Bucky is lying on a white medical table, eyes closed and looking relatively at peace, for the moment. Steve insisted that T’Challa call him when they planned to wake Bucky up, and now he, Sam and Natasha are gathered around him, waiting for him to open his eyes. Shuri is adjusting one of the many machines in her lab, further away.
Bucky’s been in cryo since the mess with Zemo. It’s only been a few months since then, but Shuri told them that she’s ready to start working on Bucky’s mind, so here they are. Steve can’t shake the nervous feeling that runs through his entire body as he watches Bucky, waiting for the last remnants of the cryo-freeze to wear off so that he can greet his best friend again.
He hated to leave Bucky in the first place, but Natasha convinced him it was smarter if they split up. The longer they stayed off the radar, the less likely anyone would come looking for trouble in Wakanda. The safer Bucky will be, is what Nat didn’t say, but what Steve heard anyway.
There’s a small hitch in Bucky’s breathing from the table below, before he suddenly sits bolt upright, much faster than he should be after only just waking up. His posture is ramrod straight, and he stares straight ahead of him, as if he’s seeing something that’s not there. Steve, Natasha and Sam are all frozen, as if waiting for an attack that may or may not come. Shuri steps closer, intending to speak to Bucky, but Steve holds up a hand to stop her. Better if Bucky hears a familiar voice first.
“Buck? Can you hear me?”
Bucky doesn’t respond, just stares straight ahead, as his right hand moves to curl into a fist on his thigh. After a moment or two, he mutters something in a language that Steve doesn’t recognize. Sam cocks his head, scrutinizing Bucky with a searching look. “What’s he...” Steve trails off as Natasha takes a step forward.
“It’s Russian,” she says. “He’s… he’s asking if we’re here with a mission for him.”
Steve tenses. “Hydra’s programming?”
Sam shakes his head, still staring at Bucky with that searching look. “This isn’t programming. It’s instinct– memory. I’ve seen this before. He’s disassociating, he thinks he’s back there.”
Steve curses himself as he remembers. He should have thought to ask Sam about all this before they arrived. Sam counseled traumatized veterans for a living, it makes sense that he would have some insight.
Bucky tilts his head downwards, mumbling in Russian again.
“Ready to comply,” Natasha says softly. Her eyes look sad, and it’s the stark contrast to her usual stoic gaze that makes Steve react.
He steps close to Bucky, bending down so that he’s right in the other man’s eyeline. “Bucky. It’s me. Focus on my voice.”
Bucky’s eyes are still impossibly far away, but as Steve reaches out to touch his shoulder, he blinks slowly. His hand begins to unclench, but when he speaks again, it’s still in Russian.
Nat appears at Steve’s side. “I don’t know where I am,” she supplies.
Steve smiles, doing his best to hide how much his heart is aching. “You’re in Wakanda, Buck. Remember? Look at me. Don’t think about anything else– just focus on me. Do you know who I am?”
Bucky blinks again, and after a few minutes of silence, his brow furrows as he rubs at his eyes. He looks like he’s trying to clear away a thick mental fog, but when he looks up again, there’s a spark of recognition buried in the brilliant blue. “Steve?” Bucky asks quietly.
Steve smiles. “Hey, Buck. Welcome back.”
“I– I woke up and thought…” Bucky glances at Sam and Natasha as he swallows. “Did I hurt anybody?” His voice is small, yet resigned.
Sam grins. “With three Avengers in the room? Of course not.”
“You’re not that guy anymore, Bucky.” Steve smiles.
“Right. I– I’m sorry,” he says, softly. “I remember going under… why–”
“Sergeant Barnes?” Shuri steps closer. “Do you know who I am?”
Bucky glances at her, and after a moment he nods a greeting. “Princess.”
“Call me Shuri,” she says, smiling. “You’ve been in cryo-freeze for almost six months. I think I’ve discovered a way to begin removing what Hydra put inside you.”
Bucky makes a face, one that Steve doesn’t quite know how to read. “Are… are you sure?”
Shuri nods. “I know where to start, at least. But first, I’d like to remove the rest of this metal arm. Whoever put it on you in the ‘40s wasn’t particularly skilled, and there’s some damage to your shoulder underneath the metal that we should be able to repair. Is that alright?”
Bucky swallows, but there’s a relieved look on his face. “That sounds good.” He jerks his head towards the stump of his metal arm. “I could always tell something went wrong when they put it on me. Whenever I moved it, there was always pain on that side.”
A surge of anger courses through Steve suddenly, at the thought of Bucky suffering even more pain on top of everything Hydra put him through. Even after he became their weapon, they still made him hurt, while he carried out their every whim like a zombie. Steve wonders if it was intentional on their part; a desire to inflict pain even after Bucky broke. Knowing Zola, it probably was.
But Bucky meets his eyes again, suddenly, and there’s a look there that Steve hates. “If I go under for the procedure, you have to–”
“We’re not going anywhere, man,” Sam pipes up.
Steve smiles. “He’s right. We’ll be right here. And you won’t hurt anyone— you’ll be fine.”
The surgery goes off without a hitch.
The damage to Bucky’s shoulder is ugly and raw, when they remove the arm. Even Natasha looks vaguely green, when they see the mangled remains of flesh.
But the Wakandans are the best in the world, and they’re able to repair most of the damage. It looks like smooth sailing, as they seal the incision shut. Bucky’s vitals are stable, and when he wakes up a few hours later, he smiles, saying the pain is much better than he’s used to. Steve fights the wave of anger that coils in his gut again, when he hears that one.
The next day, though, as Shuri is giving Bucky, Nat, Sam, and Steve a tour of the palace, Bucky stumbles. Steve catches him before he falls, and when Bucky mumbles that he doesn’t feel great, the panic that courses through Steve is instantaneous. Nat and Shuri are at their side immediately, and as Steve flounders, desperate for a way to take that look off Bucky’s face, the two of them are already springing into action. Nat rests a hand on Bucky’s forehead, as Shuri peels away the bandage that covers the incision. When she curses in Wakandan, Steve’s heart sinks.
“The incision is infected,” Shuri says. “We have to get him back to the lab.”
“He’s feverish, but not too warm yet.” Natasha moves to Bucky’s other side, and Sam hovers nearby, wanting to help however he can.
Bucky blinks, but when Steve meets his eyes, the blue gaze is hazy, unfocused. “Steve, what–”
Steve’s heart is pounding when his hand finds Bucky’s and squeezes softly. “Easy, Buck. You’re sick– some complications from the surgery. But you’re gonna be fine.”
Steve desperately hopes that it’s true.
A few hours later, the four of them are gathered around Bucky’s bedside, and Steve has Bucky’s hand curled tightly in his own. Bucky is finally asleep, an IV in his arm and a cool cloth on his forehead. His fever has been getting higher and higher, and Steve is more worried than he wants to admit.
“I didn’t think Super Soldiers could get sick,” Sam says, quietly.
“The healing factor makes it difficult,” Steve mutters. “But sometimes it does happen.”
Natasha is sitting on Bucky’s other side, watching Steve with a concerned expression. “He’s going to be okay. You know that, right? He’s in good hands.”
“I know,” Steve says. “You guys don’t have to stay, you know.”
Nat and Sam shake their heads before he even finishes the statement. “No way, man,” Sam says. “We care about him, too.”
“And you shouldn’t be alone,” Nat adds.
Steve swallows, not trusting his voice. “Thank you.”
For a few minutes the four of them sit in silence, broken only by the steady beeping of Bucky’s heart monitor.
The Wakandan doctors confirmed that the infection is under control, and that Bucky will recover, but in the meantime all they can do is wait for his fever to break. He’s almost at 103 now, and if it gets any higher, they could be in for some real trouble.
As the four of them continue to sit in silence, a low groan sounds from the table below. Steve glances up, the panic clear on his face, but Sam’s hand on his shoulder stops him from doing anything drastic. Bucky’s brow is furrowed, and he looks pained. Low moans escape his lips, as his head turns to the side, and his grip on Steve’s hand tightens slightly.
“Probably dreaming,” Sam mutters, squeezing Steve’s shoulder. “He’ll be okay, Cap.”
Natasha is frowning, staring down at Bucky as he begins to mumble strings of words that Steve doesn’t understand.
“Russian again?” He glances up at Nat, who’s hand is now resting on Bucky’s arm.
She nods. “It’s… fragmented. He’s delirious.”
“What’s he saying?” Sam asks.
Natasha swallows, but Steve can tell she’s struggling to keep her face impassive. “I’m… not sure you want to know.”
Steve’s insides clench. “Nat.”
Natasha looks at him then, and he wonders what she sees written on his face. He can’t control his expressions the way she can; he doubts there’s anyone on earth that can match Natasha Romanoff’s poker face. So he imagines he must look like a deer in headlights, the way he looked the night Bucky shipped out for the war and he was terrified he’d never see him again.
But even with her famous poker face, Steve can tell whatever she’s hearing isn’t good. “Tell me.”
Natasha sighs, her hand still on Bucky’s forearm. “He’s asking us to kill him.”
Dead silence, for a moment. Sam looks pained, and Shuri looks like she might cry. Steve is trying to right the world from where it’s suddenly dropped out from under his feet.
“He’s what?” Steve’s voice is impossibly quiet, and the only sound in the room is Bucky’s continued mumbling. Sam’s hand remains steady on Steve’s shoulder.
Natasha swallows. She doesn’t elaborate, only jerking her head towards where Bucky lay, his mumbling continuing. “I’m sorry,” she translates. “I’m poisoned. I’m… infected. I don’t want to hurt people anymore. Just let me die,” she whispers.
“Bucky…” It’s not Steve speaking, but Sam, who sounds close to tears. Steve is surprised, because even after everything that happened he never imagined that Sam cared that much for Bucky. But he suddenly looks unsteady on his feet, like even after all the traumatized soldiers he’s seen, this will be the thing that finally breaks him.
Steve swallows down the lump in his throat. “Bucky, you’re not poison. You’ve been through hell, but you’re still you.” He doesn’t even know if Bucky can hear him through the haze of the fever, but he squeezes the other man’s hand again to punctuate the statement. He doesn’t listen, just keeps muttering words in Russian that sound more and more pained.
“They’re in my head,” Natasha translates again. “I can see all of them. I remember everything. My hands are red, I–” Nat’s voice breaks, and for the first time since Steve’s known her, she looks close to tears. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Natasha cry. “I don’t want to be broken anymore,” she whispers.
“The fever is making him hallucinate,” Sam says quietly. “I don’t know what he’s seeing in his head, but it can’t be good.”
“Try talking to him,” Shuri says, causing Steve to jump. He forgot she was here. “It might break through whatever he’s trapped in.”
Steve swallows, as Bucky tosses and turns again. He’s still talking, but he sounds less coherent than before. Steve glances up at Natasha with an almost desperate look on his face, and he’s startled to see a tear trailing down her face. Whatever hell Bucky’s trapped in, it’s enough to break even Natasha’s carefully-maintained control. Steve wraps Bucky’s hand in both of his, bringing it up to rest against his forehead. “What’s he saying, Nat?” asks Sam, sensing that Steve’s too overwhelmed to speak.
Natasha wipes at her eyes. “He’s making less sense. Mumbling about old missions, apologizing, rambling about being in pain. He’s… talking about Hydra, I think. He keeps saying ‘not the chair’ over and over again.”
Steve’s expression hardens into an angry one. “When I first found him, back in ‘41, they had him strapped to a chair with some sort of machine on it.”
Bucky gets louder suddenly, his voice stronger than before. “Get out of my head,” Nat translates. “Don’t make me do it.”
“Bucky, you’re not there anymore, man.” Sam pulls up a chair, and the look on his face matches Steve’s.
“Who’s Becca?” Natasha asks, after a moment. Steve blinks back tears as he squeezes Bucky’s hand impossibly tighter.
“His sister,” he mutters, softly.
They can all hear Bucky now, repeating Becca’s name over and over again, along with–
“Steve,” Bucky mutters. “ Steve. ”
“I’m here, Buck,” he says. “I’m right here. We’ve got you.”
“Steve, Becca… I’m sorry. I failed.” It’s not in Russian, this time.
It hangs heavy in the air for a moment. Nat doesn’t bother to hide how upset she is, and Steve wonders what else Bucky said that she spared them all from hearing.
Eventually, Sam lets out a shaky sigh, breaking the eerie silence. “Well, slipping back into English is a good thing, right?”
Shuri nods. “I think so. It might mean his hallucinations are calming down. Keep talking to him.”
Steve sighs, as a stray tear falls down his face. “Buck, listen to me. You’re stronger than them. You got out.”
“You’re gonna get through this,” Sam adds.
Natasha whispers something in Russian. Steve doesn’t know what she said, but she’s looking down at Bucky with a tender expression that Steve doesn’t think he’s ever seen on her face.
“You didn’t fail, Bucky. You never fail, not at anything.” Steve smiles as an old memory bubbles to the surface. “Do you remember– back in Brooklyn, before the army. That time we spent the day in Coney Island?” Bucky’s still asleep, but he’s not tossing and turning anymore, and Steve wonders whether some part of his fever-addled brain is listening, deep down. “Back when you bet me that you could beat me at one of those dumb carnival games?”
“I kept telling you it was stupid, but you didn’t stop until you won. And you never let me live it down.”
Steve swallows, squeezing Bucky’s hand one more time. “When you wake up, we’re gonna do something fun again, like the old days. Forget about Hydra, Super Soldiers, all this crap. It’ll be just like back then.”
And just for a moment, Steve thinks he feels just the slightest amount of pressure on his hand.
Bucky’s relatively stable after that. He doesn’t speak anymore, but occasionally tosses and turns in his sleep. Steve insists on staying by his side until he wakes up, even though none of them know how long it will be until that happens. Sam and Nat both try to convince him to get some air, to clean up and maybe eat or nap for a bit in the meantime, but he waves them off. He’s not going to let Bucky wake up alone. Not after everything he’s been through.
Sam and Nat stay with the two of them in shifts, switching off whenever one of them needs to shower or sleep for a few hours. Steve just stares resolutely at Bucky, as if he can force the other man to get better through sheer willpower alone.
Bucky’s fever breaks later that night, and when Steve sees the temperature indicator on the monitor steadily tick down a few tenths of a degree, he feels his whole body relax. It’s like a physical weight’s been lifted off his shoulders, and he keeps a tight grip on Bucky’s hand as he sits back in his chair. He texts Nat and Sam to tell them that the fever broke, and both of them enter the room a few minutes later. The three of them take up a silent vigil at Bucky’s bedside, as if the combined power of three Avengers will somehow make this whole process go a little faster.
It’s early the next morning, when Bucky finally opens his eyes. He lets out a low groan, and Steve is instantly wide awake, the moment he hears it. Natasha and Sam stir too, where they had both been asleep curled up in chairs.
“Bucky?” Steve deliberately keeps his voice quiet, trying not to startle him while he gets his bearings. Bucky blinks, glancing around the room as he does his best to stretch out in the small bed he’s lying in. Steve’s hand finds his shoulder before he can sit up. “Take it easy, Buck. You shouldn’t be moving too much.”
“Wha– what happened?” Bucky’s voice is hoarse, and Steve reaches for the small pitcher of water that Shuri was kind enough to leave for them.
“You had us worried for a minute there, Mr. Super Soldier,” Sam says, as he appears at Steve’s side.
“What do you remember?” Natasha asks. She’s standing further away, leaning against the wall near the bed but not approaching further.
Bucky frowns. “Shuri… they took my old arm off. We were walking around the palace. Then everything gets… hazy.”
Steve’s hand moves from Bucky’s shoulder to grab his hand again. “The surgery had some complications. You got a pretty bad infection– you’ve been out of it for a day or so.”
Bucky looks pained, suddenly– almost panicked. “Did… did I–”
Steve squeezes Bucky’s hand. “You didn’t. Don’t worry.” It makes him ache, that the first question Bucky always asks is whether or not he hurt people. He’ll never stop wanting to make Hydra pay.
But it’s not the time to be angry now. Bucky needs a friend, more than anything else. As Steve helps him sit up, handing him a glass of water that he sips at gratefully, he debates how to bring up what Bucky said while he was out of his mind.
Luckily, he’s saved from having to respond for a few minutes when a doctor comes in to check on Bucky. Natasha is nowhere to be seen– she’s probably the one who went and got him, Steve thinks.
The doctor fusses over Bucky for a few minutes, before standing up with a satisfied sigh. “Your fever is almost completely gone. The incision on your shoulder seems to be healing nicely, and the antibiotics we administered coupled with your accelerated healing appear to have treated the infection. You’ll be able to leave as soon as you’re feeling up to it.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Steve says, as Bucky continues to look impassive.
Sam smiles. “And here I thought I was finally going to get rid of your annoying ass.”
It makes Bucky laugh, and Steve feels a little lighter when he hears it. “Not yet,” Bucky says, quietly.
Sam steps out a few minutes later to give the two of them some space. Bucky’s watching him with an apprehensive look, and Steve can’t help but raise an eyebrow at his friend.
Bucky rolls his eyes. “I can hear you thinking, you know. You never had a poker face.”
It makes Steve’s heart throb uncomfortably, and he moves closer to Bucky’s bedside. His smile falls, as he remembers the pained expression on Bucky’s face while he was delirious with fever. Bucky’s brow furrows when he takes in Steve’s expression. “Steve? What’s wrong?”
Steve sighs, reaching up to run a hand through his hair before meeting Bucky’s eyes. He does his best to keep his voice even, because he wants Bucky to feel the full weight of everything he’s about to say. “I want you to listen to me very carefully, Bucky Barnes.” Bucky seems to register the seriousness in Steve’s voice, and he tucks his chin into his chest as Steve continues.
“You are the strongest, bravest person I have ever met. You’re stronger than me in… pretty much every way. You went through hell , and you still managed to survive.”
Bucky lets out a nervous laugh. “I uh… I said some shit while I was out, didn’t I?” His face is red.
Steve nods, but he’s still giving Bucky a serious look. “You said enough.” He doesn’t want to think about what Bucky didn’t say, but was probably thinking. “ None of what they did to you was your fault, you hear me?”
Bucky stares down at his hand. “I’m dangerous, Steve.” His voice is quiet. “I’m not worth all this trouble, and you know it. It’d be better if I just–”
Steve can’t help it– he hugs him, being careful of his injured shoulder but forceful all the same. He feels Bucky shudder, before he wraps his arm around Steve and clings tightly to the back of his shirt.
When Bucky buries his face into his neck, Steve speaks again. “You’re more than what Hydra put you through, Buck. Everything they did to you… no one could have gone through all that torture without breaking. But you’re not… you’re not damaged, or poisoned, or any of that. I promise.”
Steve feels Bucky shaking, feels him squeeze a little tighter. He’s silent for a moment, but then… “I don’t deserve this.”
Steve pulls back, shaking his head. “You do , Buck. You’re free from Hydra, and you deserve to get your life back.” Steve shrugs. “And I’ll keep reminding you until you believe it.”
Bucky blushes again, but a small smile blooms across his face. “Thanks, Steve. But I– I think I can manage to not go crazy on my own, at least for a little while.”
And Steve smiles again, because it all feels eerily familiar to a conversation they had a lifetime ago, when they were still just two kids in the middle of Brooklyn. “I know you can, Buck. But the thing is… you don’t have to.”