New York wasn’t the same place it had been when Bucky left it. It made sense, places change, but Bucky suspected that what he was experiencing was abnormal.
There were pixies in Prospect Park. They flitted from flower to flower, chatted with each other in a language somewhere between insect chirping and birdcall, and Bucky watched them, knowing he shouldn’t be able to see them. No one else in the park could, so therefore he shouldn’t either.
The pixies weren’t the only things he shouldn’t be able to see. He’d seen gargoyles winking at him from the roofs of churches and the NYPL, miniature dragons bothering the pigeons and stealing bread crumbs from ducks, and he’d even caught a glimpse of a unicorn in between the trees in Central Park.
All these things were only some of the reasons why Bucky was having difficulty fitting back into life on Earth, even after three months. He was living with Sam and Steve in their apartment, and they insisted they didn’t mind, and that he should be there, but Bucky could tell they were at a loss for how else to help him. Bucky had been declared KIA five years earlier, so he technically didn’t exist. Or rather he did, but in an empty grave in his family plot. There didn’t seem to be any story he could tell that would explain where he’d been those five years, why he was suddenly back in New York with no record of how he’d made it there from Iraq. He didn’t even know how he could talk to his family about it. After all, you can’t just answer “Where have you been, how are you not dead,” with “I was kidnapped and brainwashed and turned into a Fae assassin in another world.” While Bucky agreed with Sam that he needed someone to talk to, he’d rather that person wasn’t a doctor at a mental hospital and telling the truth seemed like a fast pass to institutionalization.
So instead Bucky was taking long walks, re-exploring the city he’d grown up in, and cautiously interacting with people who weren’t his friends.
It was a lot harder than it should have been. It was frustrating. Bucky just wanted to be normal, but it was so hard. He was already two points down by having white hair and missing an arm.It certainly didn’t help his case that he couldn’t help but look when a pixie flitted by, or that his fingers twitched with magic he could remember using but didn’t have the power for anymore. On top of all of that, sometimes an echo of a whisper of Pierce’s voice murmured in his head.
But he was trying, because that’s all he could manage to do.
He sat on a bench in his favorite spot in Prospect Park, watching the pixies chatter. It was a lovely September day, still warm, but signs of autumn were starting to bleed through the foliage. Bucky hadn’t talked to anyone apart from Steve and Sam that morning, so even as he relaxed in the park his brain reminded him that he had to fill his Human Interaction Quota at some point. He was thinking he could go to Starbucks for that.
As he was debating whether or not ordering a drink from a barista could count as conversation, a young woman sat next to him.
“Hello,” she said softly. She was holding a bouquet of wildflowers, just picked, and there was a pixie on her shoulder, eyeing it jealously.
“Hello,” Bucky replied cautiously. The girl had a sort of feeling about her--a kind of aura that Bucky recognized. It felt like magic.
“May I tell you a story?” Her voice was quiet, and she had a gentle accent he recognized but couldn’t quite place.
Bucky shrugged. “If you want.” It would fill his quota, after all.
“When I was a girl,” she started, braiding the stems of the flowers together, “my twin brother and I were the joys of my parents’ lives. At least, I like to think so. We were very happy. It was Sokovia, before the war.”
Bucky blinked at that, and frowned. Something about that statement didn’t seem right to him, but he’d been having trouble keeping Earth history separate from centuries of Faerie history, so stayed quiet.
“One day, I was playing in the woods with my brother. He had hidden--I was trying to find him. I never did. I searched for hours until a strange woman found me instead and took me in. She was Fae. I had crossed over without knowing it, and the woman, wanting a child of her own, adopted me instead of taking me home.” She said all of this as though it were a simple fact of life, like crossing over into Faerie was something that happened to everyone every day. Bucky stared at her, his brow furrowed, disconcerted by how plainly she spoke of it.
“She insisted I forget my family,” the woman continued, just as easily, “that she was my new family, but she was cruel. She didn’t want a daughter, really. She wanted a pretty pet to love and control.”
Bucky frowned. She smiled wanly.
“Who was it?” he asked.
She shook her head. “A witch somewhere in the wilds. I don’t know her name, or even what others called her, because she never told me. I was to call her ‘Mama’ and never leave her lands. I don’t even know if she was Seelie or Unseelie or something else.”
She picked at the stems of the flowers and then smiled up at Bucky again.
“She told me about you, of course. You were a ghost story--the Winter Knight who would come to gobble me up if I was naughty and didn’t do as she said. She never mentioned you were like me.”
It was Bucky’s turn to smile. “I don’t think that many people knew.”
“No,” she agreed, “but the similarities are interesting, are they not? We’re both changelings, in our own way.”
“How did you escape?”
Her smile grew cruel, but not at Bucky. “She had a book of magic. I’d heard enough tales to know what I should do. I studied it while she was gone and while she slept, and learned enough to explore my own innate magic.” She lifted a hand, and her eyes glowed red as the same red shone at her fingertips. “It turns out I have a talent for seeing into minds and twisting what is there. I could practice on her and she never knew.” She sighed. “I locked her in a nightmare and escaped, but it was several years in the wilds before I found someone who explained the barriers between worlds. When I finally made my way back, it had been much longer on Earth than it had been in Faerie.”
Bucky said nothing. He could guess what was coming.
She was quiet for a long moment before she continued. “My whole family had been killed in the war, a war that was over thirty years ago.” More quiet. She smiled again, sadly. “I’m not asking for your pity, or any words of compassion. It’s been several years since then. I have built a new life for myself, and become… perhaps not who I was meant to be, but someone I am proud of nonetheless. May I braid your hair?”
The abrupt change of subject startled Bucky, but he nodded, oddly calmed by the woman’s presence and her words, even though they were tragic. She moved forward, setting the flowers in her lap so she could comb her long fingers through his white hair.
“I would guess,” she said softly as she worked, “that you are having a similar problem of finding yourself.”
“How did you know where to find me? Or who I was? Or that I was here at all?” Bucky knew it was interrupting, but the questions had suddenly come to him and he couldn’t ignore them.
“All good questions. I met a friend of yours--Sam. I saw him flying, and since there aren’t so many of the Fae-Touched in this city, I thought it best to introduce myself. We got to talking, and he told me his story, and I told him mine. He thought it might be helpful to you if I told it to you as well. My name is Wanda, by the way.”
“Bucky,” he responded, then swallowed. “Did… did Sam tell you what happened to me?”
“No, only parts. Only you can tell your story.”
Bucky sighed. “I’m still working out what exactly my story is.”
“It takes time,” Wanda agreed. “I could help, if you like, but it would involve me seeing into your mind.”
Bucky flinched. “Uh… no. Not… yet. But… thanks for the offer.”
“You’re welcome.” He felt her tie off his hair and he turned to face her. The flowers were gone from her lap. He reached his hand up to touch his hair gently, and felt the braid, and the flowers she had worked into it. She smiled at him.
“You look very pretty,” she said.
Bucky could feel himself blush as he smiled back shyly. He wondered if Steve would like it.
“I would… like to talk to you again sometime, though. I think that would help. And I… would like it, I think,” he said brokenly.
Wanda smiled. “I would like that too.” She touched her many necklaces, her expression thoughtful, then pulled one off and and settled it around Bucky’s neck instead. He looked at it. It was a simple cord with a small stone tied around the end as a pendant. It was smooth, polished, with a hole in the middle, but otherwise somewhat ordinary. He did, however, feel a soft pulse of magic from it, warm and friendly.
“Hold that in your hand and think of me,” she said, “and I’ll hear and answer.” Wanda smiled and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, then kissed him gently on the forehead. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Bucky. I hope to hear from you soon.”
She stood, and Bucky watched her go, her skirts swishing around her as she walked away.
(art by Alicia)
Sleep was a luxury. Or it should have been. In Faerie, Bucky’s sleeping habits had been entirely based on the needs of his master, who saw fit to run him ragged without sleep for weeks on end, store him in a cave and have him hibernate like a bear for years, or, rarely, have him function almost normally. Being able to sleep every single night, without fail, was a gift. Being able to sleep next to Steve was more than that. It was a blessing, a treasure. Sometimes Bucky lay awake just to watch Steve sleep, his chest slowly rising and falling, snuggled up next to Bucky, drooling a little on his bare chest.
Sleep was a luxury. Sleeping with Steve was a treasure. At least, it should have been. But sleep itself was strange, and not usually as relaxing and refreshing as Bucky thought it was supposed to be.
Bucky took a deep breath, and felt the way the frigid air shook his lungs. He closed his eyes. All was silent, but he knew he wasn’t alone.
He was never alone.
He felt, like a shadow of a memory, a hand on his shoulder, and a whisper in the air.
“My boy,” it said. “They tried to take you from me, but they didn’t realize. We are one, you and I. My strength is your strength, and yours, mine.”
Bucky took another deep breath and knew it to be true. He opened his eyes and turned, but of course there was no one there. Only himself. Because they were one.
Bucky blinked. He was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, and for a moment, he could have sworn his eyes had glowed blue. He slapped his hand over his eyes and slammed back against the wall before he slid down it to the floor. His eyes were fine. Normal. Totally normal. It was just a flashback. Just… a memory.
There was a knock at the door.
“Bucky? You okay? Can I come in?”
Steve. Of course it was. He’d probably heard the crash. Bucky swallowed hard. “Yeah, come on in.”
The door opened and Bucky could feel how cautiously Steve approached, like he was a wild animal or something.
“Hey,” Steve said softly.
“Hi,” Bucky replied, his hand still firmly over his eyes.
Bucky shrugged. “Must’ve been a flashback.”
“Did you get something in your eyes?”
Bucky shook his head. “No, but I thought I saw…” he struggled for words. He hated this part. He hated sounding crazy. He knew… it was all reasonable reactions to trauma, but… damn he hated sounding crazy almost as much as he hated what his brain did to him every goddamn day.
“Thought I saw my eyes glow blue.”
He could hear Steve suck in a breath. Bucky knew it was because Steve could remember his eyes looking like that, and why, and what it had done to Bucky, but Bucky couldn’t help thinking it was because he was sounding worse than usual.
“Can I see, Buck?”
Bucky hesitated. He knew his brain was messed up and making him see things, but he half didn’t want to show Steve, because what if it was real? But also… it was yet another example of how much of a mess Bucky was. How much he didn’t deserve Steve, who at least had his shit together.
But he had to know. Was it real or not? So he slowly took his hand away from his eyes and looked at Steve.
Steve, as usual, was looking concerned and a little scared, though Bucky was never sure if it was of him or for him.
“They look like how they’re supposed to look, Buck. Pretty and blue, no magical glowing at all.”
Bucky let out a deep breath and let his head hit the wall.
“Bucky…” Steve started.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Bottling it up isn’t helping you, Bucky. If anything, it’s making it worse.”
“Who am I supposed to talk to, huh? It’s not like therapists specializing in cases like mine are a dime a dozen.”
“No, but there might be an option.”
Bucky scrubbed his feet on the bath mat petulantly. “I don’t want to go to Wakanda.”
“Why not? We’ve got the money now. Even if we didn’t, Wanda said they might be willing to sponsor us. It’s a special case.”
“I don’t want to go halfway around the world just to find out no one can do anything for me.”
Steve sat back, surprised. “Is that what you think? That you’re a lost cause?”
“Buck, no. But it’s like Sam says. You gotta want it for yourself. If you keep telling yourself it’s impossible, then yeah, it will be. But if you fight…”
Bucky snorted. Fight his own brain. Yeah.
“Please, Bucky.” Steve put his hand on Bucky’s knee, and Bucky stared at it a moment before lacing his fingers with Steve’s. “Consider it.”
Bucky sighed. “Yeah, okay. I’ll think about it.” Like he hadn’t been thinking about it since Wanda mentioned it existed a whole month ago. Like it had never crossed his mind. But yeah, sure. He’d think about it more.
He was able to shrug off the morning’s flashback and get outside for his daily walk well enough. Wanda met him at the Starbucks about halfway between their places and talked idly for a little while. Or rather, Wanda talked and Bucky listened. She’d occasionally touch his hand, grounding him when he needed it. He always felt more present with Wanda than he did with almost anyone else.
At one point she pulled out a piece of paper and a pen for Bucky to practice sigils on. She’d started teaching him magic--little hand signs and drawn sigils and meditations that did very little, but connected him to his own inner magic.
“Magic withdrawal is real,” she’d said when she first suggested it. “Let’s not add it to your problems on top of everything else, hmm?”
It was true, the little magics did make him feel better. Signs for small luck, basic wards against evil, charms to invite animals or discourage pixies--they were all simple but right.
As Bucky drew loops and edges and dots and lines, he could feel the tendrils of power that snaked through his body, just under his skin. And he felt… stronger, in a way. Satisfied. But only just, like there was a hunger he couldn’t quite feel that needed to be sated.
“Sometimes…” he began softly, but trailed off, unsure how to continue.
Wanda simply hummed, indicating she was paying attention, and then gently corrected a sigil.
“Sometimes I still miss having more,” he admitted. He didn’t like the feeling, because he knew none of that power had really been his. But he still felt its absence.
Wanda nodded slowly. “I wish I could empathize better with you, but the truth is, very few know that feeling. Power usually comes from within, though there are ways it can exist externally. Most stories of those--human, fae, or otherwise--who stumble upon great power only to have it taken from them are about how they found a relic of some sort that contained power within it. It is said it used to be a common trick of mortal sorcerers, who, in the pursuit of longer life or cheating death, poured part of their power into an item.”
“How was that supposed to help?”
Wanda shrugged. “Supposedly their power would infuse the item with their essence as well, so if someone found it, or it was activated somehow, they would return to life.” She shook her head with a wry smile. “It never worked out that way in the stories. Usually they were warnings against the hubris of trying to cheat death, or take power that wasn’t yours. The logic of it never made sense to me, either.”
Bucky nodded. “Why give up your power now just to try to live later?”
“Exactly. And extensive magic use often extends lives anyway. So you see: greed and hubris. The downfall of many.”
“Were there ever really mortal sorcerers like that?”
“Like that specifically? I don’t know. But many legends begin from a grain of truth, so, perhaps. As for in general, yes, mortal sorcerers exist, and have existed, for… well, since mortals knew about magic, I expect, so probably for a very, very long time.”
“Are you a sorcerer?”
Wanda laughed brightly. “No, sorcerers are much, much more powerful. I would be considered a witch, and that is plenty for me.”
Bucky drew some very straight lines, intricately interconnected. “Was… is there a difference between mortal sorcerers and fae sorcerers?”
“Only in that the fae sorcerers are a little bit more common. Magic is innate to the fae. It flows through them more easily, and nearly all have a skilled grasp of it. Those with more power can more easily understand their strengths, and have a greater access to information as to how to use it.” She paused to take a drink of her latte. “Sorcerers, however, are considered the most powerful among magic users. They are very rare, even among the fae. There are certainly many very powerful magicians and wizards and witches, whether they choose to call themselves as such or not, but very few sorcerers.”
Bucky finished the sigil--one for aid in finding lost things--and frowned at Wanda. “Do you think Pierce was a sorcerer?” Saying his name sent a strange twinge through Bucky that he’d pinned on PTSD, but he made an effort to say the name anyway. The man was dead. Bucky saying his name without any fanfare was a reclamation of his own freedom. Or something.
Wanda hummed, tapping her fingers on the table and pulling Bucky’s sheet of sigils toward her to inspect. “I don’t know. From what I heard in Faerie, and what you’ve told me, he certainly had a great deal of power, but he hid the extent of it from nearly everyone. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he was. These are very good, Bucky. Maybe a little more practice on the luck sigils.”
Bucky nodded absently. He noticed he was clutching the edge of the table tightly. “So I… could’ve been using sorcerer powers that whole time? Is that… going to be bad for me?”
Wanda considered him quietly. She sighed. “I don’t know.”
“You think maybe it might be… hurting my recovery?”
“I don’t know, Bucky.”
Bucky frowned and snorted. “They’d probably know in Wakanda, wouldn’t they.”
Wanda didn’t answer immediately. She reached forward and tucked a lock of hair behind Bucky’s ear and took his hand in hers. “What is this about, Bucky?”
Bucky shook his head, but held Wanda’s hand. “Steve… brought it up again this morning. I’d had… a flashback or something. It messed me up pretty bad, I guess.”
Wanda brushed her thumb over the back of his hand. “There is no shame in getting help, Bucky.”
Bucky felt irrationally irritated. “I know that. I’m getting help right now, aren’t I?”
“I can only help so much, Bucky. The Wakandans have much better resources--they have trained professionals who deal with this sort of thing. You deserve that.”
Bucky slumped in his chair, suddenly exhausted. “I just want it all to go away. Isn’t there a spell for that?”
Wanda smiled sadly. “Yes, there is. It’s probably what Pierce used to rob you of your memories.”
Bucky slumped further.
“It is hard, Bucky, I know that first hand. But it will be harder if you don’t take responsibility for your own recovery. Going to Wakanda is one way to do it. I don’t know if it’s the best way, but it might be. If you choose to stay, I will help as much as I can, and we will find a way to get you back on your feet. But you can’t hide from it. You have to face it.”
“I’m just… scared.”
“I know, Bucky.”
They didn’t get any more done that afternoon. Wanda offered to go on a walk with Bucky, but he wanted to be alone for a while. He wandered a bit, and ended up in Prospect Park, staring at a shimmer in the bushes that he could tell was a place to step through to Faerie. He wondered what would happen if he did. Maybe the Seelie or Unseelie had changed their minds and would punish him. Lock him away in a cell where he’d never see anyone and couldn’t hurt anyone ever again.
He huffed lightly and shook his head. It was more likely he’d get lost or wander into some village he’d ravaged years ago and be treated to the fae equivalent of frontier justice. Or he’d just wander right back to Earth again.
Or, another thought said, he could walk right back to the Seelie and see how they were rebuilding. Or ask for his boon.
They were all ridiculous ideas. Bucky turned his back on the door and went home.
Sam was back from the VA. Bucky knew if he just went to his room, Sam would pretend he hadn’t seen him, and Bucky was tempted to take advantage of it. Instead he got himself a glass of water and sat across from Sam in the living room. Sam looked up from his reading and smiled.
“Hey man, how’s the day been?”
Sam nodded. “Yeah, I get that. Not always one way or the other, and that’s okay.”
“It’d be better if it was good, though.”
Sam laughed softly. “True. You got something to ask me? It kinda looks like you’ve got something to ask me.”
Bucky put his glass down and ran a finger around its rim. “I was just wondering… what you think of Wakanda.”
Sam exhaled deeply and put his book down. “Man, I don’t even know. I always admired the place growing up, you know? It was practically legend for Black kids. This untouched African paradise where Black folks didn’t have to deal with a lick of White bullshit. But no one ever knew any more than that, so it was like talking about Heaven or something, except we knew it was there. Now I’m all grown up and I’m hearing it’s got some crazy connections to Faerie, so no wonder it’s isolated. And now I’m hearing there’s a possibility we’ll go?” Sam shrugged. “I dunno, it’s a lot.”
“You don’t feel… like you were hurt by your time in Faerie, do you?”
Sam considered that. “Maybe. That kind of thing affects everybody differently. I think for me it’s mostly that I can’t really talk about it. All this insane stuff happened and I got three people I can talk about it to, and none of y’all are trained to talk about it the way I need someone to listen. So yeah, I think I could use it. And Steve sure as hell could use it.” He shrugged again. “We’re leaving the decision to you, big guy, but we wouldn’t be going just for you.”
Bucky sighed. He’d needed to hear that more than he’d realized. It wasn’t that he thought Steve and Sam would abandon him, he just… had a deep, unsettling fear of being alone in a strange land with no one to help him if something went wrong. Which was ridiculous, since the Wakandans were trained, and he wouldn’t be alone, but…
...but the last time he was alone and at the mercies of strangers who said they’d help him, he was turned into a fae assassin. Shit, was that really the core issue here? How was he supposed to get over that?
Sam must have realized Bucky was getting lost in thought, because he reached over and patted Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky blinked and focused back on Sam.
“You alright there, Bucky?”
“How honest do you want me to be?”
Sam snorted. “Right. Look, I know this whole Wakanda thing is a big deal. It is for us, too. But we’re at a place right now where we can afford to do it. My semester’s almost over, so I can take some time off school, and with enough notice it won’t be too rough on the VA if I take leave. And now that Steve’s freelance he can take as much time off as he wants. Whatever you decide, we’ll be right there with you, okay?”
Bucky sighed. “Thanks, Sam.”
“Hey, don’t thank me too much. I told you, it’s as much for us as it is for you.”
Bucky smiled a little and nodded. Sam smiled back and settled into the couch once more.
“Did I interrupt you studying for exams or something?”
Sam grinned a little at the obvious shift in subject, but he must have thought it was as good a time as any because he didn’t back down from it.
“One exam, two huge ass papers. But I’ve been chipping away at them pretty well, so I’m taking tonight off.”
“Good for you.” Bucky curled up in his chair and leaned his head back. “Any ideas for dinner?”
“Honestly, I was gonna try to convince you guys to order delivery with me. I’m too exhausted to cook, and if Steve’s out at a client meeting he won’t be able to focus on anything when he gets back.”
“Ha. Right.” Now that Steve was working from home, he had developed a bad habit of hanging onto work too much. He’d get out of a client meeting and whether it’d been good or bad, he’d be trying to figure out implementation or be complaining about it for at least an hour. Sam and Bucky hated it, but Sam had also figured it was probably part of Steve’s way of coping with everything, so they didn’t harangue him about it too much.
It was a reminder, though, that they all really did need some kind of help--and Wakanda might be the only place for it.
Was Bucky being selfish by holding them back?
“You know, if we order now, food might be here in time for Steve to get home. He’d like that,” Sam said, gently knocking Bucky out of his thoughts again. He was really good at that.
Bucky shrugged. “Indian?”
“Sounds good to me.” Sam got on his phone to make the order.
They fell into a companionable silence after that. Bucky liked that Sam was willing to just let things be. Whatever Sam’s own issues were, Sam knew how to be calm and present, and Bucky strove to emulate him. It made him glad Sam hadn’t decided to move out after they’d come into wealth after their Faerie excursion--he could have easily taken his share of the treasure Banner had given them and bought his own New York townhouse, but Sam admitted he didn’t do well living on his own. He said he really liked their apartment anyway, and he was thinking he’d spend his share to finally get his master’s and maybe even a doctorate in counseling so if y’all don’t mind he’ll just keep his room, thanks.
It was good to have someone else around to call them out on their bullshit. But Bucky wished he knew what Sam was like before he and Steve busted Bucky out of Faerie, so that Bucky could tell how the experience had changed Sam. As it was, the Sam he knew was the only Sam he’d ever known, so even if Bucky could get his head out of his own bullshit every once in a while, he wouldn’t know how badly Sam was affected.
Bucky watched Sam for a bit. Either the guy was really good at dealing with his own shit, or he was really good at ignoring it, because out of the three of them, Sam seemed the most stable. But if the guy said he needed help too, well, Bucky wasn’t going to argue. He’d miss Sam if they went to Wakanda without him anyway.
If Wakanda would even take them. Bucky frowned at that thought, and pulled out his phone to text Wanda.
How do we even ask permission to go to wakanda, who do we even talk to
The response was quick.
I have people I can ask. Would you like me to?
Bucky hesitated. Just… asking wasn’t saying “yes, we’ll go.” It was just… practical. After all, it was basically the same as inviting themselves over if they planned to go before even knowing if they’d be welcome.
Ok I will email and let you know when I hear back.
(art by Karin)
It took a week for Wanda to get an answer from her contact. When she did, she showed the email to Bucky during their usual meeting at Starbucks.
It’s good to hear from you again! I’m very glad to hear you’ve been enjoying New York. I insist we catch up more fully soon.
As to your inquiry, I spoke with the heads of the Wakandan Magical Rehabilitation Program, and we agreed that your friends certainly qualify for entrance into our program, but the nature of Mr. Barnes’ situation specifically required more official consideration.
After several meetings, the case was brought before King T’Challa, who, after some review, gave his permission for Mr. Barnes’ case to be accepted by the program. Please be advised that should your friends decide to enter our program, Mr. Barnes will be under more close observation by our most highly trained doctors and therapists, and may undergo questioning as to his experience. He will, of course, be treated with as much dignity, care, and sympathy as any of our participants, but as his case is more severe, more care must be taken.
Please share this information with Mr. Barnes, Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Wilson, and let them know they welcome to contact me with any questions they may have regarding our program and the treatment they would receive with us.
Thank you for bringing this case to our attention, Wanda. I look forward to speaking with you again! Please don’t hesitate to call or email.
Dr. Amne Omondi
Chief of Admissions
Wakandan Magical Rehabilitation Program
It was during one of their first few meetings that Wanda told Bucky about Wakanda. But Bucky thought maybe if he hadn’t asked, she wouldn’t have mentioned it at all.
“How did you do it?” He said, as her long fingers combed through his hair. “How were you able to come back? To… be a person again?” Wanda just seemed so… stable to Bucky. Adjusted. At home on Earth, though she’d lived there less time than she’d lived in Faerie.
Wanda’s hands stilled a moment, and Bucky was afraid he’d asked something he shouldn’t have. Was it too soon? Even when her hands started moving again, Bucky worried he’d crossed a line.
He felt her start to braid his hair in slow, precise motions. It was a long time before she spoke, and the whole while Bucky felt the urge to run, to spare her his insensitive questions and the stress they caused them both.
“I didn’t do it on my own,” Wanda said quietly.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Bucky replied.
“I know,” she said. “But you ought to know. With any luck, it may help you too.”
Bucky let out a deep breath. He thought he could feel the way Wanda was not angry at him from her words and the gentleness of her busy hands. At least he thought so.
“I told you I met someone in Faerie who showed me the way out. It was a human mortal--a Wakandan tasked with patrolling the borders between her country and the Faerie lands.”
Bucky frowned a little in thought. There was something familiar about Wakanda--Pierce had spoken of it, and Bucky could remember, or thought he could remember, instances when he had fought members of Wakanda’s extremely well-trained patrols. But more than that, Bucky didn’t know.
Wanda let him think before she continued, conscious of his need to remember and sort through his many centuries of memories. “Wakanda has a long history of being closely connected to Faerie. From what I understand, the borders between their country and Faerie are particularly sensitive, so Wakandans have an easier access to magic than the rest of the world. They’ve studied it for centuries. They have a unique way of combining magic and technology that sets them apart from both humans and Fae, and so they have a strong tradition of isolationism, ostensibly to protect themselves and the rest of the world. They involve themselves in Fae politics as much as they involve themselves in mortal politics, so, not very much at all.”
That sounded… right. Bucky could remember weapons and techniques no one else had ever used, and though Pierce had attempted to understand the methods behind it all, the Wakandans had resisted such discussions in the very few diplomatic sessions that occurred, and furthermore, they proved impossible to capture and interrogate. They withdrew after only a few attempts to negotiate a trade of discoveries, and Bucky wondered if maybe they’d suspected Pierce centuries before anyone else. It was possible.
“So if they’re so isolated… why do you think they’ll help me?”
Wanda tied off the end of the braid and tucked single flower into it. “They guard their borders carefully, but there are always mishaps. Children are lured into Faerie by envious witches, or adults find themselves lost for years at a time. Even those who are well trained need help coping with their experiences--Faerie is not meant for mortals, just as Earth is not meant for the Fae. So, centuries ago, Wakanda developed a program to aid those affected by their time in Faerie.”
“But what is it?”
Wanda spread her hands. “Everyone’s needs are different. Some require counseling and therapy. Some need assistance with magic withdrawal. Some need to be taught or retaught how to live in mortal society again, and require aid in getting all the documentation that’s needed.”
Bucky sighed. “Some need all of the above.”
Wanda smiled sadly. “Yes.”
There was silence for a bit, as Bucky waited for the other shoe to drop--the one he knew was coming, the one he knew he needed even though he didn’t want to admit it to himself or anyone.
“They do not accept outsiders often, but I don’t think they would turn away someone in need,” Wanda said softly.
And there it was. The implication was there in her words--Bucky, you need help, Bucky, they could help you, Bucky, please get help.
He knew he needed help. Every moment of every day proved it to him. He didn’t need the reminders from Steve and Sam and now Wanda. And yet… now that there was a possibility for help in front of him, he was resistant.
They wouldn’t accept him. They couldn’t. Not after all he’d done, to them as much as anyone else.
A pixie flitted by his face. It took him a moment to react, and by the time he was able to bring himself to wave his hand to shoo it away, it had already stolen the flower from his hair and escaped.
Wanda smiled. She tucked a strand of hair, loosened by the pixie’s theft, behind Bucky’s ear.
“I honestly don’t know if it’s a possibility for you,” she said, as if reading his thoughts. And who knew, maybe she was. “But it’s something to consider, and I could ask on your behalf, if you wanted me to.”
Bucky didn’t have an answer to that. He just shrugged, and hoped it was enough.
“What do you mean, he’s sending his private jet. Wanda, the King of Wakanda cannot be sending his own plane for us.” Sam sounded both delighted and horrified. Steve was frowning for some reason, and Bucky was slumping down in his seat because he had his own theories as to why they were getting this treatment.
Wanda, because of her personal connections with the program, was handling a lot of the communication. Sam and Steve had both been in contact with people, doing some kind of written tests or whatever, so the administrators could assign them the right counselors, but Bucky hadn’t touched his old email, assuming it was full of spam or deleted, and he was reluctant to get a new one. So Wanda was emailing for him.
“Wakanda regulates their air traffic very carefully,” Wanda said. “You wouldn’t be able to take a commercial jet directly there.”
“Yeah, but the King’s jet? I’m sorry, but that’s… unbelievable.”
“We don’t need special treatment,” Steve said.
Wanda raised an eyebrow at him. “They accept fewer than ten foreigners into their program every year. You’re a special case whether you like it or not, Steve.”
Bucky slowly pulled a pillow into his lap and hugged it tightly, trying not to draw attention to himself. The thing was, they didn’t have to get a direct flight to Wakanda. They could’ve taken a plane to a neighboring country and then a bus or a train or something. Hell, they could’ve rented a car.
But he was the Winter Knight. He was a risk. They’d probably put him on the plane under heavy guard and in magical foot cuffs or something.
Bucky felt like everyone’s eyes were on him, and he wanted to sink away into the couch. His words caught in his throat and he just stared down at his hand. They all knew what he was thinking, he could tell.
“Bucky?” Steve’s voice was too soft, too gentle. It made him angry. He didn’t need to be handled like… like glass. “Bucky, it’s okay. We don’t have to go if you don’t want.”
“No,” he responded, more sharply than he’d really meant to. “It’s fine. If that’s how His Majesty wants us to get there, that’s how we’ll go. It’s fine.” He’d made the decision to go, so he was going to go. At the very least, it would be interesting to learn about Wakanda, as much as they’d let them.
God, his own mood whiplash was going to kill him.
“Okay, Buck,” Steve said, still too soft, too gentle, and Bucky couldn’t handle it anymore. He stood up and shut himself in his and Steve’s room. He curled up in the chair by the window and stared outside, willing himself to calm down, to take deep breaths.
He didn’t know how long it was, stewing in his own negative thoughts, before he heard a knock at the door and Steve let himself in. Bucky stuck out his hand and Steve took it and squeezed it. Bucky tugged him to sit on his lap, and wrapped himself around Steve as much as he could.
“I’m sorry I’m a jerk,” Bucky mumbled into Steve’s neck.
“You’re not,” Steve said. “You’re scared. I am too.”
Bucky pulled back to frown at Steve. “What’ve you got to be scared about?”
Steve shrugged and settled himself in Bucky’s lap. “Irrational things. I get why you need a different program than me and Sam, but part of me keeps thinking they’ll take you away from me.”
Bucky flinched. Of course it made sense that Steve would feel like that, but it hurt to hear. And it only made his own fears feel justified.
Steve made a soft worried sound and hugged Bucky tightly. “Hey, Buck, no. Wanda trusts them, right? So we can too.”
Bucky snorted. “Steve, you just said you were scared.”
“Yeah, but I also said it was irrational.”
“Not all of us can manage logical and irrational at the same time.”
Steve laughed softly. “I can’t really either, honestly. But I’m trying. This will be good for all of us, we just have to make it there, right?”
Bucky nodded, though he couldn’t help thinking it was only the first step, only the beginning of all the things that could go wrong, only one of the many ways he could be taken advantage of. But he’d made his choice, and this was for his own good. He couldn’t heal on his own, and he couldn’t burden Steve and Sam with his problems when they had enough of their own to deal with. It wasn’t fair to any of them.
Bucky sighed and snuggled in closer to Steve, wishing they could just be, like this, and not have thoughts and feelings and memories plaguing him for once. Just for once.
And for a moment, when he took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, wrapped around and with the warmth of Steve, he had it--peace. Just for a second. Pure, thoughtless, emotionless quiet. And for a moment, it was beautiful.
The moment was broken when he realized how similar it was to the silence in his head during some times as the Knight. Those times that broke the screeching static noise that usually occupied his mind--when all of existence boiled down to simply obeying, and completing a mission well.
When Pierce was proud of him.
When magic coursed through his veins and lit up his senses.
He shivered at those memories. They were both terrible and wonderful, and he both hated them and longed for them.
Steve squeezed him and whispered in his ear. “Stay with me, Buck. Stay with me.”
And for that moment, it was enough.
(art by Karin)
The journey to Wakanda turned out to be almost entirely uneventful. King T’Challa’s private jet was comfortable without being ostentatious, and the employees were polite and thoughtful. The flight was over seventeen hours, which was longer than Steve had ever flown, but Sam told stories of his tours in Afghanistan which reminded Bucky of long flights in uncomfortable military airplanes during his own deployment.
Though the flight itself was fine, Bucky’s anxiety skyrocketed the closer they got to Wakanda. He began to notice more and more the magical auras on the flight with them--surrounding the attendants and deeply imbued in their jewelry. He was overly aware of how they looked at him, and felt himself reading too deeply into their expressions and how they treated him compared with Sam and Steve. He could have sworn that one of the attendants in particular, Ayo, was keeping a close eye on him, and it didn’t help that she felt more strongly of magic than the other three.
As his nerves and senses went haywire and his hypervigilance went into overdrive, Bucky curled up on the couch that lined one of the walls of the jet, his head pillowed in Steve’s lap. Without any prompting, Steve began to read his book to Bucky aloud, in a soft, steady voice. Bucky closed his eyes and took deep breaths and focused on Steve’s words, and did his best to ignore the feeling that Ayo was staring at him, waiting for him to fall back into being the Winter Knight, as if it were inevitable.
Maybe it was.
But the flight passed without incident, and when they landed in Birnin Zana, the capital city of Wakanda, Bucky felt his anxiety lessen somewhat, even if it didn’t go away completely.
Ayo wasn’t actually a flight attendant. That was made clear when she escorted them from the airport to the royal palace. She spoke little, only giving out terse directions when necessary. Whatever calm Bucky had found on the plane in Steve’s voice and touch dissipated. He did what he could to breathe deeply, but the sense of dread and anxiety wouldn’t go away.
Under any other circumstance, the journey through Birnan Zana to the palace would have been incredible. Bucky knew he was missing something important, his brain was practically screaming it at him. At the very least he was missing out on important information gathering, but he couldn’t bring himself to even look out the windows of their car.
He could feel the magic all around them. It wasn’t at all like being back in Faerie--it was a different sort of magic, used differently, but he could feel the presence of it everywhere, and it was overwhelming. Keeping his head down and his eyes closed helped, but it still pressed in on him like a cloud of humidity, and it was all he could do to hold himself together through it.
Then there was a moment on the long drive, with Steve’s hand on his back and Sam narrating his awe at what they passed, when Bucky realized that the magic in the air wasn’t just overwhelming--it was empowering. It wasn’t pressing in on him, it was sinking into him, waking up a part of himself that had been… if not asleep, then at least partly dormant since his escape from Faerie. It tingled under his skin like light pins and needles, and his fingers twitched with it.
It felt good, and that scared him. He felt settled, and that should have been strange. But he was willing to take the calm that was offered. He clutched at his head for a moment, then finally took a deep breath and sat up and looked out the window, and gaped at what he saw.
The city was beyond beautiful. The buildings that stretched into the sky were designed with an artistry Bucky couldn’t remember ever having seen anywhere on earth. They were built with curves and colors and the windows reflected the city around them back at itself to create an infinite city of wonder. Everywhere he looked, the city took inspiration from the jungle that was its home, and rather than the city pushing nature back, it felt as if the city was one with the forest. The whole place was steeped in beauty and history and nature, and every person that walked the streets shimmered with magic, and dressed so colorfully and beautifully they could have been birds in flight.
Bucky immediately understood why the Wakandans fought so hard to keep their land safe. If he lived here, he’d want to protect it from outside influence, too.
As he looked closer, Bucky could see that everyone wore jewelry--some not as much as others, but all had at least a bracelet that carried so much magic it was like the air warped around it and shimmered like pavement on a hot summer day. He remembered his conversation with Wanda about the sorcerers who put their magic into objects, and wondered if something like that was happening here. It was hard to tell just by looking what the bracelets were for, but they were clearly important. He’d have to find out about them at some point.
Except… that wasn’t why he was here. He was here to go through their program and heal, not spy. But… learning as much as he could wasn’t a bad thing. It could… just be something he did while he was here. An added bonus.
Bucky’s thoughts were confusing him. He didn’t have any time to really consider that, though, because they were pulling into what had to be the complex of the royal palace.
The complex was enormous. It was like a city unto itself, and looked and felt as much like a city of its own, except that it all centered around the capitol building, where the government worked. Despite Steve and Sam’s ongoing speculation about what each building could be, Ayo remained silent on the subject, and guided them through the complex and into the central palace, through a labyrinth of gleaming hallways until she finally brought them into a large study and told them to sit, before leaving them.
They weren’t alone. There were four other women in the room, one in each corner. They were dressed in red uniforms and each carried a staff weapon, which was probably ceremonial in nature, but it was obvious each woman could use their weapon with deadly skill, and while Bucky was interested in seeing how they fought, he also knew they were just waiting, as Ayo was, for him to crack and become the Knight, so they could have an excuse to take him down.
Bucky sank into a soft chair to wait. Steve sat down next to him, a hand on Bucky’s thigh, and Sam walked around the room, looking at the books and the furniture. It was all very comfortable, well lived-in, and carried a sense of history in the dark wood of the desk and rich colors of the chairs and tapestries on the walls.
About ten minutes of anxious silence passed before Ayo returned with a man who could only be King T’Challa. He wore no crown or sign of status, but everything about his demeanor radiated a calm sort of confident royalty. Bucky got to his feet and bowed, almost out of instinct rather than by any conscious choice. Steve and Sam somewhat awkwardly copied him, but the king raised his hands and motioned for them to sit once more, then took a seat himself as Ayo took her place behind his shoulder.
“Mr. Barnes, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Rogers,” he nodded to each of them in turn. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” Sam said. “It’s an honor to be here. Thank you for granting us permission to enter the program.”
The king smiled. “It has long been our desire as a nation to help those who have been badly affected by magic, or made victims of the Fae. Their ways don’t follow mortal considerations of morality, and so mortals are too often taken advantage of. It’s been my personal hope to open our nation a little further, and help those in need beyond our own borders, but it’s been… difficult to find a balance between that goal and our traditional isolationism. All of that is to say, I’m glad to have you here.” He looked directly at Bucky when he said that last part, with deep, dark eyes that pierced too deeply into Bucky’s mind.
Bucky swallowed hard and looked away.
“Do you usually meet with the people who go through your program?” Steve asked.
“Only those who aren’t Wakandan. It’s been established that the only way the tribal leaders would support outsiders coming into the program would be if I interviewed them first.”
“So this has nothing to do with Bucky.”
“I didn’t say that, Mr. Rogers. He is certainly the central reason for this meeting. But he is not the only one.”
Everyone was looking at Bucky again, and he sunk further into his chair. The king’s gaze was… more kind than Bucky deserved.
“Bucky. You can call me Bucky.” He didn’t deserve the respect the king was showing him. Or the kindness. Or any of this.
“Bucky, then. I have read the reports, and I have heard the stories of the Winter Knight, and what I have concluded is that you have been a victim of the Fae just as much as any Wakandan participant in our program.”
All the air went out of Bucky’s lungs in a great exhale. He twisted his hair and his gaze flitted around the room, unable to rest on anything or anyone. “Yeah, but it was still… I did a lot of really bad things.”
“Yes, you did, while you were under the control of a very powerful sorcerer, the likes of which neither earth nor Faerie has seen in a very long time. I will admit I allowed myself some room for doubt before I met you, but now that I see you and have listened to Ayo’s report of your journey, I find no reason for suspicion. You are welcome here, Bucky, you and your friends. I only hope we can help you the way you need.”
At that, Bucky managed to look at the king, skeptical. “Just like that? One look and I’m in?”
The king spread his hands. “I have been told I rely too much on my instincts. What they are telling me now is you are a man who needs help, and we have the means to provide that aid. We would be monsters to deprive you of it.”
Steve, Sam, and Bucky all traded glances. “Great,” Sam said. “So what now, your majesty?”
“Now I will have someone show you to your quarters. The program’s building is just across the square from here. You have housing there, and will be provided for. For the time being, it’s recommended you don’t leave the palace complex. The city can be overwhelming for outsiders, and my people are not always the most welcoming, I am sorry to say. But here in the complex you are known, and will be treated hospitably. You have the rest of today to settle in your quarters, and tomorrow will be your orientation to the complex and the program.”
“Wait, that’s really it?” Sam sounded as confused as Bucky felt. “You’re just introducing yourself and then sending us on our way?”
The king stood. “Mr. Wilson, I am a busy man. My instincts and the extensive background check we have already performed on the three of you tells me you are to be trusted, and will benefit from our program. I don’t see the need for a lengthy interrogation. Do you?”
Sam blinked. “Well… no. Alright. Thanks. I mean… thank you, your majesty.”
The king waved his hand dismissively, but he smiled. “You’ve already given me your thanks. All I ask of you now is that you make as much of an effort in our program as we will in your recovery. It was a pleasure to meet all of you. We will undoubtedly see each other again. Until then.” He nodded, and before the three of them could stand and bow, he left, and the four women in the corners of the room swept off behind him, leaving only Ayo behind.
She stepped forward. “You will follow me,” was all she said.
When he opened his eyes, he was lying down, more comfortable and at ease than he could remember feeling in a long time. A hand stroked through his hair, and he sighed, his face pillowed in someone’s lap.
“You did well to come here, my boy,” the voice said, and it was known to him. He knew it better than he knew anyone else’s voice. It had been a while since he’d heard it last. He was glad to hear it again. He felt safe. Cared for. “You will grow stronger here, and so will I, and in time, we will reclaim what is ours.”
Yes. What was theirs. That was right. There was still something missing. Something important. But he wasn’t strong enough for it yet. He would be, though. He would be soon.
“And we’re closer here than in New York. The borders are well guarded, but we know ways around that, don’t we, my boy?”
Yes, they did. Nothing would stand in their way.
“We are one, and soon, we will be whole.”
They breathed together, deep and slow.
“I forgive you, you know, for what you did. Even after everything I gave you, and you repaid me the way you did. It wasn’t really your fault. I don’t blame you. Your friends were misguided, and so you were as well. But we’ll fix it all soon, you and I. Everything will be right once more, and we will repay those who struck us down tenfold.”
He closed his eyes again, finding comfort in that truth.
Bucky woke up.
Steve had ended up as the big spoon again, which Bucky guessed must have looked kind of funny with the size difference, but honestly he enjoyed the way Steve turned into an octopus in his sleep and just pulled Bucky right to him. It was nice. It was especially nice because it was something familiar to wake up to in the middle of all the strange newness.
Their quarters in Wakanda were very nice. The decoration was minimalist, which struck Bucky as an interesting contrast to the color and artistry that they’d seen on their drive through the city. But he liked it. It was soothing, and felt fresh and clean in a way that a room stocked with furniture and stuff that wasn’t theirs couldn’t.
The sun streamed through the window, and despite waking up in a new place, about to face the first day of therapy and whatever else was a part of the program, Bucky felt at peace. He felt… a little stronger. Maybe it was all the magic in the air. Maybe it was doing him more good than he thought it would.
Bucky took a deep breath and stretched, and his movement woke Steve, who grumbled and nuzzled his face further into Bucky’s neck. Bucky huffed out a soft laugh and reached his hand back to ruffle Steve’s hair.
“C’mon, sleepyhead. Clock says it’s already 8:30. If we don’t get up, we’ll be late for our first day.”
“Jet lag,” was all Steve said, and it was the grumpiest possible voice and it charmed Bucky so much he just had to roll over and kiss Steve.
“Best way to get over jet lag is to just get up and do stuff, Stevie. C’mon.”
Steve cracked open his eyes suspiciously. “What’s got you so chipper, huh?”
Bucky blinked. That was honestly a good question. Why did he feel so good this morning, after all his anxiety and trepidation the day before? “I don’t know. Maybe I had a good dream.” He thought he could remember something along those lines, even if he couldn’t remember anything the dream was about. Just… good feelings. Something right happening. Whatever it was, it had him waking up satisfied and ready to take on the WMRP.
Of course, as soon as he started getting dressed, the anxiety started coming back, and it stayed with him all day long.
They were met by Dr. Omondi, a small woman with a gentle smile and long braids that were twisted into a simple ponytail at the base of her neck. She smiled up at the three of them and shook each of their hands as she introduced herself.
“It’s so wonderful to meet all three of you in person at last! I’ve been looking forward to meeting you ever since Wanda emailed me. I’m so pleased we could fit you into the program, I think it will be very good for all of you.”
Both Steve and Sam spoke with her as she began their orientation to the WMRP facility and the program, but Bucky felt himself zoning out as they took their tour. Or maybe he was focusing too hard on the wrong things. He was memorizing the layout of the building effortlessly, but the more people they passed, the more Bucky felt like he was being scrutinized and judged, and it wasn’t long before the others noticed.
“Bucky?” Dr. Omondi’s voice was soft and gentle. “Would you like a break?”
Bucky nodded, and she immediately led them into a quiet room nearby. It was a small room with soft chairs and a relaxing sort of atmosphere, and Bucky sank into a chair and buried his face in his hand.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Omondi said. “I know it’s a lot to take in all at once, I should have adjusted the morning’s schedule with that in mind.”
“Why didn’t you?” Steve asked, his voice a little bit accusing, and Bucky made a soft sound. He didn’t want Steve to blame Dr. Omondi, she was just doing her job. Steve rubbed Bucky’s back.
“I had hoped to be able to bring all three of you on the tour at the same time, and the information you’d given us about Bucky’s condition stated he was capable of going around New York City on his own. I presumed this meant the tour wouldn’t have to be adjusted too much, but I failed to take your travel fatigue into account. I’m very sorry, that was my mistake. Bucky, do you need some water? Something to eat, maybe?”
Bucky could only shrug.
In the end, Dr. Omondi did get them food, which they ate in the comfortable room. Bucky and Steve stayed in the room for a little while longer while Dr. Omondi finished the tour with Sam, and then they retrieved Sam and Bucky so they could all meet their individual program leaders.
It was the first part of the trip where Bucky didn’t have Steve by his side, and as he sat across from the middle aged man with glasses, Bucky felt a little uneasy, though not as much as he was expecting.
Dr. Jabori Barasa introduced himself with a smile and got straight to the point. “I’ve communicated with Ms. Maximoff,” he said, “since she’s familiar with both your situation and our program here, and she was able to give me a general idea of where you are.”
Bucky scratched his nose and shrugged. “Okay.”
“What is it you’d like to get out of your time here, Bucky?”
“I don’t know,” he said, but Dr. Barasa clearly was waiting for more than that. Bucky sighed. “I guess I just… the biggest thing… is that I feel like… I don’t remember how to be human.”
Dr. Barasa nodded encouragingly, and Bucky took a deep breath. Now that he’d said it out loud, he felt a little bit better about continuing. And once he got started, it felt like he’d broken open a dam. “I’ve got centuries worth of being the Winter Knight in my head, and it’s all between me now and who I was before. I don’t… I keep waiting for the Knight to just come back, or something. I feel like I’m just a step away from being him again, at a moment’s notice. Sometimes I can’t do anything on my own because I keep waiting for someone to give me an order. I feel like I can’t do anything here on earth because I’m supposed to be dead. I don’t know what I want, or what to do, because everything I wanted before is centuries in the past, and it just feels so… far away. But at the same time, I feel like I’m… missing something. Something important. I feel… incomplete, and I don’t know why.”
There was a moment of silence as Dr. Barasa waited to be sure Bucky was done, then thought about what he said. Bucky found it oddly comforting the way Dr. Barasa seemed to always take a moment before he spoke, as if he was always building his sentences in his head before he spoke them.
“You went through many very drastic changes all at once, the central of which was escaping an extremely traumatic situation very quickly. I am honestly very impressed that you are able to verbalize what you’re having difficulty with so clearly, it suggests you’ve put some thought into it.” He smiled a little. “Perhaps a little too much thought?”
Bucky smiled back. “Yeah, you could say that.”
Dr. Barasa nodded. “You might have been told that your situation is one of the most severe we’ve seen in a long time. That’s true. But it’s also true that apart from the severity, it is not necessarily entirely dissimilar from others who have been held captive by the Fae. Your friend Ms. Maximoff, for instance.”
“Yeah, she said something like that to me once.”
“I bring it up mostly so that you can understand that we do not consider you a hopeless case.”
Bucky blinked, and after a moment, he realized he was holding his breath. He let it out, and then breathed in deeply. To hear that, right off the bat… he hadn’t been expecting it.
“I… thank you.”
Dr. Barasa smiled. “It will be hard, Bucky. It may take a long time. But we are prepared to commit to your recovery, if you’re prepared to commit to it yourself.”
Bucky swallowed and stared down at his hand. “Okay.”
“We’re going to start small. Daily talk therapy and magic lessons in the mornings, and in addition to your occupational therapy, you’ll have the option of a few practical activities for the afternoons. Gardening, cooking, and painting are a few popular choices.”
“But…” Bucky couldn’t finish his sentence. Dr. Barasa didn’t force him to.
“You will be able to participate in anything you’d like to. Your disability won’t be held as a barrier. We want to make sure you feel that you have the option to do what you like, to make choices where you can, in a guided atmosphere where you won’t be punished for anything you decide. Does that make sense?”
Bucky felt like crying. He needed this, he knew that. It sounded too good to be true, honestly. He didn’t deserve this kind of treatment. He didn’t deserve this kindness. He deserved… he deserved Ayo beating the shit out of him.
Dr. Barasa held out a box of tissues, and Bucky realized he actually was crying. He sniffled, blew his nose and wiped his eyes, and took a few deep breaths.
“Thank you, Dr. Barasa.”
“You can call me Jabori, if it’ll make you more comfortable.”
Bucky laughed a little. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The next few weeks passed almost as if it were a dream. Bucky felt safe, happy, and strong in a way he hadn’t been expecting when he decided to go to Wakanda. His therapy wasn’t easy, and he and Dr. Barasa frequently delved into uncomfortable topics, but he was also learning to garden, and practicing yoga with Sam and Steve, and learning to meditate, and learning the deeper theory of magic practice that he hadn’t needed to know before, when the magic he was using wasn’t actually his. He was growing stronger, and the more he learned the more deeply satisfied he felt.
There was still something… missing, something he couldn’t describe, something he yearned for without knowing what it was. It only felt important right after he woke up--like it was only while he was asleep that he really remembered it was missing. As soon as he got up and started going about his daily routine, the yearning faded into the background until it was forgotten almost entirely.
Steve and Sam were thriving too. Steve would talk excitedly about the magic he was learning, and Sam discussed his conversations with various doctors about how the program was run, and how he could incorporate Wakandan techniques into his own studies back home.
Of course it was too good to last.
It was a month into their stay in Wakanda that Bucky, Steve, and Sam received a visit from Ayo. They were at lunch in the commissary when she approached their table with a stern expression.
“The king has summoned you.”
They blinked at each other.
“What, now?” Sam asked.
“Yes, Mr. Wilson. Now.”
Fifteen minutes later, they were being ushered into a conference room in the royal palace. King T’Challa already sat at the head of a long table, flanked by two of his red-clad bodyguards. Also at the table were four familiar faces.
Stark, Banner, Widow, and Hawkeye all looked about the same as they had when they’d last seen them, except somewhat worse for wear. They were all clearly tired, and despite the glamour shimmering around each of them to make them look presentable and mostly human, Bucky could tell they’d been through some kind of fight.
Ayo directed them to sit at the table, but Bucky hesitated at the door. Conflicting feelings were rising in his chest--a mixture of trepidation and anxiety at seeing Fae when he was trying so hard to move past his experiences that involved them, and also… a strange sense of anticipation at why they were here.
“Just the man we were hoping to see! Come on in, Def Leppard, we’re not going to bite.” Stark’s tone was just how he remembered it, and Bucky did his best not to cringe. He slowly moved into the room and sat by Steve, who held out a hand for Bucky to take.
“What’s… what’s all this about?” Bucky asked.
“I’m afraid we have something of a difficult situation on our hands,” King T’Challa replied. “My guests, whom you already know, arrived as envoys from their respective kingdoms, but with far less fanfare than we are used to receiving. I’ve heard their take on the situation, but they specifically requested your presence.”
Widow turned her steely gaze on Bucky. “What do you know about Hydra?”
Bucky froze. Steve squeezed his hand and murmured softly. “Buck, hey Buck. It’s okay. You’re here, with us. Everything’s alright. You’re safe.”
“I understand how hard this may be for you, Mr. Barnes,” King T’Challa said, “but it’s vitally important that we learn whatever we can.”
“Yeah, the situation is pretty dire,” Hawkeye said.
“You gonna tell us what that situation is?” Sam asked.
The four Fae looked at each other, as if silently deciding who should speak up. Bucky thought he knew what was coming, though he wasn’t really sure how he knew it.
“So it turns out,” Stark began, “the monarch formerly known as Pierce had a lot more cronies than we realized.”
“How many?” Steve asked.
“Enough that they’ve been able to start taking over both kingdoms since you deposed Pierce,” Banner said.
Bucky let out a deep sigh. That was somehow both exactly what he had been expecting and much worse than what he could have imagined.
Widow was still staring at him, and she narrowed her eyes. “Did you know about this?”
“No. And yes. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”
“So explain.” Her voice was ice and steel and nearly impossible to resist.
“I wasn’t… allowed to know too much. If it wasn’t necessary to whatever mission I was being sent on, then it was withheld from me. But…”
“But?” Banner encouraged softly.
“But I also… heard a lot, through my connection with Pierce. Not enough to know details, just… ideas. I got the sense that he had a lot of allies in a lot of places. And as a group, they called themselves Hydra.”
“Why didn’t you warn us about this?” Stark asked, exasperated.
Bucky shrugged and fidgeted nervously. “Because… there was a lot of stuff in my head I had to sort out. That I’m still sorting out. I honestly wouldn’t have remembered the name Hydra until you brought it up. And I guess… even if I had been thinking about it, which I wasn’t, I would’ve thought Pierce’s death would’ve crippled the group.”
“Well, it didn’t,” Stark spat. “And now they’ve wormed their way through the ranks so much that you can’t even tell who’s Hydra and who isn’t anymore. And they’ve done it so quietly we wouldn’t have even noticed if King Fury hadn’t been assassinated.”
“He’s been what?” Steve went rigid in his chair.
Widow and Hawkeye nodded grimly. “The Unseelie court’s been thrown into chaos,” Hawkeye said. “I mean ordinarily we wouldn’t really mind, we’re kind of known for being into chaos, but this is not a good kind of chaos.”
“There’s several different factions competing for the throne,” Widow explained. “None of them are openly calling themselves Hydra, but I’ve been doing some digging for a while now, and just before Fury’s assassination we’d started to uncover the conspiracy. At least one of the factions is being controlled by Hydra, but it’s possible more of them are connected as well.”
“What would the purpose of that be?” Sam asked. “Why not just work together, take the throne that way?”
“We’re not sure. All we know is that Hydra is poised to take over the Unseelie court.”
“And might already have the Seelie court under its thumb,” Banner added.
“What?” Sam sounded perplexed, and a little horrified. “How?”
“Like Jason Bourne over here said, there’s a lot more scattered throughout the ranks than we had any idea. Or have any idea, actually, we don’t know how many there are. But when Fury was killed, we got word, and Pepper wanted to help somehow, but stuff started getting in the way in weird ways,” Stark said. “Just little things that on their own would’ve just been chalked up to things going wrong normally, but it was all adding up to deliberate obstruction. Once we started digging, we saw signs of Hydra too.”
“Is Pepper okay?” Steve asked.
“She was when we left,” Stark said, and Bucky could see the strain in his expression as he said it. He was worried. “She sent us, actually, to get help. I didn’t want to leave her, but she insisted.”
“So why us?”
“Blondie, it’s great you think so much of yourself that when we say we’re here for help you automatically think we’re asking you, but really we came for troops and shit. Stuff you can’t really provide.”
“They didn’t know you were here,” King T’Challa clarified. “When they explained Hydra, I suggested you might have helpful information, Mr. Barnes.”
Bucky chewed his lip a moment. Everyone was staring at him again, so he looked down at the table and searched his memories for anything that might help. But he was at a loss.
“I don’t… have a list of names or anything,” he said. “I’m not sure how much I could actually tell you. It’s more… I know things, but there’s so much in my head I can’t get through it all on my own. Sometimes when I come face to face with something I’ll know it, and it’ll make sense, but I can’t just… tell you. I’m sorry.”
Steve squeezed his hand again in reassurance, and Bucky squeezed back in thanks. When he glanced upward, King T’Challa was regarding him thoughtfully.
“I doubt sending my troops would aid you at all,” he said. Stark spluttered, but the king held out a hand to silence him. “If I sent in my forces, all it would achieve would be all out war, and the deaths of many. We need more information before we make any decisions like that.”
“We can’t go back in and get that,” Widow said. “At this point, our absences will signal to Hydra that we know something’s going on. We won’t be able to work covertly.”
Bucky was staring at the grains in the table. He could feel the king still looking at him.
“Mr. Barnes,” the king said quietly. Bucky looked up at him. “You know what I’m going to ask.”
Bucky nodded. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Steve looking between them, and he looked back at Steve just when Steve understood.
“No,” Steve said.
“There’s no one else,” Bucky said softly. As he said it, he knew it was the truth.
“No,” Steve repeated. He looked to King T’Challa, and Bucky could see the anger and fear on Steve’s face. “He’s not ready for something like that. Send one of your own people. Don’t make him do this.”
“Do what?” Sam asked.
“Any Wakandan I send would have too unique a magical signature. Hydra would be on the lookout, and would recognize a stranger immediately. But Mr. Barnes… he was one of them, and he remembers that. Do you think you would be able to recognize members of Hydra if you saw them, Mr. Barnes?”
“Yes.” He hadn’t really known it until the king asked, but Bucky knew. He would know any Hydra agent as soon as he came into contact with them. It would be easy.
“And you are trained in stealth and combat and have been regaining a good deal of strength in magic.”
“Steve, I have to.”
“No, you don’t.”
Bucky shook his head. “Okay, maybe I don’t have to. But I want to.” That was… mostly true. A part of him never wanted to have anything to do with Faerie ever again, but most of him wanted to help. Wanted to redeem himself somehow for everything he’d done to Faerie and the Fae, all the harm he’d caused.
More than that, it felt right. What else could he do, if not spy and kill? Dr. Barasa had been starting to encourage him to discover interests beyond that, and the gardening he was doing was nice, but it wasn’t enough. Would anything else ever be enough? Would he ever be enough?
He didn’t know, but he knew he could do this. He knew he had to do this.
“Then I’m going with you,” Steve said, cutting into his thoughts.
Bucky stared for a moment, then shook his head. “No, you can’t.”
“Yes, I can. And I will. I won’t let you go on your own, you’re not ready. With me with you, I can… I don’t know. Keep you centered.”
Bucky swallowed. Steve had a point. He glanced around the table and saw a few nods and thoughtful expressions.
“I believe that may be the best tactic,” King T’Challa said. “I agree, you are not fully ready to do this sort of mission on your own. I was going to suggest a companion. While Mr. Rogers’ experience in Faerie isn’t as extensive as I would like, his particular brand of magic will be a great asset.”
He couldn’t really argue that. Bucky sighed and sank back into the chair and nodded. “Okay. But how… we need a plan.”
King T’Challa smiled grimly. “And so comes the difficult part.”
The plan they came up with was deceptively simple. Bucky and Steve would sneak into Faerie and meet with Queen Pepper in secret. They would touch base with her and find out if there were any updates in the time between Stark and Banner had left and whenever Bucky and Steve arrived. Time in Faerie was still running fast compared to Earth time, so it was possible by the time Bucky and Steve got there, fifty years had passed since Stark’s departure. They wouldn’t know for sure until they arrived. The closest model they could predict from, according to King T’Challa’s strategists and guards on the borders, was that approximately a year would have passed between the Faerie envoy’s departure and Steve and Bucky’s arrival. A lot could happen in that time, but given Hydra’s relatively slow takeover thus far, everyone hoped for the best.
Once they’d ascertained the extent of the situation, which would involve Bucky identifying as many Hydra agents in the Seelie court as he could, they would send word back to Wakanda and formulate further plans from there. There was a distinct possibility that Steve and Bucky would fight from inside the court using subterfuge, but until they could have someone on the inside reporting on the situation, there was little use in making a plan of attack.
Sam would remain behind in Wakanda. The Wakandans had developed a method of communication between Faerie and Earth that acted similar to walkie-talkies but used telepathic magic instead of radio waves. They worked best when the users had a strong personal connection of some kind, so having Sam behind as their contact was the best option.
Stark, Banner, Widow, Hawkeye, and Sam would all be ready to act as the cavalry if necessary, and with the Wakandan communicators, they would be able to find Bucky and Steve quickly.
All in all, Bucky didn’t really like the plan. But they had few choices.
Almost before they knew it, Bucky and Steve were outfitted in Wakandan armor. Steve already had his shield, so he declined any other weapons, but Bucky was given an enchanted sword and knife. It felt a little too comfortable being armed again. Bucky wasn’t sure whether he liked it or not.
When all was ready, King T’Challa met with Bucky, Steve, and Sam in a courtyard of the Dora Milaje headquarters. The yard was a training area for the king’s personal bodyguards, and four of them were present at their small meeting.
“I’m going to give you one final chance to decline the mission,” King T’Challa said to them. “It is dangerous, and difficult, and you are not in any way obligated to do it. If you want to back out, I will understand fully, and there will be no judgement from any of us.” He looked carefully at Bucky and Steve as he said it. “I want to make it absolutely clear: you do not have to go.”
Steve and Bucky looked at each other. Bucky was tempted to take the offer. A large part of him did not want to go back to Faerie ever again. But there was an equally loud and persistent part of him that was looking forward to going back to the place where he’d last had a clear purpose.
Bucky sighed. “I’m still willing to go,” he said. “Steve?”
“If you’re going, I’m going.”
King T’Challa nodded. Very well. I’ve brought you here because despite our current alliance with the contingencies of the courts who are here, we still don’t want to reveal all our secrets to them.” Two of the Dora Milaje stepped forward and started to sprinkle a chalk powder on the ground in the form of a sigil Bucky didn’t know. “The borders between our worlds, in the places where they are at their most sensitive, can be manipulated. The vast majority believe that it is simply a matter of being aware of the door and crossing over to wherever it might lead, but we discovered a long time ago that the doors can be adjusted to lead where you will.”
Bucky blinked in surprise. “So you can… basically go wherever you want?”
King T’Challa nodded. “That’s correct.”
Steve was frowning. “That’s an awful lot of power to have without telling anyone.”
The king spread his hands. “We understand that, but it is the nature of international and inter-world relations that we do not show our hand to everyone simply because we have something they do not.”
Steve grumbled. “I never liked politics.”
“Quite honestly, neither do I, but that is the way of things, and I will act in a way that protects my country best.”
The Dora Milaje finished their work on the sigil, and the air above it shimmered a golden glow, then clarified into a giant window into Faerie.
“We didn’t think it wise to make a door too close to the Summer Palace, but it’s fairly close.”
Bucky nodded. “I recognize the place.” He knew the lands around the Summer Palace like the back of his hand. He thought he could perhaps walk through it blindfolded and never run into a thing.
King T’Challa nodded and the Dora Milaje stepped back.
“Hey. Guys.” Sam clapped a hand on each of their shoulders. “Be careful, alright? If anything goes south, let me know. That’s what I’m here for.”
Steve smiled, his nervousness clear on his face. “Thanks, Sam.”
Sam looked at Bucky. “Don’t let him do anything too stupidly heroic, alright?” He looked at Steve. “You, same for him. Keep each other safe, don’t go and try to overthrow Hydra on your own or whatever.”
“No promises,” Bucky said. He was trying to joke, but it came out too strained.
Sam smiled, and gave them both hugs, as best as he could with them in their armor. “Don’t go thinking you don’t need help. Keep me updated.”
“Alright, alright,” Steve said, also trying to joke, but he was sounding nervous too.
“We should not hold the door open for long,” one of the Dora Milaje said sternly, and Steve and Bucky nodded.
“Right, sorry,” Steve said. They double checked they had everything, and then stepped up to the door and into Faerie.
Being back in Faerie felt like more of a homecoming than going back to New York had, and that scared Bucky. As soon as he stepped through the door and breathed in the air of Faerie, full of magic and smelling exactly the way he remembered it, Bucky felt like he had woken up. Like Earth was a dream, not even really real.
He belonged in Faerie.
Bucky felt the door sliding shut behind him, and when he looked back, he and Steve were indeed alone. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and he felt stronger, more stable, more prepared to take on what was to come.
Steve was staring at him, his expression strange. Bucky blinked. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Your eyes…” Steve said.
“What about them?”
Steve swallowed and shook his head. “Nothing, must’ve been seeing things. You know where we’re going?”
Bucky filed away the moment to think about later if he had a chance, and took stock of his surroundings instead. They were in a small glade, the only way in or out the narrow path of deer traveling through the forest.
“Yeah, we’re about three miles from the palace. It’s rough forest around here, but we should make it out well before nightfall, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I didn’t realize the forest came up so close to the palace.”
“Just on one side.” Bucky started off down the deer path, and Steve followed close behind.
“Isn’t that a risk? I dunno, I always thought palaces and castles were on hills or surrounded by moats, areas with good sightlines all around.”
“That’s just on Earth. Here in Faerie it’s better to rely on more magical means of defense, and the monarchs of each court are deeply connected to the land they govern. The forest itself is loyal to the Seelie monarch, so since we’re here to help the queen, it should let us pass alright.”
“What would happen if we weren’t here to help?”
Bucky shrugged, pushing a branch out of the way and holding it aside so it wouldn’t hit Steve in the head. “It would do everything it could to block our way, turn us in the wrong direction, or even kill us.”
“Whoa, wait. I know Faerie’s different, but how?”
“The trees are alive, and conscious. Some more than others, that’s how you get dryads. The forest kind of acts as one big symbiotic organism, so when there’s a threat, animals will go after it, the trees will react, that kind of thing.”
Steve was quiet for a moment. “You sure remember a lot, don’t you.”
“I never forgot it, Steve. I just… there’s a lot in there. It’s hard to sort through all of it. Being back is… I don’t know. It’s clearing things up, I think.”
Steve hummed thoughtfully, and they fell into silence for a while.
After some time, a soft chiming came from Steve’s bag. They stopped and stared, and Steve dug through the bag to pull out the communicator King T’Challa had given them. It was about the size and shape of a smartphone, but instead of having a screen or buttons, it was a simple rectangle of metal, with sigils carved all over it, and a smoky blue crystal set in the center. The stone glowed softly when Steve held it in his hand, and they both heard Sam’s voice as clearly as if he stood right next to them.
“Hey guys, you reading me?”
“Yeah Sam, we copy,” Bucky said.
“Oh, damn, this is cool. Alright, how’s it going so far? You make it in alright?”
“We’re about a mile from where we were dropped off. Should be approaching the palace within the next hour. The forest is okay with us being here so far, so I think we’ll have an easy time getting to the palace, though getting in will be a different problem.”
“Right. You do anything stupid yet, Steve?”
“Wow, Sam, that’s an astounding vote of confidence from my best friend.” Steve grinned and rolled his eyes.
“Just looking out for you, pal. Alright, give us an update when you get to the palace.”
“Ten four,” Bucky said.
“Over and out,” Sam finished, and the stone’s light faded once more. Steve slipped the communicator back into his bag.
“Well that’s cool,” he said.
“Yeah, that’ll be useful.” Bucky started off again, then turned when he realized Steve hadn’t immediately started following.
“What’s up, Steve?”
“Just curious, but… are you feeling better today? You seem… a lot better.”
Bucky blinked, then scratched his head. “Yeah, I guess. My head just feels clearer. Like I don’t have… like everything that’s usually hanging over me is… maybe not gone, but at least in the background. Everything is… manageable, or something. I’m not really sure what it is.”
Steve nodded slowly. “Alright. That’s good, I just… it seemed kind of sudden, that’s all.”
“I guess it kind of was. But if I’m better, I’m not sure I should question it.”
“Yeah, maybe not.”
It took them just under an hour to get to the palace, which seemed to sprout right up out of the forest. There was no transition between the two, just massive trees, and a massive wall, right there. It was huge, and made of a smooth white stone that looked like marble, but which Bucky knew was actually a unique Faerie stone that soaked up magic like a sponge.
The wall stretched up higher than either of them could see, or at least it appeared to, and Bucky knew climbing and tunneling were both useless endeavors. Instead, he put his hand against the stone and started to walk along it, keeping his palm flat on the smooth surface as he walked.
“So uh… what’re you doing?” Steve asked.
“There’s a door,” Bucky replied.
“Is it a magic door?”
“Isn’t everything, here?”
“Well you’re the expert, not me. Will there be guards?”
“No. Only a few people know about this door.”
“Me, Pierce, maybe one or two others. Pierce made it for me, actually. The whole point of this wall is that it’s impenetrable from this side. No one would even guess there’s a door, much less one only the Winter Knight and the king can use.”
“God, he was an asshole.”
Bucky laughed. It surprised him. He hadn’t been expecting it. But… yeah, it was kind of funny. Pierce was an asshole. That was true.
He felt warmth in the stone beneath his bare fingertips. It was a different kind of warmth from the heat of lying in the sunlight all day--it was magic. Bucky felt the tingle and he smiled. The door was welcoming him back. He tapped the stone, and a shining blue thread traced the outline of a door in the wall. It glowed bright, and then the stone seemed to simply melt away into thin air, revealing a dark hallway beyond.
Bucky turned back to Steve with a grin. “Better tell Sam we’re in.”
Steve wasn’t looking as impressed or happy as Bucky thought maybe he should be. “How long have you remembered this door?”
Bucky shrugged. “I didn’t, until I saw the wall again. But I knew we’d be able to get in somehow.”
Steve nodded slowly, and pulled out the communicator. Once it lay in his palm, he spoke. “Hey Sam?”
The stone glowed. “Steve! Wow, that was fast. Are you there?”
“Fast? It’s been an hour, Sam.”
“Not over here it hasn’t.”
“Whatever. We’re at the palace, and we found a way in. We’ll contact you as soon as it’s safe, alright?”
“Good work, guys. Be careful. Remember what I said about being a hero. Don’t do it.”
“Sure thing, Sam.”
“Yeah, you say that now. I mean it, take care of yourselves.”
“We will, Sam. Thanks.”
“Yeah. Over and out.”
Steve ran his thumb against a sigil on the communicator that King T’Challa had said would silence it, then put it back in his bag. “Alright Buck, lead the way.”
The further Bucky went into the palace, the stronger and more certain he felt, until he didn’t even have to think about what he was doing anymore. He didn’t hesitate at intersections or doorways, simply took what he knew to be correct as he led Steve through the labyrinth that was the secret paths inside the palace.
It wasn’t until he opened the last door into a laboratory that he felt any doubt or misgivings.
“I… didn’t mean to come here.”
A small man emerged from behind a column and smiled. Bucky felt his stomach plummet, and all his confidence and clarity evaporated.
“Ah, Mr. Barnes, I think you’ll find that’s exactly what you meant to do,” the man said. He gave a small bow as Bucky stared at him in horror. “Welcome home, my lord.”
Zola stepped right up to Bucky, and Bucky found he couldn’t move. “Yes, I see you remember me now,” he said. “We’ve spent quite a lot of time together, haven’t we? Lots of very important, formative moments, right here in this lab. I’m so glad you found your way back to me, just when we needed you most.”
It took a herculean effort to just open his mouth to speak, but Bucky fought against his own terror to do so. “How… how are you stil here?”
Zola spread his hands. “I am a very useful man, and people with power like having useful people like me around, so I am still here. I knew it would only be a matter of time.”
“Hold it,” Steve snapped. Bucky looked over, and saw Steve holding his shield out, moving forward to stand between Zola and Bucky. “I don’t know what’s going on here,” he said, “but if you had anything to do with what was done to Bucky then I’m going to have to stop you right there.”
“Steve no,” Bucky said, just as Zola let out a soft laugh.
“I do not think you are fully aware of the situation you’re in right now,” Zola said. When he finished speaking, several armed guards stepped out from the shadows and approached. “Restrain them,” Zola ordered.
The guards moved in, and Bucky overcame his paralysis to draw his sword and lash out with both the blade and magic, but he was too slow, too out of practice, and too distracted. He wasn’t fast enough. The guards easily countered him, and despite Steve’s valiant struggles as well, they were both brought down with very little trouble.
At that point, time seemed to shift for Bucky. One moment, the guards were disarming him and manhandling him toward a table. The next, his armor was gone and he was strapped down to the table. Then he was strapped to the table, and unable to move. The whole time, he could hear Steve’s yells and screams, but he couldn’t see what was happening to him.
“It is time to sleep, Mr. Barnes,” Zola said, and he snapped his fingers above Bucky’s face.
Everything went black.
When he opened his eyes, he was standing face to face with Pierce.
A part of him realized he should have been terrified, or angry, or surprised, but he wasn’t. A part of him knew, all along, that Pierce had never been truly gone.
“Hello again, James,” Pierce said with a small smile. “You’ve done very well.”
“Explain,” was all Bucky could manage to say.
Pierce’s eyebrows rose, but he obliged. “Very well. I bonded your soul to mine, James. That kind of connection doesn’t just go away. We’re one. We have been all along.” He tilted his head. “I have been telling you this, James. Don’t you remember?”
Bucky blinked. “The dreams.”
“Yes, my boy. We’ve been speaking every night for quite some time now. I was trying to help, you know. You’ve been struggling so much. But I was weak, so all I could do was comfort you in your sleep.”
“That was comfort?”
“You seemed to think so.”
Bucky squeezed his eyes shut and sank down to the ground, clutching his head. “So what now?” He dreaded the answer.
Bucky felt a hand on his shoulder. Pierce was next to him now, close, as he had always been. “My boy, now we retake what is ours.”
Bucky looked up. “And what is that?”
“Faerie, of course. The courts were never meant to be separate. It was chaos and war that split them, and all the troubles of Faerie have stemmed from the war between the courts. United under one banner, we could bring all the wayward unaligned Fae back to the guidance of a single court, and Faerie would be more powerful than it ever has been.”
“One step at a time, James. First we must focus on the unity of the courts.”
“You want to take earth, don’t you. That’s why you were so interested in Wakanda.”
“Eventually, perhaps. That is far in the future. For now, Faerie comes first.”
“And you expect me to just… go along with all of this? Because we’re one?”
“Yes. We are one. But it is true that you’ve had more control than I have, and much of that has had to do with how weak I’ve been. And that’s about to change.”
“Indeed. Your friend Wanda told you a story about mortal sorcerers once, do you remember it?”
Bucky was fascinated despite himself. “Which part?”
“How mortal sorcerers would put a portion of their powers into an object.”
Bucky chewed his thumb. “You did that?”
“When you came to us, James, you were broken and bleeding and were in dire need of healing. You had such potential, I could see it immediately, and so I took a risk. I healed you, put part of my power in you, and also in the arm we gave you.”
“But… wasn’t that destroyed?”
Pierce shook his head. “Steve forced it off you, but it wasn’t destroyed. Zola took it, and has kept it safe for us until our return. He’s putting it back on you now. Once it’s connected, and with your power supplementing mine, we’ll be more powerful than before.”
“You keep saying we, but I get the sense you really mean you.”
Pierce smiled sadly and stroked the side of Bucky’s face. He shivered at the touch, at how it was both comforting and detestable at the same time. “My boy,” Pierce said, “I hope we can work together on this. It would hurt us both for me to take control again. I think you know that.”
“I don’t want any part of this.”
“James, your only choice is whether you will work willingly with me or be forced.”
Bucky shook his head, pulled his hair and moaned in anguish. “No, no! I can’t. I won’t do it. I won’t let you.”
Pierce pulled Bucky’s hand from his hair and held it, and stroked through Bucky’s hair with his other hand. “Shall I provide an incentive? James, you will help me, or I will hurt Steve. I will hurt him, and I will continue to hurt him, until you cease resisting. Furthermore, I will have us do it ourselves, so not only will you witness it, you will cause it.”
A sound of despair ripped its way out of Bucky’s throat. “No!”
“I’m afraid so, James.”
Bucky curled in on himself as he struggled to breathe. Some part of him realized this was all likely going on in his own head, so the battle for air was not only futile but meaningless, but he couldn’t help the way he hyperventilated with panic.
“James,” Pierce continued soothingly, even going so far as to rub Bucky’s back gently. “I need your help. If this is how I have to get it, then this is how I will do it. But it would all go so much more smoothly for everyone if you just helped.”
Bucky choked on imaginary air and imaginary tears and very real pain. What else could he do? He was a slave either way. One way had him absolutely complicit, but Steve would be safe. The other had him free of blame, but Steve would be tortured, possibly by his own hands.
He couldn’t let Steve be hurt. He wouldn’t let that happen.
“Fine,” he gasped. “Fine. I’ll help. Just don’t hurt Steve.”
Pierce practically cooed in Bucky’s ear, and it made Bucky want to vomit. “Well done, James, I knew I could count on you. The process is nearly complete now. We’ll have our power back soon enough, and then we can get started.”
Bucky could only sob miserably where he lay.
After being surprised and overwhelmed by the guards, Steve had been forced to watch as Bucky was strapped down to a table and forced to sleep. Zola grinned at where Steve was being held as he brought out a sickeningly familiar object.
“How did… where did you get that?” Steve gaped as he stared at the gleaming metal arm, huge in Zola’s hands, and eerie for its disembodiment and everything it stood for.
“In the chaos after Pierce’s death, I took it and kept it safe, of course,” Zola said. He lay it on the table on Bucky’s left side, and started what could only be preparations to reattach it. Steve felt nauseated just watching. “It is an incredibly powerful artifact. What no one seemed to have realized is that to create the Winter Knight, the arbiter of his will, it took a great deal of Pierce’s power. He was willing to give it up, of course, if it meant he could exert his will without it being known exactly who was behind it. Some of that power went into James, to create the bond and heal him of the wounds he received in battle, and the rest went into this work of art.”
Zola prattled on as he went about his work. Steve could feel the flare of magic from across the room. “I designed and manufactured the arm, of course. Pierce is a great sorcerer, perhaps the most powerful in history, but his specialty does not lie in craftsmanship. So of course he turned to me. His bond with James enabled him to exert his will on the boy, but it was the arm that provided the means to channel power between them, as well as keep a great reserve of power in case of emergencies. I believe what happened when he was killed was that he was able, in that last second before his body’s death, to transfer the remainder of his power to the disembodied arm, trusting in me to save it, so that one day, when he and James returned, they could be truly reunited with their power and complete their great work.”
“Wait, what do you mean ‘when he and James returned,’ Pierce is dead. He can’t come back.”
Zola grinned. “Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. When he bound James to himself, he made it so he could never truly die until they were both killed. Though his body was destroyed, his soul remained in James. With the return of the arm, he will return to his full strength, and your friend and Pierce will be two souls united in one body, just as we mean to unite the two courts in one land. Poetic, isn’t it?”
Steve wanted to scream. Pierce was still alive? How could they have missed that? How was it possible? Surely someone in Wakanda, with all their magical might and understanding, would have seen something. Hell, Steve should have noticed something! There was a time when he knew Bucky better than he knew himself, and that wasn’t that long ago. Sure, things had changed drastically, but Bucky hadn’t changed that much… had he?
Zola was still talking, and Steve wasn’t even listening anymore. He didn’t care. Pierce was still alive and in Bucky. And he had been this whole time. Steve had failed. He had failed so miserably there weren’t any words for just how completely and utterly he had failed his best friend, his boyfriend, the person he went to Faerie and back for.
Steve slumped in the guards’ arms, until they were doing all the work holding him up. It was uncomfortable, but dammit it was what he deserved. What was he supposed to do now? The guards had confiscated his bag and his shield, so he was pretty much useless. He couldn’t contact Sam for help, he couldn’t break himself out of this, he couldn’t help Bucky… why were they even keeping him alive at this point?
“Steven!” Zola’s voice cut through Steve’s thoughts and he looked up. “He is about to wake, Steven. Wouldn’t you like to see the perfection your friend has become?”
Steve managed a scowl and took his own weight on his feet again as he watched Bucky slowly sit up. His motions were different--slow and careful, like he was getting used to the way his body was moving again. Steve held his breath, hoping maybe something had gone wrong, hoping that Zola was lying, hoping that when the man on the table opened his eyes it would be his Bucky.
But when the man on the table opened his eyes, they shone a bright blue, and Steve knew there was nothing to be done.
Bucky… or the man who was Bucky, whoever he was now--smiled and rolled his shoulders, then flexed his fingers and inspected his hands, comparing the left to the right.
“Well done, Zola.” Bucky’s voice was still the same, but the cadence was different. Everything was wrong, and Steve knew why, and it was killing him. “It’s very interesting, you know, sharing a body. I was familiar with the bond of course, but being shut away in his mind for so long…” Bucky hummed, then looked over at Steve, and Steve had to hold himself rigid to keep from flinching away from that gaze.
Bucky slid off the table and walked over. This time, when he smiled sadly at Steve, it looked… right. Steve didn’t catch when the change happened, but at some point, Pierce stopped talking and let Bucky speak.
“Hey Steve,” he said softly.
“Buck… Bucky, what’s happening?”
“Steve, I… I’m so sorry. I have to let this happen, I have to… I have to do it, otherwise he’ll make me hurt you, and I can’t do that.”
“What do you mean? What’s… what’s he going to do?”
Bucky’s smile twisted painfully and he shook his head. “I think we might be stuck here for a while, Steve. ‘Cause it looks like I’m about to become king of Faerie.”
Apparently the takeover of the Seelie Court had gone smoothly. That’s what Bucky told Steve, anyway. There were enough loyal to Hydra embedded in the court that when Bucky appeared and gave the word, they were able to surprise and overwhelm those loyal to Queen Pepper quickly and with very little bloodshed. Pierce commented that he preferred it that way, and Steve very nearly spat in his face.
Steve was expecting to be thrown in the dungeon, but it seemed that Pierce’s reward to Bucky for participating in his scheme was that Steve would be kept comfortable. Still a prisoner, but comfortable, at least. His room was huge and round, and the only window was a huge skylight on the ceiling. With how lush and soft the room was, Steve felt a little bit like some kind of concubine, and the way he was treated didn’t really do much to dissuade the thought.
He was never allowed to leave the room. They had even kept him blindfolded on the way there, so that just in case he did somehow manage to get out, he wouldn’t be able to find his way out of the palace. A servant brought him food three times a day, and it was excellent food, but Steve rarely had an appetite for any of it. Bucky would visit as much as Pierce would let him--sometimes as much as once a day, but there were often stretches of time when Steve wouldn’t see Bucky for a whole week.
Whenever Bucky visited, it made Steve feel a little sick inside. He could never be completely sure if he was talking to Bucky or Pierce or somehow both at the same time. The longer the two spent sharing the body completely, the harder it became to tell the difference between them. Steve began to wonder if Pierce was slowly taking over totally, or if Bucky was becoming more like Pierce, or if Pierce was purposely acting like Bucky to mess with Steve, or if they were somehow melting into one person… the endless questioning was driving Steve mad.
He did his best, during every visit, to talk about things Bucky would know, the things Bucky liked and remembered and the things they did as kids. The problem with that was that Steve wasn’t sure Bucky remembered all those things. But he had to try. It was all he could do.
Steve spent a month in that room, bored out of his mind, worried about his friends back in Wakanda, worried sick about Bucky, and driving himself mad with how useless and powerless he was. A whole month, counting the days as he watched the sun pass overhead and charted the stars at night, reading what books Pierce allowed Bucky to give him and drawing and painting.
It was a beautiful morning, with a bright clear blue sky, and Steve was drawing a picture of Sam flying. He was going to paint it later, he’d decided, but only if he could get the wings right. He was having trouble with them. Steve was just about to erase a wing and start over when he felt a tickle in the back of his head, like the beginnings of a sneeze in his brain.
Steve leaned back in his chair and blinked, then rubbed his nose, then scratched his head, but the itch wouldn’t go away. It was definitely inside his head, and the more he focused on it, the more certain he was it was magic of some kind. He’d been getting very good at feeling the different magical signatures of different people--sometimes, it was the only way he could tell the difference between Bucky and Pierce. Their magic was just different enough that when Pierce spoke, Steve could feel it. Pierce’s felt a little bit like the salt air at the beach, sticky and sandy and coarse. Bucky’s felt like snowflakes landing on bare skin. It took a lot of concentration to feel it, because it was so subtle, but it was important.
So when he felt the itch, he knew it was someone else. Someone else who was poking at his head. Steve thought about it, and realized it was probably one of two things: either someone in the court was trying to mess with him by getting into his head, or someone from outside the court was trying to communicate somehow. He didn’t think it could be anybody inside the court. Steve didn’t know how many people actually knew he existed, but he was fairly certain that if people did know about him, they’d also know that Bucky wouldn’t let anybody hurt him, and would probably get a little bloodthirsty if they tried.
That left the other option.
Steve swallowed hard. Was it too much to hope that someone was trying to contact him specifically? There was only one way to be sure, and that was to take the risk of letting whoever it was in, so to speak. Steve wasn’t really sure how to do that, and he knew that his natural affinity toward protective magic probably was making it more difficult for whoever was trying to get in.
He put down his pencil and tried to clear his mind and meditate. The only time he’d ever tried meditating was in Wakanda, and he hadn’t really been able to get the hang of it there, but he thought he knew the concept well enough. Clear your mind, be relaxed, open yourself to the world.
Or to people knocking on your mind’s door.
It was very hard to calm his racing thoughts, but once he did, Steve thought he could feel the presence of someone else.
Someone he knew.
Steve. Steve, can you hear me? Where are you, Steve?
And apparently someone who knew him, too. Suddenly it became very hard to keep his head clear.
Uh… hi? This is Steve. Who’s this?
Steve! Oh thank goodness I’ve been trying to reach you for so long. It’s Wanda!
...well alright, he definitely wasn’t expecting that.
Oh my god, Wanda! Where are you? How are you able to do this?
I’m in Faerie, I can’t tell you where right now. Are you okay? Are you safe? What’s going on?
I’m… safe, kind of. Everything’s a mess, Wanda, I don’t really know what’s going on.
Steve, we haven’t heard from you in much too long. Just tell me what you can. I’m with friends, I’ll tell them what you tell me, and then I’ll let you know what I can.
Steve relayed what he could to Wanda through what apparently was their telepathic link. Wanda had told him once about her magic, but he hadn’t realized she could communicate like this. He wondered if anyone had known before.
When he’d finished, there was silence for a little while.
Oh Steve, I’m so sorry.
It’s not your fault, Wanda. I should’ve seen something.
Don’t blame yourself, Steve. If any fault lies with you, it lies with all of us for not seeing it. Pierce hid himself well.
I guess. Hey, you said you were with friends…
Yes. I’m going to speak with them. I’ll speak to you again in a moment, just be patient.
Steve felt Wanda’s presence pull away, and he was alone in his head once more. He still felt kind of tingly, so he scratched his head a few times and then started pacing the room.
He wasn’t sure how much time went by before he felt Wanda’s “knock” again.
Yeah Wanda, I’m here.
I’m going to try to keep this brief. I’m with some friends of ours. They know about the situation now, and we’re going to figure out a way to get Pierce out of Bucky’s head once and for all, and get rid of Hydra too.
Oh yeah? That easy, huh?
Shush. It may take some time, but I think we have some ideas. I’ll keep in contact with you, alright? We’re going to come for you, Steve. We’re going to get you and Bucky out of there.
At that moment, there was a real knock on the door, and Wanda’s presence retreated immediately. Steve’s head whipped around in time to see Bucky coming in.
Steve felt his usual combined happiness and dread at seeing Bucky. He still loved Bucky with all his heart, and he knew Bucky loved him, but Pierce being there too was… disgusting.
“Hi Steve,” Bucky said with a shy smile. He was dressed plainly today. They must not have had any important meetings of state that required a king’s finery.
“Hi Buck,” Steve said. He managed a smile back. “It’s been a couple days. Been busy?”
“Yeah, something like that.” Bucky walked over to Steve and peered at his drawing. The pained, wistful expression that crossed his face when he saw it was of Sam broke Steve’s heart. “Can I?” He reached for it.
Steve nodded and held the paper out to Bucky. Bucky took it and looked at it more closely.
“God, Steve, this is really good.” Steve could almost hear the I miss Sam that Bucky wasn’t saying aloud.
Bucky handed the drawing back and then collapsed on the couch, burying his face in a pillow. Steve hesitated before he went over to join Bucky. As soon as he sat, Bucky shifted and put his head in Steve’s lap, and Steve started stroking Bucky’s white hair.
“I’m sorry, Steve,” Bucky said quietly. Steve almost didn’t catch it, but he was expecting it, so he knew it when he heard it. Bucky said it at least once a visit.
“I know, Buck. I know.” He ached to tell Bucky about the conversation he’d just had and the spark of hope it had created, but he knew better. He couldn’t tell Bucky anything he wasn’t ready for Pierce to hear as well.
“I kind of wish they’d all just… submit. Then I wouldn’t have to kill so many people.”
Steve’s hand stilled in Bucky’s hair. Pierce didn’t let him talk too much about politics and the war that was going on, but maybe… if he could try to find a way that would let Bucky talk without Pierce stopping him… maybe he could get information to Wanda.
“Is the fighting really that bad?”
Bucky sighed. “The Unseelie are still leaderless. The factions keep splitting and reforming, and none of them will agree on a unified court.” Bucky went silent suddenly, and Steve hoped Pierce hadn’t cut him off.
“Sounds exhausting,” Steve tried.
“Yeah,” Bucky replied quietly. “I’m no good at politics. I don’t… handle any of that.”
Steve knew what he meant. He tried again. “It’s been a month, you think the fighting will really keep going?”
Bucky shrugged awkwardly. “It doesn’t show any signs of slowing. The Unseelie pride themselves on their independence and freedom. I think Fury might’ve been one of the few people who could hold them together in a court. Frankly I’m pretty amazed he was able to.”
Well that was something. Steve wondered if Wanda and whoever was with her could use that.
Steve wasn’t any good at subtle interrogation though. He couldn’t think of anything else to ask, so they just spent the next while sitting like that, with Steve’s hands in Bucky’s hair and Bucky sighing in Steve’s lap.
Bucky’s misery was palpable. Steve knew they had to get out of there as soon as they could.
He only hoped Wanda would be able to figure out how.
So... I'm sorry?
No but seriously, this isn't the end.