The metal is cold in Steve’s hands for just a moment when he lifts the weights, before it warms to his already heated skin. He grimaces at the effort of pulling them slowly up towards his chest, and then back down, slow and controlled. Sweat drips down his temples and he wipes at it with his elbow once he finishes the set of twelve and sets the weights back down on the floor. He’s done more or less the same routine every morning for nearly a month, and today is one of those days where it feels pointless and he has to force himself through it while questioning who or what he’s staying in shape for. The world doesn’t seem to need him very much anymore. He isn’t necessarily complaining. He isn’t necessarily happy about it either. He’s confused, mostly, and doesn’t like to dwell on it. There’s nothing he could do about it anyway, even if he were capable of making up his mind. So instead he does push-ups, and meets up with Natasha and Sam when he can, and thinks about Bucky, and tries not to think about Bucky.
As he’s on the floor, plank position squeezing his core muscles, his phone buzzes. Expecting it to be Sam or Nat, because they’re the only ones who call him these days, he lets it go to voicemail and finishes his regimented, robotic workout. It isn’t until a half hour later, after he’s showered and made coffee, that he bothers to check. The number is unlisted, so he taps to listen to the message.
“Captain Rogers, this is T’Challa,” the melodically accented voice says, and Steve’s heart leaps into his throat. “Please call when you are able, I will give you a phone number and one of my generals will find me. Do not worry, it is good news.”
Steve scrambles for a pen to scribble the number down on a strip of paper towel, and dials it the second after he deletes the message. He explains the situation to the woman who answers, and minutes later T’Challa’s voice rings over the phone once again.
“Good morning, my friend.”
“Your Highness,” Steve greets, politely.
“Sergeant Barnes is awake. I thought you’d like to know as soon as possible.”
It’s the news Steve has been aching for daily, and his breath catches. It feels foolishly optimistic to believe it’s true, even though he just heard it with his own ears. “Is he …?”
“My sister has been working on him for some time, and she is quite convinced she has removed his training. She revived him and tested him with the code words you gave us, and we saw no reaction.”
Steve’s sigh of relief runs right down to his feet. It feels like being submerged in cool water on a sweltering day. Tension he hadn’t even realized he’d been carrying in his shoulders dissipates, and the sudden absence of it fees like he just lost 50 pounds in the space of a breath.
“How is he?” Steve asks urgently.
“Weak. Recovering,” T’Challa answers. “Unhappy.”
“Did he say that?”
“It isn’t difficult to tell. He blames himself very deeply for the things he was made to do. He asked me if …” T’Challa pauses, and it’s weighted. Even though Steve can only hear his voice, he can picture the frown on his face.
“If I thought you would forgive him.”
It’s like a knife stuck and twisted in Steve’s chest, and he moves the phone away from his face for a moment to hide the small, desperate noise that escapes from his mouth. “He has nothing to ask forgiveness for,” he says, and his voice still wobbles pathetically.
“I agree,” T’Challa says heavily. “If you would like to visit, that is something I could arrange.”
Genuinely, unashamedly, Steve says, “Thank you.”
* * *
Steve’s phone buzzes on the seat beside him. It’s a text from Natasha.
A small smile tugs at the corners of his mouth, but he doesn’t respond to it. Doesn’t really know what he would say. He’s nervous, and he shouldn’t be. It’s only been a month since they last saw each other, so there’s no reason this should be a big, dramatic, theatrical reunion. Just a normal visit with his best friend. Except there’s nothing normal about any of it.
He exhales and rubs his hand over the hair on his jaw. He wonders what Bucky will think of him with a beard. Then he wonders why he cares so much. Lying to himself was easier, before. When Bucky was gone, when Bucky wasn’t Bucky anymore, it was easier to pretend a lot of things. Now, he’s been deprogrammed – at least, they hope – and they aren’t currently in the middle of a war or an ancient deity descending from the heavens to end their world. For the first time in almost a century, it will be just the two of them, alone, nothing keeping them apart. No reason to hold anything back, and the thought terrifies Steve.
He lands the jet smoothly, and he’s taken by the King’s guard to a small village just inside the protected Wakandan border. It’s modest; clay huts with thatched roofs and wooden fences and herds of goats and mule and giant, majestic rhinos. It looks galaxies away from what Steve is used to – skyscrapers and airships and tech that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary – but it looks like a person living here would enjoy an uncomplicated existence, and Bucky deserves that more than anyone after everything he’s been through.
“He’s in there.” A man named W’Kabi points to a small clay hut, near the edge of the enclosure. It’s next to a quiet, still pond.
“Thank you. And thank the King for me, if you don’t mind, for arranging this.”
W’Kabi nods, and there is a glint in his eyes that says he knows more than he’s saying. Steve is grateful it can go unspoken. He’s never told anyone, about what he had with Bucky once, so many decades ago now that it almost feels like it happened to someone else. Like it’s a story Steve heard, or a particularly realistic dream. He’s never spoken the words out loud to another soul, and still he always feels like he can sense that people know. That they interpret something in the way he looks at Bucky, in how hard he’s fought to save him, in his willingness to turn away from his friends when he knew Bucky was being set up.
Natasha knows. It’s never been spoken out loud between them, either, but Steve can tell she knows. She’s too observant to have missed it.
The cloth covering the doorway moves as Steve approaches, pulled back to reveal his oldest friend. The person he would have, a lifetime ago, sacrificed absolutely everything for. The person he loved, the person he still loves, despite the canyon that exists between them now. Bucky is wrapped in fabric like W’Kabi, colourful sheets of it tied around his waist and tucked tightly over the shoulder where his metal arm used to attach. His dark hair is still long, pieces of it falling into his eyes. There is scruff on his chin and cheeks as well, unkempt and unstyled. He’s barefoot. When Steve gets closer, the dark circles that had been under his eyes the last time they were together are nearly gone. The corners of his sky-blue eyes crinkle when he smiles, like they always have. He looks relaxed, and content, and it’s been an entire lifetime since Steve has seen him smile like he is now.
“Heard your voice.”
“Nice digs, Sergeant,” Steve says, gesturing at their surroundings. Bucky’s voice, predictably, is just like Steve remembers. It still thrills him to hear it. He was terrified he never would again.
Bucky shrugs. “It isn’t glamorous. But it’s safe.”
Steve’s chest tightens. He wonders how long it’s been since Bucky has felt safe. “I wasn’t being sarcastic. It’s beautiful here.”
“I take care of the goats,” Bucky says, his smile changing just slightly. “I think they gave me something easy to do, so I wouldn’t feel useless.”
“Easy isn’t so bad.”
Bucky nods toward the door behind him. “Come in.”
Inside, there are more woven blankets, piled on a mat where he assumes Bucky sleeps, and a series of clay pots surrounding a small fire pit. An oil lamp sits on a wooden table, giving the space a gentle, orange glow. A trunk sits on the ground near the door, Steve assumes filled with Bucky’s belongings, whatever those may be. There’s a robotic arm on the bed, with loose straps laying around it. Steve doesn’t mention that. Not yet. He lifts the bag from off his shoulder and sets it on the ground.
“Why do they live like this?” he asks, gesturing to the pottery and the fire pit, “when there’s a whole modern world just over the hill?”
“They want to.” Bucky shrugs again. “I don’t mind it. I’m learning to cook.”
“Good, you can make me breakfast,” Steve jokes, desperate to disperse the thin layer of tension floating between them. Then he realizes it sounded like a bad pick-up line, and he cringes. “Sorry, I didn’t mean – ”
“I know what you meant. It’s okay.”
Steve itches to touch, curling his fingers into fists to stop himself from reaching out and grabbing. He might not be allowed to anymore. Maybe too much has happened. Bucky looks small even though he isn’t, and helpless even though he definitely isn’t, and Steve’s fingernails dig into his palms with the effort of holding back. He’s always been the one who needs to fix everything, everyone.
“Hi,” he says finally, awkwardly.
“Hi,” Bucky answers. “No uniform this time,” he adds, pointing to Steve’s jeans and zip-up hoodie.
“I’m not Captain America anymore,” Steve reminds him.
Bucky’s forehead wrinkles into a frown. “It’s really over?”
“For now, at least. We’ve been shut down, and … some of them don’t want anything to do with me anymore.”
“Because of me?” Bucky asks. He sounds devastated by it.
Steve shakes his head quickly, desperate for Bucky to understand that it isn’t. He doesn’t need another thing to blame himself for. “Not at all. Not even slightly, there were these … deals, these regulations. The people in power wanted to limit ours. Wanted to put leashes on us. Some of them were okay with that. I wasn’t. The Avengers was over anyway. The stuff with you was just … bad timing.”
“You still chose me, over your friends. Can’t have helped.”
“I’d do it again. Exactly the same,” Steve insists. “You were my friend first. And you were innocent. Letting you get killed or locked up when you didn’t do anything would have been wrong.”
“That’s a pretty loose definition of innocent,” Bucky grumbles. “I didn’t bomb the Embassy. But there’s decades of blood on my hands between those two things.”
“Can I … give you a hug?” Steve asks, half because he doesn’t know what else to say and half because he’s still itching to touch; silently praying Bucky won’t turn him down but prepared for it anyway.
A frown tugs at Bucky’s eyebrows. “Of course,” he says, like Steve was stupid for asking.
Sighing loudly in relief, Steve moves in closer and slides his arms around Bucky’s back, Bucky’s one arm coming up and holding tight. He means it to be brief, but it lingers and Steve doesn’t have the heart to pull away. Bucky still smells exactly like he remembers, exactly the same mix of warm skin and soap that drove Steve crazy when they were teenagers and he ached daily to confess and grab Bucky’s face in his hands and kiss him, and Bucky didn’t know, then. When Bucky’s fingers gather a handful of Steve’s hoodie and squeeze, Steve suddenly has to blink the sting of tears out of his eyes.
Finally he lets go, but Bucky doesn’t so Steve can’t move too far away. Their cheeks brush and Steve stares into Bucky’s eyes, intense blue staring back at him. He tries to read in them what’s going to happen, what the rules are, if there are boundaries left or if everything can slip right back into how it used to be, so long ago but still so vivid in his memory.
Taking a chance, heartbeat quickening, Steve takes an enormous risk and whispers, “Can I kiss you?”
Bucky’s eyes are shiny as he nods quickly and does it before Steve can. The slide of their lips together is so familiar but brand new all at once. It’s brief – too brief for Steve who’s been thinking and wishing and dreaming about this moment for so many years – but he doesn’t push for more. Bucky does step back, after a moment of staring at Steve’s lips, clearing his throat and rubbing his palm on the front of his robes.
“Sorry,” he mutters.
Steve begins to ask what on earth he’s sorry for, when Steve was the one who initiated it, but Bucky interrupts before he can get the words out.
“Have you talked to Stark? Since …”
“No,” Steve says simply.
“Are you going to?”
“No,” he repeats.
Bucky’s face folds in disapproval, just the way his mother’s used to. “Why not?”
“He tried to kill you.”
“You’d wind up pretty lonely if that’s your metric for friends,” Bucky points out, darkly.
“Because. They tried to kill a super-soldier assassin with a robot arm that was attacking them. Tony tried to kill you.”
Thankfully, Bucky doesn’t argue that it’s the same thing. He will, though. Steve can tell that fight is coming, even if it’s not here just yet.
“I sent him a letter. Told him he could call me if he ever needed me, in a if the world’s in danger sort of way. But he probably won’t. He’s too stubborn.”
“Do you think he’d ever forgive me for his parents?”
Steve would like to say yes. Bucky looks so broken up about it, and he’d love to promise that it will all work out perfectly. But it would be a lie. “I doubt it. I don’t think he’d see the value in it. You don’t mean anything to him.”
Bucky nods and tucks one side of his long hair behind his ear.
“You mean a ton to me, if that helps at all. If it evens things out.”
Looking up, Bucky looks tired again, but not the kind that can be solved with a good night’s sleep. He looks soul-tired, weary in places deeper than physical, and Steve wants to yell and cry and destroy every living person who did this to the love of his life.
“Why did you wanna kiss me?” Bucky asks quietly.
Steve is taken aback by the question. “I thought … I asked, you could’ve said no if you didn’t want …”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want it. I’m asking why you did.”
Shaking his head, Steve exhales, “I guess because I’ve been thinking about it since 1945.”
“I wasn't sure you’d still want … that. What we had back then.”
“Why would you think that?”
“You just said it yourself, the last time we kissed was over 70 years ago. Why would I think anything else?”
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, still confused but with a pit in his stomach over upsetting Bucky, even if he doesn’t understand what he did wrong. “I won’t do it again.”
“No, that’s not …” Bucky growls in exasperation and roughly shoves his hair back again. He gathers it like he’s going to tie it back, his metal-covered shoulder twitching like it’s trying to move the arm that isn’t there, and then he sighs. “Fuck. I’m trying to get used to not wearing the fucking arm but then I forget.”
“It’s okay, Buck. You’ll get the hang of it,” Steve tells him, softly.
Bucky looks back at him, and he looks crestfallen. “I’m sorry. I’m being a dick, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
Swallowing thickly, and hoping Bucky can’t hear how fast his heart is beating in the small room, Steve works up the nerve to confess, “I wanted to kiss you because 70 years ago, I was completely, madly, devastatingly in love with you. And I lost you, and it destroyed me. And then I had you back, but that was even worse, because it wasn’t you, and they’d done such terrible things to you it still makes me sick to my stomach to think about. And now …”
“Back again,” Bucky supplies, the thin shell of a joke.
“For real this time. As you, as the person I’ve been head-over-heels for since I was fourteen. I wanted to kiss you because … I wanted to kiss you. But I won’t, if it’s not what you want.” It feels like ripping his skin off, laying everything bare in front of a man who means everything to him, and might not love him back anymore.
“I didn’t say I didn’t want it,” Bucky repeats. His eyes are shiny again. “Maybe I just don’t get why you would. I’m not Bucky anymore, Steve.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means I’m not that guy, the one you knew. That guy died in 1945. I have his face and his voice and his damn memories clogging up my head but I’m not him. The things I’ve done, the things other people did to me … I’m not your Bucky anymore.”
Nearly choking on his attempt to wrestle back a sob, Steve lurches forward and grabs Bucky’s face in his hands, rougher than he should have, and Bucky just looks up at him with tears in his eyes. “That’s a load of bullshit and you know it. I don’t give a shit what you’ve done, that doesn’t get to erase who you are.”
“You don’t know the things I did.”
“If you’d killed a million people it wouldn’t change my mind. It wasn’t your fault, and if I have to scream that at you every day for the next 70 years to make you believe it, I will.”
“Stubborn,” Bucky complains, but his hand comes up to rest on Steve’s hip.
“You know I always was, so don’t test me.”
Bucky breathes deeply, and it rattles in his chest like a lifetime of cigarettes have shrivelled his lungs, even though that’s not the case. “What do we do? What are you even doing here, what are we supposed to do now?”
“The first thing,” Steve murmurs, stepping over how much it hurts in his chest to hear Bucky talk like that, “is that I want to kiss you again. Not because I feel sorry for you, or obligated, or guilty, I want to. If it’s what you want.”
Bucky nods like the first time, and the second glide of their lips together feels so much more important than the first one was. He whimpers softly into Steve’s mouth when he tilts his head and deepens it, tongue flicking out to taste, exploring what he used to know so well, all those years ago. He still knows it. It’s muscle memory, and it feels more like coming home than Steve was prepared for. The weight of it has him blinking tears out of his own eyes. When Bucky breaks the embrace to breathe, he drops his head onto Steve’s shoulder, and Steve wraps him up in a hug even tighter than the first one.
“Okay,” Bucky says in a small voice. “That was the first thing. What’s the second?”
Steve didn’t have a second thing lined up on his imaginary list. He wants to tell Bucky everything that’s happened since they were last together. He wants Bucky to talk about the things he was made to do, to yell about it or cry about it if he wants, and to hold him close while he does. He wants to strip them both down until they’re nothing but flesh and history between them and reclaim what he lost all those years ago, what he thought he lost forever. He wants to heal Bucky’s wounded soul with lips on his skin, to tie his shattered pieces back together and then spend the rest of his life making sure no one ever hurts him ever again. He wants a lot of things that are too intense to just spring on someone he hasn’t seen in weeks, and before that, decades.
“Let’s go for a walk,” is what he says. “Show me around your new home.”
He releases his grip on Bucky, feeling like letting go of something vitally important as he does, and tries to smile reassuringly.
“You know what they’re all gonna think.” Bucky gestures toward the village outside. “They’ll wonder why you’re here, if you stay for too long.”
Steve does know that, and the tiny part of him that minds about strangers knowing his private business or about the possibility of the world finding out their Captain America is in love with another man, is overridden instantly by the much larger part that has loved Bucky for his entire life and has no reason left to hide it. Bucky isn’t wrong, that if Steve stays for longer than a day or two, people might talk. Steve finds he doesn’t care. He reaches down and takes Bucky’s hand, threading their fingers together.
“Then let’s not leave them wondering.”
* * *
“I’ve only been awake for a few days, so I haven’t actually seen that much of this place.”
Steve notices a teenage girl watching them, seeing the fact that they’re holding hands, and he grits his teeth, expecting blow-back. “Show me what you have seen.”
“I found a nice view, yesterday. If you’re up for some climbing.”
“Is this your boyfriend, White Wolf?” the girl asks, as she gets close enough to them to address what she’s looking at.
“Not quite,” Bucky answers. She looks confused, but he doesn’t elaborate. “Hello, Adah.”
“Enjoy the rest of your day,” she says, nodding her head and carrying on her way.
“White Wolf?” Steve questions.
“It’s what they call me.”
Steve nods, and grins. “Fitting.”
“I mean, you are white.”
“What about the wolf part?”
“I think you’re a pack animal,” Steve reasons. “Loyal, and protective.”
“I guess.” Bucky doesn’t sound convinced, and Steve doesn’t bother arguing it just now.
Bucky leads him through the maze of huts similar to his own, past gated animal enclosures, and Steve wordlessly follows. The blue, cloudless expanse above them is the most amount of sky Steve has ever seen. With no tower buildings blocking the view, it seems to extend into infinity, and it makes him feel impossibly small. It’s quiet, too. The serenity is punctured only by the melodic singing of birds and the rustle of the breeze through the tall grass. Steve couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect place for Bucky to recover.
It’s a short hike, up a well-worn path and some easily-climbable rocks, to a high spot overlooking an expansive lake. Steve brings his hand up to block the sun so he can squint down into the valley. A herd of gazelle drinks from it and a few little ones splash around, chasing each other. White birds pass overhead in large groups.
“I sat up here for a long time the other day,” Bucky says.
“I don’t blame you. It looks like a painting.”
“It was … peaceful.”
It’s like balm on Steve’s heart to hear. He knows it’s been decades since Bucky has known a single moment of peace.
“I’ve never seen you with facial hair before,” Bucky says, pointing to Steve’s face.
“Yeah. I don’t know, at first I think I was just being lazy but then … kinda disillusioned with the whole squeaky clean image, lately.”
“How are you doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“With everything. You lost a lot in the last little while. Half your friends, your home, your identity. So, how are you?”
“I can’t believe you’re worried about me.” Steve shakes his head.
Bucky shrugs. “I’m used to being alone, on the run. You aren’t.”
Steve bumps Bucky’s shoulder with his own. “I’m not alone.”
Bucky nods. “Do you wanna sit? Stay a while?”
They settle on the ground, leaning against a tree. Steve reclines against it, with his legs stretched out in front of him, and Bucky tucks his up, feet flat on the ground and his arm draped over his knees. His metal shoulder is the one touching Steve’s, and he can feel the difference through his clothes, the metal bits harder and colder than skin.
“What about you?” Steve asks.
“What about me?”
“The last time I saw you, you looked …”
“Finish the sentence,” Bucky says quietly.
“Haunted,” Steve answers, after pausing to search for the right word.
“You really wanna do this? Talk about all that shit?”
“Don’t you think we should?”
“Why?” Bucky sounds exhausted again, and Steve hates it. He hates that maybe he’s making it worse, and he hates that he doesn’t know how to fix any of it.
“You’re not the only one with shit inside that keeps you up at night. You’re not the only one who’s killed people. Maybe I can understand a little of what you’re going through, better than most people could.”
Bucky snorts derisively. “Collateral damage. Accidental casualties. And saving millions in the process. Not really comparable.”
“I’m not comparing it. I’m just saying … you’re not alone either.”
“I guess I’m better, than I was,” Bucky admits finally. “I don’t know how much better I’d have to get before I could actually say I’m good, but … it’s an improvement. Being here.”
Steve nods, and would metaphorically kill to have a better idea of what to say.
Bucky shakes his head. “So much has happened. You realize we’ve known each other for almost a century?”
“I missed you every single minute we weren’t together,” Steve tells him, and it’s the truth he never let himself think about until just now. He wasn’t conscious for most of that time, and Bucky was. The thought makes him ache inside.
“I was harder for them to wipe clean than the others. I remember hearing them say that once, when they didn’t know I was listening. I kept being a problem for them. I didn’t know why at the time but … maybe it was because deep down, somewhere they couldn’t get to, I remembered you.”
“What do you remember, now?”
“Not everything. There are dark patches. The shit I do remember is … well. It doesn’t matter, I guess. I can’t change it.”
Steve swallows and closes his eyes for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky says quietly, misinterpreting Steve’s reaction as anger.
“No. It wasn’t your fault. None of it was.” Steve reaches out to brush the backs of his knuckles over Bucky’s cheek, smiling when Bucky turns his face just slightly into the touch. “It wasn’t you.”
“It was me,” Bucky agues sadly. “I couldn’t control it, but it was still me.”
“It was your body. It wasn’t your mind.” Steve lets his hand trail down over Bucky’s neck, and then presses his palm into the centre of Bucky’s chest. “It wasn’t what’s in here. It wasn’t anything you would ever have done if you had any choice.”
“I’m still scared it’s gonna happen again,” Bucky says, a quiet confession that he likely hasn’t said out loud to anyone else. “That someone else is gonna find some other code words that we don’t know about, and turn me back. I almost killed you last time.”
“She fixed you, though, right? The princess?”
“Yeah she did, but … I don’t know. I guess we won’t know if it really worked until … until we know.”
“She made you a new arm, too, I noticed.”
Bucky nods and drops his gaze. “It doesn’t do what the old one did. It’s more like a prosthetic. I can still move the fingers and stuff but it doesn’t have the amplified strength.”
“Was that your idea or theirs?”
“Mine. I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to hurt anyone else.”
Steve nods, and completely understands. More than Bucky could know.
“Do you, uh. Want me to put it on, when we get back? It’s kinda weird without, right? Ugly and shit.”
Steve shakes his head, as the words break his heart. “No. No, it isn’t.”
When Bucky doesn’t look convinced, Steve gently pushes the fabric of his robes back, revealing the reddened skin where Bucky’s flesh was sewn back together, the scars where the metal digs into it, the empty socket that his new arm will snap into. He moves his fingers over Bucky’s skin, feeling the bumps of severed bone and scar tissue, and then leans down and kisses one of the longer, nastier scars.
“Nothing on you is ugly. Not one inch.”
“Cheesy,” Bucky teases, but his voice is thick and his eyes are glassy again when Steve sits back up straight.
Steve wraps his arm around Bucky’s shoulder, pleased when Bucky doesn’t resist and just leans, melts, into Steve’s chest. Steve presses his forehead against the top of Bucky’s head, closing his eyes to just absorb the tragedy-tainted bliss of having him back in his arms.
“What are you hoping to get out of all this?” Bucky asks, his voice small and the words pressed into Steve’s neck.
“Buck,” Steve sighs.
“No, I mean it. We can’t … it’s not like we can run away together. I have to stay here, probably forever. You have to be out there saving the world, so … I mean, what are we doing?”
“I don’t know,” Steve answers honestly. “I don’t have a plan, I don’t know what we do next or where we go from here, I … I don’t know anything more than you. I just know I jumped on a jet the minute I heard you were up. I didn’t think twice.”
“You never think twice about anything.”
Steve smiles. “I wasn’t about to start. Especially not where you’re concerned.”
“It’s reckless, you know? To tie yourself too tightly to me. Today was a relatively good day. Tomorrow might not be. I can’t promise you anything.”
“I’m not asking you to. Just don’t push me away. That’s all I want.”
Bucky just nods, and Steve can’t tell if he’s really agreeing, or just doesn’t have the strength left to argue about it anymore.
* * *
Bucky tosses chopped vegetables and spices into a pot as the sun goes down, sparking a fire in the pit and stoking it slowly until just a bed of glowing coals is left. He sets the pot down on top and watches it, stirring occasionally with an ornately carved wooden spoon.
“Where did you get all this stuff?” Steve asks, looking around the hut.
“They just gave it to me. I don’t know why, they didn’t have to.”
“You’re gonna have to get used to people being nice to you.”
“No I don’t. I can accept their charity and then feel guilty about it behind their backs.”
Steve chuckles. “You’ve got a pair of stones on you to think you can ever call me stubborn with a straight face.”
“You can fuck me later, if you want.”
The words are so casual, like he’s offering Steve a glass of water, that for a moment Steve thinks he can’t have heard right. “What did you say?”
“That’s why you’re here, right?” Bucky glances at him, just briefly, and then goes back to stirring.
Steve blinks and swallows over a wave of nausea. “You think that’s what this is?”
Bucky’s hand stills over the pot, and then he lets go of the wooden spoon and rubs his palm over his face. “No. That was stupid, I don’t know why I said that.”
Fighting back the urge to scream and cry and punch something, a complicated and unpleasant emotion he’s been feeling in some capacity for most of the day, Steve goes over to the fire pit. He sits down next to Bucky, crossing his legs underneath him. Bucky won’t look at him, so Steve smooths his long hair back and lets his hand settle on the back of Bucky’s neck, fingers twisting in the soft strands.
“You are not … you’re not a tool to be used for what somebody else wants. Not anymore.”
“I know that.”
“You just said – ”
“I know what I said,” Bucky cuts him off. “And it was stupid, I wasn’t thinking.”
“That’s my point. Can you look at me, please?”
Reluctantly, Bucky does. The firelight dances on his face, turning his sad blue eyes to gold.
Steve presses a kiss to his forehead. “It’s okay that you’re not okay yet. It’ll take time. We’ll get there.”
“You plannin’ on sticking around to be my therapist?” Bucky says, derision thick in his voice, betraying how little he thinks he deserves it or anything else Steve might be willing to give him.
“Yes,” Steve says, simply. “For as long as I can. And when I have to go, I’ll come back.”
Bucky rolls his eyes and goes back to stirring, but after a moment, he quietly says, “thank you.”
They eat outside, back on the ground, leaning against a boulder this time. Steve watches the others in the village, cooking their own meals, singing their children to sleep, chatting around firepits in languages Steve doesn’t understand. It all looks so normal, so easy compared to the life he and Bucky have known.
“Do you know what they’re saying?” he asks Bucky.
“Not yet. I’ll learn.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
Bucky smiles down at his bowl. “Can I stop you?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Why don’t you wanna wear the arm?” When Bucky shifts and looks uncomfortable, Steve quickly says, “You don’t have to tell me.”
Bucky shakes his head. “Come inside.”
Silently, unsure of what’s about to happen, Steve follows him. Bucky sets his nearly empty bowl down on the table and goes to the wooden trunk, where he’d put the arm earlier. He lifts the lid, carefully taking out the bundle of cloth and unwrapping it, before tugging his robes down around his waist so his chest is bare and his shoulder is exposed. He’s a bit skinnier than Steve remembers, still lean and powerful but without the bulk that used to be there. The result of being unconscious for a month.
Steve watches with his heart racing as Bucky brings the arm up and snaps it in.
“What are you doing?” Steve asks, apprehensive and desperately unhappy with the darkness that’s come over his friend’s face.
Bucky flexes the metal arm, rolling the wrist and squeezing the fingers into a fist for just a second before letting them go. Then he walks over to Steve and slowly reaches up, curling the fingers around Steve’s throat. He doesn’t apply pressure, just lets the hand sit against Steve’s skin, cold and foreign. Steve’s heartbeat increases, pulsing like a jack-hammer in his chest, but he keeps his gaze steady and fights to keep his shoulders from shaking. The last thing in the world he wants is for Bucky to think Steve is afraid of him, because he isn’t. He’s scared of what’s happening, not for himself, but for Bucky.
“Did you think I was gonna hurt you?” Bucky asks, almost like he’s hoping Steve will say yes.
Steve shakes his head. “I know you wouldn’t.”
Bucky licks his dry lips and stares intently at his metal hand against Steve’s skin. “This is what I see, every time I put this thing on. These fingers around your throat, punching your eye-sockets until they’re bloody. I see it taking lives, hundreds of lives, beating in faces or pulling the trigger on automatic weapons or just squeezing somebody’s windpipe until their neck breaks and blood drips from their eyes.”
“Jesus, Buck,” Steve breathes.
Bucky moves the fingers, letting them stoke slowly over Steve’s collarbone just for a moment like he can’t help himself and then the touch falls away completely and he stumbles backwards and rips the arm off, not bothering to wrap it back up in the protective cloth before tossing it back into the trunk.
“I know it’s not the same arm. I know it can’t do what the other one could but … I can’t look down at it and not think of all those things.”
“You would never – ”
“I know,” Bucky interrupts, irritated. “I know I wouldn’t hurt anyone now, and I know it wasn’t in my control back then, I know it all, Steve, okay? It doesn’t change anything. I still have to live with the memories. I still have to live the rest of my life knowing I killed a little girl one time just because she was in the way. She didn’t have anything to do with the target, she was just there. The fact that it’s not my fault she’s gone doesn’t mean I don’t see her face when I close my eyes.”
Steve nods sharply, clenching his jaw to keep the tears at bay.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” Bucky offers.
“I’m not scared of you,” Steve insists, his voice coming out scratchy and emotional. “I care about you, and you’re hurting and I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t know either.” Bucky shrugs and looks helpless.
The tension that hangs in the air between them is suffocating in the small space. Steve hates everything about it. “Do you wanna just sleep? Maybe …”
“Maybe things will look brighter in the morning?” Bucky intones, repeating what they both know Steve’s mother used to tell him.
“Sometimes she was right,” Steve mumbles.
“I guess we’ll see.” Bucky looks at him, his eyes still sad but also inquisitive, like there’s more he wants to say, but then he doesn’t. “I can get more blankets and set you up over there, if, uh. You don’t wanna share.”
Steve wants to fall asleep with Bucky in his arms more than anything right now, but he doesn’t want to push too hard, or make him uncomfortable, or intrude where he isn’t welcome. “What do you want?”
Bucky bites his bottom lip like he’s thinking about it, and then he gets down onto the mat and tilts his head, inviting Steve to join him. Steve does, settling onto the pile of animal skins next to his friend.
“Surprisingly comfy,” he comments, earning a small smile from Bucky.
“Better than the cots we shared during the war.”
Steve unzips and wriggles out of his jeans, kicking them off but leaving his t-shirt on. He feels Bucky watching him but doesn’t comment on it. Sometimes he needs to not say the first thing that pops into his head in every situation. It gets him in trouble. He lies on his back, his hands folded over his chest, and Bucky is on his side and Steve can still feels eyes on him, burning into his skin.
“You’re really not scared of me?” Bucky asks.
Steve rolls onto his side so they’re face-to-face, and tries to convey honesty in his expression as he promises, “no. I’m not.”
Bucky nods, and his eyes close as he turns his face into the pillow, strands of chestnut hair falling over his forehead. Steve falls asleep with Bucky’s scent in his nose, and one of Bucky’s ankles hooked over his calf, fastening them together but hidden under blankets, so they don’t have to talk about how much they both need it.
Steve wakes hours later to small, strange sounds, muffled and inconsistent, and it takes a moment for it to register that they’re coming from Bucky. He looks over, Bucky is turned away from him. His face is pressed into the pillow and he’s muttering, words Steve can’t make out, or maybe they’re not English, and he realizes after another moment that it’s a dream. A nightmare, by the sounds of it. Not wanting to scare him or make it worse, Steve slowly shifts until he’s pressed against Bucky’s back, and wraps an arm around his waist, pressing his hand to the center of Bucky’s chest.
“It’s okay,” he whispers, lips pressed to Bucky’s damp neck, hoping he’ll feel the reassurance if he can’t actually hear it. “I got you.”
Bucky twitches and then stills, and his breathing changes and Steve can tell he’s awake, even though it’s a few long minutes before he moves or speaks. When he does, it’s to roll onto his back and look at Steve, his eyes wide and frown pronounced even in the darkness. He blinks a few times and then his eyes close again. Steve slides his hand up to rest on Bucky’s cheek, and Bucky turns his face into Steve’s touch.
“How often does that happen?” Steve asks softly.
“Used to be every night,” Bucky answers, his voice raspy. “I thought maybe it wouldn’t anymore, after she rewired my head.”
“You wanna tell me?” When Bucky doesn’t answer right away, Steve says, “you don’t have to.”
“It’s the chair, usually.”
“It’s the way they reprogrammed me, every time they sent me on a mission. I don’t really know how it worked. But I was strapped in, and this thing went on my head, and then it was just … pain. For a long time.”
Steve’s gut clenches and flips over itself.
“Stupid, right?” Bucky laughs, but it’s mirthless and self-loathing. “All the things I did, to all those people. All the pain I caused, and that’s what I dream about.”
“You were tortured, Buck,” Steve says, gently. “You can’t control nightmares.”
“Not exactly what you signed up for, is it?”
“Being here, with me.”
“I didn’t sign up for anything.” Steve nudges Bucky to roll to his other side, into Steve’s chest, so he can wrap him up, and the winch around his heart loosens when Bucky does, lets himself be held. “I didn’t come for a vacation. I’m here for you.”
“How long can you stay?” Bucky asks, his lips brushing against Steve’s jaw as he speaks. His voice is so small, so ashamed to need the comfort Steve is offering. It tears Steve to pieces.
“A week or two, this time. Maybe one day, forever.”
“You wanna live here forever?”
“I wanna be with you forever,” Steve says. It feels like one of his braver admissions. “I don’t care where we are.”
* * *
Steve is aware of birds softly singing, gentle melodic songs that sound exotic to his American ears, before he opens his eyes. He listens for a moment, imagining colourful plumage and long, elegant tails, and remembering the pigeons back in Brooklyn that used to gather on the fire escape outside his window.
There is soft light filtering in, turning his eyelids orange. When he opens them, sunbeams make him squint, falling across his face, peeking in the opening in the roof of the hut where smoke from the fire escapes the small space. Sticky warmth is plastered to half of Steve’s body, and he looks down his nose into the top of Bucky’s head, brown hair matted and messy. His arm lies heavy over Steve’s middle. It’s way too hot for sharing body heat like this, but Steve wouldn’t push him away for a billion dollars. A little sweat is nothing. Steve lies with him for a long time, hesitant to move and break the spell. Bucky deserves to sleep like this. Steve imagines him on the run sleeping like a prey animal – sporadic and brief, with one metaphorical eye open, lightly enough that the smallest noise would have him up and ready to fight. He deserves to feel safe enough to rest.
Eventually Steve’s bladder overrides his desire to stay like this all day. He manages to extract himself from Bucky without waking him, and that’s a miracle all on its own; a month ago, if noise hadn’t snapped Bucky awake like whiplash, someone moving under him, touching him, certainly would have. Steve takes just one more minute to look at him. The lines on his face from years and stress are smoothed to nothing, just an even expanse of tanned skin stretched over high cheekbones and his strong, square jaw. His lips are parted just slightly, relaxed and unbothered at the moment by the shadows that haunt his nights. He looks so at peace. If Steve gently brushes the hair back off his forehead and imagines him without the scruff on his cheeks, he looks like he did 70 years ago, when everything was simpler even though they were in the midst of a war. Even a World War didn’t seem insurmountable then, because they had each other.
The air is still and muggy, the sun already high in the sky, when Steve slips a pair of grey sweatpants on and exits the hut. A group of young boys walks by near enough for Steve to notice them looking and hear them excitedly whispering about Captain America. It would break Steve’s heart to shatter their idea of him as a hero – even though he doesn’t feel like one – so he gives them a small wave and then an exaggerated military salute, and they gasp and tug on each others’ sleeves and wave back with gap-toothed grins.
After relieving himself, Steve hosts a quick debate in his head over what to do next. He doesn’t want Bucky to wake up alone and think Steve has left, but he doesn’t want to wake him up either. Remembering that his bag is still there and his hoodie is still lying at the foot of the bed where he’d left it yesterday, Steve figures Bucky won’t think he’s been abandoned, and decides to go for a run, even though the heat is suffocating. The pounding in his chest and the burn in his legs is like meditation. It forces all thoughts out of his head and leaves him unable to focus on anything but breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. He doesn’t know his way around, so he sort of runs in circles, disorganized laps around animal enclosures and sprawling fruit trees and past a group of women weaving blankets with shiny silver devices that are far too modern to fit properly in with their surroundings. He overhears them too, speaking rapidly over each other, the words white and wolf the only ones Steve recognizes.
He’s dripping by the time he gets back to Bucky’s hut, and he drags the hem of his t-shirt up to wipe at his face. He enters slowly, not wanting to disturb Bucky if he’s still sleeping, but he isn’t. He’s up, with a cut of blue cloth wrapped around his waist and his chest bare. His hair is tucked behind his ears, like it was when Steve found him in that apartment in Bucharest, only without the ball cap.
“Morning. I was gonna, um.” Bucky holds up a brown rectangle that after a moment Steve recognizes as a bar of soap. “There’s a river nearby. Wanna come?”
“Do I smell?” Steve asks, aware that he probably does.
Bucky raises an eyebrow. “That’s not why I wanted to. But, yes.”
Steve chuckles. “Okay.”
More whispers follow them as Steve goes with Bucky in the opposite direction from the way they’d gone yesterday. Where the kids earlier made Steve simultaneously proud to represent something they idealized and sad to know his reality would probably disappoint them, this attention makes him uncomfortable.
“Do they know something they shouldn’t?” Steve asks Bucky under his breath.
“They know who you are.”
“Is that it?”
When they’re far enough out of earshot, Bucky says, “Wakanda has been cut off from the rest of the world for generations, remember? Most of them have never left, and outsiders are almost never allowed in. I was the first white person some of them had ever seen in real life.”
“So I’m the second?”
“Congratulations.” Bucky grins sideways at him.
Steve is half worried they might be followed, but they aren’t, and Bucky leads him to a sandy bank along a slow, quiet river. Tall trees with long, draping branches line the edges, leaves hanging down like curtains. The tips of them on the lowest branches dip into the clear, blue water, that laps along the sand with soft rustles like whispers, but not the curious, intruding whispers they just left behind them. Instead it sounds reassuring and protective, like something bigger and older than themselves is present here. Again Steve marvels at what a perfect place this is for Bucky to heal, and finds himself wishing he’d never have to leave.
Bucky unties the cloth from around his waist, and Steve averts his gaze, unsure if he’s allowed to look. He turns away and pulls his t-shirt over his head, listening for the sound of Bucky in the water before he looks back. Bucky is waist deep but barely, watching him with a strange look on his face.
“There isn’t, uh. Alligators or anything, right?” Steve asks, hating the way his voice cracks like he’s suddenly a nervous teenage virgin all over again even though in all likelihood nothing is about to happen.
“Wrong continent,” Bucky answers dryly. He squints at Steve, his eyes darting down for just a second toward Steve’s sweatpants. “Do you want me to close my eyes?”
Steve blushes and hates himself even more. “I don’t know. I guess not.”
“It isn’t anything I haven’t seen before.”
“I know. But that was … different.”
Bucky presses his lips together, and a flicker of sadness passes over his face, barely enough to notice, but Steve does. “You’re right. It was.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Yeah, it was. It’s okay, though.”
Steve balls up his t-shirt in his hands, embarrassed and feeling like they’re offending the beauty of this spot by being awkward about something that shouldn’t be. “You gotta give me some guidance here, Buck.”
“Everything.” Steve takes a deep breath and just says it before he loses his nerve. “We both know what we used to be. But I didn’t come here just to … I don’t wanna do the wrong thing and make it worse.”
“It’s a bath, not prom night,” Bucky intones, the corners of his lips twitching as he tries not to laugh.
Steve glares at him. “That isn’t – ”
“I know. You’re overthinking it, is what I’m saying. Just get in. I won’t even look, okay?” Bucky covers his eyes with his forearm, still holding the bar of soap in his hand. “No peeking, Scout’s honor.”
Frustrated, although more with himself than with Bucky, Steve strips out of his sweats and wades into the water. It’s warm but still refreshing, and it bursts cool against his warm skin. When he’s in deep enough, he splashes Bucky, catching him off-guard with a face-full of water. “You’re an ass.”
Bucky laughs, free and clear and bright and it’s maybe the nicest sound Steve’s ever heard. He wipes his forehead with his arm, water droplets still on his cheeks and nose as he looks at Steve. Unexpectedly, he moves in closer and touches the backs of his knuckles to Steve’s jaw, just briefly.
“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing either, okay?” he confesses. “I know I’m fucked up right now but I’m not … you don’t have to treat me like I’m gonna shatter at any minute.”
Steve nods, and it does help to know that, even if he probably already should have. “Okay.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything more about it. He dunks under the water, coming back up a moment later with wet hair and rubbing the soap on his chest until it lathers, and then tossing the bar to Steve. Copying him, Steve tries both not to watch too closely as Bucky rubs the creamy lather over his skin, and at the same time not to make too big a deal out of not watching. He doesn’t accomplish either, and ends up staring and then obviously looking away when Bucky catches him. Bucky just smiles to himself and doesn’t seem bothered by it. He takes the soap back from Steve to scrub it through his hair, disappearing back under the surface of the water for a minute and then remerging with wet strands of it falling into his eyes, the ends just barely brushing his shoulders. Steve likes him with longer hair, he’s decided. He doesn’t say it out loud.
He’s massaging soap into his own hair when he notices Bucky struggling to reach his back with only one arm, and Steve bites at the inside of his cheek and swallows his nerves enough to ask, “want me to …?”
Bucky blinks at him, beads of water dripping off his eyelashes. “I have to learn how to do things one-handed at some point.”
Holding the bar out in front of him, Bucky changes his mind. “Doesn’t have to be today.”
Steve takes it and Bucky turns, facing away from Steve. Broad shoulders and lean muscles move under glistening, tanned skin, and Steve’s mouth goes dry. Gnarled scars mar the otherwise perfect canvas of his skin, and Steve starts there, trying once again to show without words that he accepts the pieces of Bucky from the periods of time they both wish had never happened. He rubs the suds in, kneading with his fingers more than is necessary just for cleaning, and his stomach flips when Bucky makes a small, contented noise. He’s too close, his heat and his scent in Steve’s lungs, and this should be innocent, Steve should be strong enough or respectful enough or whatever enough to do this without arousal pulsing in his veins and blood travelling south but apparently he isn’t.
Bucky turns, after Steve finishes and splashes water to rinse the soap away, and his face is just inches from Steve’s. His eyes are so blue, and for a second Steve is lost in them. Bucky looks down toward Steve’s lips, just for a brief moment, and then back up, and Steve wants so much but he doesn’t know what he’s allowed to have and he doesn’t want to ask.
“Sorry,” he finally mutters.
“For what?” Bucky asks, blinking innocently like he really doesn’t know.
“I feel like I keep pushing things on you. And maybe you’re just too nice to say no.”
“I’m not. I’d lay your ass out if that’s what I wanted to do.”
Steve takes the jibe for what it is – Bucky’s attempt to cut the tension – and plays along. “Sure you could, old man.”
Bucky smiles at him, and then it fades into something else, something like a smile but with sadness mixed in, or maybe confusion, or maybe a hundred other emotions that Steve can’t read in his face. He used to be able to tell what Bucky was thinking just by the way he held his shoulders, or the speed of his fingers tapping on a table, or the volume of a heaved sigh. Now there’s uncertainty.
Tentatively, Bucky cups Steve’s cheek in his hand, his thumb brushing just under Steve’s eye, and Steve automatically turns into it. He takes the hint, or what he hopes is a hint, and puts his hands on Bucky’s bare hips, pulling him in just an inch closer. It’s safe and dangerous all at once, being in such proximity and still unsure of where it’s all heading.
“You still make my heart beat too fast,” Bucky says, soft words floating in between their bodies, a secret just for the two of them. “Like you used to. That’s all I’m going on right now, I don’t know anything else.”
“Me neither.” Steve tries to make his smile reassuring; tries not to be too obnoxious about the way Bucky’s words light him up like a firecracker. The kiss Bucky presses to his lips is hesitant, gentle, warm but not leading anywhere, and it’s more than enough for Steve. If he could tattoo a feeling into his skin and keep it there forever, it would be this one.
They stay for the rest of the morning. Steve grabs his clothes to wash as well once they’re finished washing themselves, and this time he gets out of the water bare and doesn’t care that he can feel Bucky’s eyes on his back. He puts his boxers back on still wet, and Bucky does the same with the wrap around his waist, and the cool fabric battles the increasing heat as the sun rises higher in the sky. Bucky sits on the shore, against a tree, and this time Steve doesn’t ask before he lies down with his head in Bucky’s lap. He just does it, and he’d move if Bucky asked him to, but he doesn’t. His fingers go into Steve’s damp hair, carding through it, absentmindedly like he doesn’t realize he’s doing it. Like it’s a reflex, left over from a time when things were different.
“Can I ask you something?”
“How did everything come back to you?”
Bucky is quiet for a long time. Steve worries he crossed a line somehow even though it was just a question, but when he looks up, what he can see of Bucky’s face doesn’t look angry. He’s staring off into the distance, like he’s thinking carefully about his answer before he gives it. Finally, he simply says, “I don’t know.”
“You remember everything? From before, I mean? Brooklyn, and the war, and all that?”
Bucky nods. “I think so. It’s everything else I don’t … the missing pieces are from the years I was … but. Our life before all that, yeah. I remember that.”
“I don’t understand how that’s possible. I’m not complaining, but …”
“I know.” Bucky shrugs and his fingers move in Steve’s hair again. “It wasn’t supposed to be. They wiped us clean at the end of every mission. We weren’t supposed to have anything in our heads except what they put there. If it had worked I shouldn’t have ever remembered anything.”
“But it didn’t.”
“I guess they screwed it up.”
“But it worked for decades,” Steve reasons. “Would it really have undone everything, all that programming, just because you saw me?”
Contemplative silence fills the space between them for a few moments, and then Bucky says, “maybe it didn’t work for decades. Maybe this wasn’t the first time I remembered you.”
“Oh.” A thought pops into Steve’s head, and he can’t believe he forgot it until now. “It wasn’t, there was at least one other time. Do you remember the bridge?”
Bucky frowns. “What bridge?”
“The first time you came after us. At one point your mask was ripped off, and I recognized you and I said your name. Just before he died, Rumlow told me you remembered me, later, when you were back with them. Maybe not completely, but enough that it scared them.”
Bucky nods, and his eyes narrow like he’s trying to recall it, or maybe figure out what it all means. “I kind of like that, I guess,” he says eventually. “We were barely supposed to be human after they finished with us. We were supposed to be machines. Weapons. I guess it’s nice to know they never completely had me.”
“No, they didn’t,” Steve agrees, smiling when Bucky looks down at him again. He bends his arm at the elbow and hugs it around Bucky’s waist. “Tell me about this time. When the memories came back.”
“It wasn’t right away. That day … when you wouldn’t fight me. I don’t know why, I don’t know what happened. It was like being slapped in the face. I had all these fragments I couldn’t put together so I pushed them away, and then you said I was your friend, and you wouldn’t hit back, and it was like an explosion.”
“You looked terrified,” Steve remembers, surprised at how vividly he can picture it, given he was knocked out right after.
“I was. Because it didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t conscious memories. I just knew you. I didn’t know how or from where or even really who you were but something inside me knew I shouldn’t be hurting you.”
“You saved me. I would have drowned.”
“I don’t know why I did that either. I was supposed to kill you. But I couldn’t.” Bucky’s forehead twists into a frown.
Steve doesn’t say anything else. He turns his head, nuzzling his nose into Bucky’s bare stomach, and waits for him to continue.
“Things came back patchy, at first. I remembered you before I remembered myself, but still not all at once.”
“I guess that makes sense. It’s not a light-switch.”
“I’d dream about you sometimes,” Bucky carries on, a soft smile gracing his lips like those are nice memories, “but for a while I’d just see blue eyes. And then it was like … abstract pieces that I didn’t understand. I’d remember a laugh, and something about a person getting taller. Then I went to the museum. I read about us, about who we were, and the stuff I’d been remembering started to make sense, only it … it still didn’t quite feel like my life, but it didn’t feel like brand new information either. It felt like a story, but … one I’d read before.”
“What about now?”
“It depends. Sometimes it feels real. Other times … I don’t know. It isn’t consistent.”
“It will be,” Steve promises him. He has no way of knowing that for sure, and they both know it, but it feels like an important thing to say in the moment. “You’ll figure this out, Buck. You’ll work out how to be okay.”
“I hope so.”
* * *
For nearly a week, Bucky does seem to be getting better. He talks more, with less prodding. He smiles more, and they look genuine. He reaches for Steve at night, when bad dreams startle him awake in cold sweats, and doesn’t beat himself up for needing the comfort and safety Steve offers in his arms. They help out in the village, repairing an older hut and hunting wild game and rebuilding a dam in the river that creates a reservoir for farming. The younger ones still look at Steve like he’s a mixture of Batman and Santa Claus, but he gets used to it. Steve hasn’t looked at his face in a mirror since he got here but he can tell the slower pace here looks good on him – his muscles aren’t so tense all the time and his skin isn’t tight from frowning and he’s rested when he wakes up in the morning, usually with Bucky pressed against him.
It all goes so well, until suddenly, it doesn’t. The first time, Steve comes back from a mid-morning run to find Bucky frantic, pushing his arm into its socket. “What are you doing?” Steve asks.
Bucky’s eyes are wild when he turns. “Who is it?”
Steve frowns. “What?”
“Is it Hydra, did they find us?” Without waiting for an answer Bucky pushes past Steve and runs outside, and Steve doesn’t have a clue what’s going on until he chases Bucky and finds him standing just in front of the hut, staring motionlessly at a group of teenage boys about fifty yards away, setting logs up on a rock and taking turns splitting them with an axe. The loud cracks fill the air with every swing. In slow motion Steve realizes what happened. He hadn’t even noticed them, and he’d probably run right past. He’s getting rusty, being here. This place feels so safe, so serene that danger couldn’t possibly exist here even if it wanted to. But he doesn’t have constant nightmares in his head like Bucky does.
His hands shake with the urge to pull Bucky back inside. “Buck.”
Bucky turns abruptly and goes on his own, not making eye contact. Steve follows him and watches as he slowly unhooks the arm, wraps it back in the cloth he’d discarded on the floor in his haste to get it on, and then places it back in the trunk. His movements are careful and deliberate, and it punctures the silence when he suddenly swears and kicks the trunk in frustration as soon as the lid is closed.
“It’s okay,” Steve tells him.
“Don’t – ” Bucky begins sharply, and then the anger dissipates on a heavy sigh. “I. I’m gonna go for a walk. Clear my head a bit.”
“Want me to come?” Can I please come is what Steve means, but doesn’t want to be any more overbearing that he probably already is.
Bucky is almost out the door but he pauses. He looks at Steve over his shoulder with sad eyes. “Not this time,” he says, and then he’s gone again.
The second time, they’re playing with the younger kids in the early evening, kicking a ball around in something resembling soccer but with fewer rules, as clouds roll in overhead that Steve doesn’t think twice about. The first few drops of rain are accompanied by bright flashes of lightening and loud crashes of thunder. Steve looks upwards to the stormy sky, thinking it’s about time there was some rain, and then catches a glimpse of Bucky. He’s frozen on the spot, standing motionless even though a little girl called Oni is trying to speak to him, staring blankly ahead with his lips parted on silent pants of breath. The only thing moving are his fingers, flexing and stretching like he’s trying to reach for something but can’t control his body from the wrist up.
“Bucky?” When he gets no answer, Steve panics, hurrying to his friend and putting hands on his face, trying to make Bucky look at him but it’s like he can’t, like he can’t see Steve even though he’s right in front of him.
“What’s wrong with him, Mister America?” Oni asks fearfully.
Steve had tried and failed to convince them to call him by his actual name. As a compromise he’d managed to negotiate away the word Captain. “He’s sick,” Steve says.
He puts an arm around Bucky’s shoulders and grips his other hand over Bucky’s bicep, holding him up and all but dragging him back towards his hut.
“Will he be okay?” a boy’s voice calls after them.
“He’ll be fine,” Steve answers over his shoulder. He doesn’t have a clue whether or not he’s right about that, and he’s terrified.
They just barely make it back to Bucky’s hut before his legs give out. He crumbles, and Steve manages to catch him and haul him back up, grunting as he supports Bucky’s limp form and lugging him forward like he’s a suitcase instead of a person. Bucky is only slightly shorter than Steve, maybe an inch at most, and he’s at least 200 pounds of pure muscle, and if Steve didn’t have the serum still running through his veins there’s no way he’d have been able to get them both to the bed with no broken bones. He lays Bucky down, who immediately curls in on himself. His eyes are wild, darting back and forth frantically like he’s seeing things that aren’t really there, and then he squeezes them shut.
For a moment Steve is paralyzed. He wants to crawl into bed with Bucky so badly it hurts but he’s out of his element. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know if this is like sleepwalking, where trying to snap the person out of it makes it worse. A broken groan makes his decision for him. Steve doesn’t know what to do but doing nothing isn’t an option. He crawls over his friend – his everything – and settles next to him, laying a tentative hand on Bucky’s sweat-damp neck and rubbing with his thumb.
“Not real,” Bucky utters to himself, his eyes still screwed shut. Over and over he mumbles it like a mantra, nearly incoherent, just the ghost of the words passing over his lips, which have gone blue even though it isn’t cold. Not real, not real, not real.
Steve understands without asking what he’s doing, and so he strokes Bucky’s hair, his arm, down his back, touching every bit of skin he can reach, trying desperately to help. “You’re right,” he murmurs, pressing the words into Bucky’s forehead, trying to imprint on him, to laser a lifeline through flesh and bone. “Whatever you’re seeing, it’s not real. This is real, I’m real. You’re here with me.”
A particularly loud clap of thunder shakes the ground underneath them, and Bucky whimpers so pitifully Steve can nearly feel his heart breaking in half.
“Can you hear me?” Steve asks, unsure how far Bucky’s been pulled into it.
Bucky nods tersely, and it’s such a small relief but Steve is grateful for it anyway.
“You feel me, too, right? You know I got you, you know you’re safe.”
“Safe,” Bucky rasps, clearly trying to convince himself it’s true when his head doesn’t want to believe it.
He’s soaked in sweat and shaking, and Steve hugs him tight and blinks the burn of tears from his eyes. He needs to be strong but he isn’t, not when the person he loves, the person he’d risk everything for a thousand times over, is breaking and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. He feels so damn useless, and he’s supposed to be here to help but he doesn’t know how. The storm rages for what’s probably a half hour at most but feels like days because Steve’s heart is racing and breaking the entire time. When it finally subsides to just the gentle patter of slowing raindrops on the canvas roof above them, it’s still a while before Bucky stops trembling. Eventually his breathing slows, evens out, and he relaxes just enough that the panicked, chaotic tightness in Steve’s chest loosens and he too can breathe properly again.
Bucky reaches up blindly, finding Steve’s shoulder and squeezing, like he’s searching for an anchor, something to ground him in the moment.
“Are you okay?” Steve whispers. It’s such a stupid question, he knows.
“Has that happened before?”
Bucky nods, his eyes downcast. “A couple times. When I was on the run, before you found me.”
“When you were alone,” Steve surmises sadly.
Bucky shrugs like that’s unimportant. “It’s not like I don’t come out of it eventually.”
“Don’t say that like its not a big deal.”
Bucky doesn’t argue. He burrows further into Steve’s arms, and Steve tightens his hold and can’t keep the tears from falling.
* * *
There is a missed call and a series of texts from Natasha on Steve’s phone when he finally remembers to check it. The battery is nearly dead, having spent almost a week lying at the bottom of his bag untouched. He skips the texts and calls her back, ducking outside and moving a few feet away from the hut for some privacy.
She answers on the second ring. “How’s the patient?”
Steve isn’t sure how to respond. Answering that question fully would take an hour, and he wouldn’t make her listen for that long. “Making progress,” is what he lands on, although it doesn’t sound true when he says it.
“Is he okay?”
“It’s … that’s complicated,” Steve sighs. “He’s alive. He’s safe. That’s something, I guess.”
“He was both of those things before you got there.”
She pauses, and Steve can see her face in his mind, can vividly picture the frown creasing her forehead and the way her lips press together when there are things she wants to say but holds them inside. “When are you coming back?”
“Do I need to?”
“Sam and I ran one without you the other day, but we could always use your help.”
“I don’t know,” Steve says honestly.
“Could you ballpark it, at least? Are we talking another week? A month?”
The truth is it tears him up inside to think of his friends out there, in the thick of it, looking death in the face every day, while he’s here lying in the sand beside a river and listening to the music the villagers play around their fires at night with Bucky’s head on his chest. He always feels so responsible, for everything and everyone, and being here with Bucky is where he needs to be, he has no doubt in his mind about that, but he can’t ignore that it’s taking him away from other things that are important too. He’s letting his team down, he knows that, and it’s the worst feeling.
Closing his eyes and pushing his sweaty hair back off his forehead, Steve reluctantly admits, “He’s in rough shape, Nat. It’s bad, it’s … a lot worse than I expected.”
“I thought it would just be … I don’t know, dealing with the memories, and coming to grips with the stuff Hydra made him do, but it’s more than that. He’s sick, he … I don’t think I can leave him.”
“What do you mean by sick?”
“In his head. Yesterday he lost it in a thunderstorm, I guess because it sounds like gunfire. It was a full on breakdown, I think he was hallucinating, even. It was … fucking scary.”
“Shit,” she swears emphatically. “I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. He’s been through enough to have earned it.”
“I don’t …”
“What?” she asks, her voice kinder now instead.
“I don’t know what to do.” The words taste like ash on their way out and Steve hates himself for it.
It’s a disgracefully pathetic confession of his own inadequacy, of how ill-prepared he is to handle this and how lost he feels when he tries to imagine what to do next. He desperately wants to help, and the fact that he probably can’t hurts like a knife in his chest. The shame of it all, knowing the most important person to him on the planet is hurting and Steve can’t fix it, burns like acid reflux in his chest. Admitting it out loud feels like stepping off a cliff with no clue what’s waiting for him on the ground below.
“I don’t think you can do anything,” she says gently, and it should be reassuring but it worsens the pit in Steve’s stomach.
“I have to be here, at least for a while. He needs me.”
She goes quiet again, for longer this time. When she does speak, her voice is careful, the words uttered slow and deliberate, like she’s using them to just barely border on something important that they should have talked about long ago but never did. “More or less than you need him?”
Steve swallows over the lump that builds in his throat, and he can see her face again. He knows exactly the way her features would be arranged if she were standing in front of him instead of thousands of miles away. The suggestion that they’re toxically codependent shouldn’t shock him, and it doesn’t, really, but it still feels raw and useless because there isn’t anything he can do about it now. Not after all this time. It’s too late to siphon Bucky from his bloodstream, and the truth is Steve wouldn’t want to even if it were possible.
“I know you want to help him,” Natasha continues, when Steve doesn’t offer an answer to her question. “I know what he means to you.”
“No you don’t,” Steve argues weakly.
“Yes. I do,” she says pointedly, and then Steve gets her meaning.
“Oh.” He licks his lips and closes his eyes just for a moment while his heart pounds. “You never said anything.”
“Neither did you.”
Steve huffs out an uncomfortable laugh. “I guess that’s fair.”
“And I know it’s more than that, too, alright? I know what you have isn’t just a foxhole type deal. I know he was there for you when you didn’t have anyone else, I know it killed you when you couldn’t save him. And I know you’re trying to make up for that now.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is, I understand why you want to be there with him. I really, really do. But after what he’s been through ... he’s not going to be better in a week, Steve. It’s going to take time, probably a lot of it. And in the meantime, you have responsibilities.”
“Responsibilities to what?” Steve scoffs. “The Avengers are done. You know Tony’s not going to forgive me.”
“I don’t know that, and neither do you. And people still need to be saved, even if we don’t have team jackets anymore. You’re still Captain America.”
She’s wrong on her last point, but Steve doesn’t bother arguing it. He’s tired of that argument. “I’m not out. Okay? I’m not saying I’m never coming back. I just … I need to be here right now. For a bit longer.”
“How much longer?”
“I don’t know.” Steve’s free arm drops against his side in frustration, but not frustration with her. With everything else. “Until I feel like he isn’t gonna spiral as soon as I leave. He deserves at least that. Everything that happened to him, none of it would have happened if I’d be able to save him on our last mission back in ’45. If me being here for a couple of weeks helps him even a little bit, I owe him that much, and you can’t fight me on that, you know I do.”
“I’m not fighting you. I’m trying to remind you about who you are, how much you’d hate yourself if something bad went down and you weren’t there.”
“You think I don’t hate myself enough already?” Steve snaps.
“Look, just …” Steve presses his hand into his forehead and then bumps it with the heel of his palm, hard enough to hurt. “Tell me the truth, okay? If you’ve got something coming, and you really need me, I’ll be there. You know I would. I’ll come back here right after but if you need my help just say it.”
She’s quiet again, and Steve can hear the click of her throat as she swallows twice. “No. You’re right, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be … you’ve got enough going on, you don’t need me guilting you into abandoning him when he needs you.”
“Thank you,” Steve says genuinely.
“Take care of him. Take care of yourself, too. You can’t fix everything all the time. I know you want to but you can’t, and it does damage when you expect yourself to be able to.”
“I mean it, Rogers,” she threatens, but nicely. “I think maybe there was a little more truth in that comment about hating yourself than you meant there to be. I don’t expect you to admit that to me, but. Maybe admit it to him. Let him help you back.”
Steve isn’t sure he knows how to do any of that, but it’s his own problem to solve, not hers. He thanks her again and makes her promise to call if they really need his help, and taps the screen to end the call. He sighs again and stares out into the forest in the distance, struggling to process too much at once and struck for the dozenth time by the beauty of this place, and how much he feels right now like he doesn’t belong in it. Bucky deserves it. He was the best person Steve knew when they were growing up, and he’s a victim of a world that sought to use him for evil and then toss him like trash. He deserves the peace and the tranquility of being here, because he’s innocent. Steve isn’t.
Soft footsteps approach from behind, and a hand touches Steve’s shoulder blade. He turns, into concerned blue eyes and deep lines of worry on Bucky’s forehead, and he’s not sure he deserves that either.
“You okay?” Bucky asks.
Steve wraps his arms around Bucky’s back, his fingers gathering handfuls of the robe – blue, today – and pushes his face into Bucky’s neck. He breathes him in, selfishly tries to inhale everything that’s good in him so maybe Steve could have just a little bit of it for himself; like maybe if he spilled all his secrets and Bucky forgave him, he could be absolved of every mistake, every failure, every time he tried but wasn’t quite enough.
Bucky’s arm hooks around Steve’s shoulders. “What’s wrong?” he whispers.
Steve shakes his head. “Just. Needed a hug. Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.” Tightening his grip, Bucky steps in an inch closer, his feet in between Steve’s, and kisses his hair. “I can do hugs. Well, sort of. With only one arm.”
It would have seemed impossible even seconds ago, but Steve laughs, and it smooths over the scabs inside, just a little, if only for a moment.
* * *
Bucky smiles a lot for the rest of the day, and it’s a balm on Steve’s soul. He foolishly dares to hope they’re out of the woods. He doesn’t know what sets it off again the next day – there’s no thunder or cracking logs or distant drumming. They’re just together in the hut, existing in comfortable silence, Bucky making lunch while Steve flips through a few international news websites on his phone, making sure there are no looming disasters in need of his skillset. A loud shattering noise makes Steve look up to find Bucky standing staunchly still, his hand shaking, and a dish in pieces at his feed on the ground. It takes Steve a minute to fully notice what’s going on but once he does he’s up and in Bucky’s space as quickly as he can get there.
“What happened?” Steve asks urgently, grabbing Bucky’s bicep with one hand and the back of his neck with the other.
Bucky shakes his head quickly, his eyes closed and the muscles in his jaw twitching. “I don’t know.”
“It doesn’t matter, you’re here with me, you’re safe.”
“What the fuck,” Bucky grits out through clenched teeth. He brings his hand up to his head and hits himself like he’s trying to knock the memories out his ear and to the floor. “Stop it.”
“It’s okay,” Steve says, but it isn’t. He touches Bucky’s hair, helpless, useless.
“This can’t – it’s gonna just start happening now out of nowhere?” Bucky’s breathing is ragged and uneven and his eyes are still closed but Steve can see them moving underneath the lids. “How the fuck am I supposed to control it if I don’t even know …”
Steve has no answers, just a hole in his heart where they should be. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Don’t,” Bucky mutters. “I don’t want to fucking … you can’t make me.”
Steve is confused for half a breath, until he realizes with a devastating knot in his stomach that Bucky isn’t talking to him anymore. “It’s not real, Buck,” he says, frantic, pleading, begging Bucky to come back to him.
“Why?” Bucky breathes, such a small, broken, desperate utterance, and Steve doesn’t know what he’s seeing, who he’s begging to leave him alone, and even still the word wounds him.
“Bucky.” Steve takes Bucky’s face in his hands, wishing Bucky would look at him. He kisses Bucky’s forehead, both cheeks, the tip of his nose. “You’re here with me. We’re in Wakanda, it’s beautiful here and there’s a giant, impenetrable barrier over our heads that nothing can get through. You’re safe. You’re not the Winter Soldier anymore, you’re James Buchanan Barnes, you’re from Brooklyn, you joined the army because you’re a good man, you’re my best friend in the whole world.”
Bucky inhales sharply through his nose, but the exhale is slower and shaky, and then he mumbles, “Steve.”
Steve nearly bursts into tears. “Yeah, buddy. It’s me. I got you, I’m here watching out for you, never gonna let anything bad happen to you ever again.”
Bucky reaches out and finds Steve’s cheek, and Steve grasps Bucky’s hand against his face.
“I’m here. Come back to me.”
It’s another minute of rattling breaths and sweat dripping from Bucky’s temples, and it’s the longest minute of Steve’s life. When Bucky’s eyes reopen they’re bright and shiny and his pupils are so big they nearly eclipse all the ocean blue around them. He mouths something wordless to Steve and shakes his head, and Steve pulls him into a hug so tight it hurts his ribcage.
“M’sorry,” Bucky mumbles, quiet and ashamed, and Steve wants to remove the word permanently from his vocabulary.
“Don’t you dare be sorry. It isn’t your fault. None of it is your fault.”
Bucky removes himself from Steve’s arms, gently pushing him away, and combs his hair back with his hand as he turns and steps out of Steve’s space. He’s only a few feet away but it might as well be miles for how cold it makes the distance feel, even in all this heat. When he turns back he blows out a breath and shakes his head again, his features communicating disbelief and frustration and something else, something dangerous, something that Steve hopes he’s reading incorrectly.
“What are you doin’ here, Steve?” Bucky asks, his arm spreading out sideways in question and then dropping back down.
“Don’t do that. We’ve been over this.”
“I want a real answer. Not just a bunch of flowery words and then kissing me to end the conversation.”
“That’s not what I’ve been doing,” Steve argues. He was right, about what he saw just now in Bucky’s eyes. He knew this was coming before the words passed Bucky’s lips. “The stuff I’ve already said is the real answer, I don’t have a better one.”
“You can’t have thought you were in for shit like this.”
He overheard Steve’s conversation yesterday with Natasha, Steve can tell in an instant. But Bucky’s giving him a chance to lie about it. Steve doesn’t take it. “No, I didn’t. I don’t really know what I was expecting.”
“So why don’t you go?” Bucky reasons, entirely too calm and rational about it for Steve’s comfort. “You don’t need this.”
“You think getting shot at and blown up is better?” Steve jokes, trying to diffuse some of the tension.
Bucky doesn’t answer.
“Look.” Steve pinches the bridge of his nose and then scrubs his hands over his face. “I know you were listening, when I was on the phone. Right? So you know I’m not leaving. Is that what this is? You feel guilty that I’m staying so you’re trying to make me go?”
“Maybe you should.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You don’t want to be out there saving the world?”
“That’s not fair. Of course I do. But more than one thing can be important at once.”
“This is what you think is more important than that?” Bucky gestures to himself. “Being here to babysit some half-human mess who’s so fucked in the head he can’t even … I shouldn’t be your goddamn priority.”
“Well you are, so tough shit. There isn’t anything more important I could be doing right now than being here with you.”
“I’m not important.”
Steve tenses, edging on losing his patience. “You’re important to me, asshole. That’s the way it is, that’s not up for debate. You don’t have to like it but you don’t get to tell me how I feel.”
Bucky stares at him with his head tipped to the side and his eyes squinted, like he’s trying to read in Steve’s face what he could possibly hope to gain from caring about him. “I killed dozens of people, in cold blood. Hell, maybe even hundreds, I don’t have a damn clue. I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t spare a single thought for their families or the fact that they were fucking human beings who didn’t deserve to die just because Hydra thinks people are disposable. I made people disposable. I did it for decades. And you’re here being fucking nice to me as if that fixes anything? You should at least hit me or something, Jesus.”
“Is that what you’re looking for?” Steve blinks in astonishment, although he’s less surprised that Bucky feels this way and more surprised that he didn’t see it until now. “You want fucking atonement?”
Bucky shrugs carelessly. “I caused so much suffering, maybe I deserve to get a bit of that back.”
“You did suffer.”
“You were tortured, you were mutilated, you had your life stolen from you. You’ve been beating yourself up every day since you remembered who you were. Reliving it all so brutally it paralyzes you. You don’t call that suffering?”
Bucky doesn’t answer, and avoids eye contact. He does that, Steve’s noticed, when he doesn’t want reality to get in the way of something he wants to believe but knows deep down is ridiculous. Like he knows he’d find truth in Steve’s eyes, and it’s easier to drown in the lie than take the lifeline Steve is offering.
“I don’t believe you need to pay for what you’ve done,” Steve says, slowly, purposefully, trying to drill the words into Bucky’s head. “But even if you did, don’t you think you already have?”
“I’m not asking you to understand,” Bucky finally intones, flatly.
“I do understand,” Steve counters. “I’m telling you that you’re wrong. I can’t say I wish you weren’t. If this could all be that easy? If we could just get you one of those – whatever, nine cat tails things – and you could just beat the shit outta yourself until you feel better? We’d have this wrapped up in a week. But it doesn’t work that way, Buck. You suffering now doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t heal you, it just makes you associate pain with forgiveness.”
“Since when the fuck are you a psychotherapist?” Bucky spits at him. “Or a priest, fuck, what gives you the right to offer me forgiveness?”
In the space of a breath, Steve is done playing. “You really want me to hit you?” he asks, squaring his shoulders and raising an eyebrow. Not a threat, but a challenge.
Bucky hesitates. “What?”
“You really think it would help? ‘Cause I’m here to help.”
Bucky stares back at him, trying to match Steve’s intensity, but a slight quiver of his lower lip gives him away. Then he rolls his eyes. “Fuck off.”
“I thought that’s what you wanted.”
A muscle works in Bucky’s temple as his jaw clenches and releases, and then he sighs, heavy and exhausted. Quietly, he admits, “No.”
“I don’t wanna be yelling at you ten seconds after you had a damn flashback, so stop being a dick,” Steve tells him.
Bucky closes his eyes again, just for a moment, and when he opens them again they’re bright with tears that spill over his lashes and down his cheeks. Steve reaches him in the space of a heartbeat and wraps him up, his heart breaking with every ragged sob as Bucky crumbles in his arms. Weight too heavy for anyone to carry for so long catches up to him and Bucky just breaks, and it’s disastrous and Steve can’t keep his own eyes dry.
“Why would you even want to be with someone like me?” Bucky asks, tragedy seeping through the waver in his voice. “You ... Steve, you’re all light and morality and justice, you’re a hero to millions of people. I’m darkness, and damaged, I’ll just tarnish you.”
“You have no idea how wrong you are about me. Just because people think I’m a hero doesn’t mean I am one.” Steve finds himself moving just barely from foot to foot, almost rocking Bucky back and forth. He rubs Bucky’s back; feels every shuddered inhale. “And bad things happened to you, Buck. That doesn’t make you bad. You couldn’t tarnish me if you tried. You make me happier than anything ever has.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It doesn’t have to. It’s still the truth.”
Bucky’s breath is hot against Steve’s neck. His hand comes up to wipe at his eyes, bumping Steve’s chest as it does. Steve helps, brushing the tears off Bucky’s cheeks with his fingertips, and then kissing the dry spots left behind. He’s tired of standing, and he says so, pulling Bucky with him down onto the sleep mat and enveloping him back into his arms as soon as they’re both comfortably horizontal.
“You’re crazy if you think I didn’t learn everything that’s good in me from watching you,” Steve tells him. “Our whole lives together back in Brooklyn, you were like a superhero to me, before I knew they really existed. I looked up to you, I wanted to be just like you.”
When Bucky looks up at him, there is so much pain in his red-rimmed eyes that it’s all Steve can physically do to not force himself in and kiss it all away.
“Tell me what you need, okay?” he murmurs. “That’s why I’m here. Tell me how to help you.”
Bucky’s eyelids flutter, and he’s so hesitant, and it hurts to know the reasons why. “You. Just need you,” he says quietly, like it’s something to be ashamed of, like it isn’t exactly what Steve needs too.
“You got me,” Steve promises. “What d’you want?”
Bucky tilts his head up to press a kiss to Steve’s lips. It’s the first time he’s initiated it since Steve got here, and in an instant it feels different that all the times before. It feels like more, like it’s important this time for too many reasons to name, like what Bucky’s after goes further than a kiss or falling asleep in each other’s arms, and Steve has wanted that too since the second he arrived but he’s refused to be the one to take things in that direction. It had to be Bucky’s decision.
Bucky parts his lips, tongue flicking out and dipping into Steve’s mouth, and Steve can’t tell if the needy whine that reverberates between them comes from him or from Bucky. It’s all so familiar but brand new all at once, like they’re finding their way back to who they used to be, before time and tragedy changed everything so severely that they could never really go back. It feels like home in a way that Steve wasn’t expecting.
To be sure, because he’d never forgive himself if he misread things, he breaks the kiss just long enough to ask. “You want …?”
Bucky nods, his eyes dark and his lips already bitten red, and it’s all the confirmation Steve needs. He rolls on top, pressing Bucky down into the mattress to kiss him like it’s oxygen. He can feel Bucky against his thigh, hard and radiating so much heat it could burn, and Steve’s stomach flips over itself. He pushes his hips down, rubs himself against Bucky so he can feel how much Steve wants this too, how much he’s wanted it since he was fourteen, tugging himself off in the shower and trying to think of anything but blue eyes and strong hands and rich, gravelly laughter. He usually failed spectacularly.
“Steve,” Bucky mumbles, as Steve kisses along his stubbled jawline.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do tonight.” Steve pauses to suck a bruise into Bucky’s neck.
“You’re calling the shots now?” Bucky asks, breath hitching as Steve’s tongue works over sensitive spots.
“For tonight. Tomorrow you can have me any way you want me.” Steve means it to be casual and teasing but it comes out darker than he anticipated, a heated promise, and Bucky visibly shivers underneath him. “Tonight, you’re not doing anything. You’re just going to lie right here, and let me take care of you.”
“You don’t …” Bucky argues weakly.
“M’not asking for feedback.” Steve nips at Bucky’s lower lip, and then he kisses Bucky everywhere – his cheeks, his eyelids, working his mouth down the other side of Bucky’s strong, angular jaw. He spends extra time kissing the scars on his shoulder, and the metal parts too even though Bucky can’t feel that.
“I wish they could take it off completely,” Bucky says quietly.
“Why can’t they?”
Bucky shrugs his other shoulder and sighs. “Because it isn’t just strapped on, it’s. Hooked up, inside. To my nervous system. So I can control the arm when it’s attached. I don’t know if they could get it out without paralyzing me.”
The idea of surgeries done on Bucky to attach the device not just to his skin but to his skeleton and his nerves and veins, with the kind of technology from decades ago that looks primitive in comparison to what exists now, makes Steve’s stomach churn. He can’t dwell on that now, so he pushes the thought away. He laves his tongue over Bucky’s arm, picks up his hand to kiss each one of his fingers. While his hand is close, Bucky takes the opportunity to brush his fingers over Steve’s cheek, cupping it briefly. Steve turns his face into it, kissing the heel of Bucky’s hand. Their eyes meet. Bucky’s are still shiny and his jaw clenches like he wants to say something but is holding it back.
Steve unties the knot in the cloth covering Bucky, drags the material away to reveal bare skin, and kisses all down his chest. He gets to Bucky’s hips, grinning at the way it makes Bucky squirm to have Steve’s lips so close to where he really wants them but also maddeningly far away. Steve keeps him waiting a bit longer, moving his lips down the top of Bucky’s left thigh, and back up the inside of it, daringly close to his cock but not quite there. Bucky pants but he doesn’t demand Steve go any faster. He just reaches down, grasping blindly for Steve’s hand, and Steve gives it to him and lets Bucky squeeze his fingers. He seems to understand what Steve is doing without them having to talk about it, so he just breathes and lets it happen.
When Steve takes Bucky into his mouth it’s slow, deliberate in the way he flicks his tongue, remembering intrinsically all the spots, all the ways to undo the man underneath him until Bucky is sweaty and moaning softly and letting broken words spill from his mouth. This is familiar too. It’s more satisfying than Steve anticipated that he remembers how to do this, that he still knows this person, knows all his flaws and his fears and his beautiful, kind heart. He tries to make it mean more than just physical; to envelope Bucky in warmth and protection, to make him believe he’s worthy of those things.
When Bucky comes it’s on a long, sharp inhale, his hips just barely twitching as he pulses in Steve’s mouth, and Steve would be embarrassed to say it out loud but he missed the taste of this, the salt on his tongue, the small, helpless noises Bucky makes as he loses himself in it. Steve crawls back up when Bucky’s body goes limp and kisses his closed eyelids. He settles in, an arm and a leg draped over Bucky’s sweat-damp skin, pressing his forehead to Bucky’s temple and kissing his cheek. He whispers things, nonsense that doesn’t mean anything specific but centers around love you and I got you. It’s a while before Bucky comes back to himself enough to open his eyes. For a long time, he just lies there, with Steve plastered to him like an octopus, breathing slowly and existing in such a precarious state between afterglow and reality, and he’s so vulnerable like this, naked and exposed and not quite in his right mind. Steve would stay with him like this until morning if it would make Bucky feel safe.
When his eyelids finally flutter and open, moisture floods over again, just a few drops of it, sliding down his cheeks and leaving two or three shiny tracks down toward his jaw. Steve kisses them away, and he understands it isn’t sadness but a decades-long build-up of too many emotions to name, overwhelming him and overflowing in a moment when Bucky finally let that impenetrable, steel guard down. Steve knows all too well the walls they build to protect themselves, and how hard it is to put those walls back up once something knocks them over.
He moves in impossibly closer, pressing a soft, lingering kiss to Bucky’s lips, and his crotch pushes into Bucky’s hip as he does and Steve grits his teeth to keep from making a noise.
Bucky notices anyway. “You didn’t …”
“Doesn’t matter,” Steve promises. “This was about you.”
“But you’re still …”
It’s so damn endearing that he’s incapable of full sentences. Steve thoroughly missed putting that blissed-out look on Bucky’s face and rendering him stupid when in every other situation he’s far from it. “Yeah, ‘cause you’re gorgeous.” Steve smiles and kisses the corner of Bucky’s mouth. “But it’s fine.”
Bucky insists, wrapping his fingers around Steve, and even that has Steve hissing and his pulse jumping, arousal thick in his veins. Bucky tries, but he’s weak so Steve helps, threading their fingers together and stroking in unison until Steve comes with a soft grunt on Bucky’s stomach. He settles back in with his head on Bucky’s chest, right above his heart. The slow thump of it vibrates under Steve’s ear, a solid reminder that Bucky is here, alive and safe, and Steve vows to himself to keep it that way.
“I love you,” Bucky whispers into Steve’s hair, like it’s a secret he’d be terrified to let out of the confines of the cocoon they’ve wrapped themselves in, but not because he’s ashamed of it. Because he’d be too scared to give someone the power to try to take it away from them.
It’s also the first time he’s said it, since Steve’s been here, and Steve sees something like fireworks behind his eyelids.
* * *
Bucky’s smell is the first thing Steve notices, before his eyes even open. Warm skin and dried sweat, soft and mellow. Steve inhales it, lets it fill his lungs and his brain and relax him like incense. He purposely keeps his eyes closed for a while longer. Bucky’s hair tickles his nose as he breathes, with his head tucked under Steve’s chin. It’s too hot for him to be stuck to Steve the way he is, bare skin hot and sticky, but Steve doesn’t care enough to move. When Bucky stirs, it’s with small, contented noises and a brief stretch before he settles back in and kisses Steve’s collarbone.
“Hey,” he says, barely a whisper.
“Hi,” Steve answers. His voice comes out scratchy, and he stretches his sleep-stiff muscles.
Bucky leans back so he can blink up at Steve, eyes still blurry with sleep, but there’s something in the way he’s looking, like he’s apprehensive, trying to read things in Steve’s face.
Steve moves in closer and presses a small, close-lipped kiss to Bucky’s mouth. “Tell me.”
“Just. Are we okay?”
“Of course, why?”
“You don’t …” Bucky frowns and looks frustrated with himself. “You don’t regret anything?”
It tugs uncomfortably at Steve’s heartstrings that Bucky’s worried he might. He kisses him again, deeper this time, stale because it’s first thing in the morning but Steve doesn’t mind. “I could never regret you.”
“You don’t either, right?”
Bucky shakes his head.
There is a soft knocking noise from outside, like someone rapping a stick against the outside walls of the hut, and after a moment Steve realizes that’s exactly what it is.
“White Wolf?” a woman’s voice calls, tentative and quiet like she doesn’t want to wake them if they aren’t already.
“Shit,” Bucky mutters, moving quickly away from Steve and getting up, wrapping himself hastily up in the robe he’d discarded the night before. Steve does the same, searching for something to clothe himself in, an embarrassed flush travelling quickly down his neck.
“Bucky, it’s Shuri,” a second voice says. “Are you awake?”
“Yeah,” Bucky answers. “Just a second.”
He checks that Steve has at least managed to locate his pants before he goes outside, and Steve follows him, still blushing and hoping no one will notice. Three sets of eyes greet him as he bends to exit through the hut’s low door, and squints against the brightness of the sunlight. The smallest is the little girl from the other day, holding the hand of a woman Steve assumes must be her mother. The third, a younger woman, Steve doesn’t recognize. She’s in modern dress, stylishly ripped denim and a shiny purple jacket, with an artistic pile of braids on the top of her head and feathered earrings that brush the tips of her shoulders.
“We’re sorry to bother you so early,” the stranger says.
“He is alright, you see?” the mother tells the little girl. Her small face looks up at Bucky, eyes shining and mouth in an anxious frown. “Oni has been asking about you.”
Bucky crouches down so he’s at her eye-level, reaching out and taking her other hand. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
“Are you still sick?” she asks tearfully.
“Yes,” Bucky answers. “But I’m going to get better. Thank you for worrying about me.”
“I have a doll at home, do you want to borrow her? Maybe she can help, like medicine.”
Bucky smiles, bigger and brighter than Steve’s seen since he’s been here. “That’s so nice. But why don’t you hang onto her. I’ve got this big guy behind me, and he’s a superhero. He’s gonna help.”
He eyes turn up to Steve. “You can fix him, right, Mister America?”
“He’ll be good as new in no time,” Steve promises, wishing he was as confident about it as he pretends to be.
“Can we play again, later?” Oni asks Bucky.
“Oni,” the mother admonishes gently.
Bucky shakes his head. “It’s okay. Yes, of course we can.”
Her expression brightens significantly, and her mother thanks them before pointing out they’re late already for school. Oni waves as they depart and Bucky returns it. Then he turns to the younger woman, and tells her, “I thought maybe you forgot about me.”
“You are not the only item on my to-do list,” she responds, with a smile of her own and a raised eyebrow.
“I know. Joking.”
“I knew he was here, now,” she adds, her eyes flicking to Steve. “I thought you could use some … time.”
“Hi,” Steve says, awkward about the fact that they’re discussing him while he’s standing right next to them. He introduces himself.
“I know who you are.” She takes his extended hand and shakes it, more firmly than Steve was expecting. “Shuri.”
“Princess Shuri,” Bucky corrects.
She waves her hand. “That’s unimportant. How have you been, this past week?”
“Not bad,” Bucky answers.
She squints at him. “Honesty, please.”
When Bucky doesn’t answer, Steve does it for him. He knows who she is, too. He knows she saved Bucky, and that she’s been made responsible for removing Hydra’s coding from his head. “Some flashbacks. Bad ones.”
Bucky winces and drops his gaze down to the ground.
“We will work them out,” Shuri says, calm and sure of herself. She touches Bucky’s arm. “These things take time. Decades of brainwashing can’t be erased overnight.”
“Yeah,” Bucky answers. Steve itches with the desire to pull him into his arms. They still haven’t discussed the rules for when they’re in public, so he doesn’t.
“We should resume our sessions,” Shuri decides. “Tomorrow?”
“Good.” She turns to Steve. “It was nice to meet you, Captain Rogers. I’m glad you’re here.”
“Call me Steve.”
“I will if you call me Shuri.”
“Deal,” she repeats, and the smile on her face as she walks away from them is too knowing, and too self-satisfied, and Steve knows generally what that likely means but it doesn’t feel important enough to voice out loud.
“Sessions?” he asks Bucky, when she’s out of earshot.
Bucky presses his lips together, and goes back inside without answering. When Steve joins him, he says, “We only did it twice, before you got here. She … I don’t know exactly, she hooks me up to these machines and she looks in my head. Asks me about the things I did. Tries to clear out all the crap that’s still inside me. I don’t ask a lot of questions.”
Steve nods. “That’s good, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Just … unpleasant.”
“Does it hurt?”
Bucky shrugs. “It’s okay. You’re right, it is a good thing. And she didn’t have to do this. No one here had to help me. They could have just left me under. Would’ve been easier.”
“Something being easier doesn’t make it right,” Steve says, gentle about it, not wanting to argue but always aware of delicately pushing back against Bucky when he starts edging toward I don’t deserve this.
Bucky shrugs again, and they’ve both always been better with tactile communication anyway, so Steve does pull him into an embrace, and feels more grounded with Bucky in his arms again.
* * *
He accompanies Bucky into the city. Steve has never, in his life, seen anything like Wakanda. It seems to sparkle even with clouds in the sky, the entire place glittering from within like the impossibly vast skyscrapers are living beings that allow the people to take refuge inside them. The streets pulse with life and noise and colors, and the two of them are the only white faces for miles so they’re still stared at as they move together through the throng but in a different way than Steve is used to being watched. He’s being paid the attention of strangers because he’s an outsider in their sealed community, not because they expect anything of him.
Shuri’s lab looks like something out of a science fiction fantasy, and Steve assumed all the time spent at Stark Industries would have numbed him to the shock of technology, but he was wrong. In a way, it’s too bad Tony has never been here. He’d love it. Steve hopes there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when things are right between them again, and he could bring Tony here. If only mostly to watch in secret enjoyment as Tony meets a teenager who’s smarter than him. He waits, with one of the generals guarding him stoically, for an hour while Bucky is in the lab with Shuri, emerging finally looking tired but unharmed. Shuri hugs him before they leave, Bucky’s arm going all the way around her small frame, and promises it will get easier. Bucky doesn’t talk about it, and Steve doesn’t ask. He just takes Bucky’s hand and leads him away, back to the busy city streets where they can get lost in the crowd.
Steve stays for another week. He doesn’t hear from Natasha again, and he tries to ignore the guilt that nags at him from time to time, reminding him that his other friends are on their own. He can’t be everywhere at once. Those thoughts serve no purpose other than to force him to accept his own limitations. He’s never been any good at that, even before the serum, so he tries not to dwell on it. Bucky goes back into the city more regularly, and after the first time Steve doesn’t go with him. He stays behind and helps out around the village where he can, assisting W’Kabi with the rhinos and fixing the roof on the schoolhouse when it starts to leak after a heavy rain. Bucky always comes back exhausted, with sad eyes and tired limbs, and he never talks about it but he doesn’t resist when Steve pulls him into their bed and wraps him up. It becomes how they deal; not with words but with skin pressed against skin and kisses that lead nowhere and Steve’s fingers trailing through Bucky’s hair. Nothing they can do, really, to undo the past, so Steve just touches when he can and anchors them both to the fact that they’re here now, together after everything, in a place where at least for the time being, nothing can get to them or force them apart.
They relearn each other slowly, Steve letting Bucky take the lead on that because while he hasn’t been free from suffering, Bucky’s suffered much worse, and it feels important to Steve that the decisions on what they do and when they do it be Bucky’s. For too long he was a pawn in someone else’s war, a soldier with no say in his own existence. It feels so vital, even in small ways, to reintroduce the freedom of choice back into his life, to let Bucky figure out how to want things again and how to be comfortable asking for them.
The spot by the river becomes theirs, for when they want to be alone but not hiding in a dark hut in the middle of he afternoon. There’s a sprawling umbrella tree that provides shade from the intense heat of the day and Steve has always been prone to cliched romantic sorts of things so he wants to carve their initials into it, in a heart and with promises of forever that he doesn’t even know if he’d be able to keep. Today is cooler because there’s a breeze. Bucky is lounging against the wide trunk of the tree, and Steve is between his spread legs, his back against Bucky’s chest. Bucky’s arm is around his middle. His fingers play idly in Steve’s shirt, gathering the fabric and releasing it, sliding his palm up underneath to move warm fingertips over Steve’s stomach. He turns his face into Bucky’s neck, and lets Bucky touch as much as he wants.
“What are you contemplating so seriously in there?” Bucky asks, kissing Steve’s temple and then nuzzling into it with his nose.
Steve smiles. “Nothing serious.”
“What would you say to me if I deflected every time you tried to ask me what’s wrong?”
“Yeah, you do,” Bucky tells him gently. “You’re not supposed to be my therapist. If we’re in this together you should talk to me, too, sometimes.”
Steve knows that he should. The last thing in the world he wants is for Bucky to think the trust doesn’t go both ways. He’s just never been any good at dealing with his own problems. It’s why he focuses so intensely on everyone else’s, and he knows very well he does this, but has never quite figured out how to stop.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Bucky concedes, when Steve doesn’t offer anything up. His lips catch and drag on Steve’s skin as he talks. “Just … I hope you know you can. If you ever wanted to. You always save everybody. Including me. If you’re ever the one that needs saving, I hope you know you got me.”
Steve nods, and tilts his head back so he can slide their lips together. “I do know that. You’ve had my back since day one, Buck. I’m an idiot if I ever forget that.”
“Talk to me, then.”
“I probably have to go back, soon. To my team, to fighting something new around every corner, and I …” It’s painful to admit it, but Steve does anyway. “I don’t know if I want to.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“It’s just always something. It never stops. What if it never stops?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky whispers. “M’sorry, I wish I did.”
It isn’t something Steve thinks about very often. He can’t, he’s been on the go more or less consistently for years, at least until very recently, and there isn’t time in between missions to sit around for days feeling sorry for himself. He’d feel unbelievably, unforgivably selfish if he did do that. He’s been given a gift, and he should be humbled and grateful for the responsibilities placed on his shoulders, for the trust people have put in him to keep them safe, not moaning about petty nonsense like how it might be nice to have a normal life now and then.
“I like helping people,” he continues. “It’s just … sometimes it’s a lot. Everyone needs something from me and I don’t know how to live with myself if I can’t be what they want.”
“It’s not your job to save the whole world by yourself, Steve. You’re just one person.”
It occurs to him out of nowhere that no one currently alive ever knew him as anyone other than Captain America. His friends know him now, but no one living ever knew him before, when he was just a person, struggling with chronic illness and the loss of his family and the crushing weight of never being quite good enough for any of the things he wanted to do. No one, that is, except Bucky. To everyone else he’s a hero, or a symbol, or an icon to be admired and romanticized until he’s more of a caricature than a real person. Something abstract and metaphorical, something for people to get behind, but also something malleable, that people can mold into whatever they need it to be. He feels the weight of that every day. But he’s never stopped to think that there’s only one living being who knows him as Steve Rogers first, and everything else second.
He says as much, and to drive the point home, to himself more than anything, he adds, “You’re the only one who … who just wants me.”
Bucky kisses him again, his hand sliding up to cup Steve’s cheek in his palm. “Just you. No strings, no conditions.”
Steve doesn’t have the words to express how much it means to him, how lost he was before Bucky came back to him, how lost he’d still be if a few small things had turned out differently. Bucky’s tongue flicks at the seam between Steve’s lips and he parts them, letting Bucky inside to taste, lightheaded as it heatens and Bucky’s fingers move back down, brushing over Steve’s chest. The tips of his fingers trail feather-light just above Steve’s waistband, hot like tiny brands and Steve shivers despite the heat when Bucky tugs his lower lip between his teeth.
“Is this okay?” he murmurs, raspy and wanting, and he’s only asking because they’re outside, Steve assumes, because they’ve spent the week with their hands all over each other. It’s probably a terrible idea but Steve finds he doesn’t care. He nods his consent and tilts his chin up to request another kiss while Bucky’s hand slips into his sweats and his fingers curl around the length of Steve’s cock, hard so quickly he’s surprised there’s enough blood left anywhere else to keep his brain functioning properly. Bucky abandons Steve lips to tuck his face into the crook of Steve’s neck, his mouth finding sensitive spots and laving his tongue over them, sucking bruises into the skin that will be hard to hide or explain later. Steve couldn’t care less if he tried. He wants Bucky marking him, wants to wear the evidence like a badge of honor, so everyone knows they belong to each other.
Bucky’s fingers squeeze, and his wrist twists, sending delicious sparks along Steve’s veins and something warmer in his chest too, humbled that Bucky remembers so many things. Everything they learned about each other on shared cots or in dark, empty fields at midnight during the war, Bucky still knows it, knows all the ways Steve likes to be touched, the formula for taking Steve apart that he perfected so long ago. Bucky was his hero, then. Steve looked at Bucky like all those cheesy expressions about someone hanging the moon and all the stars, and Bucky wanting him back was too good to be real, too impossible to resist. They’re different, now, but not in the ways that matter. Bucky still knows him.
Steve curses breathlessly as Bucky’s palm drags over the head of his cock, smearing the liquid back down to ease the slide. “Buck.”
“Never gonna get used to hearing you say my name like that,” Bucky swears, dark and possessive, attaching his lips to a spot under Steve’s ear.
Fire builds in Steve’s gut and he tries to communicate but it falls away into a moan, his breath catching in his throat as Bucky flicks his wrist just right and he comes over his fingers, melting back into Bucky’s strong chest and vibrating through aftershocks that leave his skin hot and cold all at once. He can feel Bucky like a furnace against the small of his back, hard and urgent, and when he can move again Steve pushes back against him just to hear the needy gasp in his ear.
“Should I wipe this on your clothes or mine?” Buck asks with a shaky laugh, holding his hand up so Steve can admire the mess he made.
Steve laughs and blushes at the same time, turning his heated face into Bucky’s neck. “Don’t care.”
Instead of either, Bucky brings his fingers up to his mouth and licks them clean, and Steve watches, arousal stirring in him again before the last burst of it had fully gone. He wordlessly demands another kiss as soon as Bucky is done, to taste himself on Bucky’s tongue.
Steve pushes back against the erection behind him again. “What’re we gonna do about this?”
“Doesn’t have to be anything. I don’t mind.”
Steve holds Bucky’s face close to his, gets his fingers back into the soft strands of hair, where they’re always itching to be lately. “You turnin’ me down, Sergeant?”
“I don’t want anything from you, remember?” Bucky reminds him, parroting back his earlier words, the lilt to his voice teasing but soft. “I just want you.”
“Reciprocal hand-jobs isn’t quite what I meant.”
Bucky laughs again, low and fond, but he doesn’t make a move to shift their positions or ask for anything in return. He just wraps his arm around Steve’s waist and pushes his face back into the crook of Steve’s shoulder, so Steve leaves his fingers in Bucky’s hair and closes his eyes, relaxing back into the embrace, the gentle sound of the wind in the trees like a melody for a moment of quiet they both likely need more than they realize.
* * *
“We talked about you today,” Bucky tells him. It’s the first time he’s offered information about his sessions with Shuri. Steve has wanted to know everything, every time, but he’s been actively repressing his own desire to be overbearing and hasn’t asked once because if Bucky wanted to tell him, he would. So far Bucky hasn’t, until now.
Bucky nods. “She asked. I mean she … it’s not therapy. She normally asks about the stuff I did, how they programmed me, all that, so she can get it out of my head. I try not to talk about feelings and shit. She’s a teenager, she doesn’t deserve me dumping all that on her. That isn’t what she signed up for.”
“It was after we were done. She asked about you, about us. So, I told her.”
Steve smiles to himself. “What did you tell her?”
“I hope that’s okay,” Bucky says, answering a different question, one that Steve didn’t ask. “We never set up any rules for this.”
Steve frowns at the worried look on Bucky’s face, and goes over to him. He hooks his arms around Bucky’s waist, clasping his fingers together at the small of Bucky’s back to keep him there. Like it’s automatic, Bucky’s arm goes around his shoulders. “Of course it’s okay. You can tell anyone you want.”
“I told her I’ve loved you for what feels like forever. That it took me way too long to figure it out. That it … means everything, having you back.” He smiles, soft and hopeful, blue eyes shining, and it goes right to Steve’s heart.
He struggles to find the words to adequately express how much he feels the same way and a million other things – how much he’s adored Bucky since they were children too young to know where those feelings would lead, how unbelievable and incredible it was when Bucky wanted him too, how broken he was when he lost Bucky and how desperate he’s been the last two years to get him back. The right words don’t come, so he says them with his lips on Bucky’s instead.
Steve feels like his tired soul is soothed with another several long, warm, simple days of waking up with Bucky pressed into him, getting to know the people in the village, helping Bucky look after the herd of goats he’s been assigned to watch, and falling asleep with Bucky in his arms. While Bucky meets with Shuri more regularly, Steve makes friends with some of the younger ones in the village; a man in his twenties named Kwame who helps Steve with the goats in Bucky’s absence, and the teenage girl called Adah confesses they all know the basics of Bucky’s story, and that she hurts for him and promises to look out for him when Steve has to leave. He visits Oni and the children when he can, explaining in simple language what’s wrong with their White Wolf, and that he and the Princess are working every day to help him get better.
On a warm, still night – Steve thinks it’s a Thursday but he’s lost track – there’s music in the village. Persistent, rhythmic drumming and the mellow sounds of wooden flutes, and people dancing and singing around a huge fire in the center. Steve and Bucky hang back, near a patch of trees, close enough to watch but far enough away to be in their own space, away from other people’s eyes. Bucky glows in the firelight, and Steve can’t keep his hands to himself. His fingers squeeze into the cut muscle of Bucky’s hips, keeping their bodies close, barely moving his weight back and forth from right foot to left, something resembling dancing but not quite. It’s closer to just being in each other’s space, moving together with the tempo of their breathing. Bucky’s eyes are magic, they always have been, and Steve stares into them, into his expressive face, seeing things there right now that he’s too afraid to name for fear they won’t last forever.
“Y’know, I … I didn’t ever think I’d have this with you.” Bucky’s fingers are in the hair at the nape of Steve’s neck, always, lately, like he can’t help himself. Steve’s hair is longer than it’s ever been in his life, because he’s been too lazy to do anything about it, and maybe he won’t, since Bucky seems to like it. “Out in the open like this. Didn’t imagine this world would ever exist.”
“Me neither. I loved you so much, in Brooklyn. It was so unfair that we had to hide.”
“I didn’t think …” Bucky trails off, gaze shifting to the ground below their feet.
Steve kisses his forehead. “Tell me.”
“I wondered if maybe it might be over, after the war. If we both survived.” He says it to Steve’s chest, still not looking him in the eye. “I don’t know if we ever could have been forever. Not then, not in that time. And you had Agent Carter.”
“Oh.” Steve had been wondering if, or when, that would come up. Dreading it, really.
“I understood,” Bucky says, with a sad smile, finally looking up. “She was one hell of a girl. Exactly the kind you always deserved.”
“That … it was. Complicated.” It’s a wafer-thin excuse, Steve knows. He doesn’t really have a better one. He didn’t handle any of it the way he should have.
“We had some good times, right?” Bucky asks, small and unsure, like he needs reassurance that what they had for seven years before the war was something real; that he wasn’t just a place-holder until a girl finally looked Steve’s way.
The thought make Steve ache inside. Regretfully, he whispers, “You fell to your death thinking I loved you second best.”
“It wasn’t like that. Like I said. I understood.”
“The serum … it amplified everything. That’s what they told me.” Steve murmurs the words into Bucky’s cheek, trying to stitch closed every hurt he caused without knowing it. He has no decent excuses, but he still feels the burning need to explain, to have Bucky understand, even if he doesn’t deserve forgiveness. “The good and the bad. So, there’s one of my worst flaws, I guess. I spent so long wishing I could have so many things, that when I got them, I wanted them all at once. I wanted everything too much.”
Bucky touches Steve’s face, hooks a finger under his chin and tilts his head up so their eyes can meet. His eyes are bright, even in the dark, under a deep frown that creases his forehead.
Steve can’t look at him. It hurts too much to stare right at all the pain he caused. He rests his forehead against Bucky’s instead.
“She was special to you. It’s okay, Steve. I know you loved her, and that’s okay.”
“I did, in a way. But not the way I loved you.”
Bucky’s hand cups Steve’s cheek, and his breath is warm against Steve’s lips as he answers. “It was 1945, pal. Even if she’d never existed, you and I still couldn’t have had this forever.”
“That’s.” Steve exhales through his nose and squeezes his molars together to keep back the swell of sadness in his chest. “Unfair. And tragic.”
“Story of our lives.”
Steve chuckles, although he doesn’t know why he’s laughing. Nothing about it is funny.
“At least tell me you and Peggy actually got together, after it was all over.”
Steve shakes his head. “We kissed, once. Then I drove a plane into the ocean, with her crying on a headset in my ear.”
“So nobody got a happy ending.”
“Maybe we still can.”
The movement of light catches Steve’s eye, and he glances over toward the fire. Most of the crowd is still dancing, singing, laughing, but a group of teenagers have noticed them and are watching. “We’ve got an audience.”
“Wanna go inside?”
Steve nods, and doesn’t mind that they’re being watched as Bucky takes his hand and leads him back to the hut. Bucky kisses him as soon as they’re in private, slow, generous sweeps of his lips and his tongue that leave Steve feeling faint. Still, he’s preoccupied, and he promises, “I always loved you the most, Bucky.”
Bucky shakes his head. “You don’t have to diminish what she meant to you, to make me feel better. I know you loved me. It’s okay.”
“Present tense, too, and future,” Steve corrects. “Love you right now, loved you when I thought you were gone, gonna keep on loving you, no matter what happens.”
“I know,” Bucky repeats, and in this moment, it sounds like he really does believe it, and that’s all Steve wants. “Kiss me again.”
Steve does, holding Bucky’s face in his hands to angle it and deepen the slide of their lips, pushing his tongue into Bucky’s mouth and swirling it, tasting him, tasting them. Bucky is in his nose, under his skin, permeating into every part of Steve that he can reach, and it’s such a disaster because Steve can’t stay here forever, and nothing will ever be simple, but for tonight, he doesn’t care. If the world ends tomorrow he’ll spend his last night alive with the person he’s loved since before he understood what love was.
“Would you …” Steve’s stomach flips, and he doesn’t know how to say what he wants. There’s one remaining threshold they haven’t crossed, and Steve understands why but he misses it. It’s been so long since he’s felt the way he used to feel when Bucky got inside him and held him close and lit him up like fireworks. Steve’d had to beg for it the first time for weeks before Bucky relented. He’d been so scared he’d hurt Steve, that Steve would regret it and it would ruin them. Steve never regretted it for a second, and he’s ached for it since. Ached for the way it felt, for how safe and loved he’d felt in Bucky’s arms. He takes Bucky’s hand and guides it around to the back of himself, and Bucky shudders a little and understands.
“Steve,” he whispers.
“I think you’ve been holding yourself back,” Steve says, quietly. “Trying to stay in control, trying not to lose yourself too much. I think you’re scared if you let go, you might snap back into him and hurt me.”
Bucky nods again, and the pain of that fear exudes off him. “What if …?”
“I don’t know,” Steve admits. “I guess I can’t say for sure you’re wrong.”
“I don’t wanna hurt you,” Bucky mumbles.
“You wouldn’t. Not ever.”
“If I can’t control it …”
“No, that’s what I’m saying.” Steve trails the backs of his knuckles over Bucky’s cheek, and wraps the other arm around Bucky’s waist to keep him close. “Look at me. You would never hurt me. The other guy has. Hopefully he’ll never come back but even if he does, that’s not you. You’re James Barnes, you’re my best friend in the world and I’ve been in love with you my entire life, and you would never, ever hurt me.”
Bucky’s throat clicks as he swallows, and Steve can see the weight of it all passing over his features as he tries to hold himself together.
“Whatever you want,” Steve says, and he means that. He’d die before pressuring Bucky into something he isn’t ready for. “Tell me no, and I’ll drop it. I don’t need more than what we already have, especially not if it scares you.”
Bucky leans into him, his face buried in Steve’s shoulder, something vulnerable and helpless about him that Steve burns to protect. “If anything happens … you could take me down, right? Without the arm, you’re stronger than me.”
It isn’t exactly romantic, to phrase it that way, but Steve understands Bucky needs that reassurance; needs to know that if something goes wrong, Steve would stop him. “I promise.”
Bucky swallows, and his throat clicks. His eyes close and Steve thinks he’s going to refuse, but then he simply nods, reopening his eyes and looking up at Steve with so much love and trust that it takes his breath away for a second, and he catches it just before kissing Bucky, slow and all-consuming. Bucky tugs at Steve’s t-shirt, breaking the kiss just long enough to pull it over his head and trail his fingers down Steve’s chest. They pull at each other’s clothes, Steve nearly tripping as he kicks out of his pants and Bucky catching him with a breathy laugh, and tumble together down onto the sleep mat. Steve covers Bucky’s body with his own, rocking down into him, their skin sliding together. Bucky pulls at Steve’s hair, tilting his head to angle the kiss, sharper and more urgent, his tongue getting mixed up with teeth. Then he plants one foot down and rolls them, turns them over so he’s on top of Steve, dipping back down instantly to kiss him until Steve has to gasp for air.
Bucky stumbles when he tries to push up onto his arm, losing his balance and falling back against Steve’s chest. “Fuck,” he mumbles, trying to right himself again, and Steve helps. “Can’t balance on one arm.”
“D’you. Um. Want me to – put it on? The fake one?”
Steve looks up at him, at the uncertainty in Bucky’s eyes. “Up to you. It’s fine either way.”
“It’d be easier,” Bucky reasons, like he’s trying to convince himself something he doesn’t really want is the logical solution. “Easier to balance.”
Steve takes Bucky’s face in his hands and rubs the pads of his thumbs over Bucky’s cheekbones. “You don’t like it. So, no. Leave it.”
“I don’t like being an amputee either,” Bucky grumbles, his eyes turning down and a flush growing over his cheeks that Steve recognizes as the heat of shame, and he hates it so much.
“I know. But it doesn’t matter to me. You’re beautiful the way you are.”
“Shut up.” Bucky rolls his eyes, preferring criticism to compliments so he doesn’t have to think too much about his own flaws, and Steve is the exact same way so he doesn’t comment on it. He gets his mouth back on Bucky’s instead, helping to hold him up on his left side.
It's all too good, too much already; the desperate, devastating way Bucky kisses him and the feeling of him draped over Steve, his erection hot and long and thick against Steve’s, rubbing together trapped between their bodies. Steve hears himself swearing, and hears Bucky moan as he grinds down, and Steve could come just like this, but he doesn’t want to. Not this time.
“Buck,” he says, pushing on Bucky’s shoulder, hoping to communicate with touch instead of words because his brain is too soaked in arousal and anticipation to be capable of full sentences right now.
“Yeah,” Bucky answers, thankfully understanding. He heaves himself up, gets a bottle of oil from his cooking supplies and is back seconds later, crawling back over Steve. He moves down, leaving damp, messy kisses along Steve’s chest and stomach as he does, mouthing sloppily at the head of Steve’s cock when he gets low enough, and a groan rips from Steve’s chest. Bucky’s mouth is so good, Steve feels like it could kill him if he isn’t careful, and he has no intention of being careful. He draws Steve into his mouth, not for near long enough, just a tease of something they’ll maybe do later, after they have more important things out of the way.
He sits up, and the loss of his body heat makes Steve tremor. “You’re sure?” he asks, worrying his kiss-bitten bottom lip in his teeth, and Steve nods at him.
“Yes,” he answers, to reiterate. He wants to downplay the significance just to calm Bucky’s nerves – to tell him it isn’t a big deal, and they’ve done it before, and it’s just sex – but none of that would be true. They have done it before, but they were different people, then. So much has happened, so many life-altering, life-shattering moments, that make this a bigger deal than it would be if it were anyone else. And nothing they’ve ever done has been just anything. It’s always been more.
The first touch of Bucky’s slicked finger against Steve is like he remembers; warm and exciting because of what it promises to become. Bucky watches him carefully the entire time and Steve stares back and just lets him see; lies like an open book while Bucky presses fingers into him, letting Bucky see whatever it is he needs to see in Steve’s face to assure him it’s okay, and Steve wants it, and likes it, and everything is exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Steve is a mess by the time there are three thick fingers fucking in and out of him. He’s sweating and his skin is on fire and his cock is leaking obscenely against his abdomen, pulsing out fluid every time Bucky finds the spot inside him and pushes into it. He couldn’t possibly have understood how much he missed this, until he got it back.
“Buck. Bucky,” Steve moans, his mind racing and already feeling senseless and out of control and they've barely started. “I can’t …”
Bucky swears, misunderstanding disastrously, and pulls his fingers away. Steve shudders and wants them back, but Bucky he crawls up Steve’s body and lies next to him, kissing him and rubbing his palm, slow and soothing, over Steve’s stomach. The oil on his fingers spreads over Steve’s heated skin. “It’s okay. You don’t have to.”
“No. No.” Steve reaches out, touching anywhere he can reach, fighting for the words to make Bucky understand how wrongly he’s misinterpreted. Steve wouldn’t be so hard he can’t think if he didn’t want this, it’s just that it’s more than arousal, it’s a million other things too – the time they lost, the heartbreak of watching Bucky fall and not knowing that he’d ever get this back, the horror of knowing everything Bucky was put through, of knowing he was out there for so long on his own, suffering, broken, and Steve couldn’t bring him home. It’s too much and it’s all getting mixed up with desire and Steve feels knocked over by it. “That’s not … I want to. I want you, Buck, so fucking much.”
“What’s wrong, then?”
Steve squeezes his eyes shut and then opens them again to find Bucky’s, soft and glittery and such a beautiful, piercing dark blue in the low light, staring back at him, wordlessly scanning his face for the things Steve can’t bring himself to say. “It’s just … a lot. I don’t mean, not physically, just …”
“Oh.” Bucky finally understands, and he blinks and nods and the kiss he places delicately on Steve’s lips tastes like trauma, and recovery. “For me, too.”
Steve works his arm under Bucky’s ribcage and lifts him, pulls until Bucky's body is back blanketing his from head to toe. He pushes down on the small of Bucky’s back, urging him to roll his hips down again so they can move together.
“I want it, though,” Steve says again. “Want you.”
Bucky shivers. “Promise me … you mean it. Promise me you won’t regret it. I’m still darkness, Steve, I don’t … once we do this we can’t take it back. If I ruin you, we can’t take it back.”
Steve’s fingers find their favorite purchase in Bucky’s hair and he whispers into Bucky’s lips as he pushes his hips up. “Feel that? I’m overwhelmed by you, that’s the only problem. You got me crazy. But in a good way.”
“Me too,” Bucky breathes.
“And you’re not darkness. You aren’t,” Steve insists, when Bucky tenses like he’s going to argue. “Maybe your edges are rusty, right now. It couldn’t be any other way, after what you’ve been through. But the center is pure gold, Buck. Always has been.”
“I mean it.”
“Yeah, so do I. You’re gonna make me cry and kill the mood,” Bucky says, with a watery laugh that shows him trying to make a joke out of something that in reality is too real for him to handle.
Steve laughs too, and something in it feels freeing, like a cinch around them both just loosened and lifted and nothing is left but the people they would be if the world hadn’t taken so much away from them.
“I love you,” Bucky tells him. “I don’t know if I deserve you loving me back anymore …”
“You do. And I do,” Steve promises. “Never stopped.”
Bucky moves like he’s going back between Steve’s thighs, but Steve stops him.
Bucky nods, and looks just as overcome as Steve feels. “How should …” he looks down at his hand, wondering how to do this with only one.
“Get behind me,” Steve suggests. He rolls onto his side and Bucky does, molding himself to Steve’s back, pressed together like spoons.
Bucky kisses the back of his neck, holding Steve’s hip in his hand. “Love you,” he whispers again.
Steve twists around so he can see Bucky’s face, repeating his words and tilting his chin up for a kiss as Bucky lines himself up. It’s been such a long time, and Steve thinks he remembers what it feels like but the initial push still knocks the wind out of him. Bucky stops instantly, his fingers squeezing Steve’s hip.
“No, I’m fine,” Steve grunts, reaching back for Bucky’s arm, and he is, it isn’t pain, it’s just overwhelming. “Keep going.”
“C’mon, please.” Steve pushes back against him, his body remembering its much better once it’s in all the way.
Bucky pushes forward, slow and careful, kissing Steve’s neck as he moves and they’re both panting by the time he’s in to the hilt, and Steve was right – the sting mellows into a feeling of being filled up that burns in a good way, Bucky’s heat plastered to his back grounding him to the moment.
“Breathe for me,” Bucky murmurs, lovingly stroking Steve’s stomach. “Doin’ so good.”
“I’m okay,” Steve promises, gasping. He tilts his head back again to meet Bucky’s worried eyes. “Doesn’t hurt.”
“You can move.”
Bucky nods, and does, but he just rolls his hips, so his cock moves around slowly inside Steve without slipping out. Even that small bit of friction has Steve moaning, and Bucky echoes it, dropping his face to Steve’s neck.
Steve reaches behind himself to tangle his fingers in Bucky’s messy hair. “Cmon, Barnes,” he goads happily, mouthing among Bucky’s chin. “Gonna fuck me like you used to, or what?”
The whimper that spills from Bucky’s lips is obscene, Steve feels his dick pulse just at the sound of it, and Bucky pulls his hips back, sliding nearly out of Steve and then pushing back in, and Steve sees stars. It’s so immediate, the way they remember how to move together. This was practiced and familiar once, a lifetime ago, but they find it again so quickly, falling right back into it like nothing has changed. It’s slow and languid, the way Bucky moves against him, a lazy slide that drives Steve insane as it builds. When his hand slips down to curl around Steve’s cock, spreading pre-come over it and stroking, twisting, squeezing, Steve moans and swears again and Bucky bites gently at his shoulder to stifle the noises that fall from his own lips.
Bucky gets lost in it, letting go just like Steve wanted him to, pushing into Steve’s body sharply and whispering a broken chorus of profanity into Steve’s ear, and Steve is there too, moaning and dizzy and surrounded by Bucky, feeling him everywhere, stomach clenching and blood pulsing thick and slow.
“Steve, I’m …” Bucky slurs. “Fuck. Too close, feels too good.”
“Me too.” Steve’s eyes roll back as Bucky grazes the spot inside him on every other thrust. “Touch me, okay, please …”
“You gotta come with me,” Bucky rasps, like it’s so important, reaching his hand out again to wrap around Steve’s erection.
The smallest amount of touch is like electricity on Steve’s needy, over-sensitive skin, and he whimpers pathetically and cranes his neck back to slide his lips against Bucky’s and babble into his mouth. “Like that, shit, just like that, Buck.”
Bucky shudders – he has a thing for the way Steve says his name when they’re like this, he’s noticed over the last two week, like maybe Bucky is still struggling to figure it who he is and when Steve moans his chosen name, he remembers just a little bit more.
“Bucky,” Steve whispers, saying the word into Bucky’s shoulder as it flexes and stretches to move his hand along Steve’s cock. “My Bucky.”
“Tell me you’re close,” Bucky pleads.
“Yeah.” Steve is, he can feel the stirring and clenching in his gut, but more than anything he wants to be coherent to experience Bucky falling over the edge. “Don’t hold back okay, c’mon, I wanna feel it. Wanna feel you.”
With a beautiful, broken moan, Bucky stills against him and Steve feels it inside, hot and slick, and the way Bucky’s fists tightens around the head of Steve’s cock has him falling too, spilling over Bucky’s fingers as his head spins and his muscles clench and then release so fantastically, leaving him pliant and sated and helpless, trusting Bucky will keep him safe. The aftershocks are like floating, like tiny electric shocks but in the warmest, nicest way. Bucky stays wrapped around him, breathing slowing, moist and hot against the back of Steve’s neck. He comes down from the high slowly, pleasant thrumming in his veins and happiness tugging at his heartstrings. They’re together, they’re both safe and Bucky is alive and whole and here, and even if he opens his eyes to find out this was all a dream, Steve still might be alright with it because he has the other half of his heart back, even just for this moment.
Voices outside snap Steve out of his post-sex bliss, as footsteps pass by the hut, quieter as they get further away. “Do think they heard us?” Bucky asks, the smile on his face apparent in his voice.
“Oh my God,” Steve groans, pushing his face into the pillow.
Bucky chuckles in his ear, warm and gravelly, and hugs his arm around Steve’s middle, nuzzling into his shoulder. “Hey, I’m the one who has to live here. With a whole village of people who now probably know for sure I’m fucking Captain America.”
“If that’s true it’s the last time ever.”
“Mm. I don’t know.” Bucky’s voice goes from teasing to quiet and sincere. “I don’t mind them knowing. They’ll have to assume there’s some good in me, if they think I’m worthy of someone like you.”
Steve’s heart swells. “Buck.”
He tries to roll over but he can’t. Bucky’s hand goes to his hip, rubbing with his thumb while he gently pulls himself out of Steve’s body, Steve inhaling when it stings.
“It’s fine.” Steve shifts onto is back at looks up at Bucky.
Bright eyes and pink cheeks and messy hair greet him, and the shy smile that turns up the corners of Bucky’s lips is so out of step with everything they just did. “That was okay, right?”
“It was perfect.” Steve rolls on top of him, spending a few long minutes kissing him sluggishly, relaxed passes of their tongues stirring the sparks in Steve again.
“I’m gonna need a nap before we go again,” Bucky tells him, contentment oozing from his sleepy tone. “I don’t have that serum making me perpetually 18.”
Steve is about to ask what Bucky does have, because he survived a fall he shouldn’t have and he’s barely aged in 70 years so there’s something inside him, if not exactly the same as what’s in Steve. But it isn’t the moment. And Bucky probably doesn’t even know. Steve settles into him, his head pillowed on Bucky’s chest. They lie in comfortable silence for a while, just breathing and existing together in a moment neither thought would ever come again.
“You wanna sleep?” Steve asks eventually, as yawns catch up to him and the warmth of Bucky’s embrace starts to pull him in.
“Let’s go to the river,” Bucky says instead.
Steve isn’t expecting it, but he agrees.
The stars are out as they walk, illuminating the path and giving their surroundings a romantic blueish glow. Once they reach the water, Bucky unties his wrap and lets it fall to the ground without asking if Steve is up for a midnight swim. He wades slowly into the water, and unlike the first time they were here, Steve watches unashamedly. The moonlight bounces off Bucky’s skin, and the arc of his spine, the smooth lines of his muscled back, the thick curve of his thighs. He seems to glow, like life is radiating out of him, reminding Steve of how easily they could have never seen each other again and making him marvel at the fact that he gets to have this again.
Bucky turns and smirks when he sees Steve staring. “Coming?”
“Admiring the view.”
Bucky’s eyes move downward, taking in Steve’s bare chest and stomach. “Get in here and you can do more than admire it.”
Steve can’t help the snort that escapes him at the cheesy pickup line, but he follows orders. The water is cooler without the sun warming it, but still pleasant. When he gets close enough, Bucky grabs his hand and pulls him in for a kiss. Steve wraps his arms around Bucky’s waist and picks him up, spinning him around, a cascade of water spinning with them. Bucky laughs, and it’s loud and happy and sparkly and the most gorgeous sound Steve has ever heard. Bucky’s arm goes around the back of his neck, and he kisses Steve again as Steve slowly loosens his grip and lets Bucky slide back down until his feet are in the sandy riverbed. He melts into Steve’s chest, their lips touching in a way that feels more important than breathing, and more like home than any place Steve has ever been.
Unexpectedly Bucky breaks the kiss and drops beneath the surface of the water, tugging on Steve’s hand to encourage him to do the same. They hover, in up to their shoulders with their bent knees knocking into each other, kissing and smiling and if Steve could blink his eyes and control the universe, he’d make this moment last for the rest of their lives.
* * *
“We test the words every time, and every time you think they might work again even though they never have,” Shuri sighs, exasperated, somewhere between scolding and sounding sympathetic to his plight.
Bucky shrugs. “You never know.”
“Maybe you don’t. I know.”
“They’re not going to work, Buck,” Steve agrees. “She fixed you.”
“You don’t have to look so surprised,” she fires at Steve, as she swirls patterns of crackling red light around Bucky’s head with her hands, like Tony with his gadgets but much higher tech.
“You’re amazing,” Steve tells her, and she grins.
The sliding doors at the other end of the room open and the King enters, flanked by his guards like always, who stand at attention at the entrance as he comes further into the room.
“You have become my sister’s favorite toy,” he says to Bucky, a smile on his lips.
Shuri clicks her tongue. “Ignore him.”
“King T’Challa,” Steve greets, taking the hand he’s offered and firmly shaking it.
“Captain Rogers. It is good to see you again.”
“Thank you for letting me stay so long. I know it isn’t usually allowed.”
“We make exceptions for friends.” T’Challa nods his head in the opposite direction of Shuri and Bucky, indicating he wants Steve to step away with him, and Steve does. “She has been keeping me updated on his progress. Seems she’s been successful.”
“I can’t …” Steve shakes his head, and huffs out a laugh as he realizes there aren’t words to accurately convey how grateful he is for everything they’ve done, and unlike everyone else in the room, he doesn’t have half a dozen languages in his head to draw from. “I really can’t thank you enough. I don’t know what we would have done.”
“Happy to help. He can stay as long as he’d like. And you’re welcome here any time. I hope you know that, as well.”
Steve nods, and knows he’ll sound ridiculous if he keeps babbling out thanks, so he stays quiet.
“Has it been. Ah.” T’Challa shifts, and Steve has never seen him second-guess himself before. “An enjoyable trip?”
“You know, don’t you?” Steve asks, the realization settling heavy in his chest.
“What do I know?” T’Challa asks.
Steve watches as Shuri presses electrodes to Bucky’s forehead, and says something that makes him laugh. It has something warm and comforting blooming inside him to watch Bucky smile even as he’s being hooked up to a machine. He trusts her, knows that she won’t hurt him, and Bucky deserves that so much.
“You know about me and him. What we are, to each other.”
“Mm,” T’Challa muses, in that careful, regal way of his that makes every word that comes out of his mouth sound important. “I suspected.”
“You don’t … mind?”
Steve makes a vague gesture toward Bucky and Shuri and then sighs and lets his arm drop back down, thumping against his side.
“Why don’t you want to say it out loud?”
“I don’t know,” Steve admits, glancing down at the floor. “Maybe it’s fragile, and I’m worried it might break again if I don’t guard it closely enough.”
“I can understand that. And no, Captain, I don’t mind. We are no longer living in the 1940s. No one who matters will mind.”
“I’m not a Captain anymore.”
T’Challa looks at him, looks through him, and Steve tries not to squirm under the intense gaze. Finally, he pats Steve’s shoulder and says, “A king without a crown, is still a king. There are other matters I must attend to so I will leave you, but please don’t hesitate to ask if there is anything else you need. Until next time, Captain.”
He nods formally, and then he’s walking away, and Steve’s eyes settle on Bucky again. He’s smiling. He’s on a lab table, wires hooked up to his head. Steve can’t imagine how traumatic that had the potential to be, the kind of horrors it could have stirred up in his memory, but he’s smiling. She’s made him feel safe. Steve could live a thousand years and he wouldn’t be able to repay either of them for this.
“I’ll be right back,” Shuri says. She points at Steve. “You, watch him. Make sure he doesn’t run.”
“Where would I go?” Bucky protests.
“Nowhere, because he’s watching and he’s more trustworthy than you,” she returns smartly. She hurries off to the other end of the lab.
“I like her.”
“So do I.” Bucky is quiet for a moment and then he frowns. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and it’s mostly true. He walks over, sliding his hands up Bucky’s thighs and leaning in for a kiss, T'Challa’s words echoing in his mind.
“What was that for?” Bucky asks, when their lips part.
Steve shrugs. “Wanted to.”
“Hey!” Shuri’s voice rings out, accompanied by brisk clapping. “No kissing in my lab.”
Bucky raises an eyebrow. “Why not?”
She rolls her eyes. “Fine. One more, quickly!”
Bucky pulls Steve back in by the collar of his shirt so their lips can collide together, open-mouthed and too intimate for the fact that they have an audience.
“Alright, stop before you slobber all over my equipment.”
* * *
Just over three weeks since Steve arrived in Wakanda, he enters Bucky’s hut to find Bucky sitting on his sleep mat, his back against the wall of the hut and one leg stretched out in front of him, holding a cellphone in his hand. It takes Steve a moment to remember that Bucky doesn’t have a cellphone, so the device belongs to Steve. Bucky is staring at it, and then he looks up at Steve, and his expression is caught somewhere between regretful and understanding.
“What?” Steve asks, his heart speeding up. He thinks he already knows what’s happened, but he’s hoping he’s wrong.
“Your team needs you,” Bucky says, holding the phone out. “Sorry, I wasn’t snooping. It made a noise, and I looked automatically and saw what it said.”
Steve doesn’t care that Bucky looked, and he believes it wasn’t nefarious in intention. It’s the premise of him having to leave, that makes bile rise in his throat. He takes the phone and clicks it to open the message from Natasha.
Need you this time, cap. Sorry. Terror plot in Oslo. Too many of them for just me and Wilson.
Steve reads it several times, hoping somehow that each time he scans the words again maybe they’ll change before his eyes, but of course they don’t. It isn’t remotely true, but he hears himself saying, “I don’t have to …”
“Yes, you do.”
Not knowing how he’s going to finish the sentence, Steve tries again to stall the inevitable. “Maybe ...”
Bucky’s smile is sad but sincere, and he reaches his hand out for Steve to take. Steve sinks to the ground, crawling over Bucky’s legs, settling on his thighs with his knees bracketing Bucky’s hips. Bucky takes Steve’s face in his hand and pulls him down to kiss him. “Maybe nothing. We knew this was coming. The world needs you.”
“You need me,” Steve argues weakly. He doesn’t know who he’s arguing with. There’s nothing to negotiate. He’s going, and they both know it.
“Visit when you can. I’ll be here.”
Steve sighs and feels it all down his body.
“Tell me you’re not really considering staying.” Bucky smoothes his fingers over Steve’s hair.
Steve climbs off him and sits next to him instead, draping both legs across Bucky’s lap so he can rest sideways against Bucky’s chest. Bucky’s arm goes around his shoulders, and Steve feels small. A million years ago, a whole lifetime ago, when he was short and always sick and struggling to make ends meet in Brooklyn, he used to sit like this with Bucky sometimes, against his chest, in his arms. He always felt so safe in this spot. The world couldn’t get to him, when Bucky’s arms were around him. Steve still feels that way, and doesn’t want to imagine giving it up now that he has it back.
“I’m not really considering staying,” he confirms sadly. “I just wish I could.”
“I want you out there keeping people safe,” Bucky tells him. “Protecting the little guy. That’s always been who you are and if I didn’t love that, I wouldn’t love you. Go punch some bad guys. Then come back to me when you’re done.”
“Are you gonna be okay?” If Steve thought there was even a chance Bucky will relapse once he leaves, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to go.
“Most of the time, yes.” Bucky’s fingers brush Steve’s cheek. “You have to … it’s not going to be all uphill from here. You know that. There will be moments that suck, moments it would be nice to have you here, but you won’t be. You have to figure out how to be okay with that. You can’t be here all time. And I gotta learn how to handle this on my own.”
“I could stay,” Steve argues, but they both know he can’t.
“No, you can’t. You gotta be out there saving the world.” Bucky kisses the corner of his mouth and then Steve presses his face into Bucky’s shoulder. “We both know you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if you stayed here with me forever while people are out there being hurt or killed and you didn’t try to stop it.”
He’s right, as much as Steve wishes he could change that about himself. Sometimes he wishes he could be selfish. But maybe saving people is his version of selfish. Maybe he gets more out of it than he realizes. Maybe he spent most of his life feeling small and useless, maybe he needs to feel like a hero now to prove to his younger self that he’s worth something. Bucky always knew he was worth something. A lot of things would be different if Steve had ever been able to see himself the way Bucky saw him all along.
“I wouldn’t change that about you, Steve,” Bucky continues, as if he can hear Steve’s thoughts. “It’s who you are.”
“You could call me. If things get bad again.”
“You’re not going to cut a mission short to come here and give me a hug when I’m having a bad day,” Bucky reasons. His fingers play in the hairs at the back of Steve’s head, long enough now to hold in a gentle handful. “That doesn’t make sense. Come visit when you can, and the rest of the time … I’m safe, here. I won’t always be having the best time of my life but I’m safe. Remember that. That’s going to have to be enough.”
“You have to tell me. If it happens. When it happens.”
Bucky sighs. “What good would that do? You won’t be able to drop everything and come rescue me, so how does it help to be out there knowing I’m struggling and you cant do anything about it?”
“I’m not saying it’ll do any good. I still want to know.” Steve sits up to look into steel blue eyes, so Bucky knows he’s being serious. “Please. Get a phone from Shuri and keep me in the loop. I don’t want you keeping secrets because you think I’ll worry and it’ll mess up whatever I’m working on. I’m gonna worry anyway, and it’ll be worse if I don’t know how you’re doing. Okay?”
Bucky licks his lips and nods slowly. “Okay. That cuts both ways, though. I wanna hear from you. Tell me how things go on your ops, tell me about it when things go wrong and you’re sitting around blaming yourself.”
“Good. Me too.” Bucky kisses him, slow and sweet, and like always, Steve is a kid again, the world around him messy and chaotic but everything is alright for a moment as long as they’re together. Bucky adds, in a small voice almost like he’s ashamed of it, “Things aren’t perfect but I’m better, than I was when you got here. You did help, Steve.”
“I’ll have to come back, then. Lots.”
“That’d be good. You’re the only … the connection I have left, y’know? To who I was, before. I don’t even remember who that guy is, really, but. Maybe I could figure it out.”
Steve smiles into Bucky’s lips. “I remember who he is.”
* * *
Natasha wipes drying blood from her forehead with the back of her hand. It isn’t hers, but Steve knows from experience; that’s worse.
“He’ll be alright,” he tells her, referring to the kid caught in the crossfire. He’d been rushed to the hospital but from what Steve could see, a couple stitches and a few bowls of ice cream and he’ll be good as new in a day or two. As far as casualties go, none is always the standard to strive for but what happened tonight isn’t anything close to the worst they’ve seen. Nobody innocent killed or permanently maimed should always be a mark in the win column, as far as Steve is concerned. Especially when the three of them manage to get in and out without being detected. He’s always acutely aware of the fact that not only is he no longer operating within a government sanctioned program, he’s an internationally wanted criminal, and if they’re caught running freelance missions that no one gave them permission for, he’ll probably be sent back to the Raft and even Tony couldn’t get him out this time.
“I’m aware of that,” she responds, dryly. “I’d still like to wash his bodily fluids off my face, preferably sooner than later.”
“Good work, team,” Sam says, cheesy and bright like he’s a cheerleader, and despite her meticulously upheld persona centered around breezy detachment, Natasha grins.
“Yeah. Good times all around.”
“For real, though. This one wasn’t so bad, right? No civilian casualties. Bad guys turned over to the feds. We’re all out unscathed.”
“Speak for yourself.” Natasha rolls her shoulders. “I’m gonna have bruises for weeks where that dick threw me into the wall. And I’m pretty sure Rogers broke a nail.”
Steve smiles. “Two, actually. The woman who does my manicures is gonna be annoyed.”
“Alright, but, it’s the middle of the night and we haven’t slept in days so I, personally, am going home.” Sam claps Steve on the back and, before Natasha can stop him, pecks a lightening quick kiss to her cheek. “Later, kids.”
They’re only a few miles outside of D.C., where Sam still lives when they aren’t on missions, so he just deploys his wings and takes off, waving at them as he flies off into the darkness.
“His relentless optimism is infuriating.”
“I think we need it,” Steve reasons. “If it was just you and me we’d do nothing but sit around and brood.”
“I don’t brood. I marinate.”
“You, uh. Wanna get a drink or something?” Steve asks, because he feels like he should.
“I’m covered in somebody else’s blood,” Natasha deadpans. “Let’s just walk into a bar like it’s nothing, see how that plays.”
“I mean, you could shower first.”
Raising an eyebrow, Natasha says, “What are you still doing here? We’ve been done for almost an hour.”
“Maybe I’m worried you’ll start taking offence, if I run off the minute we’re done every time.”
“If I was going to take offense I would have done it three months ago, one of the other dozens of times you’ve done it.” Her round, green eyes roll up into their sockets, but then she smiles again, like she can’t quite help herself from caring about Steve even though she wishes she didn’t; or at least didn’t care quite so much. “I know you’re always dying to get back to him as soon as we wrap. Go.”
“You should come with me. It’s really beautiful there. Peaceful, sunny. Under a giant magic dome so threats are neutralized before they even get close. You could use a vacation. Lie on a beach for a while.”
“You’re damn right I could. And I will, but not this time. I need to shower and then pass out for about a week.” She touches his arm, squeezing her thin fingers around his bicep. “Steve. Get outta here. Go see your man.”
Steve doesn’t need any more convincing. It’s been too long, this time.
The sun is up by the time he arrives in Wakanda, but it’s still low in the sky, bathing the pristine landscape in soft, angled light that casts long shadows off the trees. He’s used to the walk from the city where he lands his jet to the outskirts where Bucky lives among Border Tribe. He uses it to clear his head. The village is buzzing with motion when Steve gets within eyesight of it; children rushing off to school and mothers chasing them with items they’ve forgotten, a group of young adults training in an adjacent field in the traditional style of combat they learn as teenagers to defend Wakanda against threats that almost never materialize. As Steve approaches, he spies Bucky – fairly easily; his pale skin and long hair stick out. He’s in the pen with W’Kabi and the rhinos, running his hand lovingly up and down an enormous horn. His hair is pulled up into a half bun at the back of his head, strands of it falling into his face as always. When Steve gets closer still, he can tell Bucky is smiling. It’s like a cold-pack on a fresh burn, to see him looking happy, unaware that he’s being watched and therefore not putting it on for Steve’s benefit.
W’Kabi notices Steve first, and bumps Bucky’s shoulder with a closed fist and then points in Steve’s direction. Bucky looks up, and Steve is still a ways away, but he could see the sparkle of Bucky’s widening smile from space. It’s blinding in the early morning light – healing in a way Steve couldn’t put into words but feels in his soul every time he comes here. He jogs the last few yards, and Bucky meets him and pulls him into a hug so tight it knocks the wind out of Steve’s chest a little because he wasn’t expecting it. Usually they at least play it cool, not subjecting the whole village to their displays of affection. Steve doesn’t mind in the least, though. He squeezes his arms around Bucky’s back, watching as W’Kabi smirks at them and turns to walk away.
“Hey,” Bucky whispers breathlessly into Steve’s ear, pulling back to look at him, eyes creased beautifully around the edges as he beams. “I missed you.”
“Me too.” Steve brushes the hair out of Bucky’s eyes, his fingers always attracted to it like magnets, and Bucky kisses his lips briefly and then hugs him again. Steve pushes his face into Bucky’s neck and just breathes. The lush, uncorrupted surroundings, the safety of the protective shield above their heads, and Bucky smiling and whole in his arms, and Steve is home.