“There are so many things I wanna tell you, Buck. But you can’t hear any of them,” Steve said to his best friend. He knew, on a basic level, that Bucky was asleep. That he couldn’t hear Steve or feel pain. But that didn’t stop him from waking up at night, heart pounding, after dreams that Bucky was aware in his cryo tank and could feel the cold, but couldn’t escape it.
Steve knew the feeling. He wouldn’t wish that on anyone, especially Bucky.
Other nights, he heard Rumlow’s voice in his head, taunting him. “Your pal, your buddy, your Bucky.” For so long, he had thought that Bucky didn’t know who he was on the bridge, but Bucky had. Bucky had remembered, and that was almost worse. Because then he had to forget Steve all over again.
“Wanda’s doing a lot better. I told you how she was really skittish after her time in prison. Understandable, seeing what they put her through. Who puts a shock collar on a kid? But she actually smiled the other day, Buck. It was small, but it was there. Clint was showing her pictures of Nate. Did I tell you that they had Nate’s middle name be Pietro after Wanda’s brother?”
Steve sighed, sinking down in the chair that was now permanently stationed in Bucky’s room. He was the one that used it the most, but every once in awhile Sam would come down. Probably to antagonize Bucky, though Steve suspected it wasn’t as fun when the latter couldn’t retaliate.
“So many people have died, Buck. How come we’re the ones that came back? I sometimes feel like I’m going to wake up in our apartment back in the 40’s and you’ll be there and everything will be like before the war. I’d be half my size and probably die anyway one winter, but it would have been us before all of this. I don’t regret getting the serum. I don’t even regret going overseas, cause I got to save you. But Buck, I sometimes wish that we had both fallen off that train. I’ll never forgive myself for not catching you.”
He took a deep breath, then got up. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Buck. Stay safe in there.”
“After they unfroze me, I would have moments when I would turn and want to tell you something, only to remember that you had fallen off that damn train. I crashed the plane only a few days after you fell. It hadn’t really sunk in yet. I was just so tired, Bucky. I didn’t want to fight without you next to me, having my back.
“There were times that I needed you to be there, but to me, you were dead. So much of waking up would have been easier if you were doing it with me. We could have figured out the world again, together. When I found out that Peggy was still alive,” he had to stop and swallow the lump in his throat because he had to use the past tense there and it killed him a little bit, “I just needed you there, so I could talk to someone who knew her back then.”
Steve shook his head, sniffing a little before chuckling quietly at himself. He looked up at Bucky, hung suspended the same way he had been three months before when he had gone into cryo. Steve’s hair had since grown and been trimmed and countless outfits had been worn. Days had passed for him, eating, sleeping, and living. And here was his best friend. Same clothes. Same position. For him, nothing had changed.
But Steve felt the ache in his chest get a little more prominent every day that he talked to Bucky and got no response. It was the little things that killed him the most. He would see ripe plums at the grocery store and want to get them for Bucky. Or T’challa would subtly flirt with Sam and Steve would want to tell Bucky how Sam was utterly oblivious again. Or Natasha would somehow send a message to them, with a section for Bucky, and Steve would have to read it out loud to Bucky’s prone form.
He honestly didn’t know how long he could last before he had to completely remove himself from Wakanda, away from Bucky, so that he wouldn’t do anything stupid and open that cryo tank.
But this is what Bucky had wanted. So Steve let the ache grow, spoke to Bucky through the glass, and shook off the nightmares that Bucky might actually be able to hear him. Everyday as he left, he was sure to tell Bucky, “See you tomorrow.”
“This is the first time that I’m glad that you can’t hear me. I’m going to be so selfish that I sorta hate myself, Buck, but I want you to be awake. I want you with me. I just wanna be able to see you smile again. I want to make you laugh. I want to show you around Wakanda. I want you to get a new metal arm. I want to help you work through your conditioning. I want to be there for you, Buck.
“But I also want you to be there for me. I don’t have that right now. Haven’t for the last seventy years, really. Feels like I’m going down in the plane all over again some days.”
Steve swept his hair off of his forehead and tried not to think of Bucky doing the same thing to himself, back before he had been deployed. Tried not to imagine him hugging Steve, even for a moment. Steve hadn’t held Bucky since Bucky’s last night stateside. His arms ached from a phantom sensation from a lifetime ago.
“It’s damn selfish of me, cause this is what you wanted. This is how you felt safe. But Buck, I always feel safe around you. We fought in a war together, and I rarely felt safe then. The only time I felt safe was when I was with you. After my ma died,” he took a deep breath and pushed through a three-fourths century old scar, “you were all I had. Then I didn’t even have you cause you fell.”
He stood and put a hand on the glass. He would be sure to clean it later.
“I just want you with me, Buck. Broken, scarred, damaged. However you come to me, I’d take you.”
Pressing his hand against the glass harder, but careful with his strength, he took in Bucky’s features. Bucky’s face had healed from the fighting before the cryo tank. His hair was long. He looked peaceful.
But for all the animation that was showing in his face, Steve might as well be looking at a picture of him.
Slowly taking away his hand, Steve felt the distance increase between them as he retreated out of the room.
“See you tomorrow, Buck.”
“I’m the biggest idiot on the planet, Buck. Seriously. I know way back I said that you took all the stupid with you, but I was so, so wrong.”
Steve stopped pacing back and forth in front of the cryo tank and stared at Bucky.
“I’m in love with you, jerk, and you’re not even really here to know it.”
Pacing again, Steve continued, “And the signs have been there for forever, I just didn’t see them. Everyone else knew. Some of T’challa’s bodyguards asked how you were doing, but they called you my boyfriend, and they just laughed when I told them that it wasn’t like that. And I know that I haven’t been here in a few days, but I needed time to think about everything and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left you alone like that.”
He groaned, dropping into the seat and burying his head in his hands. “Not that you can hear any of this, though.”
Steve looked up at Bucky, taking him in. He realized he wasn’t looking at Bucky any differently than he had all the times before. He had loved Bucky for a long time without realizing it, and probably would for a long time from now, whether Bucky was there to reciprocate those feelings, or not.
Not that Steve knew if Bucky would reciprocate them if he were awake. He hoped so. There was always the possibility of Steve being left alone again, without Bucky there, because Bucky didn’t want to be with him. That he didn’t love him.
It would hurt like hell, but for now, Steve just reveled in the fact that he was in love with his best friend.
After sitting there in silence for an hour, he got up and pressed a hand to the glass again. “See you soon, Buck.”
“I told you, I’m fine, I just gotta see him. It’s been five days, Your Highness. I need to see Bucky.”
“I understand, Captain, but you have healing ribs and multiple lacerations. Please just sit for a little while longer and then you will be able to go to your beloved.”
Steve felt his face warm, but didn’t deny the nickname.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go to mine,” T’challa said.
Steve watched as T’challa walked regally out of the room and turned to where he knew Sam was being treated. Like Steve had predicted, people had come for Bucky. Sam and Steve had helped T’challa’s warriors fight. Though really, their defense was so good that Sam and Steve had been in the way more than anything. It had been a rough battle though, especially without their usual gear, and both had some injuries.
Once Steve heard Sam’s door close, he quickly (or as quickly as he could) got out of bed and made his way through the medical building until he came to Bucky’s room. Bucky was the same as he had left him. White tank top. Long, brown hair.
Sitting in his usual chair, Steve let out a pained breath as his ribs slowly knit back together.
“Hey jerk, sorry I haven’t been here. Stuff came up.”
He grunted as he shift in the chair, unable to get comfortable with the pain in his ribs.
“I’m fine. Nothing I can’t handle. It was worth it, anyway. Still have you.”
The time passed in silence. Steve didn’t want to irritate his ribs by talking, and Bucky wasn’t one to add to conversation these days.
Finally, Steve was able to take a deep breath again, and did so, heaving a sigh. “See you in the morning, Buck.”
“You’re sure about this, right? He didn’t want to be taken out until there was a plan to get rid of his conditioning.”
T’challa nodded. “I’m positive. My doctors have finally finished the program that they have been creating. I’m sorry, for your sake, that it has taken so long. I know how difficult this has been for you.”
Steve avoided his eyes, staring at the doctor that was plugging in a code that would stop the cryo tank, waking Bucky up. His heart was pounding so hard that if he didn’t have the serum, he probably would have fallen over from a heart attack by now. Clenching his fists, Steve tried to get his hands to stop shaking.
The cryo tank hissed as it opened. The cooler air from inside created a slight fog before it disappeared.
Steve didn’t know how long it took for Bucky to move after. All he cared about was Bucky’s eyes opening and finding his. Steve saw a moment of panic show before Bucky realized where he was and who was in front of him. Trying to quell the sudden urge to resurrect certain Hydra agents so he could kill them again for putting that look on Bucky’s face when he woke from cryo, Steve stepped forward.
“Steve,” Bucky breathed, awe crossing his face as a smile broke out. “I love you, too.”
The entire room froze. Steve felt his inside turn to stone.
Bucky knew that Steve loved him. But if he knew that, then he had heard Steve, and if he had heard Steve, then he had been aware, and if he had been aware, then he had felt the cold. Steve couldn’t breathe. His nightmare from the whole time that Bucky had been under was coming true before him, and all he could do was feel the plane slip under the ice, the freezing cold water surrounding him. The burn in his chest as he fought to not breathe until he couldn’t hold his breath any longer. The unexpected peace of not being able to dislodge the water from his lungs, not being able to take a breath. His surroundings slowly slipping away until he knew no more.
“Help him, Sam! He isn’t breathing! Rub his back, that used to calm him down before. Lower him onto the ground, so he doesn’t fall over. Steve, Stevie, can you hear me?”
Steve blinked. The room came into focus around him again, from Sam kneeling next to him to Bucky straining against his restraints, still in the cryo tank.
“You weren’t supposed to know! You weren’t supposed to hear! You were supposed to be asleep, to have some goddamn peace!” Steve burst out once he had enough air in his lungs.
Bucky flinched at the outburst, but clenched his jaw and glared right back at Steve. “So what if I did? I was here, it wasn’t as if I just ceased to exist because I couldn’t talk back to you. I was still alive, even if I wasn’t awake.”
Steve got up and stalked over to him, his blood boiling. “Do you really think I don’t understand that? I knew you were there, and I knew if you were awake then you would be hurting, so I just let myself hurt alone. But now I know that you were aware the whole time and could feel the cold, and Buck I can’t - I can’t…”
“Shhhh… Stevie, I’m alright. I wasn’t awake, I wasn’t cold. I could just hear you sometimes. I heard you.” And now a small smile graced Bucky’s face. “Did you and the cat guy really lap Sam? Was that a way of flirting with him? Did Sam realize yet?”
Sam approached from where he had been hanging back, letting Steve and Bucky have their moment.
“Realize what now?” he asked.
Steve shook his head minutely and Bucky replied innocently, “Nothing.”
“Buck,” Steve said, the ache in his chest lessening every moment that Bucky’s eyes were open and he was talking. Bucky looked back at Steve and neither looked away. It was the same look they had shared in the elevator before fighting Zemo.
“I missed you,” Steve whispered, the words tearing out of him.
Bucky smiled gently. “I’m right here, punk.”
Steve huffed out a laugh, feeling his eyes tear up. Bucky went to wipe it away, only to be stopped by the restraint over his chest.
“C’mon man, let’s get you out of this,” Sam said, stepping forward to undo the straps.
Bucky’s legs weren’t used to holding up his weight, though, and he collapsed. Right into Steve’s ready arms.
“I’ve got you,” Steve murmured into Bucky’s hair.
“Til the end of the line,” he heard Bucky say, making his arms tighten more.