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Illustrations of the Men we Once Were

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Bucky slumped on the small bed, his hair still damp from his recent shower as he stared down at the crumpled paper within his hand.

The drawing’s old, older than he’d care to admit. It’d become yellowed with age yet the distinct pencil marks still remained. The image was so clear: a rushed sketch of Bucky in his uniform- his hat tilted, hair short and a smirk plastered across his face. It wasn’t Steve’s best work by a long-shot but it held such meaning. He remembered the night before his deployment, laying in bed with Steve, various art supplies covering the sheets as he peered over his sketchbook with a soft smile.

“You’re beautiful, Buck.” The familiar voice of Steve rang in Bucky’s mind as he remembered the night as clear as the sketch before him.

When Bucky awoke in Wakanda, he was greeted by Shuri, T’Challa and Okoye, who have since become his closest friends- perhaps even family. He’d like to say he was happy. He felt that he should be. What right does he have to feel this way while living in such a beautiful place with such amazing people? They’ve done so much for him, more than he’d ever asked, yet his body still ached with loneliness as he returned to his bed, alone and empty, each night.
He didn’t know what he expected- it wasn’t as if Steve was going to drop everything and fly to Wakanda upon hearing the news. But four months? Four months? Four months of nothing: no phone call, no letter, nothing.

Standing up from his bed, the springs creaking, his movements were slow and almost sluggish. The drawing was amongst many he’d scavenged over the years, finding them in various museums and exhibitions across the country. He felt it was his right to have them returned to him and had taken it upon himself to make this his mission.
This drawing, however, had always been so close to Bucky’s heart- as the last drawing Steve had sketched while they were both still themselves. Still just two boys from Brooklyn. No serums, no metal arms, no war.
He slipped the paper beneath his pillow and stood in silence; pushing his damp hair away from eyes and behind his ears.

Despite the reminiscence of his old self, Bucky felt more like himself than he ever had. Dressed in his usual red robe, a blue fabric sling covering his left shoulder, he no longer felt like or identified as ‘the winter soldier.’ Even the thought of that alias seemed so foreign to him now.
While recovering, a group of Wakandan children from a neighbouring village had coined the nickname ‘white wolf’ which Bucky had become rather fond of. Anything was better than being feared and known as the assassin.

He lay down, the familiar sound of crickets through the thin walls calming him as his body relaxed.
Sleeping had always been a struggle of Bucky’s, even back in Brooklyn he was subjected to reoccurring nightmares. Steve’s presence would help; the warmth of his frail body grounding Bucky and reassuring him that the dreams were not his reality. But when the nightmares became a reality and Steve wasn’t there to ground him, Bucky’s inability to sleep worsened and the nightmares became a regular occurrence.
The fact that Bucky lived outside of the Wakandan villages, his home located in a neighbouring valley, meant that he no longer worried about waking others during the night with his screams.

Bucky was able to sleep for a total of two hours before waking during the night, staring up at the ceiling in complete darkness. It’d still be a few hours until sunrise, at which Bucky would emerge from his home to feed the animals and prepare for his trip to the village.

As Bucky lay awake, his body still and surprisingly relaxed, he began to feel that he was no longer alone. His eyes wandered through the darkness, seeking any glimpse of movement. This search was met with a sudden surge of fear as his eyes landed upon an unfamiliar figure. He could hear the faint sound of breathing and the shuffling of the papers that lay upon the table.
His heart raced, his body stiff and frozen with fear.

Through the darkness, he was able to make out the subtle shape of a bearded face.

“Steve?” His voice was rough and croaky as he lifted his body to rest upon his elbow.

The room lit up as a match was struck, Steve’s face soft as Bucky appeared through the darkness. Neither spoke, not daring to break the silence that had fallen between them.

This man wasn’t Captain America. There was no shield, no suit and no team.

This was Steve Rogers.

Dressed in an oversized sweater, loose fitting trousers and blue cap, Steve appeared different from the last time they’d seen one-another. His chin covered with a beard and his hair long and floppy, Bucky barely recognised the man that stood before him. But he knew it was Steve. His Steve.

“Sorry,” He whispered, Bucky’s body instantly relaxing to the sound of his voice, “I didn’t want to wake you.”

Bucky’s mouth opened yet no words came out. It was strange, these last few months he dreamt of what he’d say to Steve upon his return yet now the moment had presented itself, his words were nowhere to be found. He watched as Steve’s eyes inspected him, feeling self-conscious and tense beneath his gaze.
This was the man he’d fallen so deeply in love with so many years ago, yet he had no idea how to greet him now.

“Steve.” He repeated, the realisation that this was Steve stood before him finally sinking in.

“I’m here, Buck,” He hesitated before taking a step closer, obviously still weary of Bucky’s anxiety, “I’m here.”

The words rang through Bucky’s mind, having longed to hear them for so long. He couldn’t help but smile, tears falling down his cheeks as he stood up from the bed he’d felt so lonely in. Steve was here. He was really here.
Without hesitation or even saying a word, Bucky found himself in Steve’s arms. This is where he belonged. This is where they both belonged. Together.

“Where’ve you been?” Bucky’s voice was shaky and muffled against Steve’s neck.

“I thought I’d give you time,” he began, the lump in his throat obvious, “I’m sorry I waited so long.”

Silence surrounded them as they became lost in the moment, their arms finally releasing one-another. Bucky studied Steve’s face, his eyes slowly wandering down to the soft smile plastered across his cheeks. His heart was racing and he was sure Steve could feel it against his chest.
Bucky’s smile matched Steve’s as he leaned closer, their noses touching before their lips met and they were in one-another’s arms once again.

Finally.

They found themselves sprawled across the small bed later that night, their limbs tangled and their fingers intertwined. Steve’s fingers combed through Bucky’s hair, the brunette leaning into his touch as his eyelids fluttered shut. Steve couldn’t help but smile, his own eyes falling shut as he pulled Bucky close.

They’d been separated for so long and yet, lay here together in Wakanda, it was as if they’d never left one-another’s side.
And Bucky, after so long, no longer felt alone.

They lay there awake yet in silence, Bucky’s head rested within the crook of Steve’s neck. He inhaled, his breaths no longer shaky and unsure as he began to breath in unison with his love. This is how it’s supposed to be.

“You awake?” Steve whispered, his eyes fixed on Bucky as his fingers combed through his thick hair once again.

“Mhhmm,” His eyes opened slowly, looking up at Steve with a tired smile, “always.”

Steve exhaled, pressing his lips against Bucky’s forehead before their lips collided. Their kisses were soft and almost sloppy, their movements slow as if to prolong the moment forever.
Their bodies were warm against one-another, the sheets finding themselves across the floor during the night. Bucky’s hand cupped Steve’s cheek as their lips parted, their eyes never once wavering as they shared the same loving expression and soft smile.

Bucky exhaled, his hand returning to Steve’s waist, “it’s almost sunrise,” his voice still rough and croaky, “we should get up soon.”

Steve furrowed his brow, looking down at Buck in confusion.
“I gotta feed the animals before we go to the village,” he pushed himself up from the bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

Living in the valley alone meant that Bucky had become responsible for the animals that he shared it with. He was grateful for this as it gave him a reason to feel needed in a time where he wasn’t sure that he was. There was a small chicken coop not far from his home, alongside a shack in which the goats slept. It was Friday, which meant he would travel to the village with the milk and eggs they provided.

“I have some clothes you can wear,” Bucky looked Steve up and down, smirking, “something more comfortable?”

Steve nodded, his shaggy hair falling over his eyes as Bucky threw a pile of fabric toward his chest. He held out the long, blue robe and smiled, his eyes wandering across the room to a half-dressed Bucky.
Their eyes met, Bucky turning to grab a fabric sling to quickly cover his shoulder once again.
Since losing the arm Hydra had given him, Bucky found comfort in covering the scaring left behind. Upon recovering from the initial surgery, Nakia had wrapped his shoulder with fabric in order to cover the bandages. Since then it’d become routine to do the same each day to hide the flesh he so badly despised. The flesh and scarring that reminded of him of those monsters and what they’d done to him.

Steve didn’t mention this, not wanting to make Bucky feel uncomfortable. He so badly wanted to tell Bucky that there was no need to hide. No need to cover up. No need to be ashamed of his body and what he’d been through. But instead he remained silent, knowing that Bucky needed to recover at his own pace.

“You look great,” Bucky beamed, slipping on a pair of sandals as he spoke, “come on.”

Bucky, picking up a bucket of grains, gestured Steve to do the same as they began their walk toward the farm. Steve grabbed two buckets, one per hand, knowing that Bucky was unable to do so.
The sunrise, despite watching it every morning, still left Bucky in awe after all this time. He turned to Steve, whose eyes remained fixed on the horizon, and couldn’t help but feel the same sense of love and awe that he did when looking at that sunrise.

“Yoko!” Bucky yelled as they arrived at the farm, a large rhinoceros plundering toward them, “hey girl!”

Steve remained distant as Bucky tended to the animal, feeding her apples he’d collected from the trees along the way. She wasn’t the only rhinoceros in the valley, others slowly making their way over as Bucky revealed the remaining fruit he’d stuffed in his bag.

“She don’t bite ya know, Stevie.” He laughed, waving Steve over, “here.”

Steve took an apple within his hand, laying his palm flat as a smaller rhinoceros took it within her mouth. His gaze returned to Bucky, whose smile grew as he continued feeding the animals. He looked so happy. So at peace.
It had been so long since Steve had seen him smile like that- the way he used to smile before the war.
Watching as he continued, Steve began to notice the slight tremor in Bucky’s hand as he held out the apples. Attempting to ignore it and not wanting to interfere, he stood by the barn with his buckets in hand and waited.

“Okay,” Bucky lifted his own bucket once again, “now the chickens.” He directed Steve toward the coop, his sling-covered shoulder pressed up against Steve’s arm as they walked.

Arriving at the coop, Bucky stood in silence- his eyes distracted and his hand still shaking. His breathing had become heavier, his breaths shallow and his heart racing. Despite the heat, Bucky began to shiver- the hair on his arms stood up on end as goosebumps covered his body. Steve furrowed his brow, placing his buckets on the ground as he took a step closer.

“Buck?” As he spoke, Bucky’s bucket of grain hit the floor with a thud, the contents spilling across the ground as his knees hit the floor, “Buck?!”

Steve was by his side in a matter of seconds, a hand placed on his back as he crouched down beside him. Bucky’s hand had grasped his shoulder, as if in sudden shock that his limb was no longer there. His eyes were quick and constantly wavering as he took in his surroundings as if for the first time.
His forehead now pressed against his forearm in the dirt, his hair scrawled across the floor, Bucky’s eyes slammed shut as he shook his head in confusion. He’d occasionally mumble something incoherent, either Russian or Xhosa, only once speaking English when the words “No, no stop” escaped his lips.

“I’m here, Buck,” Steve’s hand ran up and down his back, “I’m here.”

Bucky’s words stopped, his eyes held tightly shut as he breathed slowly through his nose. They remained at the coop for around thirty minutes, Steve never once removing his hand from Bucky’s back. He knew that Bucky needed to know he was there. That he wasn’t alone.
Slowly, Bucky sat himself up and slumped on the ground, his hand blindly fumbling as if in search of something. His eyes still closed, his fingers wrapped around Steve’s wrist- their fingers quickly intertwining within a tight grip.

“You okay?”

“Mhmm,” Bucky nodded as he leant closer, pulling Steve into a hug. On their knees, they remained this way for a few minutes, neither wanting to release the other from their grip.

“Shit,” Bucky finally muttered as he released Steve, his eyes wet and his face flushed crimson, “we have to-“ he turned, attempting to collect the grain from the ground.

“It’s okay, I got it.” Steve exhaled, moving to help collect the remaining grain before Bucky disappeared into the chicken coop. He emerged promptly, a large basket of eggs in hand. He was mentally kicking himself- ashamed that Steve had seen him that way and wanting to forget it’d ever happened. The sun had now already risen and they were running late. Great.
They quickly made their way over to the goat enclosure, a small buck slamming into Bucky’s shins as he entered with the feed.

“Grab that milk over there and we’ll get going soon,” Bucky gestured toward the nearby crate filled with bottles as he continued to feed the animals, speaking to them in Xhosa as he usually did.

While here, Bucky had picked up the language quite easily- with the help of Nakia, who’d teach him as often as she could. The children from the village played their part in his learning- laughing when his pronunciation was off and eventually correcting him.
Steve was excellent with languages, Dernier having taught him French during the war, however Xhosa was nothing like he’d learnt before. Attempting to brush off the incident and the obvious muttering, he grabbed the crate and waited for Bucky to finish his chores.

“That too heavy for ya?” He laughed, returning to Steve’s side with the basket of eggs in hand, his grip firm and steady.

“I think I’ll manage,” Steve joked, poking his elbow into Bucky’s side, “I’m not as weak as I look, ya know.”

Their walk to the village was quiet and peaceful, Bucky catching Steve up on the thinks he’d missed during the previous months. Bucky had always been fascinated in technology, even back in the 1940’s he was obsessed with the idea of Howard’s inventions. He beamed as he rambled on about Shuri’s laboratory and the technology within it. Howard’s tech was nothing in comparison to Shuri’s. She really did amaze him. They’d become close friends, since his arrival, and could usually be found in her lab “being nerds” as T’Challa often so graciously put it.

She’d offered Bucky a replacement arm for the one he’d lost, and while he didn’t doubt her technology, he’d turned down the offer each time. He didn’t need a metal arm. He didn’t need something to remind him of Hydra. Bucky wouldn’t admit it, but he feared losing his arm again. He’d lost it two times in his lifetime. Two times is more than enough for any man.

“T’Challa called me, ya know,” Steve broke the comfortable silence that had fallen between them as the village came into view, “as soon as you were awake. He promised me he would.”

“Why- “

“I also made him promise to call me at least once a week. To let me know you were okay,” he turned to Bucky, whose brow was furrowed, “i worried about you.”

“You didn’t have to,” Bucky smiled, his arm extended as he waved toward a figure in the distance, “i was in good hands.”
Steve followed Bucky’s eyes, smiling at the sight of a waving Nakia.

“But thanks, Stevie. It means a lot,” Bucky hesitated, his mouth open as if to speak, glancing at Steve, “I love you.”

“I love you too, Buck.” They leant closer in unison, their lips lightly pressing together before their attention returned to the village.

As they arrived, Steve studied Nakia’s expression as she glanced between the two. The village was abuzz with activity, people rushing to and from the stalls across the streets. The streets were full of carts and carriages; the laughter of children heard in the distance as Steve’s eyes curiously wandered. Bucky looked around with a familiar smile, nodding and smiling at the locals as he ushered Steve in the right direction.

“Barnes,” Nakia beamed, “we were beginning to wonder whether you’d gotten lost.”

Bucky laughed, looking over at Steve and back at Nakia before conversing quickly in Xhosa. Steve tried his hardest not to look confused, not wanting to intrude on the conversation that was so obviously not meant for his ears. Taking three eggs in his hand, Bucky placed them carefully within the basket Nakia held and softly nodded.

“You must be Steven,” Nakia held out her hand as she spoke, “i’ve heard a lot. it’s nice to finally meet you.”

Nakia watched as both Steve and Bucky flushed red, their faces hot with embarrassment. Steve turned to Bucky, his expression inquisitive, as he wondered what exactly Nakia had been told.

“Steve,” he returned, smirking at Bucky, “and it’s nice to meet you too.”

As Steve spoke, a small figure appeared beside Bucky- tugging at his leg with a smile. Bucky beamed, lifting the child into a hug as he greeted her parents. Steve stood and watched as Bucky handed another woman four eggs, continuing with a conversation that he didn’t understand.
Steve’s smile grew as watched Bucky, amazed at how peaceful and happy he looked in that moment. Then, suddenly, the previous incident ran through Steve’s mind and he began to wonder- how often would Bucky experience attacks like that? And how often would he be alone when it happened?

Bucky pulled Steve back into reality, his hand placed lightly on his lower back as he guided him through the busy streets.
“You okay?” He studied Steve’s face as they halted in a nearby alleyway, “you’re quite.”

“I...” he began, his eyes meeting with Bucky’s before glancing down at his lips, their bodies only centimetres apart, “I’m fine.”

Exhaling, Bucky leant against the narrow wall, taking a breath of fresh air away from the crowded streets before they re-entered the chaos. He hadn’t experienced an attack in the last few days and had been preparing himself; knowing it would happen. What he hadn’t prepared for, however, was Steve witnessing it.

“Let’s get this done so we can head home.” He finally smiled, noticing the worry within Steve’s eyes and the furrowing of his brow.