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“Okay,” Steve said. “This isn’t working.”

It had been three weeks since Bucky surrendered himself to cryonics again; three weeks since he flashed both the self-sacrificing streak they’d seemed to share since 1930 and the blunt remains of his left arm in the Wakandan sun; three weeks since Steve said goodbye to his best friend for what felt like the thousandth time and nearly died himself from the ache of it. Two weeks and one thousand, four hundred, thirty-nine minutes since Steve first thought, this feels like the wrong move. No time at all since he’d last thought it.

Sam quirked an eyebrow. “Not enough salt?”

It had been one hour since Sam had lovingly harassed Steve about his lack of self-care habits, half an hour since Sam had set up base in the lavish, untouched kitchenette of Steve’s palace suite, and about five minutes since Sam had pushed a plate heaped with food at him with a determined care equal to that of a 1930’s immigrant mother, something which Steven G. Rogers had zero experience refusing. Now they sat at the counter. Rather, Sam sat at the counter, and Steve rested his hip on it, too self-conscious to settle.

“No, it’s great,” Steve said, on autopilot. He came back to himself, though his smile remained a distracted sliver. “Thank you, Sam. Haven’t had a home-cooked meal in months.”

So casually they could have been discussing the weather, which around the Wakandan palace was sunlight as unrelenting as the people inside, Sam added, “Haven’t had a home for a lot longer.”

Steve startled, looking at Sam properly. His body language was lazy and comfortable, but his eyes were sharp. Sam was funny like that. He was a warm person, so real and honest and understanding that sometimes it was painful to be around him, more painful not to, but he had that unswerving gaze doctors did. It cut to the heart of the problem, and more often than not with Steve, the problem was his heart.

“That’s what I meant,” Steve said in a low voice. His eyes demurred under his lashes, out of respect for Sam, and out of shame for sharing this private longing with him. “It wasn’t right to abandon Wanda alone and caged at the compound, or you in that cell, and it’s not right to abandon Bucky. How is cutting himself off from support supposed to help him? How can he hope to get free if he’s frozen? How could we let him do that?”

Sam chewed on his lunch and his answer until one was broken down and another built. He made a sound that was satisfied with his work, reminding Steve abruptly of his mother, and then only of Sam.

“Because he chose to,” Sam said. “Ice and silence may be triggers for more than just Barnes, but having control is better. He’s been without it longer than you’ve been without him.”

Steve tried not to flinch, but a muscle in his jaw jumped. Sam softened and slid his hand across the marble top, an invitation of reassurance that Steve accepted without hesitation.

“Steve. I know you miss him. I know it doesn’t sit right with you to keep anyone in darkness, even if that darkness comes from their own head— especially then. I’m the same way. That’s why we do what we do. But if we refuse, we take his autonomy away. We confirm that we don’t trust him to take care of himself. Hell, I don’t, in his current state. But that’s not my call to make.” Sam spread his free hand, a palm-to-ceiling confession of being at a loss, so different from the palm-to-rosary confession of being lost and having lost that Steve sometimes made at night.

“But,” Steve said, the restraint of his tone melting with frustration, “if we leave him in there, that removes his choices. If we pull him out, that invalidates his choices. How can we help someone who won’t let us?”

Sam rested his chin on his hand and presented Steve with a rueful smile. “Welcome to recovery.”

 

*

 

A few hours after lunch, Steve entered the Wakandan royal lab with a thermos of coffee, a book, and a sweater. Though the items he held should have been all the comforts of home, none of them felt like his. Steve was perpetually a man out of place. The coffee was spiced and butter-smooth, too sophisticated for his Great Depression palette, and the book, through no fault of its own, was too pristine in condition to invite any cracking of the spine. The sweater was Sam’s, its shoulder seam mended by inexperienced hands, and that, at least, was familiar.

“Mr. Rogers,” a voice greeted him, accented and lyrical. A tall scientist with a cascade of box braids stepped forward from their station. “Back again.”

“Dr. Zahra, hi. I hope I’m not interrupting your work. How’s your sister?”

“I’m a royal neurobiologist, Mr. Rogers. I am always at work, so you are always interrupting it.” Zahra removed the silver stylus from behind their ear and called up a glowing interface on their Kimoyo beads. They showed Steve a photograph of a six year old Wakandan girl in a school uniform, proudly displaying a mismatched, radiant smile. “Songezwa lost her first tooth defending her classmates from a bully. I am proud of her.”

Unable to help himself, Steve smiled back at the photograph. “So am I.”

Zahra turned off the display and tucked their stylus back into place. “I will tell her Captain America said so. But Captain America is not here for the heroic exploits of a primary school student.” Turning on their heel for the other end of the lab, Zahra called over their shoulder, “Captain America is here for the Winter Soldier.”

There was no point in denying it.

Steve hurried after Zahra, towards cold storage, where he would spend the next hour with Bucky. Any cryogenic pod could be called up to the lab with a royal authorization code, allowing for quick observation or revitalization, but Steve would rather sit in the morgue-like lower level with silent bodies in stasis than distract the conscious ones at work. And his time with Bucky was a communion too private to share.

The door to cold storage was made of vibranium, but that was the only conspicuous thing about it. Unlike the rest of the world, Wakanda did not feel compelled to advertise their valuables with flashy design— partly because everything was valuable. Stepping to the side of the door, Zahra retrieved their stylus and brought up another Kimoyo display, entering a mess of symbols and numbers. The display turned from orange to green and dissolved, as Steve had seen it do before.

Zahra smoothed their lab coat. They reached absently into their pocket, and removed something else familiar— a wrapper. With slim, precise fingers, they tore it open and offered half to Steve. “Kit Kat?”

“You and your sweet tooth,” Steve said, setting down his cargo to take the bisected candy bar.

“Chocolate is good for the soul,” Zahra said.

Together, they waited for the door’s seventy invisible safety mechanisms to unlock. The chocolate had melted between Steve’s cheek and his tongue to leave only the wafer — he thought again about communion — before the door finally swung open. A staircase descended into the lower level, each step washed in a low light, the same shade of green as the Kimoyo display and Zahra’s extensions.

“You don’t need to come down with me,” Steve said. “It’s freezing, and you’ve only got that lab coat.”

“If I didn’t need to come down with you, this door would not have seventy invisible safety mechanisms and an authorization code.” Zahra reminded him, already starting down the stairs. The click of boot heels bounced off the walls. “And I cannot in good conscience leave you to your sadness errands.”

The royal neurobiologist was too far out of earshot for Steve to begin to contest sadness errands, so he simply followed them.

Cold storage was a room of stone reinforced with vibranium, designed to withstand nuclear and non-human attacks. It was visible only by the residual green bath from the staircase. Zahra entered another keycode, and the space flooded with light as bright as that of the lab.

Frosty pods lined the walls. Some were empty. The one Steve cared about wasn’t.

Bucky had been installed — and Steve hated the clinicality of that term, like he was a program instead of a person — more recently than the rest of Cryo’s residents, so he was easy to find at the first border of pods.

Steve placed his thermos and book on the walkway, not yet ready to face him. He slipped the sweater on.

Zahra stepped from pod to pod, checking for stable signs of life and paying their respects to the suspended. They pretended that this was a duty already integrated into their daily routine, and not a day had gone by that Steve hadn’t seen them do it— but not a day had gone by that Steve hadn’t visited Bucky. It seemed like a doctor’s task, but he suspected Zahra only did it to give him some semblance of seclusion.

Steve turned back to Bucky, tugging his sleeves past his fingertips. Since he ran artificially warm, the sweater was more psychosomatic than it was physical. It smelled like Sam, and that was as close to the nebulous concept of home as Steve could come.

“Hey, Buck,” Steve murmured. He touched his knuckles to the glass. Ice clung to the opposite side, obscuring all but a hint of Bucky’s dark hair, and the outline of his metal shoulder. Steve was too conscious of Zahra’s presence to say more, but he looked long before he stepped away.

Sitting in front of the pod, his knees drawn up to his chest, he picked up the book, flipping it over to the cheerful cover— a boy standing on a meteor. He turned to a dog-eared page, and with a clear voice, began to read where he had left off the day before.

‘For me, you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For I am only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you...

“‘If you tame me, my life will be filled with sunshine. I’ll know the sound of footsteps that will be different from all the rest. Other footsteps send me back underground. Yours will call me out of my burrow like music. And then, look! You see the wheat fields over there? I don’t eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me; the wheat fields say nothing to me. Which is sad. But you have hair the color of gold. So it will be wonderful, once you’ve tamed me! The wheat, which is golden, will remind me of you..."

The fox fell silent and gazed at the little prince for a long time. "Please tame me!" he said.

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near ‘Ah,’ said the fox, ‘I shall weep.’

“‘It is your own fault," said the little prince.’” Steve felt his throat tighten as his eyes skidded over the next lines. The words came too thick, too tremulous. “‘I never wished you any sort of harm, but you wanted me to tame you.’

“‘Yes, of course," said the fox.

“‘But now you are going to weep!’ said the little prince.

“‘Yes, of course,’ said the fox.

“‘Then it has done you no good at all!’

“‘It has done me good,’ said the fox, ‘because of the color of the wheat.’”

Steve could not continue; his voice fell back to Earth, his own history heavy on his shoulders. The pad of his thumb absently rubbed the smooth, glossy paper. He didn’t notice Zahra until their hand touched his shoulder.

“Mr. Rogers,” Zahra said, breaking the fresh silence of the space, far colder now that it had been before.

“Saint-Exupéry was a pilot in the war.” Steve said, clearing his throat and closing the book. “His plane went down over water a year before mine did. Bucky and I were with the Commandos when this was published, and we didn’t exactly get novellas with our C-rations, but I think he would have liked it. Will… like it.” He passed a hand over his face. “I’m sorry. You take care of Bucky. It’s not your responsibility to take care of me, too.”

“As a black femme, no. But as a doctor,” Zahra said, allowing their hand to slip from Steve’s shoulder, reminded of the boundary of professionalism, despite the tentative affection they’d built. “A grieving partner is no shock, and no shame.”

“Not having him here is like missing a limb,” Steve admitted. He didn’t want to discount what Sam and Nat meant to him— wonderful, beautiful Sam and Nat, the kind of friends who understood without words, who protected him from hurt and pushed him towards truth. Nor did he want to dismiss what used to be the Avengers, a family haphazard and hazardous from the start. He didn’t want to imply that the past five years were trivial, that happiness never softened the skeleton of his grief. But it was a skeleton. When he scratched the surface, it was there underneath.

“I lost everything. I was an orphan, I was in a war, and then even that was gone. They told me decades had passed, but for me, it was days. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this century, this life, was the dream. I know I’m— lucky,” Steve said, swallowing the sour taste that left in his mouth, “to even be here. But I’m a stranger in a strange land.”

“That is clear. You are in a basement in Northeastern Africa.”

“Not Wakanda,” Steve clarified. “Everywhere.”

“Mr. Barnes is all you have left of your home.”

Steve met the neurobiologist’s gaze— a calm comprehension and the challenge of a raised eyebrow. “Yes,” he sighed. “As long as he’s in stasis, part of me is too.”

“Why did he go under?” Zahra asked. In his peripheral, Steve saw the familiar dive of fingers into pocket. He gratefully accepted the chocolate they offered. “I read the report, but the reason someone chooses cryogenic sleep is always less simple than it appears on paper.”

Both pairs of eyes were drawn upwards to the pod that held Bucky. Again, Steve traced the only comfort he could find through the heavy film of frost. Zahra worried a button on their lab coat.

“He was afraid his captors— HYDRA— still had a hold over him,” Steve explained. “He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but he told me he couldn’t trust himself. Honestly, I’d worry less about everyone’s safety if he was walking around. If he was with me. Maybe that’s selfish.”

“To want to ease your family’s suffering is selfish?” Zahra shook their head, baffled. “Americans.”

Steve’s lips twitched in response, an aborted smile of contrition. “Catholics,” he said, shrugging helplessly. “He went under because of HYDRA, and HYDRA is still out there. It’s selfish to ask him to try again when nothing has changed.”

Zahra, ever the practicalist, vexed by theory: “Then we do it the Wakandan way, Mr. Rogers. We make it change.”

 

*

 

T’Challa received Steve in his office.

His right-hand, Okoye, a woman with arms like steel scaffolding, opened the door for Steve without a word. Her keen eyes catalogued his every breath. Usually, the presence of an armed guard would set him on edge, but here she was an assurance of the safety T’Challa had offered his team. T’Challa trusted her, so Steve did, too.

“Your Highness,” Steve said, as hat-in-hand as someone without a hat could be. “I’m sorry to bother you. I’m sure you have a lot on your plate this morning.”

The sovereign of Wakanda was comfortable and composed in a high-backed chair of black leather, a throne that had served two generations of businessmen before him. Padding his desk were patents for the latest advancements in technology, papers from the new philosophical project at Birnin Azzaria, contracts for the reallocation of resources, and reports on national relations following the Accords and Wakanda’s step into the public eye— and that was only what Steve could see. An espresso cup, drained several times over, sat precariously close to it all. Public opinion was still undecided, but T’Challa was, only weeks after tragedy, working tirelessly to win the cooperation of his country— and that of other countries.

A Kimoyo tablet peeked out from the disarray, open on a photo of a young T’Chaka and another man. Steve felt a stab of guilt. He had nearly forgotten T’Challa’s mourning period.

“I welcome the interruption, Captain,” T’Challa said, reclining in his chair. “I am weary of politics. Its progress is too often impeded by petty squabbles.”

“You’ll find no argument here, sir.”

They shared the conspiratorial smile of two people with a common grievance. Steve wished it were as simple as the enemy of your enemy is your friend , but his enemies were faceless systems of power, and his friends kept trying to kill him, so the terms were pretty meaningless. Nonetheless, they were good men, who knew that their goodness was conditional. They understood each other.

“I’d like to clear my head,” T’Challa said. “I wonder if you would accompany me on a walk.”

The palace garden was a lavish maze of bright plants and intricate modern sculptures. Succulents, alternatively spiky and soft-leaved, surrounded water features. Vines spilled fruit and flowers over their trellises in an infinite array of colors, like the painter’s palette of God. Steve pocketed a fallen bud of something pink, with a desire to draw it later.

“You should visit the Royal Botanical Gardens while you’re here,” T’Challa said. He wore his grandfather’s ring, and it caught the sun like a coin when he gestured. “It is a magnificent sight. What did you want to discuss?”

Steve tensed. His body was alert to T’Challa in a number of ways. He held a simultaneous awareness of his privilege as a white American, awareness of T’Challa’s privilege as an African king, awareness of that king’s extraordinary good looks in his cashmere cardigan and crisp shirt, and, above all, awareness that he was about to ask for the one thing T’Challa could not, himself, ever receive: the return of a loved one, once lost.

“You’ve been so generous,” Steve began, hedging. “There’s no way on Earth I could repay you for the peace you’ve secured for us. Safety is hard to come by in our line of work.”

T’Challa nodded. “Recognizable faces like ours, they are a liability. Especially with brains behind them.”

“I never went to Oxford, your Highness. Just the Brooklyn Public Library.”

“Don’t sell yourself short. We share a gift for strategy. You will beat me in bao someday, Captain.” T’Challa rolled his sleeves up, exposing his bracelet of shiny black Kimoyo beads. “But right now you are beating around the bush.”

Steve sighed. “I want to talk about Bucky.”

T’Challa picked at his nails. “Oh, is it Tuesday?”

“It’s Thursday, your Highness, but point taken. You’re still settling into your position. If it’s too soon after—”

“Wakanda spent centuries building its reputation. Its responsibility now falls to me, and I aim to wield it. What use is power if you cannot change the world with it?”

“Well said,” Steve approved. “Your team has been amazing— kind and capable. They’re doing everything they can to help Bucky, which is sure an improvement from the States. But it’s Bucky being in Cryo in the first place that bothers me.”

“It’s the easy way out,” T’Challa agreed. “Don’t you think he deserves something easy?”

“Of course he does,” Steve said. “But with all due respect, T’Challa, easy is for the dead.”

T’Challa scrubbed a hand over his face. “You want to remove him from stasis?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You realize the risk in freeing him?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I would move the heavens to accomplish what is best for my blood. I offered you shelter because I saw the same in you. Barnes will always be your family, as my father will always be mine, even in death— or some approximation of it.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, touched again by the understanding between them. “I promise, you’ll be helping him either way. Recovery extends beyond the physical. He deserves to feel the sun on his face, to eat good food, to laugh, to be in the presence of people who care about him— to be with me.”

“And with me,” T’Challa added, then clocked Steve’s expression. “You shouldn’t be surprised. He did not actually kill my father, so we have no problem.”

Steve inspected a sprig of greenery by his shoe, unable to think about Howard Stark here.

“I see what you find so captivating about him,” T’Challa remarked. “Barnes. What would cause you to abandon all else.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, softening. “Even with brain damage, he’s a real charmer.”

T’Challa’s smile bloomed in the garden. His necklace of claws glittered. “You know Barnes best. If rehabilitation is the right path, consider the call already made. I suppose the exorbitant cost of any equipment he destroys is worth the restoration of a man you love. Our mental health care is exceptional, and I would be glad to see him again. But he must stay within the palace walls. I believe that would be best for everyone.”

Steve’s instinct was to bristle at the limitation of freedom, after all they’d just been through, but he reminded himself that this was T’Challa, not Tony; they were on the same side. He was disappointed that he and Bucky wouldn’t be able to enjoy the open market, but Bucky would need time to adjust to new environments and routines— Steve still suffered from a seemingly permanent culture shock— and together they were far too conspicuous.

“I know he doesn’t intend anyone harm,” T’Challa said, sensing Steve’s silent turmoil. “None of us did. We still started a war.”

He let that hang between them before adding, “I want to protect my people. You want to protect yours. Someday, Captain Rogers, I genuinely hope the two of us will not need that distinction.”

 

*

 

When Steve returned to the lab, it was with a different kind of tension in his step— an anticipation, a purpose. The reality of seeing Bucky, of touching him, hearing his voice— again, again, a thousand times again— could not come soon enough. The past three weeks had been endless in Steve’s mind, for they carried the shadow of seventy five years of lost time.

The sleek doors of the lab came into focus as Steve turned the corner, and without considering the instinct at all, he broke into a run, the enhanced strength of his step cutting the distance in half.

“Mr. Rogers!” Zahra cried, narrowly keeping their grip on a glass vial as Steve came skidding into the lab. His soles squeaked on the tile.

“Dr. Zahra,” Steve said, hands braced on his thighs— breathless not with exertion, but with excitement. “This will be the last time I interrupt you for a while. I’m waking Bucky up.”

Gathering themself, Zahra slipped the vial into the centrifuge. To a tech working nearby, they called, “Nobomi, keep an eye on this,” then turned back to Steve. “I know. I received King T’Challa’s message minutes ago. You are late.”

Steve beamed.

Zahra called the pod up from Cryo with little fanfare. A few short bursts of their fingers and the click of an elevating mechanism was all it took to return to the love of Steve’s life to the living. As the pod ascended to the lab and locked into place, it seemed the whole of Wakanda held its breath, for the stillness of the room was otherworldly.

The hum of life support broke the silence. Rivulets of steam hissed from the hatch as the interior temperature rose, and oxygen crowded in among the ice. Frost traded places with fog. The glass door descended like the veil of death, and, through the mist, Steve saw him: the comeback kid.

He wasn’t conscious yet; somehow, Steve could tell. Held back by safety straps, wearing white, his long hair haloed by a circlet of machinery— Steve couldn’t help but draw parallels to the resurrection. It had been three weeks, after all. The scrape on his cheek had healed, and his face was peaceful, more peaceful than it had been in close to a century. For a brief moment, Steve experienced doubt: had he made the wrong call? Was it better, kinder, to let him sleep?

Steve turned his head a fraction, unable to take his eyes away from Bucky, afraid he’d disappear. “Zahra, would you and your team mind waiting outside for a while? I don’t know what state he’ll be in once he’s awake, and, given his history, he’s no good with doctors. I don’t want anyone to get hurt… least of all, him.”

“Of course, Mr. Rogers.”

In Steve’s peripheral, Zahra escorted their team of royal technicians beyond the double doors and into the hall with an urgent herding motion, an oldest sibling charged with crowd control.

Steve waited a long while in the lab, looking at Bucky, as he’d done so many days.

Then he wasn’t alone.

Bucky’s eyes rolled beneath his lids as he struggled against the weight of sleep. The fingers of his right hand twitched upward, feeling out the edge of the strap and yanking it without opening his eyes, his body on autopilot: assess, execute, escape. He stumbled from the pod as the strap loosened, and Steve stepped forward to support him, but something in the set of Bucky’s shoulders stopped him— something caged, cold, that would not appreciate his touch.

“Hey, hey, hey, you’re okay,” Steve soothed, calling up a memory of his mother’s nursing voice, as buried in him as her blood. “You’re not in danger, or imprisoned. You’re safe. You’re in Wakanda. You’re Bucky. I’m Steve.”

Braced against the pod, Bucky’s eyes searched Steve’s face, starved for the sight of him— blue like river glass, blue like hyacinth. Frost still clung to his lashes.

Steve, like the first time, like every time, asked, “Do you know me?”

Bucky’s remaining fingers curled into a fist, hard muscle coiling and jumping along his forearm. His body was a Swiss army knife: steely, spring-loaded, multi-use, built to withstand war and issued like an object.

He said, raspy, “Aw, ace. ‘Course I know you. I’d know you blind.”

Steve had known — known always, known right away, on that bridge in Washington, with a sharpness that scared him — that Bucky would not return to him the same. He was not the effortlessly young boy who departed New York Harbor; he was not the wounded sniper who hid his service number in his friend’s shoulder. It was entirely possible Bucky no longer had any concept of same, constantly shifting, constantly recreating himself, and Steve would never know which version he was talking to until he asked.

Even in the warehouse, when he’d said, You used to wear newspapers in your shoes, when he’d laughed at the memory, so soft and unfamiliar in his throat that it barely made a sound, Bucky had not seemed as clear as he did now, as familiar, as— as— as much like himself.

Steve was dizzy with it. Tears did not choke him, but it was a near thing. For one breathless moment, he thought he was having an asthma attack, before the reality of his body— of both their bodies— caught up with him.

“Bucky?” he asked, reverent, half-afraid of the answer.

“Who the hell else?” Bucky said.

Steve smiled. “You haven’t exactly sounded like yourself lately.”

“Affirmative,” Bucky snorted. Then he snorted again, and then again, his head snapping towards his shoulder with each exhale, as if by violent strings. “Af-f-f-firmat-t-tive.”

That’s new, Steve thought with growing panic.

“That’s new,” Bucky said, sucking in a breath and gripping his jaw with his hand, as if holding it in place could stop the tic.

“Yeah,” Steve said gently. It took every scrap of his strength not to reach out. “Why don’t we sit down?”

Bucky nodded, and Steve guided him, hand hovering over the small of his back, to a nearby examination table. Bucky looked pale, but his stride was strong; he didn’t need Steve’s help.

When they were settled, Bucky still nursing his face in his hand, Steve asked, “Is it okay if I ask the technicians to come back in? Not for anything major, just to make sure you won’t keel over. I’ll be right here the whole time.”

A hint of panic flared in Bucky’s eyes, but he nodded, releasing his jaw and resting his hand in his lap, his posture pliable. Steve had a sinking feeling that this was a sign of his conditioned compliance towards medical examination. He motioned through the broad glass window to Zahra and their team.

Many of the techs snapped away from the window to speak intently to each other or inspect their shoelaces, in a way that made it clear they’d been watching. In response to Steve, Zahra’s slender fingers made the universal gesture for OK .

“You’re in charge, tiger,” Steve said to Bucky, borrowing from Bucky’s endless vocabulary of semi-ironic endearments. “You can say no to anything, and if you can’t, I can for you.”

Bucky nodded again.

“Mr. Barnes,” Zahra said, entering the lab. “I am Dr. Zahra, the neurobiologist in charge of your care. It is a pleasure to finally meet you.”

“Likewise,” Bucky said, slipping into a mask of charm, now that he was surrounded by strangers.

“How do you feel?”

“Functional,” Bucky answered, then amended, “Bruised, and like I haven’t brushed my teeth in a week.”

“Drink lots of fluids; the sedatives for your time in Cryo will leave your system soon, along with that sour taste. Your injuries will continue healing at their own pace. If you were to rate your distress on a scale of—”

“Three,” Bucky said.

Zahra cocked an eyebrow. “That is very low for recently having your arm blown from your body by an above military-grade laser cannon.”

“High pain tolerance. Torture does that.”

“Hm. Our goal is zero.”

“Sure, everyone needs a dream.”

Shithead, Steve thought lovingly.

“My team and I would like to take some measurements of your physical state before we release you. Blood pressure, pulse... Most imperative after reanimation is a sample of blood.” Zahra’s brow, bathed in the green of their Kimoyo display, furrowed as they skimmed Bucky’s medical records. “Your last sample was taken when you arrived. It contained traces of several solutions unknown to us. That is... unusual for our system.”

“HYDRA,” Bucky said, rapping his knuckles on his surviving stub of metal shoulder. “Propaganda wasn’t all they p-pumped me full of. Drugs to make me dangerous, drugs to k-k-keep me quiet, the counterfeit tin can version of supersoldier serum they managed to cook up in their garage like it was a fuckin’ neighborhood meth lab, p-pardon my language. I got deactivated trackers and microchips and shit from the 80’s probably poisoning my liver. Arm was attached to my nervous sys-system so there’s g-gotta be damage there.” He ticced as if to prove his point. “Gonna be honest, doc, you should be surprised I’m still standing.”

“I see,” Zahra said, and, to their credit, not one note changed in their voice. “We will run further tests at your convenience. At the least, we can remedy the outdated hardware situation. And we aim to repair and replace your prosthetic.”

“That’d be good,” Bucky said.

Zahra nodded. “That’s why you’re here. Princess Shuri will be thrilled to have a new project. May I begin examining you?”

“May I s-see your hands?” Bucky replied, good-natured even in his steady state of suspicion. Steve had an uneasy understanding of it; as the last few months had proven, even those they liked, they could never fully trust.

Zahra presented their hands palm up in front of them; cracked, but concealing no tricks, weapons, or candy bars.

Bucky nodded, and, with their movements vetted, Zahra took his vitals, and scans. Bucky didn’t seem phased by technology’s advances toward the smallest possible efficiency, but he wasn’t phased by much these days. It wasn’t until an unfamiliar technician came towards him primed with a syringe that he began to show a response, and not a favorable one.

His shoulders tensed up and he ticced, his head snapping towards Steve. Their eyes met, Bucky’s a little wild. He looked one move away from jumping onto the table and climbing into the ceiling.

“Zahra,” Steve called, alarmed. To the tech, he said, “Excuse me, miss, can you hang on a minute?”

Zahra stepped between Steve and the tech. “Verah,” they said, cool and collected amidst three equally startled people, “I believe Mr. Barnes would appreciate some warning.”

“I’m so sorry,” Verah said, dropping the syringe onto the tray like a hot potato. “I could not tell you were uncomfortable. I’m bad at picking up on the emotions of others.”

Bucky seemed taken aback by this. His face softened. “Th-that’s. Okay. Me too, sometimes. We’re both a l-little, uh, out of our element. W-we can. Start over.”

Verah smiled, her now-free fingers tugging on her hijab, patterned with a repeat of roses. “Start over,” she echoed. “Excuse me, sir, I need to take a sample of your blood. Would that be alright? I promise my hands are much gentler than my bedside manner.”

Bucky’s shoulder tensed slightly, his eyes darting to his boots, then somewhere past Verah’s shoulder. “Y-yes. C-can I see those g-gentle hands first?” he asked, his voice a hint too harsh, unused to being addressed directly by doctors. He ticced once, head snapping to the side, then winced as if in apology.

Verah presented her hands as Zahra had, and, again, Bucky was settled by it. She kept her hands visible as she worked to set up the needle and vial for collection. She lay a scrap of cloth beneath the tourniquet so it wouldn’t pinch Bucky’s arm, and that small act made Steve trust her.

When she slid the point into the crook of his elbow, Bucky seemed to want to look away, but to be equally unable to, either through protocol or his own morbid fascination. Steve tried not to think of HYDRA training him to sit, stay, roll over. He’d seen the files, the photos; it made him sick to his stomach. They’d replaced body parts and retrained synapses one by one, until a gentle boy from Brooklyn became a weapon. The Winter Soldier Project was designed to destroy everything that made a person.

It had failed.

“Doin’ great, champ,” Steve said, for both their benefits. He was hyper conscious of his hand on Bucky’s back, rubbing comforting circles— something he hadn’t asked permission for, but had always done when they were young. Like the clap on the shoulder in the helicopter, selfishly trying to get back to something familiar.

“All finished,” Verah said kindly, pressing gauze over the pinprick. “Sorry about the miscommunication. What plaster would you like?”

Bucky stared at her like she’d asked if he wanted that ala mode. Flatly, he repeated, “What… plaster.”

She gestured to the drawer she’d opened beside the exam table. Nestled among gauze and antiseptic wipes was a selection of brightly colored kids’ bandages. Bucky surveyed them with an assassin's attention to detail, and, after extensive deliberation, chose a pink one. It had a cartoon cat printed on it.

“Happy with that, buddy?” Steve asked.

“Yes,” Bucky said, admiring it, but after a moment he pulled his knees up and put his head between them.

“Blood always made you lightheaded,” Steve said, a little sadly, resuming his back circles while they waited for the dizzy spell to pass.

When he could lift his head, Verah pushed a glass of water into Bucky’s single, shaking hand. He drank deeply, then dried his mouth with a drag of his knuckles and passed the glass back, managing a smile that Verah mirrored.

Alone again, Bucky looked at Steve around the curtain of his hair. “How long was I out?”

“Three weeks.”

“Three weeks,” Bucky echoed. “Wakandans are much f-faster than I thought.”

Steve inhaled slowly. He had planned his words carefully, but there was not enough kindness in the world for difficult truths.

“Bucky,” he started, “You and I both know there’s no cure for what you’ve been through. Please, hear me out— no cure but therapy, and a support system, and struggling your way through a whole string of bad days until you reach a good one. No cure but life. That magic medicine you’re looking for— it’s not real. It might be, one day, but that day is far from this one. I know I’m the poster boy for one-serum-fixes-all, but that’s why you gotta listen to me on this. I’m a mess. I still get the shakes. Nightmares. Paranoia. But I keep going. Never did know when to walk away from a fight.”

Bucky snorted in agreement at that.

Encouraged, Steve added, “I’m real selfish, too. Always pulling you into scrapes that weren’t yours to be in, and you had my back every time. You’re my best friend. You’re family. I lived without you for five years, and until that day on the bridge, when your mask came off and I saw your face, I expected to have to live without you a lot longer than that. I can’t bear another second of it, not with you so close. Not with you shut up in a box like the stiff I see in my dreams.”

“You know I’d never leave you, Stevie,” Bucky said. “N-not even dead. They couldn’t keep me in the ground. But for once, honey, it’s not about you. It’s about those people I…” He stopped, shook his head, unable to continue that line of thought. “I’m not as much of a fighter as you are.”

“Bullshit,” Steve said. “You’re as much a fighter and as good a man, too, maybe better. That’s what they told me when I volunteered for Project Rebirth, that the serum makes good into great and bad into worse. And here you are, head full of Nazi propaganda, still real worked up about hurting civilians. We have the same stuff in us, JB Barnes. We’re the only ones left that do.”

“Just you. I made my choice.”

“I know you made a choice,” Steve said. “It doesn't have to be your only one.”

“How can it not be?” Bucky growled. “I tried your way. I tried healing. A whole f-fuckin’ year, I tried, don’t talk to me like I haven’t. That’s what I was doing in Bucharest— going b-back to my roots, getting my head right, getting better. I was even starting to believe I deserved better. But they f- found me, and undid that in s-seconds. Showed me all that trying didn’t amount to anything when they can still shove their grimy hands in me and pull out whatever they want.” He was shaking now, drawn into memories, his words beginning to drop off: “Every t-time I run, they f-find me.”

“They can’t find you,” Steve insisted. “Not this time. Not here.”

“You can’t k-know that. You didn’t even k-know you were working for them.” WIncing and ticcing into his shoulder, Bucky said, “Jesus, sorry, sweetheart.”

“It’s okay,” Steve said calmly. “You didn’t know you were working for them either.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “They were always tellin’ me I was saving the world. I didn’t save sh-shit. I made it worse. I hurt you. I hurt a lot of people.”

“I know. I know you’re afraid of that. Always have been. I know you want protection that works both ways: everyone from you, you from everyone. But come on, Buck, it’s me. It’s us, ” Steve said, and his voice cracked like a spent shell leaving a gun, like the sweet-smoky strike of a match, like Bucky’s lips in cold weather. “We kept each other alive and sane on dimes and dumb luck for years, through the streets of Brooklyn, through the Valley of Death. Ain’t no one in this world better at taking care of us than us . And there’s more than just us, now. T’Challa’s team has already come up with six alternative ways they can help you escape HYDRA’s grasp for good. I know you can do it, and this time, you don’t have to do it alone.”

Steve put his hand on top of Bucky’s. Bucky’s eyes snapped to Steve’s, the first time he’d made direct contact since Steve had begun to talk. They looked at each other.

“I swear to God, Buck. You never have to be alone again. Don’t go back under. Come home with me.”

Bucky said, “Goddamn it, Steve. Okay.”

Steve let out a breath. “Okay?”

“For you, it’s been three weeks. For me, it’s been about three minutes. I’m acting on fear, and guilt, and… after everything, wanting to rest.” Bucky’s eyes dropped back to his remaining hand, curled in his lap and covered by Steve’s. The confession seemed to take the fire out of him. “I trust you. I just hope you can trust me.”

 

*

 

Steve unlocked his apartment with a swipe of his Kimoyo card. He lived on the sixteenth floor, and the view was spectacular. Beyond the tall trees of the palace gardens, the Golden City lived up to its name; the skyscrapers of Birnin Zana’s business district caught the brilliance of the sunset like it was fire.

Beside him, Bucky tugged the empty sleeve of his t-shirt, the dark circles beneath his eyes painfully pronounced despite his three weeks of dreamless, drug-induced sleep.

More than it hurt to deny the constant desire to touch him, to hold him, to comfort him, more than it hurt to know Steve couldn’t fix anything Bucky had been through with a hug, more than it hurt not to close the distance and take Bucky in his arms, it hurt not to know how Bucky would react to anything Steve did. James Buchanan Barnes had been the sole scientific constant in his life since he was six years old, a measure of normalcy against which he could pit the whole of reality. Now, he was another part of the future Steve didn’t understand.

“So…” Steve stood uncertainly in the living room, fidgeting with the Kimoyo card still in his hand. “This is… home, for now.”

Without a word, Bucky began to move around the apartment, his stride unbalanced with the absence of his arm. He gave the kitchen a cursory once-over before honing in on the bedroom, hand held out like a dowsing rod, divining the location of hidden cameras, bugs, bombs, lacy lingerie— Steve didn’t know what he was looking for. Bucky rifled through drawers, swept behind the spines of bedside books, smoothed the creases Steve’s sleeping head had left on the pillow. The search seemed motivated half by paranoia, half by pure curiosity.

Steve drifted behind him at a reasonable distance, until Bucky disappeared around the corner to inspect the master bath. Steve sat on the edge of the bed and busied himself by untying his boots.

“We can get you your own key card soon,” he said, raising his voice to be heard through the half-open door. “Internet access— it’s encrypted. Even your own apartment, if you’d rather not bunk with me.”

Steve lined his shoes up beside the dresser, and, pausing to push shut an abandoned drawer, padded over to the bathroom.

Bucky was eyeing his threefold reflection in the medicine cabinet. From the holographic floor tiles, a thousand blurry Buckys stared back.

Steve cut to the chase. “I can take the couch tonight.”

Bucky turned away from the mirror, and Steve backed into the bedroom so he’d have space to exit.

“Are there. Rules,” Bucky asked.

Steve pulled an apologetic face. “Yeah, sorry, pal. We’re kind of under palace arrest for right now. Free roam of the building, though. There’s a shop where we can grab supplies for you tomorrow.”

Bucky nodded.

“What about you, champ? You got any rules?” Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve been wondering if, uh, physical contact was okay with you.”

Bucky’s eyes wandered to a point past Steve’s shoulder. “D-don’t. Come up on me suddenly f-f-from any angle. Or hold me down. Or string me up. Or try to stab me. But you can. Touch me. I won’t fuckin’ break.”

Steve smiled a little. “Pretty tough to break.”

Bucky snorted. “Don’t I know it. W-what about. You? Can I. Touch you?”

“Yes,” Steve said, surprised. “Of course you can.”

“N-not always an of course, ace. If I tried to touch a handler, they’d hit me. Or reward me. Or p-p-put me in solitary. They m-mixed it up so I’d s-stay dependent. Now I know how you’ll react. It’s good. To know.” Brightening up, Bucky asked, “Hey, you g-got any tea?”

“It’s hot,” Steve warned not much later, carefully transferring a mug of green tea from his hand to Bucky’s.

“Call the p-press,” Bucky replied. He didn’t drink from the mug right away, but pressed the warm side against his cheek, tucking his head into the gesture and closing his eyes. He looked as content as Steve had seen him so far.

After a beat, he said, “Your apartment is empty as f-fuck.”

Steve, halfway settled into the opposite corner of the sofa, his toes curling and uncurling in his socks, paused. He didn’t need to retrace his steps to the bathroom that contained only a complimentary bar of soap and a convenience store toothbrush, or to stare blankly at the half-drunk bottle of orange juice in his refrigerator. He had long confronted the fact that his surroundings reflected his state of mind, nothing personalized, nothing impractical— that any peace came pre-packaged with an inevitable and finite end, that he occupied as little of his lodgings as possible to make it easier for him to leave them. He didn’t keep a backpack stashed beneath the floorboards, but he was still ready to run.

Maybe it was cynical. But he hadn’t been wrong yet.

“It’s not empty,” Steve said finally. “You’re here.”

Bucky snorted and opened his eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “In my apartment. In Bucharest. I had some nice things. Couch cushions. C-candy bars. A cup with flowers on it. All the f-fuckin’ comforts. Now I don’t got a goddamn thing to my name. That’s how it g-goes.” Bucky took a sip of his tea, like punctuation. “You and me, honey. All we’ve ever owned in this world is each other.”

Steve felt close to crying at that.

“Hang on,” Steve said in an undertone, then left the room for a minute. When he returned, he carried a carton of cigarettes, crumpled and worn from their own brand of being on ice— stashed in Steve’s leather jacket, Sam’s glove compartment, the sock drawers and suitcases of every rented room they’d slept in for the past two years.

“Lucky Strikes,” he said, passing them to Bucky, who set his mug down on the end-table to take them. “I bought them after D.C. They were your favorite. Now… they’re yours. Now you own something.”

Bucky stared at the box, wearing the stormcloud of a hard-to-reach memory, his brows twin lightning strikes. Then his face cleared, and he whacked the carton against his thigh to pack the tobacco in. He retrieved an individual cigarette with the same practiced tip-and-shuffle Steve remembered, like the carton was an extension of his hand.

He stood up the same, too, and went over to the stovetop, and flipped the gas on. The carton was on the counter and cigarette was fixed in the crook of his fingers. Everything was slower single-handed, but the Lucky caught the flame safely, fading to a smolder.

He turned away from Steve as he took the first drag, inhaling hard— a private moment with an old pastime. His wrist smothered a cough, his body unused to the burn after a decade. When he turned back, his eyes were wet. Steve couldn’t tell which was the cause: the nicotine, or the memory.

“Holy fuckin’ smokes,” Bucky said, grinning at his own joke, his voice all Brooklyn. He took another drag, then breathed, “You,” smoke curling from his mouth, singling Steve out with that red glow, like the sight on a rifle. “You are a damned saint.”

Steve smiled and settled back into the couch cushions, feeling warm, as though Bucky had cupped hands around Steve and breathed life into him instead. “That’s contradictory, Buck. Saints are blessed.”

“Jesus,” Bucky said.

“Sure, that’s one of them.”

“Don’t be. D-difficult.” Bucky wandered over to the coffee table, tapped ash into the leftovers of his tea, then nestled into Steve’s side on the sofa, head on his chest. He waved the carton in front of Steve’s nose, so that the cigarettes slid audibly against each other, soft thunks of guilt. “Why are some missing?”

Steve rested his chin on Bucky’s head. “I smoked them,” he confessed.

“You. Have asthma?” Bucky asked, unsure.

“Not anymore.”

“You. Don’t smoke,” Bucky said, more sure.

“No,” Steve said, burying his answer in the dark territory of Bucky’s hair. “I missed you.”

Bucky made a wounded sound, and wriggled closer. “I’m here. Like you said. I’m here.”

“Yeah. You are.” Steve wrapped an arm around his waist and kissed his forehead. “Welcome home.”

 

*

 

The body jolted awake to a scream.

Bucky’s eyes were still bleary with sleep when he discovered that the body was crouched in a defensive position on the carpet. He couldn’t remember leaving the bed, and the lapse in memory made his stomach rile; there was no connection between Bucky-in-bed and body-on-floor, only a hollow space where something else had taken over.

Another cry of anguish, cut short by a ragged sob— the part of his brain that recognized Steve under the car crusher of Winter Soldier conditioning was pissed. That’s Stevie screaming, shit-for-brains, said Bucky to the body. Don’t j-just sit there, help him.

Though the night sky outside the window afforded little light, the bedroom was not quite black. A digital clock on the dresser read 0:00 AM, and the thought of that timeless minute at midnight unnerved Bucky so much that he snapped back into himself. His hand flew to the knife concealed at his waist before he realized it was gone— the techs had taken it off him before he went under. Without the arm, he no longer had the advantage in hand-to-hand combat. F-fuck, he thought. Figures. Guess we’re going in kinetic.

Keeping low to the ground and close to the shadows, he advanced past the bedroom and into the living room. There were no assailants in his line of sight. He clocked only Steve, on the couch, his body tightly curled around a cushion.

“Stevie?” Bucky hissed.

Steve lifted his face from the cushion. In the faint green glow from the kitchen appliances, his cheeks were shiny with tears.

“Oh, h-honey.” Bucky dropped his stance immediately and was at Steve’s side faster than a bullet from a barrel or a bat out of hell. Gently, he extracted the cushion from Steve’s iron grip. It looked like it had lost some stuffing in a previous struggle.

Bucky nudged him upward so they were side by side on the sofa, then dragged a boneless Steve into his lap. Steve buried his face in Bucky’s shoulder, shaking like his body was ground zero for an earthquake.

“S-Steve, sweetheart, zeiskeit, it’s okay, ssh,” Bucky soothed, cradling Steve’s head in his good hand. They rocked, a slow back and forth. “J-just a bad d-dream, mechayeh, ssh, you’re safe now. You’re in Wakanda. You’re Steve. I’m Bucky.”

Steve drew in a ragged, gasping breath. “Bucky.”

“I g-got you, tiger,” Bucky said. “Can you t-tell me. What year it is, huh?”

“19— Fuck. 2017.”

“That’s right,” Bucky said. “C-can you l-look at me, honey? So you can see that I’m r-real?”

Again, Steve lifted his face to the light. Bucky pushed the damp hair from his forehead, and his eyes refocused, eventually settling on the silver stump of Bucky’s arm. He sobered up immediately. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice rough from crying and crying out. “I woke you.”

“Rather you wake me than s-suffer on your lonesome, Jesus. W-what did you say to me, huh? Swear to God, you never have to be alone again. Well, if I’m n-never alone, must mean you’re there. P-plus, I never sleep long. F-few hours before I’m screamin’, too.”

“What a pair we make,” Steve sighed. The bow of his bottom lip caught the light from the kitchen.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, considering him— the curl of hair shaken loose onto his brow, the hand still splayed on Bucky’s chest, and the pure trust in every curve of his body towards Bucky’s, even after all the horrors Bucky had used it for and been used for. “What a pair.”

Steve blinked at the sincerity in Bucky’s voice. A slow, fond smile spread across his face.

God, Bucky could’ve kissed him right then and there, like nothing had changed. How lucky he was to have clawed his way out of Hell still breathing, to have found an angel who didn’t flinch from the soil still under his fingernails, who looked at him like he was holy, too.

That’s a fucked up way to think about it, said Bucky to Bucky.

Newsf-flash, tiger, it’s all f-fucked up in here.

Then Bucky ruined the moment by reaching up and wiping snot from Steve’s nose with his shirtsleeve.

Steve jerked his head back, like an unruly child resisting a spit-and-swipe, but Bucky only snorted a little laugh; the damage was done. “C-can’t out s-superhuman me, Rogers. I got reflexes.

Steve frowned, forming that perfect crease between his brows that could hold a drink of water. “Bad enough I cried all over it, now my snot is on your shirt.”

“M-makes it worth more on the d-deep web. Stop finding shit to p-punish yourself for and come to b-bed.”

Steve’s face lit up, then fell, a fine impression of a shooting star. “No, Buck, I gave you the bed. I— I don’t want to pressure you into anything you’re not comfortable with.”

“J-J-Jesus,” Bucky said. “Such a gentleman. Like hell I’m l-leaving you out here. I j-just offered, which means I’m n-n-not uncomfortab-ble, but if you’re so b-bothered by it, I’ll sleep on the f-f-f-floor— Oh—” The uncontrollable urge to lash his head towards his shoulder overtook him, as it had in the lab, and again, and again, the muscles in his neck spasming so painfully he struggled to breathe.

Steve gripped his wrist in alarm. “Buck, you okay?”

Bucky squeezed Steve’s hand to show he was still there, even though it sent another spasm through his shoulder. M-m-malfunction, alert handler to f-f-faculty failure Shut up, soldier

Once the aftershocks had stopped, he slowly shifted his head back to its original position, focusing all his remaining energy on relaxing.

“Tired,” he said finally, unable to expand further. “G-gets. W-w-worse.”

“How long has that been going on?”

“T-tics. Are recent. Words... are p-p-problematic.”

That was the understatement of the year. The Russian he’d known as the Soldier evaporated under his tongue as Bucky, but English was still half-alien after so long in silence. On good days, he remembered something— a brutal threat in German, a snap of Gaelic overheard from Sarah Rogers, tonight the Yiddish sweetnesses his mother had used for him and his sisters. On bad days, language lodged in his throat like the press of a dry pill. At first, he’d only said what was important, fearful of capture or punishment, but now he couldn’t seem to shut up. It was a luxury to speak freely, to talk shit, to have opinions, to call people honey, like he was a real person. Just his luck he’d develop a speech impediment.

“Okay,” Steve said. If Bucky had held on another moment, he knew they would have argued over the matter of the floor, but present concern overwrote previous; Steve had already relented. “Okay. Let’s go to bed.”

“Ha,” Bucky said, exhausted. “I w-w- win.”

 

*

 

Bucky woke to the sound of rain.

Outside, the waxy leaves of the trees glittered with drops. Inside, in the fortress of blankets he’d made last night, Bucky rolled away from the window and peered up into the bed. It was empty, but still carried the imprint of Steve’s body. Once the wave of f-fuck goddamn it where is he this time panic had passed, but clearly before sense had taken its full possession of him, Bucky pressed his face into the pillow and inhaled. It smelled disappointingly of fabric softener.

The real Steve stood over the stovetop in the kitchen, holding a spatula. Sliding up from the side, Bucky pressed his face into the curve of his neck and tried again; skin and sweat and something light, like lemon scented soap.

“Hey, champ,” Steve said, a little bewildered, shifting both into and away from Bucky’s touch, like he wasn’t sure what he wanted, or what was wanted of him.

Bucky lifted his face. “You used to smell like paint.”

“Yeah. You used to smell like Brylcreem and engine oil,” Steve replied. “As of last night, you still stink of cigarettes. How you feeling? Sleep well?”

Bucky nodded; he hadn’t slept deeply, or continuously, but there had been no nightmares, so he considered that a success. “You?”

Steve smiled shyly. “Best I’ve slept in years. It’s… a big relief, having you here.”

“Like bein’ here,” Bucky said, ducking his head from the vulnerability of the confession and stealing a piece of bacon still-cooking from the pan. His fingertips grazed the bottom, and burned, but only briefly.

“Hey, that’s hot!” Steve protested.

“Good,” Bucky said, chewing with his mouth open because HYDRA taught him how to kill a man five ways with a fork but not how to eat with it, or if they did, it didn’t stick. Seventy years of instruction in combat strategy and diplomatic espionage, and not a single goddamn table manner. “Let someone else do your j-j-job for a change.”

Steve tensed, and for a moment Bucky worried he’d misjudging their easy back-and-forth, but then Steve relaxed and said, “That’s right. I’m off-duty.”

“You ain’t off-duty. You d-dropped your shield. You’re on fucking French leave.”

Steve smiled at the familiar army slang, but turned away from Bucky to take the bacon off the stove. Bucky thought he might be sore over the reminder that, for all intents and purposes, he was no longer Captain America.

“Speaking of leave,” Steve said, putting the bacon between them on the counter. “First day unfrozen. How do you want to spend it? I’ve already been for my morning run, but I could show you where the gym is, or the store I mentioned. You could pick out some food you like.”

“I like this f-food.”

“I don’t know, I feel bad about feeding pork to a Jew.”

“The J-J-Jew doesn’t mind. Not that I’m not grateful, sweetheart, but I’m p-p-pretty sure you didn’t pull me out of Cryo to go shopping.”

“I pulled you out to live. Under late capitalism, life includes shopping. How about clothes?”

“What’s wrong with my c-clothes?”

“Nothing,” Steve said, “except that they’re mine.”

Bucky hugged the middle of his sweatshirt, pilfered from Steve’s closet and emblazoned with a panther mid-roar, the left sleeve hanging loose. Standing so close to the stove, he was sweating under the black fabric. It was still strange to wear something of Steve’s that fit him. “Steve, I can’t shop. I know you say we’re s-safe here, but I have a trip-wire in my b-brain. I can’t trust myself in a p-public space.”

“You can trust me,” Steve said firmly. “Anything happens, I’m there. Consider me a brick wall between you and danger.”

Got as much s-sense as a wall,” Bucky said.

“And it’ll get you as far arguing with one.”

Bucky let breath out through his teeth. “Look, if I hurt you, champ, I’d hate it, but clearly not even the W-W-Winter Soldier can g-get your stubborn, souped-up ass to stay down. It’s civilians I’m w-worried about.”

“You lived in Bucharest for two years without hurting anyone. You bought stuff, right?”

Truth be told, he’d stolen most of what he’d had— the baseball cap, the hoodie, snack foods, soap, ponytail holders, once a handheld music player from someone on the subway. It was easy to pilfer small objects when you were crammed full of top secret Soviet infiltration training, and easier to justify it when your moral compass had one setting, and that setting was survive.

As his head slowly unscrambled, he’d worked odd jobs to pay for his shithole-sanctuary apartment, for real groceries, and for the leather-bound journals he’d filled with information— about himself, about Steve, about the two of them together. Fuck, he missed those journals. Two years of work to collect seventy years of an identity now collected nothing but dust on a shelf in a SHIELD containment lockup. They might make it into a history museum someday. Since he was going to live forever, maybe he could steal them back.

Bucky ducked his head from Steve’s searching eyes. “Bucharest was b-before.”

“Germany was after,” Steve reminded him. “Siberia, too.”

“That was different. We were fighting for our lives.”

“We’re always fighting for our lives,” Steve said. “When are we going to live them?”

Bucky didn’t answer.

Across the table, Steve exhaled. He buried his impatience in a gulp of dark coffee, then spread his hands on the counter. That wide fan of fingers no longer looked out of place with the rest of him. “Okay. What is it going to take for you to feel safe?”

“I’m never gonna feel safe, Steve,” Bucky said. “I’m made of unsafe.”

“You eat danger for breakfast, huh?” Steve said, half-hearted.

“M-morning, noon, and night.” Bucky hesitated, then answered, “That activation shit. I n-need that. Gone. For a start. That’s why we came here. You told me T’Challa’s scientists have s-something.”

Steve nodded. “You have options. Princess Shuri is still testing out ideas, but quickest is Wanda— she’s offered her ability, if you’ll take it. She can’t remove the sequence, but she says she can alter it, keep it from being used against you.”

“I can’t—” Bucky squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m sorry, they seem like sweet k-kids, but the thought of either of them m-messing around in my mind makes me sick. I’ve had enough m-modification of my p-p-perception of reality.”

“I figured,” Steve said. “Option two is therapy.”

Frustration bubbling up his throat, Bucky replied, “I j-just said I can’t have anyone in my head.”

“It wouldn’t be like that. We’d find you someone compatible, someone who would go at your pace. Work with you, not on you. T’Challa’s personally selected a list of names, most of whom specialize in prisoners of war. But therapy… that’s a personal choice. I won’t force it on you.”

Bucky didn’t point out that a huge amount had been forced on him over the years, and a psych evaluation would, comparatively, be one of the least invasive. He also didn’t know how he felt about being called a prisoner of war. In his experience, everyone who lived through war became a prisoner of it.

“What’s option three?”

Steve winced. “Um, desensitization. Expose you to the sequence til it stops working. They’re in order of how readily I expected you to agree to them.”

“We got d-different definitions of options,” Bucky said crabbily. He rubbed at his neck, still tense and tightly-wound from last night’s bout of tics. “It ain’t gonna stop working. They must’ve activated me a thousand times.”

“But they had to do it every time?” Steve asked. “Did they ever send you on a mission without the sequence?”

“Yes,” Bucky said, surprised at his own surety. “The G-Germans, when they were breaking me, they didn’t have it. They used g-g-good old torture. Big fans of the ch-chair. Electroshock. Code words were a R-R-Red Room invention. Hypnosis. C-Compliance will be re-w-w-war—” The smell of butter and meat was vividly joined by the smell of antiseptic, and Bucky gagged at it, clamping a hand over his mouth to keep in anything that tried to escape— but that felt too much like his mask, his muzzle, so he wrenched it away again.

“You okay?” Steve asked.

If he turned his head, he could still catch a whiff of the memory, so he didn’t turn his head. He focused on breathing slowly until it subsided. “F-fine. Occupational hazard.”

“I pried,” Steve said, “because I’m wondering if it resets when you lose consciousness. When you woke up in that warehouse in D.C., you remembered me. If that sets a precedent, then we have a contingency plan, and we’ve already made progress from where we were a minute ago.”

Bucky eyed him. “P-plan? You giving me the sleeper hold is not a plan.”

“Sure it is,” Steve assured him. “If some mooks show up uninvited, I’ll knock you out and bring you back here, no harm done.”

“What if you give me b-b-brain damage?”

“What, you mean more?”

Bucky snorted. “I g-guess,” he said, after a beat, secretly satisfied with this solution, “the store sounds n-nice.”

“Ha,” Steve said. “I win.”

Bucky thrived in the store.

Less a gift shop and more a small outlet mall, it was designed to supply any item visiting dignitaries might have forgotten at home, or had confiscated by customs. Bucky, who had nothing but Lucky Strikes, Steve’s sweatshirt, and some weapons currently in royal custody, took full advantage.

He swept Cheerios and bubble bath and colored pencils and antiperspirant into the cart without prompting, a kid in a candy store, except in this era he carried more than nickels. He bought a blue toothbrush, purple hair clips, vanilla moisturizer, cherry blossom shampoo, a panther sweatshirt of his own and a pair of socks with a pattern of dinosaurs— a pack of underwear, a baby blue baseball tee, an organic lip balm shaped like an egg that made a satisfying pop upon opening, a stuffed dog with a slightly wonky eye, two cartons of almond milk—

Delighted that Bucky was being so indulgent with his self-care, Steve didn’t stop him until he reached for the Kit Kats at checkout. “Trust me,” Steve said, “you won’t need your own supply.”

As they navigated the series of halls and elevators back to the apartment, arms laden with shopping bags, Steve inquired, “Hey, when you were in hiding, who cut your hair? Did you do it, or did you pay someone?”

“I tried cutting it m-myself. Bad. I tried getting it cut. Bad. I liked the washing, they were gentle, but they h-held my head down.” Darkly, he added, “I gave that guy a big tip.”

“I bet,” Steve said, trying not to think about Bucky alone and scared and flashing back in a crowded salon.

“I want,” Bucky said, oil spill slick and sudden, surprising them both, then stopped. He set his shopping bags on the couch and stood utterly still in the center of the living room.

“What is it?” Steve asked, resisting the urge to add, boy? like Bucky was a Rough Collie warning him of a child in a well.

“W-Want,” Bucky said, voice cracking, skipping, then stopped. “S-S-Steve.” He grunted.

He brought his fist down on the meat of his thigh, not hard, but like he needed a grounding wire, a physical sensation to help collect himself. His face was blank; only his eyes betrayed how deeply it upset him not to have access to English.

“Take your time,” Steve said. “I’ll be here.”

After another few moments of silence, Bucky lit a match; language caught fire. “W-w-when we were k-kids,” he managed, “you cut my hair. Like your ma. Cut y-yours.” He stopped again, glaring at the floor. “Shit, slugger.”

“You want me to do that now?” Steve asked. His pulse had quickened at slugger; those words had not faltered like the others, and they were reminiscent of a lifetime ago, when two young men had swallowed the stars. Bucky was a mess of speech patterns, some from the 40’s, some from HYDRA, some entirely new. Each one made Steve ache in a different way. “You want me to cut your hair?”

Bucky wrenched his head in a quick, fierce nod.

“You trust me to do that?”

Without turning, Bucky swung his eyes sideways to Steve’s, lazy with disdain. The look said, You see another Steve around here? and, If you really have to ask, you’re a helluva lot more brainless than I thought.

Steve grinned. “Alright. I’ll see if I can find some clippers.”

“I don’t want to look like the Soldier,” Bucky said, later, when he was sitting in front of the bathroom mirror in their suite, fingers twisting in the hem of his new sleep shirt. His eyes flitted to his reflection, then away, as if burned. The stuffed dog was tucked under his arm; he’d refused to let go of it, though Steve hadn’t tried to take it. “And I don’t want to look like S-S- ergeant B-Barnes. I’m not either of them anymore. I’m something n-new. I want to look like me.”

“Okay,” Steve said. “You giving me full artistic freedom here?”

“Sure. Just don’t slit my throat,” he said, mouth quirking; a joke only he found funny.

Steve unlocked his Kimoyo card with a swipe of his thumb, pulled up a picture, memorized the shape of what he wanted, and set in. He broadcast every movement before he took it, careful not to cause undue distress— directing with gesture, not force.

Like he was painting, he disappeared into his work. His focus narrowed only to the shifting of his hands, the controlled measure of Bucky’s breath. He lost track of time in more ways than one. He could almost believe they were back in their Brooklyn apartment, but the silence— no jazz records playing in the bedroom, no chatter or traffic filtering up from the street, no litany of Barnes sisters backseat driving his every move— kept him grounded.

When he turned on the razor, the noise made them both flinch: Steve a little, Bucky a lot.

“Fine,” Bucky said, before Steve had a chance to remove the hairpins from between his teeth and ask. He forged on. Whorls of dark hair fell to the tile.

When he was finished, he balanced the clippers and pins on the sink basin and touched the top of Bucky’s shoulder. “You’re done, Buck.”

Bucky looked up. Overall, his hair was only a little shorter, ends above his shoulders, but it was much cleaner, smoother, with body and bounce and other beauty magazine buzzwords. One side fell in a soft wave over his brow. When he lifted a hunk of hair and turned, he could see the part that Steve had shaved: a neat strip of fuzz at his nape.

“I noticed you put it up sometimes,” Steve explained. “So I thought…”

“I like it,” Bucky said gravely. He gathered his hair away from his face, took the elastic from the bathroom counter, and tied a terrible, clumsy bun with his only hand. “Th-thank you, s-sweetheart.”

 

 

*

 

 

Life for Bucky was, and always would be, a blend of new and old experiences; the familiar and the decidedly alien.

He adjusted quickly to his Kimoyo card. He’d always been good with technology. He had an adaptable nature and a hunger for knowledge, and though Wakandan equipment was leagues above anything he’d seen at the Stark Expo, it was designed with accessibility in mind. He particularly appreciated emojis, given his language difficulties. He would have texted more often, but his social circle was limited to Steve, a little by necessity and a little by choice. That wasn’t so different from the 40’s.

It was the simpler tasks he struggled with.

Shaving wasn’t an issue, beyond the stray intrusive thought, and he was content to alternate his own clothes with Steve’s, but making meals for himself or doing anything for pleasure took a well of energy he couldn’t seem to tap into. He didn’t know what kind of books he liked, and television was completely overwhelming. He couldn’t even occupy himself with an endless stream of depression naps, because sleep came in fits and false starts.

A lot of days were passed staring at various walls around the apartment, waiting for the next appointed mealtime or checkup. That wasn’t so different from the 50’s. He wondered sometimes what Steve had woken him up for. He hated being cooped up, except when he was fiercely grateful for it, because it limited the circle of people his presence could poison. He hated that Steve was still included in that circle, except when he was fiercely grateful for it, because at least they could be toxic together.

He hated the small amount of life he was allowed, and the huge amount he was denied. He hated knowing that, at any moment, HYDRA could take even that from him.

And he hated that he needed help to start a shower.

“Temperature okay?” Steve asked.

Bucky stuck his arm under the spray. “G-good. Goldilocks.”

Steve dried his damp hands on his jeans, leaving palm-shaped patches on the baby blue fabric. “Towels under the sink. You got your clothes and your hair stuff. You okay on your own? Should I stay?”

“I g-got it,” Bucky said.

Steve looked dubious.

“I’ve seen a shower b-before, Steve. I ain’t gonna die if you l-leave me alone,” Bucky said, although he wasn’t entirely sure that was true.

“I know,” Steve said. “It’s just— Your arm.”

“Oh,” Bucky said, paleing. His shoulder was capped with a sleeve that would protect the frayed wires, but washing his hair, and the arm that was left, was an immense challenge with only one hand. So was undressing. Steve had already helped him with his sweatshirt, so that he now stood in his undershirt. But a shower wouldn’t do much good if he was clothed.

As much as he trusted Steve— with his life— Bucky wasn’t ready to be naked in front of him.

He barely handled his own reflection, and the thought of any response Steve might have to the body— even a favorable one, which was likely, considering Steve was a saint without a lick of sense— was too much. He’d had enough scrutiny for every lifetime.

“I g-got it,” Bucky repeated reluctantly. “If I need you, I’ll shout.”

Steve nodded, and left Bucky in the bathroom.

Taking his clothes off was exhausting, not least because it required direct acknowledgement of the body. Exertion left him winded, and he sat down hard on the toilet seat cover for a minute, before he made an executive decision that enough was enough, and stepped unsteadily into the shower.

The cherry blossom conditioner was good. The hot water was good. The body—

Was not so good.

Was in fact very fucking bad.

He remembered his handlers hosing him down— hands holding him under frigid water, laughter in his ear— He’s spooked by it. You see this? Like an animal—

Bucky wouldn’t think about that. He wouldn’t think about anything. He would just be.

He soaped, shampooed, rinsed. What function in combat does conditioner serve? None. He conditioned. Then, against protocol, he lingered, water beating at the tension points in his back, dripping down his face from his hair.

Another memory surfaced, not a full-body flash this time but an image with feelings connected— a public swimming pool, a boy on the edge of puberty. His hair was a silky seaweed crown, his lips sealed for oxygen, happiness huge in his eyes.

Bucky knew, intellectually, that it was him. He remembered moving his arms, watching his hair flow around him, remembered thinking, I’m a mermaid, in the silent privacy of the deep end where his father couldn’t hear it. But it didn’t seem probable. Possible, maybe, but not probable.

That boy who’d loved caramel turtles from the corner shop, who’d read pulps in between paper routes, who’d found joy in the simplest of moments— he was gone. He was buried. Something else had risen up in his place.

Bucky didn’t know what he was now. Man? Monster? Mainly, he was turning off the faucet.

He grabbed the towel from the counter, the big one at the bottom of the pile, all mint-condition and mint-colored and soft as anything.

Then he tried to step out of the tub.

There was a pop as he stretched his leg over the rim— a sharp pain from his pelvis that spiked up to his shoulder and his neck. He lost his balance, slipping forward. With a horrible awareness that he would smash his head open if he didn’t catch himself, he threw his good arm out. It banged hard on the edge of the sink, but a bruise was better than a brain injury.

He caught his breath, too, for a moment, braced on the counter, then lowered himself slowly to the floor, back against the tub.

“Oh, fuck,” he said, feeling dizzy. The pain in his arm concerned him more than the pain in his back. It was newer. “For f-fuck’s sake. Steve!”

“Buck?” Steve called, panic in his voice, and then he was beside Bucky on the floor, hand on his cheek. “Oh, God,” he said, his voice very small. He checked Bucky’s pupils, turning his chin from side to side. “What happened?”

“I f-fell, what’s it l-look like,” Bucky snapped, but he wasn’t angry at Steve, only ashamed that Steve had been right, that he shouldn’t have been left alone. “It’s fine, I’m fine, I didn’t hit my head. I g-got this— this thing— an issue from the arm, from all the extra weight. My hip d-dislocates sometimes. I just gotta pop it back.”

“Pop it back?” Steve said, horrified.

“It’s fine,” Bucky stressed. “Help me straighten out.”

“Okay. What—”

“On the floor. Need to be on my back.”

“Okay,” Steve said again. “Okay. Uh…”

Looking around, he snagged the smaller towel from the sink, and set it on the tile where Bucky’s head would rest. Bucky extended his arm, and together they moved him to the ground, so that he was flat on his back with his knees bent. He still clutched the towel around his waist, and Steve was careful to avoid any obvious assessment of the skin and scars that were visible, beyond a glance. Bucky was grateful.

Once he was on the floor, and had taken a slow breath, the muscles in his back and thighs slowly unwound. The joint— or maybe two— that had slid out of alignment settled into place with another harsh pop. His entire spine realigned— even his neck cracked. Bucky groaned softly.

“Better?” Steve asked, sitting next to him on the floor.

“B-Better,” Bucky said with relief. “G-Gimme a sec down here, then I’ll get d-dressed.”

Steve nodded. His own knees were drawn up to his chest, an unconscious solidarity. The bathroom was quiet.

Bucky breathed in and out, and willed his heart to stop hammering. He still felt shaky, and he was worried about the bruise on his arm. His hair dripped onto his shoulder, soaking the soft towel under his head.

Steve asked, “How long have you been dealing with this? Since the arm?”

“Since the arm,” Bucky confirmed. “It was heavy as all h-hell. My spine is fucked. If I move wrong or walk all day, it starts to slide around. Usually, I l-lay down and it fixes itself, but sometimes something gets l-locked up, or I try to sit up too f-fast and it pops again, and then I have to wait it out. It’s called. Uh. H-H-Hypermobility, I think. I had a h-heating pad in Bucharest. That helped.”

“Is it permanent?”

“S-so far. Even with the old arm gone, the damage is d-done.”

“That,” Steve said, “sucks.”

Bucky snorted. “And p-people say you’re too p-pretty to be smart. Help me up, champ, I gotta put some fuckin’ panties on. Can’t wander around the apartment in my b-b-birthday suit.”

“What will the neighbors think,” Steve said flatly.

Bucky grinned. He rolled onto his side and sat up, and Steve offered him his arm. They stood. Bucky braced himself against the sink again, making sure he was steady on his feet.

Steve averted his eyes as Bucky dried off. He put on underwear, undershirt, and sweatpants with pockets deep enough to conceal an armory. He combed the excess water out of his hair and pulled it into a ponytail as best he could, then tugged his panther hoodie back on. Even though he’d bought new threads— ones that were actually his— the hoodie was his favorite. It stank like cigarettes.

Steve, in a delicate show of preserving Bucky’s dignity, said, “Put on deodorant.”

“I only sweat out of one fucking armpit,” Bucky said, but he took the stick from Steve’s hand, because Steve liked it when he did personal hygiene.

“Okay, you’re showered. You’re dressed.” Steve checked his wristwatch. It was a delicate number, with a thin gold band, and he wore the face on the inside of his wrist, like Sarah had. Bucky liked that he still used a watch. His Kimoyo card could have easily displayed the time for him, but this old-fashioned way was a slice of home. “It’s only 10. What do you wanna do now?”

Bucky didn’t know. He couldn’t think of anything. For the past seventy years, his daily routine had been wake up, sequence, physical, shots, gear, mission brief, assignment of handler, k-k-kill some innocent people, return to base, mission debrief, gear in reverse, physical, drugs, b-b-back in the tank.

Freedom was so big. What did people do with all that time?

“I read to you while you were in Cryo,” Steve offered. “The Little Prince. I know you weren’t conscious, so you could start it from the beginning. Or, uh, I’ve been reading His Dark Materials on my own, this series about science and religion and love and morality. You’d probably like that.”

“D-Don’t wanna read,” Bucky said. “Hurts my eyes. Read some to me.”

“Yeah, okay,” Steve said, smiling. “I guess you get to make demands.”

They settled into opposite sides of the sofa. Bucky put his legs in Steve’s lap, and Steve propped the book on top.

“‘Once,’” he read aloud, “‘when I was six years old, I saw a magnificent picture…’”

 

 

*

 

 

Steve was busy in the kitchenette when Sam came over, making lunch with their newly acquired groceries. Bucky was still on the sofa, playing a stim game on his Kimoyo card. The point of the game was to sort progressive sequences of squares by color, switching them until they were in their proper order on the scheme. It was satisfying to watch them slot into place, and he was fast at it, fingers flying.

“Hey, Barnes,” Sam said, setting up shop on Steve’s side of the sofa. “What’s good?”

“Hello, bird,” Bucky replied, not looking up. “A lot, these days. The future has one-handed v-video games and ch-ch-chocolate milk substitute.”

“What, normal chocolate milk isn’t good enough for you?”

“Lactose intolerant,” Steve called from the kitchen. “Gluten, too. HYDRA.”

“How’d you find that out?”

“The fun way,” Bucky said.

Sam raised his eyebrows in a universal yikes gesture. “Guess I can toss my dessert recipes. Shame. I make a damn good blondie.”

“S-so did S-Sarah Rogers,” Bucky said. From the kitchen, Steve barked a laugh of alarm.

“When did you get funny?” Sam asked suspiciously.

“While you were g-gone.”

“Figures. I miss all the good stuff.”

“I invited you to Germany,” Steve pointed out over his shoulder.

“Yes, you did, and that fact that you consider that the good stuff makes me deeply concerned for you. Cap, you gotta get your kicks from something beyond actual kicks to supervillain faces. You ever been dancing?”

“Oh, my b-boy’s b-been dancing,” Bucky said. “I d-dragged him to every jazz club in Manhattan. The S-S-Savoy, Café Society — not the C-Cotton Club, I w-wasn’t even white enough for that place. Stevie hung in the back. L-Loved the music, though. Right, honey?”

Steve shrugged. “They’re considered classics of the genre now. True artists.”

“I snuck us into the Stork Club for five minutes once,” Bucky remarked.

Steve’s shoulders tensed. The knife hit the cutting board with a clatter. “Let’s not talk about the Stork Club,” he said sharply. After a minute, he turned toward Bucky, his face full of guilt. “Sorry.”

“N-no, I— I’m sorry,” Bucky said, confused and a little scared. “Did I say something w-wrong?”

No,” Steve said. “I just want... to avoid... that specific... It’s stupid. It’s nothing. It’s not you, Buck, I promise.”

“Okay,” Bucky said.

“I promise,” Steve repeated. “Uh… Lunch is ready.”

They ate at the counter. Steve and Sam had sandwiches, and Bucky had some kind of omelet, despite the time of day. Breakfast seemed mostly safe from his newfound food restrictions. Once the dishes were cleared, Steve excused himself to the bedroom to draw. He claimed he’d found a flower in his pocket he’d meant to paint, and neither Sam nor Bucky wanted to discourage the sole form of artistic expression Steve still allowed himself, so they let him go, and they were alone.

Bucky suspected Steve might have arranged it this way on purpose, to force him to make friends, so he turned back to his phone as a form of silent protest.

Sam wasn’t having it.

“You’re very Clark Gable today,” Sam said, distracting Bucky from his Kimoyo card. “Honey? I’m halfway to a cavity over here. When did you start calling him those cute little endearments?”

“1924.”

Sam did some quick arithmetic. “When you were seven? Are you kidding? You know I can’t always tell when you’re kidding. What, you walked around the rough and tumble streets of Prohibition era Brooklyn calling Captain America your little sugar plum?”

“Yes,” Bucky said. “W-why do you think. We were always getting into fights.”

“I assumed it was Steve’s fault.” Sam’s face burst into a grin. “Gotta give it to you, Barnes, you’re gutsy.”

“I got. Chutzpah," Bucky said. “Also, b-barely any self-preservation skills.”

Sam tried out a patented Bucky-snort. “Yeah, I’m aware.”

“I called everyone sweetheart back then,” Bucky said, struck by the recollection. “Dames, dates, sisters, Steves. W-when I was older, I understood better what happened to guys like me. Queers. I caught enough shit for being a Jew, didn’t need to make myself more c-conspicuous, though people still talked, Steve bein’ so pretty and always hangin’ off my arm. He became chief, champ, hotshot. H-hyper-m-masculine shit, so he didn’t have to feel so small. Slugger. Never sweetheart.”

Bucky knew he’d been a real charmer way back when, but using an epithet like babydoll for a sickly slip of a seventeen year old definitely would’ve gotten him a hard cuff around the back of his head in ‘35, and sugartits still did.

“I’ve never known Steve to be a pet-names kind of guy,” Sam commented. “He barely seems to like it when people call him Cap.”

Bucky shrugged one shoulder. “W-wouldn’t like it if you called me Soldier.”

“Of course not. That’s different.”

“It’s not,” Bucky said. “He died during an op, a decade later was extracted from the Arctic and t-t-told to kill things. Sure, you’re a kid and your head ain’t right and everyone you love is either dead or thinks you are, but you’re d-dangerous, on account of all the c-chemicals we pumped you full of, so now you gotta w-work for us or die. And just to make sure you feel like you never left the war, you’ll be constantly monitored and on-call for alien bullshit or Nazi bullshit or Nazi alien bullshit. Your b-body, your home, your day, even your f-f- friends, all belong to us. Welcome to the twenty-fucking-first century. Plus, SHIELD was c-compromised so whoever gave him his orders was probably HYDRA. The only difference between me and Steve is that Steve got to keep his arm.”

“Never really thought about it like that.” Sam frowned. “Hey, you’re shaking.”

Bucky looked down. The body was trembling violently. “I’m angry,” Bucky spit, digging his nails into his thigh to steady the tremor. “Steve deserves to be treated like a p-p- person. He’s not a f-f-fucking p-p-p-piece of meat.

“Whoa, no arguments here,” Sam said. “Take a breath. Slowly! No hyperventilating on my watch. That’s right. In... then out. Good job, you’re alive.”

“All I’m sayin’ is,” Bucky said, after a shuddering gulp of air, “someone’s gotta be f-fucking gentle with the guy. He’s a bigger mess than me.”

“Man, trust me,” Sam said, “I know.”

Bucky fixed his intense blue gaze on Sam, assessing him right down to his bird bones. Sam raised an eyebrow back in easy defiance. He had a sweet face even when he stood his ground, his mouth perpetually one word away from bursting into a smile.

“You do know, don’t you?” Bucky said finally. “You’re the new me.”

Being the emotional go-between for a pair of mutually head-over-heels historical war heroes was not in either of Sam’s job descriptions, but he still said, “Come on, Steve hasn’t replaced you. I don’t think anyone else could touch the supersoldier-shaped sinkhole in his life. I certainly wouldn’t be the man for it.”

“W-why the fuck not?” Bucky demanded. “He needs you. You’re there for him. You k-keep him out of danger. Or you t-try, since he’s a damn homing pigeon for trouble. When he aims to get himself killed, you f-fight like hell by his side. You cover his stupid, self-sacrif-f-ficing, j-juicy, stars-and-stripes ass, Wilson, or you die trying. You do everything I used to, except throw him up against walls and k-kiss on him.”

“Well,” Sam said, rubbing the back of his neck. “There may have been one or two times…”

“Hard to say no to that g-gorgeous face.”

“I know,” Sam effused. “He has those eyes, and he turns his whole focus on you like he’s honestly interested in every one of your stupid stories.”

“I meant you,” Bucky said, just to watch Sam startle. “Anyway, ‘ppreciate it. You taking my place. Can’t trust myself. Might get confused and turn on him.” He tapped the side of his head with his forefinger. “Try to rip his small intestine out through his teeth when I’m ‘spposed to be protecting him.”

“That’s… graphic.”

“I’m a real fucked up guy, bird,” Bucky said conversationally. Somewhere along the way, his speech had become steadier, slipping into Brooklyn, more like the JB Barnes Sam had learned about in school.

“You really think you’d do that?” Sam asked, some of his VA mannerisms materializing: the soft NPR-style voice, the coaxing of information by talking around it. Two could play at situational dialects.

“No,” Bucky said, lower, letting his hair fall across his face. He was losing the brief past life of his confidence. “Yes. I don’t know. I’d never k-kill him. Couldn’t go through with my m-m-mission when the Nazis had it d-drilled into my head, and I wish I wasn’t being literal. But I hurt him. I’d die before I did it again. P-put one right between the eyes.”

“Hey, killing yourself or someone else is what you’re here to prevent,” Sam said. “This is a no-murder zone. You guys have a plan yet? For dealing with the activation words?”

Bucky pulled a face. “Steve wants me to go to therapy.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“I don’t like doctors.

“No one likes doctors,” Sam said, unfazed. “I don’t like doctors, and I was a paramedic. And a counselor.”

“What are you now?”

Sam shrugged. “Still figuring it out.”

“M-me too.”

“Look, I know the last time you saw a psychiatrist, he made you a zombie, but it doesn’t have to be like that. This time would be real, for one thing. And talking to someone, getting a fresh perspective on your thoughts, that can be good. It clarifies stuff you can’t on your own.”

“I’m not on my own,” Bucky said.

“Then act like it. You definitely need someone to address that suicide pact you’ve apparently made with yourself, and it’s not gonna be me. I’m just here for the food.”

“Steve can’t cook. You saw his omelet. He’s b-burned chicken soup, the big goy.”

Sam laughed. After a beat, he gave Bucky an appraising look, almost satisfied. “You’re having a good day today, huh?”

Bucky blinked. “I… guess.”

“Your stammer’s not so bad,” Sam pointed out. “You’re remembering stuff about the past, sharing it. Earlier, you asserted that you deserve kindness, and no one had to wring it out of you like a giant grumpy washcloth. That’s a good day, man. You should be proud.”

Bucky frowned. “Okay,” he said, and went back to his color-matching game.

Sam watched the process over his shoulder, passively interested. “Move that blue below the other one, it’s darker.”

“I know."

“Okay, hey, since you’re so wise and on top of it today, are you and Steve— like—” Sam raised his eyebrows meaningfully. “You know.”

“Am I g-g-gay for Captain America?” Bucky clarified.

“No, I know you’re gay for Captain America, and he’s gay— or bi— or whatever— for you. You and Steve invented the ‘it’s complicated’ status on Facebook. You are the tragic love story of the century. I’m asking if you’ve had an actual conversation about it. Set boundaries? Come up with a safe word? Anything?”

A green light appeared on the screen of Bucky’s Kimoyo card, saving him from a convoluted and compromising answer that Sam would immediately reduce to no, and obscuring the color match he’d made. Accompanying text said, Call from: Unknown. Suggested Contact - Zahra Baba.

“Uh,” Bucky said, extending the card away from him. The green light was flashing. “Uh!”

“What’s the issue?” Sam asked.

“Someone,” Bucky said, “is calling me.”

“So... answer?”

Bucky looked hard at the flashing light, as if he could will it out of being. “I don’t. Know. How.”

Sam unsuccessfully attempted to suppress his delight that a traumatized war hero-criminal born before the invention of the hair dryer did not know how to answer a phone call.

Bucky was typically savvy with technology, but Wakanda’s reputation for advancement so far beyond the rest of the world intimidated him. He hadn’t used the device for anything other than the game app.

Now he was panicking. He didn’t want to let Zahra, no doubt calling with important information, slip away, but he dreaded equally the possibility of picking up. As much as he loved talking, he hated talking on the phone. He couldn’t see the other person, and they couldn’t see him. Facial expressions were lost. Nuance took a hike. It made him nervous, and when he was nervous, his stutter—

“W-Wilson, stop f-f-fucking g-grinning and h-help me,” Bucky said. “It’s gonna go to v-voicemail.”

Sam reached over the table and pressed the big button.

“Are you fucking kidding, it’s that simple,” Bucky said.

“Excuse me?” Zahra replied.

“S-Sorry. Hi, Dr. Zahra,” Bucky said, embarrassed. “W-What c-can I d-do for you?”

“We have a preliminary prototype of your replacement prosthetic ready. I’d like you to come down to the lab to discuss it. Can you be here in twenty minutes?”

 

 

*

 

 

In the lab, it was quiet. A handful of the more introverted techs still occupied their desks, preferring takeout and television streaming services to braving the streets of Birnin Zana during the lunch rush. Verah was among them, and sent Bucky a little wave as he walked in.

He found Zahra at their desk. It was spare, save for an aloe vera plant, a Newton’s cradle, and a photograph of a young girl— and the crown princess of Wakanda, who was sitting cross-legged on top of it, clad in a Sailor Moon crop top.

“Sergeant Barnes,” Princess Shuri greeted him.

“Bucky, p-please, your Highness.”

“Shuri, then,” she said. “I insist.”

“And I am still Zahra,” Zahra put in, impatient. “Pull up a chair and we can begin.”

Bucky swiped a stool from a neighboring workstation. From her Kimoyo tablet, Shuri projected a series of schematics between them, showing scans of Bucky’s spine, shoulder muscles, star-clusters of nerves. She swiped to a particular slide: the holographic design of a new cybernetic arm, as silver and unsparing as the last.

Bucky whistled. “There it is.”

“There it is,” Zahra agreed.

Bucky’s leg bumped up and down. Being in the presence of a well-designed project made him feel like a kid in school, eager to take it apart and understand how it worked. “What’s new?”

“For starters,” Shuri said, “this version is coated in vibranium. It’s indestructible, matched only by other vibrarium tools, like my brother’s claws. And it’s lighter.”

“No more lying on the ground to realign my back?” Bucky asked hopefully.

“Given the sheer volume of surgeries and repairs you’ve received, it’s likely you will always experience joint trouble,” Zahra answered, apologetic. “Your scapula, shoulder joint, and spine were reinforced or replaced to accommodate the weight of the original. But there should be less strain overall. We cannot reverse the pain, but we can avoid adding to it.”

Less lying on the ground,” Bucky revised. “Still good.” He pointed to the file name above the hologram: Ingelosi Ingalo. “What’s that m-mean?”

Shuri’s smile lit up the room. “Angel Hand. It will bring blessings or death at your discretion.”

Bucky hoped it would be blessings, but couldn’t yet imagine anything but death. “Sounds p-p-pretty badass. Is it ready?”

“The prototype itself is complete.” Zahra paused. “The complication lies in attaching it.”

Shuri hopped down from the table and over to Bucky, rocking on her heels. “The finesse of your last prosthetic was fantastic. You were able to manipulate delicate objects and kick ass in combat. The tactile response— could you feel?”

“Hurt like Hell when it got destroyed.”

“It was integrated with your nervous system,” Shuri agreed. “My question is, how much. Was there temperature? Touch?”

“No temperature,” Bucky said. “No texture. Could d-distinguish rifle components in the dark, but that was by shape, not quality. It wasn’t like skin. I was t-trained to recognize input.”

“Your cybernetics were cutting edge. I don’t say that lightly. Wakanda has contributed extensively to the advancement of bionics, thanks to me. This was better. Better than the arm you had amputated, better than most of the equipment in this building.” A swirl of wounded pride passed across Shuri’s face, but excitement existed there, too. “It was… beautiful.”

Bucky touched the empty sleeve of his shirt. When he thought of the original metal arm, he barely thought of it as his . He certainly didn’t think of it as scientific progress, or a dormant Nobel Prize for a dead Nazi sympathizer. Considering it had killed Howard Stark, and probably John F. Kennedy, it was actively responsible for the destruction of potential. It had not helped the advancement of the human race; it had stopped a lot of lives in their tracks. It had exactly as much benefit to humanity as a gun. He had never described it as beautiful.

He didn’t voice any of this. He simply said, “You’re hard people to surprise.”

“And harder to satisfy,” Shuri agreed. “I could not believe that a Western scientist, working in what amounted to a technological Stone Age, would have the mind, or the means, for feat of engineering so— magnificent. Not alone.”

Shuri scribbled something in the margins of her tablet, blocky and precise. A video appeared in place of her schematics, and played without sound. In questionable directing of a phone camera, a hulking metal monster battled against a man of superhuman brawn. Bucky had seen the man before, but couldn’t call up a name, since he sometimes forgot his own; Steve’s various weird work contacts ranked low on his priority list.

“Footage from an incident in Puente Antiguo, New Mexico in 2011,” Shuri explained. “HYDRA cannibalized knowledge from every culture it could— including those beyond Earth. This is Asgardian in origin. It has superhuman strength, discharge of electromagnetic disturbance, and advanced retrograde positioning. Its plating is fully articulate, and can rearrange and readjust. It can twist! It can grasp! It can test the ripeness of fruit. It can crush a car door.”

Bucky stared at the screen. “My arm was made of that?”

“Your arm was made of a steel and titanium alloy blend,” Shuri corrected, “which is terrible. If only they could have come to me! But I wasn’t born yet, so they did their best. Your arm was built to mimic that, and attached to you via the Tesseract.”

“It was even more alien to your system than we thought.” Zahra smirked; a little scientist joke.

“Can you replicate it?”

Shuri scoffed. “Of course. How do you feel about your telekinetic friend?”

“Maximoff?”

“Yes. I believe the Scarlet Witch could copy the effects of the Tesseract, allowing us to bind this prototype to your brain, like the last. The level of sensory ability, and speed with which it responded to your neural commands, would remain the same— no surgery required.”

Bucky was silent. He wanted to like Wanda. She was young, and well-meaning, and struggling with similar demons. But, through no fault of her own, the incredibly invasive nature of her power continued to be posed as the solution to his problems, instead of his purest nightmare.

Shuri turned off her tablet. “We could do it the old fashioned way. Myoelectrics. Electrodes implanted in the chest tissue. As I said, Wakanda is revolutionary in the field.”

“But this way would be better,” Bucky said.

“This way would be better,” Shuri confirmed. "Faster, simpler, and definitely cooler."

Bucky knew he should say something reassuring; tell them that he would go through with the procedure, even if it meant giving up the minuscule shred of control he’d managed to obtain over his own mind.

“There is… one more component to consider,” Zahra said.

Bucky looked up.

Zahra was hesitating. A lack of surety was a strange expression to see on them. “As it stands now, you are without the prosthetic arm you’ve possessed for decades. It… Well, to be frank, Mr. Barnes, it has, in that period of time, primarily been used for acts of war and psychological horror. It has brought you suffering, and branded you worldwide as a terrorist. It is singularly conspicuous. While Mr. Stark’s destruction of it was undoubtedly traumatic, perhaps it has also afforded you an opportunity.”

Shuri nodded, as if she’d known this was coming, as if they’d discussed it behind his back. “I could design a different prosthetic. Something simple, functional, indistinguishable from your skin. You could pass for any other veteran on the street. You could leave the Winter Soldier behind.”

Bucky thought about his metal hand, wrapped tight around Steve’s pale throat in the Helicarrier. He thought about it writing in his journals. Shattering a femur. Stroking the sleek fur of a well-fed alley cat. Exchanging a few coins for a bag of chocolate malt balls. Holding a knife. Holding a gun. Holding a child.

He thought about freedom. He thought about anonymity. He thought about identity.

After a while, Zahra said, “You can take some time to consider the offer. We’ll be here.”

“No,” Bucky said. “Thank you, but I want to keep it. The arm. For better. Or for worse. It’s p-part of me. I’ve left enough behind. It’s time I take something along.”

 

*

 

Wanda’s apartment was on the fifteenth floor.

It was structured similarly to Steve’s, but stepping into it felt different. Bucky often wandered Steve’s suite, wondering what he’d touched, what he’d used— if his hand brushed the back of a chair, if his lips pressed to the rim of a glass.

Here the evidence of Wanda’s existence didn’t need to be hunted for. There were books on the coffee table, burdened with notations; a soft, slinky afghan thrown over the back of the couch; pots and pans with cherry-colored bodies, and a china cup with a chipped rim on the kitchen counter. Something aromatic was cooling on the stove.

It felt, despite everything, like the hopeful beginnings of a home.

“I found a secondhand shop in Birnin Zana,” Wanda said, watching him catalogue his surroundings. “It sells furniture and clothes. I could show it to you.”

“Someday,” Bucky said, half-turning towards her, unable to meet her eye. “I am… запрещенный. Can’t leave.”

“You speak Russian. Do you speak Sokovian? It is similar.”

“I don’t know Sokovian. Sometimes I don’t know Russian.”

“You know it today,” Wanda said. “Were you trying to make me more comfortable by using it?”

“Yes,” Bucky admitted.

“That is a good strategy,” Wanda said. “But we will speak English if it’s easier. I’m sorry you are confined. I know the feeling well.”

Bucky hovered uncomfortably in the middle of her living room, holding his loose left sleeve like a talisman, a reminder of why he came here like a devil to disturb her peace— to ask her to do again what she, like him, was designed to do. He shot for light-hearted, but it sounded like a statement of fact: “HYDRA, huh?”

Wanda shrugged one shoulder. She folded herself further into her silk cardigan, a sheer red garment like a cascade of blood over her Against Me! shirt. “HYDRA.”

“I wish it made me trust you more,” Bucky said. “What we’ve been through.”

“There is no we,” Wanda sighed. “Each of us endured our personal Hell, and no other. Each of us were victims, and villains, and will never know where the other lies now. So it makes you trust me less, because you know what I am capable of. It is the same way with Natasha.”

Natasha

He remembered—

Red hair in his hands, a gun shot, a shot of brandy, gunpowder and fire— not the chair not the chair not the chair— A mouth on his mouth, a knife at his throat, a bruise blooming hard on his hip where he was slammed against— If you kill this man, we won’t take her fingers

Compliance will be

Cold. Coppery taste on the teeth. Blood on the tongue. Violence and love— hard, hungry love, touch-starved lion love, the attachment of people who don’t have anything, who are barely people, who are broken. It was the asset. It should not feel this. Can you make the jewel of the Red Room cry? Yes, sir— A scream to curdle cow’s milk— Don’t hurt her, don’t hurt her, oh my God, she’s a kid, she’s twelve, she’s twenty one

The whole body was shaking. The whole body was on the ground, in the ground, in the grave. Its head was heavy. It hurt like howling. Soldat, do you copy?

The Soldier said, “我的处理程序在哪里? M-M-M-Malf-f-f-f— разрушение неизбежно. I’ll f-f-fucking kill you, you s-s-s-sons of bitches—”

A woman — Handler? Insufficient intelligence said, “стоять вниз, солдат. вы не работаете неправильно.”

The Soldier snapped to attention, flat on the floor. Blood pounded uselessly against the metal shoulder. The weapon was gone. Why was the weapon gone? Had they listened? Maim me instead, I can take it—

“I am here, Bucky. You are safe. Stay in the present. Stay with me. You are having a flashback. It is not real. Stay with me. If you stay with me, I will make you a cup of tea.”

A tear rolled down its cheek. “Ich fürchte. Ich fürchte.”

“It’s okay to be scared,” Wanda soothed. “There is nothing to be afraid of here. You are safe. Natasha is safe, too. She is miles away. No one gets to her without permission.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Bucky said, and the body rolled over and gagged into the rug. Nothing came up. He'd forgotten how bad it could be, to be hit with some new horror.

It wasn’t the only thing he’d forgotten.

“I left her,” he said hoarsely, spitting out a stray carpet fiber. “Nat. I left her there. With them.”

“Don’t think about that now,” Wanda said. “She is not there anymore. None of us are there. Can you sit up? Your body is your own, and you can use it. Sit up, Bucky.”

He pushed away from the floor with his good arm, and took an unsteady step towards the sofa. He slumped onto it. He closed his eyes. His head was splitting in two— Cut one head off and—

He’d trained her to use a garrote. He’d kissed the nape of her neck, where her necklace closed. He’d lined her up in his scope. He’d never known all of her faces at once, but he could see them now: protege, partner, enemy. Recurring; never retained.

How could he have forgotten her? Any version of her, as any version of him?

You could at least recognize me—

After a moment, he felt the cushion sink with Wanda’s weight. She draped the slinky afghan around his shoulders. “Are you alright?”

Bucky opened his eyes. He touched his temple, then the indentation under his nose; his fingers came away clean. F-f-first time for everything, huh? He pressed a hand to his hip. The bruise was not there. No injuries had been sustained.

He said, “I will be.”

“Does this happen to you often?”

“Often enough. Th-th-thank you. For the blanket. And f-for. Not using your powers.”

“It was not what you needed.” She wouldn’t look at him. “I will get you that cup of tea.”

“Hey, wait,” he said before she could move away, ducking his head so that they were at equal eye level. “Hey. You were a f-f-fuckin’ champ. You handled that exactly right. I can be a real p-piece of work. Scary motherf-fucker. I didn’t hurt you, did I? Christ, you’re just some kid. I’m s-sorry if I s-scared you, sweetheart.”

“I’m tougher than I look.”

“It’s not about tough,” Bucky said. “Tough means you k-k-keep going through the pain. Doesn’t mean you don’t feel it.” He frowned. Another memory had surfaced alongside Natasha’s. “I had a sister. She was like that. This tiny— this pits’l, must’ve been twelve last time I saw her. Sweet. Stubborn as a mule. She could talk a pair of pants onto a flagpole, and off again. P-p-precocious little shit. Always bothering me for a new book.”

“I had a brother,” Wanda confessed. “A twin.”

“Was he trouble, too?”

Wanda laughed, a sharp, choked-up sound. She curled over and pressed her fist into her stomach, to staunch a wound only she could see. “Like you would not believe.”

“He’s dead, huh?” Bucky said. “My baby girl is. Green-Wood. I looked it up. Rebecca Barnes. She was gonna be an archaeologist. Discover some new skeleton or something. Ch-ch-change the world. Maybe she did.”

“Maybe she did. Pietro did. For me.”

“I used to be J-Jewish,” Bucky said abruptly. “Before they took that from me too. I used to help my s-sisters memorize the Sh’ma every night. We had to be real quiet, ‘cause my d-dad, he didn’t like that stuff. Christ— Rivka, her hands were so small. I remember Stevie teaching me about saints, my Ma teaching me about tzedakah. I remember swimming into consciousness when HYDRA was sawing my arm off. I wanted to say the Viduy or the Sh’ma, but I knew if they discovered what I was their c-cruelty would be worse. So I kept silent. Maybe that’s why I’m still here. I wasn’t forgiven for my sins. My soul. Couldn’t move on.” A complicated expression crossed his face: grief, agony, anger. “I was a Jew. I worked for Nazis.”

Wanda placed her hand over his, quickly enough that he didn’t have time to flinch from it. Her skin was cool, her fingers slender, her rings a comforting weight. She was right, earlier, when she said Bucky had seen what those hands were capable of— leveling buildings, moving mountains, ripping men apart. Now her touch was gentle, taking extra care not to hurt him. She knew her strength in battle, and did everything she could to make others forget, outside of it.

“I understand,” she said, and when Bucky looked at her, he knew that she did. “You don’t know if HaShem can forgive you for the things you have done.”

Something in Bucky came alive at the sound of The Name. It had been so long since he’d heard it. “To destroy one l-life is to destroy the w-world,” he began.

“To save one life is to save the world,” Wanda finished.

“I destroyed a lot of lives,” Bucky said.

“You saved Steve’s.”

Bucky couldn’t respond. That truth wasn’t just too close to home; it was all he had of home. “I haven’t been to shul in s-seventy years. The only prayer I can recite is the shehecheyanu. I d-don’t think I’m allowed anymore.”

“Bucky,” Wanda said, but it was clearly wrong as soon as she did— the name felt too familiar, too informal and childish for such a lilting, regal voice, a conversation between them and their G-d.

“Yakov,” Bucky said, remembering it in a flash. “My Hebrew name. Is Yakov. Jacob. James. Jesus, I got a lot of names.”

“Yakov,” Wanda said with relief, renewed by the rightness of the syllables. “If there is any prayer you have a right to, in this unfamiliar country in this unfamiliar time, finally surrounded by people who love you after years of pain, it is the thanks for reaching this moment— the blessing for firsts.”

Bucky nodded. “We’ll say it together.”

“I’d like that.”

“I know you can t-t-take care of yourself,” Bucky told her. “But you have people who love you, too. You don’t have to do everything alone.”

Wanda smiled; a real smile, if a little one. Her lipstick was honey-colored. “Hypocrite.”

Bucky barked a laugh, and scrubbed a hand over his face. He needed a shave. “Yeah, I k-know. I came here to change that. I n-need your help.”

“Whatever it is,” Wanda said, “I am willing. We are disturbed Jews in the diaspora. We have the same enemy. We stick together.”

“Disturbed in the diaspora,” Bucky repeated. “Good band name.”

Wanda raised her dark brows. “After we have said the shehecheyanu, and I have made you a cup of tea, and you have told me what you need my help with… then I will introduce you to punk music.”

 

*

 

Bucky returned to his and Steve’s apartment that afternoon with a playlist from Wanda and the promise of her help in attaching his new arm. Sam was there, reading cross-legged on the carpet in front of the couch.

“D-did you ever l-leave?”

“Can’t get rid of me, dude, don’t try,” Sam said.

“I’m not t-trying,” Bucky said, settling into his customary corner of the sofa. He bumped the back of Sam’s head with his knee, semi-accidentally. “Where’s Steve?”

“Here,” Steve called, coming out of the bedroom. “How did it go with Dr. Zahra?”

“We have a f-f-follow-up for Tuesday. Arm looks good. W-Wanda’s g-gonna magic it on, I t-talked to her.”

“Oh!” Steve said, surprised. “That’s great.”

Bucky nodded. While Steve wandered over to the kitchen for a snack, Bucky pulled up the playlist Wanda had made for him on his Kimoyo card. He listened to exactly two minutes of Neutral Milk Hotel. There are some lives you live, and some you leave behind; it gets hard to explain.

He removed one earbud, and announced to the room, “I like this song.” Then he put the earbud back in and listened to the last minute and thirteen seconds.

“Your boyfriend is weird,” Sam said to Steve.

“Yeah, I know,” Steve said lovingly.

 

*

 

On Tuesday, in the lab, Bucky lay on his back on a cold table. The Angel Hand lay beside him. He breathed through his teeth, and tried not to remember the last time he woke up with a new arm. The watery light of the underground facility, the penny-scent of his own blood, the doctors saying, Don’t waste anesthesia, the pain will put him under anyway

Wanda curled her hand over his shoulder, a grounding comfort. “You’re here. You’re safe. This will not hurt.”

Bucky tensed. “Are you in my h-head already?”

“Not yet,” Wanda assured. “And when I am, I will not pry.”

“It will be alright,” Shuri said from his other side. "I swear."

Wanda placed her other palm on the Angel Hand. Prisms of red light flared out from her fingers, bathing Bucky and the prototype.

Magic buzzed beneath his skin. Memories bubbled to the surface, but Bucky held them down, held his breath, held Shuri’s hand, small and smooth in his. He swore he could feel the neural pathways knitting together. His left side came alive, and pain blossomed where the connection to his last prosthetic had been severed, and then pain was replaced by pressure and relief— a stability, a balance. Like popping a joint back into place.

And then it was over.

He opened his eyes. He half-expected to see Arnim Zola’s pinched smile, promising a future of procedures and power abuses, but the only scientist present was the princess— and her smile was sweet.

“You did well,” Shuri said. “You both did well. Take a look!”

Bucky held his left arm out in front of him. He told the hand— his hand— to open, to flip over, to make a fist, and it obeyed.

“How does it feel?” Shuri asked.

“Good,” Bucky answered. “Natural.”

“I’m glad,” Shuri said, hands on her hips. “But this is just a prototype. Any improvements you can think of—”

“Snack dispenser,” Bucky said.

Shuri let out a sharp laugh. “I like your brain! It’s a shame you won’t let me make improvements to that.”

“Not your job, kid,” Bucky said. “M-Mine. Unfortunately.” Turning his head toward Wanda, he said, softly, “Thanks.”

“My pleasure.” Wanda squeezed his shoulder, now attached to the silver arm. On her way out, she passed Verah, who was advancing on Bucky with as much resolve as the other day.

Bucky sat up. “Here for m-more blood?”

“Oh, nothing so awful!” Verah waved the circle of colorful threads she held in her hand. “I brought you a friendship bracelet. To celebrate your new arm. May I?”

Bucky nodded, taken aback. Verah leaned in and double-knotted the woven bracelet around his wrist. “You can wear it until it falls off,” she said. “Or not at all. But I liked making it for you.”

Bucky looked at the bracelet. Threads of blue and black formed a diamond pattern. Against the silver of his arm, it looked pretty. “Thank you,” he said, touched. “But. Why?”

“I liked making it for you,” she repeated. “I like you. And… your arm doesn’t have to be a weapon. It can just be an arm. I thought it might be nice to have a reminder of that.”

Bucky didn’t weep anymore, but he felt something close to it welling in his chest. “Thank you,” he said again.

At her desk, already occupied by another project, Shuri called, “No crying in my lab!”

That evening, Steve found Bucky in front of the bathroom mirror. He watched from the doorway as Bucky turned this way and that, inspecting his new arm. It looked largely like the last, except— “You okay?”

“Yeah. It’s just…” He touched the cap of his shoulder, where the red mark of HYDRA had once lived. “It’s m-missing something.”

Steve braced his own arm against the wall, and smiled. “Want some ink?”

They settled on the floor of the living room. Bucky’s back was against the couch, Steve hunched over his prosthetic with a paintbrush and a vibranium knife, their best approximation of a tattoo gun for an unorthodox canvas. Someone in the lab could have supplied them with something superior, but Bucky wanted it this way, his breath and Steve’s steady hand, carving a new shape.

“Steve,” Bucky started.

Steve looked up, tongue between his teeth. He had a smudge of cobalt along his cheekbone. Bucky felt a little pang of love for the slender boy he used to be. His hand twitched toward Steve’s knee. Muscle memory.

“I’ve been th-thinking,” Bucky said. “About the c-code w-words. And about. Not doing things alone. I’ve decided. I will go. To therapy. But,” he added meaningfully, before Steve could light up about it. “I have. A condition.”

Steve schooled his expression neutral. “Okay. Shoot.”

“You,” Bucky said, accusing. “You have to talk to someone. Maybe not a p-professional. Maybe a f-friend. Maybe Sam, if he’ll have you. But I won’t go if you don’t.”

“What? Why? I’m fine.”

“You. Are not. Fine. I sleep. On your floor. I’ve heard. Your screams. I am not the only one with shit. So f-find a shovel, Rogers, or we can b-b-both drown in the stuff.”

They stared hard at each other. Steve’s brush was still poised above Bucky’s shoulder, waiting.

“You’re not giving me much of a choice.”

“Th-th-that’s the idea. This is the M-Mexican standoff of m-mental health.” Boldly, Bucky added, “Or were you l-lying when you said you were with me?”

Steve grit his teeth. “I forgot you fight filthy.”

“Use w-whatever’s around,” Bucky said. “I learned that from you.”

Bucky glanced down to admire Steve’s work. His arm again carried a star, this one in striking blue. It wasn’t the symbol of Sergeant Barnes; it wasn’t the symbol of the Soldier. It was something new.

And still him.

Chapter Text

ii.

Noluvo’s paisley shirt was terrible in two respects: it was difficult to look directly at, and it was struggling to contain her massive, muscular arms. Bucky, having put his wardrobe through similar trials, felt some sympathy for its buttons.

As soon as he was through the door, she asked, “Do you prefer James, or Buchanan?”

“Bucky, ma’am,” said Bucky.

“I’m Noluvo,” said Noluvo. She cut an imposing figure, tall even while sitting with one strong calf tucked beneath her. Her voice had a gravel to it that he found unusual, but not unpleasant. She reminded him of Hercules, if Hercules had salt and pepper hair and one eye that didn’t work. “It means opinion , and I have many. But I will not judge you unfairly. This is a place of honesty and healing. Please, make yourself comfortable.”

Bucky hovered by a trio of unlit lavender candles. “W-w-would you mind if I ch-checked the place out?”

“Make yourself comfortable,” Noluvo repeated. “Not me.”

With relief, Bucky circled the room. He located the exit, clocked the solitary window, gauged how many stories he’d have to scale to escape and came up satisfied with the answer— only three before he could reach the next roof. He swept the bookshelves for bugs, nudging aside psychiatric volumes in a multiplicity of languages. The pads of his fingers came away with a new coat of dust. Finally, he took the chair opposite Noluvo.

“Good afternoon,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“I think you’re the first p-p-person to say that to me and mean it since 1945,” Bucky replied. Closer now in vantage point, he was struck by the waves of waxy scars that bisected Noluvo’s eyebrow and the bridge of her nose, turning her left pupil to milk. His fingers drifted absent-mindedly to the juncture of his shoulder, where identical tendrils of tissue lay beneath his shirt. “How m-much do you know about me?”

“Basics. I have your file here,” Noluvo said, pulling up a document on her Kimoyo bead bracelet. “You exhibit common symptoms of complex post traumatic stress disorder, including episodes of disorientation and depersonalization. Your difficulties with speech, the stutter and the apraxia— that’s the monotone and unusual pausing— may be evidence of a progressive neurological disorder. Likely a product of the unsound medical practices used to suppress your memory.”

“Or. A product. Of. My f-f-flawless comedic t-timing. Doc.”

Noluvo powered down the display and leveled him with a look. “Are you doing that on purpose?”

“Yes,” Bucky said. “And no. S-sorry. St-st-stutter gets w-worse when I’m nervous.”

“Can I soothe that somehow?”

Bucky shook his head. “Just s-skittish around doctors. They’re always asking questions, saying hm, w-writing about you in n-notebooks, slicing you up to see how f-fast your skin knits back together. No offense meant.”

“None taken. I will not slice you up.” Noluvo uncrossed her legs and crossed them the opposite way, right under left, readjusting for comfort; she certainly looked more at ease than Bucky. “Do you want to know what I was doing at your age?”

“Beggin’ your p-pardon, ma’am,” Bucky said, “but you’ve never been my age.”

Noluvo’s lips twitched into a smile. “I was training to be Dora Milaje. Bodyguard to the king.”

The defensive tension bled from Bucky’s shoulders. “You were a soldier.”

“Yes,” Noluvo said. “And no. I was injured before I could complete my course.”

Bucky’s gaze flitted again to the havoc of scar tissue across her face. “What h-h-happened?”

“Another applicant and I were paired on a wilderness survival mission. We were dropped in the center of the jungle and told to find our way out within three days. We had emergency flares with us, in case we did not succeed. On the third morning, my partner panicked. She set off a flare. It ignited, but the projectile jammed, and it left her hands too slowly. I was caught in the blast. Blinded completely in one eye.”

“I’m s-s-sorry.”

Noluvo breathed deeply; her telling was steady, but her story was difficult. “What good is a guard if her center of balance is off? If she cannot see attackers to her left, let alone judge how close they are to the person she is meant to protect? If she cannot fly a plane, or drive a car? If she walks with a lean? That is how a warrior becomes a liability. My options in life were no longer sword or spear. They were artificial eye, or keep the original.”

Again, Bucky touched his arm. “What. Did you do?”

“I recovered,” Noluvo answered. “I found a new path. My injury made me compassionate, made me understand that everyone has a struggle. My training in specialised combat and my time in the opposite chair give me a unique perspective in facilitating trauma recovery. I take on cases that, like yours, are unusual. Unparalleled. Outside the range of most professionals. Many of my clients are Dora Milaje.” She smiled, a peek of teeth. “Once, I was beside them. Now, I am behind them. Either way, we fight the hard battles.”

“No,” Bucky said. “I mean. What. Did you do. About your p-partner.”

“Oh,” Noluvo said. “I forgave her.”

“W-why?”

“She was scared.” Noluvo tapped her fingers against her knee. The orange lacquer on her nails was chipped and bitten-at. “You can’t blame someone for being scared. I don’t blame you for being scared of me. But I ask— Do not think of me as a doctor. Think of me instead as a sister in arms. I have your back. I am here for you . Not for your skills, or your cybernetics, or the arbitrary diagnostic line by which you are judged to be healthy or unhealthy. For your mental and spiritual well-being, in whatever form it takes. Comfort and safety in your relationships, in your body, in the outside world.”

“Gonna be a lot of work,” Bucky said, matter-of-factly. “I’m p-pretty fucked up.”

“On the contrary,” Noluvo said, equally matter-of-factly. “Your hypervigilance and persecutory paranoia stem from constant threats to your person for the past seven decades. They are not delusions. The danger was, and may still be, very real. You are having the healthiest possible response to the extreme experiences you have survived. You appear to be resilient, resourceful, and capable of making conscious decisions about your needs. Under the circumstances, I’d say you’re doing great.”

Bucky twisted at the waist to check if there was somebody behind him. “You t-talking to me?”

The corner of Noluvo’s mouth twitched upward. “Yes, Bucky.”

Bucky processed this. “Huh.”

“In fact,” Noluvo continued, “you made a conscious decision about your needs very recently. You decided to come here. I understand our immediate purpose—  he activation phrases must go. We will work through the layers of conditioning and help you to form mental defenses against them. Assuming it is purely psychological, no magic or tech involved, they should be as susceptible to coping mechanisms as any disorder. But long-term, Bucky, tell me: why are you in therapy?”

Bucky’s eyes slipped from her face to her Oxfords, retreating behind the curtain of his hair. He’d had this answer prepared. “It’s hard for me. To talk. It’s easy to talk to Steve. But he’s suffered, too. Some of it, m-my fault. I need someone else to talk to. Confide in. So it’s not so hard on us.”

“That’s very self-aware.”

“Self-awareness. Was my strength. A long time ago.” Bucky paused. “Then, for a longer time, I wasn’t aware I had a self.”

Noluvo made a sympathetic noise. “Yes. I will want to hear about your time with HYDRA, when you are ready. For this first session, we can cover any concerns you have, anything you want to address up front. I noticed that you searched for recording devices, so I want to assure you that everything you share will stay within these walls, unless and until it poses a danger to yourself or others. If I write down what you say, it is only so I can better understand our conversation going forward, and make connections you may have missed. I will try not to say hm.” She smiled again. “But no promises. It’s a useful noise.”

“It’s n-not the noise that b-bothers me. It’s the mentality b-behind the noise. Hm means f-f-fascinating specimen. Means L-Look, he bleeds just like a real boy. Means you get research data and I get no f-fucking explanation of what you’re doing to me.”

“You are a person,” Noluvo said. “Not my science project. You can always ask me for clarification.”

“Yeah?” Bucky asked, skeptical. “C-can I see my file?”

“Sure.” Noluvo shrugged. Her shirt strained around her shoulders. “In addition to my own observations, and information from Dr. Zahra, it contains what sparse paper trail HYDRA left behind. This includes photos, and the security feed from the incident with Helmut Zemo. There’s no audio. While it will not activate you, it may still affect you— but what better environment than therapy to explore that?”

She pinched her Kimoyo communication bead between thumb and forefinger. A moment later, Bucky’s own Kimoyo card beeped. Media Message from: Unknown. Add New Contact?

“I won’t abuse this,” Bucky said, saving her number.

“I don’t mind the occasional dog video,” Noluvo said, “but do try to restrict your texts to the therapeutic process. We have about twenty minutes left for today. We can start anywhere you like.”

Bucky’s lips parted, but nothing escaped the barbed wire of his brain. There were too many places to start. There were seventy years worth of places to start. He wouldn’t like any of them.

Seeing him at a loss for words — the first of many losses she would witness — Noluvo added, “We may also sit in silence, if you prefer.”

He didn’t prefer that. But his history with HYDRA was long and arduous, and already missing pieces from his point of view. Even his file couldn’t fix that— in truth, he’d already read it, and Noluvo was right. It was frustratingly sparse. Asking for it had been a test of trust. “Can you p-pick for me? A specific q-question?”

“Alright. Can you tell me about your most recent battle? With Tony Stark?”

Bucky’s head snapped up. “You know about that?”

Noluvo nodded, her chin bobbing where it rested on her hand. “Of course. Because King T’Chaka died, and you were framed for it, we Wakandans were made aware of your presence— to a degree. Before I agreed to take you on as a client, I spoke to King T’Challa, Dr. Zahra, and your friend Steve. They graced me with a more accurate version of events.”

“Y-yeah? They t-tell you I’m a killer either way?”

“Frankly, Bucky, I don’t care what you have done in your past. It is your past. I am only concerned with how you process it, and how it affects your present and your future.”

Hm,” Bucky said. “I think. I’m gonna l-like you.”

Steve stood up from his chair when Bucky returned to the waiting room. “How’d it go?” he asked, his brows knit tight together. He put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder like a balance, and glanced him over, searching for signs of distress.

Bucky collected himself for a moment. “It was. Good. She said. I’m having. The h-healthiest response I can have. To all the H-HYDRA shit. She called me. B-brave.”

Steve nodded. “‘It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’” He added, “Uh, Jiddu Krishnamurti said that.”

“Show-off,” Bucky said, leaning into Steve’s side. “I’m t-tired. L-Let’s. Go home.”

 

 

*

 

 

At the behest of everyone in his life, Bucky did his best to indulge in self-care. He wore the bracelet Vera made for him. He ate regularly, even if he went stretches of days on smoothies alone. He replaced his cherry blossom shampoo when it was low. He joined Steve and Sam for the portion of their morning run that fell within the palace gardens, literally stopping to smell the roses. And he asked to be connected to the web.

Packages began showing up to the palace, full of colorful combat knives, blank notebooks, silver jewelry and strange sweets. A few purchases in, the contents shifted focus: a collection of artwork by Keith Haring, a packet of oil pastels, a bath bomb in the shape of the Cap shield.

“He was always like this,” Steve remarked to Sam. “Whatever remained after rent and groceries went right to cigarettes, candy, and gifts for me.”

“Priorities,” Sam said. “Of course, he doesn’t have a salary or savings now, and there’s no way the U.S. government’s honoring his back pay. So where’s the money coming from?”

Steve shrugged. “You wanna ask the former assassin about it, go ahead. If he’s happy, I’m happy.”

Flavor appeared around the apartment. In protest to Steve’s treatment of it as a temporary space, Bucky claimed it thoroughly. The cabinets in the kitchen became populated by boxes of tea, rice flour pretzels, a mug with flowers on it, a Jewish cookbook. The closet crowded with mesh shirts, soft sweaters, pairs of boots and a leather jacket. Science fiction piled up on the coffee table. The living room materialized a modern record player, and a library that bridged past and present and betrayed Wanda’s influence; Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis strangely at home with Sufjan Stevens and Car Seat Headrest.

Quietly, and without much fuss, Steve followed Bucky’s example. A replacement rosary lived in his bedside drawer, beads of blue roses interspersed with red, for easier keeping count. His practice had slipped, but he took it out when he needed the comfort of the repetitions, the reminder that he couldn’t drown if he was part of a current. He tried to move past the guilt — Do you only pray when it suits your schedule? Do you only pray when you want something? — and focus on the good it did him. And the good he hoped it would help him do.

“Loving God,” he whispered to his ceiling, Bucky’s sleeping body a shadow on the floor, “you are always near to us, especially when we are weak, suffering and vulnerable. Reach out to those who experience mental illness. Lift their burdens, calm their anxiety, and quiet their fears. Surround them with your healing presence that they may know that they are not alone. We ask this through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes and in the name of your Son, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.”

It wasn’t only Bucky that needed the prayer. Steve was, slowly, begrudgingly, learning to recognize his own patterns. He’d spent his whole life hiding any hint of his weakness; it was excruciating to carve away the layers of protection and reveal the person underneath, because that person had become pretty lonely. But he wanted to follow Bucky’s example in more than matter. They’d made a promise, a pact, and he stuck to it, in his own way.

When T’Challa brought him the same list of discreet therapists he’d seen a week ago— with Noluvo’s name crossed out— he blanched and begged off. For the first time in years, his dreams were haunted by Dr. Erskine’s dying face.

He hedged his bets with the confidants he already had. He called his friends.

The list fell a little short. Steve didn’t want to lean on Wanda; he was supposed to be her shoulder. He hadn’t heard from Bruce or Thor in a while, and neither the Hulk-in-hiding nor the Norse god-king had particularly stable phone lines. Scott’s enthusiastic support extended exclusively to battle and the promise of McDonald’s drive-throughs.

Natasha was notoriously hard to get a hold of. Her go-to strategy in times of total system collapse was a smooth fuck you to the powers that be and a swift exit to parts unknown. Same as she had dug up Bucky’s file when he’d asked, now she was searching for the book— that nightmare of the Red Room that started this whole mess, and might shed some light on undoing it. It wasn’t only a favor for a friend; if the Black Widow had her own sleeper sequence, she wanted to get out in front of it. Steve was pretty sure Barton had gone with her, and pretty sure they wouldn’t be back any time soon.

But Sam, as always, was right by his side.

“I hate to inconvenience you,” Steve said, “but I heard you might know a thing or two about support groups.”

“Oh, did a little birdie tell you?” Sam said. “It’s me. I’m the birdie. I invited you about a hundred times when we were stateside, but now that I’m on vacation, you’re suddenly game? You big, repressed bowl of vanilla ice cream.”

“I wasn’t ready to admit I needed help.”

“Don’t use the steps against me,” Sam said. “I’ll win, I know them better than you. I’m not gonna be your therapist, Steve, it’s a conflict of interest considering all that stuff we did in Beirut, and I’m not qualified enough. But— since I know you promised Bucky, and I’m proud of you for reaching out— I will let you buy me a coffee and bitch about the Dodgers buyout. Again.”

“You’re the best,” Steve said.

“I know,” Sam sighed. “It’s such a burden.”

 

 

*

 

 

In the time they spent searching for Steve’s star-crossed love, the long silences of identical highways and hostels had been broken up by stories. Sam had learned a lot about Captain America that hadn’t made the cut of his seventh grade history book: that once you could barely throw a brick without hitting a bar he’d been beaten up behind, that he’d had public sex in Prospect Park, that he’d never completed his arts training but retained a fierce love for the Social Realists. The USO and the 21st century had both worked hard to strip Steve of his Brooklyn-born-and-bred accent and the flaunting of authority that arrived with it. They had clearly succeeded at neither, but his tenure with SHIELD had taught him to hide his roots under a lot of false dirt. His arrest record had been expunged as soon as Abraham Erskine stamped him 1A. His history had gone the way of his scoliosis. He’d been scrubbed squeaky clean.

It was like hearing about your parents pulling pranks in high school, realizing they’d lived whole lives before you. Beneath the superhero starch was a spitfire with a sailor’s mouth. After three years, Sam was still coaxing him into the light.

Around Bucky, though— around Bucky— suddenly I was that sixteen year old boy from Brooklyn.

“Sometimes I think about what it was like for Barnes and Carter,” Sam said. “Knowing you before the serum.”

They were outside a cafe in Birnin Zana, reclining in wire chairs. The remnants of their team— those who had decided to stay in Wakanda, whether out of solidarity or scarcity of options— still seemed to congregate most easily around exercise and food, kind of like Basic.

Across the table, Steve shrugged his humble shrug. “I wouldn’t have outpaced you when we met.”

“Oh, you didn’t,” Sam said. “I chose to collapse sweatily under a tree. For me. But seriously. Barnes is always saying the serum only changed the surface, but it was a big change. You ever wish you could go back?”

“I can’t go back. None of us can.”

“I know, man, but it’s okay to want things you can’t have.”

“No,” Steve said, stubborn as blond molasses. “I grew up disabled in the Great Depression. I start thinking that way, I’ll never stop.”

“What, you don’t want world peace? You didn’t want Bucky when he was gone?”

“Come on, Wilson, don’t bait me. Sometimes I want him when he’s here.” Steve blanched. “That’s not fair— I didn’t mean— Please don’t tell him I said that.”

“Strictest confidence,” Sam promised. “Scout’s honor.”

“Were you a boy scout?”

“I may still have merit badges for First Aid, Fire Safety, and Bird Study stored in a box in my mom’s closet. But we’re talking about you.”

“Why are you so interested?”

“‘Cause smart people can make dumb decisions during a crisis,” Sam said steadily, “and I doubt anyone’s ever given you the space to regret yours.”

The cafe was sandwiched between a soap store and a Kimoyo bead repair kiosk, and it served the best chai latte Sam had ever tasted. Steve drank his coffee black as dirt, but Sam wasn’t about to deny himself some sweetness. He enjoyed a long, appreciative sip while he waited for Steve’s answer.

“I tried so hard to love it,” Steve said quietly. “My old body. Even when it was trying to kill me. I tried to be gentle, tried to find... beauty in it, somehow. But you only have to love something as long as it’s part of you. As long as the other option is to hate yourself. If someone could offer you an out…

“Look, I wasn’t climbing into Stark’s machine, thinking, Someday disability activists will question this decision . I wasn’t thinking at all. It was boneheaded as all get out to agree to be experimented on by the government. But the alternative—” Steve shook his head. “Hospital visits, doctor visits, medications, home remedies, the pain, the praying, the graveyard shifts my Ma tolerated to pay for it all. Buck would chew me out for acting like I was ever a burden, ever any less than worth the work, but that was the world we lived in. Eugenics was everywhere. I was barred from service four times. Can you imagine what they would’ve said if they’d seen I was trans, too?”

A shiver went up Sam’s spine at the mention of eugenics. “I don’t care to imagine,” he said. “Did you even have a plan?”

“Lying my ass off,” Steve answered. “But that barely got me past the papers portion. I’ve always been a fighter, but the thing is, when you’re that sick, it doesn’t matter. I could only be as strong against my body as my body. And the dysphoria— I was so— mad, sometimes, I wanted to hit everything, but there was no one to blame. I just got dealt a bad hand, and it didn’t let up. For twenty years, it didn’t let up.”

He scrubbed a hand over his face, and slowly let his shoulders unwind, his voice soften. “So, no, I don’t wish I could go back. I don’t regret it. If anything, this—” He gestured to his chest, to his heart that was finally as good in flesh as it was in spirit. “I wish it’d come sooner. Would’ve saved me a lot of grief.”

“Doesn’t hurt that you look like an underwear model.”

“I am an underwear model.”

Sam choked on his chai. “Pictures, Steven.

“Google, Sam. What, they fish a national icon out of the ocean and you think they’re not slapping him on magazine covers in short shorts that make him self-conscious? This is the twenty-first century. My face is fair use.” The face in question darkened. “Even pro-lifers put it on their posters. What if Captain America had been aborted? As if they wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to euthanize me before the serum. I’ve noticed their respect for life never seems to extend to disabled people— or mothers. I just told you I don’t regret it, but what I wouldn’t give for my skinny little fist to introduce them to manners.”

“You’d think getting bigger would diminish your anger,” Sam said. “You know, disperse it.”

“It’s like air,” Steve said. “It expanded to fill the empty space.”

 

 

*

 

 

Bucky and Noluvo had their second session the following week.

“How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

“I—” Bucky looked at her sharply. He’d come to her cozy office this afternoon prepared for a dive into his psyche, not a joke, and now he faltered. If he'd ever heard this punchline, he’d forgotten it. “I d-don't. Know.”

“One,” Noluvo said. “But the lightbulb has to want to change.”

“Okay,” Bucky said, still confused, but he was nothing if not adaptable. “How m-m-many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb?”

“Enlighten me.”

“Never m-mind,” Bucky sighed, sounding put-upon. “We'll j-just sit in the dark.”

"Ha! Good one. So, Bucky. How are you? What have you been up to?"

"Aren't you g-gonna ask me about H-H-HYDRA?"

Noluvo shrugged. "Do you want me to ask you about HYDRA?"

"That's—" Bucky flexed his hand. "No, I don't want you to ask— but that’s why I’m— Look, this is l-lovely, this opportunity, but the bubble will burst. I don’t know when, or what— maybe T’Challa gets tired of me, or the U.N. decides I’m too substantial a threat to leave alive. I want to t-take advantage of some care that doesn’t involve scalpels while I still can. I don’t know how much time I have to f-fuck around.”

Noluvo crossed her legs and eyed him carefully. "King T’Challa offered you help. I am help. He may grow tired of you, but he will not send you away without warning, and especially not into the hands of those who seek to use you as a scapegoat for the failings of their own system. Wakanda has no extradition. It’s understandable that your safety feels fragile, but if you look at it another way, so is everyone else’s. Yes, your situation could change tomorrow. Aliens could invade. You could lose an eye. You cannot let it keep you from connection. Why do you consider my interest in your day to be fucking around?"

Bucky stared at her, then away, ashamed. "It’s n-not. N-necessary to f-f-function.” He ticced into his shoulder.

“Maybe not for you,” Noluvo said. “But it’s important to my function to know how you’re feeling. How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but it’s a process. So indulge me.”

“I'm... fine."

"What does fine mean for you?"

"F-functional."

"What is functional?"

"If injuries sustained, n-n-not serious enough to impede immediate ability. Mission can c-continue without medical attention or extraction." Bucky winced. He'd heard it— the flat current of his voice, the slip into fractal patterns. He hoped she’d let it slide.

"May I ask how you would define good?"

Bucky took a breath, tried to come back. "Good right now means I haven't killed anyone, and no one's t-tried to kill me. I've had one meal, even if m-meal means strawberry smoothie, and allowed the body one m-minute of nonviolent physical contact."

"Only one?"

"You asked about good, not f-f-fucking amazing."

"So there's a state better than good. Does amazing involve more meals, more minutes?"

"If I'm lucky," Bucky said. "Which historically I haven't b-been."

“Historically,” Noluvo repeated. “Okay, here is where I ask you about HYDRA. Walk me through the period of time after your breakthrough in Washington. How did your memories return?”

“In f-flashes,” Bucky answered. “Fragments. Some brought on by familiar smells. Dreams. W-w-weird feelings. It’s still like that, sometimes.”

It was hard to predict what would trigger an episode, even now. Sensations that to anyone else would be innocuous, that he might come to understand later, if at all— baking bread, a scattered laugh, a song a handler had once hummed while they were in transit. Other connections were clearer— snow, an errant touch, his own reflection. Weapons should have bothered him, but didn’t; Snow White shouldn’t have bothered him, but did. Public bathrooms made him want to puke. The drip of ice cream reminded him of summer, of Steve’s small hand in his.

“I knew things it wasn’t p-possible for me to know,” Bucky said. “If what they told me was true— if w-waking up was b-being born, if I didn’t exist beyond the cell and the chair, if I really was a ghost, or a collection of c-c-computer code— how could I miss someone? How could I crave the sun if I’d never seen it? Want to be held if I’d only been hit? You can’t program that, or teach it. You w-wouldn’t. There’s no tactical advantage to your assassin t-trying to remember what lilacs smell like, or refusing to take a shot if the mark’s cat would be collateral damage. That’s why they wiped me in the first place. It’s cleaner.”

“You reasoned that HYDRA could not be responsible for these echoes of your former self.”

“And if it wasn’t them, who was it? Who was I? What could I trust?”

Strengthened by the serum, his hippocampus persisted in healing, as a lizard limb grows back. His handlers had to find creative ways of keeping him clipped. Away from their influence, time truly would heal all wounds— if he could stand to wait. The Smithsonian exhibit, the stacks of history books, the spirals of research, the road trips retracing old ground and old wounds— these had been deliberate. He’d been triggering himself on purpose. He’d been hunting himself down.

He hadn’t had a computer in Bucharest, but libraries and Internet cafes all over the world carried confused traces of his Google searches, from the early who is bucky barnes? is bucky barnes alive? to the later, less urgent, dream interpretation drowning and boston dynamics big dog. The ease of information about everything and the kitchen sink acted as a counterweight to crushing doubt, a tether to reality. But the public information pool had its limits.

Bucky said, “There were memories I had to... w-work on. Chip away at.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“If something got to me, I’d follow it as far as I could. Try to unravel it, understand it. It hurt. What’s that M-Michelangelo quote?” He drummed his vibranium fingers against his knee. “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him f-free? These memories, though, so b-buried in me I had to take blades to them… more like demons.”

“And once you finished carving? Did you feel set free from them?”

“I didn’t say I was f-finished. I’m here, aren’t I?”

Hm,” Noluvo said. She put her fingers to her mouth to hide her smile.

“Gotta explain the hm,” Bucky reminded her. “What’s funny about that?”

“Nothing. Putting your hand over the place that is in pain does not make the pain disappear, or the cut close, but it’s a start.” She was still smiling. “And it’s what I had in mind for your deactivation.”

Bucky blinked at her.

“The strongest password is a string of words without obvious relation. Something the user can remember, but an algorithm can’t crack,” Noluvo explained. “Your code sequence is like this. The words may have been chosen at random, or they may have been chosen deliberately, but either way, they mean something to you. Your brain has made connections and pathways unconsciously. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be hypnosis. So I’d like to introduce the words one by one, and unpack any memories they bring up. Some may have more scar tissue than others. If they are painful— if they are demons— we’ll put a better thought in the same place. Not necessarily defusing the power behind the code, but redirecting it. Reclaiming it.”

“Like... positive self-talk?”

“It’s similar. This, we can call… positive memory defense. Smokers use this technique on a less intense scale. When they crave a cigarette, they chew a piece of gum. Eventually, the brain will go for the gum first.”

Bucky’s hand darted to the packet of Luckies in his breast pocket. He’d lost a lot, but he still had this; control, his choice, however small. Of all the habits his hands were capable of, he considered smoking one of the least destructive. “I’m n-not giving up cigarettes.”

“I’m not asking you to,” Noluvo assured him. “It’s just an example. We’ll take it one word at a time, and out of order, so there will be no chance of the Winter Soldier state activating. Eventually, in a properly prepped environment, we can test the entire sequence. Sound reasonable?”

It did. He didn’t dare hope that this could work, that there might come a moment where he heard the steady intonation of Russian and didn’t dread it, didn’t wish he was dead, didn’t watch something else fill the space he’d fought so hard to stand in— where he felt, for the first time, free.

He said, “Let’s do it.”

Noluvo settled back into her seat, her Kimoyo tablet braced against her thigh. It had a bright blue case. It clashed horribly with her orange sweater. “What do you know about longing?”

Bucky barked a laugh. “What the fuck don’t I know about longing? I am longing. I long.”

“Are there any specific memories associated?”

There was longing for his original arm, for his little sisters, for his own bed in Brooklyn, all gone and barely remembered. There was longing for his mind to be healed. For his heart to feel less heavy. For HYDRA to be decimated, demolished, brought to ground zero of their transgressions and made to kneel and acknowledge and repent. For his time on Earth to mean something more than destruction, even if that destruction was well-deserved. There was longing for lost years.

There was the greatest longing of his unnaturally long life.

“Steve,” he said finally. “It’s not the only association, but it’s on top.”

“Elaborate on that.”

“You got someone? Someone romantic?”

Bucky expected her to deflect the question. In his experience, whether shattering your life or salvaging it, doctors were rarely forthcoming on the subject of their own. He’d read up on therapy, and knew that most therapists drew a hard line between professional and personal information.

Noluvo said, “I have a wife.”

Noluvo was not most therapists. She believed in trust, and she knew that, for Bucky, trust meant truth. It was the reason he’d agreed to work with her.

Bucky was grinning. “Y-yeah? What’s she like?”

“Like the sun,” Noluvo said. “She glows. In a group, she is the center of attention. She is ruthlessly thoughtful at gift-giving, and a criminally bad gardener.”

“Sounds a little like my g-guy.”

“Her name is Chidiebube. I call her Chichi.”

“That’s f-f-fucking great.”

Noluvo smiled. “Your turn, Michelangelo. Why do you connect longing to Steve?”

“I love him,” Bucky said. “I loved him before I knew what love was. Before I knew what— who I was. And after. I—”

Slipping his Kimoyo card out of his pocket, he typed a clumsy phrase into the search engine. He found what he was looking for, and projected the webpage between them, in English.

Noluvo tapped her ruined cheek, below the pale, unseeing eye. “I can’t read that.”

“Oh. S-sorry. It says, ‘So the Lord caused a d-deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord fashioned into a woman the r-rib which He had t-taken from the man, and b-brought her to the man. The man said, This is now bone of my bones, and f-flesh of my flesh.’”

“Genesis. This is how you feel about Steve?”

Bucky nodded. “Doesn’t matter which r-rib was whose. We’re in each other either way.”

“Do you often use Bible verses to communicate your thoughts?”

“We went to C-Catholic school. Me and Steve. My mama was a Jew, but my d-daddy made her convert and b-b-baptize her babies, me included. I remember a lot of what we learned. I don’t c-cotton to it. I put my faith in people, and people can be p-p-pretty fucking rotten. But Stevie still believes. It’s strong stuff to kick.”

“Indeed.”

“I know he p-prayed a lot, while I was gone. Prayed for me to come back. W-when I was in the trenches, when it was just me, before he got s-s-souped up and s-s-sent out, I prayed too. Prayed I’d never see him again. Needed him beside me like b-breathing, but it was better he was safe. B-better he didn’t know war. I lay on my belly in the blood of friend and foe, hoping I’d die before he saw what I’d become.” Bucky shook his head. “But he had faith. He asked for me to come back.”

Noluvo didn’t say anything. She sat in her shroud of silence, held space for Bucky to speak— to articulate whatever was trapped between his teeth.

“He’s afraid he c-caused it somehow. The W-W-W-Winter Soldier shit. That he wished for it.” Bucky ticced towards his shoulder, but breathed through it. He had to get this out. He had to get this gone. Exorcise this guilt for good, for the sake of his ghost. “He th-thinks he could have stopped it.”

“Could he have?”

No,” Bucky stressed. “But that’s not the p-point. The way he sees it, he m-marched into one warzone to save my sorry ass. He just didn’t know about the others.”

“He knows about them now.”

“Yeah. He’s still t-trying to bring me home.”

“Does he know how you feel about him?”

Bucky snorted. “Of course he knows. We’ve been inseparable since he was s-s-six years old. S-s-so they are no longer two, but one flesh, therefore what G-God has joined together, let no one separate. Christ, as kids we got married under a tree in Central Park. This scrawny sapling, newly planted but fighting like hell to p-put down roots. Guess I thought it was fitting.”

In the memory, the sun beat down on Steve’s bare shoulders, as callous as the neighborhood kids they’d scuffled with. He’d pick up boxing at fourteen, but here he was nine, or ten— too young for any technique, too stubborn to stop trying. His knee was skinned raw, so Bucky made him sit on the ground and staunch the bleeding with a strip of his shirt. His asthma had him breathing hard, his little chest heaving, and one of his suspenders kept slipping down around his waist. Bucky had felt it for the first time, then— the fear that Steve was fragile. That he might go from him, and not return.

“I patched him up. I t-told him. I’d always protect him. I gave him a blade of grass for a ring. I don’t know if he remembers that. If he knows I remember it. We don’t talk about— before.”

“For what reason?”

“He’s. S-scared. I feel it when he looks at me.” Bucky shut his eyes against the thought, but the sight of Steve was what his lids were made for; it stayed.

“What do you think he’s afraid of?”

“That I’ve changed too much. That he doesn’t know me anymore. That I don’t know h-him. That I don’t know myself. T-take your pick.”

“What do you believe?”

“I have too m-much in my head. And not enough. H-hard to sort out. Hard to say. Using other people’s words h-helps. Some of this scripture stuff… makes sense to me. It’s... simpler.” His fingers rubbed absently at his metal wrist, though it was a new one now— a phantom pain. “I am who I am. I will be what I will be.

Noluvo titled her head. Her pale eye caught a glint of sunlight. “How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

“I don’t know. How m-many?”

“Maybe the bulb isn’t burnt out,” Noluvo said. “Maybe its light is just different.”

 

 

*

 

 

“Hey, Buck?” Steve called from the bed. He folded Assassination Vacation on his knee to keep his place. “You know you don’t have to sleep on the floor.”

Bucky came out of the bathroom, although the usual menace of his stride was significantly diminished by soft, pink pajamas. He removed the towel from around his neck and left it folded clumsily on the dresser. By way of answer, he asked, “That book mention anyone I k-killed?”

“No,” Steve said. “Unless HYDRA cannibalized time travel, too. You worried about killing Captain America in his sleep?”

“Who the fuck cares about Captain fucking America,” Bucky said. “I’m worried about killing Steve Rogers in his s-sleep.”

“You broke through seventy years of calculated destabilization to save a scrawny little smartmouth from choking on river water,” Steve said. The shade of an old smile took up in the corner of his mouth. “I said your name and you escaped Hell. I said your name and you came home. I think I can trust you to spoon me.”

“Past recollection is no guarantee of lack of future brain damage,” Bucky said flatly. “And you ain’t so s-scrawny anymore.”

“Enough to fit under your arm.”

“Only ‘cause I got bigger, too. You’ll wake up one night with a knife to your th-throat. Maybe several nights. Maybe s-several knives.”

Steve patted the bed invitingly. “I’ll take that chance.”

“You…” Bucky made a low, angry noise. “Meshugener.”

This time, Steve’s smile wasn’t a shade. It was the sun. “Always.”

Bucky climbed into the bed, boots still on. For a brief, ridiculous moment, Steve wondered if he’d bathed in them. He lay on his side across from Steve, so close they could count each other’s lashes, his new vibranium arm trapped between his body and the mattress. His hair was still drying from the shower; he smelled clean and sweet. Steve watched a stray droplet of water roll down his cheekbone, and felt, impossibly, more in love with him than he ever had.

“Can I touch you?” Steve asked.

“Above the w-waist,” Bucky answered.

Steve slid his hand into Bucky’s hair. It was unbelievably soft, now that he’d been able to care for it, cool from the scrubbing clean and flowing through his fingers like a dark silk. Bucky made a noise in his throat, surprised and satisfied.

The more Steve pet and played with his hair, the more relaxed Bucky became. The tension in his shoulders slowly melted; his eyes shut; his mouth parted in a sigh of sleep.

When he’d drifted into a dreamless land, Steve let his hand fall. It brushed Bucky’s brow on the way down. Lightning-quick, Bucky gripped Steve’s wrist, and guided his hand back to its rightful place.

More than happy to continue, Steve cupped his cheek, allowing himself the small, selfish pleasure of tracing Bucky’s features with his thumb; his jaw rough with stubble, the dimple in his chin, his defined cupid’s bow. Lingered particularly on the lips, listening to Bucky breathe. He let his thumb slip, quite by accident, or so he told himself, and Bucky took it into his mouth without shame.

His eyes fluttered open.

Steve felt exposed like a live wire, felt like he’d been caught up in something, even if it was only Bucky’s achingly familiar baby blues— felt like he did on his knees halfway through a rosary, offering himself up to forces deeper and greater than a single man.

“Hey, ace,” Bucky said, softly, but not so softly that Steve couldn’t feel the press of his breath beneath his thumbprint. “You gonna k-kiss me back, or what?”

Serum-strong heart pummelling against his ribs, Steve moved to replace his thumb with his mouth. His lips ghosted across Bucky’s— a single, shaky breath caught in the center.

As though he’d been waiting for absolution, Bucky’s hand flew to the small of Steve’s back, pressing Steve’s body to him, skin to skin, heart to heart, until there was no barrier between their being. This, at last, is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh, Steve thought, and blushed.

When they parted, Steve tested a question against the roof of his mouth before he let it escape, unsure if and how he wanted to approach the subject. “Buck… Would you consider... Could you… Would you be comfortable—”

“Spit it out, s-slick, I’m goin’ grayer by the second.”

Steve took a breath, steadying himself amongst the swirl of longings he had to hold down by their ankles. “Would you undress for me?”

Bucky’s brow furrowed in stormy consideration.

“I don’t need to touch you,” Steve clarified quickly. “I— I’d like to. But it’s your call. I only want—” Embarrassed, he passed a hand over his face until his resolve returned. Softer, he said, “It’s been so many years. We used to know each other inside and out, but so much has happened. So much we can’t quantify, or explain, may never be able to share. I know it won’t be easy, but I want to try. I want— I want to know you again, Buck.”

Bucky wet his lips. “In the. B-Biblical sense.”

“Not necessarily. Only when— if ever— you’re ready.”

“Okay,” Bucky said. “I will. T-take my clothes off. But I c-can’t. Remove the boots. Don’t ask.”

“Okay,” Steve said, pulse accelerating, surprised at such a swift approval.

Bucky propped himself up on his new elbow and grabbed a fistful of his shirt over his shoulder, yanking the loose-fitting fabric easily over his head. He tossed it to the floor beside the bed and pushed the dripping curtain of his hair behind his ears. Then he pulled from his waistband, as promised, a knife, and set that on the nightstand with more care than the shirt had been afforded, its handle gleaming in the lamplight.

“You too,” Bucky said, as his hands moved to the drawstring of his pants, sparing Steve a look that carried at least six levels of intensity.

“I don’t have any knives on me,” Steve said.

Bucky added a seventh level.

Steve followed reluctant suit, tearing his gaze from Bucky’s divulged hips to fumble with the buttons on his own flannel. When they reunited, there was nothing separating them except space.

“Jesus in fucking Heaven,” Bucky said. Steve was inclined to agree.

Bucky was solid— beefy, even, broad, built like a brick shithouse, or at least one wall of it. He’d always been clean-shaven back home, but now his chest and legs were a dark forest, and it was difficult to tell whether this was by way of preference, neglect, or an aversion to sharp objects within a mile of delicate arteries— knives, apparently, excluded.

Steve was passionately relieved to see the fat Bucky had developed on his belly and thighs, softening over the conflicting brutal muscle and malnourishment of his training-trauma. Recovery had been good to him. But evidence of hurt still remained, and the scars came in patches: tendrils of raised and discolored tissue surrounding his metal shoulder, cuff marks circling his wrists, a surgical scar half-hidden by his happy trail, steady, self-inflicted cuts lining the white curve of his inner thighs. The tail of a once-deep lashing lingered on his ribs; had they whipped him? But what scared him more than the damage he could see was the damage he could not.

Steve felt hatred for HYDRA and love for the man who’d survived them in such powerful measure it pained him as physically as a blow. He had to shut his eyes against it.

“I know,” Bucky said, shielding with his palm the radial puncture of an exit wound, so near his heart it made Steve’s own seize. “Hard to take in.”

Steve wanted to say, I will crush to white powder every bone in every hand that ever touched you without kindness. Instead, he said, “You’re beautiful, JB Barnes,” and covered Bucky’s hand with his.

Bucky softened, but still replied, “Don’t lie, honey. I’m F-Frankenstein. Boris K-Karloff motherf-fucker, corpse held together by m-metal and mad science. N-not like you.”

“Hey, I’m held together by mad science too,” Steve pointed out. “And I swear on the grave that became a culturally significant landmark once it leaked that I was still alive: you’re the most gorgeous man I’ve ever met.”

“Sh-should. Meet your reflection.”

“Met him.” Steve rubbed at his chest, feeling the phantom burn of a long-cured winter cough and the presence of his own imperfections; the stretch marks he’d come to admire, the kiss of the bullets Bucky had buried in him only a year ago. This miracle body felt meant for someone else. “I prefer you.”

“Sh-shut. Your mouth. You and your reflection are b-both. Big palookas.” Bucky intertwined their fingers with a flick of his wrist, making a bridge of skin and metal. His thumb traced a faint zigzag on Steve’s first knuckle, a slip-up with a serrated cola cap in 1929. His other hand hovered with hesitance over Steve’s hip.

“Still me, Buck,” Steve said gently. “Go ahead.”

With a barely perceptible sigh of relief, Bucky touched down. He traced the bone that had once stuck out from Steve’s threadbare frame, now paved over by muscle. It wasn’t possible any longer to wrap his whole hand around it. “You’re… You got so big,” he said, almost mournfully. “Liked you. When you were small.”

Steve smiled his own mournful smile. “You were the only one.”

Then Bucky was there in an instant, the way he was when he felt so strongly about something that his stutter faded and his speech returned in full force— every inch of him from every era, on fire all at once. “Bullshit, Rogers. You were a fuckin’ catch. You wanna doubt me, go ahead, I’m biased, but you ask Carter. She loved you just as much before as after, and we b-both know she was one hell of a smart woman. Drove me wild how no one but the t-two of us seemed to see your shine, even wilder than how often I was seein’ it. Jesus, you on the fire escape in summer, sketchin’ the street with your shirt off, or my shirt on — subject of all my fantasies, even in the goddamn trenches, even when I was dying— doesn’t matter which time. There were a lot of times. Wanted to come home to you every night. Wanted to be your best girl since we were kids. I would’ve followed you anywhere. End of the f-f-fucking line. I would’ve married you, if you’d asked.”

“Oh, Buck,” Steve said, voice an earthquake in his throat as he pressed their foreheads together, tangling his fingers in Bucky’s hair again. “I would’ve asked. If I’d known. I would’ve asked.”

I asked,” Bucky said. “I asked you to m-marry me. Do you remember?”

Steve felt sucker-punched; the breath was knocked out of him for a beat. “What? When?”

“When we were k-kids. In Central P-Park.”

“Oh,” Steve said, struggling. He couldn’t have missed that, but the memory was hazy. Sometimes their shared youth slipped away like sunshine, under the mountain of shit that had come after. “I guess— Yeah, I guess I remember that a little. I didn’t know if you— if you meant it.”

“I meant it. I mean it.”

This truth lay between them for an expanse. In his head, Steve wrapped his arms around it and asked it to stay.

“You remember that night before you shipped out?” he said. His thumb stroked the nape of Bucky’s neck. “At the Expo? All I wanted then was freedom. Freedom to fight, freedom to choose my own destiny, freedom to hold your hand in public. I asked where we were going, and you said—”

“The future,” Bucky echoed.

“Yeah,” Steve said, moonstruck. “And we did it, Buck. We made it.”

“Gonna spoon you now,” Bucky grunted.

Bucky preferred the position of little spoon, but he seemed to know how badly Steve needed to be held, curling around him like a shield, arm slung around his waist. Steve melted into his embrace, and heard the familiar whirr of metal plates unlocking as Bucky relaxed too.

“See?” Bucky whispered, soft and shivery into Steve’s shoulder. “Still fit.”

Secretly, Steve loved it when Bucky acted like he was small again. No one treated him like that anymore. Sure, they were careful around him, but it was the kind of careful you were around a loaded gun. He’d always bristled at pity, but now he would have gladly taken pity over pedestals, posters, mint-in-box trading cards. When Bucky held him, he didn’t feel dangerous; he didn’t feel invisible inside a uniform that had always been a single means to the same end. He felt delicate. He felt known. He felt treasured .

“I haven’t changed where it counts, Buck,” Steve said back, moving Bucky’s palm up, over his heart.

“‘Course not, babydoll,” Bucky said, kissing the column of his throat. “Neither have I.”

Steve shivered. Bucky’s big, calloused hand palmed his pecs, petting at his chest the same way he’d done for Bucky’s hair: a soothing, smoothing-down. When he skimmed a nipple, Steve sucked in a breath, and dug his nails into Bucky’s hip behind him, half-moons of surprise. Bucky’s lips twitched at his shoulder.

“You l-l-like that, honey? Me p-playin’ with your tits?”

Steve groaned, all liquid. “You can’t just say things, James Buchanan Barnes.”

“I c-can and I will,” Bucky said happily. “D-Decades of a muzzle, now I g-get to speak my mind, and it w-wants me to t-tell you you’re my g-g-gorgeous baby boy who b-blushes all the way down to his Cl-Cleopatras.”

The euphemism was ridiculous, but Steve’s breath hitched at being called Bucky’s. “Yeah? What else does it want you to say?”

“That your legs are p-pillars of alabaster, set on pedestals of p-pure gold. Your appearance is l-like Lebanon, ch-choice as the cedars. Your m-mouth is sweetness itself. You are wholly desirable. This is my beloved, and this is my f-friend.”

Steve was completely still. “Are— Are you quoting Song of Solomon? You are quoting Song of Solomon. The mouth on you.”

“The m-mouth on you,” Bucky replied. “So p-pretty. Wanna put my fingers in it.”

“Jesus,” Steve said. He buried his face in his arm, still holding onto Bucky’s hip. “I thought we agreed not to get Biblical.”

“N-nothing’s ever easy with us,” Bucky said. “C-can we fool around?”

Yes,” Steve said. “What do you want?”

Bucky thought about it, still rubbing circles. “W-want you like this. Sp-spread out in front of me. My b-baby. Close as I can get. F-fuck, f-feels like it’ll never be close enough.”

Steve was breathing hard. “Do you want— Do you want—” He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Do you want inside me, do you want my rib?

Bucky kissed him under the jaw, seeming to understand. “‘S okay. Not now. W-want you to touch yourself, sweetheart.”

Shuddering, Steve slipped an obedient hand between his legs, hyper-aware of Bucky’s body warm and solid behind him, making him sweat at the hollow of his hips and the backs of his thighs. Bucky had set him an easy task; he was already wet. He collected pre-come with the pad of his thumb and pushed the hood of his clit in circles, rocking a rhythm into the envelope of his fingers.

“That’s it,” Bucky said softly, still squeezing Steve’s— his tits. “Make it sweet and slow. Want you to feel good. You’re so g-good.”

“I haven’t—” Steve shut his eyes. “Haven’t done this since you were gone.”

“You b-been denying yourself, honey?” Bucky sounded a little sad. “You d-don’t gotta punish yourself, Stevie, I promise. It’s okay to have some joy, for f-fuck’s sake, you can j-jerk off.”

“I know,” he said. “I know, I just—”

It wasn’t entirely true that he hadn’t touched himself in the last five years; there had been attempts, and a few orgasms he’d consider decent ones. But it felt true, because it hadn’t been like this. It hadn’t been Bucky. It hadn’t been Peggy, and never would be again— but he wouldn’t think of that, not with his best guy back from the grave and talking glacé in his ear.

“It wasn’t you,” was all he said, and Bucky made a hungry, hurting sound. “Nobody’s you.”

Bucky nudged Steve’s hand aside, and got his own inside him, finger curved— Steve got a filthy thrill out of realizing it was his middle finger. He wanted to say, I can take two, or too much , but Bucky was stroking him so smooth and slick, he found it difficult to speak. He rolled his hips into his hand, sinking down as deep as he could. His body opened for Bucky, as if nothing had changed. The rough skin of Bucky’s calluses met the softest parts of Steve’s insides. Like a whetstone for silk.

“Baby b-boy,” Bucky said, gentle. “I got you. In the whole w-wide world, I got you b-best, first, forever. Love you. My f-fucking husband. My pretty wife.”

“I’m your w-wife. Would you—” He whined, high and ragged. “With your metal hand—”

Bucky startled a little. His hand stopped moving. “R-really?”

Steve felt hot all over. He was glad, for the moment, that he couldn’t see Bucky’s face. “It’s part of you. I want— I want you.”

“Oh,” Bucky said, his voice warm. The bed dipped as he shifted, and Steve helped out by putting his weight on his hip and pivoting forward and up. His thighs were slippery where they pressed together. Bucky slid his vibranium hand under Steve’s stomach, so Steve was cradled in the curve of his arm.

Then he spread Steve open with both hands.

Bucky slipped back in, corkscrewing with one set of fingers and clamping down on his clit with the other. The metal was cold. The pace was punishing. Steve’s toes curled. His back arched toward Bucky. He wished he had a clothespin, or a piercing. He wished Bucky would hold him down. He thought of the Helicarrier, the sensual shame of Bucky’s hands around his throat— how much he wanted it, wanted Bucky to touch him, even if it meant trying to kill him. He was starving for it. Higher power help him, he’d take whatever he could get.

“You can be rougher,” Steve begged. “Please, Buck. Please be rougher. Want— Oh, God, you can hurt me, please, I trust you.”

“Lord’s name,” Bucky said into his shoulder, and smacked his hip, a hot jolt of pain and pleasure. Steve gasped. Two fingers sunk in him now, up to the knuckle.

“I’ll apologize to Him later. Touch my tits again.”

“I only got so many hands, hotshot. You w-want it so bad, d-do it yourself.”

No,” Steve bitched. “Want you.”

“C-covetous,” Bucky muttered. Without breaking time, he lowered his head and took Steve’s breast between his teeth. The angle was awkward, but he was unyielding— his mouth was a seal. Inside Steve, his fingers found something primal.

Steve quaked. He flooded. He burned. His body carried out Babylonian disasters. Bucky held him through it, and told him, in murmurs he barely registered, that he was perfect.

After a minute, he was mortal again— at least, depending who you asked. Bucky left, briefly, and returned with a damp washcloth. Slightly high, Steve thought about baptisms as Bucky bathed them both, and tucked them back into the bedsheets.

“Take such good care of me,” Steve said, breathless and bruised. “Oh, Christ, I love you.”

“‘C-course I take care of you, we’re m-married,” Bucky said, pressing a tender kiss to Steve’s temple. His hand rested on Steve’s stomach. “You okay with that? Me c-callin’ you my p-pretty wife and all? It doesn’t… you know… invalidate...”

Bucky hesitated. Gender was not something they talked about. It was an accepted actuality that Steve was a man, and had been since they were six years old and taking baths together and two generations of Rogers resolve had sworn Bucky to secrecy on the subject of physiology. Easy to forge medical forms as a nurse; easy to avoid developing a chest, emaciated. Considering how he looked after the serum, no one had questioned his claim in this century.

“No,” Steve said firmly.

I am who I am, huh?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “I like it, when you say that stuff. No one else would. It makes me feel— special.”

“You are sp-special,” Bucky said, nuzzling his neck. “G-go to sleep.”

 

 

*

 

 

In the morning, Bucky sent a message to Noluvo: Longing deactivated. I made a better memory.

 

 

*

 

 

Later in the morning, Bucky woke from a nightmare.

He pitched from the bed and into the bathroom, retching into the hand over his mouth. He held T’Challa’s expensive toilet bowl close; they were well acquainted by now, and Bucky gave it everything. His skin burned. He barely noticed Steve’s presence until it was over.

“I got you,” Steve murmured, holding Bucky’s hair back with a loose fist. “I got you. Best, first, forever.”

Bucky made an involuntary, plaintive sound of pain, and slumped back against Steve, shivering. Steve stroked his hot cheek. The bathmat was unbelievably soft beneath them. With his throat raw as cut glass and his head supported by Steve’s shoulder, they sat there a while, recovering.

Bucky asked, “S-Steve?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Did I have a m-mom?”

Steve stilled beside him. “Yeah,” he said, sounding as rough as Bucky felt. “Of course you had a mom. We both did.”

“I r-remember,” Bucky conceded. “A little. I was just thinking. Machines. Weapons for p-people to point and shoot as they p-please. They don’t have those.”

“No,” Steve confirmed. “They don’t.”

“I was doing so well,” Bucky said, turning into Steve’s neck. “I went to therapy. I got my arm b-back. I had sex with my best guy without t-tearing off my skin. Or yours. Things were good. I w-was. Good.”

“You’re still good, Buck,” Steve said. He smoothed his hair back to kiss his sweaty brow. “This is a bad moment. It doesn’t define you, and it won’t last. I promise.”

 

 

*

 

 

The deactivation sessions continued.

The more Bucky and Noluvo worked to carve, the more old demons emerged. He felt like he was backsliding, after all he'd accomplished in Bucharest, but she was quick to remind him that recovery wasn’t linear. He repeated it to himself like a prayer: process, process, process.

Some days, he spoke English. Some days, Russian, or German, or Mandarin, or mixes. Some days, he didn’t speak, only shook, unsteady, and stared at his shoes.

“Have you considered learning sign language?”

Bucky didn’t lift his gaze from the floor— couldn’t. Against p-p-protocol. Eye c-c-contact is n-n-non-compliant. Do not engage with handler. His chest was full of stones.

“It would be a useful substitute if these nonverbal periods continue,” Noluvo suggested. “I’m sure Steve would be willing to learn it with you.”

Stevie’s hard of hearing in his right ear, some unmangled section of Bucky’s brain supplied. But the 30’s had favored oralism over ASL; Steve had read lips and asked for repetition more often than he’d used the simple, shortcut gestures known as home sign.

They bought a book online, and set to work learning it together, a few words each day, until they had a repertoire of basic requests.

One evening, Bucky pressed a fist to either side of his chest and made a shaking motion, testing the boundaries of his new knowledge: the sign for bath.

Steve watched his movements carefully, then replied, “I’ll draw you one.”

Not long after, Bucky sat in the tub, hugging his knees to his chest. The warm water was saturated with swirls of blue and pink. Steve scrubbed shampoo into his scalp with gentle hands, keeping it out of his eyes.

“All good?” he murmured.

Bucky nodded. If something made him feel unsafe, he never needed to tell Steve twice. He wanted to express how much that meant to him, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead, he touched two fingers to his chin and extended them toward Steve, like a kiss. Thank you. He repeated the motion with four fingers, brushing his hand down toward his chest. Sugar.

Steve smiled.

 

 

*

 

 

“Can we d-do a f-f-free association lightning round for the numbers?” Bucky asked. “L-Like, I’ll just say anything that comes to mind? They’re not that deep, I don’t think.”

“If you prefer,” Noluvo said, not sounding thrilled about it.

“One, nine, seventeen. Together they’re my b-birth year, a little bit. 1917.”

“Okay. Now individually. One.”

“Uh, alone. L-Lonely. First c-candidate for the Winter Soldier project.”

"Nine.”

“Heads of HYDRA. Letters in Armin Z-Zola’s name, fucking narcissist. Age, my dad slapping Anika around and me ch-chomping his finger so hard I hoped it’d fall off. Homophone, means no in German, usually followed by some k-kind of corporal punishment. Uh, that’s all I got. Don’t want to t-talk about any of it.”

Noluvo shrugged. “Fine. Seventeen.”

Bucky sucked in a harsh breath, socked hard in the stomach by a memory. “The f-first time Stevie and I made love.”

Noluvo gave him a penetrating look. “‘Not that deep,’ you don’t think?”

Bucky laughed a little, abashed. “Yeah, uh, there m-might be something to th-that one.”

“I was not aware there was a physical relationship present. It began when you were seventeen?”

“Y-Yeah. I—” Bucky was having a touch of trouble breathing. “I d-don’t want to— Is it okay if I k-keep this one? For myself?” It felt precious; private.

“It’s your time,” Noluvo said. “My only concern is how we will approach the code word without it. Can you talk around the details?”

“I can t-try. Steve, uh, he m-made the first move...”

They’d orbited around each other for so long, Bucky never found out what caused the crash. Years of burning looks, brushing hands— it could have been anything, added up. All he knew was that Steve broke first. Fresh from a fight, eyes glowing like hot coals, he’d yanked his bruised knuckles from Bucky’s care and said, Goddamn it, I don’t want to wait anymore, before pulling Bucky into a kiss that could have seared strip steak.

It was probably for the best that he didn’t recall the actual sex— they’d gotten a lot better at it as time went on. But Steve’s voice trembling when he said, I can’t pretend I don’t want you, trembling when he said, Oh, Bucky, trembling when Bucky touched where they coalesced, like a covalent bond, finally stable— that, he would never forget. Not now that he'd found it again.

“Then we were— together, until— w-well, up until I died. At least, I think. We weren’t the m-most consistent, but there was n-nothin’ fuckin’ casual about it, either. His dish during the war, that wouldn’t have been on the side. He wasn’t stepping out on me, or her. We had an understanding.”

“An open relationship?”

“I g-guess, yeah. I was always setting him up with girls. It wasn’t only about image. I figured there was no way in Hell I could keep him. No way I deserved to. And when I was drafted, well, I had to leave someone behind to look after his sorry ass. It couldn't be just anyone. It had to be someone who— who saw him. When he found Peg— Margaret Carter— I thought, Okay. I can stop w-worrying. I can rest. He'll be in capable hands when I go.

“You expected to die in the war?”

“Everyone did. In a distant way.” Bucky paused. “I expected to d-die because I couldn't imagine coming home. When they c-captured my unit, when the Nazis came over the hill, I remember thinking, Thank fucking god. It's over. Steve— he could've made it, married Carter, readjusted, but I was bent too far out of shape. Bent in the queer way, but also— I would’ve been like my dad, m-maybe. Down the bottle. B-broken. Know that happens to vets sometimes. After everything we see.”

“It can, but I don't believe that’s an accurate assessment in your case,” Noluvo said. “You were not broken then, and you are not broken now. You had your chance to turn to numbing agents once you were on your own, and you stayed sober and excruciatingly aware. And Steve most certainly did not adjust well to life after wartime.”

“To be f-f-fair, he was s-still fighting," Bucky pointed out. “W-wartime kind of only ended a few weeks ago.”

“But you do feel it has ended now.”

“For a w-while.”

Noluvo crossed her legs. “You told me that you want to take advantage of this intermission, this unexpected peace, while you still can. So. Are you? Are any of you?”

 

 

*

 

 

Some days, Bucky couldn’t get to his deactivation sessions at all.

“Bad day today?” Steve asked. Bucky felt the bed dip with his weight, and the warmth of a hand on his back.

Beneath the covers, Bucky nodded. His throat was raw from screaming in his sleep, crying and puking once he was awake, and he didn’t have the energy to stutter his way through an explanation. He might have found the energy for a semi-convincing protest— I d-d-don’t deserve — but Steve didn’t give him the opportunity. He climbed into the bed with Bucky and wrapped one massive arm around his waist.

They drifted in and out of sleep. The light changed around them, as though the world had moved on and left the two of them behind, breathing in the dark. Again.

The sky was dark when Bucky woke and stayed awake. The tower of his words, as easily as it’d crumbled, had been rebuilt by rest. He snaked his arm out of the covers for the glass of water on his nightstand, sat up a little, then said, “You awake, hotshot?”

Steve shifted in the space next to him. He’d been trying his best to be still, silent, but Bucky could see through him, straight to the other side. “Uh-huh.”

“I had a d-dream. Can I tell you about it? It was good,” Bucky assured him, before he could answer. “C-cross my heart.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

“I know. But it was.” Slowly, Bucky said, “I dreamt about a hot night in June. Or m-m-maybe a cool one in September. We’re sitting on the fire escape back in Brooklyn. You’re in. My lap. Your shirt’s all rucked up, my hand’s on your b-bare stomach. I’m nursing a Lucky. Chin hooked over your shoulder. The window we ducked through is open behind us. The city glows, this soft layer of orange sky, hanging over the tops of the buildings. It’s g-gotta be fall, ‘cause I remember this scratchy brown sweater, this wool sweater I’m wearing.” He frowned. “But at the s-same time we’re in our undershirts. Must’ve been a few times we sat like that.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, wonderstruck.

“Is that real?”

“That’s more real than yesterday,” Steve confessed. “More real than anything in years. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m still asleep in the Arctic, having one big, strange hallucination.”

“Too much salt pork before bed,” Bucky said. “You really think you’re f-f-friends with the god of thunder?”

Steve laughed, startled. “You know about Thor?”

“I r-read,” Bucky said easily. “You’re n-not asleep, dollface. You couldn’t m-make me up. You’re not mean enough. I heard you p-prayin’ for me the other night. God’s probably tired of hearing about me, huh?”

“It’s not only you I tell Him about,” Steve admitted, although, for the past thirty years of consciousness, it mostly had been. “Sometimes I pray for myself, too.”

“That’s g-good, baby. You deserve your own b-blessing once in a while. Can I k-kiss you?”

“Oh,” Steve said, pleasantly surprised. “Sure.”

In one fluid motion, Bucky spread himself on top of Steve and kissed the long line of his throat from jaw to collar-hollow. He started to say something, his voice low and husky. It took Steve a second to recognize it, and when he did, his stomach flipped over.

Bucky had always been devoted to words. Steve couldn’t count the number of times Sister Saoirse had scolded him for staring out the window during Mass, but Bible Study— that, Bucky had found fascinating, worthy of his fervor. He’d persevered through high school when most men their age were entering the workforce, and even before they'd tumbled into the Village scene together, he'd fancied himself a man of culture. He was always quoting prose at parties. He’d had a great memory. Maybe the next conversation Steve had with God could be about His sense of humor.

Clearly, Bucky’s passion for poetry had not faded, because he was reciting Psalm 23.

“‘The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He m-maketh me to lie d-down in green p-pastures. He leadeth me beside the still w-waters. He restoreth my soul. He guideth me in straight p-paths for His name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the v-valley of the sh-shadow of d-death, I will f-fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’”

Steve breathed shakily. His hands had gone to Bucky’s hips, holding him steady, but now he removed one and reached to twist their fingers together. On his breast and ribs and bare stomach, Bucky alternated kisses and hymns.

“‘Thy rod and Thy staff,’ ” Bucky murmured. “‘They c-comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the p-presence of mine enemies. Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup r-runneth over. Surely goodness and m-mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.’” Bucky lifted his head and looked Steve in the eye. “Ha! G-goodness and mercy won’t stop f-followin’ me. In ‘43, g-g-goodness and mercy hounded me all the way to an Austrian p-prison. I can’t f-fuckin’ get rid of goodness and mercy.

Steve laughed, and groaned. “Just try.”

Bucky resumed his worship with the rest: “‘And I shall d-dwell in the house of the Lord f-forever.’”

“Buck,” Steve said. “Bucky. Get up here. Kiss on me.”

Bucky kissed the swell of Steve’s inner thigh instead. “C-c-counterpoint,” he said. “I c-could eat you out.”

“Oh,” Steve said. “Well, okay.”

Steve knew about this sort of thing. He remembered it, from before the war, and during. He’d done it for Peg, once. He could still picture the way she’d rolled her nylons over her knees, wrapped her strong thighs around him, guided him; her voice warm and demanding, saying, “Here, darling, here.” Later, when she’d returned the favor, he’d asked her how she got to be so good at it. She’d laughed.

He’d loved it then, and he loved it now: the messy, human warmth of it, how easy and safe to have Bucky between his legs, licking up the center of him, his folds spread open with a V of fingers— how intimate. Bucky seemed to enjoy it, too; he ate Steve like he’d never seen a meal, like he was made of ambrosia. His stubble burned when Steve rocked against his face. He kept his hands in plain sight on the headboard of the bed.

“We should— should get some rope,” Steve said, biting his lip. “Or cuffs. So you don’t have to worry about my hands.”

Bucky made a muffled sound. Steve felt it in his stomach and on his clit, the low thrum of his voice. He knew Bucky would be dirty-talking a storm, if his mouth wasn’t otherwise occupied. Steve would have to help out.

“Would you want that? To tie me up? I could break anything we bought, easy,” Steve said. “So I’d have to hold myself back. Be real good for you.”

Bucky lifted his head. His mouth was shiny; his eyes were soft. “You always are, sweetheart.”

After, they curled up together again.

“Hey, ace, did we sleep together d-d-during the war?”

“Um,” Steve said. The lazy contentment bled from him. “Sure. We shared a bedroll.”

“You know what I m-mean. Were we f-fucking? ‘Cause I remember w-wanting you, but it’s—” Bucky frowned. “I’m having t-trouble— Feels like we did and we didn’t.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “That’s about right.”

The distance between them on the front had been unexpected, and unchartable. Beyond rations and Bucky’s dawn debrief, the bedroll was the brunt of what they’d shared. Bursts of desperate hands went unacknowledged once the danger had passed. Moments of tenderness were short-lived. Bucky had still held him, or allowed himself to be held, sometimes, or touched Steve’s face like he was memorizing sacred text, but there was always a restraint to his motions; a vacancy in his eyes, a tremor in his hands that seemed only to settle with his rifle scope. That caged creature Steve had witnessed upon waking him from cryofreeze was born before the fall.

“You wouldn’t even look me in the eye most days,” Steve said quietly.

“Couldn’t,” Bucky said, voice thick. “Too scared of what I m-might see.”

“Because—” Steve didn’t want to know. “Because I was so different?”

“Because I was. Shade of my f-f-former self. Guess we’re still b-beating that horse.”

Steve thought about Sam’s burning question, and about Bucky saying, Liked you, when you were small, as though he’d been forced to bury someone. “Do you ever miss me being— like before?”

“I don’t miss p-prayin’ for your eternal soul every time you tackled a flight of stairs, that’s for f-fuckin’ sure.” Bucky wet his lips. “I don’t miss people overlooking you, underestimating you— or w-worse, telling you to your fuckin’ f-face that you were inferior, when I knew you were b-better than sliced b-bread, even before you technically counted as an invention.” He turned over, so they were eye to eye. “What about you, slugger? You miss me having two arms?”

Guilt burned hot in Steve’s gut. “No. I miss— I miss what you having two arms would mean . That HYDRA never had you. That you never hurt.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “So. I miss us bein’ young. Unscathed— m-mostly. But I can’t miss you, honey. You’re here.”

Steve grabbed his hand— the metal one. "We're here."