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A black winter's tale

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In a world post-Thanos and with many of the original Avengers an entire generation had grown up with either retired or killed in action, a crippled and shattered world tried to adapt. Governments were in disarray because snapped politicians were suddenly back. Social security systems tried to adapt to the fact that they suddenly had to cater to twice as many people, while many of the same people had been completely uprooted and had lost everything in the five years post-Snap – or ‘The Blip’ as the kids referred to it. Many countries struggled to feed their citizens, and in turn, crime rates had rocketed. Instead of fighting aliens or enhanced humans, the remaining Avengers primarily assisted the police force in curbing the stealing and looting. At the same time, some politicians called for a government-controlled super-soldier-programme to settle riots and to defend their countries from any future threats such as Thanos.

 

More often than not Bucky would open a paper these days and the first headlines to catch his attention were so similar to the war propaganda he had seen not only in his country, but also in the United Kingdom, in France, and in Germany that he simply closed it again and put it to the other scrap paper. For some reason, he had believed that people had learned from history to avoid repeating the same failures, but apparently, they fell for populist lies as easily now as they had eighty years ago. If his eidetic memory did not fail him, Albert Einstein was quoted saying that only two things were infinite: the universe and human stupidity, but he was unsure about the former.

 

The longer Bucky lived in the future, the more he had to concur with Einstein’s sentiment. It was, in fact, one of a few reasons why he rarely spent more than two weeks at a time in the U.S. – usually either in New York or DC. He preferred the quietness and the simpler life he led in the small village near the capital city of Wakanda. Surrounded by his goats, endless fields, a lake to cool down on hot summer days, and the vastness of the savannah and the jungle at his doorstep.

 

The longer he stayed in the States these days, the noisier his brain got – and he preferred to keep it fairly quiet as to not stir up his jumbled memories unnecessarily. Any night his mind chose not to relive one of his missions or the torture HYDRA had inflicted on him, was a good night in his books. After all, who enjoyed waking up from a gruesome nightmare covered in cold sweat just to puke out their guts? Any day he managed to get through without having to hide an anxiety attack or to dissociate in a totally normal situation counted as a good one. The problem was, the longer he stayed in New York or DC to help Sam, the fewer these days and nights became.

 

As of late, his brain found particular pleasure in tormenting him with distorted pieces of forgotten memories late at night. By day he was trying to put together whatever flashes he could still recall, but it was like finishing a jigsaw puzzle with no reference picture and half the pieces missing. And he used to love jigsaws as a kid… if he remembered correctly.

 

While the world was trying to piece itself back together post-Thanos and without some of its most beloved superheroes, the world’s once most feared assassin failed to make sense of four recurring flashes of memory. Oh, the irony!

 

Red. Not the communist red of the star on his old metal arm. Not the bloody red of his victims. More like a sea of coppery red gently flowing through his fingers.

 

Green. Not the lush green of the trees in Central Park in summer. Not the dirty green of a camo suit. More like the different shades of green of the Siberian tundra in the summer sun with flecks of heather gazing up at him.

 

The disjointed bars of a piano melody. Not the contrapuntal melodies of Bach his Ma had used to teach him when he was a boy. Not the rich and sweeping tunes of Brahms and Chopin his sisters had danced and laughed to in their parents’ living room. More like the gentle patter of notes chasing away the demons of the night and promising a brighter future.

 

The feeling of tulle and satin brushing against his flesh. Not like a female body writhing underneath his as he undressed the girl. Not like he was gently holding onto a petite frame as they danced to the band. More like a dancer gracefully moving in his direction before his hands found her waist and he lifted her up. Tulle and satin brushing against his arms, green eyes catching his gaze for a second trusting him to carry her weight in the air as red hair cascaded down into his face.

 

The clearer the memories became, the worse was the headache he woke up with in the morning. Almost like his recollections tried to split open his skull to break free. All the more reason why he longed for the quietness of his little hut in Wakanda and why he had become almost unbearable when a blizzard had hit New York – in godforsaken April! – and he had to stay a week longer until the weather had cleared enough to get a take-off clearance for the Talon Fighter King T’Challa had given him for his frequent travels between the U.S. and Wakanda.

 

As Bucky was now piloting his jet towards the African continent, he felt excitement bubbling up in his stomach when he thought about the warm spring day and the familiar sounds and smells that would greet him upon the arrival. If he took the plane past the recommended speed limit for the engines, it would be his little secret, but it was about damn time he finally got home.

Chapter Text

The morning sun glistened orange off the calm water of the nearby lake as Bucky crossed the last few yards to the hut he had come to call home when he had recuperated from having HYDRA’s programming removed from his mind. With practiced ease, he opened his hut made of traditional clay bricks and thatch. To an outsider they might look primitive, but these small buildings offered all the amenities life in Wakanda offered. The chilly spring breeze wafted through his home and Bucky welcomed the change to the hot day that was to follow. With his constant travels between Wakanda and New York, his body never seemed to properly acclimatize to either climate. The East Coast was too cold, Wakanda was too warm.

 

A tired sigh escaped his lips as he let his duffle bag slid to the ground only to be replaced by a fond smile when his sensitive ears picked up the joyous voices of the local children yelling “Ingcuka”. Regardless of how many times he had asked them to just call him Bucky, they insisted on Ingcuka – White Wolf. The name King T’Challa had introduced him with when he had been moved into the village to convalesce in peace and quiet. At times, he still grabbled to understand how the man who had once hunted him down had not only granted him asylum in his kingdom but had also spared no efforts to help him heal and was calling him brother now.

 

      “Ingcuka, you’re back!” A whirlwind of three children dressed in traditional Wakandan robes crashed into him, small arms wrapping around his midsection as a mix of English and Xhosa rained down on him. To this day he kept wondering what had gotten into T’Challa to let a former assassin even somewhere remotely close to children.

 

      “Our past does not define our future. You are not the Winter Soldier any longer. I trust that my people are save with James Buchanan Barnes,” the King’s voice replayed in his eidetic memory.

 

      “Shouldn’t you be in school?” he asked when the barrage of questions directed at him had finally calmed down.

 

      “The Princess said you’d be back today,” the tallest of the children – Thobe – replied.

 

      “So you skipped school?” Bucky inquired raising one eyebrow.

 

      “No, we saw you coming down the hill!”

 

      “So you left class without your teacher’s permission?”

 

      “You’ve been gone for three weeks!” Zani whined as if that was a good enough justification, making it rather difficult for Bucky to keep a straight face.

 

      “And I’ll be here for a while, so go back to your class before we all get in trouble,” he encouraged them, squeezing the girl’s shoulder. With some grumbling, the children let go of him and slowly trudged back to their classroom.

 

      “Mama made Potjiekos. Will you join us for dinner?”

 

      “I will, Thobe. Now go,” he promised and made a shooing motion with his good hand, causing the three children to giggle before running back to their class.

 

Walking back into his hut, he discarded the black hoodie and the blue Henley he was wearing and reached for the vibranium casing he stored at the bottom shelf of a rack that held the majority of his belongings. The Princess had called him a minimalist, he had merely argued that life in the Army had taught him to make do with very little. He could have the plethora of technological advances Wakanda had to offer installed in his hut, just like he could have asked for more furniture, but he preferred the simplicity his little home had to offer. If he wanted to overload his senses with all sorts of unnecessary frills, he just had to go to the apartment he had been given at the new Avenger’s Compound.

 

Once Bucky had opened the case, he carefully removed the prosthetic arm Shuri had made for him in replacement of the one HYDRA had outfitted him with so many decades ago. He winced when his shoulder was free and gingerly put the arm into its casing before closing it. His fingers tentatively massaged the scarred tissue of his stump and he breathed a sigh in relief when he rolled his shoulder to get rid of the tension. According to the Princess, the metal arm HYDRA had given him had never been built for comfort – no kidding. It had damaged the bone structure of his left shoulder, pulled at his muscles and tendons in all the wrong places, and fried the nerves leading to his spine like burnt toast.

 

When he had been under and Shuri had worked on deleting his HYDRA programming, the Wakandan doctors had tried their best to undo the damage but even with their sophisticated medicine and his superior healing power due to Armin Zola’s bastardized version of the super-soldier serum, lingering effects remained.

 

The arm Shuri had made for him was nothing like the metal arm of the Winter Soldier. It was light and comfortable to wear, yet equally powerful and technologically so much more advanced. Nonetheless, it still hurt after a while. Pain had been such a constant in his life since the train accident that he usually just ignored it when he was in New York with the remaining Avengers. Once he was back in Wakanda, he did, however, relish in that tiny bit of freedom of not having an artificial limb constantly tugging at his left side.

 

Focused on digging his knuckles into the knots his pectoral muscles always developed after wearing the prosthesis for a longer period of time, the former assassin never heard the other person approaching until cold fingers pressed into his subscapularis muscle, easing the sore tissue on his back. Joyous giggling filled the hut as he startled in surprise, almost toppling over as he tried to keep his balance while spinning around to attack the intruder. Old instincts died hard and part of him still expected HYDRA to ambush him and take him back to Siberia to torture and probably kill him for his treason and insubordination. Only the subtle yet familiar scent of hibiscus made him stop mid-turn to be greeted by a laughing Princess who seemed particularly delighted about the fact that she had snuck up on one of the world’s most feared assassins.

 

      “You really shouldn’t do that,” he quietly admonished her and relaxed, while his mind still played out different scenarios on how he could have unintentionally harmed her with his enhanced strength and speed.

 

      “But I had to see if my new sneakers are Bucky-approved!” she replied excitedly and showed him the neon-green Nikes she had ordered a couple of weeks ago only to take them apart and upgrade them with the sneaker-technology in Black Panther’s boots. Now they were true sneakers.

 

      “I could have hurt you.”

 

      “I trust you,” was her simple but sincere reply as she got back to loosen the tense muscles and tendons in Bucky’s left shoulder. When she had deleted the Winter Soldier’s trigger words, she had seen his memories over and over and over again, sifting through happy times in pre-war Brooklyn with his siblings and Steve Rogers, anxious times during his deployment, and so much confusion, anger, fear, and guilt under HYDRA. She had seen the witty and snarky man he had once been, who would watch out for his sisters and his best friends. A young, bright man who was not only fascinated by the future Howard Stark dreamt of but could also calculate the vector formula for the impact of the Coriolis effect from the top of his head in the middle of a war zone.

 

She had seen the garbled and jumbled memories of the Winter Soldier – of Bucky – trying to fight against HYDRA, trying to break free again and again and again only to be punished and tortured remorselessly; she had seen his struggle to combine resurfacing memories of better times with the immense guilt of killing in cold blood, eventually practically asking for the electroshock therapy just so he could forget for a short amount of time before his advanced healing brought everything back. Shuri had witnessed every single assassination, every single fight through his eyes, but she still knew that she was safe in his presence. She had seen how scared he was of cryostasis, waking up months or years later in a world that resembled less and less the time he had grown up in. Nonetheless, it had been his suggestion to go back under until someone could delete HYDRA’s programming, never knowing whether he would spend weeks in cryo-sleep or decades. It was why she trusted Bucky to dare sneak up on him.

 

      “I’ll run more simulations and see how I can make the arm more comfortable for you,” she muttered more to herself as she sat down opposite of him to work the tense muscles in his chest, occasionally brushing over the claw-like scar tissue that spread from his shoulder to his chest. Almost as if he had tried to tear off his artificial limp. Just one of many memories that had left her sick to her stomach and made her silently vow that she would find a way to help this broken white man heal. As a result, it bugged her all the more that her inventions could easily heal Everett Ross’ spinal cord injury but nothing she had come up with could make Bucky entirely pain free when wearing the prosthetic for a longer period of time.

 

      “You’ve got more important things on your plate than me,” Bucky rejected her idea with a shrug, but still turned slightly into her touch. Having assisted in the removal of his HYDRA arm, it seemed like Shuri knew exactly where the worst pain and tension were located.

 

      “You’re my friend. I don’t want to see you suffer if I might be able to come up with something to help you.” The grunt she received in return told her enough to not further press the issue, but it would also not stop her from doing further research. If she had learned one thing about James Buchanan Barnes rather quickly, it was that he was a pig-headed idiot who thought the pain was his just punishment for his deeds as the Winter Soldier. It was a good thing that Sam Wilson shared her thoughts on that matter, which meant said idiot always had people around him – whether he was in the States or in Wakanda – who were quick to remind him that self-flagellation would not change the past.

 

      “How was New York?”

 

      “Cold…” Bucky had planned to return to Wakanda a week earlier, but a blizzard had shut down the city almost completely. A blizzard in April. Even the Wakandan aircraft T’Challa had granted him access to commute between both countries had been grounded. Bucky might still be devouring all new scientific developments and breakthroughs since 1945, but he was fairly certain that blizzards in April were not the norm and that there was more truth to climate change than some politicians wanted to believe. At times he caught himself fantasizing how easy it were to neutralize such people and to replace them with ones who had their wits together… His ideas never got far before his subconsciousness, which sounded a whole lot like Steve, reminded him that he could not just kill people to change politics – even if it were in the better interest for society as a whole. After all, had that not been Thanos grand idea as well – in his own warped sense of justice and rightness?

 

      “Are those colonizers still giving Sam a hard time?”

 

While ‘colonizers’ was a word Shuri would often use to refer to white people in general – usually to tease them and to make them uncomfortable – Bucky had noticed that she was using it more and more frequently to refer to populists in general. Not that he could fault the Princess.

 

It had been almost a year since half the population had returned from Thanos’ Snap and they had defeated the Mad Titan. Almost a year since Black Widow – Natasha – gave her life so her comrades could collect all six Infinity Stones to undo Thanos’ work. Almost a year since Iron Man – Tony Stark – died to save them all. Almost a year since Steve returned the Infinity Stones and stayed with Peggy. Almost half a year since Mysterio revealed Spider-Man – Peter Parker’s – identity to the world.

 

It would be a straight-out lie if Bucky claimed he had no conflicting feelings about the sacrifices the Avengers had made. A certain billionaire caused him sleepless nights in particular. When they had fought in Siberia he had been under the presumption that Stark had wanted him dead – a notion he could appreciate given that he had murdered the man’s parents. With his eidetic memory he remembered every person he had ever assassinated, but Howard Stark held a special place.

 

In the short time they had fought for the same cause, he had come to enjoy the company of the genius. The inquisitive child in him had loved picking the man’s brain. “Do you think there’ll be flying cars after the war? Would it be possible to change the compound of the super-soldier serum to cure all sorts of ailments without turning people into super-soldiers? Imagine if we could build a plane that could fly to the moon! Or to other planets!” Apart from the sheer knowledge, the man possessed, his snarky humour was right in line with Bucky’s own dark wit and he had had way too much fun giving Howard some input on new costume designs for Steve. One night after far too many cigarettes and bland coffee, they had come up with the silliest costume ideas for America’s star-spangled mascot. Steve had sat in a corner sulking and grumbling about betrayal – he would have rather forgotten the whole USO tour – until Agent Carter had chided them like little children. There had definitely been good times during the war!

 

Assassinating Howard Stark and his wife meant killing one of his friends and Bucky wished he had had the opportunity to apologize to Tony. Not that it would undo anything, but to let the other man know that he understood why he wanted him dead and that part of him shared that motion. But he had never gotten the chance to do so because Stark had given his life in exchange for theirs. From what the others had told him, he had finally had everything he had wanted – a life outside the spotlight; a wife and daughter. And he gave up all of that to protect everyone else. Someone else should have taken the gauntlet and snapped. He should have taken the gauntlet and snapped because he had no family to lose. At least then, the life he had been given after falling to his death would have made some sense. It would have finally had a purpose.

 

Instead, Pepper Potts of all people had invited him to the closed funeral of her late husband. He had wanted to decline, arguing that the murderer of his parents was certainly the last person Tony wanted to attend. But his feeble excuses had fallen on deaf ears because Pepper had known. Of course, she had known. Of course, she had seen the tape showing him murdering her parents-in-law. “You were a prisoner of war. Brainwashed. You had no control over your actions. You were the weapon, but someone else pulled the trigger. Once he had time to process everything, Tony knew that as well.” And so he had attended the funeral of a man whose parents he had murdered and who had every right to wish him dead only to save everyone’s lives, including his own.

 

He had seen Morgan Stark shortly at the funeral – a spitting image of her father and her grandfather. James Buchanan Barnes should have died in 1945, but due to some twisted chance of luck he had been given a second and a third chance at life. While his heart longed for the peacefulness the little hut in Wakanda offered his battered soul, he had vowed to make good use of the enhanced abilities the super-soldier serum had given him. Maybe he could make a small change in this strange new world that would ensure that Morgan H Stark would never have to suffer like her father and her grandfather.

 

Two days after making that decision, Steve had sought him out late at night, telling him about the plan to return the Infinity Stones to their rightful place and time. He had quietly confided in him that he did not intend to return and that for once in his life he wanted to be selfish and get his happy-ever-after with Peggy. “Come with me, Buck. Please. This is our chance to return to our rightful time.” In a strange way, Bucky had felt reminded of a time when Steve had just buried his mother and he had tried to convince him to move in with him, so he would not be on his own. A smaller and scrawnier version of his best friend had insisted he could get by on his own. “The thing is, you don’t have to. I’m with you till the end of the line, pal.”

 

There was a small, ugly green monster in his mind hissing that Steve would not think about staying in the past – leaving him – if it were not for Peggy Carter, but deep down he also knew that Steve would always choose the past over the present.

 

While the Winter Soldier had been on ice whenever HYDRA had no use for him, on the occasions he had been awake, he had noticed the changes in the world when he was following through with a mission. They had trained him in whatever new technology and weaponry had come around while he had been asleep. The Winter Soldier had given Bucky the time to gradually adjust to the changes of time. Without the programming and with much of his memory restored, he felt like a kid at school again, eager to absorb everything new this strange new world had brought forth. The room he had in Sam’s Washington-based apartment was overflowing with books recommended to him by Professor Hulk and Shuri. His roommate had tried to introduce him to e-readers countless times – usually when Bucky’s books, overflowing with notes and post-its, had spread all over the living room – but he loved the smell and the feeling of a properly bound book too much to exchange it for a small tablet with white light glaring at him. Steve never had the same adjustment period Bucky had. He had been prepared to die only to wake up 70 years later in a world that was so far removed from everything he remembered.

 

Bucky had truly wanted to be mad at him, but in the end, all he had felt was solemn understanding and sorrow that this would be the end of the line. They had to let go of each other to pursue their own happiness and while it was sad, it was also beautiful to know that they would both get the life they wanted: Steve would finally get his dance with Peggy, and Bucky could learn to live again without HYDRA breathing down his neck. For the first time in forever, he got to decide what he wanted to do, and it was his choice and his alone how he wanted to use the powers Armin Zola had bestowed him with. At least that was what Bucky had believed a year ago. Now…

 

When he had asked Steve, what was going to happen to Captain America, he had hummed and hawed and it had taken Bucky’s reassurance that he had no interest in carrying the shield to get him to talk. He was still trying to figure out James Buchanan Barnes’ place in this new world that he did not need the added pressure of being America’s star-spangled superhero. Besides, he only liked blue spandex if it meant he could rib and embarrass Steve.

 

Sam was the better choice to carry on the mantle even if populists and right-winged media outlets had been aghast to learn that America’s personal superhero was now a person of colour. Even eleven months after the news had been released they were still giving him a hard time on an almost daily basis. If a mission did not go exactly to plan they would rip him apart and blame it on the colour of his skin, his race or whatever nonsense-of-the-day they could come up with. He failed because only a superior white man like Captain Rogers could live up to the task at hand. For the most part, Sam ignored these comments and ‘news articles’, but occasionally, Bucky could see the stoic mask crack for just a second and it took all his will-power not to punch in some teeth. A wall or two might have suffered, however. And Steve’s front porch had been missing a door for a few days…

 

Because his best friend would be celebrating his 180th birthday in a few months’ time, but did not look a year older than 70 and was enjoying retirement in the suburbs of Washington D.C. While he had spent most of his married life with Peggy in London to affect the timeline as little as possible, he had moved into the little home in Alexandria shortly after Thanos had been defeated. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Captain Steven Grant Rogers had died in the battle against Thanos alongside Natasha Romanov and Tony Stark. Only few knew that he lived out his days as Roger Stevens and if he was not spending his time in the little studio atelier up in the attic of his house, he would occasionally consult for the remaining Avengers. Every few months Bucky would spend a day or two catching up with his old friend when he was in the U.S. or Steve would find his way into Birnin Zana to study Wakandan art and to paint the astounding African landscape. He had recently finished a painting of the beautiful Wakandan sunset which now decorated T’Challa’s office.  

 

Bucky was aware that Zola’s version of the super-soldier serum was a knockoff of the one Doctor Erskine had developed. While his strength matched Steven’s, he healed slightly slower and would often retain scars. Probably HYDRA’s sick version of ensuring he would not fail his missions or else he would have to suffer through his injuries for a week or two. A punishment he had quickly understood and after getting shot in the leg twice on one of his first missions, he had made it his priority to be quicker, to be faster, to be better prepared to avoid any injuries.

 

According to Shuri, his healing factor influenced his aging process. He had seen how long it had taken Steve to show any signs of old age. Even if his body aged slightly quicker due to the imperfect serum, he would still be in the prime of his life by the time Sam would retire from superhero-ing. Another couple of decades might give Bucky the time to fully heal and to find his place in the world to eventually take up the shield. Or one of the newcomers would prove to be a better candidate than a former HYDRA assassin. He really was not too set on lugging around that oversized frisbee; he would be content to know that the ideals it represented were in safe hands and would live on. The Spider-kid – Stark’s protégé – seemed like a good choice. Spidey-Cap. You’re friendly neighbourhood Captain.

 

Taking the past year into consideration, Bucky doubted it would ever happen. It was more likely that the kid would fully break. Apart from their interaction at the airport in Leipzig and a few interactions on the battlefield when they had all tried to protect the Infinity Stones, he had never really spoken to the boy. He wore Stark-tech, so he had figured that he had some sort of connection to Tony. The picture had cleared when the kid had clung to Iron Man’s body crying into the damaged armour, close to hyperventilating. Barton had eventually been the one who had managed to get him to let go of Tony, allowing Steve to carry the body off the battlefield.

 

In many ways the kid reminded Bucky of his best friend. Steve had lost his father in the First World War and had lost his mother to tuberculosis not long after his 18th birthday. Peter was still a minor and had buried his parents and his uncle. Tony Stark had become a mentor and father figure since Leipzig, only to lose him as well. His sole remaining relative was his aunt. Both Steve and Peter were goody-two-shoes who had the annoying habit to always see the best in people. As if that was not enough, they had zero sense of self-preservation and rather charged head-first into battle if it meant they could protect the little guy. Bucky blamed those irritating similarities that he had started to keep an eye on the youngest Avenger. Maybe he had also taken a bit of a liking to the wall-crawling teenager since he had been the first to ever be fascinated by his metal arm instead of being frightened by it.

 

The thing was, he wanted to hear that excited voice again and ensure that the kid did not get lost in his head because he had first-hand experience of how painful it could be to be a prisoner of one’s own darkest thoughts. After Stark’s funeral, it had taken several weeks before Peter had donned the Spider-Man suit again, but eventually, Queen’s friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man had returned. The kid had barely spent any time at the new Compound and had rarely joined the remaining team on missions. If he did, he had been quiet and withdrawn, a far cry from the bubbling personality that would talk a hundred words a second in the middle of a fight. They let him. Preferring some peace and quietness to settle his own thoughts, Bucky understood the sentiment and it was probably part of the reason why Peter tended to seek out his side when the team came together. He would not pressure him into talking about his feelings and just staying close to his side would ensure that.

 

During one of Bucky’s stays with the team, he had first caught a glimmer of the bubbly boy resurfacing he had first met in Leipzig. Apparently, he and Shuri were sending each other funny little clips – Memes? Tic Tacs? He had barely had time to praise the Princess for her positive influence on the kid when he found himself part of a group chat titled Internet Culture 101.

 

20 AUGUST 2023

Meme Queen: TIC TACS?!?!

4:37 pm

Meme Queen: Peter-man, we gotta save this poor man!!!

4:37 pm

Itsy Bitsy: tic tacs?

4:41 pm

Itsy Bitsy: shuri, wtf!!! y did u change my name???

4:42 pm

 

For the most part, Bucky was a silent reader in the chat, but he would mentally rejoice when he understood one of Shuri’s pop culture references while T’Challa just stared at his sister blankly, muttering under his breath what he did to deserve such punishment. As the weeks passed, he had noticed that Peter had started to come more out his shell and while the group chat was still titled Internet Culture 101, it had quickly become a text thread focusing mostly on the teenagers’ lives and their daily problems.

 

Shuri complained about her brother’s un-coolness or the stupidity of old, white men in power positions she often encountered as head of science and information exchange for Wakanda’s International Outreach Centres. Every once in a while, she would poke fun at Bucky by posting pictures and videos of his attempts to integrate himself with Wakandan culture, like when Okoye had given him a riding lesson on her white rhinoceros only to fall down within seconds and getting a full-face-lick by a rather slobbery tongue. Most of the Dora Milaje had stood close by and Bucky’s enhanced hearing had definitely picked up a couple of snickers while Shuri and Nakia had openly laughed.

 

Peter, in turn, would grouse about his aunt making moony eyes at Happy and occasionally he would post short clips of Morgan and her pet llama Gerald. Bucky tended to offer his two cents of advice when he felt he could actually be helpful, but as time passed, he found himself posting more about things he found intriguing – much to the teenagers’ delight. Without ever agreeing on it, Tony Stark was the one topic Shuri and Bucky would never bring up unless Peter initiated it. Something he did not.

 

And then the whole Mysterio-shit had happened and now the whole world knew that Spider-Man was a seventeen-year-old kid. Both Bucky and Sam had seethed that Fury had sent a grieving teenager into battle instead of calling for their help, while Shuri might have hacked the Daily Bugle and for more than 24 hours the landing page had been blacked out, only displaying the flashing words “Temporarily closed due to fake news”. The situation had not improved when it had been revealed that both Fury and Hill had been off-world while two Skrulls had played S.H.I.E.L.D.

 

Clearing the kid’s name from Mysterio’s allegations had been child’s play and Bucky had made a mental note to never cross Pepper Potts. The CEO of Stark Industries had been livid and had dragged the Daily Bugle to court where her lawyers had destroyed J. Jonah Jameson. Meanwhile, Sam, Bucky, and Rhodey – with the help of Peggy’s grandniece Sharon Carter – had been looking for Beck’s accomplices with mixed successes.

 

Despite the fact that his name had been cleared, Peter’s situation hardly improved when the United Nations became aware of the fact that Tony Stark had bequeathed him an augmented reality security, defence, and artificial tactical intelligence system, not only capable of creating realistic holographic displays but also able to neutralize any target on the globe within seconds. Peter would have instantly handed over EDITH had it not been for Pepper’s intervention. Even months after the whole Mysterio-debacle, she was still in a deadlock with some of the most powerful politicians worldwide, fighting to uphold her husband’s last will that an AI as powerful as EDITH was in better hands with a seventeen-year-old teenager than with some power-hungry politicians. It was a good thing that T’Challa had sided with Pepper and Peter from the beginning, being one of the few politicians supporting Stark’s wish.

 

Meanwhile, the kid had holed up at the Compound. After their apartment had been mobbed by the media and the public alike – everyone wanted to get a glimpse at the boy who had been Tony Stark’s protégé – he and his aunt had moved in with Happy. Peter had tried to continue living his life as unaffected by the revelation as possible, but even with Happy and two more bodyguards on constant standby, the situation at Midtown had been similar to his old apartment in Queens.

 

Still not fully comfortable with May and Happy dating but appreciating the security the arrangement offered his aunt, he had moved into the Compound, where he was home-schooled. It was anything but ideal. Not only had he become a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man without a neighbourhood, he was also separated from his only living relative, his best friend, and his girlfriend. All three of them tried to visit as frequently as possible, but it was not the same. On top of it, Peter was adamant on keeping his relationship with Michelle a secret from the public as he did not want her to be pestered by anyone for being Spider-Man’s girlfriend let alone put her in danger.

 

When Bucky had been sent off to war at 26-years of age, he had hoped he could make the world a safer place for his sisters, his nieces and nephews. Finish the war before Steve could find a way to join him because Europe was a whole lot bigger than New York’s back alleys and it would be so much more difficult to protect that scrawny punk’s ass from getting himself killed. What were the millions of lives lost in the trenches worth, if they were still fighting fascists and anti-Semites – regardless whether they were homebred or alien? People of all sorts of cultural backgrounds had been his comrades in war, had given their lives to protect their country, yet almost a century later white supremacy still ruled. Conveniently forgetting that all people were the same before the law. It was a strange world indeed. So much more technologically advanced than the 1940s, but in many ways just as cruel and backward in its thinking. Ever the soldier, he would be unable to rest until he had his mission fulfilled. At least now he was free to choose his battles.

Chapter Text

Bucky’s days in Wakanda were usually quieter and followed a more natural rhythm as opposed to the weeks he spent in New York. If nightmares did not keep him up all night, he would get up with the first rays of the sun touching the Wakandan savanna, feeding and milking his goats before preparing a small breakfast for himself. More often than not breakfast was delayed because he had to find the billy-goat he had named Steven. The bastard was a master at breaking free and getting into all sorts of trouble which was why he had found it more than justified to name it after his best friend. Once Steven was back with the other goats and Bucky had quenched the little hunger he felt with some porridge and berries, he would quickly clean his hut and put away his bed for the night to have more room to move about.

 

The rest of the morning was usually spent tending to the plum trees he was currently trying to cultivate in the Wakandan climate, before joining the rest of the small village on the communal fields to give them a lending hand – or two if he chose to wear the prosthetic. By noon they were sweaty from the work and jumped into the lake for a little refreshment before coming together for lunch. The hot afternoon sun was usually spent in the shade. If he did not make his way to the city to spend some time with T’Challa and Shuri, Bucky would either roam the local markets or simply lie under his favourite umbrella thorn and read the latest book he had acquired. That was if the children of the village did not find him and dragged him up to play with them. Once the sun was no longer burning down onto the fields, they would continue to tend to the crops for another couple of hours, before Bucky returned home to take care of his goats and either cook dinner or join one of the nearby families for a nightly meal, chatter, and laughter. While some had initially been wary of the pale foreigner brought to the community by the royal siblings, the village had quickly warmed up to the quiet man and his – sometimes – strange ideas. By the time Bucky would prepare his bed for the night, the sun had long disappeared into the lake and a pleasant coolness had spread over the land.

 

Every once in a while, the simplicity of his days was, however, interrupted – usually by the whirlwind that was Shuri and she would drag him to the Palace the moment he had finished breakfast. Today, he had made the way to the capital city on his own accord and was now sitting in front of the Princess’ vanity in her climatized suite, a holo-call from Sam hovering in front of him, while Shuri was pulling out countless drawers and rummaging through them.

 

      “You’re sure, you wanna do this, bro?” Sam’s hologram asked while chopping vegetables on the other side of the globe.

 

      “Yeah… Yeah, I think it’s time,” Bucky replied hesitantly, flinching ever so slightly when Shuri ripped open the door to her suite with too much force so that it loudly banged against the wall while yelling in his direction that she would be back in a second.

 

      “Guess I’ll have to step up my game if you’re getting rid of the Jesus-memorial-look,” Sam muttered and scratched his artfully designed facial hair.

 

Bucky did not deign the statement with a reply and merely turned around when Shuri came running back into the room, the door slamming shut loudly.

 

      “Ok, I got everything,” she announced and let her bounty fall onto the vanity. “Had to steal a couple of things from T’Challa.”

 

      “You know what you’re doing there, Princess?”

 

      “I skipped through a YouTube tutorial while you two were babbling.”

 

      “She watched a YouTube tutorial,” Sam sighed exasperatedly and put down the knife to look at Bucky. “You’re sure, you wanna let her do that? We can always go to my guy when you’re back.”

 

      “No –” he shook his head – “Shuri got the HYDRA programming out of my head. I trust her.”

 

      “Cutting hair might be slightly different than resetting you to your factory settings, Elsa,” Sam objected teasingly, but he understood where Bucky was coming from. For the most part, he could only imagine what the super-soldier must have endured under HYDRA, but in the short amount of time he had actually gotten to know Bucky, work and live with him, it had become obvious that trust was something that did not come easy to him. Sure, his usual motto was ‘Fake it till you make it’, and if it had not been for Sam’s experience with counselling veterans, he would have probably fallen for it like most people in Bucky’s life.

 

The thing was that he did not want his partner in combat to fake his trust; and if that meant the poor guy got a haircut by an eighteen-year-old princess who skipped through a YouTube tutorial, then that was still better than forcing him to go to a hairdresser he had absolutely no trust in. To some it might just be a haircut and a shave, but HYDRA had controlled everything that had been James Buchanan Barnes for so long, that taking back control over such simple things meant a huge deal to the soldier. Watching the banter between Shuri and Bucky through the holo-call, it was obvious that the Princess was the person he had the most faith in to let her have this amount of control over him.

 

      “What do you need all that stuff for?” Bucky asked curiously and carefully looked through the countless things Shuri had dropped onto the vanity. He recognized a few things like scissors and a brush, but why would she need a water spray bottle or… coconut oil? Doesn’t Sam use that for cooking? Instead of a reply he merely got an eye-roll that basically translated into “Don’t ask stupid questions, silly white boy” and had become pretty much patented to him.

 

      “You want that sexy, smouldering 1940s soldier look back, don’t you?”

 

      “That’s what you dubbed it. I merely said something like I used to wear.”

 

      “Yeah and I already made T’Challa promise to ban the import of any pomade into Wakanda. That includes pomade in your hair! I’m not getting you that sexy, fluffy soldier cut back only for you to grease it up like a 90-year-old grandfather.”

 

      “102,” Sam chuckled while Bucky simultaneously interjected that that had been the fashion back then.

 

      “Well thank Bast, we’re in the 21st century now and pomade has been banned from Wakanda. Sam, I trust you to keep him away from such abominations when he’s in the U.S.”

 

      “Yes, ma'am!”

 

Having found everything she thought she might need to cut Bucky’s hair and having it neatly lined up in one corner of her vanity, she caught his eyes and waited for his permission to continue. Just like when he was down in her lab, so she could improve the fit of the vibranium arm, he squared himself and took in a deep breath before giving her his consent with a short nod, while he let out the air he had sucked in. Her right hand lingered on his right shoulder for a moment, giving him a comforting squeeze, before she reached up to detangle the hair tie. Judging by how messy the bun was, he had either done it with one hand or one of the children in the village had done it for him. The poor things would probably be devastated that they could no longer practice their braiding skills on their Ingcuka.

 

      “Ok, first of all, I’m going to wet your hair with the spray bottle,” she started to talk him through the steps she was taking. It was something she had automatically taken to when she deprogrammed him, albeit he had still been in stasis back then. Once he had been awake, she had never stopped and after more than two years of working with Bucky, she was confident to say that it helped him relax. He knew exactly what she was going to do, how it might affect him. She had just finished wetting his hair, brushing it and putting it into sections when Sam asked her to wait for a second, so he could take a screenshot.

 

      “That’s gonna be your new Caller-ID, Frost Bite!”

 

      “Oooh, you gotta send me that picture, Sam!”

 

      “I hate you,” Bucky grumbled and glared at his reflection in the mirror while colourful hairclips were sticking out of his hair in various directions.

 

      “We love you, too,” Shuri shot back with a broad grin and picked up the scissors while her fingers combed through the sole strand of hair she had not clipped away. “Ready?”

 

      “Get on with it. I’m not getting any younger.”

 

Almost two hours later, Sam had long signed out of the holo-chat, Shuri finally put down the clippers and had a good look at her work, while running her fingers through the hair on top of Bucky’s head that was few inches longer than the sides and the back, which she had cropped pretty close.

 

      “I think… that’ll do. What’cha think?”

 

      “Yeah… it…” Turning his head in every direction Bucky tried to get a good look at all sides. At one point he had simply closed his eyes and stopped watching every single move of Shuri’s. He might have even been on the verge of dozing of once or twice. “I think I like it.”

 

      “I might have found my new calling,” the Princess joked and gave him a once over. “Yeah, but the lumberjack-look you’ve going on in your face definitely needs to go,” she decided, gesturing towards his jawline. “It clashes with the sexy-soldier-look we’ve got going on top… A three to five-day stubble is the maximum I’m letting you keep if you insist on facial hair.”

 

      “Go crazy,” was Bucky’s entire reaction to Shuri’s ramble and judging by the excited squeal it got him, it was exactly the reaction she had been hoping for. What was the worst she could do? If he did not like it, he could always shave it off. Judging by the occasional giggle and where he felt the razor buzz over his skin, she was not just shaving off his current beard but tried all sorts of – likely hilarious – styles.

 

      “Yeah, we’re definitely not going with the Hitler moustache!”

 

      “That would be very much appreciated.”

 

He did not get drafted just to wear that clown’s ridiculous facial hair decades later. Minutes later, the razor was finally shut off and he no longer felt the Princess’ presence hover right next to his face. His eyes fluttered open and needed a moment to adjust to the brightness in the room before he focused on his reflection in the mirror. The first thing he noticed was that the babyface he had still sported at 26 had gotten a bit edgier – his main fear when Shuri announced that the beard had to go. At 102, he really did not need Sam – or Shuri for that matter – to tease him about looking like a milksop.

 

      “Do you like it?”

 

      “Yeah…” He ran a hand over the barest minimum of a stubble she had left him with while turning his head left and right. For the longest time, he had looked into the mirror and he had seen the Winter Soldier stare back at him – even when the programming had been long gone. For the first time in eighty years he looked at his reflection and he finally recognized the young man who had shipped off to war in 1943. “Yeah, I like it,” he repeated with a steady voice and offered Shuri a broad, sincere smile.

 

      “Thank Bast. I really didn’t wanna glue all that hair back onto you.”

 

      “Nope, no gluing needed,” Bucky reassured her and was about to get up when her hand on his shoulder kept him in his seat.

 

      “Where are you going? We’re not done, yet. Now starts the fun part!”

 

      “Fun part?” His eyebrows furrowed in confusion as he tried to remember if a visit to the barber back in the 1940s ever entailed anything else but a haircut and a shave that could be classified as ‘fun’.

 

      “Facials, Stupid!”

 

      “Facials?”

 

      “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you really need one. You’re starting to break out on your forehead, and all that scruff hid a couple of red patches as well.”

 

Welcome to life as a centenarian when your skin still thinks you’re a pimply-faced teenager.

 

      “Don’t worry, T’Challa’s skin is far worse,” Shuri rambled on as she quickly disappeared into the small kitchenette of her suite to heat up water while mixing several colourful looking pastes. “A couple of years ago, he sprouted this huuuuge cyst right on top of his nose tip. He looked like one of the war rhinos!” Shuri’s laughter rang through the rooms as she carried over two large bowls of steaming water, two large towels, and several smaller boules. “Had the temper of one as well! Of course, Nakia was here at the time as well and that silly idiot refused to leave his rooms for days because he did not want her to see him looking like a rhino.”

 

As the afternoon gradually turned into evening, Bucky found that he did not really care why Shuri thought it important that he stuck his head under a towel and held his face over a bowl of steaming water. He may not really understand – let alone care – what exfoliating was or why the Princess was smearing mud all over his face. Yet, lounging with her on the plush sofa in her living room, watching a film adaption of The Hobbit – somehow Bilbo looked a bit like Everett Ross – as they waited for the dirt on their faces to dry, he was reminded of simpler times, when he had sat in his sisters’ bedroom reading them a story about a hole in the ground where a hobbit lived.

 

Sam sometimes teased him that the Princess had a crush on him, but he could not care less about his silly jokes. Shuri had been one of the first people he had come to trust in this strange new world. When she had deleted the HYDRA programming from his mind, she had seen his memories and recollections. She had seen how HYDRA had broken him over and over and over again until he was a merciless killing machine without any remorse let alone any recollections of his previous life. People tended to pity or fear him for his past, but the Princess treated him no less different than her own brother.

 

A naked foot nudging into his ribs drew Bucky out of his thoughts and he turned a questioning gaze from the TV to Shuri who had stretched out on the couch and thrown her feet into his lap.

     

      “Don’t hog all the popcorn over there!”

 

Rolling his eyes, he was about to hand the bowl over to her, when she indicated that he should just throw a handful into her mouth. Shaking his head in light of the childish antics, he grabbed some of the popped corn and threw it in her directions. Hitting her open mouth less than five feet away from him was child’s play. After all, he could make a kill shot on a moving target at a much greater distance. To rile her up, he deliberately missed and chuckled quietly when she scowled at him and collected the popcorn from the sofa and ground, before tackling him in an effort to steal the bowl from him. They squabbled for a couple of minutes when Bucky finally let her have the popcorn and she settled down next to him, using the stump of his left shoulder as a pillow with the bowl of food resting between their thighs.

 

      “It’s good to see you so relaxed, Bucky,” she muttered quietly as they followed Bilbo’s adventures with the dwarves.

 

      “I… I had a good day,” he conceded pensively as he recalled the fun he had despite his initial reluctance to approach her with his request.

 

      “I’m happy to hear that.” Shuri remained quiet for a moment, looking for the right words before she continued. “You know, you’ll always have a place here, right? Whether it’s in the village or here in the palace…”

 

      “I know and I’m grateful that T’Challa allowed me to stay here after everything that’s happened…”

 

      “But there’s also a whole world out there for you to discover – beyond Wakanda, beyond all your books…” She appreciated that he was wary about the world’s reaction to him, but she did not want him to hole up in the village out of fear that the world would reject him. Deleting HYDRA’s programming from his mind and freeing his body from the contraption that had been his metal alarm, had only been the initial steps to help James Buchanan Barnes heal. Having him settle in the small village outside the city and letting him choose how he wanted to contribute to the community had been the next. The last step was to help him make his peace with a world that feared him.

 

      “I know.” Bucky sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. “The thing is… your people just see this weird white guy and they couldn’t care less about what he’s doing as long as he’s contributing to the community. As soon as I leave Wakanda… It feels like the whole world is watching… The whole world is expecting to see the Winter Soldier. You deleted him from my mind, but he’s still in everyone else’s.”

Chapter Text

Eventually, Shuri was satisfied with the makeover of her silly, white boy and had insisted on taking a couple of selfies of his new look – weird dog filters included – and had posted them in the group chat with Peter as well as the one with Sam. The latter had merely replied with an ‘Aaaahhh-ooooohhhhh!!!!’ and a GIF of steaming smoke. Peter had complimented his new look and suggested the Princess could open a franchise of Wakandan spas all over the world should she ever grow tired of the Outreach Centres or the Design Group she spearheaded.

 

When the Queen Mother Ramonda had gotten wind of Bucky’s visit to the Palace, she had invited him to stay for dinner – and since she was the Queen Mother, it was practically an order. Not that Bucky minded as he enjoyed the meals with the royal family, albeit he had a slight suspicion that he might have accidentally been adopted by the Queen Mother.

 

For over a year now he had received the same treatment as T’Challa and Shuri – a mix of fond love and theatrical exasperation. She would admonish him like her own children if he did something stupid – like getting onto a war rhino; she would encourage him to pick up new things like trying to cultivate plum trees in Wakanda, and she would show genuine interest in his progress. When the headteacher of the village schoolhouse had relaid Bucky’s interest in learning Xhosa, the Queen Mother had taken him under her wing. In the process, he had also gained a much greater understanding of Wakandan history, culture, and religion, and he was keenly aware that he was the first foreigner – a colonizer on top of that – to be granted such knowledge. When he left for New York or came back, she would fuss over him to such an extent that T’Challa and Shuri would later poke fun at him which reminded him so much of how his own parents and siblings had interacted with him that he felt truly part of a family unit again. In many ways, it was a grounding feeling that he welcomed.

 

Particularly after Steve – but that was a thought Bucky did not finish.    

 

When he had entered the dining room – without Shuri as she had to take an important call, whatever that meant – the Queen Mother immediately fussed over his new haircut, running her fingers through the longer parts and slightly adjusted them, while T’Challa complimented the change but was quick to question if his sister had blackmailed him into the change – he knew his younger sibling after all. The same sister who had overheard the last remark and was quick to bite back, but the Queen Mother put an immediate stop to the squabbling and commented instead how well the new hairdo fit him and that he looked at least a decade younger without the facial hair.

 

Thankfully, the conversation had soon steered away from his new look and, as so often, he lost himself in discussions with Wakanda’s ruling family. While he had never imagined himself going into politics, he enjoyed listening to what T’Challa had been up to since they last spoke. If he was not busy with Wakanda’s domestic politics, he would help Pepper to ensure that power-hungry politicians stayed as far from Peter and EDITH as possible. The majority of his time was, however, spent on helping global governments recover from The Snap and the return of half their population.

 

It should be a joyous occasion to welcome long lost people back, but more often than not societies were overwhelmed and helpless. Some tried to seamlessly re-intergrade their citizens into their old lives, others demanded they should wait in refugee camps until the situation was sorted or were only interested in offering immediate aid to certain classes and professional groups. It was frustrating on so many ends and part of Bucky recalled how decades ago politics had singled out certain groups as well, how other governments had refused to help and chosen to turn a blind eye on the situation until it had been too late.

 

After expressing his initial thoughts on the matter, T’Challa would frequently pick his mind on global politics in the 1930s and 40s. Not that Bucky considered himself much help, because his younger self had had much more pressing matters to attend to than the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia – like securing double dates for him and Steve or ensuring the latter did not get his head knocked in by the bully of the week. T’Challa obviously did not share his opinion and Bucky would consequently try to answer any questions to the best of his ability.

 

Engrossed in discussions, no one had noticed how time flew by until it was well past eleven o’clock. The Queen Mother had offered Bucky to spend the night in the Palace – he basically had his own royal quarters there at this point – but Bucky wanted to ensure Steve the goat had not done anything stupid while he had been gone and that the rest of his goats were ready for the night; despite the fact that Thobe and Zani had promised to take care of them if he taught them some more boxing techniques. As it was a fairly long walk back to the village, he ended up borrowing one of the horses – thankfully they were a lot easier to control than a war rhino. Since Shuri had planned on dropping by the village the next day anyway to spend some time with the local children before she had to leave to oversee the project development of the Wakandan International Outreach Centre in Europe, she had offered to accompany him.

 

Waiting with the saddled horses for Shuri to collect a couple of necessities, Bucky did his best to ignore the whispered comments from the nearby warriors of the Dora Milaje regarding his new looks. Thanks to his enhanced hearing it was like they were breathing them right into his ear. 25-year-old him would have preened under so much attention and bragged about it to Steve, but the 102-year-old him simply prayed that Shuri would hurry and they could finally get on the way. For once God, Bast or whatever deity you wanted to believe in had pity on him and Shuri came running towards him – a satchel slung across her shoulder, a traditional Wakandan blanket wrapped around her body and a sonic spear in hand in case any of the larger predators roaming the night considered them a midnight snack. Judging by the Princess’ laughter she had heard some of the comments as well.

 

      “My, my, Sergeant Barnes, I saw what a lady’s killer you were in the 40s. I didn’t think a haircut and shave could bring that back!” she teased him loud enough for anyone close by to hear and Bucky was grateful for the night or else anyone would have probably noticed that his face had taken on a similar shade of red like his shúka.

 

      “Can we please just go?” he practically begged and mounted the horse with Shuri following suite, still amused at his plight.

 

      “Jeez, I might have turned you into the most sought-after bachelor in a single afternoon. Damn, I’m good!”

 

      “Can you please just let it go?”

 

      “But this is – “ She wanted to say that it was fun, but she stopped herself mid-sentence after taking a quick glance in his direction and seeing how he had folded in on himself on the horse – “Sorry, I forgot,” she quietly apologized and it took Bucky a second or two to catch on.

 

      “… of course… you saw my memories…”

 

      “… Yeah…”

 

In order to ensure she had deleted all the trigger words from his mind, Shuri had watched every single memory James Buchanan Barnes had ever made and which had not been deleted by HYDRA. She had watched the clumsy attempts at flirting of a cocky, self-assured teenager morph into the suave pick-up lines of a young man who was certain of his charms. Shuri had felt like a voyeur as she watched said teenager stumble through his first time only to be interrupted by the girl’s father who yelled at him and was ready to get his rifle to defend his daughter’s honour. Granted, she might have laughed at the teenager hastily throwing on his clothes and hurriedly clambering out of the window, forgetting that he was in a three-story building and there was no fire-ladder beneath him. She had watched Bucky spend cold winter evenings in Steven’s dingy apartment because the young man – looking more like a gaunt boy than an actual adult – was too proud to move in with his best friend and rather froze his scrawny arse off.

 

There had been too many memories of the two men huddled together under piles of blankets. It was usually Bucky who had tried to use his own body heat to keep Steven warm, who was battling another bout of pneumonia and could hardly breathe.

 

One of Shuri’s favourite memories was probably New Year’s Day 1939 when Steven had woken up with morning wood and had fallen out of bed in an attempt to hide his misery from Bucky who had been awake all along. They had squabbled like an old married couple before their row got much more hands-on… and had ended with Steve suffering an asthma attack, which Bucky had mistaken for him orgasming. Shuri might have laughed a bit too hard at the thought that Captain America almost suffocated because his best friend thought he was climaxing. It might also have been a bit difficult to keep a straight face around Captain Rogers the next time he visited Wakanda to enquire about Bucky’s well-being.

 

There had been similar memories of two young men exploring their bodies – not always interrupted by an asthma attack, but always under the ever-present pretense to exchange pointers and practise for the ladies. Given the closeness Shuri had witnessed between the two friends since she had got to know them, she would not be surprised if there had been more at one point, albeit none of them had been willing to acknowledge it. It had been the 1940s after all.

 

There had been a couple more female conquests on Bucky’s part, but then Azzano had happened. It had been Shuri’s first foretaste of what was to come. Armin Zola experimenting on the soldier, injecting him with the knock-off version of Steve’s super-soldier serum, subjecting him to electroshock therapy with Bucky no longer able to tell apart reality from the fantasy his mind had created to escape the torture. And finally, he had been saved by Captain America. By Steve. And his mind had still grabbled to differentiate between reality and illusions.

 

In Shuri’s opinion, it had been a wise decision that Steve had insisted on them bunking together because he had been by Bucky’s side the instant the first nightmare had tormented him. He had held him and rocked him back to sleep like a scared child and had rolled this new, enhanced body protectively around his best friend until the next one had hit. He had reassured him that he was free of HYDRA when Bucky had hallucinated he was still subjected to Zola’s experiments. When Bucky had begged him with tears streaming down his bruised cheeks to fuck him raw to let the pain ground him in reality, the big oaf had slowly taken apart the broken body in his arms and had carefully put back together the single pieces until Bucky had succumbed to a restful sleep free from any torments.

 

And then HYDRA had happened again. Zola and countless agents and soldiers had had almost two decades to develop the most brutal torture methods that would finally break the last strands of resistance in Sergeant James Barnes, so he could become the Winter Soldier the world had come to fear.

 

The first time Shuri had seen the memories, she had suffered with the young man on her holographic display. Sex and touch were no longer a sweet pleasure shared between lovers but torture devises akin to waterboarding and electrocution. She had lost her breakfast the first time she had witnessed these memories and the agonizing screams had followed her into her dreams for many nights to come.

 

Shuri had wished she could travel back in time to rescue the young soldier, reassure him that everything was going to be okay, but unfortunately, time travel was beyond her. It was a good thing she knew someone who could and who had been in the past, so she might have visited Steve Roger’s in his retirement home in DC and yelled at him if he had been too busy playing House with Agent Carter to save his best friend. Shuri did not know what she had expected from that visit a couple of months ago but seeing an old man who had looked utterly defeated and broken had certainly not been on her list.

 

As Steve had eventually relayed over a cup of tea, he had indeed tried to free Bucky – secretly, behind Carter’s back. Yet, each time he had been getting close to succeeding in his endeavour he had been stopped by a magician similar to Doctor Strange. Saving the Winter Soldier, she had informed him, would unravel the future they had fought and some of them had died for. His best friend had to suffer under HYDRA to guarantee the defeat of Thanos and his army in 2023. “Tony… Nat… Bucky… they all had to sacrifice too much so we could win. In what world is that fair?” Shuri did not know what she had expected from that visit, but it had certainly not been this revelation, albeit it did explain the aura of guilt and sadness that seemed to surround Steven Rogers these days when he visited Bucky in Wakanda.

 

      “What they did… it was wrong.”

 

      “Don’t you think, I know that,” Bucky snapped and immediately apologized. Not that it would change anything. It would do nothing to stop the nightmares and it would not undo the fact that at times – during the torture – his body had betrayed him and had acted as if he had actually enjoyed what was done to him. How could anyone like being strapped to the ceiling by his good arm until the unnatural position and his own body weight would pull his arm out of its socket? How could anyone enjoy being subjected to utter darkness or blindingly bright light for days on end while the foul smell of your own faeces made you throw up? How could anyone relish the sensation of being stripped down by your capturers, still strapped to the ceiling, and then hosed down like an animal only to have the same hose stuck up your arse, filling your insides with pressurized ice-cold water for several days? Granted, the hose had always been the lesser evil compared to being electrocuted from the inside or having a cattle prod shoved up your arse while you got waterboarded. None of that changed the fact that there had been times he had gotten hard under the assault and cum had leaked out of him as if he had actually enjoyed in the torture.

 

      “You don’t have to apologize.”

 

      “I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”

 

      “Yeah, but you have every right to be angry.”

 

      “Frankly… I don’t even know what I feel at this point… I just want it to go away…”

 

Instead of replying instantly, Shuri quietly reached over to Bucky and squeezed his flesh hand. Not wearing his prosthetic, he let go of the reins knowing the horse would follow the path ahead either way and wove his fingers through Shuri’s, holding onto her hand for a moment before letting go and picking up the reins again.

 

      “There are… professionals you could talk to. If you think that’d help…”

 

      “Have even more people tinker with my scrambled brains? No, thank you.”

 

      “Sorry…” She was well aware that apart from HYDRA, she had been one of the main people to ‘tinker with his scrambled brains’ as he always put it. Initially, there had been therapists to help him, but the more he had remembered, the more he had refused their help until he had been at the end of his tether. 

 

      “You’re the least person I mind. I’m just sorry you had to see all that crap…”

 

      “Don’t sell yourself short, it was quite entertaining at times,” she grinned at him in the moonlit night and was glad when he took the bait.

 

      “Yeah? Any favourites you’d like to share with the class?”

 

      “Oh, I don’t know… Captain America suffocating while you thought he was orgasming was pretty hilarious!”

 

      “Oh God,” Bucky groaned and leaned over the horse’s neck to bury his face in the long mane so the blush creeping up his neck and cheeks was not obvious. He stayed like this for a couple of minutes, enjoying the soft rocking back and forth of his horse’s back, and only sat up again when Shuri broke the silence, querying if she could ask him something. Bucky had a pretty good idea what she might want to know but he gave her the go-ahead nonetheless.

 

      “You and Rogers. What was going on there?”

 

      “Nothing.”

 

      “Could have fooled me.”

 

      “It’s not like there could have been anything going on. It’s one thing if their favourite new mascot fucks a couple of USO girls. The brass’d probably stand next to the cod and applaud him. But Captain America fucking another soldier? Or worse, getting fucked by one? That’d be court-martial if you’re lucky. For the other guy, of course, not their dancing monkey.”

 

      “It’s a good thing that’s no longer the case.”

 

      “Depends on what country you’re in – from what I’ve read…”

 

      “Yeah, I guess you’re right… but at least here in Wakanda you’re free to do as you please.”

 

      “Are you giving me the go-ahead to fuck around?”

 

      “Just saying that the sexy-smouldering-soldier-look’s definitely turning a few heads,” Shuri laughed before becoming more serious again. “All I’m saying is that I’ve seen pre-HYDRA Bucky grasping every chance for a bit of fun. Not that you don’t look like you’re having a good time when we’re watching movies or you’re in the lab with me, but maybe…”

 

      “Maybe when the idea of someone else touching me doesn’t creep me out,” Bucky conceded quietly. He had no calms about any of the people he was close to touch him, hug him, but the mere thought of feeling the hands of a stranger on his skin gave him the heebie-jeebies.

 

      “Well, good. As long as you’re not focused on making out with anyone, more opportunities for me to spend time with my favourite person!”

 

      “Not that you’ve been around much as of late…” he stated without any heat. Bucky knew that Shuri had more important things on her plate than hanging out with one of her old science projects.

 

      “I’m sorry,” she was quick to apologize. She was aware that with the new duties T’Challa had assigned to her as head of the Design Group, she had less time on her hand to spend with Bucky. As a consequence, she had noted that he either spent more time on the farm or stayed a few days longer in New York to give her space without making her feel guilty that she had to cancel on him. After all, how could she turn him down when he was busy in the first place. He truly was a silly idiot. “It’s just…” And it was not like she could give him any proper explanation either because she had promised to keep stumm until further notice.

 

      “Too many princes knocking on your door and you’re busy breaking all their hearts?” Bucky teased her good-naturedly earning himself one of those patented eyerolls.

 

      “Ok, no more Disney movies for you,” Shuri mocked him.

 

      “You’re the one who insisted I had to watch every single one of them, including the live-action remakes,” Bucky shot back. “So… no princes? Princesses?”

 

      “They’re too scared of smart women”, Shuri replied, albeit ignoring the second part of Bucky’s question. “Not that I’d care about any of those douchebags anyway.”

 

      “Why would they be scared of you, Shuri?” It was an honest question because he had no clue how anyone could be afraid of the Princess of Wakanda. Granted, she could hold her own in battle, and when she was excited her voice reached heights that made his ears ring uncomfortably, but she was also one of the brightest, kindest, and most selfless people he had ever met. He doubted there were many people in this world who would have done for him what she did.

 

      “Because I’m so much smarter than them,” she sneered remembering the times when men had told her she was too intelligent.

 

      “Then their idiots!”

 

      “I knew there was a reason why I kept you around.”

Chapter Text

Shuri should know by now that spending the night at Bucky’s hut always ended in an argument over who would sleep on the ground and who would take the bedding. As a child, she had spent countless nights under Wakanda’s stars when her father had taken her and T’Challa out to explore the savanna for several days on end. Bucky, ever the gentleman his mother had raised him to be, would, of course, offer the more comfortable sleeping arrangement to the lady. Hence why they were now both resting on the bare ground, with a blanket wrapped around their bodies to stave off the chilly night air.

 

      “You know that this is stupid.”

 

      “It wouldn’t have to be if you just took the damn bedding.”

 

      “Pot calling cattle.”

 

Bucky grunted something that sounded remotely like ‘pig-headed princesses’, but Shuri chose to ignore it in favour of kicking him into the shin. It was a good thing the hut was small enough that her leg could easily reach over to his side.

 

      “Did you just…?” He pushed himself up onto his elbow and stared at her incredulously in the darkness of the hut, only his enhanced vision letting him see her.

 

      “Nervous twitches.”  

 

      “Why am I always getting punished with the most annoying sisters?” Bucky complained and flopped back onto the ground, only to groan when his left shoulder hit the earthy soil hard.

 

      “Take the goddam bedding, Bucky, your shoulder’s gonna be all sore in the morning!”

 

      “No.”

 

      “Stubborn mule.”

 

      “Pot calling kettle.”

 

As chance would have it, their latest squabble had been the reason why Bucky now found himself in a tiny village in Tuscany with the son of the Italian ambassador to the EU, learning how to make pizza from the 20-year old.

 

The calm that had eventually settled in the hut had not lasted for long because Shuri kept tossing and turning, while Bucky tried to find a comfortable position where his left shoulder with the metal implants would not tense up painfully. When almost an hour had passed and none of them had managed to fall asleep, Bucky had had enough of the bedding-debacle and had simply pulled it into the room, letting himself fall onto one side while waiting for Shuri to settle in on the other. It was a bit crammed, but it was better than the bare ground. He was about to fall asleep when the nervous twitching of the Princess next to him rose him again. After the fifth time it had happened, he had enough and demanded to know what was wrong as it was so unlike her. She did not offer an instant reply. Instead, she flopped over onto her belly and lifted her upper body up slightly.

 

      “How mad would you be if I did something you said you didn’t want but I did it anyway?”

 

For a moment Bucky contemplated if he should just enjoy the blissful ignorance of not knowing what Shuri had done. Then again, there was very little she could do that would actually get him proper mad and it was obvious that whatever she had done, she wanted to get it off her chest. He doubted she had caused another diplomatic incident like two months ago when she had called the U.S. President a privileged, white colonizer on Twitter. That would primarily inconvenience T’Challa because he would have to sort the mess out while Bucky would secretly chuckle at Shuri’s choice of words and silently agree with her statement. Seeing as that was the worst she had done in the past couple of weeks, he was clueless as to what incident she might have caused that would anger him.

 

      “Remember, when we took you out of cryo and all the tests confirmed that the HYDRA programming had been deleted from your mind?”

 

      “Yeah…”

 

      “And Steve asked if you wanted to find your family?”

 

      “Yeah…” He distinctively remembered declining his best friend’s offer as he was certain that his sisters had long passed away by then and even if there was a slight chance that his youngest sibling was still alive, she had certainly seen the news about him… the Winter Soldier. He had always been Becca’s hero, so she was probably abhorred by what he had become.

 

      “And I really didn’t do anything until after the Blip, but after we had been gone for five years, I just wanted to make sure your family was doing okay… so I did some research, and I found Becca!” Bucky had sat up and stared at Shuri trying to comprehend what she had just said. “She’s 86 now. Most of the family had blipped. Took me a while to find her since she emigrated to Scotland in the 50s.”

 

Shuri rambled on how she had managed to trace Becca’s steps all the way to Stirlingshire, where she had lived the majority of her life at Buchanan Castle and had raised her two sons there. Bucky vaguely recalled his grandfather telling him about the grand castle near some lake that was the family seat of the Buchanan Clan. If he remembered correctly no one had lived there for ages, but as he turned his attention back to Shuri she excitedly told him, how Becca had moved to Scotland after she had graduated from university and had taken it upon herself to restore the castle to its old glory. She had married a Scotsman but had kept the Buchanan name like their mother to keep the line going. Over the years she had opened the castle to the public and rented out parts of it for public events to generate income that would cover the running costs of the old building.

 

      “Why didn’t you ever mention that you had a castle?” Shuri had demanded to know, but before he had even a chance to reply that it had never been his, she was already continuing with her ramble, telling him how she had thought it would be better to reach out to Becca’s oldest son first since she did not want to be the reason his sibling suffered a heart attack.

 

      “Anyway, so I sent James an email, introducing myself and telling him that you lived with us and that I wanted to know if his mum wanted to meet you. I waited a couple of days, but no reply. So, I emailed him again, and again no reply.” Probably because they had no interest in meeting him, Bucky thought and was about to tell Shuri the same, but she was quicker than him.

 

      “Anyhow, he doesn’t live at the castle and I didn’t just want to show up on your sister’s doorstep, because that would be rude, so Peter and I used Karen to stalk… find out where James lives – Stirling by the way, that’s like a 30-minute drive from the castle – and last time you were in New York, I flew to Scotland to visit him.”

 

      “Shuri, you really shouldn’t have – “

 

She was on a ramble telling him about visiting someone who was essentially his nephew that he hardly got any words in.

 

      “Turned out he thought my emails were a scam which was why he never replied. Anywho, we talked – mostly about you and your sister, and he promised he would broach the topic with his mother, but she had been down in London at the time visiting his younger brother and he didn’t think it was something that should be discussed over the phone. So, I flew back and waited for his call, and when you were already at dinner with T’Challa and Mother, Becca called. I had to cut it short or else you guys would have noticed something, but the gist of it is that she was beyond herself with joy to have a sign of life from you. She had of course seen you on the news and knows you’re an Avenger now, but she didn’t know how to reach you or if you ever wanted any contact after all that time. Or if you even remembered…”

 

      “Becca thought…?” Why would his sister think he would not want any contact with her? He was the one who had screwed up not her!

 

      “Anyway, she invited us to Buchanan Castle and I have to go to Brussels tomorrow night anyway, so can you please come with me, so we can visit your sister afterward?” When Shuri had finally finished her story, she had waited for Bucky to say something, to show any reaction, but he had remained utterly quiet and all she had been able to make out in the darkness of the hut had been his silhouette and the sound of his laboured breathing.

 

Over the few years she had known him, she had learned that his breathing could tell her more about his emotional state than he could often express with words. If he was ‘in the zone’, ready to fight, it was unnoticeable to the human ear and eye. A relict from his days in the Army and later as HYDRA’s most successful assassin for more than five decades. Laboured breathing was usually a good indicator that he was freaking out about something but was still trying to reign in his emotions as best as he could.

 

      “Hey, Bucky…” she quietly addressed him – a stark contrast to her previously excited voice – and reached out to him, her hand coming to rest on his chest which was heaving under her touch. “Becca understands that you were a prisoner of war. That this was all HYDRA’s doing. That you never chose to – “

 

      “No-no-no, you don’t understand!”

 

      “Okay, explain it to me.”

 

      “I-it’s –” A shaky hand brushed through his freshly cut hair and for a quick moment he actually missed his longer strands just for the sake of calming himself down by detangling them with his fingers – “I was in England when I got my orders to move to the Italian front. I managed to send a telegram to my parents two days before I left London and on the day we moved out, I got a message from Becca.”

 

To this day he could only speculate how she knew where to address the telegram to or how she had even had the money for it – she had been a kid after all. His best guess was that his parents had left the info somewhere out in the open and she had begged old Bill O’Reiley at the post office to help her until he had caved to those pleading blue eyes that were so extremely difficult to say no to.

 

“S-she told me, I was – under no circumstances – allowed to come home if I did not learn how to make a proper Italian pizza.” Logically speaking, Bucky knew that he was freaking out over nothing – blatantly proven by Shuri’s very un-princess-like snorting – but after everything that had happened, making his baby sister that Italian pizza she had asked for seemed like the final chance he had to retain his big-brother-hero-status.

 

“HYDRA didn’t enrich their torture programme with weekly culinary classes!” The snorting turned into full out laughter that probably woke up half the village, when his voice took on a higher, more hysteric tinge. Thankfully, Shuri did not have his night vision or else the cackling would have only increased in volume given by the glare and the pout adorning his face.

 

      “That’s what got you in such a tizzy, Bucky?” she asked when she had finally calmed down a bit. “I think I might be able to remedy that. You’ll learn how to make pizza while I’m in Brussels and then we’re going to visit your sister!”   

Chapter Text

Peter stared at his phone with furrowed eyebrows, before he put it down on the dock next to him and stuffed his hands into the pouch of his oversized sweatshirt to warm up his fingers, while he absentmindedly scratched his wrists. Less than a week ago, the place had been covered in a thick layer of snow, but now it was warm enough to sit outside at three in the morning. Well, warm enough when you had not been bitten by a radioactive spider and developed spider-like powers, including the ability to no longer thermoregulate properly.

 

It had been months since his class’ school trip to Europe and the subsequent reveal of his identity. He had long given up on getting any proper sleep. When he spent time with Pepper and Morgan at the lake house, he would usually sneak out after SI’s CEO had finally gone to bed and either sit on the porch or more often on the dock, staring out onto the lake, where Pepper had placed the wreath with Mr Stark’s first arc reactor. If he was back at the new Compound, he would usually tire himself out in the gym or train his Spidey-Sense in the newly installed holo-suite, so someone like Beck could never get the better of him again. The truth was he was avoiding sleep like a vampire the sunlight. He was scared to see a rotting Iron Man rise from his grave or MJ plummeting to her death, knowing he could have saved them if he had just been better. Neither did he want to see his Uncle Ben getting shot over and over again, while he was too scared to do anything, nor did he want to wander the crash site of his parents’ plane. He did not want to come face to face with the ghosts of his past, knowing he was the reason they were all dead.

 

With his hands curled deep into the pocket of his sweater, his fingers brushed against the neatly folded up sheet of paper he kept there. Had been carrying it around with him since Pepper handed it to him the evening of Mr Stark’s funeral. A letter addressed to him, written by his late mentor the night before the Time Heist. It had taken Peter weeks to finally find the courage to read it and the first time he had tried, he had not gotten past the first sentence. The letter had been handwritten, because as much as Mr Stark loved to use technology to solve benign everyday problems, he relied on the precision of his own two hands for the most important things. Hence why all the Iron Man armours, Peter’s suits and the equipment of the other Avengers included a lot of manual work.

 

Months after Peter had finally managed to finish the entire letter, the ink was splotched from his tears and the paper crumbled where he had fisted it in his shaking hands. Nonetheless he always kept it on him. A tangible piece of Tony Stark to remind him of everything the genius had seen in him, when self-doubts threatened to overwhelm him.

 

Tony had asked him not to blame himself for his death, but there was a constant nagging voice that told him he could have saved him if he had just been better. Barton and Wilson called it survivor’s guilt as if naming his feelings of absolute inadequateness would make them go away. Both men had tried to reach out to him, the former occasionally traveling all the way from Missouri to check up on him. He might have snapped once, telling the former agent that he should better stay away, because – if he had not noticed it yet – Peter put the 'e' in dad and he really did not need another father-figure on his consciousness. His Parker Luck had already made Morgan an orphan, Barton’s children did not need to share the same fate.

 

As far as Tony Stark’s daughter was concerned, he never did have to follow his mentor’s wish to introduce himself to her. She had sought him out after the funeral, asking him curiously if he was indeed Spider-Man. Apparently Mr Stark had told her all sorts of stories about him and by the time he had been revived from the Blip she had already adopted him as her big brother. A notion he had to come to terms with at first, because being around Morgan was a painful reminder of the father she had lost. It did not help that the girl had grown up in a world where half the population had been dead and had then miraculously returned one day. The concept of people staying dead forever was unbeknownst to her.

 

Don’t worry, Petey. Daddy will come back. He just lost track of time. He always does when he’s busy.”

 

Yeah, busy being dead. Nonetheless, he had come to enjoy the time he got to spend with Pepper and Morgan at the lake house. It was like a safe heaven, where he could allow himself to feel anything other than the numbness that had become such a constant companion. He did not want to worry May or appear weak in front of any of the other Avengers, so he rather played it off in front of them. Yet, Pepper had dealt with her husband’s panic attacks for such a long time, it was pretty much impossible to fool her into thinking he was doing just peachy. More like stressed depressed lemon zest.

 

After Mysterio had revealed his identity, returning to the quiet, little life of Peter Parker from Queens had been impossible. Without ever asking for her help, Pepper had taken to protecting him from the masses and had been one of the main, driving forces to clear his name. She did not only achieve that within 24 hours of Mysterio’s broadcast, she had also dragged the slimy owner of the Daily Bugle to court and Stark Industries’ lawyers had had a field day with J. Jonah Jameson. He had no idea how he could ever repay Pepper for her aid, but when he quietly expressed the sentiment she had waved it off instantly. “Tony would have done the same,” she had replied, and a well-manicured hand had reached out to squeeze his shoulder.

 

Even after his name had been cleared and the Daily Bugle had to publish both an official apology to Peter as well as a correction, returning to Midtown and finishing High School with his friends had been impossible. Despite a judicial order that the press had to keep its distance from a minor, paparazzi were still lying in wait for him wherever he went. After one of the vultures had thrown a smoke bomb into the gym to get exclusive footage of Peter in action not only May, but Happy and Pepper as well, had agreed that homeschooling might be a better option. Peter hated the idea of leaving his girlfriend and his best friend behind, but his concern for their safety eventually won out. He did not want to be the reason they got hurt because someone wanted exclusive footage of him using his powers.

 

This had also been his main motivation for moving into the Avengers’ Compound. Happy had basically been their live-in security ever since shit had hit the fan and more than once, Peter’s super-hearing had caught him talking to May about moving her and Peter to his apartment in Upper Manhattan where they would be a lot saver from the press. His aunt had always declined, stating that she did not want to uproot Peter any more than necessary in such difficult times. Acknowledging that May had given up so much for his sake, it had been an easy decision to move into the Compound while she went with Happy. He would be of age next summer, and in the meantime, there were enough grown-ups around in the Compound to check in on him.

 

May had not been happy with his decision and there had been quite a bit of yelling and even more tears involved, but in the end, she had given her blessing. Under the premise that they would video chat every day at least once and that she would visit him as often as possible. Happy would usually take her to Upstate New York every second Friday and she would spend the weekend with her nephew. If May was not with him at his new home, Pepper would insist that he would join her Friday night on her drive to the Lake House. In many ways, it was almost like he had gained another aunt, though at times it might raise an eyebrow or two when he would receive the same treatment (and the occasional stern talking to) from SI’s CEO like her own daughter would.

 

Peter loved Morgan like a little sister and spending time with her at the lake house almost made him forget about the past couple of years. Sometimes they would spend hours in Mr Stark’s little garage and build things… or take apart household appliances, much to Pepper’s dismay. Morgan would usually do the dismantling because she was curious about how things worked, and Peter tried to put them back together before Pepper even noticed. His timing was not always perfect.

 

Pretty much every time he stayed at the Lake House, Morgan would beg him to make a web-hammock for her or to take her swinging. The child-friendly version of the hammock he would often build for himself in a high corner of the room was less than three feet above ground between two very thick and sturdy trees. Swinging usually only took place when Pepper was too busy to pay any attention to them because she had practically forbidden it after catching them once. For the most part, Peter abided by her wishes but occasionally it was just too hard to say no to Morgan’s puppy dog eyes. It was very reminiscent of the look Tony would get when Colonel Rhodes or Happy thought whatever he was doing was a dumb idea. At the same time, Peter did not want to exasperate the woman too much seeing as she played a vital part in his homeschooling.

 

With Peter no longer attending Midtown, both she and May had agreed it would be best to have him sit an IQ test so a schedule according to his actual level and his interests could be devised. In the end, a lot of his ‘schooling’ took place at Stark Industries, with the main headquarters being part of the new Avengers’ Compound. He was shadowing both Professor Hulk and the new scientist Pepper had employed for the R&D department while working on his own projects.

 

Most of the time, these involved repairing and upgrading the Avengers’ gear – something he had taken to after realizing the large gap Mr Stark had left in all their lives. His mentor had always maintained the leg braces he had built for his best friend after the Leipzig incident. Yet, without him they had eventually stopped functioning properly and the first time Peter had visited the new Compound had also been the first time he had seen Colonel Rhodes in a wheelchair. He had asked FRIDAY where the walking aids were kept and once he had secretly taken them out of storage, he had spent the entire night in one of the labs only to leave them in front of Colonel Rhodes’ door the next morning – wrapped with a neat bow and a yellow post-it attached to it, signed From your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Engineer. The next time he had come to the Compound to work on the housing for his nano-suit, Falcon approached him and was wondering if he could take a look at his wings, which had taken a bad hit when he and Sergeant Barnes had been dismantling a weapon’s contraband in South America.

 

Whenever Captain Rodgers was around, Peter was usually in for a history lesson or two. Not that he minded them, but they tended to be a lot more entertaining when Sergeant Barnes joined them and put in his own two cents. While the former star-spangled super-soldier tried to stick to historically accurate facts, the former assassin preferred to throw in some more personal anecdotes – usually at the expense of the Captain. When he had talked about the repercussions of the Great Depression, the Sergeant had turned it into a masterclass of the various uses of newspapers to keep warm and dry.

 

      “Because you know so much about that.”

 

      “Second-hand knowledge from saving your scrawny ass all the time, Punk.”

 

      “Not all of us were born with a silver spoon in their mouth, Jerk.”

 

      “You could have just let me help.”

 

      “Like that time when we went to Rockaway Beach and you said you’d pay for our train tickets, only to blow all our money to impress a redhead, so we had to hitchhike in the back of a freezer truck?”

 

They generally agreed to disagree on their take on history, while MJ had questioned the credibility of any history lesson taught by two guys who had been frozen for lengthy periods of time. When Peter had pointed out that history was generally written by the winners and was therefore always a biased recording of events, she had acquiesced.

 

MJ was another topic that kept him up at night… They had started dating after their school trip, but after his identity had been revealed, he thought it best to keep his distance, so she would not be associated with him. It was already bad enough that people had seen them swinging through Manhattan right before Beck’s video message. The problem was that MJ was one strong-willed woman who had nothing of his bullshit – one of the reasons why he had fallen for her. According to Ned, she had gotten detention in the days following the reveal for putting a couple of fellow students into their place for badmouthing him. It had felt oddly satisfying to know that she would do this for him, but at the same time, he had felt bad that he had been the reason she got into trouble. When he had wanted to apologize for it, she had merely quirked an eyebrow and questioned if he really intended to say sorry to every single person who stuck up for him. Apparently, it would have been a much longer list than he had initially thought because Queens – and then New York – had come together for their friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. He might have asked Karen to save the interviews and video clips where people talked about all the good he had done for them and he might watch them from time to time when the voices in his head, telling him he was a complete failure and not worthy to be an Avenger, became too loud to ignore them.

 

The only downside about moving to Upstate New York and homeschooling was that the time he got to spend with his friends had significantly decreased. They had their own group chat and they would video-call each other a couple of times each week, but as he spent most of his weekends with either May or Pepper, it was not like there was a lot of free time left for his best friend and his girlfriend. Both women had assured him that they would not begrudge him for spending time with his friends instead of them. He was a teenager after all and he should hang out with his peers. Pepper even extended an invitation to the lake house, saying that Ned could bunk with Peter while MJ could have the guestroom.

 

Understandably, Peter would have preferred to have his girlfriend in his room, but when he had tried to raise the issue, he had been on the receiving end of one of Pepper’s signature looks that had usually been reserved for Mr Stark and translated as “You’ve got to be shitting me!” Granted, he was aware of his mentor’s… colourful past and Pepper had been around for most of it, cleaning up her boss’ messes, but he really had no intention of taking over that part of Tony’s legacy. In the end, it had been a futile battle that had ended with a long – and primarily embarrassing – lecture about teen pregnancies and MJ raving about all the books in the guest bedroom. When they had decided that MJ could spend the next school holidays at the Compound, FRIDAY had assigned her one of the guest quarters as well – as per Mrs Boss instructions. To top it all off, the other Avengers found Pepper’s overbearing nature rather hilarious and decided to support her endeavour to prevent any baby spiders crawling up the ceiling – Mr Wilson’s choice of words – and had created the ‘Cockblock Protocol’. An even worse name than Mr Stark’s ‘Training Wheels Protocol’.

 

Whenever they were in each other’s room past nine o’clock, FRIDAY would start playing the sounds of wailing babies while reciting facts about teen pregnancies and the only way to get her to stop was to be in separate rooms or in the company of an adult. Once the Compound was asleep and he would try to sneak into MJ’s room through one of the ventilation shafts, the wailing and the facts would be broadcasted throughout the entire building ensuring that all inhabitants would know what the teenagers were up to. Peter had tried that once and then decided that the embarrassment was not worth it. Bless MJ for finding the antics of the Avengers rather hilarious than offending, though he was certain that it was only a matter of time before she would retaliate in her own way. They had already been on the receiving end of her mean glares when they had teased him about it.

 

What the adults failed to understand was that his main motivation for sharing a room with his girlfriend was purely innocent: he simply slept better because for once he did not wake from several nightmares each night. It had been a somewhat surprising discovery after a movie marathon that had ended with him falling asleep on MJ’s shoulder and getting the best rest he had had in a while. Peter speculated that his Spidey-Sense took note of MJ’s proximity and reassured him that she was safe next to him. As a result, she could not fall to her death in his dreams.

 

Besides, it was not like anything had ever happened between him and MJ – for the most part it had all been PG-13… maybe PG-16 on a few selected occasions. Again, that was primarily down to him because he was scared of losing control over his enhanced strength. To this day, he would sometimes crush a glass or a plate in his hand when he was angry or too excited, and the latter was certainly bound to happen during sex. Unfortunately, Google was not quite helpful in that department either and it was not like there were a lot of adults with similar problems around whom he could ask for advice.

 

“Hey, how do I not accidentally break my girlfriend’s pelvic bone during sex?”

 

If Mr Stark had still been around, he would have likely sought him out, but that was no longer an option. As much as he liked Professor Hulk, he would probably turn it into a science experiment. While Peter was usually down for those, he did not want his and MJ’s first time to become a research objective.

 

Thor’s Asgardian world views did not always correlate with Terranian’s and seeking advice from Captain Rodgers was like asking your grandfather for sex tips. Then there was of course Barnes but approaching the former assassin about such a topic had not felt right either, particularly since he hardly had any contact with him. They would exchange a couple of words when they ran into each other at the Compound, but the older man seemed like someone who appreciated his space and quietness – something Peter could fully appreciate. When the others would unintentionally crowed him and ask well-meant questions how he was adjusting to Tony’s death and his identity revealed, the super-soldier would usually plop down next to him and glower at the other Avengers with a murderous stare that made them retreat within minutes. Not that they would ever talk much when the Sergeant stayed at his side a bit longer just to ensure the others would not flock back immediately. Their longest conversation had likely been Bucky convincing him to call him by his first name instead of the horrible “Mr Sergeant Soldier Barnes” concoction his brain had come up with. Truth be told, the most he had ever learned about the super-soldier had been through the group chat Shuri had added him to one day. Granted, the Princess and he would do most of the texting, but as time passed Bucky would chime in more and more frequently, his sass and cockiness gradually coming through.

 

Their group chat was also the reason why Peter picked up his phone again and unlocked it to take a look at the image the super-soldier had sent. Apparently, he was currently in Italy learning how to make pizza. Considering that the photo depicted him pouting at a blue Kitchen Aid while covered in flour – the kitchen did not fare much better – it did not go exactly as planned. It was hard to believe that this was the same man who had been feared for decades as The Fist of HYDRA.

 

5 MAY 2024

Smouldering Puppy: This is a death trap 😤

3:25 am

                  Meme Queen: 😂😂😂😂

3:28 am

Smouldering Puppy: sent GIF [GIF of pouting black cartoon cat]

3:29 am

Itsy Bitsy: we should turn the hand into a kitchen-tools-leatherman

3:29 am

Meme Queen: Ooohhh!!! ❤️ the idea!!! Detachable hand w/

exchangeable tools…

3:30 am

Itsy Bitsy: dough hook

3:31 am

Meme Queen: Blender

3:31 am

Smouldering Puppy: A COP .357 Derringer

3:32 am

Meme Queen: Y’d u need a gun in the kitchen?

3:32 am

Smouldering Puppy: To kill you

3:33 am

Meme Queen: But u love us 😘

3:33 am

Smouldering Puppy: To death

3:34 am

Chapter Text

      “Since when does your goat farm look like Tuscany?”

 

      “’cause that’s where I am,” Bucky sighed and plopped down in one of the deck chairs on the balcony overlooking the soft hills as the sun sat. He felt more exhausted than after tracking a target for days without any rest in between. Killing people is so much easier than making goddamn yeast dough! He just prayed that Shuri knew how to get the flour out of the tiny crevices of the vibranium arm and that the flour-explosion had not caused any lasting damage to the tech.

 

Now that the dough pieces were resting until the next morning, he had had a quick shower to get rid of all the flour that had ended up in his hair when he had accidentally put the mixer on the highest setting. He was still trying to get the hang of his new, shorter hair when Sam had called and had interrupted his styling session in front of the mirror.

 

      “You’re taking a vacation without me? Bro, that’s so not cool!”

 

      “’s not a vacation…”

 

      “Looks like one to me.”

 

      “Was Shuri’s idea.”

 

      “Oh, so you’re vacationing with the Princess.”

 

      “’m not. She gets bored to death in Brussels while I fight weird kitchen equipment.”

 

      “… Is that code for some weird-ass mission Bagheera sent you on?”

 

      “Huh?”

 

Getting comfortable in the deck chair, Bucky quickly summarized the reason for his impromptu visit to Italy before the conversation drifted off to other topics and Sam updated him on a case he was currently helping Sharon Carter with. With Nick Fury back to his old spy-days, vanishing for months only seeking contact when it helped him on one of his leads, and with Phil Caulson having resigned from the newly re-founded S.H.I.E.L.D. Sharon Carter had been appointed the new head of the agency. Like her predecessors, she did not relish the thought of being stuck behind a desk while her agents were out in the field often risking their lives. As a result, she was frequently found at the forefront of a mission. With the chaos left by Thanos’ decimation, there was currently no document in place that regulated the Avengers’ activity and given their shared history after the attack on the UN in Vienna, Sam would regularly offer his help – and Bucky’s while he was at it.

 

      “It’s really weird,” Sam sighed and took a sip from his cup. Likely a chocolacino, the former soldier guessed. “Teenagers disappear all over New York only to reappear a couple of days later and then they suddenly turn into a puddle.”

 

      “What did the tests say?”

 

      “Pure water. You could drink the remains of those kids.”

 

Bucky pulled a face at the disgusting thought and listened to Sam giving him a rundown of the investigations of the past couple of days.

 

      “Unrelated to the kids, there was a radiation alarm for the Upper Westside last night.”

 

      “A radiation alarm?”

 

      “According to the Big Guy, Gamma radiation spiked along the Hudson River for 73 seconds.”

 

      “Any idea what might have caused it?”

 

      “None. Bruce is currently trying to find any clues with FRIDAYs’ help.”

 

      “Lemme know if you’ve got news…”

 

      “If it’s something big, we could use your help here…”

 

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Bucky let out a heavy sigh. It was an ongoing discussion with the remaining Avengers in New York. Doctor Strange had a whole reality to protect, so he was not particularly interested in helping out on your everyday-invasion-threat. Besides, he was currently occupied with helping Wanda to get her powers back under control. Once she had had time to fully process Vision’s death, her powers had – as a coping mechanism – created alternative realities where everything was just peachy. Not the healthiest method to cope with the death of a loved one, particularly not if said copying mechanism threatened to tear apart reality itself.

 

Steve was obviously retired, and while Rhodey still helped out whenever they needed him, it was apparent that he was ready to put the suit to rest. Professor Hulk’s arm was permanently damaged from wilding the gauntlet, and Peter was still coming to terms with Stark’s death and his identity reveal. While he had been out Spider-Man-ing here and there, it was clear that his mind was somewhere else, which left Sam and Bucky as the only two full-time Avengers. The only problem was that one of them preferred the quietness of Wakanda over the bustling New York City streets.

 

      “If it’s something big, I’ll be there.”

 

Bucky was still mulling over the phone call with Sam when Shuri picked him up three days later to head to Scotland. He told himself that he was primarily replaying the information Sam had relayed to see if he could come up with possible explanations for a spike in Gamma radiation in the Manhattan area, but truth be told he was mainly keeping himself busy, so he did not fret over seeing his baby sister after… way too long.

 

      “Did you hear about the Gamma radiation in New York, Shuri?”

 

      “Yeah, and just like 15 minutes ago, I don’t know what caused it,” she replied and turned in his direction for a moment, offering him a cheeky smirk before returning her attention to navigating them into British airspace. It was kind of adorable how one of the most feared assassins was squirming in the seat behind her like he was a child on its way to the principal’s office after kicking a soccer ball through the window of the chemistry lab.

 

      “Your sister seemed like a cool, old lady,” Shuri reassured him, hoping it would calm his nerves because his fidgeting was putting her on edge as well. “She knows you were a prisoner of war and that HYDRA brainwashed you to do all these things.” It was not like she had not repeated the same things over and over again since disclosing that she had found Becca but repeating it for the millionth time might finally get it into his head. Hopefully.

 

      “Look –” she shot him a quick look – “You’ve got the pizza, so we’re covered in that department. And if – for whatever reason – she turns out to be a real pain in the arse or you really feel on edge all the time, we can always leave.” She stretched out her hand in his direction and when she felt the fingers of his right hand tentatively wrap around hers – his skin always a bit colder than your normal human one – she gave it a comforting squeeze, hoping it would help put his mind at ease.

 

He allowed the contact for a couple of seconds before he pulled his hand back and shoved it deep into the pocket of the blue peacoat he was wearing. Considering that Shuri had never seen it before – like most of what he was currently wearing – she had the strong suspicion that he had snuck off for a shopping trip in Florence while she had been in Brussels. It was a good thing Bucky’s sense of style was a lot better than T’Challa’s or she might have been offended that he had dared to go shopping without her supervision. Judging by how he had coordinated his well-worn combat boots with the coat, black skinny jeans – one day she would find out what his obsession with skin-tight jeans was –, a white t-shirt and a white sweat jacket she recognized the outfit for what it was. Except for the hand, it covered his vibranium arm entirely, showing as little of a reminder of the Winter Soldier as possible.

 

He was dressed to impress his sister – unlike T’Challa who seemed to dress to embarrass her – while thick layers of clothing shielded him from the world and his combat boots offered the reassurance that he had the optimal footgear for fight or flight. Shuri would bet her latest upgrades for the Black Panther suit she was currently working on that he probably had a knife or two hidden in his boots – just in case. She could delete the Winter Soldier programming from his mind, but that did not change the fact that he had been a trained Army soldier and assassin for the majority of his life. He went into every situation prepared and while Shuri would not exactly consider afternoon tea with an 86-year-old lady a mortal combat, working with Bucky for several years had taught her to choose her battles. If this helped him to feel more in control of the situation, she would not mention it. After all, it had taken him several months to adjust to life in the Compound and Sam’s apartment, but eventually he had stopped being on edge all the time, expecting everyone to attack him the moment he would let his guard down.

 

      “We’re approaching the castle.”

 

      “So soon?”

 

Rolling her eyes, she shot him a quick duh-look, because he flew so frequently with the Talon Fighters that he really should know how quick they covered long distances at supersonic speed. He would have probably preferred a couple of more hours to fret and work himself up into a frenzy. Choosing to forgo any witty remarks, Shuri instead gave Bucky’s nephew a quick call with her kimoyo beads, letting him know that they were approaching, while also uncloaking the plane as it slowly descended and hovered over a well-maintained garden the size of several soccer fields. Not wanting to be the one who damaged the immaculate, park-like garden grounds, Shuri opted for the gravelled courtyard, even though it would be a bit of a tight fit.

 

The Talon Fighter had barely touched the ground and she had not even had the chance to open the cockpit, when the large, wooden front door opened, and Bucky’s sister and her son stepped out onto the perron. Shuri swiftly powered down the engine and let the cockpit slide open, so she could exit. She crossed the short distance to hug Becca and James with much enthusiasm before they had even the slightest chance to start with any royal-protocol-nonsense. They were Bucky’s family and since he was part of hers, they were practically members of her family as well.

 

      “Princess, it is so good to finally meet you in person,” Becca greeted her and while Shuri had already noted in their few video chats how she was similarly soft-spoken like her brother, it was even more obvious in person.

 

      “Just Shuri. I only insist on formalities among white colonizers who believe my skin colour and my gender makes them superior.”

 

      “You’ll find none of that here,” James reassured her and was pulled into a hug as well. When she let go of him and Bucky was still nowhere in sight, she yelled for him because he really did not think he could hide in the Talon Fighter when his sister was less than thirty feet away, did he?

 

      “Oi, silly white boy! You’re drippier than a sloth!” She could basically hear her mother reprimanding her that screaming in front of anyone was not becoming of her status, but she doubted anyone really cared about that.

 

      “And you’re screeching louder than a Hadeda at four in the morning,” Bucky muttered as he slung the bag with the pizza dough over his shoulder and climbed out of the cockpit.

 

Once his feet touched solid ground, he held onto the vibranium hull for a moment longer, leaning his head against it feeling the coolness of the metal seep into his skin. Taking in a shaking breath, he closed his eyes and willed his body to relax. He was visiting his baby sister not going into battle, but the fear of her rejection and her disgust weighed heavier on his consciousness as if his handlers had turned up right here in this place and in this second and dragged him back into their lair.

 

The soft crunching of gravel compressed under feet pulled him out of the emotional rollercoaster that was his mind, and for a split second his right hand was twitching to reach for the knife hidden in the inside pocket of his coat, before he reminded himself that the only people in his vicinity were Shuri, Becca and her son. None of them were likely to attack him, so he let his hand sink again and took another shaky breath in. Why did I let Shuri talk me into this? This is a bad idea! A very bad one…

 

      “… Bucky?”

 

He flinched when his baby sister addressed him and unintentionally pulled up his shoulder, making himself smaller. Her voice sounded exactly like he remembered her, maybe a bit deeper, but the cadence was still the same soft lilt that had begged him so many times to play with her or to tell her stories.

 

      “… look at me, brother.” The crunching gravel stopped about six feet behind him, and just like when he had been a young man, he was unable to deny her any requests. He had loved all his sisters equally, had happily protected them from any cantankerous people, played pony with them and carried them on his back, or let them paint his face with the cosmetics they had stolen from their mother. But Becca had always held a special place in his heart. Probably because she had been the youngest and he had often looked after her, while their mother dealt with whatever mayhem Kathrine and Eileen had caused.

 

The bag slid from his shoulder and landed with a thud on the ground as Bucky slowly turned around to face his sister. Inadvertently he shoved his left hand into the pocket of his coat to spare her the sight of his metal arm and kept his eyes downcast, so he would not be confronted with the fear and repugnance he was convinced would be on her face. No matter how many times Shuri had reassured him that she did not blame him for anything that had happened, he had a hard time believing that she could see him as anything but a monster. The whole world saw him as a monster. He could not even fault their view; after all, he had been HYRDA’s favourite means to pave their path to world domination. His ledger was dripping in the blood of their enemies.

 

      “Oh my God…” A muffled sob finally had Bucky raise his eyes, just in time to see Becca cross the short distance between them and hold his face between her small hands, wrinkled and freckled with age, calloused from decades of hard work.

 

      “It’s you… It’s really…” Grey eyes, glistening with tears that threatened to wet her red cheeks, stared up at him as if he were a ghost. He probably was. Considering that Steve had witnessed how he had dangled on a railing outside of a train going at least 30mph before he had fallen into the gorge more than 500 feet beneath them, his family had likely been told that he had been killed in action.   

 

“Gosh, look at you! You look just like…!” Skinny arms dressed in brown tweed pulled him into a surprising hug and for a couple of seconds, Bucky just stood ramrod straight, before his body slowly melted into his sister’s and he brought up his arms, carefully wrapping them around her as his chin came to rest upon her head. The fear and tension he had held since Shuri had told him about her discovery, fell from him and he could feel his body shake with relief, but he was unable to order it to stop. So he just clung to his sister who muttered over and over against his chest that she could not believe that he was finally back.

 

“I cannot believe that you are finally… I had dreamt about this day so many times…”

 

Resting his cheek against her head, he breathed in the vaguely familiar scent he still remembered mixed with roses, peat, and hay.

 

      “’m sorry, Becca,” he apologized quietly, his voice heavy with emotions he could not put into words. He felt remorse over how she and their family must have grieved him only to eventually discover that he had fallen into enemy hands and had become their favourite puppet to disturb the peace and to conquer the world with terror. He was sorry for all the pain he must have caused and that he had been too scared of their reaction to ever seek them out on his own. “I’m so sorry.”

Chapter Text

Miles away from Manhattan, damp darkness enveloped her like a cold blanket while the pain in her head throbbed in conformity with her heartbeat, which sped up the more the reality of her situation sank in. She had been kidnapped with no knowledge of who her captors were, what they wanted, or where they had taken her. Part of her wanted to scream into the void that surrounded her, hoping to elicit a reaction from her abductors, but the rational part in her reminded her that her survival chances increased if she managed to collect as much information about her current predicament as possible. Everyone was bound to make mistakes at some point, and if she just waited quietly, whoever had taken her would slip up giving her the advantage of the moment. No matter how scary her current situation was and how difficult it was to keep a clear head, she had to listen and to observe. If she was lucky, superheroes might come to her rescue, but the most likely hero of them all had been sort of on a break, which was why she better relied on herself and not on her spandex-clad boyfriend in Upstate New York who was about to call it a night and ordered the artificial intelligence called FRIDAY with a big yawn to lock the lab.

 

      “Of course, Peter,” the AI confirmed and had the elevator taking him up to his floor already waiting for him. “Would you like me to order your usual post-lab dinner?”

 

      “Yeah, thanks FRIDAY.”

 

He leaned against the mirrored wall and closed his eyes for a moment as his nails absentmindedly scratched over his wrists. They had been itching for a while now, but it usually stopped after a couple of hours, so he had never bothered to have it checked out. Instead of paying any more attention to the prickling and irritating sensation on his skin, Peter was simply grateful for having FRIDAY take care of such mundane things like ordering him something to eat when he was starving because he had forgotten to eat in hours. While the home-schooling schedule May and Pepper had worked out for him, was usually pretty straight forward and easy to handle, for the last three weeks he had spent every free minute he was at the Compound in the lab.

 

With its growing population, Earth’s nations had always had trouble figuring out ways to cover the power demands of their citizens and more often than not that meant employing non-renewable energy sources. With the sudden multiplication of their citizens after the reversed Blip, many states were struggling to meet the demands and old coal power stations, atomic power plants and fracking sites had been brought back online.

 

Considering they were in the middle of a climate change, it was somewhat understandable that both the far left as well as the far-right radicals supported Thanos’ fundamental idea, albeit their attempts at a solution could not be further apart. Backers of the right-winged political camp called for an elimination of the weaker races, allowing the God-given race to survive, while supporters of the left-winged political camp called for drastic changes in everybody’s consumerist behaviours. If they had any say in the matter, fossil fuels would be banned within the next five years while electromobility would become mandatory. What they failed to take into consideration was the impact the production and disposal of the batteries had on the environment. Let alone the question of how nations were supposed to meet the rising energy demand if they already failed to generate enough with renewable energies alone.

 

While Peter had no idea how they were going to clean up the ocean or significantly lower the CO2 content in the atmosphere, he had an idea how they might be able to get rid of fossil fuels once and for all and might even power cars, planes, trains, busses and the like.

 

Stark Industries’ old Californian plant had been powered by a large arc reactor for decades and both Stark Tower and the former Avengers’ Compound had used smaller version, while all the Iron Man suits had been powered by the miniaturized version that had originally kept the shrapnel from penetrating Tony’s heart muscle. The problem with the arc reactor was that it needed either palladium or vibranium to work. Both had to be mined which was something Peter wanted to avoid. You could not save the planet by depleting its resources even further.

 

While Tony had figured out how to create artificial vibranium, it was an energy-consuming process that only brought forth little quantities. Since the energy expenditure compared unfavourably to the net effect, Peter had been going over both Howard Stark and Tony’s notes trying to recreate their thought process in order to come up with a solution that would allow him to create larger quantities of Vibranium with lesser energy drainage. Even with FRIDAY’s input, he had been going in circles for at least two weeks and he wished his mentor was here to bounce around ideas with.

 

      “Your pizza will be delivered in 20 minutes, Peter,” FRIDAY informed him as he exited the elevator on his floor and padded towards the studio apartment he called home these days.

     

     “Did you ask for extra pineapple?”

 

      “Of course,” the AI replied and unlocked the door to Peter’s apartment before he even had the chance to get close to the retinal scanner.

 

      “Thanks, Fri.”

 

      “According to the Healthy-Food-Protocol, I have to remind you, Peter, that pineapple pizza does not count towards your 5 A Day.”

 

      “Yeah, yeah…” He hated FRIDAY’s Mommy-mode – Wilson’s moniker – and had tried to delete it several times, but it had been locked by Pepper and she had a higher clearance level than him. It was ridiculous that she and May basically had a sophisticated AI like FRIDAY babysit him when he was technically 22 and of legal drinking age. Not that it would have mattered as his enhanced taste and smell had a difficult time handling alcohol. He was constantly sneezing when he got too close – like the little poodle of Ned’s neighbour who loved to shove its snout into every wine glass only to suffer from a five-minute sneezing fit afterward. Apart from that, you should think that the people closest to him would trust him to make sensible decisions after successfully stopping Adrien Toom, being in space and on a foreign planet, fighting Thanos twice and defeating Mysterio. He really did not need a grown-up or an AI to remind him of what he should eat or how many hours he should sleep. Of course, that was the exact moment when Karen greeted him.

 

      “Good morning, Peter.” While she did not directly scold him for staying up way too late, her greeting reminded him that he had spent far too many hours in the lab – again. Then again, Tony had frequently spent days without sleep in the lab, so all things considered, Peter was still more sensible than his late mentor.

 

With him barely going out as Spider-Man these days, Peter had integrated Karen into his room because he had missed her company. He had felt a bit sorry for the AI that he was tasking her with such menial responsibilities such as running his calendar when she had been programmed to assist him in battle, but she had assured him that she was happy as long as she could be of service to him. As a result, he now shared his apartment in the Compound with two artificial intelligences. Apart from the occasional mommy-ing, he could not have asked for better roommates!

 

      “It is currently half-past two and your chemistry assignment for Doctor Octavius is due in nine and a half hours.”

 

      “Fuck!” Peter cursed and hit his head against the door in frustration. He had conveniently forgotten about the paper in favour of working on the arc reactor. There was no way he was going to finish a 7,000-word paper on the Vishal Atomic Model he had not even started his research on. He was so screwed! Don’t panic! You totally have a grasp on this whole adulting-thing!

 

Otto Octavius was one of the new researchers Pepper had hired for Stark Industries’ R&D department and the acclaimed chemist and physicist had agreed to take Peter under his tutelage. He was a stocky, little man of few words who had a passion for his fields, but who also expected nothing but excellent work from his student. While Peter generally thrived in such an environment, it also meant that a hastily cobbled together essay would not cut it. 

 

      “I’m screwed,” Peter groaned and threw himself onto his double bed, burying his face deep in one of the fluffy pillows May had got him. Whether he tried to finish the assignment in the next nine hours, asked for an extension or simply admitted that he had not done it, word would get back to his aunt and Pepper and both women would want to know why he was not keeping up with his schoolwork – one of their main rules for allowing him to live in the Compound on his own.

 

      “Peter, if you are trying to suffocate yourself, I will have to inform one of the adults on your emergency-contact-list,” FRIDAY chimed in when several minutes had passed and he had his nose still buried in the pillow.

 

      “Before you so melodramatically smother yourself, Peter, may I also inform you that you have five missed calls and 17 missed text messages from Ned.”

 

      “What?!” Peter instantly shot up and looked up at the ceiling where he always thought FRIDAY and Karen would reside. “Why didn’t you tell me, Karen?” While it was not uncommon that he had several missed texts from his best friend when he was working away in the lab, it was uncommon for Ned to call him unless it was urgent. Like someone-had-died-urgent or Flash-was-making-fun-of-him-urgent.

 

      “You did not wish to be disturbed,” FRIDAY replied, and Karen added that she had consequently been unable to forward Ned’s messages instantly. Groaning, Peter flopped back onto the bed and made a mental note that he had to find a loophole in the AIs’ programming that would allow him to work undisturbed in the lab while not missing out on any important calls or texts.

 

      “What did Ned want?”

 

      “Playing voicemail,” Karen stated before replaying all three messages the other boy had left. Each one more frantic than the other, practically begging him to call back. Once the voice messages had stopped playing, Karen continued to read out loud the texts Ned had sent. The first one had been sent around noon asking if MJ was with him. What followed was a thread of texts that ranged from a simple “Peter???” to “Answer your damn phone!!!” The final two texts Ned had sent were not even two hours old.

     

10 MAY 2024

Man in the Chair: MJ disappeared

00:41 am

 

       call me

00:43 am

 

      “What the…?!” The feeling of dread was slowly creeping up his spine, paralyzing him for a moment as his mind helpfully supplied a dozen scenarios of what might have happened. At least half of them were inspired by the illusions Mysterio had him live through and he would have probably spiralled straight into a panic attack if Karen had not pulled him out of it before it had been too late. It was one of the newer protocols he had added to her programming. No one needed to know he had started to follow a meticulous daily routine as any deviation from that might be a hint at an illusion. None of the adults had to worry that he barely slept a night through without waking up drenched in sweat, and no one needed to know that certain noises, smells or sights took him right back onto the battlefield. He would find an excuse to go to his apartment, where he could ride out the panic attack without the disturbance of anyone else, while Karen quietly talked to him and anchored him in the real world.

 

Shaking his head, he divested himself of the fear and jumped from his bed, no longer feeling tired at all and asked Karen to call Ned as he relieved the annoying itch on his wrists. At the same time, he crossed the short distance to his desk where he had left his phone and quickly swiped through his notifications, hoping to see one from his girlfriend.

 

It was not like MJ to just vanish. Even when she ditched school to participate in the Friday for Future demonstrations in New York or DC, she would let them know – usually to rope them in to go with her. Considering that they had been dating for a couple of months, Peter knew surprisingly little about MJ’s home life. She was a private person and opening up about anything private was not always the easiest thing for her. Peter respected that and did not pry. Consequently, he only knew that she was living with her grandmother and that her parents were not really in the picture. Whatever that meant. Michelle had occasionally hinted that her free spirit tended to clash with her grandmother’s more conservative worldviews, but Peter did not think that it was bad enough for her to run away and just disappear. Besides, he liked to think that she would turn to him, should she ever need a place to hide away.

 

      “Peter, thank God! Where the hell have you been?!” Ned’s panicked voice resounded from the loudspeakers in the ceiling.

 

      “Lab. What’s going on? Where’s MJ?!”

 

      “She’s not with you?”

 

      “No! She hasn’t been upstate in three weeks. Last time we spoke was Tuesday evening. Ned, what’s going on?” He tried to keep his voice calm and collected. It would not help MJ if they were both freaking out.

 

      “She didn’t show up in school today. No one had excused her. They called her grandma, but she hadn’t seen her all day. We tried reaching MJ, but her phone automatically goes to voicemail.”

 

      “MJ didn’t say anything?”

 

      “No…” Ned replied and sighed. “Peter, I’m worried. With all the strange kidnappings currently going on in New York…”

 

Right, Peter vaguely recalled Mr Wilson, Rhodey and Professor Hulk talking about it. Something about teenagers disappearing for days only to turn into puddles after their return. Deep down, he knew the decent thing would be to alert Falcon or even Pepper about MJ’s disappearance and let either of them handle this and go back to his schoolwork or give them a hand. Going out on his own looking for his girlfriend would only get him into all sorts of trouble… like leaving the Compound way past his curfew. Or heading into an unknown situation without any backup. He could practically hear Mr Stark berating him that this was a bad idea and that he had not thought it through. The thing was, however, that MJ was his girlfriend and while the general public was unaware that Spider-Man was dating, there was still a chance that someone had figured it out and was now using her to get to him somehow. That alone made it his mission. After the reveal, he had thought it safer to break up with MJ, but she had had none of it, insisting she could handle herself and in the extremely rare case that she could not, she trusted that he would come and get her.

 

      “Karen, can you trace MJ’s phone?” He might have put a little tracker in her smartphone when she had been fast asleep. The move had been very reminiscent of Mr Stark – after all the man had put trackers into pretty much anything Peter had on him on a daily basis – but Peter might have slowly begun to understand his mentor’s ulterior motives. He had worried about his safety just like Peter feared for MJs.

 

      “Dude, you bugged Michelle’s phone?! Does she know?”

 

      “I’m sorry, Peter, but I cannot trace MJ’s phone. Her last known location is the Shuman Running Track opposite the Gothic Bridge at 9:41 pm last night.”

 

      “What was she doing there?”

 

      “Running. She prefers to go in the dark,” Peter automatically replied and ordered Karen to pull up any security footage from the area coinciding with MJ’s last known location and to transfer it to his HUD. He was already stripping out of his clothes and was quick to pull out the Spider-Man suit from his closet to put it on.

 

      “Peter, you know I cannot let you go. It is well past your curfew”, FRIDAY reminded him when he pulled out the containment container housing his nano-suit from under his desk and activated it. Worrying on his lower lip, he knew he was going to get into real trouble for his next move, but he could not wait until morning. Not when MJ might be in danger.

 

      “Karen, activate the Night-Night-Protocol!”

 

      “Night-Night-Protocol activated,” she confirmed before adding a quiet apology to the other AI.

 

      “Peter, what did you do?” Ned asked as he quickly skimmed through the security footage his AI had pulled up.

 

      “Sorta deactivated FRIDAY. Was bored one night and decided to test if those coding classes were any good,” Peter replied and opened the window to climb out. “It’ll take me at least an hour to swing to Manhattan. You wanna head to bed, Ned, or be my man in the chair.”

 

      “Dude, that’s the stupidest thing you’ve asked in a while!”

 

      “Good,” Peter smiled under his mask as he swung from tree to tree, gradually making his way east to the 87 before heading down south towards the densely populated area of New York City. He managed to hitch a ride on the trailer of a truck, giving him some time to rest because swinging well above 100 miles on an empty stomach and two hours of sleep was not ideal. If he was lucky, his pizza would still be in the kitchen where FRIDAY’s delivery drone usually brought them by the time he got back – which would hopefully be before anyone noticed his little stunt and with MJ safe and sound either at home or with him.

Chapter Text

Reconnecting with his baby sister was easier than Bucky had imagined and just maybe he had fretted over nothing. Granted, she had lived an entire life without him, but under the wrinkles, liver spots, and the grey-ish silvery hair was still the ten-year-old girl who had begged him with tears in her eyes not to go to war.

 

His nephew James had quietly informed him that his mother had been a ball of nerves in the days leading up to his visit and had baked up a storm to calm her spirits. It was a good thing that Bucky had both a sweet tooth and – due to the serum – could easily eat twice as much as an unenhanced male adult. Consequently, teatime had turned into a little science experiment for Shuri to see how much cake he could eat before hanging over the toilet, while Becca and James filled him in on everything that had happened since he had moved out to England in June 1943. Eating his way through cakes and cookies also meant that Bucky was spared from too many questions and could instead just listen.

 

It surprised him to learn that his family had always believed him to be still alive when the exhibit at the Smithsonian clearly stated that he had died. When he expressed the sentiment out loud, Becca explained that they never found a body.

 

      “Stevie and the Howlies returned to the gorge to look for you after their mission had ended. The heavy snow had destroyed most traces, but they found some blood close to where they thought you might have hit the ground. They searched the area for several days, but they didn’t find you.”

 

      “Steve never told me any of that…”

 

      “Shortly after Captain America’s death made the news, someone from the Army came by the house to let us know what happened. Some British woman…”

 

      “Agent Carter, probably,” Bucky was quick to supply.

 

      “Yeah, I think that was her name. She talked to Ma and Pa; Katy, Liny and I were listening at the door… She said the Army had officially listed you as killed in action, but without a body, there was still a chance that you could be out there. We knew the chances were slim to none, but Ma and Pa always clung to that tiny sliver of hope, and when they passed Katy, Liny and I continued.”

 

The mere thought that his parents and his sisters had never stopped believing that he would return home to them made him choke up and the lump in his throat made it impossible to continue eating or sip on his cup of tea. His dessert fork clunked against the plate when he hastily put it down, before hiding his hands in his lap under the table cloth where they curled up into tight fists that made his right arm tremble with tension. Shuri, who was sitting next to him, could probably hear the grinding of his teeth as he pressed his jaws together because it sounded so loud to him.

 

Why would they put themselves through so much pain hoping day in, day out that he might somehow, miraculously return to them? It was so… stupid. Such a waste of time. So not worth it… He was not worth it.

 

Rising from his chair too quickly, his thighs bumped against the table jostling the antique coffee table and causing the tea in Shuri’s cup to slosh over the rim, while the three-tier cake stand holding a selection of scones, cookies, and small sandwiches would have tumbled over if James had not caught it in time. “S-s-sorry… I-I’m… excuse me…”

 

With Bucky fleeing the room and running outside to escape the unbearable tightness of the stonewalls, he never saw how his sister wanted to hold him back, but a small shake of Shuri’s head was enough to hold her back and to allow him the space he craved. Slumping down on the perron, he took several deep breaths in an effort to calm himself down, but it did little to hold back the angry tears that were streaming down his cheeks. He did not even mourn all the decades HYDRA had stolen from him – years he could have spent with his parents and sisters; years he could have spent living a normal life, working a decent job, and building a family of his own. Buying a small house somewhere outside of the city, spending cold winter nights curled up in front of the fireplace with his wife, sipping hot chocolate spiced with some vodka for that little bit of extra warmth while listening to the radio. A small part of him might even mourn the life HYDRA had stolen from him, but he was all the more furious and full of regret that these swines had managed to take a hold of his family as well. If they had just left him to die in the ravine, his family would have had a body to bury and to grieve over. Instead, they had held onto that tiny sliver of hope that he might return one day.

 

It would have been better if…

 

Pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, he hoped the physical barrier would be enough to not only stop the tears from flowing but would also stop his brain from going round and round in circles, conjuring up images of killing every Nazi he could get his hands on for screwing with his family to made-up memories of a redhead snuggled up against him in front of the fire while a snowstorm was tearing at their little cottage.

 

      “Bucky…”

 

He quickly lifted his head and sniffed as inconspicuously as possible, swallowing down any tears and snot, as his sister approached. Hastily wiping across his face with his good hand was probably not a dead giveaway that he had been crying, after all, he could just have tried to get rid of some dust particles that had irritated his skin… because Scotland was so dusty.

 

Becca’s hand came to rest on his right shoulder and squeezed it, as she carefully lowered herself next to Bucky onto the step. Instinctively he covered her hand with his, before his fingers travelled upward, supporting her as she sat down by his side. Chuckling she swatted away his hand stating that she was still younger than him. A little humour to gloss over the fact she could very well see the red eyes and the tear tracks on her brother’s face.

 

      “I’m sorry if I upset you…”

 

      “There’s nothing you have to apologize for, Becca…” He worried his lower lip as he stared straight ahead and would occasionally brush the back of his hand under his nose.

 

      “… Your princess warned me that this might be difficult for you…”

 

      “Shuri isn’t my princess.”

 

      “I may have been a kid back then, but I wasn’t blind, Buck. Besides, Katy and Liny had countless stories to tell about what a ladies’ man our brother was.”

 

      “That was a different life.”

 

      “I may be old, but my eyes are still pretty good…”

 

      “Then you might wanna get them checked again.” A content smile played around Becca’s thin lips when the old sass she was used from her brother flared up. “Shuri reminded me of what I had with you guys…”

 

      “If you say so.”

 

      “She’s practically still a kid. A genius for sure but a kid nonetheless.”

 

      “Sure.” She was not going to destroy her brother’s blissful bubble of happy ignorance. Becca might not have known the Wakandan princess for long, but she recognized those fleeting looks in Bucky’s direction when she thought no one was looking. Too many girls had stared at her brother like this when he had taken her to the sweetshop two blocks from their parents’ home or when he had taken her to the nearby park, so she could run and play outside.   

 

Not deeming Rebecca’s quip with a reply, Bucky just continued to stare ahead and merely shook his head at the surreal picture of a technologically advanced Wakandan Talon Fighter standing in the courtyard of this castle that had been their ancestral home for centuries.

 

      “How exactly did you end up here?” he finally broke the silence. “Shuri might have said something, but she was so excited about finding you guys that I might have tuned out most of her rambling.” It was a necessary survival skill growing up with three sisters. And Steve.

 

      “That’s a long tale… You remember Grandfather’s stories about Scotland?”

 

      “Vaguely…”

 

      “I did my dissertation on Buchanan Castle and ended up researching a lot about our family’s history. Except for wartimes when the Army used it as a make-shift hospital, it had been abandoned for decades and was slowly falling apart.” She gave him an abridged version how the clan had given up on the castle and how she had been in contact with far-removed family members to get more research material for her dissertation only to fall in love with the son of the clan chief.

 

      “Eww, so you married like our cousin?”

 

      “Oh, be quiet!” She elbowed him. “More like ten-times removed.”

 

      “As if that makes it any better.”

 

      “Says the one who made out with Cousin Lizzy at grandmother’s 65th birthday party,” Becca deadpanned.

 

      “W-w-wha-… H-how… How do you even know about that?” Bucky spluttered and for the first time his sister had joined him on the perror, he turned to properly look at her. “You must have been like two. You can’t remember that.”

 

      “And Katy was 12 and loved to tell that story.”

 

      “I should have killed her right there and then,” Bucky muttered. After all, it had been his oldest sister who had stumbled in on him and Lizzy in the broom closet and yelled for the entire party set to hear that they were sucking their faces off. Like it was his fault! Granted, he and Lizzy might have both had a few too many helpings from the strawberry punch, but it had been his cousin who had made the first move. He had merely been the perfect gentleman who had obliged her wishes. When he had lamented about his terrible sister days later at Steve’s place – he had been down with a bout of bronchitis – the punk had laughed so hard, he had been coughing out his lungs so bad he had ended up throwing up the little bit of soup his mother had made him earlier. Had served him right!

 

      “So, I guess that’s how you got this pile of stones?” Bucky ventured back to the original topic.

 

      “Pretty much. Callum’s father knew my interest in the castle, so he gave it to us as a wedding present. We spent years returning it to its original glory.”

 

      “It turned out pretty well.”

 

      “It did… and after a while, it started to generate enough money to cover all the bills.”

 

      “That’s good…”

 

Frankly, Bucky was pretty clueless about the worth of currencies these days or how much it would cost to run a place like a castle. It was not like he got any salary from HYDRA – unless regular torture, electrocutions, and frostbites counted. Whenever he had required money for a mission, he had been given cash. The few times he had managed to escape their grasp for a longer period of time, he had worked the odd job that did not ask any questions and would pay cash on the spot as he did not want to leave any trail his handlers could have traced.

 

Apparently, he got paid these days for playing superhero with Sam, but he rarely accessed that money since living in the Compound meant that most things were paid for. Sam had helped him set up a bank account and sort out insurances, but the only thing he regularly used his credit card for was to order more books.

 

Honestly, he was toying with the idea to cancel most of the insurances he had insisted he needed. It was not like a regular doctor would know how to maintain his arm or deal with his enhanced body, and Shuri certainly did not accept any health insurance. Apart from his life in the U.S., he rarely needed any money in Wakanda either as he primarily got by with barter deals – at least in the small village he was living in. Helping your neighbours out was a much more valuable currency than some pieces of paper or some coins. The most amount of money he probably spent in Wakanda was, when he was in Birnin Zana, eating his way through all the local food stalls. He might have broached the topic of paying Shuri for deleting the programming from his brain and creating a new arm from him at one point, but she had merely been offended.

 

“I did it to help you not, so you could pay me, stupid white man!”

 

T’Challa’s reaction had been similar, minus ignoring him for days and acting like he had insulted him.

 

“Wakanda was in a position to help you. It would have been inhuman not to do so.” Despite the King’s reassurance, Bucky had a feeling that he still owed a debt that might be collected one day.

 

      “Speaking of bills… there’s something I want to show you.”

 

Raising an eyebrow in question, Bucky followed his sister as she stood up and made her way inside. Yet, instead of heading back to the quaint, little lounge area, they had sat for tea and cake, she led him upstairs. His enhanced hearing could make out the quiet chatter of Shuri and James on the ground floor, as he trailed after Becca upstairs until she opened an old wooden door and steered him into what looked like an office.

 

      “Have a seat.”

 

Bucky followed her request but not without covertly checking out the room – old habits died hard, particularly in foreign environments. There was a large bay window with the traditional double box windows that would easily break under his bodyweight. The antique wooden desk was too heavy for a normal human being to weaponize it but with his strength it could easily be used as a shield against weapon fire or to trap a pursuer. An ornate letter opener would cut through someone’s jugular vein like a knife through butter and pulling the large rug out from underneath them would make them lose their footing. As was often the case with these old buildings, the shelves were integrated into the walls, so they offered little help. Unlike the antlers on display which could be used to gravely injure someone’s eyes or to just generally stab them with enough force applied. Like the table, the sofa could be used to…

 

      “Come on, sit down next to me.”

 

Becca’s request pulled Bucky out of his analysis and he followed her bid, quirking an eyebrow when he saw a worn file folder resting in her lap.

 

      “What’s that?”

 

      “Yours,” his sister replied and opened it, revealing bank statements.

 

      “Mine?”

 

      “The bank account Pa forced you to make when you started working down at the docks?”

 

      “That still exists?”

 

      “Of course,” Becca said as if it was the most obvious thing that one’s bank account was still open almost eighty years after one had basically died. Considering Bucky’s incomprehension, she went on to explain that their parents never closed it, arguing that he would need the money should he ever find their way back to them. After their parents had died, Katy – the oldest of the three sisters – had looked after it and from then on it had been passed on from one sister to the other.

 

      “This is…” Bucky was trying to put his thoughts and emotions into words, but the only thing that crossed his lips was a choked “Why?” that broke halfway through when he saw the amount of money he currently had to his name.

 

      “That must be a mistake!”

 

While his parents had certainly been well off for the time, especially compared to other families like Steven’s, and he had usually been given a small allowance, once he had started working, he had been expected to contribute to the housekeeping budget. When he had moved into his own little apartment at 17 so his sisters could have his room, he had to pay his own bills and ensure that his money would last till the next paycheck. He had certainly never had to struggle with money like Steve had to but looking back he could admit that he had not exactly been the cleverest when it came to putting aside a penny or two for some rainy days. The majority of his income that was not needed to pay rent, bills, and food, was used to impress the girls and show them a good time. He never kept too close of an eye to his savings, but even when taking the inflation into consideration, there should certainly not be a five-figure-number on his account now.

 

      “It’s yours,” Becca confirmed. “Whatever you had saved before you were drafted, the wage you received from the Army, your death gratitude, and back pay.”

 

      “Back pay for what?”

 

      “Katy’s husband was a lawyer. He was involved in a nationwide court case in the 70s that set out to prove that the military drafted soldiers during the war to save money because they had to pay a fraction of what a voluntarily listed soldier would have received. They won and since the death gratitude is calculated on a soldier’s pay, the military had to do quite a few additional payments.”

 

      “But death payment is for the dependants. Why is it on my account?”

 

      “Because we still had hope that you’d return to us one day. Seemed wrong to take your money…”

 

      “… do I have to pay it back, now that I’m most definitely alive?” It was meant as a joke, but part of Bucky did actually wonder if some military guy would show up at the Avengers’ Compound one day and demand that he returned the money. Not that he cared about it, but it was kind of a hilarious thought. On that note, he should probably check if he had ever been declared alive again. It was not like he had any papers, any sort of identification or social security number as the Winter Soldier – only fake ones for missions. Considering that T’Challa had initially granted him asylum in Wakanda, no one there had ever demanded to see any proof of identity, and now that he was jobbing as an Avenger, no one really wanted to see an ID or whatever either.

 

      “I’m pretty sure there’s a statute of limitation,” Becca chuckled and closed the folder, deciding it was probably best to let her brother assimilate that chunk of information first before she sprung on him the fact that his sisters had disclaimed part of the inheritance from their parents so that he could have his equal share as well. It had been a very short and easy discussion, each of them agreeing that it was the decent thing to do if they all clung to the hope that their big brother would return to them one day. Nonetheless, there had been times when they had argued if it would be best to finally put his memory to rest.

 

The last time had been shortly before Christmas in 91 when Katy had received an unaddressed envelope with a grainy black-and-white picture, probably taken by a security camera, a scribbled note on the back. Bucky’s a prisoner of war, but he’s alive the message had read. And we’ll get him back! The handwriting had looked vaguely familiar, but it had not been until after her oldest sister’s death a few years later that Becca realized who had sent the picture.

 

Helping her nieces to sort through their mother’s belongings, she had come across an old card Steven had drawn and given to Katy for her wedding. The scrawny chicken scratch wishing her and her husband all the best for their future, was identical to the note telling them that their brother was somewhere out there. She had needed a few minutes to herself to collect her thoughts, but that still did not explain how Stevie – their scraggy, basically adopted little brother – had been able to send the photo. After all, she had read the news reports, heard the radio features about Captain America crashing a plane into the Arctic ice to save them all. There had been several rescue missions and search operations, but no one had been able to find him and so it had been concluded that Captain America had been killed in action. Yet, there she had sat in her late sister’s bathroom with a picture of her imprisoned brother who looked not a day older than 26 although he was 74-years old, with a note from Steven Rogers who had died almost fifty years ago. What a strange world it was.

 

Chapter Text

Peter had been looking for clues for just a couple of minutes when he found MJ’s phone smashed to pieces in one of the bushes lining the path. For a moment he had felt elated, confident that he would find his girlfriend quickly, but these feelings were quickly replaced by dread and dizziness, given the fact that with so many people using the Shuman Running Track on a daily basis to work on their cardiovascular fitness, it was even for Karen impossible to make out MJ’s tracks. Granted, the fact that he had had little sleep since Tony’s death and had not eaten anything in the past 24 hours except for a nut mix he had been nibbling on while he had worked in the lab, could have also factored in. Even his enhanced metabolism could only run on adrenalin for so long, but for now, he pushed the feeling aside as he had more important things to take care of. He could eat and sleep when MJ was safe and sound. Till then, he would search New York – the world if necessary – as if it was a haystack and Michelle the needle he was trying to find in it.

 

      “I’m sorry, Peter.” Karen sounded truly apologetic, but it did not help with his growing frustration that MJ’s kidnappers had been aware of the nearby surveillance cameras and had stayed out of their range. As a consequence, he merely had a destroyed smartphone as a clue where his girlfriend might be.

 

      “She could be anywhere,” he muttered blankly and for a moment he regretted wearing the Iron Spider suit over his normal one because it was impossible to relieve the itch he was feeling through the nanotech. Turning his attention back on the task on hand, he conceded that it would truly be more sensible to inform the grown-ups of the situation and ask for their support. Bucky might be able to help – he had, after all, a track record of finding and eliminating his missions as the Winter Soldier. Perhaps he could use the same skills to find Michelle. Then again, he would not be in New York for at least another week as he always spent half the month in Wakanda to decompress as he called it. Taking into consideration that the last blizzard had forced him to stay an extra week, he might even stay in the secluded kingdom longer than usual. Not that Peter begrudged the super-soldier his longing for quietness and solitude, away from the buzzing madness that was the other Avengers. Consequently, it would be wrong to burden him with his own problems. Besides, Tony made him an Avenger because he believed he was up to the job. How was he supposed to keep New York safe if he could not even protect his own girlfriend?

 

      “Can Karen scan for any foreign particles on MJ’s phone?”

 

      “I can indeed, Ned,” the AI confirmed before Peter had any chance to reply.

 

      “How’s that supposed to help us?”

 

      “With you hiding away in the lab, I had to find other ways to hone my Man-in-the-Chair-Skills”, Ned explained. “So, I binged some old Sherlock episodes last weekend and the dude found some victims based off a shoeprint. By the way, did you ever notice that the guy looks a bit like Doctor Strange? Could be his twin!” Before Ned could get too off-topic, his ramble was interrupted by Karen who had scanned the phone in the meantime and was starting to rattle off her analysis.

 

      “I can confirm that MJ’s phone was crashed by a foot. Considering the force required to cause such damage, the assailant was at least six-feet-tall and weighed between 180 and 200 pounds. I also detect small traces off brick, ceramic compounds, polyurethane enamel, oak, carbon and residual gamma radiation.”

 

      “What?”

 

      “The amount is, however, insignificant enough to not pose any health risks, Peter,” the AI was quick to add.

 

      “So, whoever destroyed MJ’s phone…”

 

      “Might be linked to the recent spike in Gamma radiation,” Peter finished Ned’s sentence.

 

      “And it’s safe to assume that they have MJ as well. Why else would they destroy her phone?”

 

      “Karen, can you highlight all places in the vicinity of the recent Gamma spike that also contain all the other elements you just listed.”

 

      “Calculating.”

 

Despite the fact that it took Karen only mere seconds to announce inconclusive results because she lacked the access to satellite imagery that would allow her to scan beneath large bodies of water as well, it felt like hours to Peter. The adrenalin rush he had felt on his way down to New York, had gradually turned into panic the more likely it seemed that MJ’s disappearance was connected to the Gamma spike. While there was no link between the vanished teenagers turning into puddles and the radiation, gamma rays were the most destructive to the human body. One only had to look at Doctor Banner to realize what they were capable of doing.

 

      “Karen, can you connect to EDITH?”

 

After Mysterio, Peter had been scared to use the augmented reality security, defence and artificial tactical intelligence system. At the same time, he had also recognized what Tony had attempted to achieve with her: a suit of armour around the world. He appreciated that the world’s leaders, already rattled from the battle against Thanos and then Mysterio’s little tricks, did not like the idea of a 17-year-old boy solely in charge of such a powerful defence system. They had contested Tony’s will, trying to get control of the glasses, but after seeing what they could do in the wrong hands, both Pepper, Sam and King T’Challa had made a strong case that they should remain with Spider-Man. Considering the power EDITH held, it had, however, been decided that the glasses should be locked away in a secret location until Peter turned 21 and had a few more years to mature. By the time the adults had reached that agreement, Peter had already transferred EDITH from the glasses to a sleeping subroutine in Karen’s programming, as he did not trust that Tony’s invention would be safe from any power-hungry tyrants, regardless of how secret the location was.

 

      “Retinal scan required.”

 

Peter squinted behind his mask as a bright, bluish-light scanned his eyes and EDITH’s voice briefly resounded in his ears confirming his identity, before she granted Karen full access to the Stark satellite network.

 

      “The highest level of Gamma radiation was measured a mile south of Liberty Island. Both ceramic compounds and polyurethane enamel are standard compounds in the paint coat of shipping containers. The exact composition of brick and carbon as it was detected on MJ’s phone can however only be found in three locations along the New York Harbour. Only one matches the splinter of oak lodged between the hardware of the phone.”

 

      “That’s Liberty Harbour,” Peter muttered to himself as he jumped up high in the air and released a web from his web-shooters, swinging towards New Jersey as the sun slowly rose over the city.

 

With a first proper lead on MJ’s whereabouts, Karen’s programming considered it sensible to remind Peter that now would be a good time to inform the Falcon about their findings and to request backup, particularly since his vitals were in the lower range and he should really get some proper rest and nutrition first before pursuing their lead. Yet, Peter had none of it and was quick to shut the AI’s worries down on both issues, ignoring Ned’s mumbled “Maybe she’s right, Peter” in his ear. If anyone had captured MJ and was hurting her because of her affiliation with him, it was his responsibility to get her back.

 

He managed to hitch a ride on an empty school bus to cross the Holland Tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey, allowing himself a few minutes of rest before he made his way down towards the Liberty State Park with Ellis Island in the distance and then down towards the harbour. It was not even six in the morning, but the docks were bustling with activity. Cranes were discharging the shipment of large containerships from overseas, others were loading empty ships with hundreds of newly filled containers.

 

Peter climbed on top of an unused crane to get a better view of the area, but apart from shipment containers stacked up as high as a small skyscraper with a maze of narrow passageways between them, he could not see anything that would indicate the lair of some mad scientists abducting teenagers only to turn them into puddles. As if Karen could read his thoughts, she scanned the vicinity and highlighted several rundown buildings in the south-east corner of the harbour that were made of brick and included wooden structures.

 

      “Any signs of MJ in these buildings?”

 

      “I… don’t know, Peter,” she replied hesitantly and through the HUD, he could see how she was trying to scan the building but was unable to penetrate the walls. “Neither my scanners nor EDITH’s can get a clear image of what is going inside.”

 

      “Well then, let’s check it out.”

 

      “Peter… this sounds like a trap,” Ned cautioned quietly.

 

      “I agree. It would be more reasonable to alert the Falcon and Director Carter.”

 

      “And what if it’s nothing?” Peter questioned. “I’ll check it out first and then I can still call them.”

 

Meanwhile, in Upstate New York Sam had returned from his morning run and plopped down on one of the chairs at the communal breakfast bar, resting his head on the pleasantly cool granite tabletop. From the corner of his eyes, he noticed one of FRIDAY’s delivery drones resting on top of a pizza box, but simply dismissed it that one of the other’s had been too lazy to clean up after themselves. Instead, his thoughts drifted back to his morning run and he contemplated what was worse – running with his partner or without. Unlike Steve – the little show-off – Bucky did not lap him every few minutes but followed his pace. The frustrating thing was, while Sam sat a quick pace to train his endurance, the super-soldier was practically trotting next to him not even breaking a sweat. Sam’s workout routine was probably a chill morning walk in the park and no matter how hard he pushed them, the only one lying in the grass in the end, trying to catch his breath, was he himself, while Bucky merely hovered nearby asking if he should call a doctor because his wheezing reminded him too much of pre-serum-Steve’s asthma attacks. Thank you very much. Yet, running without his partner meant that he had no one to talk to during his morning run, which made it a rather boring affair to begin with. He did not begrudge Bucky the need to decompress in Wakanda but being a superhero without him was a lonely job – and far less entertaining. But particularly now that he was reconnecting with his family, he did not want to complain.

 

Unlike the Bucky in Steve’s stories from before the war, the one that had eventually returned to them, was a lot quieter and introverted, rarely sharing anything personal about himself. It was a behaviour he had witnessed in many veterans returning from the front, but at times it still stung that the person he trusted his life with on the battlefield, felt not safe enough around him to share simple things about his past like growing up with three younger sisters. Sam had originally learned about them, when he had commented to Steve about how Bucky of all people had connected with their grieving and traumatized Spiderling and how he generally seemed to thrive in the presence of both Peter and Shuri.

 

      “He had three younger sisters he was close to,” Steve had remarked. “Particularly the youngest one, Becca. They probably remind him of that.”

 

When the Princess had called him a few months later and asked if she should tell Bucky that she had found his sister, he had wholeheartedly agreed that it would do him good to reconnect with that part of his life. So now he was in Scotland with Italian pizza dough – whatever that meant – and Sam was left to his own devises until his partner showed up again.

 

As Sam got up from his barstool to make some breakfast, he contemplated about checking in with Sharon later that day to see if she had any new leads on the missing kids that turned into puddles. Little did he know that he had barely finished chopping the Avocado for his toast when the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. strode into the communal kitchen looking like she had been pulling an all-nighter.

 

      “You look like you could need it,” Sam greeted her and pushed the fresh cup of coffee he had just poured in her direction. “You look like shit, Carter.”

 

      “The missing teenagers’ case,” Sharon sighed and gratefully took the cup, gulping down the brown liquid, ignoring the fact that it was still hot. She would deal with a burnt tongue when kids stopped disappearing and reappearing as puddles. “Is FRIDAY throwing a fit? She’s been quiet all the way up…”

 

      “Yeah, noticed that as well,” Sam contemplated, but did not really question it. As long as all the technology controlled by the AI was working, he did not really care whether she acknowledged him. “Judging by the dishevelled all-nighter-look you’re rocking, it’s not going well?” Sam questioned and put two more slices of bread into the toaster, figuring Sharon could use the carbohydrates. Instead of a verbal reply to his question, she merely opened a file on her phone and pushed it in his direction. Waiting for the toast to be finished, he grabbed it and thumbed through the photos Sharon had opened.

 

      “That’s Lover-Spider’s girl.”

 

      “Michelle Jones. Been missing for at least 24h.”

 

      “Shit,” Sam cursed as the toast popped up. “You think it’s related to the other cases or is someone trying to get to Spider-Man?”

 

      “Right now? Could be either…” Sharon sighed and emptied her cup of coffee. “I have to talk to Peter, see if he knows anything. If anyone’s been trying to blackmail him.”

 

      “Elsa threatens to kill him pretty much every other day when he’s annoying him, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean it.”

 

      “Did James finally manage to get back to Wakanda?”

 

      “Yeah, once the snowstorm had let up.”

 

      “He seemed pretty antsy…” She had overheard in passing that the super-soldier had been anything but happy about being stuck in New York any longer than he had planned to and had had first-hand experience with the grumpy and displeased man who had seemed on edge the entire time until he had received clearing to start the Wakandan jet he always used to travel between both countries.

 

      “He always is once he’s been here for a while,” Sam sighed as he spread hummus and avocado on the toast. He doubted it would change anytime soon.

 

      “Guess he won’t be too happy if I call him and ask him to come back early to help with this case…”

 

      “I already warned him that that might happen.”

 

      “What was his reaction?”

 

      “Unreadable as ever, but he promised to be here if we needed him.”

 

Nodding to herself, Sharon addressed FRIDAY, asking the AI if Peter was already awake. When she received no answer, she furrowed her brow in confusion. “That’s weird…”

 

      “Yeah, she’s been rather quiet all morning long,” Sam agreed. “Hey, Ceiling-Lady!”

 

      “Don’t even try,” Rhodey’s voice cut across Sam’s as he and Bruce made their way over to the kitchen island.

 

      “She was shut down tonight.”

 

      “What? Did someone hack the Compound?” Sharon instantly questioned.

 

      “Not from what I can tell,” Bruce sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose and reached over Sam to steal one of the avocado toasts which rose a hue and cry out of Sam who protested that just because the food had Bruce’s skin colour didn’t mean it automatically belonged to him. “We’re working on getting her fixed and hopefully that’ll tell us what happened.”

 

      “Guess, I gotta check on Peter the old-fashioned way,” Sharon sighed and picked up her cup of coffee to make her way up to the teenager’s apartment, hearing Sam filling the others in on Michelle’s disappearance. The same gut-feeling that had kept her alive on so many missions and had helped her solve countless cases, told her that it might not be a coincidence that FRIDAY was incapacitated the same time Peter’s girlfriend had gone missing. Putting her coffee down on the side table of a small seating area in the hallway leading up to several apartment units, her hand automatically moved to the gun in the holster underneath her suit coat and she steeled herself to draw it as she knocked on Peter’s door. She waited a couple of seconds and knocked again when she received no answer.

 

      “Peter, it’s me, Sharon. Can you open the door? I need to talk to you.” When nothing happened, she pressed her ear against the door to listen for any noise from inside the apartment but was greeted with nothing but silence.

 

      “Peter, I’m coming in,” she warned him as another round of knocking had been just as unfruitful as the previous ones. Pressing her Compound ID card against the reader next to the door, she overwrote any previous locking mechanisms. With Peter struggling to adjust to the multiple changes in his life and basically living on his own in the large building, Pepper had given several trusted – and Sharon would bet her position at S.H.I.E.L.D. – vetted adults the clearance to override the boy’s locking mechanisms in case they ever felt anything was wrong with him.

 

Peter had refused to talk to a professional about having his entire life uprooted and losing one of the most important people in his life, but Sam had been counselling veterans for far too long to not recognize the signs of post-traumatic stress. The kid’s lack of interest in participating in any Avengers’ mission, barely heading out as Spider-Man at all. Instead, he holed himself up in the labs working on God-knows-what, forgetting to sleep and eat until they had to drag an utterly exhausted teenager to bed, where he would wake from nightmares mere hours later. He was often irritated and withdrawn and would hastily leave the room if a conversation turned to Tony Stark. Coupled with a few choice remarks of inadequacy and that it should have been him not Tony, it was not difficult to understand why Pepper had cleared them to enter the boy’s room if need be it.

 

As Sharon opened the door, she prayed the teenager had not done anything stupid and was merely listening to music on his headphones which was why he had not heard her knocking. When she was greeted by an open window, clothes strewn all over the place and both the Spider-Man and the Iron-Spider suit missing, she was unsure if she preferred an escaped spider over an angsty teenage boy with slit open wrists. She was about to do a quick sweep of the room in an attempt to find any clues what might have happened when the footsteps of at least two people hurrying in her direction caused her to turn her attention in their direction instead.

 

      “Sharon, Peter’s gone!”

 

      “I know, Sam. Went right out the window,” she replied and pointed at the open window where the kid must have climbed out sometime during the night. The question was why.

 

      “It’s my fault…” A third voice muttered guiltily, and it took her a moment to realize that Professor Hulk had a phone on speaker resting in his big green hand.

 

      “Who’s this?”

 

      “I’m Ned, Peter’s best friend.”

 

      “He told him about Michelle and Spider-Boy went after her,” Sam summarized trying to keep the annoyance he felt out of his voice. Why on Earth did the teenagers think it would be a good idea to investigate their friend’s disappearance themselves instead of coming to one of the adults.

 

      “We found MJ’s phone in Central Park and based on the particles Karen found on it, whoever took her had been at Liberty Harbour before,” Ned explained.

 

      “You know where she is?” Sharon questioned and pinched the bridge of her nose to alleviate the stress headache she felt coming on.

 

      “Not really. Both Karen and EDITH were unable to scan the building, so Peter went in on his own to investigate. I lost contact with him about an hour ago. I figured if the building was lined with lead that might block the signal, but he still hasn’t come out and I was starting to worry, so I called Professor Hulk.”

 

      “EDITH?” Sam questioned. “I thought the glasses were locked away…”

 

      “… Peter may have downloaded her into Karen before Mrs Stark could put away the glasses. After Mysterio and the whole UN thing he didn’t think they'd be safe,” Ned mumbled.

 

      “Am I correct to assume that Peter disabled FRIDAY, so he could leave the Compound during the night?” Professor Hulk questioned.

 

      “Yeah,” Ned admitted contritely not liking to rat out his best friend. But he was worried for his safety and this was probably for the better in the long run. Ned might not see him as often as he used to, but he knew Peter well enough to be aware that he was functioning on a minimum of sleep and carbohydrates. The few times he had been his Man in the Chair in the past few months, his reaction time had been considerably slower than it used to be. He missed webs when he swung through the city, plunging a hundred feet at times before he caught himself again. While he played it off, it worried Ned. “He had Karen activate the Night-Night-Protocol, but I don’t know what exactly that does.”

 

      “It’s at least a starting point to get her back online,” Professor Hulk muttered and handed the phone to Sam, so he could inform Rhodey of what had happened and then try to figure out how to undo Peter’s programming.

 

Sharon and Sam continued to question Ned about the boys’ findings and what Peter’s plan had been. They assured him, they would do anything to find his friends before eventually ending the call, so Sharon could contact Pepper to inform her what had happened, who would in turn call May. Meanwhile, Sam was on the phone with Bucky to get him back to New York as soon as possible.

 

      “That stupid, little shit,” Sharon could hear the former assassin curse all the way from Sam’s phone. “He’s worse than Steve!”

 

      “So you’re on your way?”

 

      “Yeah, lemme just figure out my flight, since Shuri – “ He wanted to say that he had to figure out how to get from the middle of nowhere in Scotland to New York as the Princess would obviously take the jet back to Wakanda.

 

      “Since Shuri is gonna come with him”, he was interrupted. “Peter’s my friend, if he’s in trouble I wanna help!”

 

      “The more the merrier.”

 

      “What about T’Challa?” Bucky pointed out, having been in the middle of more than one sibling squabble where Shuri had insisted that she was very well capable of helping out the Avengers when she was in the States, while her brother – and King – had been worried about her safety. Not that he doubted her abilities to fight as he had entrusted Bucky, he simply slept better if he knew his sister was in one of her labs tinkering with Bast-knows-what instead of putting herself in danger. Despite the fact that he had lived through so many time periods, many of Bucky’s values still derived from the 1930s and as such he fully appreciated T’Challa’s worries and supported his decisions. Albeit quietly from the background as he was not mad enough to voice out loud his own thoughts on the topic in the presence of the Princess. Unlike some other people he knew, he valued his life and had some pretty healthy survival instincts.

 

      “What about him?” Shuri parroted his own question defiantly and the super-soldier had a feeling he would be in trouble. He just had not yet decided which royal sibling would be the root of it.

 

      “He doesn’t like you getting involved in unnecessary fights.” The moment she glared at him, he knew he should have just kept his mouth shut.

 

      “Well then, unless you blab he won’t know.”

 

      “I leave you to your lovers’ squabble. Bucky, call me when you know your ETA,” Sam ended the phone call, so they could coordinate the mission in the meantime.

Chapter Text

“Ow…” Peter groaned as he slowly regained consciousness and the first sensation he took note of was a splitting headache and a burning sensation in his back running down his entire body. The next thing he noticed were the little tremors running through his body as it tried to adjust to the clammy coldness that surrounded him, followed by the blazing light that blinded him despite the fact that he still had his eyes tightly closed. As he attempted to lift his arm to cover his eyes and curl up in a foetal position to retain more warmth, he had to realise that his limbs had been immobilized by shackles.

 

      “What the…?”

 

He pulled again in an effort to break the restraints with his inhuman strength, but the more he moved against them the deeper they cut into his suit and skin.

 

    “Karen, what’s going on?” Peter asked and hoped that his AI was able to jog his memory, yet instead of the familiar voice he merely heard a deep male chuckle from the other side of the room and it started to doom on him that he did not feel the soft sensation of his mask against his face. Where was it? Where was his Iron Spider suite? What the hell had happened?

 

    “How nice of you to finally join us, Mr Parker”

 

The moment Peter opened his eyes wide in shock because he recognized the voice, he regretted the action as the blazing light burned his eyes, intensified the headache manifold, and he quickly closed his eyes again.

 

      “Doctor Octavius?”

 

      “I’m afraid we’ll have to slightly deviate from this week’s lesson plan. You won’t mind, will you?”

 

Peter wanted to bite back that he minded very much, but he was too occupied trying to make sense of the situation. The scientist Pepper had hired to head SI’s Research and Development department turned out to be a madman. What was it with Stark Industries constantly attracting a bunch of nutjobs? First Mysterio and his goons, now Octavius, and judging by Pepper’s rant after London there had definitely been more in the past. Before he could contemplate any further about SI’s hiring protocols, he had to figure out where he was, if MJ was close by, and what Octavius wanted from him. Once he knew where MJ was and what his putative teacher had planned, he could plot a fool-proof getaway plan. Ideally, they would get out, before Ned or at least the grown-ups had noticed anything. Of course, that raised the next question: How much time had passed since he had last spoken to his best friend and how exactly had he ended up here? Wherever here was…

 

He remembered checking out the first building when he realised that his comm had gone unusually quiet and Karen had reminded him that the lead in the building blocked her signals. It had certainly not been ideal, but he proceeded in his search nonetheless, quietly crawling along rusted ceiling beams using his vantage point to scan for any hidden doors in the ground. Apparently, there was also lead in the ground – weird, but ok – which was why his AI had not been of much help and he had to rely on his eyes alone. By the third building, he was immensely grateful that sticking to things was practically second nature to him because his high metabolism was clearly demanding fuel while he only asked for more energy. When he had made it to the fourth building, this one had been much more run-down than the other and he had no beams to stick to, a break had sounded really nice.

 

But he could not rest until he had located MJ.

 

The thought had barely crossed his mind when something felt off… Like his Spidey-Sense wanted to warn him about an impending danger but his body and mind were separated. And then…

 

Peter recalled pain. Like every nerve ending in his body was getting set on fire…

 

And then he had woken up with a splitting headache, his elevated senses gone completely haywire. Whatever light source his kidnappers were using, it felt like staring straight into the sun. If he did not force himself to concentrate on the voice speaking to him, his hearing strayed and focused on the pounding of blood in his head, while his olfactory sense picked up a million different scents, further overloading his brain. His skin tingled all over as if an army of ants was crawling all over him. Somehow, he doubted that Scott and his little insect friends had come to his rescue, though, as he was back home in San Francisco with his daughter if Peter recalled correctly. Exhausted and famished, his own enhancements had turned against him, making him weak and defenceless.

 

      “What do you want? Where’s MJ?” he pressed out and strained against his cuffs once more, but no matter how much force he could muster they would not bunch one measly inch.

 

      “Try as much as you want, Mr Parker, these restraints have been made for a friend of yours, the Winter Soldier. I highly doubt you’ll manage to escape them.” His voice sounded further away than previously and if Peter concentrated on noises past the pounding of his blood in his ears, he could hear the low humming of various machines.

 

      “Bucky? Why would you…”

 

Peter’s question was left unanswered as a door screeched open and several pairs of footsteps approached where he assumed Octavius stood. He tried to open his eyes again to see how many more people had joined him and who they were. Yet the blazing light was still too intense for his sensitive eyes and as a result, he had to shut them again almost instantly, starting to wonder if Octavius intentionally used it to screw with his vision. As it were, he doubted he would be able to keep his eyes open for longer than a couple of seconds, and even then he would only see a bright, orange light. Ok, no sight. What else? Smell? Hearing? What is Bucky’s role in all of this?

 

Trying to make sense of the myriad of smells attacking his nose, it seemed impossible to single out one or two single odours that could tell him more about his whereabouts, so Peter turned his attention to his hearing. Straining his ears once more past his pounding blood, he managed to catch parts of a conversation between Octavius and two other guys. Judging by their harsh accents they were not from the U.S. Somewhere eastern. German? Russian?

 

      “No, we have to postpone the procedure, he’s in no condition. You used too much current; you’re lucky you didn’t fry him!” Octavius. Getting tasered with a high current would also explain his lack of memory of a physical attack as well as the burning and tingling sensation emanating from his back that was messing with his sense of touch. Considering that he was still noticing the aftermath, either little time had passed since his capture or his lack of food and sleep combined with the exertion of tracking MJ had slowed his healing factor considerably.

     

      “It was the same current we used for the Soldier.” Russian, Peter decided.

 

      “The Winter Soldier has a greater body mass than the tiny Spider-Boy.” Octavius. He sounded exasperated like he was trying to explain simple physics to a chimpanzee.

 

      “How long?” The second guy. The inflection was slightly different from the Russian-guy, so eastern but not Russian?

 

      “At least five more hours.” Octavius again.

 

Part of Peter longed to be sassy because that was how he usually handled criminals, but even in his weakened state, he realised that it was more important to gain valuable information than being impertinent. Unfortunately, the more intel he gained from the conversation, the more his stomach clenched uncomfortably in what could only be described as horror. Bucky’s past had come up a handful of times in the short amount of time that Peter had been conscious, and while he did not know every little detail he was aware of the general gist. He appreciated that Bucky did not nag him about Tony and his identity reveal, so he could reciprocate the gesture and not pester the man about his time as the world’s most feared assassin when he simply wanted to regain a normal life. Octavius, Russian-guy and not-Russian-guy mentioning the Winter Soldier could only mean that they were affiliated with HYDRA. At least they were the only organisation Peter was aware of the former assassin was linked to.

 

Yet, what bothered him even more, was the fact that Gamma radiation had led him to them in the first place and while he did not pay a lot of attention to what the other Avengers were currently handling, he had overheard Sam and Professor Hulk talk about links between the recent spike in Gamma radiation and the abducted teenagers who had turned into water. He might be jumping to conclusions, but that would imply that some part of HYDRA was kidnapping and experimenting on teenagers right under their noses. And now they had him and MJ, albeit Peter prayed they had only taken her as bait to get to him and would leave her in peace as long as he cooperated. Then again it still left him clueless as to why they had any interest in him. Did they think that their experiments would work differently – better – on him because of his healing factor? 

 

Then there was, of course, MJ’s latest obsession with proving that right-winged parties across the globe conspired to redo The Blip, but instead of getting rid of half the world’s population arbitrarily they would specifically target ‘impure’ people. Every citizen who was considered weak or was not a member of what was considered the ‘superior’ race would be wiped out. She had sent him countless articles on the topic, had even tried to convince him to participate in some of the demonstrations as Spider-Man – something she never did.

 

While Peter had always read every link she had sent him, he had found it somewhat doubtful that after people had only just got their loved ones back, there were actually individuals out there who thought that Thanos’ approach had been a good idea. The issue had caused some friction in their relationship and it had not got better when Ned had sided with MJ, but maybe they had a point. After all, he was just a white boy who lived in a billion-dollar, high-security Compound, which he hardly ever left.

 

Slightly annoyed with his friends that they had to see the worst in people, he had broached the topic in his chat with Shuri and Bucky, and the Princess’ initial response had been just a clipped “You’re pale AF, of course you wouldn’t understand their worries.” Bucky’s reply had been more elaborate, reminding him that perfectly good people who used to be friends with Jews, supported Hitler’s politics, because the danger of populists was that they were adept in playing with and catering to people’s worst fears. “And with all those social platforms you have these days, and people not realising that the algorithm only shows them what they want to see, it’s so much easier to influence people than when we had nothing but the radio and the paper.”  

 

Peter had had enough World War 2 history lessons from Captain Rogers to know that you could not get more right-winged than HYDRA and that there had been a growing suspicion among the Avengers that they had used the confusion of the Blip to infiltrated several governments across the globe – only years after Agent Romanov and Captain Rogers had uncovered their involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. Was it really a coincidence that they were now in New York, experimenting on kids?

 

Peter was not religious or anything, but by God, he hoped all of that only made sense in his headache-ridden, electrocuted brain and was not actually true. What were the odds that HYDRA had just been bored and decided to brainwash SI’s new head of R&D to have a few fun experiments in the Big Apple and no plans whatsoever to take over the world? He really hoped the odds were in favour, because if not, now would be as good a chance as any for the Avengers to bust out his arse and lecture him about irresponsible behaviour.

 

What Peter was unaware of was that Sam and Sharon had been following the lead he and Ned had got. Bruce and Rhodey had the thankless task of informing May and Pepper of Peter’s disappearance. The latter had actually been looking forward to a quiet day with her daughter but considering how much the teenager had meant to her late husband she could not just sit around idly waiting for any news, when Tony had given her the means to help.

 

      “You can’t be serious, Pepper!” Happy argued heatedly as he sped along Route 9 so he and May could be at the Compound as quickly as possible. As if the disappearance of the boy and his girlfriend were not already stressful enough, now his boss and friend had decided to be an utter idiot as well.

 

      “This isn’t up for discussion, Happy. Just promise me, you’ll look after Morgan. James and Bruce will likely be too busy to help with the rescue mission.”

 

      “Pepper, please…” May pleaded with her friend. While she appreciated the sentiment and was beyond grateful that her nephew had so many people in his life who not only cared about him but would also move Heaven and Earth to protect him, they had to take their own lives into consideration as well.

 

      “I can’t do this again. I can’t sit around and pray for good news, not when Tony gave me the means to help Peter,” Pepper argued and ended the call as she had arrived at the Compound. She did not even bother to park her car at her designated parking spot, but merely brought it to a halt at the main entrance, before getting Morgan out of her booster seat in the back and hefted her to her hip as she hurried inside. She was aware that she was being selfish, that it would be better if she stayed with her daughter instead of risking her life by rushing to the aid of a teenage boy who was not even her own flesh and blood – particularly when there were trained people like Sam and Sharon out there.

 

Thankfully Morgan was more than happy to spend time with her Uncle Rhodey that she did not question being dropped off without much of an explanation, although Pepper was fairly certain she had heard a quiet remark about being as bad for Rhodey’s blood pressure as her late husband. Choosing to ignore the comment, she rushed down the stairs to the basement since the elevators were currently not working as Bruce was rebooting FRIDAY’s entire matrix after Peter had disabled her to sneak out of the Compound to search for Michelle. She would have to have a serious word with a certain enhanced teenager about sensible actions and tinkering with invaluable technology – after they had found him and his girlfriend, and she had had the opportunity to reassure herself that the kid was alright, and she had hugged him for at least a solid five minutes.

 

Peter might have started out as Tony’s little side project, but she had quickly realised the positive influence the teenager had had on her husband. He had become less rash, less selfish, and had started to act more responsible – after she had yelled at him for dragging a fourteen-year-old kid into his petty fight with Steve. Once she had properly met Peter – a business trip had ended early and she had come home to a Star Wars movie marathon with far too much pizza and McDonalds – she also realised that Tony properly never stood a chance against the boy. He was so pure and good in a world that was so full of disdain and hatred that anyone with a heart would want to protect that and shield him.

 

Peter may have been Tony’s protégé and their interactions had been primarily limited to movie nights when she was not busy running her husband’s company, but after his death and seeing how much the kid struggled with Tony’s loss, it had only been natural to step up and take a more active role in Peter’s life. Having put up with Iron Man for more than a decade, she was also far too familiar with the different agencies and politicians who would have an interest in an enhanced teenager wearing Stark technology after Spider-Man’s identity had been leaked. It had therefore been only logical that she and not May had stepped up to the world to protect what little had been left of Peter’s childhood.

 

Yet, no matter how reasonable it was for her to help in the search and rescue of Peter and Michelle, heading into the basement and opening the vault where she had told Happy to store all the remaining Iron Man suits, lay heavy on her and her hand shook with trepidation as she held it up to the display to unlock it with her handprint. Thankfully, these security mechanisms would also operate when FRIDAY was completely down.

 

While Tony had destroyed all his armours after the Mandarin and the Extremis Virus, it did not take long for him to work on new ones. His restlessness and anxiousness had never returned to similar levels like after the attack on New York, but Tony always needed something to fiddle with – to occupy both his mind and hands. Consequently, when they had moved to their Lake House after the decimation, the armours had moved as well. Into the garage where she would only see them when she was looking for the boxes containing their Christmas decorations. After Tony’s death, when the Compound had been rebuilt, she had asked Happy to move all of her husband’s projects into the vault. Peter might eventually take an interest to some of them, but primarily she did not want Morgan to come across them and start taking them apart because she wanted to know how they functioned. It was one thing to dismantle a toaster, it was something else entirely if she were to disassemble an arc reactor.

 

The vault opened with a hiss and as Pepper stepped into the cool room with the dry air, illuminated by sparse lightning, she was greeted by all the little – and larger- projects her husband had had in their garage. There were unfinished prototypes for machines that would eliminate the microplastic in the oceans or breakdown the CO2 in the atmosphere, DUM-E, Butterfingers and several other robots Tony had built stood in a corner – deactivated, and the long side of the wall was covered in showcases containing several versions of the Iron Man suit, a new design for the Iron Spider suit he had worked on despite the fact that Peter had been dead, and at the very end was the containment case that held her blue Rescue suite.

 

      “For once it’s not a silly acronym, Pepp, but simply you. You’ve been through so many highs and lows with me, and you could have walked away so many times, but you still stayed. I lost count how many times I screwed up, how many times I fell, but you had my back, lifted me up again. You’ve always been my rescue, Pepp.”

 

The first and last time Pepper had worn the armour had been for the final battle against Thanos. When her husband had died. She had sworn to never wear that suit again – she was a businesswoman, not a superhero. But she was also a mother and while Peter was not her flesh and blood she wanted to protect him from everything this cruel world threw at him and the Rescue suit gave her that ability. Regardless of the loss and failure she associated with it.

 

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Pepper deactivated the containment field and withdrew the housing unit of the nanosuit to attach it to her workout clothes. Tapping it twice, the suit activated and billions of nanites began to crawl over her body until she was fully enveloped in the blue and golden armour.

 

      “Good morning, Mrs Boss!” the familiar voice of FRIDAY greeted her once the facial plate had fully encased her head.

 

      “FRIDAY! I thought you were down…”

 

      “The version of myself running the Compound is currently rebooting. All suits are, however, self-contained and were unaffected by Peter’s virus. His programme shut down the primary sever but never breached the firewalls protecting my backup serves.”

 

      “That’s… good,” Pepper guessed and could not help but wonder if Peter never knew about the backups or if he intentionally targeted only the main server to create a diversion long enough to slip away. It was a conversation for a later date. “Can you locate Sam and Director Carter, FRIDAY?”

 

      “Master Sergeant Wilson and Director Carter are currently at Liberty Harbour. Do you want me to plot a course?”

 

      “Yes, FRIDAY. Take me to them.” Pepper’s flying was a far cry from Tony or Rhodey’s which was why she rather let the AI control the suit than crash into anything.

 

      “I have intercepted communication and Sergeant Barnes and the Princess of Wakanda are also on their way. They will reach Liberty Harbour in approximately thirty minutes,” FRIDAY informed her as she steered her out of the Compound before the Rescue suit shot into the air and headed towards New York City.

Chapter Text

“These look like the original buildings, with little to no upgrade…” Bucky muttered as he went over RedBird’s surveillance material of the Liberty Harbour area and the building Ned had the last contact with Peter. They were less than ten minutes away and he was already dressed ready for battle, while Shuri was currently changing into something more appropriate in the back of the Talon Fighter – despite the fact that he had told her that she would remain on the plane, no matter what happened.

 

Bucky had worked a number of jobs before he had been drafted. While his family had certainly been better off than others, his father had even been able to afford a car, it was not like his parents gave him much pocket money. His father used to preach that they could use the money for more important things like food and rent than pulp magazines or candies. As a result, he was ten or eleven years old, when he spent his summer holidays helping old Mr Janson deliver milk bottles in their neighbourhood. By the end of the 20s, most households had ice boxes and so did many supermarkets, which meant people no longer required the services of Mr Janson to get daily fresh milk. After his short-lived endeavour as a milk boy, Bucky earned some extra pocket money as a paperboy and helping Mr and Mrs Goldstein with their little grocery store. Some of his small income was always spent on buying little treats such as candy or ice cream for his sisters and Steve. Occasionally he would splurge on a new book and when his best friend was sick, and Mrs Rogers was struggling to pay for Steven’s medicine, he would find a way to smuggle his money into her purse. Not that it was much, but it was better than nothing. After he had graduated from high school, he found work at the docks unloading the many ships from overseas bringing a plethora of goods into New York from where they would be transported all over the country. By the time he had turned 20, and after over two years of hard manual labour, Bucky was responsible for cargo inspection, before he moved on to safety monitoring. Given the Great Depression, money was not worth a lot, but he was grateful that he had not been one of the unlucky fellows who had been let go. Whenever possible, he would supplement his income by helping Mr Goldstein with the shop’s books as the German immigrant had noticed his predilection for numbers and offered to teach him everything he knew about bookkeeping. Bucky had always been a quick study and soon he had been able to earn a few bucks on the side. Yet despite his penchant for numbers, most of his time had been spent down at the docks – the same docks where Peter had disappeared and where they were now heading to.

 

It seemed like a quirk of fate that he returned to the place he had slaved away so many hours, but it also meant that he knew the area like the back of his hand. While the docks – just like pretty much everything in New York – had changed over the decades, the structures Peter had tracked Michelle down to had already existed when Bucky had worked there, and he knew for a fact that no one at that time would have unnecessarily wasted lead in a building.  

 

      “The entire ground is covered in lead… No one in their right mind would have done that back then.”

     

      “It does smell fishy”, Sharon conceded in Bucky’s ear.

 

      “It’s a port. That’s what ports do,” Sam retorted, and he could practically imagine his partner’s grin while Carter would roll her eyes in exasperation. “I assume you didn’t have gamma radiation at the docks back then either?”

 

      “Scurvy, consumption, malaria, and typhoid were more pressing worries…” Bucky replied and moved to vacate the pilot’s seat when Shuri returned but she merely indicated him to stay and slipped into the co-pilot’s seat behind him, joining the conversation and inquiring if Sam and Sharon had been able to get any scans from the lead-covered buildings.

 

      “Nada,” Carter sighed. “Neither RedBird nor FRIDAY were able to get through.”

 

      “FRIDAY?”

 

      “Pepper’s joined us with the Rescue suit a couple of minutes ago,” Sam updated his partner. “But the suit’s scanners were no help either.”

 

      “What the hell is Pepper doing there?” Bucky questioned once he had switched to a private channel and listened to Sam’s quick explanation which only caused him to furrow his brows in displeasure. He respected Pepper as a person and she had been truly terrifying when she had taken apart the Daily Bugle, but she was no soldier. A civilian would only slow them down.

 

      “Lucky for you, Wakanda’s much more technologically advanced, and I’ve figured out how to penetrate vibranium years ago. Lead’s child’s play.” There was a chance that Shuri was gloating just a tiny bit as she talked to Carter. Switching back to the team channel, Bucky listened to the on-going conversation, while the cockpit’s display informed him of their imminent approach of Liberty Harbour and he deactivated the autopilot to guide the plane himself. Flying was one of those skills HYDRA had taught the Winter Soldier, but which Bucky had also come to enjoy immensely. Not that it would ever stop him from teasing Sam about being Chair Force.

 

A small warning light on the display to his right informed him that Shuri had already activated the sensors which were gradually creating a two-dimensional image of the harbour, the docks, and all the buildings. Tiny yellow dots symbolised the many people working in the port, while three green dots marked the location of Sam, Sharon, and Pepper. And then there was a fourth green dot further away at what looked like an underground base beneath the lead reinforced building.

 

      “Bingo!” Shuri grinned at the display while Bucky informed the others to standby, so they could board the cloaked Talon before the jet be would hover over the docks in stealth mode. Putting the jet into autopilot once more, Shuri led the others on board while Bucky went into the back of the plane and activated the sand table. It had a fancy Wakandan name that the Princess had told him at least a hundred times, but since it was a terrible tongue twister – at least for white people – he had dubbed it “sand table” and regardless of Shuri’s complaints he found it quite appropriate. After all, it was a table with sand. Granted a very high-tech table with vibranium sand, but a sand table nonetheless.

 

The moment he had activated the table, the scans were transferred and the vibranium sand started to mold into an exact miniature replica of the harbour, showing everyone’s movements in real-time and allowing him to manipulate every detail at will. Yet, the more he studied the scans, the more suspicious he found the entire situation and his sixth sense – honed through decades of battle – was warning him that there was more to it than he was currently seeing. In the years he had worked at the docks, he had never been aware of any underground facilities beneath the large storage depots, let alone that no one in their right mind would build into the ground right next to the ocean. It was basically a recipe for flooded rooms. Someone had gone to great efforts to build this facility and he had a feeling that there was much more to it than a few kidnapped teenagers who had turned into puddles.

 

But Bucky’s thoughts were pushed aside when the others joined him, and Sharon instantly inquired after their scans. For a second Carter’s grandniece seemed actually impressed when she saw the detailed depiction on the sand table. She had moved to the other side of the table, while Sam automatically sought out his partner’s side. Shuri joined Sharon while Pepper hung back but listened as attentively as the others as the Princess started to work the table.

 

      “We definitely have an idea where Peter is,” Shuri answered and with a minuscule hand movement the vibranium sand started to shift, showing a cross-section of the building Peter was held captive in. His little sand figure changed from the standard grey vibranium colour to bright green, while the other people in the room turned a murky yellow.

 

      “Who the fuck builds an underground facility in a port?” Sam voiced Bucky’s exact thoughts, lifting one eyebrow for attention.

 

      “The same people who turn innocent kids into puddles?” Carter retorted, her eyes never leaving the scan.

 

      “Do we know if Michelle is with Peter?” Pepper spoke up for the first time since entering the plane.

 

      “Unfortunately, no,” Shuri explained. “The sensors recognized you and Peter because they scanned everyone who was involved in the battle against Thanos at some point to avoid friendly fire.”

 

      “But we do know that the area they are currently holding Peter in contains Gamma radiation,” Bucky spoke for the first time and with a wave of his metal hand, a dark red ripple suddenly moved through the room Peter was held. It faded in colour the further away it got, depicting a drop in radiation in other areas of the underground facility. While it was not entirely gone, it was significantly lower, and they could only hope that Michelle was in one of these areas and not with Peter.

 

      “We have to get both of them out of there,” Pepper urged.

 

      “Peter’s healing factor will likely keep him safe…” Bucky guessed as he zoomed into the scan searching for any ways into the facility and only when he looked up, did he realise that the others were looking at him more or less incredulous. “Mine does and since the kid heals faster than I do, we shouldn’t have to worry.”

 

      “How the hell do you know that your body can withstand radiation?” Sam questioned, silently praying that he had not exchanged a partner who jumped from planes without a parachute for one who cosied up to fuel rods.

 

      “Someone had to cause a shutdown in Reactor No. 4,” Bucky shrugged and returned his attention to the more pressing matter at hand, mainly getting into and out of the facility, but apparently his last statement had provoked more than a few raised eyebrows. While he remembered all the missions the Winter Soldier had executed, he primarily felt guilty about those where he could remember his victims’ faces – like Howard and Maria Stark. Chernobyl had been a simple task of getting inside the reactor, cause some havoc, and then meet up with his handler again. Much later, after he had defected, he had eventually learned about the agonizing deaths of the many people on location as well as the horrid long-term effects on the population. But they were all faceless. Blank canvases, interchangeable.

 

      “Reactor No. 4 as in Chernobyl?” Sam spluttered. “Like the worst nuclear disaster in history that’s recently been made into a TV series?!”

 

      “Not sure if I watched the series”, Bucky contemplated for a moment, but he only recalled a lot of Disney movies. And Lord of the Ring. And The Hobbit with Everett Ross. “Did we, Shuri?”

 

      “No, we didn’t,” the Princess replied before hissing to Sam that she had been very much aware of the Winter Soldier’s involvement in Chernobyl and had decided not to add the TV show to their watch list because she did not want to trigger Bucky. Movie nights were supposed to be a fun way of introducing her broken white boy to contemporary pop culture not to bring back his old guilt trip. She was more than relieved that he had finally started to accept that none of the assassinations had been his fault. He had merely been the weapon, HYDRA had pulled the trigger. There were still more than enough days where he fell back into old thought processes, but she tried to limit these by reminding him as little as possible about the various missions the Winter Soldier had carried out – and that included no Chernobyl TV series for Bucky unless he absolutely insisted.

 

      “It’d probably be OK,” the former assassin contemplated. “I doubt it would be very historically accurate. It’d be like listening to these ridiculous Captain America radio plays they had after the war.” He had found them on YouTube one day and while they were certainly cringe-worthy because Captain America in those stories was nothing like the little punk he called best friend, it had been rather entertaining to tease Steve with them. Almost as good as his ridiculous USO outfit with the little wings on top of his head or the PSAs they showed in schools these days.

 

      “What other historic events was HYDRA involved in that we don’t know about?” Sam questioned purely out of curiosity. And maybe a bit of morbid fascination. “Don’t tell me Lyndon B Johnson was a snake and the Winter Soldier killed JFK so that HYDRA could rule over the U.S.?”

 

      “JFK?” Bucky sorted through his scrambled memories before he found flashes of lying on a rooftop with his rifle, the streets lined with people shouting and waving little U.S. flags, a topless car accompanied by a police squad. “Dallas? Pretty dame in a pink outfit? I think that was more about the Cold War than anything else. But I could be wrong since my handlers hardly discussed the greater mission details with me.” He was certain, Carter breathed out a “Jesus,” while Sam instantly went back to ask him about other missions the Winter Soldier had executed, despite the fact that they still had two teenagers to rescue.

 

      “What about Martin Luther King?”

 

      “Civil Rights Movement? No HYDRA involvement to my knowledge. Probably homemade white supremacy. Are you seriously going through every major historic event since the 1950s now?”

 

Sam was about to voice a sassy retort when Pepper cut him off, pointing out that Peter’s figure was moving, away from the radiated area, and put into a room with another person that was hopefully Michelle.

 

The latter was clueless to her current whereabouts as she had found herself in a dark, clammy room after encountering an elderly gentleman on her evening run asking her for directions. As she had looked up the address he wanted to get to on her phone, something had struck her on the neck and the next thing she knew was waking up in complete darkness. Both her phone and her fitness tracker were gone, and her thin workout clothes did little to keep her warm now that she was no longer moving. On her hands and knees, she had crawled across the room trying to figure out its dimensions and in hope of finding anything that would tell her anything about her location or her kidnappers.

 

To her dismay she had been greeted with nothingness and eventually – partially due to the headache she was nursing – she had resolved herself to curl up in a corner to preserve energy and heat. While she was certain that Peter and Ned would come looking for her once they realised she was missing, she did not want to solely rely on them. One of her boyfriend’s greatest worries was that someone would find out Spider-Man was dating and would use her to get to him and she would most certainly not allow anyone to get anywhere near Peter by exploiting their relationship. Hence why she had to free herself before her loyal puppy dog of a boyfriend put himself in danger to save her.

 

Without any daylight, it was impossible to gauge how many hours had passed but judging by her increasing hunger and thirst at least a day must have passed. Unfortunately, whoever had captured her seemed to put little interest in her basic needs. To make matters even worse, she was currently on her period and she was certain that her Diva Cup was overflowing by now and she would probably be sitting in her own blood soon. Gross! Her initially search of her prison cell – the lovely nickname she had come up with for her room – had come up empty in terms of a toilet or a basin, which was why she eventually resolved to just remove the cup and dump its content in one corner before reinserting it and whipping her bloody fingers on her leggings. If her kidnappers provided nothing for basic hygiene they would have to deal with the fallout.

 

The first change in the all-encompassing darkness and the sullen silence Michelle noticed was the clinking and scratching of keys against the metal door, before it suddenly swung open flooding her little cell with the first light in hours. Blinded, she shielded her eyes in an attempt to make out anything about the people standing in the doorframe, but they were nothing but black statues against a white backdrop.

 

Before she could move or yell what they wanted from her, the scene changed, and a body was thrown into her cell before the door was shut with a loud bang and pitch-black darkness was once again her friend as the keys clunked one more time effectively locking her away from the outside world.

 

      “…. Urgh…”

 

      “Who is there?” she asked when she heard a pitiful groan coming a few feet away from her. It sounded somewhat familiar and she really hoped it was not who she feared it was.

 

      “’J…?”

 

      “What the hell are you doing here, loser?!”

 

      “Rescuing you,” Peter replied and tried to put as much conviction into his statement as possible even though he felt absolutely miserable. Octavius definitely knew how to play with his senses – first the blinding light, now utter darkness. He did not know which one he hated more. If his head was not killing him, he was not sleep deprived and dying for some carbohydrates, his Spidey-Sense would easily help him to navigate his surroundings even in complete blindness. But as it were his senses were completely screwed and… Wait a minute!

 

      “Did they hurt you, MJ?” His nose was either playing tricks on him or he was smelling blood. Adrenaline rushed through his veins at the thought that Octavius or one of the HYDRA goons had laid a hand on his girlfriend, and he pushed himself into a sitting position, scenting more consciously trying to learn more from the olfactory particles hanging in the air.

 

      “Just a mild concussion. Keep talking, Peter, I’m trying to find you”, she encouraged him as she slowly crawled forward, one hand petting the air in front of her in an attempt to find her boyfriend.

 

      “I can smell blood. They hurt you!” They would pay for it.

 

      “Yeah, because my uterus is throwing up tissue, idiot, and those kidnappers clearly failed Hospitality 101.”

 

      “You’re not dying?”

 

      “We’re all dying from the moment we’re born, but apart from that… No”, she retorted as her handed bumped into something that felt definitely like an arm and she felt the familiar fabric of the Spider-Man suit. She had always imagined that it would feel like some fancy lycra, but it was much sturdier and rougher. Instead of pulling back her hand, MJ squat on her haunches and brought up her second hand, slowly fumbling her way up from Peter’s arm to his face. She absentmindedly filed away that she had not felt his webshooters and could only imagine that their kidnappers had taken them to stay in control of Peter – just like they had handcuffed him as well. Before MJ’s hands reached their destination, she felt Peter’s arms move above her head to wrap his arms around her – handcuffs be damned – and pulled her into his lap hugging her tightly.

 

      “I found you… I was so scared”, he muttered as he buried his face in the crook of Michelle’s neck, breathing in her familiar scent and letting its safety drown out the fear for her safety that had ruled his mind since learning of her disappearance. He had found MJ. She had a concussion, but she was not seriously injured. Now, all he had to do was to figure out how to get them out of wherever they were.

 

      “I’m okay, I promise you,” she replied quietly and let her fingers weave through his hair which was starting to get rather long. “But are you?” With their bodies pressed together, she could feel the soft tremors shaking Peter’s body. He felt cold and when she was feeling the low temperatures he had to be freezing considering that his thermoregulation had been off ever since he had been bitten by that radioactive spider.

 

      “I’ll be OK,” he evaded MJ’s question and buried his face deeper in the joint of her neck and shoulder, ignoring the curls of her ponytail that were tickling his nose. As always with his girlfriend his weasel words were useless, and she instantly called out his bullshit. At times like these, he almost wished the times back, when she did not – officially – know his superhero identity and pretended not to notice his constant evasion of certain topics.

 

      “Ok, so maybe–” Peter amended with a defeated sigh because honestly, he was too tired to put up any fight– “So maybe it might have been not the best idea to look for you on an empty stomach with little to no sleep. Plus, we’re likely exposed to Gamma radiation, so we really have to figure out how to get out of here.”

 

Shortly after MJ’s suspicions about Peter’s secret identity had been confirmed, Ned had taken her aside and given her a rundown what it meant to be friends with Spider-Man. It basically entailed babysitting an Avenger with zero sense of self-preservation who also happened to be her silly boyfriend. Both her and Ned had noticed what the last year had done to Peter – first the loss of another father figure, then Mysterio’s deception, and then his identity reveal with murder charges and everything there was. It was difficult to look after Peter when he no longer attended Midtown, which was why they tried to video chat with him as often as possible and make it up to the Compound as frequently as possible. Her worries about Peters's wellbeing were also the only reason she put up with the various shenanigans of the other Avengers. Under normal circumstances she would have long retaliated and put them in their place, but she could tell that they were only looking out for their youngest member because they too had noticed how much he had secluded himself, that he barely slept and more often than not forgot to eat. As she had learned, the latter in particular would take quick tolls on Peter as his metabolism ran so much higher than any normal human’s. Consequently, listening to her boyfriend’s admission meant resisting the very tempting urge to yell at him – she would have probably been perfectly fine if he had got some rest and food first before going after her. Yet, venting her frustrations would not change their current situation, so Michelle chose to focus on the second part of his reply instead.

 

      “Please tell me, the others know where you are and Doctor Strange is getting us out of here any second.”

 

      “Ned kinda knows… Dunno how much time has passed since we lost contact, but he’s likely alerted Sam by now,” Peter answered quietly. “Not sure about Strange, though. Haven’t seen him in a while, he’s probably still busy with Wanda…”

 

      “Great,” MJ sighed exasperatedly. “Can we just agree, next time I get kidnapped and you come after me that you’re not only properly rested but also take backup with you that’s actually able to help and not just Ned? And please let me get kidnapped by guys who have more understanding of common hospitality than those goons. I really don’t wanna do dark and clammy prisons ever again.”

 

Chuckling softly, Peter searched out her lips and pressed a gentle kiss onto them as his lips curled up into a small grin and he promised to send a note to New York’s criminals. Only MJ would call out HYDRA’s hospitality instead of being terrified to death.

Chapter Text

With his mind focused on cataloguing the scans of the underground base Peter – and likely Michelle – were held captive at, Bucky paid little attention to the argument going on less than two feet away from him. Apparently, Sharon, Sam, and Pepper had concluded that Doctor Strange would be their best option to free the kids despite the fact that he had told them several times that he had little interest in their day-to-day Avengers’ business and that they should only bother him if doomsday was upon them.

 

     “He could just get in there–”, Sam argued and copied the hand movements Strange always did before one of his sparkly portals opened– “And get them out.”

 

      “Last time I called him, he hung up on me,” Sharon sighed.

 

      “I could try”, Shuri offered. “Pull the Princess-number on him. That usually intimidates people into doing my bidding.” Bucky had witnessed said number several times, but he doubted it would work on Strange. He struck him as someone who cared very little what other people thought of him and who focused his attention on things important to him but maybe not everyone else.

 

      “You’re welcome to try,” Carter offered and dialled the number of the Sanctum Sanctorum in New York. She put the phone on speaker before handing it to Shuri. It kept ringing for at least half a minute, before someone picked up, but instead of properly answering the call all they could hear was the rustling of fabric and some swooshing sounds.

 

      “Hello? I’m looking for Doctor Strange?” Shuri tried her luck but was only greeted with more rustling and swooshing.

 

      “Didn’t I tell you not to answer the phone?” Strange’s voice dripping with annoyance and exasperation could suddenly be heard in the distance quickly become louder, before there was a mild bang and then – finally – did Shuri have the Sorcerer Supreme on the line.

 

      “Who’s there?” Right next to the phone he sounded even more irritated by the distraction than from afar.

 

      “Doctor Strange, this is Princess Shuri of Wakanda. I’m calling because we need your help.” She made sure to use her best authoritarian voice, but it bounced off the sorcerer like a bullet from an energy shield and he merely demanded a proper definition of ‘we’. “The Avengers. Peter Parker was kidnapped. You were on Titan together?”

 

      “Ah yes. My alarms notified me about his disappearance earlier today.”

 

      “Your alarms?” Was anyone aware that he had these alarms? And why had he not reached out to the Avengers to inform them about Peter’s kidnapping?

 

      “I like to keep an eye on things in the city, in case anything requires supernatural intervention. But this was a simple kidnapping, that’s not what I do. I believe there was something about Gamma radiation. You might want to consult with Banner instead. I believe the good Doctor knows more about radiation than I do considering that’s how he got so thick and green. Good day, Princess Shuri of Wakanda.”

 

      “Wai–“ Shuri did not even get to finish her sentence and she merely stared flabbergasted at the phone in her hand. Very few people had ever had the nerve to hang up on her.

 

      “Charming as ever,” Sharon sighed and took back her phone, pocketing it in her black leather jacket. Her life would be so much easier if she did not have to navigate the overinflated egos of some superheroes.

 

      “What are we doing now?” Pepper questioned and stumbled slightly forward when Bucky nudged her out of the way with a quiet apology, so he could access the weapon storage she had stood in front.

 

      “What are you doing, man?” Sam asked, as Bucky pulled several knives from storage and put them on his body, before doing the same with five grenades, two guns, and a sub-machine gun. He then rummaged through the small medkit, he always kept with his gear, and shook several small pills from a glass container and shoved the drugs – Iodine for the radiation – into his breast pocket.

 

      “What does it look like?” he retorted and clipped the small MG with the practised ease of doing the same movement for decades onto his back. “Your plan obviously fell through, and while you were busy chatting, I memorised the layout of the basement and plotted a secure way in and out.” After all, what most people forgot was that he used to lead his own team into battle countless times during World War 2 and had to come up with new strategies and plans on the spot if the enemy had got the better of them. Even when Steve had come along, and the press made it seem like he alone commanded the Howlies, it had always been a shared duty, especially in the beginning when Steve hardly knew the men he was leading into battle. War had taught Bucky that people primarily died if you spent too much time sitting around idly discussing the pros and cons of various plans. A couple of hard facts was all he needed to make an informed decision – a trait he shared with the Winter Soldier, or maybe it had always been his characteristic, whether he was brainwashed or not.

 

      “I’m coming with you,” Pepper decided, and Bucky had a hard time not to roll his eyes. He appreciated the enthusiasm, but he was not taking a civilian with him. For once, Pepper was no solider, and unlike the Iron Man suit the Rescue suit had little offensive powers. While the armour might initially protect her from the radiation, prolonged exposure would eventually damage her cells.

 

      “I’m your partner, I’m coming with you,” Sam decided once Bucky had finished his clipped explanation why he would not take SI’s CEO with him.

 

      “You’re just as human as Pepper. You all are. You get down there and you’ll get radiated. I’m the logical choice as my cells will regenerate.”

 

      “You don’t know who’s down there, Buck. You know nothing about their weapons, their aims. You’re basically walking into a trap.”

 

      “Sounds like any other mission I did as the Winter Soldier,” Bucky retorted dryly. Most tasks had consisted of the name and a picture of his victim with the looming threat of torture if he failed. Very few handlers had ever given him extensive briefings on the situation he would encounter or how many adversaries he would face.

 

      “I don’t like it,” Shuri muttered and crossed her arms in front of her chest. She understood Bucky’s reasoning and while she had to agree that it was sound, it did not sit right with her to just send him alone into unfamiliar territory where he would face Bast-knows-who. Besides, he may have recovered from Chernobyl, but she had witnessed in his memories how he had suffered from Acute Radiation Syndrome for almost a week and how HYDRA had done nothing to lessen his agony as his body slowly degraded from within before the serum had finally won.

 

      “Yeah, and I don’t like being hunted by an angry cat. Done that once, don’t need a repeat,” Bucky countered. “Which is why you in particular stay as far away from there as possible.” As an afterthought he added that he also felt no inclination of being on the receiving end of Queen Ramonda’s I’m-disappointed-in-you-look. It was even worse than Steve’s!

 

      “Come on, Bucky, they both know us well enough to realise that I would have bullied you into taking me with you,” Shuri argued.

 

      “Yeah, and I grew up with three sisters and Steve and I’d always take the blame for their stupidity,” Bucky retorted unable to resist the urge to roll his eyes. It was not like any of them had ever guilted him into taking responsibility for something he had not done, but he had been the oldest and it had seemed like the decent thing to do. From what he had gathered, spanking was no longer considered an appropriate method of education, but things had been different in the twenties and thirties. He did not begrudge his parents for tanning his hide when he had broken the rules, but if twisting the truth just a little bit would spare his sisters from their mother’s wooden spoon or their father’s belt, he would do it. Besides, he was fairly certain that at least his Ma always knew when he took one for his sisters because the spanking was barely noticeable at all.

 

Mrs Rogers was a completely different case. She never resorted to physical punishment, but Bucky was convinced that Steve had learned his Captain-America-is-disappointed-with-you-look from her. There was something worse than spanking about knowing you had broken her faith and trust in you. Bucky had witnessed a few times how utterly heartbroken his best friend had been about betraying his mother’s trust that he had triggered an asthma attack with all the hyperventilating and crying. Consequently, Bucky had decided it would not hurt if he twisted the truth occasionally. What difference did it make if he started a fight and Stevie got hurt because he tried to stop him instead of Steven breaking his nose because his temper got the better of him and he could not just ignore the idiot of the week?

 

      “And I’d do the same for you, Shuri,” Bucky added causing Sam to mutter under his breath that he was going to lose his breakfast.

 

      “But you still won’t take me with you.”

 

      “No.”

 

      “Fine,” the Princess sighed in defeat and continued to mumble something under her breath in Xhosa that sounded remarkably similar to ‘stubborn mule’ – given that Bucky’s understanding of the language was not off. “At least–” She headed for one of the storage compartments behind Sam and scanned her kimoyo beads to access it– “I’ve been working on something… it’s still a prototype, but it’ll offer you some protection from the radiation,” Shuri started to ramble and retrieved a small objective which turned out to be a flat kimoyo beat if Bucky had to wager a guess as she showed it to him.

 

      “What’s that supposed to…?”

 

      “Here, I’ll show you,” she offered and pressed the object against the skin behind her ear. Her index finger hovered above it because she was certain that Bucky would not like what she had worked on for him. She had planned on gently introducing it to him once she had finished the design but seeing as he was the most reasonable choice to retrieve Peter and Michelle – regardless of how unhappy she was about the decision – she could at least offer him as much protection as possible.

     

Tapping against the small device behind her right ear twice, it activated and vibranium nanites began to cover the lower half of her face, forming a protective mask over her mouth and nose, glistening in the bright lights of the Talon Fighter in the same dark grey and golden colours as the vibranium arm Shuri had made for Bucky. Unfortunately, his reaction was exactly what she had expected. He instinctively took a step back, bumping into Sam who had instantly understood the situation and had put a grounding arm on his partner’s flesh arm, but it did not stop the horror from creeping into his steel-blue eyes as he shook his head in refusal.

 

      “It’s nothing like the muzzle they made you wear,” Shuri promised and slid off the mask which retained its form. She held it closer to Bucky, so he could see it better and take it if he wanted, but his hands were balled into tight fists not moving from his side. “There’s no pressure on your nose and jaw”, she reassured him. A design feature she had paid a lot of attention to as she had witnessed in his early days several times how any weight on his face would trigger a panic attack. Months later, he had quietly confided in her how the muzzle HYDRA had used to conceal the Winter Soldier’s identity would dig into his nose and jaw, making it difficult to breathe and talk.

 

      “The nanites form perfectly around your face without restricting you,” she calmly explained and from the corner of her eyes she noted how Sharon and Pepper had taken a step back, giving them as much privacy as possible in the narrow confinements of the jet. “The mask filters the air you breathe. Toxic gases or radiation can no longer damage your airways and lungs. Your skin will still absorb the radiation when you go down there, but at least you won’t breathe it in.”

 

      “That sounds good. Right, Buck?” Sam chimed in appreciating the Princess’ reasons for bringing the mask up now. At first glance it was certainly reminiscent of what his partner had worn when they had first met in Washington D.C., but its purpose could not be more different. HYDRA’s muzzle had been a tool to take away Bucky’s identity, to make him more controllable by hindering his breathing. Shuri’s creation was for his protection.

 

      “The final version will also provide you with at least an hour of oxygen in an oxygen-free environment. For now, it’s only fifteen minutes, because I still need to improve the oxygen converter,” Shuri continued her explanation when Bucky showed no response to Sam’s question, but she did note how the horror did slowly bleed from his eyes and was starting to be replaced by genuine interest. “And then there’s also–” she put the mask back on and tapped it once more behind her right ear, causing the upper rim to move upwards forming protective goggles over her eyes– “Once the full mask is activated, you have access to the HUD – gotta admit, I was a bit inspired by Stark’s technology,” Shuri chuckled quietly before she continued her explanation. With the HUD Bucky had perfect 20/20 vision even in complete darkness. While the serum had enhanced his vision, it was certainly not perfect, particularly at night or in very foggy surroundings. In addition, the goggles were able to scan his surrounding area and show him a live 3D model similar to the one in the Talon Fighter’s cockpit. There was also long-range surveillance that could be automatically sent to a second party like her or Sam, allowing them to see everything he saw. Shuri had a few more ideas but the prototype was limited to these options.

 

      “I think it sounds cool,” Sam stated. “If you won’t take the mask, I call dibs!”

 

     “… can I…?” Bucky finally asked quietly and Shuri instantly took off the mask and handed it to him. She chose not to call out the faint shaking in his human hand as he accepted the object and carefully examined it, before eventually lifting it to his face. The moment the nanites came into contact with his skin, they reformed to adjust to the shape of his head. His breathing hitched for a moment when the mask had fully enveloped his face all the way up to his eyebrows, but almost simultaneously he realised how much work Shuri must have put into the mask, so it would remind him as little as possible of the one Hydra had forced him to wear. Apart from the fact that he could easily breathe and move his jaw, he hardly even felt the material on his skin.

 

     “How does it feel?” Sam gently prodded and squeezed Bucky’s shoulder. Both he and Shuri had been aware that putting on the mask had momentarily brought back decades of trauma, but apparently the Princess’ invention was so different from what he had expected that he instantly relaxed again.

 

     “Good. It… it actually feels good,” Bucky replied hesitantly at first, then with more confidence when he felt absolutely no restriction talking and saw how Shuri was practically gleaming with pleasure. His attention had already started to wander from the feeling of the mask to figuring out the HUD displayed inside the goggles. There was a sort of taskbar at the bottom of his field of vision with various symbols that were highlighted when his gaze rested on them for longer than two seconds. It was almost like…

 

     “Does the HUD work with eye-tracking?”

 

     “Yeah, it does!” Shuri replied instantly, slightly impressed that he was already figuring out how to work the mask. That could only imply that he was accepting it and that his natural curiosity had got the better of him. “In the long run, I want the Council to agree on getting you a tattoo, but till then I figured eye-tracking would do the job.”

 

Ideally, Shuri wanted the mask to work similarly like T’Challa’s suit, being primarily controlled through thoughts. Yet, in order to key the tech to Bucky he would need a vibranium tattoo behind his ear, but those were usually limited to a small circle of high-ranking warriors within Wakandan society. While she had no doubt that her brother would side with her and as King he could – theoretically overrule the other Council members, but it would disturb peace which was the last thing T’Challa ever wanted. Consequently, Shuri would have to sweet-talk the Council into getting her broken white boy the tattoo. Thankfully, she had already tested the special vibranium ink against Bucky’s healing factor and unlike normal ink it did not fade away. Yet, until the Council would grant him the tattoo, she had figured that eye-tracking would be the easiest method to work the HUD even in stealth situations. After all, she had seen a couple of Bucky’s memories from the early 2000s, when HYDRA had trained him in the technology.

 

     “Did you upload films and books in there?” he interrupted Shuri’s techno-babble as he went through the different icons. The tracking software was definitely more responsive than what he remembered HYDRA trained him with.

 

     “It’s a prototype! And I assumed you’d react much more vehemently to the mask, so I figured I’d put some fun stuff in there for you. There’s Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.” While Bucky had never said he liked those two Disney films, in particular, it was sort of telling that he always went for one of those two if she let him choose a movie. “I uploaded copies of The Secret People, A Brief History of Time, The Martian, and the first volume of Bast’s Favourite Legends.”

 

      “What’s the last one?” Sam questioned while Bucky was already busy trying out the other functions of the mask – it was either that or postponing Peter’s rescue until he had watched Aladdin. Then again, that would probably entail one of the non-enhanced humans getting exposed to Gamma radiation and that was no option. Hence why the adventures of Agrabah’s street rat would have to wait until he had finished his own quest.

 

As Bucky familiarized himself further with the mask, he barely registered Shuri’s explanation about the last book which was a bit like a Wakandan take on Grimms’ fairy tales. Had the revelation of the Princess new projected jolted him out his concentration, solely focused on planning the extraction of Peter and Michelle, he now felt himself slipping back into that familiar mindset and he had to concede that the mask with all its functions would come in handy. Once he had figured out how the HUD responded to his eye movements it was child’s play to transfer the Talon’s scans into the mask. With a quick blink of his left eye, he could easily see the blueprint of the underground base and the various people moving inside.

 

     “You found the camera option!” Shuri exclaimed when suddenly his own field of vision was projected onto every display in the jet.

 

     “It’s all pretty easy to navigate,” Bucky replied with a shrug and added that it was time to take the show on the road, while his hands instantly patted down his chest to check the correct fit of his body armour before he made sure all his weapons were at their designated places. “Shuri, can you take us over the east side of the warehouse? I’ll enter from the roof.”

 

      “You’re sure about this, Barnes?” Sharon inquired as the Princess moved into the cockpit and gently nudged the cloaked Talon Fighter into position. While Carter had stood back with Pepper to give Bucky the space to adjust to the mask and to get his emotions under control, she would not send him down if there was any doubt that he was compromised. Unfortunately, in the year they had come to work together, she had also become rather familiar with his ability to deflect, so when he confirmed his readiness she could only hope that it was the truth and not what he wanted to believe himself.

     

      “Get the kids out – that’s your priority. Everything else is secondary.”

 

      “Yes, ma’am.”

 

     “We’ve reached the drop zone”, Shuri announced and a round hole, big enough for a human to fit through, opened up in the floor of the jet, causing everyone but Bucky to take a step back. Since the Talon Fighter was in stealth mode and hovered no more than seventy feet in the air, the cabin did not depressurize but the strong winds and the noise from the engines could still be felt inside.

 

     “No stupid, heroic feats, you hear me?!”

 

     “I’m not Steve,” Bucky retorted and braced his arms against his chest and stepped over the hole, letting his body drop.

 

     “And yet he jumps from a plane without a safety harness,” Sharon sighed quietly and pinched the bridge of her nose while the Talon’s floor closed up again as Bucky landed catlike on the derelict roof of the old warehouse and used his momentum to glide inside through one of the many gaping gaps.

 

Chapter Text

Without any daylight – or light in general – Peter was clueless as to how many hours had passed since he had been kidnapped by HYDRA or how much time he had spent in the small room they kept Michelle in. He knew he had napped a bit on MJ’s shoulder and was feeling better now than before. His headache had improved a lot, but he was still terribly hungry, and his shoulders had started to hurt from the awkward position his hands were forced in by being cuffed together in front of him. He had tried to pull them apart, but just like his earlier restraints, these seemed to have been made for Bucky as well. To make matters worse, the itching on the inside of his wrists was worse than ever and there was no way he could properly scratch them.

 

      “What’s wrong?” MJ broke the silence they had fallen into when she noticed his fidgeting. They sat next to each other, borrowing as much of the other’s body heat as possible – a difficult undertaking considering they were both shivering.

 

For a moment, Peter wanted to play it off, but the prickling sensation was driving him nuts and he needed his wits if he wanted to get them out of wherever they were. So he conceded and asked if Michelle could scratch his wrists. An indecent groan left his lips before he could stop himself and his head hit the wall behind him when MJ’s blunt nails scraped over the material of his suit and the irritated skin underneath.

 

      “That good, hm?” she teased him with a small huff.

 

      “You got no idea,” Peter sighed in pure bliss.

 

      “Is this a kink of yours?” she necked him. “’Cause I’m fairly certain you didn’t react as vehemently to that handjob last time we were alone.”

 

      “MJ!”

 

Considering how hot his ears and cheeks felt, Peter was fairly certain that his ears and face had taken on a similar colour like his suit, but when he tried to pull his arms away, Michelle had nothing of it and simply kept them in place and continued to scratch his wrists, alternating between short, quick scrapes that dug into his skin, and long, soothing ones that were meant to calm him.

 

      “Easy, loser, I’m just making fun.”

 

      “Sorry,” Peter sighed. “They’ve just been annoying.”

 

      “What’s wrong?”

 

      “They just itch every once in a while. Usually goes away after a few hours or so.”

 

      “Did you get it checked out?”

 

      “It’s just an itch,” Peter shrugged. He turned his head sideways and leaned forward, carefully seeking out Michelle. His Spidey Sense had slightly recovered after his nap and he could not only smell her close by his side, but he was also able to sense the tiniest air turbulences her breathing caused. The closer he got to her, the more prominent he could feel them until his nose touched her cheek and a small smile played around his lips as he nuzzled her skin. He moved lower until he could burrow his face in the crook of her neck and breath in that scent that was distinctively Michelle.

 

      “I must smell terrible.”

 

      “As good as ever.”

 

      “Liar!” MJ elbowed him, and he huffed a chuckle in response to her manhandling while swearing that he was just telling the truth and nothing but the truth. The short time frame Peter had dated Liz – if you could even call it dating – he had never been particularly aware of her smell, but since the bite, he had always been able to make out MJ’s. Even when she was not in the same room as him, he could always distinguish that subtle almond and lilac note from all the other odours that would constantly assault his olfactory senses.

 

When they had first started going out, he had neither realised how easily he could discern her by smell or how he would always burrow his nose in the crook of her neck scenting her, whenever they hugged. Eventually, she had called him out about it and he had prayed for the ground to open underneath it, but in true MJ fashion she had merely shrugged it off.

 

      “Spiders are attracted to certain scents.”

 

      “I’m not…!” She had merely cocked an eyebrow and Peter had to concede that maybe she was not too far off the truth. After all, he was the one creating web hammocks under the ceiling to lounge about, wearing sweatshirts in summer because he had trouble thermoregulating, and who had developed an almost abnormal distaste for everything lemon, peppermint, and eucalyptus. “Ok… maybe you’re right…”

 

      “I’m always right, loser.”

 

      “You smell like spring… like almond and lilac when they just started to bloom. And there’s this subtle note of petrichor and pine.”

 

      “Guess I should be glad I don’t smell like…”

 

      “Like the guy’s locker room. That’d be disgusting!”

     

      “I can feel little bumps on your wrists…” MJ jolted Peter out of his thoughts and he slightly turned, so he was more pillowing his head on her shoulder than burrowing his face in her neck. “Promise me, you’ll have it checked out once we’re out of here.”

 

Before Peter could make any such vow, the door to their dark prison cell opened, spilling in a bright ray of light from the hallway, causing both teenagers to blink in an attempt to adjust to the sudden brightness. Two tall and bulked up figures stepped into the room, several weapons visible on their body even though they were nothing but black silhouettes moving in on them. Peter automatically moved in front of MJ to shield her, but their capturers were unimpressed by the move and one of the guys merely grabbed the crosspiece connecting the handcuffs and yanked his light body up. Michelle was instantly up on her feet and by his side demanding to know where they were taking him. Instead of a verbal answer the guy who had grabbed him, shoved her hard against the wall that was mere feet behind her and with a pained sound she crumbled to the floor.

     

      “Quiet, bitch”, Russian-Guy hissed, and anger and adrenalin rushed through Peter. For a moment he could feel his enhanced strength return to him and he yanked himself free to rush to MJ’s side. But he had overcalculated the force he would need and lost his balance, stumbling backward and crashing into Michelle.

 

      “MJ! MJ are you okay?”

 

      “Peter…”

 

Russian-Guy was cursing in Russian because the cuffs had pinched the skin of his hand for good when Peter had freed himself. Still swearing, he grabbed him by the hair and hauled him up before shoving him into the direction of the other guy who pressed a tuned cattle prod into the nearest flesh he could find – Peter’s neck. His body convulsed, and he screamed in agony as too many volts burned through his body.

 

      “Peter!”

 

His body was still jerking from the electricity running through him when Russian-Guy yanked him up again and pulled him out of their prison cell with Peter so out of it that he was more dragged by his restraints than actually walking on his own.

 

      “Don’t worry, we’ll come back for you, bitch,” Non-Russian-Guy promised Michelle with a slimy grin she could hardly make out in the diffuse lighting before the door closed on her and she was alone again with darkness as her sole company while Peter’s agonizing screams were still ringing in her ears.

 

Meanwhile, Bucky was making his way from the roof of the warehouse down to the ground, constantly contemplating if he should just turn off his earpiece to have his peace from the incessant chatter on his channel. Not being able to join him, his friends and teammates had apparently decided to keep up a running commentary. While he could easily work under distraction, it was still annoying.

 

      “Sam, remember when you told Peter that there’s usually not much talking in a fight?”

 

      “Yeah… Why?”

 

      “Because you guys talk. A lot.”

 

Perched in a corner on top of a rusty looking support beam, Bucky scanned the inside of the warehouse and quickly spotted what he had been looking for all along: a brick wall that was in the wrong place and small lasers in the walls creating an invisible net that would alert Peter’s kidnappers instantly of any intruder.

 

      “How you gonna get inside?” Shuri questioned, obviously unimpressed by his previous comment directed at Sam.

 

      “I thought you were the smartest person on the planet,” he chuckled quietly and rose to his feet as he gracefully made his way across the beam like a gymnast on a balance beam, always out of range of the cameras. As he put one foot in front of the other, it brought back a weird sense of déjà-vu, almost like he had done something like this before. “The warehouse is 300 feet long on the outside, but only 250 on the inside. What happened to the other 50?” It was a puzzle he had noticed almost instantly when he had taken a closer look at the building’s structures and plans.

 

      “Damnit! They’ve cloaked the entrance with technology even my sensors can’t penetrate!”

 

      “My thoughts exactly.”

 

      “Bucky, you gotta be careful if they’ve got tech more advanced than Wakanda’s.”

 

Focused more on the barely visible flicker of light dancing over the ground beneath him, Bucky paid little attention to the ongoing conversation in his ear. Instead he quickly flicked through the settings of Shuri’s prototype of a mask for him until he came across a function he had discovered earlier when he had familiarised himself with the new tech. The moment he had activated it, his vision darkened significantly, revealing an intricate net of red laser beams on the floor. Bingo!

 

      “That’s how they must have been alerted to Peter’s presence”, Pepper muttered, and Bucky could hear the others agreeing with her through the comm channel. Ignoring the running commentary in his right ear, he scanned the network of lasers beneath him, when the HUD of his mask pointed out several entry points. Choosing the closest to the fake wall, he activated the grapple hook, Shuri had installed in his vibranium arm and slowly made his decent, mindful of keeping his distance from any lasers. Once he had firm ground underneath his feet, he deactivated the hook and plotted an ideal route through the next thirty feet of lasers crossing his path at various angles and heights. Making his way over and underneath them, felt like a strangely familiar dance that eventually brought him to the fake wall.

 

With Shuri’s tech unable to scan it, he had to rely on his expertise and his enhanced senses, while Sam suggested to simply throw a grenade at it. Walking along the perimeter of the wall, he returned the vision of his mask to its standard settings and picked up a few pieces of rubble, while his enhanced hearing picked up the faintest buzzing sound. At first, he had passed it off as the oscillation of the laser net he had just made it through, but the closer he was to the fake wall, the more obvious it became that this was the source of the sound.

 

Pressing his back against one of the real exterior walls he threw the first stone – a small piece of brick – towards the illusion. It easily passed through as if there was nothing in its way, merely causing a hardly discernible ripple effect. Slowly forming a theory in his mind, he moved away from the wall and flung several larger stones in rapid succession towards the illusion. Once more, ripples started to flare out from the point of contact, but there was no kind of forcefield or alarm that would hold them back.

 

Time to test my theory.

 

Unholstering the gun strapped to his right thigh, he cocked it and let his index finger hover over the trigger, while he stretched out his left arm and ever so slowly approached the fake wall. At heart, he would probably always be a sniper because he disliked the idea of stepping into enemy territory without any oversight of what was going on. The Talon’s scan he had synced with the HUD had not changed much since he last checked it, so he could only assume that – at least to this point – he had not alerted anyone to his presence. Pushing the twisted feeling in his gut aside, he let his vibranium fingers come into contact with the fake wall and as he slowly pushed against it, he felt his hand slip through it as if it were non-existent. Thought so. A tingling feeling sizzled through his entire body as he stepped through, but nothing else happened.

 

      “What the…?” he could hear Shuri in his ear before she started rambling aloud about holographic projections and wondering out loud how they could have fooled her scans. Bucky had little interest in solving that particular problem at present, as he was much more focused on the iron staircase that led underground. Checking the Talon’s scans for the stairs, he pinpointed his position only to notice that Peter’s green dot was moving again. Whatever was going on down there, his captors were certainly busy. Something that could work out to his advantage as they might not notice his intrusion. Unfortunately, it also meant a change in tactics as he would now have to free Peter from a room with seven other people and make his way to the other side of the lair to get the girlfriend – given that the yellow dot he had been with up to now was indeed Michelle.

 

Exchanging his small arm for the submachine gun clipped onto his back, he quietly made his way down the stairs and sought out dead angles and shadows to hide from the security cameras as he crept like a shadow through narrow hallways and damp stairwells, heading deeper and deeper into enemy territory. Into the serpent’s lair. It was like second nature to him to listen to his surroundings, cataloguing everything he heard, saw, and felt. The faintest sound could mean another laser trap waiting to alert his opponents. A strangely cast shadow, the slightest change in smell, or the tiniest variation in the airflow around him could be the only tell-tale sign of a quietly approaching strike commando.

 

Whoever had built this underground base had created a maze – likely in an attempt to confuse anyone trying to escape. Stairwells did not automatically connect to each other, but Bucky had to make his way through clammy corridors before he reached the next one. The elevators would cut his journey short, but despite the constantly updated scans of the Talon Fighter in his HUD, he did not want to rely on technology alone to warn him of any approaching adversaries. It had failed to recognize the fake wall as a holographic projection, who knew what else it missed. Taking the shortcut could lead to his immediate capture, hence the stairways it was.

 

Bucky had reached sublevel four – three more to go – when both the HUD and his own senses alerted him of two people approaching. He had heard the heavy footsteps resounding in the clammy corridors before he had noticed the yellow dots advancing on his position. There was nowhere to hide so he had to use the surprise element to quickly dispose of them. Unfortunately, it also meant being captured by the security cameras. More people would come in his direction. He had to act quickly.

 

Giving the corridor a quick sweep, he clipped the submachine gun onto his back again and took a short run-up, before he used his enhanced muscle strength to pull his body mass off the ground and vertically climbed the wall to tuck himself as tightly to the ceiling as possible, his arms and legs jammed against the concrete. Several exclamations in his right ear reminded him that the others could see everything he saw in the jet, but he was too focused on the approaching footsteps to pay them any attention.

 

In situations like these, it always felt like time came to a crawl. Fractions of a second felt like minutes, giving him all the time in the world to neutralise his targets. Eliminate potential threats, Bucky had to remind himself, as the two yellow dots in his HUD rounded the corner and became two grown men wearing black tac gear, heavy boots, machine guns, and at least two Sig Sauers strapped to their thighs. They were quiet, making their rounds through the corridors, never expecting 250lbs of solid muscle mass and vibranium to drop from the ceiling.

 

The first guy was taken out almost instantly. Bucky had landed right on his shoulders, his thighs wrapping tightly around his neck, twisting as he let himself fall backward taking his target down with him. The satisfying crack of a broken spine came almost instantaneous and his second target had barely trained his machine gun on him, when the lifeless body of his colleague collided with him, throwing him off balance. It gave Bucky enough time to attack and within seconds the quiet breaking sound of another severed neck could be heard.

 

      “Did we agree on killing these guys?” Sam could be heard asking the others, as Bucky dropped the other body unceremoniously onto the ground and quickly checked them for any ID cards that might come in handy later on. But he had barely begun to search the first soldier when he noticed a tattoo on the man’s left wrist – barely visible underneath the gear. There was something about it that did not sit right with him, so Bucky shoved the sleeve out of the way and was greeted with a familiar symbol: a skull with six tentacles – snakes. Fuck.

 

      “Buck!” Somewhere in the back of his mind he registered how alarmed his partner sounded, but he was focused on his mission. He proceeded to the other body and found the same tattoo in the same location.

 

      “That’s no coincidence,” he heard Carter, but his attention was drawn to the rapidly approaching bulk of yellow dots. There was nowhere to hide, at least two cameras had captured him, and Peter and Michelle were somewhere down there. “Get out of there, Barnes! I’m not sending you into a fucking HYDRA base!”

 

Other people were voicing their concerns over the comm channel, but he heeded them no attention as he quickly calculated his options.

 

      “I got a plan. You gotta trust me.”

 

He deactivated the majority of the mask’s functions, but instead of returning it to its original size of a kimoyo bead, he merely shoved it down his face, letting it dangle around his throat.

 

      “Ingcuka, as your Princess, I order you–“ Bucky never heard the end of Shuri’s command as he had pulled the earpiece out and crushed it in his vibranium hand, letting its tiny remnants flutter to the ground, as he heard the hurried footsteps of six soldiers approach.

 

      “Asset 56898 reports back to base”, the monotonous voice of the Winter Soldier resounded in the narrow hallway and through the loudspeakers on the Royal Talon Fighter. “As per Protocol 3X-B9 you are to bring me to the highest-ranking officer for debriefing and to be prepped for my next mission.”

Chapter Text

      “He’s lying. I deleted his programming. We tested him over and over again,” Shuri was frantically rambling as she listened to the orders someone barked, and which were picked up and transmitted by the mic in Bucky’s mask. For whatever reason, he had deactivated everything except for communication, allowing them to listen in as there was a short commotion among the soldiers that had approached him before they took him deeper into the underground base.

 

      “You may have deleted the programming and the trigger words, Princess, but the training is still there…” Sam pointed out, rubbing his goatee as he tried to make up his mind if his partner was merely playing the role of the Winter Soldier to get to Peter and Michelle or if the Fist of HYDRA had them all fooled for years and had merely waited for an opportunity to return to its handlers. He prayed it was the former, but he had also seen those short moments during joint missions when all emotion had been purged from Bucky’s face and he had acted like the assassin Sam had first fought in 2014.

 

      “The question is, what are we going to do?” Carter asked. It was not often that she felt out of her depth, but there was too much history with the Winter Soldier to not be wary of Barnes’ sudden change in tactics.

 

      “We do as he asks,” Pepper quietly offered her opinion. “We trust him.” She had seen the pain, the regret, and the guilt in his eyes when she had invited him to Tony’s funeral. Despite her own agony in these days, she had noted how small he had made himself at the sidelines of the mourning party. She had loved a man haunted by his demons for far too long that she had easily recognized another battered soul desperately clinging to normalcy and attempting to reclaim the life he had lost. There was something about his longing for a quieter life in Wakanda that reminded her about Tony’s final years, when he had started to settle down, trying to build a life for the both of them where he did not constantly have to run off to save the world. If one knew where to look, one could easily see the worn-out warrior in Bucky. A soldier tired of fighting but who returned to the battle anyway because he felt a duty to protect. Pepper had witnessed how gentle he was around Peter and her daughter, how he would instantly shield the teenager if he became too overwhelmed with people badgering him, or how this feared assassin would fold himself into a tiny children’s chair and allow Morgan to embellish his vibranium arm with glittering unicorn stickers to make it look prettier.

 

      “I’m with Pepper,” Shuri agreed and – albeit slightly reluctant – Sam joined them as well. Bucky had asked for their trust, said that he had a plan. They had to give him the benefit of a doubt to prove that he knew what he was doing before they abandoned him. Besides, if there was any expert on how HYDRA thought, how to infiltrate them, how to take them down, it was him. He was still their best chance to get the kids out.

 

      “Okay,” Carter decided. “Okay.” While they had cooperated on several missions since the defeat of Thanos, she had never built much of a rapport with Barnes, partially because it was too easy to still see the soldier in him who had thrown her like a ragdoll across the room. Then there was of course the undeniable fact that he had always been rather short with her, and never opened up to her the same way he would for Sam, and Sharon suspected that it had probably something to do with the situation between him and her great-uncle. Talk about difficult family relations…

 

      “He’s on the same level as Peter now,” Shuri turned their attentions back to the task at hand and they all watched as the green figure that was Bucky was escorted into a small room close to Peter’s location. Two soldiers stood guard but then moved into the room when a third figure joined them. The comm in Bucky’s mask was still active, so they could hear as the additional person introduced himself as General Jackson.

 

      “I know him,” Sharon whispered in shock. “Ross put him in charge of creating a government-controlled super-soldier army six months ago.”

 

      “Oh great, can we please not redo the whole Triskelion thing?” Sam muttered but his words were drowned out by the deep baritone voice of General Jackson that oozed with fake friendliness to the degree that it raised his hackles.

 

      “Sergeant Barnes… or is it Agent Barnes these days?”

 

      “My designation is 56898. I am an asset of HYDRA.” By Bast, Shuri hated hearing him talk like he held no more worth than a piece of furniture. It brought back all the struggles of Bucky reclaiming his humanity, his life.

 

      “Oh, I am well aware of that. Even a decade after we lost you, the myths surrounding the legendary Winter Soldier continue to instil fear in this world.”

 

Bucky Barnes might have voiced a dry retort, but the Asset was a good soldier who only spoke when his handler asked him a question. While no proper command structure had been established – with the deleted programming it was near impossible – the Soldier could still recognize a leading figure within the organisation and would automatically follow those orders.

 

      “Colour me surprised, Soldier, that a decade after you failed your last mission and collaborated with the enemy you suddenly show up again.”

 

      “My programming was compromised. I had to improvise and adapt.”

 

      “You killed two of my men.”

 

      “I followed the enemy’s orders. When I realised they had sent me into a HYDRA base, I fell back to my original programming.”

 

      “There are rumours that ape princess reprogrammed you.”

 

The mood in the Talon Fighter instantly shifted as they became witness to such blatant racism and Sam would have said a few choice words had it not been for Shuri’s humour to diffuse the situation, commenting on Jackson’s actual lack of knowledge regarding Wakandan deities. He had to commend her for taking the high ground, despite the fact that she had only recently come into contact with racism outside the safety of Wakanda’s borders. It was something Sam had grown up with – the knowledge that he would have to work twice as hard as a white man to get a fraction of the same recognition. As a teenager he had rebelled against it, deemed it unfair that he was treated differently than his white peers based on the colour of his skin, but it usually only got him into trouble with the school or the police. Now that he carried Cap’s shield he had to actively remind himself not to pay any attention to the media – right-winged outlets in particular – if he wanted to keep his cool.

 

      “She attempted to,” the Asset’s monotone answer cut through Sam’s thoughts. “She managed to remove the words, but I adapted.”

 

      “You spent a lot of time with those primitives?”

 

      “Yes. I was a prisoner of the King while his sister tried to rehabilitate the human.” There was a short pause as the Winter Soldier stalled before he continued. “It seemed most logical to go along and gain the Princess’ trust to learn more about Wakanda’s technology.”

 

      “Did they entrust you with their knowledge?”

 

      “Yes. The Princess in particular is a starry-eyed idealist. Once she was convinced the human James Barnes was back in control of this body, I was granted almost unlimited access.”

 

      “What can you tell me about the King’s powers and his technology?”

 

      “He gains his powers from a plant that has mutated under the influence of the vibranium that permeates the soil. His tech is developed by his sister and made entirely out of vibranium as well.”

 

      “As far as we know, they have shielded their capital and main vibranium sources from the rest of the world, making it impossible for any foreigner to get close without a Wakandan guide.”

 

      “That is correct. They use stealth technology to hide their greatest resources. Similar tech is also employed by their attack aircrafts. One of them is currently hovering above this facility, waiting for me to follow orders and retrieve Spider-Man and his girlfriend.”

 

      “What?!”

 

      “Assuming this base is outfitted with similar surveillance equipment like the facilities in Europe and Russia, you want to switch your sensors to band K22.249.”

 

      “Do as he says,” Jackson barked at the guards, but his orders were drowned out by the shocked gasps of Sam, Sharon, and Pepper, while Shuri merely squealed in excitement and was practically laughing as she hurried into the cockpit.

 

      “What’s so funny about Barnes ratting us out?” Carter asked who found the Princess’ reaction rather incomprehensible. Judging by Pepper and Sam she was not the only one and the latter urged them to get out of there.

 

      “Because he didn’t,” Shuri replied giddily while her fingers hovered over a holographic screen. “He’s straight out lying. I knew it!!” A tiny voice in her mind had questioned if Bucky or rather the Winter Soldier had truly managed to fool her so completely, but after hearing him reveal a fake frequency she had a pretty good idea what idiotic plan he had come up with. He would certainly get an earful once he was back, but for now, she had to ensure that his cover would not be busted.

 

      “How can you be so sure about it?” Sam questioned.

 

      “Because he gave them a fake radar frequency that would never reveal the Talon. Your primitive stealth technology relies solely on low radar cross-section, but it’s still visible to the naked eye. If you stood outside right now, you wouldn’t see anything. It’s like… you play peek-a-boo with a baby and they think you're gone because you covered your eyes. That’s basically your military. Whereas I have a proper Invisibility Cloak.”

 

Sam was tempted to groan about the pop culture reference but instead, he inquired if she was a hundred percent certain that Bucky was also aware of these technical differences.

 

      “Absolutely. Every single one of our pilots needs to be proficient in handling the tech before they get certified for the Talon or the Dragon. Bucky received the same training as everyone else,” Shuri explained as she altered the jet’s cloaking technology to mimic the frequency her stupid, white boy had given Jackson. Almost instantly, an alarm flared up informing her that they were being scanned. Assuming that the antiquated tech many countries employed would likely not warn her about a simple scan, she retained their position over the warehouse but programmed the autopilot to take them out the moment the sensors detected enemy fire directed at them.

 

      “You’re absolutely certain about this?”

 

      “Serious like a heart attack, Sam. Besides, Bucky sent us a message that he’s ok.”

 

      “No, he didn’t.”

 

      “None of you have ever played Enigma with him, have you?”

 

She might have been intrigued by Bucky’s sniper skills and the fact that he had been able to calculate perfect trajectories in his head within seconds without the help of modern equipment. Still gaining his trust in those early months, she had been reluctant to put him through any more tests than necessary, so she had devised various games that would allow her to measure his skills. Enigma had certainly become one of their favourites, as they would employ different encryption methods to scramble messages. She had quickly realised that he would always employ the same tactic if he had to come up with an encryption on the spot – he would assign every letter in the alphabet a number from one to twenty-six and then shift the letters according to the code he had come up with. The key to the code always lay within the personal identifier the Army had given him when they had drafted him. When she had heard the frequency, she had almost automatically checked it against some of his favourite keys in her mind. Crossfoot encryption had been the correct answer and had quickly revealed that the frequency spelled out C-A-P. A message he knew she would understand.

 

      “Why would he send Cap? Does he want me to retrieve him?”

 

      “He wanted to let us know that he’s ok. That everything’s under control”, Shuri explained, as she kept an eye on her scans to see both Bucky’s position within the HYDRA base as well as to reassure herself that they had been scanning them but had not attacked them so far. Shooting down a Royal Talon Fighter in broad daylight was probably too obvious, even for HYDRA.

 

      “Back when the rogue Avengers were on the run, Captain Rogers would regularly check in with me to know how Bucky was doing. He’d always be very short and military-like. Roger this, Princess; Roger that, Princess. So I decided to have a bit of fun with him and correct every Roger with Cap. It was a silly pun on his last name. Took him a call or two to figure it out, but Bucky realised it almost instantly. It was the first time I heard him laugh.” A fond smile crossed her features as she recalled the moment. Back then she would do a lot of silly things just to bring this traumatised man out of his shell. Knowing that he had referenced that specific instant to let her know he was okay, assured her in her belief that it was still Bucky down there. And she would move Heaven and Earth to prevent HYDRA from ever getting their fingers on him again.

Chapter Text

Peter found himself chained to the same table he had been on a few hours earlier. It might be considered an improvement that he was not blinded by bright lights this time around, but it also meant that his survival chances had just decreased significantly. After all, when had a hostage ever made it out alive in a movie after seeing their capturers’ faces. It was as easy an equation as the binomial theorem: you are as good as dead once you saw your kidnapper’s face. Which meant he had to get him and MJ out of there as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they still had the Bucky-proved shackles on all four of his limbs tying him to the table and none of them would budge, no matter how much he strained against them.

 

To make matters worse, Octavius had cut open the arms of his suit and had taken several vials of his blood, he was currently studying under a microscope. If Peter strained his head, he could also see a strange-looking apparatus on the other side of the massive lab with something glowing yellow-ish inside it. Is that what blinded me earlier?

 

      “What do you want from me, Octavius?” Peter yelled in his direction, both to satisfy his curiosity in trying to figure out an escape plan, as well as to distract the scientist from his work, hoping to prolong whatever he had planned for him.

 

      “Oh, everything, Mr Parker. Everything,” he replied in that sweet, gentle voice he had come to associate with the older man, but now it sounded downright creepy and made his skin crawl. Then again, it could just be the cold and clammy climate inside the base.

 

      “I trusted you.”

 

      “That seems to be an ongoing problem of yours, Mr Parker. You might want to reconsider that,” Octavius suggested, his focus never leaving the monitor displaying a macro image of Spider-Man’s blood down to a cellular level. The creaking of a door opening caused both him and his subject to look in the direction of the sound.

 

      “I brought an old friend of ours, Doctor,” a man Peter had never seen or heard before greeted Octavius. When he stepped aside, and the teenager saw a familiar face, he felt relief flood his system, because he knew they would be rescued soon. As he watched Bucky stand motionless near the door, he belatedly realised the flaw in his thinking. If Bucky was their rescue, why did the other HYDRA guy introduce him as an old friend and was now talking with Octavius about re-programming and properly debriefing the Winter Soldier before wiping and freezing him again?

 

      “Bucky?” Peter whispered as quietly as possible, knowing that none of the humans would hear him but that Bucky’s enhanced hearing would still pick it up. Yet, the man showed no reaction at all, merely stared blankly ahead of himself, his eyes and face void of any emotions. It was eerie. Terrifying.

 

      “Bucky!”, he hissed a bit louder, but again no reaction. Instead, the new American guy and Octavius discussed the missing Winter Soldier book Zemo had stolen and which had been retrieved by King T’Challa and destroyed by Shuri once the programming had been deleted.

 

      “The only chair on American soil has been destroyed in the fallout following the Pierce debacle,” Octavius sighed. “We’d have to see if the Russian’s still got the equipment. If not, we’d have to reactivate personnel that worked on the Winter Soldier programme and recreate the tech.” As Peter listened to their discussion and tried to at least make eye contact with Bucky, he wondered what had happened since they last texted. There had been no indication whatsoever that he would revert back to the feared assassin he had once been, yet here he was, showing no recognition of Peter at all. And his mind, ever so quick these days to remind him of his failures and shortcomings, was starting to question if Bucky was just another person he had completely misjudged.

 

      “Don’t just stand there, Soldier,” the American guy ordered. “Make yourself useful and guard the subject. We wouldn’t want our little lab spider to get away, now would we?” Instead of a verbal reply, Bucky merely gave a sharp nod before he marched over to the table Peter was strapped onto. One of the first things he had ever noticed about the super-soldier was that he tended to slouch, make himself smaller than he really was if he was not involved in an active battle. The man who was now coming towards him towered ramrod straight over him with movements that seemed almost robotic. What struck Peter as odd, however, was the fact that Bucky did not choose the most direct route to cross the distance between the door and the table, but instead walked past a nearby work station where two of Octavius helpers were busy with whatever they were planning on doing with Peter.

 

As Bucky came closer, he realised he had picked up a dirty piece of cloth, which he was now balling up in his hands.

 

      “Bucky, what are you doing?”

 

The question caught the attention of the American guy who cast an inquiring look at the Winter Soldier who had come to a halt at Peter’s head.

 

      “He talks too much, Sir. It’s a problem all senior Avengers recognize.”

 

      “Go ahead.”

 

      “Bucky!” Peter tried to plead with his eyes, hoped he would somehow get a reaction out of the man he had started to think of as a friend, but there was no emotion in those steel-blue eyes, as Bucky grabbed Peter’s jaw with his vibranium hand and forced it open. He wanted to gag when his tongue tasted the cloth, because it was truly disgusting, but then he noticed a small pill rolling out of the gag and into his mouth.

 

      “Iodine. Swallow”, Bucky ordered, his voice barely above a whisper, and when Peter shot him a doubtful look he gave the tiniest nod possible to go unnoticed while his vibranium hand moved from Peter’s jaw to his throat. For an onlooker, it would seem as if the Winter Soldier was threatening the boy to strangle him if so much as another peep left his lips, but in reality, those cool metal fingers moved gently over Peter’s throat encouraging him to swallow the pill dry. Something he did almost instantly after Bucky nodded and as the drug made his way down he could feel some of the tension leaving his body – not because he was protected against the radiation but because the Winter Soldier was probably the last person to care whether a teenager’s thyroid accumulated radioactive iodine.

 

      “Don’t have too much fun with the boy,” the American guy warned when he noticed the location of Bucky’s hand. The Soldier merely gave a short nod and retracted it but shot a quick look in Peter’s direction while General Jackson turned his attention to another soldier who had just entered the laboratory, sounding quite out of breath, and informing him that the Wakandan ship was still hovering over the warehouse.

 

      “They are waiting for the human to return with the boy and his girlfriend,” the Winter Soldier offered in that monotonous voice that Peter had come to dislike within seconds because it was nothing like the rich tones Bucky usually sounded like.

 

      “Too bad we can’t shoot them down,” Jackson sighed. “But that would attract too much attention.”

 

When Peter glanced in Bucky’s direction again, trying to avoid tasting that horrible cloth as much as possible, he received once more the tiniest nod possible and for a moment something like content flashed through the older man’s eyes. Settling back into the mindset of the Winter Soldier had been like slipping back into an old coat you had worn for many, many cold seasons. It may be tattered and frayed but it still fit like a second skin and hugged you in all the right places.

 

Bucky had expected to be relieved of the weapons he had carried on his person, but the HYDRA personnel he had encountered so far was definitely sloppier than their Russian counterparts who had controlled him for decades. If he had shown up at a Russian base after all those years they would have undressed him completely, searching every cavity for weapons and bugs, before using a deep clean and disinfecting routine as a first form of punishment for his failure and misbehaviour. Getting petted down by a soldier and debriefed was basically a warm welcome with open arms and a bear hug for HYDRA standards. It had also made it easy to keep his mask and let Shuri listen in on everything that was going on.

 

With the Talon Fighter hovering visibly above the warehouse merely confirmed his faith in the Princess to decipher his message for what it was and to act accordingly. It also meant that she knew he was only playing the role of the Winter Soldier and was going along with it. He was fairly certain that Carter would not have trusted him this easily and would have rather believed that he had them deceived for all these years. He could not really blame her considering their history, but it also made him grateful that he had given into Shuri and had taken her along on this mission. As he was now listening in on Octavius – he vaguely recalled seeing him in passing at the Compound once or twice – and Jackson discussing the progress, he tried to figure out what they had planned while he went through possible options to get Michelle into the lab as well, so he had both teenagers in place to break them out. It would be far easier than getting Peter out of his shackles and then run across the whole base to find his girlfriend before they could leave.

 

Bucky’s attention returned to what was going on in the room and more importantly what Jackson and Octavius were discussing, in order to formulate a more tangible plan on how to get everyone out of HYDRA’s clutches. Judging by the General’s line of questioning, he was not fully convinced of the scientist’s idea – whatever that entailed – but as Octavius was tinkering with several vials, mixing something together, he did not tire to remind Jackson that he had read Zola and Karpov’s notes extensively to eliminate any repeat of their trials. Zola and Karpov were two names Bucky was more than familiar with and he could easily spend the rest of his life never hearing them ever again. But apparently fate had other plans for him because as Octavius continued to rattle on about a failed breeding programme, memories of the Winter Soldier resurfaced.

 

The clean, detached way the scientist kept talking about the experiments, it sounded like he was analysing the procreation of cattle or horses, but Bucky remembered too much to know the brutal and inhuman reality behind these clinical words. Sometimes they had pumped the Winter Soldier full of some kind of drug, other times they had locked him into a room that had smelled funny. Yet, regardless of how these experiments began, they all had the same effect on the Asset: they had blinded him with a raging lust and hunger, as well as a painful erection that would not go down until his organism had burned through whatever chemicals they had exposed him to. While the memories were sometimes hazy, Bucky remembered enough to know that they had always given the Winter Soldier a woman. Sometimes even two or three. Some of them had been enhanced, some not. To this day, he was able to recall the ripe smell that had oozed from their pores.

 

It had taken a rather embarrassing talk with Shuri to realise that his enhanced senses would pick up on the slight change in smell whenever a woman was fertile. Apparently, even guys who had not been turned into super-soldiers by crazy Swiss scientists were subconsciously influenced by the enticing smell of an ovulating female, so why should his superior olfactory sense be any different. Luckily – or so he thought – none of the smells he had come across so far did anything for him. His lack of interest likely also explained the disastrous outcome of Zola and Karpov’s experiments.

 

One of the things Bucky remembered clearly about the breeding programme was the Winter Soldier’s uncontrollable rage and frenzy whenever he had smelled these fertile women with their artificially increased scents. They were all wrong! Wrong!! WRONG!!! To get rid of them, the Asset had annihilated every single one of them, including the soldiers who had been sent in to stop him. Covered in their blood and that revolting smell that was never right, the Winter Soldier had curled up in a corner, silently whimpering and keening in pain as the chemicals in his blood had run their course.

 

What Jackson and Octavius discussed with as much passion as tomorrow’s weather report, had been one of HYDRA’s many attempts to create an army of super-soldiers that had all of the Winter Soldier’s positive attributes like his enhanced strength and senses but none of his flaws. For a while, he had not been the world’s most feared assassin, but HYDRA’s stock bull. Judging by the conversation between Jackson and Octavius, it had been decided to revive the programme with Spider-Man as their new stud.

 

Seeing the panicked look in Peter’s eyes when he shot him a glance, Bucky wagered a guess that the enhanced teenager had come to a similar conclusion and was beginning to understand why exactly HYDRA had captured him. It was probably just a matter of hours until Octavius would begin with his first round of tests and Bucky would prefer it if both Peter and MJ were as far away from the base as possible by that time. Which meant less time for planning, more room for improvising.

 

As inconspicuously as possible, Bucky scanned the lab, taking note of the two armed soldiers standing by the only entrance and exit – a metal door that could only be activated when scanned with a key card everyone had either clipped to the front pocket of their trousers or the breast pocket of their shirt. Octavius’ work station took up the majority of the lab with tables filled with various apparatuses Bucky had never seen before, and funny looking containers with liquids in several different colours. Behind him was something that looked straight out of a sci-fi show, emitting a warm, golden glow. Inside of the beautiful light – because there was no other way to describe it – hovered a vile containing some clear liquid. Next to it was a contraption hanging from the ceiling that looked like metal tentacles with snake-like heads and straps. Two assistants were monitoring the contraption with the light, while a third one was testing something on the tentacles. Another one was sitting at a nearby desk in front of a laptop writing down everything the other scientists called in his direction, while Jackson hovered nearby apparently trying to understand what Octavius was doing but failing rather miserably.

 

Bucky catalogued the equipment that was dangling from the ceiling, looking very much like a mechanical milker used for cows. The thick power cables trailing from the wall and across the lab to the machine with the glowing light sparked an idea in Bucky that a sudden power outage might be just enough of a distraction to get Peter out. Instinctively, his flesh hand moved inside the right pocket of his tac trousers feeling the sturdy yet soft material of the Spider-Man mask against his skin. He had noticed it the moment he had stepped closer to the work station and under the disguise of getting the cloth he had used to gag Peter, he had pinched it. Unfortunately, the little housing containing the Iron Spider suit had been nowhere nearby and he could only guess what Jackson or Octavius might do with the nano-technology. Ideally, they would get it back before he got the kids out of the HYDRA base, but if not Peter had at least his mask with his AI back. It might come in handy on their escape.

 

But before Bucky was able to elaborate on that plan, his attention was drawn back to Octavius who stepped away from his work stations and towards the tentacles which he put onto his back. Almost instantly, they came to life, and like a well-trained puppy, the upper left one bent its head to take the test tube Octavius had held in his hand.

 

      “You know what you’re doing, Doc.”

 

While Jackson statement had not been phrased as a question, his intonation made it obvious that he had little trust into Octavius’ doings, but the scientist merely nodded and when he stepped closer, the assistants who had been working on the glowing light contraptions pushed some buttons and pulled several levers, causing the machine to power up, multiplying its energy output to such an extent that Bucky had to shield his eyes from the glazing light that was searing his retinas. Next to him, Peter groaned in pain, as the light flooded the room.

 

With everyone’s attention focused on Octavius, who stepped closer to the weird apparatus, Bucky used his vibranium hand to cover Peter’s eyes. He had to blink rapidly to see anything, but he could make out the outlines of Octavius and his tentacles. The latter were pushing the vial Octavius had held a minute ago into the light, while another mechanical snake grabbed the test tube inside the machine and joined the two liquids. Once they had been mixed, a single nod from Octavius was enough for his assistants to ramp up the output of the machine. A ball of golden light quietly exploded and enveloped them all for a second before the spectacle was over and the tentacles gingerly placed the test tube – now containing a blue-ish liquid – in Octavius' hands. Bucky removed the hand that had covered Peter’s eyes inconspicuously while the doctor hurried back to his work station without even removing the contraption from his back. 

 

      “Your verdict?” Jackson asked as Octavius dropped several drops of the new liquid onto the base containing Peter’s blood and immediately examined it underneath the microscope.

 

      “It was a success. We can start the next phase,” the doctor confirmed before taking a syringe and pulling up several millilitres of the drug he had just created.

Chapter Text

Michelle was clueless about how much time had passed since they had taken Peter. An hour could have gone by, maybe even a day. The slight headache she had felt earlier had turned into a throbbing pulse emanating from where her skull had made contact with the wall when their capturers had pushed her away. Once she had been alone again, she had carefully examined her head looking for any blood, but she had merely found the early stages of a bump underneath her thick locks which had now easily tripled in size. The longer she sat on the cold and damp ground, her body shivering in an attempt to keep warm, the more she became aware of the nausea spreading in her stomach. It could be a result of her steadily increasing hunger or an indicator of a concussion. Whatever caused it, she forced herself to stay awake because she could not afford any rest until Peter and she were safe. Who knew what their kidnappers might do if she let down her guard and fell asleep? But just because her head was pounding, and her stomach was clenching in painful waves did not mean she could not rest her eyes for a moment. Like two seconds max, right?

 

Yet, before the time limit she had set herself was over, the by now familiar sound of keys in the lock followed by the creaking sound of the door opening jolted her awake. For a moment Michelle hoped they would return Peter, but when she blinked against the blinding light from the corridor, she could merely make out a single figure. Its dark silhouette was smaller and slenderer than any of the guys she had seen so far.

 

      “Where’s Peter? What are you doing with him?”

 

To her surprise, the figure did not order her to shut up, but merely put a finger to their mouth and hushed her as they stepped into the room. Her previous kidnappers always left the door open, probably not worried about her attempting to escape because she had always been able to see the looming outlines of armed muscle masses guarding her prison bringing any flight attempt to naught. As Michelle’s eyes became accustomed to the light, she could, however, not see any guards, and whoever had just entered the room had left the door ajar.

 

      “Are you injured?” a female voice, deep and raspy in sound, asked her. The first female she had come across since she had been kidnapped.

 

      “What’s it to you?”, MJ spat and with a hand against the wall she pulled herself up on her feet. Whatever they had planned for her, she would not go down with a fight.

 

      “I’m here to help,” the woman responded, her voice sounding much closer than previously.

 

      “What do you take me for?” MJ retorted. While she hoped that the Avengers would hurry to get them out soon, the voice was unfamiliar, and this could very well be nothing but a trick to lure her into a false sense of security to have her cooperate.

 

      “We don’t have time for silly discussions. We need to get moving before someone finds us,” the voice urged her and a leather-clad hand touched Michelle’s bare arm, making her flinch backward as she expected to be manhandled again.

 

      “Who are you?” she demanded to know before asking much more quietly the one question she secretly hoped would receive a positive answer. “Are you an Avenger?”

 

      “Something like that,” the woman replied, and MJ thought she could hear a smile in her voice. “I’m here to help you.” The leather-clad hand on her arm gave her a gentle squeeze that was likely meant to reassure her.

 

      “Peter… We need to get Peter. They took him!”

 

      “I know. And we’ll get him, but we need to get you to safety first.”

 

When the woman placed a small pill in Michelle’s hand, she carefully examined it with her fingers. Even if the stranger reassured her that she was here to help her, her instincts told her to be cautious. Without being able to see much, she could have easily handed her a drug that would knock her out in minutes or worse, kill her. As if the other woman was able to read her thoughts, she explained that it was Iodine.

 

      “There’s radiation down here. Not so much where you’re currently at, but we don’t need to put you at any risk.”

 

       “What about Peter?”

 

       “His enhanced healing factor will protect him. Now be a good kid and swallow the pill.”

 

Michelle was tempted to retort that she was basically a grown-up woman, but she recognized that now was not the time for such petty semantics. As a result, she swallowed any sass with the Iodine pill, praying that she had not just fallen for her kidnapper’s fake kindness.

 

      “You’re familiar with the Iron Spider suit?”

 

      “What?”

 

Instead of an explanation, the woman pressed something against MJ’s wrist. It felt cool and was probably not bigger than a chunky bracelet. The other woman tapped it twice and almost instantly something warm and tingly started to spread from the device, enveloping her completely from head to toe. It was only when the familiar voice of Karen greeted her that Michelle realised that the warm and tingly feeling must have been the nanites spreading across her body, forming the last suit Tony Stark had made for Peter.

 

      “Hello Michelle. My internal sensors detect that your core temperature is 1.7 degrees below what is considered normal for a woman of your age,” Karen stated. “Activating suit’s internal heaters.” Almost instantly MJ began to feel warm air enveloping her body. “I also detect a minor concussion, several contusions, low blood sugar, and dehydration. You should seek medical advice when possible and get nourishment.”

 

      “I… Ho-Wha… What the…?” While MJ was familiar with both FRIDAY and Karen, she had never felt the need to satisfy the curiosity what it felt like to wear one of Peter’s suits – unlike Ned. Having the AI speak directly into her ear, seeing all the different sensor readings displayed by the HUD was a completely different experience than interacting with the artificial intelligence here and then to ask for the weather report or to order in some pizza.

 

      “You okay in there?” The woman sounded amused and when MJ looked in her direction, she could see her face for the first time – despite the fact that it was still almost completely pitch black in her prison with the exception of the small sheen of light coming from the barely opened door.

 

      “I can see you.”

 

      “Night vision,” the woman with the black hair pulled into a high ponytail shrugged while almost instantaneously a window popped up in MJ’s field of vision providing her with basic information on the stranger.

 

      “You’re S.H.I.E.L.D. Your Agent Mor.”

 

      “I see the AI is working. We really should get going.”

 

Mor grabbed Michelle’s hand and pulled her with her as she approached the door and carefully opened it a bit further to peak out and assess the situation.

 

      “You stay behind me and do what I tell you, am I clear?”

 

      “Yes.”

 

      “The suit is bulletproof, so you’ll be fine.”

 

It seemed like this was all the briefing Mor considered necessary, as she did not get into any further details, but merely took Michelle’s wrist and indicated to follow her out into the corridor. Outside of her prison, MJ saw two guards lying unconscious on the ground. Their guns were missing but judging by the number of weapons strapped to Agent Mor’s body, chances were she had snatched them the second the soldiers had hit the ground. Stepping around them, Michelle followed Mor who quietly hurried down the corridor, only stopping when they were crossing other hallways or when a sound was traveling in their direction.

 

Without any orientation or any knowledge of her whereabouts, MJ had to trust that the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent was indeed who she was and follow her blindly as she let her down several corridors before she opened a door that led into a stairwell and indicated to head downstairs.

 

      “Where are we going?” Michelle whispered out of fear voicing her question any louder would attract her kidnappers.

 

      “Safety,” Mor replied, while Karen regretfully informed her that the amount of lead in the walls rendered her sensors practically blind.

 

Once they had reached the bottom of the stairwell, Mor carefully opened the door to prevent any squeaking and poked her head around to ensure that the coast was clear for them to proceed. At first, she had found it a bit weird that the agent would often change direction seemingly out of the blue and it took her a few minutes to realise that she was dodging security cameras. The moment she had voiced that thought to Karen, the AI confirmed her suspicion and from that moment on, she highlighted every security camera they encountered as well as any blind spots.

 

After hurrying along another corridor that looked like just all the others they had passed in the last few minutes, Mor let her to another staircase which they followed to the bottom as well, before following even more corridors. Without any orientation whatsoever, MJ could only guesstimate how much distance they had covered, when Agent Mor suddenly dragged her into a small alcove, barely big enough to hide them both from the corridor.

 

      “Do you see that door over there?” she asked and pointed towards another metal door on the other side of the hallway, about 100 feet from their current position. Since it was more of a rhetorical question, MJ merely nodded and Mor continued. “That’s your way out. You’ll wait here and once Peter is with you that’s how you get out.”

 

      “Ok…”

 

      “You’ll wait here, stay hidden. Don’t come out unless it is Peter or me.”

 

      “Ok.”

 

      “You’ll be out of here soon. I promise.”

 

As MJ tried her best to become invisible in the alcove, she watched Agent Mor retrace her steps back to the stairwell and disappear from her vision, leaving her alone without any knowledge where she was or how long it would take for Peter to get to her.

 

      “I sure hope I did the right thing in trusting her,” Michelle muttered quietly and leaned her head against the wall behind her.

 

      “Trust is a propositional attitude, an abstract relation between an abstract self and an abstract meaning of the sentence,” Karen filled the void. “But if you were asking if it was the right thing to believe in the probability that Agent Mor will behave in a certain way that is favourable to both you and Peter, then I would say you were correct in putting your faith in her. Nova Mor, born in Shelbyville, Indiana in 1984, joined the Army in 2000 and did one tour in Afghanistan. She was honourably discharged in 2006 after she was injured on duty and saved the lives of six fellow soldiers. In 2007 she joined the CIA and was involved in at least ten black ops, information all classified. She has been a part of S.H.I.E.L.D. as of 2023.”

 

      “What you’re saying is that her track record makes her one of the good guys,” Michelle concluded. As she had followed Mor through wherever-she-currently was, she had picked up on the fact that the woman favoured her left side and that her right arm looked kind of funny. The kind of funny where a broken bone had not healed properly and ended up incapacitating you. Guess that must have been the reason why she was discharged…

 

      “Hey Karen…”

 

      “Yes, Michelle?”

 

      “There’s too much lead around us for you to know where Peter is, right?”

 

      “Unfortunately…”

 

MJ blamed it on the mild concussion that she thought the AI sounded both contrite and worried. She would have no other choice but to do as Agent Mor had told her and wait, hoping that Peter would be freed soon, and they could leave this place. Please be okay, Peter…

 

Naturally, everyone’s definition of ‘okay’ differed, but as Peter felt the drug Octavius had created and injected him with ran through his veins, he quickly decided that ‘okay’ was the last thing he felt right now. Scared and frightened would be much better contenders. And hot. Because he was feeling more and more like burning up – a sensation he had not had since that radioactive spider had bitten him on that field trip to Oscorp. And itchy. The irritated feeling emanating from his wrists had increased significantly since the injection and he longed for a good scratch.

 

      “His blood pressure is rising,” Octavius said to no one in particular as he monitored Peter’s vitals through various pieces of machinery, including an ECG and an EEG he had been hooked up to before the drug had been administered.

 

      “Is that good?” Jackson asked.

 

      “As long as it doesn’t spike drastically, yes.”

 

If he had not still been gagged, Peter would have loved to give them a piece of his mind, but as things were, he still had that terribly tasting piece of cloth in his mouth. Then again, he did not need any sort of medical equipment to know that his blood pressure was rising. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest as it tried to keep up with pumping all of his blood to third base.

 

Listening to Octavius and the American guy talking about Bucky like he was nothing more but a thing to be used and exploited had made him sick to his stomach. It had also given him a pretty good idea of what their plans for him might entail. He had prayed to be wrong, silently pleaded with Bucky to get them out before he could be injected with the drug, but he also understood that the super-soldier was waiting for the right moment to break him free and to retrieve MJ. And so the drug had been administered which had him sporting a raging boner now that tented his suit. In front of all of HYDRA. As far as embarrassing situations for an involuntary erection went, he felt like this would be difficult to top. Yet, regardless of how awkward the situation was, it did not help that no willpower what so ever managed to make his dick wilt – and he was already imagining the sex life of his aunt and Happy. As far as turn-offs went this was as far as Peter was willing to go. Besides, it was not like he had much concentration left to come up with any other imagery since his hindbrain was taking more and more over the longer the drug was circulating in his bloodstream.

 

Peter was no stranger to feeling horny – he was a teenage boy after all and it was not like he had not perused Mr Stark’s credit card in Germany to rent porn. No, he was pretty sure that horny was basically a semi-permanent state every pubescent teenager lived with. But whatever the drug was doing with him went far beyond your common horniness that could be relieved by a proper handjob or a decent make-out-session with your girlfriend. This was bordering on blind lust where he just longed for MJ and a good fuck to alleviate the painful pressure in his dick. Only the knowledge that he would likely lose all control over his powers and hurt Michelle if he gave into this burning desire, kept him somewhat sane.

 

As Peter fought his mental battle against the drug, Bucky carefully watched the teenager as he keened and writhed on the table. He strained against his shackles, his hips bucking uncontrollably as he was seeking some sort of friction and relief from the agonizing pain Bucky was only too familiar with. The cloth in his mouth swallowed most of his groans, but if you listened closely you could hear him beg for MJ.

 

Once it had been obvious what Octavius’ plan was, Bucky had prayed he could save the boy from the painful and degrading experience, but since he had to factor in Michelle, he had to exclude any rash decisions that would endanger her. While he and Peter would be able to fight their way out and take a couple of bullets when necessary due to their enhancements, the girl was plain human. Vulnerable. A single gunshot wound could easily kill her. Hence why he had to be sensible and wait for the right opportunity.

 

      “When can we proceed?” Jackson addressed Octavius as he leaned against the work table closest to Peter, obviously not really interested in the procedure but more in the outcome.

 

      “When we know for certain, he isn’t–“ Octavius was cut off midsentence when all power was suddenly shut off and chaos ensued.

Chapter Text

With Octavius busy yelling orders at his assistants as the contraption with the glowing light apparently needed to be constantly fed with high voltage and Jackson barking at his soldiers to investigate the cause of the power cut, no one paid any attention to Bucky and Peter.

 

The former sprang into action and reached for the shackles tying the teenager to the table with his vibranium arm. Since Peter had been unsuccessful to break free from them and they looked suspiciously like those HYDRA would use to restrain and control him, he assumed they were made from a similar adamantium alloy like his.

 

Careful to not hurt Peter, he sent a short burst of high current through the links – the weakest spots – connecting the boy to the table. It was one of the more recent upgrades his arm had received. A birthday present Shuri had called it.

 

Once the adamantium was hot enough, a proper yank was all it took to free him. Next, he did the same to the joint connecting Peter’s hand. While Shuri would still have to find a way to get him out of the shackles, he was at least free to move around and fight if necessary. Something he would have to do very soon because breaking the restraints had caused enough ruckus to draw attention to his doings. He quickly pulled the cloth out of Peter’s mouth and threw the Spider-Man mask in his direction before he charged headfirst at the first soldier advancing in their direction.

 

Stripped off his weapons he had to rely on brute strength and decades of skill. The sparse emergency lightning gave him an advantage as he could still see clearly thanks to his enhanced strength while the HYDRA goons were stumbling around half-blind. Unfortunately, it also meant stray bullets with unprecise trajectory as they simply shot several rounds without really looking, hoping that one or two might hit their target. Using his vibranium arm as a shield, he advanced towards the soldier closest to him and knocked the machine gun out of his hands, but not before feeling a bullet whizz past him and grace his right shoulder. It stung, but he preferred to focus the adrenalin that surged through him as a result to take out the first target. He was barely finished when more projectiles were fired in his direction, but before he could even turn his attention to the next soldier, the barrage of gunfire suddenly stopped and when he turned around he was webbed up in a cocoon with strands of spider silk connecting it to Peter’s wrists. Not his normal web-shooters which had been missing ever since Bucky had first seen him in the HYDRA base, but his actual wrists.

 

      “Is that stuff coming out of you?”, he couldn’t help but ask dumbly as he grabbed the gun and the key card from the soldier he had just knocked out. From the corner of his eyes, he noticed more movement behind him, and whoever had approached him to take him down made a painful acquaintance with the rifle rod before Bucky’s vibranium fist did the rest.

 

      “I… I…” Peter stared deliriously at his wrists where white, sticky stuff was still oozing out. Webbing up the guy who had come for Bucky had been pure instinct and in the heat of the moment, it had completely slipped his mind that he was without his web-shooters.

 

      “Come on, we gotta move!” Bucky had returned to his side and grabbed him underneath his arms to hoist him off the table and put him onto his feet, which instantly buckled because his body currently had other priorities than remaining upright. “Got’cha.” Given the four-inch height difference between them, Bucky had to bent slightly towards Peter as he wrapped the boy’s arm over his shoulders and held onto his waist with his flesh arm.

 

“You got your mask?” Bucky’s question was answered by some unintelligible mumbling and groaning, but eventually, Peter lifted his free hand holding the Spider-Man mask in between his fingers before he started fumbling putting it on. Meanwhile, Bucky maneuvered them towards the only exit, scanning the room for any more threats but Octavius was too focused on his other contraptions to really notice his little science experiment escaping, and Jackson was on the phone yelling at whoever was on the other line.

 

Leaning Peter against the wall next to the door, he fished the ID-card he had taken from the soldier from one of the pockets of his tac trousers and swiped it through the reading device. With the main power still down, he could have just as well used a piece of paper and got the same result. Pocketing the card, he placed his vibranium hand over the reader and let a small amount of current run into the small machine, but it still refused to cooperate, which was why Bucky referred to brute strength in the end and ripped the metal door out of its hinges. On the other side he was greeted by at least ten HYDRA soldiers armed to the teeth who immediately started firing at him. Cursing under his breath, he used the door as a momentary shield before he hurled it towards the soldiers, hitting several in the chest and the stomach, causing enough distraction that he could grab Peter and get them out of the lab without getting shot at. Considering the boy’s condition, Bucky figured it would be easiest to bring him as close to their escape door as possible before he went back for Michelle. It would be a lot quicker than dragging along an oversexed teenager the whole way.

 

One of the good things that came from Zola’s knock-off version of the super-soldier-serum was the eidetic memory it gifted Bucky with. Even without Shuri’s mask on, he perfectly recalled the layout of the base and could pinpoint his current position in relation to their escape route. With new bullets whizzing past them, Bucky basically dragged Peter in the direction where the staircase was supposed to be. If he were someone else, he might have said something every time the teenager’s hot breath ghosted over his neck when a groan escaped him because he had bumped into him again, inadvertently causing friction against his hard dick.

 

      “Fuck…”

 

      “Sorry, kid, not gonna happen,” Bucky retorted dryly and tightened his hold on Peter as he jumped over the banister and let them drop all the way to the lowest floor. “You can jerk off on the jet.”

 

      “Mhmm… MJ…”

 

      “Doubt that’s a good idea,” Bucky countered the teenager’s groan and pulled him out of the line of fire when several soldiers were shooting in their direction four floors above them.

 

      “… Yeah… no… I mean…” Stringing together complete sentences when your brain’s sole focus lay on sex was a difficult task. “Karen… she’s with MJ.” Peter finally managed to convey the information his AI had provided him with the moment he had put on his mask. Only to stutter an apology moments later when he realised that he had basically humping Bucky’s leg like a randy dog. He was fairly certain his face had turned a similar shade of red like his suit, even though he was clueless how his body had any blood left to make him blush furiously when every drop had obviously long pooled in his dick, making it painfully hard while his balls cramped rhythmically. Really, all he wanted was some release… he did not care how! Just…

 

      “Where is she?” Bucky inquired as he dragged him out into another corridor to another stairwell leading them to the lowest floor. With soldiers hot on their heels, he ignored the fact that Peter was pressing himself into his thigh. It was not like the teenager had much choice considering he was controlled by some super-Viagra that reduced its user to basic procreation instincts.

 

      “Somewhere… mhmm… downstairs. Hiding…” Peter finally managed to reply, although he was certain that most of his words had been drowned out by groans, when Bucky had pushed him behind himself, effectively shielding him from any potential bullets that could come their way, as he proceeded out into the hallway. “S.H.I.E.L.D. agent… helped her.”

 

      “S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Bucky repeated, frowning because Carter had definitely not mentioned that her agency had any covert operation running that would have placed any allies in this HYDRA base. Considering that they had several trigger-happy soldiers hot on their tail and he would not be surprised if more were on their merry way, Bucky did not linger on the information but hurried down the next hallway, relying on the map he had recalled in his mind.

 

They had not come far when the Iron Spider suit stepped out of a small alcove and for a moment the fact that there were two Spider-Man – Spider-Men? – confused Bucky, before he realised that Peter had said Karen was with Michelle. Quite literally as it seemed and apparently the agent who had helped her had also been the one who had given her the other Spider-suit. He would have to find out who had aided him when they were out of here and what their mission was. Right now, he had a horny spider to reign in, because Peter had practically leaped in the direction of his girlfriend the moment he had spotted her. Considering the big, wide eyes of the Iron Spider mask, she had also noticed Peter’s predicament.

 

      “What did they do to him?” she directed her question at Bucky since her boyfriend was busy burying his nose in the crook of her neck, despite the fact that millions if not billions of tiny nanites were covering her entire body. Full-on chastity cage, Bucky mused and pulled him off the girl by the nape of his neck, which got him a rather undignified whine that sounded a bit like his name.

 

      “Think super-Viagra for little spiders,” he replied and ignored Peter’s incoherent babbling that Michelle smelled so great and that he should scent her himself if he did not believe him.

 

      “Yeah, not gonna happen, pal,” Bucky sighed before he inquired if Karen was able to block out all air particles.

 

      “The Iron suit does, but not the one Peter’s wearing”, Michelle repeated the AI’s answer as she had instantly replied without even being prompted.

 

      “Well then…” Bucky took off his mask and pressed it against Peter’s face, the vibranium nanites instantly moulding to his face.

 

      “Wha’ that?”

 

      “New toy courtesy of Shuri. No more female hormones for you,” he replied although he had no idea what chemical signals the teenager could be reacting to because when he focused on the smells around them he noted nothing that would indicate that any fertile females were close by. Then again, without knowing exactly how the drug affected Peter’s system, he could just as well be susceptible to any female, whether she was ovulating or not.

 

      “Ok, then let’s keep moving. Did the other agent give you any orders?”

 

      “No, just that I should wait for Peter. I don’t know if Agent Mor is coming back…”

 

      “We’ve got to keep going…” Bucky replied. Considering that the other agent had taken Michelle close to the same exit he intended to take, they had enough intel to know that this was the safest way out. Since Carter had not mentioned any other S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel on-site, it was safe to assume that the agent had a completely different mission, probably even black-ops, and had risked their own safety to give the girl a way out. Without knowing their agenda, he could not wait around on the off-chance that they might come back for Michelle. They had to move because he could already hear the heavy boots of soldiers closing in on them.

 

That was the funny thing about any battle, any mission. Something that never failed to amaze Bucky. When you were fighting for survival, running for your life, time slowed down. Minutes dragged out like hours, allowing you to keep a clear head to make the most informed decision to get out of the situation alive. He had first noticed it, when he had to take on guys twice his size because Steve had started a brawl. When he had entered the YMCA welterweight boxing championship, it had secured him the title – three times in a row –, and during the war, it had saved his life several times and also assured that he never missed his target regardless how chaotic the battlefield around him was. As the feared Fist of HYDRA, it had ensured his survival of many a perilous mission that would have killed any other man.

 

Checking that the air was clear, he signalled the teenagers to follow him – or rather Michelle to follow him while he went back to supporting Peter’s weight, while also ensuring that he kept his distance from his girlfriend. It also meant that he was back to being dry-humped by a horny teenager. When he received a raised eyebrow from the Iron Spider mask, he shrugged it off and told Michelle not to worry about it, since Peter was completely drugged up and suffered a severe case of blue balls.

 

      “’m sure they’re red,” Peter mumbled, though most of his words were drowned out by a pained moan, when he had stumbled over his own feet and bumped against Bucky’s thighs, feeling not only his balls but his cock contract painfully. He was convinced he had never wanted to come so badly in his entire sexually active life.

 

      “Isn’t there anything we can do to help him?” MJ asked as she hurried along with the former assassin, constantly keeping a worried eye on her boyfriend.

 

      “Not exactly the time and the place for a quickie,” Bucky retorted and stopped in front of a locked door which required an ID card just like the entrance to the lab. With the main power still down, he doubted it would work. Just like the lab door, his vibranium arm was unable to overwrite the circuits, so it was back to brute strength. Once he had ushered the teenagers inside, he let his arm generate as much electricity as possible and used the ensuing heat to melt the door back into its frame. It would not hold out HYDRA forever, but it would hopefully buy them a minute or two.

 

      “Not a quickie,” Peter protested weakly and let Bucky sit him down on what looked like a large overground pipe. Except that sitting was even worse than standing or walking when your balls felt like they could be bursting any minute. “Had this plan–” He tried to get to his feet but would have just landed on his arse if MJ would not have grabbed a hold of him and steadied him– “Karen ‘n’ I did this big research what women consider romantic…” he babbled on and happily let his head rest on Michelle’s shoulder who merely sighed at the mention of plans because Peter was the type of boyfriend who would come up with these big, elaborate ideas only to have it all go south because some minute detail did not work out. Not that she expected any huge gestures or anything – she was happy as long as they got to spend time together.

 

      “’n’ I wanted to run my plans past you, ‘cause Cap’n Rogers America said you were popular wi’ the girls. ‘n’ I wanted to ask you for some tips… ‘cause the porn sites had nothing about super-strength… ‘n’ Tony’s… ‘n’ Cap’n Rogers America is so old now, it’d be weird… ‘n’ I don’ know if Professor Hulk’s much of a sex life… Do you think his dick is proportionate to the rest…? How would that ev’n fit…?”

 

While Peter babbled on deliriously, Bucky silently contemplated what was more distracting: the jarring mental cinema of Hulk’s sex life or the HYDRA soldiers trying to break into the room, while he was busy unlocking their exit. With the base being partially underwater, the lowest ground had two docking stations for small submarines. Shuri’s scan had shown that one was currently occupied by such a means of transportation, while the other docking port was free. It was however covered by a lid, which – judging how it upheld against his vibranium arm – was likely made of adamantium as well. With the base currently only running on emergency power, it was impossible to unlock. Well, impossible for a normal human being – or so Bucky at least hoped. He definitely would have to hurry, because HYDRA had stopped trying to shoot through the door and was now attempting to knock down the door.

 

Unfortunately, the adamantium made it impossible to short circuit the electronics, and the bolts holding the lid in place were impossible to tear off with raw strength. Luckily, he had managed to wiggle his fingers into a small gap, but no matter how hard he pushed, it barely moved at all.

 

      “Peter, you think you could lend a web or two?”

 

The question took a moment to register with the teenager and he did not only have a hard time tearing himself apart from his girlfriend but also remaining upright on his feet, yet eventually, he managed.

     

      “Wha’ d’you…?”

 

      “Can you attach some webs to the lid and pull while I push? Together we should be able to tear it off.”

 

      “Yeah…”

 

Almost instantly, two webs shot out of Peter’s wrists and attached themselves to the lid, while he was holding onto the other ends.

 

      “What the…?! Is that why your wrists were itching all the time?” Michelle asked flabbergasted as she stared at the silky strings that had just come out of her boyfriends’ arms. Definitely something she would have to contemplate when an outdated Nazi organisation was not trying to capture them.

 

      “On three,” Bucky ordered since they had other, more important things at hand than discussing Peter’s latest ability. Albeit the science nerd in him was curious why the natural spiderwebs had manifested now. Would he gain more spider-like powers the older he got? “One… two…”

 

      “Wait!” Michelle interrupted. “Karen did some weird things and says she can help. Or the suit can.”

 

Before Bucky had a chance to question what the AI had come up with, she must have already shared the plan with Peter because the eyes of his mask became big like saucers before he nodded enthusiastically.

 

      “MJ, grab onto me”, he told his girlfriend and Bucky hoped that was indeed the AI’s plan speaking and not the drug running through Peter’s system. He had his answer when Michelle held onto Peter and almost instantly the Iron Spider’s legs formed looking for leverage to pull both teenagers away from the lid. Bucky took that as his signal to push up and for the first time there was any real sign of the bolts giving way to the pressure.

 

Neither in his daily life in New York nor in Wakanda did Bucky ever feel the need to utilise the full strength of his enhanced body or of his vibranium arm. Most things were simply not made to withstand super-strength. Even obnoxious pickle jars were easier to open if he utilised only a small percentage of the power the knock-off serum had given him or else he would be picking up glass shards and pickles from the floor of Sam’s kitchen. He would dial it up a bit for fights, but for some reason, his partner always got a bit sour if he used his full strength and knocked out every opponent before he got even started. Yet, lifting the lid up required every ounce of power he had – from the thick muscles in his thighs and back to the power in both his flesh and vibranium arm. He had almost forgotten how good it felt to exhaust his body to this extend.  

 

And then everything happened at once…

 

Bucky could feel the bolts giving more and more way, before they suddenly popped off all at once, flying like bullets in all directions. One graced his right shoulder mere inches above the gunshot wound from a few minutes ago. While it had already started to heal, the bolt had aggravated the injury anew. Apart from the fact that it was plain painful and the muscle underneath his tac gear would definitely bruise, it had also caused the wound to reopen and he could feel fresh blood oozing out of it. He would have to deal with it once they were back on the Talon.

 

Another bolt had headed straight for Peter’s head, almost knocking the poor kid unconscious because he was too slow to move fully out of the way. Thankfully, Michelle was protected behind him and caught him as he went down, simultaneously avoiding the lid that came flying past her, the webs still attached to it and one side visibly dented where Bucky had gripped it to push. It ricocheted off the wall, back into the former assassin’s direction, as the door that had protected them from HYDRA gave way to their continuous assault, letting a whole infantry – ready to shoot at sight – into the room. Having the presence of mind to grab the lid and use it as a shield, Bucky charged at the soldiers while he yelled at the teenagers to get into the water and swim.

 

Peter was too out of it to show any proper reaction, but thankfully Michelle was quick-witted enough and grabbed his shoulders to drag him the few feet to the now open docking port. With the spider legs shielding her back, she stayed low to avoid any stray bullets, although most HYDRA soldiers had forgone their weapons in the close confines of the room when Bucky had attacked them.

 

      “What about you?!”

 

      “Go!!”

 

Michelle did as she was told and as the spider legs of her suit retracted, she dropped Peter into the water, before she followed him. Seconds before the cold water of the Atlantic closed over her head, a cattle prod connected with Bucky’s neck, making him scream in agony as high currents ran through his body.

Chapter Text

Shuri was usually not someone who stressed easily. She had spent too many years tinkering around with substances that could blow up her entire lab if she made one wrong move to worry about much. Yet, it felt like days since they had lost contact with Bucky and he had impersonated the Winter Soldier. Hearing him talk like the brainwashed assassin she had seen in his memories had been hard. Convincing the others who were supposed to be his friends that it was just an act and that he had not betrayed their trust for years to gather intel had hurt. Thankfully, when it had become obvious that he was helping Peter escape even the biggest sceptics had to admit their error in judgment – and if Shuri had gloated just a little bit, so sue her.

 

And then Bucky must have given the mask to Peter because they could no longer hear the once feared assassin talk but listen to the heavy breathing of the teenager mixed with groans and some nonsense babbling instead. They had heard Bucky mentioning something about a super-soldier Viagra, and having seen the man’s memories, Shuri had a pretty good idea what HYDRA had done to Peter. She was currently rummaging through a small container labelled ‘Puppy meds’ to see if she had anything on hand that was strong enough to lower the blood pressure of an enhanced person. Most of the drugs she had in there were still in a trial phase, but if the worst came to the worst and Bucky got injured she rather had something at hand that stood the slightest chance against his increased metabolism. Unfortunately, all of the drugs were either pain killers or narcotics and as far as her trials had shown, none of them caused hypotension as an undesirable side effect.

 

      “Something’s in the water!” Sam had been keeping a close eye on the scans, scratching his goatee nervously once in a while as he followed the movements of the two green dots. When they joined up with a lone yellow dot, they all hoped that that was Michelle, although none of them had any plausible explanation of why she would simply be waiting around for them. Should she not have been held prisoner?

 

      “One green dot and the yellow one,” Sam added as everyone hurried over to him trying to get a glimpse of the scan.

 

      “The other one?” Shuri asked as she hurried back into the cockpit to take the Talon Fighter out of its hovering position over the warehouse and out into the harbour. Seeing as both Pepper and Sam were already suiting up to go down and fish their people out of the water, she opened the jet to let them out.

 

      “Surrounded by a bunch of yellow ones, Princess”, Sam replied and put on his goggles, following Pepper out of the Talon and spreading his wings the moment he was free from the downwind of the jet’s turbines.

 

      “Sam, over there! Something’s about to break through the water!”

 

The former pararescue airman suppressed the urge to roll his eyes because ‘over there’ was anything but an accurate state of place even with Pepper pointing in the general direction. Instead, he followed her lead, assuming that FRIDAY had already caught sight of their people. They were just about to arrive at the spot when a hand enveloped in billions of nanites breached the water surface and instantly, both he and Pepper reached out to pull, wrenching two Spider-Men free from the cold claws of the Atlantic.

 

Once Sam was sure that the Rescue suit had a proper hold of the Iron Spider suit, which – judging by the size and body mass – had protected Michelle, he grabbed Peter. While Michelle instinctively clung to Pepper, the boy was cold to the touch and unresponsive. They all knew that his enhancements meant the teenager had difficulties to thermoregulate. Considering that his suit had been cut open several times, it had been unable to protect him from the cold water of the Atlantic. Michelle had likely pulled him to the surface or else he would have drowned.

 

      “Any sight of Bucky?” he asked and scanned the water surface for his partner, while he hovered mere feet above it, Peter secure in his arms, while his hands rubbed over whatever body part he could comfortably reach in an attempt to warm him up.

 

      “I– “ Whatever Shuri was about to say was drowned out by the sudden explosion that levelled not only the old warehouse but destroyed the underwater lair as well. It was like watching Riley fall from the sky all over again and only his instincts, honed through years in warzones, prevent him from getting caught in one of the large waves that had been built up by the explosion. Sam’s chest felt suddenly extremely tight, a feeling he remembered from the days, weeks, and months following his partner’s death, when he would wake up covered in cold sweat on the hardwood floor of the tiny apartment the VA had organised for him.

 

      “Shuri…” His voice sounded foreign. Broken. Small. “Bucky… Where’s…”

 

The comm-link was silent except for the occasional breath that sounded too harsh to be normal, mixed with a high-pitched sound similar to a suppressed whimper.

 

      “Sam, get up here”, Sharon’s voice cut through the silence. A bastion of calm in the raging numbness he felt as he hovered above the harbour’s troubled waters, staring in the direction of the warehouse. A large pillar of smoke in its place.

 

      “Where’s my partner?!” Bucky was stubborn as a mule. He survived the fall from the train in 1945. He survived everything HYDRA had put him through in the seventy years he had been a prisoner of war. He was too pig-headed to be killed by an explosion. At least that was what Sam was telling himself. It was just a matter of seconds before the idiot would breach the surface, laughing at him for worrying about him.

 

      “Sam…” Pepper hovered next to him, holding tightly onto Michelle. The golden faceplate was as emotionless as it had always been, but the Spider-Man mask covering the girl’s face looked shocked.

 

      “By Bast… I-I have him!” Sam could hear the tremble in Shuri’s voice, the tears she must have fought against when they all had thought him dead for a minute. He knew better than to call her out on it, instead, he simply asked where Bucky was. Pepper could easily carry Peter with the Rescue suit and take both teenagers up to the Talon Fighter while he got his partner back. After all, that was the unspoken vow between all members of a team: you looked out for each other and no one was left behind. And Bucky certainly did the former way too often on their missions, always jumping in front of Sam, taking blows and hits. As if he would not realise that the former assassin used his enhanced body as a literal shield to protect him when he had the vibranium equivalent right at hand.

 

      “He’s… I guess he’s in a submarine, with someone else. It’s heading east at high speed.” The HYDRA lair had had other exits they had had not been aware of, as three cars were quickly deserting the chaos that had broken loose in the harbour with police and firefighters on their way. Sharon was on the phone, coordinating with the local forces while calling in backup from her own agency.

 

      “Pepper, take Peter. I’m following them!”

 

      “Wilson, for all we know they’re taking him back to Russia. You can’t fly all the way to Russia!”

 

      “Director Carter’s right, Sam. You’ll crash before you reach the mainland.”

 

When Sam had initially encountered the Winter Soldier a decade ago, he had told Steve that the assassin was not the kind of person you could save. He was the kind of person you stopped. After the Winter Soldier had pulled Steve from the river, he had to concede that maybe – just maybe – there was still a soul behind those cold, emotionless eyes, worthy of rescuing.

 

Even from the sideline, Sam had to acknowledge Bucky’s strength and wilfulness to not only break HYDRA’s programming but to also seek out memories that were undoubtedly not only painful but also traumatic. What he had not been prepared to witness was that James Buchanan Barnes was likely indeed the most dangerous man to walk on Earth. Not because of his marksmanship or his past as the Fist of HYDRA, but his mere existence which brought out a darkness in Steve Sam had never thought could possibly exist in the righteous man history books primarily knew as Captain America.

 

Steve had willingly become a guinea pig to join Bucky in the war. He had infiltrated enemy territory without any backup at the mere chance that his best friend could be still alive and once he had watched him fall to his death, he had thrown his no-kill-policy overboard. To protect Bucky, Steve had not only willingly defied his own country but the United Nations and some of his closest allies in this century as well. Barnes was not dangerous because of his skill set but because of what Steve Rogers was willing to do for him. Funnily enough, the trained sniper was – in many ways – the exact opposite of America’s star-spangled man, balancing Rogers’ hot temper with his easy-going poise.

 

It had taken Sam a while to consolidate the cold-blooded assassin he had first encountered with the usually soft-spoken man whose heart was bigger than his super-soldier-serum jacked up muscles. Unlike Steve, Bucky did not seek out fights helter-skelter because he believed he could undo the wrongs of this world. Sam had seen in it in so many people who had returned from the war to know that Barnes was a man tired of fighting. Looking back at what he had eventually pieced together about the young man in the 1930s and ’40s, it was probably safe to say that Bucky had never wanted to fight to begin with. He had not enlisted like Steve, but he had been drafted. He had not fought Brooklyn’s bullies because he believed it was the right thing to do but to protect his best friend who did not know when to back out of a fight. Bucky’s sole motivation to suit up these days was not because he believed in the goodness of mankind but to protect the selected people he loved. He would take a blow or a bullet for Sam because his enhanced body would easily shake off the injury. He would cover Peter and Shuri on the battlefield because it was no place for children to begin with. He would hover near the boy and glower at anyone who would dare to speak to the grieving teenager because he had sensed how much the well-meant questioning of the other Avengers would upset him. He would allow HYDRA to recapture him if it meant that Peter and Michelle could escape their clasps and would be spared the torture he had been subjected to for seven decades.

 

While Sam had been wary of the former Winter Soldier and part of him might have blamed him for the raft and his life as a fugitive from his own government, he had discovered the man underneath the programming. A man strong enough to survive seventy years of torment and brainwashing to reclaim his life. Someone he had come to call both friend and partner – no matter how irritating, sassy, and snarky he could be. For this very reason, it was so goddamn difficult to return to the Talon Fighter with Peter – Pepper with Michelle right behind him – when every minute he was not on Bucky’s tale meant a minute longer he had to spend in the hands of his former handlers. But more than anyone else, Sam was also aware of his wings’ limits and he was no help to his partner if he dropped like a stone out of the sky somewhere above Europe.

 

He had barely had time to put Peter onto the ground and take off his goggles when Shuri was already talking a mile a minute with ideas on how to keep track of Bucky so they could retrieve him as soon as they had dropped off Peter and MJ at the Compound’s medbay. Tuning out the techno-babble, he focused on checking over the kid while also inquiring how Michelle was doing. Apart from a headache and some light bruises she assured them that she was fine and instead filled them in on Peter. The moment he had pulled off both the Spider-Man mask and Bucky’s latest gadget from his head, they could see the bump on his forehead where the bolt must have hit and knocked him unconscious. He was too cold to the touch and seeing how his suit was no longer in one piece, it had been unable to protect him from the cold Atlantic water. The swollen and inflamed bumps on his wrists were a completely different matter that Bruce could obsess about.

 

Through Bucky’s mask they had been able to get some sort of idea of what was going on in the HYDRA base, and they had been able to conclude that Peter had been injected with some sort of experimental drug. Something like a super-soldier Viagra Bucky had said. Whatever effects it had had on the boy, the hypothermia had undone them and only detailed examinations in the medbay would show if there were any lingering consequences and if both teenagers had absorbed any significant amount of Gamma radiation. As Shuri piloted the Talon Fighter towards the Compound in Upstate New York – even further away from Bucky – Sam could only ensure that Peter was stable and kept warm in the Mylar blanket they had wrapped him up.

 

Once the jet was back on autopilot, Shuri retrieved Peter’s mask and hooked it up to some futuristic-looking device Sam had never seen before, while Pepper sat with Michelle – both of them out of their suits – and Sharon questioned her on her kidnapping.

 

      “Hello, Shuri. How may I help you?” Karen’s voice suddenly resounded through the Talon Fighter.

 

      “I need access to EDITH, Karen.”

 

      “Establishing secure link with EDITH.”

 

      “How’s that…?” Pepper asked thunderstruck since she herself had locked away Tony’s sunglasses with the AI in a safe which only she knew the location of and could access.

 

      “Standby for retinal and biometric scan”, EDITH’s voice requested. “Access denied.”

 

      “EDITH, do you know who I am?”

 

      “You are Princess Shuri of Wakanda. You are a friend of Peter’s.”

 

      “I need access to your satellites. It’s a matter of life and death.” Still shaken from what happened in the past few minutes, Shuri’s voice wavered ever so slightly as she tried to convince the AI. Deep down she knew, she would be rejected, but EDITH was her only hope to keep track of her… of Bucky as he quickly moved out of sensor range.

 

      “Access denied.”

 

      “Come on, I don’t wanna hack you!”

 

      “That would be unwise.”

 

      “You can access my jet’s internal scanners. Peter is currently unconscious, or he would give you the order himself!” If she was yelling at the AI no one mentioned it.

 

      “Confirmed. Peter has sustained a mild concussion. His body temperature is 3.9° Fahrenheit below normal, his blood pressure is at 40/60, and his pulse is at 32bpm. I also detect an unknown drug in his bloodstream targeting his limbic system,” the AI’s monotonous voice started to rattle off almost instantly before she stopped and after a short pause asked with much more emotion in her voice who had done this to Peter.

 

      “HYDRA. That’s why I need access to your satellites,” Shuri replied and tried to regain her cool as best as she could.

 

      “Retinal and biometric scans not on file. Access denied.”

 

      “For Bast’s sake! You know who I am, EDITH!” Only to lose it moments later again.

 

      “You’re Princess Shuri of Wakanda. You are a friend of Peter’s.”

 

      “Now you’re just trolling me!” She threw her hands up in frustration.

 

      “Trolling. Noun. The act of trying to catch fish by pulling a baited line through the water behind a boat.”

 

      “How can EDITH be here?” Pepper spoke over the AI which was reciting multiple definitions for the word ‘trolling’, causing Shuri to groan in exasperation and look up at Stark Industries’ CEO as she stepped up to the console.

 

      “… After everything that’s happened… Peter didn’t trust that EDITH’d be safe in a safe”, Shuri replied, forcing herself to answer as calmly as possible. After all, it was not Pepper’s fault that her husband’s AI was so goddamn stubborn. “He downloaded her and linked her with Karen. The glasses you locked away are just… glasses.”

 

Whatever Shuri had expected for revealing Peter’s little secret, Pepper asking her why she needed to access EDITH while pinching the bridge of her nose and sighing exasperatedly was not it.

 

      “Because EDITH’s satellites can track Bucky no matter where on the globe he is. The Talon’s sensors will be out of reach in approximately four minutes.”

 

Instead of inquiring further, Pepper asked the AI to scan her, and almost instantly she was granted access, greeted by the familiar term ‘Mrs Boss’, an old term of endearment Tony had programmed into all of his artificial intelligences. Somewhere in the back, Sharon gasped in surprise, asking how this was possible, although it was a sentiment shared by everyone else as well.

 

      “If someone had informed me that Talos had given EDITH to a teenager, I could have told you that Tony has given me administrative access to all of his creations. If I had known that Beck had access to EDITH, I could have shut her down instantly and we could have avoided the whole London debacle.” To say Pepper had been livid when she had learned about what had happened during Peter’s trip to Europe would be the understatement of the year. Apart from the fact that the boy should have never got the glasses at such a young age, neither Fury nor Talos had the right to highjack the kid’s trip like they did, when all he wanted was a break from super-heroing. A well-deserved request in her books, considering everything that had happened as well as the fact that he had not even finished high school.

 

      “EDITH, I want you to do as Shuri asks”, Pepper returned her attention to the AI which had awaited further instructions while on standby.

 

      “Of course, Mrs Boss. How may I be of assistance, Princess Shuri?”

 

      “Hold on a sec, I’m just…” She had activated a holographic display with her kimoyo beads and her fingers were now rushing over the keyboard. “Ok. You should have access to the Talon’s sensors now.”

 

      “Confirmed.”

 

      “I’m tracking the location of a vibranium-aurum-signature. Lock onto it.”

 

      “Target locked. Do you want it eliminated?”

 

      “What?! No!! Just track it. You have access to my communications bead. I want updates every fifteen minutes. And the moment the signature stops moving for more than two minutes, I want to know that as well.”

 

      “Understood. Anything else?”

 

      “No… just… just keep an eye on Bucky, ok?”

Chapter Text

EDITH’s satellites lost Bucky’s signal somewhere between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. According to the AI something had suddenly blocked her scans, but without knowing the full capabilities of the augmented reality security, defence, and artificial tactical intelligence system, it was impossible to know if a dense material like lead was limiting the system or if HYDRA had anticipated their move and was now blocking EDITH. Shuri had turned to FRIDAY to get more information about Stark’s tactical intelligence system, but she had no files regarding the other AI on her server. Pepper had promised to look into it since Tony had several private servers that had been locked since his demise, but two days after Bucky’s capture, SI’s CEO had not found anything substantial either.

 

At least Michelle had been given a clean bill of health this morning and had been picked up by Sharon Carter to take her back to her grandmother. MJ would have preferred to stay with Peter, but after everything that had happened, it was understandable that her family was keen to have her back home. Carter had been staying at the Compound coordinating between S.H.I.E.L.D., the NYPD, and the Avengers, but had to return to the city for further investigations and had offered to give the teenager a lift.

 

While she had been at the Compound, Carter had looked into the agent who had not only helped MJ escape but had also given her the Iodine – which had definitely protected her against the radiation according to Professor Hulk. She knew of every undercover mission her agents were on, but she had no memory of authorising one to infiltrate HYDRA nor of Agent Nova Mor. As if that was not already strange enough, Peter’s AI Karen had positively identified Mor as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but the file she had on her was nowhere to be found on the agency’s servers.

 

      “She’s a ghost,” Sharon had informed Sam as she waited for any information of her contacts with the CIA and other foreign intelligence organisations. By the time she had left the Compound none of them had a positive identification for Nova Mor.

 

With Sharon back in New York, Shuri and Sam joined forces with Rhodey to find a way to track Bucky. The former had had to endure a rather long video chat with her brother and the Queen mother, both of them not very impressed by her following Ingcuka into battle while also expressing their worries about his wellbeing. T’Challa had been on his way to Maryland to meet with Everett Ross and had offered to stop by the Compound afterward and help with the search and rescue. For now, he would enlist Ross’ help to look into Agent Mor. If they had a lead on the ghost of an agent, they might find Bucky quicker than turning Siberia upside down. Let alone the fact that Russia’s relations with the U.S. had been close to non-existent since before the Snap and that the largest country of the world by area had never shown any interest in connecting with a small kingdom like Wakanda. Hence why they could not count on any official support from the Russian government and any rescue attempt would have to be a covert operation.

 

The moment Peter had regained consciousness, he had wanted to help with locating Bucky, but considering the fact that his body was not only fighting off a mild Gamma radiation, but also an unknown drug, while his powers were developing, Professor Hulk had put him on medical leave. While Peter had been allowed to leave medbay the previous night and had been able to return to his studio apartment, it had been highly recommended that he took it easy and allowed his body the necessary rest and calories to recover from his short time with HYDRA. He had had a stern talking-to from both his Aunt May and Pepper about proper self-care and responsible conduct when on a mission. Happy had looked like he wanted to give him a piece of his mind as well, but in the end, he had merely hugged the teenager tightly and quietly told him to stop giving him grey hairs and heart attacks. Basically confined to his bed, although he was not technically on bed rest, Peter’s mind had ample time and opportunity to come to the conclusion that Bucky had been the next victim of his Parker Luck. Or curse. He was starting to think it was a curse.

 

It did not help that he had a very good recollection of everything that had happened while HYDRA had held him captive. He could get over the fact that someone he had trusted had exploited his faith and used it against him, but he had a hard time coming to terms with that Michelle had been endangered because of him. Listening to HYDRA gossip about the Winter Soldier had given him enough stuff for terrible nightmares, imagining what they could have done to the both of them. And what Bucky had likely endured during those seven decades he had been with them.

 

Unfortunately, it did little for Peter’s self-esteem that he remembered pretty well how wanton and prurient he had felt under the influence of the drug and how he had longed for a release. It was not like he and Michelle had not made out occasionally and given each other fumbling handjobs. But there was a difference if he could not finish because May and Happy had returned home early and he was too scared to be caught in the act or if his system was flooded with a super-soldier version of Viagra. At least that was what everyone called it. Even with the drug out of his system – according to Professor Hulk – he still felt raw and on edge and it neither mixed well with his guilt over Bucky’s capture nor the knowledge that he could have assaulted and likely seriously injured MJ. A lot of his interaction with his girlfriend, while he had been under the influence, was a haze and he assumed it would likely be even worse if Bucky had not put the mask on him and blocked out everything he loved so much about Michelle’s scent. What Peter remembered quite clearly was the unrestrained want of burying himself deep inside her and claim her as his. Pin her against the next wall and fuck her and screw her until his desire was satisfied. This undiluted lust and need had scared him immensely and even two days later he had no idea how he had managed to hang on to enough sanity to not rape his girlfriend right in front of Bucky. The main reason he was still a virgin was – after all – because he feared he could lose control over his powers and seriously injure MJ when they had sex. With his senses gone haywire due to the drug, it would have been a given that he hurt her. And that was the last thing he ever wanted.

 

With Michelle gone, Shuri had made it her mission to check on Peter regularly, but as she was on her way up to his apartment that same afternoon, FRIDAY informed her that Sam requested her presence immediately. Knowing it had to be important, she asked the AI to tell Peter she would visit him later, before directing the elevator downwards and hurrying into one of the empty office spaces they had turned into their control centre.

 

      “What’s up?” she greeted both Wilson and Rhodey and looked curiously at a map of Russia projected over the table. Instead of a verbal reply, Sam merely gave her his phone, a message already opened, ready for her to read.

 

      “Got this a couple of minutes ago,” he explained as Shuri stared at the text from an unknown number which contained nothing but coordinates.

 

      “FRIDAY can’t trace the number. Probably a burner phone,” Rhodey supplied. “The coordinates are about thirty miles north of where EDITH lost Bucky.”

 

      “Maybe the agent who helped Michelle?” Shuri guessed and handed the phone back to Sam before she had another look at the map before nodding to herself and announcing that she would have the Talon ready in half an hour.

 

      “We can’t just head in there blindly,” Sam reigned in her enthusiasm. They had to scout the area and eliminate anything that would give away their approach. In addition, it would be wise to know how to enter and exit the HYDRA base easily and how many opponents they would face.

 

      “The longer we wait, the more time they have to…” Shuri did not have to finish for the other two men to know what she implied.

 

      “And Bucky will have to wait even longer if HYDRA gets wind of our rescue mission and takes him somewhere else,” Sam argued and dispirited the Princess had to agree with his logic. As much as she just wanted to barge into that HYDRA lair and free her best friend, she had to concede that a well-planned mission would be more successful than a hasty rescue attempt that would only endanger Bucky further. Nonetheless, she felt impatient and powerless, tiered of waiting when her knowledge of the super-soldier’s memories made it all too easy to imagine how HYDRA would punish him.

 

As Shuri pushed away her recollections of the manifold ways Bucky had been tortured over the course of seven decades and forced herself to listen to Sam and Rhodey’s discussion, the former Fist of HYDRA slowly regained consciousness in a cold and dimly lit room, strapped to a table. There were deep, purple bruises on the left side of his face, stretching from his temple down to his cheekbone. Dried blood was clinging to his earlobes from when his eardrums had burst. The top part of his uniform was missing, exposing angry red welts on his chest and colourful bruises along his rib cage. His arms were tightly secured to the table by large clamps that easily withstood his strength and had fractured his radius when he had attempted to break free.

 

It had been over a decade since Bucky regained consciousness and almost instantly wished he could lose it again. His head felt like it was splitting apart, the muscles in his jaw had been clenched for so long, it hurt to even open his mouth partially to wet his dry and split lips.

 

After the soldiers had knocked him out with the high voltage shock from a cattle prod, he had briefly regained consciousness when he had been dragged out of a submarine and into a small airplane. Something sharp had pierced his skin and moments later his world had gone black again before he had come to in the familiar surroundings of a Russian HYDRA base. The welcome he had received in New York had been downright cordial compared to how he had been greeted by his old handlers. Albeit ‘old handlers’ was a bit of an exaggeration.

 

The Winter Soldier had been on loan to Alexander Pierce since the early 2010s with the occasional visit to Mother Russia. Beforehand Karpov had been the Asset’s primary handler for many years, and once he had been out of the picture, there had been a few nameless faces before he had been handed over to the Americans.

 

The base Bucky had found himself in now, was under the command of a man in his fifties who everyone simply addressed as Vozhd. He was a lean and fit man with a face that seemed vaguely familiar, and eventually, Bucky remembered to have seen him around Karpov a few times. Apparently, he had risen through the ranks and was now one of the higher-ups within HYDRA. He had not been impressed by what had happened in New York and while Bucky had slowly regained full command of his mental faculties from the sedative they had administered earlier, he had been able to hear Jackson’s pleas and pained cries as he had been punished for his failure. It had been Bucky’s turn next.

 

With the red, leather-bound book containing all vital information on how to handle the Winter Soldier gone and no active chair close-by Vozhd had taken liberties. At first, he had debriefed him – or at least tried to, but unlike his interview with Jackson Bucky had remained tight-lipped and not answered a single question. Even when the cattle prod had returned to loosen his lips. All in all, he had had nothing to say, except for two words: “Fuck off!”

 

Contradicting one’s handlers was always met with the same punishment – silencing the Asset. It depended on who was in charge but gagging him until he threw up all over himself had always been a preferred method. One Vozhd was aware of as well. He had ordered three of his goons to take care of him. ‘To take care of the Asset’ had various connotations, including stuffing its mouth with dicks and to fuck its throat raw until it had lost its voice. Too bad the Asset remembered his past as James Buchanan Barnes again, because Bucky was less impressed by the punishment than the Winter Soldier and had bitten off the first dick that had been pushed into his mouth. It had been utterly disgusting but also somewhat satisfying. At least it had taught them not to underestimate the occlusal force of a serum-enhanced, pissed-off Bucky Barnes.

 

To avoid further penectomies, Vozhd’s goons had switched to waterboarding. Thanks to the serum Bucky could hold his breath significantly longer than the average human. Once his tormentors had realised their predicament, they had kicked him in the soft tissue of his belly to make him scream and breath in water, but the Asset had learned decades ago to endure pain quietly. Eventually, they had tired and brought back the cattle prod. Electricity and water were never a good idea. After several excruciating hours that could have very well been days, his tormentors had finally won, and Bucky had passed out.

 

He had woken to a crude recreation of the chair strapped onto his head and the moment he had regained consciousness, current after current assaulted his brain, his body, making him scream in agony as every nerve-ending in his body was firing at will, having his muscles convulse uncontrollably. Each time a new shock took hold of him, he prayed that Shuri and Sam had not given up on him and did not think him dead as Steve had almost eighty years ago.

 

The more electricity attacked his brain, the easier it became to confuse past and present. Stevie will come. I just have to… He came to Azzano, he will come… no… No. Wrong. Steve’s gone. He won’t come. Sam will. And Shuri. If we are still friends. But it’s dangerous. They can’t come. But Stevie will come. He’s all big and strong now.

 

As the fogginess from the latest electrocution was gradually lifting from his mind and he was painfully reminded how raw his nerves and how tired his muscles felt, Bucky became aware of the plastic straw that was gently pushed past his lips.

 

      “Drink,” a female voice quietly ordered him in Russian. He hesitated for a moment and tried to move his head in her direction, but it was too painful and so he ended up catching a mere glimpse of a black uniform from the corner of his eye. She must have realised what he was trying to do and moved into his field of vision while she continued to hold the bottle of water close to him so he just had to suck at the straw.

 

      “It’s water. With electrolytes,” she added when he made no move to drink.

 

      “’s new…” Bucky slurred in Russian and finally drew up some water which felt like a blessing in his dry mouth. Realising how dehydrated he was, he started to suck harder, but the straw was removed from his mouth far too soon.

 

      “Easy, Soldat,” she placated him and the hand not holding the bottle went to his flesh arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. Even through the haziness of a recent electrocution, Bucky could tell that this was not HYDRA’s standard protocol on dealing with the Winter Soldier. Were they employing fake kindness to break him? Whether it was real or not, it did not change the fact that his mouth felt like the Sahara Desert and water was barely out of reach. Maybe that’s their newest torture technique!

 

The female must have noticed his longing gaze towards the straw and brought it back to his lips, reminding him to take it slow or he could choke. As he pulled up some more water, Bucky let his eyes wander over the woman standing next to the table he had been strapped on. She was on the small side, but even through the thick layers of her uniform, it was obvious that she was lithe and well-trained. Long black hair was pulled into a high ponytail, and Bucky really had to be delirious to think that her green eyes looked kindly, on the verge of worried, down on him. After all, kindness and worry were no soft skills one would find among HYDRA.

 

Only now that his head was becoming clearer, did he realise that an intermittent tremor was running through the hand holding the water bottle for him. Upon closer inspection, he realised that there was a strange bend in her upper arm – as if it had been broken at one point but had never healed properly. Judging by the look she gave him, she had noticed his gaze and he quickly averted it again. She showed him enough compassion to bring him water, he did not want to jeopardize that.

 

After a few more minutes, Bucky had emptied the entire water bottle and he had never felt more tired in his whole life. He knew it was partially because his body was draining its resources to repair the damage he had sustained, but seriously… he felt like he had just fought against Thanos’ army. Again. The familiar feeling of his consciousness slipping from him enveloped his mind and it would be so easy to give in to it, but his training reminded him that his best chance at survival was to stay awake and alert. Not that his body was paying much attention to the caveat, because he could already feel blackness blanketing him once more. The soft fingers caressing his bruised cheek gently and the quiet voice telling him that help was on its way, must have been nothing but wishful thinking on his part. A safeguard mechanism of his mind to keep him fighting.

 

      “Don’t let them break you, Yasha…”

 

Paučók…

Chapter Text

Without any daylight, it was becoming more and more difficult for Bucky to tell how long he had been in captivity. A few days could have passed since HYDRA had captured him, but it might just as well have been weeks if not months. Living by the seasons in Wakanda’s countryside had made his inner clock quite reliable and he usually did not need his kimoyo beads to tell the time. With torture and experiments mixed with the occasional breathing spells in between, with no sun or stars, nor regular mealtimes, it was all too easy to get lost in the moment. Bucky had tried to track time by the moments of rest he was allowed, but as he blacked out more and more often, it was an unreliable method at best. For all he knew, months could have passed since New York and Shuri and Sam had given up on him. 

 

Free of HYDRA’s influence for a decade, he had started to forget how draining it was to fight against their constant assaults, both mentally as well as physically. His body could not even finish repairing the previous damage it had sustained before a whole new array of injuries was draining his resources. The grace wound he had sustained in New York was still scabbed over and burned whenever he had to move his arm. It was a silent witness to the exhaustion his body was battling to keep him alive.

 

Falling back on his military training, Bucky quietly kept repeating his name, rank, and number. It frequently intermixed with grounding techniques his therapists in Wakanda had taught him to handle panic attacks. Five things he could hear, four things he could see, three things he could touch, two things he could smell, and one thing he could taste. Nevertheless, his mind was slipping more and more often under the constant onslaught and an old, familiar voice he had not heard in a long time begged him to just let them forget. No! I fought too hard to regain my life to just throw it away now because you’re too weak!

 

      “HYDRA’s always won. They will win again. Resistance is futile.”

 

Bucky was too stubborn to give the voice any attention, after all, he had broken free of HYDRA’s programming before when he had… He wanted to think that it had been on the helicarrier when Steve had told him he was with him till the end of the line, but something in the back of his mind told him that that had not been the first time. But that was impossible because he had been with HYDRA for seven decades. Yet, the more often they fried his brain with electricity in an attempt to break and re-programme him, the more convinced he became that this notion was wrong. The Potomac was not the first time he had defected HYDRA. There had been another time. Another life. Cold. He remembered the freezing cold. Not from the cryo chamber but… Winter. Snow. Howling gales. Green eyes and red hair. Like the ones in his dreams.

 

      “Swallow.” The by now familiar voice of the female soldier pulled him from his thoughts and when he felt something press against his lips, he opened them automatically to take in the small sugar cube she was feeding him. He was still wearing the mouthguard to protect his teeth and tongue from the latest electrocution, so instead of chewing, he let the cube soak in spit for a moment before he swallowed it down.

 

As Bucky became more aware of his surroundings again, he realised that he was still in the makeshift new chair, held upright by the adamantium clamps that buried deep into his arms and legs. He remained uncertain about the woman’s allegiance, but he had understood by now that she was risking both their lives by taking care of him. There had been a close call before when she had given him water mixed with electrolytes and the scientists had returned early for another attempt at re-programming the Winter Soldier.

 

When he had been taken out of cryo in the past, the Asset had always received all necessary nutrients through an IV line. Only during longer missions had he been allowed to drink and eat bland, solid food. Since his recapture, HYDRA had starved and dehydrated him, likely in an attempt to bend his will, because they knew his body would drain its resources the longer the serum tried to repair any damage they inflicted upon him. The only food and nutrients he had been given since his recapture had been by the hands of the female agent.

 

He was clueless as to why she was doing it since compassion was not a trait one found among HYDRA, but so far, she had expected nothing in return from him. She rarely said more than curt orders to make him eat and drink, but when his consciousness was slipping in her presence, he thought he had heard her tell him that rescue was on its way. And he was fairly certain she had called him Yasha. The Russian diminutive for James. It should creep him out, but for some reason it felt vaguely familiar. Like there had been a time in his life when he had responded to Yasha as easily as to Bucky. The problem was he had no recollection whatsoever. 

 

While Bucky was struggling to keep track of time, Shuri knew exactly how long he had been in captivity. Three days after he had been recaptured by HYDRA, she flew the cloaked Talon with Sam and Rhodey as her passengers into Russian airspace. Without knowing to what extend HYDRA had infiltrated official channels, they had opted to stay under the radar and laid low in a safe house outside of Novosibirsk, curtesy of Everett Ross.

 

The day after, they took the jet to the coordinates Sam had received and began scouting and scanning the area. When they returned to their bolthole by nightfall, they had discovered the serpent’s lair: an old dam that looked like it had been out of use for at least three decades. On the inside, it was crawling with HYDRA personnel. Like the base in New York, this one was infused with lead as well, rendering Sam and Rhodey’s scanners useless. At least the Talon’s were advanced enough to penetrate the dam and localise the specific signature of Bucky’s vibranium arm. Returning to the safehouse and leaving him behind enemy lines had been one of the hardest things Shuri had ever done, but she had to refer to the expertise of the seasoned soldiers she was with. If they said it was more sensible to attack the next night after they had had time to rest and go over all the scans to cover all their bases, she had to trust their judgment, even if it meant to leave Bucky in HYDRA’s hands one more day.

 

One more day where they could undo the hard work of a decade in which Bucky had regained his life. One more day where they could re-programme him into a killing machine without a mind of his own. One more day where they could torture him and punish him for his defiance.

 

At night she lay awake, her mind instantly replaying all the creative ways HYDRA had tormented Bucky with over the decades the moment she closed her eyes. Unable to stare at the ceiling any longer, she got up from the cot she had been resting on and grabbed the black hoodie she had borrowed from Bucky’s duffle bag – still stored away in the Talon – to keep warm. She quietly headed to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea to calm her nerves and as she waited for the water to boil, she brought up the sleeves that were too long for her hands to her face and smelled Bucky’s familiar scent that still clung to them. He did not have much of a body odour, likely due to the serum, but there was always a subtle sweetness from the gentle soaps he used lingering on him. Lowering her hands again, she put her head back and closed her eyes upon exhaling, finding herself calling upon Bast. Shuri was a woman of science who believed in facts more than in the legends and myths of old times, but if there was a goddess who protected her tribe, she prayed she had it in her to offer her strength and guardianship to the White Wolf as well.

 

      “Trouble sleeping?” The soft whistling of the kettle mixed with heavy footsteps brought her back to the present with Rhodey’s quiet greeting and his warm smile.

 

      “It’s just… I keep imagining what they might do to him,” she explained as she poured herself a cup and another one for the retired Colonel who took it gratefully and settled down opposite of her in the little breakfast nook.

 

      “He means a lot to you…”

 

      “Of course! I mean I… he’s my best friend. He’s like a brother to me,” Shuri was quick to reply. Too quick Rhodey thought but did not comment on it. “I know a lot of people outside of Wakanda are wary of him because of his past, but if they would just look past that for a minute, they’d realise that he’s nothing like the Winter Soldier. He’s kind, he’s caring, he’s got the weirdest sense of humour, and he’s so full of wonder for this world…”

 

      “We’ll get him back,” the Colonel had promised and five days after Shuri had to watch helplessly as Bucky was taken by the same organisation who had turned him into one of the world’s most feared assassins, they were attacking the base to free their friend.  

 

Their reconnaissance mission the day earlier had shown that the dam was surrounded by a penetrable forcefield that would alert HYDRA the moment someone crossed the perimeter. Just like the day before, they used Falcon’s Redwing to scout ahead, but unlike the last time when the small drone had hidden in nearby trees to remain invisible, its sole purpose now was to attract attention. It did not take long for the first HYDRA soldiers to appear and investigate the intruder. The moment they were within reach Sam activated the two cannons situated on the front of the drone and took out the first opponents and these first few shots were all it took to lure an entire squadron of HYDRA soldiers out of their lair. Sam and Rhodey headed in, engaging the enemy with the support of Redwing who split into three parts. Two of them kept the soldiers busy while the third part flew into the dam searching for Bucky based on the scans of the Talon.

 

Sam and Rhodey followed the drone at a short distance, while the cloaked jet circled over the area taking out soldiers left and right while its sensors were locked onto the signature of Bucky’s vibranium arm. Shuri was generally no one who condoned unnecessary violence – unless it was to annoy and tease her brother – but the world would not miss a couple of HYDRA agents. Besides, the less there were of them, the better for Bucky.

 

With the ambush on the base, the serpent’s lair was in disarray, but its automatic defence mechanism was still working at peak efficiency keeping both Airmen on their toes while fighting off soldiers left and right the deeper they advanced into the base. The commotion had not reached the heart of the facility, yet, where Bucky was kept, but the first harbingers could be felt.

 

The scientists had rolled the table he had been strapped to for the past few days back into one of their labs and had examined his vibranium arm further. His old arm could be easily removed, but Shuri had designed this arm to be firmly attached to his body unless he gave a conscious nerve signal that would deactivate the locking mechanism. Alternatively, the arm could be opened below his elbow and a manual override code would achieve the same. Apart from the royal siblings and Bucky himself, no one knew about these features and only Shuri and T’Challa had the code that could detach his arm.

 

When they continued to be unsuccessful in opening the vibranium arm let alone remove it, Vozhd had yelled at them and told them to continue with the brainwashing. Apart from giving him a splitting headache and making all his nerves and muscles flair in agony, Bucky had fought it successfully so far. If he were not so terribly exhausted he would likely find it more curious that each electrocution brought forth new flashbacks he had – to this point – only seen during his nightmares. Red. Green. Fragments of a piano melody. Tulle brushing against his skin. Electrotherapy – HYDRA’s term for whitewashing their torture methods – usually scrambled Bucky’s brain to the point where he lost his memories. It had never triggered lost ones to return.

 

With the base under attack, all secondary energy was rerouted to efficiently protect the dam against any intruders. As a result, the power to the lab was cut mid-session, causing frustration among the scientists while the sudden decrease in pain left Bucky’s terrorised mind in a state of utter confusion, where flashbacks and reality bled into one another. He heard the commotion of people hurrying in and out of the laboratory, mixed with the noises of automatic defence systems firing at intruders as well as the familiar, sharp sound of the shield ricocheting off the walls. They overlapped with sharp Russian commands and frantic cries in English in the faraway distance of decades bygone.

 

A gun fired in close proximity to his head tore through his muddled mind and brought Bucky back to the present. For a moment, he had trouble determining if the gunshot was nothing but a fragment of buried memories or part of the here and now. He knew his answer when the familiar, dull sound of a body dropping to the ground reached his ears and when he turned his head in the respective direction, he could make out a body clad in a pristine lab coat on the ground. A red puddle was slowly forming around it, tinting the white cloth a bright red. Before Bucky could begin to wonder who had fired the shot, the by now familiar voice of the female agent informed him that his rescue commando had arrived.

 

      “A few more minutes, then you’ll be out of here,” she reassured him as she hurried to the lab door and barred it with the body of the unlucky scientist who had likely returned for Bucky.

 

Exhausted from the pain and the torture, he merely grunted in response and tiredly closed his eyes, only to sluggishly open them seconds later, when he heard her hurriedly moving around the lab. From underneath heavy lids, he watched her work on one of the computers and insert a USB-stick into the plug behind the monitor. He could make out the fuzzy details of digitised paper files on the screen which were now copied onto the small drive one by one.

 

      “W-who are you?” Bucky’s voice was rough and broken from screaming in agony when thousands of amperes had run through his body.

 

      “A ghost…” she replied after a pregnant pause and grabbed something from the table before she came to his side and started to undo the cuffs that strapped him to the table.

 

      “You’re very much alive… for a ghost,” he retorted without any heat and a relieved sigh escaped Bucky’s lips when the adamantium cuffs were no longer digging into his flesh.

 

Instead of deigning him with a reply, she returned to the computer and unplugged the USB-stick, quickly letting it disappear in her cleavage before she zipped up her uniform. A sly smile crossed her lips as she caught him staring. “See something you like, Soldat?” For some reason, the nickname combined with the Russian accent was vaguely familiar – and not because HYDRA had called him that.

 

      “Why are you stealing HYDRA files?”

 

      “It’s a good habit to back up your enemy’s hard drive,” she shrugged and dragged a chair over to a ventilation shaft. Stepping onto her makeshift ladder, Bucky watched her open the shaft and pull down a backpack. Hopping down, she left the chair in place and took her bag to the table, unzipping it on the way and pulling out something he could not quite see.

 

      “Why are you helping me?” he questioned further and as his mind became clearer again, he realised that she had to have been the agent who had helped Michelle as well. After all, it was rather unrealistic they would have inside help twice in a row. “You were helping Michelle in New York as well, weren’t you?”

 

Instead of getting a reply, Bucky watched her unpack something that looked very much like a bomb. His suspicion was confirmed when she activated it and ten red lights switched to green. While he did not know his exact location, he had seen bits and pieces of the base since his arrival and had concluded that it was a larger complex and was – just like New York – in close proximity to water. The walls looked thick and sturdy and one small bomb would hardly do any damage.

 

      “Good thing this isn’t the only one,” the agent replied cockily when Bucky accidentally voiced his thoughts out aloud. “There is a ten-minute countdown. Your friends will be here in less than three,” she informed him after taking out a phone from her back bag and swiping back and forth several times. “I suggest you don’t dawdle about.” Securing the bag on her back she walked back to the chair, but before she stepped onto it, she paused for a moment and reached for the gun in her left thigh holster.

 

      “In case someone other than your friends come in here.” She extended the grip of the weapon in his direction and once his vibranium fingers had wrapped around it, she let it go and was back at the chair, pulling herself up into the ventilation shaft. Bucky could hear her move above him for a few more moments, but then he was alone except for the dead scientist blocking the door and the bomb underneath the desk counting down.

 

Out of habit, he ensured the gun was secured before he pushed it into the right front pocket of his trousers. With his body sore and weakened, sitting up felt like an impossible task, and in the end, he just opted for rolling onto his side – so much easier – and let himself drop onto the cold ground. Every single sore muscle protested heavily against the sharp impact but drawing himself up on the table he had been strapped to for days, was so much easier than pulling himself into a sitting position. His legs felt stiff and he guessed it was partially due to their inactivity and the fact that he had been electrocuted at least three times each day – as far as he recalled. Everything was a bit hazy.

 

Bucky staggered to the computer the agent had used to download the files, and when he reached it, he realised that they were still open. With his metal hand holding onto the table in a gruesome grip that splintered the wood, he kept himself upright, as he quickly scrolled through the data. There were old files, a rather comprehensive collection of former experiments, but also new ones. Not thinking about it twice, he shifted his weight from his vibranium arm to his human one and watched with some fascination how the tip of his thumb turned into a USB plug. It had been Shuri’s present for his 102 birthday a few weeks ago and just like the detachment of his arm the feature was controlled by nerve signals. Definitely handier than a goddamn whisk.

 

Bucky had no idea yet what he would do with the files or why the agent had copied them, but he figured any information on HYDRA was better than none. Particularly in this day and age when the world was still recovering from Thanos and no one knew which governments and organisations had been infiltrated if not taken over by a terrorist organisation. Learning more about the files might also give him more information on Peter’s kidnapping as well as on the female and her own agenda. Little did he know that he would instead remember a period of his life as the Winter Soldier he hardly knew he had forgotten.

Chapter Text

If it had not been for Shuri’s surveillance scans from the previous days guiding Redwing now, Sam was convinced they would already be hopelessly lost in the maze that was the HYDRA base in the middle of nowhere in Russia. As expected they had experienced resistance, but the War Machine suit made quick work of them. Given the narrowness of the corridors, his wings were useless, and he relied primarily on his guns. While he had the Captain America shield with him, he did not want to rely solely on it. His technique had significantly improved since he had first started incorporating it into his fighting style, but every once in a while, the oversized frisbee still had a mind of its own and he rather did not want to chop off his own head because he miscalculated his toss and it bounced off the walls in a wrong angle. Nonetheless, he had to concede that the shield offered great protection against any bullets coming his way and he had found a new appreciation for Cap’s turtle-technique – not that Steve had ever called it that.

 

Making their way past countless HYDRA soldiers, unarmed scientists, and automatic defence systems that would appear out of nowhere and fire several rounds of ammunition in their direction, they gradually made their way into the belly of the beast, where they had localised Bucky’s life signal.

 

      “I’ll hold the perimeter, you get Barnes, and then we’re out of here,” Rhodey suggested as they rounded the last corner and Sam had to agree that it was their best plan of action. The suit was better equipped to hold off any approaching enemy, while Sam got his partner and ensured he was not in any immediate medical need.

 

Leaving Rhodey behind, he caught up to Redwing who had stopped in front of a closed double door. Through the frosted window panes he could see light but no outlines of anyone moving around. Checking the sensor readings on the small display on his arm once again, confirming that this was indeed Bucky’s location, he prayed that this meant HYDRA had left him behind on his own while they were fighting off the ambush. Opening the door, he felt considerable resistance and he had to push his entire body against it to make it shift. The moment he had managed to crack it opened and almost stepped into a pool of blood, he realised that someone had used a body as a doorstopper. A very Bucky-thing to do, Sam thought and stepped into the room but before he could so much as take note of the laboratory he had entered, the bang of a gunshot tore through the air and it was only thanks to his quick reflexes, honed in too many battles, that he managed to bring up the shield just in time to block the path of the bullet.

 

      “Wilson, you’re ok? I heard a shot,” Rhodey’s voice filtered through Sam’s earpiece and when no second shot came his way, he carefully peeked over the rim of the shield, his gaze focusing in on his partner – gun in his right hand, while his left one had a tight grip on a nearby desk to keep him upright.

 

      “Bucky?” He prayed he was not too late, and HYDRA had only needed five days to undo the hard work his partner had put in the last decade to regain his life. God, he looks terrible… Thanks to his years as a pararescue airman, his eyes instantly swept over the battered person in front of him, taking stock of any visible injuries that might require immediate attention. His face was bruised and there was dried blood on his ears and neck. Side-glancing at the table with the metal cuffs, he had a good idea what had likely caused the ugly cuts and abrasions on his right arms. He wagered a guess that Bucky’s legs likely looked similar considering the cuffs had managed to cut through the sturdy material of his partner’s trousers. Countless bruises on his chest, some fresh and open, others looking like a gruesome rainbow, told silent stories of abuse and torture and Sam was certain that Bucky’s back likely painted a similar gruesome picture.

 

      “… Sam?” He could count the instances he heard such utter exhaustion and relief in his partner’s voice. The gun fell out of his grip and landed on the concrete floor with a clutter. It seemed like the last strength that had kept him upright, left him the instant his fingers had lost their hold on the weapon, but before he could collapse, Sam was by his side and had a tight grasp on him, holding him upright.

 

      “I got you,” he reassured his partner quietly before informing Rhodey that he was okay and would be with him presently.

 

      “D-did I…” Sam’s muscles protested against the tight grip Bucky had on him, but his hands loosened almost instantly and were petting down whatever body part they could reach, obviously looking for any gunshot wound. “I wasn’t… I didn’t…”

 

      “You didn’t hit me,” he reassured him and slightly lifted the shield. “Turtle-technique remember?” When Bucky merely nodded, and relief washed over his face, Sam prompted him that they should better keep moving before HYDRA came for them.

 

      “’s a bomb… goes off in ‘bout five minutes.”

 

      “What the….?! Ok, all the more reason to get out of here!”

 

Tightening his grip on Bucky, he led them back to Rhodey, meanwhile informing both the Colonel and Shuri of what he had just learned.

 

      “You take point, I carry him,” Rhodey decided the moment they had joined his side again, and Sam gladly shifted his partner’s weight to the other airman, whose strength was significantly increased thanks to the suit. After all, Bucky was a good 250lbs of dense muscle mass – vibranium arm and internal reinforcement of his skeletal structure included, and while Sam had no trouble supporting and even carrying the weight for a short time, they were under pressure to evacuate the premises as quickly as possible.

 

      “I can walk,” Bucky protested weakly when War Machine lifted him bridal style.

 

      “Quit pulling my leg, Barnes,” Rhodey retorted dryly and merely tightened his grip on the super-soldier as he followed Falcon. While they had disabled all automatic defence mechanisms they had encountered on their way in, they still had to fight their way past a small army of HYDRA soldiers who were rather keen on keeping them, but particular Bucky, contained. Well aware of their quickly approaching deadline, Sam unfolded his wings as much as he could in the narrow hallways and inwardly cringed when the tips scraped against the walls. Nonetheless, being airborne allowed him not only greater possibilities to fight their opponents but also gave him a greater momentum to barrel them down with the shield. Steve had used his serum-enhanced strength for the same move, Sam had had to adapt it to fit his own fighting style.

 

The moment they exited the dam, he fully unfurled his wings and sored to the sky, taking out three soldiers who had fired at Rhodey and Bucky with machine guns, before the royal Talon Fighter moved over them and its plasma canons protected them as they flew up to enter the jet.

 

Once they were safely in the belly of the plane, it quickly gained altitude and became invisible once more as it headed west at maximum speed to clear the Russian airspace as quickly as possible.

 

      “Bucky!” Shuri had barely finished inputting the commands and activating the autopilot when she practically jumped out of her seat and hurried into the hold of the Talon to enveloped Bucky in a tight hug. Rhodey had just put him back on his feet and before his body could even decide if it was strong enough to carry his weight, he found himself in the arms of the Princess and he gladly used her to keep himself upright.

 

      “’m okay…” he tried to reassure her and put his head on her shoulder, feeling how the last bit of adrenalin combined with his serum enhanced strength drained out of him. “’m ‘k,” he repeated and without any fight or flight response keeping him alert any more, Bucky just felt tired. So tired. As if he had not slept in weeks. He could feel his body starting to shake with exhaustion and his knees buckling, refusing to carry his weight any longer.

 

      “I got you,” Shuri assured him as she slowly lowered him onto the ground, both Sam and Rhodey almost instantly at her side, with both men having divested themselves of their suits and weapons. Kneeling between Bucky’s legs, she held him upright as he had slumped into her, his arms wrapped uncomfortably tight around her waist – not that she could be bothered about such minuscule things at present.

 

      “He’s going into shock,” Sam muttered quietly, as he had crouched down next to them, calmly checking for his partner’s vitals.

 

      “There’s a compartment on the other side with a small snake on it…”

 

      “Got it!” Rhodey had instantly followed the Princess’ instructions and had looked for the section, finding it quickly. Various medical supplies were stored in numerous containers, which he simply pulled out and threw in Sam’s direction who caught them deftly.

 

      “You got a dog? There’s one labelled ‘Puppy meds’?” the Colonel asked as he retrieved a small box, but his question remained unanswered for a moment as Bucky, hovering somewhere on the brink of unconsciousness but fighting it stubbornly, inquired after Peter and Michelle.

 

      “They’re both save,” Sam reassured him as he rummaged through countless supplies.

 

      “That’s the good stuff. Super-soldier grade,” Shuri finally answered Rhodey and motioned for him to put down the box next to her. “The painkillers and anaesthetics in here are still at an experimental stage, but the fluids are safe for him,” she further explained to Sam who had taken to gently coaxing Bucky to lie down. Taking into consideration what had likely happened in the past few days and the fact that he was clinging to consciousness with the last thread of his strength, none of them wanted to do anything that might trigger unpleasant memories and cause a panic attack. A super-soldier out of control was dangerous under the best circumstances – confined in an airplane after days of torture it was basically a death sentence.

 

The moment his body had hit the ground he instinctively curled up into a tight ball, slurring Shuri’s name and searching for her uncoordinatedly with his vibranium hand. She had intended to scan him with her medical kimoyo bead to assess any internal damage, but instead, she grabbed his hand and let her thumb draw small circles over the back of the vibranium plates covering his hand.

 

      “I’m here. You’re safe, now,” she assured him in a hushed voice, slipping into her native tongue of Xhosa without even realising it. After all, it had been the language she had talked to Bucky almost daily when she had deprogrammed him and when anxiety attacks had gotten the better of him after waking him. His handlers had spoken in English, German, and Russian to him, but Xhosa was free of any negative connotations. Shifting her weight, without letting go of his hand, Shuri sat down next to Bucky’s left shoulder and reached up with her other arm to smooth down some of his hair. If he had not agreed to let her cut it short just a short while ago, it would probably be sticking up in all sorts of directions, mimicking an impressionistic version of a rat’s nest.

 

As Shuri was gently untangling the longer strands of Bucky’s hair, Sam was focused on placing a venous access, preferably without disturbing his partner. Nonetheless, it did not go unnoticed how the Princess had managed to calm the super-soldier with soft words – most of which he did not understand himself – and gentle touches. He was still shivering, but the subliminal tension in his body had left and he was no longer curled up in a tight ball.

 

When Sam turned around to grab a translucent bag of liquids from the container labelled “Puppy meds”, Rhodey caught his gaze and made a barely noticeable motion towards the Princess while raising an eyebrow. Sam’s reply was a quick shrug as he pulled his lips into a thin line of self-restraint. One did not need a bunch of doctorates to notice the closeness between Bucky and Shuri. Given his partner’s clueless reactions to his gentle teasing, Sam was pretty certain the poor guy had absolutely no idea about the rather obvious crush the Princess had been harbouring for him for months.

 

After the battle against Thanos and Steven returning to the past, there had been a new sense of closeness between them, although Sam was unsure if either of them had ever noticed it. He wanted to believe that both of them had simply sought out the other as a constant in this torn up world they had returned to. Then again, it was hard to ignore the constant little touches and quick gazes that lingered just a tad bit too long to be considered purely friendly; the gentle teasing or the private inside jokes that had them both giggling like maniacs. Sam had tried to be subtle about it, giving his friend a hint every once in a while, but after months he had concluded that subtlety was not Bucky’s strength. While one could easily point out the differences in age and class, he was primarily worried about the emotional wellbeing of both his partner and the Princess. She had become one of his closest friends and Sam would hate to see that trust and friendship ruined because of unrequited feelings.  

 

Returning his attention to the task at hand, he had a quick glance at the formula of the fluid in the bag and noted that it was basically a Ringer’s solution with added ATP and dextrose, yet at a concentration that would be considered poisonous for a normal human being. Double-checking with Shuri that these were indeed the right fluids, he then proceeded to connect the bag with the venous access port. As the liquids were always on room temperature, they were generally a couple of degrees below standard body temperature. In Sam’s experience, some people barely noticed the difference whereas others could clearly feel the variation in temperature, claiming their arm was freezing off. Judging by Bucky’s hiss and the little flinch when the solution hit his bloodstream, he belonged to the second category. Thankfully he did not put up any resistance, not that he looked like he had much strength left to put up any fight. In fact, it seemed more like the Princess’ hushed words were slowly convincing him to stop clinging to consciousness and to surrender to the healing powers of some proper rest instead.

 

The moment Shuri felt the vibranium hand slacken in her soft grip, she knew that Bucky was out cold. It was a little tell-tale sign that could give you a lot of information if you knew what to look for – to estimate whether the super-soldier was fast asleep or merely napping. Often times it was the latter.

 

      “Thank Bast…” she sighed quietly and carefully extracted her hand from Bucky’s to brush away a few braids that had come undone from the moon buns she had put them in a few days earlier. She really had more important things to worry about in the past few days than neat hairdos. With her hands free, she finally had the opportunity to give Bucky a thorough medical scan, because she needed to know how extensive the damage was HYDRA had inflicted on him – apart from the fact that they had apparently starved and dehydrated him over the course of the last five days, likely to break his will. Thankfully the scans did not show anything unexpected, but only a thorough examination in her lab in Wakanda would indicate if HYDRA had managed to undo all her work to give him his autonomy back. After all, she had seen too many of his memories to not know what the bruises on his temple and cheek implied.

 

Standing up and stretching her legs, she went over to the compartment where she always kept a couple of personal things. When she had picked up Bucky in Italy less than a fortnight ago, he had just thrown his duffle bag in with her things. As she was now rummaging through their belongings, she quickly found what she had been looking for and brought it back to where Bucky rested on the floor of the Talon, with Sam busying himself cleaning the wounds on his arm and chest, while Rhodey played nurse and quietly handed him whatever he was asking for.

 

      “What…?” Sam had looked up when Shuri had thrown something on the nearby bench. “Oh, good call.” She had retrieved two blankets which looked remarkably similar to the ones he had seen the Border Tribe use as literal shields, only now they were a messy pile. Picking up the first one, Shuri folded it in half before handing it to Rhodey who had understood her idea as well and spread it on the ground next to Bucky, before he and Sam rolled him onto it. Once Sam had finished cleaning all superficial wounds, so they could heal smoothly, Shuri spread the other blanket on top of the sleeping soldier.

 

With Bucky taken care of and sound asleep, there was little they could do at present for him except wait for his healing factor to take care of the injuries he had sustained. Her scans had shown numerous older injuries, partially healed which confirmed Shuri’s suspicion that HYDRA had held off any nutriment to break Bucky’s will by force. Returning to the cockpit she threw a quick glance at the displays in front of her, noting that they were just leaving Norwegian airspace heading towards Greenland. Not that anyone would have noticed their intrusion. A quick adjustment to cruise control and the Talon slowed down from supersonic speed to the more sedated speed passenger planes flew with. Since Bucky had no injuries that required immediate medical attention she rather gave him a few more hours of rest before he had to face the world again. From the back, she could hear Sam and Rhodey updating Director Carter quietly and Shuri sent a quick message to her brother, letting him know they had retrieved the White Wolf.

 

Settling into her seat for a long, quiet flight across the Northern Hemisphere Shuri closed her eyes for a short nap to catch up on all the sleep she had lost in the past five days out of worry for Bucky. The peacefulness did, however, not last long as a gasp and heavy breathing, followed by Sam’s reassuring words pulled her out of her lie-down.

 

Chapter Text

     “What’s…?” Jolted from her nap, Shuri bolted into the back of the jet to find Bucky awake and sitting up, knees drawn up and body leaning against them as he freed his mind from the reminiscent clutches of what had likely been a nightmare. Sam was crouching next to him, one hand squeezing his human arm, the other one rubbing soothing circles over his partners back as he quietly talked him through the 5-4-3-2-1-technique.

 

      “… Shuri,” he had replied absent-mindedly when Sam had asked him to name two things he can smell. “And… I need a shower.”

 

      “Yeah, you don’t exactly smell like a spring flower, bro.”

 

      “… S-sam…”

 

      “Hey there,” he greeted his partner given the obvious recognition and offered him one of his bright smiles. “Ok, last one: one thing you can taste.” He was met with silence and an ever-growing deeper frown on Bucky’s forehead before he eventually replied that he could not taste anything because his mouth felt like sandpaper.

 

Shuri was quick to retrieve an empty bottle and fill it with drinking water from the plane's freshwater tank. Instead of handing it directly to Bucky who had already made grabby hands for it, she reached for a small packet and emptied some powdery stuff into the bottle once she had torn it open.

 

      “Not that…” Bucky whined and let his hands drop only to pout in the general direction of Shuri. “… tastes terrible.”

 

      “And its full of proteins,” she countered as she shook the bottle before holding it out for Bucky to take, but he merely glared at her. Instead of giving in, she held his gaze and simply quirked an eyebrow, silently challenging him.

 

      “Fine,” he eventually conceded with a huff and took the bottle from her, unscrewing it. “Aren’t you s’pposed to be a genius? Why can’t you make this shit taste like pancakes?”

 

      “Because the world doesn’t revolve around pancakes, Barnes,” Sam chuckled and got up from the floor. If he had learned one thing about his partner in the year they had been working together and what historians had clearly missed in their recount of Captain America’s best friend was his fondness for pancakes. He could eat an entire stack of them – usually a full bottle of the premade mix – loaded with enough whipped cream and syrup to give everyone else caries and a heart attack, while he could still eat more.

 

      “It should,” Bucky argued and pulled a face when he tasted the protein shake. It was still as terrible as he remembered. Even HYDRA’s MREs could be considered haute cuisine compared to this starchy stuff. “The world would be a better place.”

 

More than familiar with his distaste for the super-soldier protein shakes, Shuri ignored his griping, after all, it meant he was fit enough to voice his discontent. She returned to the cabinet with their food supplies and pulled out a couple of Snicker bars from one of the boxes. From his memories she knew that he had loved them as a young man, but they had been rare treats which was why she always made sure she had some around for him now.

 

      “Here’s the deal,” she bartered with him and kneeled down next to him holding out her offering. “If you drink the entire protein shake, you get all four Snickers.” A grin spread across her lips when he grumbled something about blackmailing and that T’Challa had been right about her, but in the end, he conceded.

 

      “Washington would have been so much easier if we had known the Winter Soldier has a sweet tooth”, Sam sighed dramatically and flopped down next to Rhodey on the bench. The colonel had kept himself in the background, knowing that Bucky had a much closer relationship with both Sam and Shuri. Considering his past with HYDRA as well as his most recent recapture, he had had a gut feeling he would trust them the most to be near him. An instinct that had proven him right looking at their interactions since they had returned to the jet.

 

As he chucked down his protein shake, Bucky flipped off Sam with his metal hand only to hold it out to Shuri seconds later when he had finished the bottle to trade it in for his promised candy bars. He let himself fall back onto the blanket, pulling the other one over his chest and hiding his Snickers underneath it.

 

      “How long do I have to keep that?” He waved his right arm with the venous access in front of Shuri who had sat down next to him with her thigh pressing lightly against his own.

 

      “Till it’s through and then another one,” the Princess replied and had a quick look at the bag with the Ringer’s solution which Sam had attached to one of the hooks in the ceiling. Not exactly happy with the answer, Bucky unpacked his first Snickers and then shuffled his human hand underneath the blanket to keep it warm.

 

      “How do you feel?”

 

Turning his head in Sam’s direction, the former airman could practically see it in Bucky’s steel-blue eyes as he weighed his options before eventually settling on a grunted “Better.” Not exactly a lie but also not really the truth. He definitely felt a lot better than when Sam and Rhodey had retrieved him – truth be told, the entire rescue was a bit of a blur to him.

 

He remembered the female agent helping him, then there was Sam at one point, and he vaguely recalled Shuri talking to him in Xhosa. His strength was definitely returning – the only reason he put up with the infusion and the terrible protein shake – but his head was still pounding. Albeit a little less than before. His nerves and muscles no longer felt so raw that every movement was pure torture and a lesser man would have likely begged for his death days ago. What he did remember was the nightmare that had woken him. The same flashbacks he had had over the course of the past couple of weeks and which had intensified manifold during his caption. It was still impossible to make sense of them, but he felt like he was getting there. At present, it was like watching his past through a thick piece of glass that distorted his perception. When he had woken with a gasp ten minutes earlier, it was to a feeling of utter loss. He had lost something in the past, but he did not know what. Or who. Something – or someone – he had vowed to protect with his life and he had failed. If only he knew more…

 

      “… did they touch you?” Shuri’s carefully worded question in Xhosa brought Bucky back to the present and for an instant, he stared up at her not understanding her inquiry. Of course, HYDRA had touched him, otherwise, they would have never been able to capture him in the first place. Swallowing the last piece of his Snickers, understanding finally dawned on him and he quickly averted her gaze. She had seen his memories and occasionally they would touch upon it in their conversations, but for the most part, he preferred to steer as far away from the topic as possible – rape his therapist in Wakanda had labelled it. A young woman like her should be carefree about love and enjoy it in all its manifoldness instead of associating sex with the abysmal horrors mankind was capable of.

 

      “They tried…” he eventually replied in Xhosa staring at the ceiling of the Talon Fighter, before he remembered a conversation they had a while ago and a tired grin had his lips curl up as he lifted himself up onto his elbows. “Remember when you told me you’d bite off any guy’s dick if they ever forced you to do something you don’t like? Might have taken a page out of your book…”

 

The cackling laughter was not what Bucky had expected, but he huffed a snort as well as he laid back down onto the blanket. 

 

      “You did not?!”

 

      “Can’t say I’d recommend it. Tasted awful! Zero out of ten, if you ask me.”

 

As if to underline his statement, Bucky unpacked another Snickers and shoved about half of it into his mouth before he noticed Shuri’s gaze on him. Teasing her, he flashed his canines before taking a big bite from his candy bar.

 

      “By Bast, I can never watch you eat again!” Shuri guffawed in English and propped herself up on Bucky’s hip as she doubled over in laughter.

     

      “Ok, what are you two talking about?” Sam questioned, cocking his eyebrow.

 

      “He bit off a guy’s dick!”

 

      “Excuse me?!” If anyone would ever ask Rhodey, it had been a very manly and dignified squawk.

 

      “It’s not like he didn’t have it coming”, Bucky shrugged and shoved the other half of his Snickers into his mouth, offering Sam an indifferent shrug. While he did not ask any further questions, he had a feeling that there was more to it than anyone was currently willing to talk about. Instead of pressing the issue further, Sam ribbed his partner, something he gladly accepted and gave as good as he got. Eventually, they quieted down because as lively as Bucky had seemed for half an hour or so, his body was still recovering from five days of torture. Shuri had laid down across from him, using his hip as a pillow.

 

It had really been just a small test to evaluate the damage HYDRA might have done to his mental health. In the months after his deprogramming, Bucky had barely tolerated any human touch – even Steve’s hugs had caused him to flinch as if someone had just hit him. It had taken a long time to get to the point where she could just jump on him, even when he was snoozing on the sofa, and instead of defending himself instantly, he would merely quirk an eyebrow as if he was to ask if she really just did that. Relief had washed over Shuri, when Bucky had shown no reaction at all, merely asking her if she was comfortable.

 

      “Your hip bone is poking me.”

 

      “And your pighead is pressing into my gut.

 

In the end he had just grabbed her by the collar of the black hoodie she wore and dragged her up until she could rest her head on his chest. Upon closer inspection it turned out that the hoodie was actually one of his own but considering that back in the day his sisters had constantly burrowed his jumpers and worn them inside the house, he did not give it much thought. Instead, he merely curled up his metal arm underneath his head to use it as a pillow, while his flesh arm wrapped around Shuri who had spread out against him above the blankets he was lying on and was covered with. If he noticed the quick exchange of glances between Sam and Rhodey he ignored them because he could really care less if his partner was getting others in on his mad idea that there was anything but sibling love between him and Shuri. She was like a baby sister to him and she looked tired. So what if she sought out his closeness to rest for a while? Besides, he found her vicinity relaxing and felt himself drift in an out of sleep as the Talon Fighter brought them closer to wherever they were going. He guessed New York or Wakanda – he really hoped it was the latter.

 

As Bucky was resting, he felt Sam unhooking the IV bag at one point and reattaching another one, while he already drifted off to sleep again. It was not particularly deep, as part of him could still hear the hushed conversation between Rhodey and Sam, and sense Shuri shift against him every once in a while. His subconsciousness brought back those green eyes that had haunted him for weeks now, but the harder he tried to pull the memory free, the more it felt like his head was splitting apart. Quite literally. He groaned in pain and let go of the haunting ghost, only to feel Shuri’s hand brush over his chest, rubbing soft circles into his skin before she moved higher until her fingers pressed against the throbbing acupressure point at his temple. It helped a little and he instinctively leaned into the touch as his mind circled back to the past five days with HYDRA. He had learned little about the organisation’s goals, except that they had been infiltrated by someone unknown who had not only helped him and Michelle but had also bombed two bases and stolen files. Speaking of which…

     

      “Sh’…ri?” He rubbed over his eyes with his metal fingers in an attempt to wake up a bit more.

 

      “You’re head?” Shuri questioned and was instantly at his side, hovering over him. “Do you want painkillers?” Shaking his head slightly, Bucky inquired after an empty tablet instead. She usually had a few lying around.

 

      “Why’d you need a tablet?” Sam joined the conversation.

 

      “’cause I downloaded HYDRA files and it’s easier to go through them when they’re on a tablet or something like that…”

 

      “You downloaded HYDRA files?” Rhodey’s interest was piqued. After all, it was rare that they got their hands on any data concerning the terrorist organisation.

 

      “Backing up your enemy’s hard drive is always a good habit”, Bucky replied and sat up, pausing for a moment because the words he had just uttered sounded extremely familiar. Not only because the agent who had helped him had said something similar, but he was certain he had given the same advice to someone else before. He shook his head to rid himself of the thought, only to wince when his head protested against the sudden movement, but then grabbed the tablet Shuri had retrieved for him.

 

      “Besides… I figured we might find something in there regarding Peter. Or all the kids that turned into puddles.”

 

      “Good thinking,” Rhodey conceded.

 

      “Have you seen Doctor Octavius or the General while you were in Siberia?” Sam inquired.

           

      “No idea what happened to the Doctor. Jackson was the one who took me to Russia, probably to divert from his failure in New York. They interrogated him, but I never heard of him after that. There’s a good chance they got rid of him,” Bucky replied with an indifferent shrug and plugged his thumb into the tablet. Naturally, the action caught the attention of Sam who had never seen him do anything similar before, after all, it was a recent upgrade. Or a birthday present as Shuri had labelled it – despite the fact that he had told her several times he did not need anything for his birthday.

 

      “If you install a vibrator, he’ll be a hit with the ladies.”

 

      “Naah, Peter and I were more thinking along the lines of a whisk.”

 

      “I’m still in favour of that COP .357 Derringer.”

 

      “Not gonna happen.”

 

      “Or a flamethrower,” Bucky contemplated. “A flamethrower would be cool, too.”

 

      “Forget it.”

 

It was not that Shuri did not trust him with any weapons, but the vibranium arm was connected to and controlled through his central nervous system. As long as he was prone to nightmares and panic attacks she would not install anything harmful like guns or a flamethrower seeing as he might inadvertently activate them during an attack and accidentally harm someone. Allowing him access to the electromagnetic energy naturally running through the arm and giving him the ability to manipulate it to such a degree that it could potentially be used as a weapon had already been a gamble, as a high-voltage EMP shock would easily kill a human.  

 

      “The easiest thing is probably to have FRIDAY search and sort all the data you downloaded from HYDRA,” Rhodey tried to steer the conversation back to the matter at hand.

 

      “We can do that once we’re at the Compound,” Sam agreed, while he quietly contemplated if he should let Carter know about their bounty.

 

      “We’re heading towards New York?” Bucky looked up questioningly and disconnected his thumb from the tablet once several terabits of data had been transferred. “I thought we were going home…” He had mumbled the last sentence more to himself than addressing the others, as he stared down onto the screen. Truth be told, he could not recall if anyone had mentioned something about their destination, but he had simply assumed that they were going back to Wakanda. Trying not to dwell on it any longer, he turned his attention to the tablet and slowly started scrolling through the data he had collected. At first glance, it was a plethora of files on old projects dating back all the way to the Second World War, as well as newer missions.

 

Aware of Bucky’s inner turmoil when it came to defining ‘home’ Shuri let him brood over the tablet and collected the wrappers of his Snickers to throw them away before she returned to the cockpit. The system had quietly informed her a while ago that they had crossed into Canadian airspace and were making their descent onto New York.

 

Glancing over her shoulder every once in a while, Shuri saw Bucky hunched over the tablet, his brows furrowed in concentration while he worried his bottom lip. “We’ll be landing in a few minutes,” she informed everyone as the Compound appeared on the horizon in the distance and she could hear Sam quietly talking with Bucky as he removed the venous access from his right arm. She would do further scans once they had settled in, but until they arrived in Wakanda in a day or two he should be fine. Meanwhile, Rhodey had joined her in the co-pilot’s seat, a place she had found him in quite frequently over the past few days, either asking questions or simply observing her. Having never flown in a Talon Fighter, the Air Force Colonel was obviously giddy – though he tried his best to hide it – to learn more about the jet that was technologically years ahead of anything the US Air Force currently owned.

 

With the efficiency of soldiers, Sam and Rhodey gathered their belongings once they had touched down and Shuri had turned off the engines. As they exited the plane, they were greeted by Peter who instantly headed towards Bucky and practically barrelled into him, causing him to take a few steps back to keep his balance, while Sam – who had hovered nearby the entire time – kept a hand on his arm to support him if necessary. Bucky might be good at deflecting, but he had seen the short moment after getting to his feet when all colour had drained from his face and he had swayed on his feet looking like he might keel over any second.

 

      “I’m so sorry!”, Peter repeated several times, as he hugged the super-soldier tightly. When he had been refused to join the rescue mission since he was still recovering from his own kidnapping, he had been irritated and mad. It had been his fault that HYDRA had captured Bucky, at the very least he should be allowed to help him instead of being confined to the Compound. When he had asked to listen to their radio communication, he had been reminded that it was basically a black ops mission with radio silence. While his friends and family had tried to occupy him in the past few days as best as possible, his mind kept wandering to the rescue mission and the fact that the situation had only come about because he had not informed the others of his attempt to safe MJ.

 

      “It’s ok, shrimp,” Bucky reassured him and wrapped his flesh arm around Peter, hoping the teenager would not notice how he put his weight onto him to stay upright. He had downplayed his headache when Sam had asked him minutes earlier how he was feeling, and if it were not for his iron will, he would have likely lost consciousness the moment he had got to his feet. God, he hated it, when his body was so weakened! “I’m not mad.”

 

      “I thought my Parker Luck had got to you!”

 

      “Don’t worry, the serum makes me immune to that,” he huffed weakly.

 

      “I screwed up and you had to pay the price!”

 

      “Yeah, but next time you know better.”

 

      “I promise!”

 

      “That’s good enough for me…” He prayed the teenager was better at keeping such promises like a young Steve. How often had he vowed to stay away from bullies only to aggravate one mere days later?

 

      “You’re really not mad at me?”

 

Bucky sighed when Peter stepped back from him because it meant he had to carry his own weight again, but the teenager mistook it as exasperation. He was too tired to correct him and if it got him a few hours of respite from teenager exuberance he would go with it.

 

      “Listen –”, he said and tightened the grip he had on the tablet containing the HYDRA database– “if you wanna make it up to me, you can help me sort through several terabits of data I stole from HYDRA.”

 

      “You stole data from HYDRA?!”

 

      “I’m sure you and your AIs can come up with an efficient way to sort them and pull information from them.”

 

      “Yeah, sure, I can do that!!” Peter eagerly replied, his mind already planning out the most proficient course of action.

 

      “Good, I’ll send you the files after I had a shower.”

 

      “And you’ve eaten, and I took another scan of you,” Shuri added, having stayed in the background to this point.

 

      “What she said,” Bucky pointed in her direction, before he made his way into the Compound, Sam always by his side, while he could hear Peter and Shuri already speculating what they might find in the HYDRA files.

 

      “You do know you practically rewarded Spider-Boy for getting you kidnapped,” Sam asked once they had entered the elevator and told FRIDAY to take them to their apartments.

 

      “At least he’ll have something to do and won’t wallow in his mistakes,” Bucky shrugged and leaned against the glass boarding of the elevator, closing his eyes for a moment before he yawned loudly. What no one knew was that he had given Peter a little white lie to keep everyone else off his back. Before he handed over the data he had retrieved, he would look through it himself and delete anything he did not deem necessary for the others to know.

 

      “Take your shower and then lie down,” Sam ordered him gently. “The kids can wait a bit longer and I’ll cook us some proper lunch.”

 

      “Yeah… I might do that…” Bucky conceded quietly and opened his eyes again, rubbing with the back of his metal hand over them, when FRIDAY announced that they had reached their floor. Stepping off the elevator, Bucky turned left to follow the hallway to his apartment, but after a few steps, he paused and turned around, seeing Sam hover by the lift, likely waiting for him to get safely to his living quarters before he would head to his own.

 

      “Sam…? I…” Bucky stopped, trying to sort his thoughts so he could properly convey them in words. “Thank you for trusting me.”

 

      “You’re my partner,” Sam replied softly, offering him a warm smile. “Not gonna lie, I had my doubts for a second or two, but I’d like to think that I’ve gotten to know you fairly well since our first meeting.”

 

      “Thank you,” Bucky repeated quietly because when he had made the decision to fall back into the Winter Soldier persona, part of him had questioned whether the others would see through the ruse. He would have understood if they had doubted his loyalty and had not come for him. After all, he had been HYDRA’s favourite weapon for a much longer time than he had been part of their little community.

 

      “Buck…” He wanted to tell him – reassure him – that just because Steve had left them both behind and had chosen to live out his life in the past he would not do the same. Then again, Bucky had never acknowledged the strain that decision had taken on their friendship, even if he had given his assent. Instead, he acted like everything was peachy between them when Sam could tell he was avoiding Steve whenever possible. “Get some rest man, ok?”

 

      “… yeah. See you later.”

Chapter Text

Bucky had only skimmed through the files they had been able to retrieve from HYDRA during the journey back to the Compound, but now that he was left alone in the quietness of his apartment he sat down on his black leather sofa and started to read through the data on the tablet that had been in his possession the whole time. He appreciated the others’ interest in the data he had stolen, particularly in light of the recent kidnappings – Peter’s included – but deep down he bristled at the thought of parting with the files. Skimming through them he had taken note of things that seemed too personal to share with anyone else. As such it was a good thing that the data was completely in Russian – a language none of the others were fluent in. Peter would probably only need a minute or two to translate them with FRIDAY and Karen, but if he insisted on doing the translation himself he could weed out any information he did not want the other Avengers to have.  

 

Instead of starting at the top and working his way through, Bucky skipped through the massive amount of data until he came across a string of numbers HYDRA had used to identify him. He had never seen his own, complete file; only had bits and pieces of memories that had shown their ugly head at night time, combined with the information he had managed to gather after he had defected. While Shuri had seen his memories during the deprogramming, he sometimes considered it a blessing that some recollections were either so brutal that his brain suppressed them for his own protection, or that they had simply gotten scrambled or lost during one too many wiping. After the last five days with HYDRA, new flashes of memories had, however, resurfaced and he could not be certain if they were old ones or if they had tried to implant fake ones. One of their favourite methods to make you malleable.

 

Reading his file, seeing the full extent of HYDRA’s inhuman conditioning methods might be the only way to fully understand the glimpses of a past life he had started to remember.

 

Bucky knew the most reasonable thing would be to get a hot shower to get rid of the grim of the past five days and then go over the files with either Shuri or Sam, in case they triggered unpleasant memories or violent reactions. Yet, even without the HYDRA programming messing with his head, he was reluctant to share valuable information – even with his friends – that could be used against him. He knew it was an idle fear, but when everything, your whole identity, had been taken from you, getting glimpses of your past life was something deeply personal he did not want to share with anyone else. He had had no say in Shuri seeing his memories when she had deleted his programming, but now he was in control, and he got to decide what everyone else was privy to see.

 

Bucky had, however, barely finished reading his identification number – the only thing he had ever been to HYDRA, a nameless weapon with a number – when something else caught his eye. Having had no use for Cyrillic in the past couple of years, he figured it had gotten a bit rusty and he was only misreading the next information.

 

  • Sired subject 12016

 

He re-read the same bullet point four-times, but the Cyrillic never changed – neither did his interpretation. There was another human being that shared part of his genetic makeup. The only problem was he had no recollection of this whatsoever… Had they milked him like a breeding stallion when he had been unconscious once it had become clear that he would only kill the females they sent in on him after pumping him full of drugs? Rubbing his right temple with the knuckles of his right hand in the hope of sparking any memory, he tried to remember anything that might be related to him fathering a child. But no matter how hard he dug his knuckles into the side of his head, he came up empty-handed.

 

On second thought… scratch that! There was something. Red hair. Green eyes. The same ones that had been haunting his sleep for months. The same ones he had seen during his most recent ‘electroshock therapies’ with HYDRA. A mission. Almost two years undercover. That’s… new… The longest time the Winter Soldier had been able to escape HYDRA’s clutches and Bucky had gradually clawed his way back to the surface. Only… he was not called Bucky. “It’s a silly name.” She called him James. With the slightest hint of a Russian accent. And then she screamed his name. In panic. In terror. Jaaames!!!” Breathing heavily with his brain feeling like it was put through the wringer, he knew he was missing something.

 

“You could at least recognize me.” Why did his mind suddenly bring forth his encounter with the Black Widow in Berlin?

 

Frustrated because he knew he was missing something important, but for the life of him, he could not remember what, Bucky copied the identification number of his child and searched for it in the database. There was a kid with half his genetic makeup. The more often he repeated the fact, the more did the idea slowly sink in. He had a child and he had never known about it. HYDRA’s breeding programme had been successful, and he had fathered a child. With enhanced strength and senses like him if his handlers had been successful. An enhanced child that had been raised by terrorists to become the perfect weapon.

 

The urge to throw up suddenly became very real, but Bucky swallowed the bile he had tasted in his mouth when the tablet finally displayed his search result. His child. Including a grainy black and white picture that looked more alien than human because it had been removed from the safety of the mother’s womb far too early as a cursory read had revealed almost instantly.

Zima-file

 

Too much information was redacted for Bucky to grasp the bigger picture. All he could put together was that at one point a child with half his genetic makeup had existed and HYDRA had hoped it might be the next step in creating their own army of super soldiers. Why the foetus had been extracted from the mother’s womb far too early was beyond him, but it fit right in with Zola’s own experiments. The thought alone made Bucky sick to his stomach and it took all his will-power to not throw up here and there. Having been a guinea pig for HYDRA’s experimentations, he had a pretty good idea what they had likely had in mind: they wanted to be God-like and create an army of super-soldiers without any of the Winter Soldier’s flaws. Perfectly malleable killing machines who would blindly follow any order without the need of regular maintenance to ensure that his human side did not re-emerge. It was a frightening thought to imagine a world where HYDRA had been successful and ruled through the iron fist of mindless super soldiers.

 

Taking into consideration what had happened with Peter less than a week ago, the terror organisation had still not given up on the idea, but at least for now, it looked like their attempts were as unsuccessful as they had been during Bucky’s time. His child had died because of a genetic failure – whatever that meant. He should feel saddened, but in the end, he was relieved because that child had been spared a life as HYDRA’s puppet.

 

Nonetheless, there was an underlying need and curiosity to find out more about the tiny life he had helped create. Or rather his sperm had because no matter how hard he tried to recall anything that would imply his participation, his mind came up empty. The short file on his child – Was it a boy or a girl? – was not linked to any larger projects like the Winter Soldier Programme he had been part of, which in itself struck Bucky as odd. Yet, apart from his own file, the only other clue he had to learn more about his child was the identification number of the mother. Thankfully, even the old paper files had been digitized, so all he had to do was to highlight the ID and tell the tablet to search all data for any entry on the string of numbers. Yet, the last thing Bucky expected to see as his sole search result was the familiar face of Natasha Romanoff. An old, black-and-white photograph. Grainy and faded with age.

 

Red hair and green eyes flashed before his inner eye again.

 

Bucky’s interactions with Romanoff had been little. She would sometimes accompany Steve when he visited him in Wakanda, but she would usually keep to the background. Occasionally, when he glanced in her direction, he would see something akin to sadness flash over her face. An emotion that bewildered him, but he never had the nerve to ask her why. The two times they had been alone for a longer period of time had been awkward at best.  

 

What do you say to someone you had tried to kill multiple times? On second thought, why had he never succeeded in taking her out. Sure, she was a Widow, she was good. But the Winter Soldier had been HYDRA’s best assassin – so skilled that people doubted his very existence and he had become a ghost story. He could have shot her in the head or in the heart, instead, he had opted for her hip and her shoulder. It would have been child’s play to snap her neck in an instant, yet he choked her. It was almost like he had held back. Making it look like he was killing her but giving her a way out. Why?

 

Back in Wakanda, he had felt her eyes on him: studying him, assessing him – and he could not really fault her for doing so. After all, he had been doing the same. There had been a barrier between them that he had been unable to explain. He had thought it stemmed from the fact he had tried to kill her, but even after he stumbled through a stilted apology that he hoped had been heartfelt enough, things did not really improve between them. And then Thanos had happened and he had learned that Romanoff had sacrificed her life to give them a chance at defeating the Mad Titan.

 

Bucky continued to stare at the grainy image of Natalia Alianovna Romanova and could not help but notice that the quality of the picture was very reminiscent of the family pictures his parents had on the mantle of the fireplace in the living room. But according to his intel, Romanoff had been born in the eighties and photographic technology had advanced much further to produce such a low-quality image of the Widow.  

 

He wanted to tear his eyes from the grainy picture of the young woman staring cold and defiantly into the camera, but his gaze was glued to her. Tiny flashes of memories sparked up in his mind like small glimmers of a fire that had the potential to burn an entire forest.

 

The Black Widow. Trained in the Red Room by none other than the Winter Soldier. Not in the nineties, but shortly after the end of the Second World War. The Soldier draped over her petite frame in the woods with the wind howling through the treetops as he taught her how to make a kill shot on a living being at a mile distance with gusts of wind carrying her bullet in the wrong direction. Plump breasts pressing against the hard span of his naked back as she pinned him against the shower wall with icy water raining down on them. Her straddling him on the cold wooden flooring in one of the training rooms, both of them panting and gasping for air after they had fought each other for hours. The Soldier sneaking quietly into the girls’ dormitory at night under the pretext of teaching Natalia to be wide alert at any given time. After all, a mission could take place at any hour of the day. It was not even a blatant lie. Maybe a little white lie? She managed to sneak up on him in the shower, seduced him to throw him off his game before their next training. They never made love. Love was a foreign concept for both HYDRA and the Red Room. It was a weak sentiment for children. They fought – with and against each other. Trying to overpower the other, gaining the upper hand while getting the other to break the necessary silence. God, how he had wanted to groan in blissful pleasure when her teeth and nails dug into his skin, drawing blood from small wounds that would be healed over within minutes. How he had longed to hear her scream in pleasure as she came apart around him, but nothing – not even the tiniest mewl would leave her lips.

 

And then… too much was missing and trying to remember it only caused his brain to pound painfully within his skull. All he recalled was that they had escaped the clutches of their handlers for a while and his programming had started to break down. The Winter Soldier became James Buchanan Barnes again and while he had been disgusted by everything that had happened and that he had done since he had fallen from that blasted train, Natasha made him remember what it was like to feel human again. If it had not been for her grounding presence, he would have probably put a bullet in his brains for good.  

 

There was an old, dingy apartment in Bucharest where they had lived an almost normal life for the first time in years, free from any external influence that dictated their every move. Memories of Tasha curled up against his side with his arm draped over her shoulder returned with an agony that surpassed anything HYDRA had ever subjected him to. Like the touch of a ghost he could feel her soft hand holding onto his, her thumb caressing the cold metal as they listened to some programme on the radio.

 

It was funny how the mere idea of physical closeness revolted him these days – with the exception of a selected few people who were allowed to hug him – yet these glimpses of memories of what had once been merely caused longing for more.

 

They had been on their own for about two years before James became aware of HYDRA agents moving in on them. He had run through small back allies to get to the restaurant Tasha worked at, but they had been quicker not having to follow detours to avoid being seen. She was fighting them like they – like he – had taught her and he was quick to join her, but more than two dozen HYDRA soldiers were enough to gradually overpower the Black Widow and the Winter Soldier. At last he managed to draw most of the attention on himself, giving her an out.

 

      “RUN!!!”

 

Bucky’s head felt like it was splitting apart under the onslaught of long-forgotten – wiped – memories and with a clattering sound, the tablet fell to the ground. The memories were distorted, fragmented at best, but he remembered the coldness of a gun’s muzzle against his temple, Natasha’s screams drowning out the sound of a shot before the calamity of nothingness claimed him. When James had opened his eyes again, the Winter Soldier was back and every memory of ever meeting Natalia Alianovna Romanova had been eliminated.  

 

His fingers were clawing at his hair, at his eyes, anything he could get purchase at to stop the physical and mental pain. An agonizing scream was torn from his lungs and it felt like he was back in the chair, thousands of volts running through his brain, his entire body. He threw his entire body weight around to break free from the monsters that were holding him, torturing him, but it did not stop.

 

At the same time, two floors higher up, Sam had finished his shower and had sought out the communal kitchen area to cook them all – but Bucky in particular – a hearty meal. He was going through his Mama’s recipes he had memorized, but before he had the chance to settle on one, FRIDAY alerted him to Bucky’s distress.

 

      “Mr Wilson, your presence is urgently required in Mr Barnes quarters,” the AI informed him and added that his partner seemed in agony albeit she could not detect any injuries, while his vitals were more in line with a severe panic attack. Sam knew it was utterly ridiculous, but it almost sounded like the disembodied voice in the ceiling sounded worried as if a computer programme had any idea about emotional intelligence.

 

      “What happened?” he demanded to know as he ran out of the communal kitchen area and headed for the stairs, sliding down the banister to save time.

 

      “Mr Barnes was reading through several files on the tablet brought back from his captivity,” FRIDAY updated him, as he stumbled into his partner’s living quarters, coming to an abrupt halt at the scene that greeted him.

 

There was a Bucky-sized dent in the nearby wall, the sofa had been relocated to the dining area, taking down a bookcase that served as a room divider, while the coffee table had joined the TV stand. In the midst of all the chaos lay the former assassin curled up on the ground, clawing at his eyes and hair while inhuman sounds that pierced mark and bone left his bloody lips.

 

Sam was unsure if it came from a bit tongue or if it was from the blood running out of his eyes or the deep scratch marks along his temple. Carefully, he sidestepped the sorry remnants of the tablet that had once held the downloaded database of HYDRA and just hoped that Peter and Shuri could retrieve the files from the smashed hard drive.

 

      “Hey, Vanilla Ice. It’s me, Sam,” he softly addressed Bucky as he crouched down next to him. When he got no reaction out of him, he continued to speak to him in a quiet voice, telling him how he was going to touch him, before reaching out and wrapping his fingers gingerly around the other man’s hands and carefully pulled them away from his face. The moment he touched him, Bucky started to fight back without any recognition whatsoever in his bloody eyes.

 

Sam was fairly certain that the last time he had seen that wild, blank look in those pale eyes had been years ago when Steve had the brilliant idea to kidnap the Winter Soldier and try to get his best friend back. Unlike the last time when he fought HYDRA’s favourite pet-assassin, there was no power behind Bucky’s resistance. He could have easily pulled free of Sam’s hold and injured him gravely if not kill him – but when none of that happened, the former soldier let out a breath he did not know he had held, and gradually tightened his hold on the other man until he stopped struggling.

 

It was surprisingly easy, considering that the super-soldier could simply throw him into the next wall, leaving a Sam-sized dent, if he wanted to – even in a weakened state after days of torture. Holding Bucky’s hands in one of his own, he slowly slipped the other underneath the shaking body and carefully lifted him up enough so that he could lean against him as he sat down next to him and wrapped his arms protectively around him.

 

If anyone had asked Sam how much time had passed since FRIDAY had alerted him, he would have been unsure if it had been minutes or even hours. Sometime in between Shuri arrived in the apartment as well, sounding like she had just run a marathon.

 

      “What the fuck happened?”

 

Instead of a verbal reply, Sam merely shook his head and held onto his partner, rocking his body back and forth as those keening, inhuman sounds gradually faded into ugly sobs and Sam could feel the more liquidly consistency of tears instead of blood coating his naked torso.

 

The Princess crouched down next to him and gently took Bucky’s human hand into her own, as she quietly talked to him Xhosa. Sam had no idea what she was saying, probably just some soothing nonsense, and the only word he properly understood was “ingcuka”, the Wakandans name for the soldier. As the minutes ticked by, Sam could feel him finally quieting down, his body becoming heavier and heavier the more time passed and eventually, he was certain that he had fallen asleep – which was probably for the best.

     

      “Has he ever been like this when you treated him?” he asked Shuri, his voice barely above a whisper.

 

Still holding onto Bucky’s hand, fingernails painted red by his own blood, she shook her head, a pained expression flashing across her delicate features. “He’s had panic attacks,” she divulged. “But never rage like this…” she continued quietly as she took in the destruction around them. Considering she had not seen any recognition in his eyes when they calmed him it was a testimony to his underlying restraint that neither she nor Sam had been injured. He could have easily torn them apart, instead, he had allowed them to touch him, to hold him. It gave her a glimmer of hope that this was just a delayed reaction to the torture he had been subjected to for the past five days, but she also knew that only the technology back home would be able to tell her if HYDRA had caused any damage to Bucky’s battered brain.

 

      “What do we do now?”

 

      “I… I have to take him back to Wakanda. He’s been with HYDRA for several days. We don’t know what they might have done to him. If this was triggered solely by the files or if there’s something else…? I have to scan his brain, compare the scans to previous ones… see if they tried to re-programme him…” Sam noticed that Shuri was talking more to herself than him, almost like she was going through a list of things to ensure Bucky would be okay.

 

      “Okay.”

 

      “The faster I get him into my lab…”

 

      “Okay, so we leave asap.”

 

      “I have to ready the jet… And Bucky needs to be sedated. If he wakes up mid-flight and has another episode, he could easily take us down.”

 

      “Then you’ll do that, and I clean him up, grab him a couple of things and inform the others what’s going on.”

 

True to his word, Sam immediately took to washing away the blood from Bucky’s face and hands, noting that he had never made it to the shower he had talked about but had probably started going through the stolen files the moment he had entered his apartment. Idiot!

 

Next, Sam was looking for a bag of some sort, and quickly found an empty duffle bag in Bucky’s closet. There was still one in the Talon from his trip to Europe with Shuri, but Sam had no idea if it contained only laundry or also fresh clothes. He ended up throwing in a couple of sweatpants and t-shirts, as well as a few books he thought his partner might like. With the super-soldier still asleep, although it did not seem very restful, he collected all the pieces of the smashed tablet and bagged them before throwing it on top of Bucky’s other things. He had just finished, when Shuri returned to administer Bucky a sedative that was strong enough to knock out an elephant. While she tended to him, he quickly informed the others of the sudden change of plans, before he hurried and grabbed a few clothes for himself as well.

 

Not even half an hour had gone by after they had made the decision to take Bucky back to Wakanda prematurely when Sam carried his partner onto the Talon Fighter and secured him on the small cot in the back of the jet that was usually hidden away under the bench. The struggle on Shuri’s face was obvious as she made the decision to remove the vibranium arm and to secure Bucky’s remaining limbs to the cot.

 

      “You’re sure that’s gonna hold?”

 

      “Vibranium”, was her monosyllable reply before she moved into the cockpit to take them to Wakanda. Their little travel party had been joined by Peter who had been stricken to hear about Bucky’s turn for the worse. After all, an hour ago, the other man had let him hug him and reassured him that he did not blame him for his capture by his former handlers. He felt guilty because all of this was obviously his fault. None of that would have ever happened if he had not jumped the gun. Deep down he knew that there was nothing he could do to help Bucky right now – that was all down to Shuri. Yet, he did not want to sit around idly either, see the pitying looks of the grown-ups, listening to their reassurances that it was not his fault and that everything would be fine. He sent a quick text to May and Pepper before he threw his phone on the bed and grabbed the bag he had hastily packed in the last few minutes and hurried out of his apartment and to the Talon Fighter.

 

Mysterio had called him a failure, said that it had been his fault that Mr Stark had died. He was right, it had been his fault because if he had stayed next to Tony all the time, he could have taken the glove with the Infinity Stones and killed Thanos. His arm would have likely been in a similar condition like Professor Hulks but at least Morgan would still have her dad. If Peter were not locked up in a gulden cage in Upstate New York, he might have been able to prevent MJ’s kidnapping to begin with. He could have solved the case of these missing-teenagers-turned-into-puddles if Spider-Man was back home in New York and not wallowing in his misery miles and miles away from his neighbourhood. Maybe he could at least be of some help if he came with Bucky. Undo some of the mess he had got the super-soldier into.

Chapter Text

They had been in Wakanda for less than 24 hours when Shuri and the doctors who had been involved in Bucky’s initial rehabilitation concluded that HYDRA had been unsuccessful in re-programming the Winter Soldier.

 

      “Not for their lack of trying,” Doctor Zivai, a man in his late 50s, explained as Shuri took them through the most recent brain and memory scans they had taken from Bucky and compared them with the ones from two years ago – or seven if you took the Blip into consideration. “Based on the most recent tissue damage we see in Ingcuka’s brain, they have certainly tried to employ electroshock therapy again to make him susceptible to brainwashing,” he continued to explain and highlighted several areas in the scan to illustrate his words.

 

      “Tissue damage in the brain doesn’t sound good…” Sam pondered out loud and ignored the constant vibrating of the phone in his pocket. Last time he checked, he had at least a dozen missed calls from Steve and even more unread text messages. He should have probably texted him more than just “Winter Soldier might be back. Currently in Wakanda to make sure he doesn’t go cray-cray” once they had arrived in the Golden City.

 

      “His enhanced healing factor has already restored the majority of the affected areas. The damage we are currently witnessing is insignificant to the massive scar tissue he had when Captain Rogers initially brought him.”

 

      “I don’t understand…”

 

      “One of our main theories as to how HYDRA ‘programmed’ Ingcuka – for a lack of better word – is through extensive damage to the brain tissue. We suspect that the tissue damage led to retrograde amnesia, thus making him susceptible to brainwashing. Naturally, the serum would attempt to undo the damage thus bringing back the lost memories and his sense of self. Seeing as he had gone a decade without electroshock therapy, his body had enough time to undo all the damage HYDRA had done in the previous decades. This has – in all likelihood – prevented Ingcuka to become susceptible to HYDRA’s re-programming attempts in the past five days.”

 

      “So if we hadn’t found him when we had…” Sam started, not wanting to finish that thought.

 

      “Time was of the essence here. We know from Ingcuka that memories of his past life would resurface if the Winter Soldier had been out of cryosleep for a longer period of time and did not get any ‘maintenance’. Our working theory is that during these moments, the scaring could heal enough for his original memories to shine through again. Since his brain has basically been scar-tissue free this time around – and in combination with his healing factor – it would have taken HYDRA considerably longer to make him susceptible to any brainwashing.”

 

      “So he’s not going to go all killer-assassin on us when he wakes up?” Sam questioned just to be on the safe side.

 

      “No.”

 

      “Then what caused his behaviour back at the Compound?”

 

      “The Princess might be in a better position to explain this,” Doctor Zivai stated and took a step back, in order for Shuri to take his place. She looked like she had not slept at all last night.

 

      “Ok… Bucky”, she stumbled over her words as she swiped through various holographic projections before she found the image she had been looking for. It was a comparison between three memory scans: the first one was from 2017, when Shuri had deleted his programming; another from 2023, days after Thanos’ defeat; and the last one had been taken hours ago.

 

      “When I deleted the Winter Soldier programming from Bucky’s mind, I came across large patches of memories without memories. If that makes sense. Like an empty container. Something should be there, but it wasn’t. Whatever had been there once, had become too obscure to retrieve. Coincidentally these empty patches correlated with the areas with the deepest scarring. Whatever memories had been there once, HYDRA wanted to ensure Bucky would never recall them.”

 

      “Sick bastards…” Sam grumbled and received approbative nods from both the King and the Queen Mother who had silently listened to the findings so far.

 

      “The scan on the left was taken while I deprogrammed Bucky. All the white areas are memories without memories. They can be scanned for trigger words like normal memories, but they’re basically a video file without any image or audio. The scan in the middle was taken a couple of days after Captain Rogers’ returned to the past. We can see that the white areas have been reduced in size and some have turned grey, indicating that memories were slowly returning,” Shuri tried to explain in laymen’s terms. “Finally, the last scan was taken three hours ago and except for a couple of selected spots, all the white areas have turned grey, some even black.”

 

      “So, he’s remembering all the shit HYDRA wanted him to forget,” Sam summarized.

 

      “Exactly.”

 

      “And the reason he reacted so violently back at the Compound was that he started remembering all that stuff and not because he’s going cray-cray.”

 

      “That’s my best guess. Some of the new scar tissue correlates with the old white spots. FRIDAY said, he was reading the HYDRA files before she alerted us, so I would think that the healing process within those areas made them more susceptible to things that might trigger these particular memories. Basically like a cascade…”

 

      “But why did he react the way he did?”

 

      “Because of the things he’s starting to remember?” Shuri countered and turned off the holographic projections. “Look, I only had a quick glance at one memory to verify my theory, but… I thought the memories I had seen to this point were bad, but this new stuff…” She had only looked into one rather fragmented memory, where it appeared that Bucky had tried to protect someone only for HYDRA to shoot him in the head. Shuri was certain she had never been so quick to empty her stomach and had spent at least another 15 minutes over the toilet dry-heaving as she tried to pull herself together again, reminding herself over and over again that Bucky was lying sedated on the table and that he was perfectly alright. Well, as okay as he currently was. But definitely without a hole in his head. Naturally, the scientist and researcher in her had already started to marvel at the capacity of his healing factor to survive such a fatal shot unscathed.

 

In the end, they discussed Bucky’s situation for almost another hour, before the group gradually dissolved and T’Challa and Sam were heading towards his personal quarters where he had been put to rest, while the Queen Mother Ramonda was ensuring that both her daughter and Peter got something to eat before she ushered them to bed. They had agreed that Bucky would likely be more comfortable in his own rooms in the palace than in medbay, particularly given the nature of memories that were coming back to him. As long as he was no threat to both himself or anyone else he could recover there while one of them would stay with him to ground him should the returning recollections confuse him about his whereabouts.

 

T’Challa had offered to watch Bucky, while Sam was updating everyone back in the States. For now, his white brother was fast asleep, despite the fact that the sedative Shuri had given him for the flight had long been burnt off. They were speculating that his body had opted for sleep to allow the healing factor to fully kick in and after Peter had quietly chimed in that that was what his own body usually did after sustaining grave injuries, everyone was a little less worried about Bucky’s sleeping beauty slumber.

 

      “I’ll just be outside the door. Call me, if there’s any change in Elsa”, Sam told T’Challa before he left the suite and fished his phone out of the deep pockets of his sweatpants. Twenty-two missed calls and forty-five missed text messages from Steve. Five texts from Sharon, one missed call from Pepper, and two missed messages from Bruce and Rhodey each. He decided to forgo reading all the texts and instead simply hit the call button next to Steve’s name and it really should not have surprised him that his call was answered almost instantly.

 

      “Sam, what the hell is going on? Where’s Bucky? Why would the Winter Soldier be back?”

 

      “Calm your tits, old man. Elsa is doing ok, considering everything…”

 

      “Sam…!” If it was possible to sound extremely exasperated while being a complete worrywart, Steve was doing a very good impression of it.

 

      “It’s a long story,” Sam sighed and started with Michelle and Peter’s disappearance as that had been kept under wraps to protect both their privacies. It also meant that Steve was clueless about everything that had been going on in the past week. He felt like he was talking until he was blue in the face, but eventually, Steve was up to date, and Sam waited for his reaction. The former pilot almost expected him to yell at him for allowing Bucky to infiltrate a HYDRA base on his own, but instead, he was just greeted with silence.

 

      “Steve? You didn’t kick the bucket while I was talking, did you?”

 

      “No… no, Sam. I’m just… thinking.”

 

      “Thinking. Yeah, that’s great!” It meant he wasn’t shouted at for his partner’s stupidity and thick-headedness.

 

      “I-I’ll have to talk to Pepper… or Sharon. See if they can get me a plane.”

 

      “Why’d you need a plane?” Sam had a sense of foreboding. And he didn’t like it at all.

 

      “Because I’m not leaving my best friend alone in this!”

 

      “He isn’t alone, Steve,” he gently reminded him. “The entire royal family is here for him; Peter and I are here.”

 

      “He’s my best friend! I have to…”

 

      “Let me rephrase that question: do you think Bucky would want you here?” He absolutely hated where this conversation was heading. It was a topic Sam had tried to stay out of as it was between the two super-soldiers, but now he also had the duty to protect his partner and his friend’s wellbeing.

 

      “What’s that supposed to mean?” Steve questioned quick-tempered.

 

      “Just wondering if Bucky would currently want you here,” Sam sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.

 

      “Why wouldn’t he?”

 

      “Just an observation…”

 

      “Sam…!”

 

      “When have you ever seen him around when you came to the Compound outside of your scheduled visits. He’s hardly ever around, is he? Because he’s down in the lab and lets the kid do all sort of experiments on him just so he can pretend he’s busy. Or he’ll find a sudden excuse why he needs to go to Washington and stay in my house. Or why he needs to leave for Wakanda a couple of days early.”

 

Sam knew that after everything he had been through, Bucky liked to have a routine these days. When they were not in the middle of a mission, he was usually the first one up and would work out for an hour or two before Sam joined him for a run. Back home he would head straight for the shower and be a lot longer in the bathroom than was normal for the average guy. When he had asked him once what was taking him so long, he had shyly admitted that he enjoyed the sensation of running hot water. As a result, Sam had stopped teasing him about it, because he could appreciate how such a simple thing could mean the world to a tortured man like Bucky.

 

After breakfast, he usually disappeared downstairs either joining Bruce or Peter in one of the labs – because who knew that HYDRA’s favourite assassin was a little science geek at heart. Around 11am he would start cooking lunch and while someone would typically join him, he actually enjoyed the quietness of preparing food for all of them as it reminded him that he could actually do something useful with knives and not only utilize them to kill people.

 

After lunch, he was often found in his bedroom either reading in one of the many books he owned or writing in one of his journals. Afterward, he would go for another run – this time at a gruelling superhuman speed without Sam slowing him down. When he eventually returned he would head straight for the shooting range, still sweaty and shaking with exhaustion, to shoot several rounds with his favourite machine gun.

 

Nine out of ten times he tended to opt-out of the communal dinner and instead ate his way through several bags of chips, nachos, and popcorn while watching whatever series or movie Shuri or Peter had recommended to him. He tended to fall asleep on the uncomfortable sofa before waking from the first nightmare of the night. Bucky would then migrate to his bedroom and continue sleeping there before the next nightmare or two hit and he eventually gave up on sleep and the whole routine started anew. It would last for two to three days before he altered it and stuck to that routine for three to four days before he returned to his original one. They were the coping mechanisms of someone who longed for stability but at the same time feared being captured again.  

 

Aside from missions, any deviation from this rhythm was usually met with grumpiness and feet-dragging. Steve visiting outside of their usually scheduled days brought forth a whole new level of testiness and Sam had long stopped asking Bucky if he wanted to join him in visiting Steve as it was always met with the most abstruse excuses. It had taken him a while to piece together what was going on, but he was fairly certain that Bucky was not quite as happy with Steve’s decision to go back to Peggy as he liked everyone to believe.

 

      “You’re implying…?” Steve sounded tense. Like grinding-his teeth-and-furrowing-his-brows tense.

 

      “I know you two talked about you staying in the past –“ Bucky had told him about the conversation when Sam had tentatively asked him if he was okay with Steve handing the shield over to him. From his perspective it would have made much more sense to give it to someone with similar enhancements like Captain America himself, after all, the Falcon was just a normal soldier with combat experience and a pair of wings strapped to his back. There was nothing special about him.

 

      “Jesus, why does everyone think I’m so keen on lugging around an oversized frisbee? Listen, Sam… The shield… Captain America… history books got it wrong when they said that Captain America is a symbol of American values. It’s never been about that. It’s never been about being the biggest and the strongest and the fastest guy. It’s always been about being a good man. About standing up for what’s right, even when the whole world believes you’re wrong. It’s about protecting the weak not giving more power to the big players… All that… That’s you, Sam. Not me.”

 

      “Yeah, and I asked him to come with me, but he wanted to stay here. And he said it’s okay if I went,” Steve interrupted Sam hotly. The white hair and the wrinkles sometimes made it easy to forget that despite the age, he was still the same hot-headed guy who would seek out fights left and right even when his opponents were three times his size – at least that had been Bucky’s remark on more than one occasion.

 

      “You really think he would have told you to stay? He’s had no autonomy, no proper human interaction in over seventy years. Any interaction he’s had, any decision he had to make was characterized by complying with his orders to execute a mission. He’s still in the process of re-learning that he can make a decision based on selfish reasons and that he won’t be punished for it. I could call him in Wakanda a mere day after he had left New York and ask him to come back and he’d do it, even though he’d much rather stay with his silly goats.”

 

Sam knew this for a fact because he had had to call Bucky back for a sudden mission once or twice. And just to confirm his theory that he was not comfortable with declining requests for selfish reasons, he had made up a stupid excuse why the super-soldier had to come to Washington two days after leaving for Wakanda. When he had agreed, Sam had to quickly come up with something, so they ended up renovating his house – after all, it was so much easier when your helper had superhuman strength. After two days of having a moping super-soldier trailing along, but never calling out his bullshit because if Sam had really wanted to upgrade his house they could have done that when Bucky was back in the States, he had sent a very relieved looking Bucky back to Wakanda. Needless to say, he was quite convinced that HYDRA’s favourite assassin would have never told Steve to stay, even if it was what he had actually wanted.

 

      “He’s perfectly content when we see each other.”

 

      “Yeah, and he’s a trained assassin and spy. He probably hadn’t been as successful as he had if he could not fool people into believing anything he wanted them to.”

 

      “He would never…!”

 

      “Would he?” Sam questioned and sighed. “Look man, I’m not trying to keep you away, but keep in mind that you lived an entire life without him and he may have told you to do that, but that doesn’t mean that part of him doesn’t felt like you’ve left him behind. At least that’s what it looks like to me from the outside…”

 

      “Isn’t it all the more important that I am there for him then?” Steve questioned quietly, and Sam could practically see those blue, pleading puppy eye dogs staring down at him.

 

      “If I feel like he isn’t taking well to your presence under the current circumstances, I’mma kick you out, man.”

 

      “Of course,” Steve acquiesced and after a short, pregnant pause he started speaking again. “Why did you never say anything before, Sam?”

 

      “Because you are two serum-enhanced dudes and I’m just me. I didn’t wanna be caught in the middle when you two finally lost your shit.”

 

The two of them continued talking for a few more minutes before the call ended and Steve sorted out how to get to Wakanda as quickly as possible, while Sam called the remaining people on his list. Twenty minutes later, Pepper was informed that yes, Peter had indeed come with them and left his phone back in the Compound, so he would be unreachable for her and May. He grudgingly agreed to keep an eye on Spider-Boy and would make him call his aunt every once in a while. Pepper in turn had been quick to promise that she would reach out to Steve and let him know that he was welcome to use one of Stark Industries’ jets to get to Wakanda.

 

After Pepper, he had rung Rhodey who had been clever enough to put him on speaker, so Bruce could listen in and he did not have to make the same phone call twice, answering the same questions over and over again. Once everyone back home was put at ease, he was just about to put his phone away, when Steve texted him that he would be in Wakanda by morning. Great. He was so looking forward to that. Not.

 

      “Were you able to reassure everyone back home?” T’Challa greeted him when he returned to the room and looked up from the holographic papers projected by his kimoyo beads he had been going over.

 

      “Yeah…” Sam sighed and sat down in the other armchair opposite of Wakanda’s king, letting his gaze rest on Bucky’s sleeping form. As they had no idea of knowing how long his healing factor would keep him asleep, it had been decided to support his body’s efforts with the same super-soldier-electrolyte-drip Shuri had already given him on the Talon after his rescue. The poor guy had also received the Wakandan version of a good old UC and Sam had been more than happy that it had not been his penis the doctors had put through the wringer. Maybe it would teach Bucky not to do anything stupid in the near future. One could hope! “Steve will be here by morning.”

 

A look of surprise flashed over the King’s features and he closed the documents to give Sam his undivided attention. “Is that such a good idea?”

 

      “So I haven’t been the only one thinking that those two super-idiots were on rocky ground.”

 

      “If you mean: did I notice that I would barely ever see Captain Rogers when he was visiting Wakanda before the time heist because he and James were glued at the hip, whereas I am now basically his all-round entertainer? No, didn’t notice that at all.” Sam usually experienced the King as such a polite and collected person that it was easy to forget that he could be just as sarcastic as his little sister.

 

It was somewhat of a relief to Sam that, despite Bucky’s best efforts to downplay his hurt feelings, he had not been the only one to notice the rift between the friends and T’Challa agreed with him that they would have to keep Steven away if his presence would agitate Bucky. Until that decision had to be made, however, they had to wait for their friend to wake up first. For now, it seemed like a long night of holding vigil.

Chapter Text

Bucky was still fast asleep when Steve arrived in Birnin Zana and a warrior from the Dora Milaje escorted him to his best friend. It was late morning and while T’Challa had left to catch a few hours of sleep before several meetings, Sam had dozed off in the armchair, with Shuri and Peter sitting on pillows on the ground, the remnants of the tablet and countless tools lying between them as they quietly discussed how to proceed.

 

      “I was hoping the original copy was still in his arm, but nada”, the Princess sighed and stared at the hopeless tech-jigsaw in front of her.

 

      “His arm?”

 

      “Yeah, I hooked him up with quite a few gadgets for his birthday, including the ability to connect to any hard drive and to manipulate its content.” It had been one of the simpler things she had added because if she was giving Bucky’s arm a few upgrades you could bet she would make it as cool and handy as ever. “He must have deleted it the moment he downloaded it onto the tablet.”

 

      “Which means all data is lost unless we manage to repair the tablet.”

 

      “Yeah…” Shuri sighed heavily before turning her head towards the sleeping person on the bed. “I love you, but sometimes you really are a stupid white boy!”

 

Any comment on Peter’s tongue was stopped by a soft knock on the door before a member of the Dora Milaje entered and announced the arrival of Captain Rogers. As usual, Shuri was not a stickler for protocol and simply jumped up to greet the super-soldier with a hug. It was a stark contrast to the little fury that had shown up on Steve’s porch shortly after New Year’s Day. While he had been taken aback initially, he was grateful that Bucky had people aside from him who would stick up and fight for him.

 

      “Steve, I didn’t know you’re already here!” Shuri welcomed him and dismissed the guard with a nod and a quick crossing of her arms. “I would have welcomed you personally.”

 

      “It’s okay, Princess”, he replied and was reprimanded to just call her by her first name as he acknowledged Peter.

 

      “Captain Rogers”, the boy greeted him and was quick to get up to shake his hand.

 

      “Steve, please.” He had no idea how the other Avengers had gotten the kid to call them by their first names, but Steve still had to remind him every time they met to drop the formalities. Shuri called it payback for him using her proper title, as he inquired how Peter was holding up, but as usual, he merely waved it off. It was an avoidance tactic he had become quite familiar with since Tony’s death.

 

      “Haven’t they shown you your room, yet?” Shuri steered the conversation back to safer grounds.

 

      “I wanted to see how Buck’s doing first.”

 

      “Fast asleep. But I guess that’s a good thing – given the circumstances.”

 

Putting down the duffle bag he was carrying, Steve stepped up to the bed his best friend was resting on and had to do a double-take when he saw the short hair. For a moment he was back in that small apartment they had shared before the war, watching Bucky spend hours to get ready for a night at the city’s dance halls only for him to return in the early hours of the morning, smelling like cheap cigarettes, whiskey, and some sweet perfume, and to sleep till noon.

 

      “He cut his hair…”

 

      “Yeah, he asked for a change a few weeks ago.”

 

      “He looks exactly like back then…”

 

      “That’s exactly what I was going for!!” Shuri exclaimed excitedly, her loud voice instantly waking Sam while Bucky showed no reaction whatsoever. Ignoring the grumbling of the former pilot, the Princess went on to ramble about how she was going for the original triple-S-look.

 

      “Triple-S-look?”

 

      “Sexy-smouldering-soldier-look.”

 

      “Sounds about right,” Steve chuckled.

 

      “See, that’s what I keep telling him!!”

 

Eventually, the conversation died down and around noon the Queen Mother Ramonda collected both her daughter and Peter for lunch. Sam followed them, having had only a protein bar for breakfast. Steve declined the invitation and offered to stay behind with Bucky, promising to call for them should he show any signs of waking up. Besides he had not felt much appetite for anything after the phone call with Sam the previous day.

 

After Pepper had reassured him that the SI jet would be ready for him as soon as possible and that a driver would pick him up, he had had a lot of time to reflect on the things Sam had said and he had ended up going over every meeting he and Bucky had had since he had returned from his last mission as an old man. He did not regret his selfishness, but he wondered if he should have talked more about his reasons with his best friend. The truth was, he had never contemplated it because he had always thought that they would return to their original time together – just like they had always done everything together. Steve understood why he had wanted to remain in the present, but he had never imagined that Bucky would begrudge him his decision. Yet, looking back at all their interactions in the past year, he had to concede that Sam’s assessment had been spot on. The closeness they had shared in the past was gone. They talked, but not really, because Bucky held back on anything personal. They laughed, but it never reached his eyes.

 

      “Did you feel this helpless whenever I was sick back then?” Steve quietly questioned his sleeping friend as he lowered himself with a groan onto one of the pillows Shuri and Peter had left behind. He was really getting too old for these kinds of things.

 

      “I guess, I never truly thanked you for sticking around all that time and for looking after me…” He reached out and enveloped Bucky’s young-looking hand with his wrinkled and calloused fingers. For a while he merely sat there, looking at their joined hands while he listened to Bucky’s even breathing and the steady drum of his heartbeat.

 

      “I’m sorry, if you thought I left you behind, Buck,” he eventually broke the silence, fully aware how cowardly it was to apologize to a sleeping person. “It wasn’t my intention… but if I had told you my full intentions you would have tried to talk me out of it. Or worse, stop me. … it’s what you’ve always done. Stop me from doing anything stupid.” Steve stopped in his monologue when he felt Bucky’s fingers curl tightly around his.

 

      “Yeah, exactly like that”, he chuckled quietly and reciprocated the pressure. “… Shuri visited me a while ago in DC, did she ever tell you that? I’m glad you have her looking out for you, because she properly yelled at me for returning to the past but not liberating you from HYDRA.”

 

With a heavy sigh, he leaned his forehead against their joint hands. “I did look for you, Buck. I brought the Tesseract back to Camp Lehigh in 1970 and then I used the last Pym-Particles I had to go back to 1944. I was down at in the ravine, just mere feet from your body. You were in and out of consciousness, barely lucid… your left arm was ripped off above the elbow and you were losing so much blood, but I couldn’t get to you because this witch – kinda like this Doctor Strange guy – stopped me with some sort of forcefield. Apparently, it made me invisible to everyone else as well because HYDRA came and picked you up and they never noticed me.”

 

Steve took in a shuddering breath as he remembered the powerless feeling of watching his best friend getting dragged away, knowing exactly what fate awaited him. He had fought the Ancient One with everything he had, but she had just offered him a sad smile as she had deflected all of his attacks as if they were nothing to her. Down on the ground, panting heavily from the immense extortion of trying to get past her, he was suddenly engulfed in the bright green light from the Time Stone and he had found himself watching a myriad of different realities where he attempted to free Bucky. Each time he was thwarted by the witch and the one time she let him succeed, Earth fell into the hands of Thanos.

 

      “Do you understand now, why I cannot let you proceed?”

 

      “He’s my best friend! They’re gonna torture and brainwash him! I cannot… I have to…!”

 

      “Saving Sergeant Barnes would mean undoing the sacrifices your friends made to protect Earth. Is that what you want, Steven Rogers?”

 

      “But there has to be…”

 

      “I am afraid there is not. Not without endangering this reality. And that is something I cannot allow you to do.”

 

      “But Bucky would… he would… I have to…!”

 

      “Come now. Your friend has an entire lifetime, an entire future ahead of him.”

 

And then everything went black and the next thing Steven knew was that he stood outside of a graveyard in Los Angeles in 1962 watching Peggy put down flowers on a grave, flanked by two teenage boys. Initially, he was clueless as to why the Ancient One would take him there, but as time passed and he did his research he slowly understood.

 

      “Peggy got married in 1949. A guy named Daniel Sousa. They worked together at the SSR before he became the chief of the LA branch. He seemed like a good guy. They had two boys – William and Christopher. He died in ’61 in a car crash,” Steve explained quietly before he summarized how he had tailed her, protected her from the shadows, and how he had eventually revealed himself to her in 1963.

 

      “Or rather she forced me to,” he chuckled, recalling the gun pressed against his head and the shock on her face when he had faced her. “She had started to notice that someone was following her. Guess Nat was always right that I’d make a terrible spy…”

 

With his younger self buried in the ice, Steve had to be careful about his public appearances and so he had remained in the shadows, helping Peggy where he could with the establishment of S.H.I.E.L.D. while discreetly taking out a few HYDRA goons on the way – apparently the Ancient One had no problem with that – and trying to keep track of the Winter Soldier’s activities. A task that proved difficult at best, because Natasha had been correct when she had called him a ghost story. It seemed like he was always ten steps behind and whenever he managed to catch up with him, the witch intervened.

 

He had married Peggy on April 7, 1974 in a small ceremony. Apart from her, William and Christopher were the only two other people who were aware of his true identity and while they had needed some time to warm up to him, he had been quick to love them as if they were his own. Albeit, deep down he was relieved that they did not share his DNA as he was clueless what the serum would have done to any potential offspring. To keep up the persona of Grant Carter, he spent a lot of time with William and Christopher in England, and once they had married and families of their own, he was the doting grandfather to their children while Peggy was in the States keeping the world save. Her natural curiosity was poison to all the secrets he had to keep, but when 1990 turned into 1991 and she excitedly told him that Howard Stark had a breakthrough in recreating Erskine’s super-soldier-serum, he had a gut feeling that he had to do something.

 

      “I… made a copy of Peggy’s pass and broke into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters to learn what they were doing with the serum. Like HYDRA they were planning on creating more super-soldiers. They had six candidates, but the funny thing was, I remembered from watching the old tape that Howard had only five IV bags with the serum in his trunk.” Steve laughed quietly. “I stole one bag; kept it save all those years. Remember when you asked Howard if the serum could be altered to cure all sorts of illnesses? I was thinking about giving it to Shuri, she might be smart enough to figure that one out.”

 

Despite his better judgment, Steve had huddled in the nearby bushes when the Winter Soldier had struck and killed Howard and Maria Stark. It had been one of the few times he had seen the ghost story in proper action and it had been terrifying to see no recognition, no emotion on Bucky’s face, even when Howard had instantly identified him. Naturally, the Ancient One had been right next to him, ensuring he would not alter history.

 

He had tried to make it to Odessa when Natasha would encounter the Winter Soldier, but his plane had been delayed, and by the time he had finally arrived, she was already hospitalized, and HYDRA’s assassin had disappeared without a single trace – as usual. At least, Steve had managed to secure a screen-capture of Bucky from the night of Howard and Maria Stark’s deaths and had sent it to Bucky’s oldest sister Katy, after learning that his best friend’s sisters had never given up hope that their brother would return to them. It had felt like the right thing to do to reaffirm their faith.

 

      “I didn’t forget you, Bucky, I promise you. You were always there… even when I got my happily ever after with Peggy. And I wish I could have shared it with… I wish I could have saved you without undoing everything we fought for so hard, so you could get your happily ever after as well. God knows you’ve deserved it…” Steve’s monologue came to an abrupt end, when he thought he heard Bucky mutter something that sounded a lot like “pow shock” – not that it made any sense to him, but it was a sign that his best friend was waking up.

 

      “Buck?” He let go of his hand and gently squeezed his shoulder instead, hoping it would help him to fight past the dense fog of a healing sleep. Steve remembered quite well how confusing it always was to regain consciousness after his body had effectively shut down to focus on repairing the damage it had sustained. “Come on, pal. Everyone’s been worried about you.”

 

      “… pow shock… pow shock… pow shock…” he kept on slurring, showing no other sign of properly regaining consciousness.

 

      “Buck, I got no idea what you’re trying to tell me,” Steve sighed and pulled himself up from the ground to sit on the edge of the bed from where he had a better view of his friend’s face which was scrunched up in distress as he was moving his head back and forth. Whatever his mind was showing him did not appear to be all too pleasant. Deciding that it would be better to wake Bucky instead of letting him be a prisoner of his own mind any longer, Steve reached out to him and gently patted him on the cheek. It had usually been enough, when they had bunked together during the war and nightmares had plagued his rest. “Come on, Buck. Rise and shine.”

 

Yet, the moment Steve’s hand touched Bucky’s face, his eyes opened suddenly, and his body went rigid. Steel-blue orbs staring into nothing, no recognition whatsoever. His back bent under the amount of tension his muscles exercised, his entire body trembling as his jaws were in a tight lock. He was frothing at the mouth and the most inhuman sounds Steve had ever heard spread from his throat. It had to be loud enough to alert the guards in the hallway, because before he had even had a chance to call for them, they had already barged into the room. One quick look had been enough for them to assess the situation and inform not only Bucky’s doctors but the Princess as well.

 

When Steve wanted to reach out to Bucky to calm him, to reassure him that he was safe, a spear prevented him from getting any closer. He was about to argue with the stern-looking guards, when an older-looking guy in white clothes, carrying a small bag under his right arm, rushed into the room and demanded to know what had happened. Steve had barely started his explanation when Shuri arrived as well – Peter and Sam hot on her tail. As he summarized the last few minutes, the doctor was already scanning Bucky with a fancy looking device before taking out a syringe that looked more like a hypospray straight out of Star Trek. He loaded it with some clear liquid before injecting it straight into Bucky’s throat. The effect of the muscle relaxant and the sedative was almost instant, and he slumped into the mattress, all tension gone.

 

      “James?” The doctor addressed him, but just like before there was no recognition in his eyes and he blinked slowly as his eyelids drooped more and more.

 

      “Ingcuka?” Shuri spoke to him in Xhosa as she climbed onto the bed and grabbed a few tissues from the nightstand to wipe away the saliva from his chin. For a moment it seemed like there was something akin to acknowledgment flashing across Bucky’s face before it turned into utter confusion. He shook his head as if he was trying to get rid of the fogginess in his mind and his mouth opened and closed several times before his lips remembered how to form words.

 

      “… go… day… pow… shock?”

 

      “He said that before,” Steve chimed in, still as clueless as ever what Bucky was trying to tell them.

 

It was probably a good thing that Doctor Zivai had been a War Dog in the Soviet Union for almost a decade and therefore recognized the slurred words for what they were. “He’s asking where the little spider is.”

 

      “I’m right here, Bucky,” Peter said and stepped forward for the super-soldier to see him. “You saved me. Remember? And MJ.”

 

Instead of the reassuring effect it was supposed to have, he shook his head vehemently while his breathing became more agitated and his eyes widened in terror. Peter addressed him again, but it only seemed to make it worse as something akin to a growl left Bucky’s lips and he tried to sit up, but unlike the sedative the muscle relaxant was very effective. It did, however, not prevent him from trying and when both Shuri and Doctor Zivai attempted to hold him and calm him, the Princess drew the short straw as she was on his right side. Bucky’s arm collided with her face, causing her to lose her balance and tumble off the bed. It was at that moment that the Dora Milaje intervened before any of the Avengers had the chance to and pinned him to the mattress, ignorant of the screams and the snapping teeth. Doctor Zivai finally managed to get another dose of the sedative into Bucky and almost instantly he fell asleep again.

Chapter Text

After the episode in Bucky’s suite, Doctor Zivai had ordered another brain scan, but all it brought forth was that the scar tissue they had detected 24 hours ago had been properly healed. With his body no longer focusing all its energy on healing the damage his brain had sustained, it seemed like Bucky was burning through the medication as if it had not been specifically altered for his enhanced metabolism.

 

Mere hours after the first episode, he woke again – screaming and keening in agony, and Sam, who had sat with him at the time, was reminded of how he had initially found him in his apartment in the Compound. Those were the shattering cries of a man who was reliving immense trauma and pain and there was little they could do to help him through it. Just like at the Compound, Bucky was trying to claw at his eyes and his temple. Both Steve and Peter had been keeping Sam company but both the enhanced Spiderling and the super-soldier were too shocked by Bucky’s behaviour to be of any help, so it was up to the only non-enhanced human in the room to subdue the former assassin and to prevent him from hurting himself.

 

      “Get the Doc,” he barked orders. “Captain, now!” The sharpness in his voice, reminiscent of years in the Air Force, finally cut through to Steven, likely bringing back his own military training, and he snapped to attention before hurrying out of the room. Thankfully, the movement to his left also brought Peter out of his stupor and he rushed to Sam’s side as two guards entered the room, ready to intervene if necessary.

 

      “I could…” Peter held out his right arm where he wore one of his webshooters. While the spinnerets his body had created were no longer swollen, itching, and inflamed like before, he did not fully trust them yet to forgo his trusted webshooters. That being said, he had been practising with the spinnerets while Sam, Shuri, and Rhodey had rescued Bucky; usually in the confines of his studio apartment as he did not want Professor Hulk to make any more of a science experiment out of it than he already had.

 

      “Do it,” Sam encouraged him and chose to ignore the slight tremor in Peter’s hand. Using all his strength, he managed to press Bucky’s remaining arm as far away from his face as possible and Peter quickly webbed it, tightly holding onto the other end of the strand. For a moment he had contemplated attaching it to the wooden bedframe, but he could feel the raw strength as Bucky fought against the restraint and he was certain the wood would not be able to hold him for long. 

 

Doctor Zivai was quick to join them and had already a hypospray in hand to sedate Bucky as quickly as possible. It was not enough to fully knock him out, but it subdued him enough that Sam and Peter let go of him.

 

With Bucky subdued, Peter quickly retrieved a small bottle of web-solvent to free Bucky’s arm from the artificial net. Frantic eyes that held no recognition whatsoever followed his every movement as if Bucky was expecting him to hurt him the second he was not watching him. The thought stung painfully and the moment he had the web off of him, Peter hurried out of the room, almost colliding with the King and the rest of the royal family who had hurried to the suite. He stumbled over an apology before he practically ran down the hallway until his fine hearing could no longer hear Bucky’s agitated breathing that sounded close to hyperventilating, mixed with the occasional whimper.

 

      “I’ll check on Peter,” Shuri offered as both Sam and Doctor Zivai tried to calm down Bucky. Her left cheek, where he had accidentally hit her had swollen to twice its size and had blossomed into a colourful bruise. She knew she had been lucky that he had been subdued or else he might have broken bone. Shuri was also aware that it had been unintentional, but it hurt nonetheless. Considering their unique connection because she had seen his memories when deprogramming him and the consequent trust he had always had in her, had made her confident that some part of him would still recognize her; would keep her save from his violent outbursts. The bruise stung, but the real pain came from the realization that he had not remembered her.

 

Meanwhile, the Queen Mother Ramonda made her way over to the bed, where both Doctor Zivai and Sam tried to soothe Bucky with little success. The Dora Milaje wanted to hold her back given that the Princess now sported a shiner on her face after she had gotten too close to him, but she merely waved them off.

 

      “Your Highness…”

 

      “Mother…”

 

Another dismissive wave of her hand shut up her overprotective son and the good Doctor, while she acknowledged Sam’s good manners of making room for her with a nod and a small smile.

 

      “Hello, James…” she quietly addressed him to alert him of her presence as she sat down near the headboard and on Bucky’s left side. His eyes instantly focused on her but considering what her children had told her and what she had read in his file this afternoon over tea, she did not want to go so far as to hope for any recognition on his part. He was likely bombarded with so many painful and heart-breaking memories that his mind had a difficult time telling apart reality from his flashbacks.

 

      “You have to breath, remember?” She put her hand on his sternum watching his reaction, and when he showed no sign of fighting her off, she applied gentle pressure. “Breath out,” she ordered him and gradually increased the weight on his breast bone until he complied with her request. Immediately afterward, she asked him to push her hand away by breathing in. It took a couple of tries, but eventually, he was no longer gasping for air.

 

      “We used to do this a lot after they took you out of cryo,” she quietly talked to him and let her hand travel upwards until she reached his hairline and her fingers combed through his freshly cut hair. Sometimes it amazed her how easily people forgot that despite the ripe age of 102, James was basically only a few years older than the boy who had been drafted by his country to fight in a war that had nothing to do with him. If he had not been forced to kill in the name of his capturers, he had spent the majority of the past decades on ice, not aging and maturing a single day. On paper, he might be 102-years-old, but in reality, he had probably only a few years on her own children – and regardless how often they were adamant in pointing out that they were grown up and did not need her mothering them, they would still seek her out when they wanted warmth and comfort.

 

T’Challa had initially teased her about adopting Shuri’s broken white boy, but while her children could rid him of the programming, build him a new arm, offer him asylum, and a home, none of that could replace motherly warmth. Contrary to Okoyes’s recommendation she had not stayed away from the former assassin who had initially been blamed for the death of her husband but had visited him frequently and sometimes stayed with him for several hours in those early days after waking him from cryo. He had been a scared, young man riddled with guilt and fear, wary of his surroundings, and convinced that he did not deserve any good this world had to offer him. She had helped him through panic attacks and had eventually managed to coax him out of that small, bare room they had put him up in initially and where he had stayed long after he had been cleared to go outside.

 

Instead of setting him up in one of the guestrooms, she had given him a suite in the same wing where the royal family resided. When he would hole himself up in there, only leaving for Shuri to work on his arm, she made it her mission to take him out and to show him the beauty of her country and to introduce him to the kindness of her people. It had quickly become obvious that he was much more relaxed and at ease when they were out in the countryside, so she had addressed the issue with T’Challa and the doctors who had eventually suggested to move and integrate him into one of the small villages on the outskirts of Birnin Zana and on the edge of the savannah.  

 

Except for her son, everyone else had eventually left Bucky’s suite as she continued to gently comb through his hair and mutter sweet nonsense that calmed him more than any super-strength medication Shuri and her Think Tank could come up with. At some point, he turned onto his left side, pressing his face into her leg and had thrown a possessive arm over her thighs as if he were to prevent her from going.

     

      “You’re sure, you don’t want me to have the Supreme Court draw up some adoption papers for Shuri’s broken white boy, Mother?” T’Challa teased gently.

 

      “Don’t you have a country to rule, my son?”

 

      “Probably,” he shrugged with a small smirk. They had all been in a meeting with the Tribal of Elders when Shuri had been informed about another episode and they had naturally followed her. Some of the council members would probably be peeved that he had just left, but he was their King, after all, so he could decide to postpone a meeting if a member of his family was in distress. “I’ll check in on him later,” he decided and was the last person to leave to give Bucky the peace and quietness to recover from the latest torture he had had to endure at HYDRA’s hands.

 

As he closed the wooden door behind him, he took note of Sam and Steven further down the hallway, with the latter sitting on the ground, head leaning against his knees, while Sam stood above him, saying something that was too quiet for him to hear. He could only imagine what the Captain must be going through, considering the closeness he had initially witnessed between him and Bucky. Deciding it was not his conversation to join in, he turned the other way and acknowledged the guard that was stationed there with a short nod and the traditional Wakandan greeting.  

 

On the other side of the extensive palace grounds, Shuri had finally found Peter. He sat on a bench, staring at his feet instead of at the vivid sunset over the Golden City. The truth was, he had been in such a hurry to get away that he had paid no attention to where he was going until he had been utterly lost and with no one in sight to point him in the right direction of his room. In the end, he had just sat down, figuring someone would eventually find him and in the meantime, he could wallow in his hurt and feelings of inadequacy. If he had not messed up, Bucky would not be like this now. MJ would not have been kidnapped. Tony would still be alive…

 

      “Hey…” Shuri greeted him quietly and sat down next to him.

 

      “… hey… How’s…?”

 

      “Dunno, I followed you. But I’m sure they calmed him down.”

 

Peter breathed a heavy sigh and sat up straight, leaning his head again the cool wall behind him and staring up at the ceiling. His fists were clenching and unclenching in pent up frustration while the back of his head bumped against the wall over and over again.

 

      “You’re not gonna put a dent in the wall, are you?” Shuri asked after watching him quietly for a couple of minutes.

 

      “Sorry…” Peter automatically apologized and stopped. “How’s your cheek?”

 

      “’s okay… as long as I don’t smile or blink.”

 

      “I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”

 

      “I know… and he’ll beat himself up about it the moment he’s lucid. Doesn’t mean it didn’t sting.”

 

      “You were lucky he didn’t hit you with his full strength. I could barely restrain him earlier…”

 

      “Yeah well… maybe he’ll finally spar with me,” Shuri sighed. “Him and T’Challa… sure, no problem, they get to beat each other up for fun. But when I want to test my new gear with him, he’s totally holding back.” It was frustrating!

 

      “I’ve seen you fight during the battle. You’re good!”

 

      “Thanks,” she offered him an honest smile as it was rare for the men surrounding her to admit that she could stand her ground. Or rather, they would grudgingly admit it, but still rather see her on the sidelines because they did not want her to get hurt. Men!

 

      “We could spar someday if you wanted to…”

 

      “You’re gonna hold back on that Spidey-strength?”

 

      “Of course, you’re-!”

 

      “If you’re gonna say because I’m a girl, I’m gonna kick you in the nuts, Parker!”

 

      “… not enhanced,” he decided to finish his sentence.

 

      “Nice safe.”

 

Their conversation petered out and for a while the teenagers sat quietly next to each other, both of them dwelling on their own thoughts as they watched the evening sky over Wakanda gradually turning a warm golden tone. Eventually, it was Shuri who broke the silence and asked Peter how he was holding up. She had never had the opportunity to really check in with her friend after Sam had been sent the coordinates for the HYDRA facility where Bucky was held captive. That had been almost a week ago.

 

      “’m fine,” Peter mumbled though it did not sound very convincing to the Princess which was why she encouraged him to try again.

 

      “What do you want to hear?” he asked exasperated on the verge of sounding frustrated. Whether with himself or her Shuri could not tell. “That I’m peachy? That I don’t blame myself for what happened to Bucky?”

 

      “It was his decision,” she slowly replied. A sentence she had told herself countless times since his kidnapping, as she kept wondering if there had been anything she could have done to keep him safe. Maybe if she had been firmer with her order for him to return to the Talon, he would not have ignored her. The truth was, she had little experience with using her status as Princess of Wakanda to order people around. She did not think of herself as any better or more privileged than anyone else living in the Kingdom. As a result, she hated to blandly command people to do her bidding – except for her brother, of course. She would either do things herself or she would ask politely for someone’s assistance.

 

      “When we learned that you were in a HYDRA facility, both Director Carter and I told him to come up, but he wouldn’t listen.”

 

      “And if I hadn’t been so stupid, you guys would have never had to come to get me in the first place.”

 

      “We’d still have to save MJ,” Shuri pointed out.

 

      “Yeah, and if I hadn’t blabbed to Octavius about her, they would have never known about her and used her to lure me in. It’s all my fault!”

 

      “You didn’t know that Octavius worked for HYDRA. No one knew.”

 

      “I should have known!” Peter’s temper flared up. “I was working so hard on my Spidey-Sense since Mysterio, so no one could ever fool me like that again, and then…” He buried his face in his hands to hide from the world, his failures. “I-I… I don’t know why Mr Stark ever made me an Avenger. I’m useless. I’m a failure. I only endanger everyone else!” Before he could follow down the road of self-deprecation any further, Shuri put an arm around his shoulders and gently pulled him towards her, until he stopped hiding behind his hands and instead buried his face in the crook of her neck. Unlike MJ, he had never really taken note of the Princess scent. Sure, she smelled nice, but it was not like his enhanced senses keyed in on it like they did with Michelle.

 

      “You’re neither a failure nor useless, Peter. And I’m sure Mr Stark would tell you the same.”

 

A burst of emotionless laughter escaped the teenager’s lips. “Sure. If he knew how much I’ve screwed up since… he’d probably take away my suit again. Rightfully so.”

 

Everything in Shuri wanted to tell her friend that he was wrong, but she also knew him well enough that he would not believe her. Ever since the world had believed him a murderer, his self-esteem had hit low bottom and there was probably only one person who could convince him otherwise. Unfortunately, that person had been declared dead a year ago.

 

Worrying her bottom lip, she eventually gave Peter’s shoulder a squeeze before she stood up and held out her hand for him to take. “Come on, Spider-Boy, we’ve got places to be!”

 

      “Shuri?” He looked up at her questioningly, but automatically reached out for her hand and was basically dragged to his feet only for the Princess to pull him along as she hurried down the hallway. “Where are we going?”

 

      “You’ll see,” was the only answer she gave him, combined with a knowing smirk. Shuri would definitely not only be breaking a few promises she had made in the past few months but also several non-disclosure agreements she herself had drafted for everyone involved to sign. Yet, she was convinced that this was the better course of action in the long run. It hurt to see her friend so depressed and unsure of himself, particularly when she had the means to ease some of his pain.

 

As she dragged him through the Palace, ignoring every question Peter had, he was taken past locked doors and shielded corridors the teenage boy had never seen before. Granted, he had never been to Wakanda either, so it was not like he knew a great lot about the Palace – only the bits and pieces he had seen when video chatting with Shuri or what he had seen since they had arrived the previous day.

 

After what felt like a thirty-minute walk and which had left him even more clueless as to where exactly in the Palace he was, he had to wait in front of a security checkpoint while Shuri entered him into the system – whatever that was supposed to mean. When she told him to stand still he did as was requested in order for the computer to scan him. Afterward, additional scans were taken from his retina and his fingers. It strangely reminded him of all the procedures he had to endure to get a passport to go to Europe. Where he met Mysterio. Better not go down that route again… Eventually, Shuri waved him through and led him along another long corridor. He had asked her several times now where she was taking him, but she had evaded the question every single time. Except now they came to a stop in front of a door that looked like all the other ones in the palace that led to guestrooms and suites.

 

      “You have to promise me, Peter, that you’re not gonna breath a word to anyone about what I’m gonna show you, okay?” The last thing she needed was foreign media becoming aware of her most recent project.

 

      “Sure…”

 

      “Not to your aunt, not to your friends, not to anyone.”

 

      “Gee, you’re acting like you’re hiding a secret weapon to take over the world.” Which Peter deemed very well within the realm of the possible, considering the Princess’ labs, her resources, and her genius.

 

      “Not quite,” she replied with a grin before looking up at the ceiling, addressing her AI Griot to announce her. Peter always found it somewhat funny that despite of all of Wakanda’s technological advances, hardly anyone used Griot. It was the complete opposite of the constant usage of SI’s artificial intelligences.

 

Once Griot confirmed the task, Shuri went ahead to knock on the door, before quietly opening it and entering the room behind it, tugging on Peter’s hand so he would follow her. Whatever he had expected to find behind the door, it was not what he was confronted with. Judging by all the security they had to pass, he figured Shuri would show him some super-secret lab with some super-secret project she was working on. Peter had not anticipated walking into a suite that looked very much like Bucky’s with the exception that it felt more like an expensive hospital suite than a proper home. He noticed the medical equipment that blended into the modern interior design as he followed the Princess through the anteroom and into the main room that had a large, comfy-looking bed, but – again – combined comfort with medical tools.

 

      “Your visits have been scarce, Princess,” a voice came from the balcony on the other side of the room and something about it was familiar to Peter. Almost too familiar. “Found another, more interesting project to play with?” the voice teased Shuri who went over to the large glass front and pushed aside the light, flowing curtains that blocked the door, and that had prevented Peter from seeing whoever was outside.

 

      “I have not, I promise,” she laughed. “Just a small incident that required my attention. But I brought you a visitor as a peace offering.”

 

      “I hope you didn’t bring along anyone else from your little science club. The last guy was not only boring but dumb as hell.”

 

      “Pretty sure, you’re gonna like this one,” she grinned broadly and indicated for the person outside to come in.

 

      “I’ll wash my hands of responsibility if he starts crying like the last one.”

 

      “Whatever you say, grumpy old man!”

 

      “You’d be grumpy too if you were me,” the voice retorted, and Peter was still trying to figure out why it sounded so familiar when he could make out the grinding of wheels against stone flooring. Shuri was about to get out onto the balcony, probably to lend a helping hand, but whoever it was, the person refused it, stating that they may be a cripple but that they were still capable of doing a couple of things on their own. For some reason, it reminded Peter of something Mr Stark had once said to – well, more or less yelled at – him when he had come down with the man-flu and he had tried to look after him because Pepper had been out on a business trip.

 

     “Stop mothering me, Pete! I may be dying of man-flu, but ‘till I do, I’m still capable of looking after me!”

 

As the wheelchair moved closer, his fine hearing started to pick up another heartbeat next to Shuri’s. He was so used to hearing other people’s pulses that he usually just ignored it and stored it away as one of the many background noises he lived with. The only time he ever paid attention to it, was when something about it caught his interest. A healthy person’s heartbeat, like Shuri’s sounded like a steady, light drumbeat. Bucky’s always reminded him of a slower bass drum, and he assumed that his heartbeat was generally slower due to the super-soldier-serum. Bruce’s was even slower and darker in sound, likely because of the sheer size of his green body.

 

He had always found Mr Stark’s heartbeat funny: it was like a steady drumbeat at the beach, as the normal lubb-dupp was accompanied by a quiet murmur that reminded Peter of the ocean. Occasionally, it also sounded like his heart would trip over its own feet – if it had any – before it regained its footing and continued with its usual beat, only to increase when Mr Stark was stressed or irritated. Peter had not heard the clumsy heart on the beach since the battle against Thanos a year ago, but now that the person on the balcony was getting closer, his ears instantly picked up on that familiar sound.

 

As he had busied himself with looking around the room while Shuri had spoken to the other person, he now turned around, brows furrowed in confusion when the wheelchair rolled into the room and he got to see the man, Shuri had wanted him to meet, for the first time.

 

      “No…!” His voice trembled as he stared into the scarred face of his dead mentor and he was instantly taken back to Mysterio’s illusions when a decomposed Iron Man had clawed his way up from his grave.

 

      “Kid!”

Chapter Text

      “Stay back!” Peter cried and had his right arm with the webshooter extended, ready to either web the illusion of Mr Stark or taser it. Because that was all that it was. Just another hologram. Just another trick. He had no idea why Shuri would do this to him, but he had fallen for Beck and Octavius, he would not be fooled again. And that was when he realized that the Princess would never be so cruel, which could only mean that she was not real either. He extended his left arm with the other webshooter in her direction and simultaneously pressed two tiny buttons on his shooters that activated a new nanosuit he had been working on next to everything else. It was far from battle-ready, but it gave him access to both Karen and EDITH.

     

      “Karen connect to EDITH,” he asked her and ignored her worried interjection that both his heart rate and his breathing were elevated, indicative of a panic attack. The instant he had access to EDITH, he ordered her to scan both imposters as well as look for any holographic projectors, because he was unable to sense any with his Spidey-Sense – which also had not alerted him to the presence of fake-Shuri and fake-Tony, so he could obviously not trust it. Again.

 

      “Peter, in Bast’s name, what the hell are you doing?” Shuri demanded to know and wanted to move in front of her patient, but the instant Peter’s webshooter followed her, she stayed rooted in her place.

 

      “What did you do with the real Princess?” he demanded to know as he waited for EDITH’s results.

 

      “What the fuck, Peter?!”

 

      “This is Mysterio and Octavius all over again! I’m not falling for it!” He wanted to sound strong and confident to intimidate his opponents, but he only sounded scared and panicked.

 

      “Kid, I know this may come as a surprise, but it’s really me”, fake-Tony tried to placate him. He had to give it to him, the details were almost perfect. The scar tissue on his face and neck mimicked the burns from the Infinity Stones, and a red-and-golden-brace, looking like a mix of the Iron Man suit and Bucky’s vibranium arm supported the right arm and hand which had taken the brunt of the power.

 

      “Don’t talk to me! Tony’s dead! I heard his heart stop! FRIDAY confirmed it!”

 

      “Pete…”

     

      “Scan complete, Peter,” EDITH announced. “There are no holographic projectors in the room. My scans have also concluded that the people in the room are indeed the Princess of Wakanda and my creator Tony Stark.”

 

      “No! No, you must be wrong!”

 

      “I am never wrong, Peter,” EDITH informed him and almost sounded a tad bit hurt that he could even entertain such a preposterous thought.

 

      “Peter, you need to calm down. You are experiencing a panic attack,” Karen chimed in as well.

 

      “No… no… no… we saw him die, Karen. FRIDAY confirmed it.”

 

Peter’s hands were no longer directed at the alleged imposters but were instead pressed against his ears to shut up the swishing and pounding sounds in his ears that were driving him insane. His head felt like it was splitting apart in its attempt to come to a sound solution why Mr Stark was sitting in a wheelchair in front of him. At the same time, it became more and more difficult to breathe in his suit and part of him wondered if there was any malfunction with the oxygen supply, when he crumbled to the floor, telling both AIs over and over again that they were wrong. Tony was dead. He had been at his funeral. He had been at the Lake House countless times afterward, seeing Pepper mourn her husband when she thought he was not watching. He had seen the countless murals people had made all over the city, all over the world to thank Iron Man for his sacrifice. He had tried to explain to Morgan where her Daddy was when she had asked when he would come home.

 

      “Don’t worry, Petey. Daddy will come back. He just lost track of time. He always does when he’s busy.”

 

      “Your Majesty,” Shuri’s AI Griot started to speak the same moment Peter slumped to the ground. “A foreign AI named Karen asked me to inform you that Peter is suffering from a massive panic attack.”

 

      “Oh for fuck’s sake,” Tony muttered and pushed past the Princess towards the boy he had long come to think of as ‘his kid’, to lower himself onto the ground in front of Peter.

 

      “Come on, Kid, I thought we were long past you getting all panicky around me,” he tried to get his attention with some humour. Yet, instead of resolving the situation, Peter kept repeating over and over again that he was supposed to be dead and that he was just an illusion.

 

      “Rumours about my death might have been slightly exaggerated…” Tony replied and when that got him no reaction he asked Peter to remove the mask. He would have done it himself, but given how confused and scared he was, he might lash out when he touched him. Something he truly longed for, because all he had got after Peter had been dead for five years, had been a short hug on the battlefield. Apart from that, the kid was definitely wearing a new nanosuit he had not designed himself, so God-knows how it could be deactivated. Naturally, the engineer in him was dying – probably a bad pun given the situation – to question him how he had constructed it.

 

      “Kid…” He did the stupid thing and reached out to touch Peter’s arm with his good hand, fully prepared to either crash through the glass front or to at least get webbed to the ground, yet none of it happened. Instead, he flinched away from him. Peter had never flinched away from him! The kid was so desperate for affection that he once thought him leaning over to open the door for him was a hug. What the hell has happened to him?! “Pete…”

 

Judging from the heaving of his chest and shoulders, he had not only trouble breathing through the panic attack but was also crying behind that blasted mask of his. Tony’s assumption was confirmed when Peter asked him to tell him something only Mr Stark would know and his voice broke several times. So we’re back to Mr Stark now…

 

      “About five years after you… after the Snap, Nat, Steve, and Scott came to the Lake House and presented me with this crazy idea of a time heist based on Back to the Future. I told them to get lost, but later that night, I saw this silly picture Happy took when we made your internship official. It made me remember our first meeting, in your aunt’s old apartment. I asked you what your MO was, and you said when you could do the things you could, but you didn’t and then something bad happened, it happened because of you. Look, Pete… I’m not a Norse God, I’m not enhanced like you or Capsicle, I’m just a regular guy with a brain and a couple of silly ideas. So, I did what I’m best at and I build them their little time machine. Not because they said pretty-please, but because you reminded me what was right, Kid…”

 

Sometime during his short monologue, Peter had pressed some buttons on his webshooters and the entire suite disappeared into them, letting Tony see those brown eyes that he remembered to hold so much life and faith in humanity. Now they were, however, filled with doubt and fear, but he thought he saw a tiny sliver of hope in them. That assumption was confirmed when Peter’s body subconsciously leant more and more in his direction. When he had finished his little speech, he held out his good arm once more, and instead of backing off further, the kid fell right into him, clinging to him as if his life depended on him.

 

Let’s not go down that road, he reminded himself. After all, he still got the occasional nightmare about Peter holding onto him desperately as he slowly turned to dust.

 

      “I-I th-thought… … I thought… Y-you… I-I-I didn’t…”

 

Whatever Peter was trying to tell him was drowned out by heart-wrenching sobs and Tony knew he would have to investigate later on why the kid was so adamant that both he and the Princess were imposters. He had expected that people would be slightly shocked if they eventually learned that he had indeed survived the battle against Thanos, yet Peter’s reaction was above anything he had imagined. The kid’s tears and snot were starting to soak through the thin T-shirt he wore, but surviving Morgan’s baby-phase he had had been covered in far worse bodily fluids. For now, he was more worried about how long Peter’s body would put up with the gasping and wheezing breaths before he lost consciousness.

 

He hugged the shaking boy close, stroked his hair – had it got longer? – with his right hand while his left thumb drew little circles on his back, hoping they had a calming and grounding effect. Instead of telling Peter to breathe, he always hated it when people did that with him when he was panicking, he exaggerated his own breaths, hoping that Peter’s body would instinctively start to mimic his.

 

Somewhere in between all of this he registered the Princess pointing to the door and mouthing “Call me if you need anything” before she left him alone with the kid. He would talk to her later and find out why she had brought him here. After all, she had promised not to let anyone know about his survival until he greenlighted it. It had been obvious that she was dying to inform his family – somehow, she had always included Peter in that – but he did not want to face them while he still felt more dead than alive and required support with so many things. Pepper did not have to be burdened with a husband whose entire right side had been badly damaged and who required help with such simple things like getting dressed in the morning.

 

A few minutes after the Princess had left them, he noted that Peter had started to calm down and that his breathing had started to match his own. “You’re with me, Kid?” he questioned, and his hand moved from Peter’s hair to his cheek, gently wiping away the tears, smiling when the boy instinctively leaned into his hand even though the smallest facial expression tugged uncomfortably on the scars on his face.

 

      “I-I… I don’t understand,” Peter muttered and sat up properly using the sleeve of his sweater to wipe across his face before he noticed the wet stains on Tony’s shirt. He blushed instantly in embarrassment and tried to get rid of them, but effectively only rubbed them deeper into the fabric of his shirt. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry Mr Stark! I-I ruined your t-shirt!”

 

      “Pete, I’ve had worse,” he stopped him and held his hand in his, feeling the subtle tremor that was still running through his body. “Besides, I thought you finally got over the whole Mr-Stark-business. My hearing is one of the few things that didn’t get screwed up and I distinctively recall you calling me Tony earlier.”

 

      “Because I didn’t think… you were you…”

 

      “Well, I’m still me, and I’d be happy if you stuck with Tony.”

 

      “O-okay”, Peter agreed and leaned against his mentor again, wrapping both arms probably a little bit too tightly around him, but he had to make sure that he was real, that he was no illusion and no dream. “I still don’t…”

 

      “It’s a long story”, Tony sighed and ignored the protests of his ribs given Peter’s tight embrace. He had to wait five – no six years to have him in his arms again. If he wanted to give him a bone-crushing hug, he would be the last person to voice his protest.

 

      “Ok… okay.”

 

      “One that I’ll happily tell you if we could move this little cuddle-party to somewhere comfier.”

 

      “Oh… yes, of course!” Peter was up on his feet instantly and looked around the room for a second, before looking down at Tony and the wheelchair. “Do you need any help, Mr… eh Tony? I could carry you!”

 

      “I’m not that crippled, Kid!” he groused and pushed himself back towards the wheelchair. “Just treat me like you’ve always done and if I need help, I’ll let you know.”

 

      “… to be fair, Tony –” Peter started and bit his lip – “You don’t have the best track record for that.” It was good to know that the sass was coming backing.

 

      “Listen, Kid. That’s the only deal I’m gonna make with you,” Tony sighed. “You help me to the bed, I’ll tell you about my miraculous return from the dead and in turn you tell what happened to you while I was gone.”

 

      “Wh-what do you mean?”

 

      “The way you freaked out? The panic attack just now? That’s new and I wanna know why.”

 

Peter found a sudden interest in his shoes, but despite his hair falling into his face, Tony could see enough of the blush spreading from his ears down to his cheeks and his throat to know that he was probably embarrassed by his earlier action and would be happier if he just forgot it happened at all. The problem was, he had always been terrible at keeping his nose out of other people’s business – particularly if he could smell that something was funny. And this did not only smell funny, it practically reeked of incidents no one had told him about, so he would not get upset. Finally, Peter did however offer a small nod and agreed to confide in him.

 

      “Great, now help me up!” He had expected the kid to take his left hand and pull him up, but he was cheeky enough to step behind him and lift him up from under the arms. That worked for Tony as well, but before he could even turn towards that blasted wheelchair, he found himself bridal style in Peter’s arms who grinned at him naughtily.

 

      “What? You said you wanted to get to the bed; that’s the easiest way!” he retorted and effortlessly crossed the distance to put down his mentor near the headrest. Given Peter’s lean frame it was often easy to forget that he could catch entire cars or gangways when he was just fourteen years old.

 

      “I liked you better when you were an intimidated, stuttering mess.”

 

      “No, you didn’t”, Peter retorted and went over to the glass front to close the balcony door before hovering near the bed, stealing quick glances at Tony just to make sure he was still there, and he had not just imagined it. His hearing constantly tuned in to that familiar sound of the clumsy heart on the beach and allowed it to ground him in the presence, reassuring him that none of Mysterio’s illusions had ever managed to replicate it. He doubted that very few people besides him could probably identify Tony by the sound of his heart.

 

      “You’re gonna take roots?”, his mentor questioned and held out his good arm, which Peter instantly took as an open invitation to cuddle up next to him. When Tony did not say anything or push him away, but instead wrapped his arm around his shoulder, he figured it was okay.

 

      “Well then… shoot.”

 

      “… with what, Tony?”

 

      “The questions. I can see it on the tip of your nose that you’re holding back on billions of questions you’re dying to ask.”

 

      “Oh…” He had. He had in fact an entire list on his phone with questions that he wished he could have asked Tony during the past year, starting with ‘Why didn’t you let me do it?’ But he figured there was probably another time and place to work through that. For now, the most pressing question was how he had survived and why no one had told him.

 

      “I mean, I get the last part. I’m not family or anything, so that’s totally ok,” Peter was quick to relent, and Tony made a mental note to get the kid to understand that he thought of him as family – it was why he had been included in his will for crying out loud. “But we all saw you die… I attended your funeral!”

 

      “Trust me, I thought I was dead, too…” A gut feeling had told Tony that he would not make it out of the battle alive. He would have been happy if he did, but he had had a strange sense of foreboding that this was it. Weirdly enough, he had been at peace with that decision and did not look for a loophole to get himself out unscathed. Unlike his previous suits which had been made to keep him safe, this last one had been built to carry the Infinity Stones. It was no longer about protecting himself, but about keeping the people he loved most out of harm’s way.

 

The night before the time heist he had pulled up his will and had adjusted it to include Peter because he knew the kid would live again and he wanted to ensure that he would be taken care of. He and his aunt would return to a world in shambles and if they had to worry about one thing less so be it. The last thing he did before joining Pepper for a joint night one last time, were instructions in case of his demise. Given that they were successful in bringing everyone back, he wanted Shuri to have his body, so she could study the effects of the Infinity Stones and maybe find a way to undo the damage to Brucy Bear’s arm. The girl was smart – definitely smarter than him and Peter and if anyone could solve such a riddle it would be her. It could not be that much harder than returning Capsicle’s Cyborg to his factory settings.

 

What Tony had not taken into consideration was the effect the return of the Snap would have on the whole world. With countries struggling to feed and to support their people, the Princess of Wakanda had had more pressing issues than playing around with a dead body. Consequently, he had been put in cryostasis to preserve him and it had been almost six months later when she had finally taken him out of the freezer and thawed him to begin with her research. Only to get the shock of her life, when an initial scan of the body in front of her revealed a weak pulse and brain activity.

 

      “The way it had been explained to me was that I had been on the brink of death and for all our Western medicine, I had been dead. Hence the funeral and why I ended up in the Princess’ freezer.”

 

      “Wakandan technology is far more advanced than ours…”

 

      “Yeah… since everyone had been busy dealing with the aftermath of the battle, no one had scanned me for any signs of life before they put me in cryo – not that I blame them.”

 

The instant Shuri’s instruments had read his life signs, he had been put on life support and had been transferred from the morgue into the medbay where doctors had fought for his survival for two months before it was eventually deemed safe to wake him from his artificially induced coma.

 

      “Does Pepper know?”

 

      “No one knows, Kid. It’s been touch and go for quite a while, so T’Challa thought there was no use in my family mourning me twice should I not recover.”

 

His initial reaction had been searing anger at the young King who had presumed his wishes. Once he had had the chance to calm down, he had seen the wisdom in his decision and had asked for his continuous silence until he had recovered sufficiently. It would have been unfair to the people he loved if they were given hope after they had mourned him only to lose him again, and he certainly did not want to burden them either if it had turned out that he would have been a cripple reliant on everyone’s help.

 

This last thought was why he had still not given Shuri and her brother the permission to reach out to Pepper because he continued to be convinced that he would only inconvenience her and everyone else. While he had made immense progress, it was undeniable that his right side had suffered irreparable damage.

 

Tony could care less about the visible scars on his face and neck, but only time and lots and lots of frustrating physical therapy would show if he would ever be able to walk unassisted again. By now it was a sure thing that his right hand was a lost cause and it was a wearing process to relearn so many simple things with his left hand. About a week ago, the Princess had presented him with an arm brace – slightly reminiscent of Cyborg’s metal arm – that picked up on the tiniest electrical signals and neurotransmitters and conveyed them into movements just like his muscles would if they had not been turned into briquette.

 

      “Everyone will be beside themselves when they learn that you’re alive!” Peter had slipped out of the embrace and was sitting opposite of him, brimming with excitement. Morgan would no longer ask when her Daddy would finally come home; Happy would stop looking so unhappy; Pepper would no longer have to pretend that she was fine when in reality Peter could tell when she had cried secretly; and Rhodey and the other Avengers would have their friend back. Things could finally go back to normal, to how they used to be. Except…

 

      “What’s going through your head, Pete?” Tony questioned when he saw the kid’s excitement quickly take a turn for the worse.

 

      “Nothing, Mr Stark!” he was quick to lie, because it was obvious from everything he had been through in the past year that he had more important things to worry about than Peter royally screwing up the moment he was without his mentor’s supervision.

 

      “Come on, Kid. We had a deal,” Tony reminded him, and the fact that he had fallen back to calling him Mr Stark only confirmed his suspicion. Peter was a terrible liar and the more he deviated from the truth the politer he became. He really had to teach him a proper poker face before he took him to Vegas for his 21st birthday or else the kid would never win anything at the table.

 

      “It’s – “

 

      “Don’t say it’s nothing, Peter,” Tony warned him. “That earlier…”

 

      “But I don’t wanna worry you. And I’ve got it under control!”

 

      “Yeah, that’s only gonna worry me more, Kid.”

 

      “You’ll be disappointed,” he muttered quietly and lowered his head. “You’re gonna take away my suit again… and EDITH. And I really like her. She’s cool – well, as long as she’s not misinterpreting my commands and tries to kill people. But we’ve been working on that!” Peter started to ramble until a horrified “What?!” stopped him.

 

      “What do you mean you have EDITH, Kid?”

 

      “You gave her to me,” Peter replied dumbfounded while momentarily questioning if Mr Stark’s memory might have been fried as well, making him forget that he bequeathed the most powerful, global defence system to him. “Well, Nick Fury did. Or rather Talos did, but he acted on Fury’s orders.”

 

      “I’m dead for a year and Fury’s giving a global defence system to a teenager,” Tony groaned, promising himself to have a word with that one-eyed son-of-a-bitch once he was alive again.

 

      “The UN wasn’t too happy either…” Peter mumbled and preferred staring down on the white bedsheet while nervously playing with his fingers.

 

      “The UN…?”

 

      “Yeah, after everything that went down last summer… They wanted control of EDITH, so for the past few months, Pepper and T’Challa have been arguing with them. Until they reach an agreement, the glasses are locked away somewhere safe.”

 

      “If they’re locked away, how come you still have access to her?”

 

      “… I feared someone would find out where the glasses are and the whole debacle would repeat itself… so I may have created a locked partition on Karen’s server, downloaded EDITH onto there, and then created a sleeping subroutine that would allow me to activate her whenever I need her…”

 

Scratching his beard, which was in dire need of a trimming, Tony reached out and rested his good hand on Peter’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. Part of him wanted to question the kid’s sanity for playing around with the matrix of two advanced artificial intelligences when he had told him countless times that programming was one of his weak spots. He kind of prayed that Ted – Ned? – had helped him since he had been the one to hack the original Spider-Man suit, but it did not sound like it. Before he berated the kid for his stupidity, as he had done in the past, Tony wanted to hear the whole story, so he softly encouraged him to tell him about the debacle. He had a feeling that a lot of things would make more sense once he knew what had transpired while he had been dead.

Chapter Text

      “Fuck, it’s cold outside,” James cursed in English with a strong Eastern European accent as he entered their little cottage about an hour north of Bucharest. They had arrived a month earlier after making their way from Moscow – their last official mission before they had defected – to Voronezh, then Odessa, and Chisinau before leaving the Soviet Union and crossing into Romania. Having been on the run for almost half a year, they felt free from Mother Russia’s clasps for the first time in forever and had dared to settle down for a longer period of time to abide one of the coldest winters in two decades. They had little money, but they had found an abandoned cottage in the countryside that they had claimed as their own. James had fixed the leaking roof and the broken windows to the best of his knowledge, but there was still a terrible draft and the small fireplace they had did little to warm up the entire main room.  

 

They had accumulated a few blankets and skins which they had spread in front of the fireplace to keep somewhat warm during the night. Just when a blizzard had hit their area, the firewood they had stored inside had been all fired up and James had to leave the shelter of their cottage to gather new wood from the adjourning barn.

 

      “Are you still warm?” he asked Natalia as he crouched next to her to throw more wood into the fire, before stacking the remaining pieces within reach.

 

      “I’d be warmer with you,” she winked at him and placed a kiss on his flesh hand when he brushed a strand of red hair out of her face and hovered over her for a moment.

 

      “Give me a minute, Paučók, ” he hushed her. “I collected another pot of snow, so we have some more drinking water.”

 

While he got up again and quickly got the pot from outside to boil it over the fire, Natalia had left their bed as well, two blankets wrapped around her naked body, and retrieved a pot with stew from their makeshift kitchen. James had shot two hares last week and they had buried the bodies under the snow to keep them fresh and to use their meat whenever needed. When she had sifted through an abandoned farm a few miles east, she had not only come across some blankets – partially mothy but better than nothing – but also some potatoes and turnips. Granted, they had a few mouldy spots, but the rest had still been edible. Neither of them was great at cooking some grand dish, but with their combined efforts they had managed to put together a somewhat decent stew that she now placed in the fire to heat up, so they would get something warm into their bellies.

 

Natalia had already crawled back into their makeshift bed when James had returned and placed the pot of snow to boil next to the stew before he began to undress under her watchful eyes. Skin to skin contact was still the best way to stay warm in these conditions.

 

      “Enjoying the show?” he teased with a knowing grin as he hung up his wet jacket over a nearby chair, before stripping the rest of his clothes.

 

      “Idiot!” she laughed when he started to sway his hips suggestively as he shimmied out of his trousers and then hurriedly slipped under the blankets to cuddle up close to her, so they could share body heat.

 

      “Chort, you’re a popsicle, Yasha!” she exclaimed in a mix of Russian and English when he spooned up behind her to get as much exposure to her warmth as possible.

 

      “Wanna lick?” He wiggled his eyebrows alluringly and was met with amused laughter.  

 

Instead of further twisting her head to see him, Natalia turned in his embrace, slipping her own arms around him and entangling her legs with his. “We really need to find something better, James…” she muttered soberly and rested her head on his chest, feeling the cold metal from his arm and shoulder radiate all the way down there. He would never say anything, but she had known him long enough to know that it bothered him. The day before, he had been in so much pain that he had not even put up a fight when she had gone outside to chop more wood for the fireplace, while he had sat as close to the smouldering fire as possible to let the warmth seep into the metal and his body.

 

      “We don’t have enough money for a proper apartment in the city…”

 

      “I saw a couple of places that were looking for help last time we were there. If I work a job or two that might pay the rent for a small place…”

 

      “I’ll ask the sawmill in the next village if they need someone. A few weeks of steady work and we should have a month or two worth of rent to find a decent place in Bucharest.”

 

      “Or you’ll keep warm in front of the fire and I go.”

 

      “’Tasha,” he sighed and pressed a small kiss onto the corner of her mouth before burying his nose in her fiery red locks. “I know how strong you are, but they don’t.”

 

      “Then they’ll have to learn,” she replied stubbornly.

 

      “And draw unwanted attention to us,” James replied. “Make it easier for them to find us.” His last argument seemed to convince her as she remained quiet while her once well-manicured fingers were drawing intricate patterns on his chest.

 

      “I hate this,” Natalia finally uttered quietly. “Every decision we make is influenced by the question if they will find us. That’s not freedom!”

 

      “It’s better than what we had,” James quietly reminded her and lifted his head to look at her. “And one day we’ll be free. But till then, we have to do everything we can to stay as far away from them as possible.”

 

      “Can we go somewhere warm? I’m tired of the snow and the cold…” she sighed and tugged her head under his chin, pressing butterfly kisses onto his neck that made his entire body tremble with pleasure. Physical closeness was nothing new to them, but before they had fallen in love, it had just been another way of fighting, of gaining the upper hand over the other. If he whipped the floor with her in the training room, she would ambush him in the shower later on, fighting him tooth and nail until their bodies were covered in scratches and bruises, both of them clinging to each other breathlessly as they came down from their high. In the rare cases that she had managed to beat the Winter Soldier, he would drag her out of the girls’ dormitory in the middle of the night and push her into a nearby closet to punish her until she was a whimpering mess on the cold floor too proud to scream or to beg him to stop. Love had not been part of their world until their handlers’ influence over them had weakened when they had spent days or weeks together on joined missions.

 

      “We can go wherever you want, Paučók,” James promised and placed a finger beneath her chin, gently lifting it up so he could capture her lips in a soft kiss.

 

      “I’ve read,” Natalia breathed between two kisses, “that there are places where the sand is white as snow and the water is bluer than at Kucherlinskoye.”

 

      “Then that’s where we go,” James confirmed and softly nibbled at her lower lip.

 

      “Together?”

 

      “Together,” he promised sombrely and rolled them around so that he was hovering above her, supporting his weight on his metal arm, while his human hand rested on her cheek caressing her soft skin with his thumb. “Till death do us apart.”

 

      “Almost sounds like a marriage proposal, Yasha”, she contemplated and put her hand over his as she spread her legs to better accommodate his body.

 

      “Would you say yes if I asked ’Tasha?”

 

      “Yes.” Green eyes met his as she stretched to reach his lips and his lids automatically slipped close when he felt the softness of her hers against his. Her tongue licked over his lips, gently nibbling on them before she entered his mouth and their tongues playfully rubbed against each other while the stew and the boiling water in the fire were quickly forgotten.

 

When James opened his eyes again, the cold of the draughty cottage was gone and the hard ground of their makeshift bed had been turned into the softest cloud he had ever rested on. With his consciousness still clinging to the last remnants of the dream world, he turned onto his side while his right hand reached out to the other side of the bed to pull Natasha’s body flush against his and to drift off to sleep again breathing in her sweet scent. “’Tash’”, he mumbled, his voice heavy with sleep as his hand continued to root.

 

      “Buck?”

 

The voice cut his last ties to Morpheus’ blissful world and he turned around towards the familiar voice, as his sleep-addled mind was putting together the scattered pieces that were his memories and reality. For a second, he was back in that old, abandoned cottage, bundled up underneath mothy blankets and itchy skins, the blizzard tearing at their shelter while the fire was crackling in the background, warming their naked bodies as they writhed in pleasure, whispering sweet promises into each other’s ears as their meagre dinner was burning in the fire.

 

But then it all collapsed like a house of cards and Bucky was back in his apartment at the Compound reading through the HYDRA files he had downloaded before the base had been destroyed: they had created a new life, but before either of them had even had the chance to realise it, their handlers had caught up to them and punished them for their disobedience. They shot him, and they surgically removed the baby from Natalia’s body.

 

Bucky had been in a cheap internet café in Bucharest when he had read the files on Agent Romanoff after she had leaked all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s data. One of the facts that had stood out to him was that the Red Room had sterilized her and a gut feeling – he knew now it was profound knowledge of their practices – had told him that they had never mutilated their girls like this before. Now he knew why they had maimed his little spider.

 

Because of him.

Because he had started to feel safe and he had become careless…

 

Does she even know the real reason why she was sterilized, or did they lie to her? Implant her with fake memories?

 

Bucky was starting to feel sick. Like he-had-to-throw-up-sick. His feet were entangled in the blanket and it took him a moment to free himself before he ran on wobbly legs towards the bathroom. The automatic toilet seat took far too long to open, and he ended up spitting bile into the white porcelain sink before crumbling onto the floor too weak to support his own weight any longer. He leaned forward, dry-heaving as his mind circled back to the child they never knew existed as well as the girl who had brought back the human side of the Winter Soldier.

 

Natalia Alianovna Romanova, born in 1984 according to her leaked file, but he had met her in the Red Room in 1949 for the first time, where he had trained her and fallen in love with her. Yet, how could the same woman exist twice in time? Because she has always been stronger and recovered quicker from her wounds than your ordinary human, his mind helpfully supplied. Only the strongest and most promising candidates for the Black Widow programme were given a variation of HYDRA’s super-soldier-serum.

 

As the impact of this realization settled heavily on Bucky, he pulled himself up again and vomited some more bile into the sink before he let himself fall back onto the ground while his mind was racing.

 

Natalia had fallen to her death on Vormir.

 

He had fallen to his death in a ravine in the Alpes but had survived due to the serum Zola had injected him with.

 

When she had lived for almost nine decades yet did not look any older than in her early thirties, there was a chance she had survived her fall as well and was now stranded on a foreign planet somewhere out there in the vastness of space and no one was looking for her because no one knew the truth about Natalia Romanova.

 

Except for him. The one person who had promised her that they would always be together, only to have all memories of her wiped from his mind. The same person who had tried to kill her multiple times. Did she even remember him, or had they erased him from her memories as well?

 

      “You could at least recognize me!” There had been so much spunk in her retort and looking back - with the fragile memories that were slowly coming back to him -  he recalled similar instances in the Red Room where he had pinned her to whatever surface was the closest and she snapped at him. No, he was certain she knew who he was.

 

      “Buck? You’re okay?”

 

Steve had spent the morning in one of the armchairs, sketching his best friend’s sleeping form when he had noticed signs of him waking up. Not wanting a repeat of yesterday, he had remained quiet, watching as he had slowly regained consciousness with a happy smile spread across his face while his hand was reaching out as if he was looking for another person in his bed. Bucky would deny strenuously that he was a cuddler, but having bunked together far too many times, Steve knew better. Unlike his best friend, he was a morning person and the moment he left the warmth of their bed, Bucky would instinctively search for him until he found a pillow that smelt like him and cuddled that.

 

Whoever he had been looking for had obviously not been in bed with him and when that realization sat in, his face had turned from blissful happiness to horror that twisted his stomach. Steve could practically tell from his seat several feet away how Bucky was trying to keep himself from gagging, as he tried to free himself from the blankets he had gotten himself entangled in. He wanted to get up and help him, but before he could he was hurrying into the bathroom and Steve found him vomiting into the sink, looking absolutely horrible. Whatever had caused such a reaction had to be gut-wrenching. 

 

Given the strain their relationship was under – one that had to be pointed out to him by Sam because he was too blind to see it himself, he admonished himself – it should not have surprised him when Bucky lied straight through his teeth, telling him he was just peachy. It still hurt. Unlike the previous day, he seemed coherent at least, so that was a plus in Steve’s book. Nonetheless, he hovered close by, as Bucky pulled himself up on the sink stubbornly refusing any help, despite the fact that he looked like he might pass out any minute.

 

      “And you look like you belong into an almshouse, but you don’t hear me saying anything,” he spat back and pushed Steve none too gently into the anteroom, before opening the door and practically shoving him out into the hallway. The wooden door was shut in his face and instantly locked. Steve was too perplexed to react until he found himself looking at the closed entrance to Bucky’s suit, while the other man staggered through his rooms, tore open the glass door that led to his balcony, and went outside, gulping in the fresh air.

 

He knew he should question what he was doing in his rooms in Wakanda when his last memory was from the Compound, but Bucky had more important things to worry about now.

 

      “Think, James, think!” he muttered to himself as he weakly sunk down onto the warm marble floor, hitting his fist against his forehead as if that would jolt a few ideas or memories. Or both, he really was not picky. First of all, he had to confirm this vague memory that his little spider had been enhanced similarly to him. Brushing over the stump of his left shoulder, he realized he would also need his arm back. Without knowing what had transpired since his last recollections in the Compound or how many days or weeks he was missing, he could only assume that it had been one of Shuri’s security measures.

 

He would need the arm back because it still held the original files he had downloaded from HYDRA and they might give him more information on Natalia. Yet, without knowing what had happened since he escaped HYDRA – once again – it was probably best to play it safe with the Princess. He hated deceiving her, but he had a mission now and that took precedence over niceties and other people’s emotions. For an instant he caught himself thinking that this was the mindset of the Winter Soldier, but then, he had always lurked somewhere in the back of his mind. Shuri could delete the trigger words but not decades of training.

 

Bucky quickly dismissed that particular thought and instead concentrated on what else he would need. Definitely his gear. His knives and guns. His rifle. Funnily enough, the latter one had been… borrowed from Natalia’s weapon locker long before he had any memory of their joint past. Had she been the reason why he had gone to Bucharest in 2014? Pushing these questions to the back of his mind, he contemplated his next steps. Vormir was not around the corner, so he definitely needed a ride. Luckily, he knew a kleptomaniac rodent with a spaceship.

Chapter Text

Once Doctor Zivai had declared him fit, albeit cautioned him to take it easy for a couple of more days, it had been child’s play for Bucky to get his arm back. He had intended to stay focused on his mission, yet when he learned where Shuri’s swollen cheek had come from – she had covered it with makeup, so he would not see the discoloration – he had felt bad and had suggested they did a movie night with tons of popcorn. Naturally, she had accepted instantly.

 

While Bucky waited for her to finish up in the lab and come to his suite, he had been going back to the HYDRA files that had still been stored on the drive inside his arm. It was one of the features Shuri had installed, but instead of keeping the standard settings, he had created an encrypted and invisible subfolder where he could keep sensitive data. He had no doubt that the Princess would find it and hack into it if she learned of its existence, but the monitoring systems he could access through a small panel on the inside of the vibranium arm showed no forced admission.

 

The same panel allowed him to create a holographic projection of the data stored on the drive, making it easy to swipe and read through any files. As he was waiting for Shuri – he still had at least an hour – he was quickly scrolling through the files until he reached Natalia’s and quickly confirmed that she had indeed been born in 1928. November 22 to be exact, but he already knew that because he could clearly remember celebrating her birthday in their drafty old cottage in the Romanian countryside. Based on that information he concluded that the birthyear S.H.I.E.L.D. had, was a diversion to hide the fact that she had been similarly enhanced like Captain America or the Winter Soldier.  

 

      “Daughter of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia,” Bucky continued reading Natasha’s file. “Wasn’t she murdered?” He was about to file away that bit of information for later examination when the Swiss cheese that his brain was brought forth an old memory of Natasha lying in their bed in their apartment in Bucharest.

 

      “Have you ever thought about children, James?”

 

      “Yeah, that they’d be a hell of an inconvenience on the run from our handlers, which is why I’m down here,” he was quick to retort and looked up from his position in between her legs, licking up the load of cum he had shot all over her belly. As always, money was tight so instead of wasting it on rubbers, he just pulled out when his climax was approaching. It was not as satisfying as feeling her milk every last drop out of him, but it was safer.

 

      “Idiot!” she laughed and by now James was fairly certain that the Russian ‘idiot’ was her equivalent to his ‘ paučók’. When she gently pulled at his hair – it had reached a point where it was long enough to touch his chin – he followed her lead and crawled up her lean body, letting himself be coaxed into a sloppy kiss, before he moved to the left to nibble on her ear and her jaw.

 

      “What about before? Have you ever thought about children before they turned you, Yasha?”

 

      “I… I don’t really remember, ‘Tasha…” he muttered against her cheek and pressed a kiss against the corner of her mouth. “What about you?”

 

            “I remember… playing with an old doll. Pretending it was my baby…” she answered slowly, her brows furrowed as if she were recalling a distant memory from a long time ago.

 

James did not have the luxury of remembering great details about his childhood or his teenage years. There were a few bits and pieces, a frail blonde-haired boy with blue eyes who got constantly into trouble, but nothing concrete. He did not know if his past self had ever imagined having a wife or a family. Maybe. It was the right thing to do, was it not? Find a girl, settle down in the suburbs, work a steady job and raise children together. Their current life could not be further away from this 1940s’ phantasy.

 

            “I think… I called her Tsarina…”

 

            “Like the female monarch?”

 

            “Don’t ask me why,” Natasha laughed at the silliness of her own childhood memory and let her finger comb through his hair as James laid down next to her, pulling her into his arms.

 

            “We could shorten it to Zara,” he contemplated, a serious look on his face. “Make sure it doesn’t get to her head.”

 

            “You would actually agree to that name?”

 

            “It has a ring to it, and if you like it…”

 

            “Tsarina Ivanovna Romanova…”

 

            “You mean Buchanan Barnes.”

 

Bucky blinked several times as the memory slowly faded away. Being on the run had not been easy. Most of the time they went to bed hungry and they would fight when Natasha caught him sneaking the majority of his ration onto her plate. They were cold, their clothes wet and their bodies shaking badly as they tried to warm each other with the little body heat they had to share. Things were difficult when old memories resurfaced, and they had to make peace with the people they had become. Yet, despite these hardships, they had been genuinely happy. For the first time in forever, their minds had been their own and they had dared to imagine a future without blood on their hands.

 

Turning his attention back to Natasha’s file, he continued to skim through it, occasionally slowing down when he thought he came across relevant information for the mission. He was longing to read everything HYDRA had ever collected on her, but he did not have time for that, so he continued until he reached the section about her approval for the Black Widow program.

 

On her 16th birthday, they had injected her with something called the Black Venom, but her file did not offer any more information except that her body did not reject it. Naturally, he searched the remaining data for the serum name but was only directed to other files linked to the Black Widow programme. Worst case scenario: there was a bunch of other killer spies out there with similar enhancements like Natasha. Without any concrete information, he could only go by what he remembered about training and fighting her.

 

The Black Venom definitely gave the subject similar longevity like the super-soldier-serum. She had been stronger and more agile than any ordinary human he had ever fought, but when it came to brute strength he easily overpowered her… something she had figured out quite quickly and had then used her speed and nimbleness against him. He remembered the countless scars on her milky skin, some inflicted by him during their training when she had not been quick enough to escape his knife. Some of these cuts had been deep and nasty but had been reduced to an angry red line within days. Based on these recollections Bucky guessed that Natasha’s healing factor was similar to his own, yet both of them inferior to Steve’s because America’s golden boy did not scar.

 

Deep down Bucky knew that he should probably be concerned about the potential threat of further enhanced spies trained during the Second World War and the Cold War to infiltrate and take down the governments of the world, but it was something he would worry about once he knew for certain if his little spider had survived the fall.

 

It was scary to feel this strongly for someone he had been made to forget for decades. He was still missing too many memories connected to Natalia Romanova to pinpoint the exact moment he fell in love with her; he only knew that their relationship started out as an abusive one and then gradually morphed into two lost souls keeping each other alive. Somewhere along the way they had fallen in love and while he did not remember the moment when Natalia became paučók, he had rarely been so certain about anything, let alone felt so protective of another human being.

 

Bucky had always been defensive of his sisters and Steve, but Natasha was a different level. When they had prepared for the battle against Thanos’ goons in Wakanda he had felt strangely torn about whose side he should take. Naturally, he would be fighting alongside Steve, but something in him had wanted to stay close to Natasha as well. He had marched to the front by her side, automatically shortening his strides to match hers and when they took up position, he caught himself reaching for her hand, wanting to give it a reassuring squeeze. Back then, it had confused the hell out of him, but he had attributed it to the graveness of the situation, yet with those old emerging memories back in place, he knew for certain that he was prepared to kill for her without a second thought. He would step into the barrage of gunfire if it meant she survived. It was scary to know how far he was prepared to go for her when he had little memories of how they had even started out.

 

That particular thought was still gnawing on his mind when Shuri came around, an excited smile on her face and a large bowl of popcorn under her arm.

 

      “By Bast, I’ve missed this,” she greeted him happily and pulled him into a hug as she let herself into the suite and instantly busied herself in the small kitchenette. Considering that at least one or two people had been staying with Bucky the past few days, it was relatively well-stocked. Usually, it only contained a couple of cans of tinned food, some protein shakes, and a couple of chocolate bars.

 

      “I was thinking we could watch the photorealistic remake of the Lion King.”

 

      “That’s the one where you cried over a dead lion?”

 

      “That’s the one. And you cried as well, Ingcuka! Don’t think I didn’t hear you sniffling,” Shuri yelled from the kitchen, while Bucky set up the TV and grabbed a bottle of Vodka from the shelf underneath and plopped down on the sofa.

 

      “That bad?” Shuri questioned when she brought over a bag of chips and several cans of Coke which she placed next to the popcorns and the snaps.

 

      “It’s not like I can get drunk.” Which was a shame at times. Just like cigarettes did not taste the same any longer.

 

      “How are you doing? With the new memories?”, the Princess asked, her expression quickly growing serious. Instead of a verbal reply, Bucky deflected the question with a shrug and then questioned if she saw these new recollections. If she did, he had to be particularly careful in planning his mission. “No… Like I said earlier, I scanned your memories for trigger words. As part of that, I had a glimpse at the newly resurfaced memories, but once it was clear they did not re-programme you, I had no need to watch any more. Besides, what I’ve seen was more than enough…”

 

      “Hence the kid’s movie?”

 

      “I need some PG fun after your M-rated memories.”

 

Bucky snorted at her retort while filing away the information she had just given him. Whatever glimpse she had got from those newly resurfacing memories, was probably not linked with his feelings for a certain redhead. It was a good thing Steve had no idea about their involvement either or he would never hear the end about falling for the same type of girl even when he was brainwashed and did not even recall his own name let alone his own past.

 

      “Hey, can I ask you something?” Shuri inquired as she plopped down next to him, started the movie, and then used his shoulder as a pillow to slouch onto the sofa.

 

      “You know you can ask me anything…” he replied and shifted slightly, so she rested more against his chest than his shoulder which would become uncomfortable rather quickly.

 

      “While you were… out,” the Princess started tentatively, knowing it was better to choose her words carefully because they had barely addressed yet what happened in the past few days and she was not ready to open that can of worms right now. “You were repeating something over and over that made no sense to us… Doctor Zivai identified it as Russian… You were asking for a little spider. We assumed you meant Peter, like you didn’t remember that he was safe… But when Peter talked to you… you acted like he was the wrong person. Like you wanted someone else…”

 

      “I don’t have any recollection about that,” Bucky replied truthfully, knowing fully well who he had asked for based on Shuri’s little ramble. He reached for the Vodka bottle and took a swig, holding it in his mouth to feel the burn of the alcohol before he swallowed it. “It’s all scrambled eggs up here”, he finally said and tapped the neck of the bottle against his temple. “Who knows what my mind came up with.”

 

      “Yeah… probably”, Shuri conceded and took the Vodka out of his hand to have a sip herself. Bucky did not stop her since she was eighteen – three years off the legal drinking age in the U.S. but perfectly legal in Wakanda. But he did laugh when she pulled a face and started coughing, putting down the bottle.

 

      “Urgh, that tastes disgusting! How can you drink that?!”

 

      “It’s just potatoes…”

 

      “What?”

 

      “It’s made from fermented potatoes.”

 

      “Why would anyone in their right mind do that to potatoes?!”

 

      “Dunno, ask the Russians,” Bucky retorted and shook his head in amusement when Shuri reached for the chips claiming that this was a much better use of the tuber.

 

Their attention finally turned to the movie and as they ate their way through all the snacks, Bucky’s mind drifted off to Natasha once again, jumping from the few memories he had recovered to conclusions he had made, eventually lingering on his fears. How much of their time together did she remember? Or did she only recall the Winter Soldier? Did he lose her when he had tried to kill her? Thrice. That would probably put a dampener on the best of relationships and no grovelling whatsoever could undo that… It was truly a pity that liquor did nothing to calm his fears these days because his past self would have welcomed a blackout under such circumstances.

 

Speaking of alcohol, he should have probably paid better attention to how often Shuri had taken the bottle from him to have a sip herself despite previously exclaiming her disgust over the taste. Looking back, he had never seen her drink, so when she made another grab to steal the vodka from him, he thought it wiser to keep it out of her reach for both their sakes. Whatever emotional turmoil – because that was always the moving spirit behind getting pissed, was it not? – had made her think it could be drowned in alcohol, Bucky could really go without a royal lecture from T’Challa and the Queen Mother about Shuri getting wasted on his watch. Besides, he remembered a couple of terrible hangovers after binging the whole night and that was really something he wanted to spare the Princess from.

 

      “No, Bucky,” she whined and elongated ever single syllable while she tried to climb over him, which only confirmed his theory that he should have paid a whole lot more attention as she was beyond tipsy.

 

      “I think you’ve had enough,” he tried to sound as stern as possible and bent over to put down the bottle on the other side of the sofa, which only resulted in Shuri losing her footing against him and face-planted straight into his lap where she simply remained until Bucky grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her upright.

 

      “Bu’ y’er no’ drunk”, she objected.

 

      “Serum, remember? Just because I can drink it like water doesn’t mean you can!”

 

Instead of a verbal reply, she merely climbed onto his lap and flopped against his chest, wrapping her arms around his neck. Great, the Princess was a drunk cuddler. Probably still better than Steven who would puke his guts out after one drop of alcohol pre-serum.

 

      “If I had known a second round of that dying lion turns you into such a mess, I would have suggested we watch something else,” Bucky sighed and loosely wrapped his arms around her waist to prevent her from sliding down considering her balance had currently left the room. “We could have watched one of Peter’s space movies…” Speaking of which, Sam had mentioned that the kid had accompanied them to Wakanda, but he had not seen him since he had woken up. Not that he could really blame him. The Palace had so many more interesting things to offer than a semi-stable super-soldier.

 

      “Don’ wanna see it anymore…”

 

      “Ok, I’ll switch it off.” He was about to pat the sofa for the remote control which had to be somewhere when he felt Shuri shake her head.

 

      “No’ the film.”

 

      “What then?”

 

Considering that she clung to him as Becca used to when she had a nightmare or had scraped her knees in the park and he had to carry her home, it felt only natural to cup her cheek and rub small circles over it with his thumb. It had always calmed his baby sister and had made her confide in him.

 

      “Shuri, talk to me?” he prompted her when she did not offer a verbal reply but merely leaned into his hand, which meant he was basically holding her head.

 

      “Hm? Wha’bout?”

 

      “What you don’t wanna see any longer…”

 

      “Oh… your memories,” she mumbled and rested her head on his shoulder again.

 

I should have seen it coming… Bucky scolded himself. A teenager should have never had to watch all the things HYDRA did to break him, or what he did to finish his missions. It was the stuff nightmares were made off and no one, particularly as young as Shuri, should witness these things. How long has she been…His train of thought came to an abrupt halt when the Princess continued to ramble, and Bucky had to realise she was talking about one specific memory – one he would prefer to forget as well.

 

      “They shot you in’e head.” She lifted her head up to look at him and Bucky could see the emotions clouding her brown eyes. “They killed you…” Her hand traced his temple where he remembered the cold metal of a barrel pressed against his skin. “Bu’ somehow… you su’vived. ‘N then… you ran straigh’ back in’o their arms. I told’cha… ordered’cha not’o! Bu’ you still went ‘n’ they tortured y’again… ‘n’ I coulda los’ you. I though’…”

 

      “Hey,” Bucky interrupted her drunk ramblings and gently brushed off the lone tear that had escaped her eyes. He had known they would have to talk about her trying to give him an order, his decision to ignore it, and to act on his own accord. Considering how the situation had escalated so quickly now, he wondered if he had been too focused on his mission to not notice anything when he had been in her lab earlier today. Unfortunately, most of the day that did not involve important information regarding Natasha was a blur.

 

      “Look at me, Shuri. I’m alright. I made it out okay.”

 

      “I coulda… I can’t…”

 

She was obviously trying to reign in her emotions, so she would not be a sobbing mess clinging to him, while Bucky’s mind was still reeling at the thought that he had missed the inner turmoil the Princess had been carrying with her these past few days. He really should have paid more attention… It was a notion he would keep on repeating for the days to come, because he never saw the clumsy kiss coming until it was too late, and he felt Shuri’s lips press against his. He froze under her – whether it was due to his aversion to intimacy after decades of torture or if his body instinctively knew that they were the wrong lips he could not tell. Yet, before he even had a chance to gently push her away, she broke the kiss and stared at him in horror.

 

      “By Bast… I-I-I’m sorry…” She clasped her hands over her mouth and the blush of shame visibly spread over her cheeks and her throat. Surprisingly coordinated given how drunk she had seemed just minutes ago, she managed to get up from Bucky’s lap. “I shouldn’ … I-I’m so sorry!” She staggered backward, hit the coffee table behind her, and almost lost her balance before she caught herself and literally ran out of the room.

 

      “… Shuri!” Seeing as he had been caught completely off guard, it took Bucky a moment to react but by the time he had risen, she had already stormed out of the room and the door had closed behind her with a loud bang. For a moment he considered going after her, but, as he defeatedly plopped down onto the sofa, he figured she would be too embarrassed to talk to him now. Hence why he decided to let the matter rest for the moment and broach the subject tomorrow.

 

      “Fuck…” he sighed as he leaned his head against the backrest and stared up at the ceiling before leaning forward again, burying his face in his hands. He really should have seen this coming. Sam had teased him countless times about Shuri crushing on him – so had T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia. Instead of trying to see their closeness from an outsider’s point of view, he had waved it off, arguing that their relationship was based on the Princess intimate knowledge of his past.

 

Looking back at their interactions now, he wondered if he had inadvertently given her any mixed signals she could have interpreted as interest in her. After all, the last thing he would want to do was to lead her on and hurt her in the process. Granted, their friendship did involve quite a bit of touching, but that originated in Shuri creating his new arm and learning about the muscle cramps he would often get due to decades of erroneous strain on his bones, muscles, and tendons. The Princess had suggested trying massage therapy to help with the pain and it really had just been his trauma that had stopped him from letting the therapist touch him. Seeing as she already had his permission to touch him to work on the prothesis, it had only seemed a natural progression that she would rub the tension out of his muscles as well. Letting her sleep in his hut when it had got late had only been courteous, just like he had seen nothing wrong with her using him as a pillow when they watched movies – his sisters had always piled on top of him when they had listened to their favourite radio programme.

 

      “Fuck…” he cursed again, evidentially not looking forward to the conversation he would have to have with the Princess the next day. Steven had always been the one who could babble about emotions and all that sentimental stuff for hours on end, whereas Bucky had usually preferred to avoid talking about them by either busying himself with a new girl that had caught his eye or by drowning them in alcohol and tobacco. But he could hardly send Steve to talk to Shuri for him, particularly since they should probably have a heart to heart as well. Why did all of these things have to rain down on him when he had more important things to worry about? Speaking of which…

 

Something in the white, plush carpet reflected the light from the ceiling and caught Bucky’s attention and when he reached for it, his fingers touched the cool vibranium of a kimoyo bead. Shuri had the habit of taking hers off when she would not need them for a while, and he guessed that she had probably put them next to her on the sofa when they had started watching the movie and that they had eventually fallen to the ground. As he looked around the floor, he found several more beads, including one he pocketed. He took the other kimoyo beads to one of the guards in the hallway and asked her if she would mind taking them to the Princess as she forgot them. The member of the Dora Milaje had obviously seen Shuri running past her and gave him a long and taxing look before taking the beads and offering him a curt nod.

 

Bucky went back to his suite and pretended to close the door when in reality he kept it slightly ajar to monitor the movement of the guard. His hand slipped into the pocket of his black jeans and he felt the kimoyo bead, twisting and turning it in between his thumb and pointer. The instant the guard left her post to go to the Princess’ quarters, Bucky snuck out of his own and went in the opposite direction, easily falling back into old habits where alertness and providence meant success, while emotions would bring failure.

Chapter Text

Old habits die hard, which was why one of the first things Bucky had done after the deprogramming had been deemed successful and he had been moved into his suite while Shuri and the doctors worked on his arm, was to scout the Palace. Despite T’Challa’s reassurance that he was a welcomed guest in both his home and country, part of Bucky was only waiting for the shoe to drop. After all, the guy had wanted to kill him not too long ago and now he was playing host?! He had not survived so many decades because he was naïve and starry-eyed. Hence why he had gotten his hands on blueprints of the Palace and had studied them religiously before he had explored various escape routes. Steve had caught him once and had given him those sad puppy-eyes as if he was personally upset by Bucky’s survival skills.

 

When the Princess had started to suddenly spend less time than usual with him and was rather evasive – and frankly pretty obvious – in her white lies, he had used that knowledge to follow her and to find out what she was hiding. It was hard to keep secrets from a spy because he would instantly know when something was fishy and very little could keep him from getting to the bottom of it. To say he had been surprised when he had discovered Shuri’s secret would be an understatement, but he appreciated the security measures the royal siblings had employed to safeguard their latest guest. Consequently, Bucky had filed away the information he had obtained and merely updated it when necessary.

 

As a result, he was now making his way through the North Wing and used Shuri’s kimoyo bead to get access to a locked-off side wing. It was connected with her main labs in the vibranium mine, but instead of going that way, Bucky made a left turn and his eyes instinctively scanned the ceiling until he found the ventilation shaft he had been looking for. His latest intel from about two months ago had shown that only a selected number of people whose fingerprints and retina scans were registered could proceed to where he had to go. Shuri’s kimoyo bead was therefore only useful to get him through the lesser security measures before he had to resort to good old stalking tactics. As a sniper, he was naturally gravitating towards high grounds and his initial scouting of the Palace had revealed that the extensive network of ventilation shafts was pretty much left unguarded. One of these days he would have to bring this up to T’Challa as it was clearly a security risk, but for now, it would have to wait.

 

When Shuri had equipped his vibranium arm with a grappling hook among other things, she had probably not imagined that he would use it to break into the Palace’s ventilation shafts to go behind her back. It was nonetheless very useful to dislodge the cover and to get up there. Once he was in the shaft, he closed it again and then followed a specific route he had mapped out two months ago. As he was crawling along, he kind of missed the knee protectors his uniform had, but people would have been suspicious had they spotted him walking around the Palace in his tac gear.

 

Fourteen minutes and twenty-six seconds later Bucky had reached his destination and he banged his human elbow as quietly as possible against another cover, and quickly caught it before it fell onto the ground. Placing it next to the opening, he let his body glide into it and silently dropped to the ground. He instinctively sought out the closest shadow to hide in the dark room until he had assured himself that no one had noticed him breaking into it. When his sensitive hearing merely picked up the regular breathing of two people he stepped towards the bed and was not surprised to find Peter curled up against Stark’s injured side as if he was unconsciously shielding his mentor’s weaker side. He should probably be surprised, but frankly, he had expected that Shuri would eventually crack and let Peter in on the little secret they were hiding away in Wakanda. Considering how little he had seen of the boy since he had regained consciousness, it had been one of the explanations he had entertained and if he forgot about his personal mission for a moment, he was happy for him to have some of that stability and normalcy back. With Stark back, he would probably hardly notice his own disappearance.  

 

Sitting down in a nearby armchair, he crossed his arms and waited. When Peter was not kept awake by nightmares he was a deep sleeper – a terrible habit when out on assignments as the clumsiest villains could sneak up on him and murder him in his sleep and he would be none the wiser. The kid really had to work on his sixth sense if he wanted to grow old in this job. Right now, Bucky considered it a blessing however as it saved him from answering any unwanted questions. Plus, considering the friendship between Peter and Shuri, he would probably instantly rave about how cool it was that Bucky had managed to break into her maximum-security unit. The boy really had some weird definitions of what he considered cool…

 

Stark on the other hand was a very light sleeper – likely reminiscent of his abduction more than fifteen years ago. Consequently, Bucky did not have to wait long for Howard’s son to stir before reaching for the lamp on the nightstand and turning it on, watching the man blink a few times as his eyes grew accustomed to the brightness before his expression turned into a frown when he noticed his nightly visitor. A smirk threatened to tug at Bucky’s lips when he sat up with a groan and automatically placed his body in front of Peter, who merely grumbled in his sleep and buried his face deeper in the pillows.

 

      “I wasn’t aware you had visitation rights…”

 

      “Broadly speaking,” Bucky replied and catalogued the burned scar tissue on Stark’s face, neck, and arm. Instead of the angry red it had been at his previous visit, most of the burns had transitioned into a pale pink. Having lived with the serum for such a long time now, it sometimes took him by surprise what an arduous process it was for normal humans to recover from more severe injuries.

 

      “Broadly…?” It was at that moment that Stark caught sight of the hole in the ceiling. “Do our hosts know about your nightly excursions?”

 

      “Would I take the ventilation shafts if they did?” Bucky retorted and rolled his eyes when the man’s next question was if he had intended to kill him in his sleep. He had forgotten what a drama queen Howard could be – it obviously ran in the family. “Relax, if I wanted you dead, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now,” Bucky reassured him and unintentionally cracked the knuckles of his right hand, before he lifted up both in a placatory gesture, but also to show Stark that he had no weapons in his hands. “I wanted to ask you something…”

 

      “Ask me…? Well, shoot. Can’t promise I’m gonna answer though.” He had this same stubborn look on his face that Bucky remembered from their last encounter in Siberia, making him wonder if the man could be anything but a pig-headed mule who would throw a temper tantrum if things did not go his way. It would not help his own agenda, if he mulled about it any longer, therefore he just stated the obvious reason for his nightly visit: Stark had been one of the Avengers who had known Natalia the longest.

 

      “Pretty sure, Natasha was following her own agendas most of the time, but yeah… Why? They did tell you that she died, right?” It was the first time since Stark woke up that his voice had taken on a softer cadence and that Bucky saw anything other than resentment and aversion on his face. Stark might not have understood why Natalia could be quite flexible with her allegiance at times, but that had apparently not stopped him from considering her a friend. A friend he had lost in battle.

 

      “Have you noticed anything… unusual about her?” Bucky had decided that he might get more intel he formulated his questions as open as possible, leaving Stark as much room as possible for his own interpretations, but he had forgotten what a womanizer the man was. Or had been.

 

      “Apart from the fact that she was hot, and her loyalty changed quicker than some guys’ underwear? … not really. I mean, she was an incredible fighter. Once took out at least twenty guys within five minutes while Happy was still struggling with the first one. Or so he told me.”

 

      “Would you say that she healed quicker than other members on the team?” Maybe it was better to narrow his questions a bit down just to guide Stark in the right direction as he really did not want to hear another guy lust over Natalia despite the fact that he was very aware that one of the things the Red Room taught its pupils was to use their sexuality to weaken the opponent. It had been a tactic she had resorted to in the early stages of their… working relationship rather frequently and which had been difficult to ignore for the Soldier.

 

      “Why does it matter? She died…!”

 

      “Did she heal faster than you?” The question almost resembled a growl as frustration over the man’s stubbornness to properly answer his question was starting to get the better of him.

 

      “Geez, don’t get your panties in a twist, Manchurian Candidate! … I guess. Maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t keep tally how long each of us needed to recover from a scratch. She definitely scarred, unlike Pete and Capsical.”

 

      “You mean like this?” Ignoring the jibe in his direction, Bucky pulled down the collar of his T-shirt to reveal the web of scar tissues that began at his shoulder and weaved its way down to his chest, earning him a curse from Stark as he probably started to connect the dots he had laid out for him. “The Russians didn’t really care if their property had a couple of scars. It was just a reminder of our failure,” he added bitterly and adjusted his shirt.

 

      “But Clint saw her die… she fell at least 600 feet,” Stark uttered incredulously and shook his head in disbelief when Bucky reminded him that he himself fell into a ravine and survived. For a second, he had thought about adding the headshot wound as well, but it was not common knowledge and he did not have the time to hash out those details. Instead, he had to realise that in accordance with her training Natalia had apparently been extremely careful to hide her enhancements from her teammates, and questioning Stark any further would be just a waste of time. He had to trust his hazy memories and what little information he had accumulated in the HYDRA files that there was a reasonable chance that she could have survived Vormir.

 

      “So what, Barnes? You think she survived?” Stark called after him as he had gotten up and started to make his way over to the ventilation shaft. When he turned around to look at Howard’s son something in his face must have given away more than he had been willing to put into words because Stark’s expression softened, and he shook his head muttering something about Russian spies being in cahoots together.

 

      “Who knows about your little rescue mission?”

 

      “I didn’t say-“

 

      “You didn’t have to. So…?”

 

      “… you. And T’Challa once I spoke to him.”

 

      “That’s…”

 

      “The less people know about it the better,” he stated and tried to sound as indifferent as possible, yet as he stood there under Stark’s scrutinizing gaze, he felt like he was back at HQ sitting on Howard’s desk and watching Steve talk tactics with the higher-ups on the other side of the room while the other man merely raised a questioning eyebrow at him.

 

      “It’s a long shot in the dark,” Bucky finally replied with a sigh. He knew that Sam would instantly join him if he asked. The same could be said for Peter and Shuri, and Steve would probably also find a reason why his wrinkly old arse could be helpful. Yet, if Natalia was out there – somewhere – maybe still recovering from serious injuries, she would employ every little skill she had ever been taught to buy herself as much time as possible to recover undisturbed. It made her as dangerous as a wounded lioness. He had to find out where she was and what she was doing and then be two steps ahead of her in order to get close to her. That would be impossible when he was taking along an entire group of Avengers that would only slow him down and make him as unsuspicious as a bull in a China shop.

 

      “When you find her, tell Nat that her family misses her.”

 

      “I will,” he promised and went over to the ventilation shaft to get back to his suite, when he stopped in his tracks, pinching the bridge of his nose choosing his next words very carefully. “I know it won’t change anything, Stark… but for what it’s worth: I am sorry.” Three words would not undo the pain he had inflicted on Tony over three decades ago, but it was a start and maybe – one day in the future – they could sit down and have a proper conversation about 16 December 1991 and the man Bucky had come to consider a friend.

 

      “I know,” Tony replied quietly, and Bucky was about to activate the rappel to pull himself up into the shaft when Howard's son continued talking. “And I owe you a thank you.”

 

      “What for?”

 

      “Peter told me what you did for him while I was…”

 

      “It was nothing.”

 

      “You looked out for him… you risked your own life to save him from his own stupidity.” While it seemed like Stark may have already voiced some of his thoughts about Peter’s latest decision to the boy, the tone in his voice made it very clear that the kid would still have to face the music. In Bucky’s eyes, it was likely a good thing when it came from the person he looked up to the most, as it would probably be more effective as when Sam or one of the other grown-ups reprimanded him.

     

    “Guess we all need a hobby. Mine happens to be saving the scrawny arses of some obstinate punks with no sense of self-preservation from their own stupidity.”

 

    “You might wanna look for a less stressful hobby, Barnes.”

 

    “Tried it. Turned out assassinations aren’t considered a socially acceptable pastime,” Bucky shot back and raised a surprised eyebrow when Stark barked out a burst of laughter that caused Peter to stir slightly in his sleep. The kid truly was dead to the world.

 

    “Maybe try collecting coins instead of bodies next.”

 

    “Maybe,” Bucky shrugged indifferently before a devilish grin started to spread over his lips “I could stalk Sam and flick them at him when he’s not paying attention. With enough velocity, they may be able to incapacitate his wings.”

 

    “Annoy Wilson – sounds like a proper hobby,” Stark laughed, shaking his head. “Call me when you’re back and we’ll run some proper experiments to see if Birdbrain’s wings are coin-proof.”

 

    “I might do that,” Bucky conceded as he climbed up the ventilation shaft, thinking how reminiscent it would be of old times. Him and a Stark-man annoying the hell out of Captain America. It did indeed sound like a fun pastime.

 

    “Good luck.”

Chapter Text

After his little flying visit with Stark, Bucky snuck back into his rooms and got ready for bed as the incidents of the past week had left him feeling extremely tired. Usually, he could go seven days or longer without sleep and just have a few catnaps in between – it was how he had spent the majority of the past seven decades when he had not been in cryo –, yet the moment his body had sustained greater damage and his enhanced healing factor was working overtime, he was as tired as a teenage boy on a Sunday morning when his mother insisted he had to accompany the family to church.

 

One of the few good things that had come out of the whole getting-kidnapped-by-Nazis-and-brainwashed-into-an-assassin-ordeal was that he had learned to push past the fatigue and just keep going. Admitting weakness was tantamount to failure and failure was not tolerated. This learned mindset had carried him throughout the day, but now he was looking forward to a couple of restful hours of sleep to replenish his resources as he needed a clear mind for the days to come. He shuffled into the bathroom and quickly gave himself a catlick, despite the fact that he felt sticky and gross all over and longed for a nice, long bubble bath – definitely one of the better inventions of modern times. But he was fairly certain he would fall asleep and drown if he were to bath now, so it had to wait until the morning or whenever he was rested and found the time for it.

 

With the precision and speed of a soldier on a mission, he undressed to his briefs and folded his clothes. When he emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, he was still cursing under his breath that they just had to give him a urinary catheter while he was unconscious, and he now had to live through the aftermath of the burning torture that peeing had become. He just hated it, when people shoved things into his body when he was unresponsive and unable to acquiesce – it had been his life for far too long.

 

Before Bucky dropped like a sack of potatoes onto the bed and wriggled underneath the soft covers, he removed the vibranium arm and rotated what was left of his shoulder, while pushing his knuckles into the sore muscles surrounding the stump. Once he was buried underneath the blankets, he twisted his upper body rather ungainly to reach the switches on his left to turn off all the lights in the room.

 

As darkness surrounded him, he allowed his body to relax and sunk deeper into the soft mattress which stood in stark contrast to the hard cot he used to sleep on during the war or the cold floor of the cell HYDRA kept him in if he was not put back into cryostasis instantly. It was part of the reason why he tended to prefer his little hut over the luxurious quarters in the Palace. Even with the bedding on the ground, his sleeping arrangements in the village were a lot more similar to what he was accustomed to. Most of the time he ended up sleeping on the carpet when he stayed in the Palace. Sam had found him sleeping on the floor a couple of times as well, but he had never said anything, just given him a look as though he understood the behaviour perfectly well.

 

Yet, Bucky’s thoughts quickly wandered from the plush pillows, the comfortable mattress, and the soft duvet that felt like a cloud was encompassing him, back to Natalia. Natashenka, his tired mind helpfully supplied. Apart from Little Spider another name he had commonly used to refer to her when they were alone. After defecting HYDRA, he had despised Russian as he only ever associated it with his handlers gaining control over him. Now that his memories of Natalia were resurfacing, he remembered the beauty of the language, despite her continued teasing of his American accent which never quite went away.

 

Today had been a rollercoaster of emotions – and that was discounting the Princess’ kiss – but he could still only make an educated guess about Natalia’s chance of survival. All his hopes of finding her alive on Vormir were based on the fact that he had survived a similar fall. His bastardized version of Erskine’s super-soldier-serum differed from the Black Venom the Red Room used on its girls. Assuming she had in fact survived, she would need large quantities of food and water to compensate for the healing factor. Bucky had read Hawkeye’s mission report after he had returned from the Snap and it had painted a rather grim picture of the planet. A dominion of death. It did not sound like a place that would offer much in terms of long-term survival. He had to trust that even gravely injured, Natalia would be as resourceful as he remembered her from joint missions for the KGB and HYDRA.

 

Bucky’s mind clung to these thoughts like a drowning man to a buoy because he refused to acknowledge the other possibility: that Natalia had died on Vormir before he had been able to remember who she had been to him. Accepting her death would be tantamount to admitting his failure to protect her and with breaking every promise he had ever made to her, even when he could only remember a fraction of them.

 

That night when they had waited out the blizzard in their rundown cottage outside of Bucharest and she had asked him if they could go somewhere warm, he had silently sworn that he would find a way to get her somewhere where she would never have to feel the cold again. The South Pacific had sounded nice… or somewhere in the Arab states… sand storms had sounded more pleasant than blizzards until HYDRA had sent the Winter Soldier on a mission in the Eastern Desert and he had to abide a storm without protection. The sand had emeried his exposed skin and crippled the circuits in his metal arm.

 

Madagascar sounds nice… and it’s close enough to Wakanda for some quick repairs to the arm should I ever need it. Or we could do Hawaii or the Bahamas if we wanted to stay closer to the U.S. in case Sam needed us. A small house near the beach so we can go swimming in the ocean each day and ‘Tasha can soak up the heat of the sun. Remote, so people don’t bother us… A garden to grow vegetables and fruits… Maybe T’Challa would let me bring the goats? And I could buy a boat to go fishing in the morning…

 

Caught up in the possibilities of a life they could lead one day, Bucky never noticed the tears that had escaped his eyes until a quiet sob escaped his mouth as he realized that all of these dreams could have already shattered into a million pieces without him ever knowing because HYDRA had taken his little spider from him.

 

Bucky turned onto his belly and pressed his face into the pillow to stop the tears and any further sobs, but it did little to ease the pain he felt weighing down his heart, his mind, his entire being. Agonizing pain that he had failed her when their capturers had found them in Bucharest. Excruciating sorrow that they had literally and metaphorically taken her and their child from him and had him shoot Natasha twice in the years to come. Torturous agony that he might have remembered her too late… when he could no longer beg for her forgiveness and hope for her to take him back because he still loved her as fiercely as ever, despite the fact that so much of their time together was nothing but a hazy shadow in his memories.

 

He gradually started to understand that he had to grief their lost future first. The life they had dreamt about when they had huddled together under old blankets to stay warm. The possibilities they had imagined once they were out of reach of their handlers. The child they never got to meet. The family they would never get to have. He had to make his peace with it before he could work towards a new future with a clear head.

 

The thing was, he had been on his own for so many decades, locked away both literally and metaphorically speaking that he did not want to be alone as he had to make peace with the past and the future he had lost. When a pretty dame had broken his heart in the past – so laughable compared to the pain he felt now – there had only ever been one place he went to and despite their differences in the past year, it was still the same place he found himself standing in front of, dressed in nothing but black briefs.

 

      “Bucky?”

 

Surprise and worry quickly chased away the last remanences of sleep from Steven’s face as he opened the door to the suite he always stayed in when visiting Wakanda. Rapid knocking had pulled him from Morpheus’ arms and not bothering to turn on the lights, he had rushed to the door, expecting Shuri or one of the doctors standing there to inform him that Bucky had taken a turn for the worst. Instead, he had been greeted by his best friend, eyes red-rimmed as if he had been crying, his remaining arm wrapped tightly around his torso.

 

      “Can I…?” His voice was heavy with emotions and on the edge of breaking as he made a small nod towards Steve’s quarters and he immediately stepped aside, making room for Bucky to step in and closed the door afterward.

 

      “What’s wrong, Buck?” he inquired with concern and stepped closer to his childhood friend, who just stood in the middle of the anteroom, making himself so much smaller than he was and looking so utterly lost.

 

      “I… can I just…” He inclined his head in the direction of the master bedroom and without any further words, Steve led him there, waiting for Bucky to crawl under the blankets before he followed him.

 

      “Nightmares?”

 

      “S’mething like that…” he mumbled and coiled up in a foetal position near the edge of the bed until Steve reached for his right wrist and gave it a little tug, which he followed instantly and practically moulded himself to his side – head resting on his chest, arm slung over his hip, and one leg nudged in between his.

 

      “Do you wanna talk…?” The only reply he received was a minimal shake of Bucky’s head and therefore he let the issue rest, closing his eyes and wrapping his arms tightly around his best friend. He was poised to repeat the question when he felt hot tears wet the simple white shirt he had put on for sleeping and he felt the little tremors shaking Bucky’s body against his.

 

In the end, Steve held his tongue because he had a gut feeling that the answer would be the same and the last thing he wanted was to antagonize his best friend. Considering their strained relationship at present, he was just glad that he had come to him instead of working through it on his own. The last thing he wanted was to spook him and make him leave, hiding somewhere where he could cry undisturbed.

 

Bucky had never been a crier and Steve could probably count the few times he had seen him on one hand. The few times he had felt blue because a girl he had liked ended up with some other guy, he would end up drowning his emotions in cheap moonshine and tobacco. A few hours later, he would be hanging over the railing of the fire escape stairs regurgitating the content of his stomach only to fall asleep a little bit later, sprawled out all over Steven, barely recalling the last night the following morning.

 

Spending a whole lifetime in the past had given Steve a lot of free time to not only work on his art but to also read enough books to understand that both he and Bucky had unhealthy coping mechanisms when it came to emotional stress. While he had a tendency to crash planes, Bucky was actively seeking out pain in all forms and measures: whether it was drinking himself into oblivion until he threw up, begging him to fuck him raw, trying out all sorts of tribal body modifications, or running heedlessly into battle. The latter used to be his specialty when he was just a scrawny guy from Brooklyn who thought he had to take on the world, so it would stop treating him like a sick scalawag. Nowadays it seemed like Bucky had taken a page out of his book and took on an entire HYDRA lair by himself, risking the renewed recruitment of the Winter Soldier, when a bit of patience would have given him plenty of back-up.

 

Before that, but after the Princess had deprogrammed him, he had a sudden interest in tribal modifications, such as creating intricate patterns through scar tissue. Bucky had shrugged it off as an interest in Wakandan culture and traditions, and while part of Steven believed him there was another part that kept reminding him that these modifications never lasted long on his friend’s body. Unlike himself, Bucky could scar – but only gnarly flesh wounds would do so. The small incisions necessary for the body modification healed over in a couple of hours, giving him plenty of opportunity to have them redone. New cuts, new pain, and after a few hours no one would even see them.

 

Yet, the worst of them all was the sex… Back then, he had been too naïve to recognize it for what it was. It would be hypocritical to say he never had had a crush on his best friend. Bucky had been a handsome young man – still was – who had turned the heads of countless girls and a couple of men, albeit the latter would likely deny it out of fear of imprisonment or working camps. There had been too many shared showers and too many nights spend together sleeping in the same bed and waking up entangled in each other for Bucky to not feature heavily in Steve’s wet dreams. They may have fooled around under the pretence of ‘practicing’ and ‘exchanging pointers’, but none of that had changed the law or the fact that Bucky was… well Bucky and Steve was just a skinny, sickly kid.

 

And then Azzano had happened and he had freed him from HYDRA. Afterward, the nightmares had started, and Bucky had begged him with tears to fuck him raw. Decades later and so much richer in knowledge – the Princess might have confided in him when she had looked particularly sick one day when he was visiting – he was almost confident to say that HYDRA had likely used sex as a torture device on Bucky long before they had turned him into the Winter Soldier. Back in the day he could only imagine what the imprisonment must have been like, but he had foolishly believed that he could heal his best friend’s mental scars if he just showed him how much he loved and cherished him. Even when he was writhing underneath him, begging with tears in his eyes to just fuck him. Decades later, he was fairly certain that Bucky had wanted him to hurt him to undo the pain HYDRA had inflicted on him. He should probably feel sick to his stomach that his best friend had wanted to use him to harm himself, but he was merely disgusted by Zola, Schmidt, and their goons.

 

As Steve felt the quiet tears turn into silent sobs, he was glad he had not given into Bucky’s pleads and had instead loved him the way he deserved to be cherished. He was entirely quiet, probably one of those remaining traits HYDRA had instilled in him, but Steve was still relieved that Bucky had sought him out instead of suffering alone. No matter how strained their relationship currently was or how much he had loved Peggy, part of him would always belong to his best friend – the person he had shared his first kiss with (practicing for the girls), the person he had had his first time with, the first person he had ever fallen in love with.

 

His arms tightened around Bucky as if he could shield him from whatever he was grieving for because Steve knew from personal experience that you only cried like this when you were mourning the loss of someone or something dear. He unconsciously made little hushing sounds in the back of his throat, hoping they had the same soothing effect on a 102-years-old soldier as on his sixteen-months-old granddaughter Jamie. Eventually, he felt Bucky starting to relax in his embrace and at one point he must have fallen asleep because when he woke at seven in the morning, the other side of the bed was cold, the rumpled sheets and dried snot on his shirt the only reminders that Bucky had spent the night crying in his arms.

Chapter Text

Bucky had snuck out of Steven’s room before sunrise and had returned to his suite under the watchful eyes of the guards in the hallway. While their faces were as unreadable as ever, he was certain they would have enough chatter for a few weeks – first, the Princess fled his quarters, forgetting her kimoyo beads so that he had a guard bring them to her, a few hours later he disappeared into Steve’s suite dressed in nothing but black boxer briefs only to re-emerge hours later.

 

He could have probably fallen asleep again if he had just tried, but he did not feel like facing his best friend after the previous night as he would likely have questions Bucky did not want to answer at this point. As a result, he had carefully extracted himself from Steve’s tight grip and tiptoed out of the room as if he was avoiding one of those stilted and unpleasant encounters after a drunk one-night-stand. He remembered having had a few of those, although he usually slipped out in the early morning hours to evade overprotective fathers who thought he had defiled her precious little angle. 

 

A quick shower later – he would have his bubble bath at some later date – he felt much more like himself again and was ready to prepare his mission with any lingering emotions from last night safely compartmentalized so they would not disturb him. Once he was dressed and had reattached his prosthesis, he left his quarters again, only to disappear in one of the many co-working spaces the Palace offered. Walking along the corridors, nodding to the guards in greeting, he shoved his hands in his pants and felt the kimoyo bead he had borrowed from Shuri, reminding him that he would have to return it later as to not arouse any suspicion from the Princess.

 

The co-working space closest to his suite was thankfully empty, allowing him to work undisturbed. Hiding out at the desk furthest from the door, he downloaded Natalia’s file and the little information he had on the Black Venom from his arm’s hard drive onto the computer. He quickly translated everything from Russian into English, and if he happened to leave out a few things or slightly change the information then it was only proving that things got lost in translation and you should only ever trust the original document.

 

Pulling up the files Natalia had leaked after S.H.I.E.L.D. had been infiltrated by HYDRA, he double-checked that the information he now shared, was only adding a few selected new facts. No one needed to know that she had been trained by the Winter Soldier; that they had been on missions together; that they had escaped their handlers together; that she had carried his child. It was irrelevant. All people had to know was that she had been enhanced and had consequently a chance at survival.

 

Once Bucky had printed all the pages, he put them into an old-fashioned folder he had found in the very back of the office material supply closet and then proceeded to delete all his traces on the computer he had used.

 

Half an hour after he had left his suite, he was back and shoved the folder in between a couple of t-shirts in his closet. When he was certain no one would find it unless they were thoroughly rummaging through his clothes, he hurried down to the stables and took one of the horses to head to his hut. The few selected times he would return on horseback, he usually took it slow and easy because he had loaded several bags onto his mount. This time, however, he was in a hurry and cantered most of the way, reducing his usual travel time to just under forty minutes. While HYDRA had lacked a culinary programme that would have taught him how to make proper Italian pizza for his baby sister, they had made him a proficient rider as some missions required an infiltration by horseback. A black stallion named Dyavol had also helped Natasha and him to escape their handlers after Moscow, as he had allowed them to travel through the backcountry, while HYDRA had searched the roads and trains for them.

 

The village was just waking up, so no one paid him much attention as he snuck into his hut and pulled away the shelf that held most of his reading materials before he began to dig up the ground with his bare hands until he brushed against a metal box he had buried there shortly after moving in. He carefully lifted it out of its hiding place, brushing off some dirt and dust with his human hand, and then crushed the lock with his vibranium arm. Inside it was a black back bag similar to the one that had once protected the notebooks filled with his memories. This one, however, was his getaway insurance should he ever require it: several thousand dollars in cash, three different passports, a few MRE’s to quench any hunger until he could get his hands on proper food, combat gear, two Gerber combat knives, two Benchmade dagger knives, one Bayonet knife, a COP .357 Derringer, two SIG-Sauers, a Skorpion sub-machine gun, and enough ammunition for all his guns to wipe out an entire HYDRA base or two. Some things had been there from day one, others he had secretly collected throughout the years and stashed them away.

 

Unzipping an inside pocket, he extracted a small, inconspicuous looking star which he instantly pocketed before zipping up his rucksack and putting it to the side, so he could quickly bury the box again, smooth out the ground and return the shelf to its usual place. Grabbing his bag, he fastened it to his back and then hurried out to his horse, making a quick stop at his goats, happy to see that they were doing well in his absence. The children usually looked after them when he was gone, and he just hoped that they would not mind taking care of them a little long. If the villagers thought he had deserted them and would not return, they would probably become part of the other herds. Some would be used for breeding, others would be slaughtered for their meat and their skin. While he had formed a bond with them over time, Bucky also appreciated that this was the circle of life. Was that not something Shuri’s talking lion had rambled on about as well?

 

After petting his stubborn, little billy goat goodbye, he got back into the saddle with eased practise and spurred the chestnut mare he had taken from the stable to get back to the Palace. However, before he reached Birnin Zana, Bucky brought his horse to a stop and fished the star from his pocket. The talking raccoon had given it to him after Stark’s funeral, telling him to give him a call should he ever want to get rid of his arm. At the time he had merely scoffed at the suggestion, but he had kept the communication device anyway. One never knew when a raccoon with a spaceship could come in handy. Unfortunately, the rodent had never bothered to explain how to activate the device, so Bucky was turning it from side to side, looking for some sort of button to activate it, but came up empty.

 

      “Pretty sure, the raccoon was taking me for an idiot,” Bucky muttered under his breath and stroked over the smooth surface of the star when it suddenly lit up, and just like with the kimoyo beads it projected a holographic display. For a second it merely showed a spinning hourglass, which caused Bucky to raise an eyebrow in amusement because he was certain he had seen something similar in Earth technology. Seconds later, the display changed to static before showing the curious face of a tree. If he remembered correctly, the tree belonged to the raccoon… Because a talking animal with a proclivity for weapons was not weird enough, it also considered a talking tree family. It really was a strange new world he found himself in.

 

     “I am Groot. I am Groot?” Right, and the tree only ever said three words which Bucky had no idea what he – she? It? – was trying to communicate with. For all he knew it could have just told him to fuck off. Which was not an unlikely interpretation given the loud commotion that could be heard in the background.

 

      “I am Bucky. I am looking for the raccoon. Rocket.” His interactions with the tree had been fairly limited, so he could not recall if his understanding of the English language was as limited as its verbalism. It was probably better to convey his message in as simple sentences as possible – similar to the orders he used to give Dernier when no one was around to translate them into French for him. While he had learned a lot of languages as the Winter Soldier, they had never taught him how to speak French or Tree. The only French he knew to this day were a couple of phrases Dernier had taught him. Given that they had only ever got him a slap in the face when he had tried them with the dames, he was certain that sentences like “Suce ma bite” were rather crude and not intended to woo the ladies.

 

      “I am Groot!” the tree exclaimed and jumped up only to disappear from the display. Bucky could only hope that it had understood his request and went to fetch the raccoon, leaving him with an unobstructed view of the cockpit of a spaceship including the breathtaking sight over a planetary nebula. Yet, before he could truly appreciate the beauty of this space phenomenon or wonder if flying a spaceship felt similar to a fighter jet, the smug face of a raccoon appeared. Given that raccoons could look smug…

 

      “Metal Man! You finally ready to part with that gun and arm?”

 

      “If I were to do so, what would you give me in return?”

 

      “A bargain?” Rocket inquired and rubbed his hands – paws? – when something in the background garnered his attention and he furrowed his brows before he turned his head and yelled at someone outside of the screen to get their shit together. There was some sort of reply that Bucky could not make out entirely, but which prompted Rocket to yell some more insults and creative curses in the general direction of the rear of the ship.

 

     “Name your price,” he ordered once his attention was back on Bucky.

 

     “I need a ride.”

 

     “Don’t you have those four-wheel-carriages for that?”

 

     “To Vormir.”

 

     “Are you fucking crazy?!”

 

     “You take me to Vormir, I’ll give you the gun and the arm.”

 

     “What would you want on that godforsaken wasteland?”

 

     “That’s my business. If you’re not interested, I’ll find someone else,” Bucky bluffed because he really had no idea whom else he could blackmail into getting him to Vormir. That doctor with the sentient cloak might be another possibility, but the question was how he could get him to do his bidding. If anyone had told him eighty years ago that his best chance at succeeding at a mission would be a rodent with a spaceship, he would have probably laughed in their face. Or asked Howard what he had put into his drink.

 

     “Hold your horses, Metal Man!” Rocket quickly backtracked and only decades of showing no emotion at all kept Bucky from smirking smugly. He had the raccoon exactly where he wanted him. “Vormir is not a place you go to for a nice day out.”

 

     “Good, ‘cause that’s not what I’m looking for,” he replied stubbornly and watched as Rocket brushed his paws over his furry face and slightly shook his head, while the tree in the background said something else that Bucky, once again, did not understand.

 

     “How soon do you need to be there?” Rocket finally questioned.

 

     “Preferably yesterday.”

 

     “Let’s say I take you to Vormir… How do you get back to Earth? ‘Cause lemme tell you, I’m no shuttle service and I don’t hang around till you decide you’ve finished your little suicide vacation!”

 

     “That’s none of your worries. I just need to get to Vormir,” Bucky retorted persistently, ignoring the nagging voice in his head that reminded him he needed a proper plan before going into battle. It was a good thing, he was not the Man with a Plan; he was more like the Man who Improvised along the Way.

 

     “Ok.”

 

     “Ok?” Bucky repeated. “Okay as in…?”

 

     “I’ll take you to that godforsaken planet and you give me the arm and that gun.”

 

     “Deal.”

 

     “Give me…” Rocket’s face disappeared from the screen for a moment as he was looking at something in the cockpit. “48 hours,” he finally finished his sentence when he had returned to facing Bucky.

 

     “Alright. I’m in Wakanda at…”

 

     “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t need that. Just keep the Communication Star on you so I can localize you and beam you up.”

Chapter Text

With his ride to Vormir secured, his gear and outfit safely stored away in his closet, and with all the information he was willing to share with the King edited, Bucky’s mental list of ‘Things to do before finding ‘Tasha’ was coming along nicely. Before he would seek out T’Challa to organize his leave from Wakanda for an unknown time period, he figured he should probably return the kimoyo bead he had… borrowed from Shuri and sort out the mess from last night. Not that he was particularly looking forward to that conversation, but he owed her that much. She was obviously going through some things herself and considering that his memories had been the decisive factor, he did feel responsible for her getting drunk and kissing him last night.

 

Nonetheless, he still found himself shifting nervously from one leg to the other as he gently knocked on the Princess’ door only to be instantly greeted by an irritated sounding “Fuck off, T’Challa” in Xhosa and something hitting the door on her side of the room before falling onto the ground with an audible thud. The latter caused him to flinch ever so slightly as it instantly brought forth memories of punishments at the hands of his handlers. Something he quickly pushed away again, reminding himself that Shuri was not his master but merely someone he considered his baby sister and who likely suffered one hell of a mean hangover.

 

      “It’s me…” he offered quietly in English. “Can we talk?”

 

Bucky was certain that several minutes had ticked by until his enhanced hearing picked up the soft shuffling of feet over carpet before the door was pulled open far enough for Shuri to seize him promptingly.

 

      “Found this this morning…” He held out the kimoyo bead in his flesh hand as if it were a peace offering only to have it quickly snatched away by the Princess who looked as though she had had a very rough night. Her braids that were usually put into intricated buns and hairdos were dangling down in knots, while she sported bags under her eyes and generally looked a few shades paler than usual. 

 

      “Thanks…” She eventually answered and threw the single bead somewhere into her room from what Bucky could see through the crack of the door.

 

      “Princess…”

 

      “Don’t. Please,” Shuri cut him off almost instantly, instinctively wrapping her arms around her upper body as if she were to shield herself from whatever verbal blow would follow.

 

      “I am sorry.” Sorry for you having to watch me die. Sorry for not watching out for you. Sorry if I misled you. Sorry for…

 

      “You didn’t do anything, Bucky,” she sighed and stepped away from the door to open it further, so he could enter, and they could have the ensuing conversation in private. “I overstepped my boundaries. If anything, I should apologize for making you uncomfortable,” Shuri added once the door was closed behind them. “I know you’re averse to touch after everything, and I still…” Too ashamed to look him into the eyes, her gaze was turned downward, her fingers busying themselves with the hem of the oversized graphic t-shirt she had put on after throwing up most of the alcohol she had drunk in the early hours of the morning.

 

      “You know, I don’t mind your closeness, Shuri. It’s just…”

 

      “You don’t love me.”

 

      “I love you. Just not like that,” Bucky sighed and watched her turn away from him putting more distance between them. “I’m sorry, Shuri…” he apologized quietly as she stood in front of the floor-length windows overlooking the lush landscape of savannah and jungle. Bucky had always perceived the Princess as a proud and confident young woman, but the way she carried herself right now was the exact opposite and it pained him to know that he was the cause for it.

 

      “You didn’t kiss me,” Shuri finally broke the silence.

 

      “Yeah, well… I still feel like I led you on,” Bucky replied keeping the distance she had put between them, despite the fact that he wanted to hug her and reassure her that everything was going to be fine. “It’s not like Sam didn’t tease me countless times about your ‘little crush’ on me. I should have taken it more seriously and not just dismissed it as his usual banter to rile me up.”

 

      “It’s not like my mother or T’Challa didn’t warn me off,” she offered in consolidation and part of her had to smile at least a tiny bit at the thought that apparently Bucky had been utterly clueless while everyone around them had picked up on it. Judging by the frustrated groan that left his lips he had reached a similar conclusion.

 

Silence spread over the suite like an uncomfortable blanket, with none of them entirely certain how to proceed until Shuri broke the quietness. Her voice quiet and even, but heavy with emotions.

 

      “I was stupid...”

 

      “You’re the brightest person I know, Shuri.”

 

      “For months it was mostly you and I in my lab…” she continued, ignoring Bucky’s interjection. “You were just another project to entertain me. Just a broken white boy my brother had dragged in for me to fix. For more than half a year, I was hardly doing anything else but going through your memories, removing one trigger after the other. I saw how protective you were of your sisters… how you encouraged them to be whatever they wanted regardless of what society expected from women… how you indulged their games and fantasies not caring if they were emasculating…”

 

It had been so easy to fall for the young man in Bucky’s memories because he had been so different from all the other guys who would typically try to get her attention. Thankfully, Wakanda no longer required the Princess to marry for political reasons, but that did not mean that the snobby sons of some foreign dignitaries would not hit on her. None of them had ever looked at her like Bucky Barnes had looked at the girls he went dancing with and the longer she had been working with his memories, the easier it had become to imagine it would be her he was holding in his arms as they were swaying to the rhythm of the music. That it was her he would be looking at like she had hung the stars. That it would be her lips he would brush against. That it would be her writhing in the sheets beneath him. But that had been nothing but the vivid imagination of a teenage girl.

 

      “I’m not that guy anymore,” Bucky gently reminded her, recalling countless similar discussions with Steve, when he had to remind him that seventy years of torture and brainwashing had changed the man he had grown up with. To this day he was trying to figure out who he was in this day and age and while he recognized some elements of his past self, there was a myriad of new ones, shaped by his years as one of the world’s most feared assassins.

 

      “I know… I knew that!” Shuri was quick to reply. “Turned out you were so much more than the guy in your memories.” She had been prepared to acknowledge that the man she had admired was nothing like the person he had become, but once Bucky had been woken from his cryo-sleep and she was no longer chatting with a lifeless body in her lab but someone who would talk back to her, she had only fallen harder for him. Most people tended to become bored quite easily by the things she was working on. Bucky kept asking her one intelligent question after the other. He was like a sponge absorbing new information and she loved introducing him to new inventions – whether they were her own or not.

 

“It was so easy to talk to you… to be with you. I had seen your memories and it felt like I had known you your whole life,” Shuri admitted quietly and when she finally turned back in Bucky’s direction, he carefully bridged the small distance between them. If the previous night had not happened, he would have hugged her and reassured her that he felt the same, but now it felt wrong to even just give her upper arm a small squeeze, despite how forlorn the Princess looked with her arms wrapped around her upper body and her head lowered. She was just a normal woman, no enhancements no nothing, but she was still one of the strongest people he had ever met. Yet, thanks to his misinterpretation of her affection towards him, she seemed so much smaller and vulnerable now. You have done that.

 

      “Shuri…”

 

      “I’m sorry about last night, Bucky. I got drunk and my behaviour was inappropriate.”

 

      “Yeah… well… we all do stupid shit when we’re smashed”, Bucky reassured her, recalling that one time when he and Howard had got drunk in the S.S.R. headquarter one late night and ended up bellowing ‘Star Spangled Man With A Plan’ at the top of their lungs while recreating the USO-girls’ dance moves on the workbenches until Agent Carter had yelled at them about proper behaviour and threatened to throw them into the Thames River. Ah, the good old times when Zola had already experimented with a version of the super-soldier-serum on him that allowed him to survive the fall into the ravine but also to get drunk. A wasted asset was useless, so the serum had been improved to stop him from getting inebriated.

 

      “Besides… that’s on me. I should have noticed that you were drinking. Instead, I was lost in my own head…”

 

      “I’m eighteen. I’m an adult,” Shuri was quick to deflect his statement and properly looked at him for the first time.

 

      “Just because you turn a certain age doesn’t mean you’re suddenly imbued with all the wisdom of the world. I was the older person present, I should have kept an eye on how much you were drinking, and I should have stopped you.”

 

      “You make it sound like I’m a kid…” the Princess retaliated quietly and could not stop the small pout that was forming on her lips contradicting her own words.

 

      “You are,” Bucky sighed and brushed a hand through his hairs, frustration clearly radiating off him. “You should be out there, having fun, doing some stupid shit with Peter, and not be locked up in a lab watching HYDRA’s favourite torture methods over and over again.”

 

      “If I didn’t, you’d still be in cryo.”

 

      “The point is, you got drunk because you wanted to forget what HYDRA did to me. As the grown-up in the situation, I should have noticed, and I should have acted accordingly.” If his parents were still alive and Shuri was one of his sisters, his parents would have had his hind for allowing her to get drunk on his watch.

 

Realizing that Bucky would not change his opinion on the matter, Shuri let it go and an uncomfortable silence fell over the room intermittently broken by the barely audible shifting of vibranium plates against each other as Bucky was fidgeting next to her. They had always been so close and tactile with each other, but now it seemed almost forbidden to reach out and hug him to reassure him that none of it was his fault. It had been her decision to reach for the vodka despite the fact that it tasted absolutely terrible and it had been her choice to climb into his lap to kiss him because her drunk mind kept replaying him dying over and over again. And if she had only one chance to…

 

      “… did I ruin us?” Shuri finally broke the silence and the trepidation in her voice stood in stark contrast to her usual exuberant spirits. Regardless of her crush, she valued Bucky first and foremost for his friendship, and while she could get over his rejection with time, losing him entirely would break her.

 

      “What?! No!” Despite all his lingering doubts, HYDRA’s former assassin reached out to her and gently squeezed her shoulder with his vibranium hand. There was still an armlength distance between them, but the moment he had touched her, she crumbled and threw herself at him, hugging him tightly and Bucky was quick to reciprocate, wrapping his arms gingerly around her, careful of his superhuman strength. “You’ll always be my baby sister, Shuri. Doesn’t matter what stupid shit you get into,” he promised her and rested his chin on top of her head.

 

While Bucky had originally only intended to return the kimoyo bead he had borrowed and to ensure that Shuri was alright, he ended up spending the majority of the morning in the royal quarters talking with her and reassuring her that they could still do movie nights and sleepovers in his hut. The part of him that was not focused on his mission, felt bad for lying to her because in less than forty-eight hours he would be gone for an indefinite period and if worse comes worse might never return.

 

For that matter he eventually found himself sitting in front of the desk in his own rooms, drafting a letter to the Princess explaining his actions. It was the least she deserved. And once he was satisfied with his missive, he reached for another sheet of paper with the Wakandan crest decorating the letterhead and started writing a letter to Sam. No matter how much of a menace the other man could be and regardless of how much he obviously enjoyed teasing him, he was his partner. While Bucky had been fairly well adjusted to modern life thanks to HYDRA, every once in awhile, something would confuse him, and Sam would happily take the time out of his day to explain it to him – without making fun of him or reminding him that he had lost so many decades of his life. Just a friend helping out a friend.

 

Without any prompting, Sam had turned the guestroom in his DC home into a private room for Bucky where he could stay whenever they were working in the Capital or should he ever feel the need to escape the Compound without traveling all the way back to Wakanda. He had given him the option to furnish and decorate the room entirely to his wishes and desires, but he had been utterly overwhelmed by the choices 2023 offered that Sam had ended up helping him after the room had still only sported a sleeping bag three months after it had become Bucky’s. Not that he minded sleeping on the ground, but according to Sam the room had the personality of a prison cell and not of a safe space. He tended to forget that the other man had been a soldier in an active war zone and probably understood his nightmares, trauma, and flashbacks better than an eighteen-year-old Princess who had grown up sheltered in a country that had been concealed from the rest of the world for the longest part of its history. No, Sam deserved a proper explanation of why his partner was suddenly abandoning him.

 

In the end, Bucky had not only written letters to Shuri and Sam, but also to his sister and Steve. He had put them all into the folder with Natasha’s file when he sought out T’Challa later that day, finding him in his office participating in a holographic conference call with the UN and Pepper. Not wanting to disturb him, he signalled that he would come back later, but the King merely waved him in and indicated that he would not be long.

 

Quietly, he moved through the office, avoiding any angle that would include him in the call, and eventually settled into a sofa in front of a large window façade overlooking a large statue of Bast with the Golden City’s skyline in the background.

 

Bucky followed the discussion for a minute or two, but it reminded him too much of the arguments of the U.S. government why any mutants or enhanced humans should be registered and why their activities should be controlled and supervised by state officials. Because the Sokovia Accords had worked out so splendidly… At present, they let Sam and him, as well as the remaining Avengers act on their own accords, but thanks to his super-hearing he had overheard conversations between Hill and Carter that the government was planning on reigning in their discretionary. Last time he had been in Washington DC, there had been quiet rumours that the current administration was working on reviving the Super-Soldier-Programme that had turned his scrawny, sickly best friend into Captain America to have an army of devoted super soldiers to protect the country of any hostile attacks.

 

As noble as it may sound to many, Bucky had been automatically reminded of HYDRA’s Winter Soldier Programme or the KGB’s Black Widow Programme. History had taught him that there were always two sides to a coin and just because one party had good intentions did not mean there were others lurking in the shadows waiting to abuse the very same power for evil. Besides, having spent the majority of his life fighting other people’s battles, he had little trust that people with authority would responsibly utilize the power that came with controlling mutants and enhanced human being.

 

In the end, all it usually took was one power-hungry madman to destroy entire societies or to turn armies against their own country. Schmidt, Pierce, Strucker – they all were prime examples of what could happen if weapons of mass destruction – and that included mutants and enhanced humans like him or the Maximoff twins – landed in the wrong hands. Having only recently regained his freedom, he had made it clear to Sam that he would not submit to any laws their government would come up with that would limit his autonomy.

 

      “Sorry for keeping you waiting,” T’Challa’s voice cut through Bucky’s musings and a hand gently squeezed his shoulder as Wakanda’s King rounded the sofa and sat down next to him.

 

      “No worries”, Bucky gave him a small smile. “It’s not like I had an appointment or anything.”

 

      “And you will never need one to talk to me. I hope you know that, brother.”

 

      “Thank you…” He inclined his head slightly to hide his abashment as he was still trying to get used to the fact that he could just walk up to one of the most powerful people in the world and they would take the time to talk to him. After all, who was he? No one. Just a kid from Brooklyn who ended up being cannon fodder for his country in the war, before the enemy turned him into a brainless assassin who murdered countless influential politicians and scientists.

     

      “How are you feeling?” The hand was back on Bucky’s shoulder, not squeezing this time around, just a gentle reminder that he was talking to someone who genuinely cared. “I’ve been informed that you’ve been recovering well.”

 

      “Yeah… it-it’s going ok. I guess,” Bucky replied, leaning his forehead against the arm propped up on his knee before glancing sideways at T’Challa and tentatively asking how mad his sister had been at him ignoring her direct order. Judging by her reaction last night it was obviously a sore topic for her.

 

      “I wouldn’t say mad… more like frustrated and worried about her friend.” The King paused for a moment and Bucky took the opportunity to sit up straight again, waiting for him to continue. “My sister is well aware of the fact that you are not bound by oath to blindly follow any order. You’ve done that for the majority of your life, James, this is not a freedom I want to ever take away from you again. I may ask for your help when I feel like your skill set would be beneficial – as I did with Thanos – but in the end, it is your choice to fight. Shuri may suggest that you wait for backup, but it’s your call to wait or to go in. Neither she nor I have to agree with your decision, but it is yours to make and ours to accept. And if you get hurt or injured in the process, you can trust that we and your friends will do anything to get you out of that situation and nurse you back to health.”

 

      “Thank you…”

 

      “Speaking of my sister… I would give her a wide berth today, she’s in a terrible mood.”

 

      “… I fear that might be sorta my fault,” Bucky admitted and pinched the bridge of his nose as he quietly started to explain himself, seeing the questioning look the King gave him.

 

Regardless of the squabbling the siblings had going on a good day, they were fiercely protective of each other and Bucky had no doubt that T’Challa would kick his butt if he felt he had wronged his baby sister. After all, he would do the same if anyone had dared to hurt his sisters’ feelings. As such, he was surprised when T’Challa sighed heavily and scratched his beard when he had finished explaining what had happened the previous night – conveniently leaving out the fact that he had… borrowed one of Shuri’s kimoyo beads for a few hours.

 

      “I had a hunch that this was going to happen. I will talk to her.”

 

      “Don’t,” Bucky was quick to stop him. The Princess had already been embarrassed enough by her behaviour, the last thing she probably needed was a lecture from her older brother telling her that he had warned her. “I talked to Shuri in the morning and we hashed it out.”

 

      “You’re certain?”

 

      “Yes,” Bucky confirmed, but after a moment of hesitations he added, “The only thing I’m worried about is how seeing my memories might have affected her…”

 

      “It was a lot to ask of her, wasn’t it”, T’Challa muttered more to himself than anyone else. “She’s always been this bright genius that we tend to forget that she’s barely of age as of last year.” Breathing a heavy sigh, he promised to keep an eye on her and to intervene if it looked like she continued to struggle with making her peace with what she had witnessed in Bucky’s memories. “Now, as much as I enjoy our talk, I don’t think you sought me out to talk about my sister’s crush on you.”

 

      “No”, Bucky nervously chuckled and his fingers automatically wrapped around the file folder in his lap. “No, I did not. I came to make a request.”

Chapter Text

Sometimes Bucky wondered if he should worry how easy it was to slip back into the focused and concentrated mindset of the Winter Soldier where only the successful outcome of his mission counted. One moment, he was casually talking with the King of Wakanda about his sister’s crush on him and the toll his memories had taken on her, the next he was lying and easily making up things in order to track down Natasha. Then again, the Winter Soldier might have always been a part of him, lurking in the background, making him the excellent sniper he had been in the Army, advancing faster through the ranks as all the comrades who started their basic training with him.

 

Steve had mentioned once in passing that the serum enhances everything in a person: weak muscles become strong; small becomes tall; good becomes great. Bad becomes evil. There was a good chance that HYDRA’s knock-off version of Erskine’s serum acted similarly. Maybe it had only increased his ability to zero in on the task at hand; to compartmentalize to the point where nothing else mattered apart from that one chance at a perfect kill-shot.

 

As much as he appreciated his friendship with both T’Challa and Shuri, felt immensely grateful for everything they had done to help him, he had one objective and that was to confirm that Natasha had survived the fall on Vormir and was somewhere out there, waiting for him to remember their past. Lying and deceiving people he cared about greatly was easy if there was a mission at hand. A small voice inside his head suggested to stick to as much of the truth as possible to lessen the blow of disappointment should they ever find out how he had used them for his own purposes. 

 

Peter had come by earlier this afternoon to see how he was doing and had mentioned in one of his rambles that he had apparently destroyed the tablet with the HYDRA files when his lost memories had returned. Since no one knew that the original copy was still safely stored on the encrypted hard drive inside his vibranium arm, everyone was under the impression that all the data was lost unless they managed to restore the tablet – a task that had been bestowed on Peter and Shuri, but so far, they had no luck in doing so. Naturally, Bucky omitted the fact that he still had an intact copy of the files and reminded T’Challa of his eidetic memory, when he had been skimming through the folder Bucky had handed him.

 

      “I saw Agent Romanoff’s files and the notes on the Black Venom. It was easy to recall and to translate from memory.”

 

      “Interesting,” T’Challa muttered under his breath and closed the folder before standing up and crossing the short distance to the ceiling-high windows. He had come to enjoy the company of both spies immensely in the years he had known them, but at times it was really laughable how inconspicuous they thought they were when it would have been more discreet to release a public statement on Twitter.

 

      “What?”

 

      “Nothing,” he dismissed the question and returned to the sofa, deciding that today was not the day he would mention to James that Steve had not been his only regular visitor while he had been in cryo-sleep. The Black Widow had been visiting even more frequently than Rogers, always another seemingly important excuse to stop by in Wakanda, only to be found sitting next to the cryotube that had held James. Sometimes she would quietly talk to him in Russian, other times she would just sit next to him, and a couple of times, they had actually found her asleep in her chair, her body leaning heavily against the tube. It was as much of a curiosity as James going straight for Romanoff’s files when HYDRA had likely had countless data on a plethora of people, experiments, and missions.

 

      “Now, why are you showing me these files, James? Certainly not to impress me with your eidetic memory and your language skills.”

 

      “I need you to authorize the entry of a spacecraft into Earth’s orbit and to lower the shield around the city, so they can take me on board.” While the UN had no access to EDITH to attack a vessel approaching Earth, the governments of the world had upgraded their nuclear missiles to take down unidentified alien ships from outer space. Bucky could not risk that his only ride to Vormir would be taken down by some trigger-happy, spooked politicians.

 

      “Spacecraft?”

 

      “Rocket. The talking raccoon?”

 

      “Ah. He’s hard to forget.”

 

      “He’s picking me up in about… 40 hours,” Bucky replied after a quick glance at the watch built into his kimoyo beads.

 

      “Very well,” T’Challa agreed and scratched his chin. “To recapitulate: you think the serum might have allowed Agent Romanoff to survive the fall and now the raccoon takes you to Vormir so you can search for her.”

 

      “I survived a similar fall. There’s a good chance she did as well,” Bucky said nonchalantly with a shrug.

 

      “I assume your main motivation for breaking into Stark’s room last night was to verify Agent Romanoff’s advanced healing abilities with someone who had known her and worked with her for well over a decade.” A playful smile tugged at T’Challa’s lips as he watched the man he had come to call brother look visibly taken aback for a moment before he pulled himself together and played dumb.

 

      “I don’t know what you’re talking about…”

 

      “Don’t play stupid, James. It’s not a good look on you.” There was no anger or disappointment in T’Challa’s voice. Just a plain statement. After all, he had known what might happen by granting a former prisoner of war, a highly trained spy and assassin, asylum in his kingdom.

 

      “I- … H-how…” While the King of Wakanda might tell him that stupid was not a good look on him, it was exactly how Bucky felt. Stupid. Utterly stupid for thinking that him opening and crawling through vents would go unnoticed by the Palace’s security system. It had felt wrong that a nation so much more advanced than the rest of the world would not secure their vents. They had probably tracked and recorded all his movements when he had initially scouted the Palace for any weak spots to exploit. Then again, why had no one come to drag him out of the vents? Or shot him off one of the ledges of the Palace when he was climbing the front during night time? Did they deliberately lull him into a false sense of security to see what Russia’s most feared weapon was capable of?

 

      “Great! Well done, James! They’re gonna kick us out now. Not that it matters, since we’ll be gone soon anyway, but… great job at burning our bridges! You had to go and piss off the King.”

 

Bucky instinctively flinched back and tensed when a warm hand landed on his shoulder but given his reaction, it was – thankfully – quickly retracted. He had obviously failed. He had betrayed the King’s trust and while he no longer had a handler, failure always resulted in corporal punishment. Seeing as he was only tolerated in Wakanda as per the King’s decision, he would be fully in his right to punish his misdemeanour as he saw fit.

 

      “I’m not angry with you, my brother, if that’s what you fear,” T’Challa’s gentle voice cut through the silence. His lips were pressed into a thin line as sadness clouded his eyes when Bucky recoiled from his touch as if he expected him to hurt him. As he was a far cry from the man who had arrived in Wakanda almost eight years ago, it was sometimes easy to forget that decades of brainwashing and abuse resulted in trauma that James would likely carry with him for the rest of his life.

 

      “When I granted you refuge in Wakanda, James, I was well aware of the fact that while my sister might have been successful in deleting your programming, she could not rewrite your life-experience of the past seven decades.”

 

T’Challa was relieved that his words seemed to have a reassuring effect on the former soldier as he slightly angled his body in his direction once more. Nonetheless, his entire body language was still guarded.

 

      “I was expecting you to scout the entire Palace, because it was what both the Army and HYDRA had ingrained in you. Besides, you had no reason to trust me or anyone else here, so it would make sense for you to know any possible getaway route in case you felt like you had to disappear quickly to stay safe.”

 

How can you relearn basic trust once it had been crushed like a delicate flower because your only interpersonal relationships for the past seven decades had solely consisted of pain and abuse? It had been one of the most integral problems they had to deal with once they had woken the sergeant from his cryo-sleep and very early on in his treatment, his therapists as well as the Queen Mother had suggested relocating him to one of the nearby villages. One of the common denominators between children and animals is that they both carry their heart on their sleeves. They love unconditionally, and they do not have any hidden agendas. The plan had worked, maybe too well, seeing as James nowadays preferred the company of his goats and the close-knit community he had been adopted into, instead of his home country and the friends he had there. Nonetheless, his trust was still something precious and scarcely given, which was why T’Challa generally extended his first, knowing that his brother by choice would eventually catch up to him.

 

      “How… how long…?”

 

      “Since the beginning. Your very first excursion caused quite the security ruckus and I had to restrain Okoye from blasting you out of the vents.” It had taken several intense conversations with his general before she had started to see his point of view, and it had taken even longer for her to trust the former assassin enough to let him roam both the hallways and the vents of the Palace without keeping a constant eye on him.

 

      “I’m sorry…”

 

      “Don’t be. Your little excursions allowed us to improve our security network significantly.” Likely the main reason why Okoye had eventually put up with James’ explorations of the Palace.

 

When steel blue eyes gave him nothing but a blank, uncomprehending look, T’Challa launched into an explanation of how they had keyed the sensors to James’ heat signature which always ran one to two degrees colder than the average human’s core temperature due to the serum. Ironically, Steve’s was always elevated by the same amount. No one knew whether Erskine or Zola had desired this side effect, but it was helpful to keep an eye on skittish super-soldiers. With the sensors keyed to James’ heat signature, they would no longer go off when he breached a security parameter but merely sent a notification to Okoye and T’Challa. In addition, they were able to track his movements and had thus discovered several blind spots in the system that had now been eliminated thanks to Bucky.

 

      “What’s so funny?” T’Challa inquired curiously when the world’s formerly most feared assassin broke out in hysteric giggles that brought tears to his eyes. Then again, he rather preferred him chuckling like a madman than glancing fearfully at him as if he expected him to punish him any moment.

 

      “I-it’s just –” James laughed and quickly wiped away a tear that had escaped his eyes – “All this time… I thought how weird it was… that a country as advanced as Wakanda… would have no security measures at the Palace’s vents,” he chuckled, slowly regaining control. “God, I’m really starting to lose my touch.”

 

      “I wouldn’t say that. You just didn’t take into consideration that we trusted you to not go on a killing rampage. Besides, you really helped us to improve the Palace’s security systems!”

     

      “To be fair… I had planned on telling you about the lack of security measures in the vents. … At some point,” Bucky quietly admitted and nervously wrung his hands, as he found it hard to believe that his misconduct could be so easily dismissed.

 

      “That’s very much appreciated,” T’Challa chuckled and offered him a sincere smile, grateful to see that James gradually found his footing again, even though he still looked unconvinced if he should trust the truce.

 

       “You really aren’t mad…?” It was both a question and an epiphany, and the marvel at this novelty was easily readable on his face. Every failure, every misdemeanour in the past decades had always resulted in some form of punishment from his handlers. Memory wipes and electroshocks had usually been the kindest.

 

        “I trust you, James,” the King stated. “So, no, I’m not mad.”

 

        “But…” But he had betrayed and deceived their trust. He had lied – hell, he had lied mere minutes ago to facilitate his search for Natalia. He had spied on the Princess, because he had had an inkling that she was withholding something from him. He had broken into a high-security section of the Palace only to find himself face to face with Howard Stark’s son. He could have easily finished him off, just like he had killed his parents, and he was still not punished but rewarded with trust.

 

       “James, we could discuss the issue well into the evening, but I believe that was not why you sought me out,” T’Challa put a quick stop to any more arguments. “If I remember correctly, we were discussing Agent Romanoff’s healing abilities, before we took our little detour.”

Chapter Text

Lying in his bathtub, absentmindedly playing with some bubbles while the calming smell of lavender with a subtle note of almond and coconut permeated the steamy air inside his bathroom, Bucky tried to calm the butterflies he had felt since leaving T’Challa’s office the day before. The meeting had gone differently than expected, but in the end, Wakanda’s King had agreed to his plan and made a short courtesy call to the UN, notifying the world’s leaders about Rocket’s approach. Given T’Challa’s stance regarding EDITH, they were less than happy that Wakanda was staying in contact with technologically more advanced aliens as well. It was probably a good idea that he had omitted the fact that Bucky was leaving with them.

 

He was very much aware that his own country was less than pleased that a former assassin, regardless if he had been a prisoner of war or brainwashed, was now fighting crime with the new – black – Captain America. Apparently, there had been talks about court martialling him a while back, which had been quickly put to rest – at least for now – when T’Challa had reminded them that he had become a valued citizen of Wakanda and a cherished guest of the royal family. Not that the King would be able to stop them if they truly wanted to convict him, since he was still an American citizen and a member of the U.S. Army who frequently visited the States to work there. It was one of those many reasons why Bucky had been feeling more and more at home on the other side of the globe instead of in his hometown.

 

That being said, he did not worry about re-entering the United States, when – if – he came back. He had been trying to get to the roots of his nervousness but the longer he contemplated it, the more difficult it became. It was a one-way mission that could result in his death, but he should have died in 1945, so that was not really that much of a deal, was it?

 

Granted there was a good chance that Natalia never survived the fall and that he had remembered their past too late. Then again, he had to come to terms with the death of so many people he had once loved and cherished what difference did one more make? There was of course also the fact that he would leave behind people who had grown close to him without much of an explanation. But it was for their own good because their selflessness would only get them killed and he rather they hated him than be responsible for their early death. Besides, he had written letters to most of them, explaining his reasoning, and T’Challa had promised to deliver them once Rocket had picked him up. So, they would probably only be mad and disappointed with him.

 

     “Hey Elsa, time to get your pale, white arse out of your ice palace!”

 

Bucky’s thoughts were abruptly interrupted when the front door of his rooms hit the wall with a loud bang and Sam’s voice boomed through his quarters. Bucky had just a few more hours in Wakanda left as Rocket had contacted him earlier to inform him that he had already made it to the Milky Way and he should be ready for pick up by 7 pm.

 

Funnily enough, it coincided with the planned arrival of a Stark Industries jet carrying Pepper, Morgan, Happy, and Rhodey. Apparently Stark had vehemently refused to have his family informed about his miraculous survival basically from the day he had been lucid and Shuri and T’Challa had offered. Yet, a couple of hours with Peter Parker and those God-forsaken puppy eyes, and the billionaire had caved. Not that his family had any clue what or rather who would expect them upon their arrival in Birnin Zana. In the scope of the family reunion, a very excited Peter had told them all the news about Stark’s survival during breakfast. Bucky hoped he had acted appropriately surprised and had then quickly excused himself to finish his packing while the others fawned over Howard’s son.

 

He had hoped it would keep them busy until Rocket showed up, but apparently, Sam had different plans. While cursing himself for not locking his door – everyone else always knocked before entering and left him in peace if he did not answer – Bucky prayed that Sam would just have one look and realise he was not there. Naturally, luck was not on his side and familiar steps came closer and closer to the bathroom door.

 

     “You’re taking a- … Oh man, warn a dude that you're splashing around in the tub, pal. I don’t need a full frontal of your dick!”

 

     “Go away,” Bucky growled in the direction of the bathroom door while sinking deeper into the water. He could probably rearrange the bubbles to cover up, but then again, Sam could just leave him be instead of standing in the doorway like an idiot. An idiot who pulled out his phone seconds later to take a picture.

    

     “What the hell, Sam?!”

 

     “The feared Winter Soldier sitting in a bubble bath,” he cackled. “This is good blackmail material!”

 

     “I hate you!”

 

     “Love you, too, Snowflake,” Sam retorted and plopped down on the fluffy bathmat in front of the bathtub as he shoved his phone back into the front pocket of his black jeans.

 

     “You’re seriously just going to sit here?” Bucky asked after a moment of silence when his partner made no move to leave him alone.

 

     “Kinda needed a break from the Not-Dead-Party downstairs,” Sam shrugged. “Besides there’s only so much over-excited Spider-Boy I can bear for one day, and Steve’s ‘I can’t believe you’re alive’ became kinda repetitive after the fiftieth time.”

 

     “I can imagine…”

 

     “Plus, I was missing my partner down there.”

 

     “Awwww.”

 

     “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t get used to it. How’s the head and the memories?”

 

     “It is what it is.”

 

     “I could tell you it’s your own fault for going in on your own. Not waiting for backup. But y’know, I’m a nice guy, so I won’t do that.”

 

     “And yet, you just did.”

 

     “Ain’t I great?”

 

     “Debatable.”

 

Their bickering turned into an awkward silence – at least for Bucky who was waiting for Sam to leave so, he could go back to his musings. Yet, as the minutes ticked by and his partner was still lounging comfortably on his bath mat, he could not help to raise one questioning eyebrow at him.

 

     “What, dude?”

 

     “You’re seriously just gonna sit here?”

 

     “’M not busy.”

 

     “You just complained about not wanting to see any dicks.”

 

     “Whatever. I was in the military. One more dick doesn’t matter,” Sam shrugged. It was not like communal showers offered a lot of privacy. “But change of subject: I would have never taken you for a bubble-bath-guy!”

 

     “Make all the fun you want, I find it relaxing,” Bucky retorted and rolled his eyes, mentally preparing for Sam’s teasing. Their whole friendship was practically built on their constant needling, and while he usually gave as good as he got, occasionally he was too tired to put up with it. He was 102 years old for-crying-out-loud, he deserved a break every once in a while.

 

Something Bucky had certainly not expected was that his partner enjoyed bubble baths as much as he did if not more as he raved about bath bombs from someone called Lush. If he was not mistaken, he had walked past their store in New York before but had never ventured inside as he usually bought his at the local market in Birnin Zana from an old lady. Sam’s continued enthusiasm about different ingredients, scents, and their positive effects on his skin became background noise to Bucky as his thoughts started to drift again: back to Natalia. Back to the Red Room. Back to Bucharest. Back to…

 

… The Winter Soldier sitting in an underground HYDRA base. He was sitting in his chair awaiting maintenance as he listened to his handler, the technicians, and other people he did not know discuss his latest mission. His hair was still damp from the earlier cleaning procedures and a few stray water droplets had found their way from long strands of hair onto his naked, waxed chest.

 

As always, he had completed his latest task as per his handler’s mission parameters. The target had reached Odessa without a hitch and likely planned to make his way across Ukraine to reach the European Union. His mission had followed a narrow coastal road out of town, giving him ample opportunity to set up his grenade launcher to blast him off the road and into the raging Black Sea. It had been a stormy day with torrential rain, everyone would assume he had lost control of the car on the winding road and fell to his wet grave.

 

As it were, no one had accounted for the female agent accompanying the target. She had pulled them both out of the wreckage and helped the mission onto some low cliffs. When she had noticed the Winter Soldier looming over them on the edge of the road, she had stared up at him looking like she had just seen a ghost. Seconds later, she had pulled her gun and fired several rounds at him which had been easy to dodge. The Winter Soldier had lazily unfastened the gun from his back and trained it on his mark. Unfortunately, the female had been so stupid to jump in front of him, so the bullet had shot straight through her before it embedded itself in his intended target.

 

Without any preamble, the Winter Soldier had refastened his weapon and had then proceeded to skid down the cliffs, easily controlling his balance and speed with his metal arm, to ensure the mission was dead. As he stalked over, he quickly kicked the female’s gun into the sea, before crouching down next to the target. It was fighting death – a noble gesture he could appreciate – so his metal fingers closed around the man’s throat, easily crushing his windpipe and spine. Still holding onto the mission, he lifted it up as he rose to his feet and flung it into the roaring sea as if it were nothing but a ragdoll instead of a living and breathing human being mere moments ago.

 

His attention had returned to the female agent curled up on the cold and wet stone, clutching a hand to her abdomen where he had hit her. She was saying a name – James – as if he was supposed to recognize it. Standard mission protocol stated that the Winter Soldier was not to leave any witnesses behind. Consequently, he pulled his SIG-Sauer from the holster on his thigh and trained it on her forehead. Yet, the moment he pulled the trigger, it was like another pair of hands had clasped over his own, jerking the gun off his intended target. The bullet hit mere inches from the female’s head, and she stared up at him wide-eyed.

 

     “James…”

 

As he was now awaiting maintenance and new orders back at the HYDRA base, the Winter Soldier could not stop his mind from going back to the red-haired agent with the green eyes. She had called him James as if that was to mean something to him. The name was Hebrew in origin; popular in English-speaking countries.

 

     “Yeah, and it’s also our name, dimwit!” a familiar voice inside his mind offered. He never liked it, it always caused him to lose focus on his current mission. It was a sign of failure, a defect – at least that was what the handlers and technicians always said when he had brought it up in the past. Not that he had mentioned the voice in a while because it always ended in pain even though he had stuck to protocol like the well-trained asset that he was.

 

     “The woman on the cliffs… With the red hair and the green eyes. Who was she?”

 

     “God, you’re such a moron! When did I get this stupid? They’re not gonna tell you, are they?”

    

     “No one,” his handler replied coolly and usually an obedient soldier would not ask further questions but egged on by his own curiosity – what a strange new sensation – and the annoying voice inside his head, he persisted.

 

     “But… I feel like I knew her.”

 

The moment he had uttered these words of defiance, his handler had strut over to him and boxed his ears reminding him sans emotions that he was an asset, a weapon and that he neither had an opinion nor feelings.

 

     “Wipe him and put him back on ice!” his handler barked orders at the technicians and almost instantly, the machine above him roared to life, descending onto his face as clamps enveloped his arms and thighs in a deadlock to prevent him from moving during the procedure.

 

     “Here we go again,” the voice in his mind sighed as the Winter Soldier clamped down on the bite-guard one of the technicians had shoved into his mouth. As the faceplates of the machine came to rest uncomfortably against his temples, his cheeks, and his brow bones, he could feel the first sparks of electricity tingling against his skin before they plunged deep into his brain.

 

The next thing Bucky remembered was gulping down air like a castaway who had just managed to break the water surface after slowly sinking to the bottom of the ocean for several minutes. He was still in danger of drowning because lukewarm water was clawing at this naked skin, but when he tried to swim, to stay afloat his arms and legs hit against something and his brain functioning on adrenalin only, instantly supplied him with the information that he was close to cliffs; that he had to be careful or else he would shatter on the sharp edges like a bug on a windshield.

 

Thankfully strong arms had come to his rescue and heaved him out of the water, putting him down on soft and… fuzzy? ground. Holding himself up on his arms and knees, he tried to tell his lungs that they were no longer drowning and that they could breathe normally again when a large blanket – a towel? – was lowered onto his back and the same hands that had saved him from drowning were starting to wipe him dry.

 

Tired out from the whole ordeal he no longer had the strength to keep himself upright, so he simply let his body slump like a dead weight against the person who had got him onto dry land and was now towelling him down. Judging by the solid mass of muscles it was likely a guy. And strangely enough, he smelled like Sam, because Sam insisted on wearing that spicy cologne that always made his enhanced olfactory senses tingle. He wiggled his nose in an attempt to get rid of the prickling sensation when the hands stopped rubbing him dry and came to rest on his shoulder, while one moved up to his hair and gave it a few strokes as if he were a pet.

 

     “You’re back with me, Buck?”

 

     “… Sam?”

 

And gradually he realized that the sea had been nothing, but his bubble bath and the fuzzy ground was his fluffy bathmat.

 

     “What happened?” he asked confused and sat up, while simultaneously rearranging the towel to cover himself up.

 

     “We were talking and then you started to dissociate. Next thing I knew you acted like you were drowning,” Sam explained before adding, “Remind me to buy you a pair of floaties.”

 

     “I was—” Back in Odessa. The first time he had encountered Natalia since Bucharest. The first time he had tried to kill her. Yet, even without any knowledge of their shared past some part of him had remembered something. Enough to defy orders and miss his target.

    

     “Are you okay, man?”

 

     “Y-yeah,” he replied hesitantly and therefore repeated it for good measure, as he got to his feet and wrapped the towel securely around his hips. “I’m ok, Sam. No need to worry.” He squared his shoulders and drew himself up to his full height, knowing that body language was key in fooling people.

 

     “If you say so…” Sam sounded unconvinced as he stood up and gave Bucky’s shoulder a friendly squeeze, suggesting it would probably best if he tried to get some rest.

 

     “Yeah, I’ll probably do that…”

 

     “You coming down for the little family reunion later today?”

 

     “Probably. Guess I’ll say hello to everyone. T’Challa said they were expected for 7 pm?”

 

     “Yeah, something like that. If you’ll show up around eight you might be able to avoid all the crying and hugging.”

 

     “Guess I’ll see you then.”

 

     “Call me if you need anything in the meantime,” Sam offered. “Company or whatever.”

 

Bucky acknowledged the offer with a small nod, appreciating the proposition deep down. Sam could be loud and obnoxious, but he was a decent guy who cared deeply about his friends and despite the fact that their camaraderie had started with the Winter Soldier trying to kill him – several times – they had genuinely come to like each other. All the more reason for Bucky to conclude that he would hate him for lying to him and for betraying his friendship.

 

     “Sam?!” he called after him when he was already halfway out of the steamy bathroom.

 

     “Yeah?”

 

     “Thank you. You’re a good friend.”

 

     “So I keep telling ya, Elsa,” he shot back with his patented grin. “Now get some rest, we got a town to paint red tonight!”

 

     Sam’s gonna hate me, Bucky sighed in his mind when he was finally alone and splashed some cold water into his face. But he rather faced the soldier’s wrath than endanger his life, because he had no doubt that his partner would invite himself along if he knew what he was up to. While the trauma of his two tours in Afghanistan no longer influenced his life on most days, Bucky could still see the lingering aftereffects that Sam usually covered with his extroverted nature. Watching his wingman die, probably made him a clingier and more cautious partner than others. He would always check in with him whether they were on a mission or enjoying downtime; he would always ensure that they were on the same page regarding a mission, and if Bucky did not stop him, he would follow him into a hostile territory that was unsuitable for a nonenhanced human being without giving it a second thought.

 

He would not take well to Bucky’s deception.

Chapter Text

Rocket’s instruction had been short and simple: “Be ready for beam-up in thirty minutes.”

 

Bucky went through his belongings one last time, ensuring he had the best chance at survival and finding Natalia once he had given his arm and sniper rifle as payment to the talking raccoon. He had no idea what to expect in space, on a different planet – what a crazy concept for a kid who grew up in Brooklyn during the Depression – but he figured the same prudence and resilience that had allowed him to evade HYDRA for several years, would help him to adapt to life in Space as well.

 

He had enough supplies to survive several weeks if he rationed them well. Ideally, he would encounter edible flora and lower life forms to hunt in order to spread his ration packs even further. Depending on the state he would find Natalia in – with less than an hour left on Earth he refused to believe in anything else but her survival – she might require the nutrient-rich MREs much more urgently than he did to boost her enhanced metabolism.

 

The previous night, T’Challa had brought the mask Shuri had created for him to his quarters, saying he might find it useful. Refraining from satisfying his curiosity about how he had retrieved it from Shuri, Bucky had instantly hidden it in his back bag and was now double-checking once more that it was indeed stowed away safely at the very bottom of his bag. The lesser chance Rocket had to come across it and be intrigued by the design, the better. While he had not been the greatest fan of the mask initially as it reminded him too much of the one HYDRA had him wear for decades, his last mission had made him appreciate the technology, and its many features would probably come in handy. Particularly after he had parted with his arm. The enhanced night vision combined with the infrared and the sensors would allow him perfect vision even in utter darkness. In short, he would be able to detect any threats – or a possible dinner – well before his normal enhanced vision would.

 

While the mask’s database probably contained little information on alien lifeforms or elements, the system was capable of learning, so given time its database would grow and accumulate more knowledge and information. Yet, most importantly, the mask was able to filter toxic fumes, and he had read enough science fiction novels as a teenager and after he had woken from cryo-sleep to be aware of the fact that just because other planets were able to sustain lifeforms, did not mean their air was breathable for humans long term – even if they had been enhanced and their lungs were able to withstand a lot more toxic gasses and fumes. While the mask was not able to filter toxic air indefinitely and he was unsure how it would deal with alien elements, it was at least another tool to increase his – and Natalia’s – chances of survival in a hostile environment. Consequently, that kleptomaniac raccoon would get the arm and the rifle as payment, but Bucky would ensure that his grabby, little paws would stay as far away from the mask as possible.

 

Speaking of the arm, it had given him a bit of a headache to remove the little SD hard drive containing all the HYDRA files he had downloaded, but eventually, he had succeeded. The tiny drive was now securely sealed in a plastic bag and sewn into the lining of his tactical gear. While it would be more sensible to hand over the information to either Sam or T’Challa, it was the first time he had seen comprehensive information on his past as the Winter Soldier. As such, he felt irrationally protective of the data and unwilling to part with it. Besides, Natalia had a right to know what HYDRA had kept on her as well. Once they had returned to Earth they could still hand over the data. Or use it to destroy a few more HYDRA bases. Nothing like killing a few Nazis before a romantic candlelight dinner.

 

Checking his reflection in the mirror, Bucky had to agree that it was weird to see himself dressed in full tac gear once more. His handlers had always dressed him in it, but since he had started helping out the Avengers, and more specifically Sam, he usually wore a much simpler uniform or – depending on the mission – plain street clothes. Putting on his shoulder harness and fastening the straps across his chest, he secured his Skorpion to his back and slung his sniper rifle across it. Granted, technically it was still Natalia’s since he had… borrowed it from her weapon’s locker on the Quinjet, when he and Steve had followed Zemo to Siberia. Patting down his body, he ensured he had all the smaller weapons – guns, knives, and grenades – securely fastened to his person. Lastly, he grabbed his black rucksack, let his gaze wander over his quarters one final time before he headed out.

 

It felt a bit like shipping out to England all over again, with the tiny difference that for once he was not following anyone’s orders but his own. As Bucky walked down the hallway, he could feel the occasional curious gaze of one of the guards, seeing as it was not a daily sight to see the former Winter Soldier decked out in all his glory. Yet, T’Challa had ensured him that he would inform his people of his departure, so no one would be suspicious of him roaming the Palace in his combat equipment. As he strutted past them, his boots heavy on the marble floor, Bucky offered them a small smile that they happily returned.  

 

Eventually, he reached the upper courtyard where he had told Rocket to pick him up. The raccoon had laughed at the information, telling him that he could literally beam him up from anywhere on the planet regardless if he was inside or outdoors. But Bucky had been a soldier for too long to not insist on a proper point of rendezvous. It had been standard practice in both the Army and with HYDRA.

 

The upper courtyard was a bit more secluded, shielded from three sides by the Palace’s walls overlooking the main court to the west from where Bucky could hear cheers, happy voices, and the occasional sob. As he stepped closer to the railing, he could see the white Stark Industries’ jet glistening in the setting evening sun. Close by was Stark in a wheelchair with Morgan sitting in his lap, declaring to everyone that she had been right all along, and her daddy was not dead, he just got distracted on his way home. Pepper was hugging her husband, burying her face in the crook of his neck, while Happy and Rhodey hovered nearby. Both of them seemed unsure whether to cry out of happiness or to laugh at Peter excitedly explaining how he found out that Tony was alive and how he convinced him to let them all come to Wakanda. Sam, Steve and Shuri stood a bit further back, overlooking the little family reunion.

 

A content smile tugged at Bucky’s lips as he watched the gathering, reassured that both Morgan and Peter had their dad, respectively their father figure back. He hoped that with Stark’s return to his life the Spider-Boy would finally get back some normalcy in his messed-up life, forgetting about his leaked identity and EDITH for a while and simply enjoy being a teenager. Maybe he could finally concentrate on the joys of having a girlfriend without the constant fear that his alter ego might get her hurt. At least that was what the kid deserved in Bucky’s book: a normal life, doing silly things with his friends, bath in the novelty of first love, and not worry about what villain might want to destroy Earth next.

 

Turning away from the scene beneath him, Bucky’s eyes took in the futuristic shapes of the Palace in front of him. It was representative of the country and the people he was going to leave behind, but he had made a silent vow to return home should he survive this mission. Almost instantly, his lips traced over the small tattoo on the inside of his lower lip – T’Challa’s parting gift when he had come to his rooms last night. He had been fascinated by Wakandan body art for years, had spoken to countless artists in an attempt to learn more about the traditions behind the various body modifications. Some had even agreed to work on him, but the curse of the serum was that none of them lasted longer than an hour or two. Yet, the vibranium inked lip tattoo symbolized much more than body art: it was a rite of passage bestowed on any Wakandan child to mark their transition into adulthood and their belonging to the country’s tight-knit community.

 

“You may travel far from home, White Wolf, walk among the stars that light our night sky, but Bast will be with you and she will guide you back into our open arms once the time is ripe,” the King’s words echoed in his mind as his tongue carefully licked over the seven small symbols inked deeply into his skin, glowing faintly in the darkness.

 

One day he would bring Natalia home and they could finally have the life they had always imagined while on the run from HYDRA. They could retire from fighting as he had promised her decades ago. She would never have to withstand another cold winter in the Siberian tundra ever again, and with the goats and the cultivated land, Bucky could easily provide for her.

 

With his eyes focusing once more on what was ahead of him, Bucky took note of Wakanda’s King standing at the large window façade covering the entire upper floors of the eastern wing, while Okoye had taken up her position outside on the upper courtyard to lower the forcefield surrounding the city upon Rocket’s arrival. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Bucky noticed that the excitement, audible from the grand courtyard, had died down and he imagined that the entire party was now moving to the banquet hall where T’Challa was hosting a dinner in honour of reunited friends and families. Not long now, and Sam would probably be on his way to his rooms only to find them empty.

 

Static noise coming from his earpiece disrupted Bucky’s thoughts and seconds later he heard Rocket’s voice, informing him that he was approaching Wakanda. Confirming, he turned to Okoye to signal her to lower the shield. Moments later, the large window fronts on the ground floor gave way to Shuri rounding the corner, followed by Stark with Morgan in his lap and Peter trailing next to him while Pepper pushed the wheelchair. Happy, Rhodey, Steve, and Sam were behind them, talking animatedly among each other.

 

One of the reasons why he had chosen the upper courtyard as a point of rendezvous was because you would not walk past it if you came from the lower courtyard and were heading straight to the banquet hall. But apparently, Shuri had decided to give them all a tour of the Palace which resulted in them witnessing the former Winter Soldier decked out in all his glory as a spaceship materialized above him.

 

The good soldier that he was, James Buchanan Barnes stood at attention, but instead of the sharp right-handed salute the Army had once ingrained in him, he looked up to the King of Wakanda and crossed his arms over his chest. While his face remained impassive, his eyes smiled when T’Challa reciprocated the gesture, and when his gaze wandered to Okoye, the general inclined her head and saluted him as well.

 

A weird, tingling sensation began to spread through Bucky, and as every single molecule in his body started to disintegrate only to be reassembled moments later, the large doors to the courtyard flew open and Shuri, Sam, and Steve came running in his direction. The last thing he saw and heard of Wakanda before finding himself on the flight deck of a proper spaceship, was his friends calling out his name, while Stark offered him an encouraging smile and – in true fashion – a flippant mock version of a salute. He grinned and copied it as the world he had known for years disappeared and he embarked on a journey into the unknown.

Chapter Text

Word was that at the outskirts of a small village at the foot of the Bucegi Mountains stood a small cottage that had been recently restored to its former glory by a young Scottish woman named Natalie Buchanan. She was an elusive person and few people of the borough had ever seen her; even fewer had ever talked to her. Old Maria insisted she looked almost exactly like the beautiful woman she had once met as a little girl during a harsh winter some seventy-odd-years ago. Obviously, that person would have to be around ninety years by now, so naturally, no one really believed Old Maria, and no one really cared about the history of their new neighbour.

 

As far as the commune was concerned, Natalie Buchanan did not disturb the peace within their little borough. She had saved an old building from falling to ruins and she was taking care of the small farmland surrounding her home. If she wanted to keep to herself, people would respect that and follow their own interests. Occasionally, she could be seen leaving the town on its sole access road in an old ARC 10 jeep. The same car that was now rattling along the pothole covered street as she returned several days later. Some curious residents would look up from their garden work, but most were more concerned with planting this year’s vegetables than what their new neighbour was up to.

 

As always, the jeep came to a stop in front of the little cottage and Natalie Buchanan jumped out. She grabbed the duffle bag from the trunk and left it on the wooden bench next to the front door, while she opened the green shutters on the ground floor with practised ease before she fished the key for the same-coloured front door out of the back pocket of her faded blue jeans and let herself into her home. Her eyes quickly swept over the open kitchen and living room and as the chill spring air in her house greeted her, she opted to fire up the masonry heater first, before she headed up the small staircase to her bedroom.

 

      “Liho, where are you, you little devil?” she called out for her furry companion when she reached the top of the staircase. The shutters on the upper floor were still shut, enveloping the room in complete darkness, which quickly changed when the sole light source – an old standard lamp next to her favourite reading spot in the house turned on on its own volition, revealing Nick Fury with a black cat in his lap.

 

      “You’re getting careless, Natasha,” her friend and former boss greeted her, letting the cat jump from his thighs, which instantly darted over to its favourite human, waiting to be picked up and cuddled.

 

      “Hello to you, too, Nick”, she replied and lifted up Liho. She made quick work of the shutters to let in natural daylight, while mentally going through everything she had seen on her way up to the bedroom to see if she had missed any clues that might indicate Fury breaking into her home. “I assume you’re actually you and not the green elf. Seeing as you were cuddling with Liho instead screaming your head off.” Over a few shots of vodka while commiserating over the stupidity of men in general, Carol had once told her about the Skrulls innated weariness of cats, because Earth’s feline creatures looked exactly like Flerkens, an alien species Skrulls, but Talos in particular, were afraid of.

 

      “I heard about your little stint in New York, Natasha,” Fury ignored the bait and merely steeple his fingers in his lap.

 

“No idea what you’re talking about. I’ve been in Bucharest for a couple of days, taking care of business.” Putting Liho down on the bed, she shrugged off her jacket, ignoring the pain that shot up straight to her right shoulder as she moved the arm a little bit too much. It had been cumbersome in the beginning, but by now she was so used to it that she did not even pull a face anymore. The price of being alive.

 

      “You’ve certainly heard the rumours about reactivating the super-soldier-programme.”

 

      “I tend to ignore idle chatter these days.”

 

      “We could use your skills and expertise, Natasha.”

 

      “Natasha Romanoff is dead.”

 

      “She looks very much alive to me.”

 

      “I think it’s time you left,” Natalie suggested.

 

      “Would you believe that?” Fury rose to the bait with an exaggerated glance at the watch on his wrist. “How time flies!”

 

      “What a novel concept.”

 

Natalie watched the old spy retreat from her bedroom when he turned back to face her in the middle of the staircase, giving her a calculating look.

 

      “There’s an interesting little rumour going ‘round your village, Natalie. There was once a young couple in the fifties, seeking refuge from the cold winter in the same cottage you now live in. Funny thing is, when you ask for details, it’s almost as if they’re describing the Black Widow and the Winter Soldier. Then again, a lot of guys wore metal arms in the fifties.” He offered her a knowing grin as he descended the remaining stairs, telling her to call him should she change her mind.

 

      “Reception’s terrible out here. I might when I’m back in Bucharest,” she called after him and heard the backdoor snap shut. “He needs a hobby more suitable for his age,” Natalie muttered under her breath and scratched a happy Liho in between her ears before she crossed the small distance to her dresser. Ignoring her bad arm, she removed one heavy drawer after the other until the back pane of the piece of furniture was revealed.

 

Taped to the back was an extensive mind map tracking Leviathan and HYDRA’s schemes since the Snap. If the intelligence community was worried about the U.S. government reactivating their super-soldier-programme, they would wet their pants if they knew that five years of Thanos’ decimation was all it had taken to have key governments infiltrated by their top operatives.

 

Rising from her crouched position in front of the dresser, Natalie retrieved a Stark tablet and a flash drive from her duffle back. The drive connected easily with the pad, and as she grabbed a pillow from the bed to sit more comfortably, the tablet lit up and holographically projected the files she had downloaded from the HYDRA base in New York in front of her.

 

      “Well then… no rest for the wicked.”