Steve jerked awake with a nameless surge of panic. He only got as far as sitting up before he remembered why, but Bucky was right there beside him, smiling up at him from his pillow.
After so many mornings waking up to find Bucky staring blankly at the wall, or missing altogether, it should have been a relief to wake up to Bucky smiling at him. Steve hadn't meant to fall asleep at all, though. Not on Bucky's last night.
"Hey, come here," Bucky muttered, reaching for Steve. Steve closed his hand around Bucky's and drew Bucky's fingers to his lips as he slid back down. He could smell ink on them. Bucky had been writing when Steve fell asleep, and he must have kept it up most of the night.
He remembered Bucky coming home from the night classes he squeezed in after his job as a shipping clerk, his right hand aching and ink-stained. He'd been taught to write with it instead of his left in school, though he preferred to do things with his left hand. He hadn't let that slow him down. Bucky had been three-quarters through getting his college degree when he left for basic. After today...
Bucky hitched himself closer, drawing Steve's gaze to the sheared-off vacancy of his left arm. All the metal had been removed the day before in preparation for today. No one knew what might happen if the metal were still there when Wanda started working on him. Bandages covered his shoulder, which had turned out to contain more actual bone and muscle than the doctors had first feared; they had managed to regenerate enough skin and muscle to stabilize it, but it wasn't entirely healed yet.
It would never entirely heal. Bucky would never heal.
Bucky leaned in and kissed Steve's forehead, then his lips. Steve closed his eyes and leaned into the kiss, letting go of Bucky's hand to wrap an arm around him and pull him close. They'd one-last-timed twice before Steve fell asleep a few hours before dawn; he told himself he could still feel twinges in his body, but he knew every sign was already gone.
Bucky drew back, giving him a final soft kiss.
"I'll be okay, Steve," he said quietly. "I'm not gonna lose anything I'm better off having. This is like cutting out a cancer."
Steve swallowed hard and didn't make any of the arguments he'd made when Wanda first offered this last-ditch answer to Bucky's programming. Is this moment a cancer? Was last night a cancer? The moment you chose to pull me from the river, the moment you broke their control, the life you made for yourself for two years on your own?
But Bucky had already answered that: they were collateral damage, a necessary sacrifice. The cancer was Hydra, the programming they'd sunk into him that had resisted every other attempt to remove it. This was the last best chance, and without any hope of being rid of those triggers, Bucky had been close to giving up completely. This wasn't about losing Bucky; it was about saving as much of Bucky as they could save.
"I'm not gonna lose you," Bucky added, curling his fingers into Steve's shirt.
"Never," Steve agreed. "Soon as you wake up, I'll be with you. I'll finally get to be the one to show you around the future."
Bucky smiled and then looked around their airy room in the Wakandan palace's guest quarters. "Yeah, this is a lot nicer than any place you ever took me before. Even if I don't remember right away--"
"You'll know me, Buck. You knew me before; you'll know me after this. You won't be alone."
"So. Nothing to be scared of, then. Right?"
Steve shook his head and summoned up a smile of his own. There wasn't anything to be scared of. He just didn't know how much of Bucky he had to grieve.
Wanda had spent the night at the Temple of Sekhmet, preparing herself for what she was about to attempt. She was sitting on the steps when they arrived, sharing the last of what looked to have been an enormous breakfast with a half-grown kitten. It was tiger-striped, its fur so dark that the pattern was only visible in the direct morning sunlight.
"Hey." Bucky crouched down to peer at the kitten. "This is the guinea pig, huh?"
"No, Sergeant Barnes, this is a cat," Wanda said seriously, but she smiled when Bucky looked at her, betraying only a little nervousness in the expression. "And yes. This is the cat I tested it on."
Bucky nodded, looking only at the cat. "You said before--you could try in stages. Make sure you don't wind me back too far."
Steve watched Wanda watching Bucky, saw the little crease of worry appear on her forehead as she nodded.
Bucky shook his head. "Don't. If you stop halfway--you'll get somebody who needs to go back further and doesn't understand why, and all I'll hear is you're gonna make me forget. Don't stop until you're sure, okay?"
Wanda nodded, searching Bucky's face. "But you know that you won't forget. It won't have happened to you at all."
That had been Bucky's sticking point when Wanda explained how she could take him back to the time before the triggers were implanted. He'd understood at once that he would forget things that had happened since, and the reassurance he'd demanded was that he could never possibly remember again, would bear no scars, no secret changes in himself from things he didn't remember.
Wanda promised him: He would become someone those things had never happened to. He could never remember; the years she was going to take from him would be utterly unmade, and Bucky would simply start over, as if he'd been brought into the future from some less-damaged point in his past.
"I know," Bucky said. "I mean, I'm here, right?"
"You're here," Wanda agreed. "But we're not doing this on the steps, so if you're ready..."
"Yeah," Bucky said, reaching out for the first time to pet the silky fur of the kitten Wanda had practiced on. "Yeah, let's go."
There was nothing for Steve to do but wait. Wanda had no idea how long it might take, only that it wouldn't be quick. Theoretically Steve could have gone somewhere else, but he sat down on a stone bench in the cool, wide corridor near the private room where Wanda had taken Bucky and settled in to wait for word.
Would Bucky emerge confused, mind-wiped, already halfway to the Winter Soldier? Frightened, tortured, newly captured by Hydra?
Would he remember falling from the train? Would he come from further back than that, whisked suddenly from their days together in the war to the bewildering sanctuary of this temple in Wakanda--and the loss of his arm? Or even earlier? Before Zola had ever captured him the first time, before he had ever seen Steve in his big new body?
Whoever he was, Steve would know him, and sooner or later, after some explanations or some time to remember, Bucky would know Steve. Bucky would be safe, and they would finally be able to enjoy the future together--their future, as well as the twenty-first century.
Steve pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and didn't check the time. He knew it couldn't have been even five minutes. He only lowered his hands when he heard quiet footsteps approaching: Sam and Natasha. He felt a rush of relief and gratitude at the sight of his friends.
"He already went in," Steve said, making it sound a little apologetic, although he knew Bucky hadn't wanted to see anyone else beforehand.
"Yeah, we already said goodbye last night," Sam assured him, and Natasha gave a little flip of her hand to convey the same.
Steve wondered whether any of the Bucky she'd known when she was younger would remain--it was a narrow slice of time, by Bucky's subjective experience, but neither he nor Natasha had been sure whether his trigger words were already active then.
"We're here for you," Natasha said directly. "You shouldn't be alone."
They didn't make him talk, and barely spoke to each other, seeming content to share Steve's vigil. Natasha left at one point and came back with food; Sam did the same sometime later. Steve ate when they put food in front of him, and twice he went away as far as the restrooms at the back of the temple. It was twilight the second time, and when he returned he couldn't make himself sit down again, pacing back and forth. Sam and Natasha were sharing a bench, and Sam had slumped down to lean his head against Natasha's as he dozed.
Natasha gave Steve a little smile when he passed. Steve managed a smile back, but he folded his arms tightly around himself. What if Bucky didn't even remember being separated from him by the war? What if he thought he'd been whisked straight from the last apartment they shared in Brooklyn to here and now? What if...
A high, terrified scream broke the silence, and Steve was running toward it before it even began to trail off. It didn't sound like Wanda, but--
It wasn't Wanda.
Wanda was pressed against the wall beside the door, and Bucky was sitting up on the cot, clutching at the place where his arm should have been, screaming. Bucky, impossibly small and round-cheeked, with soft, narrow shoulders and a child's smooth body.
He was screaming higher than even Wanda would have because his voice hadn't broken yet. His eyes were wide with terror, and he didn't give any faint sign of recognizing Steve.
Steve knew him, though. That was all that mattered. Bucky needed him. He pushed forward after the barest pause in the doorway, waving Wanda out as he stumbled over to kneel by the bed.
"Hey, hey. Bucky, look at me."
Bucky's silver-blue eyes were showing white all the way around, but they swiveled toward him.
Steve let his voice go all Brooklyn as he went on. "Come on, pal, breathe. You're gonna be fine."
Bucky continued staring at him as he stopped screaming to gasp and then said, voice shaking wildly, "My arm's gone."
Steve winced, looking at it for the first time. The bandages had been loosened when Bucky shrank out from under them, sagging away from raw new scars and the unmistakable absence of everything past his shoulder.
"Does it hurt?"
Bucky didn't snap back at him about what a dumb question that was. He took a few more heaving breaths and then said shakily, "No, sir."
Steve felt like he'd been slapped. He looked up again, meeting Bucky's gaze--still shocked and dazed, but focusing on him now. Bucky still didn't recognize him. Bucky wasn't going to recognize him. He wasn't Bucky's best friend, a little more than a year younger and always shorter and smaller. He was an adult, old enough to be Bucky's father.
Steve felt sick, dizzy and disoriented and lost, more out of place in his hulking huge body than he had in years. He pushed all of that away, along with the dark tide of reaction he could feel threatening.
"Good," Steve croaked, and cleared his throat. "Good, I'm glad it's not hurting. I know it's an awful shock. Men who--" He hesitated to say it to a child, then couldn't believe he would hesitate to say anything to Bucky.
Bucky was watching him like he expected Steve to say something sensible, to know what to do. He was just a child--Steve couldn't make the remotest guess how old, because the attempt to gauge Bucky's size made him feel like his own body was simultaneously growing and shrinking, throwing off his ability to judge.
"Men who suffer this kind of thing in war," Steve said haltingly. "They say sometimes that seeing it is worse than the pain."
Bucky, exactly as Steve knew he would, turned his head and looked down at his own left shoulder, tugging at the bandages with his right hand. Steve let his hands hover to either side while Bucky bared his own injury, his own scars. Steve stared at the trembling of that small hand--not so small, it couldn't be, he couldn't be so much younger--and then Bucky made a quiet, choked sound that struck Steve in the pit of his stomach.
Bucky had gone sickly pale, and he was blinking frantically, water standing in his eyes. Trying not to cry in front of a man he didn't know; trying to be a big boy, a little man.
"Bucky," Steve said, controlling his own voice with an effort. "How old are you?"
Bucky sniffed, clearing his throat, and tore his gaze from his absent arm to meet Steve's eyes. "Eleven, sir."
Steve felt dizzy all over again. Bucky couldn't be as old as eleven; Steve remembered Bucky at eleven, nearly grown, confident and smart and fearless. This Bucky was just a kid, trembling and lost.
"What's the date?" Steve asked him.
Bucky blinked at him, frowning a little in concentration, but he answered the question. "August 13th."
Steve nodded. "What year?"
Bucky's mouth worked for a second before he answered, his frown deepening. "1928."
That put Bucky five months past his eleventh birthday; he would remember that Steve had turned ten a month before. Steve nodded, trying to think of how to begin to tell him what had happened. None of the explanations he had mentally rehearsed for an adult Bucky could possibly be right for this one.
Steve put his hand on Bucky's knee. "Yeah?"
"Sir, who... why do you know my name? Did you--did you bring me here?" Bucky seemed steadier with a question to focus on, distracting him from his general shock.
Steve made his decision.
"I'm Captain Rogers." Bucky wouldn't expect to know an adult's first name, wouldn't be able to accept it if Steve offered. "And I suppose I did help bring you here. You remember the woman who was in here before?"
Bucky looked past him to the spot where Wanda must have been when he first opened his eyes. He nodded cautiously as he returned his gaze to Steve. "She... she looked all... red."
Steve nodded. "Yeah, that's the way it looks when she's doing magic. Her name is Wanda Maximoff. She's a witch--a good witch. She brought you here because something really bad was going to happen to you if you stayed in Brooklyn in 1928."
Bucky was staring at him--really looking at his face--and Steve felt a wild anticipation, hope and fear, that Bucky would recognize him. But he only said, "Captain Rogers? Are you related to my friend Steve? Is that how you know my name?"
Steve controlled his expression. "Yeah, that's how I know."
"Is he--is he gonna be safe? I know he don't look like much if you don't know him so well, but if there's trouble he's gonna get in the middle of it, and you gotta know he's worth saving, sir. He's worth ten of the other boys."
"Yeah? I bet he'd say the same about you, Bucky."
Bucky ducked his head. "You can--you can send me back, if--if he--"
Steve shut his eyes and set his hand on Bucky's good shoulder. "I'm sorry, Buck. It's a one-way trip." He squeezed and forced his voice to a lighter tone as he added, "Now aren't you gonna ask me any questions about the magic?"
Bucky's eyes narrowed. "Magic? Like--really magic?"
"Really magic," Steve agreed. "Can't think of any other way all of this could have happened. You're not in Brooklyn anymore, and the year is 2017."
Bucky's jaw dropped slightly, his eyes going round, and Steve thought of all those science fiction stories Bucky had loved--the future, after the year 2000. He glimpsed a bit of joy in Bucky's eyes, something like wonder.
"Really? You're not teasing?"
Steve shook his head and looked around, quickly finding a soft, loose robe left on a bench nearby. "Here, let's get this on you, and you can come and see. We're really in the future--and in Africa, in a country called Wakanda."
"Africa?" Bucky repeated, faltering as he scooted forward off the bed. His eyes had gone wider; Africa was probably more unimaginable to him than the year 2017.
"Yeah," Steve said, standing up and going to get the robe, holding it up to dodge the question of how Bucky could get it on with one hand--though he noticed it already had one sleeve neatly pinned up.
Bucky stood and stuck his right arm into the sleeve, letting Steve settle the robe over his shoulders. It fastened with Velcro, and Steve quickly patted the tabs into place, trying to ignore the way the garment puddled to the floor and Bucky trying to push the one long sleeve up, scraping it against his body.
When he got his hand free, his arm crooked to keep it that way, Bucky looked up at Steve for some guidance, uncertain but willing to be distracted.
"Come on, let's take a look." Steve put his hand on Bucky's shoulder and steered him cautiously out of the private room, back toward the corridor where he'd been waiting. Wanda and Natasha had disappeared, but Sam was waiting for them with a priestess of Sekhmet who Steve hadn't met before. Her skin was even darker than Sam's, almost blue-black, a vivid contrast to the loose white gown she wore.
Sam's expression was gentle and controlled, a professional mask. The priestess was coolly inscrutable, which Steve assumed was her own version of the same thing.
"Ma'am," Steve said respectfully, keeping his hand firmly on Bucky's shoulder. Bucky ducked his head, following Steve's lead, while staring at Sam and the priestess with wide eyes.
"The goddess offers no answers today," the woman replied. "But you are welcome here among us, James Buchanan Barnes."
"Th—thank you," Bucky managed. "Ma'am."
She nodded to Bucky, her expression of calm never wavering before she turned away. Steve looked at Sam instead of letting himself think about what that meant.
The goddess offers no answers. Wanda had told them before that this was a one-way trip. Steve hadn't expected anyone else to be able to say different.
"Hi," Sam said, giving Bucky a solemn half-smile. "I'm Sam Wilson, and I hear you're Bucky Barnes."
Bucky nodded, glancing up at Steve before he hazarded, "Yes, sir."
Steve squeezed his shoulder approvingly. "Sam's actually from Harlem. He and I came to Wakanda together. He's Staff Sergeant Wilson, properly."
"Staff Sergeant," Bucky repeated, ducking his head again before he looked up at Steve for some direction.
"Come on, both of you," Sam said. "You should eat."
Grateful for any hint of direction, Steve nodded firmly and followed Sam's lead, keeping his hand on Bucky's shoulder.
Over dinner at Sam's suite, Sam drew Steve out into proving that they really were in 2017 for Bucky, demonstrating their smartphones. Bucky lost a little of his stiffness as he tried out the games on Steve's phone. He never acknowledged the absence of his arm, doing everything for himself and one-handed, but it wasn't long before he was visibly drooping.
"Come on," Steve said. "Let's find you a place to sleep, Bucky. Sam, thanks for this." Steve gestured vaguely, knowing that Sam would understand that he meant Sam's quiet, calm support more than dinner.
Sam nodded to Steve, and to Bucky's quick echo of, "Thank you, Staff Sergeant."
"No problem, guys," Sam said. "I'll see you in the morning, huh?"
Steve nodded, and didn't think about the immensity of the questions the next day would bring. He walked with Bucky out of Sam's room, and put a hand on his shoulder again to guide him to their room. Steve figured he could bed Bucky down on the couch in the corner, but a cot had already been set up right under the windows, with a view of the jungle as evening settled. A pair of boys' pajamas, a toothbrush, and a change of clothes were all set out at the foot of the cot.
Steve showed Bucky the attached bathroom. "Let me know if you need help with anything, okay?"
Bucky nodded with obviously determined composure and shut the door. Steve sagged down to sit on the bed, alone and out of Bucky's sight for the first time since he'd heard him screaming. That enormous feeling he'd been pushing off ever since he saw what had happened to Bucky was looming closer. He put it off with sternly focused thoughts.
Bucky would need a new identity--an amnesty of sorts, a truly fresh start, but who would he be now? T'Challa had issued them all Wakandan identification so they could get around within Wakanda for as long as they needed. Surely he would do the same for Bucky now.
Bucky opened the bathroom door after what seemed like no time at all, and Steve jerked his head up and pasted on something like a smile. Bucky had gotten into the pajamas, which closed smoothly over his left shoulder: not even a pinned-up sleeve, just a neat seam.
He'd need to see doctors, Steve thought. Vaccines. He wouldn't have the serum anymore; he would have to be careful, like a regular kid. If he got hurt or sick he'd need someone to take care of him, feed him soup and keep him resting quietly in bed.
Steve pushed away the endless implications and watched Bucky move his few clothes and toothbrush to the broad windowsill, which was as good as a shelf. He looked back to Steve for approval, and Steve nodded.
"Captain?" Bucky said hesitantly. "I, uh... I need to say my prayers before I lie down."
The sound of Bucky's voice--tentative and certain all at once--hit him in the pit of the stomach. Steve remembered praying with Bucky and his family when he stayed at their place, and adding his voice to Bucky's when Bucky was at his place so the prayer wouldn't be so lonely. But he hadn't heard Bucky pray since before he shipped out.
"I think I know that one," Steve said, his voice a little hoarse. "I'm Catholic, but I could pray it with you if you like."
Bucky gave a quick, relieved nod at Steve's agreement, and Steve walked over to sit down gingerly on the edge of the cot beside him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Bucky raise his remaining hand to shield his eyes.
Steve covered his own eyes as he summoned up the memory of the half-sung, half-chanted melody for the brief lines. Bucky started, and Steve hastened to join in.
"Sh'ma Yisra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad." And then, dropping his voice automatically to an almost tuneless undertone, "Barukh sheim k'vod malkhuto l'olam va'ed."
Steve squeezed his eyes shut tight as he dropped his hand, bracing himself all over again for the sight of Bucky as he was now. He only opened them when Bucky said, sounding surprised and cheerful, "You said that as good as my dad, Captain. Did Steve teach it to you?"
Steve summoned up a smile for Bucky, who was looking up at him with bright eyes. "Yeah, pal, he did. Listen, I gotta go talk to Miss Maximoff, so you go ahead and bed down. I'll be back soon."
A little alarm passed through Bucky's eyes at that--whether at Steve leaving him or the mention of Wanda was anyone's guess--but he nodded firmly.
Steve stood and Bucky stood with him, and Steve tugged the light covers on the bed back, gesturing for Bucky to get in.
Bucky did, settling quickly on his back to let Steve pull the covers over him. Steve leaned down, brushing his hair back and pressing a quick, light kiss to his forehead. "It's not such a bad place, Bucky. And you'll be safe here."
Bucky nodded, eyes already closed, and Steve turned away and walked quickly to the door to let himself out.
In the hallway he let himself lean against the wall, listening for a moment, but Bucky didn't make a sound. Not yet. Steve straightened up and looked around at the nearest doors, forcing himself to focus on the next step.
Wanda's door swung open before Steve had time to bludgeon his brains too much. Natasha was standing there, looking so perfectly composed that Steve knew it was a front. She beckoned him in, and Steve walked through the door, struggling for calm.
Wanda was standing by the windows, arms wrapped around her middle; she had to know he was there, but she didn't look toward him. Steve recognized her nerves and searched himself for anything she was right to be frightened of. He could be angry at her for this, but what good would it do? Bucky couldn't be changed back, and she had done what she'd promised: he was safe from Hydra's programming.
She turned toward him, as if she heard him arrive at that conclusion, and her gaze was searching as she walked toward him.
"Are you okay?" Steve finally thought to ask, looking at her, pale and young and anxious. "You did so much today, are you--was it--"
Wanda batted Steve's question away with one hand. "No, that was--there is so much power in this place, things are possible that wouldn't work anywhere else. I'm fine. And I'm sorry. It wasn't what you wanted, either of you."
Steve looked away, not wanting to test his failure to get angry too far. "You told us you didn't know exactly what would happen. I heard Bucky ask you to do it all in one go."
"It turns out that follow-through doesn't only apply to throwing a punch," Wanda informed him, and Steve's fists clenched reflexively as he was drawn to look at her again. She offered a crooked smile. "There is a momentum to the magic with something as weighty as a decade of human life behind it. It just... kept going, and I couldn't make it stop earlier without knowing where the recoil would go."
Steve nodded. That made a kind of sense he could wrap his head around, which wasn't always the case when Wanda tried to explain why some part of her magic worked the way it did.
"And..." Steve knew the answer, but still. He had to say it out loud. "There's no way to change it now."
Wanda shook her head, her eyes steady on him. "He will only get older now the slow way."
Steve nodded. Bucky had a whole life ahead of him now--he would have to do his bar mitzvah all over again in a couple of years. Go to school. Train for some kind of job.
Steve tried to imagine himself off saving the world while Bucky was doing all of that somewhere, alone among strangers. It was only slightly less sickening than the thought of settling down somewhere to look after Bucky while he did it.
"I don't know what to..." Steve trailed off, shaking his head. There was no end to what he didn't know: what to say, what to think, what to feel, what to do.
Wanda looked up at him solemnly and then stepped forward, extending her hand.
Steve found himself thinking, please, please, do it, a surge of fierce willingness for something.
But Wanda's touch was only the warmth of her hand, and his certainty shattered when Steve tried to name to himself what he had been so sure of in that instant.
"You will," Wanda said firmly.
Steve nodded. "I shouldn't leave him for too long."
Wanda released him, and Steve turned away, searching for Natasha with his eyes. She was sitting on a chair with a mug of tea in her hands, watching him so intently he suspected she knew what he'd been thinking, even if he hadn't understood it himself.
Steve pushed back the covers before he knew where he was or what he was responding to. He froze halfway to the cot under the windows when he realized that the muffled crying was Bucky--not his Bucky, but a child Bucky had been once who didn't know Steve from any of the other strange adults around him. He would be ashamed to be caught crying by an adult in a way that he wouldn't have been if Steve--his Steve--had woken up beside him.
Another shaky sob under the blankets pushed Steve back into motion. It didn't matter. He wouldn't leave Bucky alone with this.
He sat down gingerly on the edge of the bed and put his hand on the hump of Bucky's back through the blanket. Bucky froze, sucking in a breath and holding it.
"It's okay," Steve said, pitching his voice low. "It's okay to cry, Buck. You don't have to hide from me. I know it's scary, and you miss your home and your family."
Bucky stayed silent, and Steve tried rubbing his back a little, hoping he had done the right thing, that he could find some way in. He didn't remember how he had made friends with Bucky to begin with when they were kids, and he couldn't do it the same way now even if he did remember.
Then Bucky moved, a sudden flurry as he knelt up and threw the blanket back, flinging himself at Steve.
Steve caught him--he was bigger and smaller than Steve expected all at once, but he managed to draw Bucky into his lap.
Bucky curled down against his chest, clutching Steve's shirt and hiding his face. He shook under Steve's hands, and Steve squeezed him a little, pressing his face against Bucky's dark hair.
That seemed to break the dam. Bucky started sobbing again, this time with no attempt to be quiet. Steve squeezed his own eyes shut, bracing himself against Bucky's pain, absorbing it in silence though every sob was a knife between his ribs.
That was what adults were for when you were a kid, wasn't it? They took care of things, and they didn't let you see if they got hurt or scared. His mother had done that for him, almost until the end. That was what he was to Bucky now.
Steve felt tears slip from his own eyes, but he knew Bucky wouldn't feel them in his hair, wouldn't credit it if he did. A grownup like Captain Rogers wouldn't cry just because Bucky was crying. As long as he didn't let himself shake or sob out loud, as long as he held Bucky steady, that was all he had to do.
It was also all he could do. He couldn't offer any more comfort than this to Bucky from across the new divide between them. He had promised Bucky that he wouldn't be alone no matter how much of his life he lost to Wanda's magic, but Bucky was alone now no matter how close Steve held him. He'd been thrust into a strange future, and in the blink of an eye he had lost every single person from his former life, as well as his left arm.
Steve knew that even he couldn't know exactly how that felt. He had been an adult, capable of pushing himself to go on, but Bucky wouldn't have any special mission to rescue him from his isolation--only strange adults around him who all expected him to become someone they had once known--Steve most and worst of all.
There was only one way to make this right, and Steve gradually became aware that he already knew what it was.
He hadn't let himself think it, but now that it was here in his mind, he knew he had to. There was no alternative for him.
"Shh," he murmured to Bucky, as the worst of the storm passed and he began to subside into Steve's hold. "Shh, Bucky. I need you to listen to me. I need to tell you something now."
Bucky immediately moved to straighten up, wiping his face with the long sleeve of his pajamas before he looked Steve in the eye. Tears were still filling his eyes, wetting his lashes. Steve brushed his hair back with one hand, then gripped his shoulder.
"This is a secret, for now," Steve said. "But you're not going to be alone here for long. Steve is going to be here soon, so I need you to be brave, and learn everything you can so that you can help him when he gets here."
Bucky's eyes went wide and he looked around--looking for his friend, Steve thought, with an ache that only fed his certainty. Bucky needed him, and he needed to be with Bucky.
"Not yet," Steve said. "Not for a day or two at least, but soon. He'll be here, and the two of you will be safe here together."
"His ma," Bucky said, then shook his head, muttering, "She'd want him safe, though, wouldn't she?"
"Yeah," Steve managed, his throat tight. "Yeah, his ma would want him to grow up safe, just like your folks want you to be safe. And this way the two of you will be together."
Bucky gave a determined nod, then looked up at Steve again, then down at his arm. "He--will it hurt him, too, Captain? Coming here? He's... he's younger than me, it might be worse for him."
Steve closed his eyes and felt for just a moment as though he were pushing a plane into a dive. He had been conscious for a while after impact; he remembered how the shock of it had given way to pain, slowly, in the dark and the cold.
But now it would never have happened. Not to him.
"No," Steve said softly. "No, I don't think it will hurt him at all. We know better how the magic works now. He'll be safe."
Bucky threw himself abruptly against Steve's chest, clinging tight again. It took a moment for Steve to recognize it as a hug.
"Thanks, Captain, sir," Bucky whispered. "Thanks for saving Stevie too."
"Don't thank me yet," Steve said. "But we'll get him here as soon as we can."
Steve expected to lie awake the rest of the night after he got Bucky tucked back in, but the thought of what he meant to do had barely formed in his mind before he was asleep. He slept more soundly than he had in months, without any dreams at all.
Bucky stirred a little when he got up, but Steve said gently, "Go back to sleep, no chores today," and Bucky sank back into his pillow without a word. That much hadn't changed. Wouldn't ever change, maybe.
Steve slipped out into the hallway and glanced quickly down toward Sam and Natasha's doors, both closed. Then he stepped across to Wanda's.
He had to know it was possible, first. He had to know that Wanda was willing to do what it would take to square this, that the look in her eyes when she told him, You will, had meant what he had believed it must in the middle of the night. She had only offered this drastic option to Bucky when it was obvious that he would kill himself otherwise; Steve wasn't sure he could pull off an equivalent threat.
The door opened before he actually raised his hand to tap on it, and Wanda gave him a weary half-smile from the other side. "You're thinking very loudly this morning."
Steve winced apologetically, but didn't hesitate to come in when Wanda stepped back. He swept a gaze over the room and looked back to Wanda, raising his eyebrows as she turned away from the closed door.
She raised one eyebrow back and waved a hand, inviting him to move further inside. Steve didn't bother to be subtle about looking around then, checking around the sitting area and sticking his head into the bathroom. Wanda's bed was rumpled and obviously empty; they were alone.
He turned back toward her to find she was perching on the back of the couch. He took a step toward her, leaving plenty of distance between them as he raised his empty hands palm up and said, "Can you do it?"
Wanda tilted her head. "Tell me what you're asking me for first."
Steve closed his eyes. "Can you--wind me back, the same as Bucky. So I can be someone he recognizes. So I can be his friend again."
"You know that I can," Wanda pointed out. "You want to know if I will."
Steve opened his eyes, and saw the answer in her serious gaze--not apologetic, not shocked or amused.
"Yes," Steve said, swallowing arguments, trying not to even think them--not where Wanda might hear, knowing who Wanda had lost. "I want to know if you will."
Wanda nodded. "We won't rush. Not today or tomorrow. But if you're sure, and you're ready, and the goddess does not forbid, then on the third day."
Steve let out his breath in a rush and pressed his hands to his face; after another breath it occurred to him to drop his hands and say, "Thank you, Wanda."
"I know how it is," she said, stepping in and hugging him firmly. "Being half of something. I would go anywhere if I knew he was there waiting for me."
Steve hugged her tighter and didn't try to speak.
There was a lot he would have to set up in advance to make this work, and a clock was ticking now: he had forty-eight hours until Wanda would be willing go through with it.
He'd better get the yelling out of the way early. Briefly considering the remaining doors on the corridor, he gave in to cowardice and tapped on Natasha's first. There was no response for a moment; he frowned and tapped again, and then heard Sam's door open behind him.
He turned, already half-knowing what he would see, to find Natasha in the doorway wearing a t-shirt that was definitely Sam's. Her hair was in a level of disarray he'd rarely seen, but her face was perfectly composed, one arched eyebrow daring him to be shocked.
Steve shook his head, raising his hands in silent surrender.
Natasha stepped back, pushing the door wide to invite him in. Well, he had wanted to get it over with.
Steve followed her into Sam's room. There was already a breakfast spread on the coffee table by the couch, and Sam was fixing coffee, dressed in his workout gear. Steve thought of that morning on the Mall and Sam's smile--Sam's constant, steadfast friendship in the years since.
Sam deserved better than what Steve was about to do. So did Natasha, for that matter, though she might play it off more convincingly.
But Steve couldn't imagine doing anything but what he'd already decided on. Not for them, not for anyone.
He let himself drop his gaze, staring at his feet as he clasped his hands behind his back.
"Steve, sit," Natasha said, gently scolding. "You're not delivering a report."
Sam turned toward them, bringing three mugs of coffee over. He set two down, then put his warm hand on Steve's shoulder. "Hey."
Steve shook his head. "I'm--I just wanted to tell you both, I can't keep going like we have been. The Secret Avengers, you'll have to--"
Sam's hand tightened.
Natasha said, "Steve, I know this is a blow, but Bucky--"
Steve shook his head sharply. "I won't be physically able to. Because I'm going to join him."
Sam's hand fell away, and Steve kept his gaze turned down in the silence that followed.
He would have preferred yelling.
"What are you saying?" Sam said finally, his voice deceptively mild and calm. "Steve, Bucky needs--"
"Me," Steve said flatly. "But not like this. Not to be his guardian, his--" Steve felt a little sick forcing the words out, "his father."
His head came up without a thought, and he looked back and forth from Natasha--her face hidden by a curtain of red hair--to Sam, who was staring at him like he was a stranger.
Steve shook his head. "I can't do that. I can't be that to him, not when I--" Steve laughed, and it came out a little wild. "I've been in love with him since I wasn't much older than he is now. He's got four or five years before he hits that growth spurt and looks exactly like he did the first time we fucked, Sam. And what am I gonna be five years from now? Dead or a hundred and three years old or his dad?"
Sam's mouth opened and closed, his frown deepening, and then he said, "Steve, this is--this is your life."
"Yeah, well." Steve shrugged. "Nothing I haven't been willing to sacrifice for Bucky before. And it's not my whole life, just the last two-thirds or so."
"Including the serum," Natasha pointed out, looking up. "For both of you. He's going to grow up into a perfectly normal human being, and you'll go back to..." Her mouth quirked, not putting a word to it.
"You know, I could probably get to five-six, five-seven with good nutrition," Steve parried, trying to match her dry tone, holding her gaze long enough to acknowledge what she was doing.
Sam shook his head, folding his arms. "And who exactly is gonna be responsible for feeding you? You'll be a kid, you'll both be kids; you're gonna need parents."
Steve winced. The thought of becoming a burden on someone else was maybe the worst of it, in terms of all he would have to ask for in the next couple of days. And it was pretty obvious Sam wasn't going to offer to help with that--not that Steve expected him to, especially not right out of the gate.
"I'll figure something out," Steve said. "Find out what happens to orphans in Wakanda, I guess, because that's what we'll be. Doesn't seem like they let kids starve around here."
"Laura and Clint wouldn't turn you away," Natasha said, a little wrinkle on her forehead as she looked down at her hands. Her gaze was entirely serious when she met Steve's eyes this time. "They'd never say no to orphans. And I could get you to them."
Steve nodded, though the thought of himself and Bucky being yanked from Brooklyn to the Bartons' farm upstate--and adding two boys who were likely to be a handful each to Clint and Laura's family--seemed like... Well, a Wakandan orphanage might be better all the way around.
"Thank you," Steve said anyway, because he understood how much it meant for Natasha to make that offer.
Natasha dipped a little nod, and Sam snapped, "So you're just going with this? This is fine with you?"
Natasha gave Sam a level look that made Steve want to take a step back, and she said, "I think we all know the futility of trying to talk Steve out of running after Bucky. And I've had twelve hours to think about it because this was a pretty obvious outcome as soon as we saw what happened to Bucky, but I can't think of anything more productive than trying to contain the damage."
Sam ran a hand over his hair. "Okay, you--you be you about this. I'm going for a run."
That was emphatically not an invitation for anyone to join him, and Steve turned his face aside as Sam walked out, wondering if they had already taken their last run together. He felt a fresh wave of grief rush over him from a new angle, tightening his throat and making his eyes hot.
"You have to do what you have to do," Natasha said quietly. "But you don't get to ignore what you're doing, either."
Steve shook his head, but he forced himself to meet her eyes for a second before he turned and walked out as well, heading back to his room and Bucky.
It had been easier when all he had to do was fall.
Steve spent the day with Bucky, showing him around the palace and introducing him, carefully, to the twenty-first century. This, at least, was something he had anticipated having to do--though he'd been imagining a Bucky twice this one's age when he'd pictured it.
In a way, it was easier with a kid; Bucky had bounced back overnight in a way that would do any supersoldier proud, and he accepted the strangeness of his new surroundings as an adventure. Bucky had been prone to dark and quiet moods for so long that Steve had forgotten it was ever something that started, but watching this young Bucky, Steve realized that he wasn't there yet. His grief and fear would doubtless resurface, but for now Bucky was happy to be distracted, fascinated by all the new things around him.
It would have been a perfect distraction from his own thoughts if only Bucky hadn't called him Captain or sir every time he spoke. If only Bucky's childlike--actual child--enthusiasm hadn't left Steve wanting to share these things with his Bucky.
But soon enough, Bucky would be sharing it all with him.
Steve and Bucky were summoned to the wing that included the king's private apartment after dinner that evening. Steve had already given Bucky a quick rundown on Wakandan history and proper manners in the presence of the king, and Bucky got quiet and wide-eyed, edging closer to Steve's side as the Dora Milaje escorted them into the heart of the palace.
Bucky relaxed when their destination turned out to be a workshop-laboratory, obviously T'Challa's private space. The king was casually dressed, safety goggles pushed up on top of his head and gauntlets lying on the workbench, as he turned to greet them.
It was obvious from the first look he gave Steve that he'd already heard everything: not just what had happened to Bucky, but what Steve intended to do. He didn't say anything immediately, allowing Steve to introduce him to Bucky.
"Welcome, James," T'Challa said. "I know Captain Rogers has told you that you have been brought to this time and place to keep you safe, and I wish you to know, from me, that you will always have a place in Wakanda, for as long as you need it."
It was nothing T'Challa hadn't told Steve and Bucky before, but it meant something different now, something that made Steve's heart beat a little faster.
Bucky looked up at Steve, eyes wide with hope and excitement and something Steve couldn't quite guess. Steve nodded, meaning only to reassure him that T'Challa told him the truth, but Bucky took it for permission to speak. He looked back at T'Challa and said, with a boy's eagerness only partly tamped down by an attempt at proper manners, "Thank you, Your Majesty. When--when my friend Steve comes, will he be able to stay too?"
T'Challa's expression barely changed, and Steve doubted Bucky would understand that fleeting tension before he nodded.
"Of course, James. Those who Wakanda welcomes into its protection will not be turned out while they still have need of a place."
Steve's knees felt a little weak with the rush of relief and gratitude, and he couldn't look at T'Challa or Bucky. He turned away, bracing himself with one hand on a workbench and staring blindly at the parts scattered over its surface.
T'Challa was promising his protection, his support, to Bucky and to Steve both. They wouldn't have to get smuggled off to Clint's farm, or be jammed into some unfamiliar family. They could stay here, as... royal wards, or whatever status T'Challa assigned them. They couldn't be much more of a burden as kids than they were as adults and fugitives, and they would be safer from discovery here than anywhere.
He didn't have to worry about what would happen to him and Bucky after, then. He only had to tie up the loose ends for everyone else.
T'Challa did Steve an even bigger favor than the promise he had made. He really did show Bucky around the workshop, introducing him to all kinds of tools and materials. Eventually they settled in to work on fixing some kind of flying machine, and Bucky got so absorbed that he hardly seemed to notice he only had one hand to fetch tools and steady components.
Steve hung back and watched; after a while he grabbed a drafting pencil and some paper and started sketching, trying to lose himself as well. It didn't entirely work, but he reminded himself again and again that it wouldn't be much longer now. One more day, and then he would be with Bucky.
Bucky was bright-eyed and talking excitedly all the way back to their room, telling Steve everything he'd worked on with T'Challa. Steve let him go on after they got back to the room. Bucky wound himself down pretty quickly, with a less exciting audience and a long day catching up to him, and soon enough Steve could look over and say, "Time for bed, huh?"
Bucky nodded and got to it at once, gathering up his pajamas and going into the bathroom to change and brush his teeth.
Steve changed for bed as well--he had no desire to slip out and talk to anyone after Bucky was sleeping tonight. They said prayers together, and Steve tucked Bucky in, dropping a quick kiss on his forehead.
"Captain?" Bucky asked in a small voice when the lights were out.
Steve squeezed his own eyes shut. "Yeah, Buck?"
"I know King T'Challa said me and Steve could stay here, but... you'll be here, too, won't you? To take care of us? Steve--he's tough, but he--he gets sick sometimes, and he'll need somebody. And you're family to him, you said."
Steve pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. He thought, for a fleeting second, about telling Bucky the truth, but it would be obscene and cruel to inflict that knowledge on him.
"Steve will be fine," Steve said firmly. "The doctors here will fix him right up. I'll have to go away before Steve gets here--I have other work to do. But I'm sure King T'Challa will arrange for someone to look after you both."
There was a little pause, and then the sound of Bucky turning in bed. His voice bounced off the wall he was facing when Bucky said firmly, "We won't need much looking after, really. We're old enough to get along all right by ourselves. I just wondered if you were staying. You said you're family, that's all."
Steve's throat tightened with the buried hurt, the determined bravery in Bucky's voice. Steve had told him to be brave, and now he was.
It was still the right choice. The only choice. Bucky would be happier once he had his Steve back. And no matter what kind of orphanage situation Bucky thought he and Steve were going into, T'Challa would treat them kindly. They would be happy.
They would be together. Steve's promise would be kept.
By the time he realized that he should have said something reassuring to Bucky, the sound of his breathing had evened out into sleep. There was nothing for Steve to do but try to sleep himself.
He woke up in the morning, took a look at Bucky still sleeping in his cot, and went into the bathroom to change into his running clothes. He stepped out the door and glanced from Natasha's door to Sam's, wondering if he dared to ask Sam along, and where to look for him if he did.
Sam's door opened, and Sam was in his running gear too. He looked Steve up and down. "If you don't think I'm gonna come back and run your skinny, asthmatic kid ass into the ground at least once, you haven't been paying attention the last few years."
Steve swallowed hard, summoning up a smile. It was only as they were walking together out toward their favorite running trail that he thought to ask, "Come back?"
"Natasha's got wind of a thing," Sam said. "Wanda's gonna be busy and you..."
Steve stared down at the ground.
"Anyway," Sam said. "We're gonna leave in a couple hours to check it out, probably won't be back before tomorrow."
So this would be goodbye, then. There was no point in wondering whether the thing Natasha had gotten wind of was anything other than an excuse not to be here tomorrow. It wasn't his business what the Avengers did now; he had already abdicated that responsibility.
"Understood," Steve said. He wanted to offer advice, wanted to say, If you need me, I could...
But he couldn't put this off. If he put it off once, he would just keep stalling until a safer time, and there was never going to be a safe time. He was choosing Bucky, and he had to choose now, once and for all.
Sam nodded without looking at him, and then turned sharply and grabbed Steve by the shoulder. They thumped together in a hug as hard as a punch, and Steve held on nearly as tight as Sam did.
"Gonna be too sweaty for this after," Sam muttered into his shoulder, and Steve nodded and kept holding on.
Bucky was quiet over breakfast, and Steve didn't know whether it was the enormity of everything hitting him, or if he was upset that Steve was going away, or if he just hadn't woken up yet. He didn't even know how to ask.
Steve was saved from trying to find out just after breakfast, when a Wakandan woman came to the door. She had an easygoing smile and some gray sprinkled in her short-cropped dark hair.
"Bucky," she said. "The king has said you should begin preparing for your schooling today. You will come with me now."
Bucky turned wide eyes on Steve, showing a flash of undisguised fear that Steve hadn't seen on him since the first moments after he arrived here.
"It's all right, Buck, she--" Bucky's expression hardened and he looked way, and Steve realized that of course Bucky wasn't frightened of the woman, or of going to school in a strange place. He was afraid of losing the one person he halfway knew here.
"Hey." Steve put his hand on Bucky's shoulder, tugging him around, and Bucky looked up at him. "I'll be here when you get back. You can tell me how it goes today. See if you think Steve'll like it, huh?"
Bucky's expression softened slightly, and he nodded. "I will, sir."
Steve made himself smile. "Good. I'm counting on you. I'll see you later."
Bucky nodded and turned hurriedly away, following the woman out; Steve listened until she heard Bucky's voice rising in eager answer to some question, and then he shut the door and looked around the room.
He hadn't thought to arrange it, but it was good that Bucky would be gone today. Steve needed to pack, needed to make sure he did everything he could for the others before he was gone. Yesterday it had seemed like an eternity to wait, and now tomorrow was dizzyingly close.
Some of it was easy, like the mechanical task of gathering up all of his and Bucky's possessions, packing them up to be stored somewhere until they were old enough to have a use for them and be told where they came from. He even knew where to get boxes because he'd put his and Bucky's things in storage a couple of times already in the past months, while Bucky was going in and out of cryo and attempting treatments, and Steve was splitting his time between Bucky and the Secret Avengers.
Of course, there were a few new notebooks among Bucky's things now, and a packet of sealed letters-—mostly addressed to himself at different ages, but Steve discovered at the bottom of the pile that there was one addressed to him.
Steve - if it goes wrong
Steve touched the envelope to his lips, squeezing his eyes shut. This, here, sealed inside this fold of paper... this was his Bucky, the one he had irrevocably lost a couple of days ago. All he had to do was open the envelope, and he could hear the last echo of Bucky's voice, the last thing Bucky had meant to say to him if all other chances were lost.
But that Bucky was gone, never to return, and very soon Steve would be gone in just the same way. Whatever Bucky had said to him wouldn't change his mind about that, and he knew that he couldn't waste time now on indulging the grief that he would soon escape. If he had to live without Bucky, the letter might be a comfort, but now it was just time he couldn't spare.
He tucked it back into the stack and packed all the letters with Bucky's notebooks.
There were a couple of blank ones left over that Bucky had never used, and those represented the real task Steve had to face.
He had to figure out what to leave behind for himself and Bucky to know when they were ready, and what, if anything, he could say to everyone else.
He didn't have any special knowledge that couldn't be replaced--just a sharp mind, a body that could take a lot of punishment, and a determination to bend both to the best use he could find for them. He wasn't going to presume to try to tell Sam and Natasha and Wanda how to carry on in his absence, and telling them he was sorry to go would be... either a lie, or more truth than he could deal with in the time he had.
Still, they deserved something. He couldn't pretend to himself that they wouldn't miss him, wouldn't grieve for him in the way that he refused to stay and grieve for Bucky. If he could leave them any comfort, he owed them that for letting him go without making it any harder.
So when the packing was done he sat and wrote letters, one after another--to his friends, to Bucky and his own younger self, to the people who would care for them, trying to explain everything he could remember about what two boys from 1928 would expect and need in the way of getting used to the new world they were thrust into.
Some of the letters he put into the packing boxes, to be found when he and Bucky were ready for them. Most of them he would leave here to be found and distributed to the appropriate parties once he had gone to the Temple of Sekhmet in the morning.
There was just one that would require other delivery arrangements.
I know I told you I'd be here if you ever needed me. I'm not going to be able to keep that promise, but I know the others will, and I hope you can forgive me for bowing out.
I thought we would have a chance to work together again, maybe even be friends again someday, now that we don't have any secrets between us. I'm sorry that we won't, and I don't want you to think that the choice I'm making means that that possibility didn't mean anything to me. Everything I'm leaving behind matters to me--being on a team with you, having you as a friend, meant more to me than I can say. I don't think I could have survived waking up in the 21st century without all of you.
But in the end, I don't think it will surprise you to know that there's one person who matters the most to me, and that's why I have made this choice. I hope you can forgive him someday, for your own sake. The person who killed your parents doesn't exist anymore, but you could hurt a lot of innocent people, including yourself, if you never accept that.
I said to you once, when we first met, that you weren't one to make a sacrifice, to lay yourself down for others. I was wrong. Despite all our differences, I know that you are continuing to stand at the post I am about to desert. Your steadfastness and courage may not make you a soldier, but I know that you are what's more important: a good man.
When Steve was done writing letters, he went looking for the one person he really needed to talk to in person.
"Yes, His Majesty has been expecting you," said a woman in a sleek dress, glancing briefly over Steve's work clothes. "Please, await him in the garden. He will be with you shortly."
Steve nodded, trying to give no sign of the hurry he felt, the need to get this done and be back in his room before Bucky might possibly come back. He stepped out into the garden he'd been pointed toward and walked up and down the same short stretch, barely seeing the beautifully tended flowers, until T'Challa appeared.
"Captain," T'Challa said, smiling slightly. "Thank you for coming to speak to me."
Steve had been about to thank T'Challa for making time for him, so he was wrong-footed and could only nod.
"It has been made clear to me by several people, including my royal mother, how great a responsibility I have undertaken in offering to be guardian to two foreign boys," T'Challa went on. "I would appreciate any guidance you can offer."
Steve had met Queen Ramonda a couple of times, and he had an idea of just how formidable she could be. He had a feeling he wouldn't have wanted to be in T'Challa's shoes for that conversation.
He nodded. "I, uh, I wrote down what I could think of, the small stuff. But there's one big thing."
T'Challa nodded attentively and gestured toward a path deeper into the garden, inviting Steve to walk while they talked.
Steve nodded and started out, watching the scenery instead of the man at his side. "The thing is--Bucky's Jewish. And I'm Catholic. And neither of us... practiced that much, the last few years, but as kids--especially with nothing else familiar--"
T'Challa nodded. "Of course your faiths will be respected. Encouraged."
Steve nodded quickly. "It's not such a problem for me--I mean, I'll want to go to Mass and so on, but if I come out ten years old, I've already been confirmed and received communion, so I won't really need to go to catechism or anything. But Bucky's supposed to be going to Hebrew school; he's got seven months until he turns twelve and then it'll be the big push to get ready for his bar mitzvah, and..."
"And there are no synagogues in Wakanda," T'Challa finished for him. "Nor Catholic churches."
Steve nodded. "I know this is the safest place for us, and I'm grateful for your protection, but that's . . . that's gonna be hard for me, and hard for Buck."
T'Challa nodded thoughtfully, leading Steve around a corner. Steve became aware of the sounds of people somewhere nearby. He glanced at T'Challa, and T'Challa tilted his head toward a screen of vines crawling up trees. When Steve stepped closer to it, he could see a little clearing on the other side, where Bucky and five Wakandan kids stood facing two women. One was the woman who had collected Bucky that morning--and the other was Queen Ramonda herself.
As he watched, the Queen started directing the kids through some exercises--somewhere between yoga and katas. Bucky was obviously the newest at it, and struggling with his new center of balance as well, but when he started to wobble he took a step back, righted himself, and then rejoined the exercise. Steve saw Queen Ramonda catch his eye and nod, and he saw Bucky stand a little taller under that attention.
Steve turned back to T'Challa, who nodded toward another path.
"One of the boys and two of the girls in that group are children close to the royal family," T'Challa informed him. "Their parents are members of our diplomatic corps--stationed in London, where I myself had some of my education. They attend a boarding school there most of the year."
"Oh," Steve said. A weight lifted from his shoulders; he really could trust T'Challa--and Queen Ramonda--to figure all of this out. "It's, uh... it must be a really good school, then?"
T'Challa nodded. "An excellent quality of education, and very modern as well--not one of those old-fashioned English boarding schools where boys are allowed to bully each other in the name of ancient tradition. And of course I shall be reachable as your guardian, and if you've made friends with your Wakandan schoolmates, you'll be able to spend weekend breaks with them. Longer holidays will allow you to return to Wakanda, or spend time with friends, if you wish to continue to have contact with them."
Steve blinked, his brain only slowly catching up from the thought of going to a fancy modern school with Bucky--and with enough to eat, and a powerful guardian backing them up--to what T'Challa was suggesting. "You mean—Sam and Natasha? Wanda, Clint..."
Living on Clint's farm would have been miserable, but he thought going there for a summer, as an adventure, would probably be a kick.
T'Challa nodded. "There are a few weeks before the term starts, so you will have some time to get reacquainted with your friends before you must go to school, and if you have no objection they will be listed as adults who are permitted to visit you there."
"Yeah, that'll be good. They'll... I mean, if they want that, of course. And if it's too soon before we go to school, they'll know where to find us?"
"Of course. Are there any of your friends who you would like not to know where to find you? Not that your presence will be advertised, but if they should come looking..."
This one, Steve got right away. He avoided touching the letter in his pocket with an effort. "Tony, you mean."
T'Challa tilted his head.
Steve blew out a breath and then shook his head. "No, if--I mean, if he puts out a call for help, it's enough to tell him I'm not available but I'm safe. But if he starts pressing to know where I am--where we are--and what happened, tell him, and then let him see us if he wants to. He's not going to believe it any other way, and he doesn't deserve to be left wondering forever."
T'Challa nodded. "And likewise the others? Colonel Rhodes, the one called Vision..."
"Yeah," Steve said. "I dunno if you could keep Viz out if he made up his mind to check on us, honestly. It's fine. And Thor, and Dr. Banner, if they turn up. That spider kid from Queens, too, if he somehow figures out who to ask."
"Of course," T'Challa agreed.
Steve wondered if he should name anyone else who might come looking for him, but that pretty well rounded out the list--Nick would find out by his own methods, or he wouldn't, but he wouldn't ask. Sharon knew better than to look. Peggy was gone.
Well. In a few weeks the school year would start and he'd have a whole new chance to make more friends, wouldn't he?
Steve shook away the thoughts. "I have another errand to run--is Bucky going to be busy a while?"
"I believe he will return to you close to the supper hour."
"Thanks, then." Steve shook hands with T'Challa but didn't say goodbye, just headed out without a word to go out into the city and find one of the courier services. Once he sent the letter, he would have attended to all his responsibilities.
He walked slowly back to the palace, and took the most meandering route he could think of so that he got back to their room only a few minutes ahead of Bucky. When Bucky returned, his gaze darted around the room, taking in all the new absences, the things Steve had packed up and put away. "Are you leaving tonight, sir?"
Steve shook his head. "First thing tomorrow morning, early. You'll probably still be sleeping."
Bucky's jaw clenched.
"Steve will be getting here later in the afternoon--I'm sure someone can bring you to the Temple so you can be there when he arrives."
Bucky nodded and still didn't look at him. Steve told himself not to feel hurt by an eleven-year-old boy not being his friend.
"How was it today?" Steve asked.
"Okay," Bucky said. "Ms. Nobomi asked me a lot of questions. I'm gonna start some lessons tomorrow. And I did exercises with some other kids. They were okay."
Steve didn't ask him about the queen; from the sound of things Bucky didn't realize who had been running that class, and he didn't need to have more strangeness piled on.
"Do you know..." Bucky said slowly, finally stealing a sideways glance at Steve. "Is anybody Jewish around here? Can I tell them I am?"
Steve blew out a breath and sat at the end of his bed, patting the spot beside him. Bucky hesitated, looking at him warily.
"Yeah, it's safe," Steve assured him. "But no, nobody around here's Jewish, and we need to talk about that. Come here."
Bucky dawdled for another second, then sat down close beside him. Steve curled an arm around his shoulders, unspeakably relieved when Bucky didn't pull away but leaned into the contact a little.
"I talked to T'Challa today about where you could get your Hebrew schooling, and have a synagogue to go to, and a church for Steve to attend," Steve said. "He's planning on sending you and Steve to school in London, in England."
"Oh," Bucky said, straightening up a little under Steve's arm. "That's where Lizo and Onele go to school! Their folks live there, at the embassy."
It sounded like the kids Bucky had met today were a little more than okay. Steve felt both relief and the old familiar stir of jealousy at Bucky's ease in making friends. But tomorrow he would be introducing Steve to them, eager for them all to be friends together, and maybe Lizo and Onele would take more kindly to Steve than most of Bucky's friends back in Brooklyn ever had.
Anything was possible in the future, right?
"It's a good school," Steve assured him. "You and Steve--you'll be able to go to college if you want to, with the education you get there."
Bucky's eyes were wide. "Like... I could be a, a scientist? Invent things? Or go up in space?"
"Sure," Steve said, his throat tight at all the ambition spilling out of Bucky. Had Bucky dreamed those dreams back in 1928? Were those new ideas, born of his few days' acquaintance with the twenty-first century? What would he want to be, himself, with all the future's options laid before him?
He had no idea. But he was so happy for that kid who he had never been--who he was going to be, with his slate wiped clean and his whole life before him--that he couldn't speak for a few seconds.
"Yeah, Buck," Steve said, when he could speak. "Yeah, you can be whatever you want to be. You and Steve both."
Bucky obviously didn't want to let Steve out of his sight that night, so Steve messaged Wanda instead of trying to go and see her in person. We're on for tomorrow?
I am if you are, she replied promptly.
I am, Steve assured her. He actually felt excited for it, for the adventure he was about to embark on, even if the him he was now would never really know what happened. It felt a little strange to tell her that, though, so he settled for, I'm sure. I'm ready.
I'll see you in the morning, then.
With that settled, Steve called Bucky over and opened up a new screen on his phone. It only took a few taps to find the video he wanted--he'd watched it a few dozen times himself.
"Here, get a load of this," Steve said, turning the screen so he could watch Bucky's face while he watched the video. "You mentioned wanting to go to space, right? This is a video of the first man to land on the moon."
Bucky's eyes darted up to Steve, his whole face lighting like Steve had personally engineered the moon landing just to impress him, and Steve grinned back and started the video. They had a little more time yet. He could probably find enough things to show Bucky to be sure that he dreamed good dreams tonight, and slept late tomorrow.
Bucky wound up falling asleep on Steve's bed, leaning against his side as they watched videos. Steve dozed off himself, and woke to the strange disorientation of lights burning in the middle of the night. He coaxed Bucky awake enough to brush his teeth and put on pajamas, and got him settled in his own bed, shut the lights off, and undressed for bed himself. He folded his clothes neatly. He would put them back on in the morning, and then...
Then he would never need them again.
He closed his eyes and listened to Bucky breathing across the room and told himself to sleep a few hours and wake at dawn.
He listened for a long time.
Steve woke in the gray light of dawn with the nervy anticipation of a mission tingling over his skin. He got up and dressed, and his heart nearly stopped when he looked toward Bucky's cot and it was empty.
It started again in the next second, when he looked toward the door and found Bucky there, sleeping wrapped in a blanket on the floor in front of the door. He felt a surge of affection and grief--he wouldn't remember this soon, that Bucky had gotten up in the middle of the night and slept on the floor to keep him from leaving without saying goodbye. And now he had to wake him up and say goodbye.
He took a breath, steadying himself, and then padded over barefoot and knelt beside Bucky, shaking him gently by his right shoulder.
Bucky snapped awake instantly, sitting up sharply under Steve's hand. "Captain. Are you--"
Steve swallowed hard and nodded. "I gotta go now, Buck. I won't be back, but Sam and Natasha and Wanda will check on you. And Steve's coming today."
Bucky nodded, blinking quickly, not letting himself cry.
Steve squeezed his own eyes shut and put his arms around Bucky, pulling him close and hiding his face against the dark hair, breathing in the familiar boy-smell of him. Bucky. Here, safe, not lost, not really. Soon they would be together again in the only way they could be. Everything he would lose was just collateral damage. A necessary sacrifice.
"Thanks, Captain," Bucky whispered against his shoulder. "For--for bringing Stevie, too. And for school and everything."
Steve squeezed him tighter, and couldn't bring himself to say anything at all.
Steve walked barefoot to the temple, hands in his pockets and shoulders hunched. He tried not to think of how small Bucky looked when Steve tucked him back into bed, but the alternative was remembering Bucky--his Bucky, the Bucky who was gone--making this same walk at his side three days earlier.
Steve blinked as hard and fast as he could, but his first sight of Wanda waiting for him on the steps in front of the temple was still blurred with tears.
She stood, took his arm, and kissed his wet cheek. "Come," she said. "Just a few more minutes, then it won't hurt anymore."
Steve nodded, and kept putting one foot in front of the other until he was lying down. He thought of his last moments of consciousness on the Valkyrie, lying still as the water rose up toward him, drawing his shield up over his chest. His hands were empty now; he had nothing left but himself.
He saw the red light flare on the other side of his eyelids.
Bucky couldn't have said, afterward, if his lessons that day had been history or math or language or sword fighting. He only knew that eventually the impossibly long day ended, and King T'Challa himself came and said, "It is time to greet your friend."
Bucky shoved his one hand into the pocket of his new pants and focused on keeping his shoulders straight and his chin up, his steps matched as closely as he could to the king's. He didn't run ahead like a little kid, or a jerk with no manners, no matter how fast his heart was beating.
He recognized the stone corridor they walked down, and the doorway to the little room that had been his first sight of 2017, and Wakanda. He had been so scared, for so many reasons, and he could only pray that it wouldn't be so bad for Steve. Captain Rogers had said Steve wouldn't get hurt, but Bucky couldn't help feeling the absence of his own left arm and fearing for Steve. He didn't have much he could afford to lose.
The king guided him right into the little room, and Bucky gasped. The strange red light he remembered hovered over a thin, small form on the cot in there, and the witch, Miss Maximoff, sat nearby, her hands outstretched like she was holding it there.
She smiled when Bucky stepped inside. She lowered her hands, and the red light faded. "It's all right. Step closer, so he'll see you first."
Bucky rushed right to the side of Steve's bed then, and sat down on the edge. He looked Steve over quickly, but everything seemed all right--both of his arms and legs were there, skinny as always but still attached. And Steve's lips were the right color pink, not dangerously purple-blue, and his cheeks were pink-tinted pale, not fever-flushed or sickly white.
After another second his brow wrinkled, and Bucky grinned. Stevie frowning was always the first sign that he was coming back to himself. He blinked a second later, long eyelashes parting to reveal familiar blue eyes that focused on Bucky immediately.
Steve's frown deepened. "Bucky? What... did I get sick?"
Bucky grinned. "No, sleepyhead, you just took a nap for eighty-nine years."
Steve rolled his eyes and pushed himself up to sit--then caught sight of their surroundings, his frown deepening as he looked around and then back to Bucky. "Buck? Where are we?"
"I told you," Bucky said, grinning. Steve was here, safe and sound, and Bucky had so much to show him, so much to tell. "We came to the future."