Frozen in time. That's what Steve can't help thinking, looking at Bucky through the glass wall of the cryochamber. He feels as if he's frozen himself, like being back in the ice. Bucky hasn't changed at all in the eight months he's been under. His hair hasn't grown; his beard hasn't either. Frozen, unchanging ...
Except not unchanging, not at all, from what T'Challa and the doctors have told him. In those eight months, they've been hard at work on Bucky's conditioning, gently probing at his thoughts to identify and deactivate one trigger after another. Directed dreaming, T'Challa calls it, a technique that has been used for over a decade in Wakanda to help traumatized abuse victims and war veterans. Apparently they've also had some recent help at refining the technology from Stark Industries, something Steve literally didn't know about until yesterday, when he got the message from T'Challa that they were ready to bring Bucky out of cryo.
Apparently Tony is still full of surprises.
But right now Steve is mainly focused on the fact that they've been working on Bucky for eight months, performing what amounts to high-tech brain surgery; that Bucky consented before going under, but there's no way to know how well it worked -- if it worked at all, if it even made things worse -- without waking him up.
Natasha is the one who asks quietly, "Is there anything we will need to do?" Steve can't speak. He's infinitely glad she's there, but it's still a surprise when her warm fingers slip into his cold ones, squeezing with a firm, reassuring pressure.
"What he'll need the most is supportive care," the head doctor says as she moves from one control to another. On the panel beside the cryochamber lights are turning green, readouts changing quickly in a language Steve has only learned a little of. "He will be disoriented at first. He will need things that are familiar, gentle voices, dim lights. We've made a suite available for his use and yours, but you may use your own apartments instead, if you prefer."
The thought occurs to Steve that the Wakandan medical stafff have never asked about his relationship with Bucky, or Natasha's either. Which is just as well, since he's not entirely sure how he would have answered; he doesn't know how to define it himself. They've taken for granted his right to be there, asked for no documentation except T'Challa's word that he has the right to make decisions on Bucky's behalf, and right now, in his current state of mind, that's a gift beyond price.
The lights on the control panel turn green across the board, and Steve takes an involuntary step forward as Bucky, for the first time in eight months, stirs in the cryochamber. His back arches slightly, head tilts back, lips part as the lid of the cryochamber hisses open, and he takes his first breath in eight months.
Natasha's fingers tighten briefly and convulsively on Steve's.
Steve starts to take an involuntary step forward and then stops himself. The medical team is swooping in to surround Bucky, checking his vitals, wrapping him in blankets. Steve cranes his neck, barely able to see him through the people surrounding him, but he sees Bucky's eyelids twitch, and it comes to him suddenly that Bucky isn't going to want to wake up with strangers touching him. Not that Bucky would do anything violent, Steve is confident of that even if he suspects Bucky wouldn't be. But there's no need to make this harder for Bucky than it has to be.
"Move, please," he says quietly but firmly, and to his surprise, they do, much more responsive than he expects from his past experience with medical staff in the U.S. Perhaps this is the benefit of being the king's guests. They fall back and he moves in, reaching out to grip Bucky's arm. He's lost his grip on Natasha's hand, but she's moving up on Bucky's other side, resting her hand on Bucky's shoulder above the truncated stump of his metal arm.
And when Bucky's eyes flutter open, they're the first thing he sees, Steve on one side, Natasha on the other. He blinks slowly, and Steve can watch his eyes go from a blank, sleepy vagueness to something more coherent as he focuses on them. His lips move soundlessly, but he doesn't speak yet. Disoriented, they'd said -- which for Bucky must be harder to handle than for most people.
"Is it all right to help him sit up?" Natasha asks, and when she gets an affirmative answer, they help him up between them. He sways and leans into both of them, barely able to get his legs under him.
"Steve," he says faintly.
"What am I, chopped liver?" Natasha wants to know, and he just looks at her, vague and baffled, as if he can't quite understand what she's doing there.
"His vitals are strong," the doctor tells them. "It's best for him to be somewhere quiet now. In a half hour or so, he should have regained full awareness of his surroundings. We'll run some more tests then, but for now, all he needs is to recover somewhere that he won't receive much stimulation."
And so they take him to the provided apartment, in the same wing as the medical facility. It's unsurprisingly luxurious to a degree Steve would have considered absurd a mere year ago, and he's a man who used to hang around with Tony Stark. There's a sunken indoor pool with warm water flowing over rocks, low couches and comfortable chairs, soft lighting and sliding doors of wood slats that let in breezes from the patio outside.
Bucky is shivering against them, and Steve can't help noticing that, for an apartment in a tropical country, there seem to be a suspicious number of soft, warm-looking blankets folded neatly on the couches and on the backs of chairs.
They ease Bucky down onto one of the couches and pile blankets around him, and then there's not much to do except sit and wait, hands lightly touching him so he knows they're there.
... at least until Natasha stands up suddenly. "I don't know about you two, but I'm not going to pass up a free swim." And she starts to disrobe right there on the edge of the pool, while Steve opens and closes his mouth in shock.
She doesn't strip completely, just down to her underwear, and she slides into the water with catlike grace. Steve watches her do slow laps around the pool, eyes half closed. It does look pleasant.
There's a sudden movement beside him: Bucky, who had been reclining on the couch, sitting up all the way. "That looks nice," he says, his voice rough from disuse. "I think I'd like to try that."
Steve looks up at him; he's sitting beside the couch on the hardwood floor. Bucky looks all right, a little tired, but not as vague as he did earlier. "Are you sure you're supposed to be swimming when you just ... woke up?" He can't quite bring himself to mention the cryo, or the ice, or any other euphemism that treads too close to truths, to parallels, that he's resolutely not thinking about.
Bucky looks down at him, with a look that is so Bucky it hurts, fond and slightly exasperated all at the same time. "I don't think they'd have the pool there if it wasn't okay to use, do you?"
"I guess not," Steve admits.
Bucky needs a little help stripping down; his hands are shaking. Natasha is there, suddenly, as he sits on the edge of the pool with his legs in the water and hands resting at his sides; his head is bowed. He looks like he's waiting out a head rush. Natasha treads water slowly and patiently in front of him until he raises his head; then, wordlessly, she holds out her hands. Bucky reaches out and takes her hand, and in an unexpectedly graceless belly flop, splashes into the water. They both surface an instant later, Natasha helping him bob to the surface.
Steve watches for a moment longer until he's confident that Bucky is capable of swimming on his own -- deliberately and carefully, but without any evident risk of drowning, slowly following Natasha on her lazy laps of the pool. Like the other two, he strips down to his underwear and slides into the water. It's warm enough to be pleasant for slow swimming, but not for vigorous exercise, like being in the cooler end of a hot spring.
Across the pool, there's a sudden laugh and splash. Steve strokes over to see what's going on, and finds two of the world's deadliest assassins engaged in a water fight. If he was going to venture a guess, he'd say that Natasha started it by dunking Bucky, but they're both equally culpable now, and there's already water splashed far and wide around the edge of the pool.
Steve decides to stay out of it. He flips onto his back and hangs there, using the bare minimum necessary of leg and arm movements to keep himself afloat. (Which admittedly is not inconsiderable; being large and heavy and composed mainly of muscle, he tends to sink.)
It's as if he can feel the stress leaving his body, seeping out into the warm water. The past eight months ... the previous three years ... hell, his entire life since Bucky left at the start of the war: all that piled-up stress seeps slowly out of him, leaving him feeling peaceful and light, almost falling asleep in the water.
At least until a hand clamps down on his shoulder and he's pushed suddenly beneath the water's surface.
He pops up spluttering and hacking to see an unrepentantly grinning Bucky treading water a few feet away, using his legs to make up for the missing arm. It's Natasha's turn to back off; she's doing another lazy circuit of the pool.
"Jerk," Steve tells him.
"Punk," Bucky says back automatically, and he looks briefly startled, before he flashes a quick smile with a weary edge to it.
In a way, that visible edge of emotional exhaustion is actually a relief. Bucky doesn't appear to have come out of cryo missing memories, at least no more than he was missing when he went in, but he also didn't come back with everything intact. He hasn't been magically reset to 1940s Bucky Barnes ... and that's okay. Better than okay. He's the same guy that Steve had a few short days to talk to in Wakanda before Bucky volunteered for cryo: older and wearier, haunted by new memories he wants to forget and unable to remember half of the memories he used to have.
But he seems a little lighter now, the same way Steve feels, as if the past is weighing less heavy on him at the moment. Maybe the reconditioning worked and maybe it didn't; they won't know until the Wakandan psychiatric team gets done with him. However, from the fact that nobody's barged in yet, it looks like they're giving him all the time he needs to get used to the world again.
Giving them time.
And Steve appreciates that more than words can say.
He kicks off suddenly toward Bucky. Bucky, startled, tries to backpedal in the water, but Steve's on him before he can escape (even after everything, Bucky underestimates how fast Steve is in this body). Steve catches the flash of nervousness on Bucky's face, not really sure what Steve has in mind, before Steve envelopes him in a hug that is eight months or two years or maybe seventy years overdue.
Bucky makes a sort of strangled sound, and then his one arm comes up to press against Steve's back. They both sink slowly into the water, now that there's nothing keeping them up, and that's okay; Bucky's face presses into Steve's shoulder and the water closes over their heads. They can both hold their breath for minutes at a time. It's private and quiet and Bucky's here, he's alive, Steve can feel his heartbeat and the press of his body and --
-- and when someone else's arms close around them both in the dim silence of the water, Steve flinches violently and opens his eyes, letting go most of the air in his lungs in a silver flood of bubbles, only to see Bucky grinning at him, not a hesitant half-smile but a real grin even with water flooding between his teeth, and Natasha with her hair a floating red cloud as she wraps her arms around them.
They splash to the surface, gasping, in a thrashing tangle of wet limbs, and Steve hardly recognizes the sound of his own laughter.