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The Way Out Is The Way Down

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Wakanda was a blast of heat and blue sky and trees with leaves shaped like nothing Steve had ever seen. Wakanda was a medical team hauling Bucky onto a gurney. T’Challa removed his helmet and handed it to an aide. “These are my personal doctors; you can trust them with your life—or his. I do,” and then he was moving off, surrounded by a clamor of suits and soldiers.

Bucky inhaled sharply as the doctors took Steve's makeshift covering off his blasted arm but was otherwise silent. But Steve—who had hauled Bucky up after fights and dragged him off a torture table in Austria—could read the pain lines on his face and hear every suppressed sound.

“Do you remember,” Steve said, reaching for any distraction as he followed along beside the gurney, trying to stay in Bucky’s line of sight, “that big snow we had when we were kids?”

The doctors were moving Bucky into a sculpted white stone building whose enormous windows were framed with glass as light as gossamer. Bucky had to take a breath before he could answer. “Before the war?” he managed; he was trying to play along. “In what— ’39? ’40?”

“No—when we were kids, I said. ’30—’31, we were taking your sisters to the movies—“

Now he had Bucky’s attention for real, which was good, because they’d reached the surgery and the doctors were now putting instruments to the sharded metal, gently prodding the protruding core of bone. “—and we lost Becky! My God. In the snow.” He laughed, and Steve laughed too: remembering how they’d doubled back and found a hole shaped like a gingerbread girl.

“Yeah,” Steve said, nodding. “Do you remember how the snow was so high that we had to walk the path single file, you first and me behind you and then the girls—“

“—and then we turned around and she was gone; fell in!” Bucky said, almost to himself; he was lost in the memory. “She was the youngest and we put her last—why the hell did we do that?”

“Because we were idiots,” Steve replied. “It’s funny, you know: nowadays, nobody would let kids our age—“ The doctors began to cut the metal pieces away with a blue laser. Bucky’s face went milky and faintly green, and Steve repeated mechanically, “Nobody would ever let…” before abruptly switching tacks, “Do you remember the first time that we—you know.”

Bucky grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut, and Steve impulsively grabbed his remaining hand and held it tight, tight. I’m here, he thought. I’m here, and Bucky squeezed his hand back, hard.

“Talk,” Bucky gritted out. “Keep talking,” and Steve nodded.

“That night,” Steve whispered, “—God, Buck, I was so scared. Terrified, because I knew it would change everything but I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to. I’d been working up my nerve, waiting for my chance. And then…” He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding; the doctors had stopped cutting through the metal and were conferring in low voices. “Do you remember how it happened?” Steve asked, smiling a little. “Who threw you into my lap?” Bucky was staring at him like he was crazy. "You don't, do you?" Steve rolled his eyes. "Figures."

"I don't.” Bucky’s forehead was damp with sweat. “I don't even know what you're—what, who?”

Millicent Ornstein. You were on your third date with Millicent Ornstein, and when you came back, you said she was wearing a girdle that went from her neck to her knees.” Steve grinned, remembering it like it was yesterday: Bucky coming back to their apartment, flushed and with his necktie askew. He'd been impossibly hot and bothered, desire steaming off him.

“You said you should have brought a can opener.” Smiling used unfamiliar muscles. “You said it was like trying to break into Fort Knox. And then I said…” He was shocked by the memory of own boldness: Whatever you want to do, do it to me. You can do it to me, and he’d pressed his mouth, his body, to Bucky’s—and it had worked. Bucky had lost all control.

Bucky was blinking slowly, and then he gave Steve’s hand another rough squeeze. “Yeah,” he said, “And then you said…” and to Steve’s surprise, Bucky broke up laughing, warm and contagious like in the old days, before all the terrible things happened to him. It lit him up, chased the sick look from his face. For a moment he looked himself again. “And then you said,” Bucky repeated, and Steve's grin split his face in anticipation of whatever Bucky was winding up to slam him with, and that was like the old days, too; Christ, how he missed this: the rough and tumble of them, “that it would be so much easier," Bucky said, glaring, and Steve burst out giggling and had to grab a hold of himself physically to stop himself from crashing into a table of medical supplies, and Bucky was laughing too, shaking so hard that the doctors reached out, disapprovingly, to hold him down. "You said—” Bucky gasped.

"Well I might—" Steve couldn't get the words out past his own, embarrassingly high-pitched snorts of laughter, "—you know, have underestimated the difficulty of—"

"Fuck. I shoulda persisted with Millicent Ornstein," and then the double doors to the surgery burst open and Steve turned, vaguely expecting to see T'Challa’s guards storming in—with his luck, they'd get thrown out of the country like they'd once been thrown out of bars—and finding, to his astonishment and delight, Natasha standing there in a summer dress. Steve was pleased and relieved to see her, but she was staring at him like he had three heads. Then she looked at Bucky, who said, with words that were still tripping with laughter but beginning to slur a little—Steve glanced and saw the IV— "He was the troublemaker, him—you know that, right? Nobody ever believes me. Because of his face, just look at it. Like a choirboy, like a…." and the doctors were easing Bucky back down onto the table, prepping him for—something; Steve didn't know what exactly. Cutting through the fabric of his clothes.

"Nat." Steve tried to get a hold of himself; this obviously wasn't the scene she'd been expecting.

"Come on," Natasha said. "You've got to let the doctors do their—"

"…like a cherub," Bucky was telling the doctors, "right off a church ceiling, and it was even worse in the old days, when he was... Everybody thought I was the bad news because…I don't know. I guess I got a guilty face... Steve?" and Steve was beside him in an instant. Bucky flung his hand up, then knotted his fingers in the shredded remains of his uniform.

He put his hand over Bucky’s. "I'm here, Buck," Steve told him. "I won't leave."

"Steve, you have to leave," Natasha said softly. "Come on, let the doctors work."

Bucky was still smiling at him, relaxed by drugs and laughter and—Steve felt it, too—the rightness of them being together again: a solved puzzle, an itch scratched. "Steve, do you remember," and Steve raised his eyebrows, prompting him to continue, "the night I shipped out?" and Christ how could he forget? "We went to the fair, you and me. And some girl whose name I don't remember. And her friend…"

"Bonnie," Steve said, and made a face. "She didn't like me."

"No. She didn't," Bucky said.

"You spent that whole spring introducing me to girls who didn't like me," and it was hard to keep the bitterness out of his voice. It had been a nightmare, and the girls themselves had been the least of it. Much worse had been the feeling that he was being shopped around, pawned off.

But Bucky held his eyes and nodded. "Yeah," he said, and then his hand was moving up, over Steve's shoulder, and he was cupping the back of Steve's neck and tugging him down. "I introduced you to every girl I could think of," Bucky murmured into his ear. "You talk about terror, that was terror. I thought I was going to get killed and you were gonna be…That you wouldn't have anybody to… wouldn't have anybody." His eyes drifted closed. "Stupid, huh?"

"No," Steve said thickly. “It's not stupid. It—" It was almost exactly what had happened to him, but Bucky was asleep now, and the doctors were staring and Natasha's hand was on his arm.

"Come on, Steve," she said.

"Call me before he wakes up," Steve said, a little desperately. "I need to be here when he wakes up," and then he let Natasha tug him through the door and into the antechamber of—wherever this was. It wasn’t a hospital; it could be part of the palace, he supposed, or a government compound. Everything around him was disconcertingly unfamiliar: the fashions, the buildings, the technology. Here we go again, he thought, and right that second, he wasn’t sure he could.

"You should wash up," Natasha said, looking him up and down. "And change clothes: you're covered in blood. Did anybody bother to ask whether you needed medical treatment?"

Steve shook his head a little to clear it. "What the hell are you doing here, Romanov?"

Natasha looked up at him, her mouth twisted in a familiar mix of affection and exasperation. “It was here or Avengers HQ,” she said. “So here I am.”

Natasha'd been busy since he'd last seen her; she'd gone into action in that ruthless, clear-sighted way she had. "Somebody had to get Laura out," she said tensely, "and the kids," and Steve felt the old weariness settling down on his shoulders. "They would have tried to use them," she insisted, hard-voiced, as if he needed convincing. "Against Clint, and I can't allow that to…"

"Yes, of course," Steve said quietly. "Tell me what's happening."

Natasha blew out a breath and muttered, "I'll need a drink for this." Steve followed her out into the sunshine and across a garden thick with plants and flowering trees toward another low, stone building; a guest house. They climbed the wide stone steps and went in—or rather, beneath the roof, as the building had been constructed so as to give the impression that there were no exterior walls and that each room opened onto boughs of purple and orange blossoms. But Steve thought he could sense an even thinner version of the glass running floor to ceiling—except it maybe wasn't even glass, but some kind of force field.

The rooms were enormous, with high ceilings and stone floors with carpets of red, black, and gold strewn across them, and furniture carved from wood and bamboo. Ceiling fans spun lazily overhead, stirring the air. "Take any room you want," Natasha said offhandedly, over her shoulder; she'd gone to an elaborately carved cabinet, which turned out to be a bar. "Mine's first on the left," and Steve passed into a cool stone corridor between two interior walls.

The door to Natasha's room was open, and inside, the gossamer force field was a warm glow, a shimmer of translucent orange that rippled gently in the breeze. Steve went on until he'd reached the end of the hall, leaving as many rooms between them as he could. In the last room the force field was gray and opaque, casting the room into shadow. There was a large bed, an artfully-hewn four-poster—Steve turned, startled by a movement that turned out to be his own dark reflection in a mirror. He’d taken off his helmet, and God knew that his bruised mug was familiar, but he was still wearing the red, white and blue, the stupid star on his chest. He yanked at his collar, unbuttoning and unVelcroing, untwisting all the fasteners on the damn greasy technical fabric until the uniform was in a pile on the floor. He was panting, sucking air through his gritted teeth. He stumbled into the bathroom and switched on the tap to wash up, then abruptly pivoted into the shower and made the water as hot as he could stand and breathed in, and breathed out.

He found plain dark clothes in the closet and came out with his hair still damp. Natasha was sitting at the table, chin in hand, a tumbler of iced vodka pressed to her forehead. Beside her was a place setting and a salver under a silver cover. Natasha pointedly stayed silent until he sat down beside her and lifted the cover off the dish: chicken, a vegetable stew, spiced rice. He was overcome by the warm, delicious smell of it; he was, in fact, starving. Natasha nodded grimly as he began shoveling food into his mouth, but then he caught her eye and gestured at her with his fork as he chewed: go on, talk, talk.

“It’s called the Raft,” Natasha said, pressing a button on her phone that sent a small holographic blueprint spinning in the air. “It’s a fully-submersible supermax prison located south of—“

Steve, hurriedly swallowing, said, “Wait, I’ve seen that. That was where they wanted to put Loki.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not Loki,” Natasha said, and Steve put down his fork and looked at her, because he’d heard cynicism from Natasha before, but it had always been leavened with mocking laughter, an amused refusal to be surprised by all the evil that men do—but there was none of that now. “It’s Clint,” Natasha said, and her voice was terrible. “Steve, it’s Sam,” and he felt rage rising: how could anybody think of locking up Sam, who was integrity personified. Natasha went on, relentlessly, wanting to hurt him even though he knew it wasn’t really him she wanted to hurt. “It’s Wanda, Steve; they’ve got her in restraints. It’s Sam’s friend, what’s his name—“

“Scott,” Steve said.

“Yeah, well, he’s there, too. In a fully-submersible prison off the coast of nowhere. Held indefinitely. No trial, no public hearing. Operating in defiance of the Sokovia Accords—where operating means breathing. We’re alive in defiance of the law, now,” Natasha said bitterly.

“Well,” Steve said, and pushed his plate away. “We’ll just have to break in and get them.”

“Right, let’s take it from the top,” Natasha said wearily. “The Raft is a fully submersible supermax prison—“

“We can do it,” Steve said.

“—in the middle of the ocean off the coast of nowhere, Rogers,” and Natasha was stabbing her finger at him before he could open his mouth, “—and no, it’s not like the Lemurian Star, because there, we had air support, we had an extraction unit, we had a team behind us—“

“No, you’re right,” Steve said. “It’s nothing like the Lemurian Star.”

It was like the liberation of the 107th; it was like his impossible, preposterous infiltration of the Hydra facility after Azzano. It was always possible for one person to wriggle into a prison, and then once inside— He thought of Dugan, of Dernier, Morita and Gabe, and smiled grimly.

“But you’re wrong about us not having a team,” Steve told Natasha. “Our team’s inside the prison. And we’re going to get them the hell out.”

Natasha sat back in her chair and looked at him. Then she said, almost admiringly, “You know, for the first time, I really understand why so many people want to punch you in the face.”

“It’s a well-documented phenomenon,” Steve agreed, shrugging. “They should do a study.”

“I’ll save them the money—it’s because you’re crazy.” Natasha leaned in. “That place was built to withstand gods, monsters, inhumans, mutants: what the hell makes you think—“

“We can do it,” Steve said with flat certainty. “Rats find holes; I learned that in Brooklyn—“

They were interrupted by the arrival of a strong-looking girl in a uniform. “Captain Rogers,” she said, a bit breathlessly in her musically-accented English. “Please come quickly.”

“It's Bucky,” Steve said, bolting up.

T’Challa was presiding over a scene of controlled chaos: armed guards stood over smashed machines and overturned furniture. Bucky was hunkered defensively in a corner, one arm flung out and the other—Steve’s stomach clenched tight at the sight of it—neatly capped at the shoulder. He was muttering, “No, no…don’t. Please. Stop.”

“Go carefully,” T’Challa was telling the guards. “He’s not master of himself,” and then, turning to Steve as he came in, “Captain, perhaps you will be able to—“

But before Steve could do anything, Natasha surprised him by saying, “Let me,” and then she was going to Bucky, her hands open and empty. She said something in Russian, and the effect on Bucky was immediate—he collapsed back against the wall, gasping like a drowning man thrown upon the shore. Natasha nodded rapidly as she dropped to her knees and scraped his sweaty hair away from his forehead; Bucky closed his eyes gratefully and let her hands roam over his face.

“You know the code words,” Steve said, betrayed.

“No. I don’t. That wouldn’t have worked if he’d really been activated—“

T’Challa frowned at this. “So he was not activated.”

“Your Highness,” Natasha said, “if the Winter Soldier had been activated, you would know it. “

Bucky’s voice, thin and reedy, came from the corner, and they all turned to look at him. “Somebody said… something. I…got all this junk in my head. Landmines.” He shoved the heel of his remaining hand hard against his forehead. “Booby-traps and jumbled code. All sorts of crossed wires; my programming’s seventy years old now. Corrupt.”

Steve swallowed his sorrow; anger was harder. “What did you say to him?” he asked Natasha.

“It was—“ Natasha sighed. “In the Red Room, our handlers were big on ritualized responses. At the end of a mission, we were always told…” She hesitated, and then said, awkwardly, translating, “All is well. Your mission is complete. You deserve—” Bucky lifted his head.

“Earned,” he corrected. “You have earned this. Rest,” and then Bucky relaxed and closed his eyes again, exhaling in what seemed almost to be ecstasy. “God. I couldn’t wait to hear that.”

“Me too.” Natasha sounded oddly young, and Steve fought down the urge to punch something; he wanted to go back in time and kill them, all of them: Zola, Karpov, everyone who’d used Bucky, anyone who’d ever dared lay a hand on Natasha. Instead he went to Bucky and carefully helped him to stand. Bucky swayed a little, unbalanced by the loss of his arm, which was terrible but also terribly familiar: he now looked like the countless other war veterans Steve had met since his return.

“M’fucking useless,” Bucky muttered. “They should have shelved me years ago,” and Steve looked at him, horrified: Bucky wasn’t a goddamned piece of equipment, he was—

“We have taken scans,” T’Challa said, “and I have my best people working on the problem,” and Steve wasn’t following until T’Challa added, “Agent Romanov supplied us with the blueprints of the original arm. It was a marvel of engineering, truly, but,” and T’Challa’s grin was almost smug, “I believe we can do better,” and Steve could have kissed him; really, he could’ve.

But Bucky didn’t smile. “It’s not my arm I’m worried about, sir,” he said. “It’s my head,” and T’Challa sobered and replied, respectful and serious: “Yes. We will consider that problem, too.”

T’Challa let them bring Bucky back to the guesthouse “on my own personal responsibility,” Steve told the king. T’Challa seemed amused by Bucky’s reaction when they brought him out of the medical pavilion and into the lush gardens beyond.

“Geez, where is this—paradise?” Bucky asked, looking around.

“You’re close,” T’Challa replied, still smiling.

Bucky shook his head slowly. “I was all over Africa during the 1960s. Uprisings and revolutions: Hydra was on both sides of every decolonization. I’ve never seen anywhere like this.”

“Wakanda was not colonized,” T’Challa said. “Nor have we ever been enslaved.”

“Wish I could say the same,” Bucky said with a quick, thin smile, but T’Challa put a hand on his shoulder and said, in a serious voice: “I mean to do what I can to make things right for you. In my country, we take the abridgment of human will very seriously. It is the most terrible of crimes. We believe in accountability, but without freedom, there can be no accountability; this is a fact.”

“I believe in accountability, too,” Bucky replied thickly. “And I swear to you, I’m going to do everything I can to make up for what I did—“

“I believe you,” T’Challa said. “And I’m sure you will have many chances if you stay in the company of Captain Rogers.” T’Challa looked over at Steve and added, “No doubt you are already planning a mission to rescue your friends from the Raft.” It wasn’t a question.

It was Natasha who answered. “How could you know that? I’ve told him it’s crazy…”

“I am quite familiar with Captain Rogers’s style of crazy,” T’challa replied wryly. “Shaw once said that a reasonable man adapts himself to the world, while an unreasonable one tries to adapt the world to himself. He therefore concluded that all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.” He smiled at Steve. “Wakanda is a progressive country. You are welcome here, sir.”

Bucky couldn’t help but do a perimeter check of the guest house, and Steve could see that he found the semipermeable barriers that were the exterior walls deeply unsettling. Natasha showed him the controls—"Look, you can darken them and lock them; here,"—but Bucky made Steve go outside and throw a couple of his best punches at the electronic wall while he watched with narrow, intense eyes, and even then Bucky only relented because there was else nothing for it.

"It's just code," Bucky said unhappily, "and if someone's got the key to it, that's the end of it…"

"C'mon, pal," Steve said gently, and took him to wash up. The doctors had removed the smashed up remains of the metal arm, preparing the bone to accept a new prosthesis and carefully covering the stump with a waterproof cap. They'd cut off Bucky's jacket and shirt, and now, as Steve helped him out of the thin garments they'd given him post-op, Steve could see exactly where the doctors had swabbed to disinfect and prep him: there were swaths of clean skin around Bucky's shoulder and down his left side. "Get into the shower," Steve said, "I'll help you." He took his own shirt off and leaned into the stall, methodically helping Bucky wash his back, his legs, the long strands of his hair before roughly toweling him off and helping him out.

Bucky stood there, naked and still idly dragging a towel across his chest. "Should I shave?"

"It's up to you," Steve said. "I'll help if you want, but don't shave on account of…" Bucky's beard was soft, with only a few, sharp bristles. He was excited by the way they dragged across his lips; he'd always loved the scrape of Bucky's beard, the contrasting softness of his mouth. The kiss had been unthinking, but having started, he couldn’t stop; he wanted to feel Bucky’s mouth from every angle. Bucky’s hand skimmed his waist, slid into his pants. It settled possessively over the small of his back. Steve shivered and went hard, reached out to rest his hands on Bucky's naked hips, slid his thumbs down the curve of bone. He tugged him forward; he wanted to feel Bucky’s cock on his skin, to drag that velvet head against his belly. But when he reached for him, he was soft.

Bucky looked sad and a little apologetic as he pulled Steve's hand away. “Pal,” he scraped out, “I know you want things to be like they were, but…”

“No. Yes,” Steve gritted out, and then he jerked out of Bucky’s grasp. “I don't care what things are like. You’re back, that’s what matters,” and he was glad he’d kept his pants on, because he would have been embarrassed by his hard-on otherwise. Even so, he felt sixteen again: awkward and desperate to keep Bucky around him, because Bucky was so much older (sixteen months!) and more sophisticated and just as tall and handsome as good goddamn. And he still was.

Bucky’s expression softened into fondness. “Just, I don’t know the steps to this dance anymore.”

“Your body knows,” Steve said. “Your body knew who I was before your—“

“Cracked mind?” Bucky supplied, smiling thinly.

“I wasn’t going to say it like that, but yeah.” Steve ran his hand up Bucky’s side, then idly rubbed his thumb over a flat, brown nipple. Nothing happened. “You knew me before you remembered me. Because your body has its own memory, Buck,” and Bucky was tightlipped and shaking his head unhappily, his body soft and uninterested, but he didn’t pull away. Steve kissed him again and murmured against his mouth: “Just give it a minute, will you? C’mere, let me…”

It took more than a minute, but Steve was happy to take his time: he’d been dreaming of this for years. He kissed Bucky for a long time, then then pulled him down onto the bed and kissed him some more. He dragged his lips across Bucky’s soft beard, over his freckled shoulder, down his breastbone. His bones were closer to the skin these days; his whole body was rougher, harder, hammered down like metal. Steve ran his fingertips down Bucky’s ribs to the harsh angle of his hip, arrowing to his cock. He was still only half-hard, but Steve put his mouth on him until he moaned, his fingers threading into Steve’s hair, pulling him in, guiding him closer.

Steve gripped Bucky’s thigh with his hand and coaxed him to thrust—to fuck his mouth, because for all that he had a guilty face, Bucky was a gentleman. Steve—God, when he was younger—had tried his damnedest to lead Bucky into temptation. He’d sat in Bucky’s lap and teased his cock against Bucky’s stomach as they kissed; he’d encouraged Bucky to rub himself between Steve’s thighs and against his balls, until one day Bucky couldn’t take it anymore and shoved Steve down onto his back and actually worked his way into him, moaning with the effort of going slow while being half out of his mind with wanting it, with wanting to finally do it.

Bucky let out a familiar, strangled sound that meant he was close, and Steve moved his eyes to Bucky’s face and saw that he was watching Steve suck his cock with a kind of gasping adoration. “I—God, Steve—“ and then he groaned and came unexpectedly. Steve laughed, pulled off quick and spit, wiping the salt off his lips and grinning. He kept his hand going, found Bucky’s gaze again and looked straight at him, relishing Bucky’s pleasure, the way his muscles flexed and his back arched into it. “Christ, I love you,” Bucky slurred, “come here,” and so Steve crawled up his body and sprawled across him, enjoying being clumsy and naked with him. Bucky slid his arm around Steve’s shoulders and Steve lazily nudged his erection against Bucky’s smooth skin.

He drifted for a while, rocking his hips and letting the pleasure build. Then Bucky licked the shell of his ear and whispered, come on, do it; come all over me, and Steve mmmed happily and drew his face across Bucky’s beard, ground his hips, rubbed himself against him until he came.

Afterwards he lay against Bucky’s metal shoulder with his heart hammering pleasantly, taking slow, deep, post-orgasmic breaths. Bucky abruptly clutched him with his remaining hand and said, “It’s over, right? This nightmare—Please. Tell me it’s over.”

“It’s over,” Steve said, and dug his fingers into Bucky’s skin.

“Don’t let them get me,” Bucky muttered. “Please. You can’t let them get to me—“

“They won’t. I won’t let them. I swear to God,” Steve said.