He gets the call while beating up a terrorist in Casablanca. There's an awkward moment when he stops as his phone starts chiming and vibrating in his pocket, and he and the man stare at each other, before the man tries and fails to gain the upper hand. When the guy's out, Steve binds his hands together with the zip ties they've taken to carrying.
At first, he thinks the missed call must be from Tony, and his chest tightens. But the number is not the one he has saved, and the call is followed by a message:
"Do you think you can clean up here?" he asks Sam and Nat, his mouth suddenly dry. "I have to go."
"Something wrong?" Sam asks, concerned.
"No," he answers, and feels his face open up in a smile.
He could live here, he thinks, and never not marvel at the beauty of Wakanda.
Miss... only Okoye, his brain supplies, in her stern voice, is waiting for him along with three other Dora Milaje he doesn't know. They lead him into the palace, down so many hallways he gets a little dizzy, into the lab.
And there's Bucky, a little pale, but awake. He is talking to the princess, smiling at something she has said, and Steve's knees feel weak.
"Bucky," he manages to breath out through the lump in his throat.
Bucky turns to him, and his smile falters a little before it opens wider.
Now that she has tested it thoroughly, the procedure is not complicated, the princess assures them. For Steve, it definitely seems awfully complicated to... reboot someone's brain? It reminds him uncomfortably of the language on the HYDRA files he has recovered on the proper care and handle of the Asset. On how they turned Bucky into a weapon. But she smiles and cracks jokes as she talks about algorithms and synapses, and it all flies over his head, but Bucky seems to be understanding at least some of it, nodding and humming when appropriate.
Bucky had always been better at this kind of thing, a good head for math and science. As a kid, sometimes it had bothered Steve that Bucky managed to be good in all the subjects but also have the looks and athletic abilities not to get bullied for it, while he got beaten up for being bookish even though he barely managed to pass most of his classes due to missing a lot of school on account of being sick. These days, it just makes him even angrier at all the people who only saw Bucky for a good pair of eyes and steady hands.
He offers to give them privacy for the procedure, but Bucky asks him to stay.
Bucky shudders as Shuri presses a gentle hand on his shoulder to push him to lie down on the bed. His eyes go unfocused for a second, and he mumbles softly in Russian, please, no.
"It's okay, Buck," Steve says, takes Bucky's hand and laces their fingers together. Bucky squeezes his eyes shut then, and when he opens them, they are clear. His knuckles are white where his hand grips Steve's, and he might have cracked an unenhanced persons fingers.
Shuri looks but doesn't comment. Steve is aware of what it looks like, but then again, he is also aware of what leaving everything and everyone behind and starting an actual war in Bucky's name looks like, so he doesn't dwell on it. She doesn't seem to mind, though her voice is softer as she announces her moves step by step.
Steve can actually feel the bones of his hand grinding together as Shuri presses electrodes to Bucky's temples. His hand is clammy and his eyes are huge and fearful. Steve is aware of the Dora Milaje surrounding the room, ready to act at the slightest hint of threat to their princess.
"Remember the time I fought Johnny Miller behind the butcher's?" he says, his voice light, trying to tear Bucky's eyes away from Shuri and the computer.
"You mean," Bucky speaks through clenched teeth, "you mean the time Johnny Miller beat the shit out of... Sorry, princess," he adds to Shuri, who laughs, "Johnny Miller beat you up and then threw you in the garbage?"
"And then I had to walk three blocks home covered in day old pig guts," Steve confirms. One of the Dora Milaje makes a small sound, as if she wants to laugh but won't allow herself.
"And then your ma had to keep all the windows open for days to get rid of the smell you dragged home," Bucky’s voice comes out a little easier now. He turns to Shuri. "Did you know he used to be about your size?"
"Yeah?" she asks, distracted. "Tell me about it."
So Bucky does, spills story after story, and sometimes he needs Steve's help to remember some parts, some details, but it keeps his mind busy when she sticks him with more electrodes, and then injects him with a sedative.
Steve holds his hand even as it goes limp.
T'Challa is away with someone called Nakia, but Shuri retrieves the little red notebook from his safe and hands it to Steve. He has been studying Russian a little, since he found out about Bucky, so he is able to read the code words.
Bucky insists on being away from the lab, and on Shuri being outside for the test, which even earns him a small smile from Okoye. They are left alone in a meeting room.
"If this doesn't work..." Bucky begins, but Steve interrupts him.
"But if it doesn't..." Bucky interrupts him back.
"We'll try again."
Bucky looks about to argue, but nods instead.
He gets sweatier and shakier with every word, and the back of the chair he is holding creaks and threatens to crack. By the time Steve gets to грузовой вагон his eyes are closed and he is breathing as if he has run a marathon.
"Buck?" Steve calls, tentatively. It has been a long time since he last prayed. Sometimes he is not even sure there's anyone listening. But he does now, please let it work, please set him free.
Bucky opens a slow smile. "Steve," he says, relief spreading over his face.
Shuri whoops something in Wakandan and does a little dance when they open the door. Steve doesn't think he'll ever be able to thank her enough.
Bucky burns the book, his face stony and resolute as he watches it crumble to ashes.
Afterwards he kisses Steve.
It is surprising, and at the same time not. There had been moments, before, where Steve could have sworn this is where they were headed. But they never did, and then the war came, and everything after. It seems fitting, they would resume it now, when it finally seems they have a moment to breathe.
“Is this okay?” Bucky asks, biting his lip.
“Took you long enough,” Steve laughs, and kisses him again.
“What’s gotten into you?” Nat asks, her voice sly, when he catches up with the team in Vienna.
He tells them Bucky is awake and resting in Wakanda. He doesn’t tell them about their first kiss, or the ones that came after, or how Steve had his first good night’s sleep in as long as he can remember. He knows they wouldn’t mind, but it thrills him to keep this for himself, to have something that’s only his.
She smiles anyway, but doesn’t press further.
“I hope you’re up for a walk,” Ayo tells him, the next time he lands in Wakanda.
He runs in the direction she points him to.
“You’re a farmer now?” he asks Bucky’s tanned back.
“Well, it seems you’re a lumberjack,” Bucky replies, gesturing at Steve’s beard. He still kisses him sweetly when Steve comes within arm’s reach. “Hi, sweetheart,” he adds, his voice smooth and all Brooklyn, and Steve can’t stop the shudder that runs through him.
“These are Millie and Fred,” Bucky points at the nearest goats, “and the one over there is Ginger. I think she is a little stupid. She’s my favorite.”
“I still can’t believe you have goats,” Steve says. Ginger trots over to him, sniffs him a little and turns around to try to pee on his leg. Bucky laughs.
“They’re nice,” Bucky answers, petting Fred on the head. It bleats happily. “I like it here.”
Bucky’s face is flushed and tanned. He looks more relaxed than Steve has seen him since 1943.
“I like it here too.”
“Shuri wants to make me a new arm,” Bucky whispers, in the dark. Steve waits for the next part, and has to strain his ears to hear it. “I don’t want one.”
“Did you tell her that?” he asks, turning his head to press a kiss to Bucky’s scarred shoulder, through the soft cloth.
“She seemed so excited about it,” Bucky answers. It takes a long time before he continues. “I might need one, If I’m gonna keep your ass out of trouble.”
“You don’t have to,” Steve says, hastily. “Let me keep your ass out of trouble for a change.”
Bucky kisses him fiercely then, for a long time.
This time, it is a small group of old HYDRA agents who managed to dig up alien tech, and it takes Steve four months to come back.
He stumbles backwards with the force of Bucky’s embrace, and then Bucky is pushing him back into the hut, and he’s strong, even with only one arm, and especially when resisting is the furthest thing from Steve’s mind.
They have to disentangle to walk through the narrow door, and then Bucky is pinning a red cloth on the door.
“Don’t wanna traumatize the kids,” he explains, kneeling between Steve’s legs.
And they haven’t before, only with their hands, and mouths, and their legs tangled against each other’s on the narrow bed, but then Bucky is licking him open, and when Steve is a shaking, pleading mess Bucky pushes inside him, slowly, and nothing, nothing has ever felt like this. Steve feels like he is going to shake apart, like all his nerves are on fire, and it shouldn’t be good, it’s too much and not enough at once, and he never wants it to end.
Afterwards, he lies with his head pillowed on Bucky’s chest, warm in the afternoon sun, and all his muscles feel loose and content.
“You could stop,” Bucky says, softly, carding his fingers through Steve’s hair. “You could stay here.”
“I can’t,” he answers, forcefully. I don’t know how, and sometimes he still feels the weight of the shield that isn’t there against his shoulders.
“I know,” Bucky sighs. “Just thought I’d ask.”
The others notice the change.
“You look good,” Sam says, when he gets back.
Wanda, also back from a break of her own, smiles conspiratorially at him. She looks happy, and red hair suits her. Steve adds her to his sketchbook, where he draws the pretty things he sees during their missions, to show Bucky when he next sees him.
The market is loud and noisy and beautiful. Bucky smiles at the people, makes small talk with them in Wakandan, and Steve can’t take his eyes off him.
Back in the hut, he rides Bucky until his thighs hurt, and then sketches him by candlelight, smiling wide as he charms an extra plum off a round-faced vendor.
He can’t pinpoint the exact moment when he starts to think of Wakanda as home, but it happens, somewhere between getting stabbed in Malaysia and helplessly following Bucky’s directions to help deliver Millie’s babies (Frank and Mae).
“This feels real,” he tells Bucky one day. His brain is still stupid, after sex, but it seems important that he gets it out.
“Then stay,” Bucky’s voice sounds carefully neutral, as if he doesn’t want to plead.
Steve doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t sleep that night.
“Okay,” he says, in the morning, before he realizes what he is saying. He doesn’t know if he can do it, but he thinks he might be ready to give it a shot. “I’ll talk to them.”
Bucky kisses him, deeply, and they only get up when Steve’s stomach growls.
His phone rings.