After the battle, Bucky went home.
His hut didn't look much different from the outside. Things were a little overgrown, but not by a lot. The kids who'd always used to run over to talk to him were gone, though. So were half his goats...but the other half saw him and came running, wagging their little goat tails in the way that meant he'd been gone too long and they'd missed him and also where was their food?
"I don't have any feed," he told them, wondering what had happened to the others, if anyone had taken care of them or if there'd been too much going on for that. "You're going to have to forage for now."
After a few minutes of letting them nibble on him while he scratched their necks, he managed to sneak in the doorway. Inside were his few things, the mat he'd slept on. Nothing had been moved, but even if he hadn't known he'd been gone for five years, he thought he'd have known something was wrong here. This place had been lived in, comfortable; now it had the air of a place abandoned, something that hadn't meant anything to anyone for a long time.
There was nothing for him there, so Bucky went back out the door, leaving everything the way he'd found it. The goats followed him around the back of the hut, when he went to see what had become of the little garden he'd had back there. There was no longer any sign it had ever existed--it had been a polite little garden, and had had no one to tend it--but the picture on the back side of the hut caught Bucky's attention immediately. It was a mural, awkward enough that it must have been drawn by kids, though there was no telling which ones. Bucky walked up to it for a better look. It was of a one-armed man, feeding a little herd of goats. There were four of them, the same number that were following him around now.
He'd heard there were memorials for the vanished all over the world. It hadn't been something he was worried about. For one thing, who would memorialize him? Now he thought he knew. A name written on a big slab of stone somewhere wouldn't have bothered him; that would have been impersonal. This was something else, though, with no way to tell himself it had been done by someone who didn't know him, or didn't care about him. This had been kids, who'd lost half the people they knew, and still had room left to mourn for him.
Bucky had come back here on instinct more than anything else. When the battle's over, you go home if you possibly can. Now, he was here, but it wasn't the relief it should have been. He wasn't going to be able to rest here. Not tonight. Probably not tomorrow. Maybe not ever. Yesterday, he'd had everything he wanted right here. He'd gone to war to defend this place more than anywhere else, to fight for the people whose kindness was responsible for him having it. He'd gone to war yesterday, and now he was home, and it didn't look like home anymore.
He didn't decide to leave. He just did, one step after the next, toward the city. The goats followed him, and, since there was no one to take them back to where they were supposed to be anyway, he didn't try to stop them. It made walking take longer, for all the times he had to go chasing one of them so they wouldn't wander off completely...but walking taking longer gave him more time to process everything around him. It wasn't like there was any need for him to be in a hurry anyway.
He hadn't expected the city to look any different, but when he got there, he found it did. No part of it was in disrepair, exactly, but there were streets that were quieter and darker than they'd been last week...
And on every building on every street were more murals, like the one that had been on his hut. Wakanda's memorial to the gone, drawn on every surface. On the darker, quieter streets, it was like walking through a tomb; on the brighter, louder streets, they seemed like a celebration...and maybe they were that, now.
It had already been growing dark by the time Bucky got to the city. By the time he made it to Shuri's lab, it was halfway through the night. He'd wondered, a few times during his walk, if she would be there at all. Even with the ceremony done, she had to have a lot going on. More than he did, because she was a princess, with responsibilities, where all Bucky was responsible for were a few goats, and being ready to join the fight when there was going to be one.
But when he got there, he found the lights on, and all sorts of things humming. Shuri was standing in the middle of her lab, frowning at about twenty different holographic viewscreens. She looked really serious, and there were circles under her eyes that hadn't been there the last time he'd visited her, a few days before they'd known Thanos was coming with an army.
"Hey," Bucky said, feeling the tension he hadn't realized he'd been building up seep out of him. He'd known he needed to see her, just not how much.
It took her a minute to hear him, or to process that she'd heard him. That was normal when she was concentrating, so Bucky waited until she turned to him, and a smile broke over her face, and she said, "James, you're here."
"Yeah," he said, kind of wondering when they'd gotten to be on a first-name basis, or why it didn't bother him that that was the name of his she was going with. "It's good to see you."
Then they were rushing toward each other, and then they were hugging, and if part of Bucky was wondering since when hugging was something they did--sure, Shuri touched him sometimes, but only in the service of helping him with his brain and metal arm and so on; always professional, and he'd made sure to keep it that way--the rest of him was wondering why it seemed so familiar. He'd never hugged her before, and in all their touching it had always been her touching him for medical reasons...but the feel of her body against his was more familiar than any other memory he had. So was the way her head rested on his shoulder, and the way she smelled, and the brush of her hair against his cheek, and the pressure of her arms around his waist...
The strangest thing, even more familiar than the rest, was the way she looked up at him, after a few minutes. The way he knew she expected her to kiss him, even though they'd never kissed before, and he'd always known it was never going to happen, no matter how he felt about her. She expected him to kiss her, and so he did, and couldn't have put on the brakes if he'd tried, and he didn't try.
It was a brief, fond, familiar kiss, nothing at all like a first kiss even though it was. They stood there together for a minute longer, afterward, swaying side to side a little.
Finally, one of the goats broke the spell by nibbling on Bucky's pants. He looked at Shuri, and said, "...Okay. So where were we really, when we were gone?"
He didn't know he was going to say it, but when he did, he was completely sure he was right. Everyone thought no time had passed for them...but somewhere, it had. It had, and wherever they'd been, they'd been there together.
He thought she'd say she was going to run some tests. That was what she'd always said before, when something unexpected happened. Instead, she shook her head, and said, "I do not know. But we have bigger problems right now."
Shuri stepped away from him, and he followed her over to the viewscreens.
"For the past five years, there have been less than four billion people on the planet. Now, there are seven and a half billion, plus all the children born since 2018. Do you see it?"
Bucky squinted at the viewscreens, but there were so many of them, with so many columns of numbers, that he couldn't make head or tails of even one. "No. Think you're going to have to explain it."
Shuri was used to having to explain things to him, but she didn't seem excited about it the way she usually was. "For the last five years, the planet has been producing half of the amount of food it used to. To ramp up production to feed twice as many people as were eating yesterday will take time. Time we do not have, if we wish for everyone to survive."
"You're saying people are going to starve."
"Unless you figure out a way to make more food."
"How long do we have before this really becomes a problem?"
"...You don't want to know."
"Fair enough," Bucky said. "When are you calling in reinforcements?"
As brilliant as Shuri was, there was no way she could solve this kind of problem alone. Even if she worked out a plan by herself, she was going to need help to put it into motion. A lot of help. More help than they'd had against Thanos, by far. Their allies this time were going to have to be as much of humanity as it could be. Maybe even more than humanity--this was a problem that was going to affect the entire universe, just like Thanos's snap had. The difference was that they were here this time, and that made it their problem.
"In the morning will be soon enough," Shuri said. "I'd like to get a head start on it before then."
"All right. Anything I can do to help?"
"You can make sure I'm not interrupted."
Bucky wasn't all that surprised that that was what she wanted from him. She'd asked him to keep an eye out for her brother a few times before today, when she was working on things she wasn't sure he'd want her to, or that were supposed to be a surprise. This was the same thing, except the stakes were higher.
"Sure," he said, and went over and parked himself by the door, where he could easily see anyone coming, and no one would see him until he wanted them to. His goats, tired from the long walk, lay down next to him after just a few more minutes.
So they slept, and Shuri worked, and Bucky watched over her and them, until the dawn came again.