The process takes years. Three or four different iterations. She’s a perfectionist. Always upgrading. Always tweaking. And he’s patient with it. He’s got nothing but time. Decades behind him. Lifetimes. And who knows what ahead. He spends hours with her in the lab—when he’s not training with the Dora Milaje. “In two more years, perhaps you will fight like a Wakandan,” Okoye tells him after his thousandth grueling session, and he knows her well enough to take it as a compliment. He knows them all well now. The children in the villages who still call him “White Wolf.” The shopkeepers in the market who cluck over his hair and press tubs of shea butter and coconut oil into his hand. And Shuri. His princess, his scientist, his savior. She’s given him two hands again.
“I cannot replicate nerve function entirely, but the vibranium absorbs and redistributes energy in such a way that mimics sensation. It should be working.” She bends over the latest model of his prosthetic—“4Arm! Get it?” she’d crowed when she unveiled it—stroking her fingers along the tiny receptors that she explained as “a variation on kimoyo beads.” Most of what she says is way over his head. But her touch…? That, he understands perfectly. It ripples through him. Not just his new arm and shoulder, but in his chest, his gut. Lower.
“I feel you,” he assures her quietly, drawing in a sharp, steadying breath. Air doesn’t help. It doesn’t conquer the fire that’s racing through him. Just because of the line she traces to his elbow. The circles she draws on the back of his hand. “It works,” he grinds out through gritted teeth.
“Are you certain?” She peers up at him, dark eyes snapping with a mix of mischief and concern. “Are you sure you’re not just humoring me?”
“Yes.” He barely knows what humor is anymore. Shuri’s the one who’s taught him how to smile again. And how to stop jumping at shadows or reaching for a nonexistent gun every time the grasses bend or the trees sway. “I can’t have you facing off with the Border Tribe’s rhinos. They’re all W’Kabi has left after Okoye put him out on his behind.” She’d wanted to say “ass.” But her mother and brother had been standing four feet away. If that’s not a reminder that she’s way too young, he doesn’t know what is.
Way too young. Way too smart. Way too everything. She still carries the weight of Wakanda on her shoulders. And yet she makes time for him. Bucky Barnes. Former assassin. Current…nobody. They take long walks through the city center. Across the plains. They picnic at the lakeside where he first came back to himself. He never talks much, but that’s alright. She has no problem filling his silences. Teasing out his smiles. Asking for stories of when he and Steve were young. He almost feels like that cocky kid from Brooklyn again. The one who knew what to say to a pretty girl on a date. Except Shuri’s not just a girl. And he’s no longer that kid. And they are definitely not dating. When they’re out in public, there is always a cadre of Dora nearby—T’Challa doesn’t take chances with her safety—but Bucky never lets down his guard. He doesn’t even trust himself.
He would die before he let anyone hurt her again. He knows that as surely as he knows her fingers interlacing with his. “Squeeze,” she orders him.
He looks down. At gleaming silver metal versus her fragile human bones. “No. I’ll crush you.”
“You could never crush me,” she scoffs. “I’m invincible, remember?”
He’s broken countless test dummies. A few diagnostic devices. Each generation of the prosthetic has had its challenges. Shuri’s never been afraid. Not of her creations. Not of him. It’s okay. He has enough fear for them both. “I’m not going to risk it,” he tells her, as firmly as he can manage. “I will never risk it.”
She huffs, tapping his wrist with her blunt nails. “But we need to know what your capabilities are. I cannot send you out into the field without testing. It is not safe. I would not do that to T’Challa, and I will not do that to you. I value my research too much. I value you too much.”
“I value you, too. It’s why you have to let me keep you safe.” He takes her face in both his hands. Only one can naturally register the satin of her skin. The other…the other sends so many signals through him that it’s almost overload. Confusion. Need. Want. He’s touched her before, but never like this. Never so intimately. He brushes her cheek with the sensor pads of two fingers. She goes still. Her scientist speak dries up, and her mouth parts in shock. Is he absorbing energy, or is he absorbing her?
The moment stretches between them. It feels like an hour. The clean, bright, lab shrinks down to just the two of them in a bubble. He can’t see anything but her. Can’t process anything but her. The curve of her chin. The arches of her cheekbones. So pretty. She leans into his exploration, nuzzling one palm and then the other. Probably cataloguing how his reactions differ. How one gasp is more strangled than the previous.
“What are you doing, old man?” There’s suddenly a different kind of tease in her voice and her gaze. The tone she saves for the Wakandan boys who join her for movies in the palace’s private theater. The look she gives some of the newer Dora during sparring sessions.
He can sense her heart rate speeding up. Hears her breathing go shallow. Shuri, made of brilliance and bravado, is just as affected as he is.
“I feel you,” he repeats. And this time it isn’t an assurance. It’s…a revelation.
“What? What do you feel?” It’s not a clinical question. The words are husky, flirtatious. They vibrate through him in a completely different way than the readings from his arm. Princess, scientist, savior…woman. He’s been in Wakanda more than two years. He’s been standing still, but Shuri’s been growing up, growing past him. She knows her own mind, her own self. She knows exactly what she wants.
He shouldn’t want it, too. He should let go of her. Pull back. Walk away. Instead, he slowly swipes his thumb across her lower lip. Fuck. How long has it been since he experienced such a simple pleasure? With no agenda. No anger. Just silk. “I feel how soft you are here.”
The sound she makes then…it scrambles his brain more than any trigger word ever could. It’s low and hungry and everything. Like she could crawl under his metal, embed herself in his flesh. Become a part of him. Please. Please, be part of me, he thinks irrationally. I don’t want to know where I end and you begin. And then she’s the one pulling back. Putting three feet between them.
She crosses her arms over her chest, shakes her head. Looking, for all her crown of black braids and petite stature, almost like Steve in her sternness. It shouldn’t surprise him that his two best friends are so alike. Earnest and kind and always protecting him.
“I have not forgotten that I promised you we would never use you this way,” she says. “I meant it. I won’t take advantage of you.”
Her take advantage of him? The thought is hilarious and awful at the same time. He actually laughs, scrubbing at his face with the back of his right hand like he can take off layers of ugliness. He’s a hundred years old. He towers over her. Outweighs her. She is strong as hell, practically forged from the vibranium she handles so expertly, but he could still break her in half. He could destroy her in every way. He is the one with the power here, no matter what she thinks. “You’re not using me. You’re not taking. It’s me. I shouldn’t have—”
“No.” She cuts him off with a sharp syllable. Follows it up by closing the distance she put between them. “You should. You should touch and feel and want. That is human. That is who you are. That is what you were brought to Wakanda to be. Not a machine. Not someone else’s weapon. Just a man.”
He hasn’t been just a man for a long time. Too long. And certainly not a man who deserves her. As a friend, a lover, or anything else.
“James, listen to me. Hear me.”
She almost never calls him by his given name. “Sergeant Barnes” still slips out on occasion. She thinks “Bucky” is silly—“a little boy’s name, and you are not a little boy.” He’s “old man” more often than not. “James” is for when she’s utterly serious. Combatting his defenses with gentle strength. A quiet caress on his bruises and scars. An anchor when the Winter Soldier’s memories threaten to drag him away. He hasn’t answered to “James” since he was a teenager— in another century, another lifetime—but he always does for her. He’ll do anything for her.
Even open his arms and accept her embrace.
Hugs weren’t a priority for a brainwashed assassin. He didn’t know how badly he needed one, needed this, until the first time she fitted herself against his body and squeezed him. Now, he takes it as freely as she gives. Breathing her in. Letting their heartbeats synch up. Cradling her close. The top of her head barely meets his collarbone. Her hands can’t span his waist so she finds purchase with her palms on his back. His vibranium hand cups the base of her neck like it’s something precious. It is. She is. He could break her in half. He could destroy her in every way. But she wrecks him in one. Easily.
And then, like always, she puts him back together. With a firm poke at the center of his chest and a bright, self-satisfied, smile. “See? I told you. It is good to know what your capabilities are.”
He catches her fingers before she can poke him again. Brings them up to his mouth. Kisses the center of her palm. It’s brief. Chaste. Maybe as far as they’ll ever go. But he knows he’ll carry it forever.
Because Shuri’s already shown him his most important capability. He has an enormous capacity for love.