hand. There are bruises on his knuckles, already fading.

Sometimes he really hates the serum.

“Sergeant Barnes,” says a woman.

Bucky winces at his knuckles. “Bucky, please.” And then he looks up and sees that it’s the queen mother. “Your majesty,” he adds, belatedly.

Ramonda smiles at him, her white dreads pulled back and up, but not under her usual headdress. “Bucky,” she says, nodding. “May I sit?”

“Of course,” he says, and she takes the seat that had recently been occupied by one of the medics.

“You saved my daughter’s life today,” she says.

Bucky’s mouth twitches a little. “Think she woulda saved herself,” he points out. “And she saved mine right after. I… think.” He rubs his temple.

Ramonda leans in a little, studying his face. He ducks his head, averts his eyes. “Are you alright?” she asks, with too much sincerity. It makes him want to squirm.

“Coupla hours and this’ll be good as new,” he says, waving vaguely at his side, where he had been bleeding.

“That isn’t what I meant.”

He thinks of how easily that cold calmness had fallen around him, how quickly he’d gone back to being — that. The Soldier.

“Do we know who those guys were?” he asks, turning the conversation with all the grace of a yacht in a swimming pool. “The ones in the lab?”

The queen sighs. “Jabari separatists. Lord M’Baku warned us that some of his elite warriors did not approve of his decision to side with T’Challa. They left the Jabari’s city. He said that they might try something, that they had taken weapons from his armory.” Ramonda looks across the room to where Shuri is arguing with the doctors, still wearing her panther gauntlets and armor. “I did not think they would attempt this.”

“You’re sure M’Baku’s on the level?” Bucky says, frowning a little.

“On the level?” Ramonda repeats, eyes crinkling at the corners, amused by the turn of phrase. “No. But we must trust him.”

Bucky makes a skeptical face. “Must we?”

Ramonda gives a small, secret smile. “T'Challa has made controversial decisions. M’Baku’s support was a real coup. We will not jeopardize that support lightly.” She cocks her head. “Hopefully, neither will he.”

In other words: they have no choice but to trust M’Baku. Or at least act like they do. “I see,” Bucky says.

Ramonda is watching him again, speculatively. “I want to make an offer--” she cuts herself off and shakes her head. “Hayi. I want to ask a favor. But I will not ask it unless I am sure that you can say no.”

“Oh,” Bucky says, and feels his palm go sweaty. He makes a fist. “What exactly are you asking?”

“The warriors who came for my daughter today. They were prepared to face a Dora. They were not prepared for you.”

Bucky lets out a shaky breath. “Bodyguard,” he says, so there’s no confusion.

“Don’t answer right now,” she says. “Rest. That’s not a request.”

 


 

They send him back to his guest quarters with orders to sleep. He faceplants into the bed, still barefoot; his shoes are back in Shuri’s lab. He had cuts on his feet -- probably stepped through some of the broken screens. But the cuts had already healed before they even got to the infirmary. Nothing really hurts. He’s exhausted, and falls asleep.

When he wakes up, it’s early afternoon, and Steve is in the apartment.

Bucky knows this because when he opens his eyes, Steve’s gear bag is sitting just inside the closed bedroom door. Bucky blinks at it. Steve must have come in to check on him, and set his bag down just inside the door. Bucky didn’t even wake up. He must’ve been really wiped.

Bucky breathes in, slow, and that’s when he smells it: coffee, and bread. And not just any bread.

He sits up sharply and kicks off the blankets. He comes out into the living space of the guest apartments and finds Steve sitting at the kitchen island. There’s a huge plate of bagels there, and cream cheese, and lox, and even fucking capers because he’s an angel from heaven.

He looks up and smiles. “Hey pal.”

Bucky rubs his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Thought you weren’t due back for a couple more days.”

“So maybe I accelerated my timetable,” Steve says. “Can you blame me?”

Bucky sighs and grabs a bagel. They’re pre-cut. And still warm. “Did T’Challa call you?” He’s trying to sort out what happened yesterday. He thinks maybe he remembers that coming up, but there had been -- buzzing next to his ears and he’d been --

“Ramonda did, actually.”

Bucky groans as he smears cream cheese over his bagel. “Aw come on, she didn’t have to do that. It wasn’t even a thing.”

“Seems like it was a bit of a thing.”

“It was like, 12% of a thing,” Bucky mumbles. He takes a bite of the bagel. “Holy shit, are these fresh?”

“I may have swung by Kossar’s on my way here.”

“Oh that’s not an unnecessary risk,” Bucky grumbles.

“Tell me it wasn’t worth it,” Steve says. “I dare ya.”

Bucky can’t. Bagels and bialys are always worth the risk. But he cannot let this slide. “ New York City is not on the way to Wakanda from freaking Russia.”

“It can be,” Steve says loftily. “If you’re trying to make sure you’re not being followed.”

“The mission went okay?” Bucky asks.

“Went fine,” Steve says, and looks down at his knuckles, which aren’t bruised. Bucky looks at his knuckles. They aren’t bruised either. It occurs to him that of all the people in the world, Steve is the most likely to understand, and to have something actually helpful to say, in terms of advice.

“Ramonda asked me to be Shuri’s bodyguard,” he says.

Steve’s eyebrows make a bid for freedom, then come back down and pull together as he visibly thinks through that statement, and all its implications. “She wouldn’t… it was a request , right?” He says, slowly.

“Of course it was, Steven,” Bucky says. “Jeeze. She was terrified that I’d feel obliged somehow, you know? Said she wouldn’t even ask unless she was sure I could say no. Which. Well. Thoughtful of her.”

Steve looks considerably more at ease. “Okay, but. Do you want to say no?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says at once. Then he grimaces. “And no.” He reaches for the lox and starts layering slivers onto his bagel. “It’s complicated.”

“Complicated? Our lives? Surely not,” Steve drawls.

Bucky looks up and sees the punk smiling lopsidedly at him, chin on his hand, leaning in with his bagel dangling from the other hand. Bucky shakes his head and reaches for the capers. “Asshole,” he accuses. “Yeah, it’s complicated. When I got out, I said no more, you know? Didn’t even take guns with me when I left for Europe.” He skims neatly over that time period when he was in New York, just blocks away from Steve and all his superpowered pals. He knows Steve’s still pretty sore about all that. “I don’t do that anymore,” Bucky says firmly.

“So say no, Ramonda will understand,” Steve assures him.

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Okay champ, but what about Shuri, huh?”

Steve’s still got his chin in his hands, fucking hearts in his stupid eyes. Gazing. What a dope. “Shuri would understand too. Seems like she can take care of herself pretty well.”

“Yeah? And what if something happens to her, huh? Something I coulda stopped if I--”

“Pal,” Steve says, with a fondness deep as the Marianas. “You’re not gonna let anything happen to her. Not ever. Only question is whether you want to get paid for it or not.”

Bucky chews that over along with a mouthful of bagel and lox. And well. He isn’t fucking wrong.

Steve takes a noisy slurp of coffee. “Seems kinda like if Becca had started tipping you for watching her back. Or if I had, you know?”

“Pal if I had a nickel for every time I saved your ass,” Bucky says.

“You’d have about twenty bucks, probably.”

“Factor in interest and I’m a millionaire.”

“Seriously though,” Steve says, a bit quieter. “You wanna get paid for that?”

Bucky puts his bagel down and plucks at the edge of his plate. When he was in Bucharest with Yelena and the girls, he bounced to make a living, but that was then, when he was still figuring out how to be a person. The violence was so mild compared to what he was used to, and it was something he was good at, and he didn’t have much choice. Now, though, he’s a person again. All the way. And he can make choices. He’d like to make his way in the world without hurting anyone. But…

He shrugs. “M’living on charity,” he states.

“Bucky, that ain’t--”

“You are too.” Bucky levels a look at Steve. “Try to tell me you don’t hate it. I know you do.”

Steve’s expression twists into something stony and bitter. “I’d rather be living on the charity of a nation that I actually feel obliged to. One that’s actually done something to earn my support, you know, instead of just lying and--” Steve cuts himself off and looks down at his coffee.

Bucky feels like his heart is being removed, string by string, from his chest. All his life he’s seen Steve angry, and hurting, and bitter, but never like this. Not the way he’s been since Siberia. He wants to give Steve a hug, but has no idea how to initiate such a thing without making it super fucking weird. Instead, he kicks Steve under the table. But in a friendly kind of way.

Steve kicks him back. “I don’t mind being in debt to T’Challa, is all I mean,” he says, voice steadier now.

“Yeah, me neither. But I ain’t exactly wild about it.”

“No, but that’s maybe our hangup, not his.”

“Pal, you might be onto something there.”

Quiet falls between them again, both of them thinking their thoughts (and chewing their bagels.)

“It’s all a moot fucking point,” Bucky realizes suddenly.

Steve looks up from his coffee. “Hm?”

“Can’t be a bodyguard like this,” he says, shrugging.

“You took out two elite warriors with no shoes and one arm. I think you’re fine.”

Bucky picks a seed off his plate. “I think you know I wasn’t.” Someone told Steve something that made him drop everything. He cut his trip short, brought bagels from back home, made sure to leave his bag where it'd be the first thing Bucky saw. He probably sat up listening for signs of nightmares. Bucky barely remembers what happened between taking out the bombers and ending up in the infirmary and he knows that isn't okay. It certainly isn't good bodyguard behavior.

Steve audibly swallows a lump of bagel. “Are we talking about that?” he asks.

Bucky heaves a sigh of the ages. “You talked to someone, when you got out, right? Dr. Kapplebaum, you said? She helped?”

Steve shrugs and nods. “She... helped.”

“Yeah, I can see the but coming a mile away,” Bucky mutters.

Steve huffs out a humorless laugh. “But… you and me, pal? We’re uncharted territory. No one really knows what to do with us. Yeah, Dr. Kapplebaum helped. Talking about it, and coping strategies, even the dumb vocabulary… it all helped. Makes the load a little easier to carry, you know?”

“But you’re still carrying it,” Bucky says.

Steve nods, then stops to think. He chews his bottom lip, little parallel furrows appearing between his brows. “Only the things I can’t put down, or I’m not ready to put down. It’s like…” he chews a little harder on his bottom lip, leaving it pink when he keeps talking. “You ever wish the serum let you have scars?”

“I do have scars, pal,” Bucky says. For now, at least, he thinks. Because they’re fading every day; getting a little paler and smoother.

Steve grimaces. “You know what I mean…” He lifts his hand and turns it, the knuckles towards Bucky, “...split-knuckle, papercut -- heck, even a stab wound, you know? Just so I know it really happened. I survived all that. I’ve earned a scar or two.”

Bucky remembers what T’Challa said, that first day after Bucky woke up. When you survive something no human should have been able to survive, and it leaves no scars, sometimes that is worse. “Yeah. I get it. Things you’re not ready to put down. It’d be easier if other people could see it, right?”

“Sometimes, yeah. I think that’s what was really driving me crazy, you know? That no one else could see it. I was just locked up in my head, couldn’t get any of it out.”

Bucky gives his own mirthless laugh. “I know what that’s like.”

Steve puts his chin back on his hand. “The things they’ve done to us, right?”

Bucky meets Steve’s eyes over the plate of bagels. Those big shoulders, that broad jawline. Every once in a while he catches himself expecting to see a much smaller shape there. What a pair they make. Couple of Frankenstein monsters right here.

Thank fucking God they've got each other.

“Things they've done to us,” Bucky agrees.

They clink coffee mugs.

 


 

Bucky’s just coming out of the shower, dressed but with his long hair still damp, when there’s a knock on the door of his guest apartment. He looks at Steve and squints. Steve, who is curled in a chair by the window with a sketchbook on his knees, shrugs.

Bucky goes to answer the door, towel around his shoulders.

“So,” Shuri says, without so much as a hello. “I think my mother asked you to do something that you don’t need to do and I wanted to catch you before you made a promise that you don’t need to make.”

Bucky blinks at her. “Hi?”

“Hi,” Shuri says, firmly.

“You wanna come in?”

“I can’t,” Shuri says. “They want me in the Council Room.” She makes an extremely teenager face. “But I wanted to talk to you first.”

“Shuri--”

“I don’t need another babysitter,” she says, insistent. “But I wouldn’t say no to another lab tech.”

Bucky grimaces. “Ah geeze, kid,” he mumbles. “You can get the best and the brightest, you don’t gotta--”

“This isn’t pity, I’m not being patronizing. You have an eidetic memory, just like the Captain. You can do math in your head that even I would want a calculator for.”

Bucky winces harder, thinking about how he used that knack for math to calculate angles and -- “Yeah, and I got 73% of a college degree that’s 74 years old. Come on.”

“I don’t hire new techs very often. Know why?”

“You don’t need ‘em?”

“Well. Yes. But also I have to spend the first year at least un- teaching them everything they learned at university, no matter where they studied. Your lack of a college degree is not a problem.”

“Shuri--”

“Just think about it. Alright?” She’s got her jaw set and her gaze is unwavering. And a little pleading. “My workload just doubled, because I’ve got all this Jabari wood now.”

“M’Baku’s letting you keep the weapons and the explosives?”

Shuri grins. “He doesn’t have a choice, I won them fair and square. By the laws of tradition that he’s sooooo fond of, he has to give them to me.” On a dime, she goes from feral grin to puppy dog eyes. “So I’m going to be really, really busy. Even one extra hand would be very helpful.”

Somewhere behind him, Steve chokes on a laugh.

“Alright,” Bucky says. “I’ll think about it.”

“Good.” She glances at her kimoyo beads for the time. “I’ve got to run. Say hi to your husband for me.”

Bucky starts to say something vaguely protesting, but Shuri’s already jogging away. She’s just about to vanish around the curve of the hall when she practically skids to a halt. She turns, hands fidgeting with the front of her shirt. She opens her mouth, then closes it. She opens it again. “You should’ve run when I said run. I was perfectly capable of saving my own ass,” she shouts.

“Believe me, I know,” he calls back.

“But it’s cute that you tried,” she adds, and then turns and runs.

Buck swallows and steps back into the apartment, letting the door close behind him.

Steve is hiding behind his sketch pad.

“Oh don’t even pretend you couldn’t hear all’a that,” Bucky grumbles.

“Husband?” Steve says, without coming out from behind his sketchpad.

“Like you ain’t been called worse. I’m making more coffee. You want some?”

 


 

After breakfast, Bucky goes to talk to Ramonda. He finds her up in the castle gardens. She’s sitting on the low wall, and she’s got a wide, colorful basket full of cut flowers in her lap. She’s sorting them into little bunches, her hair up under a bright turban.

Bucky is struck by a memory of his own mother doing almost exactly this same thing, the morning before his sister got married. Her iron-streaked curls up under a bright kerchief, sorting through the flowers in her apron, making a bouquet. It was about as soft a thing as he’d ever seen his ma do. She’d looked up and smiled and said--

“Bucky,” Ramonda says, holding out a hand to him.

“Your majesty,” he says, coming over to take it. In a fit of -- of whatever, even he can have a moment, right? -- he kisses her knuckles, like some kind of fucking knight-errant.

She laughs at him -- bright and fond, and he comes up smiling. “You’re very sweet. Sit, please,” she says, scooting over to make room on the wall. “How are you feeling?”

“Better, ma’am,” he says softly. “I been thinking about your request.”

“I probably shouldn’t have asked like that, right then,” she says, looking down. “Perhaps it wasn’t fair of me to spring it on you.”

“Nah,” he says. “S’fine.” He figures she might have had a thing or two on her mind, what with the whole almost-losing-her-baby-girl thing. “Had a nice long think, talked things over with Steve.”

Ramonda smiles, a little knowing. “Oh? And what did Steve say?”

Bucky rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling. “Lotta nonsense, same as always.”

“Ha!” Ramonda is beaming now. She’s bundling together a bunch of pink and orange daisies with explosions of white lilies and a huge purple flower in the center. “T’Chaka used to talk a lot of nonsense too,” she adds, fond and sad all at once. She shakes herself a little and looks up at him. “But you were saying.”

“Yeah. So I think first thing you gotta know is -- you don’t actually need me. The Dora -- you guys got the best protection detail I ever seen. And it’s not like Shuri’s helpless. But secondly, you don’t have to put me on the payroll. I’m gonna look after Shuri -- after all of you -- best I can no matter what.”

“You don’t have to,” Ramonda tells him.

“I know, but I’m gonna,” Bucky says, with a slight, crooked smile. “Just. Not professionally. And either way, I gotta...” He scratches the back of his neck, tries to think how to say it without sounding… “I mean, I think I’m ready to talk to Shuri about getting an arm sorted out. And… I gotta get my head on straight. You know?”

Ramonda looks down at the basket of flowers in her lap. Carefully, she starts binding them together, not quite into a bouquet. He thinks of the dried flowers he’s seen hanging upside down around the gardens and the palace. The dried herb smell of them is everywhere. “When I was young...”

“Seem awful young to me, ma’am,” Bucky says, with a little half smile. He doesn’t know exactly how old the Queen Mother is (and of course he would never ask) but everyone is young, compared to him.

The Queen Mother tsks at him, that tongue-click and sigh that all her children do. “When I was very young,” she says, twinkling at him. “I joined the War Dogs.”

“Like Nakia?” Bucky thinks of the fiery passion he sees in the King’s best gal, and realizes that he sees it in the Queen too. A love not just for Wakanda, but for the whole world. That burning desire to set things right. He knows that look from Steve’s face too.

“Just so. I went to the worst, most dangerous places in the world,” she says matter-of-factly as she winds twine around the stems of the flowers. “I saw things. Terrible things. And when I came home…” She tips her head to one side, eyes going far away. “I was not the same woman.” She looks up at him and smiles. “You are not the first person in Wakanda who ever needed to… get their head on straight.” She smiles, that kind and dignified smile. Queenly. Knowing. “We can help you reach out to Western doctors, if that is what you would be comfortable with. That’s not really how we do things here. I know there’s no… ‘one size fits all’ solution for this kind of thing, of course, but--”

“How do you do things here?” Bucky asks, because he’s curious -- he can’t help it.

Ramonda looks a little hesitant. “Well, we have doctors of medicine and doctors of the mind, as you might expect. Their focus is a little different, I think. Our traditions emphasize the healing power of stories, and being part of a community. Our technology has changed and our knowledge has grown but... None of our experts recommend isolating a patient, in any way, for any reason.” She furrows her brow.

Bucky can’t help thinking of his father. He’d only ever known his pa after the war, but he could see the way people stepped back from him, whenever he showed the slightest sign of being… well. Shellshocked, they called it. And now Bucky’s experienced it himself. During his two years away, he could see the exact moment when someone realized that he was probably a homeless vet, PTSD, the works. They’d see it, and then they’d look away.

It was always the looking away that made him feel even crazier. And going to a doctor -- back in his and Steve’s day, that was just one step away from the asylum, from being taken away from your family and everything you knew, maybe for good.

He wonders what would’ve happened if more people had reached out and leaned in. But then, he also shudders to think of the scrutiny. People looking at you...

“Sergeant…” Ramonda starts, then stops.

Bucky looks at the flowers in her lap and wonders how she got from there to here; from traumatized spy to the kind of person who picks flowers instead of fights.

She ties off the string bundling the herbs in her basket and covers his hand with both hers. They’re worn with old calluses, he notices. And there are scars on her knuckles, faint and faded, but unmistakable.

“You’re always welcome here in the palace, but I worry that we have been isolating you, and that might not be good for you. If you are interested, my family has a house out by the lake. You’re welcome to spend as much time there as you like…”

 


 

Good morning, Sergeant Barnes.

Bucky.

How are you feeling?

Good. Thank you.

Come. Much more for you to learn.

 


 

The house by the lake is -- at first glance -- even smaller than his and Steve’s old apartment back in Brooklyn. But the thing about his and Steve’s place was that it wasn’t just his and Steve’s place. There was Grandma Hubbard, who’d invite you in for coffee if you helped her with her groceries, and Mr. Jenkins who lived on the third floor even though he only had one leg, and he always had the kind of moonshine that was still illegal after prohibition ended. There was always someone who needed a hand looking after the little ones, or was repainting. There was the roof and the fire escape and the fella on the subway who always rode the same train as you. The whole city was your home, as long as you made sure to leave your apartment.

It’s the same way here. He’s not sure if it’s accident or design that  this particular village seems to be mostly populated by people as old as him or maybe even older, and their grandkids, but there’s always someone who needs a hand with something, even if he’s only got the one hand to give. His doc says it’s good that he’s getting out and about. Ramonda says that’s exactly the kind of thing that helped her get back on her feet. Shuri says it’s good for him. He’ll learn a lot.

“They make everyone do this many chores?” Bucky finally thinks to ask. It’s very hard to wrangle goats one-handed.

Shuri grins from where she’s watching, perched on the fence. She’s been taking notes on him as he moves, working on a prosthetic design. It’s almost ready for fabrication. She looks up from the 3D sketch she’s been working from. “No. You’re special, Colonizer.”

Bucky sighs, but keeps chasing goats.

 


 

One day, Bucky looks up from his many, many chores to see a certain redhead coming over the hill. Except, she isn’t a redhead. He drops the bag of feed onto the wagon. “What the fuck did you do to your hair?”

Natasha tosses her head and the bad bleach job looks limp and nearly white in the Wakandan sun. “I heard that blondes have more fun.”

“Are you?”

She gives him a flat look and leans on the fence. “Don’t I look like I’m having more fun?”

He leans his hip against the wagon. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?” He asks.

“What do you think?” Even her eyebrows are blond. Geeze. She really went all out. “Steve wanted me to check on you. He said you were going to get a prototype arm soon. He didn’t tell me you’d gone full Old MacDonald.”

Bucky squints at her. “It’s not my farm. I’m just good with goats, apparently. How’s Steve?”

“A reckless idiot,” Natasha says. She looks… smug, though.

Bucky smiles and takes a shot in the dark. “How’s Yelena and the girls?”

Natasha grins, a bright, happy grin that he hasn’t seen on her face since she was about five. “They say hi.”

 


 

Bucky isn’t startled whenever his kimoyo beads chime. He’s gotten used to using them one-handed, they’re much more convenient to carry around out here by the lake. He’s been clearing the brush around the lake for Mbali, who can’t do it herself anymore. He doesn’t have his prototype prosthetic on, so it’s a little awkward to get the chat-bead up into his palm. He swipes it against his leg and then brings his open hand up. It’s General Okoye’s face there.

“Barnes,” she says. They’re a little wary around each other. He’s pretty sure that part of her still sees him as a possible threat, but he respects that, and she respects him in turn. “You need to come back to the city.”

Bucky’s stomach does a little flip. “Why?”

“Romanoff just sent a distress signal.” Bucky goes tense -- Natasha was here just last week, but anything could’ve happened to her between now and then. And then Okoye says: “It’s Rogers.”

Bucky goes very still. “Oh?” It sounds winded to his own ears, and very far away.

“He’s alive,” the general says, brusque and no-nonsense. “But he’s been hurt. Badly. She’s bringing him to the city. They’ll be here within the hour.”

Bucky doesn’t bother to answer. He runs.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

4: Steve

You're at the bottom, this is it
Just get through, you will be fixed
And you think, that I don't get it
But I burned my way through and I don't regret it

- “Secret for the Mad” by dodie, 2017.

 

Oh, Steve thinks, when he opens his eyes and the explosion is still ringing in his ears. There’s dirt and rubble in front of his nose, and every inch of him is bruised, inside and out. He feels like he’s been put through a meat tenderizer. At least one rib is broken. Probably more. Bucky's gonna kill me. Then he tries to breathe.

He can't.

He chokes, coughs, and blood spatters across the dirt in front of his face. And he thinks:

Oh. This will kill me first.

Then, he blacks out.

 


 

He wakes in the quinjet. Wanda is looking down at him. Her eyes are red. From crying, not from her power.

He blacks out.

 


 

He wakes to monitors. Soft chirping beeps. Even softer voices. White room. Someone said his name. And that’s why he’s awake.

“He’ll be fine.”

Bucky’s here.

“He’s an idiot.” Natasha’s voice, tinny like she’s on the phone.

“No argument from me.”

A hand on his forehead, soft fingers brushing his hair back.

It’s nice.

He sleeps.

 


 

He wakes to the whisper of paper: someone turning the page on a book.

Steve opens his eyes. He sees the ceiling of Shuri's lab. He turns his head and sees Bucky sitting in a chair by his bed, reading a paperback, apparently unconcerned. He’s got two hands. One is black and silver and looks… unfinished. Its joints are rough edged, and he can see the black cables that make the fingers move.

“Rejoining the land of the living?” Bucky says, without looking up.

“Sorry,” Steve croaks. He means for the almost-dying-again business, but Bucky gives him a bemused look.

“Yeah, I’d be real mad that I’m not gonna get to inherit, but pal... You’re a fugitive. Your worldly possessions amount to one tac suit, one week’s worth of civilian clothes, and a ballcap. All of which were stolen.”

“Borrowed,” Steve says.

“I don’t think Stark’s gonna be too pleased with the state of that uniform he made ya.” Bucky turns another page. The fingers on his new hand click a little as he shifts his hold on the book.

“New hand?”

Bucky lifts it up in front of his face. He wiggles the fingers. Click-click-click-click-click . “No real feeling yet. She’s still a prototype.”

“Cool.”

Bucky wrinkles his nose. “Don’t talk, maybe. You sound like you swallowed a cheese grater.”

“Feels like I--”

“What did I just say?”

Steve sighs dramatically and rolls his eyes.

“Since I know you want to know,” Bucky says, putting the finger of his prototype hand between the pages of the book to mark his spot. “You’ve only been out for two days. Your team is fine. Nat brought you straight here and then they went straight out again. Op sec, you know? Just in case Stark is tracking your movements she’s making it look like you’re recuperating in Switzerland or something. They sent the intel to Hill on the off-chance she can get something done despite the Accords. Everything is taken care of.”

“What about--”

“Don’t talk,” Bucky repeats. “Everything is taken care of. Go back to sleep.”

“Slept enough, Buck--” Steve grits out, sounding worse than he ever had with laryngitis.

“What did I just say, Steven?” Bucky says, sing song.

Steve sighs again, longer this time, and closes his eyes. He does fall asleep, but he hopes that his air of irritation carries through even while unconscious. He wants it understood that he is sleeping under duress.

 


 

Steve does a lot of things under duress over the next few days, and Bucky says “What did I just say, Steven?” a lot, too.

Scolding aside, Bucky actually fusses a lot less than Steve remembers. Steve has a lot of memories of Bucky vacillating between acting like nothing was wrong and staring at Steve with barely contained panic, like Steve was a fragile thing on a high, wobbly shelf.

Steve had hated it, then. But now...

Bucky doesn’t do that anymore. Now, whenever Steve can’t swallow back whatever small sound of discomfort wants to make itself known, Bucky squints at him. It’s a calculating sort of look, like he’s cataloguing the weakness. Then he just goes back to reading his book/working on his tablet/napping.

 


 

The day they finally let him leave the infirmary, Bucky is the one pushing the wheelchair (well -- hoverchair) that Shuri insisted on. As soon as they’re out of sight of the doctors, Steve tries to get up, and Bucky’s hand falls on his shoulder, pushing him back down.

“Nope,” he says brightly.

And, knee-jerk, Steve bristles. “Aw c’mon Buck I’m fine, I just --”

The chair stops and Steve blinks at nothing for a minute, wondering. Has it been seventy years since the last time he said that to Bucky Barnes?

“Huh,” says Bucky above and behind him. Steve knows he’s having the same thought.

Steve forgets what he was arguing about. It takes him a whole day to remember and start chomping at the bit again.

 


 

“I’m good,” he insists the next morning, over a breakfast of fruit fresh from the palace gardens. He’s already sent the hoverchair back to the infirmary. “I can get back out there.”

“Yeah, you can,” Bucky agrees. “But should you?”

“Someone’s got to.”

“Nat’s got this. So do Sam and Wanda. And they ain’t alone. Last I heard, they were working with Sharon on a thing.”

And Bucky drops that line so casually that Steve doesn’t even notice, not right away, because he’s immediately overwhelmed with the desire to crawl under the nearest rock and wither away to dust. He likes Sharon, but he feels weird about liking Sharon, and he feels weirdest of all about liking Sharon with Bucky right there in the room.

It takes him a whole day to realize that Bucky knows all of this (or most of it) so of course Bucky mentioned Sharon deliberately to keep Steve on the back foot, and it worked, didn’t it, because Steve forgot what they were arguing about again .

 


 

“You’re keeping me out of the field deliberately,” Steve accuses the next day, taking a different tack. The best defense is a strong offense after all.

Bucky looks up at him. A slow, unrepentant smile curls his lips up at the corners. He’s not wearing the prototype today, it’s in the lab getting adjustments and upgrades. “You figured it out,” he says, in the most condescending voice imaginable.

“Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you’re a manipulative sonuvabitch,” Steve says.

Bucky shrugs his bum shoulder and looks back down at the tablet propped up in front of him. “Using my manipulative sonuvabitch powers for good, pal.” He flicks at the screen like he’s turning a page.

Steve is working himself up about it now, feeling the irritation build. “Oh yeah? And who asked you to--”

“Nat did,” Bucky interrupts, without so much as raising his voice. “And Wanda. And Sam.” Bucky looks at him over the top of the tablet. “You’re surprised.”

It wasn’t exactly that he was surprised, he just--

“You hadn’t thought of that,” Bucky says, reading it off his face. He nods slowly to himself, chewing the inside of his cheek.

Steve shakes his head. “It’s part of the job. We all take knocks, I’ve been hurt before.”

Bucky snorts. “Not like this you haven’t, pal.”

“The hell does that mean?”

Bucky leans back, then abruptly scoots his chair back and gets up. He pads away across the room, to a carved wooden chest. Bucky carefully opens the lid and pulling out a lumpy black bundle.

Steve doesn’t realize that it’s his suit until Bucky lays it out on the table in front of him.

It’s blackened, scorched, and smoke-stained. The old white star is gone completely, and the heavy Kevlar is burned clean through in places. Even the Starktech scale armor underneath is singed.

“When the hell did this happen?” Steve asks stupidly.

Bucky snorts and drops heavily down into his seat across from Steve. “When do you think it happened, pal?”

Steve tugs at the sleeves. The arms below the elbows are in tatters. He pokes his fingers through the holes and frowns.

“Yeah, that’ll be the shrapnel,” Bucky says, blandly.

Steve has a vague, fractured, noisy memory of a blast, his arms coming up to shield his face, and the force of the explosion feeling like hitting the water all over again.

Bucky’s back to flicking through his tablet. “You’re gonna need better gauntlets if you wanna keep playing at being Wonder Woman.”

“But it wasn’t that bad,” Steve says.

Bucky’s eyebrows go up. “It really was, ya know.”

“But it’s…” Steve holds his hands up in front of his face, looking at his pale forearms, the fine blonde hairs, the smooth, unmarred skin.

This, of all fucking things, makes Bucky put down his tablet and look at Steve. There’s that assessing look again. It’s a Soldier look, Steve thinks.

“I’m fine,” Steve says. “This is…” His gives the charred chestplate a nervous tap with the tips of his fingers. The quick taps -- 1,2,3 -- remind him, for some reason, of an SOS. “But I’m fine?”

“Pal.” That smirk is pure 1940 and Steve bristles, recognizing another diversion even before Bucky says: “You ain’t been fine a day in your damn life.”

“Bucky,” Steve says, a little sharply.

The act drops away. “You don’t want to talk about this,” Bucky says, more seriously.

“If it was this bad, you should be hitting the damn roof,” Steve says.

Bucky says nothing, his expression gone blank.

“You know something,” Steve realizes. “You’re keeping it from me. I need to know.”

Bucky shakes his head. “You’re still healing.”

Bang! Steve smacks his palm against the table next to the charred suit. Bucky doesn’t even blink. Steve holds his gaze, and doesn’t give an inch.

Bucky cracks first, eyes flickering in a roll and mumbling, “dumb stubborn punk” under his breath in a way that’s genuine Bucky, not the put-on Bucky performance he does sometimes. “You wanna get into it, we’ll get into it. Fine. You’re benched. Which is what happens when you die. Twice.”

“Oh come on,” Steve scoffs.

“It isn't a joke, Steve,” Bucky says, voice danger-quiet. “You had to re-grow most of the skin on your arms and face. Your lungs were more ash than air. There were burns in your throat. You were dead when they found you. Get it? You were in a coma regrowing brain cells because you were clinically dead. For half an hour.”

Steve feels plunged in cold water.

“So yeah,” Bucky says, calm as anything. “You’re benched until everyone is sure you won’t do that again.”

Steve chews on his thumbnail and looks at the blackened suit. His brain is making a high pitched eeeeeeeeeeeee sound that it has never made before. He’s never pushed himself like this. Part of him feels like it’s standing somewhere outside his body, looking at what he did in vague, detached horror. Another part is still trying to insist, reasonably, that well if I’m fine now then it’s all fine, right?

That just makes the high pitched siren sound in the back of his brain even louder.

A thought occurs to him and his head pops up. “Wanda, is she--”

“She’s fine. She’s working out her considerable anxiety on Hydra mercs.” He gives Steve a look. “But I think you probably gave her nightmare fuel for the rest of her life.”

Steve swallows. “Are you angry with me?”

Bucky shrugs and shakes his head.

“Not gonna tell me it was reckless and dumb?”

Bucky’s brows go up. “You need me to tell you it was reckless and dumb?”

“You’re calm,” Steve says. “Used to be, if I did something this dumb, you’d have read me the damn riot act.”

“Yeah, well.” Bucky grimaces at him in a sympathetic kind of way. “I figure Wilson’s probably gonna do that next time he sees you.”

“Okay, but…” Steve could never have imagined in a hundred years that not getting yelled at was going to freak him out, but here he is, a hundred years later, not getting yelled at, and definitely freaking out about it. “...why aren’t you doing that?”

Bucky props his chin on his hand and stares at Steve, unblinking. Oh you precious idiot, the face says. “You and me got juiced up on the same kinda stuff, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, slow and wary. “So?”

“So I got a real clear idea of what can, and more importantly, what can’t kill us.”

“Oh.” Instead of making Steve feel better, it just ratchets his anxiety tighter. This was treading dangerously close to the thing he never let himself think about, the thing he couldn’t think about. “Okay that. That makes sense, that’s--” Steve backpedals. Not the way normal people backpedal. This feels like that time he was breaking into a Hydra factory and looked down to see the familiar shape of a land mine under the leaves three inches in front of his boots. He’d backed up so fast he probably broke a landspeed record.

Would the landmine have even killed him?

Bucky is looking at him with both brows raised, expression otherwise impassive. Steve wants to be able to take comfort from that, somehow, wants to be able to rest himself on the solidity of Bucky. But instead all that happens is that he feels like he’s spiraling further and further out of control.

“That’s… That makes sense,” Steve says, with what he thinks is admirable steadiness for a man staring down his worst nightmare: the terror of waking up in the future, forever, with his friends dead and his world gone and no hope of an ending in sight.

“Breathe for me, pal,” Bucky says, very quiet.

Steve glares at him, embarrassed to be caught out, and snapping with the same response he had in 1937: “That doesn’t help, jerk. It never works.”

“Oh if only the serum had made you nicer instead of bigger,” Bucky says, with a performative air of persecution.

“If I were nicer how would you know it was me?” Steve shoots back.

“Your nose -- I’d know that beak blind.”

“What the hell did my nose ever do to you, huh? Leave my nose alone.”

“After everything my eyes have had to put up with? I don’t think so, buddy.”

Steve chucks a balled up napkin at Bucky, but the bickering has diverted his panic nicely. His breathing is almost back to normal.

Bucky stands up again. “Come on. We’re going for a walk.”

“Where to?” Steve says mulishly.

“Just come on, ya punk.”

 

They take the metro out of town and only get gawped at a little. Two big white guys, one of them in traditional Wakandan robes and the other in Outsider style jeans and a tee-shirt -- they tend to stick out. At the last station they get out and start walking on foot, taking a dusty road that cuts between rolling hills and leaves red dust in Steve’s shoes and Bucky’s sandals. It’s amazing how quickly they transition from the casual tech and futurisms of the city to something simpler.

They crest a rise and suddenly there’s a village ahead of them, round huts and dusty streets and children running between the little houses. Steve’s artistic eye immediately notices the designs worked into the walls, the way the streets flow organically into each other, the rich red color of the earth, the sage green grass and shrubs, the jewel-bright doors and curtains and rugs. Behind it lies the diamond-glitter spread of a lake, its shore thick with greenery.

It’s beautiful, just like every other part of Wakanda Steve has seen, but it’s quiet here, in a way Birnin Zana never is. There’s no hum of electricity, no music drifting down from someone’s apartment, or the rattle and whirr of hover cars passing by. There’s only the lapping lake, and the cries of the forest, and human voices.

“You live here?”

Bucky’s staring vaguely out across the water, looking far away. “Sometimes.” Then he shakes himself a little and smiles at Steve. “You wouldn’t be able to pronounce the name. But it’s mostly old coots like us out here.”

Bucky jerks his chin down towards the water’s edge, and they start to follow the rambling dusty ways down into the village. Halfway through the town, a group of three children came tearing out of nowhere, shouting Ingcuka! Ingcuka!

“Thabo, buddy, come on,” Bucky mumbles as one kid in white and yellow face paint starts hanging off his arm, the other two clamping onto Bucky’s legs.

Steve backpedals a little and shoves his hands in his pockets. The little girl clamped around Bucky’s left shin is glaring at him with obvious suspicion. He tries to smile. He’s never been great with kids.

Thabo is babbling, and swinging off Bucky’s arm like it’s the bar of a jungle gym, and it makes Steve’s heart hurt to see Bucky like this, trying to extricate himself from a gaggle of children -- Susan and Jeanie had done this to him every time Steve came to visit when they were thirteen and fourteen.

“Well I mean I know the goats are -- ah geeze,” Bucky mumbles and then switches to Xhosa, slow and faltering, but clear enough if Thabo’s laughter is any judge.

“I thought you said it was old coots?” Steve says, still standing well clear of the pre-teen guerrilla warfare going on around Bucky’s shins.

“Grandkids,” Bucky says, by way of explanation.

“Thabo!” says a creaky voice from the nearest hut, and out comes the oldest woman Steve’s ever seen. “Raki! Kono! Where are the goats?”

All three of the kids drop off Bucky so fast it’s like he’s suddenly become electrified. They scurry away, shrieking and laughing like hyenas.

“Thanks, Mbali,” Bucky says, letting his arm drop now that Thabo isn’t swinging off it anymore.

Mbali just makes a tsk sound and waves at her roof. “You can thank me by getting up there and fixing my roof, Ingcuka.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Bucky says, “But my pal here might be better at that. He’s, uh.” Bucky grins, and Steve knows what’s coming before he even says it. “Pretty handy.”

Mbali groans loudly. “For that, you can patch the fence too. Your friend doesn’t deserve this.”

“I don’t mind, ma’am,” Steve says stoutly, even though Mbali is definitely right, Steve doesn’t deserve Bucky’s puns or his punishments. “I’m used to it.”

“Better you than me, Intaka.”

Bucky makes a choked sound that might be a quickly suppressed laugh.

“It’s uh -- it’s Steve, actually,” Steve says, awkwardly.

“Steve is a stupid name,” Mbali informs them. “Ingcuka and Intaka. It suits.”

“You heard the lady, Intaka,” Bucky says, sounding a little strangled. “Come on, I’ll show you where they keep the spare thatch.”

“I’ll make honey cakes,” Mbali says.

Ten steps away from Mbali’s hut, Bucky doubles over laughing.

“What?” Steve says, suspicious, but Steve doesn’t get an answer out of him, just more hooting laughter, which makes an old man in rattling gold bangles and absolutely nothing else come out of his hut hollering that Bucky is “The White Wolf, not the White Hyena! Some of us are trying to nap!”

Bucky apologizes in Xhosa and promises the man (whose name is Ashei) that he’ll fix that crack in the wall of his outhouse as repayment for upsetting his nap.

By the time they actually get to the thatch, which is carefully stacked and drying in the sun, Bucky has accumulated two more chores for them to do, and the promise of supper and a barrel of Wakandan beer in payment for his help.

“Normally the kids do all this,” Bucky says. “But I like helping out when I’m here.”

Steve thinks back to the way he’d always tried to help Grandma Hubbard with her groceries, and how Grandma Hubbard had always repaid him with a pie or a story from the old country.

“Ingcuka?” Steve asks.

“White Wolf. It’s a nickname.”

“Like Intaka?” Steve asks, eyes narrowing.

“Would you believe me if I said it means Eagle?” Bucky says, grinning as he pulls thatch off the stack and puts it into Steve’s arms.

“Would you feel comfortable lying to your oldest friend in the world?” Steve shoots back.

“Well it’s in the bird family anyway,” Bucky says, and flicks Steve’s crooked nose.

Steve makes a noise of vague protest, but then they’ve got all the thatching they need and they’ve got to get back to Mbali’s place.

 

One thing leads to another leads to another and by the end of the day, Steve’s feeling pleasantly tired, grounded in a way he hadn’t before. Instead of going back to the city, Bucky hands him the keg of beer and the honey cakes from Mbali and the supper that Ashei made for them and leads him down to the water. They walk along the edge of the lake to a hut near the border of the village. There’s a curtain instead of a door and little fire pit out front with places to sit. Bucky goes into the hut and comes back with two bowls and two mugs balanced in a stack in his one hand. Steve takes them and they start divvying out portions of food and drink.

The sun is setting the lake on fire; gold and red and orange dazzling at them under the pink and purple sky. The food is good: spicy roasted meat and vegetables, and the sticky sweet honey cakes, and the beer is spicy too, rich and earthy and not too bitter. Steve feels settled in his skin.

When the food is gone, they sit shoulder to shoulder with their backs to the fire and look out at the lake, two pairs of long legs stretched out in the grass, leaning back against a thick log. There are birds swooping over the lake, skating close enough to the surface to make ripples as they hunt for bugs.

He wouldn’t have expected Bucky to like a place like this. They’re city boys, both of them, and it doesn’t get much more country than this. But still.

“I can see why you like it here,” Steve says.

Bucky grins and leans over, bumping his good shoulder against Steve’s. “Thought you might. I was still getting my head on straight when Shuri brought me here, the first time, after that thing with the Jabari separatists.”

“Yeah?” Steve says.

“Yeah.” Bucky takes another swig of beer. “I’m here all of five minutes when Ashei comes out, naked as the day he was born -- he’s just like that, you know? Hit 92 and decided clothes were for suckers. And he’s got me mending his fence because his eyes ain’t so good anymore and he’s telling me this story the whole time.”

“A story? Like Grandma Hubbard used to?”

“Yeah, just like that,” Bucky agrees. “So he tells me this story. I only got like 80% of it cuz he’s missing a few teeth and I don’t speak Xhosa that well, but it’s… An old Wakandan folktale about all the body parts having a council, trying to see who should be in charge. Head says he should be in charge, because that’s where the brain is, and the mouth for talking, and the eyes for seeing. But the other body parts say no, the head has lice, so he doesn’t deserve to be in charge. The feet say they carry people everywhere so they should be in charge, but everyone else says they can’t because they’re always so filthy. The hands wanted to be in charge, but everyone else said ‘no it can’t be you, you hit people.’” Bucky flexes his hand a little and gives Steve a look, wry and a little tired.

“Seems like a story for kids, Buck,” Steve says.

“It is. I ain’t done yet. Because there’s one more body part who wants to be in charge.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s that?” Steve takes a swig of beer.

“The asshole.”

Steve spits beer out into the grass.

Bucky is laughing. “Oh yeah, that’s pretty much how all the rest of the body parts reacted. They said ‘the day you’re chief, we’ll all share power equally,’ because that was the dumbest thing they could think of, I guess.”

“Democracy, what a concept.”

“Yeah, well, maybe. So the asshole says ‘ok, I’m going home, let’s see how the rest of you get along without me.’”

“Oh no,” Steve says, wrinkling his nose.

“Yeah, so the head’s hungry and the hands get food and a little bit later the feet take them out to the outhouse and--”

“I can see where this is going, please, you don’t have to finish it--”

“Well. The others decided to capitulate.”

“I bet they did,” Steve says, grimacing.

“So I figure the point of the story is that a person is worth more than their parts, you know? And all those parts have value, even if everyone else thinks they’re just an asshole.” Bucky shrugs. “Made me laugh. Made me feel better.”

Steve remembers Dr. Kapplebaum saying something similar, ages ago, after Bucky left him on the banks of the Potomac. Steve had been pretty messed up when Bucky didn’t come back. Started seeing Dr. Kapplebaum when Clint suggested it. Steve had said if I could trade my life for something worthwhile and Dr. Kapplebaum had shot back Excuse you. Are we putting price tags on human life now? What can I get for mine? Swap it out for a Mercedes, do you think?

Steve nods, takes another swig of beer and swallows it this time. “Who are we to say what a human life is worth. I get it.”

“Yeah. That and you’re an asshole.”

Steve barks out a laugh. “If I’m the asshole and you’re the hands, who’s the head?”

“Pegs,” Bucky says.

A sweet ache settles around Steve’s sternum. “Yeah,” he sighs. “Yeah, she was.”

Bucky’s smile turns sly. “Lice and all.”

A startled laugh pops out of Steve’s mouth. “Oh my god, I’d almost forgotten the--”

“What was the name of that girl’s school she went to?”

“St Martin-in-the-Fields,” Steve says. Steve remembers it like he saw it. Peggy always had a way of making stories come to life like that. He can picture it still: a bunch of rich little English girls with their heads shaved bald. She’d told the story while sharing some fancy turban-wrapping styles with the recently liberated ladies of a concentration camp. She'd even managed to make a few of them smile.

“You miss her,” Bucky states.

“Only every damn day,” Steve says. “That’s silly, isn’t it?”

Bucky’s face scrunches up in confusion. “Why would it be silly?”

Steve shrugs. “Met her in, what. ‘43? Barely saw her for six months while I was on the road, bump into her in Italy, and it wasn’t like we worked every op with her. Didn’t know her all that long, and then I went into the ice and she -- had a whole life without me, didn’t she?” Steve rubs his thumb along the rim of his mug. “Grand scheme of things, you know? Wasn’t all that long.”

Bucky takes a long sip. He sighs. “That is… more dumbfuck stupid than usual, even for you.”

Steve makes a noise of inarticulate protest.

“Don’t make that face, I’m completely right. It’s the stupidest thing you’ve said all day, and earlier you asked which end of the hammer to use. Steve.” Bucky turns, apparently because this level of stupid needs to be addressed head on. He settles in, cross-legged, and puts his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “You went to war with her. It’s like dog years, and even if it weren’t, it wouldn’t goddamn matter. Carter’s the kind of person you meet once, maybe twice in a lifetime. You don’t just get over it. She damn sure didn’t get over you.”

“How would you know?” Steve says, on reflex, because bluster is easier than unpacking all of that, Jesus.

Bucky grins, blinding Steve. He claps Steve’s shoulder and then hooks his arm, tugging Steve in tight against his side. Steve has a feeling that if Bucky had two hands he’d be ruffling Steve’s hair. “Because, unlike you, she was not dumbfuck stupid.”

Steve swallows and lingers just a beat, letting Bucky shake him a little. This is okay. They’re more tactile now. It’s okay to lean into the soft warmth of Bucky’s side, because Bucky leans back. Bumps their skulls gently together so they’re carrying each other’s weight, staring out at the lake again.

The sky’s gone dark blue and purple. Stars are starting to peek out through the velvety dusk and it doesn’t seem right to miss Peggy as much as he does with Bucky’s arm around his shoulders but he does.

“Sorry I wasn’t there for you,” Bucky says. At the funeral, he means.

Steve sighs. He’s just tired, all of a sudden. Not wanting to sleep, just…

“Did they do her justice, at least?” Bucky asks. At some point his hand moved and now he’s rubbing circles on Steve’s back, slow.

“No,” Steve says, thinking of the big cathedral, the choir, all the hollowness around him, all the hollowness inside. “How could they? But it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t disrespectful. Sharon did… the eulogy. It was. Good.”

Bucky hums. Steve feels it against his shoulder, where he’s tucked under Bucky’s arm. “She’s an alright dame, that Sharon,” he says, just a little teasing.

“Don’t,” Steve says, too tired to even toe the line with that right now. Even thinking about Sharon makes his insides squirm unpleasantly. He hasn’t even seen her since that day. That day. Christ. His timing is so shit.

“Sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t tease ya but...” There’s a laugh in his voice. “Peggy’s laughing at you right now, you know.”

“Is she?” Steve says, flat.

“Yeah I think so,” Bucky says, and squeezes Steve’s shoulders, shaking him a little until the tension goes out of them again.

Steve sighs and lets his head fall back, looking up at the stars coming out. He can’t help thinking Bucky’s right though. Like he’s got a direct line to the Great Beyond and he talked to Peggy himself.

Steve wishes he could talk to Peggy. She always seemed to know exactly the right thing to do. She had a clarity to her that made him feel like an idiot sometimes. Plant yourself like a tree, she’d said, with Sharon’s voice. Start over, she’d said, through the cracking of years. You were meant for more than this, she’d said. Don’t let anyone hold you back. Especially not yourself.

It makes his eyes burn to think of her, hair still wet from the rain, looking at him with that ferocious belief she had in him. It made him feel ten feet tall, but now…

It makes him think of being a kid again, that feeling he got sometimes in church: that whatever was happening, whatever he was suffering, whatever was wrong in the world, it would be okay eventually. That there was good in the universe and God wouldn’t let evil prevail in the end.

It’s been a long time since Steve’s believed that.

He swallows again. “You ever miss church? Or... Temple, I guess?”

Bucky shrugs. “A little. Sometimes.” He doesn’t sound torn up about it. When did Bucky find all this peace, exactly? “Why, do you?”

Steve shrugs and nods. “Sometimes.”

Bucky seems to think about that for a minute. “You miss God?” It’s almost not a question.

“I don’t know,” Steve says. “I don’t know anything anymore. I miss knowing. I miss being sure.”

“Oh hell,” Bucky laughs. “Yeah, tell me about it, pal.”

Steve winces, realizing. Regretfully, he leans out from under Bucky’s arm. “Sorry,” he says. “I guess you’re not sure of much these days, are you.”

“Eh,” Bucky says. He still doesn’t look upset, just shrugs in a que sera sera kind of way.

Steve sighs and wishes he hadn’t leaned away. But he doesn’t lean back in. “You got any more stories?”

“You wanna hear the one about death?” Bucky asks quietly.

Steve doesn’t answer. The sun is properly down now, stars out in force. Does he? Is that wallowing? If he doesn’t, is that avoidance? “Why not,” he decides.

“Hang on, let me get us some fire.”

Bucky gets up and goes over to one of the other huts, where Mbali is roasting nuts over a fire with Thabo. Bucky talks to them for a moment, and she gives him a burning brand to light his own fire. Moments later, he’s back at Steve’s side, stirring his little fire pit into life, sending up sparks to join the stars.

“Long time ago, the moon told the moth to tell mankind about death, it was important, and she wanted to make sure the moth got it right. The moth worked so hard memorizing the message that she didn’t pay attention to the directions the moon gave. She got lost looking for mankind. She ran into the Hare, who said he knew the way and would carry the message. Moth had been lost for a long time, but she was pretty sure she remembered the message right. It went: ‘as I wane to nothing, so will you when you die. But as I return to the full, so will you. You will live, and die, and live again.’ Moth was tired and asked the hare to carry the message the rest of the way, but by the time the hare got there, he’d forgotten part of the message. ‘As the moon wanes to nothing, so will you. You live, and then you die.’ When the moon found out what happened, she was so furious she split the hare’s lip, and struck the moth so hard she saw lights. That’s why moths are always lost around lights, and why the hare has a split lip. But the thing is, the moon was so angry chasing the hare and the moth around, that she forgot to say why she was angry, so there’s no way to know which one was lying.”

Steve wrinkles his nose. He’d been expecting something deeper than that, somehow. Bucky leans back and looks up to where the moon is now sitting fat and full over the lake, making a wobbly reflection. “You know what mankind was doing while the moon and the hare and the moth were chasing each other around?”

“Dying?” Steve suggests darkly.

Bucky shakes his head. “Nah. They were living.”

 


 

They spend the night outside by the fire. It’s a warm night, and the soft sounds of life around the lake are better than any lullaby. Steve wakes up to find that Bucky’s already gotten up and wandered off somewhere. He left some fruit to go with the leftover honey cakes. Steve munches at both, and vaguely wishes he’d brought clean clothes. But at the same time, there’s something comforting about it; no detergent, no artificial laundry smell. Just dirt and sweat smells. Like back home.

Maybe he could borrow some robes and wash his stuff in the lake before they walk back to town. Maybe when he gets back to town, he’ll try to set up a Skype session with Dr. Kapplebaum. He doesn’t think there’s a good way to tell her that the asshole story reminded him of her, but it did. But it’s a thing to do, like the thatching and the patching they did around the village today. He feels like his brain has been reset somehow, priorities clicking back into their proper places.

Maybe he’s going to live a long time, maybe he won’t, but he can’t change that. Thinking himself in circles won’t change that. Living in terror of it is no way to live. And… putting himself into the line of fire trying to get himself killed is no way to treat his friends. It’s no way to treat Bucky. It’s no way to treat himself. Maybe he’ll keep coming back like he did before, maybe one day he won’t. Maybe the hare was right, and maybe the moth was right. It doesn’t matter. He’s got living to do, right now.

Steve gets up, already making a list in his head. Get in touch with Dr. Kapplebaum. Get my head on straight. Make it up to Nat and Sam and Wanda. And Sharon, he thinks with a grimace. He can’t keep cringing away from that either. Sharon deserves better.

But the whole list flies right out of his head when he looks up and realizes that Bucky’s robes are draped out to dry by the lakeside. Beyond the reeds, Bucky is in the water up past his waist. His back is to Steve, and his hair is down. He’s bent slightly over, running his fingers through his wet hair to get the tangles out, and staring at the sunrise.

Steve is reminded of that first day after Bucky came out of Wakandan cryo -- leaning out of the shower room all soft and pink. His lost arm is a mess of scar tissue -- smooth and silvery white and old looking now, and…

He’s beautiful. Steve’s an artist. Steve knows beautiful. Bucky is beautiful. The old familiar ache under his sternum expands to fill his chest. He swears he can feel the longing in his damn fingertips for Christ's sake. Steve looks, and wants, like he always has.

The decision hits him like lightning from a clear blue sky. He thinks:

I’m gonna do something about that.

It's not the realization of love -- he's known that he was in love with Bucky for years. It's the feeling that it's time to make a move. That kind of decision always hits him like this: sudden and irrevocable. Once he's made the decision, he can make a plan, it's just that when it comes to romance, he has a hell of a time making a decision.

But now, for the first time this century, they're in the same place (barring Secret Avengers missions). They're in the future, where they could do this -- they could have this without it ruining their lives. Bucky is healing -- Steve maybe needs to spend some time doing the same, but at least Bucky isn't… fragile, for lack of a better word. He's in a position to make these kinds of choices for himself, Steve won't be taking advantage of Bucky's state.

It's what Steve wants. It's what Steve's always wanted, and he and Buck belong together, he's known that for years. Decades. A century, nearly.

And if he wants to know what Bucky wants, he's gotta goddamn ask.

So he makes a plan. He adds it to the list. Get in touch with Kapplebaum. Get my head on straight. Make it up to Sam and Nat and Wanda and Sharon.

Do something about Bucky.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

5: Bucky

Counting down, now the clocks reset when I met you
Do we start a new life?
Yours and my spit-shone restless hearts, they were meant to
Beat one time, share one fate

From this day

Gentle storm
Rage away

- “Gentle Storm” by Elbow, 2017.

 

Steve is on a mission. Bucky finds this ironic, because Steve isn’t allowed to go on missions yet.

Sam and Natasha still have him benched, and refuse to let him back on mission until they get an all-clear from some kind of mental health professional who isn’t Sam. As a result of this, Steve spends at least an hour a day on a Natasha-approved Skype alternative talking to that real nice Dr. Kapplebaum. Bucky likes Dr. Kapplebaum. She’s even better than Bucky is about not letting Steve get away with his usual bullshit. Every time Steve asserts that he’s fine, she adds another three days to his mandatory leave. He racked up three weeks of mandatory leave in one session before he caught wise and admitted that no, no he was definitely not fine.

So he’s not on a mission in the traditional sense but he’s definitely On A Mission. He’s got The Look. Bucky knows The Look.

Steve has had The Look since the day Bucky took him to the lake for some Wakandan style psychotherapy. Not that Steve needs to know that's what was going on; it's much easier to trick Steve into doing something that's good for him than to talk him into doing something that's good for him. Luckily, Wakandans treat PTSD very differently, so Bucky's pretty sure Steve has no idea. Wakandans are big believers in finding peace by traditional methods: connecting with the Earth, keeping busy in your community, and the healing power of stories.

Plus, their anti-anxiety meds are just to die for. Bucky can attest to that. Maybe one day Bucky can convince Steve to try those out too, but he doubts it.

Anyway. That's when Steve started looking at Bucky like Bucky was a beachhead and Bucky's not gonna lie; it kind of makes him want to take a fistful of those anti-anxiety meds he mentioned.

For example: One morning, Bucky looks up from scrolling through apartment listings and finds Steve’s unrelentingly blue-green gaze fixed on him. He’s intent in the way that only Steve Rogers can be: like there’s literally nothing in the world more important than what he’s looking at right now. And what he’s looking at is Bucky.

Bucky feels his mouth go dry and something unfamiliar turn over in his guts.

It is Different and he Doesn’t Like It.

“What?” Bucky asks, with deep and abiding suspicion.

Steve blinks his eyes wide and innocent. “What?”

Bucky is not buying what Steve is selling. “What are you up to?”

“Nothing,” Steve says, and looks off into the distance like he’s planning D-Day. “How’s the apartment hunt going?”

Bucky narrows his eyes. “Fine,” he lies.

 


 

On the weekends, Bucky drags Steve down to the lake. Between Steve’s biceps and Bucky’s bicep, they fix most everything that needs fixing. They listen to a shit ton of stories: the Midnight Rhino Thief, the Panther and the Skull, the Collared Crow. Bucky takes over tending the goats almost full time, because it turns out he has a knack for it.

“How do you do that?” Steve asks, from his perch on a nearby fence. The fence looks about ready to collapse under his weight. It’s like sometimes Steve forgets he’s not 90 pounds anymore.

Bucky loses a few seconds thinking about bird-bone Steve and all his pointy edges, all his angles and--

Bucky shakes himself a little. “Do what?” he asks, hoisting the goat he just caught up on his hip.

“It was like you knew which way he was gonna dodge,” Steve says. “I chased that asshole around for twenty minutes and couldn’t catch him.”

Bucky blinks at him, slow and lazy. “Yeah I got lotsa experience with contrary little fuckers too smart for their own good.”

Steve’s eyes narrow.

“Ain’t that different from wrangling the Widows when they were five,” Bucky adds, all innocence.

“Uh huh,” Steve says, eyes still narrow with suspicion.

The goat bleats.

“Maybe you should just find a place out here,” Steve suggests. “Forget the city?”

The goat bleats louder.

“No,” Bucky says flatly. Much as he likes coming out here on weekends, and much as he hates living on Ramonda’s charity like this, he’d go crazy living out here full time.

“Well what about both?” Steve says.

Bucky frowns. “What like... A place in the city and a vacation home out here?” he says, slowly.

“Why not?” Steve says. “The lab pays you plenty, doesn’t it?”

Bucky gently dumps the struggling and now screaming goat back into the pen where it damn well belongs. Then he turns back to Steve and leans one hip against the gate. He can feel his face screwing up in a weird expression.

“What?” Steve prompts.

“Is it weird that like… You turning up on the Western Front three times bigger and just as stupid? That’s fine. Me getting frozen between bouts of murder? Sure that figures. Secret sci fi civilization built on a lump of space metal? Okay, I’ll buy it.” He cocks his head. “But you telling me that I can afford to buy a place in the country and have an apartment in the city? Sounds real fake, pal.”

 


 

They’re clearing the path around the lake again because it’s the growing season here in Wakanda. It might always be the growing season here in Wakanda. But anyway, that means that they need to clear the path around the lake about twice a week, and since Steve and Bucky are only here once a week, it’s almost always out of control.

“I’m gonna get a lawnmower,” Steve says darkly, scythe in his hands.

“You’d just dull the blade,” Bucky says absently. He’s got his latest prototype on. They’re developing three different versions of the arm. There’s one for science, with extra sensors and heightened feeling but no real pain receptors. Shuri’s got whole ideas about adapting it for her two-armed lab techs; gloves that provide protection and extra sensitivity. Then there’s the everyday arm: they’re trying to figure out a model that will be cheap and easy to produce, even outside Wakanda, and they’re using Bucky as a superpowered and extremely durable guinea pig. So far he’s broken five or six iterations of that design.

And then there’s the combat arm. Which is what he’s using today, snapping twigs and ripping up vines and moving rocks. He’s got the kimoyo beads on that arm, logging everything it does. The armor plating isn’t finished yet, so right now it just looks like a super-bulked up version of his everyday arm.

“Hey Griot,” Bucky says.

“Yes Sergeant Barnes?” Griot pipes from the kimoyo beads.

“Make a note that I’m getting some lag time on the pincer grip and there’s still fucking chafing against my side.”

“Done.”

“Maybe don’t say fucking,” Bucky adds.

“I did not,” Griot says primly.

“Thanks, Griot.”

“What do you mean I’d just dull the blade?” Steve asks irritably, still swinging the scythe. Swish, swish, swish.

“I mean there’s vibranium in everything around here. That scythe, for one. The animals, the people, the plants.”

“Seriously?” Steve asks. The swishing stops.

“Yeah, pal.” Bucky rips a vine out by the roots with his combat arm and drops it on the hovercart. He turns to face Steve, puts both hands on his hips. Steve’s leaning against the scythe. He’s really… Devastating, with his shirt off and tucked into his belt, all sweaty in the afternoon sun. Bucky clears his throat. “I mean you could make a vibranium lawnmower, I suppose, but that seems like reinventing the wheel.”

“A bold statement from the guy not doing the scything,” Steve grumbles, heaving the scythe up again. “A bold statement from the guy with the hovercart.”

Bucky grins and Steve glares before getting back to it. It’s actually painfully obvious that he has no idea what he’s doing. His stance is all wrong, he’s got no sense of the rhythm of it. He leans into it in a way that would be a quick way to a backache if he were a normal person. He’s getting a sunburn across the tops of his shoulders. It’ll fade to freckles by this time tomorrow, Bucky knows.

He swallows and reaches down to rip up another vine. He grabs with his prosthetic and pulls, but not too hard, lets himself get a feel for the strength and sensitivity. It takes a level of control and delicacy to pull up the vine without snapping it, and he is testing the arm not avoiding Steve.

He pulls and pulls, following the vine away from the lake and into the jungle. There’s a bit of a clearing here, actually. A few trees, but younger and more widely spaced--

Bucky trips when his foot goes into a hole and he yelps, barely catching himself on the side of a huge, vine-covered rock before he realizes--

Predictably, Steve is crashing into the clearing, brandishing his scythe, about two seconds later. “Buck?” he calls in his boomiest Captain Voice.

“Here,” Bucky says, both hands now on the vine-covered not-rock.

Steve falters, a little wrong-footed now that there’s no enemy to fight. “What’s…”

“I think there’s a hut under here,” Buck says, fascinated. He pulls at the vines, gently now. Careful. He peels vines away and finds plaster underneath.

“Griot?” Steve calls, and the AI stashed in Bucky’s kimoyo beads chimes quietly. “Are we trespassing?”

“No, Captain,” Griot tells them. “This property has been uninhabited for some time. I believe it is for sale.”

Steve joins Bucky and starts peeling vines away. The plaster underneath is worn, cracked in places, but still solid. Steve finds a window. Bucky finds the door. Inside, the thatching is all rotted away or fallen in, but the beams are still strong. It’s a cozy little space, with a built-in platform for the bed, and wall shelves and the like. There are bits of glass embedded in the plaster, fogged over or perhaps deliberately frosted and he wonders --

He knows that Wakanda doesn't have a traditional electric grid. Everything runs on batteries and power cells and when you leave a place, those get disconnected, but there should be...

He gets down on his hands and knees, following the spray of embedded glass that's probably actually lighting fixtures. Steve steps in a moment later, ducking through the doorway. “What are you doing?” he asks.

Bucky looks up and is momentarily struck breathless by the sight of Steve standing there with his hands on his hips and his head cocked. His hair is getting longer, like it used to be back when he was small; straw-yellow bangs flopping over his forehead. He’s cast from bronze in the light streaming through the open roof. Gilded -- no. Solid gold.

Steve cocks his head, making a question mark with just his face. Bucky recalls that Steve asked him --

“Just checking the hook-ups,” he says. He gets up from the floor, dusts off his hands. “They’re old, but they’d still work, I think.”

“The hook ups?”

“For the power, Steve. To get the lights on. All that stuff.”

Steve smiles, slow and glowing. “Vacation home?” he asks.

Bucky shrugs. “Dunno. Maybe.”

 


 

They find the hut on Friday, and on Sunday, they’re toasting spiced meat over the fire after a long day of mostly playing with the grandkids, who really like helping Bucky test the arm’s strength by giving him progressively larger rocks to hurl out into the lake. The grandparents really like that the kids are now completely tuckered out.

Bucky is trying not to stare at the light playing across the planes of Steve’s face. Kid’s got a hell of a jawline, it’s hard not to stare sometimes. Steve catches him watching and looks up from the fire. He smolders.

“Figured out who owns that place we found the other day,” Bucky blurts.

Steve blinks, then lifts his brows with a dumb half-smile. “Yeah? You gonna buy it?”

“Thinking about it,” Bucky says. “Bit of a fixer-upper though. You wanna lend a hand?”

Steve’s full smile is like a sunrise. He’s blinding. “Course I do, Buck.”

 


 

Bucky buys himself a house for his birthday.

He'd made some enquiries, with Griot and Ramonda's help. Just quiet little is this place for sale? and how much? type questions, which had steadily progressed, during the early part of March, to stage where now he has to actually answer the question are you interested in buying it? That question has been sitting in his message inbox, unanswered, for a couple of days when the tenth rolls around. Surprise! He's a hundred years old.

After he blows out the candles on the cake, and after Shuri gives him the schematics for the new science arm and Steve gives him the collection of old sci fi pulps he’s been painstakingly gathering from used book shops and eBay, Bucky steps into the other room to call Judith.

But just before he makes the call, he sends his answer: Yes. 

And then he has to give himself a quiet moment to sit and just... marvel. He's buying a house. A real house, for himself. He'd never in a hundred years have thought that --

Ha.

 


 

By the next weekend, Bucky and Steve are clearing brush from the glade around the hut. The goats help. They find the outbuildings; the bathroom building with a toilet and a shower and lovely tiling. Under the brush, they find the outline of the old courtyard, the remains of the shade building, and the pantry and kitchen. There's an old fashioned Wakandan style cooking nook in the latter -- something halfway between a beehive oven and an induction range that seems to come standard here, and do just about everything you could possibly need it to do.

Bucky clears the fallen-in thatch from the floor of the main house and finds a beautiful tile mosaic under there, a match to the intricate patterns in the bathroom. Steve gets fresh thatch from the village supply and clears vines off the outside.

“The beams are still good, but you’re gonna have to put fresh plaster on all this,” he says, running his big artist's hands across the flaking and faded design.

“I know,” Bucky says, from the roof. “That’s next weekend’s project.” He gives Steve a look. “You’re not getting out of brush clearing, pal.”

Steve makes a face. He’s developed an irrational hatred for Wakandan creeper vines (“It’s not irrational, Buck, that weed is the Devil’s own plant.”) But the vines won’t clear themselves and they grow back fast if you don’t pull them up by the roots.

Thabo and the other kids “help out” by stealing Steve’s tools every time his back is turned. Bucky then gets to sit back and watch Steve chase the kids around for five minutes. Inevitably they try to play keep away by tossing the tool back and forth. They never seem to learn that Steve is, in essence, a 6’2” Labrador retriever and the quickest way to get something into Steve’s hands is by throwing it.

And if it does things to Bucky to watch Steve run and jump and generally tussle with the kids, that’s his own problem. There’s simply no way to tell Steve that his shirts are maybe a little too tight. If he says anything, he might have to admit that he can very clearly see every single one of Steve’s back muscles in that shirt and it’s too much.

So Bucky doesn’t say anything. That’s safer.

They pack up their tools and stash them in the newly thatched but still darkened hut. Then they wash the mud off their pale legs and arms in the lake while the kids tease them for their sunburns, before heading back into Birnin Zana on the metro.

This is Bucky’s favorite time to head into town: right after sunset. The stars out above and the lights on below. He stares out the open window of the metro and watches the city appear before them, glittering, nestled in the hidden valley.

He feels a prickle on the back of his neck and knows before he turns his head that Steve is watching him. The guy’s standing, holding the bar over his head with one arm, and gazing at Bucky like--

Bucky is accustomed to Steve’s weird soft looks, his angry-but-fond looks, his you-fucking-mystify-me looks, but he has no reference for this. Steve is looking at him like…

Bucky doesn’t quite know what, exactly, but it makes the city outside fade into the background, makes the rattle and buzz of the metro go strangely quiet. Steve's eyes are very, very blue. They always have been, but--

Steve shakes himself a little, gives a quick smile, and looks away. 

So does Bucky. 

 


 

They slip into old habits when they’re in the city during the week. Steve has his appointments with Doctor Kapplebaum, and he does a morning run, but he also does a lot of sketching, a lot of reading, a lot of shooting the shit with Bucky like it’s 1937 and nothing bad ever happened to them. Bucky works in the lab most days and sometimes Steve comes to visit him. Invariably, Bucky finds out that Steve has come to visit when he looks up and notices Steve’s broad shoulders filling the doorway, looking at Bucky the way he used to look at Hydra fortifications.

“This is getting out of hand,” Shuri says to Bucky, one day after Steve’s left for his appointment with Dr. Kapplebaum and they’re alone in the lab. Bucky’s got his Sciencing Arm on, and he’s helping her analyze her samples of Jabari wood.

“Tell me about it,” Bucky grumbles.

They’re not talking about the wood.

“If he’s not going to make the first move, you should,” Shuri says.

“I’m not going to make a move,” Bucky says. “Kid. That’s not--”

“Don’t try to tell me you’re not into him, I have seen you two together.”

“I’m not taking romantic advice from a sixteen year old. Get me the spectrometer.”

“You're worse than T'Challa with Nakia.”

“Hey!”

“Broken White Boy, I am not wrong,” Shuri says. “You two are obviously into each other. You’re already married. Why aren’t you boning?”

“Boning?” Bucky says with a grimace.

“I said what I said.”

“Listen, kiddo--”

“I am your boss.”

“Listen, boss. I’m all Steve’s got. Steve’s all I got. I don’t want to mess that up, and I don’t want to make him feel like he’s gotta do something he doesn’t want to do.”

Shuri gives him her most withering look. “You’re all Steve has? Steve’s all you have? What are the rest of us, chopped liver?”

“The rest of you didn’t grow up with him. The rest of you aren’t his only link to the past. Listen...” Bucky sets down his experiment and meets her gaze. She’s saying this because she’s worried about him. Because she cares, and she knows he’s a mess and she wants him to be happy. “I’m happy with the way things are. I don’t need more from him.”

“Do you want more?”

Bucky’s not gonna answer that. He's not gonna say how many times he's woken up from dreams about Steve, how much he wishes --

He looks back at his experiment and hunches his shoulders a little.

“You're allowed to want things, you know,” Shuri points out, sounding very nearly hopeful about it. “And maybe he wants more, did you think of that?”

The thing is, Bucky would be lying if he said he thought Shuri was wrong. The way Steve’s been looking at him, those burning, smoldering looks… Bucky’s not stupid. But he’s also never known Steve to keep quiet about a thing. Not when it was important. Not when it was between him and Bucky.

Which leaves Bucky second guessing himself. Maybe he’s imagining things. Maybe he still can’t trust his own mind, just for a different reason this time.

“Well, then, he can tell me if he does,” Bucky mumbles.

Shuri makes a frustrated noise. “I will never understand what’s keeping you two from just getting a move on,” she mutters, but she moves away to go do science somewhere else and leaves Bucky alone.

Still, it sticks in the back of his head. What, exactly, is keeping him from taking Steve to dinner some nice night? What exactly is stopping him from taking Steve’s hand and leaning in and--

Habit, he guesses. Habit, and the fear of alienating his only link to the person he was before Hydra fucked him over. Bucky’s spent damn near a century talking himself around to the idea that when it comes to Steven Grant Rogers, he should be grateful for what he’s got and not push.

 


 

But it’s still in the back of his head that weekend, as he and Steve put the final touches on Bucky’s hut. Steve’s wearing grubby jeans and a tank top, carefully pecking out a design on the outside of Bucky’s house while Bucky’s half buried under the back, installing the new power cell. He makes the last connection and the cell starts humming, glowing softly. Success.

He scoots out from under the hut and closes the little access door. He comes around to the front of the hut, where Steve’s dragging his fingers through the final layer of still soft plaster, drawing in designs. The red smears of mud on his arms and hands and cheek could so easily be charcoal. Bucky watches him for a moment, and the way Steve moves his hand, the way his shoulders tilt when he’s drawing, that’s just the same in any body.

The ache of longing hits him hard and fast; who knew you could miss someone who’s sitting right there in front of you.

And then Steve looks back over his shoulder and smiles like sun breaking through the clouds. And here’s the thing: Bucky can’t romanticize the past the way some folks do, and Steve Rogers never smiled like that in the 30s, not once.

“What do you think?” Steve asks, and for a split second all Bucky’s half-cooked brain can spit out is think I wanna kiss that smile right off your fucking mouth, pal. Then Steve waves a hand at the walls, the carefully picked decorations.

With an effort, Bucky stops staring at Steve like he’s just taken another 10 kV to the cranium and directs his attention to the freshly plastered walls.

It takes a moment for Bucky to realize that the design is… familiar. Steve’s made a motif of two high arches with Gothic points. Three lines come down from the point between them, two sweeping out towards the outer bottom and --

-- Bucky is standing on the promenade, looking over at Manhattan, but really looking at the marvel of brickwork and steel cabling that he’s about to cross. Steve’s sharp little elbow jabs his ribs and without needing to look, Bucky slings an arm around Stevie’s shoulders and --

Bucky shakes himself back into the present, which smells like mud and greenery, not coal smoke and the East River. Steve is grinning, impossibly broader and brighter.

“You sap,” Bucky accuses as he goes to pick up the tools and take them back to Ashei.

 

Afterwards, Bucky and Steve drink beer and sit back to watch the plaster dry. Steve touched up his Brooklyn Bridge Promenade design with a border at the top and bottom that looks suspiciously like the pattern from the De Kalb Subway mosaics.

They clink their mugs together and lean back in the grass. Bucky tips his head back and lets the relentless Wakandan sun bake him a little. The prototype arm he’s wearing today whirs in an effort to cool itself. There’s grit in the finger joints from all the mud, and he’s gotta take that back to Shuri later today and tell her about what’s working and what needs work.

“So what’s next?” Steve asks.

Bucky cracks open an eye and sees Steve regarding the almost-finished hut. The last month of near-constant sun and working in the red mud has left him freckled and blonder than usual, with ruddy stains in his fingerprints that never seem to fully come out anymore.

Bucky yawns, pleasantly worn out from the work. “Curtains for the door and window, whatever furniture I decide to put in there.”

“And after that? You gonna move in here full time? Herd goats? Make cheese or something?”

Bucky barks out a laugh. “Nah, I’d go crazy. I’m still looking for a place in the city too.” He’s more finicky about the apartment. There’s people in the city, and he wants sightlines and escape routes and so on and on. It’s a whole process, but… “Can’t keep staying in the palace guest rooms indefinitely. T’Challa’s getting me Wakandan citizenship, a passport, the works.”

“Seriously?”

Bucky nods slowly. “Yup,” he says, popping the p. “I’m a bona fide living person again with an identity and everything. No more ghosts.”

When Bucky risks a glance Steve-wards he finds the dumb mook practically glowing. He looks like he’s gonna burst at the seams and start radiating everywhere like a sickeningly patronizing little sun.

Bucky groans. “You’re disgusting. Don’t be like that.”

“Can’t help it. I’m--”

“Don’t say it!”

“--proud of you, Buck.”

Bucky groans again, louder this time. “You’re the worst. All I did was exist.”

“Ehhhh.” Steve tips his mug in a see-saw gesture. “Fighting to save a princess, Bucky? That’s some Knights of the Round Table shit right there.”

“Ugh,” Bucky says, even louder. 

“But when I get back, will I still be able to find you here?” Steve asks.

“Sure,” Bucky says. “S’nice here. I mean, I’m in the lab most days, but I figure I’ll keep coming out here on weekends. Why, you going somewhere?”

Steve takes a deep breath, visibly bracing… “Sam called.”

Bucky can see where this is going, and he can’t help the drop in his guts.

Steve shrugs one shoulder. “I guess Kapplebaum’s cleared me for the field. Got a few things to take care of.”

“Uh huh,” Bucky says, a little wary now. Steve’s got that look again. The “Neither Man Nor God Can Stop Me” Look.

The Look breaks into something soft and fond. “Promise I won’t blow myself up this time.”

“You gonna let me get you a better suit from Shuri?” Bucky asks. This has become a point of contention between them over the last couple of weeks.

Steve sniffs and looks out over the lake. “Nothing wrong with the one I got.”

“It’s toast, Steve. It is literally toasted. It looks like you flambéed it because that is essentially exactly what you fucking did.”

“The armor’s structural integrity--”

“Is shot to hell from the elbows down!”

“I’ll roll the sleeves up.”

“You cheap bastard. I’m not making you a prosthetic when some Hydra goon cuts your arms off.”

“It’s not about the armor, Buck,” Steve says, all patience.

Bucky sighs with exactly no patience. He’s not going to get anywhere on this and he knows it. Steve doesn’t have many cards left to play, he’s not going to let a single one of them go, even if it is badly burned. Steve might not be Captain America, but people still recognize the uniform, and as long as he keeps wearing it, that means something.

Even if he doesn’t have the shield anymore.

Which he will hopefully remember the next time he’s staring down the barrel of a massive explosion.

It’s probably just a lucky bonus that he swears he can hear Tony Stark making frustrated screeching sounds every time Steve turns up on the news wearing his grubby Stars and Stripes. Bucky can’t imagine what noises of outraged frustration and agony Stark will make when he sees the Stars and Stripes are now the Scorched and Smoky.

“I’ll come back,” Steve promises. “You don’t gotta worry about that. I’m coming back.”

“I know,” Bucky says, his voice sounding a little distant in his own ears.

The thing is, he does know. Which isn’t to say that his frantic screaming brain stem goblins don’t start gibbering incoherently every time Steve so much as steps out of sight for too long. They definitely do. But Bucky knows how to tune them out these days, and that makes all the difference. When it gets too bad, he comes here.

He comes here a lot, to be fair.

“I’ll see you then?” Steve says. “You’ll be here?”

“Yeah sure.” Suspicion creeps up in Bucky again. “Why?”

Steve shrugs. “No reason.”

 


 

The next day, Natasha comes by with the quinjet. She drifts into the apartment, gives Bucky love from Yelena and the girls, snags Steve in her deceptively strong grip, and wafts back out again like she found him by accident.

 


 

Three days after that, Steve’s on CNN. Bucky watches it from his kimoyo beads while he hangs his new curtains. There’s a black-clad Steve hopping out of the quinjet directly onto the back of the heavily armed goon-of-the-week. Steve’s been up against this one before: some French terrorist turned arms-dealer specializing in alien weaponry. He’s gotten his hands on some modified version of Rumlow’s heavy duty punching exo-skeleton, though this clown is mostly using it to hop around like a supervillainous flea.

Steve still takes his knocks. Even through grainy, shaking news footage, Bucky can see bruises coming up on Steve’s cheeks. They’ll be gone by the time Steve gets back, probably, but still. Bucky’s going to give him such shit about it.

 


 

He gets the opportunity three days later, when Steve calls. Bucky almost misses it because he’s moving a mattress.

“What?” he puffs; flushed and breathless and catching the call on his tablet just in time.

Steve’s got the ghost of a shiner around his left eye, looks about a week old so it’s probably from yesterday. He’s also got an anxious expression, bottom lip caught between his teeth. “Buck,” he bursts out. Then he frowns. “Are you okay?” His eyes flicker around, like he’s looking behind Bucky. “Where are you?”

Bucky scowls. He’s preternaturally good at reading people -- one of the less unpleasant inheritances from Hydra. And Steve he’s been reading since they were twelve. Steve is practically buzzing with nerves. Vibrating with them.

“What is it?” Bucky repeats, sitting down properly and propping the tablet up. “Spit it out, pal,” he says, suddenly worried. Is it Hydra again? Is it someone calling for an extradition again? Has the US finally decided to officially label him a traitor, or--

“What?” Steve says.

“You’re nervous,” Bucky says. “What happened?”

Steve goes still. And then, his ears turn pink. “It’s nothing,” he says. “I’m just--”

“Is it the mission?” Bucky asks, relentless.

“What? No,” Steve assures him. “No, Buck, Mission’s done. Was done three days back.”

Bucky sucks in a sharp breath. “If the mission ended three days ago, why aren’t you back yet? What did y--”

“Bucky,” Steve says firmly. “Mission’s done. Everyone’s fine. I just needed to…” the pink is creeping from his ears to his cheekbones. “Um.”

Bucky narrows his eyes. “You’re embarrassed,” he says, without affect. That happens sometimes when he’s stressed. But if Steve’s embarrassed, not worried or scared or in danger, then --

Steve sighs. “Yeah, OK, I’m embarrassed,” he admits. He looks away. “I’m not back because I needed to…” He swallows. “Um. There was an.” He winces. “Errand I needed to.” He looks up, sighs. “Take care of.”

Kid’s got a poker face like glass.

“What kind of errand?” Bucky asks suspiciously.

Steve grimaces, groans, and puts his face in his hands.

Bucky’s brain clicks abruptly out of Soldier mode. This isn’t a combat situation. This isn’t Captain Rogers with a tactical disaster on his hands. This is Steve. This is Little Stevie, confident about everything except--

Except.

“Aw Christ,” Bucky says, Brooklyn arriving strong in the syllables. “You talked to Sharon about that damn kiss.”

“She was coordinating with us on this one,” Steve says directly into his palms. He has passed rosy and is rapidly bearing down on tomato-red. “And it was so-- God, Buck it was awful. I kissed her, but we never got to talk about it, she and I, so I didn't know if she was -- I didn't know what she thought was--”

“Rogers, you moron.”

“It wasn't -- I just couldn't -- she was on the run, and I was on the run, and there wasn't time,” Steve says, practically wailing. “I just didn’t feel right about it. I didn’t--I didn’t want to be disrespectful. And then it was months later and I--”

“So why didn't you pick up the goddamn phone and talk to her? It’s real easy.”

“It really, really isn’t,” Steve mumbles.

It hits Bucky then. He realizes when that window to call Sharon would’ve come and gone. A nervous flutter twists his guts, because -- there had been the kiss, and the fight at the airport, and Siberia, and the return to Wakanda.

And Bucky had gone into the ice.

And that would’ve been the right time for Steve to call. Then. That nebulous time while Bucky was sleeping. But Steve hadn’t -- he’d been with Sam and Wanda and Nat, for a little while. But from what Shuri’s hinted, he’d been in Wakanda more often than not, trying his best to help them with the deprogramming. And then Bucky had been awake. And Steve had been at Bucky’s side damn near every second. He’d been holding Bucky’s hand, helping Bucky heal, sleeping in Bucky’s goddamn bed.

And well, when you put it like that...

For all the things, good and bad, that he’s felt in his long life, Bucky doesn’t know that he’s ever felt butterflies before. Not like this. He clears his throat.

“So? What happened?”

Steve sighs and finally drops his hands, but doesn’t lift his eyes. “Nothing. We talked. She was real nice about it all. I was a dumbass.”

Bucky forces out a chuckle. “Yeah, what else is fuckin new.” He can tell it wasn’t quite nothing, but now Steve’s looking even more uncomfortable, and Bucky can't help teasing, just a little. “Hey, don't look so down about it. She’s a classy dame. Way outta your league.”

Steve is still red faced, and starting to look a little sulky about that, a little sour, and it’s so fucking cute. “Oh yeah?” the idiot says, coming over all Brooklyn, and glaring directly in Bucky’s eyes. “You want I should introduce ya?”

“Nah,” Bucky says, slow and quiet. Something flutters in his stomach, and he summons up enough of the old Bucky to meet Steve’s eyes (through the screen, at least.) “I don’t think that’d be a good idea, do you?”

For an endless second, they stand together on the precipice of something, each one daring the other to say something.

“Nah,” Steve says, uncharacteristically soft. And then: “She’d probably kick your ass.” And the moment snaps. They’re Bucky and Steve again, taking the piss (as he other Carter would’ve said, once upon a time.) “Anyway. Where the hell are you, Barnes? That doesn’t look like the lab.”

“New digs.” Bucky picks up the tablet and spins it away from him. “I finally found an apartment that doesn't give me anxiety,” he says, showing Steve the apartment, the spare new furnishings he’s been moving in while Steve punched goons and apparently talked to Carter. “You like?”

He presses his forehead against the back of the tablet, the surface cool against his hot skin, grateful for the chance to hide for a second, get his bearings, catch his breath.

“Oh hey very nice!” says Steve’s voice tinnily from the other side of the tablet. “You ah -- you gonna be there full time?”

“Just during the week,” Bucky tells the back of the tablet. What does it mean that Steve wants to know this? “I’m one of those rich folks now, you know. Gotta summer home out by the lake.”

“Yeah, I remember that,” Steve says. “You ah -- you heading up there on Friday?”

“Yeah?” Bucky composes himself as best he can and turns the tablet again. Steve’s ears are still pink. “Why?” Bucky asks.

Steve sets his jaw, stares him down. “Just wanna know where to find you, is all,” he says firmly. “When I get back.” Then he makes a small smile. “Give me the grand tour, Buck.”

Bucky quickly turns the tablet again to hide how flustered he suddenly feels. “Yeah ok, so here's the living room…”

He completely forgets to give Steve shit about the jumping kicking guy on CNN.

 


 

Bucky doesn’t sleep well the next three nights.

For some reason.

 


 

Sometimes Bucky wants to listen to the drums from the village, and sometimes he wants to listen to the playlist Shuri gave him, the one that she listens to while working. Sometimes he wants to listen to the top 40 station and marvel at what the kids consider to be music these days.

But it’s been three days of humming tension and not enough sleep and sweet anticipation that’s almost indiscernible from fucking anxiety.

So it’s Friday now. He pulls up some swing music on his kimoyo beads and just leaves the little bracelet on the shelf in his house. The speakers are good enough that they'll filter out to the lakeside and even if they weren't, his ears are good enough to hear a monkey chittering a mile away, so...

He takes off the arm -- some days it’s good to feel just that little bit less dangerous. He leaves it on the shelf next to the beads and wanders outside.

His newly refurbished hut is a bit apart from the rest of the village, slightly sheltered and secluded: the courtyard space between the four buildings that make up his home-away-from-home is shaded on all sides by trees. He likes this about the village; the way it’s normal here to live three quarters of your life outside, with fresh air blowing over your skin.

The packed earth gives way to grass that goes right up to the still water. The sun is just starting to go down, light sparking off the lake’s surface, and Begin the Beguine drifts out after him. He feels soft and lopsided and warm and…

He stretches, languidly. Out here, in the village, everyone wears the traditional garb, even him. He kinda likes the robes, actually. They don't remind him of anything but being here, in the future, by the lake where it's quiet. The place where he really healed.

He lies down in the grass. There's a part of him that feels like he should be doing something, but...

It’s good, sometimes, to just lie in the grass by the lake and feel safe from everything, including himself.

He closes his eyes.

 

“Hey there, old man.”

Bucky blinks awake to Steve standing over him, smiling. Bucky’s heart claws its way into his throat. A few  jazzy bars of I’ve Heard That Song Before drift out of the open door of his hut, where he left his beads playing. He's by the lake. He's safe. He smiles.

Steve’s been calling him that off and on since March. “You know,” Bucky says. “It won't be long before you're a centenarian too. And then you’ll be sorry.” He shifts his weight, starts to lumber awkwardly upright, still sleep-unsteady and off-kilter. Steve offers him a hand and he takes it.

He looks Steve over, habitually checking for injuries. Steve’s in his “post-mission civvies” which are becoming a uniform in and of themselves: a tee-shirt and jeans, even though it makes him stand out like a sore thumb around here. But he’s not favoring any side, Bucky doesn’t see the telltale bulk of bandages anywhere, so… “Mission really went okay, I guess?”

But Bucky already knew that.

Steve nods. He’s got his full bottom lip between his teeth again. It ain’t just the sunset making his cheeks pink.

“Please have them play it again,” Helen Forrest sings. “And I’ll remember just when I heard that lovely song before!”

Bucky feels the way he did sometimes right before a drop mission. “So. What brings you to Wakanda?”

Steve puts his hands in his pockets and hunches his shoulders in. “Um.”

Bucky waits. And waits. God this is gonna kill him. This fucking waiting is gonna kill him.

“Spit it out, pal.”

Steve’s breath quickens. His mouth opens, and closes. And opens. And closes. The song changes, and that’s the opening flourish of I’ll Be fucking Seeing You coming out of the hut now, and Steve squares his shoulders and holds out his hand. He sets his jaw. “You wanna dance?”

And that’s it. That’s fucking it. Of course it is, but Christ.

The pink on Steve’s cheeks, the way he’s not quite making eye contact, the uncertain set to his body -- Steve only ever looks uncertain when he’s flirting. Or, what he considers flirting to be, which is usually just him tripping all over himself and saying either too much or nothing at all.

Bucky punches Steve, hard, in the shoulder. “You asshole!” Bucky says, so overwhelmed with relief that he can barely breathe.

Steve looks almost comically wounded. “What--”

“I've been fucking dying over here, wondering if I was losing my god damn mind, all those lingering touches and fucking… heart eyes all over the place.” Bucky’s head is spinning, adrenaline thumping in his veins making him shrill. “Why the hell didn't you say anything sooner?”

And now Steve isn't looking at him again, so Bucky sees that the pink flush has already stained the back of his neck and the tips of his ears.

“Because of Carter,” Bucky concludes.

Steve goes redder in response. That blush goes all the way down, Bucky knows that from summers at Coney Island. But he hasn't seen it on this big, new body. He’d like to.

“Do you want to dance with me or not, Barnes?” Steve asks, like he’s challenging Bucky to a fight. “You ain’t said.”

Bucky could watch him squirm all day. He’s breathing a little faster now, a little harder, looks all determined, like he’s going up against a bully and he’s got no chance. Bucky lets the moment stretch, just a little. “I’m thinking about it,” he says.

“Am I -- am I too late?” Steve says, suddenly serious and grave. The poor schmuck. He looks so worried about it. So genuinely fucking concerned, fretting his fool head about this, of all things. He makes everything so much harder for himself, and just the sight of it fills Bucky's chest with warmth, with fondness. He has to really fight to keep his expression impassive -- the punk made him wait this long, Bucky gets to watch him writhing like a worm on a hook. He gets to fucking savor it. That’s only fair.

The impassive expression must be working. Steve looks like Bucky's sending him to the gallows. “Did we -- did I wait too long?” he asks, visibly steeling himself for rejection.

Christ, just put him out of his misery.

Bucky puts his hand on Steve's shoulder and he steps in, right into Steve's space, chest to chest, too close to be anything other than this. This oughta make Steve smile, but Steve still ain’t smiling. He’s got that look, like Bucky just clocked him with a lead pipe. He still ain’t sure, still ain’t getting it. “Come on, pal, it’s me. Take another hundred years if ya want. I'll still be here.”

For once, it's Steve who's a mess. His breath comes out shaky across Bucky's cheek. His shoulder is so tense it’s like rock under Bucky's hand. His hand, where it's hovering at Bucky's waist, not sure whether to touch, is shaking so bad. Christ -- they ain’t even -- and Steve’s already--

“I don't wanna wait another hundred years.” Steve is rattling to pieces, shaking with all that pent up feeling, still too much for his body to contain, even now. “I can’t, Bucky, I'll...”

Bucky's still as a stone, still like he's lining up a shot he can't miss. Just breathing. Just this. The two of them: their faces so close, and the sunlight kissing them both.

He slides his one hand from Steve's tense shoulder to his cheek. Steve looks terrified, eyes wide and shocked. “Hey, it's okay,” Bucky says softly. He rubs his thumb over the worried corner of Steve's mouth. “Come on, you don't gotta look at me like that. Where's my smile, punk?”

Bucky kisses him before Steve can say another stupid thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

6: Steve

Good times for all
When I get home
I call you up
And I let you know
Your favourite song
Is one I don't know
So put it on, I'll make the words up as I go

- “Good Times” by Elderbrook, 2017.

 

Before he can fully process what just happened, before he can register more than soft lips and rough stubble and the gentle lingering press of it -- Bucky’s pulling back, and looking at Steve. His eyes are so, so blue, and Steve loves him so fucking much. It's such a huge feeling; impossibly filling every empty space inside him, all those dusty, long neglected corners suddenly full to bursting.

Bucky’s thumb brushes over Steve’s chin. Steve's eyes laser in on Bucky’s lips.

“There it is,” Bucky says, touching the corner of Steve’s mouth.

“Huh?” Steve says, very stupidly, and doesn’t take his eyes off Bucky’s smile. That curl at the corners, that complicated uptwist. It changes his whole face, that smile. Makes him look years younger.

Bucky’s laughing at him. “Nothing. Just, hell. There it is. There it fucking is.”

There what is? Steve thinks, but he can’t seem to kickstart his brain into doing anything sensible and then Bucky leans in and Christ, it’s happening again.

Steve’s brain is like an enigma machine with bad rotors: instead of decrypting this vital intel, it’s just spitting out nonsense letters. What the hell -- Where is he supposed to -- Is this even real? Steve is here, in Wakanda, in the future, and Bucky--

Bucky is--

Usually there's been some kind of explosion to prevent the kiss from lasting this long. Everybody needs practice, is ringing in his head. Where do his hands go? How much should he be leaning into it? Did he brush his teeth?

Steve is maybe really, really bad at this.

He thinks about Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh and wonders if he ought to be bending Bucky backwards at an uncomfortable looking angle. Should Bucky be bending him backwards at an uncomfortable looking angle? Who is Rhett in this scenario? Which one is Scarlett? In the movies of their youth there had always been a kisser and a kissee and it seems like--

Bucky pulls back sharply and glares. “Rogers. Will you stop fucking thinking so goddamn much?”

Without thinking, Steve says: “Make me.” Because it's Bucky, busting his balls, swearing, and vaguely grumpy and honestly he's never not risen to the bait if Bucky's the one holding it.

Bucky pulls back slightly, stares at Steve like can you fucking believe this asshole? and then--

A sharp huff of air escapes Steve's lips as he's suddenly pulled -- yanked in close by that one arm curling tight around his waist. That's Bucky's scruffy cheek pressed to his and Bucky's body all against his, and then he's swaying, gently. They're…

Dancing.

“That answer enough for ya, Rogers?” Bucky asks, breath hot against Steve's ear, voice tight with amusement.

So do you wanna dance with me or not?

“You're a sap, Barnes,” Steve shoots back, but it's lacking the necessary venom, and half the air, leaving Steve sounding breathless and overwhelmed. It possible that this is because he is breathless and overwhelmed.

“I'll always think of you that way,” sings Frank Sinatra.

Is this real? Is this happening?

“Tell me I ain’t dreaming pal,” Steve says.

“You ain’t dreaming,” Bucky says, sounding wildly amused.

Steve can feel the heat creeping up his neck. Bucky laughs again, soft and low. Steve shoves his face way down into Buck's good shoulder, hiding. He falls apart, just a little. He's maybe shaking, maybe stumbling and stepping on Bucky's toes, but it's fine. He can just hide here, and breathe, and let the warm, familiar strains of music wash through him like waves over sand.

“Okay, okay ya big mook. I got you,” Bucky is whispering. “I got you.” His hand is rubbing along Steve's spine, from the curve of his lumbar to the spot between his shoulder blades and Steve is melting. Steve is definitely melting. Steve is going to end up a puddle of dissolved supersoldier on Buck's toes at this rate.

And suddenly that isn't enough, isn't nearly enough. Steve needs to be kissing him again. He lifts his head and then they're kissing; graceless and hungry and desperate. Steve's nose mashes against Bucky's cheek but all he's aware of is the slick insides of Buck's mouth, the way he presses teeth into Steve's lower lip, the way it feels to only half break the kiss to suck in air around it and--

Bucky bows his head, his forehead pressing to Steve's, their mouths pulling apart by necessity.

“Hey, hey, hey, where's the fire?” Bucky whispers.

Steve makes an impatient noise and tries to find Bucky's mouth again.

“Whoa there, don't you think we should--”

“Please,” Steve says. Bucky isn't letting him kiss his mouth, so Steve starts kissing his cheeks, his neck, that incredible jawline. “Please” and he's shameless. He's desperate. He's begging. “Please, sweetheart, please.”

“Oh fuck me,” Bucky mumbles.

Steve has two hands, which is a real advantage when you want to kiss someone. He grabs Bucky’s face between his hands and kisses him again. He’s pretty sure he’s more enthusiastic than skilled. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care.

Bucky pulls his head back, slips his one hand up to Steve’s shoulder and pushes enough to get some space between them. “Steve, wait.”

Wait? He’s waited for a fucking century and most of the time he feels like a fraud when he says shit like that -- he’s in his thirties now, but right now it’s like every cell in his body is telling him -- rather insistently -- that it’s been longer. Not that Steve can make any of that into words, but he hopes it comes across on his face.

“We can’t -- don’t look at me like that, how am I supposed to think when you’re looking at me like...”

Bucky’s smile softens. He puts his hand on Steve’s cheek. Mindlessly, Steve turns his face into the touch, closes his eyes and just -- God, how long has it been since anyone touched him like this and meant it, really meant it? And it’s Bucky. He opens his eyes and finds Bucky staring at him, looking slack and overwhelmed.

“Fuck,” Bucky says, breathlessly. “Okay. I’m… I’m gonna take point on this, okay Stevie? Cuz you’re…”

Steve stares at Bucky, breathing hard and--

“Hell,” Bucky says. “You’re down for the count, aren’t ya, pal.”

Steve bites his bottom lip and stares at Bucky’s. “Bucky--”

Bucky kisses him very softly. He pulls back too soon, and Steve chases his mouth, but Bucky shakes his head. “Fuckin’ mook,” he mutters. He pulls Steve back in close, hand at the dip of Steve’s back, guiding him, moving him in time with the music; just a gentle sway back and forth. Steve hooks both arms over Bucky’s shoulders and can’t even feel embarrassed that he probably looks like a dame at her first school dance but intensely more ridiculous.

The music changes again. It’s Billie Holiday now. Easy Living.

“Okay, Champ. Here’s the deal.” Bucky’s voice is low in his ear, scruffy cheek against Steve’s smooth one. Steve… maybe rubs his face against Bucky’s, under the guise of a nod. Bucky’s thumb rubs a circle over Steve’s spine. “Ain’t done this in awhile but I remember how it goes. Dancing, dinner, back home before nine, right?”

The laugh bursts out of Steve before he can check it. He pulls back and finds Bucky smiling at him, all 1936. “You askin’ me out on a date, Barnes?”

“Hey pal, you asked me, I’m just saying yes.”

Steve’s breath catches on a laugh, high in his chest. His foot trips over Bucky’s, boots versus sandals not a great combo, but Bucky just laughs at him.

“Fuck, how did I forget what a shit dancer you are?”

“Must be all the brain damage,” Steve shoots back.

Bucky stomps on his foot this time. “Asshole,” he says fondly.

Steve does not giggle.

(Steve maybe giggles.)

“H-how are you gonna get me home by nine?” He says. He feels drunk in a way he hasn’t since the last time Thor brought mead back from Asgard. “I’m--” he takes a break to very manfully not giggle. “I’m homeless.”

Bucky sways back as Billie Holiday says: living for you is easy living. He winks, outrageously. “Guess you’ll have to stay with me then, huh?” Bucky takes Steve’s hand, gently tugging him backward towards the hut.

The house they fixed up together. Their house? That makes a helluva balloon inflate in Steve's head. Their house. Their home?

It's too big a thought. Too giddy.

They pass into the soft warm shadows inside. Bucky is smiling at him. Steve feels all too-big feet and clumsy hands, stumbling in after him. The curtain whispers closed behind them. Bucky touches a panel on the wall and--

The house lights up. The bits of glass embedded in the wall come alive, filling the space with a warm rosy light. Lighting up at Bucky’s touch. Steve knows the feeling.

Bucky's arm is there on the shelf by the door. It’s his sciencing arm, Steve notes, all black muscle fibers over gold bones, with rubbery gripping pads and sensors on the delicate fingers. Bucky lets go of Steve’s hand and turns away.

He pulls the shoulder wrap off, exposing the stump. The old Hydra interfaces have been replaced with non-invasive, hypoallergenic, gold-vibranium whatever whatever that Bucky has been going on about. It's a new fitting, just added this past week while Steve's been away, but Bucky's been talking about it; the science behind it.

Steve’s not a scientist. But he’s drawn in by the aesthetic: a thick line of gold marks where the arm used to end, where the new arms attach. It radiates out across Bucky’s shoulder blade, covering what used to be scarring. The old scar tissue is less irritated than it had been the last time Steve saw it. Now that all the corrosive, parasitic Hydra alloys have been removed his healing factor is working to repair the damage. Instead of looking like a parasite, this new fitting looks like a… like a gilded tattoo. A sunburst. Thin lines of gold tracery run over what’s left of his arm to sensor connection points, like an organic circuit board made of pink skin and yellow vibranium.

Steve reaches out to touch, then second guesses himself. Is this allowed? Is it a step too far? But he can’t stop himself. He reaches like a child reaching out for something shiny.

Bucky has his back turned, fiddling with the arm resting on the shelf, getting ready to put it on. Steve presses his palm flat against Bucky’s shoulder blade, and Bucky sucks in a breath. Steve can feel the warm, smooth curves of the metal, the warm give of Bucky’s skin, the bumps and ridges of old scar tissue, still healing. The metal gives under his touch. Like T’Challa’s suit, it's made of vibranium nanites: moving with Bucky’s body instead of pushing back against it.

“Je-sus,” Bucky says, head falling down, swaying forward. The warm, ochre glow of the lights in Bucky’s hut bring out the red in his dark hair, the tan in his skin, the gold of the Wakandan circuitry.

Steve turns his hand, feeling out the interplay of flesh and seamless metal. The gold-vibranium alloy is skin warm, but smooth. They feel almost the same as his scars. Steve is fascinated, turns his hand more, fingers slipping under the sun-warm cotton of the wrap Bucky is wearing. Skin, muscles and bones underneath, and--

“Christ. Go. Sit. Over there,” Bucky says, pointing firmly away. “I want two hands for this and I can’t-- fucking focus while you’re--”

Steve feels a laugh bubble up in his chest and lets it out. It makes Bucky look back over his inlaid shoulder at Steve. “Jesus Christ,” Bucky says again, and looks away.

Steve reluctantly takes his hand off Bucky and goes to sit on the bed platform, as directed. It’s firm -- firm just the way he likes it, and Bucky must too, because it’s not like he couldn’t get some fancy Wakandan memory foam or whatever they’ve got here.

He watches as Bucky fits the socket of the arm over his stump and twists to lock it in place and line up the sensors. The gold at his shoulder connects and the whole thing comes alive, fingers twitching. He rolls the shoulder -- the muscle fibers are rubbery black and the bones are dull gold. He’s a Da Vinci anatomy study in black and gold and warm tan skin. He rolls his shoulder the other way and the muscles ripple, moving in time. This isn’t the heavy duty armor plating of his old arm. This is for delicate work, for fine motor skill.

Bucky turns to face Steve and smiles, one of the broad, beaming ones that are so few and far between here in the future.

Steve wants to hoard them like a smile hoarding dragon. He lifts both hands and reaches for Bucky and Bucky comes to him. For a moment he stands there, staring down fondly. Steve doesn’t know what his face is doing. Probably he looks like an idiot. Possibly he is radiating, somehow.

Without any kind of warning, Bucky just hitches his robes up and gets into Steve’s lap, knees against the thin mattress on either side.

A startled oh escapes from Steve and his hands flutter, uncertain, for a moment before settling on Bucky’s waist. Bucky hooks both arms -- the flesh arm and the science arm -- around Steve’s shoulders and runs warm fingers through his hair.

“Anyone home in there,” Bucky asks.

Steve stares up at Bucky, wordless, mesmerized by the complicated uptick at the corners of Bucky’s mouth, the cleft in his chin. “Uh huh,” he says. His lap is full of Bucky and his head is full of loose sparking wires and short circuits.

“Yeah okay. How’s this for a plan, huh? Seeing as you’re a shit dancer, but I’ve got high hopes for your kissing abilities, we’re gonna kiss more.”

That sounds good. That sounds great.

“And then we’re gonna get up and walk into the city, and we’re gonna go to that kebab place I like because you know how to treat a fella right. And I’ll pay because I know how to treat a fella right.”

Steve nods.

“Then I’ll show you my new place. It’s nice. Great views. Easily secured points of entrance and egress. Close to the farmer’s market…” Bucky licks his lips, a flash of… nerves? Is Buck nervous too? He doesn’t quite meet Steve’s eyes for a moment. “Big bed,” he says, without inflection.

Steve’s brain ratchets into a higher gear of incoherent gibbering. “Buck--”

Bucky shakes his head, frowning. “And a guest room,” he adds quickly. “Uh. Forget for a second I said that. Just. Hm. One thing at a time. Kissing, then dinner. Okay, big guy? That sounds like a good plan to you?” Bucky tips his fingers -- the sciencey ones -- under Steve’s chin and tips his face up. Steve can tell that Bucky wants to hear him say it aloud.

“Yeah,” Steve says. He’s only a little hoarse.

Bucky’s expression softens. “You’ve never done this before.”

Steve shakes his head, even though it wasn’t so much a question.

“Not even with Carter. And not since you woke up.”

Steve tenses, shakes his head again, and waits for the inevitable twenty questions. Why not? With that body? Who wouldn’t want to sleep with Captain America?

But he should’ve known better than to think Bucky would have to ask.

“Yeah I didn’t think so.” He pushes Steve's hair back from his face. It's getting long now. He looks thoughtful, and just a touch melancholy. Steve wants to ask what that means, but then Bucky is cupping Steve’s face between his hands -- the big warm one and the cooler metal and rubbery one. Steve’s focus narrows in on Bucky’s face, eyes going huge and hungry.

Bucky smiles. The word beatific pops into Steve’s head, complete with a halo and all the saintly context which, given the circumstances, is probably some kind of blasphemy. “Gonna kiss you again.”

Steve’s all for that. Yes, sounds great. A brilliant plan.

Bucky tips his head and there’s something slow and lazy in the gesture, something in the curl of his mouth that’s… makes him think Bucky likes making him wait. Maybe too much. “Take the edge off.” Then, more serious: “Okay?”

“Yeah,” Steve starts, and then Bucky swoops in and Steve loses himself in the kiss, lets himself melt under it.

Steve has a perfect memory, but he’s not sure what his hands do, what his mouth does, or how long. He’s not sure what Bucky’s hands do. What Bucky’s mouth does. He knows it’s good it’s good it’s good because they keep telling each other that, just to be sure. He knows they keep their clothes on but other than that, things get a little. Hazy. Steve’s got a perfect memory, but he’s still more or less human, and he can’t help losing track. He feels drunk on it, on this. Bucky’s hands on him. His hands on Bucky. It’s an impressionistic blur; smeared like there’s vaseline on the lens.

 

At some point later, they’re catching their breath, thinking about getting dinner, lying as close as they can on the bed platform. Some instrumental version of Stormy Weather is playing. Steve’s arm is trapped under Bucky’s head, under the pillow, and Bucky’s thick thigh is kind of possessively draped over Steve’s, and Bucky’s science hand is splayed across Steve’s chest.

Steve reaches up and traces the gold knuckles, the black cables that make it move.

“Kinda creepy, I guess,” Bucky says.

“It’s beautiful,” Steve says.

“You should see the combat version. She’s a real beauty.”

Steve lifts the prosthetic to his mouth. It tastes like his own fingers used to when he’d been handling the shield. Coppery electric. Vibranium taste, he guesses. He pulls the first two fingers out of his mouth with a soft pop. “I like these.”

“Fuck,” Bucky says, sounding winded.

“You feel that?”

“Christ, pal. And then some. Jesus.” He turns his face, hides in the pillow, and makes a sound like a teapot about to start whistling.

That sets Steve off laughing, which makes Bucky smack his chest with the metal hand, which makes Steve laugh harder.

“Fuck you,” Bucky mumbles.

Steve lets out a rumbly hum which makes Bucky smack him again, harder.

“You’re awful. Come on. Let’s get outta here.”

 

They walk back to the city. Steve’s hands are in his pockets, Bucky’s are tucked into his robes. He knocks his shoulder against Steve’s a couple of times. They talk. About nothing. About everything. Hey pal, remember that time… that kind of stuff. But it's like they're going through the same old story with a bright red pen. Circling things. Things they missed the first time.

And maybe at a different time, that would be sad. Morbid, maybe. But just now, with the Wakandan sun turning pink behind them and the air thick around them and the dust under their feet -- It’s just funny. It’s just something to laugh about. What idiots they were. What stupid punks. What dumb jerks.

“Oh my god, and the time you -- you broke your nose on the--”

“Which time?” Steve asks.

“With the Nazis in--”

“That doesn’t really narrow it down, pal.”

“In Madison Square Garden, asshole.”

“Oh, the first Nazi I punched.”

“And then immediately broke your face on the--”

“--Pavement, I remember. Tripped over my goddamn shoes.”

“Yeah. But before that. When you laid that guy out. It was…”

Steve glances over. Bucky is staring at the road in front of him, but Steve can see the half smile there, the fondness. And for the first time he really understands that it isn’t just fondness. It isn’t just friendship. Or, well, it isn’t only friendship. It's something else too.

“You yelled at me after,” Steve says.

But he remembers how Bucky had looked at him, after he threw the punch but before he tripped over his own feet and broke his nose on the sidewalk. That look, dark and heated and stunned and --

God, had Steve been blind back then? Not just color blind, but fully blind?

“You were such an idiot,” Bucky says, shaking his head.

Steve knocks his shoulder against Bucky’s. “Pretty sure we both were.”

 

Bucky’s favorite Wakandan kebab place is a hole in the wall with a big shaded patio. They’re not really called kebabs here, but Steve can’t pronounce the proper name, and the owner is real nice about letting Steve call them kebabs. They’re also real nice about doing supersoldier portions and Bucky has come here often enough (and with Steve) that people don’t stare too much at their overwhelming whiteness and Bucky’s arm.

It’s hard to focus on the food when Bucky keeps taking huge mouthfuls and licking sauce off his lips and yeah okay Steve’s a little fixated. So sue him. He’s allowed. He’s wanted this for long enough that he--

Bucky’s metal fingers snap in front of Steve’s glassy eyes with a metallic click. “Earth to Steve,” Bucky says, and his eyes are bright with silent laughing.

Steve shakes himself. “Sorry. I was just…” And he feels heat creeping up the back of his neck.

“Yeah I bet you were, pal,” Bucky says. He swipes sauce off his now-empty plate with his flesh fingers and pops them in his mouth.

Bucky has. A nice mouth.

“Can we please go back to your apartment now?” Steve asks. Not. Too loudly. Maybe a little too loudly.

Bucky throws back his head and laughs, long and full. Steve kicks him, under the table, but it's half hearted. He's just glad -- so fucking glad -- to hear Bucky laughing like that.

“Yeah pal. We can do that.”

 

The walk back to Bucky's apartment feels interminable.

Steve knows, technically, that it’s fine if he wants to hold Bucky’s hand. He does want to, kind of. It’s complicated. He knows that if he did hold Bucky’s hand (in public), nothing bad would happen. He also knows that if he did actually cross the narrow gap where their arms are bumping together, and physically take Bucky’s actual hand, he would start turning red, and then curl up into a ball of embarrassed, giddy excitement, and then maybe explode. So it’s a matter of cost vs benefit.

He doesn’t take Bucky’s hand as they stroll along the now dimming streets towards Bucky’s apartment building. It’s a round walled tower with protruding beams and a bright mural crawling up the street-facing side. They’ve been quiet for a while by the time they get there. They’d been like that, sometimes. Silences between them easy as their words, but this one feels different. Feels like they’re both winding up, slowly. For something.

“This could be a thing, right?” Bucky asks at last, when they’re climbing the wide spiral staircase that runs around the outside of his apartment building.

Steve looks over in time to see Bucky looking away, staring down at his feet. “A thing?” Steve asks.

Bucky is chewing on his bottom lip, stops just long enough to say: “You and me. Ain’t like much would even change, right? I mean. We’re already stuck with each other, so...”

With some effort, Steve manages to get his brain to think beyond the space and time that is this exact, precise moment, with Bucky. To actually think through the consequences of all this, but…

“It won’t change anything,” Steve realizes.

Bucky gives him a shy, lopsided little smile. “Probably not. I mean, well...” He slings his arm around Steve’s shoulders and oh, Steve never gets used to this, to having this back. Bucky tugs him down, knocks their heads together. Steve holds his breath, like he always does now, and tries to fix the moment in his mind. “...It might change a coupla things.”

And then the other hand -- the prosthetic one -- reaches up, cups his cheek, tips his face further, and Bucky kisses him.

Kisses him right there on the apartment stoop, under the open sky, where god and the whole city can see them, except that no one’s looking just now.

It’s soft, and slow, and pretty chaste. Bucky’s ma and pa had kissed like that sometimes, and Steve figures his mom and dad probably had too. Bucky breaks the kiss, and opens the door, tugs Steve into his new apartment.

“Come on, I’ll show you around,” Bucky’s saying, and Steve slips sideways in time to that first apartment they shared. The place Bucky found for them. Come on, I’ll show ya around-- and then his foot going through the bad fifth step and they both laughed like lunatics no wonder the rent was so reasonable, Christ.

But here -- here in the now...

Bucky’s new apartment is interesting to Steve, the same way Bucky's place in Bucharest was interesting, the same way everything about Buck is interesting to Steve. There are windows all around, but they're tinted. Bucky can see out, but no one can see in. There’s not a whole lot of furniture yet, but there's a side chair by the door that Steve knows can be wedged under the knob, to reinforce the locks. There's a big, heavy Jabari style wooden table in the middle of the room that can probably be flipped on its side to make cover. The kitchen knives are strategically placed: easy to reach, easy to see if any are missing. The simplicity of the space, the relatively modest size of it, that's all Brooklyn Bucky. There's a decadently overstuffed chaise lying directly in a beam of late evening sunlight. It's flanked by a neat pile of books. Proper, paperback books, not a tablet. There’s no bookshelf yet, and no coffee table, but, the stack of books is clearly serving as both, for now.

Steve sees it, and despite the modern amenities (which still leave him feeling strangely displaced, sometimes) he thinks home. He thinks home because this is Bucky's space, and that had always meant home even when it wasn't really Steve's home.

Except. Now, maybe, it can be.

Like all the things Bucky is now, this too is a compromise. The people Bucky’s been in the past, they’re all here. Bucky’s making a home, suspended between all the worlds he used to live in, and that’s so… So Barnes of him. Winnie and George had done it, and Bucky had done it, and Rebecca, and all the rest of them. Setting up shop suspended between one world and another, and making it look effortless.

Bucky is taking off his kimoyo beads, leaving them in a nook by the door that Steve suspects is a charging pad. He’s fiddling with them, maybe checking his news feeds or something, Steve isn’t sure. While he’s doing that, he reaches back with his prosthetic and catches Steve’s hand. Steve feels a tight fist of something close around his sternum as he curls his flesh fingers between Bucky’s metal and rubbery ones. It makes him think of Peggy, saying you used to reach for him without looking, and feels something huge swell up in his throat. He swallows it back and says, instead:

“So.” He’s trying not to smile like a loon. “A thing, huh? We got a thing now? That it?”

“Me and Captain Rogers,” Bucky says -- sings. “We got a thing going on...” It’s not a song Steve knows. And that must show, because Bucky looks back over his shoulder and immediately rolls his eyes. “Christ you been out even longer than me and you never heard that song? You still don't -- You never had any culture, ya meatball. Hang on--” Some more fiddling with the beads in their charging port.

And then, music starts dripping down from… everywhere at once, near as Steve can tell. It makes him jump, and Bucky grabs his other wrist with warm flesh fingers and tugs him towards the living room, swaying in time to the music.

Steve relaxes, lets Bucky’s steady hands move him, confident even after all this time. Before today, how long has it been since Bucky danced? Since Steve did? The music is slow. Sultry, even. We both know that it's wrong, the singer croons. Steve’s brow furrows.

“Buck?”

“Hm?”

“This song’s about a married lady having an affair, ain’t it.”

Bucky cackles. “Oh come on, tell me you ain't married to your job, pal.”

“Change the damn song,” Steve says.

“No culture,” Bucky tells him. “Skip,” he orders the air, and the song stops, another one starts playing. Steve recognizes this one. Sam Cooke -- Sam (Wilson, that is) had presented it as “grandpa music, but good” except that Steve predated even that.

Steve hides his face in Bucky’s shoulder and grins.

“What?” Bucky says.

Steve thinks about telling Bucky that he and Sam have the same taste in music but shakes his head. “Nothin’. You were gonna show me around the apartment.”

“This is fine,” Bucky says.

“This is real corny,” Steve points out. Not like he stops it though.

“Hey fuck you,” Bucky says cheerfully, smile audible. “Been waiting the better part of a century, I can be as corny as I like.”

Steve’s heart does something real funny. “Been waiting?”

“Hell yeah I been waiting.” Bucky pulls back, without breaking the rhythm of their feet shuffling slowly together. “You kiddin’ me?”

Steve shrugs a shoulder, looks down at their feet, manages to step on Bucky’s toes, looks back up, apologetic and self-deprecating. It's hard to imagine anyone waiting for him. Him like he had been, that is. And even after he got big -- he knows he’s a pain in the ass. More trouble than he’s worth. 

Bucky is staring at him like he’s grown a second head. “You serious?”

Steve grimaces.

“Shit. You are serious. Ah, fuck, Stevie--”

Steve’s breath catches when Bucky pulls him back in, tight against his body. His lips are right by Steve’s ear when he lets out a harsh breath. “You got no idea. No fuckin’ idea.”

Steve’s eyes are wide, staring at the window over Bucky’s shoulder but not really seeing--

Bucky kisses him, soft, just under his ear, and then says, low: “You know how many times I -- you know how much I wanted, how much I’ve always wanted -- if I coulda, woulda had you like this in our living room.” They’re in the living room now, standing in place, just swaying a little and Bucky’s voice is-- “You remember that place? That dump over by Red Hook with the tub in the kitchen?”

Bucky ain’t much of a one for talking anymore, won’t use five words if one will do, but he talks to Steve, and he’s talking now. His voice is low and rumbly in Steve’s ear, and sounds like home, sounds like Brooklyn.

If Steve closes his eyes he could almost be there. He lets Bucky move him, pull him, he could almost be there -- the smell of the street outside, the sounds from their time, the way the light was different, the feel of it. And Bucky, solid against him, back when he was something small and frail.

“You remember?”

“Yeah, Buck, of course I-- oh!”

Bucky turns them, pushes him with the press of his body, but there’s a hand at the small of Steve’s back and for a moment Steve feels small for real, because it’s so effortless, the way Bucky guides him down onto--

Onto the couch. And for a split second Steve expects the groan of springs, the day bed that doubled as a couch and as Steve's bed, back home--

And Steve opens his eyes to see Bucky over him, the new Bucky with his long hair and his eyes like fire.

“Seven years,” he says, gruff like he’s been smoking, and suddenly Steve wants that, wants the smell of those smokes, like he can wrap himself up in it, get back some of the “-- seven years of coming out of that icebox bedroom and seeing you still sleeping in the living room. Blonde hair a mess and your bony arms all over the place. Fuck, Steve, you know what kinda temptation you were? You are. Christ. That rickety bed.” The couch groans under their combined weight, Bucky’s legs tangling with his. “I’d’a broken it, climbing all over you. Like this. Like this, Sugar. Just like this.”

And his thigh eases -- up, warm and firm but with just the right amount of give. Steve grabs at Bucky, grinds up, helpless.

“Bucky--”

A whine. From his mouth? From Bucky's? Steve isn't sure.

“You’re alright, Honey, you’re alright. Yeah. I got you. I’m right here.”

“Bucky, Bucky.”

“Steve. God, Sunshine, look at you. Look at you.”

Steve opens his eyes and glares.

Bucky laughs. “There you are. Christ. There you are.”

Steve grabs Bucky’s waist, digs his hands in, and pulls him down, sharply. He grinds up and sees Bucky’s eyes go back in his head.

“F-fuck,” Bucky gets out. His eyes squeeze shut, a furrow between them. “Hold on, I don’t-- Christ, just…” He takes a breath, like he’s trying to steady himself. “Jesus,” he says, maybe to himself. “Pump the brakes there, pal--”

“Don’t you dare,” Steve says, tightening his grip on Bucky’s waist.

Bucky puts his forehead against Steve’s, face too close to focus on but his eyes still squeezed shut. “Guh,” he says. His hands come up to cradle the back of Steve’s skull. “We've got time, you and me,” he says, softer now. “All the time in the world. So let's not rush this, huh? Can’t we go slow?”

“Bucky--” Steve starts. “I don't--”

Steve doesn't really want to go slow. He wants to climb inside Bucky's ribcage and build a nest there. He wants to get his face back in the warm place where Bucky’s shoulder meets his neck and maybe smother himself to death. He wants to somehow put every inch of his skin against every inch of Bucky’s skin. He wants to curl himself around Bucky, make himself into a cocoon for Bucky and carry Bucky around in his pocket.

And he wants to try out every crazy thing he’s ever imagined or -- yeah -- seen on one of those awful porn sites they have now where everyone always looks like they’re having just the worst time and no one ever, ever laughs.

Mostly he just wants Bucky to keep smiling at him the way he is now. “Please?” Bucky says gently. “For me? Let's at least try not to rush in facefirst and end up ass over teakettle?”

Whose ass? Which teakettle? Steve likes Bucky’s ass. But he swallows and nods. “Okay...”

Bucky grins. He rubs his thumbs over Steve’s cheekbones, a gentle sweep of calluses over skin.

“...but,” Steve finishes.

Bucky laughs in his face.

Steve glares. “I’m serious, Buck.”

“I know you are. Just. Christ, always getting the last word in. But what?”

Steve narrows his eyes.

“Go on, I won’t laugh, I promise.” He folds his hands on Steve’s chest now, sphinxlike and smiling. “But what?”

“But ain’t we been waiting long enough?” Steve asks. “The hell are we waiting for anyway?”

“Not waiting, just…” Bucky runs his hands down, brushing Steve’s collarbones, light as feathers over his pecs. “Taking my time, see? Wanna take my time with you.”

Steve feels himself lighting up all over again, blood in his cheeks and nerves crackling. “So take your time with me. Take your time with me right through the damn--” his face is so hot “--mattress,” he finishes. “And then take your time with me again tomorrow. Take your time with me every goddamn day, but I am so fucking sick of waiting, Buck, Christ, I been waiting so goddamn--”

Bucky surges up to kiss him hard and Steve whines into it, sinks his fingers into the material of Bucky’s robes and pulls him in tight.

“Alright, you’ve convinced me,” Bucky says, the words blurry against Steve’s mouth, like he can’t stand to be far enough away to enunciate properly. “I’m convinced. But if I do something you don't like, just say so. You do something I don't like, I'll tell you. No keepin’ secrets.”

“No keepin’ secrets,” Steve says, and kisses the corner of Bucky’s mouth. “Got it. Yup. I am. Fine with tha-haat -- oh!”

Bucky’s lips find a spot under his ear and the words turn breathless, turn to gasps, to a groan, and Bucky’s leg slips between Steve’s legs and his thigh is thick and hard and warm, and Steve pushes up against it. He can feel where Bucky’s just as desperate as he is, the hot line of him through his robes. Steve reaches down, grabs a double handful of Bucky's ass.

“Oh hell--” and Bucky grinds down hard, his full weight pressing Steve down into the couch and just like that--

Bucky freezes over him and Steve’s eyes are squeezed tight shut, lips closed over the sound crawling up his throat, the shudder that runs through him hard, head to toe, the feeling that rises up and over him, makes his muscles go taut, makes his hips jerk and jerk and-- feels like-- so good -- like nothing else--

When the line of pleasure snaps and lets him go, he's breathing hard -- and still more than halfway hard despite the sticky cooling mess -- fuck the serum, seriously. He sags back against the couch cushions, still covered by the heavy warmth of...

He opens his eyes. Bucky is staring at him, eyes wide. “Did you just?”

Steve covers his face with one hand. He can feel his own blush, hot against his palm. He nods.

There’s a moment of hesitation. “But… But you’re still--” and Bucky’s thigh moves against him.

Steve makes a very embarrassing sound.

Bucky starts to pull away and Steve loses what remains of his mind because under no circumstances can Bucky go anywhere. He clutches hard at Bucky’s back, at his ass, just pulls him down until the full weight of him is on Steve, holding him down.

“Really?” Bucky says, breathless. “Really? Really? Oh -- okay, okay we’re--” He shifts, grinding against Steve, and Steve whimpers. He still wants--

But he needs to say it --

“Buck.” His voice, drunken sounding in his own ears. Babbling. “C'mon. I know you said -- slow -- but oh please, Honey, I can take it, I got -- three more at least and I want--”

“Jesusfuck,” Bucky says.

“--you,” Steve gets out. “Missed you. Missed you so bad.”

Bucky's breath is shaky hot against Steve's neck. “Okay, Sweetheart, I got you. I’ll take care of you, yeah?”

That shouldn't get to him the way it does, right under the ribs where he's tender, but it does. He buries his face in Bucky’s shoulder, just for a moment. Then he digs his fingers into Bucky's robes. “Off,” he demands.

“Pushy,” Bucky says, but he rears back and unknots one of the corners. The robe falls down, revealing the rest of his torso: all the soft, pink acreage of him, the dark fuzz on his chest, on his belly, where he’s -- god, he’s just a little soft there, isn’t he, Steve realizes. It makes him think of the contrast, the way Bucky had been wiry-thin and whippet-like in the war, despite Steve slipping him rations whenever he could. Bucky’s going at the knots on his belt now, unselfconscious. Steve puts his hands on Bucky’s waist where he’s thicker than Steve. Buck’s been eating well here and there’s just -- there’s so much of him.

Steve’s gonna kiss every inch.

“Bed,” Steve adds.

 


 

“I -- Oh, oh god -- I-I don't know this one,” Steve says, later, breathless. He means the music.

“Etta James,” Bucky tells him, hair falling across his flushed and sweaty face. He's grinning, mouth red. “Like it?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, and throws his head back. “Yeah, god, yeah, yeah I do.”

 


 

There’s a lot more laughing in sex than Steve imagined. They don’t do anything too fancy this first time, because even the relatively simple business of just grinding up on each other like a couple of dumb teens is enough to set off their hair trigger bodies, and also Steve’s terrible sense of rhythm is not limited to his feet, which leads to even more laughing. Bucky gets a little fancy with his mouth, and Steve tries to copy what he does and gets a little intimidated and ends up having to wash his face with Bucky laughing at him.

Steve finishes drying his face, catches sight of his reflection in the mirror and just... looks at himself for a moment, for real. He looks the same, doesn’t he. He turns his head, smile fading into something contemplative. He's got a bit of stubble coming in, like usual. Thinking of the scrape of Bucky's scruff on his thighs, he wonders if he should see if he can grow a beard. Nat's been hassling him to do something.

But he looks just the same, is the point. He looks the same as he has since he came out of the Vita Ray machine. Looks the same as he did when he came out of the ice. Looks the same as he did before he knew Bucky was alive. He looks just exactly the same as he did yesterday, when he was still--

“You ever coming out of there?” Bucky calls.

“You miss me?” Steve shoots back, and then comes out of the bathroom to the sight of Bucky looking smug and completely naked except for the blanket over his waist.

“Maybe,” Bucky says, easy and happy and free. “Maybe thinking about never letting you outta this bed again.”

Steve flops onto said bed like a kid. It bounces them both and they giggle. Steve lies on his side, props his head up on his elbow. “That your way of asking me to go steady with ya, Barnes?”

Bucky gives him a look. It’s a hopeless, stupid, dizzy look. He laughs at himself, shakes his head. “You kiddin’? I’d bend the fucking knee if I had a ring, pal.”

“Oh,” Steve says, a little punched-out breath of a sound.

“Well,” Bucky says, suddenly something tender and awkward showing in his face. “I mean. Till death do us part was already in the cards, wasn’t it?”

“Death can fucking try me,” Steve says.

Bucky laughs again. “Christ. You would, wouldn’t you? You’d fistfight Death for trying to lay hands on me.”

“I’d win too.” He has before. Even before the serum he'd beaten death again and again and again. Well. Not beaten per se. Death was just another bully who kept coming after him, kept getting his licks in. But Steve kept getting up. And then Steve got the serum and for a moment he thought --

But when Death couldn't take him, it had taken Bucky instead.

“Pal?”

Except it hadn’t, Steve reminds himself, pulling out of the reverie. Bucky's looking at him, concerned. Steve just shakes his head. “Just thinking.”

“No,” Bucky says. “Absolutely no thinking allowed. You stop that.”

“Make me,” Steve says.

Bucky does.

 


 

In the morning, the music has changed and changed and changed, so soft it didn’t keep Steve from drifting off. But now it’s still playing, which seems wasteful, but also… nice.

Birds flying high, you know how I feel, says the smoky voice of the singer, so softly as to be almost inaudible.

They’re curled in the same bed (not all that unusual) but instead of facing away from each other, or staring up at the ceiling, Bucky is latched onto Steve’s back, his prosthetic draped over Steve’s waist, breathing softly against the skin between Steve’s shoulder blades.

Big spoon, Steve thinks, vaguely remembering someone teasing someone else about that. Rhodes, teasing Tony. Pepper’s the big spoon, isn’t she?

Although that ain’t exactly the right phrase, surely. Bucky ain’t small, but it’s not like he can wrap around Steve. For a fleeting, hazy moment, he imagines Bucky curling around him like this when Steve was small, when they were younger. He imagines how safe that would feel.

As safe as this feels, probably. Except now there’s exactly 0% chance that Steve will have an asthma attack, or his back will play up, or he’ll start coughing blood into a handkerchief.

Bucky takes a breath in, deeper, and scrubs his forehead back and forth over the knob at the top of Steve’s spine. He hums, deep in his chest, and his prosthetic tightens, pulling Steve closer. He buries his face in the broad expanse of Steve’s back and grumbles at the sheer indignity of being awake.

I could get used to this, Steve thinks.

And he will. He dares to think it, just now. He dares to believe that this will be his life. Maybe he can have this. Maybe he can keep it. Maybe, one day, this won’t feel like a gift anymore. Maybe one day, this will just be how all his mornings start.

He rubs his face into the pillow and drifts off to sleep again, Bucky now snoring very softly with his face still smushed against Steve’s back.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me. And I’m feeling good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

7: Bucky

We can do this every night
You can be my ride or die
And we can live this way every day
Go out like dynamite, I'm living life, ride or die
Gonna live this way every day
- “Ride or Die” by The Knocks (ft. Foster the People), 2018.

 

The funniest thing, maybe, is that no one notices.

Bucky had kind of assumed that everyone would just… be able to tell somehow. He is half-expecting the lab techs to have a “Congrats on the Sex” cake waiting for him at work on Monday, but they don’t. He keeps expecting Shuri to bring it up, keeps preparing different ways to tell her to mind her own damn business because seriously, the kid has zero boundaries.

But no one says anything.

And later, when he thinks about it, it makes sense. They live together, but they already did that. They eat together, but they already did that too. Hell, they were already sleeping together in the non-euphemistic sense.

And it ain’t like anything obvious changes. They don’t start making out in front of folks because that’s just not how they are. They don’t start holding hands in public because neither of them like it. They keep giving each other shit, because they’ve been doing that since they were twelve. They keep staring at each other like they don’t want to look anywhere else, because they’ve been doing that for just about as long, probably.

No one notices because, to be honest, not much has changed.

 


 

Eventually, Bucky has to tell someone, for very boring and practical reasons. Steve is going to have to go back on mission, and soon, and Bucky can’t let him go without--

“Ramonda,” he says, awkwardly, after tracking her down in the palace garden. She usually takes a break up here in the afternoon to cut herbs and find a quiet moment between queenly commitments. “Can I… ask you about something?”

She looks up, as kind and understanding as ever. “Of course, Sergeant.” She scoots over on the low wall, making room for him. As soon as he sits, she hands him string and a bundle of herbs to tie. He’s testing another iteration of the everyday arm this week, and small precise tasks like this are good practice.

He starts wrapping the little bundle up. It’s small white flowers with fragrant herb-smelling leaves on tough, woody stalks.

“What did you want to ask?” Ramonda prompts.

Bucky watches his mismatched hands working through the delicate business of putting the bundle together. “I um. I understand if this won’t be possible, given the givens, but I was thinking about. Steve. And I was wondering if there was any way to get him the kind of deal that I’ve got.”

He can feel Ramonda looking at him, and when he glances up, she seems politely curious but unsure. “What kind of deal do you mean?”

“Maybe not citizenship, like you got me, but something? I mean, I don’t expect anything but I was wondering, if he and I got…” Bucky swallows. “If we got married or something, would that get him some of the protections I got? From extradition, at least. I mean, I can’t stop him goin’ out on missions, I wouldn’t ask him to, but. If anyone finds out he’s here between jobs -- I don’t wanna put you out over it or nothin’, but--”

“Sergeant,” Ramonda says gently. He’s wound the string around the herbs too tight, he thinks. The smell from the leaves is pungent, crushed greenery. He ties it off and sets it in the basket hurriedly. She puts her hands over his. “Sergeant…” And now she sounds like she’s laughing at him.

“What?” he asks, making himself look up.

“Well, first of all, Wakanda doesn’t extradite to anyone. But second of all…” There’s a laugh in her eyes. “You two already are married.”

He sighs. “Shuri just says that as a--”

“No,” Ramonda says, amusement deepening. “I mean, literally, Sergeant. The Wakandan tradition of marriage is not like Western traditions. Some people have marriage celebrations in Outsider style, but… that is not the norm. When a couple moves in together, they are married. When they decide to move out, they are no longer married. That is all.”

“Oh,” Bucky says.

“If the ceremony is important to you two, we could probably dig up a priest or something, maybe, but… You are a Wakandan citizen now. Our laws apply to you too. By that metric, you two have been married…” She pauses, cocks her head. “Well… My understanding is that your separation was neither willing nor mutual, so from the time you first moved in together… how many years ago now?”

Bucky’s pretty good at math. He feels himself smiling, lopsidedly. “Just over 80 years, Ma’am.”

Her smile is indulgent, a little bemused. “Then I don’t think you have to ask my permission for anything, do you. Congratulations to you both.”

 


 

When Bucky tells Steve, the dumb mook laughs and laughs and laughs, actually slaps his knee and wipes tears from the corners of his eyes. The scruff coming in thick and dark on his chin makes his grin look even wider and brighter, somehow. “Fuck,” he says. “Of course we are. Goddamn. Why didn’t anyone tell us, Buck? Why the hell didn’t anyone tell us, huh?”

And well, when you put it like that, it is pretty goddamn funny.

 


 

A few days after that, Steve gets a call from Sam. Bucky goes with him to the landing pad, where the quinjet is waiting. They kiss goodbye experimentally at the gangplank, but as soon as they pull back from the quick peck, they’re both looking at each other with slightly narrowed eyes.

“Is it bad if I say that was weird?” Bucky says.

“It was a little weird,” Steve agrees, looking apologetic.

There’s probably something to say there about the times they grew up in, the training they got when they were still young and highly impressionable. It’s one thing to kiss on Bucky’s front step -- very nearly in the privacy of their own home, or out by the lake where everything is a little wild and isolated, but this is Steve about to head out on mission. There’s a different atmosphere. Even after all this time, Bucky feels like Colonel Phillips is about to materialize and start shouting.

Not to mention… “Am I supposed to have packed you a lunch? Am I your wife now?” Bucky asks, face scrunching up further and further the more he thinks about it.

“Well, with the hair and all,” Steve starts.

Bucky punches him in the shoulder with his unforgiving prosthetic fist. “If you get yourself killed, I’ll kick your ass.”

Steve pulls him into a swift hug, and yeah, that’s the good stuff, Bucky thinks. “I’ll see you soon, Buck,” Steve promises, and then pushes back, throws a little salute, and the quinjet swallows him up.

 


 

Bucky’s apartment is too big without Steve in it.

At least at the lake there are chores to do and stories to hear. Thabo doesn’t have time for his moping and neither do the goats and at the end of the day Bucky can put his back against the wall that still carries the impression of Steve’s fingerprints and watch the sunset and be maudlin about it all in the privacy of his own head.

 


 

And it’s not like he stops talking to Steve, of course. The first conversation had been a little stilted, both of them wondering whether things had changed, and how. But by the second or third chat they settle back into their usual.

“When are you coming home?” Bucky asks, when Steve’s been gone about a week. He's on the tablet, not his kimoyo beads, because Steve doesn’t want to risk implicating T’Challa by carrying kimoyo beads around.

“Coupla days,” Steve tells him. He glances back over his shoulder, and Bucky admires how the blonder streaks on top are almost long enough to brush his ears, the way his beard is coming in properly now, the way it never had when he was skinny, the way he’d never allowed it to when he was still Captain America. He looks back at Bucky and smiles, lopsided. He’s got a little butterfly bandage holding his eyebrow together. “Just gotta throw them off our scent before we disperse. You know how Nat is.”

Bucky cocks his head to one side and smiles. “Yeah, I do.”

“Did you teach her to be like this?” Steve asks, turning back to Bucky fully. Nat must be elsewhere. Steve should know better. She’s going to find out about this one way or another.

“Paranoid as hell?”

“I was gonna say perfectionist.”

“Not just me,” Bucky says.

“She fights like you, too,” Steve says.

Bucky barks out a laugh. “I think I’d remember getting my thighs around your head like that. We should give it a try though.”

Steve’s ears go pink. “Jerk. I mean. She goes for the nuts. And then kicks your ass.”

Bucky grins. “Thaaaat’s my girl.”

 


 

When it comes down to it, Bucky doesn’t even know exactly what he expected to change. When Steve comes back, Bucky’s not waiting at the landing pad and he doesn’t run across the tarmac and fling himself into Steve’s arms for the very practical reason that opsec doesn’t allow Steve to tell them when he’s arriving. What does in fact happen is that Steve gets back while Bucky’s finishing up in the lab.

By the time Bucky gets back to the apartment, Steve’s bags are just inside the door. There’s one boot outside the bedroom and another just inside and Steve, otherwise fully dressed, flopped diagonally across the bed. His breath is right on the edge of snoring and he’s clearly asleep.

Bucky chuckles to himself and toes off his own shoes.

Steve snorts awake. His head shifts around and one bleary eye looks back over his shoulder. “Buh?”

“That’s me,” Bucky says. He climbs onto the bed and gives in to the urge to just… flop. He fits on top of Steve like Steve’s a custom made stand for the weird specimen that is Bucky. All their bulky spots and soft places line up like the curves of a puzzle piece. Steve sighs, and Bucky tucks his face into Steve’s back.

“You’re heavy,” Steve tells him primly.

“Yup,” Bucky says, voice muffled in the meat of Steve’s shoulder. It’s a lot of meat. Bucky’s had Steve on top of him like this -- well, more or less like this. Bucky can’t get enough of that feeling of security, of being blanketed and tethered in the kindest, warmest way. It’s a nice changeup, being the blanket. If it’s even half the comfort to Steve that it is to him... “You want me to move?” he asks, just in case.

Steve squirms, just a little, like he’s feeling it out. He takes a deep breath in, lets it out. “...No.”

They lie like that for another twenty minutes.

 


 

And just like that, they’re dating. No muss, no fuss, and precious little drama, surprisingly. After a hundred years of hullabaloo, they’re just… here. A couple, surreal as it is to say. Most things don’t change. A few things do.

Bucky gets to learn Steve. Steve in his multitudes and his specifics. Some things he is relearning: like how Steve can burn pasta if left to his own devices, how you can read along with the news by watching the evolution of Steve’s little frowns.

But for the first time, he's also learning that Steve melts at the feeling of lips on his neck, and that he can combine swearing like a sailor with blushing like a virgin -- which is a damn good look on him.

Sometimes, when he's feeling more helpless than usual at the state of the world, when he's holding himself like he just lost nine inches and a hundred pounds, he wants to bend Bucky around his little finger, take charge of their love life the way he can't take charge of anything else.

But most of the time, he just wants Bucky to melt him into a little Steve puddle. He wants to be coddled and taken care of in a way he would never have accepted before. It's kinda funny actually.

“Work, work, work,” Bucky murmurs fondly while Captain Pillow Princess there kind of writhes himself in a lazy effort to get Bucky's dick where he wants it.

But Bucky doesn't begrudge him this. Steve's been carrying the world too long. Bucky's happy to be the one who takes it all away for a little while.

And he’d be fucking lying if he said it wasn’t good for him. There’s something deeply goddamn therapeutic in taking charge. Steve is so grateful to hand control over, absolutely and completely. And Bucky is happy as a goddamn clam to take control, and use that control to do something as harmless as this.

It’s maybe surprising, given the givens, the two of them being superpowered pinnacles of masculinity, but a lot of the time -- more often than either of them would ever admit -- all they actually want to do is just hold on. No more, no less. All they really want is to hold onto each other and not let go.

 


 

They have their first serious fight six months in.

Steve is between missions, of course, and Bucky has been helping Shuri build a prosthetic for a Dora named M’yra. Bucky’s just talking about M’yra’s case, about how they’re trying to get the fine motor control right, because it never feels quite the same through a prosthetic, and M’yra plays the harp so--

“Does it feel different for you?” Steve asks, curious now.

They’re sitting in the apartment, picking at the dregs of a takeaway box. Steve’s feet are in Bucky’s lap and Bucky’s been absently rubbing circles into the arch.

“Sure,” Bucky says. “I mean, with the different arms and all, each one feels different. The Science one is real precise, but sometimes that backfires because too much input reads like pain. The everyday arm,” he wiggles the fingers. They’re black with gold joints, not as bulky as the combat arm, and more flesh-textured. “Is pretty close to normal but it’s like… feeling everything through a glove. I don’t even know if that’s real or if that’s just because my head knows the arm ain’t really mine, you know? Combat arm is more dulled. Doesn’t feel pain much at all until I put too much strain on the joints. Traction’s the hardest thing to replicate. You know how you can feel when your grip is slipping and catching? The friction? Like this…” And he presses his thumb into the arch of Steve’s foot and drags.

Steve, predictably, groans and lets his head fall back. “Shit, Buck.”

Bucky chuckles. Steve’s real sensitive just about everywhere, and he keeps everyone but Bucky at arm’s length or more, so he’s real responsive, too, cuz he ain’t used to it. Not that Bucky is, but Bucky’s got more practice controlling his reactions.

“Christ,” Steve mumbles to the ceiling. “Wish I coulda had your hands on me back in the day, ya know?”

Bucky hums and rubs a little circle just below the callous under Steve’s toes. “Thinking about a back rub?” Steve (back when he had scoliosis and 18 other things wrong with him) had always been trying new and creative ways to keep his back from hurting. They never tried a back rub. Steve never asked and Bucky never offered.

“Thinking about a lot of things, but yeah, that too.” Steve’s a little pink.

“Shoulda said something,” Bucky chuckles. “Lord knows I’d’a been happy to uh. Lend a hand.”

Steve’s head pops up and he fixes Bucky with a bemused look. “Yeah?”

Bucky laughs again. “Hell yeah. I mean, I wasn’t gonna say anything about it, but I don’t think I woulda said no. I’ve wanted to get my hands on you since… huh. 1932, I guess?”

Suddenly Bucky is left holding empty air as Steve’s foot whips out of his grip. “What?” he says, and the bemusement is full confusion now. “1932?”

Bucky lets his empty hands fall into his lap. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure. Aunt Miriam had caught Arnie with that fella he was seeing from the Village, and everyone was talking about it. That was the first time I realized a fella could be a queer and still, you know. Like baseball and stuff.” That was the thing about being a queer, back in their day. It came with a whole set of other boxes to tick. Being artistic. Being girly. Looking a little like Steve had, back then. You couldn’t be a star pitcher, an altar boy, and the kinda boy who started fights and won them, and also be queer. You couldn’t be queer and normal.

Except of course you could. It was just that no one had told them that.

Normally when Bucky starts a sentence with I remember Steve gets all gooey unless it’s Hydra bullshit. Right now he’s frowning. “You were just a kid in 1932,” Steve says. Like he thinks Bucky’s lying or something.

“I was fifteen.” He knows that’s pretty young by today’s standards, but back in his day they’d already done a lot of growing up by fifteen. He’d been hanging around the docks since he was about ten, he’d seen all kinds of shit there. He’d seen dead bodies, seen a naked lady or two thanks to dirty postcards left around by dockworkers. He’d even had his first kiss -- Hannah Simon, who was almost a whole year older than him. He was fifteen, and therefore stupid, but he wasn’t completely blind. He’d always figured that Steve was different because they were best friends, but that day in 1932 was the first day he thought… maybe…

“1932?” Steve says again. Something in his tone makes Bucky sit up and pay attention real fast. Steve’s gripping the back and arm of the sofa like he’s about to vault up and maybe levitate to the ceiling.

“Yeah, what’s--”

“Why didn’t you say anything sooner?” Steve snaps.

“Whoa!” Bucky says. “What the hell, man?”

“Why didn’t you say anything, Bucky?”

Steve never loses his temper like this, not at Bucky, and this is why: Steve’s voice turns harsh and angry, and something in Bucky hits all the off switches in a hurry. His face goes blank, he feels it. His hands rest in his lap, shoulders curling in a little. He fixes his eyes on Steve’s chest. Steve’s breathing hard. “Why would I say anything?” Bucky asks. “It was 1932,” he states, voice soft and low and even. Situation unclear. Placate the handler. “There was no future in it.”

“It was 1932, I didn’t have a future!” Steve’s voice cracks.

Bucky watches Steve’s chest heave, and dips his chin down, defensive and curled in, and hates himself for it.

“Jesus Christ, Buck! Are you telling me I coulda had you -- all this time?” Steve grabs the front of his own shirt, makes a fist in the material. Bucky thinks it’s an unconscious gesture -- he remembers Steve doing that sometimes when he was having an asthma attack, and once or twice even now that he’s big. Stress. Panic maybe.

“You did have me,” Bucky says, very quiet now.

“Don’t play fucking semantics with me right now, Barnes.”

It feels like Steve’s big, angry voice is raising the temperature in the room. Bucky is trying to keep a lid on it, like he learned to do over the last seventy-odd years, but it’s hard. The more Steve yells, the closer Bucky gets to the boiling point and when he hits it--

“Do you know how much time we wasted? How much time you wasted? When I thought I didn’t have much -- didn’t have any. We coulda been together since the thirties, and you just decided that--”

The sofa back crunches under Bucky’s prosthetic hand, and the hand -- it’s just the everyday one, not meant for heavy use -- crunches in turn. It sends a bright spark of pain to his neurons and he looks at it. Two of the fingers are popped out of place like they’re broken, and the thumb is twitchy and unresponsive when he tries to flex it. Another bright spark of pain shoots up towards his spine, and finally he remembers to say “ow” because that’s what humans say at a time like this and he--

He is--

“Bucky, Jesus are you--”

Bucky holds up his flesh hand. If Steve comes closer, he doesn’t know what will happen. He’d killed handlers without meaning to, and Steve isn’t a handler but--

Remove yourself from the situation, Bucky remembers, from his early days learning how to navigate the treacherous goddamn seas of his own bullshit.

He gets up and goes into the office.

He locks the door behind him.

 

It takes Bucky half an hour to cool down but only five for Steve to park himself outside the office door like the world’s giantest and most disconsolate abandoned puppy, so when Bucky opens the door he all but trips over Steve’s mile-long legs.

Steve looks up at him with his saddest eyes and says: “M’Sorry, Buck. I shouldn’t have shouted.”

“I shouldn’t have broken the sofa.”

“You didn’t mean to--”

“But I did. I’m sorry too.” Bucky thinks about moving this to a more comfortable spot, but just folds his knees and sits down on the floor with Steve.

They don’t touch. Bucky settles in, cross-legged, while Steve pulls his knees up to his chest.

“You took off your arm,” he observes.

“Needs repairs,” Bucky says.

They sit together in awkward silence.

“Do you remember when you refused to move in with me and we had that fight?” Bucky says. “Back in… what was it, ‘36?”

“Worst two weeks of my life. Well. At that point.” Steve looks miserable.

“I never really figured out what that was about.” Bucky rubs his forehead. “Guess I can figure it now.”

Steve groans and hides his face, pressing his forehead against his knees. “I’d wanted you for years by then. I was worried if we moved in together -- I thought I’d lose my damn mind, Buck. I thought you’d figure it out for sure. Thought there was no way I could hide it.”

“So what’s this fight about, huh?” Bucky asks.

Steve picks his head up a little and stares at his knees. Sometimes he looks so fucking much like a little guy trapped in a big guy’s body, and this is definitely one of those moments. They don’t happen all that often anymore. Less and less as time goes on, Bucky figures.

“I was so worried about missing out. Back then, I knew I didn’t have much time, and it was still running through my fingers. Every damn thing I wanted -- to be a real artist, to fight in the war, you. ” He shakes his head. “I kept… reaching for things. And missing.” His eyes flick to Bucky’s and then quickly away again. Steve tips his head back, stares at the ceiling and blinks hard. “I was too late to save you, too late for Peggy. My whole life. I missed it. It’s my biggest regret.”

Bucky gets his lower lip between his teeth. His own regrets are… well. They’re distinctly more murdery, but he understands the feeling. “Regrets will eat you alive, Pal.”

“I know,” Steve says.

“If I’m honest with you right now, will you yell at me for it?”

Steve’s face is that level of painfully earnest that only he can achieve. “I swear I won’t.”

Bucky chews his lip a moment longer. “I’m not sorry we weren’t together in the thirties, pal. People were already coming after you for being queer. You think you wouldn’t have gotten caught? You ever seen yourself try to lie? To keep a secret like that? Hiding something like that from all your friends? My family? Come on. Be realistic. It would’ve gotten out. You think they woulda let you become Captain America with something like that on your record? My ma and pa were always real nice about Arnie, but they wouldn’t have looked at us the same, that’s for sure.” Tentatively, Bucky reaches out and grabs Steve’s shoulder. “This is better, Pal.”

“I guess, I just… I feel like we wasted so much time.”

Bucky swallows and thinks of his suspicions on that front, and Steve's raw panic in the face of them. “You and me… we got plenty of time.”

“We’d better. I’ll fucking lose it if we don’t,” Steve says, and all but crawls into Bucky’s lap.

They stay like that for a long time, Steve tucking himself into the smallest ball possible when he’s the size of an elephant. Bucky curls himself around Steve as best he can and hopes to god that somehow it’s enough to soothe the raw regret in Steve’s bones.

 


 

That’s the first time Steve brings up the possibility of retirement.

It’s a couple days after and they’re both still a little raw around each other. They’re on the couch. Well -- Steve’s on the couch and Bucky’s on the floor in front of the couch. They’re watching some Wakandan soap opera while Steve plays with Bucky’s hair.

The playing with his hair is a new thing that Bucky loves. Like a lot. Honestly, if he had to choose between sex and this, it’d be a fucking toss up. Steve’s fingers are deft and clever and never pull too hard. It sends shivers up and down Bucky’s spine, all the way out to his fingertips. He could cheerfully sit like this for hours.

“What if I gave it up?” Steve says, into the quiet tingling silence, undoing the braid he’s been working on for the last ten minutes.

For a half second Bucky thinks he’s talking about sex, but that can’t be right, because Steve loves sex. “Gave what up?” Bucky asks, aware that he sounds slow and drunk.

“You know what,” Steve says.

Bucky’s brain comes back online. “You’re not serious,” he says.

“I’m thinking about being serious.”

Bucky wants to turn his head to look at Steve, but also doesn’t, because Steve’s fingers are still working through his hair, and also because looking away from Steve gives him a little space to breathe and think before answering. “I’ve never asked you to,” he says, slowly.

“No,” Steve agrees.

“I never would,” Bucky adds.

“I know.”

“So you don’t gotta. Not for me, not for anyone.”

There’s a long pause where Steve doesn’t say anything, but runs his fingers through Bucky’s hair over and over and over. Bucky wonders whether Steve gets anything out of it.

“But I could,” Steve says. “For me, maybe.”

“Do you want to?” Bucky asks. His heart is way up high in his chest, and about three sizes too big, because he knows Steve wouldn't say this if he didn't mean it, but at the same time, he can't quite believe that--

“I want to want to,” Steve says. “Does that make any kind of sense?”

“I think I get it. Explain it to me more, though.”

Steve goes quiet for a long while: long enough that he starts braiding Bucky's hair again. “Spent a lot of time since I came out of the ice thinking about how bad I want to go home,” he says at last. “Finally carved out a home for myself there--”

The big heart in Bucky's chest squeezes tight. “And then I got you in trouble,” he says. Steve jokes about being homeless, but he is, he's a fucking fugitive because of Bucky, just when he was starting to settle into his new goddamn life at the Avengers Compound, Bucky came crashing in and --

Steve sighs, put upon. “See now that's just exactly what I don't want you thinking,” he says, like he's reading it off the front page. “I was saying. Finally carved out a life there but it wasn't really mine. It was the Avengers’. It was Tony's. It was Cap's. And yeah it was me too, but I…”

Steve runs out of words. Bucky picks up the dropped thread for him. “You want more.”

Steve shifts around and a moment later Bucky feels Steve’s forehead press against the top of his skull. Steve breathes in deeply, and Bucky feels a swell of fondness for him, the goddamned weirdo. When he speaks again, it’s a little muffled by Bucky’s hair. “I just wanna feel like I’m home, I…” He sighs. “I wanna stop feelin’ like my real home is a… a private military compound in upstate New York. I wanna feel like I’m home when I’m here.”

Bucky slips his one arm under Steve’s leg and squeezes gently: a half hug. “Give it time,” he says.

“Do you feel like you’re home when you’re here?” Steve asks.

“I feel like I’m home when you’re here,” Bucky says quietly.

Steve hangs on tight. What else is there to say?

 


 

But still, when Sam calls a couple of days after that, Steve can’t not go. And Bucky can’t stop him. He wouldn’t want to even if he could.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says miserably.

“Don’t be sorry, ya mook,” Bucky tells him. “I’ll see you in a coupla weeks.”

“I wish I wasn’t--”

“No, you don’t,” Bucky tells him. “Not really. You like doing good. You can, and you like it, so go. Do good.”

Steve kisses him hard. The rough drag of his beard is no longer a new sensation, and Bucky would be lying if he said he didn’t kinda like it.

Then Steve swings his gear bag over his shoulder and goes out the door.

 


 

They've been together for over a year before Bucky finally plucks up his courage and asks a favor of Shuri. Because Steve won’t, and one of them should know. One of them should at least have an idea. One of them needs to start planning for the worst.

Steve’s just left for a mission when Shuri says she’s finished her analysis. Bucky wonders if she’s been sitting on it, sensing that Bucky’s trying to keep it from Steve. Or, trying to shelter Steve from it.

He plugs in his science get arm and heads down to the lab. Shuri is alone in there, and Bucky suspects that’s deliberate.

“Ah, you’re here,” she says, and reaches under her desk. She pulls out a fancy kind of tablet. Bucky recognizes it as one of the ones that’s not linked up to the Wakandan mainframe. Just in case. “So. I’ve been doing the analysis you asked for,” she begins, without preamble. “Cross referencing with what we know from the Siberia lab and what our War Dogs have been able to get out of the Avengers’s databanks, which… to be honest isn’t much. But we’ve got years of data on the effects of the Heart Shaped Herb to compare with, so that’s something.”

Bucky tugs a chair over and waits for Shuri to finish prevaricating and get to the point. He’s a patient guy. Shuri will get to it eventually. She’s plucking at the corner of the tablet thing with one nail while she taps her way through whatever security is on it. She’s nervous.

“So you were able to get an idea,” he says.

“I was able to get an idea,” she says. She finishes logging in to the tablet and takes a breath. “A very rough idea.”

“Kiddo,” Bucky says slowly. “You’re making me nervous.”

She puts the tablet down on the table between them and clicks quickly through to some readings. “The effects of the serum and the Heart Shaped Herb are similar, and so, as we suspected, the chemistry behind it is also similar. But, the Heart Shaped Herb is… well it’s a natural remedy. The chemistry is different in a few important ways, one of which being that, over time, the Heart Shaped Herb breaks down. So, while it affects healing factor and overall health, it doesn’t stop telomere shortening very much. If the Black Panther doesn’t have a successor, he can keep taking the herb, and live as long as 200, maybe 250 years, while the herb slowly breaks down in his system.”

Bucky swallows. 250 years. Jesus. “Okay. So we’re looking at, what, 150 more years?”

Shuri bites her lip.

“More than that?” Bucky guesses.

“The serum isn’t naturally occurring. It’s synthesized. Artificial. Like… plastic? We don’t know for certain, but there’s no sign of it breaking down in Captain Rogers’s system. Without that breakdown, he could easily live five times longer than the Black Panther.”

Bucky goes very, very still. He goes as still as if he were back in cryo. Cold all the way down to his bones.

“And,” Shuri goes on, reluctantly. “Well, we weren’t able to get much out of the Avengers database, like I said. Stark’s security is good. But there is some basic genetic information on all of the Avengers. Not enough to synthesize the serum from, or anything, but enough to…”

“To identify a body?” Bucky guesses.

“Yes.”

“Figures. So. What do you find from that? Has Banner got the same kinda… synthetic telomeres or what the fuck ever?”

“The serum is synthetic, not the telomeres,” Shuri corrects.

“Kiddo,” Bucky says, a little warningly.

“Similar but not exactly the same,” Shuri says. “Actually, I’d expect Dr. Banner to outlive Captain Rogers by some significant margin, barring any--” Shuri stops herself. She sighs and closes her eyes.

“So that’s one friend Steve won’t have to watch die, huh?” Bucky says, a little bitterly.

Shuri winces.

“How long?” Bucky asks.

“I don’t have enough information to give you a number. We need more data. But. I wouldn’t be surprised if his lifespan were ten, perhaps twenty times longer than the Black Panther’s,” Shuri says. “His genetic code shares certain markers with basic Asgardian DNA. Enough that I suspect Erskine’s serum must have been derived from--”

“Do me a favor and don’t even think about Erskine’s serum,” Bucky says, a little sharply.

Shuri closes her mouth.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Bucky rubs his forehead. “I just mean. Nothing good ever came of people chasing the serum.” For a minute, he sees the road in his head. The car. The trunk. But instead of Howard’s face, it’s Shuri’s.

He shakes his head. “What about me?” He makes himself ask. He doesn’t know what frightens him more: the thought of outliving Steve, or of Steve having to watch him die too. Again.

“In all important particulars, you and Captain Rogers have similar DNA,” Shuri hurries to say. “You two will have similar lifespans, whether it is 200 years or 2000 or more.”

Bucky lets out a shaky breath. It’s not quite relief, but it’s maybe a close cousin. “Okay,” he says. “I can work with that.” He nods. “We can work with that.” He takes a steadying breath. “So what about that healing factor? I got a long list of things that can’t kill me. What’s on the other list?”

 


 

It turns out, not much. That could be a comfort. But when you’re actually staring immortality in the face… it kind of isn’t.

 


 

After, Bucky goes back to the apartment and gets out the bottle of superhooch that Shuri made for his 101st birthday. The current circumstances are not nearly so nice, but even just looking at the bottle makes him smile to remember it.

He and Steve had gotten well and truly sloshed while stargazing out by the lake. They’d been listening to music. Bucky had just discovered Leon Bridges and he vividly remembers looking over at Steve, seeing stars reflected in those wide blue eyes while the singer crooned I made a good, good thing out of bad, bad news.

They ended up traumatizing several goats, which couldn’t be helped.

Steve sitting up over him, one hand on Bucky's chest, the other tugging at his own overlong hair. Christ he looked good with that beard. The curves and lines of him all limned in moonlight, in starlight; those fucking shoulders sketched out in silver, head thrown back. Every scar from his previous missions vanished. Perfect.

So Bucky had wrecked him, just a little. When he left for his next mission, he was still a little hungover, and he still had marks from Bucky’s hands on his hips, and marks from Bucky’s teeth on his neck. Above the collar, because “You’re such an asshole, Barnes.”

But Steve ain’t here now, and the bruises Bucky gave him will be long gone. He’s probably getting bruises from whatever goon of the week he and Nat and Sam and Wanda are taking down.

Bucky pours himself a double and drinks half of it in one go. It’s all spices and fire, burning in his throat and spreading warmth through him. He braces his elbows on his thighs for a moment, staring at his hands dangling down between his knees.

He lets it hit him in waves, the shock. It was one thing to suspect. It's something else to know. The thing that sticks and keeps hitting is this:

He already feels so old. He’s older than Steve -- they joke about it but it’s true. He’s older than Steve. Steve acts old, but it’s a put-up job half the time and they both know it. Steve’s acted old from the time he was six, and realized his ma was lying when she said he’d be okay. Part of him that will always be that scared little kid, acting like he’s older, holding it up like a shield between himself and the rest of the world.

There’s a part of Bucky that will always be a scared little kid, too, but it’s the same part that got used to kill people for seventy years. So. Even the young parts of him are old. He’s so tired. And it’s nowhere near over.

Sometime, probably a long time from now, he’s going to be looking back at this moment and thinking about how young he was. How much more tired will he be then?

And what about Steve? How tired will Steve be?

He grabs his latest notebook, heavy Wakandan stock and a woven cover similar to Bucky’s favorite Basotho blanket. He grabs a pen and twirls it through his prosthetic fingers, thinking.

He takes another sip of the superhooch, then starts to write.

Hey Pal…

 


 

When the letter is done, he tears it carefully out of the notebook and folds it up. He tucks it into the nightstand on his side of the bed, under a book he's been reading. His side, because the other side has become Steve's side.

They're going to live a long time, and Bucky's having trouble articulating why that scares him. He knows why it scares Steve -- because Steve's lost everything before, and it broke him down inside and built him back a little different. And yeah, they've got each other, but what about everyone else? Steve needs people -- everyone needs people, but Steve...

Steve's an idealist. He's an idealist, but he's also one of the most caring people Bucky's ever met, and as far as Bucky's concerned, that's what makes him a superhero. He's an idealist with a big squishy heart, but if anything ever happened to make the warm living core of him go cold...

Bucky doesn't like to think what would happen then. He doesn't like to imagine a Steve Rogers who doesn't care anymore. 

He's figuring, one day, maybe, hopefully a long way away, Steve and he will have an argument -- not the usual kind of argument -- and Bucky will say something awful and cutting, and Steve will slam a door, and then Bucky will take out the letter (even though it's a letter for Steve, really) and remember how he felt, writing it. And hopefully it will give him some clarity. Hopefully it will give them both some clarity.

He's just lying down when a message pops up on his kimoyo beads. 

Should be back in a couple of weeks. Nat's up to something.

It takes Bucky a minute to change gears, to remind himself that it's June, it's 2018 and that means Steve's turning the big one-oh-oh, and of course Nat is planning something. She's been sending him cryptic planning messages since March. Bucky tries to put his dark thoughts away along with the letter and texts back.

don't know what you're talking about. nat's always up to something. 

 


 

The morning of Steve’s 100th birthday, Bucky gets up first, for once. Of the two of them, Steve’s the morning guy, but flying halfway around the world after a weeklong mission, followed by a long night of supersoldier sex is, well. Pretty tiring.

They got plans for later -- Bucky’s taking the day, and he and Steve are going out to meet Sam and Nat and Wanda at a neutral location of some kind. Nat’s planning it and she hasn’t shared the location yet. Natasha has hinted that Yelena will be there, and Bucky’s hoping they can get Judith on Skype at least. A few months ago they managed to meet up with Yelena and the girls for Bucky’s 101st, even though it was a risk. But it was a proof of concept, at least. It’s dangerous to all be in the same place at the same time, but sometimes you’ve just got to do that shit for fun.

Bucky comes out into the kitchen and starts the coffeemaker. He turns to lean back against the counter and notices the pile of dirty dishes in the sink.

He has a dishwasher. He knows that Steve knows he has a dishwasher. He knows that Steve knows what a dishwasher is.

And yet, Captain America has dumped dirty dishes into his sink instead of putting them in the goddamn dishwasher.

When Steve stumbles into the kitchen twenty minutes later, the coffee is done, and Bucky is elbow deep in soapy water.

“You have a dishwasher,” Steve says, blinking blearily.

“Oh so you noticed?” Bucky says, Brooklyn coming in thick all of a sudden. “‘You have a dishwasher,’ he says. And yet.” He waves expansively at the dirty dishes in the sink. Half of them have now migrated to the drying rack.

There’s a momentary pause, and then Bucky feels warmth at his back. A pair of hands settle on his waist, and lips brush the skin under his ear. His hair is pulled up in a sloppy bun. Bucky shivers a little at the touch.

“You’re smiling,” Steve murmurs in his ear.

“Am I?” But Bucky knows he is.

“You were singing,” Steve adds.

“Was I?” Bucky hadn’t realized that. He’s had a tune in his head for days, that’s true. It’s been driving him nuts.

“Mmhmm,” Steve says. “Woke me up.” And then, in his terrible, out-of-tune baritone. “I have eyes for you to give you dirty looks.” Bucky groans, but Steve keeps singing. Boy doesn’t have a single ounce of rhythm to his name. “I have words that do not come from children’s books.”

Bucky turns in his arms and puts a wet, soapy hand over Steve’s mouth. But he can’t let the rest of the verse go unsung. He just can’t. “There’s a trick with a knife I’m learning to do,” he continues. “And everything I’ve got belongs to you.”

Steve is grinning when he pulls Bucky’s hand from his mouth. “I’ll make pancakes.”

“You’ll burn pancakes. Get your coffee and read the news or whatever. I’ll make pancakes.”

“But you did the dishes,” Steve protests.

“Yeah and what else is new?”

Steve gets a strange smile all over his dumb face. “Not this.” And then he goes a little pink, like he does when he realizes he’s said something real corny and he’s waiting for someone to call him out on it.

He’s right. None of this is new. A hundred years old, but not much has changed. The singing, the dirty dishes, coffee and the news, making breakfast… The coffee maker looks like something out of a Buck Rogers comic. That one arm of his looks a little different, sure. And there’s lube in the nightstand by the bed that they share. That’s different. But despite everything, the essentials are unchanged since 1937. Like Bucky said: I feel like I’m home when you’re here. 

The blush has hit the tops of Steve’s ears now, waiting for Bucky to start teasing.

Instead, Bucky decides to say something even cornier back. He means happy birthday. He means I love you too. He says: “Yeah yeah, get your coffee, punk.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coda: Nix

- Zoë Keating, 2018

 

Hey Pal,

Back in the war, I wrote goodbye letters. I think we all did, one time or other. ‘Just in case’ letters. I kinda miss them. That weird? It’s just that life's a real fucking muddle. There's a clarity to death. Puts shit in perspective. Living makes everything more complicated. You and me -- I think we’ve got a lot of living left to do. I've seen you shake off bullets, broken bones, stab wounds, explosions… I've almost forgotten what it was like to wonder if you'd still be around come spring. Almost.

So this is my ‘just in case’ letter. Not in case we die too soon; for when we live too long. I don’t wanna forget. I got a lot of things I don't wanna forget. I still got things I wanna say to you. Can you believe that? After all this time, I still got things I wanna say to you.

Loss hits us in places the serum can’t fix. We’re gonna lose people, you and me. We have already, but it’s gonna keep happening and happening and happening. I know what that does to a body, to a soul. You get scars on the inside. Things that shoulda stayed soft get toughened, calcified.  

You know what Nat says about you? She says when she met you, you were half dead. You were on life support. You were turning into stone, and no one was even trying to stop it, cuz no one could see it. Even she didn’t realize until you started coming alive again. Didn’t realize how bad it was til I came back. Don’t know what I think about that, to be honest, but...

You told me once -- God, you were drunk. So so drunk, you probably don't remember -- but you told me I was like the Lucifer of Liege. Didn't know how to take that, at first, but then I looked him up and decided it was definitely a compliment. Real handsome devil. Hah. Seems like a role I grew into, older I got.

Point is -- when you came into that… place. The lab, I knew things were gonna change. You were standing over me, shining and golden like the Rockefeller Prometheus. I knew you were there to bring fire to mankind. But I’d always known that. ‘A means to mighty ends.’ I’ll say.

But I think the way you look now throws people off as much as it did before. I know that plenty of people would love you, the way you are now. Captain America! Who wouldn’t want a piece of that? But here's the thing pal; you ain't Captain America. Captain America is a statue; gold and marble carved in the image of Steve Rogers. But gold and marble don't breathe. Don't bleed. Gold and marble ain't warm, but you are. God, you are.

You don’t gotta be a statue: not for anyone. Certainly not for me, but you know that. I loved you when were skin and bone and stupid, I’ll love you no matter what. I tell you: the way I love you ain't right, pal. The way I love you is dangerous. You and me, we got a kinda love that breaks all laws. Kinda love that's easy to get swept up in.  You know what I’m talking about. You feel just the same. You’d fistfight the world for me. You tried to, you goddamn maniac. But I don't wanna see us turned into something ugly. I don't 

Look. Here’s what I’m trying to say:

Stay warm, Steve Rogers. Don’t turn into stone, okay? You are so much better than a statue, pal. You breathe and bleed. And you are so, so warm, the warmest thing in the world to a fella who's been locked out in the cold too long.

 

Yours,

Bucky.