The final thaw -- at least he hoped, and if he'd been a religious man would have prayed -- found James waking in a warm bed in the sunlight, which was unexpected.
"My Ma used to say sunlight was the best soap," he said, then blinked at the sound of his voice saying it. He wasn't used to waking up with his memory intact.
"Well, ultraviolet radiation does have its benefits," said a voice, and a young woman smiled at him. On instinct he smiled back, going for cocky and charming. By the indulgently skeptical look on her face, he wasn't making the impression he'd hoped.
"Why am I out?" he asked, instead of trying to carry it off.
"Making sure you're clear," the young woman said. "How do you feel?"
"Tired," he said. "Clear?"
"We hope," she said. He was in a bed in a courtyard somewhere, and he noticed several women behind her with what he knew were the postures of soldiers. "Subconscious subliminal and neurochemical reprogramming."
"Oh," he said, nodding sagely.
"We fixed you while you were asleep," she translated. "I'd like to test it, if you don't mind."
She held up a slip of paper. His trigger sequence was on it, in his own hand.
He glanced from her to the soldiers, then nodded.
"Zhelaniye. Rzhavyy. Semnadtsat'. Rassvet. Pech'. Devyat'. Dobroserdechnyy. Vozvrashcheniye na rodinu. Odin. Gruzovoy vagon," she read aloud, stopping after each one to check him. It was agonizing, the anticipation, and it made him feel shaky and breathe shallow. But when she was done, he didn't feel anything: no time skips, no involuntary obedience. Just him on a bed in the sunshine, the girl, and the soldiers.
"Nothing," he said, and the girl pumped an arm in victory before composing herself. Behind her, one of the older women accepted what looked like coins from several younger ones.
"I'm Shuri," the girl added, offering her hand. "No point in introducing myself before now if you were just going to forget me."
"James Barnes," he replied. "You're a scientist here?"
She seemed pleased. "Yes," she said. "I am."
T'Challa was less pleased.
"There was a reason I kept you away from him," he said to Shuri, pacing around the room.
"But he's not dangerous anymore," Shuri pointed out. "And anyway, I had guards."
"But he could have been. You haven't seen how fast he moves, almost as fast as me. He could've had you by the throat before even the best warrior could draw breath."
"But he didn't."
T'Challa made a frustrated noise.
"I fixed him," Shuri said, obviously bewildered by his anger. "It wasn't so difficult. It didn't even take much time, relatively speaking -- "
"You think I care how much time it took?" T'Challa asked.
"I thought you'd be pleased! You're friends with the big white weirdo, I thought fixing the other one would be nice! A kind gesture!"
T'Challa pinched the bridge of his nose. "Shuri. This isn't about Rogers or Barnes. This is about you."
"Could have fooled me," she said sullenly, and T'Challa began to develop a greater appreciation for his parents' patience when he was at her age.
"Father is dead," he said, trying to explain this, because he suspected his father's inability to talk about certain things had led to many of the problems he now faced as king. "In the last year, in the last month, I have lost friends, too, and advisors. People died in the struggle between our people. I have lost so much, Shuri, and I cannot lose you as well!"
"But you didn't," she said, now sounding hurt as well as bewildered.
"But I could have. I'm angry because I'm scared," he admitted, but he admitted it angrily, so at least she didn't laugh at him. "I didn't like knowing that you went into battle but I accepted it because Wakanda was in need, and we have responsibilities as the royal family. If you had been hurt by some...some soldier from a past war, some outside interloper who means nothing to Wakanda -- "
"He's a person," Shuri said quietly.
"I know that! I let him stay, didn't I? But I would not trade your life for his."
"I wasn't aware you were in charge of my life to trade it away."
"Bast preserve us all," T'Challa muttered.
"That's what Father used to say when he didn't have a good argument," Shuri pointed out. "Why yell at me now? It's done, and nobody died."
"Because if I don't yell at you now, you'll just do something equally dangerous and think I don't care," he said.
"I know you care. That hasn't stopped me."
"Well, maybe it will at least make you pause and think," T'Challa said, dropping onto the bench next to her. She leaned into him, and he cradled her head against his shoulder.
"What will you do with him now?" T'Challa asked.
"It's not up to me."
"Well, you're the one who woke him up. He's your responsibility now."
"He's not a rhinoceros, I can't keep him as a pet."
"You cannot keep a rhinoceros as a pet either. They're war animals," T'Challa said.
"Impuku is too small and too dumb to be a war animal. Okoye said so."
"You can't have a pet rhinoceros." T'Challa untangled himself gently and stood up. "The white boy will be less trouble than a rhinoceros, probably. You figure out what to do with him."
"How do I do that?" she asked.
"I don't know. Ask him what he wants. I should think it'll be a novel sensation for him," T'Challa called over his shoulder as he left.
"I don't know," James said, when Shuri tried her brother's advice and asked him what he wanted. "I don't know what happens now."
"I mean...welcome to life?" Shuri said. "None of us knows what happens now."
"Someone's probably after me," James said, twiddling his new kimoyo bracelet, visibly trying to remember what each bead did. "Lots of someones, I bet. I should leave Wakanda before they decide to come in and get me."
Shuri giggled. He looked perturbed. "Oh, sorry. Just...nobody comes to Wakanda without Wakanda's permission."
"But they could try."
"So what? They have before. They will again. And it's more dangerous for you outside, isn't it? They could just snatch you if you left. Besides, your friend the Captain will miss you."
James leaned forward, hair screening his face. "Yeah. Suppose there's that."
"Don't you want to see him, your friend?"
James was silent for a while.
"Maybe I could enlist," he said finally. He sounded like he'd rather die. "You have soldiers here, don't you? I heard some of them talking about war dogs. Spies. I'm good at that."
"Is that what you want?" she asked.
"What I want hasn't come into the picture in a long time."
Shuri watched him thoughtfully. Nakia had made a suggestion or two, and it sounded like perhaps it was time to bring one of them up.
"You know, in Wakanda, we don't really keep a standing army," she said. "We don't need to. But everyone is trained, so they can serve. And some -- the Dora Milaje, the Royal Guard, our war dogs -- they serve like soldiers. Like you did, before."
He nodded. "I could do that."
"When their service is done, they're rewarded," Shuri continued. He turned his head sideways to look up at her, hair falling back from his face. "Many of them want quiet and peace. Many of them take land grants. Wakandan land is not unlimited, but we are blessed with a certain bounty. And there are many farm plots lying open near the border -- too close to the shield for most of those who want to stay inside it, not close enough to the outside for the Border Tribe. I think you'd like it, though."
"A land grant," he repeated.
"A farm. By the water. Small, but enough for one man. Close to the outside world, so you could slip away if you wanted. But in Wakanda, and with Wakanda's protection."
"The hell would I do with a farm? Pardon my language," he said. She shrugged.
"Grow vegetables. Keep livestock."
"I'm sure you'd manage," she said. "Nobody in Wakanda starves; you'd have a food allowance. If you wanted to, you could sleep, and walk your land, and say hello to your neighbors, and do nothing else."
"Why would you do that for me?" he asked. "I didn't serve Wakanda. I haven't done anything for you except cause trouble."
"Well, you might not have served Wakanda, but you did serve," she said. "And someday we may ask you to serve again. And..." she chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Well, I need a favor too."
"That's a rhino," James said, when she took him to meet Impuku.
"Yes," she agreed. He stared at it. "Have you never seen a rhinoceros before?"
"Uh...not in real life," he admitted. "That's a....war rhino?" he asked, looking around at the other rhinos that were training with armor on.
"His name's Impuku. It means 'mouse'," she said.
"Well, obviously," he replied, then looked as if he thought he might have overstepped. "Uh."
"Impuku can't be a war rhino," she said. "No good at war. He's small and very dumb."
"Okay," James said.
"But we can't just release him, because he'll bother people, or he'll get out of Wakanda and be poached," she continued. "So he needs a home."
James studied her. "You want me to move to a farm and look after a rhinoceros who washed out of boot camp."
"I think it is an option," Shuri said carefully.
James studied Impuku. Impuku locked eyes with him and broke wind with impressive stamina and noise.
"Okay," James agreed. Shuri beamed and held his wrist over the scanner on the gatepost of Impuku's pen, transferring him into James's care.
They settled him on a farm that butted right up against the border, so close he could wave to the men and women who lived outside the holoshield, who until recently had maintained Wakanda's facade as a country of poor farmers. The children outside the shield were very excited for the novelty of a wild-haired white neighbor, though they also hid and watched him from behind rocks and trees whenever he was nearby.
"They'll grow used to you," one of their fathers said, on a welcome-to-the-neighborhood kind of visit in his first week.
"They don't have to," James said gruffly. "I wouldn't blame them."
"Well, they'll at least risk meeting you for a chance to play with the rhino."
Impuku liked his new pasture, with access to the lake for wallowing and all the hay he could eat. He was, as Shuri had said, very stupid, and tended to pick fights with rocks, but at least he was gentle around people, and would let James lean up against him and scratch his shoulders.
For the first few weeks on the farm, James did little -- he slept, studied how to use his kimoyo beads, took visits from Shuri when she had time to spare. He met the children, and he stood in the sun with Impuku and cogitated on life a little, as Steve might have said. He decided to stop thinking of himself as James, a name that had never really fit anyway, and called himself Bucky again, and asked others to do the same. He, Bucky Barnes, idled the days away.
Eventually, though, he realized he'd need to resupply the hay for Impuku, and buy himself some food, and maybe treats for the children, who called him White Wolf because of his shaggy hair but didn't mind helping him tie it up, something he was still working at achieving one-handed. They were nice kids and deserved a chocolate bar or something. And if he was going to spend Wakandan money he didn't really feel he'd earned, he might as well invest some of it in the farm.
He was a city boy, hadn't even ever had any interest in farming, but there was no time like the present to learn.
The internet told him more or less how hay worked, and there were a few fruit trees he could start tending, to eventually harvest for treats for Impuku and maybe some jam (he had learned how to jar jam as a boy). His neighbors in the Border Tribe said the land was good for sweet potatoes and peanuts, but that he shouldn't keep cows if he was going to keep a rhinoceros, and anyway cows were expensive. Goats, on the other hand, were relatively cheap and likely to befriend a rhino, and a few of the local breeds were small enough to escape one if Impuku didn't like them.
Possibly the fact that his nearest neighbors herded goats -- "Wakandan dairy goats, the finest in the world!" -- played into their recommendations, but Bucky couldn't blame them.
Shuri showed up for a visit just as Bucky was finishing haggling for his first herd. She accepted a greeting from the awestruck Border Tribe goatherd, knelt down among the goats, and picked up a brown kid with extra-long ears.
"Here," she said to Bucky.
"Is that a good one?" Bucky asked.
"I don't know, but he's cute, isn't he?"
"She, Princess Shuri," the goatherd corrected.
"Oh excellent. You'll have milk, eventually," Shuri said.
"If you want milk, take her mother too. You pay me for five, I'll throw in the mother for free."
"Pay you for four and a half and give me the mother and two kids, I don't need six grown goats," Bucky insisted. The man rolled his eyes and complained loudly about a hard bargain, but he accepted the transfer and poked the desired goats with his crook, nudging them through the gate, into the small yard next to Impuku's pasture.
"What will you name them?" Shuri asked, leaning on the pen's fence.
"Hadn't thought about it," Bucky said. "I didn't think farmers named goats. You get attached, then you don't wanna eat them."
"Mm. Well, there's always vegetarianism," she said. "I think you should call that one Goaty McGoatface."
Bucky blinked. "What?"
"That one. The little one. Goaty McGoatface. Hello, Goaty McGoatface," she cooed, as the kid stumbled up to the fence and lipped at her fingers.
One of the other goats, the buck, was investigating Impuku through the fence. As Bucky watched, he backed up, bleated defiance, and butted the rhino's leg. Impuku startled and skittered away from a creature who was, at the end of the day, about the size of one of his poops.
"I'm naming that one Steve," Bucky said decidedly.
Before she left, Shuri had a visit to pay, and asked Bucky to come along. They hiked out to a ridge of land that marked the end of his territory and the start of another land-grant farm; at the end of his land, the earth fell away sharply, with a zig-zag path down it before the road evened out and then eventually rose again to a cottage atop a hill. He carried a basket of fruit and wine she'd brought, and the children carried a rolled-up rug on their shoulders, at least until they reached the ridge. Then they left it to him, scattering away, and Shuri took the basket.
Bucky had nearer neighbors on the border, so he hadn't gone up to meet the other landholder yet, and he was a little surprised to find she was an older woman with the head tattoos of a high-ranking Dora Milaje, who walked with the help of a prosthetic brace and a cane.
"Little queen," the woman cried, hurrying out to meet them. "Coming to bribe me, I'll bet!"
"Never, Nobomi!" Shuri said, swinging her basket and smiling. "Can't I bring an old woman some healthful wine?"
"Then it can't be for me, since I'm not old!" Nobomi protested.
"Don't make me carry it all the way back," Shuri said, as Bucky set the rug on a nearby rock.
"Make you carry it my ass, I saw that poor one-armed white boy hauling it for you along the ridge."
Shuri laughed. "Bucky, this is Nobomi. Nobomi, this is Sergeant James Barnes, your new neighbor."
"Yes, I've seen you wrestling the rhino," Nobomi said. "You should have visited before now."
"I'm sorry, ma'am," Bucky said, feeling as though he was back in Brooklyn, being scolded by one of the older women in the building for making a mess or yelling in the halls.
"Well, at least Shuri brought you. Come in and help me unroll that rug I bought, and you can tell me a war story," Nobomi invited. "I'll trade you fight for fight!"
"Nobomi was a general of the Dora Milaje of T'Chaka when I was a baby," Shuri told him. "I used to swing from her spear while she tried to talk strategy with my father."
"Don't let her lie to you. She had big ears for a little girl. She learned much from listening to her father's strategy meetings," Nobomi replied, dropping into a big, soft chair in the cottage. Bucky spread out the rug in a clear area of the floor that it was obviously meant for, then pulled up a stool. He was easier not sitting in chairs, where he sometimes tried to lean on an arm that was no longer there.
"I understand you were a soldier," Nobomi prompted.
"Yes, ma'am," Bucky said. He'd pulled away from it before, unwilling to relive the war for an audience who thought of it as adventure stories or light entertainment. But Nobomi had a certain gaze, level and interested, that said she understood what telling a story of the war really meant. "I was never a general, though."
She laughed. "No, you have the very air of a sergeant! Well, we're both farmers now. Let me tell you, I still know how to fight if I had to. Even with this leg, which I got pulling a certain young hotheaded prince out of a very justified fight -- "
Bucky sat back a little and listened as she offered the first story, and it did remind him of a story about the time Steve almost blew their cover over two Nazis harassing a potato seller, which made Nobomi laugh and respond with a story of espionage from her youthful war dog days. At some point Bucky registered Shuri slipping out the door, but he didn't really pay much attention, and by the time they were done telling stories, night was falling.
"Stay for dinner," Nobomi invited, going to the oven to take out something that must have been slow-cooking for ages, which smelled so good his mouth watered. "The Princess will have found her way home, and I don't think your goats need you back just yet."
"Don't mind if I do," he replied. "Shuri could have stayed, though, I wouldn't mind."
"Shuri is wise for her years. She knew I'd take a shine to you. And you seemed lonely anyway," she said. "So I figure if I feed you before sending you off, you'll come keep an old farmer company sometimes. I can't quite get over the ridge anymore."
"I can't say I'd mind, General," he said. She shot him a knowing look.
"Well then it's an order, Sergeant," she replied.
Bucky privately began to refer to his farm as The Ranch of Dumbasses before Clint showed up, but Clint didn't help.
The crops were doing fine, and the hay grew fast enough to sustain Impuku. Impuku himself could get his head stuck in a tree trying to steal a fruit, and Steve lived up to his name by constantly escaping and fighting anything that moved, but the rest of the goats were content to wallow with Impuku. All of the animals grew used to the children, who visited on hot afternoons and peppered him with questions, or gossipped about people he didn't know.
A flock of some kind of goose had settled near the lake, and were slow enough he could usually catch one for dinner if he wanted, and there was a grocery store about two hours' walk away, so he lived pretty well. Bucky himself often felt like a dumbass while learning to hoe rows or milk goats or make cheese ("What is this?" Shuri asked of the first batch. "Is it soap? Should it be this...consistency?") but he was learning.
Then one morning Impuku had an epic fit and alerted Bucky to the fact that Something Was In His Pen That Shouldn't Be. At first Bucky ignored him, because Impuku often felt that way about rocks that had been in his pen forever, small rodents, and the occasional windblown leaf, but it became evident fairly quickly that what was in his pen was a human, and definitely should not be there.
Clint Barton was sitting up one of the trees, safely out of the way, while Impuku freaked out all over him. He gave Bucky a sheepish look.
Bucky vaulted the fence, nudged Goaty McGoatface out of the way with his boot, and grabbed Impuku by his horn, tugging him sideways. When the rhino refused to move, he let go of the horn, put him in about half a headlock, and dragged him back towards the goat pen. Steve the Goat immediately hopped up to the top of the fence, brayed angrily, and butted Impuku in the thigh. As generally happened, Impuku took off for the water with Steve frolicking at his heels.
Barton stared at them, then at Bucky, then at the remaining goats, who were watching with their weird goat eyes.
"I snuck into Wakanda," Barton said.
"How's that working out for you?" Bucky asked.
"In fairness, it was going fine until someone pointed me at your farm," Barton replied, eyeballing the goats some more.
"You can get out of the tree, they won't hurt you," Bucky told him. "Steve's the only angry one. This is Goaty McGoatface," he said, before he thought about it.
"Goaty McGoatface," Barton repeated.
"The princess named her, I didn't really feel I could argue."
"Sure. Sure, fair. Is that one Totes McGoats?" he asked, pointing at Goaty's mother, who had previously simply been Mrs. McGoatface.
"She is now," Bucky replied.
Shuri and Okoye arrived together to find Bucky and Clint sitting on the fence of Impuku's pasture, arguing.
"But you can't call her Totes McGoats if her daughter is Goaty McGoatface," Clint was saying.
"Why not? Maybe her ma remarried."
"To who? Steve?"
"Well, he's the only buck in the herd."
"So you're saying his name is Steve McGoats?"
"No reason it can't be."
"But Steve McGoats isn't funny."
"Listen, pal, anyone named McGoats is automatically funny," Bucky said, and then saw Shuri approaching. He hopped off the fence and smiled at her, then smiled a little more warily at the general.
"I told you, let one in, they think they can all come in," Okoye said to Shuri.
"We thought we had an intruder," Shuri told Bucky. "Someone breached the east boundary near here."
"He snuck in," Bucky told her solemnly.
"Does he know what the word 'sneak' means?" Okoye asked, as Shuri bent to pet Goaty McGoatface.
"Normally I'm better at this, the rhino put me off my game," Clint called.
"We knew you were here before the rhino did," Okoye replied, as if that was a totally normal thing to say. Which technically, in Wakanda, Bucky supposed it was.
"Did you invite him?" Shuri asked Bucky. "You should have warned us."
"No, he just showed up," Bucky said. Clint glared at him. "Impuku treed him and then the goats kept him in line."
"See? He's useful after all," Shuri said to Okoye.
"White Wolf or the rhino?" Okoye asked.
"Hey, I've got food inside, so we should go....there," Bucky said, subtly herding Clint and Shuri towards the farmhouse, where he technically only had seating for three but suspected Okoye wouldn't sit in any case. It was a single large room in the Wakandan border style, with a small annex for a bedroom, but it was still bigger and nicer than anywhere he'd ever lived. The first time he'd mentioned that, Shuri had said that it was very sad.
Inside, Shuri took the only chair and Clint settled on one end of the bench. Okoye stood near the doorway, watching. Bucky made coffee -- they had spectacular coffee in Wakanda, he'd have killed for such coffee during the war -- took down a box of crackers, and produced a wedge of decent herbed goat cheese from the fridge.
"Would you like to make a case for why we shouldn't eject you from our country, or are we having a snack first?" Okoye asked.
"Okoye!" Shuri scolded.
"This is what they do, colonizing," Okoye said calmly.
Shuri gave her a warning look and turned back to Clint. "Mr. Barton, you are technically an international fugitive," she said. "So you should perhaps explain why you're here."
Clint nodded. "Legitimate. I'm not actually a fugitive anymore, that's just my cover. SHIELD gave me a deal after the whole..." he gestured at Bucky. "I've been taking missions outside of America. Turns out there are a lot of places a so-called international fugitive gets welcomed in."
"Not Wakanda," Okoye said.
"General, you have made your displeasure clear," Shuri said. "I'll never get anywhere learning diplomacy if you don't let me try on my own."
Okoye said, "My princess," in a tone that suggested she was about to let Shuri fall on her face.
"Please explain why you're in Wakanda," Shuri told Clint, who nodded.
"Well, a deal I was working on went south. Nothing major, nothing, you know, Avengery, just someone trying to sell old Chitauri weapons scavenged from New York on the black market. Turns out that was a lie," Clint added ruefully. "A lot of shooting started. Nobody's chasing me, not exactly, at least not that I know of. And if they were they definitely didn't follow me to Wakanda. But I could use to lay low. Two weeks, tops, and I'll be out of your ha...country," he added, glancing at Okoye's shaved head.
"We can't gain a reputation for sheltering every American who shows up with a sad story of being betrayed by international gun-runners," Shuri said, but she was smiling a little as she said it. "We have our hands full enough with this one," she added, gesturing to Bucky.
"I feed you goat cheese, I look after your rhino, I try to be a contributing member of society and this is the thanks I get?" Bucky asked. "See if I make you any hand-crafted peanut butter."
"Well, will you vouch for him?" Shuri asked Bucky. "Make sure he doesn't get himself into trouble or lead other people into Wakanda?"
"I can promise I won't lead anyone else here," Clint said. "I don't think anyone could promise I won't get myself into trouble."
"I'll keep an eye on him," Bucky said. "He's decent people. Steve would vouch for him too if he were here."
"But he's not, and you are," Shuri said, and Bucky nodded. She turned to Clint. "All right. Two weeks, Rhino Bait, and then we'll send you off."
After they left, Clint let himself fall over on the table, head on his arms.
"I've never been scolded by a princess before. How'd I do?" he asked.
"Shuri's sixteen," Bucky said.
"That didn't make it better. Have you met sixteen-year-olds? They're brutal," Clint replied.
"Recently, just Shuri," Bucky said. "Finish up your food and settle in, I have to check the peanut field."
"Is that a euphemism?" Clint asked.
"No...I have...peanuts," Bucky said, momentarily confused. "I have to check them."
"Oh. You want me to come? I grew up in farm country. Better at corn than peanuts -- though really, the biggest crop in my neck of the woods was meth."
"I don't know what that means," Bucky said. "Sure, come along if you like."
Clint's ceaseless chatter as they walked out to the peanut field was oddly comforting; it was like back in Brooklyn, when Stevie'd found a new artist and had to tell him all about it. Bucky tuned it out and checked over his peanut plants while Impuku wallowed in the lake and flicked mud all over the goats.
"I'm going down the ridge today, to the next farm over," Bucky said one morning, as he finished the scrambled wild goose eggs he'd made them for breakfast. "Think you can look after yourself without enraging the rhino?"
"Sure, we made friends," Clint replied. "What's on the next farm over? More goats?"
"Cattle, too. But it's more a social call," Bucky said. "There's a retired Dora Milaje who runs the place, Nobomi. I visit every week or so."
"Girlfriend?" Clint asked. Bucky gave him a dry look. "Hey, I don't judge."
"No. We just talk. Have a meal. She's got some farm hands to handle the cattle but if there's something needs repairing sometimes she asks me to help. I only got the one arm but she's got a bum leg so together we get things done."
"She sounds like fun. Not to invite myself, but I'm totally inviting myself," Clint said.
"Are you going to sneak onto her farm?" Bucky asked. Clint clutched his chest. "No, it's fine. If she tolerates one weird broken white boy she'll probably tolerate two."
"Excuse you, I'm not broken."
"Well, not as broken as me, obviously," Bucky said, because he was already realizing how easy Clint was.
"Hey! I could be as broken as you!" Clint said in outrage, following him outside. "I had a terrible childhood and my weapon of choice has a severely limited range and application!"
"I'd give you a hug but I only have one arm," Bucky informed him solemnly.
"Aw, cry me a river, we've all got problems," Clint replied, and Bucky grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Keep up," he said, and took off towards Nobomi's farm.
By the time they got to the farmhouse Clint was panting, but he had indeed kept up, and Nobomi had a pitcher of cold burnt-rice tea waiting for them.
"I heard you had a houseguest. Nice of you to bring him by," she said, pouring the tea.
"I hear you're the closest thing Barnes has to someone who will tolerate him on this continent," Clint said.
"Hot words from a man coasting on his graciousness!" Nobomi replied.
"Well, I have an image to maintain."
"He's the not-broken one," Bucky told her.
"Good, I have a roof beam that needs repairing," Nobomi said. "That one, right there. If you can reach it," she added.
Clint, predictably even for the short time Bucky had known him, stood up, studied the beam, and then jumped, pulling himself up by the fingertips onto the beam next to it. Nobomi gave Bucky a look. He shrugged.
"Fella likes to feel useful, I suppose," he said, sipping his tea.
By the time Clint was done fixing the beam and they were done enjoying their tea, the mist had lifted off the lake and the cattle were down at the edge of it. Nobomi dragged them out to sit nearby and watch the water -- supposedly there was a crocodile who'd been pestering the cows, and nearly got one of them a few weeks before. Bucky sat back and watched as Nobomi taught Clint how to fire her spear's energy bolt, fingers gently crossed that Clint wouldn't take out one of the cows himself.
"Is there really a crocodile?" he asked, as Clint stood vigil and Nobomi returned to sit with him.
"Well, there might be, you never know," she said. "And he seems like he's enjoying himself. Anyway, the bolt's on stun, just in case."
"I feel like a stunned cow is still not a great plan," Bucky replied.
"Oh, it's not for the cows' sake. I've had no end of problem lately with the boys and girls from the Border Tribe," she said.
"Really? They're down at my place all the time, but they never seem to make trouble. They wouldn't steal a cow, would they?"
"No, not permanently, at least I don't think. What need do they have of a cow? But some fool child got it into his or her head that it's a tradition to steal a cow, and now the older ones are all hot to try. I'm sure they'd return it, I just worry..." she shrugged. "Most of them don't have experience with cattle. I worry they'll hurt themselves."
"Not if Clint gets to 'em first," Bucky said.
"Well, if you want to leave him here, be my guest, but I don't think General Okoye will approve. She told me to keep an eye on the two of you."
"Promise we're not hatching any plans for a coup," Bucky said.
"No. I think you like a quiet life," she replied.
"I don't know what I like anymore," he admitted. "I like the work. Not much on killing. Never really was, truth be told. I suppose that means I do like the quiet. But I know what I'm good at, and goats ain't it."
"Goats can be part of it," she said gently. "I was good at killing too. But a skill like that...the waste isn't in the not-using of it. The waste is in not knowing when to stop."
"Maybe," Bucky said. "But there's a lot of good I could be doing to make up for some of the bad."
"Do you think what you do isn't good?" she asked. "You tend the earth, you learn, you come drink tea with me. What isn't good?"
"It's good anyone can do."
"Yes, but you're the one doing it," she said. Bucky nodded, and watched the cattle graze.
Clint stayed for the full two weeks. The Dora Milaje kept an eye on him, Bucky knew, and towards the end of his stay Okoye messaged Bucky that someone would be coming to escort Clint to a safe ride home. Bucky assumed it would be one of the war dogs, but he should have known better.
They were eating dinner when Impuku started bellowing, and when Bucky looked outside, the goats were nowhere to be seen, which usually heralded mischief. Impuku, meanwhile, was dancing in circles, surprisingly agile for a rhino, and Bucky sighed and yelled, "Steve, what the hell did you do now?" as he emerged from the farmhouse.
To his shock, a human voice responded, "I didn't do anything! I just offered him an apple!"
Bucky pivoted slowly and there was Steve Rogers, large as life and twice as shiny, with a shaggy shock of long hair and the beginnings of a beard. He was watching Bucky, wide-eyed.
"I meant the goat," Bucky said.
"That's...not a goat," Steve replied, pointing to the rhino.
"No, sorry, there's a -- "
"Steve!" Clint yelled, which set Impuku off again, and Bucky rubbed his face. He climbed the fence, caught Impuku mid-circle, and wrestled him to the ground. The rhino went still, surprised, then leapt to his feet and trundled off hurriedly, giving Steve the Human baleful looks over his shoulder.
Bucky got up from the dust and came over to where Steve was releasing Clint from a hug, doing a subtle pat-down for injuries like he'd always done to the Commandos. He turned to Bucky and hesitated, so Bucky leaned in and let Steve envelop him, holding back tight with his arm.
"You're looking good," Steve said, tugging on the shawl Bucky wore sidelong, over his shoulder where the hardware was. "I like the duds."
"Thanks," Bucky said. "Nice beard."
"I'm working on it." Steve patted the little tuft of hair at his chin. "I got a call from Wakanda that Clint needed a ride out."
Bucky knew that earlier he'd had a call that Bucky was up and around again, but he also knew he had cost Steve a lot, in the past year; perhaps he didn't want to see him without an excuse to leave again.
Or, more charitably, perhaps he hadn't wanted to visit without an excuse to do so. There had never been awkwardness between them before, but a lot of things had changed in seventy years.
"Come into the farmhouse," Clint said. "We got stew and good coffee."
"I won't say no," Steve said, but he glanced at Bucky for permission. Bucky pulled up the brightest smile he could manage, to try and convey a lot he didn't know how to say. Steve smiled back, so it must have been pretty good.
"So how many goats do you have?" Steve asked, later that night, as they were sitting around outside, enjoying the night air and watching Goaty McGoatface attempt to climb a snoozing Impuku.
"Five," Bucky said. "Totes McGoats is pregnant, though, so she's in the Pen of Holding."
"Totes McGoats," Steve repeated. Clint raised his hand and Steve nodded, understood.
"Here's a slightly more important question," Clint said. "Why are you, a real international fugitive, here to take me, a fake international fugitive, back to the authorities who run my life right now?"
"There's a neutral drop location," Steve said. "We're getting good at getting in and out of where we ought not to be. And Natasha thought it might be useful to debrief."
"Oh good, I'm a double agent!" Clint said brightly.
"Only if you want to be. I mean, we could play it like you're my hostage if you really want," Steve offered with a grin. Clint knew Steve pretty well, but Bucky could tell he couldn't see what Bucky did: the small fractures around the edges of Steve's smile, the tension in the forced-relaxation of his shoulders. But even he couldn't tell why, whether it was the stress of being on the run, or of being here with Bucky, or even just of Clint pushing buttons.
"Hey," Bucky said, and both men looked at him. "Steve, you remember Dernier's old digestive dumplings?"
"Do you?" Steve asked.
"I been working on re-creating them," Bucky said, feeding more kindling into the fire bowl at their feet.
"Digestive dumplings?" Clint asked, his tone wary but excited.
"This fella who ran with us in the war, Dernier, he used to make a dessert that I guess didn't translate well into English," Steve said. "It was kinda like a cupcake?"
"A boiled cupcake, stuffed with fruit," Bucky added.
"You're not selling this," Clint said, but he was wrong; as Bucky got up to get the wine and the mixing bowl for the dumplings, he could see Steve unwind.
"He made like a...like a biscuit kind of a mix? Only without any buttermilk," Steve said, as Bucky added flour and sugar, goat butter and water, to the bowl. They hadn't had access to milk or eggs much, but Dernier always seemed to be able to scrounge wine for the boiling, and usually there was some kind of fruit, either from rations or nearby farmyards.
While the wine boiled, Bucky held the bowl between his knees and mixed the dumplings with a clean stick, then scooped up a handful of dry-ish dough, pressed a dimple into it with his thumb, and used the dough to scoop fruit from another bowl into it, sealing it by making a fist. He dropped them into the wine while Clint made perplexed faces.
"This was a real treat back in the war," Steve said, stirring the dumplings to keep them from sticking together. Bucky dropped the last one in and got up to rinse his hand off; when he returned, Steve had dished out a dumpling onto his plate and one onto Clint's, and had his own half-eaten in one hand, getting fruit in his beard.
"Hell, Stevie, did your ma raise a savage?" Bucky asked, and Steve looked sheepish and set the dumpling on his plate, reaching for a fork. Clint cackled.
"About time someone stepped in to make you behave," he said.
"I'm a model of decorum," Steve said, dignified, and all three of them laughed. Impuku, waking up and apparently curious about what they were doing, bumped against the fence and snorted.
"It's good to see you looking happy, Buck," Steve said, as Clint got up to toss some hay into the big rough-hewn manger for the rhino.
"It's nice to have a purpose of my own," Bucky said.
"You like it here, then?"
"Well, the land's in my name, and I bought the goats," Bucky said. "Couldn't pay anyone to take Impuku so I guess I'm stuck with him."
"Yeah, but that ain't really an answer," Steve said.
Bucky rubbed the joint of his shoulder under his scarf, where the hardware met the flesh.
"There's always a fight," he said, admitting the truth of it. "Sooner or later there's always a fight."
"Maybe it'll be later," Steve suggested.
"Maybe. And I won't shirk, anyway. But until there is, it's an easy life for once. So I guess I'll hold onto that," Bucky said. "Why, you seen something coming?"
"No. Not yet, and I'm glad. I'm fighting a good fight but -- " Steve held up a hand as Bucky opened his mouth. "It's not your fight, Bucky. It's nothing on that scale. I'm tryin'a tell you if you wanted we'd be happy to have you, but we don't need you. And I'm glad you're happy here. I slept for seventy years. You didn't. Sleep a little now."
Bucky nodded. "But when the fight comes -- "
"I promise I'll call." Steve watched the goats cavorting around the hay manger, pestering Impuku. "And if you wouldn't mind a guest now and then...the dumplings were awful good, Buck."
Bucky leaned back and looked at him. "I can't haul you here, Steve. You gotta come to me. But my door's open, and Impuku'll get used to you."
Steve's smile this time wasn't broken at all, brighter than the fire. "I'd like that."
"Well, you know where to find me."
Steve and Clint left at first light, and Bucky got on with things; in the next week he split some wood and built another bench, mowed and baled the hay, and talked to the peanut plants to help them grow. He checked on the goat cheese once in a while, maturing in a little hole in a hillock he'd blocked up with stones to keep scavengers out, and took some of the most likely batch over the hill to Nobomi. He considered putting a second annex on the farmhouse, a snug guest room with a bed in it, and he and Nobomi chewed over how a one-armed man might accomplish such a thing without, as she put it, killing his stupid self. At least they had power tools now, which hadn't been around in the forties for sure.
Steve came back before he had even started on the second bedroom, however -- came back inside of a month, and he brought Shuri and two large boxes with him.
Bucky came out to meet them from milking the goats. He knew Shuri could have warned him, via his comm kimoyo bead or the little computer in the farmhouse. He would have showered or at least changed his shirt. He suspected she enjoyed surprising him.
She certainly seemed excited; she was barely containing a kind of happy nervous energy, and next to her Steve was like an impassive statue, at least until he saw Bucky. Then he broke into a smile.
"Back already," Bucky said, slapping him on the back. "Princess, nice of you to escort him in. Clint get out okay?"
"So he says," Shuri replied. "Okoye was pleased to see him go."
Bucky eyed her. "Okay, what're you hiding?"
She jumped up and down, squeaking. "Show him show him!"
Steve gave her a smile and pulled one of the boxes, the smaller one, out of the footwell of the jeep they'd arrived in. It was really more of a plastic bin, with a handle on top and a metal grate on the front. Bucky crouched to study it, flicking the catch on the metal grate --
A ball of fluff and noise burst out of the bin -- a dog carrier, it was a dog carrier -- and immediately leapt up on Bucky's chest, bowling him over backwards.
The dog was tan, with brown mottles all over, an awkwardly thick body and a head like some kind of hound, though that was hard to see as it alternated between licking him and barking at him excitedly. Its hair was tufty, and it had a whiplike tail that smacked Bucky's hand as he tried to restrain it.
"IT'S A PUPPY," Shuri yelled. Bucky managed to roll the dog off him, then crouched to let it lick his face.
"Yeah, I got that," he said. Shuri grabbed the dog around its chest and pulled it up and away from him, cuddling it as it squirmed madly. "Steve, what the hell?"
"Well, I thought you might need a goat-herding dog," Steve said.
"Do people use dogs to herd goats?" Bucky asked.
"Natasha said so. She found it stray. She thinks it's part Catahoula. She said you could use it," Steve said haplessly.
"It's the most beautiful puppy ever," Shuri insisted, despite all evidence that it was, in fact, kind of an ugly dog. She dropped him back into Bucky's lap and the dog squirmed up his chest again.
Bucky's arm came around automatically to support his rump, and the dog settled its big blocky head on his shoulder, licking his neck.
Bucky decided anyone who tried to take the dog away from him would end up in a bad way.
"Yeah, he's all right," he agreed. Steve beamed.
"What are you going to call him?" Shuri asked.
"Commando," Bucky said.
Just then Steve the goat, who did not like change or strange animals, bellowed a challenge to the newcomer. Shuri tried to intervene but too late; Commando had leapt off Bucky like he was a springboard and beelined straight for Steve (the goat).
The goat, who clearly wasn't expecting this, bleated in rage and lowered his head. The dog, unfazed, got right up in front of him, shoved his butt in the air, ducked his head down, and barked cheerfully.
All three humans watched as Steve-the-goat slowly straightened, eyeballed Commando, and then turned and trotted haughtily away. The dog followed him until he slipped through the fence, then ran back to Bucky, barking excitedly.
"What a good dog," Shuri said approvingly. "Good boy, Commando!"
"If that other box is fulla cats, Steve, we're gonna have words," Bucky warned, pushing himself to his feet. Commando took up a position next to his boots, watching him carefully, tongue lolling out.
"Nah, that's one of those build-it-yourself beds," Steve said. "Figured the least I could do if I was spoiling your solitude was bring my own bunk."
"Nobomi says you've been thinking of adding a second bedroom on," Shuri said.
"Let's get the bed built before we try any structural engineering," Bucky replied. He followed Steve back to the jeep, Commando gamboling around his heels, and helped him ease the heavy larger box out onto the red dust of the road. Steve jumped down from the bed of the jeep, picked up the box now that it was more easily carried, and led the way towards the farmhouse.
"This your idea?" Bucky asked Shuri, following along behind.
"The bed or the dog?" Shuri said blandly.
"I might have suggested that when you said you didn't mind his company, you meant it," Shuri admitted. "But I have many more important things to do with my time than worry about your mental health, you know."
"Yeah, like this," Bucky said, rolling his kimoyo beads until the comm bead popped up, displaying a holo of their SMS conversation so he could scroll through it. It consisted entirely of the text THE FRESHEST OF MEMES! from her, followed by several oddly captioned but compellingly strange photographs, interspersed with Bucky occasionally texting back Why are you doing this and I will never understand what this means.
"A woman in a position of power such as myself needs a creative outlet," she said primly.
"If you teach Steve about memes I will strangle you," Bucky said.
"I know about memes!" Steve called from up ahead.
"Damn your ears, Captain!" Bucky called back.
"I like the one where people paste pictures of Thor's face over that lady from the Frozen movie," Steve said.
"He doesn't understand what that means," Shuri informed Steve.
"I'll show you some!" Steve said. "Now, let's get this bed all put together and such and then we can have lunch. Princess, if you can't stay, we'd understand."
"I wouldn't miss watching this for all the world," Shuri told him, settling into the chair, Commando coming to flop on her feet.
For a couple of weeks, they fell into a peaceful routine. In the morning, Bucky would wake early and cook himself something to eat while Steve slept. He suspected Steve's friends and fellow fugitives had known he was fraying and sent him here to rest, and for once at least Steve was taking advice -- he slept hard and long, and ate everything Bucky put in front of him. By the time the food was ready, Steve was up and reasonably coherent, and they'd eat together.
The farmhouse had a bathtub, but generally they didn't bother; instead they'd call Commando to heel and stroll down to the lake with Impuku, wading out past his wallow to bathe in the fresh water, ducking each other and splashing like when they'd gone swimming in the (much filthier) river as kids. It was the only time Bucky ever took off the shawl that hid his shoulder, and Steve never looked at it twice, which felt...nice.
Then they'd dry off and dress, and Bucky would try to teach Commando to round up the goats (medium success). He'd milk them while Steve checked on the sweet potatoes and peanuts, and sometimes after they'd walk the border of the land, or go over the ridge to Nobomi's farm. Once in a while Steve said he had an errand in the city and vanished for the day, but he was usually back by sunset. They built the second bedroom without anyone losing any more limbs.
Eventually the hay was ready for harvest, so they spent a couple of days mowing, and by the time the mowing was done, the first of it was dried and ready for baling. And Bucky knew the rest of the harvest was coming.
"Did you know peanuts and goats gestate at the same speed?" Bucky asked one morning, putting off another day of baling.
"Say what now," Steve replied.
"Hundred and forty to hundred and fifty days," Bucky said. "You got yourself both peanuts and baby goats."
"Nature works in mysterious ways, I suppose," Steve replied. "Farming suits you, Buck."
"Funny, huh? You ever think either one of us'd be a farmer?"
"Not likely. Figured you'd hare off to some technical school, you were always good at machines."
"What'd you figure for you?"
Steve shrugged. "Art school if I got lucky. Plot next to my Ma if I didn't."
"That's dark, Stevie," Bucky said, bending to rub Commando behind his ears.
"Well, I had a realistic view of my expectations, I suppose," Steve said. "And I did get lucky, of a sort. This all is better than being dead, anyhow. Isn't it?" he asked, as if he thought it might be true, but wasn't sure.
"Yeah. Took a beating getting here, but I imagine it is," Bucky said.
"How long until the peanuts are ready?" Steve said, finishing off his toast.
"Nother week or two. The internet says the soil has to be just right. Then you pull up the whole plant, hang 'em, and let 'em dry a few weeks."
"Where you gonna hang 'em?"
"Gonna put them on a cart, go over to Nobomi's place, she's got a barn she'll let me use. I thought I'd see if Impuku would pull it."
"That fraidy-cat?" Steve grinned at him. "Better you than me."
"His problem wasn't bein' afraid of a little hard work," Bucky said, though this was hearsay he'd gotten from Shuri. "He just didn't much like fightin'."
"None of us like it," Steve scoffed.
"Coulda fooled me, the way you used to carry on," Bucky replied. "Anyway, I'll start him on harness training today and see how he does. What'll you get up to?"
"Don't know. Might do some sketching. Might go out to the southeast and do some fishing, or go into town. You mind if I take Commando with me?"
"He'd like a good run. You got paper and a pencil?"
Steve tapped a leather case leaning up against the leg of the table. "T'Challa loaned me a digital sketchpad. Gotta learn how to use it."
Bucky didn't remark on how close Steve and the king of Wakanda seemed to be getting; it wasn't his business, anyhow. But he grinned and nodded.
"Well, if Impuku murders me, you can have the goats," he said, and Steve laughed.
Impuku's training didn't go well, at first, but not in the way Bucky had anticipated; he'd had visions of a rampaging rhino knocking down fences, but he should have known better.
He'd watched plenty of videos on how to tame wild horses (including one Nobomi had sent him called "Victorian Farm: The Horse Whisperer") and he'd exchanged a few emails with Wakanda's head rhino trainer; he felt he was solid on theory. He lured Impuku away from the wallow, gave him a brisk scrub with a twig broom -- Impuku loved the twig-broom scrub -- and then distracted him with some fruit.
When he gently threw a rope over Impuku's shoulders, just like the horse-whisperer had, the rhino went still and lowered his head. Bucky, encouraged, added a second rope, gently. After another piece of fruit, he settled the light leather harness over the ropes, without buckling it. Impuku didn't move.
He bent to see if Impuku would let him buckle it, but that was when he noticed it -- the rhino was holding still but trembling minutely, and he could see the white of his eye all the way around. Impuku watched him with the kind of wary caution he remembered from his days in the chair.
"Shh, pal, it's okay," Bucky said, stifling his own urge to bolt. "Shhh, no more fighting, I promise. Here you go," he added, pulling the harness off again. He left the ropes on, and Impuku continued to hold still, but the trembling slowly eased as Bucky scratched his shoulders and rubbed the broad, flat spot between his ears. "Yeah, I never liked the harness either. Why we always gotta be useful, huh? I know, Steve'd say it's on account of being strong enough to protect the little ones, but how's that fair? It ain't. I didn't ask for this. You didn't ask to be born a big dumb rhino."
He leaned heavily on Impuku's shoulder, letting the rhino take his weight. "Neither of us asked for it, buddy, I know."
His chest felt tight, the way it had in the chair. He slid down Impuku's side and put his back to the rhino's solid leg, his own legs no longer supporting him.
"Fuck," he mumbled, and Impuku blew out a grunt of air.
He took the leather harness, with its thick broad straps and heavy mounts for armor, and put it away after that; he'd take it back to the training grounds sometime.
"How'd rhino-whispering go?" Steve asked, when he got back in that evening.
"Slow," Bucky said. "But we made good progress."
"Good to hear."
"How about you? You figure out your gadget?"
"Yeah! You want to see all the sketches I did? I saw some great big birds out there, real humdingers," Steve said, enthusiastically producing the sketchpad, just like he had when they were thirteen and he'd been out all day drawing the neighborhood. Bucky leaned over the pad as Steve narrated his day, and let himself enjoy the moment.
Steve left before the peanut harvest; that evening he got a call from Natasha that she had some intel he should see, and he agreed to hike out of Wakanda and rendesvous with her the following afternoon. They enjoyed the evening, sitting out under the stars with a fire, Commando fetching sticks, Impuku huffing and the goats occasionally kicking up mud in their pen. Steve was content, but also fidgety; as happy as he'd seemed to be, it was obvious too that he would be glad to get back to whatever it was he did out in the wide world.
Bucky and Commando walked him through the border and as far as the very edge of Wakandan territory before leaving him to find the rest of the way himself. Bucky stopped to eat and pour out some water for Commando, then doubled back to talk with his neighbors, rough-housing with the kids before bartering with their parents. He traded the promise of two fat geese ("At least ten pounds each and no stuffing them with bread for makeweight, White Wolf!") for a hank of thick, soft rope.
"What're you going to do with it?" one of the kids asked -- generally the spokesman since his English was the best, though Bucky was starting to pick up words and sometimes whole phrases in Xhosa.
"Come to the farm tomorrow and find out," he said, shouldering the rope for the hike back.
That evening, sitting on the fence of Impuku's pasture, he wove a makeshift harness out of it, eyeballing the dimensions and trying to remember the rusty knot-tying skills he'd picked up from one of the other Commandos during the war. Impuku placidly ignored him, and Steve tried to eat the trailing end of the rope.
It took three days, with the children watching and offering unhelpful commentary, to get Impuku to take the rope harness. Really the problem wasn't the rope itself; since it wasn't leather and it went over his shoulders and around his legs, rather than under his belly, Impuku didn't seem to connect it to the armor he'd never wanted to wear. The problem came when Bucky tried to hitch the loops in the sides of the harness to the poles of the dilapadated cart that had come with the farmhouse.
Impuku did not like the cart, and nearly kicked it to pieces the first time Bucky tried to hitch him to it. The second time, he nearly kicked Bucky to pieces. The children fell about laughing, which, being fair, Bucky would also have done when he was their age.
Still, on the third day, Bucky got him to take the hitching, pull the cart forward, and (clumsily) turn or stop when commanded. On the fourth day, he hitched him up again, threw three geese into the cart (the rope had been worth it), loaded up the kids, and drove them home in a smooth one-rhinopower ride.
He could practically hear Howard Stark say, A guy with the right wheels can get anything he wants, and it was both good to remember and hard to think about. But he didn't see Howard's bloody face after he'd shot him, so it was probably an improvement. All he saw was a handful of Wakandan kids laughing with each other in the back of the cart.
Still a long ways to go, he thought, as he drove Impuku and the cart back that evening.
He never really had time to dwell on it, since the next morning he began the peanut harvest. He had to stop in the middle of it because Totes McGoats went into labor, which in turn sent one of her sisters, Doazy Doats (Steve's idea -- he had even burst into off-key song, "Mairzy doats and doazy doats, and little lamzy divey!") into premature labor.
And after two goat births, which was....a lot of fluids, more than even Bucky had expected...for all the kids were cute, after two goat births he had to get as many more peanuts out of the ground as he could, because he should take a full load to the barn and if he didn't take it tonight, they wouldn't dry properly.
"What happened to you?" Nobomi asked, when he and Commando, Impuku and the cart, pulled up the road past her cottage to the barn. Bucky looked down at his goat-sticky shirt.
"The goats," he said.
"Ah," she replied. "And the peanuts?"
He jerked his thumb at the cart.
"Well, better get on then," she said. "Need help?"
"More than any one person can give, I think," he replied honestly. She swung up on the cart and he slapped the rope against Impuku's flank.
"Never thought I'd see the day that creature did a day's work," she said, nodding at Impuku's rump.
"Oh, he does all right," Bucky said. "Him and me. Farming for us, huh?"
"If you say so, White Wolf," she replied.
They spent hours hanging the peanuts, even with Nobomi's help and one of the farmhands she employed. By the time Bucky got home, unhitched Impuku, and washed his clothes, he was barely conscious; he crashed down on his bed and only woke the next morning because in addition to his alarm, Shuri kept sending him screenshots of some new Wakandan video game she was, apparently, winning at.
His life for the next week was goats and peanuts, peanuts and goats, especially since Doazy Doats rejected her runty little kid and Bucky had to bottle-feed him. Every time he and Impuku made the trek down to Nobomi's barn to hang more peanuts, he took Little Hellgoat (official name) with him, tucked in his shirt, so he could stop to feed him occasionally.
But around the fourth or fifth day, something clicked into place. Impuku didn't even try to object to the hitching, and Commando seemed to have figured out he was supposed to round up the goats instead of just scatter them; Totes McGoats would let Little Hellgoat nurse from her, none of the others kicked over the milking pails, and even the peanuts seemed to come up out of the ground easier. On the day they hung up the last of them to dry, Nobomi broke out a little of the wine to celebrate.
"Your first harvest and first kidding," she announced, toasting him. "Not bad, for a city boy."
"If I admit I want to sleep for a week, will you lose all respect for me?" he asked.
"I didn't have that much for you to begin with," she teased. He made a faintly annoyed noise.
"Another month and it'll be sweet potato time," he said.
"What will you do with them all? Live on sweet potatoes for six months?"
"Nah, sell 'em. Maybe buy some more goats. Go into the city and have a spree," he said.
"Oh yes, I can imagine you on a spree. Why, you'll drink a bar dry of fruit juice and then get into a fight with someone over whether alfalfa or timothy grass is best for rhino feed."
"I was a war hero, you know," he said, mock-reproachfully.
"And now look at you. Go home and have a bath, White Wolf. I'll call you when your peanuts are ready."
Harvesting sweet potatoes wasn't easy, but it was a damn sight easier than harvesting peanuts. You just pulled 'em up and threw 'em in a bin, pretty much. The worst part was when the goats kept sneaking up behind him, getting into the bins, and gorging themselves. Still, Commando learned pretty quickly to stand guard against goaty raids, and Bucky harvested enough to fill a bin in his kitchen cupboard and a sack for the next planting, with baskets and baskets left over to sell.
He'd thought about finding some open-air market and using Impuku to haul them there, selling them straight off the cart. Before he could, however, a couple of the Border Tribe showed him Wakanda's digital agrimarket. With about five minutes' worth of work, they'd helped him set up an account, snapped a photo of his sweet potatoes, and posted them for sale. Bucky watched, wide-eyed.
"How much do you get for a sweet potato, anyway?" he asked.
"You don't sell them one by one," the man told him. "Ah, look!"
"Look, what, what am I looking at?" Bucky asked, staring at the message popping up in the agrimarket app.
"A restaurant wants your sweet potatoes! I told him they were hand-grown, artisanal," the man said, grinning at him. "If you deliver them he'll pay you twelve dollars Wakandan per hundredweight for as many as you can provide. They keep so well, you see, and he can sell them to other restaurants at a little markup."
Bucky had tried, at first, converting Wakandan dollars to American, but his frame of reference for American dollars was so skewed anyway that he'd just started thinking of everything in terms of goats.
"Twelve dollars Wakandan, that's like half a goat," he said, awed.
Nobomi had pointed out to him, very kindly, that you could not efficiently shell peanuts one-handed. Bucky had ruminated on this problem, but after the sweet potato internet sale was such a success, he realized this was probably also an issue the internet could answer, and it did.
A couple of days after the harvest was over, he cleaned up as best he could, got one of the Border Tribe kids to do his hair extra-nice, hitched Impuku up to the cart, and drove his sweet potatoes into town. The restaurant gave him lunch in addition to seventy-five Wakandan dollars, so he felt he'd made out well on his first harvest.
He'd worried about Impuku, coming into the city, but the streets were wide and Impuku was placid about the crowds and dust. He suffered a handful of city kids to climb all over him while Bucky ate his lunch, and then they drove a little further into the city, to a machine shop with a wide garage yard where Bucky had arranged for Impuku to rest while he pressed on towards the palace. He didn't want to risk bringing the rhino anywhere near the old training grounds, and the mechanic who was seeing to Bucky's new purchase seemed to enjoy hosting him, taking a bunch of selfies with the rhino before helping Bucky unload some hay for him.
"I'll be back for him before you close," Bucky said.
"I'll get your machine loaded. Take your time," the woman told him.
One of the benefits of being the only white guy for miles around was that at least you were pretty recognizable, he thought, as he headed for the palace. The guards on the gates didn't bother him, and inside people shot him covert looks but didn't ask why he was there.
Shuri shrieked when he appeared in the doorway, hugged him, and patted his scarf.
"Did you bring Commando?" she demanded.
"Nah, he's guarding the goats. Impuku's down in town if you want to say hi," he replied. He took off his pack and held it out to her. "Brought you some sweet potatoes, and goat cheese."
"Such delicacies," she said with a grin, but she unpacked them as eagerly as a kid getting candy. "Did you come here just to see me?"
"I came to town on business, but I thought I'd say hello since I was here anyway."
"What business did you have in town? Especially with Impuku?"
"Selling the harvest," he said shyly. "Got seventy-five dollars for the sweet potatoes."
"I knew you'd like a farm," she replied triumphantly.
"Yeah, it's all right. Just finished kidding the goats, and Nobomi helped with the peanuts."
"You should stay here tonight. T'Challa would like to talk to you, I'm sure. Stay for dinner at least," she said.
"I can't. Gotta pick up some tools and get back," he said. "Next time, maybe."
"Tools? What tools?"
Bucky realized his error a split second too late.
"Nothing much," he hedged.
"What tools, Sergeant Barnes!"
"Uh." He rubbed the back of his head. "I used the sweet potato money to buy a peanut shellin' machine."
"You did NOT without consulting ME!" she cried.
"I wasn't gonna ask the head of all technological whatevers in Wakanda to build me a peanut shellin' machine!"
"It's like you don't know me at all! Where is it? I need to see it."
"Lady, it's a hand-crank peanut machine!"
"Hand-cranked," she repeated, horrified.
That afternoon, T'Challa called him. Bucky wasn't even aware the king had his number.
"Sergeant Barnes, where is my sister?" T'Challa asked, arms crossed in the little camera projection from the comm bead.
"I tried to stop her," Bucky said haplessly. "She outranks me, your highness."
"The national intranet is full of pictures of Princess Shuri up to her elbows in a mysterious machine, being overseen -- some might say guarded -- by the White Wolf." T'Challa continued. "There is a battle rhinoceros in some of them."
"That's Impuku. He's not dangerous."
"Yes, I remember Impuku."
"Would it help if I swore all she wanted to do was rebuild my peanut shelling machine? She's having a good time, all things considered," Bucky volunteered. I was true; Shuri seemed to really be enjoying pulling the thing to pieces with the help of the mechanic who'd sold it to him.
T'Challa rubbed his forehead.
"How much trouble am I in, exactly?" Bucky asked.
"Well, I can't tell her that her mother demands her return, because she can't stop laughing at the pictures," T'Challa admitted. "And if Shuri's engineering something there's no point in trying to appeal to her sense of decorum."
"I promise, no harm will come to her," Bucky said.
"That wasn't really something I worried about," T'Challa said drily.
"I'll make sure she eats a good dinner before sending her back?" Bucky tried.
"Good luck with that."
"I just wanted to make some peanut butter," Bucky admitted.
"I know the feeling. I'd like to run Wakanda for a week without getting sass from my little sister. We all have our burdens to bear," T'Challa said, a little more friendly now. "You should have said hello while you were at the palace, Sergeant. No need to be a stranger here."
"Well, I never wanna impose."
"Appreciated, but unnecessary. At any rate, Captain Rogers should be back in a month, six weeks at the outside; you shouldn't wait for him to visit you. When he arrives I'll send transport for you, and you can have dinner at the palace. I think our mother would like to meet you."
Bucky thought about the kind of woman who would raise not only the king, but a woman like Shuri.
"Uh, okay," he said, not at all certain it was, in fact, okay. In the machine shop, something went clang loudly. "I should check on my peanut machine."
"Until then, White Wolf," T'Challa said, and hung up.
Steve's timing was exceptional; he arrived just as Bucky was perfecting the peanut butter.
Bucky didn't know what to call the thing that T'Challa sent to pick him up from the farm. A hoverjet? It had a Xhosa name, but he just knew the name, not what it meant. He'd expected a car, but he should have known better -- T'Challa had style to spare. And at least the king, unlike his sister, had sent a warning first, so that by the time the hoverjet thing arrived, Bucky was clean, well-dressed, and more-or-less ready.
The first batch of Ranch Of Dumbasses Brand Peanut Butter had gone to Nobomi, a part-payment for letting him use her barn; he owed her two goats from the next kidding as well, but she could have them, eight goats was enough for him. He'd also handed out a couple of jars to the Border Tribe kids, who vanished for an hour and returned with flaky, sweet stick-shaped cookies to share with him, dipping them straight into the jars.
The second, smaller batch, some sweetened with honey, was packed carefully in the bottom of his rucksack. On top of those he'd put the very first completed wheel of cheddar from the goat's milk, now nicely aged, and on top of that, delicately, a dish of sliced sweet potato cooked in goat cheese and some cream he'd bought from Nobomi.
After all, his ma had taught him never to show up to dinner empty-handed.
He whistled to Commando, who came bounding up from where he'd been playing with the children at the goat pen. They waved to the hoverjet, then waved to him as he boarded. They'd promised to feed the goats and Impuku, and to milk the goats tomorrow morning if he hadn't yet returned.
The pilot at the controls of the jet nodded to him, then looked askance at the dog; Bucky strapped himself into one of the jumpseats and patted the second one, then buckled the strap through Commando's harness while the dog sat obediently, radiating "Aren't I a good boy for not making trouble?"
Bucky swore he caught a grin from the pilot in the reflection of the cockpit glass as they took off.
It was a short flight back to the palace, and Steve and Shuri were waiting for him at the landing pad. Commando bolted past him, clearly at the end of his limited ability to be a normal damn dog. He jumped all over Shuri until she caught the puppy in a hug, then squirming around to lick her face frantically.
"All dressed up just to see me?" Steve joked, hugging him, then stepping back to admire the new shirt and shawl Bucky had bought with some of his leftover sweet potato cash.
"I'm having dinner with the king, aren't I? What makes you think you're special?" he asked, and Steve beamed. "Watch the bag, it's got stuff for the princess in it."
"For me?" Shuri asked, delighted, as she led them into the palace, Commando trotting adoringly around her ankles. Bucky rummaged a little, careful of the gratin, and pulled out a jar of peanut butter, offering it to her with a bow.
"There's a wheel'a goat cheddar for you too," he said. "Compliments of the McGoatface clan."
"You truly know how to charm a princess, White Wolf," Shuri said.
"White Wolf, huh?" Steve asked.
"Beats Sergeant Barnes," Bucky replied. "Don't be jealous, Cap, I brought you some too."
"I couldn't eat peanuts before the Serum," Steve told Shuri. "Last couple of years I probably went through a jar a week."
"Yeah, well, pretend you're on rations, pal, my plot's not that big and someone took off before the harvest," Bucky replied. He could smell food, and held up his hand to stop Shuri's progress. "Hey, where's the kitchen? I brought a dish."
"Buck, it's not the Women's Auxiliary Social Pot-luck," Steve said.
"If it were I'd beat old lady Halloran's mashed potatoes with my sweet potato gratin," Bucky informed him. Shuri held out her hand, accepted the gratin when he pulled it out of the pack, and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"I'll make sure it gets a place of honor," she said, leaning in a nearby doorway and offering it, with a few words in Xhosa that Bucky couldn't quite catch, to a chef in a brightly-colored head wrap.
The chef asked, "White Wolf?" and Shuri nodded. Everyone in the kitchen crowded around as he lifted the lid on the pot curiously, but Shuri was already leading them onwards.
"You back for long this time?" Bucky asked, as they followed Shuri down the corridors.
"Couple of weeks, unless I get told otherwise. Sam said I was less of a pain in the ass than usual after I got back last time, so they....encourage me to take breaks," Steve said.
"Must be hard on all of you," Bucky said.
"Sometimes I feel like a man without a country anymore," Steve agreed. "But sometimes we get more done this way."
"Still fighting the good fight, huh?"
"It's what I was built for," Steve said with a shrug. "And if the war keeps coming to find me, I can't turn it away."
"Let's not talk of war tonight," a new voice said, and Shuri led them into a high-ceilinged, airy room full of sunlight through the giant glass windows that dominated one side. T'Challa was standing inside, arms spread in welcome. "We've all had enough of it these past seventy years, hm?"
Steve met T'Challa with a handshake and a clap on the shoulder, and Shuri shot Bucky a grin. He grinned back, then got his own, slightly more formal handshake from the king.
"Look, brother, the White Wolf brought me peanut butter," Shuri said, waving the jar before setting it on a side table already half-covered with platters of vegetables and cold meat joints. She washed her hands in a decorative basin and went to sit on a low cushion, sharing it with Commando, who curled up to watch them all excitedly. Bucky set his bag down and pulled out another jar for T'Challa, then, at Steve's impatient look, handed him his own.
"There's two more for you if you can keep these two out of them," he told T'Challa, who laughed.
"You're doing that farm land my sister wheedled for you a credit," he said.
"Well, I got a lot of back rent to pay," Bucky told him.
At which point the Queen Mother swept into the room, and Bucky wisely shut his trap, because Shuri was too familiar for him to really comprehend her as a princess and T'Challa was still new to the role of king -- but this woman was royalty.
"My mother, Queen Ramonda," T'Challa said.
"Ma'am," Bucky and Steve chorused in unison. She smiled at them.
"I hope my daughter hasn't been holding that farm over your head just for peanut butter this whole time," she said, coming forward to take his hand. "Welcome to the palace. Again. I hope you'll enjoy this stay more than the last one. Captain, a pleasure to see you, as always."
"Likewise, your highness," Steve said. Bucky had in his own lifetime heard Steve rant about democracy and the monarchy on eleven separate occasions, but apparently Wakanda was the exception. Fair enough; from what he'd seen, the royal family currently on the throne had more than earned their way there.
"I don't ever even mention the farm," Shuri protested.
"That's true," Bucky added, loyally. "A fella just likes to pay his own way, is all."
"Well, you've paid at least half in the joy I got from those photographs of Shuri and Impuku," she said. "T'Challa tells me she was rebuilding a peanut shelling machine."
"Yeah, she got it runnin' on solar power," Bucky said. "And she put a little scrubby doodad on that takes the skin off the peanuts."
"Well, everything can be improved on," Ramonda replied. "Come, help yourself to some of the cold food before they bring out the hot."
Bucky hadn't been sure what to expect from dinner with a king, or with the Queen Mother. The only times he'd even eaten with Shuri were on his own land or at Nobomi's, and that was different. He felt like he might put his elbow on the table or use the wrong knife by mistake, and Steve was clearly on best behavior, but nobody seemed to stand much on formalities. T'Challa liked the gratin, though Shuri's immediate suggestion was to curry the sweet potatoes next time.
"My son tells me you've befriended some of the remaining Border Tribesmen," Ramonda said, even though T'Challa gave her a warning look.
"They're real helpful," Bucky said. "The kids are looking after my place tonight, and they teach me some Xhosa sometimes. Their parents bartered some goats to me and some rope for Impuku's harness, and they helped me sell my sweet potatoes."
"Do they speak much to you of politics?"
Bucky glanced at T'Challa. It wasn't long past that Wakanda had been in a civil war, though he hadn't been awake for it, and only Nobomi had been willing to tell him about it.
"Tough to set war dogs spyin' on your own people, I guess?" he asked T'Challa.
"Buck?" Steve asked.
"Wakandans, for better or worse -- usually better -- have a strong faith in solidarity," T'Challa said. "I wouldn't ask even a war dog to spy on another Wakandan. No good comes of it."
"But you still wanna know," Bucky said.
"What do you want to know?" Shuri asked T'Challa. Ramonda held up a hand before he could answer.
"What do you imagine he wants to know?" she asked her daughter. "You should think it out for yourself, Shuri."
The feeling around the dinner table wasn't tense, exactly, but Bucky sensed it could turn that way pretty quick. Still, Ramonda seemed like a woman who knew what she was doing.
Shuri tlited her head, thinking.
"If they're still angry they were defeated when the usurper lost the throne?" she tried.
"That, I suspect, we wouldn't need a spy to find out," T'Challa said. "Besides, most of those who remain are loyal to the throne."
"But it can't be that you're worried they don't like a white man farming Wakandan land, that's such a small thing in the grand scheme," Shuri mused.
"There are changes coming to Wakanda. You should know this, you're part of them," T'Challa told her.
"Oh! The outreach centers?" Shuri asked, eyes widening. "Opening Wakanda up to the outside world? But why would they -- oh."
"There it is," T'Challa said, grinning. "I don't worry too much, mind you," he added to Bucky. "But the Border Tribe has always kept up appearances for us, and living the furthest from the urban center, they tend to be a little more conservative. We -- the governing body, not just me -- are concerned they may not approve of my plans for reform. Plans to present Wakanda to the world. To sweep away their reason for being, in some ways."
Bucky considered it -- considered whether he should even answer -- but after all, this was his home now, and T'Challa was for all intents and purposes his king.
"They don't talk about it to me. Doubt they would even if they felt that way; they know I'm close to the Princess, and anyway, I'm an outsider. But if they were so fired up to stay isolated, they wouldn't exactly welcome me in, either, would they?"
"A good point," Ramonda said approvingly.
"Of all the things you gotta worry about, I'd put it pretty low on your list," Bucky said, and then shot him a grin. "After trouble-making immigrants who lead refugees into Wakanda."
The word immigrant got Steve's attention, and he could see it got Shuri's as well; Steve looked perplexed, Shuri pleased. T'Challa seemed unsurprised, but then a king would cultivate a good poker face, Bucky supposed.
"You plan to stay, then?" Ramonda asked.
"Long as I'm let, I think," Bucky said. "Long as I can, anyhow. I love it here," he added on impulse, and Shuri looked pleased. "Might bring you some trouble, but hopefully I'll pay back for that ahead of time."
"Probably not as much as this one," T'Challa said, nodding at Steve, who was still watching Bucky. "Come along. The sun is setting."
On the terrace outside, with iced coffee, Commando begging to play fetch, and a spectacular view of the west, T'Challa leaned on the railing, talking quietly with Steve. Bucky joined Shuri and her mother on a wicker bench, a little ways off.
"He comes to see the sunset as often as he can," Ramonda said, watching her son sidelong. "He told me he considers it a prayer."
"To Bast?" Bucky hazarded.
"No. There are other prayers to the Panther," she said. "In Wakanda, we also venerate our ancestors, and those who have died before us. His father paid no special attention to the sunsets, but T'Challa will not take them for granted. I haven't asked him why, but I can guess."
"The usurper died at sunset," Shuri put in, a little bitterly.
"N'Jadaka," Ramonda corrected. "Give the dead their proper names."
"Maybe if he comes back to say he's sorry for punching me, I will," Shuri retorted.
"N'Jadaka -- the cousin who tried to take the throne?" Bucky asked. "Killmonger? General Nobomi told me about him."
"N'Jadaka's life was complicated, his death no less so. But if T'Challa finds peace in the sunset, remembering the difficult lesson his cousin taught us, then I won't begrudge it. And you won't either," she added to Shuri.
"Yes, mother," Shuri muttered.
"We all make peace in our own ways with our past," Ramonda said to Bucky. "Some more quietly than others."
"Yeah, tell me about it," Bucky agreed, eyes on Steve, and the dark gap where the white star used to be on his uniform.
They got home late enough that evening that the Border Tribe children had hung up hammocks outside Impuku's pasture and gone to sleep; he passed by them carefully, trying not to wake them, gesturing for Steve to do the same.
"That was a pretty good dinner, I think," Steve said, setting his bag down outside the guest bedroom. Bucky pulled the fridge open and put a box full of leftovers in it, then put his gratin bowl in the sink. "Good food, and we didn't embarrass our mothers with our table manners."
"For once," Bucky said with a smile.
"Don't give me that guff, you've eaten with your hands a time or two."
"Maybe I have. Only got the one now though, have to use a fork," Bucky replied. Steve looked stricken. "Ah, come on, that was a joke. It's gotta be funny sooner or later."
"Sure," Steve said, expression shifting subtly into relief. "So you think you'll stay in Wakanda."
"Yeah. The king didn't seem mad when I called myself an immigrant, so. Think I will."
"I'm glad it makes you happy," Steve said, with the same earnestness he'd had when they were kids back in Brooklyn. "And y'know, I bet Shuri would make you an arm."
"Shuri has made me an arm," Bucky replied.
"Well, I ain't seen it, but there's no way she could resist. She's got one for me somewhere in that lab of hers. She just won't give it to me unless I ask. She knows a thing or two," Bucky said.
"Why wouldn't you ask?"
Bucky shrugged. "The last arm I got, I murdered with it. I didn't do good. Maybe it wasn't my fault, but still. This time I don't want it unless I need it and I don't need it yet. I get on fine."
Steve nodded, thoughtful.
"Do you miss them?" Bucky asked, before he even knew he was going to. Steve frowned. "The friends who stayed behind. You miss 'em?"
"Some," Steve allowed, after a moment. "Bruce, for sure, but he's in hiding now somewhere. Clint, but I've seen him a few times. And Thor's offworld most of the time. Rhodey and Vision a little, but we were teammates, not close friends. I barely met Scott."
Steve pulled off his uniform jacket before replying, considering the fraying collar of it carefully.
"Like a missing limb," he said. "Part of you that you know oughta be there, but it isn't. Like you said. Maybe someday that'll change, but that'll have its price, so it can't be fixed yet. Maybe. I dunno how, if it can."
"It's not your fault. I made a choice, and you were only part of that. The consequences hurt, but I don't regret my decision." Steve set the uniform jacket aside. "Let's get our heads down. I'm sure you got goats to look after tomorrow."
Bucky let it go, because it was an obvious sore spot he'd prodded. He'd known it would be for himself, but after all, he was the reason Steve was here, sneaking into Wakanda for a respite from being a fugitive, instead of doing the job he'd been born and then rebuilt in order to do.
He couldn't fix the deaths of Howard and his wife, or Howard's son's rage, but he could at least offer Steve a place to escape the mess for a while.
Commando, curled up on Bucky's bed, lapped at his hand before snuggling under it to fall asleep. In the other bedroom, Steve breathed quietly, and out by the pasture, the children were still sound asleep, so Bucky drifted off too.
He woke to darkness and the insistent buzzing of his kimoyo beads, and almost popped the comm bead off his bracelet entirely before getting it to activate. Caller ID said it was Nobomi, and she wouldn't be calling before sunrise unless his goats had wandered down to her farm or something was really wrong, so he answered just before it would have gone to voicemail, which he still hadn't figured out how to work.
"Are the goats loose?" he asked, half-awake.
"You need to take cover," Nobomi replied, audio-only, and Bucky sat up straight at the tension and anger in her voice. "Get away from the farm. Get up a tree and take whoever is there with you. Let the goats out."
"What's going on?"
"Those children! They've stampeded the cattle, trying to steal one."
"Ah, fuck!" Bucky rolled out of bed with a thump and ran across the room, pushing aside the curtain on Steve's bedroom and then kicking his bed hard enough to wake him. Commando came bounding in, curious and excited. "Do you need help getting them stopped and rounded up?" he asked Nobomi.
"Whu?" Steve managed, rolling onto the floor and looking up at him in surprise.
"No, you won't be able to -- they're coming for your farm, that's why I called to warn you," she said, and Bucky could hear noise in the background of her call, but also noise approaching from the direction of her farm.
"I'll call you back," he said, hanging up. "There's a stampede, we need to get the kids to safety," he said to Steve, who to his credit didn't ask, just got to his feet and followed.
Outside, the sun was just rising, and Bucky could see a cloud of dust over Nobomi's farm, feel the rumbling underfoot.
"Get up, get up," he called, rocking the hammocks. The kids tumbled out of them, yawning sleepily. "There's a stampede. Steve, take the kids, get to the trees and get up 'em. I gotta let the goats out."
"At least you haven't planted the fields!" one of the kids called, as Steve picked him up bodily and began running, another kid on his shoulders and one pulled along by his hand.
Bucky ran for the goat pen and released them; he whistled sharply to Commando, who began chasing them out of the pen and in the direction Bucky waved, after Steve. They were heading for the treeline where the cattle probably wouldn't go, but he couldn't be sure, and the kids were so small --
He jumped to the top pole of the goat pen, and from there to the roof; now he could see the stampede coming, big bodies heaving and steaming in the early dawn light...
And ahead of it, two of the older Border Tribe children, running for their lives.
They were heading straight for the ridge, and they couldn't possibly hope to get up it and away in time to escape the herd, if they could even keep up their speed that long.
"Dammit," he swore, because there was no saving those children, no stopping the tide of violence or even re-routing it --
And then there was a grunt from behind him, and he turned.
Impuku was standing at the edge of his pen, watching the stampede as well. He still had the soft rope around his neck and shoulders that stood in as the yoke for his harness.
Bucky looked at the children running ahead of the stampede, then at Steve and the others, and then back at Impuku, and he made a decision.
"Okay, buddy, when I said no more fighting I maybe kind of lied," he said, jumping into the pen and climbing up on the rhino's back, using the rope for leverage. He tucked one end around his wrist, pulled hard, and felt the rhino wheel around underneath him.
Impuku let out another grunt, and then when he felt Bucky's heels against his sides, a bellow of rage. He tossed his head and took off running straight for the fence, which splintered like dry grass when they burst through it.
Bucky, gripping tight with his knees and praying for the safety of his balls, pulled hard left and wheeled him again. Impuku turned and charged around the house, heading for the ridge. It was like the most uncomfortable motorcycle in existence, cornering on an enraged, terrified rhinoceros.
They reached the ridge before the cattle or the children did, and Impuku went straight down it, Bucky barely staying on. One of the boys, the larger of the two, saw Impuku coming and reached out a hand, grabbing the rhino's horn and swinging himself awkwardly astride his face; he scrambled up Impuku's head while Bucky tucked one ankle under the rope and leaned down, way down, over the rhino's shoulder, to grab the other kid by his arm just before a cow would have trampled him. The first one held tightly to Bucky's shirt and pulled, righting all three of them, at the same moment Impuku met the stampede.
A stampeding cow is a dumb animal, but even a stampeding cow will swerve to avoid a charging, screaming rhinoceros. Impuku didn't even slow down. He just bolted right through, head swinging, shoving cows out of the way as he went, tossing a few sideways with a flick of his horn. Bucky held onto one kid for dear life and let the other one hold them both steady, braced against Impuku's neck-rope.
It seemed like a very unsteady lifetime before it stopped, but it was also over very quickly; Impuku burst out the back of the stampede and skidded to a halt, leaving a twenty-foot furrow behind him as he tried to brake. With a confused yelp, he swung back and forth, and then when it was evident no further cows would be forthcoming, he abruptly collapsed in the trampled mud.
Bucky slid off his back, stumbling to his feet.
"You okay?" he asked the kids, who nodded. "Not hurt, you're okay?"
Behind them, the cattle hit the rise and surged up it; he couldn't see where they were going from there, but hopefully into his freshly-harvested peanut plot, and not all over his house. Impuku had, at least, slowed them down a little.
His comm bead buzzed and he just about lost his mind from the suddenness of it. When he answered, it was Steve.
"We're safely away," Steve said, and Bucky exhaled in relief. "Where are you?"
"Down past the stampede, there were a couple of kids needed some help," he said. "Our kids okay?"
"Yep. The goats too, Commando took 'em through the trees."
"Okay. Good. Fuck," Bucky said.
"Yeah, more or less. I can see them from here -- they're slowing down now, out in your hayfield. You're gonna have to build some new pens, they took out the goat pen."
"Better than the alternative. I'll be up there soon." Bucky hung up and turned to the kids. "You two, go to General Nobomi's place. Let her know the cows are slowing down out at White Wolf's hay pasture."
"We're very sorry!" one of them blurted.
"I bet you are. Now you know why you don't fucking steal cows," Bucky said. "Go, go tell her, not me."
They scrambled off, and Bucky gave himself a couple of breaths.
Sending the thieves back your way he texted Nobomi. Cows are at my place. You wouldn't believe what the hell I just did.
She texted back, I would. I took video.
He looked up and around, then waved to the little camera drone floating overhead.
Impuku decided he didn't really want to move from where he'd finally ended up, so it took Bucky about fifteen minutes of wrestling with him to get his ass in gear. By the time he crested the ridge, Steve was emerging from the trees, leading the children and most of the goats. Steve the Goat, knowing no fear, was in amongst the cows, roaring and pawing the dirt, challenging all of them to a fight.
Impuku, who was clearly completely done with this nonsense, picked his way delicately over the broken timbers of his former pen, not to mention that of the goats as well, and went down to the lake for a wallow. Bucky put the kids inside his farmhouse and then went out to look over the cows with Steve.
"You're the farmer," Steve said, hands on his hips. A cow was eyeballing him skeptically. "What the hell do we do with a herd of cattle?"
"Barbecue," Bucky said, with such conviction that Steve did a double take before bursting into laughter.
Nobomi came over the ridge later that morning, the first time she'd done so since Bucky had moved in. She came on hoverbike with a couple of farmhands on horseback, all of them carrying posts that, when driven into the ground, formed a temporary but sturdy force-field fence around the herd until they could ride them back to her farm.
"Oof, my back," she announced, sliding off the bike once she was done supervising the penning. Bucky had brought a table outside, along with his benches and chair; now he was busy laying out cheese, leftovers, and hastily-made biscuits for breakfast as the children crowded around eagerly. One cow hadn't survived Impuku's charge, and the farmhands were trussing it for roasting on a massive bonfire, so Bucky's assessment of barbecue hadn't been entirely a joke.
"Have a seat," Bucky said, kicking out the chair for her and loading a plate with biscuits, goat butter, and honey. She accepted it with a smile and lowered herself stiffly into the chair while Steve poured the coffee.
"I can't exactly wave a hand and control the cattle," she said, sipping coffee, "but I still want to apologize. I should have given those kids a better telling-off before they tried rustling my cows."
"Not necessary -- and not your fault," Bucky said. "The two I grabbed, were they the only rustlers?"
"No, there were three more, but they were behind the cows, not in front, and I dealt with them," Nobomi said severely. "I think we'll have put paid to the idea of rites of passage involving other peoples' livestock. They'll be by tomorrow to help you rebuild the goat pens, or feel my wrath if they don't."
"Well, kids," Bucky said awkwardly, thinking of the trouble he and Steve used to get up to.
"I suppose we should be glad it was only the pens and nothing worse," Nobomi said. Steve split his biscuit open and began making some kind of terrible sandwich with peanut butter, cheese, leftover ham from the previous night's dinner, and honey.
"You know what you should get?" Steve asked Bucky. "Next harvest when you've got some change in your pocket, get a couple of pigs. You could feed 'em on peanuts, they like peanuts, right?" he asked Nobomi.
"You just want smoked ham and bacon," she told him.
"Well, yeah," Steve replied, and Nobomi laughed. Bucky scooped up some cheese with half a biscuit and drizzled honey over it.
Nobomi and Steve were bickering about something to do with pigs and their return on investment; behind them, the bonfire had been lit and the cow was about to start roasting. The kids were elbowing each other and throwing food when they thought he wasn't looking, and the goats were climbing Impuku, playing king-of-the-castle. The cows had, at least, churned up the peanut field on their way through, so he could get to planting soon, taking advantage of Wakanda's continual balmy growing-season weather. The sun was shining, his pantry was full of food, and his home was safe.
It couldn't last. Not just that Steve would have to go back to his new team, or that the sun wouldn't shine always, or that he'd have to plant and harvest again, which was hard work. He wouldn't be able to hold onto this life forever. There would be a fight, there was always a fight, and he'd get the call to join, if not from Steve or T'Challa then from his own conscience. Someday Shuri would come down the road with an arm for him and he wouldn't say no.
But for now he'd hold onto this, and for as long as he could. And when the fight did come, at least there would be this place in the sun, this moment, to keep in his mind, a memory that wouldn't be taken from him again.