The earpiece on the ground is the first clue.
Bucky freezes on the stairwell leading up to his apartment, slowly setting down the bag of plums he'd purchased half an hour ago. He scans the grimy, dark corners of the stairwell and the area around his door, his heartbeat quickening as he tries to fight off the creeping feeling of hopelessness. The situation is still salvageable. There's no one around, as far as he can tell, and he can't make out any cameras, though maybe they’ve gotten so small now that they're invisible to even his serum-enhanced eyes. And if that's the case, it's only a matter of time before the cavalry comes, whoever might be leading it.
He approaches the earpiece cautiously as if it's a live grenade, holding his breath as he leans in close. The top-down view doesn't give him much information, but when he tilts his head, he finally finds what he's looking for. There’s the tiniest underlined A painted on the earbud. He recognizes it at once.
Bucky's hands curl into fists, and the plates of his metal arm flip upward as his heart threatens to beat out of his chest. Frantically, he looks around, trying to assess the invisible threat. Even though his heart aches to see Steve, he's not going to go down without a fight. He's worked too hard to become a person—a free person—to let anyone take that away.
He crushes the earpiece under his boot and fumbles for his keys, leaving the bag of plums on the stairwell as he barges into his apartment. The fruit would only be a minor obstacle, but anything's better than nothing. He makes it inside the door, slams it shut, and then—
Steve is huddled on his mattress, half-naked and shuddering.
But he's not—
He's not Steve. At least, not the Steve of the present. Not Captain America, whose photo Bucky studies obsessively after every nightmare, wondering when he should finally let Steve and his team catch up to him.
This Steve is small and bird-boned, all angles and shadows, like the one Bucky remembers in flashes when he's having one of his better days. This Steve is the one he saw falling away from him on the helicarrier, narrow jaw and floppy blond hair superimposed on the swollen, beaten face of Captain America. This Steve is the one that made him jump into the river and drag Captain America through toxic sludge and burning wreckage, just to make sure he was still breathing.
Calm settles over Bucky like a comforting blanket. This isn't real. It's his mind acting up again. It's not the first time he's had a vivid hallucination of Steve before the serum, though it is the first one he's had of Steve shirtless. He doesn't know why his brain has decided to do this now, but he knows what he needs to do: keep going about his plan until the hallucination goes away. Trying to run from it just makes it worse.
Bucky sighs and rubs his temples. All he wanted were some goddamn plums. But then someone just had to go and impersonate him while bombing the UN, and now he has to go on the run. He still doesn't know who it was or why they did it, and that thought chills him to the bone; but he can't let it paralyze him, not when he can still make it out of this somehow.
Bucky pointedly walks past the Steve-hallucination and uses his metal fist to punch the floorboard which houses the backpack serving as his go-bag. As he latches the backpack straps around his chest and waist he scopes the area immediately outside the window next to the fridge. No strike teams are approaching, which gives him a short window of opportunity to jump and run. He’ll still have to dodge and block shots from any snipers hidden at various vantage points, but at least it’s one less thing to worry about.
He makes the mistake of looking back over his shoulder just as he's about to leave. Steve-hallucination’s raised his head now, and he's staring at Bucky with a mixture of anguish and desperation. His skin is flushed bright red from head to toe, and as Bucky stares, he wraps his arms around himself and starts to rock back and forth, groaning softly.
Bucky's breath catches in his throat. He remembers this. Part of it, anyway.
Steve had been eighteen, lying in bed flushed with fever and pain, and Bucky had thought that this was it, that Steve's body had finally given out despite Steve's constant attempts to prove that it wouldn't. Bucky had provided everything he could: cold washcloths, warm broth, fresh wintry air, bitter medicine which he'd spent his last wages on, and all the old and new prayers he could recall – but Steve wasn't getting better. Bucky had never seen him so badly off, not even in his worst bout of pneumonia. Bucky had been halfway out the door, about to call on the doctor and the priest, when Steve had let out a long, low groan of agony that had Bucky running back inside.
"Steve," Bucky said, his throat thick. "Steve, what's wrong?"
"Hurts," Steve mumbled, gripping his elbows with his fingers like he could pull them off somehow. He made a small, desperate noise. "Buck," he breathed, "Buck, you gotta—please—"
"What's going on?" Bucky whispered, running a soothing hand up and down Steve's spine. Steve moaned and arched into it, desperately pressing his sweat-soaked shirt against Bucky's palm.
Then, without warning, he flopped onto his belly and began rutting frantically against the sheets.
"Steve," Bucky hissed in alarm, his cheeks reddening. "Steve, stop—you'll hurt yourself—"
"Bucky," Steve groaned, "Please—"
"Tell me how I can help," said Bucky, his hands clenching and unclenching into fists uselessly. "Steve, what do I do?"
"You have to—to touch—please, I'm—"
The memory fragments there, and Bucky's attention gets drawn back to the mattress as the Steve-hallucination doubles over with a hiss of pain. Bucky's at his side before he knows it, kneeling and reaching out with his flesh hand before he comes to his senses and snatches it back. Steve-hallucination whimpers, giving Bucky a wide-eyed, betrayed look that nearly outdoes the one from their fight on the highway. (Now that's a memory that keeps Bucky awake at night: the horrified recognition on Steve's face when the Soldier's mask fell off, his mouth shaping the word "Bucky?" that the Soldier could barely hear through the noise in his brain—)
Steve-hallucination moans again and drops his head, letting his blonde hair flop over his forehead. And then, before Bucky can stop him, he pushes his head right against Bucky's palm like a cat.
Bucky jumps back like he's been scalded. His heart pounds as he scrambles to the other side of the apartment. "What the fuck, what the fuck," he whispers.
Steve-hallucination curls in on himself and sobs.
Bucky halts, his heart shattering at the sound, and then he wheels around sharply, rips the newspaper off the window, and unlatches the window with shaking fingers. He's overdue for his escape, anyway, and every extra minute is just another chance for the Avengers, or the police, or whoever, to play catch-up. Running from his hallucinations never ends well, but this time he has no choice.
Steve-hallucination lets out another wet sob that transmutes into a pained whine. The sound rings like a bell in Bucky's skull, igniting a mixture of panic and protectiveness that feels familiar despite its long absence. Bucky closes his eyes and exhales slowly, then, against his better judgment, he closes the window, pats the newspaper back in place, and squats down next to the mattress.
"Hey, Steve," he whispers.
Steve-hallucination whines again. This time, Bucky lets Steve push his head against his flesh palm. He cards through Steve-hallucination's blonde strands, listening carefully to the other's soft sighs as he marvels about how real the hallucination feels.
Maybe he's dreaming. Maybe he went to the market and got his plums, and then he fell asleep writing his memories down. Sometimes that happens. His dreams are vivid these days, full of memories that bleed into reality. That's why he has the notebooks – to help him sort through them all.
This dream is kind of nice. Bucky wishes he could stay in it.
But if it isn't a dream—well, the clock is ticking, and pretty soon the real Steve, or one of Steve's teammates, is bound to come knocking in a not-so-polite fashion. Bucky has no intention of being around for that.
"I gotta go, Steve," Bucky whispers. He allows himself one more pass-through of his fingers through Steve's hair. It's soft and fine, and Bucky vows to hold onto the memory of the sensation even if it's not real.
Bucky blinks away the tears blurring his vision as he tests his balance and lifts himself off the floor. As he heads to the window, Steve-hallucination's breathing hitches and devolves into heart-wrenching sobs. "It's not real," Bucky reminds himself, his voice thin and reedy in his own ears. He crouches down and peels the newspaper off the glass, does a perfunctory scope from his position underneath the windowsill, and then forces the window upward.
A red drone practically brains him as it zooms over his head and heads directly toward Steve. Bucky rolls into a defensive position, his heart pounding, as the drone circles around Steve-hallucination's head and hovers right in front of Steve-hallucination's face. "Cap?" says a tinny voice. "You all right?"
Steve-hallucination looks up, blinking slowly, and then he scrambles away from the drone, swatting at it with an angry yelp. Bucky stays stock-still, warily tracking the drone as it rights itself and begins a slow circle around the apartment. When it gets within range of his left arm, he snatches it out of the air, squeezing it with his metal fingers. The tinny voice sounds again. "Wait! Barnes!"
Bucky drops the drone like a hot potato and backs away from it, stumbling a little as he hits the wall. The drone stays hovering near the open window.
"Barnes, hey," the tinny voice sounds. "I'm Falcon, also known as Sam Wilson. Cap's friend. I'm talking to you through Redwing—that's the drone. It belongs to the Avengers—see the logo?" The drone tilts obligingly so that Bucky can see the swooping Avengers A painted on top. "Look, all I want to do is take Cap to a safe place. Can you help me do that? I don't want a fight."
Bucky’s chest heaves with panic. He can’t think.
His stomach clenches with horror as he hears a familiar gasping behind him. The Steve-hallucination—no, the real Steve, made small again somehow—is choking on his own breath, his lips turning blue as he fights off an asthma attack. Bucky drops hard onto the mattress and undoes the chest strap of his backpack, fumbling to pull Steve into a sitting position with Steve's back against his chest.
"Hey, Steve, hey, breathe," he says, gingerly placing his flesh hand on Steve's sternum. The metal hand he keeps tucked under his thigh; he doesn't want to imagine how much he could accidentally hurt Steve with it while he's like this. "Match your breaths to mine, big deep ones, Steve, one, two, three, four, five, six, that's it…"
Bucky vaguely notes that Wilson's stupidly named drone is still hovering next to the fridge. It's probably transmitting everything back to the Avengers, but Bucky doesn't care because Steve's still wheezing underneath him. Bucky continues to guide Steve through the attack, the words spilling out of him without prompting as he rubs slow circles on Steve's chest. Finally, he hears Steve take a clear breath with just the faintest hint of a whistle. The sound pings in Bucky's memory, and he half-wishes he had his hands free so he could write it down.
"There you go, Steve," he says quietly. "You're all right."
Steve doesn't respond. Bucky has a brief, horrifying flash of panic, wondering if he somehow killed him, and then he feels Steve shift against him. Bucky drops his flesh hand at once, letting Steve wriggle out from between his knees.
To his surprise, Steve doesn't try to stand up. Instead, Steve shuffles around on his knees until he's facing Bucky. Bucky gets a brief, startling close-up of Steve's face before he jumps into Bucky's lap, throwing his skinny arms over Bucky's shoulders and burying his face in Bucky's neck, dangerously close to the scarred seam where Bucky's metal arm integrates into the rest of his body.
Bucky freezes as Steve inhales deeply, pressing himself closer to Bucky and wrapping his legs around Bucky's waist. Bucky's hands—both metal and flesh—instinctively come up to support Steve's weight.
"Steve?" Bucky whispers.
Steve makes a soft, contented noise and nuzzles against Bucky's shoulder. Bucky barely stops himself from jerking away as Steve kisses the skin under his jaw.
Bucky swallows nervously, glancing at the drone. "Steve, hey—" He tries to pull away, but Steve only grips him harder. "Steve," Bucky tries again, trying to ignore the hardness growing against his thigh, "Hey, come on, you've gotta—"
That's when he feels the wetness.
Bucky slowly moves his eyes downward, tracking the stain spreading across Steve's oversized uniform pants. "Steve?"
Steve whimpers and ruts against Bucky's crotch. Bucky very carefully ignores the way his own cock twitches in response. He sniffs. Instead of the expected sharp scent of ammonia, there's a faint whiff of honey in the air.
All of a sudden, Bucky knows what this is.
Gene therapy eliminated the alpha-beta-omega breeding designations decades ago, just like vaccines eliminated polio, measles, and smallpox (for the most part—Bucky had been convinced he was hallucinating when he found out about the "anti-vaxxer" movement in the twenty-first century).
The designations worked like this: a random combination of pheromones, determined at conception, dictated how your reproductive desires presented around puberty. Betas, who made up the majority of the population, experienced a relatively normal level of sexual desire and could choose to engage in sexual relations at will. However, alphas would go into ruts every month that would make them aggressive, possessive, and uncontrollably, insanely horny, while omegas would experience monthly heats that turned them complaisant, submissive, and sexually aroused to the point of mindlessness. Leaving a heat or rut unfulfilled could be life-threatening depending on age and pheromone level.
By the time Steve and Bucky were born, the Pher-ABORT, or A/B/O pheromone reduction treatment, was available for infants, albeit only for those whose families could pay the fee. It essentially turned you into a beta by turning off the genetic switches related to alpha and omega designations, leaving you free to experience the rest of puberty (vocal changes, growth spurts, increasing sexual arousal) without worrying about your body giving out on you every month. Of course, it didn't stop more conservative elements from denying less fortunate individuals from opting into the treatment, forcing omegas into heat and alphas into rut, and then excusing any consequent assaults executed by or on those individuals as "a natural process." (Thankfully, those groups now only exist on the fringes of society as isolated cults.)
The cost of Pher-ABORT was just within reach for most middle-class families. The more kids there were in the family, the better the discount on the treatment. Bucky, who had three younger sisters and two working parents, got it as soon as he was old enough to walk. (At least, he thinks he did – the only memory he has to go on is a fragment of a conversation with his mother, who said he cried during the process. Apparently Zola's serum also had the side effect of obliterating any alpha and omega designations, so he was doubly protected; after all, HYDRA hardly needed their supersoldier becoming even more unbalanced.)
Steve, as the only child of a single mother, had to make do without the treatment. While Sarah Rogers, a beta, had done the absolute best she could, between Steve's medical expenses, the costs of raising a child during the Depression, and the illness that ended up taking her life, neither she nor Steve was ever able to scrounge up enough money at once to pay the Pher-ABORT fee.
Steve had presented as an omega shortly after Sarah's death. Unlike other untreated omegas, most of whom presented around age thirteen, Steve had spent most of puberty convincing himself and the world around him that he was a beta. He'd continued convincing Bucky until Bucky had found him nearly dying that December afternoon, when he'd been—
He'd been going into heat.
And Bucky had helped him through it.
Bucky takes a very slow, deep breath. Steve is still whimpering and rutting against him, his honey-sweet omega slick seeping through his pants and creating a matching damp spot on Bucky's jeans. Bucky's cock has fattened up in response, but Bucky barely notices in the face of his roaring panic. He doesn't know how much the Avengers know—the supersoldier serum had eliminated Steve's omega designation and his multitude of health problems in one fell swoop when it turned him into Captain America. And there's been no mention of Steve's designation in all the history books and interviews Bucky has scoured since leaving the Smithsonian exhibit. He doubts Steve would have ever had cause to mention it to his teammates—but then again, what does he know? He doesn’t know Steve anymore, not really.
Regardless, he can't leave Steve like this. He doesn't know what Steve was hit with, what kind of spell or tech or injection turned him back into his smaller self, but the fact of the matter remains: Steve's going into heat, and it's only going to aggravate his asthma and whatever other health conditions he might have.
Bucky remembers the list at the Smithsonian exhibit in perfect detail: asthma, scoliosis (the knobs of Steve's spine are clearly crooked from Bucky's viewpoint), fallen arches (Bucky peeks at Steve's bare feet, which are indeed flat), heart arrhythmia (Bucky can hear it now that Steve's so close), partial deafness, stomach ulcers, and pernicious anemia. Bucky's not equipped to help him with any of these things in this grimy, bare-bones apartment.
Bucky takes another deep breath, thinking quickly. Then looks straight at the drone, which has inched a little bit closer from its spot near the fridge. "Falcon? Wilson?"
There's a beat of silence, and then: "Barnes?"
"I need…" Bucky's voice falters as Steve lets out a high-pitched whine right into his left eardrum, then proceeds to nips at his earlobe.
"Uh," says Wilson.
"Mission-assist required," Bucky answers through gritted teeth, letting his Winter Soldier training take over—just long enough to get through this, he vows, long enough to get Steve to a safe place.
"Roger that," says Wilson, suddenly all business. "State mission objective and parameters."
"Extract St—Captain America stat," Bucky answers, swallowing thickly as Steve dips his head and starts to mouth at the base of his throat. "With extreme discretion."
"Roger that," says Wilson.
There's a short pause, and then Wilson says, "I'm going to need to take Redwing back so I can make sure the area's clear. I'm trusting you not to hurt Steve while he's in this, um, condition. You haven't so far, and it's clear he trusts you, so—" Bucky can't quite identify the emotion in Wilson's voice. "I'm trusting you to live up to the image he has of you."
"I won't hurt him," Bucky promises. "I—I don't do that anymore. I don't hurt people."
"Okay," says Wilson. He continues, "I'll close the window on the way out, and when I'm ready I'll send Redwing back up to the same window to let you know I'm about to knock on the door."
"Hang in there, Barnes. Over and out till further notice."
Bucky watches the drone latch the window shut from the outside with some neat trick involving lasers. He should probably be more worried about its capabilities, but right now, all he can pay attention to is his throbbing cock, which has responded to Steve's ministrations with extreme interest. Bucky bites back a groan as Steve rucks up his many layers of shirts, softly flicking his tongue around Bucky's left nipple before sucking on it hard. Bucky jolts, nearly dislodging Steve from his lap, and Steve clamps his thighs hard around Bucky's waist.
"Steve," says Bucky softly.
Steve kisses Bucky's pec in response, sucking a little bruise just above the nipple.
"Steve, listen to me," says Bucky, stroking the back of Steve's neck. "Come on, pal, stop for a second, please."
Steve whimpers unhappily but complies, shifting upward so that his head is resting in the space between Bucky's neck and shoulder.
Bucky cards his flesh fingers through Steve's hair. "Your friend Sam's coming to get you," says Bucky. "He'll help you get through this, all right? You've got to go with him."
Steve grumbles, clumsily dropping his hands to his oversized uniform pants and pushing them down along with a pair of black briefs. Bucky gulps as Steve's cock, thick and uncut, springs free. Then Steve flips over and gets on all fours, wriggling his tight, firm ass as he finishes kicking off his pants and briefs. The slick leaking out of his pink, puffy hole shines in the sunlight filtering in through the newspapers, and the honey-sweet scent that's been gradually permeating the room nearly overwhelms Bucky with its intensity.
Bucky swallows heavily. It's clear what Steve wants.
Bucky tries to remember what happened during Steve's heat when Steve was eighteen, but there's nothing beyond the knowledge that they both got through it together. Steve must have had other heats, with and without him—Steve didn't get Erskine’s serum till he was twenty-five, after all, and Bucky had been gone for several months before that—but Bucky can't recall anything about them.
Steve lets out a desperate whine, spreading his legs and pressing his forehead against the mattress. When Bucky doesn't move, Steve whines again, lowering his belly so that his back is arched and his ass sticks up even more in the air. The words omega presenting pose drift through Bucky's mind, and he squeezes his eyes shut as he tries to bring back any other memories that might be attached. There are none.
Bucky's eyes fly open when Steve starts panting and desperately clawing at the frayed sheets. "Steve, no, don't do that," says Bucky, pushing himself onto his knees and startling when the straps of his backpack tether him to the floor. Bucky unbuckles the waist strap and slips his arms out of the shoulder straps, and then he crouches next to Steve, tentatively placing his flesh hand on Steve's waist. Steve calms immediately, leaning into the touch.
"Good," Bucky breathes. He keeps his metal hand tucked behind him as he pets Steve's flank, eliciting a soft noise of contentment. Encouraged, Bucky moves his hand to the nape of Steve's neck, skating his fingers down the length of Steve's crooked spine, over and over. Steve relaxes with each iteration, sighing softly into the floorboards.
"That's it, Steve," says Bucky, "Just take it easy."
Bucky listens carefully to Steve's heart rate and breathing, waiting till they're both slow and even before he stands up to go retrieve some supplies.
Immediately, Steve lets out a long, low whine. He scrambles around, grabs Bucky's flesh hand, and tugs Bucky back down to the ground. Muscle memory kicks in, and Bucky lands hard on his metal hand to prevent his knees from absorbing too much of the impact. "Steve," he groans, guiltily eyeing the finger-shaped gouges in the concrete floor. "Steve, come on, we've gotta get cleaned up and go soon."
Steve's breath hitches, and he starts trembling, tears spilling down his face.
Bucky's voice catches in his throat as guilt settles heavily in his gut. "Steve, I'm sorry," he whispers, "Hey, hey, I'm sorry. Steve, I—I need you to tell me what to do." A sense of déjà vu washes over him as the words roll off his tongue. "Please, show me how I can help."
Steve makes a small, hurt noise. He turns his head and catches Bucky's eye, his own bright with tears. Then he thrusts his hips forward and cups his own ass with one hand. The smothering scent of honey-sweet slick gets even stronger as he repositions himself, his belly and face low on the ground and his ass high in the air.
Bucky inhales sharply. "Okay, Steve. Okay."
He never could say no to Steve.
It's a good thing that the supersoldier serum prevents venereal diseases. The HYDRA files had been extremely clear about that. He's lucky that HYDRA never chose to take advantage of this by sending him on any honeypot missions. Perhaps the metal arm had been too difficult to hide.
Bucky reaches for his belt, hoping that Steve will forgive him for this when this is over. His cock, which had flagged at half-mast, rises with renewed, intense interest. Bucky scoops up some of the slick running down Steve's thigh and coats his flesh fingers with it. "I'm going to prep you," says Bucky, pitching his voice low to keep it from wavering. "You—you let me know if it hurts, okay?"
Bucky presses the tip of his index finger into Steve's hole, slowly making his way past the tight ring of muscle. He crooks his finger on instinct, finding the little nub that makes up Steve's prostate. Steve moans loudly, and his cock, hanging down heavily between his legs, twitches and spurts precum as Bucky repeats the motion several times.
Steve whines in protest when Bucky withdraws. Bucky strokes Steve's hip. "Just getting some more slick, Steve. Give me a second."
He takes his time opening Steve up, making sure he can fit three fingers in before he even attempts to lube up his own cock. The sensation is both familiar and not. Bucky's hardly masturbated since leaving HYDRA, too caught up in trying to sort out the confusing tangle of memories and nightmares in his head, and the few times he's tried he's felt an underlying guilt borne of a childhood spent in Catholic schools. Still, this is what Steve needs right now, and Bucky will do whatever it takes to see this through.
Steve is writhing around so much that he can hardly hold himself up by the time Bucky finally sinks into him. Bucky takes a deep, shuddering breath as the warm, tight channel envelops his cock, pleasure flooding through him in a way he doesn't remember feeling before. He gingerly wraps his metal arm around Steve's waist to help support his weight, then takes Steve's cock in his flesh hand, swiping along the tip to gather precum glistening there before stroking upward in time with his own thrusts.
He starts off slowly, trying to give his body—and Steve's—time to adjust. But Steve quickly gets impatient, moaning desperately as he chases alternating sparks of pleasure from Bucky's hand and cock.
"Steve," Bucky breathes, watching a flush travel from Steve’s neck down to his waist, "Hey, take it easy—"
Steve grunts and accelerates his pace. Bucky’s words trail off into a low gasp as a wave of hot pleasaure overwhelms him. He feels his own pleasure cresting faster than he anticipated, and he clumsily taps a metal finger against Steve's ribs in warning. "Steve, I'm gonna—"
Steve groans and throws his head back, baring his throat as he frantically thrusts his hips backward onto Bucky's cock. A choked yelp escapes Bucky's throat as his own vision whites out, and he spills inside of Steve for what seems like eternity.
When Bucky comes to his senses, his right hand is sticky with Steve's come. He's kneeling over Steve, who's lying limply on his side with a blissed-out expression. Bucky can’t help but drink in the sight. When Steve stirs and makes a soft, questioning sound, looking up at him with glassy eyes, Bucky forces himself back to the task at hand. "Hang on, Steve. I'll be back real quick."
Bucky quickly kicks off his jeans and briefs and dashes to the kitchen, grabbing a towel and wetting it under the sink. He hastily washes his hands, wipes himself off, and pulls on a clean set of clothing. Then he grabs a clean towel and set of clothes and crouches next to the mattress.
Steve blinks at him.
"Hey, you gotta clean up and get dressed," says Bucky.
Steve rubs his cheek against Bucky's knuckles like a cat.
"Steve…" Bucky blows out a breath, displacing the hair about to fall into his eyes.
Steve smiles and relaxes into the mattress, spreading out his limbs like a starfish.
"Gonna make me do all the work, huh, punk?" asks Bucky, unable to keep the teasing smile from his face. The words feel right in some way he can't name.
Steve gazes up at Bucky through half-lidded eyes. He almost looks like he’s smirking.
Bucky sighs and gingerly rolls Steve onto his back. Steve goes much more easily than Bucky anticipated. "I hope you don't get mad at me for this later," says Bucky. He wipes the slick and cum off Steve's thighs and groin with slow, gentle strokes, and then he carefully maneuvers Steve's legs so that he can pull on the briefs and pants. "Come on, lift up, we gotta get a shirt on you," says Bucky, lightly poking Steve's shoulder with his right index finger.
Steve snatches Bucky's wrist, a playful smile lighting his face, and tries to tug Bucky onto the mattress. Bucky pretends to fall, then uses the opportunity to pull Steve into a sitting position, wrapping his flesh arm around Steve's waist and dumping a shirt over his head. Steve grumbles loudly but allows Bucky to push his arms through the sleeves.
When Steve is fully dressed in an oversized shirt and sweater, Bucky sits on the mattress and pulls Steve against his chest, cracking open a water bottle and bringing It to Steve's lips. He brushes his thumb along Steve's narrow jaw, shivering a little as Steve leans into the touch.
"Drink, Steve," says Bucky, tilting the water bottle toward him.
Steve opens his mouth obediently and sips. Bucky brings the water bottle up to his own lips, resisting the urge to drink it down in one go; he's parched, but he's sure Steve is even more so. Besides, Bucky’s stomach can't handle a huge amount of liquid at once. He found that out the hard way during his first week away from HYDRA.
Time passes in a hushed silence as they slowly drain the bottle. Bucky closes his eyes and memorizes the feeling of Steve's body nestled soft and warm against his own. He hopes that whatever happens next, this is a memory he'll be allowed to keep.
A quiet buzzing makes him tense up all over again. Steve whines and turns his face away as Falcon's drone flies in through the window, then turns and latches the window shut with another laser trick. The drone circles the apartment slowly before coming to a hovering stop in Bucky's sightline, just out of reach of his hands. Bucky's a little impressed with Wilson's caution.
"Barnes, do you copy?"
"Copy," says Bucky.
"I'm going up the stairs now, and I've got someone with me. He's a friendly."
"Roger that," Bucky responds, and after a moment, he adds, "Thanks."
A knock sounds on the door two minutes later. Bucky steels himself and tries to stand, but Steve clings onto him like a limpet.
"Steve," Bucky protests half-heartedly, scowling at the drone as it excitedly buzzes past his head.
Steve huffs and climbs into Bucky’s lap, digging his pointy chin into the join of Bucky's neck and shoulder as he wraps his legs around Bucky’s waist. Bucky resigns himself to dealing with Steve's best imitation of a koala and crosses the room. He heaves a deep breath and opens the door.
The sight that greets him is not what he expects.
There is a giant black cat standing in front of him. Or more accurately, a man in a giant black cat suit.
Bucky opens and shuts his mouth, lost for words.
Sam Wilson appears from behind Cat-man. He's wearing civilian clothes and a baseball cap, and he has a suspiciously circular package on his back. He holds up familiar plastic bag with a raised eyebrow. "Barnes. These your plums?"
"Uh," says Bucky, "Yeah?"
"Can we come in?" asks Wilson, holding out the bag of plums like a peace offering. The drone flies to him and folds up neatly, wrapping around his wrist like a bracelet.
Bucky accepts the plums and takes a couple steps backward, letting Wilson and Cat-man enter. Shifting Steve’s weight to his metal arm, he shuts the door and locks it with his other hand, warily watching as the two men look around the apartment.
Cat-man sniffs the air like the panther he resembles, and Bucky protectively tightens his hold on Steve, quickly running through exit strategies that will allow him to get out of this while keeping Steve safe. He stiffens as Cat-man turns to face them.
"Sergeant Barnes, Captain Rogers," says Cat-man, inclining his head. The cat suit slides off like water, revealing a solemn-faced man dressed in all black with a spiky silver necklace hanging around his throat, "I am Prince T'Challa of Wakanda. I do not mean to harm either of you."
"Um—welcome," says Bucky.
T'Challa nods. "Let us review the situation quickly. We do not have much time."
"The basic gist of it is, you've been framed for the explosion at the United Nations meeting in Vienna," says Wilson.
"It wasn't me," says Bucky, his heart thundering in his ears. Steve shifts against him with a soft growl.
"That explosion killed my father," says T’Challa.
"I'm sorry," says Bucky with a nervous swallow.
"As am I." T'Challa's eyes shimmer with fresh grief. "I came here seeking vengeance against you, but it was not you who did it, even though it is your face appearing in the news stories. My goal now is to bring the true perpetrator to justice and have them tried before the Wakandan court."
"The problem is, the CIA is still convinced that that's you," says Wilson, "and they're on their way to bring you in, dead or alive. That’s why Steve and I came here looking for you ahead of time."
"To warn me?" asks Bucky, raising his eyebrows.
Wilson shrugs. "To try to find out the truth, at least, before the CIA buried you in a black box underwater somewhere."
Bucky jumps a little as Steve mewls unhappily and nips at his neck.
"Steve was never going to let that happen, of course," says Wilson, with a rueful glance at Steve. "Whether we found you first or not. He wanted to make sure you got due process."
"What happened?" asks Bucky, glancing between the two of them. "How did Steve…"
"It was my fault," says T'Challa, sorrow clear on his face. "Captain Rogers was attempting to prevent me from following you, and I did not know that the weapon I used would affect him so significantly. I merely intended to slow him down."
Bucky eyes T'Challa suspiciously. "What kind of weapon can get rid of a supersoldier serum?"
"An experimental one," says T'Challa, "and one that should never have been used without permission." He straightens his shoulders. "I would like to offer you and Captain Rogers safe passage, shelter, and recovery in Wakanda as recompense. I am certain that the leader of the Wakandan Design Group will find a way to resolve Captain Rogers' current situation. She will also be able to assist you with your own recovery should you desire."
Bucky's eyes dart between Wilson and T'Challa. "Do I have a choice?"
T'Challa looks surprised. "Of course. I would not force you or Captain Rogers to come with me. Neither of you is at fault here."
Wilson nods. "It's up to you, Barnes. But if you want my opinion, this is the best option. The Avengers are…well, we're fragmented right now due to the Accords and the explosion in Vienna. Sending Steve back home like this—and hell, sending you with him—is just going to distract us from the real issues at hand, like who framed you and what the hell we’re going to do about it. T'Challa's folks have the best shot at figuring out how to get Steve back to himself. I’ve only gotten a glimpse of Wakandan tech, but it’s way beyond anything even Stark could design. Plus, nobody would expect the prince of Wakanda to hide the prime suspect in his father’s murder."
T’Challa nods. "It is a good deflection strategy that allows us time to make thoughtful decisions about Captain Rogers’ recovery as well as your own."
Bucky still doesn’t know what T’Challa thinks Bucky needs to recover from—Bucky’s accepted that he’s never getting all his memories back thanks to decades of mind wipes that have permanently damaged his brain—but he appreciates the thought anyway. He closes his eyes and takes a deep, slow breath, swallowing past the lump in his throat. Steve shifts against him, his soft hair brushing against Bucky's stubbled cheek. "At this point, I don't care what happens to me, but it's not fair for me to choose for Steve," Bucky says, looking at Wilson. "You’re his teammate. His friend. You’ve spent a lot more time with him lately than I have. I think you should decide, since he, uh, he can't in this state."
Wilson's brow furrows, and he studies Bucky's face intently as if he's looking for something. Bucky holds his gaze steadily.
After a moment, Wilson sighs and crosses his arms over his chest. The corner of his mouth quirks up. "If there's anything I've learned in the past two years, Barnes, it's that wherever you go, Steve will try to follow. My advice? Go to Wakanda, both of you, and lay low until Steve's back to himself. After that, we can figure out how to move forward. In the meantime, I'll get in touch with the others and see how we can all navigate our way out of this political shitstorm."
Bucky exhales slowly. "Okay."
T’Challa places his hand on Bucky’s left shoulder. Bucky forcibly suppresses the urge to flinch from the unexpected contact.
"Sergeant Barnes, I only have one condition," T’Challa says. "You may see things in Wakanda that most consider impossible. The time for Wakanda to reveal itself to the world is near. But it must come on our terms, when both my people and the world are ready. Do you understand?"
"I know how to keep a secret," Bucky says, forcing himself to meet T’Challa’s gaze. "And you can trust Steve with anything."
"I will hold you to your oath," says T’Challa.
Steve huffs into Bucky’s ear, swatting at T’Challa’s hand. "Sorry," says Bucky, his face heating in embarrassment. "He’s not himself right now."
T’Challa’s eyes light with amusement as he releases his grip. "There is no need to apologize. It is my fault that he is in this state, after all."
Wilson clears his throat and places Steve’s shield on the ground. It’s wrapped in thick layers of black fabric, but Bucky would recognize it anywhere. "Here," says Wilson, "you might need this. And this." He shrugs a knapsack off his shoulder. "Steve's bag. It's got a few essentials, along with his uniform top, which I found stashed behind some boxes in the street. Everything else is at the Avengers Facility. I'll do my best to make sure it stays safe."
"Thank you," says Bucky. "What will you tell…his friends? The other Avengers?"
"I'll figure something out," says Wilson, shrugging his shoulders. Now that the shield isn't on his back, Bucky can make out the outline of his mechanical wings, not quite hidden by his leather jacket. Wilson huffs a laugh. "Actually, I could just tell them that he went haring off after you. It wouldn't be that far from the truth."
Bucky bites his lip. "I’m sorry."
"Aw, hell," says Wilson. A pained smile crosses his face. "It’s fine, Barnes. I get it, I really do. And for what it's worth, I won't tell anyone about what I saw in this apartment through Redwing. Any of it. You have my word."
"And mine," says T'Challa, catching Bucky’s eye. "I apologize, but we must leave soon. My contact has informed me that German special forces have started approaching from the south."
Wilson curses under his breath. "I'll hold them off if I need to." He takes one last look at Bucky, his gaze lingering on the back of Steve’s head. "See you later, Barnes. I trust you'll take good care of Steve. And don't forget to take care of yourself, too." He slips out the door and closes it behind him with a quiet click.
T'Challa leads him to the window where Wilson's drone had first entered. "May I open this window?" he asks.
T'Challa lifts the sill easily. "Our ride will be appearing shortly. I suggest you gather all the possessions you wish to take with you."
Bucky sets Steve down gently, ignoring the pained whine that follows as he grabs the two chocolate bars and journal sitting atop the fridge. He stuffs them into his backpack, along with the wrinkled, slick-stained clothes lying on the ground, which he wraps in the black fabric that had been covering Steve’s shield. At the last minute, he also puts in the plums that he'd picked out so carefully this morning. Then he hoists Steve's shield onto his back, shoulders Steve's bag on his right arm and his own on his metal one, and crouches down so Steve can throw his arms around his neck and get a grip. Bucky staggers a little under all the weight as he rises and goes to stand next to T'Challa.
"I hope you have one hell of an escape plan." Bucky says. "It was hard enough keeping a low profile before they knew where I was."
The panther mask is back on T’Challa’s face, but Bucky suspects he is smiling under it. "Do not worry."
A sleek black spaceship appears next to the window, seemingly out of nowhere. Bucky watches with wide eyes as a glowing, bright blue bridge unfolds between the windowsill and the ship, then transforms into a shimmering blue chair big enough to seat one person.
"Follow my example, Sergeant Barnes," says T'Challa. He sits down in the chair and crosses his arms over his chest in a V shape. "Ready for extraction," he calls.
Bucky watches with wide eyes as T'Challa and the chair both disappear into thin air.
Five seconds later, a slightly bigger chair appears. Bucky hisses out a breath through his teeth, hoping he's not making a huge mistake, and sits. The chair feels solid even though it looks like it’s made of a transparent blue mesh, but Bucky still half-expects to disappear and drop him onto the floor. Bucky cradles Steve tightly and clears his throat. "Ready for extraction."
There's a flash of blue light, a whooshing sound, and a brief feeling of compression, and then Bucky finds himself sitting in a comfortable leather chair with Steve still in his arms. Bucky gapes at the advanced controls in his sightline before he looks up and notices the woman piloting them. She gives him a sharp look that very nearly disorients him with how much it reminds him of Peggy Carter.
"Sergeant Barnes, Captain Rogers," says T’Challa from Bucky’s other side, "This is General Okoye, Head of the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan Kingsguard."
"General Okoye," says Bucky. "Thank you for the ride."
Okoye raises her eyebrows and jerks her head toward the back of the jet. "My prince has told me what happened to you both. You and your captain may find it more comfortable to rest there. It will be a long ride." She lifts her mouth in a small, warm smile. "At ease now, soldier. Your battle is over."
Bucky follows the implicit command. The two backpacks thump against Steve's shield as he stands and walks to the small chamber built into the wall of the jet. It contains a large pallet, a handful of pillows, and a stack of clean blankets, folded neatly and laid on a small bench along the wall. Bucky unceremoniously sheds all his cargo except for Steve, who wraps himself around Bucky with a happy sigh. Bucky supports him with his metal hand as he shakes out the blankets and kicks the pillows into place, and then he carefully lies down, pulling a blanket over the both of them and stroking Steve's hair. Steve makes a small, soft noise and tucks his head underneath Bucky's chin, dozing off in minutes.
There will be lots to talk about when Steve returns to himself: the splitting of the Avengers, the experimental Wakandan weapons that can de-power a supersoldier, Steve's omega designation possibly being revealed to Wilson and T’Challa, the fact that Bucky ended up fulfilling Steve’s heat while Steve was half-out of his mind...The list goes and on. But for now, they're together, they're safe, and that's enough. Bucky sighs and closes his eyes, hesitantly brushing his lips against Steve's forehead. He lets the familiar sound of Steve’s whistling breaths lull him to sleep.