It takes a while.
Bucky's awake, and it takes a while, but he calls. It's more than three weeks before he calls, but he calls. Steve notices every day that he's not calling, but who's keeping track? A day since Steve learned Bucky was awake and no call. A week, ten days, seventeen days with no call and Steve's fingers start to play at the plastic of his phone, flipping it open to check that it's on, charging it obsessively, ensuring that it has service—furiously stands on the nearest elevated platform when it does not, even in the middle of breakfast.
"Are you going to call him?" Natasha asks, not bothering to look at Steve as he stands on his chair in the hotel cafe.
"He'll call me when he's ready," Steve says, holding his phone casually straight in the air.
So it's three weeks and a couple of days; three weeks, two days and five hours, to be specific. And when the phone finally lights up, Steve snatches for it and massages at his eyes—not answering, gripping it tight, fingers creaking around it, his bones vibrating with the ringer until his knuckles turn white.
He takes a steadying breath, clears his throat of obstruction.
An eternity later, eyes closed—he answers.
Bucky takes a long moment before saying anything.
Shuri, one of the few bright lights left on this harrowing shit of an earth, had explained to him what she'd done while he was still sitting there trying to make sense of his surroundings. The lights were too bright. He didn't understand the tech around him. He wasn't with Hydra; several months had passed. It was 2017 and he was in Wakanda and this whiz of a kid made copies of his brain until she found a way to get him closer to freedom.
"The brain is like a computer," she explained, cheerfully scrolling through displays that Bucky found impossible to parse. "Not precisely, of course; the brain is a lot more difficult to understand than a computer. Signals and synapses without a motherboard…" She pulled a face. "Complicated. But generally speaking, the brain stores information in certain places, and the pathways between locations can be disrupted. Your captors disrupted them. Now I have disrupted them again." Shuri gave a shambling smile. "Returned it to what is closer to its normal routine, anyhow. I wish I could tell you the process was flawless…"
"Never counted on flawless," Bucky croaked. "Lucky for functional."
"Well, you are certainly functional," Shuri said, and Bucky felt faintly relieved he'd managed to string together a coherent sentence. "I am hardly an amateur. The problem with stasis, of course, is that your brain has been stagnant through the ordeal, which means the connections I reforged are yet untested; they may seem strange to you. You may experience gaps, lapses in…" She hesitated. "In certain memories."
Bucky might have been out of it, but he'd understood her meaning. Seventeen years old and this kid's seen more out of his head alone than Bucky himself can realistically handle.
"These can be fixed," Shuri went on, as Bucky leaned, head in hand. "Living your life, making use of your working memory… these will help to mend the gaps. I understand you may wish to avoid these memories for practical reasons, but this is not wise; see what you can access, make a note of what you cannot. In a few weeks' time we will try to map what problems remain and see if we might not do some stitching up ourselves."
"No," said Bucky, raising his chin. "I'd rather patch what's left on my own."
Shuri surveilled him, then nodded curtly. "Well then, you might help me by taking notes regardless. I invented this process for you, did you know? All between leading and running a technology outpost in your United States..." She said it with faux airiness, waving a hand. "Have you been to Oakland? I understand each coast believes itself best—these things matter to Americans. Perhaps not. I have not been to the east coast, but I would like to. I am a busy woman. My brother is King now, and he ruins things. Would you believe that? Well—you ruin things as well. I suppose you are bound to empathize with him more than me. Meanwhile the rest of us are left to tidy up."
Bucky winced, barely keeping up. "Sorry."
"Sorry? What for?" She waved a hand again. "No matter. I have performed digital brain surgery, you are bound to be out of it. But you will feel better in time."
"It always takes time."
Shuri stopped, looked at him. Bucky closed his eyes. The only noise in the room was the clean, high whirr of tech he didn't understand.
"I called your husband."
Bucky's eyes flew open. "My what? My husband?"
Bucky rolled his eyes. "He tell you he's my husband?"
"No." But then she was evasive; suddenly she wouldn't look at him. She would have seen Steve, floating through his memories, doing God knows what. To a kid, they probably did look married—or otherwise bound together, anyway. Another thing Bucky'd rather not think about. "He knows you are awake. He said he would wait for your call."
"I told him not to expect it anytime soon." She winked at him. "As you said—these things take time."
Bucky felt another rush of gratitude, already out of ways to express it. "We will have to find you a place to rest," Shuri went on, as though he wasn't just staring dumbly without contributing, and in a matter of days he was given a house—one room, sure, but a house nonetheless—in a rural village with clear sight lines, overlooking a vast lake, nestled in a valley of unfathomable green.
Shuri was right. There's a fog around things. Sometimes his thoughts seem to skip a beat, like there's something escaping him—a forgotten word, a missing stair, a phonograph needle jumping the track. She was right about another thing: it gets better over time. Bucky remembers things he's not sure he did before. It leaves him wondering if Shuri made some new connections, broke through some kind of wall. He wonders what Hydra did to him in the first place that she undid, if there's things he's remembering for the first time in years.
The village may be restful, but it's far from quiet. He is surrounded by the sounds of life and living. The kids, initially wary of him, have begun to adopt him and mock him in turns, giving him different nicknames according to how fond they are of him that day. They seem to be sticking to White Wolf lately. It's fitting enough. He gives a gamely growl and chases them to giggles and screams if they annoy him too long. Otherwise he endeavors to keep to himself, standing at the sidelines, taking solitary walks, trying to pick up Xhosa by ear.
Shuri comes by to scan his brain now and then. He'd refuse to let her, except he'd never realized how non-intrusive this shit could be. He just sits there and answers questions for an hour wearing a stupid headband, and then he's done. It helps her research; doesn't hurt him at all. It's the least he can do.
She also periodically scolds him for being lazy, for not contributing to the village. There's tests, more invasive ones, Shuri wants to do before fitting a prosthetic, so he delays as long as he can. The task becomes finding things for a one-armed man to do. He's strong. That helps. He meets with village elders, who are unimpressed with the notion that he's useless the way he is. He's told to herd goats, hold heavy things, help prep for community meals. He does as he's asked, and happily.
It's good to be busy. Eventually people even seem happy to see him. That feels… nice. Rare. He has acquaintances now—people who'll make derisive remarks about how much shit he causes them even as they welcome him in.
They don't think he's gonna kill them, is the thing. For the first time in a while, he doesn't think they're going to kill him either.
Day by day, the blessed drudgery of quotidian life is restored to him. He has swaths of time that remain his own. No one here makes unreasonable demands; there is no war. He can close his eyes without the harsh sounds of a city dumping adrenaline into his system every fifteen minutes.
Each morning, he wakes with the sun and washes his feet in the lake's still waters. Every evening, he does the same. A day opens and closes again; he has survived. He'll survive another.
The water laps at his ankles. His ritual. His choice.
After three weeks of this, he asks Shuri for her communicator. She gives it to him with only a remark about having kept his husband too long. It sits on his wrist, a beaded bracelet—stylish enough, somehow transmitting his voice to Steve's phone. Make a connection with a device of a similar kind and the person you're calling could appear holographically, as on a screen.
Bucky looks absently at the place on his wrist where Steve's face would have been—forlorn, just a little, when nothing is there.
The lake is still around his feet. Sun streaks its rays across the water, bleeding in vectors of orange and red. He's got Steve on the line and jack shit to say.
Bucky buries his fingers in his hair, just to get the damn communicator out of his sight. It's best to stop looking.
"Hey," Bucky croaks.
The word echoes back to him through Steve's shitty phone. At first Steve doesn't say anything back. They sit a while in tinny silence; Bucky imagines where he might be. There's no background noise to speak of—an apartment, probably, or a hotel. There's a click from a radiator, a distant buzz.
"Hi," Steve says, finally. He sounds happy, far away. "How... are you?"
The restraint in it. God, Bucky wishes he could see him right now. "I'm alright," he says. It's the answer everyone wants. To go down the list, it almost sounds true: not killing anyone. Forming full sentences. Knowing what fucking year it is. Yeah, he's alright. "I heard Shuri, uh. Called you. When I first…"
"I didn't—I mean, it's not that I—"
"Buck." Steve exhales through his nose, like there's too much to keep in. "I didn't expect you to… you don't have to explain." Bucky imagines him leaned against a wall somewhere with his head tipped back, his eyes closed, tired, some tiny flip phone pasted to his face. The image fogs, but the basics are there. That's better than nothing. "Been saying for days you'd call when you wanted."
Bucky moves his feet around in the lake. "So you've been sitting around for the last three weeks with one hand around your phone, is that it?"
"No." It sounds like he's been caught in a lie. Bucky can see him clearly, then: all five-foot-four of him, curled up on the bed. Arms crossed, twisted and stubborn.
But Steve's not small anymore. That peculiar fog again, rolling through.
"How you been?" Bucky asks, instead of hanging up. "Six months, huh? Some new hell been raised?"
"I wouldn't say it's been raised, exactly," Steve replies, but then he sighs, as though rethinking himself. "They've been good. We're, uh… on the lam, but, you know. Apart from that..."
Bucky smiles, tired on his behalf. "Staying out of trouble?"
"You know me," Steve says dryly, and Bucky exhales a laugh; almost gets a grip on how Steve looks when he smiles. "I'd tell you what I'm doing but, uh—"
"The lam, and all."
"Yeah. Loose connections."
He means the line. "Don't worry about it."
The pause bears weight. Tension pulls at Bucky, like there's something Steve wants to say.
"What is it?" Bucky asks.
"I just…" Steve hesitates. "I kinda got the impression something's coming. You haven't… I mean, is there anything—"
He has been hearing things—fragments, usually from Shuri, usually when he's not supposed to be listening. "Yeah, people around here seem to be saying the same thing."
"Shuri wants me to... prepare, for something, I don't know. I don't know what she knows, I'm… not there yet." He shakes his head, winces; digs his fingers deeper into his hair. He hadn't wanted to get into this. "I'll let you know what I find out."
"Don't strain yourself."
"No strain. Like I said, I think it's in my future anyway."
An ominous pause. Bucky hears Steve take a breath. "Buck. Are you safe?"
"Safe? Yeah. Don't worry about me, Rogers. I'm not the one on the lam." He pulls a face. "Or, I am, but…"
"Is… are you…" Steve huffs. "Is she, or anyone, making you... do things. For Wakanda."
Suddenly it dawns on him what Steve's trying to say. "What? Oh, God, no." Bucky laughs, relieved. "No, no, nothing like that."
"I'm here of my own volition. I'm just… not immune to the fact that I have a debt to repay."
"You don't have a debt—"
"Oh, shut up for once, would you? My choice. Thanks for looking out for me, but—"
But I don't need it, he doesn't add. He knows Steve hears it anyway. It's too close to the argument they had before he went into the ice; they don't need to have it again.
"Well, okay," says Steve. "As long as you're alright."
"Work to do. Been out of the good fight long enough."
A silence falls. Ripples cast over the water, as though showing the brink of their argument as it's being pushed back down.
"And you?" Bucky asks, quiet. "You're safe?"
For a second, Steve doesn't say anything. "We're muddling through," he finally admits.
So it's big, this thing he's doing. "We talking Hydra scale?" Bucky asks on a sigh.
"Maybe… bigger. We got…" But then Steve trails off, like he doesn't want to say it. "I don't want to worry you."
"It's no worry."
"But it's worth..."
"You're trying to warn me."
"Yeah. More or less."
Bucky nods. "I'll keep an eye out, let you know if I see anything bigger than Hydra." The water bleeds red, lit afire with crimson hues. Bucky pulls his feet back, before it gets a chance to sink into his skin.
"Thanks for calling," Steve says, when the silence grows long.
"Yeah," says Bucky. "You could've gotten in touch, if you'd..."
"Yeah, I know."
It's not like Steve never had any restraint; it's just that he never wanted to use it. Ten years of Steve flying fist-first into ill-advised fights and now he's barely saying enough to carry the conversation.
"You..." Bucky starts to say, but he loses his nerve; he clears his throat, puts his hand over his mouth. "You're not pissed?"
"Pissed? Why? At who?" A scrambling sound, like he's sitting up. "Who should I be pissed at?"
"What?" God, he makes things difficult. "No. I'm talking about me."
"Oh." Steve sounds surprised. "No. Why would I..."
Bucky's mind taps against that argument they'd had, or half of one, just before he'd gone into cryo—"You can't save me," Bucky'd shouted at him, fingers in his hair, eyes wide with terror and fury. Steve had just stared at him, brow peaked, warded off by his furor. "Get it through your fucking head! I'm not yours to save!"
Steve had stepped forward and held him then, just held onto him with those ridiculous arms until Bucky sunk against him, tremors and all. They hadn't talked much after that. Used touch instead of speaking, the old Barnes-Rogers standby.
Bucky scans over his own fingers with his thumb, hating talking on the phone. It's not that he wishes Steve was here, exactly; it's that—
An explosive knock, as though right in his ear. Bucky jumps; he tucks his head against the crook of his arm, but there's nothing there to shield him. Just scars and a sorry sheet of steel knotted over with cloth.
Voices, then; Natasha, and Sam, talking about falafel. Steve swears. "Sorry," he says, voice low.
The sound on this bracelet thing is really too fucking good. He lies on the ground, hand in his hair, and waits for his heart rate to temper down, letting his feet slip back into the water now that he doesn't have to watch the blood try to pull him in.
Bucky hears Natasha fake-gasp from afar. "Did he call?" she asks.
"He called," Steve says, thin.
"You're kidding," says Sam. He's louder than he should be, like he's putting his mouth right next to the receiver. "After all that?"
"Sam," Steve grits out, then Bucky hears a brief struggle; Sam, laughing; the closing of a door; and, finally, Steve's slow exhale.
"That's the problem with a squad," Bucky says, smile splitting through his apprehension. "Always crawling up your ass."
"Tell me about it," Steve breathes. "Can't seem to get rid of them no matter how hard I try."
"Aw, they're just doing their jobs."
"What, you put 'em up to this?"
"Threatened them myself. Think they know the consequences of what would've happened if any harm came to you while I was out."
"Rich from a guy who," Steve begins, but he doesn't finish.
Bucky shuts his eyes. He shot him. That's not what Steve was going to say, but it's what made him stop talking.
"All three of you sharing a room?" Bucky croaks, hiding his face behind his fingers.
"Yeah," says Steve, sounding unhappy. "It's just for now. The things we're trying to hack… it's not luxury living. Better to stay together."
"Or—well. Either safer or stupider. Guess we go together or not at all."
"Less casualties that way." Bucky waves a hand. "I mean, if they try to take you out."
Bucky can almost hear Steve frown. "Guess so."
"Used to bunk up same way with the Howlies, Steve. If we'd spread out they'd have taken us one by one."
"That's true." Steve does sound more resolved. "My back'll just be happy when I don't have to share a double anymore."
"Please. Everyone knows you hog."
"You haven't slept with Natasha." A gripping pause. "Not," Steve adds, hasty, "that I have, either. Not in the way—"
"Steve," Bucky says. "I don't care."
"I'm just saying."
Bucky smiles. He can't help it. "I got no claim over you."
Steve lets a beat pass. Then he takes a slow, careful breath. "Yeah, you do."
Bucky doesn't know what to say to that. Steve gets the message. "Love to have you with us," he says, hastening them away from the precarious territory of feelings. "I know you won't come, but I want it on the record."
"Yeah, Rogers," Bucky says, soft. "I know."
"I, uh..." But he trails off.
He may not have gotten it out, but Bucky knows that, too.
"I'm in this village," Bucky says, when the silence starts to dig at him. "Outside the city. It's small, but the people here, they're really... They're making me part of their lives. Of their life, here. Think they're accepting to a fault."
"Don't think that's something they can be faulted for."
"They've got no reason to be."
"The whole thing is that they don't need one."
"Stop," Bucky gripes. Steve snickers. "I'm good here, is what I'm saying. Until it's time to… move on, or… Think I'm pretty much staying put for a while."
"Okay," says Steve, and sounds like he understands. "As long as you're…"
"Yeah. I'm still…" He doesn't know what he is. "I mean, there's stuff I can't quite—get to. Think I got a bit of time here until things are less… cracks in the sidewalk. I dunno how to describe it. Shuri's helping me. Then I guess I'm gonna see what they need. If they need anything."
"Okay," Steve says again, more hesitant this time. Bucky can almost see the grim look on his face, conveying all the things he's trying not to say. Almost. "But… you're good. Generally, I mean, you're…" A harsh inhale, like he's cringing. "Warm?"
"I'm half a block from the equator, Steve," Bucky says, fond of him. "I get any warmer I'm gonna explode."
"You know what I mean."
"I'm warm. I got a roof over my head, food a-plenty. I eat any more I'm gonna roll my way out of here."
"Good," Steve says, and sounds like he means it.
Another silence. The sun, having long since dipped behind the trees, has left the sky an astonishing purple. Bucky's never seen it like this; he's never lain on his back, hand by his ear, off his guard, laughter echoing out to him from within the village. Not since before the war.
"I miss you, Buck."
Bucky tries to see Steve's face among the violet stars. He can't quite get there. It's close, like if he could just reach out…
He closes his fingers at nothing. The image dissolves, a lifting mist.
"Miss you too, Rogers." And he does. He has for years.
"No," Bucky says, before he can even finish. "You've got your mission, I've got mine. Stick with your unit."
Maybe Steve hears the word peeling at the corners, showing all Bucky isn't saying waiting behind. It's half a second from turning over, becoming the other thing, the thing he wants—Bucky just wouldn't know how to explain it to him.
It's just that... God fucking help him, all he wants is to be able to see Steve's face.
If Steve hears it, he doesn't argue. In the distant background, Natasha laughs with open abandon.
"Go," Bucky says. "Eat. Be with your people."
"How about I take you with me? You don't have to say anything, just… be with us, for a minute."
Bucky thinks about this, then cranes his head back while he's lying in the ground. In the far distance, he can still see Shuri's white robes glowing in the moonlight as she chats with the village elders. "At some point I'm gonna have to give the lady her phone back," Bucky says, straightening.
"She'll come and get it when she wants it," says Steve, and he's probably right. "Come on. I'll describe the falafel in excruciating detail, give you a surround experience."
"I'll stay on the line if you don't do that. And hold the phone away from your mouth when you eat, would you?"
"Alright," Steve agrees.
Bucky almost lasts five minutes before it all gets to be too much.
But it is five minutes. Five minutes is a start.
Days pass. The sun rises and sets, rises and sets. He survives each one; he'll survive another. A few cracks mend. The goats get fed. He washes his feet in the lake, morning and night.
Nightmares. Ten minutes later, as Bucky drifts on the brink of consciousness, his mind not committing him to either world, singing outside pulls him back into the land of the living. Xhosa, words Bucky doesn't quite catch, but it comforts him anyway—an early warning system, for when the hand reaches slowly in.
Whoever it is leaves cup just inside. The singing retreats; Bucky gets up, after a while. The drink's still warm. He downs it all; drifts back to sleep not long later.
Nightmares help him to remember. When he wakes up again, late in the day, he takes the notes Shuri asked him to take.
He takes his time washing his feet in the lake.
Shuri comes back early—that afternoon, as Bucky's pulling his robes back on. He bathes in the privacy of his borrowed home, using a wooden trough filled with water heated over the fire. His scars and metal scraps are still hard for him to face, so he isolates himself, shuts out the fires, sponges off in the dark. His body's one of those things he's not used to, yet, especially without another arm to help him pretend he's intact.
It still jars him, sometimes, to have to be as aware of his body as he is.
"Are you decent, Bargy?"
Shuri does this now. Bucky's willingly subjected himself to having his name butchered by a teenaged genius born in the twenty-first century. "I'm decent," he rasps, voice raw from disuse. "Early, aren't you? Can't be time for more torture already."
"Torture!" Shuri scoffs, pulling back the curtain to his home. Sunlight spills rudely within. Bucky recoils out of instinct, even as Shuri rolls her eyes at him through the glare. "I provide you with life and health, yet you slander me with this 'torture'."
"That's an exaggeration," Bucky says, but as his eyes adjust, Bucky notices she doesn't have her usual gear. "What's wrong?"
"What's wrong!" she repeats, affronted. "Is that what you think when you see me, your doting patron?"
He tosses the towel aside from where it'd sat, still clenched, in his hand. "Shuri."
"Nothing's wrong. How far is it going to get you walking through life thinking something's wrong all the time?" But still, she steps back, her mouth falling into a thin, dark line. She holds the curtain aside with one hand. "Just don't harpoon the messenger."
Bucky stares. She nods her head toward the light. Slowly, shoulders fixing with suspicion, Bucky steps forward and squints into the afternoon.
A man is standing by the lake.
"He doesn't want me there."
"Ohhhhh," Natasha says, hitting Steve four times with a pillow, "my god."
"Ow," he says pointedly.
"That did not hurt." She's sitting with her legs folded in front of her, wearing her sleep shorts, picking at her meal with alternating vigor and dismissal. "Go to him."
"He doesn't," Steve says again, slowly, as Natasha shoves her feet in his face where he's lying at the foot of the bed, "want, me there. Stop that."
"Sam," says Natasha.
"You're an idiot," says Sam.
Steve raises his head only far enough to look at Sam where he, the only one dignified among them, sits at the table. "Yeah?"
Sam besets him with the kind of look that makes him feel like the biggest idiot on earth, which only underscores his point. Steve lets his head bounce back against the springs. "Just not like you to weigh in."
"He says he doesn't want you to come," Sam reasons, not bothering to conceal his exasperation, "but he says he misses you. You can't function for how much you want to see him."
"I 'functioned' fine earlier when I stopped that Toomes lackey from clobbering you in the face."
"We're pulling receipts now, is that it?"
"You should go," Natasha says around a bite of falafel.
"I'm not going," says Steve.
"We're almost done here," Sam says. "Got a lull in the chatter; was gonna suggest we take a swing through Greece for a few days, catch some sun. Some, y'know." He pauses. "R&R."
Steve frowns and cranes his neck up again. Sam's mouth tightens. "Some of us are trying to have functional personal lives," he confers, pointedly.
"Oh my god," Natasha says, rolling up from the bed. "I can't be the only one who's not getting laid, this is depressing."
"Who's getting laid?" Steve asks, weary.
"I am," Sam says, mouth full. "And so are you if you'd let me wingman for you even one time."
"I'm not going to Greece," Steve says, shutting his eyes.
"Speak for yourself," Natasha says, and the telltale sound of a high-five comes a second later. "Where you meeting her?"
"Been a few years since I've been there. It's nice."
"Okay," Steve says. "You guys go relax. I'll save the world, no problem."
"Keep that up," Natasha says, "and I'll put your hand in warm water while you sleep."
"You tried that already," says Steve.
"Fourth time's the charm," says Natasha.
"C'mon, Steve," says Sam. "Sun. Beach. Sand. What's stopping you?"
"It's not January in the Mediterranean."
"No, Sam, I'm pretty sure it's still January in the Mediterranean."
"Why do we hang out with him again?" Natasha asks Sam.
"Beats the hell out of me."
"I keep you alive?" Steve guesses.
The cold laughter from both parties doesn't bode well for his reputation.
Steve groans. Natasha clicks her tongue. "Well, we'll get a break from him soon enough," she says to Sam. "He's going to Wakanda."
"I'm not going to Wakanda," says Steve.
"Yes," Natasha says, "you are." She throws something down hard on the bed. Steve lifts his head and tries valiantly to read it without actually getting up; gets an eye-roll for his troubles. "That's the latest report from Stark. He deconstructed the shipment we sent him into its basic components, but even he can't seem to figure out how Chitauri weapons are supposed to work. Power source stayed live no matter what he did—plus you know how he is about this kind of thing. He's not exactly motivated to figure out how these things operate."
"It's not like we're trying to replicate it," Steve says.
"Of course not," says Natasha, and Steve sits up just to get a better look at her, at the way she shuts the tells out of her face. "But we're never going to know how to shut these things down until we understand how they work in the first place. Someone's leaving this tech behind, and it's a lot more efficient to shut it down than it is to ship it out. Right?"
Steve just stares at her. Natasha clicks her tongue and knocks on the papers she's thrown on the bed, like he's paying attention to the wrong thing. "Who's the only nation in the world with enough weaponry to shut the world down three times over," she asks, "who we could trust not to ruin an opportunity like this? The only people who might possibly understand how to build technology out of alien elements in the first place?" Natasha leans forward, both fists pressed against the bed. "Don't you think you'd better go explain the situation yourself?"
Steve stares at her. Then, slowly, the smile twitches onto his face.
"Yeah," Natasha says, patting fondly at his jaw. "That's what I thought."
There's something familiar in his stature, in the lines of his back—in the breadth of his shoulders, under the taut command of a cotton shirt. Bucky watches him watch the lake, taking note of the way he stands: feet apart, sleeves rolled to the elbows, hands shoved in his pockets.
Bucky knows him. He's not sure he's ever seen him so self-assured out of uniform, but he knows him.
As though responding to his thoughts, Steve turns just slightly toward him. Bucky's stomach jolts; he hadn't remembered the beard. He has no idea if he's seen it before. It obscures him, leaves Bucky squinting as he turns more fully.
A golden prince across a lawn of green.
Colours are so vivid to him these days.
Bucky takes a steadying breath. "You could've warned me," he mutters, sidelong.
"Didn't want to," says Shuri. For all she still sounds cocky, there's an apology in it, too.
Bucky nods. He'd wondered if this was a test of some kind. "I need a primer on the beard."
"It's, uh… is it... good?"
"Is it good, he asks me. I don't know if it's good. Now are you going to go to him, or are you going to stand there like a lost hippopotamus?"
Anxiety sparks in his chest. "Hippopotamus thing, definitely."
Shuri laughs and shoves him forward.
Bucky goes. Steve steps toward him. The air, no matter how dry, manages to condense between them as they close the distance. Bucky's heart rate skyrockets. It's like pieces of a puzzle are sliding into place, images of Steve in this body—now with a face, or at least some details—flashing into his head. This slope to his mouth; that knobby nose. The steadfast intensity of those steely blue eyes.
How had he forgotten any of this? It's so familiar to him now that Bucky wants to scream. His hand finds Steve's jaw once they get close enough, before Bucky can remember to reel himself in. He cups at his mandible, drags his nails through that shimmering beard.
"Hi," Bucky says. He'd aimed for a croak, but what comes out is a whisper.
"Hi," Steve replies. He stands there and lets Bucky learn him, or re-learn him, whatever this is. Here Steve is; Bucky's vision clears and then blurs again, the fog rolling in and then back. A recalcitrant mist.
Steve cocks his head. He sets the tips of his fingers at the inside of Bucky's wrist, thumb brushing at the bones of his hand. "Alright?"
Bucky nods. His mouth pinches small before blooming slow, tight, into a facsimile of a smile. "Good to see you," Bucky rasps, "that's all." He means it. He hopes Steve can hear it, through all his apprehension.
It seems that he does. Steve steps forward, slow, hand slipping to rest at his back. Bucky lets himself be dragged in—hooks his arm around Steve's neck, and holds. Steve's form is so familiar, pressed against him like this—these imposing lines. Bucky remembers his smell, God, the way he feels; he breathes Steve in, warmth coiling, some feeling building he's not sure he's earned.
"Sorry." Bucky fists his hand in Steve's shirt and pulls back. It's a staying gesture; an attempt to keep him at bay. "I didn't sleep right. Might be kind of..."
"No problem." Then Steve's warmth is gone; he steps back, shoves his hands in his pockets again.
For all Bucky's wanted to see his face, he now finds his gaze trying to fix anywhere else. "How long you here for?" he asks, made awkward by the sudden absence of touch.
"Few days," says Steve. "Got in this morning."
"Not wasting any time, huh?"
A crease in Steve's brow. Maybe that was the wrong thing to say. "Shuri," Steve begins, but then his gaze deflects to the background. Bucky wonders which of Shuri's inventive pantomimes she's brought to the occasion of telling Steve to shut the fuck up from afar.
Bucky sets his jaw against a smile. "She's as bad as you."
"Think she might be worse than me."
"I was gonna give it to at least tomorrow," Steve demurs.
"My God. Behold the restraint."
"Credit where it's due." His eyes, sparkling blue, have fixed on Bucky again, canting down to his lips and back up again. Bucky feels a rush of—something; longing, maybe. Something else he's not sure how to name.
He takes a steadying breath. Steve takes one with him, watching him struggle. "I can go," Steve says, exhaling. "If you're not up to..."
"No," says Bucky, quick.
Steve must hear the edge in his voice, or whatever it is. "Not interrupting big plans?"
Bucky shrugs. "Stare at the lake. Walk around the lake. Put my feet in the lake."
"Full day, then."
"Taxing. Don't know how I'll fit it all in."
Steve smiles. It's a good smile. Warm. "Mind if I join you?"
"Not gonna be much of a conversationalist."
"After six months of the Dolly Sisters bickering at every turn? I can stand the quiet."
Bucky stares at him another second, then nods him to the same path he always takes—barely much of a path at all, wending clockwise around the lake, the trodden ground fading fast into brush as they set off together into the trees.
The wilderness affords Bucky the freedom to get his thoughts in order as Steve loses himself in their environs. Bucky shares what information he has about newfound birds and makes up the rest. Steve can always tell which is which; grins wryly at the lies and smiles much more earnestly when Bucky knows enough to tell him the truth. This is the Steve he remembers—not in shape, but in spirit. This is the boy with rickety knees that Bucky used to lie to about a future spent in California sun, when it was too cold for his joints to function and he'd curled by the range for warmth.
He's taller, now. That's all. Tired and war-worn, but Steve Rogers straight through.
"Bad sleep all that's bothering you?" Steve finally asks, when Bucky's run out of facts to make up.
Bucky takes a breath. "Bad sleep's more a symptom of the problem. Signed up for brain damage to fix my brain damage. I'll take a shitty sleep if that's the trade-off. Pretty much just lucky to be alive and walking."
Steve stays quiet a while. "I didn't realize it was that bad."
"Shuri keeps telling me she's not an amateur. I was probably always gonna make it out fine."
"She's… scarily sharp."
"Just because you and me are dumb as shit, pal..."
Steve smiles. "Reminds me of Becca a little."
"Yeah. She was smart as hell, too."
Rebecca had passed her exams magnificently; Bucky'd read about it in the letters she'd sent and kissed the paper, not caring how it looked. The rest he'd had to learn after the fact. According to the records, she'd gotten herself saddled with a husband and two kids before she could make anything of herself in science, the way she'd wanted. She had worked as a bank teller on and off; that was better than nothing, so far as Bucky was concerned. A varied life for a woman, back then. It wouldn't have been fair of him to come home from the war and get on her case for not taking her potential into her own hands, either… but he would have. He felt a budding disappointment for her—one of the first indications he'd had that he'd loved something apart from Steve, sitting among census records in the NYC Municipal Archives almost three years ago.
Ever since, he's woken up with Becca occasionally on his mind. Sometimes it takes him a while to remember she's been long since dead. Bucky's got six nieces and nephews from between his sisters, but they're old now. Most of them had kids, who had kids of their own. His own nieces are grandmothers.
He wonders if any of them became accountants, like he was supposed to. Became scientists, the way Becca wanted.
"Shuri's a scientist," he says aloud.
Steve nods, like he's followed the thought with him. "Maybe that's it."
"Plus she's had practice." It doesn't follow from the rest, but—
"What, with T'Challa? Yeah, somehow I think even we're getting a pared down version of Her Royal Magnificence."
Bucky stares at him. Steve always knows exactly what the fuck he's talking about. "God, it's good to see you," Bucky mutters, feeling sweeping through him. He looks to the ground, embarrassed with gratitude. "I wanted," he adds; "maybe it was stupid. But I wanted to be further along, in this. Or over it, maybe, before I saw you. Thinking straight."
Steve lets him lapse into silence again, but something lingers in the air. "Are you disappointed?" Steve asks.
"No. I'm just—"
"I really did come for work."
"—warning you, maybe. It doesn't matter." In the shade of the trees, amid the distant cackle of a thousand unknown birds, Bucky thinks Steve looks like he belongs among them: a man of the wilderness. "I like your beard."
A smile sparks on Steve's lips. "Thank you. Your hair looks… good, you look good."
"Kind of a low bar to clear. I bathe, I pass expectations."
"Well. You look settled, at least."
Bucky doubts that, too, but there's only so much arguing it's wise to do with Steve Rogers in the Wakandan woods. "Can't beat the hospitality here," Bucky sighs. "Woke up in the middle of the night last night, had a sedative drink delivered inside my door without my even having to do anything."
"Not… you know, just herbs or whatever. People know about… dreams, I guess."
Steve nods a while. Bucky hears the gears turning in his head. "You get a lot of nightmares?"
Bucky smiles, faint. "Guess it's part of remembering. Brain putting itself back together in my sleep."
A heavy pause. Bucky shuts his eyes. God, he's a fucking idiot.
"Remembering," Steve says.
Bucky berates himself for another long minute. "Shuri thinks it'll all come back, or… most of it, anyway. I remember almost everything as it is, but it's specifics I'm…"
Steve nods a long time, not saying a word, hands bunched in his pockets. Bucky imagines them clenched in fists, knuckles searing white. "What kind of specifics?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Look, I didn't even want you to be here for this. Is there anything you won't try to fix? Let me figure it out on my own."
"Maybe I can help."
"You can't. I mean…" He forces a steadying breath; lets it out slow. "You are," he says, thin. "Being here, it's… enough." He rubs a hand over his face, then adds, quieter: "I meant what I said."
Steve doesn't say anything for a while. He just walks with Bucky through the afternoon, until, finally, Steve hooks an arm around his neck and drags him close, lips to his brow, holding him there for a long, long time.
They don't say much until they're back in the village.
"I gotta sleep," Bucky says, when they get there. "Sometimes. In the middle of the day." Exhaustion's been chasing him through the trees; the sun's too bright for him, even in the woods. "Today's one of those."
Steve nods. "Okay."
"Sorry. You caught me on a—"
"No, it's—you do what you gotta do."
An awkward pause. Bucky tilts his face to the crystalline sky. "You staying in the palace?"
Steve nods again, lips pursed. "Different part of it this time. More guards? Chief of Staff looks at me like she kinda wants me to try something."
"Who, Okoye? Yeah, she's been protective of… the whole family lately, actually. I see a lot of her, too, hanging around little miss royal pain in the ass like I do."
"Have the impression things have changed around here lately."
Bucky nods. "People don't like to talk about it. Something happened a few months ago that changed the country's governance, customs…? I don't know. You know they're doing outreach now?"
"Heard something about that."
"Seems like damage was done, but…" Bucky looks around. "Seems fine to me."
"Doubt they'd tell outsiders about it."
"Bad enough we're here at all." He takes a breath. "Few days, you said?"
Steve nods. "Sam and Nat are… sunning themselves on some island in Greece, so—"
Bucky snorts into laughter. Steve gives a startled smile. "Boy," Bucky says. "Still hate normal people, huh?"
"I don't hate—"
"Taking time off and all."
"I—never said that. Not exactly—"
"Don't they know there's a war on?" But now he's stopped ribbing him and started remembering, and it makes him—makes them both—feel rigid and strained. "I tend to be more on top of my shit in the morning," Bucky says, just to get Steve to stop looking at him like that. "We can have lunch, take another walk around the lake... I dunno. It's not exactly—"
"Sounds perfect," Steve says. He slides his hand over Bucky's and grasps it loosely. "Tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," says Bucky, faintly bewildered, and then Steve's touch is gone as fast as it came.
"Have a nice nap," Steve says as he withdraws, and for a second, Bucky thinks he sees whatever's underneath that beard—thinks he sees the carve of his cheeks, the slant of his jaw, but the image disappears as fast as it came.
Bucky turns away, slouching back into his roundhouse without looking back. When he gets inside, he leans himself hard against the cool stone wall and breathes deep, eyes shut, for a long, long time.
"I am very important to the operations of the Kingdom," Shuri confers as she drives. Steve's not sure he's ever going to get used to these hover cars, or being driven around by a seventeen-year-old. It's hard to tell what the specific cause of the turbulence might be in this case. "You need a chauffeur tomorrow—too bad! You can find your way back yourself."
"And try not to interfere with anything you find along the way," Shuri adds, and then she rolls her eyes and changes her mind. She'll make arrangements for transport after all. "Can't trust a white man unattended on our soil."
Steve's not sure whether he was supposed to hear that, so he errs on the side of keeping his mouth shut. He sees why Bucky likes her. He's always had this thing about chatterboxes with ironclad wills. Shuri carries on a while about nothing specific, but she finally falls quiet again when she hits on something to do with Bucky.
Steve manages to wrench himself out of his head long enough to pull words out from his throat. "He says he doesn't remember… things."
Shuri looks at him sharply, then renews her focus on parking the hovercar. It's a smooth enough process; Howard Stark would be in fits. "He remembers plenty, thank you very much. I am hardly an amateur—"
"That's not what I meant. You told me that the memories from the war would… but he's acting like he doesn't remember me. Like he looks at me and sees..."
"I told you over the phone. The process was experimental, prone to—"
"I'm not faulting you. He just—seems lost, and placid, at the same time. I…" Steve sighs, setting a hand against his brow. "I'm just trying to understand."
The car is parked. Shuri turns to look at him, and for the first time, Steve sees something in her face—a strain not befitting someone her age.
She examines him in silence, as though trying to reconcile something about him. "A brain is like a computer," she says, careful, like she's given this speech before. Empathy folds at her brow. "Only not exactly. Information follows pathways, but there are fewer rules about how and where than there are in a motherboard. These pathways can be rewritten by any number of things—in fact are rewritten in the course of a person's development. With enough exposure, with enough... diversion, of a sense, natural or artificial, a person can come to make associations they did not previously make simply because they were guided to it."
She purses her lips, bows her head. Steve feels his brow fold to match her remorse. "I thought, at first," she says, looking up again, "that Barnes' enemies… had found you in his head, much as I had. I believed that, somehow, they must have created the machine that I later made—that they made copies of his brain to play with and alter. That they built the pathways that existed between memories of you and Barnes' instinct to commit massacres."
"Oh," Steve breathes, but Shuri holds up a finger.
"I was wrong," she says. "They were not so advanced. They used much more archaic, but no less effective, methods of remapping. Exposure, re-education, sensory deprivation, torture… the man that he used to be was replaced by connections they wanted him to make." She purses her lips and gives Steve a look. "The problem with their methods—and the luck with ours—is that brains, unlike computers, tend not to completely forget the way they used to make connections. They can be understood, with enough… models, with enough experiments, by stimulating the right memories and images and instincts."
"That's what you did," Steve says. "Woke those old paths up again."
"I made the attempt. I believe I often succeeded. But what I came to discover in these experiments is that connections—especially in the case of Barnes—are not often formed in a linear fashion. The same thoughts and images and memories and instincts that brought Barnes back to hmself, time and time again—to override the connections his enemies made and to re-form his own…" She looks at him. Steve's stomach sinks. "Involved you. With every connection Barnes had with his terrible past… there was also you. Sometimes indicrect, as though… as though Barnes was merely wishing to be in another place, in another time, when these terrible things were being done to him. When he was committing those terrible crimes. And even more recently, since his escape from Hydra—there you were again. In Washington, with the decline of Hydra. He has drawn on those moments of realization of who you were, of who he was, so often in the interim that you have become..."
She trails off. Steve gets the gist. He sets his head in his hand, elbow set against the dash. "He appears to have used you as a beacon of hope," Shuri goes on. "But those connections had to be undone, along with the harmful ones, in my remapping efforts. In un-creating those sleeper protocols that made him into a mindless killer, Captain Rogers—I had to erode certain elements of how he had come to remember you, when he summoned those images of you to carry him through. I had to… make sure that when he thought of you, he did not associate you with his torture, or… his crimes, any longer."
"Do not misunderstand me; it is not that he doesn't know you." Shuri surprises him by taking his hand, her slender fingers folding beneath and on top of his. "It is not even that he does not remember those events he has drawn on for protection. He knows you; believe me. You have been a constant for him; you were this for him even as you slept beneath the ice. If you trust nothing else, at least trust that he has had you to rely on all along, that it has gotten him get this far. It is just that he must rely on other things now, Captain, or else continue to exhaust your image in association with terrible things. Given the options, I truly believe the former is preferable for you both."
Steve sits there, one hand propped over his mouth, the other caught between Shuri's hands, body folded indelicately in the passenger seat of the King of Wakanda's hovercar. "This is not permanent," Shuri says. "These things, these details he has lost, will come back to him in part as he continues to use his mind, to exercise old connections and to forge new ones. He will come to remember significant portions of what he has lost, I truly believe. It will help that you are here. This is why I asked you to visit sooner rather than later."
"What will happen to him as he remembers?" Steve asks, throat dry. "Will the Hydra connections…"
Shuri purses her lips. "They will embolden from where they are as well, but they will not be able to possess him as before. If you are asking whether he will stay this docile… I do not believe so. As he recovers and remembers war—remembers you in the war, and everything that came after—it is probable he will regain a certain hardness. But, as he has indicated to me before—he may desire it. He misses his anger, Captain. At times, it is as though he feels…" She gestures with a hand, as though searching for the word. "Bereft without it. The world has been hard on your friend Barnes. I believe he wishes to be hard on it right back."
Steve looks at Shuri and thinks of how they've all hardened in the last few years; how Natasha in particular is starting to worry him with the ruthlessness of her skill. In safehouses between missions, she strips out of her armour and into clothes that seem to shrink her by half, and Steve thinks, sometimes, that the dayclothes might be the cover.
Steve only notices because he feels the same things. He wears softer clothing these days just to be able to keep looking at himself.
"Wounds will re-open," Shuri says. "This is so that he may heal them on his own terms. This takes a great deal of strength and a tremendous amount of work, and nobody else can do it for him—but he is committed. I am confident he will find his path." She gives a shaking smile. "There are memories he has of you that have remained untouched, from…" She draws her hands away from his, as though suddenly embarrassed. "From when you shared quarters, before the war." Steve, embarrassing himself, closes his fingers, feeling her absence profoundly. "It seems to me that he is able to conjure these memories without any trouble," Shuri says, "so—he knows you, Captain. Trust in that. The rest will take time, but it will return as long as he remains driven to find it. I am helping him to make sure of his odds, and now so are you."
Steve forces a steadying breath, his fingers folding into fists. "Can you be sure? That it's possible, I mean, that—"
Shuri pretends to think about it, but Steve can already see the twinkle in her eye. "As sure as I can be about anything involving the brain and memory. But you must admit—my track record has been good thus far." She winks at him. Steve can't help but to feel heartened. "It will help him to mend the gaps, to see you here. To grow accustomed to the way you look now. If he is looking at you strangely, assume it is merely Barnes trying to see your face under the beard."
"Oh, God." Steve rubs at his jaw. "Should I shave it?"
"No. I think it does you both a favour. New connections over old, am I right?"
It comes out smooth, amirite, her voice dipping a little as she says it—and all at once, Shuri looks so horribly young. Kids getting dragged into the business of war all over again.
"I'm sorry," Steve says suddenly. "That you had to see all that, in Bucky's… It can't have been easy."
She shrugs, as though it doesn't matter. "I merely bore witness." She pats his hand just one last time. Then she turns her body away from him, the doors opening automatically, as though reading her intention. "It is another thing to live it in real time."
"He's been very lucky," Steve says, as they step out of the car. "To have someone so compassionate to help him."
"Well," says Shuri, and with a wave of a hand the car doors slide shut again. "Now there are two kind souls at least invested in helping him struggle along. Hopefully that will help to forge new connections against his cynicism as well."
Steve and his new beard come back in the morning with take-out.
Bucky zealously snatches the bag from him, but even so, his eyes linger. Steve looks different than he did yesterday, or maybe the same; maybe the hour and a half Bucky spent looking at the ceiling thinking of him, trying to remember, living in his memory's own exhaustion, has created the illusion of change.
Under his gaze, Steve looks to the ground, then raises his head again, hands shoving into his pockets. He looks impossibly thick in that shirt that's too tight, and Bucky remembers—that. The shoulders on him. Bucky looping his arms around them, trying to burrow into the centre of his chest.
Some tension resolves. Steve looks as he should: warm and luminous, the sun striking gold into his hair.
Bucky forces his eyes away and opens the bag with his teeth. There's no McDonald's here; even the fast food's better than that, all grilled chicken sandwiches and fried plantain. Bucky gives a quiet groan of thanks as the smell hits him, and Steve smiles and looks beautiful. Age and time have made him so goddamned gorgeous. Barely anything about him feels sharp anymore.
They sit down on the log in front of the lake to eat. Eventually Steve fishes a dozen donuts out of some sack he'd shown up with and sets them unceremoniously on Bucky's lap.
Bucky makes a sound of appreciation so prolonged that Steve coughs out a laugh. "I don't know what it is," Bucky says, mouth full, tearing open the box, "but I'm ravenous all the time. Can't seem to turn it off. Swear to God I only ate burgers for a solid year out of cryo. It's like my metabolism kicks up after—"
But then Steve sets the notebook on top of it—his notebook, somehow salvaged from Bucharest six months ago. Bucky knows it from the purple and red tabs; from the edge of the photograph, peeking out from between its pages. "Thought it might," Steve says, but then gestures and shakes his head. "I can take it back, if you—"
"But I thought it might help, you know, with the—memory problems."
Suddenly Bucky's frantic for it. He fumbles the pages open, and there he is—Steve, ripped from the pages of a magazine he'd found in the archives of the DC library. He's got his mask on, but that's Steve, Steve, all clean-shaven and strong lines.
Bucky runs a finger across his face, just to see that it's really there. "How did you…"
"I didn't. Natasha went back, after—"
"Just to make sure there was nothing left behind that might incriminate you further. Passed it along to me. I didn't—"
Bucky sets the book down beside him—on his other side, out of Steve's sight. Now that it's transferred ownership, he has the strange desire to hide his secrets again. "Thanks. It… yeah. It'll help."
Steve nods and looks out over the lake. "Donuts are yours, if you…"
"I can't eat all these."
"Your sweet tooth?" Steve murmurs. "C'mon. They'll be gone in an hour."
"I'm not that bad."
"We'd go to the candy store Saturday morning and your haul would be gone before we even got home."
Bucky smiles. "You'd keep yours forever. God—was that the only time you weren't living like you had nothing to lose?"
"Well." Steve glances at him, just for a second. "Some things you gotta savour."
And Bucky does; he eats a donut and then another, nudging the box against Steve's knee until Steve takes one and eats it with him. They don't say anything else for a long while—just look out over the lake, trying to find each other. Trying to make this whole damned thing last.
"You really come all this way just to give me my notebook?"
They're halfway around the lake by then, having barely spoken in an hour. "No," says Steve, sounding surprised. "I told you, I came for work."
Bucky nods. "Sure you did."
"I did! I can't say it again. You told me not to come, I wouldn't have unless I had a reason."
Bucky looks at him. Steve shrugs his hands. "Listen, I can only try so hard to talk myself out of doing the things I want to do."
"That sounds more like you."
"I'm trying to grow."
Bucky smiles. "So what's this great reason?"
Steve seems to mull over whether or not he wants to say. "You sure you want to hear this?"
"Sure. Not being monitored out here."
Steve studies him. Bucky barks a laugh. He's actually worried about burdening him; better yet, Bucky can read it on his face in an instant. His heart soars magnificently. "Don't worry about me. Still got Hydra's secrets rattling around in my brain, don't think you can top that in shock value."
Steve nods, as though to give him that. "You remember… well, actually, maybe you don't." He cringes. "Five years ago, when the Chitauri attacked New York."
"Yeah," Bucky says. "I, uh… actually, I was there."
Steve doesn't seem to know how to take that at first. "You were there?"
"Yeah. Taking out some…" He hesitates. "Loans."
"I'll never hurt for money again." It sounds too airy, too clearly a lie. "Should send Hydra a thank-you card."
Steve flinches. Bucky flinches, too. They walk a while in turgid silence. "Weird to think we were in the city at the same time," Steve says eventually, as though there'd been no interruption.
"Yeah, I mean... not like they were unrelated. I don't think Hydra was behind the aliens, don't get me wrong, just always had a finger on the pulse of chaos in the world. By then I was stationed in the US—"
"Stationed?" Steve asks, abrupt. "Stationed where?"
Bucky waves a hand. "Base is gone now. Point is I'm pretty sure they dispatched me to take advantage of the mayhem, try to consolidate SHIELD's management into Hydra players. Pass the murders off as alien attack, y'know? Use knives, chokewires to..." He glances at Steve, trying to read his face. "Anyway. I know about the aliens."
They walk in silence. Steve seems to take his time absorbing it all. "You remember all that?"
Bucky frowns, halfway shrugs. "Kind of. More like a factsheet at this point. I read up on… all that last year." Him, he almost said; I read up on me.
Half the time these days he wakes up with the taste of blood in his mouth and no godly idea what memory put it there.
"Well," Steve sighs, pulling Bucky out of his head again, "the aliens left their weapons. That's what we're chasing down."
Bucky blinks. He hadn't expected that. "Not working ones."
"Some. Cropping up in Syria and the Middle East, mostly. Couple in Belarus."
Steve shrugs, looking downright exasperated with the whole situation. "Trying to get them disabled, but their tech's beyond us. We sent a bunch back to Stark—or, Natasha did, I don't really—" He sighs. "Stark doesn't really want much to do with them apart from having no idea what they're made of. It's not like we're prepared to trust them to just anyone given that the last person we saw them with was an arms dealer."
"So is Stark," Bucky mutters.
Bucky shoots him a dubious look. Steve rolls his eyes. "My point is that we thought Wakanda was probably the safest place for tech we don't understand, plus our best shot at understanding it. So here I am."
So he really is here for work. "That... and to bring me donuts."
A smile twitches onto Steve's face. "Well, yeah. Two birds."
They walk a while, quiet.
"So what are these guns doing in Syria?" Bucky asks. "Or... anywhere."
"We don't know. Can't figure it out. The shipping ledger said the crate had been there for months, untouched."
"I mean, Hydra repurposed some of those—"
"Yeah, with Strucker."
"But Hydra's dead, or at least dead enough to leave shipments unattended for months at a time. We can't even find people who might plausibly be covering. Tried to ring up an old arms dealer we used to know, but we can't find him either."
Bucky cocks an eyebrow. "You know a lot of arms dealers?"
"Just the one." It comes out darker than Steve seemed to intend. "Real piece of work. Kinda glad we couldn't track him down; I don't want to imagine how that confrontation might've gone." Steve chews on his lip—a gesture familiar enough to make Bucky smile. "But the weird thing is… there's something I keep coming back to. You don't mind talking about this?"
"After Tony powered out the Chitauri mission control, everything went dead. EMP, right through."
"Yeah, the blowback shorted my arm. Pain in my ass."
"Pretty much all the alien tech we've found since then has been retrofitted. Adapted, y'know? Like someone had figured out how to power it back on only after altering it somehow." Steve looks at Bucky, steel in his eyes. "But these guns we're finding in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Belarus? They're dead ringers for the ones I saw five years ago on the streets of New York. Unaltered, look like they did on the day of. Haven't seen them since until now. It's like someone's planted them there. For…"
Bucky picks up the thread. "For pickup."
Steve nods. "And whoever it is either doesn't know they're there, can't get to them, or… isn't here yet."
Bucky knows Steve too well to miss his meaning. He rubs exasperatedly at his face. "Alright. Just to make sure we're on the same page, here... are you saying the thing that's bigger than Hydra... is aliens?"
Steve shrugs. "You got a better idea?"
Bucky does not have a better idea. But he does laugh loud enough to scare the birds from the trees.
Bucky's not ready to stop hearing Steve's voice by the time they get back into town, so he talks him into sticking around through part of the afternoon. Steve helps feed the goats; lets himself be introduced to a few people in the village. Bucky tests out his god-awful Xhosa and wilfully does not translate it back to English when one of the elders takes one look at the pair of them and starts bemoaning the colonization of her sleepy village. "She says it's very nice to meet you," Bucky rasps, deadpan, at the tail end of a short tirade, and Steve looks so uncomfortable that Bucky tells him to go back to the palace before he spontaneously combusts and causes an international incident for real.
That night, after Bucky's watched the sun set and soaked his feet again, he lights a fire in the hearth of his roundhouse, boils water for tea, leafs through his old journal by candlelight. The info there is nothing new, mostly gleaned from the weeks just before Steve had found him. A few details from the war, a couple from his time with Hydra; one page at the beginning, sketched around with a box, describing in fragmented shortform all that had gone on in D.C. with SHIELD, just in case something happened. In case he forgot Steve again.
Bucky leafs through a few pages. Some things grow sharper in detail as he reads. It's all in his head; just buried a little, unearthed by the poignance of the remembrance in his words. From time to time he shuts the book and breathes a while, fingers white at the pages' edge, but he gets through it unscathed.
The most valuable asset is the picture of Steve. He leafs back to it, takes it out from its binding. There Steve is, even under that mask—those cheekbones, that square jaw, those pouting lips. He still has those features, under all that hair—and suddenly Bucky remembers the few times during the war they'd managed to duck away to find a spare moment. Bucky'd lost his mind over how broad he was, how solid, how sure. He'd gripped at Steve like he was the last real thing.
Heat flashes over Bucky's skin. He wants him, suddenly. It wanes as fast as it came, but doesn't fade completely, sticking to his skin like summer sweat. He thinks of making love to Steve here, today, of gripping fast to those impossible arms—of the way Steve used to look at him, with pure affection and open want, and craves. He remembers looking at him and dragging his fingers through Steve's hair just to better be able to see his face; remembers Steve looking at him back, the slight smile on his face—how young he'd looked. How strong, and good.
Bucky leans back in his chair and rubs a thumb across Steve's glossy face in the photo, letting out a shaking breath. He remembers Steve leaning over his makeshift maps, remembers his face just then in technicolour detail; remembers everything about him, the way Bucky'd wanted him, the way he used to run his hand over Steve's face to make sure he was real.
After so long spent during the war afraid of forgetting him, Bucky had forgotten him—and gotten him back. Steve's right here, not ten miles away, but Bucky's also... conscious of him. Reminiscent of new things that keep making him gasp. His mind flits between memories to find nothing gone. From the hope in his eyes to the way Bucky'd tried to devour him whole, as though to take his faith in the world by osmosis—there's not a thing left in him foggy anymore.
Steve brings him breakfast again the following day. They eat it together in their usual silence, sitting on the same log overlooking the lake.
"Thanks for the book," Bucky says, once they've begun their customary walk. He might have spoken sooner, except that he couldn't stop watching the bend of Steve's hands—found his thoughts sidetracked, repeatedly, by the thought of his fingers against his skin.
Steve nods. There's less to distract Bucky out here. Easier to look straight ahead. "It's helpful?"
"Yeah. It is."
"Good. If there's more I can do…"
"You've done enough."
Steve nods and walks a while, but then he takes a deep breath—the kind that's meant to settle him.
It sets Bucky on edge. "Steve..."
"The way I feel about you—"
Bucky's breath catches in his chest. "Stop."
"I never stopped," he says, and the gaps fill themselves: he never stopped caring, never stopped thinking of him, never gave up on... whatever they had. "Through everything, Bucky, through—the war, through losing you, through getting you back, through the last six months waiting for…" He stops walking, swallowing hard. Bucky looks over and sees the kind of fiery determination he'd recognize from a thousand yards; his, Steve Rogers'. Accept no substitutes. "I never quit," he says, steadying his voice. "I know you're trying to remember. I just didn't want there to be any doubt."
For a minute, Bucky doesn't reply. Something bristles under his skin, telling him something he's not sure how to say. "I know," Bucky says instead, quiet. "I know all that."
He walks slowly forward into the thicket, and Steve doesn't say anything else; just walks with him, trailing behind until he steps to catch up. Then, after a long, precarious minute, Bucky brushes his fingers at the back of Steve's hand, and Steve reaches back—meshes his own between his, without hesitation, neither of them saying another word.
"I'm, uh," Steve says, when they're almost all the way back to the village. "Leaving. Tomorrow."
Bucky stops. "Oh."
"Catching up with Sam and Nat, gonna see what's up next. Unless you want me to—"
"No," Bucky says. "I'm glad you came, but you should…" He shakes his head. "Aliens, and all that. You got your mission."
Steve's looking at him. It makes something hot spark under his skin. It feels like the first time Steve's really set his eyes on him since he got here, like he's spent three days trying not to tell him with his eyes what he wasn't sure how to say with his mouth.
Now that he has… Bucky drags his thumb across that pink, bitten lip. Watches the flesh bunch together under pressure and he wants to put his mouth against it, to feel the roll of Steve's lip between his own.
Steve swallows. He licks his lips out of instinct, catching Bucky's thumb against it—just for a second. Bucky's hand falls. His breath pushes harsh through his nose, and Steve sets a hand at Bucky's back again, the way he did on greeting him, and from there it's a slow drift—a tilt into orbit, Bucky's lips sliding across Steve's, silken, noncommittal. Steve has to chase him down, and he does, sound low in his throat, reflexes roused like he's losing his chance. It's a jealous flare, leaving Bucky's head spinning, the breath knocked out of him by the attention of Steve's mouth—
Screams chorus behind them—piercing, sudden.
Bucky goes rigid. The world pulses back into focus. He figures out what's going on in the space of a second. He lets his head hang for a fleeting heartbeat, then turns his head and emits a growl, baring his teeth.
It's the response they were looking for. All five kids scamper off in unison, screaming bloody murder, weaving their way between and through their own forward line, arms thrown behind them in hasty retreat.
Bucky shuts his eyes hard, helpless but to smile. "Sorry," he murmurs. "Dangers of community life."
"I don't mind," says Steve, fingers rent in his hair. "Seemed like they were looking for you."
"Game started with them daring each other to touch the grizzled old man without getting eaten, only now it's stuck since they know I'm not gonna hurt them." He frowns. "At least, I hope they know that."
"That's… kind of adorable."
Bucky pushes at Steve's shoulder, looks up to see his eyes gliding up. Steve looks like he wants to kiss him again—to pull him into the trees, never to be found again.
Bucky swallows and shakes his head softly, nodding back to the village. "We should…"
"Sure," says Steve. He shoves his hands into his pockets again—maybe just not to touch him. It strikes Bucky as such a strange gesture—a shadow of the boy he used to be peeking through, as though as unsure of himself around Bucky as he used to be.
"I'm partial," Bucky offers suddenly. "Trying to piece myself together. It's not—"
"You're not partial."
"I am partial. I know it's—"
"No," Steve says, firm—those convictions, accosting. "You're not who you were. But neither am I. I didn't care about that during the war, or in Moscow." Moscow, before they'd been pulled to Wakanda by T'Challa's remorse—Steve had walked him back against a table, face nearly as rough with stubble as it is now, hands whole and warm and good around him even as they'd both tottered, injured, on the table's precarious edge. "And I don't care now. Do you care that I'm a shell of that kid from Brooklyn you've claimed to be following all this time?"
"No." Then Bucky frowns. "I haven't been following—"
"I see you owning this whole thing, Bucky, like it's… like you've been waiting for an opportunity to figure this out. And now that you've got it..." He shakes his head, shrugs. "I got nothing but faith that you'll figure it out. And I'll be here while you do—or," he adds hastily, at Bucky's opening mouth, "halfway across the world doing something else. Whatever you want, just… look. You're different—sure. So am I. But you're not partial. Not to me."
Bucky may not understand where he's coming from, but he's not inclined to argue, either. "Swing by in the morning before you go," Bucky says, instead of thanks. "Say goodbye, have some breakfast."
Steve smiles, a little. He looks tired. Bucky wonders what else he's been doing, when he hasn't been here. "Bring you breakfast, you mean," Steve says.
"Hey. You said it, not me."
Steve smiles and looks at him. Bucky pretends not to see the fealty in his eyes. "Sure, Buck," Steve says, softer than he should. "I'll see what I can do."
"What do you mean, it's not 'anything'?"
"It's not anything we know of." Shuri glares at Steve, like he's deliberately misunderstanding her. "The weapon is electrical, and yet—"
"The fuel produces its own charge. Perhaps it is radioactive in some unknowable way."
"You don't know."
Shuri gestures to herself and then to the sky. "Do I look like an expert on alien technology? I am not a miracle worker, I don't know all things in the nine realms, despite what you hero types seem to expect from me—"
"Highness," Steve says, low in his throat, leaning toward her. Shuri leans back, lip curling. "If there's one thing I know about Wakanda, it's that they know a hell of a lot more about what's going on than they let on. And if I know anything about the Wakandan royal family, they tend to beget the same qualities. I brought you this weapon on good faith."
"You brought it because you were desperate and you missed your husband."
Steve blinks, standing upright again. "We're not married."
"By Wakandan standards, you are. The two of you protest far too much for people so betrothed—"
"Look at you. How either of you carries off such fibs while turning such exotic shades is beyond me."
Steve stares. Shuri pulls up a display and gestures at something in the middle. "Look here. What I am trying to tell you is that this fuel-based substance that powers the weapons… it appears—and do not hold me responsible if I am wrong, this is just a theory, you must understand that this is how science works, sometimes hypotheses are disproven, I have only had three days—"
"Shuri," Steve says, eyes closing. "Just do the best you can."
"—it appears to be alive," she breathes, but then as though to refute her own conclusion she shakes her head with a hand out in front of her. "In some fashion or another, that is. It generates its own charge, which allows it to stay dormant at times, but when wielded—especially, perhaps, by someone who themselves balances on a line between organic and mechanic—"
"Wait, wait." Steve holds up a hand. "You're telling me that this… fluid, inside these machines, is both alive and dormant."
"From what I can tell, that is precisely it. It is a life form in the way that tiny creatures in our own water are life forms, but… smarter than that." She shrugs with her hands open, as though wishing she had more to explain herself with. "This substance, whatever it is, is not unlike vibranium in its raw form—vibranium becomes a conduit for... any number of things. For electricity, for other forms of energy. I believe this fluid is identical in its purpose, but not in its substance. It is a conduit of an otherworldly nature, one we cannot fully understand. But I believe it may be… programmed, programmable, somehow or another. That it may respond in particular ways given particular inputs, and remains dormant otherwise."
"Like… a computer."
Shuri narrows his eyes at him, then leans forward on both hands. "Captain. Do you know what a computer does?"
Steve sighs. "Not especially, no."
"That is clear. But… perhaps, for your sake, I can agree. Like a very crude, rudimentary computer."
Steve stares. He can't seem to wrap his head around this—what any of it means for the sake of his mission. It would be less frustrating if he could just stop thinking of Bucky for five fucking minutes when he should be trying to muster offense for the implication that he is crude and rudimentary. For all they're in a better place than when Steve got here, he can't help but think that there's still something missing between them. He can't help but think that he, Steve, is somehow responsible for this; that he's deficient, somehow. That if he were better at this, better at something, Bucky'd be able to see his intentions, see him. For all Bucky's been worried about being 'partial,' Steve's sure that if he were more like the man Bucky remembers—
Steve blinks to attention. "Yeah. Sorry."
Shuri looks at him pityingly. "It will come together in time. Have patience."
"I haven't exactly been known for that," Steve mutters. He gestures deflectingly at the gun. "Can we de-activate it?"
Shuri twists her mouth. Steve knows then that he won't like the answer. "Possibly."
"We encounter a problem with our code of ethics."
Steve's eyebrows steeple. "Okay. What problem is that?"
"If this is a creature?" Her knuckles hit the gun. "We cannot kill it any further than what is strictly required to form a conclusion or save the world."
He furrows his brow. "What if I told you it would save the world?"
Shuri looks away, making busywork with her hands. Steve knows then that he's not going to get a concrete answer out of her either way. "Trust me when I say that I will continue to work on it," she says, giving a fragmenting smile. There's no sense trying to tell her anything, Steve realizes. Wakanda's five steps ahead of him no matter which way he rolls the dice. "Go back to your people, Captain. Tell them what you have learned, allow me to work on my own time. Then," she says, offering a conspiratorial wink, "we may discuss our options further."
Bucky wakes before the sun and puts water on to bathe.
Something in his limbs feels heavy—a comforting fatigue, as though the dreams that so often exhaust him have today managed to be kind instead. He'd woken up feeling on the edge of something, sure of some realization indecipherable to him now. Aware of his body, he fixes the best remedy he knows: the ritual of engaging with his skin, taking stock of his parts under the kindly haze of automatic routine.
He's forgotten his arm's been gone before, forgotten about the knots that sit high in his shoulders, forgotten the strength of his muscles and the precise sting of their hard-won exhaustion. But he's never once forgotten how to bathe. Preferring to respond with a blank gaze when asked, he's been afraid to put to words that he keeps his hair long as a sort of introduction to dealing with himself when his self-disembodiment is stronger that day. Today, he doesn't wash his hair. He ties it up haphazardly, twirling it one-handed into a high, messy knot. He prefers to deal with his body, to understand what it is, in case it salvages hints from within his dream. In case touch memory helps.
Good dreams are rare. He wants to remember this one.
Sponging off only by light of the fire, something compels him to drop his gaze. He looks at himself, at the way the orange of the low flame seems to paint colours across muscle and knobs of bone. Bucky remembers, suddenly, the way Steve used to look at him. Once it got dark enough to undress him, Steve never wasted any time; cast by streetlight, his spindly fingers—hands gargantuan, even then—gripped at him, devoted, dragging skin along skin as though to track the patterns of his strength.
Bucky remembers Steve lying by the fireside, much later, having grown into his hands by then—grown into his big ideas, pressing his fingers into the meat of Bucky's thighs until the skin around them turned white.
His body has been well-loved in light like this. Seeing him so cast aglow, Steve, in another life, might have fallen to worship.
Back then. When his body was whole.
But—God, he'd been awful then. Awful in another sense. He used to look down at Steve and the way he'd touched him and been overwhelmed with gratitude, having needed Steve to prostrate himself in order to absolve himself of responsibility. If Steve wanted him so bad, what was Bucky to do? He'd never wanted to want it, never wanted to admit that he only felt alive when Steve was touching him as though sculpting him from clay. Some days, Bucky wished that Steve could—wanted to encase himself in some viscous substance just so Steve would recover him with his hands, guide his true shape into form. So he could become manifest by way of artistic vision. Bucky wanted so badly to be what Steve saw in him—to be delivered from obscurity in the image of someone who loved him that much.
Slowly, as though seeing himself for the first time, Bucky drags his own knuckles across his ribs, just to see if he's there. Droplets of sweat form between rivulets of water; he glistens in the light of the fire. A canvas, of a kind, at once painted and untouched. He can imagine what it might have been like to behold him and want.
Certainty grips him. He abandons his bath and moves slowly, weight still lingering in his limbs as though holding his warmth, lighting candles from within the shadows and then standing between them in the centre of the room. He is cast aglow, lit from every side. He can't hide anymore.
He raises his head to the sound. Of course Steve would come early. A whiff of desire out of Bucky and Steve had probably turned toward it like a bloodhound.
He clears his throat. "Yeah."
"You decent?" Steve asks, but then steps in before waiting for an answer. He catches sight of Bucky standing tall, completely nude, and turns abruptly away. "You're not decent," he says dumbly, fumbling the curtain behind him.
"Sorry. I don't know what I—"
He'd been moving to step out, but that stops him. His hand drifts, gripping white at the doorway's edge.
Bucky waits. He lets time speak for him: lets Steve realize that Bucky's not covering up, now that his back is turned.
Steve turns his head in delicate increments. His lips part as though to say something, but Bucky imagines him shackled in place, captive to the beat of his heart in his own ears the way Bucky is to his.
He says it again, softer this time. Permission, or an invitation. "Steve."
Steve's feet shuffle as he turns. He raises his chin to face him, as though willing his gaze to stay steady.
Bucky swallows, hard. "Would you touch me?"
He meant to say more, but it turns out that's all he means. It doesn't matter anyway; Steve is in Bucky's space in two fervent strides. He slides a hand in to cup his jaw and kisses him, easy, immediate, soft and open—a greeting again, but this time knowing. Steve knows him. He leans into Bucky like this is all he wants. The terminal burden he carries in his shoulders has melted away, left Steve folding forward. A homing beacon, zeroing in.
Bucky's fingers twist in the front of Steve's shirt. He's halfway thinking of taking it off, halfway needing it for purchase. Steve slips in close like they've never been apart, getting Bucky's naked form flush against him, hand flat against his back. There's no sense pretending Bucky's body doesn't remember this; his hips lock with Steve's, dick dragging harsh against the denim of his jeans. He tries, by instinct, to find the place he used to rub off, but he can't get close enough, not with these clothes in the way. He can't step away long enough to tell Steve to get them off, either. His ribs heave heavy between Steve's hands, breath heavy with passion, but Steve takes each breath like it's giving him life, his fingers doubling down as though to feel more closely every breaking sigh.
"Take," Bucky whispers, furious, knuckles fisted against Steve's chest, "your clothes off."
Steve licks his lips around a grin, but it shudders away as fast as it came. He takes a breath of his own, holding him there, letting want pulse between them, gain a life of its own. Steve slides his hands across his skin—curves his fingers where Bucky's shoulderblades fold into muscle, tracks the space beside his spine.
Slowly, he drags his fingers off of Bucky's hips to pull his shirt over his head. Bucky feels the fabric as it gets swept away and smiles, folding his hand back against Steve's chest as Steve slides in, bracing Bucky closer. He kisses him, slow and soft, their chests flush. Eternally warm.
Slow, gradual, Steve starts backing Bucky across the room. Bucky's thighs find the wood of a table. He lets himself be settled there, twisting his fingers in Steve's hair. Steve already seems to know what Bucky wants. Even here, leaning over him, Steve doesn't stabilize himself against the surface of the table. He lets his thumbs drag across Bucky's throat, not pressing; spreads them across his shoulders again, like he's searching for wings. He grasps loose against his ribs, harsher at his hips, deepening the kiss. Finding him. Feeling his way to where Bucky lives.
Bucky opens his mouth as though to say something, but just winds up taking more of Steve into him. He's wanted this; he wants; he wants. He lets himself be excavated, given shape by Steve's sculpting hands. Steve sets to work mouthing rough against his neck, beard scraping, working teeth and lips with the kind of open desire that makes Bucky give a strangled moan. He tips his head back; his hips try to rut, but his dick only meets with Steve's jeans again.
That's just cruel. Steve's laughter feathers out through his nose as Bucky tries, furious, to undo the clasp with one hand. Bucky can feel Steve's erection, constrained, is the thing. There's no ambiguity about his dick: thick and heavy. Makes Bucky heady to think about getting his fingers around.
"Come on," he mutters, trying to see what he's doing. But Steve's in the way; he smiles, mouths against Bucky's jaw until Bucky sets a staying hand against Steve's taut stomach instead.
Slowly, Steve guiding, they spin around in the room. Bucky finds himself being walked backward toward the bed while Steve's free hand redirects Bucky's back to his pants. Together they figure the clasp out in four blind, shuffling steps, just in time for Steve to tip Bucky perfectly backward onto the bed—a slim mattress set close to the ground, nestled against the curving wall.
Steve settles over him, propping himself up with his arms. He drapes over him, kissing him, fly open, pants still on. It's terrible; he's right there, not close enough. Bucky keeps touching him, tries to pull him down, trying to get friction, frustration building in his hips. "Fuck, God, why."
Steve smiles against his skin. He sucks a mark behind his ear and leaves off with a kiss, bringing a hand up to tip back his jaw. "Why what?"
"I'm not indulging this. Jesus Christ."
Bucky's breath stutters; Steve grins, pasting his body slowly, carefully, overtop of his. His arms loop around Bucky's shoulders and hold, one hand at the back of his neck, bracing Bucky in place as his mouth turns open. He makes its way down Bucky's neck, to the pulse in his throat; mouths his way past his collarbone, his shoulder, nose brushing at his chest.
Somehow, Bucky'd forgotten this—the way Steve uses his mouth to refine the task his hands began. Bucky becomes aware of his own slopes and curves. The bend of a rib, the slant of a muscle; the way Steve can coax a nipple to attention with suction and his teeth, then make him gasp with his tongue. The detailwork, a smaller brush. Steve's hands trail after, moving down Bucky's back, avoiding the steel on his left until he can connect with flesh again without ever making him feel like he's partial. He's whole.
Wet marks shine anew in the orange light of the fire, and when Bucky looks up—when Steve tilts his head to meet Bucky's eyes—Bucky's fingers drag his too-long hair out of his eyes, just so he can see him.
Steve, timeless, prostrating himself over Bucky all over again. Looking up at him, to make sure he sees.
Bucky sees. Steve's fingers grip into sinewed flesh and his mouth finds his skin again, shifting down, down, until his lips find his cock.
As Steve works at taking him in, Bucky allows himself the luxury of closing his eyes. His fingers drag in Steve's hair, smoothing and grasping, until he has to look at him again: until he has to capture this, keen to remember him cast in warmth from ambient firelight, his eyes dancing with flames and beard glinting with gold.
Steve makes it good. He stops only once to worm his way out of his clothes, but Bucky doesn't figure out why until after he's dragged Steve back up and stretched his legs into a puddle of come.
Bucky frowns, body stiffening. "Did you jack off against my borrowed sheets."
"Technically," Steve murmurs, kissing his neck, "it was more of a rut."
"You know a lot about ruts, Rogers?"
"Been stuck in one five years without you."
Bucky grimaces. "Oh, stop."
Steve coughs with feeble laughter. "I just answered a question, pal."
They twist awkwardly together on the single bed until Steve's lying beside him, their mouths brushing soft. They both have to put their ankles in the mess that way.
"Sorry," Bucky finally mutters.
Steve blinks, head craning back. "Why?"
"I… took a while."
"Unending agony, being with you." He caresses Bucky's face—a catastrophe of affection. No regard for propriety or decency. "Who will help me carry this burden."
"Shut up, would you? I'm trying to say something here."
"Yeah, something stupid."
"Lord deliver me from Steve fuckin Rogers!" Bucky half-shouts. "God, you're such a pain in the—"
Steve cuts him off with a kiss, one of those filthy things, impossibly slow, and Bucky winds up tangling their limbs up tighter, pain in his ass or not. Love is a phantom pain a lot of the time, but it feels tangible, here. Hard to refute.
Steve pulls away and breathes, their foreheads together. Bucky's fingers wrap around Steve's wrist as Steve's thumb strokes at his cheek anew. "Should I stay?" Steve murmurs—not quite a question, but an offer of sorts. Like he already knows what the answer's going to be.
Bucky shakes his head, thumb finding the pulse in his wrist. It's not a surprise to find his heart beating, but it is a revelation. Proof this isn't fantasy. Proof they're both here, and not mist. "No," he says, certain. "You shouldn't."
Steve nods. He gets it. He always knows what the fuck Bucky's trying to say. "Can I call you?"
"Don't have a phone. No desire to get one, either, but..." He sighs, nods around. "Shuri's around once a week or so to take my brain energy or whatever. Seems to me she kinda wants me to talk to you on the regular, so... I can call… you?"
Bucky's not sure he's ever seen this look on Steve's face before—such a combination of whimsy, nostalgia, and broken hope. "I'd like that," he says, and then they lie there awhile, adrift in the luxury of their own filth, until Steve mutters something about water.
Bucky nods him across the room to where a pitcher sits next to a glass, then turns to watch him as he goes. Steve Rogers, what science wrought. He's transfixed by the flex of his muscles, the perfect gleam of his skin. The way he's half overgrown, as though spiting it all.
Steve pours himself a glass of water and tips his head back to drink it. Bucky watches his throat and feels desire pool all over again. Steve sees him looking. He tips the glass in offering, then drains the remnants when Bucky shakes his head. Setting the glass down, he steps forward again, and Bucky reaches for his hip the second he's close enough.
A golden Apollo, as perfect here as he is in the sun. Steve's always moved between worlds with such grace. Bucky feels in awe of it, feels his brow contract. "I'm always thinking of you," Bucky murmurs, as though his mouth is moving of its own accord, his hand curling gently around Steve's thigh. He moves his fingertips along the muscles of his leg, listening to the hitch of Steve's breath in his chest. "God, the strain in you. The way you stand, the way your..." He reaches his fingers up, drags them across his pelvic bone, and Steve barely makes a sound when Bucky drags the tips of his fingers over his cock and grasps. "I must think of you when I don't know what I'm thinking of. When I'm fumbling around for something to want. God, Steve, I hope that's enough."
His eyes flicker up to catch Steve's far above—dark, lustful, his cock filling in Bucky's hand. "It's enough," Steve says, voice rough and sticking, and Bucky gets another two seconds of fondling interrogation before Steve lunges over him, fingers sliding between Bucky's, pinning him back against the bed with his body, leaving Bucky to arch into every seeking touch.
The next time Steve gets up, neither one of them says a word. Steve dresses slowly. Bucky reaches out to grasp at his hip, to scan at his forearm out of interest's sake alone. Steve ties his shoes at a snail-like pace, moving them closer to Bucky so Bucky can run his fingers through his hair; then, leaning over the mattress a final time, Steve sweeps his lips sweetly against Bucky's, lingering long, as though to impart a thousand forgotten details that way.
When Bucky opens his eyes, he sees Steve's eyes are still closed as he backs away, like he can't stand to watch himself leave. Bucky keeps his eyes plenty open for the pair of them, his own fingers dragging against Steve's arm as he pulls away.
Then he's gone in a flash of brightness, the curtain at the door staying askew as though to mark the empty space he's left. Bucky squints into the morning, letting his eyes adjust; waits to see if Steve's going to come back, expecting him to and knowing he won't.
When the quiet has settled; when Steve doesn't come back; when fresh air has thoroughly overtaken the atmosphere of sex and sweat—Bucky gathers the sheet around himself and leans in the doorway to watch Steve go, waiting for that moment when—Bucky knows—he'll turn around a last time, see him looking, and smile.
It doesn't take long. They stand still a second, connected by a gaze, looking at each other across the town, morning tasks carrying out between them. Then Steve ducks his head and disappears into the aether of the wider world, and Bucky spins inside to douse the still-burning flames.
Steve finds Natasha in the hotel bar, making her way through a stack of files and a tall martini.
"Well," she says dryly, pulling a chair out for Steve as he approaches. "You got some sun."
"One of us had to." He sits himself down. "Sam still resting and relaxing?"
"Somewhere. Guess you were right about January."
"Had to be right about something." He nods at the files. "What you got?"
"The usual," she says, mouth twisting. "How about you?"
"No concrete answers. They don't know what the weapons are made of; it's nothing they've seen before, kind of like vibranium but not enough, might be programmable, blah, blah, we're all screwed."
"Well. That's cheerful."
"It's not that bad. With any luck they can counteract it, give us a way to neutralize the fuel. Shuri has ideas; it's not a lost cause. Problem is that the stuff might be alive, and it seems like Wakanda doesn't like to kill living things, even… microscopic ones. Plus you know Wakanda, they don't actually want to tell us anything..." He looks at Natasha with a wince.
"So…" Natasha wrinkles her nose in kind. "Progress?"
It's tempting to stay cynical, but Steve ultimately nods his head in concession. "We are closer to understanding it than we were. I wouldn't call it unsuccessful."
"Oh," Natasha says. She still looks vaguely disappointed. God, their standards for good news have suffered. "Well, good."
Steve smiles, all of a sudden. "Maybe it is."
The following silence is of a quality Steve doesn't like. He looks at his hands where they're clasped against the table, painfully aware of Natasha's eyes boring into his head.
"So," she begins.
"Nope," says Steve.
"No it didn't happen?"
"No I'm not talking about it."
"Hey, there's Sam," Steve says. Sam, of impeccable timing, pulls up a chair and slides into it with barely a nod.
At least when there's two of them to heckle, Natasha's attention is divided. "Getting all my boys back at once," she says. "You say bye to Adonia?"
"Alethia," says Sam. "Don't think I missed that."
"It wasn't a dig! She was beautiful, very… breasts."
Sam stares a second, then looks to Steve without replying. "Looks like you got burned."
"I'm not talking about it," Steve says, but then Sam gestures to his face. "Oh. Yeah. It'll fade in an hour."
"Was that a jab about how fucking cold it is here?"
"It's January," Steve says neutrally. "I never stay pink long."
"Beg to differ," say Sam and Natasha at once.
"What's next on the docket?" Steve asks, ignoring them, feeling the heat spread slow through his ears. He thumbs open his flip phone with a wince. "Think I need a new burner."
"What's wrong with the one you got?" asks Sam. "It start to melt in all that sun?"
"Need something with better long-distance capabilities," Steve mutters, and when Sam and Natasha waste no time in descending on him like screaming vultures, Steve thinks dimly—even as he's being heckled in both ears—that he must've been right to come back here: with two-thirds of his unit, if not its whole, ready to take on the nine realms and beyond.