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Faith & Desire

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So come on, get higher, loosen my lips
Faith and desire and the swing of your hips
Just pull me down hard
And drown me in love

Come on Get Higher | Matt Nathanson


 

 

He starts from the beginning because he has no other place to start. He starts from the moment he saw Shuri, from the second he woke up and saw the face of an angel staring at him, an anxious little smile on her pretty face. He starts there because he thinks maybe that’s when he actually fell in love, the moment he saw her.

 

“I honestly wondered if I’d died somehow and woke up in heaven. It sounds silly, I know, but...it’s true. And then she opened her mouth to speak and I remembered and I...there was a little part of me that panicked because if I was awake, that meant she’d been workin’ on me and I just-”

 

He sighs and breaks off, pacing the room in nothing but dress pants, T’Challa seated at one of the plush chairs of Shuri’s sitting room. He so far hadn’t said a word, simply sat with clenched fists and a stony face, but he’d listened. And that was more than what Bucky felt he deserved.

 

“Anyway, we worked through testing the triggers. Worked through the depression and anxiety, the fear and self loathing. She got me the best therapist she could find, put me on some good medicine, fed me, kept me company. And when I was as ready as I could be she sent me off to the woods where I wouldn’t be bothered. Came and checked on me. Made sure I was healthy and was doin’ alright. Nobody really had ever done that, besides Steve. But Shuri did. With her, I was never lonely or unwanted. I was somebody.”

 

“Oh, I’m sure,” the king says, the line of his mouth still angry and sarcasm dripping on every word. “So you’re trying to tell me that you took her kindness as attraction and used it to convince her to sleep with you?”

 

Bucky could feel his temper flare, a far cry from the subdued and scared man he’d been only minutes before. There was something so very infuriating about what T’Challa seemed to be insuinating, something snarky and a little bit cruel. But he resisted the urge to start throwing things and channeled his anger into conviction.

 

Besides, he’d had a sister once a long time ago, so in a way, he could understand.

 

“No. Not at all. I’m only tryin’ to tell you that what drew me to her was that kindness. The intelligence, the humor. All that. But if you’d give me a second to continue, your Majesty, you’ll find I never had any intentions of doing anything but being her friend. That’s it. That’s all I wanted. And you know what, I didn’t even think I was worth that.” He snorts bitterly. “When the feelings started...Jesus, I told myself over and over that it wasn’t right. Told myself I was a fool to even think she’d want somethin’ from me. Old broken white man, that’s all I am.” He’s aware his voice is rising a bit and that he’s getting a little flushed and worked up but T’Challa had hit a nerve.

 

“She came to me. She told me she loved me first. She insisted that I was worth loving, and I couldn’t...you really think I didn’t try fighting that? That I didn’t feel the way you do, the way ‘Koye does about it all? Cause I did, long time ago, before anybody else. I know me. I know what I’ve done. She don’t deserve all that baggage. She don’t. But you can’t tell her that because she loves me. And I love her. God knows, if I don’t like a damned thing about myself, I love that woman.”

 

“She’s just a girl-”

 

“Tell her that one more time and see what happens,” he says curtly. The look T’Challa gives him almost makes him chuckle. “I know...I know there’s an age difference, I know I’m old as hell, I know she could have any man she wanted-younger and more handsome and smarter, whatever. Good breedin’. Good manners, better fashion sense, richer.” He shakes his head. “I didn’t even graduate high school, did you know that? Didn’t make it out the door with a diploma cause I had to dropout and help my folks. So I don’t know much. But I know that she’s not a little girl anymore. I know she doesn’t need to be told who to love and what to do, overprotected like she’s some porcelain doll.”

 

T’Challa frowns but he doesn’t move to stand, nor does he seem to be as ready to fight. That’s progress, Bucky supposes. He lets out a breath and allows the king to speak.

 

“It seems I may have misjudged you, Sergeant.”

 

Bucky can’t find any words for that so he only shrugs and keeps quiet.

 

“You must understand though...my sister is…” T’Challa pauses as if to find the right words. “She is precious beyond words. She is a remarkable and exceptional and...and I made a vow the day she was born that I would protect her at all costs.”

 

“Even at the cost of her happiness?”

 

There’s a sigh and a shake of his head. “Is it so difficult to believe that I am having a little issue reconciling the woman my sister has become, right under my nose, to the girl I used to swing in the air? The little girl who followed me everywhere, asked me to sing her to sleep, come to me when she had scraped knees and elbows?”

 

“No. Not at all.”

 

“Then you do see where I’m coming from.”

 

“I do. I’m just wanting you to see where I’m comin’ from, your Majesty. I’m a man in love. I can’t help it, though lord knows I’ve tried. I love your sister. Honest to god, love her.”

 

For a while neither man speaks. Instead they sit in the quiet of Shuri’s bedroom and watch each other, lost in their own thoughts. And then:

 

“I’m curious to know something,” T’Challa says, when Bucky pauses to sit across from him. He is noticeably calmer, less ready to nitpick and fight and for that, Bucky is grateful. “When did the romantic feelings begin?”

 

“A little over a year ago.” Bucky narrows his eyes and ponders the real reason for this question.

 

“If you’re wondering did I prey on a teenage girl, then no.” He’s tired of the assumption, though he understands where everyone gets the notion. Love takes time, real love does. But his love for her had been innocent, he knows it had. “I didn’t take advantage of anyone, I didn’t even...there were times I could feel something starting in me and I pushed it down, over and over and month after month ‘cause I didn’t feel like it was right. She’s 20 years old, she’s so much younger, she’s...she’s a princess, a genius. She’s worth more than I deserve-”

 

“Oh, I agree. It’s nice to know you at least understand that.”

 

Bucky draws in a deep breath but he can feel his jaw clenching and T’Challa notices, his brow raising. “That’s the thing, your Majesty. She thinks I’m worth somethin’. She thinks I deserve her.” He laughs dryly, rubs his eyes, because this is getting tired. There’s a headache starting and he’s hungry and he could use another nap. “She told me that to her, I’m worth the world. She told me that I was the moon to her sun.” He thinks back to the night she told him that, wrapped up in nothing but a thin blanket and his arms, the sweat of their lovemaking still fresh on their skin. She hadn’t even caught her breath yet, pushing damp hair back from his face and smiling up at him.

 

“I love you so much, James. My moon, my love.”

 

“If I’m the moon, sugar, what does that make you? The sun?”

 

“If you want me to be.”

 

“The sun and the clouds and all of the stars.”

 

“I don’t know if I believe I’m worth that much. But I’m not gonna argue with her. You can’t. If I tell her I don’t feel like I deserve to be happy, she smacks me ‘side the back of the head and tells me to shut the hell up. She gets angry if I say one bad word about myself. Even if I get outta pocket…” He laughs, drumming his metal fingers against his ever wiggling knee. “She loves me anyway. She’s got a mouth. Hell, so do I. And we get mad about stupid shit and we fight about silly stuff and then we kiss and make up.”

 

T’Challa is quiet for a very long moment, as if he’s trying to reconcile this obviously in love woman with the girl that was his little sister.

 

“I don’t for once doubt, and never did doubt, that Shuri cares for you. Tremendously.” He glances down and his steepled hands and sighs deeply. “But I only worried that she was confusing lust for love, infatuation for something deeper and truer.”

 

“Like...what you have with the queen?”

 

There’s a hint of a smile on T’Challa’s face. “I suppose. That is a love borne out of a lifetime of knowing each other. I’ve grown with Nakia, watched her blossom from a fierce and funny girl to someone smart and beautiful and...well, you understand my affections for my wife, I’m sure.”

 

Bucky nods.

 

“That is what I am having difficulty with, Sergeant Barnes. You haven’t known my sister for that long-not in the grand scope of how love grows. And if you are being honest with me, then you haven’t been in love with her for very long, either.”

 

Well, that wasn’t necessarily untrue. He couldn’t deny that what T’Challa saw and understood as love was something a bit different from what he had with Shuri. But just because it was different didn’t mean it wasn’t true. Even still, though, the king continues.

 

“Love,” T’Challa says, “is not as simple as finding someone attractive, or admiring them, or wanting to be in their presence. It’s sacrifice, the willingness to give of yourself to another person. It’s unselfish and kind when it’s hard to be such. It can overwhelm you, initially, but it should never cause you pain or heartache...not the love itself. If love hurts, it isn’t real. If it folds at the first sign of danger, it isn’t real. It’s not possessive, it doesn’t seek to own...it seeks to give, to shelter, to warm and heal. That is true love. And I worry...I worry that my sister doesn’t know what that is just yet.”

 

T’Challa lets that sink in for a while and Bucky thinks, truly thinks, about what he’d said.

 

“‘It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’” Bucky says softly, and T’Challa studies him with interest.

 

“That sounds somewhat familiar…”

 

“The Bible. A scripture.”

 

“Ah. So I’d thought.” T’Challa says thoughtfully and Bucky nods.

 

“Hadn’t been religious in...a long, long time. Something about that one though, it...well...it says it all really. That’s love. What you said, your Majesty. That’s love.” He draws another deep breath and meets T’Challa’s eyes unwavering and strong.

 

“And that’s what I feel for your sister. There’s another scripture, says that there’s not greater love than this, that a man would give his life for his friends. I’ve got two I’d die for if needed. I mean, would it be somethin’ I’d look forward to? Nah. But Steve and Sam? They’d do the same for me. It ain’t somethin’ we talk about a lot, it’s just a given.”

 

“I understand that sentiment,” T’Challa says. “There are some I hold in my heart that, for them, death would be nothing.”

 

“Exactly. It’s not the most fun thing in the world to do-die, that is. But if it’s gotta be done to keep them safe, then so be it. But for Shuri? For her? I’d die in a heartbeat , as many times as necessary, to keep her safe, just to make sure not a hair was harmed on her head. Nothing in this world could scare me away from lovin’ her, I swear that. It ain’t just for the fun of it, or a fling, or...or whatever anyone would think this is.”

 

“But do you understand why I worry?” T’Challa asks once again. “Can you truly put yourself in my shoes and tell me you understand that? This world here we live in is sheltered from the world outside, but I have seen things, known things...there are places now where a woman like my sister would be used and discarded and tossed aside like refuse when the man got done with her. And I would suffer no fool who would dare try that.”

 

“I don’t claim to be the sharpest ax in the shed,” Bucky says, leaning forward so that the king knows he means business. “But I’m not stupid enough to sit here and lie to you in your face and tell you I love your sister with all the breath in my body when I don’t mean it. I mean it.” He nods as if he’s confirming it for himself for the millionth time, and maybe he is. “I mean it.”

 

T’Challa hums as if he’s contemplating this and sits back, looks off to the side as he thinks.

 

“Pretty words, but as I said before, only time will really tell. Even so, if I told her she could no longer see you, I’m sure she would,” he finally says, almost resigned to the idea. Bucky can feel something inside him warm, something spring up like hope but he tampers it enough so that it doesn’t play out all over his face. “So I suppose there isn’t much else to do but to wait and see.”

 

“Wait and see what?”

 

“If you’re sincere in your proclamations.” When he opens his mouth to protest, T’Challa holds up a hand to stop him. “Oh, you’ve told me all about the depths of your love, your pure intentions. But you cannot prove how much you love someone with words only. So we shall wait and see.”

 

Bucky clears his throat, scratches the back of his neck and frowns. “But does that mean…”

 

“That you can still see her?” T’Challa sighs again. “I see no reason why not. She’s in the safety of her home and this will be on her terms, her territory. You cannot harm her here. So you will have time. One week.”

 

“I...okay.” He’s not sure why it’s only a week. He’s expecting the length of courtship to last for at least several months.

 

“That is how long I shall be gone on my honeymoon,” the king clarifies. “There’s still the issue of charges of indecency against you-”

 

“Wait, wait... indecency-

 

“An old and outdated law, something I had meant to bring to council and have removed from the books after I took the throne. But I hadn’t had the time and when I had, I hadn’t thought much else of it. It’s not as if I were expecting...this.”

 

Bucky blinks. “Does this mean I’m goin’ to jail?”

 

T’Challa laughs and it’s almost like he’s getting a kick out of this. Bucky thinks perhaps he is and it makes him a little irritable. “I’m not sure.” There’s a pause, a tilt of the head. “Perhaps deportation.”

 

“You can’t-

 

“James, I am the king. I can do almost whatever I wish.”

 

Bucky bites back a retort and settles for glaring. “Great. Which means I’d miss her birthday.”

 

The strangest look passes across T’Challa’s face but it disappears almost as quickly as it’d appeared. “This is, of course, solely hinged on if I were as cruel to uproot you from your current life of peace and contentment. I am not cruel.”

 

“Is that the reason why I’m not dead on the floor right now?”


He gives Bucky an amused look and shrugs. “That, and perhaps against my better judgement, I do like you. So no death. No deportation. Nothing too...harrowing, so don’t worry about that.”

 

“What do I need to worry about?”

 

“My mother,” T’Challa says simply and Bucky groans. He’d almost forgotten about Ramonda in all the ruckus and now the idea of facing the queen mother, confessing all he felt about her daughter, her baby, was even more daunting that facing T’Challa. “And of course, the very real chance that you will have to suffer some punishment. That, I can’t avoid. It’s a consequence of not changing the law before all this happened.”

 

“You’re the king though.”

 

“I am,” he agrees, “and yet I still must abide by a certain set of rules myself. So it isn’t completely in my hands whether you must serve a sentence or if you’ll be pardoned. And I can’t just amend that law without the council...so either way, you must wait and see.”

 

“Alright.”

 

“I mean, you really have no other choice.”

 

“You keep rubbing that in.”

 

There’s a smile there that is not at all unkind, and T’Challa extends his hand. “I’m sorry about your face.” Bucky gives him a half grin, wincing a little as he moves his jaw.

 

“I don’t buy it, but thanks.”

 

T’Challa gives Bucky a modicum of privacy so he can dress, and then escorts him from Shuri’s room down the corridor, to the opposite end of the palace. There’s a quiet, dark bed with his name on it and he needs ice, something for breakfast, maybe a drink or two if he can wrangle it. He hasn’t drank a sip of anything in years, but his nerves are still shot and he could stand a finger of whiskey.

 

“Oh, before I forget to mention,” T’Challa says, as they stop by his door. “The one week? That’s simply a kindness. You aren’t courting the princess in that amount of time.”

 

“Oh, yeah, I uh...I figured that.” He hadn’t, not really, but he also wasn’t sure exactly what their courtship rituals were like, so he’d only assumed. It seemed assumptions were going to get him into trouble.

 

“Whatever happens after that week will decide whether you can court her. You aren’t Wakandan, first of all, and that’s a requirement to marry anyone in this country.”

 

Bucky almost thought of saying he hadn’t discussed marriage with Shuri, so he had no need to officially court her, but thought better of it. He simply nodded. The little part of him that longed to have her as his wife soared at the idea of marrying her, taking her as his lawfully wedded. And then he wondered how that was going to work when she was a princess and he was...well, him. But that was something he could work out later.

 

If they got a later. Please, God, let us have a later.

 


 

No sooner has he shut the door and flop into bed is there a knock. He groans, covering his eyes with his arm, and gets up begrudgingly, opening the door to find Sam and Steve staring at him curiously.

 

“You busy Buck?” Steve asks, though he had to have know that Bucky was, in fact, not busy. Bucky thinks for a moment if he wants to entertain these two and figures that it can’t hurt to get some of this off his chest. He’s wondering what they’ll say when they realize just exactly what has been going on the last four months.

 

“Nah. Come in.”

 

The two follow him inside, sitting in the same spots they’d occupied the day before. Sam tosses him a warm sack of something, and Bucky opens it to find a tightly sealed container of what looks like grits, as well as several slabs of bacon, a few corn muffins and a bottle of blood orange juice.

 

“How’d you know I was hungry?” he asks, grinning in spite of the headache that’s thrumming against his temples.

 

“I didn’t,” Sam said simply. “The head Dora Milaje did.”

 

“Koye?” That was hard to believe. Even on their best terms, he couldn't see Okoye bringing him anything to eat. 

 

“Mm. That one. Thicker than a snicker and fine as frog hair.”

 

“She’s taken, you know.” He wants to laugh at Sam's apparent irritation at this fact so bad. Instead, he focuses on the food he'd been given. 

 

“Yeah, don’t remind me. Had to watch her dance on that M’Baku fella all night.” Sam scoffs and rolls his eyes. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, my mans is a nice slab of meat-”

 

“Why is everything food to you, Sam? Please. Explain this,” Steve cuts in and he laughs lightly.

 

“Cause I’m always hungry, that’s why.”

 

Bucky watches the two of them slightly amused, and bites into one of the corn muffins, almost moaning at how good they are. He was famished, and realized he hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours, probably.

 

“Wanna muffin?” he asks, offering one to Sam, who shrugs and takes one, breaking a little piece off and popping it into his mouth.

 

“I’m gonna need the recipe for this.”

 

“Can you even cook?

 

“Can you?”

 

“Children. We didn’t come here to discuss culinary skill,” Steve says, stretching out in the seat. His face is calm, body relaxed, but there’s something about the way he looks at Bucky that makes him think he knows more than he had the day before.

 

“Alright. So what did you two come here for?”

 

The guys share a look and then stare at him pointedly.

 

“So uh...last night. You kinda just ditched us, man.”

 

Bucky slows chewing, licking a few stray crumbs from his lips. “Yeah. Sorry bout that.”

 

“Mmm. I bet. What happened?”

 

Bucky blinks slow, thinks of how to word any of what went on, and decides to test the waters first. “How much do you know, first of all?”

 

Steve answers, legs crossed and arm over Sam’s chair. “We know you’re in trouble. The general told us.”

 

“Hm. Did she tell you it’s her fault?”

 

Sam and Steve glance at each other and frown. “Wait...huh?”

 

Bucky waves his hand around and grabs another muffin. “Okay, let me take that back. It ain’t really ‘Koye’s fault, actually. I mean, if I had listened to her when she told me to back off-”

 

“Dude, I’m confused,” Sam says, rubbing his temples.

 

“Well hush and let me tell you.” He takes his time before starting his story, a little annoyed he has to tell this again, but a bit amused just how on edge the two of them are. He peels the lid from his grits, laughing softly when he sees a glob of butter and a healthy heaping of rich syrup in the middle. “There’s no way in the world ‘Koye gave you this,” he says and he glances up at Steve, then to Sam, who’s the first to crack.

 

“Nah. Though I have no idea how you knew that,” he confesses.

 

“Cause she don’t like sweet grits,” Bucky explains. “Almost to the point she thinks they should be illegal. Neither does Folami, but I’m pretty sure most of the Dora are busy right now and the kingsguard are on their way to the honeymoon. Only other person I know that likes their grits with syrup and butter is…” He chuckles, digs out his spoon, and scoops a big heaping of the grits, sliding it into his mouth and smiling.

 

“My baby likes sugar grits. Just like me.”

 

The look on Steve’s face is worth damn near burning the roof of his mouth. He almost laughs but remembers he’s still got food to chew and swallow so he makes quick work of that and takes the ensuing, confused silence to actually get a word in before Sam starts spewing out the questions.

 

“Alight, so. Yeah, I’m in some trouble. The king may or may not have walked in on me uh...naked.”

 

“How'd you get in trouble for being naked?” Sam asks, though Bucky thinks he may already know the answer to this. Bucky takes another bite of grits and chases it with orange juice, swallows, and smacks his lips.

 

“I was in Shuri’s room.”

 

A pin could have dropped on the plush carpeted floor and he would have heard it.

 

“I feel like I know how you ended up naked in the princess’ room-”

 

“Her bed, Sam,” Bucky finally says, a long suffering sigh coming from his chest. He thinks he hears Steve swear.

 

“You done fucked up.”

 

“Yep. Well. Sorta, I don’t know.”

 

“You’re gonna tell us how this started, right?” Steve finally says, blue eyes wide and his hand tapping anxiously on his knee. “You’re gonna give us an explanation for why you got caught sleeping with the king’s sister-”

 

“His little sister,” Sam says, narrowing his eyes at Bucky. “His baby sister. His barely legal sister-”

 

“Are you fuckin’ done?” Bucky retorts, completely over the nonsense. “Are you gonna join the brigade of people tellin’ me I’m a goddamn pervert for having sex with a grown ass woman?”

 

“A grown ass-man, she’s a KID!”

 

“She’s a woman. Completely capable of making her own decisions, thank you. And she decided she wanted to sleep with me.” He shrugs, polishing off the grits. “Beats me why she picked me of all people but-”

 

“How long, Buck?” Steve asks, his voice strained and quiet.

 

“How long we’ve been…”

 

“Yeah.” He’s waiting for an answer, an affirmation that Bucky had at least waited, because Bucky knows Steve Rogers wouldn’t be able to support even him if he’d even hinted that he’d started anything sexual when she was still underage. And Bucky wouldn’t blame him at all, truthfully. He finds he’s actually relieved he can tell his friend that nothing had happened back then. Hell, he hadn’t even thought of doing anything back then.

 

“Four months.”

 

The breath both of them blow out is audible, and he suddenly feels sore for being such a prick about all this.

 

“Look Stevie. You know me.” He met Steve’s eyes and searched them, seeing the relief mixed with disbelief in them. “You know me. I wouldn’t…” He shakes his head and laughs at the absurdity.

 

“I would have to go and fall head over heels in love with a woman young enough to be my great granddaughter, though. I would. Just my fuckin’ luck.”

 

“Eh, well,” Sam offers, “it’s not like you intended to live to be 100 somethin’.

 

“You got a full story, Buck, or…” Steve ushers him to finish telling them what's going on.

 

Bucky sighs, puts the empty container back in the bag, and drinks the rest of his orange juice. “Yeah...yeah, I’ll...let me finish this muffin real quick and I’ll...yeah.”

 


 

“So what’d they say,” Shuri says, hours later when she finally saw him again. She lay beside him in bed, completely clothed but tangled up in his arms and there wasn’t anywhere he wanted to be right now.

 

He’d met her at his door after a much needed nap, and she had pushed past him to sit tentatively on the bed. It was a strange energy between them for a very long few minutes as she explained that she hadn’t seen T’Challa since she’d left her room, but had talked to her mother.

 

“She knows,” she’d said, but wouldn’t elaborate. And that made the pit of his stomach bundle up like tangle of yarn. But he it pushed aside and nearly forgot his worries when she’d crawled over on the bed and sat in his lap, cuddling up against his chest and leaning her head on his shoulder. He had wrapped her in his arms and lay back against the pillows and the two of them had simply sat still and quiet for a while.

 

That is, until he brought up breakfast, kissing her forehead gently and thanking her. He asked how she ran into Sam and Steve and she told him she’d sought them out. “I didn’t think you’d wanna see me right then.”

 

“Why in the hell-”

 

“I thought you needed space!”

 

“Sugar,” he’d said, turning her chin so she would look at him and not her fingernails. “Sugar, the last thing I need from you is space.” He had kissed her lips then, soundly and passionately to make his point and she had melted like butter. And now she was nosing around for details on what they’d talked about.

 

“They of course told me I was a dumb ass. Which I agree with. And blessed me out for sleepin’ with a much younger woman-”

 

She scoffs, rolls her eyes and flops back on the bed again. “Of course. But no mention of the fact that it’s technically illegal to be sleeping with me regardless of my age-”

 

“Why in the hell didn’t you tell me that?”

 

“I didn’t know,” she admits, biting her lip. “Mama told me today. There’s a whole set of rules about how to behave around royalty and one of them includes having sex with them. Apparently it’s fine if it’s initiated by the royals themselves, but it doesn’t extend to the female members of the monarchy.”

 

“Huh. No wonder your brother said it was a load of sexist bullshit.”

 

She glances at him, an odd look on her face. He had a feeling she was still sore with T’Challa. “He said that?”

 

“Mmhm.”

 

“Huh.” She stays quiet for a moment, but then turns over and wiggles closer to him so that he wraps an arm around her waist and pulls her body flush against his side. “But we were talking about your friends.”

 

“Oh. Stevie just wanted to know what was gonna happen, and if this had started a while back.”

 

“When I was a teenager? Ugh.”

 

“Okay, but can you blame him?”

 

“I guess not...but still. You make it sound like they have absolutely no faith in you.”

 

He shrugs. “You can’t always be sure about folks, I guess. Even if you’ve know ‘em for ages. Anyway, once I verified all of that, he just wanted to make sure I was sure about this.”

 

“Steve Rogers is a good man.”

 

“Damn right,” Bucky agrees, smiling softly. It warmed him to think that Shuri and Steve would get along. They hadn’t had much chance to talk but he hoped that changed in the future. And he decided at that moment, no matter the outcome, somehow they’d have a future.

 

“I want to know what Sam had to say though", Shuri says, grinning and Bucky can’t help but laugh because he knows how much Shuri and Sam have in common. She’ll get a kick out of his comments.

 

“He wanted details.”

 

“The nitty gritty ones, as you’d say?” she asks, playing with the collar of his sleeping shirt. “Cause if you told him all our business, James Buchanan-”

 

“Nuh uh, nobody’s called me that since my mama. Don’t try it.”

 

She raises a brow but there was a smirk on her lips that told him she liked it when he got a little bossy with her. “Fine. Bucky. What all did you tell Sam?”

 

“I told him I was in love with you,” he says simply. “And that you were the most beautiful thing in the world to me.” Her smirk softens into a genuine smile, and she laughs. “I told him you were the smartest woman that ever existed and that the sun shines out your cute little ass.”

 

Shuri rolls over and laughs so hard she starts to hiccup, and Bucky laughs along with her. It felt so good to laugh like this, to hold her like this. And they didn’t have to hide anymore, at least not here in the palace. He imagines they’ll have to be at least a little more discreet, subdued, but he can handle that. There’s enough dark corners in this place that he could get more than a hand hold and a chaste kiss, he knows.

 

“Okay, enough with the romantic platitudes. I wanna know what you told him about how I am in bed.”

 

He nearly chokes at that, and wheezes out a breath when she rolls over and up onto his chest.

 

“I didn’t get that detailed.”

 

She makes a face, waits and he snickers. “Okay. So I may have possibly confessed you were the best I’ve ever had-”

 

“Am I? The best?”

 

“Didn’t I just say that?”

 

“Yeah, but…” She trials off and sighs. “I mean, you’ve had a lot more experience than I have. I didn’t think you’d really find me all that...alluring.”

 

Bucky frowns. He doesn’t like the idea that she’s insecure about how he feels about her on any level, though he knows it would be inevitable she’d bring his past lovers up. He’s curious to know how much of his memories she’d indulged in while he was sleeping.

 

“Did you go peakin’ at somethin’ you shouldn’t have, sugar?” Shuri doesn’t answer at first but she meets his gaze and almost blushes.

 

“I uh...saw some things.”

 

“Mm. You gonna tell me?”

 

“Her name’s Natasha, right?”

 

Oh, hell. “That was once.” It was. That was it. One and done and never again, though he couldn’t help but admit to himself that there had been something different about that night, different than the people before her he’d had to seduce.

 

“Yeah, but...she’s...you know. She’s beautiful and worldly and very efficient with-”

 

“Sugar, stop that.” He shook his head, growling as he turned them so that she was under him. “No need in comparing yourself to the past. Nat and I are friends.”

 

“Nat.”

 

“Mmmhm. And you’d like her, if you ever left that lab when they come visit.”

 

Shuri blows out a breath, reaches up and tugs a lock of his hair behind his ear. “Well, maybe. I didn’t say I wouldn’t.”

 

But the way her eyes dart from his tells him all he needs to know about why Shuri had never bothered meeting Natasha. He groans. “You’re jealous.”

 

“Maybe.”

 

“You shouldn’t be.”

 

“I suppose I could believe that.”

 

Bucky shakes his head and settles between her thighs, cradling her in his arms. “Look at me, doll.”

 

She does, though begrudgingly. There’s so much going on in her head right now that it makes him feel like an absolute asshole. Why hadn’t he put this to rest earlier? “Whatever I had with Nat, with anybody else before you...that was then. You are my now.” My forever, his heart says. “You can’t compare her to you ‘cause I didn’t fall in love with her.”

 

“I know.”

 

“I’m yours, sugar. All yours.”

 

“I know. I just…” She blinks and he thinks he sees tears, though he hopes to god he hasn’t just made her cry. “I want to be good for you.” She says it in such a small voice and it twists something inside him that makes him want to squeeze her close and never let go.

 

“You’re too good for me, is the damn problem,” he grumbles. “So what if you haven’t done as much as other people? Doesn’t mean I don’t like it. Doesn’t mean I don’t love it, even. Shit…” He nuzzles her neck, places a hot, open mouth kiss there and she shivers. “You feel that? The way you reacted when I did that? Know how many people responded like that to me without me doin’ too much of anything?” She shakes her head, eyes gleaming. “None of em. None but you.”

 

He trails a hand down her side and lets his fingertips rest on her clothed hip. “You are magnificent, sweet baby. Sweet as sugar, soft as silk. Gorgeous. You smell good and look better and taste...fuck. You taste so good.” He grins, and kisses her quickly to punctuate his point. “I love makin’ love to you, cause that’s what that is. Love makin’. Not just sex to me, not just fuckin’ not by a long shot.” He can feel her skin prickle under his touch and he slips his hands under her shirt, smiling when she leans into the touch and moans.

 

“So don’t worry about anybody I’ve had before. I got you now. That’s all I want. All I need. You are more than enough.”

 

Shuri threads her fingers through his hair and smiles up at him like he hung the moon and he feels like he could take on the entire world if it meant he could keep her smiling like that forever. “Okay,” she whispers, her nails scratching along his scalp gently. She pulls his head down to her mouth and bites at his lip, kissing him slow and easy, her small hands exploring his back, her legs wrapped around him tight. There wasn’t really a need to take anything off; he was perfectly fine just making out with her like this, sharing her breath, looking into her eyes.

 

But when she pulls away, looks at him with mischief in his eyes, he could feel his body responding in all the most sordid of ways. He wished she knew just how much he desired her, how sexy and irresistable she was to him.

 

When she peels her top off and tosses it over his shoulder, yanks at the waistband of his pajama pants, he figures the best way to tell her is without words.

 

Chapter Text

It’s late in the evening before Shuri slips from his bed and heads back to her own. He’d wanted her to stay, to wrap around him and curl up underneath him like she does back at the cabin, but the rude awakening they’d had that morning put a damper on the thrill of waking up together. And, he thinks, perhaps they need to spend that time apart in the palace. There are secret, watchful eyes no doubt monitoring their every interaction. It made him a little claustrophobic but he he kept it to himself. Shuri had a lot on her mind, from what he could gather after they were done making love. He didn’t want to burden her with much else.

 

And all this was his fault, anyway, so the least he could do was fall back and give her breathing room.

 

He lay in bed that night and struggled to sleep, though he was covered in warm sheets that still smelled of the two of them and snug in pillows that carried the scent of her braid oil. He breathes in deep and closes his eyes, wondering just when his heart would settle at the thought of her, the touch and taste and feel of her. He’d have thought he would eventually get used to her, and this , but it was almost always as if he were discovering something new and thrilling and it stirred his blood in a way that hadn’t been stirred in so long, he’d almost forgotten what it felt like.

 

Bucky had been in love before, though that love wasn’t nearly as all consuming as this one. And it was infinitely different from the love he’d felt for Stevie, way back when, though that too had been almost overwhelming in the intensity of it. This was something else, something he had no idea how to navigate and deal with. His first love had been the sweet, soft innocence of a 15 year old boy; his love for Steve had grown from a lifetime of friendship and mellowed into a kinship so deep that he could never imagine his world without Steve in it. There was another love too, for Sam he realized, that had somehow crept up in the years since they’d met. It was odd to think that someone he’d once tried to actively hurt and kill meant so much to him now.

 

Not that he’d ever tell Sam that, for fear his ego would suffocate them all.

 

But his love for Shuri had startled him, scared him even. He’d not been lying to T’Challa when he said he would die for her without hesitation. It wasn’t even a second thought, really. If she had ever been in any danger for any reason, it was simply a matter of who he could crush to avenge any hurt she’d been put through. He didn’t even want to think about what he’d do if something worse than a scratch happened to her. All he knew was it would be brutal, monstrous.

 

And she didn’t need that. He hated the bloodlust that still coursed through him, hated how his temper could spark and flare at the very idea of anyone hurting her, including himself. The king had said that love wasn’t possessive but he knew, with all honesty and clarity, that there was an ugly streak of possessiveness inside him when it came to Shuri. He hadn’t ever been so devoted to one person, and he didn’t like what it could do to him.

 

Bucky slept fitfully, haunted for the first time in a long time of nightmares he’d thought had finally subsided. Though they weren’t nearly as terrifying as they had been-right out of cryo and still in reprogramming-they were still there, lurking in the darkest shadows of his mind. He woke in a sweat, the sheets tangled around him like snakes, and he fought down the rising panic that overcame him when he could still feel blood on his palms, bones crunching beneath his hands.

 

Fuckin’ hell.

 

Deep breaths in, long slow breaths out. He lay back and focuses on something else entirely, something not fueled by violence and obsession. He thought of the goats back home, of the veggies he needed to harvest once he got back. And then his thoughts slip to the possibility that he wouldn’t get to go back to that cabin in the woods and he could feel the panic rising once more. Bucky blinks back tears, gripping the sheets beneath him and stared at the ceiling, desperate to find something else, anything else to think about.

 

Just then, his phone vibrates, and he grasps it quickly, fumbling with the touch screen controls to answer it.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Bucky...are you okay?”

 

He sucks in a deep breath, a little of the strangling anxiety easing up at the sound of Shuri’s voice.

 

“I’m...no.” There was no use in lying; she’d be able to read straight through him even over the phone.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Bad dream.”

 

“You need me?” It was a struggle to tell her no when he wanted nothing more than to tangle himself in her arms and breathe her in and listen to her heart beat.

 

“Talk to me. I’m not doing anything taxing. In fact, I’m just leaving the palace.”

 

He’s scared to, though. No matter how much he tells himself he can tell her anything, he knows he can’t. He’s terrified she’ll run from him, shrink away and hide behind spears and shields because of the thoughts that run rampant through his head. Obsessed. He’s obsessed and possessive and violent. He shudders at the thought of being overcome with all of this toxicity, of doing something to irreparably harm her in some way.

 

But he needs to get this out of him or he knows it will eat him alive. And he trusts few people the way he trusts his sweet baby. So he starts out, haltingly so, as she drives to the lab.

 

“You won’t hurt me,” she says, quietly, a little while later. “You can’t . I’ve seen your brain, you goat. You’re incapable of harming me.” There’s so much faith in those words that it makes his chest ache.

 

“I wasn’t in love with you then,” he says, fighting to get his point across. “I didn’t feel this way then, so...it’s not the same. Scan me now, today. See what wild shit is dancin’ across my brainwaves now, doll.” He sighs, rubs his eyes and turns his head toward the light filtering through the window. It’s going to be another beautiful day.

 

“If I did,” she says matter of factly, “I would probably be impressed by just how far you’ve come. You told me once you were broken and scarred and you know what? You are. You were , anyway. And you won’t always be.”

 

He’d always be a little bit broken, he knew, but he wouldn’t argue that point now.

 

“You’ve done so much to put yourself back together. I didn't have much to do with that. I simply gave you the tools. You utilized them, my love. And you’ve gotten yourself to this point now.” There’s a pause, as if she’s trying to come up with the right words to say. “I think, if you were truly as dangerous as you think, you wouldn’t be so worried about your feelings.”

 

“You don’t think so?”

 

“Nope. I mean, I’m no therapist, but I’ve studied a bit on the subject. And I think the awareness is important in differentiating whether you’re truly a threat to me or not.” She gives a soft laugh that eases the tension in his body. “You’re no threat, Bucky. Not to me.”

 

Maybe not, he thinks. Maybe she is his weakness and his strength, but…

 

“Now, someone else?” She finishes his line of thought as if she could read his mind. He wonders if maybe she can. “I would be a liar if I hadn’t thought about how dangerous you could be to someone else.” He sighs and rolls over until he’s sitting up. It’s high time he got out of bed, anyway.

 

“That’s a given. It’s a little terrifying to think I could go flyin’ off the handle if someone blinked at you the wrong way.”

 

“Mm. Or it could really, really give me comfort to know I have that kind of strength and muscle behind me.”

 

He knows she means well by it. He knows she wants him to draw comfort from that statement, but he can’t. He knows very well what he’s capable of, of what he’s done -and it doesn’t make him feel much better to know that he could be triggered by something as small as someone even threatening violence toward her. It’s not so much that he’s scared he would harm her, he realizes, but that he’s afraid of what she’ll think of him if he resorted to that.

 

Not if , he thinks, when . It’s only a matter of time. The very thought makes his stomach churn.

 

“I got it all out, Buck,” she says softly. “I promise. If you want, we can go back through and redo whatever part of the reconditioning you want.”

 

“I don’t know if that’s gonna cure me, sweet baby,” he confesses. “You’ve got me wrapped around those pretty little fingers of yours, is all it is.” There’s a moment where he simply listens to her breath over the line, how her little sigh at that affirmation brings the barest of smiles to his face. She loves him, he knows this, as much as anyone could love someone like him.

 

“This is really bothering you, isn’t it?” she asks. There is a little note of concern in her voice for him. He hates that she’s worried about him now, and wishes he could take everything back. He’s gone and put more stress on her mind, given her something else to fret over.

 

“A little, yeah,” he confesses, because there’s not much else he can do but admit it.

 

“Enough to give you nightmares, my love,” she admends. “I’ll ask you again, then: do you need to see me today?”

 

He draws in a breath and walks slowly to the adjacent bath of his guest suite. It’s not near as luxurious as Shuri’s but it’s wonderfully built, a deep tub and a waterfall shower that he thinks may help with the kinks in his muscles right now. He’s got half a mind to mosey down to the markets and hit up Diwamba for a deep tissue session and an hour in the tank.

 

“Come see me for lunch,” she tells him. “Bring the guys too, if you want. I’ve been meaning to show Sam a few ideas I have anyway.”

 

“You sure? You’re not too busy?”

 

She scoffs. “Not at all. Just working on some upgrades for the dome, is all. I’m serious, come see me. Bring me something to eat, too. You know what I like.” He smiles at that and then lets her go with a soft “I love you” before he takes to the shower, letting the warmth of the spray melt his dark thoughts and tension away.


He takes Shuri's jeep to the lab. It’s bright purple and feminine to a fault, but he prefers it over the car for whatever reason. He’s got a few good memories in this vehicle, too, and it’s brought up when Sam and Steve slide in, Sam whistling once again at how luxurious Shuri’s vehicles are.

 

“You should see her bike, man,” Bucky mentions, and both his friend’s eyes widen.

 

“My girl got a bike?” Sam asks, excited beyond belief. Motorcycles were one of the things the three of them shared a near unhealthy enthusiasm about. “Ya’ll didn't tell me the coolest kid in the world has a bike.”

 

Steve snorts at the same time that Bucky glares. “Kid? Yeah, you’re about to get a mouthful.”

 

Sam rolls his eyes and buckles in, leaning back into the plush passenger seat. It was his turn to ride shotgun, he’d insisted, and Steve didn't have the energy to argue. He’d apparently been up late the night before, but refused to say why. There was something odd about the way he was acting, and had been, since the wedding. Or at least that was the gist of it according to Sam. Bucky honestly hadn’t really noticed. He’d been preoccupied with other things.

 

“Look, I don’t care if she’s 20 or not. She’s a kid to me. I’m old enough to be that girl’s daddy.” He pauses for a moment and then chuckles. “I mean, if I’d started early, yeah.”

 

“Really early, Sam,” Steve says with a slight laugh, but Bucky can feel his eyes on him, waiting for something to give. Bucky keeps his mouth shut and instead turns on the radio. It’s hooked up to his phone already, he’s been in this vehicle so many times, so he scrolls around until he finds a playlist that Shuri had made him a while back.

 

“So she wanted to have lunch with all three of us?” Steve asks, trying to keep the subject light. Bucky nods.

 

“Wanted me to bring her something to eat and hang out with you guys before you leave. You especially, Sam. I think she’s got something to show you regarding the wings.”

 

Sam’s face perks up and he leans towards Bucky across the console. “Oh hell yes! An upgrade for 'em, huh? I’ve been fiddling with ‘em trying to get some things sorted and I could use another brain on this. Especially hers.”

 

“She’d love to have you, man.”

 

“And I gotta ask about getting one of those phones you got, too.”

 

“I mean...you could. I’m pretty sure she’d give you one.” Bucky laughs and pulls out of the parking garage, pulling down the visor against the bright sunlight and waving to Adwolo on the way out. It is a gorgeous day, like he figured it would be. It should brighten his mood more, but he’s still got the remnants of that nightmare dancing in the back of his mind.

 

“Then ask for me. I want a phone, a car, maybe one of those cool ass dvd player things ya’ll got. You know, the holographic kind?” Bucky takes a sharp left and up the hill out to the marketplace, before getting on the main road.

 

“Ask her, then. It’s not like she’d say no.” He knows she wouldn’t. Shuri adores Sam, another sharp mind to geek out over technology about, and wouldn’t deny him a thing. “If you want it, you gotta ask for yourself. I ain’t doin’ your dirty work.”

 

Sam laughs and looks out the window, enraptured as usual with the scenery. “Fine. But look, that’s your girlfriend. I don’t wanna step on any toes-”

 

“I said you could ask her, Sam,” he says, a little exasperated, and he doesn’t miss how Steve glances between the two of them like an annoyed mother hen. “I’m not gonna rip you a new asshole for askin’ if you can have some tech.”

 

“I never said you would.”

 

“You implied it, asshole.”

 

“Oh, so now I’m the asshole? Pssh. You’re a jealous sonofabitch, Barnes, don’t front.”

 

Bucky frowns and turns to Sam as he stops at a traffic light, then back to Steve for some sort of support. “I am not...Stevie, I’m not jealous, am I?” He knows good and damned well he is, but not enough that he’d be upset about something so simple. Right?

 

The look on Steve’s face says a lot though, and he blows out a breath.

 

“I’m not saying you’d...well, you’re a little…”

 

“Dude, you’re possessive as fuck and borderline codependent.” Sam shrugs as if this is simply the facts and dares Bucky without a word to get upset. And so he doesn’t. He breathes in, out, counts to twenty, focuses on the music playing, and ignores that little outburst.

 

He knows he’s possessive. Hell, it’s something he’s gotta work on and fix because it could get nasty really quick. And T’Challa’s words about what love was and wasn’t play in his mind with every little nasty thought that comes up involving Shuri and other people.

 

But he’s not codependent. He’s not. Not really. He’s devoted. He’ll leave it at that.

 

“You know what? You’re actually getting better at this,” Sam says after an awkward silence.

 

“Getting better at what?”

 

“The whole ‘not tearing me to pieces’ thing cause I said some shit you don’t like.”

 

“It ain’t true. So no reason to tear anything.”

 

“Mmhm. I’m a therapist, my man. I know some things.”

 

Bucky grips the steering wheel a little harder than he needs to and pulls out onto the freeway, smoothly sliding into the light midday traffic. “I won’t argue with you on that point-”

 

“You can’t. Thems the facts. I’m not sayin’ you’re a bad man, or that you don’t love that girl, cause you do.”

 

“Okay, but what are you saying, Sam? Cause I’m with Buck on this one. That just sounded antagonistic for no real reason.”

 

Sam turns around in his seat and shoots Steve a look. “It’s truth. Sometimes the truth hurts. He is possessive. Maybe not dangerously so, but I’ve seen that shit go left. It ain’t pretty. And yeah, he’s codependent. You ever sit there and just listen to him talk about Shuri?”

 

Bucky keeps his mouth snapped shut and focuses on listening to the music playing instead of what Sam is rambling about because he doesn’t want his temper hot and flaring when he gets to the lab. He doesn’t want to do anything but hug his sweet baby and have lunch and have a decent day regardless of how bad the morning had been.

 

“Yeah, we had a whole conversation about her yesterday. I don’t follow you.”

 

“Everything in his entire world revolves around that girl. That ain’t healthy. It’s Shuri this and Shuri that. Sweet baby likes sugar grits, so I do too. Who the hell eats sugar in their grits? Heathens.”

 

Bucky can’t help snorting at that, even though he’s focused more on the beat of “Koffi Anan” than he is on Sam’s analysis of his behavior.

 

“You just ain’t living right,” he mumbles and turns up the music a little, hoping Sam will get the hint that he’s tired of the conversation. “Sweet grits are a gift from God.”

 

“Sweet grits are disgusting, and you know this. Salt. Salt is the only damned thing that goes in grits.”

 

“Salt’s good too,” Bucky agrees, watching the road for the exist he needs. “You ever had grits with prawn and bacon? A little goat cheese on top? Man…”

 

“Okay, that sounds good as hell.” Sam nods and leans back, seemingly forgetting all about Bucky’s so called codependency. “If you brought me a bowl of those, I might forgive you for putting anything sweet in grits.”

 

“But you’ve never had ‘em with Wakandan syrup and butter. Heaven, man. I swear, the first time I had a bowl I almost died at how good they were.”

 

“Explains the weight you put on,” Sam quips, grinning. “Eating good and playing goat daddy.”

 

Steve breaks out into a guffaw at that. “That reminds me,” he says, tapping his fingers along the darkened car window. “How are your goats?”

 

The conversation shifts from grits to goats and then back to the jeep itself, as they get close to the lab. Only this time, Bucky is once again this close to pushing Sam out the door and into oncoming traffic. And possibly Steve, too, who’s in the back beet red and trying so hard not to laugh that it’s pathetic.

 

“I’m not telling you that, you ass,” he grumbles, but Sam is persistent.

 

“Hell, you told us about the flexibility thing. You can’t just give a yay or nay about whether the two of you have tested out the seats of this thing? Or did you get in trouble last go round?”

 

“Guy talk stays between the guys, Buck,” Steve assures him, his eyes twinkling with amusement. “We won’t tell if you don’t. Promise.”

 

“Okay,” he starts, raising a hand as he does so. He doesn’t know why he’s so worked up about this; he’s certain that neither Sam nor Steve would say a word if he told them not to. “First of all, I did not get in any trouble. She asked what I told you and I told her. And she was fine with it.” Mostly fine, anyway. She’d only been a little worried he’d spilled too much, but he’d assured her he hadn’t. At least he hoped he hadn’t.

 

“So what’s the issue?” Sam insists.

 

“I don’t wanna get in any hot water if I don't have to. So you don’t need to know more than what you already do.”

 

He pauses at the gates of the entrance to the lab, a one way road that required several layers of clearance. He digs out the security card from the console and swipes it across the sensor, waiting as the invisible shields lift and he’s allowed to move forward.

 

“Uh huh. I’m gonna take that as a yes.” Sam’s smile is sly and almost irritating, so Bucky ignores him once again and pulls up to park the jeep. The three hop out and follow the paved path down to the entrance of the lab, where Bucky nods to the Dora on detail.

 

“Ingucka,” they greet him, politely and a little cooler than usual, and it makes him frown, though he wipes his face of the expression quickly. He’s pretty sure they know all about the little confrontation in Shuri’s room the other day; more than likely, they disapprove. He supposes he’ll have to get used to that.

 

It’s a short ride down the elevator to the floor Shuri’s working on today. He can hear music playing before he even gets around the corner, something upbeat and perky and he smiles as he recognizes the song. Several of the lab assistants nod in his direction, their reception of him a little warmer than the Doras, though they’re always a bit standoffish. It’s part of the job, he figures, so he gives it no thought.

 

Instead he watches as Shuri dances around a large 3D model of the dome covering Birnin Zana, mouthing the words to the music playing and expertly enlarging bits and pieces of the model. It’s painfully cute and he can’t help the smile that lights his face at seeing her so engrossed in her work. Bucky sets her lunch down on an adjacent table and sits down in one of the clear computer chairs, ushering Sam and Steve to join him, though they wander around the room in absolute awe. Sam is the most quiet, his eyes wide and roaming the lab, hand hovering over parts and pieces and components for T’Challas suit, for Bucky’s arm, for a new computer she intended to release to the Wakandan public soon.

 

It’s a few more moments before she notices they’re even there, and when she turns to him, her entire face brightens up like Christmas lights in New York. She bounces over and wraps her arms around him, pulling him close and pressing a soft kiss to his lips, then another to his forehead. The lab assistants paid no attention; if anything, they seemed to dive deeper into whatever work they were doing, though he knew they probably had some questions.

 

Oh well. Eventually, everyone would know.

 

“Hi.”

 

He smiles and slides his fingers along her waist, tugs her closer. “Hi, sweet baby.”

 

Shuri lowers her head and buries it in his neck for a moment, a little laugh coming from her chest. “You brought me lunch, yeah?”

 

“Mmhm. Suya and pepper soup. And some puff puff, too.”

 

“Ahhh, you are too good to me. And some for yourself, too, I hope.”

 

“Well duh. I ain’t gonna watch you eat and not get some too.”

 

She pulls away from him slowly and turns to greet Sam and Steve. “I’m so glad you guys came! Welcome to the lab. It’s cool, isn’t it?”

 

Sam nods eagarly, looking like a kid in a candy shop. “This is bananas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it!”

 

“Me either,” Steve agrees, his eyes wide with awe. “And I’ve been in Tony’s lab a billion times.”

 

Shuri scoffs. “Tony Stark’s little basement has nothing on this.” There’s a laugh from Sam and Steve while Bucky beams proudly. “He’d tell you that himself.”

 

“Oh?” Steve looks between Shuri and Bucky and makes an odd face. “I didn’t think Tony had been to Wakanda yet.”

 

Though there wasn’t necessarily any bad blood between the two any longer, they weren’t exactly close or even that friendly. If anything, they were simply aloof toward each other, tense and a little awkward even for Bucky, who still held a bit of a grudge against Stark. But perhaps being in Wakanda had mellowed him some; he honestly didn’t mind the man as much since he never had to see him.

 

“Oh, he hasn’t,” Shuri confirms, going over to the table where her food waits and pulling out containers and utensils. “I’ve gotten to visit him in New York once before, meet his protege-”

 

“Ah…Pete. Good kid,” Steve says. “A little overzealous.”

 

“That little snot gets on my good goddamn,” Sam mutters and Bucky chuckles. He doesn’t really dislike Peter Parker anymore; he’s just not that sweet on him. But he figures it’s simply because the kid is always so damned earnest about everything. And not in the endearing way Stevie had been when they were growing up. This was almost too earnest, to the point that Bucky just wanted the kid to curse once. Throw a tantrum. Get arrested. Live a little.

 

“Mmm. I agree. He’s nice enough. And smart, too. Good ideas. I do like Stark, though.”

 

“You...do?” Steve looks almost bewildered and Bucky can’t help but laugh.

 

“Yep. He’s a lot of fun, truly. He also thinks the sun shines out of my ass-”

 

“Huh. I just...I mean, I always knew he had an eye for new talents and appreciated an intelligent mind…”

 

“Oh he loves me. Would adopt me if he thought he could get away with it. He’s seen the lab through video chat a few times; I told him he could snag a few ideas and I think he almost came in his pants."

 

“Oh my god,” Steve murmurs and Sam breaks out into great peals of laughter.  “That’s something I did not wanna think about.”

 

“It’s in your brain now, Captain,” Shuri says with a grin. “Sorry bout it. Now, hush up. Let’s eat.”

 

Lunch is good, as always, and he polishes off his portion while he watches Shuri and Sam talk about the current aerodynamics of his wings, the ideas she has to improve them, and whether or not he could get a car or a cellphone.

 

The phone, she pulls out of her drawer and hands it to him without question. She asks if Steve wants one as well, but Steve shakes his head and pats the flip phone that rests in his pants pocket. “I’m good with the one I have, but thank you, your Highness.”

 

The car, however, is a tentative maybe. “T’Challa isn’t sure about allowing these out the country," Shuri says with a sigh. “He wants to keep opening the borders, expose us all to the outside world a little at a time. And I understand what he’s doing. I understand the risk. But the idea of a fuel efficient, gasoline free car has been something people have wanted in most of the world for decades and we’ve had these for just as long. As far as I’m aware, mine is the most advanced vehicle on the planet.” There’s not really a brag in that statement, it’s simply a matter of fact. But Bucky can’t help the pride that swells in his chest when she talks about her work. He wants to mention that she’d perfected the engine for her car at only 13, simply adding more upgrades and updates as the years went on, but he decides he’ll save that for the drive back. It’ll keep Sam from asking anymore questions he doesn’t need to.

 

“So no car today.”

 

Shuri smiles and shakes her head. “Not today. But hopefully soon! And you’ll be the first one to get one outside of Wakanda.” She looks over to Bucky and points her thumb at him, narrowing her eyes. “I keep trying to get Buck to get a car, but he seems to like driving mine more.”

 

“I really don’t need one.”

 

“Uh huh. Making me do all the work,” she says with a groan, exaggerating her words and he shakes his head though he playfully nudges her with his foot. “It’s a thirty minute drive from the palace to his cabin and if I wanna go visit, I’ve got to do all the driving because he won’t get a car.”

 

“I thought you liked the cabin, sugar?”

 

“Oh, I do,” she says, her voice softening. “It’s such a cute little place, and peaceful. It’s a nice break from the city sometimes.” She turns around in her chair and catches Bucky’s eye, giving him an unspoken promise to talk about getting back to the cabin before T’Challa gets home. He knows she wants the same thing he does; uninterrupted and unmonitored access to each other. There’s nothing at all like the serenity of his little cabin, nothing like it in the world. If there’s anywhere the two of them can drop all pretenses, it’s out there.

 

He catches the look that Sam and Steve share with each other, as they watch the two of them interact, and he almost wants to show off just to get a reaction out of them. He settles for grasping Shuri’s foot and pulling her close to him, his hand resting on her knee as she giggles softly. It’s just the right kind of intimate, he thinks, when she places her hand over his and starts on about the innards of the jeep. Sam tears his eyes away from the couple, but Steve watches them quietly the whole time, and Bucky wonders if he’ll get another sermon about public displays of affection on the ride home.

 

Either way, he won’t back down from the little touches, the way he grasps and plays with her fingers, how he stares at her as she talks. He’s in love with the smartest woman in the world. He can’t help it if it pours off him at every instance.

 

By the time Shuri decides to get back to work, tearing herself away from the three of them reluctantly, it’s been two hours of talking and laughing, enjoying good food and company. He leaves her with a kiss to her neck, his arm around her waist, and promises he’ll see her later on that night if not before.

 

“Oh!” she says, as they leave the lab. “Before I forget...Mama wants to see you for dinner.”

 

He swallows, sudden anxiety creeping up on him so suddenly he has no time to hide his facial expression. She rolls her eyes and shakes her head.

 

“It’s not going to be bad, promise.”

 

“You sure?” He couldn’t imagine Ramonda being any more receptive of him than T’Challa had been and all of that was still technically in the air. “Cause your brother told me I needed to be worried.”

 

Shuri scoffs. “He’s exaggerating. She just wants to talk. It’ll be alright. And no, I won’t be there,” she adds, as he opens his mouth to ask. “Just the two of you. But it’ll be alright, I promise!”

 

He can only hope that she’s right.

 


The ride back to the palace is blissfully free of any prying questions, or any assumptions. Bucky turns the radio up and tells Sam about some of the artists he’s come to like since being in Wakanda while Steve chats with Natasha on the phone in the back seat. There’s the oddest little smile on his face, one he hadn’t seen before, and he wonders idly what that’s all about.

 

“Five bucks says that’s the reason he was up so late,” Sam says quietly, a hint of a smile on his face. “Had to say goodnight to his girl.”

 

“His what now?”

 

The look on Sam’s face said almost all Bucky needed to know, but he leaned over so that his friend could keep his voice down. “I mean, it’s not official or anything. But I’ve seen it. It’s gonna happen, watch.” Bucky shakes his head and nearly laughs but focuses on the road instead and settles for a light chuckle.

 

“All this time I thought he was tryin’ to get me set up with her.”

 

“Oh, he was. And somewhere along the way he realized he wanted her for himself, so he toned it down. I mean, you noticed, right?”

 

He had noticed, though thinking back to days before, he’d assumed that Steve was simply playing it safe and trying to make it more of an organic match. It had completely gone over his head that just maybe “Nat says hello” was literally just that. Nat had said hello, but Nat wasn’t interested beyond friendship. That took a weight off him that he wasn’t even aware had been on him.

 

“Look. You do me a favor and keep tabs-”

 

“Oh, I've got you, man. I got you. Just...one request, if I’m gonna be nosy and relay information.”

 

Bucky raised a brow and took the exit back to the palace, slowing the jeep a bit to merge into traffic. “A request? I’m not stealing you a car, Sam.”

 

Sam makes a face and then laughs. “Shit, I don’t know why I didn’t think of...look, no, that’s not it. The phone will have to do. And I get new wings in a few days, shipped express so there’s that. Nah, I just…”

 

Sam leans closer, obnoxiously so, almost enough that Bucky thinks if he turned his head just so, he’d get a mouthful of the man’s sharp cheeks, the lightest dusting of stubble on that defined jaw. He shakes himself at the thought and moves a little to give him more room.

 

“You gotta tell me how many times ya’ll done it in this jeep. Cause I know you have.”

 

Bucky groans, eyes rolling in the back of his head as he does. Steve makes a face in the rear mirror and moves the phone from his ear, tilting his head in confusion.

 

“What’s the matter?”

 

“Sam won’t let the car sex thing go.”

 

Sam.”

 

“Look,” Sam says, turning around to face Steve. “I don’t need any dirty details, nothing explicit. This is a simple question. Just shoot me a number, Buck. That’s all I’m asking.”

 

Bucky lets out a slow breath, as he can feel two pairs of eyes on him and possibly three sets of ears. “Tell Nat I said hey, Stevie,” he says, avoiding the question at first and Steve relays the message.

 

“Here. She’s on speaker.”

 

“You’re trying to get out of answering this-”

 

“Buck. Is Sam harassing you again?”

 

Natasha’s warm, but no nonsense voice filters through the phone’s speaker and Bucky finds himself laughing in spite of everything. “Uh huh. A little bit. Make him stop, mom,” he whines, and Sam scoffs, leaning against the window exasperated.

 

“I’m just trying to figure out some mathematics, okay? I just wanna know. That’s all I need to know, how many times-”

 

“How many times what?” he hears Nat say, and there is a palpable silence in the jeep for a very long moment. “Oh. You’re not going to tell me, are you? Boys club, and all.” She sighs and Bucky knows that Steve and Sam both feel incredibly guilty. He would, but he’s too busy trying to drive to care that much.

 

And besides, Nat probably should know, too. He only worries she won’t take it as well as the guys have.

 

“I uh. I’m kinda seeing someone.”

 

“This man is this close to getting married, fuck what you heard.”

 

“Wait…” Nat starts, surprise evident in her voice. “You what?”

 

“He’s seeing someone.” Steve shoots Bucky a look, asking permission to say just who that someone is, and after a moment’s consideration, he slowly nods.

 

“Oh god, Buck! That’s awesome!” Nat is saying, obviously excited. He’s happy to know she isn’t upset or jealous about it; he knows there’d been something there on her end a few years back, but perhaps it’d passed the way Sam had said. Maybe she and Steve really were trying something out. And he liked the idea of that, truly. They would be a good match.

 

“Yeah..it’s been swell,” he says, keeping his voice neutral and light, though Sam snorts hard enough that Nat questions it.

 

“I get the feeling that this isn’t...acceptable? I mean, I know the Wakandans are a bit inclusive-”

 

“Yeah, well...it’s a little...um…”

 

“He’s dating Princess Shuri,” Steve finally says, blunt as ever and somewhat dryly. There’s an intake of breath, as the line crackles, and then a little laugh.

 

“Stevie, stop it.”

 

Steve says nothing, but Sam picks up the slack. “You know what,” he says, gesturing to Steve for the phone, who hands it over. “That’s kinda what we said at first.”

 

And then Natasha is too quiet for too long and Bucky knows this isn’t going to go half as well as it had with Sam nor Steve, possibly worse than it had with T’Challa and he can feel his blood pressure rising. Goddamn it .

 

“Are you fucking kidding me?! You’re dating... no .” She laughs, though it’s a little sardonic and there’s this edge to her voice that makes Bucky want to disappear into a hole.

 

“Before you ask,” he grits out, his temper rising and his good mood nearly ruined, “she’s 20 years old.”

 

“She’s a damned kid , Buck, you fuckin’-

 

“It’s only been four months. So no hanky panky bullshit before she was legal. She made the choice to pursue me. She’s the one who confessed she had feelings first-”

 

“You’re going to put the onus of all this on that girl? Jesus, Buck, I swear...I thought you were better than this!” And that hurts him a bit because he had too, once upon a time. A mass murdering violent assassin, but he wouldn’t mess with a woman too young, right?

 

Right .

 

“Maybe I should have known,” she says dangerously. “I mean, I was only 19 back then." That little quip has his knuckles white, and he knows Sam at least hadn't missed that if the look on his face is anything to go by. "HYDRA did a number on you, buddy, I swear-”

 

“Nat, I’m not talkin’ about this shit right now, I’m tryin’ to fuckin’ drive.”

 

There’s an unusual amount of steel to his voice, the like that he hasn’t used on her in a very long time and she quiets. His stomach hurts now and he suddenly wants to vomit up all the lunch he'd just eaten. Bucky softens his voice a bit, hating that he'd been such a jerk when her reaction really wasn't that farfetched. 

 

“Look...I can explain all this later, if you wanna, but-”

 

“Whatever, Bucky,” she says dismissively, and the line disconnects.

 

It’s so quiet in the car he could hear his own heart beating and he hits the steering wheel. “Fuck!”

 

“Man, I’m sorry, I didn’t-”

 

“I shouldn't have asked. Buck, we could have said someone else, we could have-”

 

He shakes his head one time and holds up his hand, and drives the rest of the way in silence.

 


By the time dinner rolls around, he’s over it all. He’s angry and honestly prepared to fight to his last breath to defend this love if he has to. He knows Ramonda has every right to be skeptical, angry even, but he won’t back down. He’ll show her all the respect she deserves, but he won’t apologize. Not for loving Shuri, not ever. And if she can’t understand where he’s coming from, then so be it.

 

He dresses in something casual. She’d left a note on his nightstand saying the dinner wasn’t anything fancy nor formal. So he settles for nice dark pants and a comfortable tunic and his best sandals, combs his hair, makes sure the cologne he wears isn’t overbearing. Maybe he’ll make a good impression, maybe he won’t. It can’t hurt to try.

 

A servant knocks to escort him to the royal family’s private dining room. He’s never been in this part of the palace before, relegated to taking his meals with Okoye and the Doras whenever he stayed at the palace for any reason. It was a cozy room, in rich colors and soft plush beige carpeting. Ramonda waited from him at the head of the table, looking as beautiful as ever in a long sleeved dress and her hair down. There wasn’t any hint of animosity on her face, though Bucky knew that she could school her features into whatever she wanted without much effort. She was that good.

 

“Your Majesty,” he offers, with a slight bow. It wasn’t exactly necessary, but he thought he’d do it anyway, a sign of respect and goodwill. She smiles then, genuine and kind and for the first time, he wonders if maybe he wouldn’t need to be so on guard.

 

And as it turns out, he doesn't.

 

Dinner was oxtail and rice, grilled vegetables, and a custard for dessert. They ate slowly and chatted amiably, mostly about his little homestead, about the goats, and any plans he had for expanding his garden.

 

“Kinda wanna do a few more rows of beans,” he tells her, blotting his mouth with a napkin. “I eat those the most, and run through a few cans within the week.”

 

“Perhaps different varieties to keep things interesting,” she offers and he smiles. “You’ll have to show me one day your canning methods. I know there’s several.”

 

He nods. If she wants him to show her some canning, then maybe there’s nothing to be worried about. And almost as if she reads his mind, she motions for their dishes to be taken away.

 

“Come with me, Sergeant Barnes. Let’s take a little walk.”

 

She takes him out to the gardens, a large, lush expansive part of the palace that he’s gone to a few times early in the morning just to clear his head. It’s absolutely gorgeous in daytime, and even prettier it seems at dusk, the sun setting and golden red in the horizon. Flowers that only bloom at night seem ready to burst forth; he lets his fingers slip across one moonflower and inhales it’s subtle, sweet scent. Ramonda strolls beside him silently, watching him, reading him.

 

And yet, he doesn’t really feel nervous about it.

 

“I suppose I could launch forth directly into the reason we shared supper,” she begins. Her voice is a rich, lilting, beautiful thing. He thinks he could listen to her talk for hours and hours. “But I want to preface what I want to say by giving you a little bit of my background. It’s imperative to my thoughts and feelings on the affair you’ve undertaken with Shuri.”

 

Affair sounds so sordid, but he bites his tongue and nods. “Yes ma’am.”

 

“You probably don’t know this, but I wasn’t raised in the royal household, not the way that Nakia was. I had no real connection with T’Chaka before we met, other than knowing a mutual friend of ours through a cousin of mine.” She smiles, though it’s a bit bittersweet. “Zuri. He’s the only reason I ever got to meet my husband. You see, I don’t come from the aristocracy. My family is part of the common folk. We’re a proud, close knit group of people; our family are all close and loving and I lacked for nothing growing up. But I didn’t have the right credentials to marry a king. And,” she adds, chuckling a little, “he was already engaged.”

 

Bucky raises a brow. “He was?”

 

“Mmmhm. To a woman much more suited for the queenship...or so everyone thought. But I’d fallen for T’Chaka so fast and so hard. He was...well, he was everything I’d ever wanted in a mate. Fierce, kind, intelligent, honest, loyal. And charming. He was incredibly charming. It didn’t matter much that he was older, not to me. It was only 15 years, I told myself. Not a big difference.”

 

“Uh...how old were you?” he asks, mostly out of curiosity but also because he wonders if perhaps she’d been about Shuri’s age at the time.

 

“17,” she says and he can imagine the look on his face. “17 when we met , that is. But not when my feelings grew deeper. I was 19 then, and in university. And as I mentioned, he was already engaged. Her name was N’Yami. Beautiful and educated and connected. She was everything that Wakanda needed as a queen. And I was so angry that she would marry the man I loved, angry enough that I left Wakanda and moved to South Africa for several years.”

 

“Wait...so N’Yami actually married him?” He’d always assumed that T’Chaka had only been married to Ramonda this whole time.

 

“Yes. I know that he cared for her. Their marriage was one of politics, not necessarily love. But they did come to care for each other. And truly, she was a good woman. I got over my hurt and later wrote congratulating them on her pregnancy. If T’Chaka was happy, I could be happy for him.”

 

She sighs, and offers Bucky her arm, and he takes it as they walk out past the moonflowers and close to the fountains.

 

“My mother sent me the news that she’d died. Some rare, fast moving disease had taken her and she died not long after having her son.”

 

Bucky stopped still and gawked. “T’Challa?”

 

Ramonda smiles sadly. “Oh, he’s still my son. Make no mistake. I’ve loved that boy since he was a baby. In fact, it was part of the reason I was to come back to the capitol. T’Chaka needed a governess and I had been studying childcare and education. He already trusted me, so it made sense. And I took the job, if only because I missed home. I missed him, too, but I kept that to myself for a long while.”

 

“How’d you end up married, in the end?”

 

“T’Challa had just turned three. We were out here, in these gardens, when he confessed his feelings. He had always held something for me but had been to scared to act on it at the time. ‘I thought you too young, othandekayo’ he told me. He hadn’t wanted to limit me by courting me when I was just barely out of childhood. And perhaps he was right...maybe I was too young at the time. We married three days after my 25th birthday. He was nearly 40. But it was always right, it always felt like we were meant to be. And so I never paid the whispers any mind. I never gave thought to the idea that he was some old man who preyed on me, because he hadn’t. I could have refused him anytime I wanted. I didn’t, because I loved him.” Her smile is sad, bittersweet and it wavers as tears come to her eyes. She blinks them away and draws a shaky breath.

 

“I’m saying all this to tell you: Shuri is my baby. I waited and tried and prayed for that child and when she was finally born, I made myself a promise that I would give everything I had to keep her safe and sheltered from anything that could hurt her. I’ve seen it, outside these borders. South Africa is beautiful, but there’s so much strife there, so much grief. And the men there aren’t always strong of heart as my love was.” She shakes her head, glances toward the darkening sky.

 

“I told Shuri that there were girls out there who aren’t as lucky as she is. I told her that some men in this world would see someone as beautiful, as bright and pure as she is and try to tarnish that. That some men would use her, discard her, treat her like nothing but a plaything. But you wouldn’t, would you, Sergeant Barnes?”

 

It’s less a query and more a demand and he can feel the force of a mother’s love behind her words. He isn’t scared of her, no, but he knows now why T’Challa had warned him about Ramonda. There’s a fury behind her that she keeps reigned in and controlled and that was much more threatening than even vibranium claws could be. He’s suddenly reminded of Winifred Barnes and his whole soul aches. He only hopes he can keep from crying in front of the queen mother.

 

“No ma’am,” he finally says, after a time. “Never.”

 

She gives him a gentle smile and pats his arm. “I didn’t think so. I told Shuri she was lucky, blessed even, to have a man like you that loved her. Because you do love her, very much. I’ve watched the way you are with her. I know she is safe with you, I know you would tear the world to pieces if something ever happened that threatened her. And I trust you. So this is just a mother telling the man who loves her daughter to never waver in that affection or devotion.”

 

There would be consequences otherwise, he knew, even if she didn’t say it aloud.

 

“I understand.”

 

“Good. I’m sure your intentions are only the best. But I’d like to hear them from you.”

 

He thinks of those faint dreams of the future, of a life at Shuri’s side, protecting her and loving her. “I only want what will make her happy,” he says after a long, quiet minute. “I only want to keep her safe and make sure she’s happy.”

 

“But what do you want, James?” Ramonda asks, and Bucky realizes he isn’t entirely sure what it is he wants for himself. Everything revolved around what Shuri wanted, what would make her happy, and though he knows her happiness means more to him than anything, he hadn’t given much thought to what he really needed.

 

Besides her, of course. He knew he needed her. Maybe Sam was right. Maybe he was a little codependent.

 

“I just want to love her, your Majesty,” he says honestly, because that’s all he really did know at the moment. “I just need to give the love in my heart. It’s a lot.” He laughs a bit and she does too, nodding her head as if she completely understands his dilemma. Perhaps she does. That thought comforts him a lot more than he’d realized.

 

“So I thought", Ramonda says. “Now. Tell me a bit about yourself, if you don’t mind. I only know what Shuri’s rambled off and I’m interesting to know what things were like when you were growing up. That period in time has always been fascinating to me.”

 

He smiles, straightens his shoulders, and delves into his deepest, earliest memories. And he does cry, a little, talking of his mother, of his brothers and his baby sister. They’re all gone now, all dead, all of them going to their graves convinced that he’d been killed in the war with nothing to bury but a flag and a memory.

 

But the talking is good, he knows, and she doesn’t mention the tears, only squeezes his arm a little harder when his voice cracks, when he has to take a deep breath in and gather himself. It’s therapeutic to get this out, stuff he hadn’t really even told Shuri because he wasn’t sure if she would quite understand. Maybe he should remedy that, he thinks. Maybe he could trust her with more of his past and his worries. God knows he had plenty.

 

“I’d like it if we could do this again sometime,” Ramonda says, as the stars glimmer in the dark sky. It’s gotten later and the air is cooler and he's tired, though he feels a lightness in his chest he hadn’t felt in a long while. “Perhaps lunch in a few days, if you’d like.”

 

He smiles and nods. “I’d like that.”

 

“I must tell you,” she says, as they go back inside, “that this will not be easy. You will have to fight for your pardon, and if you’re granted that, fight to be allowed citizenship. And that, too, will be an ordeal I’m sure. I honestly don’t know; no one has ever applied for it before.”

 

“So I’d be the first?” The idea of that is so daunting he can’t help but wonder if he’ll manage to get that far.

 

“You would. And there are quite a few disadvantages working against you...but have heart, James. I will vouch for you if needed.” He looks at her in surprise, but immediately thanks her.

 

“Oh don’t fuss over it.” She smiles, and he’s reminded a lot of Shuri right then. “I simply want my daughter to be happy and loved and with you she is.” She allows him to escort her as far as the corridor that leads to her room, before turning to bid him goodnight.

 

“Perhaps I also like you a little myself,” she adds, and she leans up, kisses him on the cheek, and wishes him a good evening.

Chapter Text

It’s late at night before she finishes with her day’s work. There’s still more to do, but she’s too tired now to worry about it. It’s nothing imperative; only that she needed to keep busy so she didn’t sit on her heels and let her mind spin wild and mostly depressing scenarios of the days to come. Six more days before her brother came home, and six more days with Bucky for certain. She could only hope that he’d be allowed to stay in Wakanda.

 

Mama had assured her that T’Challa wouldn’t ever deport Bucky. Even so, she knew that some things were out of the king’s control. That stupid law, adopted almost 100 years before and almost never enforced in truth, would come back to bite her in the worst ways. It was only made worse by the fact that Bucky was both American and white; she knew had he been at least Black American, the council would cut him a bit of slack. Perhaps even in that situation, a pardon would be a near guarantee, and that law would be struck from the books soon after.

 

She was irritated that T’Challa hadn’t gotten rid of it before. But her brother had so much to deal with after he took the throne. She still shuddered to think that he had nearly died at the hands of their cousin, one she hadn’t ever been told of, one that had both terrified her and tugged at her heart strings. A lost little boy, wanting to come home, was what Nakia had said, a sad sort of pity in her voice after his funeral. They had traveled across the landscape toward the coast to bury him there, the only request that T’Challa said he’d given him. It was a somber occasion, one she wished she didn’t have to participate in. They could have healed him. In time, they could have fixed the mental scars, too.

 

Or maybe they couldn’t. Maybe she couldn’t fix everything and everyone.

 

With a sigh, she pushes away from her model and closes down the program, rubbing her tired eyes and gathering leftovers and cartons of food. She was alone, her assistants all gone for the night and the two Dora her only companions in the great big laboratory. It was times like this that she wished she had Bucky at her side, but he’d had dinner with Mama and probably was already asleep. Even still, she sends a text, just to let him know she was thinking of him.

 

“Are you ready to go, princess?” she hears, a familiar voice and face in the threshold of the door. For a moment she doesn’t respond, not sure if she’s still angry or not, but she finally nods and picks up her keys and purse.

 

“Your mother wanted me to ride with you,” Okoye explains, her voice quiet and distant and it hurts to think that this woman, her big sister and confident, had done something as damaging as snooping through her things, threatening her lover, betraying her confidence.

 

And yet, she thinks, perhaps Okoye is hurting too. There’s a storm behind those brown eyes, and Shuri nods once, unlocking the car door as Folami and Aneke follow, getting into their own vehicle to trail Shuri back to the palace.

 

It’s quiet for the first few minutes of the drive. The radio plays in the background, low enough to not be much of a bother, but enough to keep the silence from being deafening. And yet, it’s still uncomfortable, so much so that Shuri thinks to turn the music up until she notices that Okoye is crying.

 

“What are you crying for?” She doesn’t truly mean for it to sound so harsh, but she’s still angry with Okoye. She’d had no right to do what she’d done, no matter the reasons.

 

“I only did what I thought was right,” Okoye says, her voice tight and thick with tears. “I only wanted to protect you.”

 

Shuri frowns. “By getting me in trouble with my brother? Good move.” She can’t help the sarcastic, bitter edge to her voice nor does she want to

 

Okoye shakes her head and turns toward the window. Shuri knows she’s trying her best not to completely breakdown, and it’s the knowledge that Okoye is so upset that keeps her temper at bay. She sighs and reaches out a hand to touch the general’s arm.

 

“I’m more mad you went through my phone, actually,” she says, to which Okoye sniffles. “Those are my private conversations and you had no right.”

 

“I know that,” Okoye says glumly. “But I had to know. I’ve seen the way you look at him. I saw how the two of you got closer and closer and I...I couldn’t-” She cuts off and shakes her head, wipes her face furiously. “He’s too old for you, and too damaged. He isn’t one of us. He isn’t right for you.”

 

“I thought you liked him!” Shuri says exasperated. She’s so sick of hearing about the age difference, about all the things in his past. She knows what’s in his past because she’s seen it. “Bast knows he thinks the world of you! You’re all he talked about for a while. ‘Koye this’ and ‘the general’ that. He trusted you, Okoye, not to say a word. After he told you he meant me no harm-”

“And you trust him? Ha!” She grows bitterly and crosses her arms in front of her. “He’s only a man, Shuri. And a white one at that. I know you’re young, I know you haven’t seen much of this world, but men like him?”

 

“Like Bucky? You mean, faithful and loyal to a fault? Kind and generous and..and...and-”

 

“And a colonizer! He’s part of the very people who would drain us dry and strip us of our wealth and resources and turn our people into shells of themselves.”

 

Shuri nearly missed the turn to the main highway gawking. She knew this would be controversial, but she hadn’t realized it would all boil down to this. Skin color. “So that’s what this is truly about. I’m with a white man so-”

 

“I’d hoped it was only a crush. Truly. I’d hoped there was simply some...some misguided connection, some sort of experimentation-”

 

“Oh Bast, Okoye, do I look like I’m only experimenting with that man? You really think I’d risk having you and T’Challa on my head just for a crush?” She scoffs disbelievingly but what Okoye says next makes her pause.

 

“No,” she said firmly, her brow furrowed. “No, I didn’t. And that is what scared me. Because I know you are genuine in your feelings for him. But is he? That is what I’m worried about. That he’s used pretty words and a pretty face to lure you into his bed and he’ll break your heart.” Her voice cracks on the last word and Shuri can feel her temper draining quickly.

 

There’s something personal in what she says, Shuri knows. It isn’t just a matter of protection, it’s a matter of not wanting to see Shuri make the same mistakes she had once before. But she can’t imagine how W’Kabi, even in his ignorance, had truly been a mistake. He had been disloyal, had fought against Wakanda’s rightful king, had betrayed his friend and country but...Shuri knew deep down that W’Kabi had acted rashly and out of hurt and old unresolved anger. And he was a good man, if Nakia’s reports of him in the field were anything to go by. Repentant and stripped of all he’d had, he’d plunged head first into working as one of the king’s war dogs, volunteering specifically for missions that called for the liberation of the diaspora on the outside of Wakanda’s borders.

 

Even still, his penance hadn’t been enough to save his marriage. It was a shame that what had happened with N’Jadaka had torn he and Okoye apart. Shuri could understand where Okoye was coming from now, though she still disagreed with the overall approach. She reached over with her free hand and took Okoye’s into her own, squeezing it tightly and keeping quiet as the older woman let out a shaking, cleansing breath.

 

“You must know how much I love my country,” she says after a time, still holding Shuri’s hand. “I’ve devoted my entire life to the service of the throne, of the person who sits it, of their family and the safety and wellbeing of my people. And that includes you, little sister.” Shuri can feel tears coming to her own eyes at the soft term of endearment. She’d always said she wanted a big sister growing up, but she knows she already had two, and Okoye had been one of them.

 

“I do not mean to talk ill of Bucky. I will admit I believe he has your best intentions at heart. It’s why I gave him the chance to break things off with you the night of the wedding without bringing your brother in to this.” She shakes her head and sighs. “But he didn’t listen. And I couldn’t find you during the reception and my mind went...I thought perhaps I was simply overreacting. I thought maybe I was blowing things out of proportion. But he had a feeling and I couldn’t lie to him, I…”

 

“You weren’t wrong, really,” Shuri says after a time. “We ran off and spent the evening alone, before the walk. I slipped him into the royal wing, into my room. And we spent the night together.” She glances over to Okoye and watches her face for a second before she puts her eyes back on the road. Almost home, but she was so tired, all her anger and frustration at Okoye draining her energy. “If you must know, that wasn’t the first time.”

 

“Oh Bast.”

 

“Well, just so you know. But he’s never touched me before...not till…”

 

“You were of age. I see. He said so himself. I did believe him, that he hadn’t pursued you while you were still underage.”

 

“But that’s the problem, Koye. You seem to think that I still am! Everyone does, really, not just you. T’Challa does, even Bucky’s friends do-I know I’m young, I know that only a few years ago I was a child, but I’m not any longer.”

 

“And that’s what tears me apart, little sister,” Okoye says softly, and Shuri can’t help but let a tear slip down her cheek. She hates how much this is hurting Okoye, when all she’d ever done was love her. But she has to understand. “You went and grew up on me so fast and I just...I’ve spent so much of my life keeping you safe and happy and whole and I’m terrified that someone will come and undo all the good that is in you, all that beautiful light.”

 

Shuri smiles in spite of her tears and pulls off the freeway onto the exit, the headlights of the SUV behind them keeping pace dutifully.  

 

“You’ve always been like that with me, Koye. I’ve always known I could come to you if I needed anything, or if I were hurt or worried. And you’ve always been there for me. I love you so much for that. I just want you to trust me. Even if you don’t trust Bucky, trust me. Believe it or not, I’m not so blind to think that all men are good and kind. I know that.”

 

“I only worry,” Okoye says again, as they pull into the private entrance to the palace. “I worry that all he’s after is-”

 

“He isn’t, trust me.”

 

There is a long pause as Shuri wheels her car into the parking space, turning the engine off with a push of a button and a soft sigh. She needs a hot shower and a warm bed and to sleep, preferably for longer than six hours. But she knows she’ll be up with the sun, the way she usually is when she hasn’t finished something and the lab calls to her.

 

“Alright.”

 

Shuri turns and finds Okoye as poised as ever, he head high and her face devoid of any trace of tears save the red rim of her eyes. “I will trust you. I do trust you, hard as that may be.”

 

Shuri snorts but offers a watery smile. “You have such little faith in me, Koye.”

 

“I have plenty of faith in you, my princess. I only have to look at you, at what you are and what you’ve done to know you will be alright.” She exits the car elegantly and swiftly, careful not to slam the door, and waits for Shuri to gather her bag and phone. Folami and Aneke stand behind the trunk of the car, sharing knowing glances. Shuri knows they don’t approve, though Folami liked Bucky quite a lot. But they would follow their general’s lead in whatever happened, so she knew that if Okoye gave any signs of softening toward the relationship, they would as well.

 

“I will say this,” Okoye says in a low voice as they exit the garage. “If he so much as makes you shed one single tear, he will be missing his other arm as well.”

 

In spite of how tired she is, how her emotions have fluctuated and flailed all over the place in the last few hours alone, she can’t help but laugh. She pulls Okoye into a quick hug and sighs dramatically.

 

“I have no doubt you’d rend him apart just for looking at me the wrong way. But I’ll ask that you don’t. I’m quite fond of that man and all his remaining parts.” And she laughs even harder at the look that crosses Okoye’s face.


 

She takes the shortest shower of her life and slides into bed in nothing more than an old large tunic of her Baba and underwear. It’s warm in her room, as it almost always is, and the bed sheets are fresh and clean. She thinks perhaps she should drift off to sleep right then, without much else to weigh her down but there’s still so much on her mind.

 

There was still the issue of what T’Challa would do once he got home. There was that stupid law and the council and the uncertainty of if Bucky would even be allowed to live here any longer. And there were the slight glances and odd looks she’d caught from the Doras, her assistants, the servants in the palace. She wondered how much of what had happened had traveled outside the immediate vicinity of those walls; she could only imagine how difficult it would be if the gossip rags caught wind of the affair.

 

Affair. She hated using that word. It sounded so clandestine and wrong when her love for Bucky was anything but. But let the general public tell it, it would be all the above. The bodyguard who’d seduced the princess, weedled his way into the royal family’s good graces only to use that to work his way into her bed. She could only imagine the headlines, and they made her sick.

 

No one truly knew the depths of her love, and no one could imagine how genuine and beautiful their connection was but them. It was depressing to think that simply because he was different she couldn’t love him without fallout.

 

She made a cup of tea to calm her nerves and try to shut her brain down but it was of no use. The text she’d sent Bucky had gone unanswered; it was nearly one am so she knew he was, more than likely, asleep. Talking to Okoye had helped a bit but she didn’t want to revisit that conversation. And her mother had heard enough of her troubles.

 

So she scrolled through her social media pages, played a few games, watched a movie. She had a feeling she wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight even with her eyes as heavy as they were and her body aching with exhaustion. Her brain just wouldn’t quit, spinning round and round in circles of what if’s and what happens next’s. Sometime around two thirty, she tossed her phone aside and flopped back against the pillows, tears slipping down her cheeks though she scrubbed at them harshly.

 

She was a big girl. And big girls didn’t cry.

 

The vibration of her phone jolts her out of her unhappy thoughts, and she frowns to see who was up at this hour. It was D’Wobe, sending her a silly meme in a group chat she had with a few of her cousins and friends. She smiles in spite of how much her chest aches, sending him a few laughing emojis for good measure. Minutes pass before she gets a private message, a question mark asking if she was alright. D’Wobe was so perceptive, always able to pick up her moods even through something as impersonal as a text.

 

Nope. Not too good rn.

 

What’s going on sis? Talk to me. Is this about Ingucka?

 

She rolls over on her side and lowers the brightness of the phone so it doesn’t hurt her eyes.

 

Yeah. i’m scared D. what if he can’t stay with me?

 

What do u mean? Something happen?

 

Oh hell. She realized she hadn’t gotten the chance to give D’Wobe all the details of the fallout from the last few days. She had a lot to fill him in on.

 

Get settled. It’s a lot.

 

She gives him a succinct rundown of what had occured, D stopping every few messages to add a shocked gif or emoji. When she finally was done there was radio silence on his end for a while and she opened another app, knocking out a few sudoku puzzles to keep from fidgeting.

 

Okay look. You know i’m in your corner, yeah?

 

She smiles.

 

Always have been.

 

So look, if you need me too, i’ll try and talk to M’Baku about helping vouch for him at the council. I can’t say it’ll help any, but I can try.

 

That’s all I ask, D. Thank you so much. I just want a chance.

 

What would you do if he was deported though? How would you make that work?

 

She pauses and thinks hard about this, wondering what she would do if he was sent back to America and away from her. There was always a way to contact him, she knew, ways to sneak around and get out of Wakanda to find him. But it wouldn’t be enough. It’d be like starving her of oxygen a little at a time until she suffocated.

 

I’d leave with him.

 

And she would, she knows. She’d leave all this behind and follow him wherever he went. She’d run away with him no matter how hard because she couldn’t and wouldn’t be without him.

 

I was afraid you’d say that, sis…maybe it won’t get to that. Maybe if all else fails we can hide him somewhere close. At least the border, yeah.

 

Shuri isn’t sure what to say to that. There’s a slight desperation behind the message and she thinks to maybe call him, just to reassure him that it’s a last resort. She’d find a way to stay home, if she could. But there’s only so much she could take, and being separated from Bucky for too long would crush her.

 

Look, I’m not saying that that’s what’s gonna happen. I’m only telling the truth about how I feel.

 

Okay

 

She signs, rubbing her aching eyes and she can feel a headache starting. She really needs to sleep. Sitting up, she finishes her tea and taps her fingers along the back of the phone, trying desperately to clear her head.

 

Get lunch with us tomorrow.

 

You and the white wolf? What time?

 

Around one? That’s usually when I get hungry. We can go to that little shop you’ve been wanting to try.

 

Ah yeah, sounds great!

 

It’ll work out, won’t it D? It has too. I love him.

 

I know you do sis. And it will, okay. Go to sleep before you make yourself sick.

 

He sends her a heart emoji and she slides the phone’s power button off, turns down her lighting, and stares up at the celing for a long, long time.

 

Shuri doesn’t get any sleep at all that night.


 

“So how’d it go?” Shuri asks Bucky the next day, swiping across and through a magnified model scale of the shields around the city. She’d gotten most of the  updates on 90 percent of the sectors done, with a few little adjustments for the system as a whole left to do. Nothing that will take too long, so she’d invited him down for a while before they met D’Wobe for lunch.

 

It’s something that will always amuse her, though she’s silently thankful. He never encroaches, not even when she insists it’s fine that he come by anytime he wants. Even as her bodyguard he’d kept his distance without her insistence, sometimes posting himself outside and reading a book on the tablet she’d made him or listening to music on his phone. He gives her space to work, to breathe, to just be though she always felt assured having him nearby.

 

“The dinner with your mom?” He smiles softly and she takes that as confirmation that it had gone just as well as she’d thought it would. “It was good. Yeah. I mean, she pretty much told me if I broke your heart, she’d have me skewered alive-”

 

Shuri laughs though she’s so tired she’s close to curling up under the desk and falling asleep. It’s a tired laugh, and she knows he can tell she hadn’t gotten any rest the night before. It’s written all over his face.

 

“I told you it would be fine. Mama understands, I know. More than anyone.”

 

“She told me the story of how she married your dad. I had no idea T’Challa wasn’t hers.”

 

Shuri smiles softly. “Oh, he is,” she assures him. “She’s the only mother he knows. He doesn’t remember his birth mother at all. She was a lovely lady, though. I’ve only ever heard good things about her.”

 

He tells her more about the dinner, and the walk after. She listens with one ear, and struggles to focus on her updates, thinks about how hungry she is and how her headache hadn’t ever gone away. Her mind is in a million other places, her heart his heavy and worried, her body is exhausted, and she doesn’t realize she’s gone over the same sector three times until a warm, strong hand pulls her back from the model, sliding along her waist and tugging her flush to a solid chest. She can feel his heart beating like this, strong and sure, and she closes her eyes against the tears that threaten to break loose.

 

“What time did you get in last night?”

 

“I don’t know. After midnight.”

 

“You sleep any?”

 

“No.”

 

Shuri can hear the sharp intake of breath, the growl in his chest. Protective Bucky mode is activated and she almost smiles, but it comes out more like a grimace instead. He moves his lips to her ear, while his fingers stroke the bare skin of her belly, exposed only a little between her cropped sweater and high waist jeans. The gesture is comforting, but it’s enough to make her want to sink into his chest and sob until she can’t anymore.

 

She can’t. Crying is for babies and she’s no baby.



“Sugar, you need sleep. Forget about the shields and the lunch. Go get some rest.”

 

She shakes her head and pulls away from him, noticing the way he sighs when she does, how his fingers catch hold of her just a little tighter as she slips out his reach. “I can’t. I’m nearly done, anyway, and I’m hungry and I promised D-”

 

“I’m pretty sure he’d understand.”

 

She looks back at him and studies his face for a moment, worry and a little anger in his eyes. What’s he got to be mad about? Is he mad at her?

 

“He would. But I’d like to see him anyway. Give me another thirty minutes.” It’s a command that gives no room for argument so he purses his lisp and falls back, though she knows he’s itching to protest. She’s his princess, after all, so he must do what she says.

 

She honestly hates that. She hates that she can command him to do something and even if it’s not in his best interest or hers, he’d have to do it. It’s something she’s tried hard not to take advantage of, using her power over him only for good, only to tease and have fun. So she ignores the urge to accept his suggestion and go home, curl up in her bed and sleep till the next day. She probably wouldn’t catch a wink anyway, she knows. There’s too much going on inside her for her to sleep.

 

Thirty minutes pass painfully slow. Shuri deliberately tunes everything and everyone around her out to get her work done, going back over the upgrades to make sure all the codes are correct. She catches no less than ten errors and gets angry that she’d been so distracted to have made such silly mistakes. She was a genius, a prodigy. She didn’t make stupid little mistakes.

 

All the while, Bucky remains silent, though she can feel his gaze on her. She knows he’s watching for any little sign that she’s fatigued, so she keeps her spine straight and her head high, pretends she’s not as tired as she truly is, and turns around after she’s put the model away and activated the update with a practiced, brilliant smile.

 

“All done. I told you I could get it finished with no problem.”

 

Her smile falters just a little when he doesn’t return it, when he simply nods and picks up the keys to the jeep and gestures for her to walk ahead of him. He’s quiet the entire walk up the ramp and to the elevator, out to the landing pad and across the small parking lot to the vehicle. She hadn’t driven herself to the lab that day, opting instead to be chauffeured by Folami, who had also looked at her with mild concern. It seemed her exhaustion read all over her face, because the Dora hadn’t even made a joking comment about her not driving her car per usual.

 

Bucky drives most of the way to the market in silence, opting instead to let the radio play, the windows down in the warm fall afternoon. But it’s grating on Shuri’s nerves. She wants him to talk to her, to chatter away like he usually does when they have time alone. At the very least, she wants him to hold her hand as he drives or play with rips in her jeans, playfully scold her about wearing holey pants the way he always did.

 

Instead he just drives, head straight head, his face an unreadable mask and she has to bite her lip not to say something mean and irritating just to get a reaction. She’s not a child. There’s no use in acting like one. If he’s mad at her, she knows he’ll tell her.

 

But he’s never mad at her, not truly. He’s gotten annoyed, a little exasperated, sometimes even heated when they disagree and her mouth runs before she can really think of what she’s saying. He never stays angry with her, though, melting like butter in her palm when she pouts and wraps her arms around his neck and pull him down for a kiss.

 

I can never stay mad at my sweet baby , he’d say, and smile against her mouth and hold her tight as he lifted her from her feet and kiss her breathless.

 

But she’s not going to pout today to get her way. She’s a grown woman. She’ll either wait until he says something or she’ll ask him later, when she’s not feeling like this.

 

“Where are we supposed to be meeting D?” Bucky asks, his voice deliberately quiet and neutral. She hates it. She loves the inflection in his voice, the way that Brooklyn accent gets thicker the more he talks, how he rambles and she laughs when he’s excited. She doesn’t like this tone, something pleasant but devoid of all that makes up James Barnes, her James Barnes, the good and the bad. Her fingernails dig little half moons into her palm and she answers him just as neutral. Or, at least she thinks she does. She doesn’t quite notice the way Bucky eyes her, how wary he is.

 

“There’s a new shop over beside the veggie stand. They sell meat pies and plantains. D’s been wanting to go there since it opened a few weeks ago.”

 

But I didn’t have time to go , she thinks a little miserably. I was too busy creeping around and sneaking out just to come make love to you.

 

“I know what you’re talking about,” he comments, and he parks the jeep on the outskirts of the market so they can walk down through the throngs of people. “They’re good. I grabbed a pie before the wedding.”

 

Shuri blinks in the bright sunshine and is cognizant of just how much her eyes hurt, so she digs around in her purse for her shades and slips them on with shaking hands. Bast, she was hungry. That had to be why she was so irritable about silly things, like Bucky’s voice or the way he looked or how he was walking so far from her right then, much the way he had before they’d ever even kissed. Hungry was why she wanted to smack him right now, fight him right in the middle of the marketplace. Don’t hide from me! She wanted to growl, but instead she walks stiffly toward the little shop and catches sight of D waiting on them.

 

What she doesn’t notice, though, are the stares. And she doesn’t notice that Bucky does, nor does she really pay attention to how D’Wobe’s eyes sweep the crowds around them or how they whisper amongst themselves. Instead, she gives her friend a half hearted hug, plasters on a smile, and orders her food, paying no mind to how the waitress glances between her and Bucky.

 

“I’ll be so glad when I get something in my stomach,” she says, simply for conversation, because it’s much too quiet between the three of them. It shouldn’t be so quiet.

 

“How long has it been since you ate anything, sis?” D asks, a frown on his handsome face. He looks so concerned, much the way Bucky had earlier and it’s just adding fuel to the fire.

 

“I don’t know. I skipped breakfast, didn’t have time.” She waves a hand around and lays her cheek on her hand, closing her eyes for a long moment so the throbbing in her skull stops. “You wouldn’t happen to have anything for pain, would you? Either of you.”

 

D shakes his head, and she gets no response from Bucky at all. In fact, he’s not even behind her anymore, disappearing across the square toward the newspapers and gossip mags.

 

“Did you even sleep a little?” D asks again, and this time she growls, lowering her shades enough to shoot him a barely concealed look of absolute irritation. “Why do you care? Bast, can’t you two just cut it out?”

 

D shrinks back a bit at her outburst and she’s half a mind to feel badly about it, but decides she’s allowed that one indulgence. She’s always so kind to everyone, always so giving, always the perfectly spunky happy-go-lucky innocent princess. The people’s princess. The girl that all Wakandans wanted their daughters to aspire to be.

 

She was sick of it.

 

“Sorry,” D says softly, taking a sip of juice and looking in the other direction. “I only worried-”

 

“Yes. Yes I know. You and Bucky and everyone else. My head hurts. I’m starving. I’m tired.”

 

“Okay, but you don’t have to be so ornery about it, either, your highness,” D says brusquely, and Shuri feels badly for long enough to let her face fall.

 

“I sorry.”

 

“Mmhm.”

 

“I am, D...I just…”

 

“You probably should apologize to him, not me,” D’Wobe says, pointing to Bucky who’s grasping a newspaper in hand and frowning like he’d read something he hadn’t wanted to. She wasn’t sure what he had to be upset about for a silly little tabloid. The only thing in it was local gossip, probably rumors about some of the aristocracy, a few of Wakanda’s celebrities. There was almost never anything pertaining to the outside world, least of all America. She didn’t Bucky would have any interest in who the mining tribe’s heir was dating.

 

But as he walked back to the meat pie shop and sat down beside them on the stool, she had a feeling that whatever he read was a lot more personal than random celebrity gossip.

 

“Bucky.” Her voice is low and she knows it trembles but when he looks up she loses it because he looks absolutely livid, so angry that it terrifies her. She reaches out to grasp D’s hand and he holds it fast, pulling her toward him unconsciously.

 

“How’d they know?”

 

He slaps the paper down on the counter and she reads the headline five times before it really sinks in.

 

 

Princess Shuri’s Bombshell : I’m in love with my bodyguard!

 

 

She can’t help it. She laughs, near hysterical because this is just perfect, this is going to go over great with the council. Everyone is staring at her and now Bucky’s face changes and he looks scared too, so much so that she chokes back the laughter and shakes her head until tears begin to fall. And she can’t stop them now, though she tries desperately to.

 

“Oh no...no, no, no,” she can hear D saying behind her. “We can fix this. Shuri, just...look. I know a girl who knows someone who works at the paper.”

 

“D.” She thinks that's Bucky but she's too busy trying to keep her head from spinning.

 

"I can get it out there that this is all lies. We could even try throwing their scent off your trail. I don't mind playing fake boyfriend if I need to.”

 

“D…”

 

“Let me make a phone call, okay? Shuri...it’s gonna be okay sis, just-”

 

“D’Wobe!” Bucky’s booming voice carries over the noise outside and the music in the shop and they both stop still though her face is streaked in tears. He lowers it then, when people start staring hard, and softens his voice. “Hey man, look. We need to get her back to the palace.” D’Wobe nods. “We gotta get her out this market and home because-”

 

“Yeah...yeah, I know. Okay. Follow me.”

 

Just then, the waitress comes back with their meat pies. Bucky snatches them up to go, graces her with a half smile in thanks and ushers Shuri out the shop. She doesn’t really care that she’s crying in public, or that her bodyguard has his hand intimately on her lower back. She’s only aware of how fucked everything is now, and that there’s a picture of them wrapped up in each other’s arms at the wedding and that now everyone knows and they’re staring and-

 

When the darkness hits and she feels the ground rushing toward her she doesn’t even try to fight it. She only lets it swallow her whole.

 


 

The next time she wakes, she’s aware of being in bed, tucked into sheets that don’t quite feel like hers, propped up against pillows too big for her room. She turns her head and makes a pitiful noise, sliding her hands across the comforter that covers her and figures out quickly that she’s in her mother’s bed.

 

How’d she even get home?

 

The last thing she remembered was the shop in the market, the paper, Bucky’s angry face and D’Wobe’s wide eyed desperation to make things better. Her mouth feels like sand, her limbs feel heavy, but she doesn’t have a headache anymore and she’s not nearly as tired as she was. Her lashes flutter against her cheeks and she struggles to open her eyes, just barely prying them open to find that it’s dark in the room.

 

Is it night already? How long had she been out?

 

“Bibi?” Mama calls to her, softly, and she feels a warm, sure hand slide into hers.

 

“Mama...what happened?”

 

“Oh Bibi…” There’s relief in that voice, and she hates to think she’d worried her mother so. “You passed out, right in the market square. James caught you before you fell, thank Bast, so nothing was hurt. But you’ve slept so long.”

 

Shuri slides her dry tongue along her chapped lips and tries to sit up but Ramonda pushes her back against the pillows, then brings her a glass of cool water. It feels like heaven going down her throat and she drinks big greedy gulps of it.

 

“How long was I sleeping?” she asks, when she’s drank her fill.

 

“About ten hours. It’s nearly midnight now.”

 

Shuri groans and turns over in the bed, covering her eyes in embarrassment. “Oh great...I meant to go back to the lab and work on Sam’s wings and finish the adjustments to the suit...a whole day wasted.”

 

“Sweet girl, you needed the rest,“ Ramonda says firmly. “You were running on empty and it caught up to you. And...of course the paper.” Her mother sighs and leans back in the chair beside the bed. “I don’t know who would have taken that photo. The reception was vetted and strictly so. And I know that picture in truth is quite innocent. It was only a dance.”

 

Shuri shakes her head and rubs her eyes, glad she’d not bothered with makeup that morning. “Yeah, well, they’ll try to twist it whichever way they choose.” She sits up a bit and waits for the dizziness and nausea to come, but they never do. Her stomach does growl, however, and she feels a little week. She realizes she still hasn’t eaten anything. “I don’t know what bothers me most; that someone sold that picture out or that the whole thing isn’t just a rumor after all.” She laughs bitterly and rubs her cramping stomach.

 

“Hungry?”

 

“Starving.”

 

Ramonda gets up from the chair and brings over a bowl of soup, alongside two meat pies that had been kept warm for her. Shuri smiles in spite of how bad she feels and picks up her spoon, ladling in a heaping helping of the soothing pepper soup.

 

“Did D save me some meat pies?”

 

“Bucky did, actually.”

 

“Bast...I need to apologize to him.” She shakes her head and frowns, hoping she won’t cry yet again. She’d been so awful to him today. “I pushed him away and acted like I was bothered having him in my presence.”

 

‘I’m sure he understands, her mother says soothingly, and she straightens the sheets around Shuri’s legs. “He was so worried when he brought you in. Anything you may have done to him to day has been long forgotten, trust me. Poor man looked as though he was going to have a breakdown of his own.”

 

“Are you saying I had a breakdown today?” she asks. She hates how her voice sounds, all raspy and whiny but she thinks about the kind of day she’s had and tries to forgive herself for being so inept.

 

“No. But close to it. And you’ll have one if you don’t get a handle on whatever is eating away at you. You need to talk to someone, Bibi. Let your emotions out so they don’t bottle up and then explode.” Shuri knows that her mother is right but she hates the thought of being that vulnerable when she’s been doing so good at not. She can’t help but associate vulnerability to children, and she most definite is not one.

 

But then she thinks of the nights her mother had cried in this very bed, open and unashamed, as she mourned the love of her life, and Shuri wonders if maybe there isn’t any reason she can’t let a little of what’s  mounting inside her out. There’s nothing wrong with tears when they’re called for.

 

But she hates crying. Hates it.

 

“You also need to talk to Bucky,” Ramonda says, leaning back in her chair and sipping her own glass of water. “If the two of you are to face the trials ahead together, you must let him in. He does that for you, doesn’t he?”

 

Shuri nods. He had, although she knew how hard it was for him to admit anything was bothering him, or to come to her when he was worried and anxious and depressed. But he’d told her about his nightmare and his worries and how he was scared of hurting her in some way, so the least she could do was open up a bit more to him as well.

 

Relationships were all about reciprocity, weren’t they?

 

“I think we need a vacation,” she mutters, mostly as a joke and half to herself, but Ramonda’s face is deep in thought and she gives her daughter a slow, assured smile.

 

“I agree. Perhaps a day or two out at the cabin? Just the two of you. I think you'll be quite alright without any detail.”

 

Shuri likes the sound of that and she digs into one of her meat pies with renewed gusto.

 

“Can we leave in the morning?”

Chapter Text

 

Early morning in Wakanda was one of Shuri’s favorite times of the day, besides the dusk when the sun set real low and the sky was a melange of colors. Early morning in the fall was even better. The air was cooler and crisper, the breeze just chilly enough to perk her up and the sky was a hazy, gauzy tumble between the clouds and the newborn sun.

 

She sat on her mother’s balcony, wrapped in a blanket and sipping tea shortly after dawn. Though she’d slept a little after eating, she had spent most of the night right there on the balcony, reading and watching movies to keep her thoughts from scattering once again. There was still this undercurrent of anxiety in the pit of her stomach, but there was also the promise that this could be better, that maybe she could have a little bit of a relief for two days.

 

Nobody but her and Bucky. She relished the thought that whole night and by the time her mother woke to join her on the balcony, she was considerably calmer.

 

“How are you, Bibi?” Ramonda asks, sliding onto the plush chaise beside her daughter. She wraps an arm around her shoulders and Shuri leans in gratefully, smiling a little at the warm embrace.

 

“Better. I’m trying not to think of what the papers are saying.”

 

“Ah. They talk. You know, when I married your father, there was an entire edition dedicated to exposing my sordid past? Old boyfriends and lovers came out the woodwork to give little anecdotes about me, to convince Wakanda I wasn’t exactly queen material but good for King T’chaka for taking pity on the governess.” Ramonda snorts and shakes her head. “Silly stuff now, but it bothered me so much back then. And you know, T’Chaka thought absolutely nothing of it. None of it was slander, so no need to retaliate. Eventually, people moved on to other things. And there was no real scandal.”

 

“Well, you also didn’t fall in love with a colonizer either,” Shuri quips, and she sips her tea with a grin. “That’s just my luck; fall in love with the broken white boy I fixed.” She sighs and leans her head back on the chaise, her eyes squinting as the sun begins to break through the clouds. “Do you think they’ll ever accept him, Mama?”

 


Ramonda is silent for a while. “No. Not in this lifetime, not completely. He’ll be part of the history, if all this works out. And it will,” she says quickly, when her daughter turns her head, worry in her eyes.

 

“If he married me, would he be prince consort?”

 

“Depends. I suppose that’s a question for the council and your brother. But don’t worry about all that right now, Bibi. Focus on enjoying these few days. You need them, and so does James.”

 

They spend the next few minutes simply enjoying the lovely morning and finishing their tea. Ramonda goes inside to wash and dress for the day, leaving Shuri alone with the quiet of the early morning. It’s 7 am when her phone vibrates in the pocket of her robe and she pulls it out, smiling to see a message from D’Wobe asking how she’s faring.

 

You’re up early, bruv

Am I? Or are you up too late, yeah?

LOL promise you i’m up later than usual, but not too bad considering

Ah yeah. Are you alright tho? I was worried

I’m alright D. I’m sorry, btw

 

She was. Somewhat. But she didn’t feel like getting into the specifics of what was still lurking in the back of her mind. She felt so clingy and desperate about it all, and she didn’t think D needed to know all about her silly, childish thoughts.

 

Ah no worries. I’m just glad you’re alright. Now look, when you get back from your vacation you text me okay

She raises a brow at that. How’d he even know she was leaving the palace?

Who told you about that?

Ingucka, of course.

You have his number?

He gave it to me last night, sis. Just in case, or something. Idk I think homeboy is just lonely. 

Aw, Buck. She smiles at the thought of one of her best friends and her lover being friends. D was the perfect foil for Bucky, too. Perhaps that friendship could grow into something close to what Bucky had with Sam or Steve. Though he didn’t say it, she knew he missed them between visits and felt a little isolated in this foreign country by himself.

 

You’re good people, D. Even tho you’re Jabari

 

There was a laughing emoji and the promise to text him back once she got home and then she dismissed herself from her mother’s chaise, kissing Ramonda on the forehead so she could go dress and get ready for the day.

 

As she walked down the quiet corridor to her bedroom, she was pleasantly surprised to find Bucky waiting at her door, looking like a lost puppy. She smiles and slides her hand into his, wordlessly inviting him in and shutting the door behind her.

 

“You okay?”

 

He looks surprised that she’d even ask him that and something tugs painfully at her heart. Had she really been so caught up in her own feelings that she hadn’t been checking on him?

 

“I’m...yeah, I guess. Are you okay? Cause that’s all I’m worried about.”

 

Shuri wraps her arms around his middle and looks up at him, meeting steel blue with brown. “You’ve gotta stop doing that, love,” she says softly, no hint of scolding in her voice, just a little bit of insistence. “You worry too much about me-”

 

“You didn’t see yourself fall, did you? Do you have any idea how scared I was?”

 

He’s so serious about this, so she holds her words and hears him out. “No. I’m sorry.”

 

“Sugar, why? Why didn’t you say somethin’ about how you were feelin’? Why’d you let it cram up inside you like that? You know you can tell me anything. You know that.”

 

And she did, but she didn’t know how to explain that she hated feeling as though she needed to tell him anything when she could usually handle things on her own. She loved him, desperately at times, but she didn’t want to be such a whiny, needy girlfriend. She didn’t want anyone to have any excuse to dismiss her as being childish and immature.

 

“I’m not saying that you gotta spill all your guts to me. I know sometimes you wanna keep shit to yourself.” He tilts her chin up with his finger and rubs his thumb along the skin there. “I just wanna know what goes on in that beautiful mind of yours. I just wanna be a part of what’s going on with you.”

 

Shuri sighs and lifts herself up on her tip toes, pressing a soft kiss to his lips. She lingers just a second, long enough to brush her nose with his and she smiles.

 

“I’ll try.” No guarantees, but she could at least give him a little bit of a break. He’d been trying so hard to open up to her, even before they became lovers, and here she was shutting him out.

 

“But are you okay?”

 

She nods.  “I am. I’m tired. I think I could probably sleep another ten hours, honestly.”

 

“Then we’ll get a nap once we get to the cabin.”

 

“A nap? That’s all you want?” she asks, her smile teasing and light and he laughs.

 

“Alright, so maybe we can work in a nap somewhere. But if you’re really tired, I won’t bother you.” She thinks about the quiet and calm and serenity of his homestead, of the absolute solitude they’ll have and she’s torn between wanting to curl up with him in his bed or have her way with him as loudly as she wants.

 

Maybe they could do both.

 

“We can leave as soon as you want, honestly. I just want to pack a few essentials,” she tells him. “When do you need to take Sam and Steve to the airport?”

 

“I don’t. Nat’s coming to get ‘em in the quin, apparently.” The face he makes at the mention of his friend makes her raise a brow but he shakes his head. “It’s...nothing really. She uh...she found out about us yesterday.”

 

“Oh. Is she…”

 

“Disappointed? Yeah. And not for the reasons you’d think either, so don’t look at me like that.”

 

Shuri squints suspiciously but doesn’t comment. She won’t lie and tell him she hadn’t thought that perhaps Natasha was jealous, but if he says she isn’t, she’ll take his word for it.

 

“Did you kindly inform her that I’m currently 20 years old and way past the age of consent?” He snorts, flops down on her bed, and leans forward with his elbows on his thighs. It makes his jeans stretch out over them and Shuri can’t help but admire how strong and thick they are. His thighs might be one of her favorite parts of him, besides his eyes and his smile and his back and-

 

“I did,” he’s saying, so she stops her perverted train of thought to focus on what he’s talking about as she quickly packs a few things. She doesn’t need much; just some toiletries and two or three outfits. She doesn’t really plan to wear much clothing anyway.

 

“And?”

 

“And she hung up the phone on me.”

 

Shuri turns around and shoots him a look. “She what?” And here Shuri thought she’d been acting childish.

 

“Steve put her on speaker phone. You know how Sam is, blabbing about dumb shit-”

 

“What dumb shit?” Where Sam was involved, Shuri was almost always amused.

 

“He uh...he kept trying to get me to tell him how many times we’d had sex in the jeep.”

 

She stares at him for a moment before she bursts into laughter, shaking her head. “Of course he did! Why am I not surprised? What’d you tell him?”

 

“I didn’t say a word.”

 

“Hmmm. Good boy,” she says with a sly grin and she winks. She likes Sam, a lot, and doesn’t really care if either of Bucky’s friends know that they’re sleeping together but some things she’d like to keep to herself. Besides, it’s nobody’s business that she and Bucky had tried out nearly all the seats in the jeep, and the hood, too.

 

“So anyway, she caught wind of that. Wanted to know what we were talking about and Steve told her I was seeing someone.” He leans back on the bed then and groans a little as he stretches across the comforter. “Nat’s nosy as hell. She won’t tell you she is, but she is. And she kinda guilt tripped Steve into sayin’ that I had a girlfriend or whatever.”

 

“But she was okay with it until she found out it was me you were seeing.”

 

“Mmmhm, yeah. Kinda went from ‘oh that’s great!’ to ‘you’re a fuckin’ pervert!’ and then she cut the line. I’m really not looking forward to that blessing out she’s gonna give me.”

 

Shuri narrows her eyes and slides onto the bed beside him, leaning over so that she’s pressed tight against his side. He automatically wraps the vibranium arm about her, gently, as if he’s still scared to crush her with it. She’s told him over and over that he won’t hurt her but he still touches her as if she’s something fragile and delicate.

 

“She won’t bug you if you don’t engage, Bucky.”

 

“Well, nah, I mean...have you ever-” He shakes his head again and laughs. “You’ve never even had a whole conversation with her, have you?”

 

“I’ve never spoken to her outside of a hello once,” Shuri admits. “I guess you were kind of right about the whole jealousy thing.”

 

“And I told you you have nothing to worry about, too.” He pauses and brushes a lock of hair out of his eyes, the vibranium fingers stroking the length of her spine. It’s comforting in a way that almost nothing else except a hug is.

 

“Yeah. But look, it’ll be fine. You said it would. Mama said it would.” She had to keep believing that or she’d go crazy wondering what she would do if it wasn’t fine. She hadn’t been lying when she told D’Wobe she would leave with him, not one bit. But in the light of a new day, she wonders if she could really leave her home and everything she knows to follow him wherever he roamed.

 

Maybe she was already a little more needy than she’d wanted to be. That was something they would need to talk about soon. She didn’t want to be that clingy, not the way that she was definitely starting to feel like she was becoming.

 

“If your mama said it, I believe it,” Bucky says smiling, and he presses a kiss to her forehead. “No matter what happens, though, you gotta believe that I’ll love you. I’ll wait for you. We’ll figure it out.”

 

“I know.”

 

She gets up from the bed, slips into the closet, and finishes her packing, then throws off her sleeping attire and puts on her clothes for the day. She decides on a brightly colored romper, short and frilly and incredibly cute. It shoes of her long legs in the best of ways, and goes perfectly with the long duster she layers on top. A little bit of summer, a little bit of fall...great for the indecisive October weather. Hauling her duffel over her shoulder, Shuri closes her closet door  and turns to Bucky expectantly. “You ready to go, or are you going to lounge in my bed all day?”

 

He cracks a smile and laughs. “I mean, I’d planned on at least seein’ the guys off.”

 

“Oh, I know,” she says, turning her lights down and waiting for him to follow her to the door so she can lock it. “I plan on coming along.”

 

There’s a look in his eye, one that goes back and forth between absolute panic and anticipation of something and it only steels her resolve.

 

She’s finally going to properly introduce herself to Natasha Romanoff.

 


 

“You sure this is a good idea, sweet baby?” Bucky asks, for probably the fifth time, as she purposefully strolls down the corridors toward the front of the palace. The quinjet waits outside on the tarmac, beautiful and sleek but primitive in Shuri’s humble opinion. She can just barely see the outline of the craft and already she’s thinking of ways she can improve the design. If given the chance to take a spin in the thing, she figures she could massively improve it. She makes a mental note to give Tony Stark a friendly call when she gets back from the cabin.

 

Sam and Steve follow them with bags and souvenirs in hand, and Shuri can feel both pairs of eyes on her back, curious about the little whispers and secret looks she share with Bucky. It makes her almost smile, but she’s tired and hungry and she’s got a point to prove so instead she keeps her face neutral and regal as possible, though she can’t help squinting as they exit the palace. The sun is high and warm, not a cloud in sight, and she sighs sluggishly. Must have been too much to hope that perhaps it would teeter on the cooler side of a warm fall.

 

“I’m perfectly confident that this will work out just fine,” she finally says, under her breath so that only Bucky can hear. He sighs, his way of acquiescing to whatever she wants, and keeps his strides long and sure, no sign of the nervousness he’d exhibited before gathering his friends for their takeoff. She wonders if maybe he’s resigned himself to the fact that most people aren’t going to agree with their relationship, especially those with the kind of history that Natasha has with him. She’s a bit surprised at how well Steve is taking this whole thing, but figures the Captain had bigger fish to fry than to nitpick over age differences and supposed power imbalances.

 

Besides, Steve knew her personally, now. So maybe that was a deciding factor. Sam was getting to know her more and more, and seemed a lot more laid back in any regard. And, as far as she was aware, none of them had ever slept with Bucky...though she had a hunch there was a few almosts and sorta maybe kindas on both men’s end. That was a surprisingly pleasant thought for another time.

 

Natasha stood outside the quinjet waiting, leaned against the ramp, eyes narrowed in the bright sunshine. She looked every bit as beautiful as Shuri had been told-effortlessly casual in jeans and a rust red blouse. Black heeled booties gave her a bit of height, made her legs look a million miles long, and accentuated her tight curves. There was a hint of a smile on her face as she saw Steve and Sam, though it seemed to waver a bit when she took in Bucky. And then her eyes found Shuri and the smile turned into something like surprise, faltered for a split second, and curved back almost mechanically.

 

Shuri had a feeling Bucky wasn’t quite right about Natasha’s reasons for disapproving her their relationship, and that feeling intensified as she got closer to the older woman.

 

“Nat,” Steve said, reaching out with his free arm and pulling her into a side hug. It lingered for just a little longer than a hug between friends should have, so there was something there. It was new and gentle and slight, but there were the beginnings of a deeper connection and Shuri studied them curiously.

 

“Had a good visit?” Natasha said softly, her eyes only for Steve in that one moment. The captain nods, his hand lingering on her waist, his body language relaxed and comfortable. Bucky and Sam share a glance between themselves beside her and then Sam is greeting Natasha, following Steve inside the quinjet to put his bags up.

 

“You doin’ good, girl?”

 

“I am. Had fun? Make any new friends?”

 

Sam laughs, shrugs and presses a soft kiss to Natasha’s cheek. “Maybe. I got some new toys, too. I’ll show you on the way home.”

 

He disappears up the ramp as well, and then there’s only Bucky and Shuri there now, though the mood shifts enough that it’s palpable how utterly disappointed Natasha is. It’s enough to make Shuri irritable, but she plays up her supposed innocence and puts on her friendliest smile and starts toward the woman, hands in front of her like she’s greeting her favorite celebrity.

 

“You must be Natasha,” she says, a little breathless, as if she’s been waiting her whole life to meet her. A little tiny part of her has to admit she’d always been a bit intrigued by the Black Widow. She thinks, perhaps, had things been a little different or she younger, she might have actually been somewhat star struck. As it is, she’s mostly just interested to know what makes Natasha tick.

 

There’s a pause where nobody says a word, and two heads peek out of the quinjet to watch the scene.

 

“I am, your Highness,” Natasha says finally, smoothly, and she offers her hand to shake. Shuri laughs, tugs the hand toward her and pulls her into a quick hug, catching the woman off guard.

 

“No handshakes here, we’re all friends, yeah? I’ve heard so much about you, it’s so good to finally meet you! I seem to always be busy or gone whenever you come to visit.”

 

A lie. A really blatant lie, at that, but Natasha doesn’t have to know that.

 

Nat’s face actually softens a bit when Shuri pulls back and the smile she wears is more genuine. “It’s good to finally get to meet you as well. I’ve heard nothing but great things.”

 

“Same here! Are you in any hurry, Agent Romanoff?”

 

Natasha raises a brow and slides her eyes over to Bucky, who keeps quiet, still, his face a perfect mask of neutrality. He simply meets her gaze cooly, as if he has absolutely no reason to hide from her and Shuri is proud enough that it has to shine all over her face. She tampers it down just a bit and waits.

 

“I, uh...no? Not really.”

 

“Great! You see, I’d ordered breakfast-I’m starving, honestly-and I wanted to maybe share it...with Sam and Steve and yourself. Before you guys go, you know? If it’s not too much of a problem?”

 

“Not a problem over here,” Sam offers, skipping down the ramp and nudging Natasha as he slides past. “I’m hungry and I’ve been trying to get more of those fried plantains since lunch the other day.”

 

“I wouldn’t mind something to munch on before we set off either, Nat,” Steve adds, and then Natasha is outnumbered, a princess practically imploring her to come have a meal with her, and so she swallows her sigh and smiles again, nodding slowly.

 

“Breakfast would be wonderful, princess,” she says politely, and she lets Shuri take her arm, leading her back toward the palace. There’s a moment where she catches Bucky’s eye again, when things are a little tenser than they should be, but it passes as they sweep past. And he trails the two women, Sam and Steve on his heels.

 


 

They decide on Nimika’s for breakfast, an upscale, classy little place that only serves breakfast and brunch. It’s a royal favorite; Shuri only has to greet the maitre’d to get her usual reserved spot up on the rooftop patio, overlooking the bustling market and close to the rail lines. It’s a gorgeous view, cozy and spacious, and they have the whole space to themselves.

 

Shuri gets her usual, orders for Sam who can’t decide between mandazi and plantains with grits, or an omelette with bacon and masa. She gets him the former and then helps Steve with his slow translation of the Wakandan menu, before she looks back over to Natasha. She looks utterly lost, her eyes sweeping the menu slowly and unsure. There aren’t pictures to accompany the dishes, and though Shuri knows that she knows a little bit of the language, she probably doesn’t know enough to know what to order.

 

Before she can lean over and suggest something, Bucky taps his vibranium fingers on the table and gestures for Natasha to hand him her menu.

 

“What do you have a taste for Nat?” he asks, genially, when she relents. She says nothing for a moment, only stares at him blankly, until she shakes her head and decides to answer.

 

“Something light. Fruit maybe? Cereal? Do they have pancakes or something here?”

 

“Hmmm, all of the above.” He scans the menu effortlessly, and mouths a few of the meals under his breath, pronunciation on point and all the clicks in the right places. Shuri can’t help how her eyes glance up and dart around to watch the three friends observe just how comfortable Bucky is here. It makes her grin.

 

“Akwadu sounds like it’d be up your alley,” he finally says, gracing Natasha with a soft smile. “They make it sort of like a pudding. Bananas, coconut milk, a little citrus...it’s sweet, light. You like bananas, don’t you, Nat?”



She nods. “I do.”

 

“That all?”

 

“Tea? Do Wakandans like tea?” She’s looking over at Shuri now, expectantly, as Bucky puts in the orders with the waitress. The princess smiles and sets her hands atop the table.

 

“Oh, we love a good tea. Mama has so many varieties in her sitting room it’s ridiculous. You know, if I’d have thought about it, I’d have brought you a few packs to take home. In fact-”

 

“Oh, no, no, it’s fine, I wouldn’t want to-”

 

“My gift! I’ll ask one of the servants to grab a few kinds for you. By the time you get ready to leave, they’ll be out in the quinjet.” She takes a sip of her lemon water and case is closed. There’s no more argument to be had about the tea, so Natasha lets that go and settles for chatting with Steve and Sam as they wait for their order. She seems to actively avoid saying anything to Bucky if she can help it and only talks to Shuri if spoken to. It’s a bit irritating, but also somewhat entertaining to know that she’s got this strange effect on such a self assured woman.

 

But then the food arrives, so they dig in and the conversation flows a bit better, especially so when Shuri starts on about music. It’s a decent, safe topic to talk about; Natasha throws in a few of her own opinions and ideas about who she’s partial to lately (she’s on a trip hop kick and has been devouring old Tricky and Portishead albums) while Steve’s been crate digging around in some of Rhodey’s records and falling in love with Sam Cook and Barry White. Sam brings up hip hop, making it his point to insist he doesn’t listen to anything past probably 2001 because it’s all “trash”, to which Shuri vehemently disagrees. It’s a lively and fun discussion, and for a while, she forgets about the weird tension between Bucky and Natasha.

 

But then Bucky says something about his own music tastes and that’s when the odd looks start.

 

“I’m surprised you like so much hip hop and r n b,” Sam quips, a grin on his face as if he isn’t really that surprised.

 

“I don’t see why,” Bucky responds, pouring a little more milk into his tea. “I’m surrounded by it here. It’s not that stuff you hear in Oakland, no, but it’s definitely hip hop. Good shit, too. And then there’s the Afrobeats, the soul, the jazz-”

 

“Who was that chick singing on the way to the lab yesterday? I was feeling that.”

 

“Yemi Alade?” Bucky makes an amused face and pulls out his phone, tapping his music app open as he does.

 

“Yeah, yeah, that one. Hot joint. And then you played something else, but I can’t remember most of the words.”

 

“Probably cause you were too busy running your mouth,” Steve says with a laugh. “If you had just sat back and hushed-”

 

“I had important shit I wanted to ask,” Sam grumbles, and waves his hand over for Bucky’s phone. “Let me see what I want to add to my mix…”

 

“Why don’t I just make you one?”

 

Sam blinks. “I mean...yeah. You could do that. Or you could let me make my own, and then kimoyo drop it into my phone. How bout that?”

 

Bucky rolls his eyes and relents, leaning toward Shuri as he does. “You really should have never gave him that phone, sugar,” he says with a smile, and she laughs.

 

“But look how happy it makes him. He’s like a kid with a lolipop.”

 

“Is that one of your new toys, Sam?” Natasha asks, after sitting quietly and observing. Regardless of who her question is geared toward, she watches Shuri and Bucky and what she sees obviously doesn’t sit well with her. But she won’t address it, Shuri knows.

 

Coward.

 

“Mmhm. Tried to get my girl to give me a car, but…”

 

“That’s out of my hands, unfortunately,” Shuri says by way of explanation. When Natasha raises a brow in curiosity, she explains the inner workings of her unique motor design and shows her a picture on her kimoyo beads of the vehicle in question.

 

“That is...wow. Amazing!”

 

“Thank you! Finished the first prototype at 13. I’ve been steadily improving it ever since.”

 

“See why I want one Nat?” Sam says, leaning forward at the table. “Those babies are badass. No other car in the world like it. And Shuri’s got that, a jeep, a bike-”

 

“I don’t ride the bike much,” Shuri says, biting her lip. “Mama doesn’t like how fast it goes, so to keep her from fussing too much I only get on whenever T’Challa rides his.”

 

“And Buck over here has access to all of that,” Sam continues, narrowing his eyes at his friend goodnaturedly, “but won’t take advantage of it.”

 

Natasha raises her tea cup to her lips and blows across the top, steam rising as she mumbles under her breath. “I’m surprised. He takes advantage of everything else, it seems.”

 

Two little words but there’s so much behind them that though Shuri had been expecting this, it makes her do a double take. At least Natasha had stopped dancing around the elephant in the room and was going to address it. Good. The sooner they got this out in the open, the better. For a long while, no one moves nor says a word. Bucky resigns himself to a sigh and sits back in his chair, staring at the table in expectation of a fallout. Sam glances around at everyone hoping something will happen while Steve stares at Natasha, then to Shuri, obviously anticipating the need to act as mediator.

 

Shuri glances up and meets the waitress’ eyes across the room, giving her the silent command to close off the patio so no one can snoop in on this conversation. The doors are shut, the noise outside covering whatever is being said, and once the tension is too thick to stand and Shuri is sure that there’s no avoiding this once more, she starts in.

 

“Bucky told me the two of you had a bit of an issue yesterday on the phone.”

 

Natasha stops mid sip and flicks her eyes to Bucky, who keeps his face straight and his eyes elsewhere. It seems as though she’s waiting on him to speak up, but Shuri taps her fingers on her glass and grabs Natasha’s attention.

 

“I asked a question, Agent Romanoff.”

 

There’s a very pregnant pause and then: “He told me he was seeing someone, your Highness.”

 

“And?”

 

“And I’m afraid I don’t find the relationship between a grown man and a young girl palpable.” She sits her teacup down and crosses her legs, tilting her head as she meets Shuri’s gaze head on. Shuri raises a brow, but keeps her voice down though she can feel her temper stirring a little.

 

“But why? There’s no real reason why there should be any issues. If you’re concerned about the age-”

 

“I am. With all respect, Princess Shuri, Bucky is...over 100 years old. I realize a lot of that time was spent in cryo and so he’s aged a lot slower-”

 

“He’s 35. For all intents and purposes.”

 

“Right. But that’s a 15 year age difference. And look, I know at this age you think perhaps you know what’s best. You might think whatever you’re feeling is going to last, that he’s always going to stick around and watch as you grow up.”

 

Sam’s eyes widen a bit and Steve coughs, almost in a desperate but silent attempt to get Natasha to back off, but Shuri motions slightly for him to leave it be. Let her talk, her quick glance says. Let her say what’s on her mind.

 

“I was that age once.” Natasha looks pointedly at Bucky and if her eyes could glare daggers, they would. “I was 19 and thought I could handle myself and that I was deadly enough to take on the world’s greatest assassin when he wanted me.”

 

Nat-”

 

“No, Captain,” Shuri says softly. “Let her continue. I want to hear what she has to say.”

 

“So do I,” Bucky says, breaking his long string of silence. “I wanna know what you really think about that night. Cause I feel like maybe we got some shit mixed up and never sorted.”

 

“We didn’t,” Natasha says, her eyes angry. “I was a kid. I was so young and you...you were my mentor and-”

 

“Wait. Hold up.” Sam sets his glass of juice down and stares in shock. “You were teaching Natasha and smashing at the same time?”

 

“Jesus, Sam,” Steve groans, rubbing his temples.

 

“He was my instructor. He taught me what I know about weaponry, about how to effectively and efficiently kill and maim and murder. And you know, at the time, I didn’t know better. I didn’t know any other life but that going forward. So when he came to me, when he took me aside and told me he had his eye on me...I went along with it. I was nervous. I was scared, but I had to play big girl and pretend like I knew what I was doing because if I didn’t, I wasn’t sure what consequences I would suffer.”

 

The silence after this little revelation is deafening, and Shuri can feel her blood boiling enough to cook her from the inside out. And yet, she bites her cheek, keeping her face as stoic as possible to keep from giving herself away. She wants to slam that tea cup in Natasha’s hand onto the table and scream how she already knows all this...but that would betray her to Bucky. He doesn’t know she’s seen all of this. And she doesn’t know that she’s got a different reading of that memory than Natasha has.

 

“I’m sorry that you felt you had no choice,” Shuri says, trying for sympathetic but coming out sarcastic. “But you must understand that your position and my current one are two very different ones.” She draws in a deep breath and looks over to Bucky, whose eyes bore into Natasha’s so heatedly he could start a fire. He’s angry, she realizes. Nat is playing the victim and Bucky is not very happy about it.

 

Not when he was a victim, too. Not when his orders were to seduce and test you. Her temper is cooled only a bit by the knowledge that perhaps she doesn’t know that. But how could she not? Everyone knows the Winter Soldier had been under the control of his handlers; nothing he did was of his own accord.

 

“I only want you to realize that perhaps you’re making a mistake. I can’t seem to get that through his mind,” Natasha says. “He seems convinced that since you’re technically an adult, it’ll all be fine. He doesn’t understand...I don’t even know why I’m surprised. Men seem to constantly disappoint me.”

 

“Fuck you, Nat,” Bucky says quietly, dangerously so, his hand clenching around his glass of water. “Fuck you.”

 

“No thanks,” she retorts and by now, Shuri has had enough.

 

“What you must realize, Natasha,” she grinds out, her shoulders back and her head high. “Is that I am not you, not even when you were 19. I am a princess in the most protected, most advanced, and most fierce country on this earth. That isn’t implicit bias; those are simply facts. If you are truly worried about my safety and well being-and let’s be clear, you really are not-then you would understand that under no circumstances am I in any danger by pursuing any sort of romantic relationship with Sergeant Barnes. He is a guest in my country, he is a ward of my family. He is under my control, my rule, and my power. Whatever I want him to do, he must do if I command it. Do you understand that? I am next in line to become queen, Natasha. Bucky Barnes is of no threat to me.”

 

Natasha is deathly silent after this, though her eyes glance between Sam and Steve as if she needs back up.

 

“You’re not going to say anything to explain yourself?” She finally asks, looking at Bucky once more. He shakes his head, nonchalantly, and slides his fingers between Shuri’s, grasping them tight.

 

“Ain’t shit to say. She’s said it all.”

 

“Hiding behind a girl, then.” She sniffs disdainfully and finishes her tea, moves to get up, but a small hand on her forearm stops her.

 

“I don’t want this to damage any friendship you have with him,” Shuri says, and she means that. “I only want you to understand that I’m not in the same position you were. And perhaps you should revisit that memory again. Perhaps you should be a bit more honest about why our relationship truly upsets you.”

 

Natasha doesn’t respond, but she doesn’t shake off Shuri’s hand either. Instead, she holds her gaze and then nods one time, sitting back in the chair with a soft, resigned sigh.

 

Underneath her palm, Shuri can feel Bucky’s hand tremble.

 


 

Sam leaves her with a hug and a promise to call on his new phone. He gives Bucky a hug as well, and lets him know that if things get rough, he’s got a guest room waiting for him if he needs it. “And if you sneak Shuri out, I’ll do what I can to hide the both of you, but I’m not fighting T’Challa. Not in that suit. That’s all on you.”

 

Steve leaves with a furrowed brow but a hug as well for the both of them, reiterating Sam’s offer of sanctuary if they need it. “There’s a few strings I can pull if need be...just let me know, okay? Take care of yourself.” His smile is gentle but worried and Shuri knows that the Captain has come around on their side now. He might always be a bit skeptical about the relationship, but he cares for them both. He only wants their happiness.

 

Natasha doesn’t leave either with anything, except a stiff goodbye and a thanks for breakfast. She boards the quinjet without a word to Bucky, who slumps visibly once the craft ascends into the sky.

 

“She’s never going to forgive me,” he says quietly.

 

“She will. Eventually. She’s got her own issues to work on.” Shuri turns to him and holds out her hand, grasping it once more to comfort him and to stave off her own impending headache. The sooner they get out the city and to the quiet of that cabin, the better.

 

They leave shortly after, kissing her mother goodbye and promising to text if they need anything. She grabs her duffle, a few extras for the road, and load up the car to make the thirty minute trip out to the homestead. It’s a quiet drive; Bucky’s got so much on his mind and so does she and neither of them know how to talk about it without it being awkward. How does one breach the subject of something as insidious as veiled racism and jealousy from a friend?

 

Instead, they simply hold hands as he drives and play the radio. It is, in some ways, a relief to not have to say a word and to know what the other is feeling. And she does, from how tightly wound his body is all the way to the stiff pout of his lips. She wants to kiss it all away, and make it all better and hide with him out in the woods forever and a day. The real world has come crashing in on their little fairy tale, and it’s not been pretty.

 

The cabin is just as he’d left it, though weed poke up between some of the unharvested vegetables and the grass beside the cabin is higher. They unpack and he strips out of his clothes and silently, he gets to work, mowing and baling hay, cleaning the pen before they go collect the goats, pulling the weeds that grow between his cassava and okra.

 

“Want any help?” Shuri asks, when she’s put all her clothes up and opened the windows to air out the cabin. He shakes his head, turns to her, and offers her a curt smile. It’s enough to put a bitter taste in her mouth, but she lets it go. There will be time today and tomorrow to address the whole Natasha thing. She’ll let him bring it up when he’s ready.

 

So she goes back inside and cleans up the kitchen, straightens his bedroom, sweeps and changes the sheets. An hour has passed before he comes into the cabin, squinting in the darker light, and flops down on the floor beside her feet.

 

“We’ve got to go get the goats,” he says in an odd voice.

 

“We do.”

 

“You’ll come with me?” he asks. She slides her fingers into his loose, messy hair and affirms that she will.

 

“We can take the car if you want to,” she offers and he nods then, leans his cheek against her knee, and quiets once more.

 

It’s only when she feels the tears on her leg does she know he’s crying. Protective instincts spring into action and she’s on the floor beside him in a heartbeat, searching his face, hands smoothing the tears from his cheeks.

 

“Buck...baby, what’s wrong? Talk to me. Please.”

 

He draws in a shuddering breath, shakes his head, and then the sob comes out his chest and it breaks her heart into tiny, sharp pieces. She’s seen him cry before; in her lab after a session of decommissioning when the memories were too much and the pain was overwhelming, but even then there had been a silent sort of strength to that pain.

 

This was something different.

 

“What am I supposed to do?”

 

She isn’t sure what he’s talking about but she remains quiet, hoping he’ll manage to get whatever out of him. She doesn’t want him to breakdown the way she had the night before.

 

“I find a good thing. I find peace and happiness and hope. I find someone who loves me, who sees me, who knows what I’ve done and who I was and...and everyone...everyone wants me to just...just fuckin’ pretend I don’t love you and I just-”

 

“Bucky…”

 

“I can’t stop loving you, sweet baby,” he says, scrubbing his face and hardening his face, though his eyes are nothing but soft on her. “God knows I would die before I could figure out how to.” He shakes his head. “Sam says I’m codependent. Shit. He's probably right. Steve says I’m dragging you down with me.”

 

“Did he actually say that?” she asks, because she can’t really imagine Steve Rogers being that cruel, not to his best friend. When Bucky shakes his head, she gets her answer and she tsks.

 

“I didn’t figure. But you think he thinks that way?”

 

He nods, his face screwing up as he starts to cry once again. She doesn’t say anything more, just lets him get his frustration out on her knee, his arms coming around to hold her close and she lets him.

 

“And Nat...Jesus…”

 

“We don’t have to talk about that right now,” she tells him, stroking his brow. “We can talk about it tomorrow or the next day or whenever you want. Right now, though...just know that we are alone and you have me and you always will.”

 

“But will I?” Bucky asks, his red rimmed eyes tugging at her heart. “What happens when you grow up and find better and leave me because I’m not what you need after all?”

 

Shuri frowns, grasping his face so he can’t look away from her. “You listen to me, and listen to me well, James. I don’t want anyone but you. I don’t plan on changing my mind. I don’t intend to use you or keep you until I”m tired of you. You might actually have to get rid of me.”

 

He snorts out what sounds like a laugh. At least it’s not a sob again, she thinks, and she sighs a bit.

 

“What if I don’t ever wanna get rid of you?”

 

“Then you won’t,” she says, firmly, assuredly. “Stop thinking about my age and about my so called prospects and stop trying to tell me I don’t know what I want or who I am because I do. I want you. I love you. Do you hear me?”

 

He nods.

 

“Good. Say it aloud.”

 

Bucky rolls his eyes and really does laugh then, watery and weak, but it’s there.

 

“I’m serious!” she says, smiling. “Tell me what I just told you. I need to know that you know it, too.”

 

He pauses, and gets on his knees so that he’s face to face with her, and she opens her knees to invite him closer. He snuggles into her neck, her arms around him, her legs wrapping about him as well. She holds him like this for a long moment, and then, sniffling, he repeats what she’d said.

 

“You love me. You want me. You ain’t changin’ your mind.”

 

“There you go.”

 

The stirring of a soft breeze tosses strands of hair around his face and Shuri just watches him for a while, as he closes his eyes and draws in slow breath after breath and she can’t quite believe how beautiful he his. His pure heart, his kind eyes, his soft lips. She can’t imagine how he could believe that she doesn’t love him as much as she does, because how could she not? How could she not love someone like him, when he loved her so much?

 

Shuri keeps one arm around Bucky and taps her beaded wrists, scrolling about her music playlist until she finds the mix she’d wanted to share before all this ruckus happened. It’s full of music from the 1940’s, songs she knows he probably would have listened to or danced to once upon a time. She hopes, in some odd way, that this will comfort him and so she starts the music, leaning back in the cot as the first notes play.

 

His whole body goes stiff for a long while. It’s not until the song is half done does it slack up enough so that she can pull him around to look at her. His eyes are still closed, his mouth open this time, and he’s crying again. But somehow she knows that these tears are needed, are cleansing and necessary.

 

“Buck?”

 

“Yeah.” The ache in his voice makes her want to cry and she can feel tears of her own prickling at the corners of her eyes.

 

“Do you want me to turn it off?”

 

He shakes his head and grips her tighter. “Nah. Just...just hold me, okay?”

 

So she does. For a long time they sit in the cot of his cabin and play music and he cries, on and off, in a way she imagines he hasn’t in a very, very long time. Maybe never.

 

When the tears have dried enough that he doesn’t shake anymore, he gets up from the floor and pumps out a bucket full of cool water and washes in the basin near the toilet.

 

“I need to shave again.”

 

“I like the beard,” she offers, getting up from the cot and grabbing her car keys. “It suits you.”

 

He smiles a bit at that, as he washes his hands and tugs off his dirty shirt. “Hand me that tunic, sugar?” he asks, and she reaches over to the end of the bed, tosses him a dark green and black tunic made of soft wool. It smells like him and like the earth and all things green and good. She knows he’d hand washed it out in the pond a while back and let the air dry it. And she loves how organic that is, how pure and clean and simple.

 

He dresses then, fixes his hair, and blinks at his reflection in the small mirror. And then he holds out his hand to her for her to take, and she does, gladly.

 

“Let’s go get the babies, then.”

 

He bends down to kiss her forehead, his lips soft and warm and right, and Shuri presses him close for a heartbeat before she slides into the driver’s side and starts the car, pulls away from the cabin, and down the dusty dirt road to the village.

Chapter Text

Picking up the goats takes longer than anticipated only because Kiye wants to chat. So Bucky obliges, sits in her hut and has some of her strong tea and listens to the gossip of the village. Seems he’s missed a lot in a week and a few days; one of the village girls is getting married within the month, and Kiye’s youngest boy lost a tooth. He fills them in on the wedding activities and hands her the souvenirs she’d wanted-a few more boxes of fine tea and a beautiful gold and red wrap he’d gotten in the market. The grin on her pretty face more than makes up for how much it’d cost.

 

Shuri is right at home in the quiet village. She sits outside with some of the children and plaits a few of the little girls’ hair, singing along with them to a jaunty nursery rhyme that he’d learned during recovery. It’s a sweet, domestic sight and he can’t stop his mind from wandering to maybes and possible futures of her doing the same with their own brood. But before he can get to far into his daydream, Kiye’s calling him, a knowing look in her kind eyes. He’s never once admitted the love affair to her, but he can’t imagine she doesn’t know. She’s got eyes all around the vicinity.

 

“What does his Majesty have to say about the two of you, Ingcuka?”

 

Bucky laughs, though there isn’t much humor behind it and Kiye presses another cup of tea into his hand and motions for him to sit once more. She takes up the sewing she’d been working on and starts it without even looking, her expert hands weaving the needle in and out and around swiftly.

 

“Let’s just say it wasn’t a pretty sight when he caught us.”

 

She groans and clicks her tongue, shaking her head. “Oy. You let him catch you? Silly boy.”

 

Bucky smiles again, this one more genuine. He’s pretty sure he’s got a solid 60 years at least on Kiye but to her, he’ll always be a boy. He won’t argue. It’s comforting to have her consider him another surrogate son.

 

“I slipped up. Night of the wedding, I spent in the princess’ room-”

 

Bast alive, I’m surprised you aren’t dead!” She narrows her gaze at him, hands working the material all the while. He’ll never understand how she can do that so fast. “Or at least missing a few parts. No, he must have been in such a good mood from his wedding night that he let you have your life and your manhood.”

 

Bucky snorts and nearly spills his tea. “I can’t say I wasn’t worried about that,” he confesses, crossing his legs almost instinctively. “I was damn near naked when he came in the room.”

 

“And the princess?”

 

“A robe.”

 

“She have those marks on her neck then?” Kiye wiggles her brows and when he blushes, she laughs heartily. “Ayy, you are reckless over that girl, Ingcuka. But who could blame you? A man in love is a careless thing.”

 

“You don’t think it’s a bad thing, then?”

 

Kiye frowns. “Love is love. Why would love ever be bad, aye? Oh, don’t get me wrong. It will not be easy.”

 

“It hasn’t been.” She smiles sympathetically.

 

“It will feel as though it is you and the princess against the world, my boy. But if she is worth it to you-and I know that she is-then it will all be alright.” She pats his hand and stops mid stitch to sip a bit of her own tea. “I’ve been known. And I haven’t said a word. Isn’t my place. I just hope that the two of you prosper. Grow. Love and live and be fruitful. You would make such beautiful babies, yeah?”

 

Bucky smiles and clasps her hand in his, squeezing gently. “Thank you. I’ll name our first daughter after you,” he says with a grin and she laughs loudly and brightly, turning her sewing around to begin the other side.

 

“And I’ll dance at your wedding,” she comments. They fall quiet and for a few long moments, he was left with his thoughts, his tea, and the soft singing of the children outside.

 

It was near dark when he and Shuri finally left, baby goats at their heels and Isinye in his arms. She was heavy with the new baby, and a little sluggish, though Kiye insisted that was normal. He kept her in his lap the whole ride back to the cabin, napping but listless, though the kids hopped about in the back seat as though they were on an amusement park ride.

 

“She’ll be fine,” Shuri tries to assure him. “She’s got another month left and probably just needs more rest.”

 

Bucky sighs, rubbing his hand soothingly over Isinye’s stretched belly. She was bigger than usual; he wondered if perhaps she was actually carrying triplets instead of the usual twins which would explain the fatigue. But something didn’t quite feel right and he couldn’t put his finger on it. Instead of dwelling on that feeling, though, he left it alone best he could and settled his mama goat in a bed of fresh hay, making sure she was wrapped up comfortably as possible. She nudged his hand when he turned to leave and he spent a few minutes just stroking her fur, a way of comforting her if he could.

 

“You’ll be fine, won’t you sweet girl?” he says in a soft voice. “Hm? You gotta be okay for me.” Isinye lets out a soft bleat, almost as if assuring him that yes, she’d be okay, but could she get another nap in? Her eyes droop then, and she snuggles further into the hay, sleeping as peacefully as Bucky could imagine a heavily pregnant goat could.

 

“What’s for dinner?” Shuri asks, when he comes back to the cabin to wash up. She’s posted on the cot in only a tunic of his with her hair down and he can’t help but think of how beautiful she is like that. It makes him smile in spite of his worries.

 

“Kiye sent us back with a bowl of stew,” he says, lighting his stove and setting the heavy pot on top to warm the food up. “Unless you want fish.”  At the wrinkle of her nose he laughs, and slides into bed beside her to sit a spell. She cuddles up under his arm and presses kisses to his neck and jawline, prompting a soft, content sigh from him.

 

“Tell me a story, Buck,” she says, yawning as she does.

 

“Are you gonna be awake to eat? You always fall asleep when I get to talkin’.”

 

Shuri giggles and nods, though she yawns once more and her eyes droop a bit. “I’ll be fine, I promise. I’m not that sleepy.”

 

Bucky’s sceptical, but he doesn’t argue. He knows she’s tired; he wouldn’t begrudge her one bit if she fell asleep before she got any stew in her. But he thinks of how she’d passed out the day before-lack of rest and food a combining factor-and so he puts off on the storytelling until she’s at least gotten something in her belly.

 

When the stew is warm and the bowls are fixed, she settles back in his bed and eats as he talks, stories of his time in the military during the war, stories of his childhood in Brooklyn with Steve. He leaves out the gritty details, the horrors and the nightmares, the blood and the gore. He doesn’t want to shelter her, no, but he’d rather not relive all that misery if he can help it. And there’s something to say for how much fun he and Steve had had regardless of how bleak life had been. There’s the comradery he’d felt with the Howling Commandos and their little inside jokes and pranks when things weren’t being fired at them or they weren’t in danger of dying.

 

She listens quietly, rapturously like she always does, and before long she’s done with the stew and curled up in the cot, her head in his lap as his voice drops lower and quieter, the cadence a sing song of memories and reminiscing. He’s not surprised to find that she’s fallen asleep, her hands wrapped around his thigh and her breathing steady and even. He takes a moment just to memorize her like this, at her most peaceful, before he slowly peels her arms away and tucks her into the pillows, covering her with the warm blankets he’d pulled out of storage earlier. It may have been warm that day but it was going to be a cool night.

 

He cleans up quickly, setting the empty bowls in his sink for washing in the morning and checking the stove to make sure it wasn’t burning. He swept a bit, straightened the tiny kitchen area, changed out of his clothes and into something more comfortable, then slipped into bed beside Shuri as softly as he could so as not to wake her. She rolled over when he lay down, eyes fluttering open for just a second, and then she sighed, wrapping her arm around his chest and pulling him close.

 

“Night, m’love,” she murmurs, her cheek resting comfortably on his breast and he smiled, leaning down to press a kiss to her forehead. If only they could have this forever, he thinks, as he pulls the covers tight around them. If only.

 

“Night, sugar. Sleep tight.”

 

And then he closes his eyes, clears his mind, and tries to get some sleep.

 


 

He doesn’t know how long he’s been out when he’s abruptly awoken, but all he can tell is that it’s still dark and the moon is still high. It can’t be any later than about 1 am he figures, and he isn’t sure what even woke him at first. It’s quiet out and Shuri is still sleeping peacefully beside him, so there were no nightmares on her end. He can’t remember having one himself, though he’s sure there’s been times when he’d awoken at the tail end of one, no recollection of the actual dream that had interrupted his slumber.

 

But the tension in his body is palpable and he can’t get his mind relaxed again enough to fall asleep so he disengages from Shuri and rolls out of bed, popping his neck and wiggling his feet on the cool floor. It had gotten chilly quickly; he shivers and fumbles around the darkened room for a wrap and his slippers. It’s while he’s digging around for the left foot does he hear the bleating.

 

His heart stops for a second and he can’t move, not until he hears it again, not until he’s sure. Long seconds pass and then once more, the sound of the goat in distress and he’s shuffling out the door, one slipper on and the other in his hand, to the pens.

 

Bini greets him first, her little legs hopping in panicked excitement. Something’s wrong with her mama, he knows she can tell, and she’s the source of the noise, her little cries almost deafening the closer he comes to her. “What’s goin’ on baby girl?” he asks, eyes searching the dark frantically for any sign of Isinye, but he can’t see. He curses under his breath and fumbles about for the lantern attached to the wooden post. If he can manage to get his shaking hands under control, maybe he can light the damned thing and actually see what he’s doing.

 

It takes longer than he wants, but he manages. In the time it takes to get the lantern lit, Thathu comes to join his sister, his own bleats just as shrill, and Bucky knows something really is wrong. Thathu was nothing if not the calmest goat he’d ever come across, almost never in any kind of hurry, never one to make much of a scene. His heart sinks, too, when the light sweeps across the pen and he sees the trail of blood. Isinye’s not where he’d left her hours before, no doubt somewhere further inside the pen to keep out of her kids’ way.

 

“Ye Ye!” he calls, loud enough so that maybe she’ll respond if she can. He hopes to god he isn’t too late. If he can only get her out the pen and into the car and down to Kiye’s…

 

He listens, hard, for a very very long minute until he hears a faint, pained bleat and he nearly collapses in relief. She’s alive, maybe only barely, but alive, and that’s a lot better than he’d thought she’d be. He hops the fencing and crouches down in the hay, digging around until his hands come in contact with the shivering, shaking mama goat. His poor little mama...she’s wide eyed and barely moving, her breaths coming out in big heaving gasps. And as he looks down to her belly, there’s a tumult there, along with blood and fluid and hay stuck to her skin and he swallows hard, his stomach churning.

 

The baby is coming.

 

“Oh no, no no no, please, not yet,” he moans, under his breath as his hands desperately clutch at the shaking goat. “It's too soon! C’mon, Ye Ye, hang in there for me.” He glances around for something to wrap her in, finds a blanket on the opposite fence, and darts over to grab it. But when he tries to move her, she squeals, pain and panic all over her little face and he almost cries.

 

He’ll have to go get Kiye instead of taking her to the village, then. He can’t do this himself, he can’t.

 

“Buck?” A sleepy, groggy Shuri calls out to him from the darkness close to the house, her footsteps unsure and slow. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Baby’s comin’,” he tells her, and he uses the blanket instead to slide underneath Isinye as best he can without hurting her much.

 

Her eyes widen and she shoots off back around the corner of the house, doors slamming and lights coming on as she shuffles about for something to wear. Within the minute, she’s back, wearing his pants and a pair of her sandals and a wrap haphazardly thrown across her shoulders. “I’m gonna go get Kiye, okay?”

 

He nods because he’s too scared to do much else. And then his heart swells because of this brave young woman and he watches her flip flop off into the darkness with a glimmer of a smile. The car starts in the distance, and he waits.

 

Ten minutes there. Ten minutes back. Knowing Shuri, she’d speed the whole way and cut the time in half but it still feels like an eternity. He does his best to keep Isinye calm; her breathing shallow but still steady and he can feel the thumping of her pulse under his fingertips. There’s no more blood, thank god, but she still bleats ever so often, pitifully and it wrenches at his heart. He’s vaguely aware of his fluid soaked pants, of how sticky his hands are, of the crunch of hay beneath him. But the only thing he can really focus on is getting the kid out safely.

 

A little part of him starts to prepare to lose the baby...though he hopes against all odds that somehow, it will survive too. But his doe is first and foremost in his mind, so he keeps his hands moving along her bulging belly and forces himself to remain calm.

 

He nearly sobs out a cry of relief when the headlights sweep across the pen. A door slams, then another and footsteps come thundering in and then Kiye’s sleepy but worried face is looking down at him and he can’t even speak. She says nothing, only motions for him to move out the way and he does, though he crouches down nearby and keeps his hands on Isinye. He tells himself it’s to keep her grounded, but he knows it’s more for himself.

 

“Baby is coming, yes,” Kiye says after a long moment of inspection. “And fast, too.” She clucks her tongue and then starts giving orders, turning back around to Shuri who hovers in the background.

 

“I need feed bags, clean towels. Lots of warm water, a razor to shave her. This is going to get messy.”

 

Shuri darts off without a word and Bucky focuses on helping to get his doe into a standing position. He’d been present for Bini and Thathu’s birth, though that had been a much easier ordeal. Isinye had done all the work. All Bucky had to do was pull the kids out as they crowned. This, he could tell, was much more dire work.

 

She bleats in protest, but with Kiye’s soft encouragement she gets on all fours and bows her little head so that Bucky can stroke her brow. “I’m here, sweet mama,” he says gently, accepting her little licks and head butts eagerly. If she can do that, then perhaps she’ll be alright after all. “Will she make it?” he asks, as Shuri returns with the supplies.

 

Kiye is silent for a moment and she shrugs. “I do not know. I can only hope.” She sighs and wipes her brow with the back of her hand, then piles towels about her and gets the feed bag ready to accept the mess that’s coming. She starts to shave Insiye’s hind quarters and keeps her voice low and soft so as not to scare her.

 

“I delivered this girl myself...pulled her from her mother when she was born and was almost certain that she wouldn’t survive past the night. She was so tiny, the runt of the three. And yet, she has thrived. She is a fighter, Ingcuka. Don’t give up on her.”

 

“You said ‘baby’, Kiye,” Shuri pipes up, as she settles next to Bucky. She takes his hand in hers, ignoring how sticky and dirty they are, and strokes his knuckles with her thumb. “Is there only one this time?” Kiye nods and leans back on her heels.

 

“From what I can tell, yes. If there’s another...it’s hiding. It won’t be long now. We must be patient and wait.”

 

Wait they do. An hour passes, then another, and another until Shuri gets up to grab them tea and masa to snack on. Bucky can’t eat. He keeps his head level with Insinye and talks to her, nuzzling her snout when she bleats. And then she shudders again, this time violently, though Kiye is behind her in a minute and ready to move.

 

“I see a hoof!”

 

There’s another pained yelp from the doe, and beside him, Bucky can feel Shuri’s breath stop. He scoots over beside Kiye and works with her and together, the two of them begin to tug. It doesn’t take much effort at all and once the baby is free, slimy and slick with uterine fluid and a little blood, Bucky can see why.

 

It’s a wee little thing, almost too tiny to be out the womb. And it’s not breathing. He can feel his chest constrict, his blood turn to ice and he scampers about for towels, something, anything he can use to clean the kid off with. “Kiye...Kiye, it’s not-”

 

“Rub its lungs!” the woman orders, sternly, so that he snaps to it and cradles the tiny little body to his chest, rubbing its chest with his flesh hand as his vibranium one clears the kid’s airways.

 

“C’mon lil’ bit. C’mon. Fight for me, fight!” He blinks back sweat or tears, which one he’s not sure of, and huffs out a breath as he works, willing life into the still baby goat. Somewhere in the haze of his mind, it dawns on him that the baby he holds is a girl, and so he focuses all his energy on encouraging her to breathe.

 

“Breathe, sweet girl, c’mon!”

 

He doesn’t realize it’s a sob in his chest until he feels Shuri’s hands on his arm and he blinks back tears. He can’t let her die. He can’t. He’s responsible for these animals and he can’t let this one die.

 

And by some miracle, the little kid coughs out a breath and her chest starts to heave and she’s breathing. And Bucky cries like a baby, holding her little body to his chest as she warms and draws in life’s air.

 

“Ayyyy look at that! Praise Bast, you did it!” Kiye smiles and wraps an arm about his shoulder and Shuri wipes tears from his face, her hands nasty and messy but he doesn’t care.

 

The kid breathes and Insiye is going to be alright and that’s all that matters.

 

Kiye cleans up, alongside Shuri, while he holds the baby and watches her breathe. She doesn’t open her eyes, not the way that her brother and sister has and Bucky worries that perhaps she can’t see.

 

“Possible she’s a blind one,” Kiye says sadly, but Bucky doesn’t care. So long as she lives, he’ll be fine with a blind goat. She’ll simply have to be spoiled a little more, is all. He lays her next to her mother and waits to see if Isinye will reject her, but the doe nuzzles her baby and licks her clean, scooting the tiny thing underneath her muzzle to keep her warm. The softest of little bleats come from the mama goat as the baby blindly searches for a teat and begins to nurse.

 

“I think she’ll be just fine, Ingcuka,” Kiye mentions, dusting straw from her skirts. “The boys will come over sometime tomorrow to check up on her, if you’d like.”

 

Bucky nods his head profusely and smiles. “I would appreciate it, Kiye. Thank you. So much for everything.”


 

As Shuri drives Kiye back to the village, Bucky mindlessly cleans the pen and piles blanket after blanket into the enclosure to keep all his goats warm. Bini and Thathu are unusually serene, coming close to their mama and laying down beside their new sister. It’s a family effort to keep her safe, he can tell, and the thought of that stirs something inside him that only makes him want to weep again.

 

Satisfied that they’ll at least survive the night, he goes into the cabin, grabs his bucket, and draws water from the pump outside. He needs a bath versus a quick wash. It’s a process to warm everything up, fill the tub, scrub down, and then dump it all but he’s to wired to go back to bed and he needs to relax some if he’s ever going to get any sleep. So he dutifully starts the process, lighting a fire beneath the great big copper pot at the fire pit, and fills his tub as Shuri returns home.

 

“Kiye said to make sure Isinye eats as much as she can,” she says, her hands sliding over his tense shoulders as he bends to haul another put full of water into the tub. She watches him curiously, her own eyes rimmed red from crying in relief at the baby goat’s first intake of breath. “Comes in handy, doesn’t it?”

 

“The serum?” He can feel her gaze on the flex of his muscles, on the sheen of his dirty skin. It turns him on more than he’d like to admit.

 

She smiles, kisses his sweaty shoulder and leans against him after he plops the heavy copper cauldron onto the dirt.

 

“Mmhm. There’s no way you could do that if you weren’t enhanced.”

 

“I could, but I’d have a hernia and a few misaligned discs in my spine.”

 

That makes her chuckle, and he as well, and he swishes his hands around in the tub to check the temperature. It’s good and toasty, perfect to draw all the tension from his muscles, so he starts to strip right there in the open as Shuri watches. He’s not sure where her mind is right now, her face mostly blank, though her eyes are active and observant. He only sees that she’s biting her bottom lip in the way she does when he catches her staring and she doesn’t know.

 

It makes him crack a grin, and he gestures for her to come close as he slides into the water with a grateful grunt. God, that feels good.

 

“Wanna join me?” he asks, and she nods, shuffles off her sandals and his pants, both stained with muck and mud, and then tosses the tunic off as she approaches the tub. For whatever reason, she’s being awfully bashful and he splashes a little bit of the water to get her to react.

 

“Water’s gonna get cold before you get in, sugar.”

 

Shuri narrows her eyes, but says nothing, simply smirks and wipes her feet on the towel he’d thrown down near the tub. She eases into the water and hisses a bit at how hot it is, then settles between his legs, leaning back a little against his chest. He can feel how tense she is, every muscle in her body still clenching as if she’s expecting something to come after her. He starts a slow trail from her hips up her sides and back down, over and over, until she relaxes just a enough that he can start massaging her back.

 

“You don’t have to...to do that, if you’re too tired, I-”

 

“Shhh, sugar. Let me take care of you.”

 

Shuri lets her head fall to the side and he presses a kiss there, just for good measure, humming a bit in his chest when she sighs and turns to accept a kiss on her mouth.

 

“You’re the one...hmmm...that’s all worked up,” she says. “Shouldn’t I be doing this for you?” He shakes his head, and keeps kneading her muscles and sliding his thumbs down her spine.

 

“Nope.”

 

She huffs out a breath but she resigns herself to the pampering, arching her back beautifully. “Whatever...if it makes you happy, you goat-”

 

“Making you happy makes me happy.”

 

Her head lolls against his shoulder and he can tell she’s smiling.

 

“Does it now?”

 

“Mmhm. You ain’t guessed?”

 

She laughs lightly at that and moans when he hits a spot along her shoulder blades. “Right there, Buck...yes, that’s...fuck…”

 

He increases the pressure of his fingers and lets his mouth work on her neck and shoulders, taking her from taut and tensed to nearly boneless. Her arms come up to cradle his head and she turns hers to catch his mouth, kissing him slow and deep, her bottom pushing back against him. He slides one hand down her belly and to her core, happy to find her slick between her thighs and ready for him already. Shuri pushes her hips into his hand, whining a little as his fingers circle her clit slowly. She wants more, and he’ll damned sure give it to her if she needs it.

 

“Don’t start something you can’t finish, Buck,” she breathes into his mouth, and he grins, pushing her legs open wider with his knees.

 

“That’s kinda my intention, sugar.”

 

“Out here in the open?” She tsks, or at least attempts to, but it comes off as a hiss when he slips two fingers inside her and starts to stroke, slow and deep. “Oh fuck…

 

“Out here in the open. Under the sky. Nobody but god can see us, sweet baby. Nobody can hear us.”

 

The moan she gives lets him know she’s more than on board now, but he wants to hear it out her mouth. “You okay with that? Want me to fuck you in this tub? Under the moonlight?”

 

She nods her head sloppily and moans out a soft yes. “Please.”

 

He obliges then, lifting her up easily with his hands on her little waist and settling her on his lap, until he can slide his cock between her slick lips and across her aching clit. She grips the sides of the tub like her life depends on it and reaches down to maneuver him to her entrance, wiggling a bit so that he can push forward. But he hasn’t gotten far into her heat before she jerks up and winces.

 

“Wait, wait!” she pants, and he stills himself, pulls her away.

 

“What’s wrong? Did I hurt you?” That was the last thing he’d wanted to do, and he slides his fingers down to soothe her.

 

“No, not...not really. I just don’t think I can do this in the tub. I’m not wet enough.”

 

“Oh.” Makes sense. Sex in water wasn’t really that fun all things considered, especially for someone as small as Shuri. All the essential lubricant got washed away. He kisses her neck and settles for letting her rest on his thighs, stroking her skin slowly and sensually.

 

“I can wait, then. Get your bath.”

 

Shuri grunts, and turns about in the tub, splashing water all over the sides. “I don’t wanna wait, Bucky. Get me out this tub.”

 

He gives her a look but then laughs, sliding his feet up and standing up in the wooden tub. “Fine. Whatever missy wants, she gets. Goddamn, you are a spoiled little somethin’.”

 

“You love it.”

 

He pulls her close to him in the cool fall early morning air. “Damn right I do.” He glances around then and looks for a good spot to lay her down. “Tub’s outta the question. Where do you wanna…”

 

“Can we do it by the pond? In the grass maybe? I’ll grab a wrap or something.”

 

So he lets her run into the cabin and get a few blankets, some lubricant just in case, and grabs her hand as they run down to the pond, butt naked and laughing. No sooner does he get to the edge of it, deep in soft, high grass does she spread out her blankets and then tug him down on top of her. He wraps her in his arms and kisses her slowly, taking his sweet time. They’ve got nothing to do in the morning and no hurry so he relearns every inch of her body with his mouth and his hands.

 

He rediscovers just how sensitive her nipples are, when his tongue laves over the little dark peaks and then sucks, hard, so that she bucks her hips up and moans his name. He finds out how ticklish she is when he scrapes his fingers along her torso and sides, and he catches a spot under her ribs that sends her into a fit of giggles and wiggling. He remembers just how sweet she is when he nibbles down her body and slides his tongue inside her and makes her toes curl, her breath leave her chest, her body arch from the blankets. She likes to tug at his long hair, he knows, so he pulls her hands down to tangle in his strands and lets her dictate how fast he goes, how hard he licks. She’s so beautiful when she tenses and then crashes, screaming out into the darkness of the early morning and shuddering with her release.

 

He finds she wants to rediscover him as well, because she pushes him over and straddles him, slides those little hands all along his body and uses her teeth on his bare flesh. He doesn’t have to tell her that the feel of her tongue on his collarbone makes him shiver because she finds out for herself. He doesn’t have to ask her to scrape her nails along the sensitive skin of his thighs because she does of her own accord, her mouth coming down to take him in and he groans freely and inhibited, moving her braids out of her way and over her slim shoulders so he can watch her beautiful eyes in the dark as she pleasures him with her tongue. She takes him deep as she can, not caring one iota that saliva pools out her mouth and down his cock, or that the noises she makes when she pulls back to suck in a breath are indecent and absolutely erotic. And he pushes his hips up to meet the stroke of her hand as she sucks him off, hard and messy and perfect and he cums so hard, he can’t get a word out, can only grip the ground beneath him and shout to the heavens.

 

It’s minutes before he comes down. She lies beside him and he can hear the slick of her fingers as she spreads her long legs and slides them along her clit, little whimpers of his name as she pleasures herself.

 

“Want me to help, sugar?” he asks, and she nods wordlessly, grasping his hand so that he can push two, then three, long fingers inside her and curl them up just right as she strokes herself faster and harder and she leans into his shoulder, bites down as her body shakes. He fucks her with his fingers, hard enough to hurt just a little bit, so that she can’t stop cumming then, her eyes screwed shut as she climaxes a second, a third, a fourth time.

 

But he wants more. He wants to dive deep inside her and meld his whole body to hers and become one with her, so tightly wound together that he can’t remember where he ends and she begins. So he pulls her close to him, slicks himself with the lube he’d brought along, and wraps her legs tight around him. She reaches down with shaking hands and slides his cock through her wetness again, over and over until she damn near cums just from the contact, but he’s on fire and he needs to feel her around him. He catches her eye, grasps her chin so that she looks at him and asks for permission.

 

“Can I make love to you, sweet baby? Please?”

 

“Yes,” she breathes, pulling him down to devour his mouth and he pushes inside, slowly, stretching her, filling her, becoming apart of her and she stills for a moment the way she always does when they join. It never gets old, it never fails to amaze him just how wonderful this is, how intimate and beautiful and perfect.

 

It’s spiritual, in ways he had never known sex could be. But perhaps it’s because it’s so much more, so, so much more.

 

After a moment just to feel her, he starts to move. He doesn’t want to rush, so he pushes in slow and deep, pulls back, pushes back in, angles his hips and grinds against her clit. Slow, steady, deliberate and powerful, so that she knows without any doubt who she belongs to. Or, better yet, he thinks, hazy and dizzy and oh so alive, who he belongs to. He is hers as much as she is his and this...this is how they know.

 

Her arms wrap about him, her nails dig into his back, and she meets his eyes, mouth opened and braids splayed out around her. He moves just a little faster and she meets his thrusts, matches his rhythm until they are one machine, pushing back and forth against the other, little cries and sharp moans and silent pulses of pleasure passing back and forth inside her and around him. The climb is magnificent, how her body loses its control and spirals the closer she gets. But the precipice, that very pinnacle of absolute bliss, is where she’s her most beautiful so he pushes a little harder, a little faster, until she draws her knees to her chest and takes him as deep as she can and clings to him desperately.

 

And for a few incredible moments, he doesn’t know how to tell them apart, no matter the differences of her flesh against his. They are only one person in a heartbeat, as his hands come up to grasp her throat, and she begs him to push her to the limit. Just a little pressure, he thinks, just a little bit. He would never harm his sweet baby, never ever ever, but what she wants is what he gives and all he’s made for so when she needs that thrill, he gives it to her, controlled and steady, staving off his own pleasure so that hers spirals and rises and bursts into bloom, blood red and vibrant purple.

 

“Bucky!” she gasps, eyes heavenward, the stars reflecting in them, and he keeps pushing, until her moans turn to screams, hoarse and breathless, and her whole body wraps around him to keep him inside her, to keep him moving and shifting and-

 

“Fuck!” she manages to get out, tears in her eyes and down her cheeks and there’s a sob in her throat as she starts to cum, hard and fast and furious. He rides through it, keeps going, watches her face rapturously, and groans when her eyes cross and she stills, an orgasm so intense pulsing through every cell in her body that she stops breathing and draws blood from his skin.

 

“That’s it, Shuri,” he purrs, caging her in his arms and whispering in her ear. “That’s it, baby, cum for Bucky. Cum for me.” And only me, he thinks, but he doesn’t have to say it. He knows she knows it.

 

Afterward, when he slows his hips and her body goes slack, he rolls her over and lays her on his chest. He takes a moment to kiss her face, her neck, her shoulders, her arms and fingers-anything he can reach. She struggles to catch her breath, eyes blinking in the waning moon. It will be sunrise soon. He wants to make love to her in the dawn, as dew settles around them and the world begins to rise. So he ignores how badly he wants to cum, and slides his hands up and down her back, a tremble still in the arch of her spine and lets her find her second wind.

 

“You’re still hard,” she whispers, her brow raised in disbelief and he grins.

 

“Serum’s good for more than haulin’ water.”

 

“Fuck me,” she groans, and he pushes his hips up once more, his cock slipping against her, begging entrance again.

 

“That’s kind of what I’m aimin’ for, sugar. Want me to make you feel good again? Hm?”

 

He plasters kisses all over her neck and nibbles on her bottom lip and sucks her tongue into his mouth, his hands stroking her skin and exploring body.

 

“Ye-yesss, yes!” she gasps, when he pulls her up so he can slip a nipple into his mouth. Shuri settles her knees on either side of him and reaches down hurridly, lining him up just so and sinking back and down on his cock slowly. “Oh fuck, that feels…” She screws up her face and shakes her head and from the way her body shudders he thinks she’s already close to cumming just from that. The thought turns him on immensely.

 

“Feels good, don’t it?” he finishes for her, and he pulls back as his hands wrap about her slim waist, holds her steady. Shuri sits helplessly atop him at first, her head back, eyes closed, her mouth slack, until he pushes up with purpose and the noise from her throat is unlike anything he’s heard. But god, does that sound so good. He has to make her do it again. He has to.

 

So he picks up his pace and holds her arms behind her, playing her body like an instrument. She struggles to find her bearings at first, but with a vengeance, she starts to move, meeting him with every shift of his hips. Brown eyes bore down into his, a grin on her face as they gallop toward ecstasy once more and she lets every exclamation, every sound, every sigh and moan and screech fall from her mouth unabashedly. There’s no being shy, not when he’s pushing her to another high peak and he’s so deep inside her she can still taste him down her throat.

 

“Don’t...don’t stop,” she moans, when she’s close once more and he lets her arms go so that she can lean down and pull his mouth back to her breast. Fingers grip his hair as he bites and sucks, thighs pushing her back and forth along his cock, until the pleasure inside her winds up so high that she pulls away and lifts herself up and down, hard and fast, chasing that high like a fiend. So he digs his heels into the blankets beneath and angles up, holding her hips steady as she keens, his name tumbling from her mouth almost intelligibly and she cums once more. But for Bucky, it isn’t enough to watch now. He wants to join her so badly he aches and so he holds her body tight to his as he takes his own pleasure, his breath hot on her ear and his grunts and groans growing as he starts to cum.

 

“Such a good...such...hmmm, such a good boy,” Shuri breathes into his ear, laughing when he gives a shrill cry, eyes slipping shut. He isn’t cognizant of much else but how she feels and smells and tastes, the grip of her around his cock, the sweat slick of her soft body on his chest. There’s the barest hint of pain when she bites down on his neck and he thinks he’ll cum then, almost, just a little harder, a little faster.

 

“Cum for me, Bucky, come on...my baby, my White Wolf.”

 

And that’s when he tips over head first into flame and fury and he can’t even breathe, can only keep chasing the heat of her, as she milks every drop from his body and wrings him dry.

 

He doesn’t remember collapsing back onto the pallet. He’s only aware that they’re even outside under the heavens when he opens his eyes and looks up, sees the beauty of the near dawn sky. It’s so quiet all of a sudden, the only sound the lapping of the water in the pond and Shuri’s shallow breaths.

 

“Are you okay?” she asks, poking her head up and scratching his bearded jaw. He says nothing, only turns his head and catches her in a kiss, smiling when she laughs against his face. There’s no stress, no worries, no pain, nothing but the thrill of being close to her, of holding her, of being in love. He can feel his heart start to slow to near normal and he drags in breath after cleansing breath until his whole body is slack and warm.

 

“I’m good,” he finally says, and he means it. “I’m better than good.”

 

“Hmmm,” she purrs, then squeaks a little when her reaches over to tug her back over his body. He wants her over his heart, so she can hear just how it beats for her. “Sleepy, I’m guessing.”

 

“Uh huh. A little bit.”

 

She gives a slight chuckle that dissolves into a yawn, and then she burrows into his chest and stretches out over his torso, legs splayed haphazardly about and braids draped across his shoulder. She’s right where she needs to be, in his arms on his homestead in the quiet and beauty of the country. This is perfect. This is home.

 


 

When they wake, it’s nearly noon and the sun is high in the sky. He stretches out among the blankets of their makeshift bed and watches the water lap at the edge of the pond for a long time. And then he remembers he’s got goats to see about and his stomach rumbles, so he nudges his love, who still dozes on his chest, and tries to rouse her. It’s no easy feat; she’s deep in sleep and so peaceful, so instead, he slips free of her embrace and bundles her in the covers, ties a wrap about his waist, and walks back to the cabin to dress.

 

Isinye is awake, and perfectly healthy it seems, if not a bit tired. He lavishes her with love and affection, gives her extra hay and spends a few moments checking out the kid she keeps snug under her neck. The little baby still breathes, eyes tight and white fur so fine it’s near transparent, and that’s all he needs to know. He leaves them be and takes Bini and Thathu with him to give his doe a break. “You two stick with me for today, okay? Give your mama a little rest. She’s been through a lot.”

 

They seem to understand him to some degree, their little legs carrying them over the grass and dirt of his homestead as he empties the tub and puts it in his shed. Bini bleats excitedly and he catches sight of Shuri coming from the pond, barefoot and naked but for the blanket she tugs around her shoulders. He can see snatches of skin and his mouth waters but he reigns it in. There will be time for more of that later.

 

“You sleep okay?” he asks, when she gets close enough to kiss. She smiles sleepily and nods.

 

“Could nap another few hours, but my stomach says otherwise. What’s for breakfast?”

 

“Whatever you want,” he quips, grinning when she wraps her arms about him. “But if you wanna eat, you’re gonna have to cook.” He thinks he sees panic for a moment, but there’s a resolve in her eye that intruiges him.

 

“Not a problem, Sergeant,” she replies, winking as she tugs his ear.

 

Dipping into the cool of the cabin, Shuri washes up at the basin and slips on another one of his tunics, deciding to put on underwear just in case Kiye’s boys come over early to check on Isinye. She digs around his small, packed pantry and pulls out mixes for masa, biscuits, and muffins. An assortment of dried fruit and jerky, several jars of preserves and jams, and nut butters line the shelves. And she looks at them all strangely, then back to him, and smiles sheepishly.

 

“If I told you I can’t cook, would you believe me?”

 

He nods and she scowls and then he’s laughing. “You’re a princess, sweet baby. What do you need to cook for?”

 

She shrugs, waves a half full container of grits about and plops it on the counter. “I don’t. That’s not really the point, though. It’s all science, however, and I’m good at that.”

 

“The best, sugar.”

 

“You flatter me, love.” But she’s smiling and she stands up with determination, dusts her hands on his tunic, and asks for a pot. “How hard could grits be, anyway?”

 

Not too hard, apparently. Fifteen minutes later, he’s lounging on his cot, watching as as Shuri putters around the little kitchen area and makes breakfast. All she’d decided she could handle were the grits, leaving him to do the puff puff or biscuits, whichever he wanted. He decides on the former and greases up a skillet, cranks out a couple, and covers them with a clean towel to keep them warm.

 

“You ever hear of Doja Cat?” Bucky asks. She’s got his phone kimoyoed to the portable speaker and he scrolls around one of his many playlists. Out the corner of his eye, he watches in case she needs assistance, but he’s sure she’ll be fine.  She couldn’t really mess up grits.

 

“I have. I think? Name sounds familiar...she’s American, yeah?” She’s squinting in the bright morning sun that comes through his window, and Bucky nearly chuckles at the thought that something as simple as pouring water into grits and boiling them is requiring this much work. To think, the simple act of cooking stumping his genius princess. He wonders if she can even work a microwave, but decides to not ask, lest he get a pot chunked at his head.

 

“It’s what the internet says. She uh, apparently has South African roots. That’s who I’m playin’, by the way.”  

 

“Explains why I like that song you’ve been playing.” She turns around and smiles at him, indulgently even, and he knows she’s probably sick of hearing “Candy” on repeat. But something about the song has stuck with him, and he can’t get it out his head, so it’s been playing over and over. By now, he knows all the words, though he won’t sing along with them in front of Shuri. She’d tease him about it for the rest of his days.

 

“Look, sugar, if you want me to play somethin’ else, just say,” he quips, scrolling around on the phone to find another song she might like. “If you don’t speak up, I’m just gonna play what I want.”

 

“Play what you want, just change the damn song,” she says with a laugh. “You can even play another song by her if you wanna.” She lets out a little ‘yes’ in triumph as the grits begin to bubble and boil on top the wood stove.

 

“How long do I leave these here?”

 

“Bout ten minutes, give or take. Just watch ‘em. You can’t go runnin’ off outside while cookin’ grits.” She nods and flops back down on the cot, leaning over toward the haphazardly tossed pillows and stretching out in the sheets. “Can’t go back to sleep either, darlin’,” he murmurs, as he leans down and starts a trail of kisses along her neck and shoulders. She hums happily and tugs him down to lay with her.

 

“I’m not. Promise. Just don’t wanna do anything right now.”

 

He couldn’t blame her. The night before had been excitement enough. She turns around in his arms and strokes her hands along his scruffy beard, silent and watchful until he can’t help but ask her what’s on her mind.

 

“Just wondering about stuff, is all.”

 

“What kinda stuff?”

 

“Baby stuff.”

 

Bucky raises a brow at that. “You don’t mean goat babies either, I’m guessin’.”

 

She grins and shrugs. “Nope. Though that did give me the idea about it.” She stops for a moment and turns her head toward the stove, watching for a long moment to make sure nothing is bubbling over or spilling from the pot. “Just wondered about...you know. If you uh...ever gave thought of…”

 

She buries her face into his chest and lets out a breath, her fingers grasping at the loose strands of his bun.

 

“You gonna finish your thought?”

 

Big brown eyes glance up at him and hold his gaze, until she parts her lips to speak and then shuts her mouth on second thought. “I don’t...just don’t worry about it right now. We can talk about it later.”

 

Bucky shakes his head. This is what had prompted the little breakdown earlier, her reluctance to let him in on what’s going on in her head. She holds so much inside that it’s taken a toll on her. And though he hates prodding and pushing her to talk to him, he hates the idea that she’s too proud or scared or anxious to say anything to him for fear of burdening him.

 

But he does the same he knows so he can’t really do much talking on that regard. Takes one to know one, maybe.

 

“Tell me, sugar. You know you can tell me anything.” She can. He decides right then that no matter what she says, he’ll listen without interruptions or judgement.

 

“It’s silly.”

 

“It’s not. It’s on your mind, it ain’t silly.”

 

She sighs again and looks away, sliding her hands from his hair down to his shoulders where her fingers tip tap along the muscle there. It’s like she’s building all her courage to just tell him what she’s thought about in regards to children.

 

And then she thinks perhaps the reason she’s so nervous is because she’s scared to find out if he’ll disagree with her fundamentally on the issue. With another light nudge, he silently prompts her to speak, and she shuts her eyes, bites her bottom lip, and launches right into it.

 

“Do you want to have kids?”

 

He almost tells her that so far, he has three, outside, just to lighten things up and make her laugh but changes his mind when she opens her eyes and looks at him like she’s expecting the worse. So instead, he smiles, and nods and some of the tension in her body melts away.

 

“I do. You?”

 

“Yes.” She says it with no hesitation, the corners of her mouth sliding up into a soft smile. “Always have, honestly. Though not right now, of course.”

 

“Oh, of course.” She’s got so much more living to do before she should even consider a baby. But the future is limitless; she’s only 20 years old so she’s got plenty of time to worry about having any children.

 

“Are you asking me this for a reason?” he prods, and she nods, albeit slowly.

 

“I uh...just...to be honest, we probably should have gotten all this talked about before we started-”

 

“We probably should have talked about a lot of stuff before then,” he says with a little laugh. “But you couldn’t keep your hands offa me, and I couldn’t resist-”

 

“Oh hush,” she says, giggling now. He loves the way her face lights up when she’s happy and relaxed and he can feel how slack her limbs are now. Good. She doesn’t need much more stress, not now.

 

“But yeah, babies? I want babies.” It’s not something he’d really thought of before Shuri. The idea of being a father someday had appealed to him way back when, but it was something he had always thought distantly, sort of a second thought to what he had going on around him at the time. Nowadays, he could almost feel the urge to start a family flare up every time he heard a baby cry or saw toddlers in the market. It was strange and a little painful to want something so badly when he wasn’t even sure if he’d ever have it.

 

But there was a quiet sort of assurance there now, soothing his worries and wants almost instantly. Shuri wanted babies and so did he and lord willing, if she still wanted him within the next however many years, he’d give her as many as she wanted.

 

“Good. So we’re on the same page.” She rolls over and off the cot and skips over to the stove, stirring the grits and adding a little more water. There’s a spring in her step now, when she leans over and grabs the goats milk, adding a bit at a time to make the grits creamy and thick.

 

“How many?” Bucky has a vision of her now, like she is, but with her belly swollen and growing his child and his heart pitter patters at the thought.

 

“As many as I can have,” she answers. “I have no limit in my head just yet, truthfully. Though I’m sure once I have that first, I’ll have a definitive answer. Mama says there’s nothing at all like labor pains.” She wrinkles her nose at that. “Might be the only thing about having babies I am not looking forward to. Mama had a bit of trouble having me, so...”

 

That gives him pause. He knew that advances in childbirth made the likelihood of dying while having a baby rare, and rarer still in Wakanda. But there was always that slight chance. And she was so small, petite and tiny and could her body even support a baby? He’s reminded of how hard Isinye had had it last night and how fragile the little life she carried had been and he’s terrified of the idea that she could very well die giving birth or miscarry or that their child could be a stillborn.

 

“Don’t think about it like that,” she says, making her way back over to the cot after turning the stove down. She cups his face with her small hands and smiles reassuringly. “Nothing bad will happen to me, I’m sure.” He thinks to tell her that nothing about that was a sure thing, but instead he takes in a deep breath and lets it out slowly and clears his thoughts of something so morbid lest he panic.

 

They had years to think about that. Years. He’d be fine, and so would she.

 

When the grits were done, she makes two bowls and piles it with syrup and butter and puff puff, sprinkles a bit of goat cheese on top and hands him a cup of cool water from the pump outside. They eat slowly, chat about what book he’s been reading-an old pulp novel from his childhood-and what to do today.

 

“Nothing,” Shuri insists, and so that’s what they plan to do. Nothing. Instead, he cleans up their dishes when they’re done and checks on Isinye and the new baby again. Both are about the same; Isinye eating and the baby awake, her eyes finally open. They're glassy and cloudy, and he realizes she is, in fact, blind. It tugs at his heart, but he knows he’ll love her no less. She’s a special one, that little kid.

 

And he still needs to name her.

 

“Got any ideas?” he asks Shuri, when she joins him out at the pen. She’s holding Thathu while Bini bounces around her feet, begging for attention. Bucky hauls a bit more hay and straightens the blankets and wraps them around Isinye as she cuddles the kid.

 

“Hmmm.” She squats down in the pen, shifting Thathu so that he’s tucked under the crook of her arm, and reaches out to stroke the super fine fur of the baby’s little head as she settles down for a snooze. “She’s so tiny, Buck.” There’s the same awe in her voice as there was last night when she’d watched the kid being pulled free and cried with Bucky, her hands caked in blood and fluid. “She’s a little miracle, is what she is. Weeks early and nearly didn’t make it and yet...she’ll be alright. I can tell.”

 

He had hope she would. Already, even after coming into the world not breathing and still, she was doing so much better than he had anticipated. He finishes his hauling and pulls Bini into his lap as he sits down beside Shuri’s crouched form and she begins to hum low under her breath, fingers just barely grazing the kid’s little face. It’s so domestic and gentle and beautiful that he can’t help the smile that splits his face.

 

“Ithemba,” she says softly, glancing up at him with a little smile.

 

“Hope?”

 

She nods. “Hope.” And he knew she wasn’t just talking about the goat’s chances of surviving, that she was thinking of the days ahead and years after that. Hope, a fragile unsure thing but one of the most powerful things in the world. Entire lives had been built on nothing but love and hope.

 

“Then that’s what we’ll call her,” he says, using his free arm to pull her close. They watch the goats for a long while after that, perfectly content just to be.

 

It’s the most peaceful that Bucky has felt in a long, long time.

 


 

They harvest the rest of his cassava and beans, pull up a few fish from the pond for lunch, and have it in the hammock beside the water. The weather is still warm, unusually warm for October even in Wakanda. “We used to call ‘em Indian summers,” he told her, and she raised a brow.

 

“Why? India is pretty far away from America.”

 

He snorts at that comment, and shifts a bit to get the hammock to rocking. “Yeah, wrong Indians. I mean, that’s what they were called when I was younger. Not exactly the right word for it now.”

 

“Native Americans.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

She shakes her head and looks at him thoroughly amused, pulls a few oranges from the pockets of his tunic, and starts to peel. “The thirties weren’t very politically correct, were they?”

 

He’s almost scared to answer that question because they really weren’t. And at the time, he’d thought himself so progressive. He’s almost ashamed of how naive he was. But if you don’t know better, you won’t do better, he supposes.

 

“Nah. Not really at all.”

 

“Mama says that in the States, you and I couldn’t have gotten married back then.” He blinks at the word married, but nods.

 

“She’s right. Hell, we couldn’t have even been together back then. At least not in public. Not without a whole lot of hell.” He’s reminded of a pretty little girl from Harlem decades before, tawny skin and big brown eyes and a smile like sugar and he feels something inside him mourn for what could have been had things been different.

 

No...had he not been a coward.

 

“Hell, even being friends with someone of a different skin color put you at risk. Different religion. Different neighborhood. It’s so funny; Stevie and I shouldn't have been best friends cause I was raised protestant and him Irish Catholic but...I don’t know. We didn’t care about all that. It wasn’t enough, though. If nobody knew he was Irish, nobody would blink an eye.”

 

But with Elise? It had mattered, too much for 15 year old James to handle, too much for a 14 year old girl to have to deal with. He wonders what happened to her after she left New York for Philly. He wonders if she married some nice guy and had kids and lived a happy life. He wonders about a lot of things, but not for too long because it would crush him if he did.

 

“You’ll tell me about it, then?” she asks, contemplating the expression that had filtered across his face. “And don’t say that I already know. I do. I just want to hear it from your mouth.” He gathers himself before he nods.

 

“Yeah. If you want.” He glances down at her and sighs. “It won’t be pretty.”

 

“I know that,” she responds. “But I want to know anyway.”

 

So he tells her, a little anyway, of how life back then had been. He tries hard not to omit his own role in perpetuating the ideas of the day-racism and sexism and nationalism and a lot of other things. Toxic sort of ideas that had been embedded in him from childhood but had taken a war to uproot. They were little things, really, he explains, but no less damaging. Stereotypes he’d laughed at, people he hadn’t defended, hate he hadn’t called out or stopped.

 

“I knew guys who had girls on the side, you know. Nobody they’d bring around and out in public, just women they used and got rid of when they got tired.”

 

“They still do that now, though, I’m sure,” Shuri says disdainfully. “Doesn’t matter the day and age. Trash men seem to have always existed.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And Mama told me something else, too.”

 

The way she says this makes his stomach churn anxiously, but he says nothing and allows her to continue. She fiddles with the strings of the blanket they’re wrapped up in and then meets his eyes, sure and steady, and he knows no matter what she says or asks, he won’t lie to her about it. He owes her that.

 

“She told me that men, some of them, like to use us. Have their fun and leave us for something...less controversial.”

 

He thinks he knows what she means. He wishes he didn’t. But ignorance never got him anywhere.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Have you ever known anyone who’s done that?”

 

“Do you mean…”

 

“Black women in particular?” She shrugs. “I suppose so. Yes. What was that like, Bucky? Did it never bother you that we were simply there for amusement and pleasure? A play thing?”

 

It’s not really accusatory, but he feels the sharp mettle of disapproval and the guilt of never haven spoken up. Wasn’t his business, wasn’t his problem. At least he had told himself that, when some of his buddies had snuck around with their black girlfriends and lived it up at the Savoy, then went home at night to their perfect white wives.

 

Winifred's voice comes back to him clear as day, even after nearly a century. Don’t rock the boat, Buck, if it’s not called for.

 

“Didn’t feel good. Didn’t sit right with me. But I never said shit.” He shakes his head, waits for her disgusted scoff, but she says nothing. She simply waits for him to continue. “I uh...had a buddy from school who was married to a banker’s daughter. Brought him up in the world, made him an accountant and took him out the tenements. But he had this...this taste for what he wasn’t supposed to have. He took a shine to a singer from one of the clubs and spent his nights with her, his days with his wife. And then the girl, she got pregnant and he couldn’t…”

 

He swallows, a bitter taste in his mouth at how he’d watched all this happen, silent and distant. Billy Porter had never been his favorite person, but he wasn’t his least favorite so no need to act a stranger. At least, that’s what he told himself over and over when the feelings gnawed at him and he tried justifying why this wasn’t a problem. Just the way things were, he could say. Just how the world worked back then.

 

But that didn’t make it right then any more than it would had it happened today, and he knew it. He’d known it. And still, he’d turned his head.

 

"He left her with twenty bucks and moved to Connecticut with the wife and she never heard a hair of him again. At least, I don’t guess she did. I don’t remember what became of her...I wish I knew. I wish I had...I don’t know. What could I have done? Said something, yeah, maybe. I could have done something.”

 

He brushes his hair from his brow and he’s silent for a long time after that, thinking of choices in his life he regretted and wished he could do over. Elise, Billy, all the times the boys tossed slurs at Gabe and Jim...wasted opportunities to do the right thing. He wonders when all this changed, though. He wonders when he woke up and realized that he had to be change to be right.

 

“Buck.”

 

He looks down into Shuri’s curious face and sees no trace of animosity or disappointment. Just thoughtfulness, as if she’d known this all along. And he realizes, in retrospect, that she probably did.

 

“You wouldn’t do that to me.”

 

It’s not even a question. He’s astounded by her faith in him and he swallows the lump in her throat. He doesn't deserve her. He doesn't deserve that kind of faith.

 

“No. Never. Never ever, sugar.”

 

“Then you’ve grown up and learned your lesson.” She turns around then in the hammock and lies back in the crook of his arm, slips an orange slice in her mouth, and begins to hum a soft, sweet song. It’s something he hasn’t heard in so long he’d forgotten it existed.

  

I've got the world on a string

Sitting on a rainbow

Got the string around my finger

What a world, what a life, I'm in love

 

“How’d you-” Elise's song. The pang in his chest strikes again and he blinks in an attempt to brush it aside. 

 

She smiles, something wistful and bittersweet and he wonders how his memories have affected her. He’s never asked. Perhaps he should.

 

“I spent some of the time while you slept listening to songs that you had in your memory banks. I wanted to explore ways of therapy that revolved around familiarity, and some of the best ways of doing this involve music. Smell, touch, taste...all those things, but sound and music especially can trigger memories like no other.”

 

“Ole Cab, huh.”

 

“Mmhm.” She peels another orange and offers him half and he accepts, wonders, thinks about the brilliant and sly and savvy woman in his arms and he almost laughs. He’ll never get away with hiding a thing from her. He’s glad he can’t; he doesn’t want to. No secrets between them.

 

“So you’ll tell me about her, then?”

 

Bucky sighs. “Elise?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“...yeah. When I…”

 

Shuri turns around to glance at him and her face is soft with understanding. “One day, love. Whenever you’re ready.”

 


 

There is an interlude in time, between lunch and when M’Koyo and Dinade come to visit, that Bucky spends with his knees on the soft grass and Shuri’s legs around his neck.

 

Little touches led to little kisses that led to more and more and suddenly he’s kneeling before her, his mouth mapping a trail down one thigh and then up and over to the other.

 

“Stop teasing me,” she grumbles, but he ignores her and traces little patterns in her bare skin, smiling against her flesh when she whines impatiently. It’s not late enough in the day to be rushing him, he thinks, so he takes his sweet time, even though she tugs at his hair and digs her nails into his scalp viciously.

 

“You’re gonna have to learn to wait,” he says with a glance up at her pouting face. “That’s your problem now. I spoil you too damn much.”

 

Shuri pulls the tunic up a little higher so she can watch his face as he dives down and traces her labia with his tongue. She holds her breath the entire time, mouth open, and only sucks in air when he sucks both lips into his mouth and then pulls away with a plop.

 

“You can’t help yourself,” she pants out, as he trails his tongue closer and closer to her clit. He’s everywhere but where she really wants him, he knows, and it makes him grin to know that she really can’t do much about it but squirm and fuss. “You’re addicted to spoiling me.”

 

He pulls back and laughs, but he knows she’s not exactly lying. He lets her have her way because it makes him happy to see her happy, because he loves giving her what she wants even if it’s not much. He can’t give her the world, she already has it. But he can give her what he does have.

 

His tongue is what she wants right now. And truth be told, he really, really, really likes doing this anyway. So maybe he’s getting just as much out of it as she is.

 

Deciding he’s done with the teasing, he slicks two of his fingers with his tongue and opens her up, presses a hand to her belly and makes her lean back in the softly rocking hammock. And then he starts a slow, lazy pattern of circles and curlicues right along her sensitive clit.

 

She leans back a little more and closes her eyes, simply enjoying the sensation of his hot wet mouth on her, until that’s not enough and she needs more. She grunts and pulls his head in closer until his nose nudges her mound and he can’t help grinning at how she moans when he slides his tongue inside her. He thinks to add fingers, then, and she hisses, her feet coming down to find purchase on his shoulders and she pushes her hips up to chase the feeling of being filled.

 

“Buck...I need to cum,” she pants, rocking back and forth to fuck herself on his fingers. She lets out the most indecent moan when he flicks his tongue faster and harder on her clit, his free hand coming up to stroke the bare skin of her belly. The muscles underneath clench and quiver as he increases the power of his tongue’s strokes, the speed of his fingers that curl and push inside her.

 

“Buck,” she whimpers again and he sucks her clit into his mouth until she cries out, head tossed back in rapture.

 

“I heard you the first time, princess,” he teases. “I’ll make you cum, sugar, gimme a second.”

 

He thinks he likes seeing her fall to pieces almost as much as he likes getting her there and besides, the sooner he makes her cum this time the faster he can get around to making her cum again, so he slides one more finger inside her and beams when her body shakes at the penetration. “Fuck, baby girl,” he groans, using his thumb to tease her a bit as he sucks hickies into the insides of her thighs. “You’re so ready for me, aren’t you?”

 

She whines out something that sounds like a yes, pulls his face closer to her once again, and he obeys, applying his tongue once more and this time giving her all he’s got. She starts to unravel in seconds, actively grinding against his mouth until she shouts and goes tight as a bow string, cumming around his fingers and on his lips.

 

“Good, huh?” he asks, leaning his cheek against her still shaking thigh and she flips him off, earning herself a bite on said leg.

 

“You’re a cocky little-”

 

He cuts her off with a kiss and she sighs into his mouth, pulls him up and into the hammock with her, swaying dangerously and close to tipping over. He’s tugging his pants down, sliding between her thighs, and is nearly inside her once again, but he hears the goats bleating and barreling down the dirt path to the pond and he groans.

 

“Fuck. Forgot the kids were comin’.”

 

Shuri giggles. “Which means you aren’t, are you, my love?”

 

At the look on his face, she bursts into peals of high pitched laughter, until tears run down her face and she begins to hiccup.

 

He’d like to say he didn’t find it so funny, but truth is, he really does.

 


 

“You think she’ll mind?” he asks, after the boys have left. Kiye sends over more stew and a big bag of mixed oats for Isinye. It's something to help keep her milk production up and rich for little Ithemba. They send them back to the village with hugs and thanks and walk home to the cabin as the sun begins to set. Shuri leans against the doorway as he warms their dinner, and watches the rich orange and red sky as she fiddles with her kimoyo beads.

 

“She won’t. I’m not sure why I only asked for two days, anyway.”

 

“I could use a month, to be honest,” he admits and she agrees, pulling the wrap around her bare arms tighter.

 

“So could I. But good luck getting that out of T’Challa.” She grimaces at the mention of her brother and accepts the cool cup of water he hands her as he joins her at the door.

 

“You still sore with him, huh?”

 

Shuri snorts. “Sore isn’t exactly the word I’d use, Buck. I’m...mostly just...he’s got my whole life in the balance and it’s like he doesn’t really care.”

 

Bucky frowns and tilts his head down to meet her gaze. She watches as Bini and Thathu tumble over each other, kicking up dust and grass before it’s time to go back to the pen. He wonders where she gets the idea that her brother doesn’t care from, because he’d gotten a very different view of the king during their talk days before.

 

“Yeah, I think you’ve got him read wrong.”

 

She raises a brow and scoffs. “He’s my brother. I know him. He’s pretending like he’s so worried about me when all he really wants is to control me. He’s always been that way.”

 

“Yeah? What about ‘Koye?”

 

Shuri shrugs. “She claims she only wants to keep me safe. Safe...why does everyone want to keep me safe so much? I’m too old for all the coddling.” She blows out another breath and takes a long swig of her water. “Yes, I realize that I’ve been sheltered most of my life from all the ills of this world. I’ve heard it, over and over again.”

 

“But do you really understand?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean...do you really get where everyone’s comin’ from when they say the want to keep you safe? I mean, yeah, you gotta grow up and fuck up and live your own life but...sugar, you are young-”

 

“Oh joy, you’re on the same bullshit as everyone else.”

 

He shakes his head firmly and forces her to look at him. “Nuh uh, I’m not here to argue. Not today, not right now. Just listen.” She stares at him for a long moment, but then relents and gestures for him to continue.

 

“Fine. Sorry, I just...what are you getting at?”

 

She sounds so irritable. Part of him wishes she’d get over it, stop whining so much about things out of her control. The other part, the part that has never lived a life behind thick barriers and borders, who had never had family so devoted that they would keep him from all the pain in the world, feels a little sorry for her. He knows what it's like to not have control over his life, but not like this.

 

'Poor little rich girl' wasn’t something he’d ever really thought applied to Shuri, but maybe, in some ways, it did.

 

“I’m sayin’ this. What your mama told you, what ‘Koye and T’Challa and Nakia and everyone who’s ever stepped foot outside of Wakanda has ever told you is only a scratch on the surface of what the world is like. Especially for a young woman, especially for one like you.” 

 

“Like me?”

 

“Mmhm. Smart, innocent, bright, beautiful. The world is full of hate and pain and every bad thing you can imagine and then some. Some of the things that go in this world would make your stomach turn, sugar. And they happen, everyday, to girls, to women like you. They can’t do shit about it. They don’t have what you do.”

 

She just barely refrains from rolling her eyes, but somehow manages to keep the annoyance to a minimum. “Yes. I know. I know how privileged I am-”

 

“You say that, but do you know?" He huffs and tries another angle. "You ever been hungry? Really hungry?”

 

She almost snorts but there’s something in his face when he says it because she bites off the laugh and presses her lips together.

 

“Not...not for long, no.”

 

“I have. I’ve been so hungry that I couldn’t see straight. Weighed nothing more than a sack of flour, and would have killed for an apple peel. I’ve spent nights trying to decide if I could ration the little shit we did have between myself and three baby siblings. I’ve watched my mama work her fingers to the bone just so we’d eat once every other day, so we would have enough fabric to patch the holes in our old pants.” He sucks in a breath and tries not to let his bitterness pour through in every word he says. It’s not her fault, none of that is. All of that was in the past, long before she’d been conceived, long before her mother had been born even, when her grandfather had been a boy.

 

“Bucky...I’m sorry, I just-”

 

He doesn’t want her to feel bad and he wants to take back everything he’s said because her face is so sad now it makes him ache. But, maybe if she understands, she’ll stop blaming her brother so much for trying to keep her as innocent as he has.

 

“You ain’t have shit to do with the Depression, baby girl, don’t...don’t think of it that way. Just an example is all. You said you were privileged, well, you are. So much, and you don’t really see it cause it’s all you know. But that’s not your fault. And god, if all the people in the world could be so lucky. That’s the thing, though they aren’t. Not even now, all those years later. The world is still shit, the world still eats up and spits out good people and bruises them and punishes them for no reason other than nothing is fair and everything hurts.”

 

She’s contemplative for a very long while after that, until her water is finished and she moves from the doorway to check the stew and refill her glass.

 

“I’m such a brat,” she says with a little laugh, mocking and bitter, and he wraps his arms about her waist and kisses her temple softly.

 

“You are. I love you anyway.”

 

She smiles at that, but barely. “So I shouldn’t be too mad at him, then?”

 

Bucky shakes his head and she sighs, leans back into his embrace and turns the fire of the stove down. “Fine. I’ll...try not to be. I just want to live my life without someone telling me every step, is all. I just…”

 

“I know, sugar. So do I. We gotta just believe it’ll work out for the best. And if all else fails-”

 

“I’ll run away with you,” she says softly, serious and he cups her face in his hand.

 

“And leave all this behind? I wouldn’t let you. I’d find a way. But I wouldn’t make you leave, I wouldn’t...don’t give up what you love for me.”

 

“You are what I love, Bucky,” she says in a small voice, and she  turns then, buries her face into his neck, and kisses him there. “Why can’t I have you too?”

 

He wishes he knew the answer to that, but he doesn’t. So instead, he pulls her into his lap and sits at his cot as she texts her mother for permission to stay one more day. He knows it grates at her that she even has to asks...and yet, it’s a small price to pay to have grown up as loved and well cared for and nurtured as she has.

 

One day, he hopes, she’ll finally understand. One day, maybe everyone else will, as well.

 

“She says so long as we’re back before the honeymooners, she doesn’t mind,” she reports, her mood a little better now that she doesn’t have to leave the cabin in the morning. He smiles and taps for her to get up, ladles her a big bowl of stew, and puts his kettle on to boil. And then he catches a glimpse of frosted dried leaves in the sack of oats for Isinye, peeking out of wrapped cloth with a little note attached. He can’t stop the wheels in his head from spinning, nor can he stop the grin that creeps up on his face.

 

Kiye. She was trouble when she really wanted to be and he loved her for it.

 

“What? Something got you tickled?” Shuri asks, mouth full of stew and he snatches the packet from the sack, sits it on the cot beside her and waits.

 

Shuri raises a brow, but sits her bowl aside and picks up the packet, opening to reveal large bunches of the dried leaves. When she looks up, he can see the pieces falling into place and the confusion on her face melts away to reveal amusement and mischief. He's interested in knowing where this could possibly go.

 

“You ever been high, sugar?”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

bucky x shuri's dank ass smoke sesh mixtape ||spotify


 

“Are you sure you’ll feel anything with this...um...?” Shuri flips the paper attached to the baggie over and reads what Kiye had written once more. Various instructions on how to mix the grains for Isinye, and what to watch for in Ithemba before gifting them with her new experimental strain she called boyo. Shuri hummed and opened the pack of remaining leaves again, inhaling the unique and strong aroma, then turned her eyes to watch him intently as he rolls the first blunt. He’s surprisingly good at this, she thinks and she wonders just how much weed this man had smoked in a previous life to know how to do this so quickly.

 

“With Kiye’s stuff? Fuck yeah. Probably the only thing that can get me high. It’s either that her shit is extra strong or the serum’s wearin’ off.” He looks up at her and grins and she sees the mischief in his eyes. It makes her body warm all over. He’s so sexy when he’s being mischievous. His eyes crinkle and his smile deepens and he’s touchy and feely and just a pleasure to be around.

 

“I seriously doubt the serum’s wearing off,” she comments, because she’s got the bite marks and hickies to prove it. She had a theory that Bucky could go for hours, and probably would if he wasn’t worried about wearing her out. One of these days, she was going to test it out and see just how long he could truly last, all natural, nothing but James Barnes and his own libido.

 

But for right now, she had other things to occupy her time. He finishes with the joint and he fiddles around for a lighter, digging around in the basket by his bed until a small yellow one pops out from under a pack of playing cards.

 

“You know how to do this, right?”

 

“Sort of? I’ve got the gist of it, anyway.” When he’d asked her if she’d ever been high before, she’d admitted that she’d tried out a few experimental strains with D’Wobe once or twice. And there’d been that time in Oakland, one of the very rare instances when he wasn’t breathing down her neck and she didn’t have any Dora trailing her, that she’d dipped behind the community center with Dre and taken a few hits of whatever stuff he’d brought along.

 

None of it was very strong, though, because she’d only really felt a sort of mellowness. She wouldn’t describe it as really high...just relaxed. But she didn’t want Bucky to think she was chicken, either. So she’d embellished the details a bit.

 

She wondered, looking at the remaining frosty leaves beside them on the cot and the joint he was lighting, if she was going to regret not being completely honest. Oh well. What more could happen to her besides a weird trip and maybe a strong urge to sleep? Marijuana was child’s play, really. And though she knew Wakandan marijuana was a little bit danker than most, she still didn’t feel as though she had any reason to be worried.

 

“What do you mean, you’ve got the gist?”

 

He stares at her with a half amused, half exasperated look on his face and she both wants to smack him and kiss him.

 

“Just pass me the damned thing when you’re done.”

 

Rolling his eyes, he takes a drag, a long deep one and holds it, before coughing it out violently. It almost scares her a bit, the way he’s hacking and choking and she nearly laughs when his eyes water. “Here you are asking me if I’ve ever done this before, and you’re over there choking like someone who just took their first toke.”

 

Like she had, actually, that night at D’Wobe’s place in the city, but she doesn’t mention that to him. Instead, she simply pats his back, as if that would help, and offers him a bit of water.

 

Fuck that’s strong,” he says with a wheeze, blinking rapidly against the smoke in the air. Shuri takes a whiff of the air around them and wrinkles up her nose. The smell of whatever is in that joint is pungent as hell and she knows they’re going to be reeking of it come tomorrow. Good thing they’re staying an extra two days; they’re gonna need to wash nearly everything in his cabin.

 

He shakes his head and coughs a few times, before passing her joint. “Be careful,” he warns her. “Only take a small hit. I don’t want you dyin’ on me.”

 

She rolls her eyes and tries to play it cool. “Oh please. I’m no amateur.” And no, she’s not really, but D had used a vaporizer and she was sure that whatever stuff Dre had passed her was weak as hell. She could smell the strength of this one, so she decided to only pretend to take a deep inhale.

 

But somehow, she fucked up and actually sucked in way too deep and it was like all the oxygen in her lungs had been snuffed out. Coughing out the smoke violently, she rocked forward on the cot and struggled to breathe.

 

“What in Bast’s name did Kiye send you?” she asks, her eyes blurred with tears, her heart beating out of tune. It feels like her lungs are incinerating and she wants to cry, but she can scarcely get a breath in. Bucky pushes water into her hands and she gulps down the entire glass without taking another breath, but it doesn’t help much.

 

“Outside, sugar, c’mon.”

 

She expects him to sound annoyed, a little put out that she’d disregarded his warning to slow down and be careful, but instead he sounds worried. She hates that she’s scaring him. But she can’t help how much this burns and she just needs to get a few gulps of fresh air. He helps her off the cot and out to the front of the cabin, where she plops down on one of his barrels, breathing in and out as deep as she can.

 

And after a few minutes, coughing every so often in between, the burning settles down to something less hellfire and more mild acid reflux. She can handle that.

 

“Want another hit?” His smile is cheeky and a little lopsided, and she’d be amused if her chest didn’t still ache. She scoffs and almost swings in his direction, but decides her arms are a little too heavy to do so. When did that happen? It’s like her limbs feel underwater. It’s not at all unpleasant, but…

 

“I think I’m high.”

 

She blinks a few times, rubs her eyes, and coughs once more before staring out at the sunset and for a second, she thinks she can feel the earth shift a little underneath her. But nothing’s happening, when she slides off the barrel and onto the ground, gripping her hands into the dirt and grass there.

 

“Huh. That’s weird.”

 

Bucky snorts out a soft laugh and joins her on the ground, putting the joint to his lips once more and takes another drag. It’s sexy, actually, to watch him do that, so she stares with half hooded eyes and grins when he blows donuts expertly in front of him.

 

“Whatcha grinnin’ about, Shuri?” he asks, knowing damned well what’s got her grinning like that, but she tries her best to play coy, though everything around her is amplified. She wants to laugh, to roll over on the soft grass and kick her legs up in the air and spread her arms out wide, so she does, giggling like a child as she takes another deep gulp of fresh air.

 

Her lungs still burn, but not as much, and the ground isn’t moving but it feels so different. She feels different. She is high. And she likes it.

 

“Buck…” she says, in a sing song voice, her knees wobbling back and forth with her heels planted in the ground. “Come down and snuggle with me.” She wants him to touch her. Her skin feels so sensitive and just brushing her fingers against her throat, her collarbone, makes her body shudder and shake in pleasure. To think...if Bucky touched her like that, what would happen? She needs so very much to find out.

 

He stares at her for a long moment, then back to the joint, and takes another drag, this time executing a french inhale so smooth she would think he’d invented it. “Gimme a second.” He leans back against the wall of the cabin and closes his eyes, blows out a soft breath, and starts to hum along to the music still playing in the cabin. Sounds a lot like another Doja Cat song from what she can tell, but it’s hard to concentrate on what he’s humming when the air is so sharp and the sky is so bright. Shouldn’t it be darker out?

 

“I’on know what Kiye gave me,” he says, quietly, when he finally opens his eyes, “but this shit is...wow.” He coughs a bit and leans forward, moving his legs arounds so that he lies beside her on the ground and he takes one last drag. But this time he motions for her to come hither and on limbs too relaxed to do much else but roll, she does, opening her mouth when he kisses her and passes her some of the smoke.

 

“Shotgun,” she whispers, and he laughs against her mouth, soft and sexy, and her body is practically tingling with the need to wrap around him and touch. That’s all she wants, she thinks, to touch him. She’s too lazy to do much else. So she tugs at his hands and puts out the joint against the barrel, pulls him on top of her heavily, and sighs in absolute bliss when his weight settles on top of her. It’s comforting, and delicious, and he feels so good like this, all solid and warm against her bones.

 

“Are you high?” she slurs, nuzzling his neck and pressing soft kisses to his jaw.

 

“A ‘lil,” he says, settling between her thighs and propping himself up to watch her face. His eyes are so blue in the dusk of the day, so very very blue and so beautiful, and she reaches up to trace his brows, graze her fingertips over his long lashes and his pale eyelids.

 

“You are so pretty,” she whispers, and he smiles like a dream, like an angel even, like something out of a storybook, like one of those romance novels she’d sneak and read as a child. A prince, he’s her prince charming, she thinks, and she gets giddy with the idea that maybe one day he could be. He could marry her and be her prince and love her forever, pretty blue eyes and soft pink lips, and a smile that could rival the sun.

 

Bast, she loves him.

 

“Ain’t half as pretty as you, sugar,” he says sweetly, moving his head so that he captures his fingers in her mouth. “My sweet baby. My princess. God I love you.”

 

She grins and buries her face in his chest, arms wrapping around him as tight as she can get and he flops down until he covers her nearly completely. But she likes it, the way he presses her into the dirt and the way his body shifts against hers as he tries not to crush her. She wants to tell him she wouldn’t mind if he did, but she knows he wouldn’t quite understand. Instead, she settles for moving her bare legs against his sides, rucking the tunic he wears up so that his skin is exposed and his meets hers.

 

It makes her gasp at how good that feels. He feels it too, because he looks up and meets her eyes, and there’s something in his that spur her to pull him down for a kiss. And maybe that’s really what sets her off, the feel of his soft lips and his hot, wet tongue. Just the taste of him, the pressure of his mouth against hers, sparks a fire in her belly so hot she thinks she’ll burn from the inside out. She whimpers into his mouth and wraps her legs around him, hitching them up higher and pulling his tunic up with fumbling hands.

 

Bucky moves back from the kiss long enough to toss the shirt off and then his bare chest is pressed against her, his heart beating loud enough for her to hear. He smells good, a mix of man and weed and woods, like the earth, a little bit of sweat and some sort of spice that she can’t think of right now. She wants to devour him, little by little, and with every push of his tongue in her mouth, every swipe of his hands along her slim thighs, she can feel the lethargy from her high disintegrate into something a bit more frantic. She needs him, and she needs him now. He picks up the vibes, pulling away from her swollen lips to brush his nose against hers and his breath tickles her cheek.

 

“What do you want, sweet baby? Tell me.”

 

She both loves and hates when he does this, mostly cause she’d be perfectly fine with him taking whatever he wanted when he wanted it. But she knows how much consent means to him. He’s got to hear her yes, and not just once; all the way way through it, checking in constantly to make sure it’s still good and what she wants. She loves him so much for that. She thinks of what her mother had told her about other men and she knows she’s so lucky, so very very lucky.

 

Whatever did she do to deserve someone like Bucky Barnes?

 

“I want you,” she whispers, smiling as he pushes his hips forward into her hers. “I want to feel you, Buck. All over me.” She practically moans the last part, breathless and aching, and he pushes up from the ground, hauling her up with him. He dusts the dirt from her back and shoulders, forgets about the shirt on the ground, and slings her over his shoulder like a sack of flour. She giggles, her feet swinging behind her and her hands grasping on to the waistband of his pants to hold steady, as he carries her inside and lays her down on his cot.

 


 

 

For all the desire she feels, she’s content to lay with him, naked and high and happy, wrapped in his arms and kissing him slow and deep. He takes his time exploring her body with his mouth, sucking on her skin and sliding his tongue over her breasts. It’s quiet and warm in the cabin, the dark of a new night creeping through the windows, and from where she lies, she can see the moon peek above the clouds. She sighs, slides her fingers through Bucky’s hair, and moans when he moves to take a nipple into his mouth and suck.

 

He does it slow, like everything else right now, slow and lazy as if they have an eternity to do this and she likes to imagine they do. Shuri stretches out and grips the front edge of his cot above her head, closes her eyes, and focuses only on what she feels. But she’s so acutely aware of everything else, too. The sheets she’s tangled in are soft and age worn, the pillow beneath her head old but plush. Bucky’s skin is hot, hotter than hers, and softer than it appears, slip sliding over hard muscle that moves and flexes every time he shifts against her. The song playing is a hazed, soft lullaby in the background. And when the ache between her thighs antes up as her lover’s mouth drinks steadily from the salt of her skin, she can feel how slick she is, can smell it, can taste the smoke still lingering in the air and there are lights dancing behind her still closed eyes.

 

His mouth slides away from her nipple softly and he starts a trail from her ribs down to her belly, dipping his tongue into her navel and sliding it along the top of her mound. Nudging her legs open wider, her groans when he sees how wet she is, his eyes bloodshot and half open, but gleaming in the dark. “I wanna eat you alive,” he whispers, then dips his head down and sucks her pussy, lips and all, into his hungry mouth.

 

The sound that comes out her mouth startles even herself, but she can’t help it. Every single solitary nerve in her body, especially the ones down there, are on 100 and just the touch of his tongue to her core sends waves of pleasure coursing through her like a tsunami. He holds her hips down as he starts to lick, slow and deliberate at first as if he’s trying to memorize her taste. Fingers grasp at her sides, slide over her belly, and up to her breasts and she rocks into his mouth, shaking with every pass of his tongue. He takes his sweet time, his strokes slow and his moans deep as he savors her. When he slips his tongue inside her, she breathes out a groan that resonates through her chest and out into the darkness of the cabin, hangs between them like a portend and joins the rising crescendo of sound as he pushes her ever so lazily toward a precipice.

 

Her orgasm, when it finally comes, is electric and nearly shocks her from her high. He grasps her hips to hold her stead and follows her eyes with his own, watching every little tick of her face as she pants out his name and rides the wave, her hands tangled in his hair and sweat dripping from her brow. The cabin is so hot now, but she likes it, likes the buzzy feeling in her legs when he lets her go, lays his head on her thigh, and licks his lips.

 

“You taste so damn good,” he muses, turning his head up to the ceiling of the cabin, the starlight catching across his skin. She muses on the two of them for a moment, of her naked body and his near nude one, of how her dark flesh contrasts with his, of how perfect they are together and how nothing in this world would ever be better than this. But she’s near sober again and she doesn’t quite want to be. Thoughts of what might happen in the next few days start to trickle to the forefront, and almost ruin her mood. She doesn’t want to think. She only wants to wrap her body around his and meld with him for as long as the weed holds out.

 

“Baby,” she says softly, using the diminutive only because it felt right. He was always her Bucky, her Ingcuka, her love. But for some reason, with him lying in the cradle of her hips, his hands stroking little patterns in her skin, he felt like her baby. She smiled at the thought that she had this grown, fearsome, deadly man eating out the palm of her hand. There was a power there she hadn’t quite thought to explore, but given the time and the potential, she knew she could get him to bring civilizations to her feet. The idea thrilled her in a way she was almost terrified to entertain.

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Roll me another blunt? Or is the other still okay?”

 

He was quiet for a few more moments, and she realized his high hadn’t quite worn down yet. She really did wanna know what Kiye was growing in the village. If her weed could put Bucky on his ass, it was good.

 

“It’s probably okay. But shit…lemme go get somethin' else instead.” He rolled over with a grunt and got up heavily, then dug around once more in his basket of knickknacks. He didn’t seem to find what he was looking for, cursing a bit under his breath as pieces of paper and a few toys the village kids had carved for him fell out and scattered. “Fuck. I can’t see shit.”

 

Shuri stretches up and over and clicks on the lamp, giggling a bit when he shoots her an appreciative look and smiles. “Ahhhh, we have light.” He resumes his digging, before heading off to the kitchen to search elsewhere.

 

“What are you even looking for?” she asks, sighing as she too rolls from the bed and out the door of the cabin, scouring the ground for the joint she knew she’d left around outside. But it was missing, so she gave up and went back in, deciding to wrap up a bit and check on the goats while he hunted for whatever he was hunting.

 

Insinye was nursing again, so she hauled a bit of grain and hay over and stroked the goats head softly. “You doing okay, mama?” she asks, smiling when the animal nudges her hand. Bini and Thathu, exhausted no doubt from hours of play, snooze peacefully in the other end of the pen, but Shuri leaves them a bit of hay too, just in case. She checks to make sure they have plenty of water and goes back inside, raising a brow at the sight of Bucky stark naked and in the middle of the cot with a pipe in one hand and the baggie of weed in the other.

 

“Where’d you find it?” she asks, not bothering to hide her blatant oogling. He was a specimen, her Bucky, lightly tanned from hours in the Wakandan sun, and after months of eating well and resting, he was built like a powerhouse and tall like a tree. She suddenly wanted to climb that tree once more and ride its branches. Shuri let the wrap fall, closed the door, and sat naked beside him as he filled the bowl.

 

“By the damned stove. Don’t know why the fuck it was over that way.”

 

He doesn’t dwell on that for too long, though, as his attention is focused mostly on getting the pipe together. “It’s quiet as shit in here.”

 

“Hmm. Music went off.”

 

She grabs his phone and pulls up the playlist, deciding to restart it from the beginning. Scrolling around on the music player, she looks through each song with curiosity, wondering exactly why he chose each particular song for this list. It’s nothing at all like she’d been expecting, but she’s pleasantly surprised at what she hears. And then it dawns on her that she was too busy coughing her lungs up and rolling around in the dirt to appreciate it earlier, so she turns the sound up a bit and lays back as he finishes, closing her eyes for just a moment until he nudges her with the pipe. It's glass, frosted with dark blue swirls alternating with purple.  “You know how to use one of these?”

 

She affirms she does. “Mmhm.”

 

“Alright. Easy does it, sugar,” he says, and this time she listens. She accepts the lighter and flicks it, lights the bowl, and then takes a slow, careful hit; it’s enough to burn a bit, but not enough to damn near kill her and she only chokes a little this time. Satisfied with her technique, she passes the pipe back to Bucky after another hit and lets the smoke fill her lungs, the air stinging her eyes in an oddly pleasant way. He takes his own hit, the long drag of an expert, and she watches in rapture as he does another perfect French inhale.

 

“How do you...ya know?”

 

He blinks, pushes some of his hair from his brow, and gestures her a bit closer. She scoots over until she’s nearly in his lap, and then laughs when he picks her up and puts her right in the middle of it, his body hot against her back.

 

“It’s not that hard. Want me to show ya?” There’s a million innuendos in that little statement but she keeps them in her head for the moment and settles for a simple head nod. Shuri makes sure to try and pay attention, even as the weed starts to take affect and she feels the lethargy spreading through her body. Within minutes, though, she’ll be horny and ready to go again. She’s looking forward to that the most.

 

“Alright, so. Take a hit. And when you get the smoke in your mouth, try pushing it up and out. Afterwards, inhale through your nose.”

 

She does, but it only comes out as a cloud, and she inhales at a weird moment, making her cough and laugh. He shakes his head indulgently, and takes the pipe and lighter back, takes a drag, and motions for her to watch. And she does, carefully, as he executes the inhale slowly but perfectly. After a few more takes, she tries once more, frustrating herself when she doesn’t get it on the second or third time. But by the fourth, she manages a sloppy version of his perfect inhale and is ridiculously giddy about it.

 

“Look at you, doll!” he says, in that drawl of his that makes her skin tingle. “Told you it wasn't hard. Want some more?” She nods, and though the bowl is nearly done, she takes one final toke and does another attempt, this one with more finesse and she tilts her head back as leftover smoke comes out her mouth. Bucky watches her with a hungry look in his eye and she knows what he wants, because she wants it to. And this time, she doesn’t have time for slow foreplay or lazy orgasms.

 

“Pack another one, Buck,” she implores him, so he does, his eyes on her most of the time, his hands working fast and expertly. He hands her the pipe when he’s done and lies back on the cot, his arms stretched above his head and his legs splayed out on either side. She grabs the little yellow lighter and straddles his waist, flicking it when his fingers glide up her thighs and settle on her hips. She takes a hit, settles for a simple inhale this time, and blows out smoke slowly, letting the rush flow through her as she gets higher and higher.

 

Her entire being feels like it’s made of sunlight and soundwaves. He touches her belly and slips his fingers along her ribs and it’s like he’s playing an instrument, a harp or a lyre, his nails catching along the grooves there. She shivers, lifts her hips, and puts the lighter between her teeth as she slips a free hand down to grasp him. He’s hard again, she’s happy to find, and she slides his cock through the dampness that’s collected below, along her clit and across her entrance until the need to be filled overweights the pleasure of being teased. She sinks down on top of him little by little and moans softly when he’s as deep as he can go.

 

For a minute she simply sits astride him and watches him in the dim light of his lap, as he swallows, as his breathing comes out in soft pants. She takes her time and does another hit before she decides to move, shifting forward and up and then down and back as she blows out smoke above her head. “You want some?” she asks, him riding him at a leisurely pace. He shakes his head and digs his heels into the cot, pushes up to meet her though he doesn’t beg her to go any faster. She lets the pipe slip from her hands to the sheets behind her, the lighter clattering on the floor.

 

“I only want you,” he says instead, his voice thick with desire and want and so she shuts up and enjoys the ride. He feels so good when she’s like this, her body lax enough to soak in every sensation but still capable of movement. Shuri lets her eyes slip close and she leans back a bit, her hands finding his ankles behind her and she moves a bit faster, a little harder. There’s a thumb at her clit, the barest of flicks from it as her body winds against him. It takes her a moment, but she realizes she’s fucking him to the beat of the song.

 

It’s something sultry and heated, heavy with the same energy that flows between the both of them. As the singer floats off on adlibs and tangents, she moans out intelligible murmurs of his name, of how good it is, of how much she loves him.

 

“Buck...mmmm…rock with me.”

 

She wonders if he can even do that at first, because he seems perfectly happy letting her grip and clench around him, but then he angles his hips up and pushes deep and the hazy lust in her brain dissolves until she’s so very aware of how much she needs to cum. It’s not really that the fog has be lifted except that now she sees everything in tenfold, feels it, smells it, like she’s part of the night and the air around them instead of merely in it.

 

“Holy fuck,” he whispers, his eyes so dilated, they’re black instead of blue and he lifts up a bit, wraps his arms tight around her middle, and tugs her up and down on his cock, even as her thighs work to do the same. It’s almost like it isn’t enough now just to move. He grasps her neck and pulls her close to his mouth, but settles for ghosting his breath over her lips instead of kissing her. “So hot and wet for me, sugar,” he groans. “So goddamn good. Fuck.” He grins then, almost maniacally and moves faster and she cries out, something inside her ignighted and winding and she swears she close, so close, that she can taste it.

 

But it goes on, and on, and he keeps up the pace, settles back for deep strokes that knock her breath from her chest and brings her to tears, before pushing up hard and fast once more. He grasps her to his chest and flips them around, lifting her legs up to settle on his shoulders and he bears down on her clit, drawing the filthiest sounds from her mouth.

 

“Oh Bast yes, yes yes yes, please ...” she begs him, hands grasping for something to hold onto. She comes up with a fist full of sheets and tugs at them desperately. “I wanna cum, Bucky, please make me cum, I wanna-”

 

He snaps his hips forward and she cuts off with a sharp cry, an orgasm right around the corner if he’ll just keep moving and don’t stop. He presses her knees back as far as he can and his eyes bore into hers as he pushes her closer, and closer, back and forth and in and out until the spring is so tightly coiled that the simple suction of his hot mouth on her nipple sends her flying. Her whole body stiffens, time stands still, the sounds around her muted as if she’s floating underwater. There’s nothing but the near painful pleasure between her thighs and the dizzy, euphoria in her mind, the dull burn in her chest, the heat of the cabin. And Bucky...there’s always Bucky.

 

He cums right after she does, filling her with hot jolts of his seed and she bows her head to his shoulder when he stills finally. He pulls her upright and into his lap once more, still joined though he softens a bit. She knows if she really wanted, all she’d have to do is kiss his slow and deep to rile him up once more. But it’s her that needs to catch her breath, so she wraps her arms around him loosely and settles for the sweat slick feeling of her skin against his.

 

This time, she’s smoked enough so that she’s still deliciously high when her breathing settles. Shuri sighs, blissed out and sated for the moment, and seeks the feel of his body against hers. She still needs him to be apart of her, to fill and complete her, though he’s no longer hard and she’s not nearly as horny anymore. So when he moves to withdraw from her she whimpers, nuzzles his neck and presses a kiss there, pleads with him silently to never let her go.

 

“Just gonna get some water, sugar, I promise,” he says soothingly, placating her with the promise to come right back. Right back seems to take too long and suddenly she’s needy and weepy and wanting, the exact opposite of what she’d wanted to be to start with. She hates it, sitting up in the cot as he fills a glass and blinking back tears.

 

“What’s the matter?”

 

She shakes her head. She doesn’t even know, really, only that now she wants to rail against something, throw something, cry. All because he’d left her side too soon. Or maybe because the song that’s playing is going off. Or the moon’s too bright. She can’t be sure.

 

His face is sympathetic, though confused, and he plops back down with the water in hand, careful not to spill a drop. “Drink this and lay down. I think I got you a little too high.”

 

Shuri thinks to protest; she’s fine, really, she’s just being pissy and silly and fuck, the water tastes so good, so good but it’s not enough. She needs Bucky, wants him, though not sexually right now. She just needs to be close to him, next to him, against him until he can feel her breathing and their heartbeats syncopate.

 

“Bucky.”

 

He turns his head just slightly, his own mind still a bit addled from the boyo, although she knows it’s not nearly as much as hers probably is.

 

“Hmm.”

 

She drains the glass and sets it on the floor, then crawls over to him and settles back in his lap again. It’s becoming her preferred spot, and the thought would usually amuse her, but there’s a weird undercurrent of insecurity and uncertainty that’s thrumming through her body. She’s got to settle this, right now, or her mind won’t turn off long enough for the exhaustion that comes with the come down to lull her to sleep.

 

“James.”

 

“I’m listenin’ sugar. Talk to me.”

 

She smiles at that, just a bit, because she knows he loves her. She knows it. Why is she doubting it right now, why is she so uncertain?

 

“What would you do for me?”

 

He raises a brow at that and opens his mouth to answer but then closes it again as he gathers his wits. It takes him a moment, but he gets them somewhat straightened enough to ask her what she means.

 

“If I wanted...” She shakes her head, starts over. This isn’t truly about what she wants, it’s about need. “No...no...fuck.” She swallows and glances at the empty glass, wishing she had more to drink. But she doesn’t want to get up and she doesn’t want Bucky to leave the cot, so she lets the spit gather in her mouth and swallows before she starts over.

 

“How far would you go if I asked you to do something for me?”

 

There’s a moment of panic on his face and she wonders what he thinks she’s asking of him. Part of her feels horrid about it; she knows good and damned well what he’d been made to do in the past. She hopes he doesn’t think that now she’s going to use his love for her and abuse it to do horrible things they way HYDRA had because she’d never, never ever ever-

 

And yet, in the stifling stillness of the late night, music still drifiting in the background and his skin still damp with sweat, he tilts his head and answers her whole heartedly.

 

“Anything.”

 

Shuri sucks in a breath and tries not to think of the connotations of that. Anything. She could get him to do anything she wanted, needed. And that scares her enough that she has to clarify.

 

“Like what?”

 

“Whatever you wanted.”

 

“Would you...would you hurt someone for me?” She searches his eyes, her fingers on his temples and she can feel his pulse racing.

 

“If I had to.”

 

“Kill for me? If someone hurt me, would you kill them?”

 

He swallows, blinks, but doesn’t let his eyes leave hers and he nods slowly.

 

“In a heartbeat,” he whispers, his voice trembling a bit. And she knows she should leave it at that. Maybe that’s all she needs to know, that he’d give up the peace of a fresh start and a new life to do whatever she asks. But she has to know more, one more thing at least, and she hates herself for asking it the second it leaves her mouth.

 

“Even if it were you?”

 

She can feel the rush of breath that comes out his chest, can almost feel the panic rushing through his veins and she regrets this so bad, wants to shake her head and take it back. She knows what he’d say and she hates this, hates it so badly and this isn’t right or healthy and maybe Sam was right, maybe they both were codependent and possessive.

 

“Don’t say it,” she says, before he can tell her the truth. She doesn’t want to know now. But he seems hellbent on answering her anyway because he grasps her face and his eyes are wide, almost scared, as if he’s realizing another horrifying truth about himself that he has to face. Knowing the problem is half the battle, she thinks, if only to reasure herself. We can fix this. We can make this work.

 

“I would.”

 


 

She doesn’t remember when she fell asleep.

 

She only knows that after he’d confessed, she’d cried and slowly she’d come down and then he’d kissed her, held her gently and they’d stared into the darkness of the cabin until his breathing evened and his body relaxed. And sometime between then and now, she had drifted off.

 

He’s gone, of course, though she hears the rustling of him outside in the pens, and the clanging of metal on metal as he fills water troughs and hauls hay. She lies still, stretches out on the cot and glances around the cabin as soft sunlight filters through the windows. She’s not ready for another day to pass, not ready to be closer to the end of their time here, but it’s coming whether she wants it to or not. She's got to pee, and she's got a headache coming, her stomach is growling, and she's so thirsty.  So she pops a few of her joints, sighs laboriously, and rolls out of bed to head to the bathroom.

 

When Bucky comes in, she’s nearly finished with leftover massa and grits. She turns to watch him as he ducks in the threshold; his shoulders heavy with something she thinks she can name but doesn’t want to dwell on. And last night’s conversation comes back to her, though she’s a bit groggy on the details. Implications of what she’d done make her pause her chewing and she stares out toward the stove, her hands twisting in the hem of the tunic she’d thrown on.

 

“I talked to Sam,” he says, standing beside the cot, and for a long time she refuses to glance up at him. He’ll see tears in her eyes if he does, and she doesn’t want him to know she’s crying because he’ll blame himself. This isn’t his fautl; it’s hers, really, she knows it is and she’s so angry at herself for how stupid she’d been.

 

“Sugar...hey.”

 

He turns her head with his finger and brushes his thumb across her bottom lip. She blinks furiously, swallows the rest of her food and sets her bowl on the floor. “Yeah? How’s he?”

 

“Good.” With a sigh he sits down beside her, takes her hand in his and squeezes gently. “How are you, though? Before I tell you what we talked about, I mean, tell me.”

 

She shakes her head and barks out a laugh that sounds so fake to her own ears that it’s grating.

 

“I’m...I’m sorry, I just-”

 

“Hey. That was...look, I shouldn’t have let you smoke that much.”

 

She snorts. “Doesn’t excuse those stupid questions I asked you. Bast, I’m an idiot.” A selfish, little shit, she thinks, but she doesn’t say that. And yet, he seems to know what she means, because he frowns and shakes his head.

 

“Nah. People ask wild shit when they’re high. I know you wouldn’t do nothin’ like that. Not for real.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Mmhm.”

 

“Bucky?” Her voice is soft, way softer than she wants it to be, but she needs him to understand that even the thought of him contemplating suicide tears her insides to pieces. “If you ever hurt me...just...I don’t think you will, but just don’t...know that I’ll forgive you eventually, know that…” She swallows once more and shakes her head, angry that she can’t get the words out right.

 

“I’m not gonna off myself,” he says, firmly, enough that she starts to feel a tiny bit better. “Not sayin’ you leaving me wouldn’t hurt.” He takes his thumb in his mouth and sucks it idly, pulls her over so that she leans into his side. "Would hurt like hell." He pauses, as if to steady himself. 

 

“Nah, I ain’t gonna kill myself, if that’s what  you’re worried about.”

 

Good. Then that’s settled. Somehow, she believes him, partly because she has to in order to keep from panicking again.

 

“And no one else, either,” she amends, attempting another smile. It doesn’t quite reach her eyes, but it’s better than that hollow laugh from before.

 

“I can’t promise you that, sugar,” he says truthfully. “I really can’t.” Shuri shrugs it away for now; maybe it’ll never come to that. She’s at home, in Wakanda, in safety and comfort and surrounded by love. It’ll never come to that, she’s certain of it. But there was always what ifs and maybes; she wouldn’t dwell on the maybes.

 

“I guess that’s what he’s talkin’ about,” Bucky continues. “Sam. He said I’m codependent. He said I...I need you too much.”

 

“Is he right?” She already knows the answer is yes.

 

“Mmm. Yeah. So I’m gonna see someone. Get my head sorted first. You deserve better than my bullshit.”

 

And she knows by bullshit, that he means the demons that still haunt him and ride his back, the terror of being left behind and abandoned. He has to know she won’t do that to him, but he can’t be sure, not after what he’s been through. And he doesn’t want to become possessive and needy, the devour her whole and leave her tired and empty. So she doesn’t argue. Instead, she stretches her legs out before her, stares at the cool autumn morning through the doorway of his cabin, and listens to him breathe.

 

She ignores the dark little whispers in her head, at least for another day.

Chapter Text

 

Three hours, and she would be leaving him.

 

Three hours, and she would return to the city, to the palace, to her laboratory and life as she knew it before he’d come along and interfered. And that was for the best, really. Three days of uninterrupted time together, half of that spent in each other’s arms, and the other half hashing out issues and avoiding the elephant in the room.

 

What would they do if they weren’t allowed to be together?

 

He thought over his conversation with Sam the day before, the extended invitation to take a breather and come visit home, just a few days, just enough time to get his thoughts sorted. He knew he was right. No matter how much he loathed the idea of being apart from Shuri, he needed to be, even if for a little while. He’d gotten too attached too quickly, and it could very well ruin them, and her, if he didn’t get a handle on this. Already, she’d suggested some therapists he could see in the capitol but he didn’t want to get into that just yet. Right now, he just wanted to focus on the days ahead. And then he’d start planning things out.

 

Whatever happened, no matter what, he would wait. He could love her from afar if he had to, but he wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t.

 

His fingers, usually so nimble and quick, worked slowly through the braids in her hair, carefully unraveling each one and combing through the hair left as he pulled the extensions away. In theory, he knew how her braids worked, but he’d never seen her get them done nor had he ever seen her without them out, something that had astonished her.

 

"What do you mean, you’ve never seen me with my hair out?"

 

“Just what I said. Long as I’ve known you, you’ve had the braids in.”

 

She had scoffed at him playfully and dug around in her knapsack for a few combs and some scissors, then instructed him to sit on the cot like so. “You’re going to help me, then. It won’t talk half as long if I’ve got another set of hands.”

 

For all the good that had done, though, because while they’d been working on this for close to three hours, she was near finished with most of the braids and he’d taken down all of ten. She hadn’t complained once, however. Instead, she sang along to the music playing and smiled when he got the first braid done without ripping any of her hair out.

 

Two more, and they’d be finished, so he tries to pick up his pace. It’s a little hard to see where the extension begins and her hair ends since they’re similar lengths, so he settles for unraveling from the ends and working up. The comb helps, if only a bit, and little by little, the next to last braid comes apart in his hands until he adds it to the pile of crinkled hair at her knee.

 

“One more, sugar.”

 

“Good,” she sighs, taking that one in her hand and sliding her fingers down until she finds what she’s looking for. She quickly snips at the approximate dividing of her hair and the faux hair, then tugs her nail down a significant section of the braid, unraveling it in twice the time. He stares in awe.

 

“You’re acting like this is rocket science,” she says with a laugh in her voice. “It’s really not, my love. Easy peasy.”

 

“I didn’t wanna mess any of your hair up,” he explains, glancing at the curls that spread out across her shoulders and slipping his fingers through them gingerly. Her hair was so soft and beautiful like this. He wondered why she never wore it out.

 

“You wouldn’t have, trust me.” Tugging the last bit of braid out her scalp, she groans and scratches her head vigorously, then stretches her shoulders and neck. “And now, to wash.”

 

He fills a bucket of water from the pump and warms it in the cauldron while she pulls out several small bottles of what he assumes is shampoo and conditioner…and something else…and more stuff. There’s nothing labeled, and everything looks the same, and he’s close to asking her how she knows what is what but she’s testing the water and deems it warm enough so he bites his tongue. Apparently she knows what she’s doing; he’s not going to question a genius on how she washes her hair.

 

Instead, he sits back and watches.

 

Instead of scrubbing vigorously, she lets water sluice through her strands and drizzles shampoo into her tresses, massaging her scalp to break up any dirt and grime there. Her fingers slip through her hair to spread the soap, which he notes doesn’t lather, and then sling the excess off into the cauldron. She does this several times, until she’s satisfied, and picks up a gourd to rinse her hair out. This too, she does over and over, before wringing her hair of water and piling it haphazardly over her head into a bun.

 

“You got a towel?”

 

He heads into the cabin and finds her a large fluffy one, wraps it about her head and starts to dry but she bats his hands and shoos him away. “No, no, you’ll tangle it doing that,” she explains. “I’m not trying to dry it all the way anyhow. Just enough so it’s not dripping.”

 

“And then what?”

 

“A deep condition.” She picks up the small pink bottle and squirts out a generous amount, distributes it evenly through her hair, and piles the strands up before covering it in a large, plastic cap.

 

“And now we wait.”

 

“For how long?”

 

“Thirty minutes to an hour.” With a sigh, she sits down on the barrel outside the house and pats the space beside her for him to join her. “Which means we have just enough time to talk.”

 

He doesn’t mind talking, truly, but he’s dreading this for some reason. He wonders if maybe she’s tired and needs a break, moreso than the day or two between her leaving and his summoning. And though it worries him, he sucks up his anxiety and pushes through to sit beside her and listen to whatever she has to say.

 

“What’s on your mind?”

 

Shuri threads her fingers through his and is silent for a long moment, her eyes focused on their joined hands, her face unusually stoic and solemn. She bites her lip and looks out at the tree line, to the garden, over to the trail that leads to the pond. And then she looks at him and there is a strength to this girl, this woman, that he loves so much and it blows him away. If push comes to shove, she would still be standing while he crumbled, and he knows it.

 

“If my brother doesn’t allow you to…”

 

She purses her lips together and shakes her head. “If the council decides on an adverse judgement…if we aren’t allowed…I can’t-“

 

“I know.”

 

He does. He knows she could never leave this place, because it’s her home, her life, her blood and soul. If Wakanda had become a part of him so easily in only three years, then how much more so for one of her daughters, born and bred here in the soil and the heart of her? He couldn’t take that from her, no matter the price to himself.

 

“So if…if he makes you leave, I can’t come with you. Not permanently, anyway.” She blinks, her face screwing up as she tries not to cry. “In the case of that, I think perhaps I would possibly suggest that we…” She looks up at the sky and chokes back a sob, tries hard not to cry but a tear falls anyway. “Bast, why is this so fucking hard? Why?” She shakes her head and looks to him and all he wants is to kiss her, to will this all away, to tell her that everything will be okay but he can’t know that for certain. And though T’Challa had told him banishment would be quite unlikely, he can’t imagine that doesn’t extend to being forbidden from seeing her again. So close, and so far, and he thinks that would kill him sooner than being thrown from his sanctuary.

 

But he doesn’t tell her any of this. He puts on a brave front and squeezes her hand tight.

 

“If you feel like that’s best, Shuri, then I’d let you go.”

 

It hurts to even say the words. It’s painful to imagine his life without her in it, his world grey and dark without her color and light. But he’d made her a promise, had made himself a promise, that he would do whatever was right to make her happy. And he had meant that. He thinks of Okoye’s words in the dining room after the wedding, of him being the cause of her light going out and he dreads the thought that possibly, maybe, this is what it’s come down to.

 

“I don’t want you to,” she says, softly, and he kisses her knuckles, smiles sadly.

 

“I don’t wanna have to.”

 

“Then you fight, Barnes,” she tells him, steel in her voice and a fire in her eyes. “You go to that council and you fight for me. Please. I love you. I love you so much it scares me sometimes and I…” She sucks in a shaking breath and wipes hastily at her face. “I believe that if two people are meant to be together they will. Eventually. So no matter what happens, even if you have to let me go, I’ll come back to you. Somehow.”

 

There’s a tiny shred of hope in that promise she gives him and he clings to it like a lifeline. But he doesn’t want to have to cling to that hope. He wants to love her now, open and free and on her terms, not on the whims of people who were too blind to tradition to see what was in front of them.

 

“Mama said she’d vouch for us. And Nakia probably will, too. I haven’t gotten to talk to her just yet, but I know she’ll understand. D says he’s going to try talking to M’Baku…but I’m not sure how well that will go over.” She shrugs and swings her feet out in front of her. “The odds are not exactly in our favor, but they’re not impossible, either. So I won’t give up hoping.”

 

“Alright.” That’s all he can say. There’s so much he wants to express, but he isn’t equipped to do it just yet. Maybe when he gets his head on straight he can. Maybe when he’s had time to clear his mind and work through whatever he’s got bouncing around in his head.

 

In the meantime, he takes her words to heart. He’ll fight for this as hard as he can. She slips from the barrel and takes off the plastic cap, her conditioner soaked hair sitting atop her head like a crown. Wordlessly, she gestures for him to join her at the cauldron and he grabs the gourd, fills it with water, and rinses her hair.

 


 

 

It’s so quiet after she’s gone.

 

She leaves at exactly the time she said she would, giving her enough time to settle in before her brother’s arrival back home. It’s a long goodbye, soft and tender and she clings to him like she’ll never see him again. And painfully, in the back of his mind, he’s reminded that she might not get to if nothing works out the way they want. But he keeps his dark thoughts to himself and kisses her slow and deep, putting every bit love and devotion to her in the kiss so she knows he’s hers and always will be.

 

He spends the rest of his day with his goats, babying little Ithemba and giving extra love to Bini and Thathu so they don’t feel left out. He tills his garden and finds a few stray cassava, cuts them up and boils them for dinner, and eats slowly out by the pond in his hammock. He should be a peace right now, content with the cool breeze that floats across the water and the chirp of the crickets on the banks. But his heart is a mess and his mind is a jumble and he wants to scream out into the vast open space, cry, rip something to shreds.

 

He doesn’t know what to do with himself.

 

The answer to his dilemma is answered about an hour shy of dusk. Kiye shows up alone, pushing a large clay pot and a jug of her homemade wine in a wheelbarrow. Bucky pokes his head out the door and smiles, waving for her to come inside, and takes the heavy pot from her as soon as she crosses the threshold.

 

“More stew?” he asks, and she nods, tugging the jug out the wheelbarrow to place on the floor by the stove.

 

“More stew. Didi made too much and we’re tired of eating it, so here. I know you won’t want to cook anything anyhow, at least not for now.”

 

He almost hates how perceptive Kiye is but appreciates it at the same time. So instead he says nothing, and warms up a bowlful of stew in the smaller pot he’s already got on the stove. Kiye tugs a sack of dried banana chips from her bosom and sits down in one of the skin chairs in the corner, her legs crossed and her eyes watching him intently. She’s going to be here a while, he can tell, but he finds he doesn’t mind. He needs the company.

 

“She’s gone, ay?”

 

“Left about noon.”

 

“Hmm. How much longer ‘till the king comes back?”

 

“Another day or so.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

There’s a lull then where he focuses only on stirring his pot of stew and nothing else. His mind wants to wander to the future but he knows how futile that is when he’s not even sure if he’ll have one.

 

“I know telling you that everything will be fine isn’t going to help,” Kiye starts, her voice unusually quiet and gentle. “But I’ll say it anyway.” She leans forward in the skin chair and motions for him to pour her a cup of wine, and he does, taking one for himself and settles on the cot close to her.

 

“What if it isn’t okay?” he asks, feeling so much like a lost little boy and he hates how his voice cracks at the thought. He’d told Shuri he would wait for her, he would do anything possible if it meant that someday he could have her love, but now he wasn’t so sure. He felt like he was floundering in the waves of a turbulent river and he suddenly couldn’t swim.

 

“Then if it isn’t, it isn’t.”

 

That’s what he’d thought and hadn’t wanted to hear. He hates to imagine his life is tied up into some sort of fate, that no matter how much he wants to, he will never have what he wants, only the minimum of what he needs. But god knows he needs Shuri, for better or worse, even if it means that’s not the most healthy way of living. He needs her like he needs air and godsdamn anyone who thought to keep them apart. Even her brother, even T’Challa. And he held so much respect for the king of Wakanda that he knew he’d do anything required of him to help him or to pay him back for his generosity.

 

But he would never be able to stop loving Shuri. And he’d never forgive T'Challa if he wasn’t able to keep her close to him for as long as she allowed.

 

“Now, that’s not to say that you can’t make it okay,” Kiye continues, breaking his train of thought. “You and the princess have no doubt thought of eloping, yes?”

 

“Sort of? I mean, I don’t want to take her away from the only home she’s known. She’s safe here.”

 

“She is. Mmhm. But is she happy here? Is she happy if she cannot find for herself where she wants to be?”

 

“She says she’d stay.”

 

“She’s trying to be brave for you, Ingcuka. She is trying to do the so called right thing because it is what is expected of her. She is loyal to her people and to her family. And she believes that her happiness depends upon their approval.” Kiye sniffs and takes a swig of her wine, smiling knowingly as she sits back once more. “But she does not know that following one’s heart…that is true happiness, even if there is a fall in doing so. At least she will have known.”

 

Bucky shakes his head and sighs. As much as he’d like to entertain the idea of running away with Shuri, he knows how hard doing so would be.

 

“They’d come lookin’ for her. No matter where we went, they’d find her. Drag her back. She’d hate me for not fightin’ for her, too but I couldn’t-“

 

“Oh you couldn’t, could you?” Kiye laughs then, loud and rich and a little mocking, but he doesn’t take it seriously. She’s never been anything but kind to him, even in her teasing. He figures it’s her way of proving him wrong without outright saying it. But he wants to argue against it; for once, maybe Kiye isn’t right. He can’t fight this, not the crown, not the council. He can only hope and present his case and cross his fingers.

 

Kiye isn’t convinced, obviously. “Here is the thing, Barnes,” she says, his name sharp on her tongue and it makes him sit up at attention. He can think of only two instances where Kiye had called him anything but Ingcuka or Bucky and this was the second. “Fighting does not always mean you must use your mouth or your fists or even a weapon. Fighting sometimes means standing still and refusing to budge when everything around you is trying to move you out the way.”

 

“So I should just refuse to give her up, then.”

 

“Exactly what I’m saying. I am loyal to my country, to this land, to the crown and those who rule over us. We are lucky, the lot of us. Most definitely lucky.” Kiye drums her fingers on the cup she holds and tilts her head thoughtfully. “I traveled past the borders once long ago when I was a girl and the things I have seen…” She shakes her head then and clucks her tongue and he is reminded once again of all he stands to lose if he doesn’t back down and acquiesce to whatever the council wants. There is no peace, no beauty, no serenity like that of Wakanda and he so desperately wants to hang on to that little bit of good he has.

 

But Shuri meant more to him than even the country he’d adopted as his new home. She was Wakanda for him, and without her in his life, there was no use in staying here.

 

“The trouble is, though, that because we have been sheltered and isolated from such horrors, we think we are all too good for everyone around us. And those on top, in that great big golden palace in the city? Ha! They think that the most. They think you are beneath them, Ingcuka. And you must change their minds.”

 

“What if they’re right?” he argues, because maybe they have the right of it and he doesn’t deserve Shuri. He doesn’t really deserve anything he has now, he knows, but especially not the crown jewel of the Wakandan royal family.

 

“What if they are not?” Kiye counters. “Perhaps you should change your own mind first, my friend.” She reaches out to grasp his hand and pat it comfortingly. “I think it would do you a world of good to focus on the good in you before you try convincing anyone else of it.”

 

That was easier said than done, he knew, but he wanted to try. He wanted so badly to try, if not for himself, for Shuri. She’d told him she loved him more than anything, that she needed him, and he saw the conflict that warred in her eyes when she told him she wouldn’t leave her lab or her work or her country just for him. He didn’t want her to have to choose. She deserved both, and he wanted to do anything possible so that she could have both. And it didn’t matter in what capacity. If he was only allowed to be her lover, he would take that.

 

“I told her I’d see somebody. I need to talk about all the shit goin’ on in my head.”

 

“May be a good idea yet.” Kiye smiles, and he’s reminded once again of how much he’s gained from living here. Not only the love of a princess, not only a chance to heal and mend his tattered mind, but friendships he would never trade for the world.

 

That made him think of Okoye and then he could feel the despair creeping back into his heart, but before he could wallow in his misery, Kiye was getting up from the skin chair, and tugging him up with her.

 

“You come with me. Stay a few nights with us in the village. It’s Dimbe’s nameday celebration tomorrow and I think he’d like to have his favorite white boy there.”

 

Bucky laughs at the thought of Kiye’s stern faced husband and lets out a breath, searching her face and finding nothing but sincerity and affection there. And he can’t help himself. He reaches forward and pulls the woman into a hug and kisses her cheek, trying not to cry at much he is cared for. No one in the world would ever replace Rebecca or Winifred Barnes, but Kiye was a damn good stand in for both at times.

 

“I’m most definitely naming my firstborn after you now,” he says with a grin, and she laughs, and then helps him pack a few things and the remainder of the stew. They carefully gather Isinye and Ithembe into the wheelbarrow, sling Bini and Thathu in wraps over Bucky’s shoulders, and start down the dirt path to the village, talking all the while.

 


  

She’s been at the lab for hours when she gets the notification that her brother is home.

 

Any other time and she’d have jumped up in excitement to meet him at the tarmac, to tease and laugh and draw him into a hug, but today she didn’t have the energy to. She felt like someone had cut her lifeline and drug her lifeless and lethargic back into the real world, where she had to wear a mask and put on a front just to get by. If her mother had noticed anything, she hadn’t said so, but Shuri had been avoiding Ramonda, too.

 

In fact, she’d been avoiding just about everyone but Folami and D’Wobe, the former because she needed a Dora on detail and the latter because he could keep a secret. He kept her company in the quiet of the lab on a late night, all her assistants gone and Folami posted up outside in the hallways, no doubt texting that girlfriend of hers or sending jokes back and forth with her little brothers. It had taken Shuri a long while to convince her that there was no reason to be so formal when it was just the two of them, and the addition of D made no difference.

 

The relaxed vibe of the lab helped, just a little, to calm her nerves.

 

“You did bring some back, yeah?”

 

Shuri looks up from her kimoyo beads, the creases in her forehead smoothing back as she focuses on what her friend was asking. And then she smiled, the first real one she’d managed to eek out in two days.

 

“You know I did. What kind of friend would I be if I held out on you?”

 

Shuri slides her chair over from one desk to the other and presses her thumb to the keypass, unlocking the drawer and pulling out the remainder of the boyo she’d taken home with her. Wrapped and double wrapped and zipped tight within a small cloth bag and the stuff still was strong enough that D’Wobe whistled as she placed it in his hand.

 

“You could put down a rhino with this stuff,” he quips, opening the bag and letting out a sharp breath at the whiff he gets. “I can’t believe your little self smoked so much of it.”

 

“Two pipes and half a joint,” she says somewhat proudly, though it’s mostly an exaggeration. D doesn’t have to know that, however. And she refuses to tell him about her choking fit or how much the stuff had burned her lungs on that first hit. He’d never let her live it down. “Buck handled the rest for me.”

 

“And it actually got him high?”

 

“I was surprised too,” she responds, moving to relock her drawer, but not before catching sight of a picture of her and her Baba. She pauses for a moment and pulls out the photograph, an old fashioned Polaroid that they’d taken a few days after her fifth birthday. Shuri had been fascinated with outdated and vintage technology and that little gift-an actual antique, in her eyes-had meant so much to her at the time. She thinks of where the camera is now, tucked away in a box of things that she kept high in her closet and only ever took down when missing her father got a little too rough.

 

It was getting to be that way again, and she blinks back tears as her thumb traces over the well worn picture. It hurt so much to think she’d never see that smiling, loving face anymore, at least not this life or this plane. It hurt to think that he’d never get to see her marry, or meet her children, or…

 

He’d never get to meet Bucky. He’d never get to mumble under his breath about the white boy she’d come to love and tsk about how unworthy he was and grumble the entire time about how no man was good enough for his Bibi but least of all this man, this colonizer.

 

But he’d have liked Bucky. She knows he would have, no matter his initial resistance.

 

“Sis,” D’Wobe says softly, his hand warm and comforting on her shoulder. She doesn’t even try to hold the tears back this time. Instead, she gives in and leans forward and lets herself cry, softly at first, and then harder because life was not fair and death made a mockery of them all in the end. What use was life if it didn’t last forever? What use was love if it could be ripped apart by something no one could avoid?

 

She doesn’t realize Folami is behind her either, then, until another pair of hands join D’s and then she’s leaning into the Dora and crying again, though she isn’t quite sure what she’s crying about right then. There was so much going on in her head that she couldn’t be sure what had prompted the reaction. But by the time she lifts her head and wipes her eyes, sniffling and hiccupping, she actually feels a little better. The weight on her chest isn’t so heavy and the knots in her stomach don’t tangle so tightly.

 

“I’m sorry about all that,” she says softly but both her friends shake their heads and sit beside her, a small slender hand coming to slip between her own and a larger one, warm and sure, around her shoulder. This is, she thinks, why love and life and feeling aren’t futile and worthless no matter the mortality and fragility of it all. She’s infinitely grateful to have friends like this. She wouldn’t trade them for anything.

 

"You haven't a thing to be sorry about, Shuri," D says, his voice so gentle that Shuri wants to cry again. She manages to keep those tears back and leans into his embrace, grasping Folami's hand to squeeze it appreciatively.

 

"I agree," she adds. "Nothing at all. There's so much going on. I know you haven't quite told me, but.." Folami sighs softly and Shuri turns her head to meet her eyes. "If Bucky has to leave, then it will hurt me as well. He's my friend."

 

It hadn't dawned on her just how close the two of them were. Folami had been one of the first Dora to embrace Bucky, helping him with training after he awoke without any prejudice and an open mind and heart. If Bucky looked up to Okoye, he most definitely adored Folami.

 

"And me too. White Wolf's grown on me a bit, sis." D offers her a small smile and Shuri tries to return it but she feels like it comes out as a grimace. "You know I said I'd try and vouch for you."

 

"What'd M'Baku say?"

 

D'Wobe's face said it all, but he scoffed as if his cousin's dismissal of Bucky hadn't hurt. "He's a stubborn old ox is what he is. Yeah, yeah, I know, he's not that much older than I am, but he acts like he's older than my father and it's so annoying to hear him ramble on and on about what's proper and what's right and tradition and all that mumbo jumbo."

 

"So I'm guessing he won't be in my corner."

 

There's a sad shrug of his shoulders and Shuri sighs. She hadn't really counted on it, truthfully. M'Baku hadn't ever been her favorite person and his refusal to open his narrow mind was one of the reasons. But a little part of her had hoped that he'd at least consider coming around on this. She realized now how foolish a hope that really was. So that left her with her mother, a voice both important and strong on the Council. And yet, even a strong voice like Ramonda's couldn't overrule a fair and honest vote.

 

"I hate to say this, Princess," Folami says, "But it might be useful to just let things happen the way they're going to happen. There isn't much we can do now but wait."

 

It wouldn't be long. No sooner had the words left Folami's mouth did Shuri's kimoyo beads ding with a notification. It was her mother calling. Her friends moved back to give her a respectful distance and allow her a little bit of privacy. She felt a little naked without them flanking her, but she put on her big girl face and greeted her mother neutrally, trying not to betray the fact that she'd been crying.

 

"Bibi, I thought you'd want to know. Your brother is home and wants to see you."

 

Shuri blows out a breath, her heart rate speeding up in spite of how calm she's trying to remain. She isn't really sure why she's so nervous. It's not like it's anyone terrifying. And yet she doesn't want to face him and be confronted with the fact that she's going to be separated from the man she loves. It's as if seeing T'Challa would make it that much more real.

 

"I'm surprised he hasn't come to the lab to see me," she says, trying to keep her conversation casual, but detatched. If Ramonda knows anything is off, she doesn't say anything. Instead, she only smiles and shakes her head.

 

"It's been a busy and long day. He's resting in his rooms right now. I'm sure he'd like to come see you at the lab tomorrow."

 

Shuri nods once and disconnects, gathering her work and locking it back in her desk drawer. Whatever work she had to do could wait until the next day, or maybe the day after, or the day after. It would always be here; she wasn't sure if Bucky would.

 

"Think you could drop me off in town?" D asks her, as she and he and Folami take the elevator up to the parking lot. "I can always come and get my car in the morning."

 

Shuri shoots him a look of curiosity, suddenly very interested in what D'Wobe was up to. "Is there any specific reasoning you have for staying the night in town?" D mostly stayed in the palace when he was visiting the capitol; she wondered what he'd been up to the entire few days she'd been out at Bucky's cabin. She glances to Folami when D goes mum but the Dora refuses to say a word. There's simply the very slightest blush on her cheeks and a look on her face that tells Shuri they're up to something, and probably together.

 

"Okay, fine. Don't tell me." She narrows her eyes and slips into her car, starting her engine and pausing for a moment to hear it purr. Two upgrades done a few days past had the car running like a dream. She almost wished Sam were here so he could gush over it. "I'll find out eventually. I'm the princess. I have my ways."

 

D bites back a barely concealed grin but holds his tongue and motions for Folami to take the front seat. "Ladies to the front, of course. I'd chauffeur you about but sis doesn't like anyone driving her car."

 

Folami giggles and buckles in. "No one but Ingcuka," she quips in a sing song voice, and D'Wobe laughs. And in spite of the butterflies in her belly, she laughs along with them. What she wouldn't do for these two, she thinks, and once again she thanks Bast she's got them in her corner.

 


To be so late, the palace is surprisingly busy. Shuri knows it's only because the servants are packing away T'Challa's luggage and making sure the king and queen are happily settled after their honeymoon. She misses the quiet of the cabin, nothing but the chirping of insects and the soft bleating of the goats. It's odd how used to the stillness of the country she's gotten. She knows she won't find that here.

 

T'Challa is, in fact, waiting for her eagerly in his rooms, already changed into his night clothes as Ramonda sits to his right and shares a cup of tea. Nakia patters around the room, instructing this bag put here and that box put there, looking all the world like the mistress of a very large estate and solidifying once again why she was the perfect choice to be Wakanda's new queen. It's like watching a mirror of Ramonda in some ways and Shuri almost smiles at the fondness that she feels for her new sister in law.

 

"Did you overwork yourself once more Bibi?" Ramonda says upon seeing her daughter and Shuri allows herself to be drawn into a hug. It's comforting and warm and for a second, she can almost imagine that nothing out of the ordinary is going on. T'Challa's just been gone and she's just been busy and everything will be fine, fine, fine.

 

"No...I'm alright. I promise."

 

Her mother's eyes say otherwise, but once again, Ramonda keeps her thoughts to herself and gets up from her seat, patting her son's hand as Shuri takes her spot. "I've got you some tea already brewed and a few of those little orange cookies you adore. I'm going to go help Nakia." The queen mother pulls away, though Shuri's hand lingers in hers and for a very short but very tense moment, Shuri thinks she's going to breakdown and cry once more, like a child, for her mother to stay with her. The moment passes, quickly enough that she's certain T'Challa hadn't noticed, and she sucks it up, smiles, and lets her mother's hand go.

 

And then it's just her, her brother, and a very awkward silence.

 

"I suppose I will reiterate Umama's question," T'Challa finally says, his voice soft and quiet. "Have you been overworking yourself?"  His is the voice of a brother, of a best friend, of someone who cares and loves her and of someone who wants nothing but for her to be happy. And she hates how she hopes, she hates that she thinks perhaps he's come around to this, that maybe he understands. She only has to glance up, thought, to know that he hasn't. His face betrays him, lines on his forehead and his jaw clenching a little. It's the expression of someone who knows what he's doing is painful but feels he has to anyway.

 

"The choices a king makes will rarely be easy", she remembers her Baba say a long time ago. She'd been on his knee, crying over a bruise she'd gotten playing in the gardens and eavesdropping in on her brother's lessons the only way an eight year old really could. "They will be difficult, but some are necessary."

 

She wondered if the choices that her brother had to make in regards to her life were really all that difficult. To her, it felt like the easy way out.

 

"Not any more than usual," she settles on. She won't tell him she's spent the last few hours a nervous, anxious wreck, or the days before going back and forth between euphoria and turmoil. It's been a rollercoaster of a week and she wonders if it shows on her face. "Upgrades for the dome and a little bit of fun with Sam Wilson's wings. Other than that, no." She draws in a breath and lets it out slow, lifts the teacup her mother left her, and sips it with the same sort of delicate tension. The two of them are quiet for a moment more, long enough to catch little snatches of Ramonda and Nakia's laughter, before T'Challa sighs and launches forth into what he wants to say.

 

"I gave him permission to see you again."

 

"I know."

 

"I gave him one week. That is all. The week is done, and the two of you have had your time together."

 

"So I've been told," she grits out, trying hard to keep her voice down and her temper at bay. This isn't the time to get upset. Perhaps she can reason with her brother, if she keeps a cool head.

 

"Good. I'm glad you understand."

 

He pauses long enough for the silence to wear her nerves thin and she's almost grateful when he speaks again, until he actually opens his mouth and it's then that the little patience she has whittles down to nearly nothing. Whatever he'd done on his honeymoon, it hadn't mellowed him out any. And whatever argument Bucky had presented the morning they'd been discovered hadn't done any good.

 

"So you realize now that this relationship is futile?" He sounds so very placating, like an adult trying to tell a child that the thought of riding a cloud was silly. She hated it so much. Shuri resists the urge to sling her teacup across the room and instead settles for twisting the hem of her shirt in her fists instead.

 

"I want to know exactly why it's futile, brother," she says, her teeth clenched and her glare harsh. She won't let him back down from this, though she knows he only wants her to sit and sigh and nod her head in agreement. She's not a child anymore. She isn't going to simply accept what he says just because he says it. "And not for the bullshit reasons you've given me before."

 

He raises a brow at the expletive but doesn't scold her on it. Instead he leans forward and starts to explain, in slow simple terms, why her love for James Barnes was a problem.

 

"He's a good man, sister. I know he is. It's why I haven't had him thrown out of this country or imprisoned. It's why I'm giving him a chance to present his case to the council. I don't have to do that, you know." She did. She was reminded of it every waking second. "But he is not one of us." T'Challa shakes his head and offers her a sad smile. "And you are so young. I know, I know, you are not a child anymore. You aren't, I will concede to that. But you don't know what true love is. And whatever feelings you have for him are simply the passion of a young woman infatuated."

 

"I said I wanted a real reason," she responds, not allowing him any wiggle room to feel as though he'd won. "You've told me all this before, you know. And you're wrong. I know it makes you feel helpless to know that, but you are. You know nothing of my heart, and nothing at all of what Bucky feels for me. And it's because you refuse to see what's in front of you. If Mama could see it, why can't-"

 

"She indulges you!" he hissed, losing a little bit of his condescending composure. Shuri counts that as a victory, no matter how small. "You can't always hide behind her, not the way you've been doing. She seems to think that if I allow this to continue, that nothing bad is going to happen. But I can tell you right now-this isn't going to work out the way you want it to."

 

"Why? Because he's not Wakandan? You can change that!"

 

"No one would go for it. No one. Just because I am king and have the power to overrule whatever decision the council makes doesn't mean it would be prudent for me to do so." She'll give it to him that he's right in this. She knows how delicate a balance it is to exude authority while also appearing as a fair and thoughtful ruler. And she doesn't envy his job, not one bit. But in this little matter, she'd hoped he'd grasp at that privilege, if only for her sake.

 

"They would if you talked to them, if you plead my case. Brother, I love him. I really do. And all I'm asking is for a chance to keep him close to me. That's all I want."

 

T'Challa frowns, and sits back in thought, and in the ensuing silence, Shuri wonders for a second what her Baba would have done if he were in her brother's position.

 

"Baba would have given him a chance," she says, mostly under her breath but her brother catches it and his face goes from thoughtful to almost livid.

 

"You will not bring him into this," he says warningly, and she's just cautious enough not to retort. "What our father would have done is neither here nor there because he isn't here. Not anymore."

 

Who's fault is that?  She wants to say, but that is too cruel even for the mood she's in now so she holds it inside.  She lets out a breath and tries again. "You are right," she says, by way of apology and she notes the look of surprise on his face when she admits that. "Baba's opinion is moot point at the moment because he isn't king; you are. And you can fix this, you can make it so that Bucky doesn't have to leave me, and that I-"

 

"Wait. Wait one moment." T'Challa holds up a hand and makes a face. "Did you honestly believe I would deport him?"

 

She blinks. Of course she did. Why wouldn't she? She nods dumbly and he chuckles, though it's mostly humorless.

 

"Oh Bast." He heaves out a deep breath and leans back in the seat once more, staring at the ceiling as if he's trying to find the words to say. Shuri suddenly feels very, very silly.

 

"I promised him that I wouldn't kick him out the country, Shuri. I made him a vow that I would at least be able to grant him that."

 

"But what about the rest of what you'd said?" she asks him. "You told him you would wait and see, that you would give him time to prove he loves me. I know a week isn't long enough to decide of he truly loves me or not, but still-"

 

"The more I think of that, the more I regret saying something. And I had thought perhaps he would keep our discussion to himself."

 

Shuri snorts derisively. "He tells me everything, brother. He trusts me enough to tell me whatever is on his mind. We are two halves of a whole and what he knows, I know, and vice versa." She hates how T'Challa laughs at her when she says it because it's true. Bucky couldn't keep anything from her anymore than she could keep anything from him. She hated the idea that her brother was mocking this. He still doesn't see a woman before him, she realizes. He still thinks she's a little girl playing at love.

 

And for the first time since she'd kissed Bucky that day at his pond, she wondered if maybe there was some merit to the whole thing.

 

He catches the shift in her approach and finds an in, little seeds of doubt springing up in her heart and her mind the longer he talks. No matter what she does, she can't block out what he says and she can't stop thinking that maybe, just maybe, her brother is right. He loves her, she knows. He only wants what's best for her. He'd never do anything to hurt her.

 

But neither would Bucky, right?

 

She's so confused, when he finishes rambling on about propriety and tradition and how Wakanda would never accept Bucky as their prince that she can't think straight enough to argue much more. Instead, she nods along at what he says and stares blankly at a spot on the wall. She just wants to go to bed and wake up and start over. She's tired of hearing him talk.

 

"It's late, brother," she finally gets out, rubbing her eyes and faking a yawn. "If you're not too busy, do you mind if we continue this conversation in the morning?"

 

T'Challa stares at her for a long while before nodding his accent. "I think you'll understand my reasoning if you sleep on it," he says with a soft smile. She manages to offer him one back and she stands then, her knees wobbling, her hands a little shaking, but she covers it by pretending to be oh so tired, and she knocks back the last of her tea, leaning down to give T'Challa a peck on the cheek.

 

It's all so routine and fake and it makes her nauseous.

 

She doesn't bother saying goodnight to anyone else. She doesn't even bother to text D or Folami back and let them know how the little talk went. She doesn't bother to do much else but lock her doors and run a bath and sink into the hot water and bury her head in her hands.

 

Later, in her bed and wrapped up in her warm sheets, she stops staring at the ceiling long enough to glance at her phone as it goes off. Her heart clenches painfully in her chest when she sees that it's Bucky texting her.

 

I miss you. I love you.

 

She stares at her phone dully for a long time before she moves to answer.

  

 

 I love you too.

 What's wrong?

 

She wants to lie, so very badly, tell him that nothing besides the usual but this is worse than before in her head. She doesn't know up from down right now and all she wants is to find her way out of this tunnel, no matter which end she ends up on.

 

 

What if he's right?

Who sugar?

T'Challa. What if he's right about us? What if we don't last? What if none of this is real?

 

Her phone is quiet for so long she wonders if maybe he's starting to agree and she squeezes her eyes shut at the thought, panic and hurt and anger rising in her chest and threatening to swallow her whole. This is all too much, she doesn't know what to do, she isn't sure where to go. She needs to scream but nothing will come out and this is going to tear her apart if it doesn't stop now.

 

And then her phone vibrates once more.

 

Your brother loves you. I think he means well. But maybe he's scared.

Why?

Because he doesn't want anything to hurt you. And neither do I.

 

So why don't you quit dragging this out?  she wants to scream. Why don't you get this over and done with now?

 

Ask him if we can move the hearing up.

What?

He needs to understand how serious I am. He's gotta know how much I love you.

 

Love doesn't fix everything. Love won't change people's mind, love won't change the world. Love couldn't change everything, and even if Bucky was sincere (he was, he was so honest,her Bucky, he wouldn't lie to her about this) he couldn't make them see how much she needed him and how much he needed her. It was no use. She debates on answering him back or ignoring him before she types out a quick 'okay' and throws her phone onto her night stand.

 

And though she wants so very badly to cry, just enough to get the suffocating feeling out of her throat, she can do nothing but curl up beneath her sheets and wait for the morning to come.

 


 

T'Challa has learned that when his mother gives him that look that it's best for him to keep his mouth closed and his eyes averted because anything he says any look he gives her will be taken the other way. So when his wife mirrors that look and the two of them glare him down from his spot at the tea table, he's honestly surprised that he hasn't caught fire just yet. He should be aflame right now, writhing on the floor as the duel gazes of two very angry, very unimpressed Wakandan women sear into his soul.

 

This is incredibly uncomfortable. And he knows exactly why they're doing this and what they're angry about.

 

"I'm doing the right thing, you know," he somehow dares to say, and neither woman says a word, though the eye roll Nakia gives him promises he probably will be sleeping alone for the foreseeable future if he doesn't fix this and soon. He loathes the idea of that; he's just now getting used to being able to roll over and wrap her in his arms come morning, her bare skin on his, her warm body soft and inviting.

 

He clears his throat and shakes his head of such thoughts. It wasn't the time nor the place.

 

"What exactly is the right thing?" Nakia asks, an edge to her voice that spoke of no room for lush words or lies. She wanted his truth and she wanted his reasoning and he would be foolish, absolutely foolish, to try and pretty up what she wanted him to say. So he doesn't.

 

"Keeping my sister from making a mistake."

 

Well, that wasn't entirely the truth. And she had to have known it because the look on her face doesn't change a bit, nor does his mother's scowl.

 

"You mean controlling her so that she doesn't disgrace you in some way," Ramonda says blithely, almost as an after thought. She crosses her arms over her chest and T'Challa understands now why there were times that his formidable father had balked under the pressure of disappointing or displeasing his wife.

 

"It's for her own good and the good of our family-"

 

"It's to feed your own selfish ego, T'Challa. It's so that you can continue on in this old, outdated, stupid tradtion of isolationism, but on your terms. Oh, you'll pretend you're opening your borders and expanding our influence, but you have the power to broker peace and change by simply allowing your sister to love whom she wants and you insist on making her miserable so that you can have the kind of change that you want."

 

"You don't want to rock the boat too much, do you?" Nakia adds. There is no sympathy in her voice, not one shred, and he feels so much like a whipped child right now. But perhaps, he thinks, as he swallows and listens, that he does deserve this. Because as much as he hates the idea of his mother and his wife being right about this...they are. Hadn't he been angry at his father for the lies? Hadn't he hated the idea of withholding all the good of Wakanda back so that his people could selfishly keep it to themselves?

 

What made this any different? Why was he putting his own comfort above his baby sister's happiness?

 

He was a coward.

 

He sat still and kept silent, almost afraid to get in a word edgewise less Nakia really lose her temper. And seeing Ramonda angry, truly angry, was the very last thing he wanted.

 

"James Barnes is a good man," Ramonda says, her conviction in the former assassin so strong that T'Challa could almost feel it rolling off of her. He wondered if maybe this was her way of rectifying her own mistakes. He remembers her initial reaction to N'Jadaka and later, her remorse, deep and aching after his death and how they hadn't been able to fix that.

 

"I wouldn't trust my daughter with any other man but him. He would do whatever it took to make her happy and keep her safe, and that is all I want."

 

"I do not doubt you are right, Umama," he says respectfully, and she softens just a bit, as does Nakia. "But you must consider the consequences of a match between the princess and an outsider. She is as of now our only heir and the other tribes will not take too kindly to a union between she and James."

 

"Hang the council," Nakia scoffs out, and she stalks over to where T'Challa sits, leaning down until they are face to face and her arms cage him in on either side of the chair. She means business when she's looking at him like this, so he makes it a point not to react, no matter how much he wants to insist that she's wrong. "Nothing will change unless you push it to change. The council also doesn't want to open our borders or release our technology or allow us to go out and make real change in the world. But the council is wrong. And the only way they will know they are wrong is if you say something."

 

"And what if this is a mistake?" he counters, frowning less from anger and more from his insistent need to protect Shuri. She's his baby as much as she was his mother's. He still remembers that tiny, sweet baby that Ramonda held nearly 21 years before, and how he'd promised his parents he would always make sure she was kept safe and happy. He had no doubt that Bucky's intentions were pure and that he made her happy now, but what about later? What about when she grew even more and outgrew her crush?

 

But what if it wasn't really just a crush? He looks up at his wife as she studies him and he thinks of himself at 21, and knows he'd loved Nakia even then. Perhaps it was the result of knowing her all his life, but sometimes love worked out in different ways than the one he had.

 

"If it's a mistake, my love," Nakia says, and he closes his eyes briefly at the endearment. "Then it will be Shuri's mistake to make. Not yours nor mine nor anyone else. She's a woman grown. We must allow her to navigate her world the way she wants and now how we expect. Otherwise, she will resent you for the rest of her life."

 

He knew she was right. And resentment was the very last thing he wanted. He thought of his conversation with Shuri just minutes before and he grimaced to think of how he'd tried manipulating her into seeing things his way. That was something he'd thought he was above doing. He sees what fear had gotten him. Perhaps it was time to see what faith in his sister and the man she loved could get him.

 

He still couldn't quite get past his misgivings, though. He says as much and Ramonda slides a hand across his shoulders soothingly. "Do you not think that I worry too, my son? Of course I do. But I know her heart, and I know she is nothing if not true to herself. She will be fine. We must give her room to show us she's grown up and room to find out what truly makes her happy."

 

"Perhaps you're right," he concedes, sighing tiredly as he slumps back in his seat. "Maybe we could give Barnes and Shuri a few more days together-"

 

"Or," Nakia says with a sly grin, "you can move the council hearing up. Call for the tribe leaders tomorrow, and have it the day after. That will give everyone time to get to the capitol and time for James to present his argument."

 

T'Challa agrees, mostly because he's too tired to fight it otherwise and because he knows that his wife is right. But he insists, in his own mind, that this is Bucky's fight and not his and that he won't use his power to do favors for a select few. It wouldn't be fair. He dismisses himself to ready for bed, kissing his mother on the cheek and his wife on the lips, and leave the two of them to watch as he disappears into the bathroom.

 

"He's so stubborn," Nakia mentions, when he's out of earshot, and Ramonda chuckles lightly.

 

"Quite like his father, he is. But he'll come around."

 

"Do you think? He may have softened to allowing James to stay and see Shuri, but..."

 

"But nothing," Ramonda says firmly, a smile coming to her lips. "My daughter deserves to love her White Wolf the way she wants and not how the council decides. My son has executive decision over all and has yet to truly exercise it. But he will."

 

Nakia doesn't argue. If anyone knows T'Challa more than she, it's his mother. Even so she's curious to know what the queen mother has up her sleeve.

 

"You've got a plan then, Umama?" she asks, and her mother in law grasps her hands, pulling her close to bid her goodnight.

 

"I do. Meet me in my room first thing in the morning. Don't tell Shuri, don't tell T'Challa. He wants to know if James truly loves his sister? Tomorrow, he will see."

Chapter Text

Bucky's surprised to see Okoye waiting for him when he gets back from Kiye's. Fear spikes inside his chest when he catches sight of the hovercraft she'd rode over on, but the closer he gets, the more it lessens and eases into a curiosity. She doesn't look like she's coming to drag him off to prison or kill him, so that's a little promising. If anything, she looks oddly at ease. He wonders if maybe that should alarm him more than if she were standing stiff and at attention outside the cabin instead of leaned against the walls, a bottle of water in hand and two other Dora chatting with her quietly.

 

She catches sight of him when he clears the woods from the trail and she watches him with a blank, carefully crafted expression. He can't tell what she's thinking; he never really has been able to, but he's sure whatever she's here for will be explained shortly. So he raises a hand and smothers back a smile when she actually returns the gesture. Perhaps she's not as friendly with him as she used to be, but at least she doesn't hate him. That's promising.

 

"You could have possibly left a note saying you were leaving," she calls to him, when he pushes the wheelbarrow up close to the door and takes off the packs over his shoulders. Bini and Thathu hop out and start to play, letting out excess energy from being cramped up in a sack for over an hour. Bucky gives a polite hello to the other two Dora, Onyeka and a new inductee, Nailah, and moves to the wheelbarrow to pick up little Ithemba, who snoozes tucked tightly beside Isinye.

 

"I would have if I'd have known you were comin'. I got a phone, you know."

 

Okoye shoots him a look that lets him know she hadn't thought of that but wasn't going to explain herself. Instead, she bends down and ruffles Thathu's soft brown fur, a crack of a smile creeping across her face when the kid nuzzles her hand. "This one is my favorite. He's such a sweet thing."

 

"Mellow as hell. Kiye says his pops was the same way."

 

"His sister, however?" She scoffs. "That one is a handful. You spoil her, Bucky. I hate to see what you'll do with your own children."

 

There's something in the way she says it that makes Bucky pause, and he searches her face for whatever meaning is behind that statement. He sees a softness behind her eyes that he hadn't in a while and it warms him completely, gives him a spark of hope that he grasps onto and cradles protectively.

 

"Oh, I already know," he says with a slight grin. "It'll be ten times as bad."

 

Shifting the baby goat in his arms, he invites the three of them inside and lets Ithemba curl up in the sheets of his cot, wrapping them around her loosely as she stirs from her nap. Her cloudy white eyes search the still dark cabin blindly, her nose sniffing about until she finds his hand and he scratches her head to let her know he hasn't left. "I'm here, sweet girl," he says in a soft voice, smiling when she bleats and, satisfied that he's near, tucks her head back down to nap again.

 

"She's blind, isn't she?"

 

Bucky looks up to soft spoken Nailah and nods. "She was early, at least by a few weeks. I don't know if that has anything to do with it or if she'd have been born blind anyway. But she seems to do alright either way. She sticks with her mama most of the time and lets me tote her around."

 

Nailah smiles and pushes from the table to come pet the baby goat, a little sigh of pleasure leaving her lips when Ithemba stirs and melts into her touch. "Oh...she's so sweet!" She bends down and starts to sweet talk the kid, grinning up at a chuckling Okoye and Onyeka when Ithemba bleats happily.

 

"Wanna hold her?" Bucky asks, and when Nailah nods, he scoops up the goat, depositing in her lap. The young Dora is entranced, her eyes filling with unshed tears.

 

“Thank you, Ingcuka,” she murmurs, and she starts to hum softly as Ithemba nuzzles her shoulder.

 

“She’s having a bit of a hard time adjusting,” Onyeka supplies when Bucky looks on curiously. “She was the youngest of eight and her parents and siblings doted on her tremendously.”

 

“Ah. Explains a lot.” He can’t shake the way Nailah reminds him of Becky and it tugs at something inside him that makes him have to clear his throat. Okoye catches his eye from across the small space, and gestures for him to meet her outside. “You uh, make yourself at home ‘Yeka. You know where everything is, yeah?”

 

Onyeka nods, and sits politely at the table, watching Nailah with a soft amusment on her face and pours herself a cup of water as Bucky and Okoye head for the pens.

 

“So. You’re not here for a social call, I’m guessin’.”

 

There’s a beat of silence and a sigh and when Bucky turns around, there’s conflict and grief and a little sadness on Okoye’s beautiful face. And he feels so torn up about it. No matter what had happened in the last week or so, she was his friend and he cared. He reached out tentatively and touched her hand and she blinked furiously, pressing her lips together before drawing a shaky breath.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

It’s the apology of someone who has thought long and hard about how to do it but couldn’t come up with anything more poignant than a simple sorry, and for Bucky, it’s more than enough. She never had to say the words, honestly, but it means so much that she had.

 

“I get it, Koye,” he assures her, keeping his voice gentle and low because he doesn’t want her to think he’s angry, not at all. He never had been, honestly, not even at T’Challa. He understands, even if he wishes things were much easier than they were.

 

“I just…you have to understand my affections for the Princess and my loyalties…you have to know that I would give up my own life for the crown and that is my job but also my calling and-“

 

She cuts off and lifts her eyes to the sky, sucking in air as she struggles to explain. “I love Shuri as if she were my own. And T’Challa, as well. And when I felt that either of them were threatened, I acted accordingly, in what I thought was the best possible way. For the king…I gave up my husband and my marriage because someone who was supposed to have been like a brother to him betrayed him. And for Shuri…well…I thought…”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“Is it really? You’re right. She’s right. She’s not a child anymore, and no matter how much I wish she were…I have to get used to that. She’s got to make her own way and my job now is to guide her best way I can.” She pauses for a second but she never shakes his hand away, and after a moment, she turns her own so that their fingers thread together. He squeezes tight, trying his hardest not to cry out in the goat pens in front of one of the most amazing people he’s ever known. She’ll never let him live it down.

 

“I had a sister once,” he says, and he doesn’t worry about the sniffling now, or the way his eyes burn at the thought of Rebecca Barnes, long dead no doubt and gone to her grave without knowing her Bucky, her beloved older brother, hadn’t died in the second world war. It was something he knew he’d never really find peace with, but maybe over the years, he could learn to deal with it.

 

“You’ve told me of her, some,” Okoye says, smiling just a bit. “Rebecca. Pretty and fiesty and your favorite.”

 

Bucky chokes out something like a laugh and wipes a stray tear away with his free hand. “Yeah, she was…god, she was somethin’ else. You’d have liked her. Always getting into trouble, trying to follow me around like a little puppy. I gave up telling her to go home and stuffed her hair under a cap and let her come with me. Ask Stevie about her; he’ll tell you some stories.” He squeezes Okoye’s hand once more and pulls away, moving towards the pens and leaning on the fencing, his mind swirling with memories of a dark-haired girl with sparkling blue eyes and skinny knees. Some days he could block the emotions that swelled up when he thought of back then, of his family, but today would not be one those days.

 

“I’ll have to make sure to corner Captain Rogers for all the best stories of the gang of you.”

 

There’s a sparkle in her eye that doesn’t come from tears and Bucky blows out a sigh of relief he and Okoye are good now. Even so, he decides to ask just to be sure.

 

“We good, then?”

 

“Depends.” On what, he was sure he already knew, but he would wait to hear what she’d say. She pats his arm once more and stands beside him in contented silence for a few moments more, the two of them simply soaking in the bright morning sounds and the fresh air. And then she tilts her head, eyes serious and sharp and he gives her his full attention.

 

“I don’t have to tell you what will happen to you if you ever break her heart.”

 

“’Course not.”

 

“I don’t have to stress that if I ever find out you’ve hurt her, betrayed her, abused her in any way, there will be nowhere in the world you can hide from me.”

 

It’s a scary thought, really, to have an angry and vengeful Okoye hot on his heels so he seriously thinks of her words though he knows he’d never do any of the above. He simply nods.

 

“I feel you.”

 

“And you’re going to pursue her with a mind for marriage. This is not a fling, Bucky. You’ll wait until she’s at the very least, 25 to ask for her hand. 30 for children. You can wait on that, I’m sure.”

 

He has to bite his lip to keep from laughing because she’s dead serious about this. But he has a feeling that he’s going to marry Shuri (if given the chance) at least within the next few years. 25 is a little too far away. He agrees with her on the babies, though. Shuri most definitely could wait on that, and so could he. So he nods once more and waits for her response.

 

“Good. Then yes, we’re fine.” She smiles again, this time as lovely as always and Bucky almost laughs again at the change in attitude. He settles for a crooked grin and nods for her to come back in.

 

“Want some tea?”

 

“Certainly, if you don’t mind. We’ve got a bit of time yet, so…”

 

“Uh, yeah, so…that’s what I wanted to ask. What are you really here for? I feel like the apology was a little side quest or somethin’.” He smiles at her snort of amusement and watches the emotions play out on her face. He’s never seen Okoye so flustered and expressive and he thinks he really likes this side of her. It’s incredibly human.

 

“Ever perceptive. I knew I liked you for a reason.”

 

“You mean, you don’t think I’m ridiculously good lookin’?” he tease and she chuckles.

 

“I do. For a colonizer. Don’t ever tell anyone I said that either,” she amends when his eyes widen in mock surprise. And not for the first time does he wonder what would have happened had he fallen for Okoye instead. But life worked out in its own ways; he wouldn’t change what he had with the woman beside him for anything now. A sister, he liked to imagine. He had himself another sister. The tug at his heart strings made him clench his fist momentarily and he almost missed what Okoye was saying next.

 

“We’ve got to get to the palace before luncheon and you’ve got to make a good impression because those go a long way in convincing members of the social elite to back you.”

 

He blinked once, then twice, glancing toward the house where Nailah was dancing happily with Ithemba in her arms, Onyeka singing along and laughing as Bini and Thathu played around her feet. He took in the sight for a moment long enough clear his head and back tracked to what Okoye was saying.

 

“You mean to tell me that he changed his mind?” It sounded almost too good to be true, but maybe, just maybe…

 

Okoye smirked just enough so that he knew that T’Challa had, in fact, changed his mind.

 

“Mostly. He’s allowing you the chance to rub elbows with the Wakandan elite. The families who make up the aristocracy here sit the council that will decide if you can stay in Wakanda and apply for citizenship.”

 

“And if I can become a Wakandan citizen-“

 

“You have a shot at marrying Shuri.”

 

He raises a brow at her terminology but doesn’t dwell on it for too long. The idea that he even has a chance now thrills him beyond belief. There’s still work to do, people to schmooze, and folks to impress…but he can do that. He thinks he can. Once upon a time, James Barnes had been a charmer. And maybe it was time to dig deep and find a little of that charm once again.

 

The Dora wait for him to clean up and dress, and they tend to the goats for him so that he doesn’t have to waste any time getting dirty again. He makes sure to feed them extra and shoots Kiye a message, asking if one of the boys can come by to check on them later that evening.

 

“You think I’ll be gone a few days?”

 

“Two or three, probably. There’s luncheon tonight and if that goes well, we’ll have a council meeting in the morning…and probably a decision later that night, as well.”

 

“Everything’s movin’ so fast,” he says quietly, as he loads up in the hovercraft and buckles up beside Nailah. There’s goat hair still on her uniform and a smudge of mud on her cheek but she looks so happy he doesn’t bother telling her about it. She catches his eye in the back seat and grins, her pretty face glowing so brightly, it’s like looking at a star. And he wonders if she feels the happiness he does, the hope, because she reaches out a slim hand tentatively and taps his hand, her lips parting a bit when her fingertips touch the vibranium.

 

“It’s warm,” she says with an almost shocked expression and he smiles.

 

“Yeah, it is. Cool, huh?”

 

“So very! Her highness is…amazing. I’ve gotten to go to the laboratory once and…wow.”

 

There’s a giggle too and he swears he sees Okoye roll her eyes. He grins and shoots her a look to be good and she shakes her head, turning on the radio as they speed away from the woods back to the city.

 


 

He’d only thrown on a pair of jeans and henley to travel in so he has to rush from the parking garage to the guest room he usually kept when he stayed in the palace. He had packed the suit he’d worn to the wedding and a few nice pairs of pants as well as two extra suits, just in case the luncheon turned into a dinner that turned into an afterparty as well. Wakandans put on a damn good party and most of them went on into the night; if he had to play the part of native son (and pretend like he liked all these people he’d never met) he’d have to dress the part.

 

He lay his clothes out on the bed and freshened up in the bath, dabbing a bit of cologne on and making sure his hair was well moisturized. Whatever treatment he’d gotten done for the wedding was still holding tight on his locks. They shone like melted chocolate when he brushed it back and he could see glimmering golden highlights from his hours in the sun threaded through the strands. He was deciding whether to part on the left or right side when he heard a knock at his door and instantly, his mind went to Shuri.

 

He’d missed her over the last few days, and her texts had been so lifeless and sad that he worried about her too. He hoped that the stress of worrying about their future wasn’t dragging her down. He only wanted everything to be alright, and even if it wasn’t, he wanted her to be. Bucky set down his brush and finished with the buttons of his crisp shirt as he walked to the door, hoping it was his sweet baby so he could have just a little time alone with her. He needed to reassure her he was hers no matter what, and maybe offer her a little bit of hope as well.

 

Instead, he was greeted by Nakia, flanked by two Dora, a smile on her lovely face. He couldn’t help but smile back, though he was a little surprised to see the new queen at his door. “Uh, hello?”

 

Though he didn’t intend for his greeting to come out as a question, it did and Nakia’s eyes twinkled as she softly laughed. “Hello, Sergeant Barnes. Were you expecting someone else?”

 

He blushed just a bit, color creeping up from his neck to his jawline and he ducked his head though he couldn’t help his grin. “Maybe. Sorta. I mean…I’m being so rude, good lord. Please come in your Majesty.” He nodded to the Dora, who gave him friendly nods back, and waited on their queen’s next move.

 

Nakia snorted delicately and waved her hand, dismissing the title as if it were nothing. “Ah, I haven’t even been coronated yet,” she says jovially, but she does slide into the room, all elegance and glamour in a beautiful bright off the shoulder sundress, matching heels and a head wrap adorned with a large bow to match. She looked like something out of a fashion magazine and he complimented her as such when she moved to sit at the little desk in the corner. Her detail followed silently behind her, and posted on either side of the desk while Bucky stood in the middle of the room feeling out of his element. Nakia tilted her head and smiled graciously, the picture of a perfect lady, though Bucky knew there was fire and sharp metal underneath as well. T’Challa had chosen his queen perfectly.

 

“So. I imagine you’re wondering what I’m here for.”

 

He nodded. “I was, a little. Uh, you want any tea or-“

 

“No, no, I’m fine. You’re fine, James, please relax.”

 

He didn’t realize he’d been standing there clenching his fists until she said something so he makes it a point to uncurl his hands and sit at the foot of his bed, enough space between the two of them so that no one would ever think anything untoward had gone on. But with two bodyguards in the room, he had no reason to think anyone would think anything odd. It was only that his head was in a million different places and though he’d spoken to the queen before, he hadn’t ever been around her at length nor alone.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Don’t be.” She leans forward then, her eyes for him only and he felt a little of his tension draining away. "I'm only here to escort you to the luncheon."

 

"Oh. Oh, okay. I kinda figured-"

 

"Shuri will meet you there." She smiles again, this one even warmer than the next and he feels a lot more like himself now instead of a bumbling idiot. "I know many of the people attending and want to introduce you to some friends of mine. Influential friends." She pauses so her words take root in his brain and he nods dumbly. "Important friends." Her eyes sweep his outfit, a simple pair of black slacks and a button down white shirt and she hums thoughtfully.

 

"You're not wearing that, are you?"

 

He shrugs, looks down at his clothes and realizes that he's a little underdressed. The wedding suit would be nice...only it was a tad bit too formal for a dressy luncheon in the royal gardens. He needed something in between and didn't really have anything.

 

"I uh...I was? I mean, I was." He clears his throat once more and sits up a bit. "I don't have a whole lotta dressy stuff, you know. Not really good for haulin' hay and clearing gardens."

 

"Of course not. Which is why I brought a few gifts along, if you'll allow me." She glances over to the Dora on her left-Danai, Bucky remembers-who nods once, taps her spear into the floor and calls from the door to open. And as soon as she does, servants come piling in with racks and racks of clothes and shoes, all in a multitude of colors and styles. He's a little overwhelmed by the flurry of activity and he watches as Nakia slips away from the desk and moves over to the selections.

 

“You don’t want to look too American,” she says, rummaging through the racks brought into the room, “but you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard to be one of us.” The servants wait patiently in the corner, glancing every so often at each other with slight smiles on their faces. He’s sure it’s pretty funny, his reaction included, as he gawks at the clothes that probably cost more than he’s ever had in his life. He makes a deliberate attempt to close his mouth and straighten up a bit so that he resembles a man with some sort of dignity and not the slack jawed cretin he was sure he looked like.

 

He may not have been the smartest or most well-mannered man in the world, but Winnifred hadn’t raised him in a barn and it was probably a good idea if he acted like it.

 

So he joins her, at her behest, beside the clothes and follows her line of vision as she works through colors and textures and fit, glancing at him every so often until she's narrowed it down from a multitude to only about six outfits. They're all pretty sharp looking, he thinks, and he reaches out a hand to smooth down the front of a rich royal blue suit that catches his eye. He knows Nakia is eyeing him, can tell from her gaze that she's thinking about what he wants and what would look good with the people they're going to meet. Somehow, they manage to meet in the middle.

 

By the time he walks out of his room, the Queen of Wakanda on his arm and two Dora Milaje behind him, he forgets to feel even a little nervous about the luncheon. He looks good, he knows, if the widening of Nakia's eyes were any indication. He smells good, the luxurious cologne that had been a birthday present from Shuri following him like a cloud. And he felt good, all the knots and kinks in his belly gone. He had this. He had one of the most important people in the country-no, make that two, if what Nakia was saying was right-on his side, and he had nothing to really worry about.

 

He could charm the knickers off a nun in his day; he could do it now, if he really applied himself.

 

It's crowded in the gardens, the lunch having begun with an hour of socializing. Bucky rounds the corner of the palace toward the gardens with his head high, his shoulders straight and broad, and a spring in his step. Beside him, Nakia chatters away, seemingly about nothing, but as the music around them plays, and the people swell toward them to greet the queen, he's caught in the undertow of pleasantries and long introductions. Most people already know who he is. The White Wolf, the American born political asylum seeker who had won the friendship of the king and, if gossip was to be believed, won the heart of the princess as well. No one mentioned that when they bowed and made their introductions, but Bucky could tell it was on the tip of their tongues. He scours the crowd and finds familiar faces; Dora perched in various strategic locations and T'Challa in one corner, talking in deep conversation with Nakia's father. He meets Ramonda's eyes across a potted plant near the double doors, where she's entertaining some wealthy mining tribe leader and his wife, and she offers a brief, encouraging smile. Nakia's voice catches his attention, though, so he turns his head to her and listens as she describes various people who will be useful to their mission.

 

"That over there is Lady Anandi. She owns the most successful fashion label in the country. She designed my wedding dress." Nakia smiles wide and waves pleasantly at the older woman, who returns the gesture and bows respectfully. "And the little guy beside her? That's her son, N'Kodi. Or, supposedly is her son. Rumor has it she adopted one of her late husband's little indiscretions since she waited so long to have children of her own." Bucky follows all of this with mild amusment and turns when the queen does, watching as she points out this emissary and that celebrity-there's a popular singer there chatting with D'Wobe and he raises a hand to wave, grinning softly when the younger man excuses himself to pay his respects.

 

"Your Majesty," he intones, bowing and then pressing a kiss to Nakia's cheek. "So good to see you, Cuzzo. You look well."

 

"As do you, D. You've been staying out of trouble, I imagine?"

 

D'Wobe laughs, deep and full, and shakes his head. "I would not be me if I were out of trouble, you know. That is my main call to life; to stir the pot a bit." He glances over to Bucky and slaps him jovially on the shoulder. "Ingucka!" he drawls, drawing out the last syllable playfully.

 

"D'Wobe. You didn't tell me you were related to Queen Nakia."

 

Nakia scoffs and rolls her eyes dramatically. "Just Nakia, James! I told you, I'm not truly the queen just yet."

 

"You've been queen since you were eight, Cuzzo. Don't let her fool you, Bucky, she's itching to get her crown no matter what she tells you." The slight tilt to Nakia's lips tell him that D'Wobe may very well be right. "But yes, she's a cousin of mine. Our mothers were sisters."

 

Bucky files that information away for later use and nods. "And here I thought you were all Jabari."

 

D'Wobe's laugh is so raucous it draws some attention and Bucky tries hard not to blush. He can hear Nakia's slight snicker, though, and it keeps his palms from getting sweaty again.

 

"I'm mostly Jabari, Ingcuka! Mama completely adopted the lifestyle." He sniffs a bit and shrugs his broad shoulders, glancing out to the crowd of people who keep eyeing the trio. "And somehow, I've come back around full circle. Figures."

 

"You're an important part of bridging the gap," Nakia says genuinely. "Auntie may have started building those bridges, but you're paving the way. I'm very proud of you."

 

D'Wobe's smile is a little sheepish but genuine and he presses another kiss to Nakia's cheek. "I'm going to let the two of you do some more mingling, work the crowd, you know? Play him up, Cuzzo. Make sure our man has a foot in."

 

Nakia winks and leads Bucky off toward the palms, over to another dignitary, someone else important. Godi B'Wodi is the it girl Wakandan actress, and she keeps touching Bucky's arm when they meet. He doesn't take it personal, of course. "That's just how she is," Nakia says with a laugh. "She's a flirt. It's part of her charm, really. And why she's won so many awards over the years."

 

The social hour goes by in a blur, faces passing here and there as he makes his rounds. He does his best to try and commit them all to memory, using little bits about their person to associate names and faces. But in the back of his mind he's still thinking of how treacherous this is, of how he can completely screw this up if he says just the wrong thing or get the wrong person affiliated with the wrong tribe. It keeps him so busy and on his toes that he doesn't have time to think about where Shuri is during all this, at least not until he hears the drums that signal her arrival.

 

"Fashionably late, as usual," Nakia says with a hint of humor in her voice, and they turn along with everyone else to watch the princess arrive. She's stunning in purple and pink, her braids wrapped around her head like a crown and delicate glass earrings dangling from her lobes. But there's so much exhaustion in her eyes that his entire heart hurts and he wants nothing more than to walk to her, scoop her up, and cradle her in his arms. He doesn't even care who's looking at this point. He doesn't realize that his feet have already turned to go to her until Nakia holds him fast, firmly but gently.

 

"Let her come to us, James," she whispers, and gives him a look that tells him to hold fast. And just because there's so much at stake, he listens.

 

She makes her way to the two of them, slowly as she's held up by various members of the elite who bow and greet her. And she, ever the impeccable princess, offers them a smile, though terse and tense and a little bit strained. He sees it if no one else can. He sees it but right now, he can do nothing about it but wait. Finally, after what feels like forever, she stands in front of them and per tradition, she greets her sister in law first.

 

"Nakia," she murmurs, soft and low, and there's a strain to her voice that speaks of hours crying. He wonders why she hadn't called him if she was this upset. It hurts to think that maybe she didn't want him to know, but he tries not jumping to conclusions.

 

"Shuri," Nakia greets, pulling her into a gentle but encompassing hug. Though they are nearly the same height, Shuri seems so small in her arms, almost like a child. It makes his chest ache and he has to suck in deep breath after deep breath to keep from reacting. "Did you sleep any at all last night?" It's said in a voice low enough that only the three of them can hear and though she gives Nakia what could almost be an actual laugh, it's hollow and empty and it rattles when she forces it from her chest.

 

"Not a wink," she almost whispers. "But it's no matter. It's another day and apparently we have council tomorrow. So we'll see."

 

"We will see," Nakia assures her, trying her best to put forth some sort of comfort in the words. Bucky isn't sure if it works, but he doesn't have much time to dwell on it. It's only when she turns to greet him-a polite but friendly one, one becoming of a princess and her hired protector-does he remember what Nakia had said on the walk down.

 

He won't know about this, my husband. He won't understand until we show him.

 

He had been leery of the idea initially but the part of him that wanted to bend the heavens for the woman in front of him didn't care one iota what her brother would say. He didn't care what the world would say at this point. His sweet baby needed him and he would show her that he was hers and hers alone.

 

They want something to talk about, James. Let them! Give them something to talk about.

 

"Sergeant Barnes," Shuri starts, her mouth pressed into a shadow of a smile. Bucky waits just a hair, glances to Nakia one last time for reassurance, and pushes every thought of right and wrong and propriety and expectation out the window. He reaches down for her slim hand and watches as her eyes widen, an almost panic blossoming in those brown eyes when he lifts her fingers to his lips and presses the softest of kisses there.

 

In the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees Ramonda smile.

 

"Hi, sugar."

 

It's not loud, no, but anyone who had been attempting to listen over the music and the light chatter would have heard. Shuri sucks in a breath so sharp he thinks she's taken a bit of his as well, but then something changes. Something like sunshine comes to the tired, red rimmed eyes and her smile widens until it's almost genuine and he's not scared anymore.

 

I love you so much, he wants to say, but a simple kiss to her hand will have to do.

 

"I meant to call you last night," she says, her voice stronger, her whole body relaxing as she's more assured of where she stands-where they stand-and he thanks Nakia for suggesting something so bold. He wonders exactly what T'Challa is thinking right now, or what the gossip rags will have to say by the morning. He wonders if he'll even care by tomorrow. He's still got work to do, but first, he has to see about his princess.

 

"Did you?"

 

"Mmm. Meant to tell you goodnight. I missed you." And when she smiles this time, it's the smile of a woman who's caught her second wind, who's found some sort of strength in spite of her exhaustion. He lowers her hand but doesn't let go, threading his fingers through hers and she joins him as he weaves through the crowd of staring, near gaping guests, a queen on one arm and a princess on the other.

 


 

"Nakia set all this up, didn't she?"

 

Lunch was served over a long table spread full of flowers and fruit, the chatter lively and animated. He sat sandwiched between Shuri and D'Wobe, who was too busy taking pictures of everyone to post on his Dadagram to really carry on conversation. And so, it'd left him ample opportunity to speak with Shuri alone.

 

Just how he wanted.

 

"Mmmhm. Smart one, that sister in law of yours." He shoots her a grin and glances to the woman in question, who winks and raises her glass of wine daintily. "I think your mama had a bit of say in all this too-"

 

"Oh Bast yes! The whole party idea reeks of Mama," she responds. "Nakia probably would have been content corralling everyone into the throne room and demanding they listen to your arguments." She pauses for a second to take a drink of punch, and Bucky can't help how his eyes follow her every move. It's like she's been awoken from some long slumber, like she's been risen from the dead. She's vibrant and beautiful and she's his Shuri again, not the ghost of a girl he'd text for days after their little getaway.

 

"Somehow, I have a feelin' that wouldn't have worked too well."

 

Shuri snorts. "Oh, it would have worked. But who's to say you'd have so many people vying for your attention like they are now?"

 

He knew she was referencing the almost overwhelming amount of people who had stopped to chat with him-not the princess, not the queen-during social hour. And once the plates were all cleared and dessert was brought out, he had a feeling he'd have more of the same, only this time from across a dinner table. "Eh. I can be charming when I want to." Her smirk is infections and he can't help himself, He leans over and brushes his lips across her cheek, just long enough to touch, but not too long to be indecent. But it speaks volumes anyway. The White Wolf belongs to the Princess and that was that.

 

"Where was I when you developed all this charm, hmm?"

 

"Nonexistent," he quips, and she shakes with laughter, pressing her hand to her mouth as she leans into him.

 

This feels so right.

 

"Look, keep bringing that up and I'll have to ask T'Challa if we can get you a pension plan once your citizenship is attained." 

 

Bucky raises a brow at that. It's one thing to think she's gotten hope renewed and yet another to hear it out her mouth. But it warms him all the same. "So...you really think this is going to happen, then?"

 

She turns full to watch him, her eyes for his only and to prove her point she tucks a strand of hair behind his ear affectionately. "I do. It'll happen. It has to, Bucky. I can't live without you. They know that now."

 

"Yeah?" He glances around the table quickly, to the curious eyes of those that watch them, and how they dart away respectively. And he's almost stunned to find that there's no malice there, no animosity. Everyone wonders of course, but no one seems to truly mind, not even M'Baku. He catches the man's eye for just long enough to get a head nod. It's almost like he's watching this from outside his body, as if none of this is real.

 

All that worrying they'd done...and he was more than sure now that he'd get to have the life he wanted. 

 

"Mmmhm. I'm almost scared I'll wake up and this will all have been a dream. But if it is..." She shrugs and there's not a worry in her pretty face. "If it is, I'll have to sleep forever. I love you, Bucky."

 

"I love you more, sweet baby," he whispers, grasping her hand beneath the table and squeezing tight.

 

She bites her lip as it splits into another grin, and she taps his nose, then turns back to finish the last of her yams. 


 

 

There's a rustle of activity as the lunch comes to an almost end and little glass dishes of cold fruit sorbet come out for dessert. He takes a small bite of his, careful not to make a mess of himself though he's honestly still hungry and the iced treat is almost too good. Manners were important, even if he thought he had this in the bag. And there was always the council meeting in the morning he'd have to go to; it was best not to give these people the impression that he wasn't good enough to be a Wakandan or good enough for Shuri. He was both.

 

She said he was, so he was. He didn't argue with genius.

 

He hadn't really been paying too much attention to the conversations around the table, mostly focused on feeling those important to the decision tomorrow out to get a good grip of how they worked. There was Idi Bomdwa, media mogul, a member of Nakia's River Tribe and though not nearly as important as her father, vital in his own right. He was a quiet man, focused and attentive, but kind from what Bucky could tell of the few minutes he'd spoken to him. And then of course, there was Adwa Fulante, the mining tribe's elderly but vivacious leader. She'd brought her grandson along with her and sat by T'Challa's side, laughing heartily and sipping her wine with gusto. He'd somehow made her laugh when Nakia had brought him around to her; he hoped that meant something in the grand scheme of things. 

 

But it was when Godi B'Wodi leaned forward, all white glimmering teeth and perfect hair, did Bucky get sucked into the chatter around the table.

 

"James, right?"

 

He blinks, a little taken aback by the almost abrupt call of his name, but he plays it off impressively. Or, at least he hopes, no one notices.

 

"You got it, Ms. B'Wodi."

 

He thinks maybe she blushes a bit, but it's entirely possible she's just playing at being coy. Even still, it amuses him. "I'm no miss, that's for old women."

 

"And you're not?" a man down the table says, as chuckles and snickers abound. Godi pretends to be offended, but Bucky can tell the two are acquainted and it's all teasing.

"You hush your mouth, you old boar. You know what they say, a woman is only as old as she feels." She sniffs delicately, then turns her attention back to Bucky when the laughter dies down. "Tell me more about this New York of yours," she says. "What makes it so special? I've heard nothing but wild things about America." There's a general quiet around the table as everyone waits and listens. Bucky takes a moment to gather his thoughts, a million and one of them spiraling around about his head. He wonders if she wants to hear bout the New York of now, about the city he didn't quite recognize anymore. And he knows he can't really tell her about it; to the Bucky of now, it was as foreign a place as it probably would be to Godi. So he forgets about the hustle and bustle of today and thinks about Brooklyn the way it was last he saw it. And he smiles.

 

"It's a mess, honestly. It's dirty, and grimy and filthy and everyone's an asshole." He sucks in air at his slip of tongue but the table explodes in laughter, Godi especially, so that he doesn't feel too badly about it. Part of my charm, he thinks. "But it's...it's a pretty special place. Nothing in the world like it, you know? I mean, where else in the world are you gonna get all these different kinds of people in one area and everyone hates to be bothered so much that they rarely get along...but look, say one bad word about the Yankees or the Mets or the rats and you'll get hell rained down on ya from all sides."

 

"And you lived there? All your life?"

 

He thinks about that for a second and decides he had. He'd lived and died a boy in New York and woke up a monster in Russia. He can't count that as living. It was just a stasis until he got to someplace much better.

 

"Born in Iowa, actually. But my pops found work in Brooklyn-that's where I was raised. He moved me and my little brother John and Ma up to the big city. When he died, it was four of us kids. Me and Johnny, Robby and Becky, my baby sister. Mama had to do it all on her own, but...I mean, she was a powerhouse. Amazing. I don't know how she did it, only that she did. And I tried all I could to help out. She was so mad when I dropped out of school cause...she said she had big dreams for us. All of us."

He takes a sip of water just to give himself a little bit of a breather because he can feel his throat closing at the thought of Winnifred and her calloused hands, her proud smiles.

"Brooklyn was my stomping grounds and my safe haven. It wasn't really a good place to raise kids sometimes, but everybody kinda knew each other and helped out. I mean, we had to. Things were...they weren't easy back then and your neighbor was all you had. That's one thing I'd never change about that city. There's this strange sense of belonging you feel there, even if nobody knows who you are or what your name is. And people can tell if you're from other parts of the city, too. You know, you can peep who was from Queens, who was from the Bronx. That kinda thing. It's not something I can really explain-"

 

"Oh, I understand, I think," Adwa cuts in, and she nods her head, her great braids moving along with her. "I can tell you, without ever getting it wrong who is a Miner. Who is a River. Who spent most of their lives on the Borders. Even though we all assimilate here in the city...well, everyone comes from somewhere and when you really know people and the place you live, you can tell. You can find outsiders just by glancing around."

 

Bucky swallows but brushes off the slight, if perhaps it is one. He can't quite be sure. But he won't let her see that it could bother him. Instead, he smiles.

 

"Yeah. I mean, we could tell who came from Jersey even if they lied and claimed they weren't. It's like you develop a beacon or somethin' for it." He's pleased to find that Adwa nods in agreement, rocking in her chair as a servant refills her wine. "But hey, none of that really matters in the end, you know? Cause once you get to New York, once you live there a while and it seeps into your bones...you became one of us. I mean, I don't really know how it works now. i haven't been back in a while. But I can't imagine much has changed. it's the core of the city. it's how it breathes and lives so...take that away, and what do you have? Nothing. There ain't no New York without the people in it."

 

"Is that would made me feel so at home here, James?" Ramonda asks, her question thoughtful but gentle. His gaze is nothing short of affectionate and his grin is wide.

 

"It is. I spent months trying to relearn how to be a person again. I spent so much time in my own head by myself, but I never felt like I was alone or that I didn't matter. People who had never seen me before or didn't understand me or where I came from or why I was here...they took me and fed and taught me. Teased me. Called me White Wolf and did my hair by the river." His chest swells at the thought of the kids, of Kiye and her girls, of the quiet and almost gruff kindness of her husband and then, it nearly overwhelms him when he thinks of his Shuri. She sits beside him and listens and he thinks maybe she's about to cry, but she doesn't. She keeps a firm grip on his hand beneath the table and never lets her eyes wander away from him.

 

"You guys are Wakanda. I mean, the place is gorgeous and unique and so special. I'm in awe of everything you've developed and made. I'm humbled by your traditions and your culture, at the incredible things that come from this place. But it's the people that really...I don't know. I've never really known anywhere like Wakanda. Except Brooklyn. My home. Makes sense, though. I can't go back to that place I came from. It's not the same now, I know. But this place, that you've let me heal in and grow in and make friendships-" He looks directly to T'Challa, the king's face in soft and contemplative thought, and then to Nakia, who does cry a bit, and Ramonda who nods to urge him along and D'Wobe's welcoming smile. Shuri leans into him now so that she's curled up at his side, her chin on his shoulder, her hand still in his.

 

"I've got so much here and I don't know if I really deserve it. But maybe that ain't the point. Maybe it's not about what I deserve, but what ya'll were willing to give. I don't guess I could ever really thank any of you enough for that."

 

It's quiet for a long moment after that. Soft clinks of spoons on dishes and the bustle of the city around them are the only sounds. Bucky feels like his whole body is floating and he doesn't know if he even cares enough to make it stop. He only knows that what he said was the truth, his truth, and that all of that had come from his heart.

 

And I love a woman so amazing it blows me away. And she loves me. He wanted to say that and more, but his thoughts are shifted when the quiet Idi clasps his hands in front of him, and in his deep, velvet voice, decides to speak.

 

"Come see us at council in the morning, Ingcuka," he says with a hint of a smile on his full lips. "We've got much more to discuss.