“The cryostasis is killing him.” T'Challa said it flatly, like a mere fact of life, which, in a way, it was.
And yet it hit Steve like a knife in his chest, no, worse than that. He had been stabbed before. It was a sharp, clean pain, not a desperate spreading ache like this. “W-what?” His voice cracked shamefully.
“Your friend. Sargent Barnes. The repeated freezings in cryostasis are causing damage to his heart and blood pressure, and the serum cannot repair them while he is frozen.” Regret coloured T'Challa's voice then, leaving behind the matter of fact tone he had used to deliver the news.
“Then take him out! I don't care about his programming, take him out, and I'll take care of him! We can't let him die, Your Highness!” Steve's hands were shaking, the words tearing themselves out of him painfully.
“He is still a danger. Hydra...”
“Forgot Hydra! He knew who he was, T'Challa! He's still Bucky! He doesn't deserve to die like this!
“He is your friend, Captain. You must not allow that to cloud your judgement.”
“He is. He's...” Steve's eyes burned, the image of Peggy's face flashing behind his eyes, and his mother, the Howling Commandos... “God, he's all I have left!”
T'Challa laid a hand gently on Steve's shoulder. “I know. I know that you were very close. Like brothers, many have said.”
Steve heaved a sob, fighting back tears. “The Avengers were like my family. I lost them over the Sokovia Accords. I can't lose him too. Please.”
“I have already gone above and beyond my duty for you and your friend. And now you ask me to do more?” T'Challa shook his head. “Nevertheless, I will. On some conditions. You are responsible for him. His actions will be on your head. You may only leave Wakanda together, and with my permission. And if he transgresses too terribly, I will put him back in cryostasis, for the sake of my country.”
Steve nodded, breath caught tight in his chest, a knot he could not untie, echoing a vague memory of the feeling of asthma. “Thank you, Your Highness.”
T'Challa inclines his head. “Follow me, Captain. You will be needed there when he wakes up.”
“I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.” Steve assured him, following him down to the lab.
There was frost over Bucky's face, clinging to the walls of his cryo-pod, almost hiding his sleeping face from view. Steve stood over him for a moment, looking for the cold grey cling of near-death there, that he had seen on soldiers before. But it was not there. His cheeks were pale, colourless from cold, but white-peach, not grey. His features looked soft, the tension he had in waking gone. Almost peaceful. Steve's heart clenched.
The nurses were busying themselves bringing him out of cryostasis, but all Steve had eyes for was Bucky.
The cryo-pod took a long time to open, creaking dangerously as it did. Bucky did not seem disturbed, however, still lying back dangerously still, still as a wax statue, a look of frozen vague serenity on his face. Nothing much, Steve thought, to distinguish him here from his own full-length projected picture in the Smithsonian, nothing but the long hair and battered clothing and stump of his missing arm. The straps around his remaining arm and thighs and chest looked painful tight, leather darkened and stiffened from condensation and the Winter Soldier pulling against it. Too tight, cutting into flesh. Bile stung the back of Steve’s throat. Bucky must have been forced into those straps in the past, he could see. Held down, strapped down, screaming, fighting…
The cryo-pod was open then, properly. Cold vapour hissed out, shrouding Steve, who stood to close, in a fleeting shroud of ice. Bucky sagged forward, head falling against his chest, only those same cruel straps stopping him from flopping forward face-first onto the ground like the limp deadweight he was. He showed no sign of wakefulness, still and cold, muscles lax.
Steve stepped forward, bent over him, carefully undoing the stiff, burning-cold buckles on the straps. As soon as he unfastened the chest strap, Bucky slid limply from the chair into his arms.
“Hey, Buck.” Steve whispered, voice measured and soft. “I’ve got you. You’re alright now.” He ran his fingers through Bucky’s hair, damp with cool water as the frost from the chamber melts into it. Underneath the chill, he could feel the warmth of Bucky’s skin, a soothing reminder that he still lived.
“Can you put him into the medical chair, Captain?” T’Challa asked, voice gentle, not wanting to intrude upon this tender moment. “We need to run some tests. Check his vital functions.”
“Just a minute, Your Highness. Let him wake up first. Let him know where he is, before you start poking him with needles.” He stroked Bucky’s fast-warming cheek. “Wake up, Buck. It’s me, Steve.”
In his arms, Bucky stirred. The barest ghost of a movement, a flutter of an eyelid, clenching of a muscle, but Steve felt it, and his heart leapt. The urge to bend down and kiss Bucky’s bloodless lips, make him feel Steve’s warmth and his presence, wake him up gently, rose in him, but he forced it down. After all that had happened in the last 70 years, it was not his place to be taking liberties with Bucky’s unconscious body, regardless of what they might have been to each other in the 1940s. Time would tell if Bucky still wanted their relationship, if he still yearned with the same horrible consuming ache Steve did.
Bucky was definitely waking up then, twisting in Steve’s arms, although his eyes still had not opened. He let out a soft sound of protest, somewhere between a moan and a whine. Then he muttered something in Russian, and his grey eyes opened. They fixed on Steve’s face, and a look of abject terror clenched Bucky’s features. He reeled back for a moment, and then brought his fist up to punch Steve squarely in the jaw.