Chapter 1: prelude
Here we go.
On the mental map of most kids in Brooklyn who can't defend themselves, kids who are small or alone or weak, kids who value what they have (dignity included) – this particular alley is a trap. So of course Steve Rogers has to walk through it on his way to school. He can't not do it. It's an affront to everything his mother ever taught him and Steve has a crippling inability to let injustice go unchallenged. Even though he's a head shorter than other kids his age with skinny little arms and lungs that can't keep up with him, he always goes back.
James Barnes, curious about this particular girl's recurring bruises, follows his classmate at a distance. She's whistling and swinging her books like a normal carefree kid, but instead of staying on the main road, she heads down this red-flag back street without a care in the world. The pursuer marvels at his subject's disregard: She must have a death wish.
He pauses in his pursuit for a few moments before following around the corner. When he has his mark in his sights again, she's surrounded by three older kids that tower over her. James ducks behind a bin before they can see him and peeks out as a witness.
“Well, well, well. If it isn't our best customer.” A stupid guffaw.
“You'd think she'd be tired of the knuckle sandwich special by now!”
“...I'm still not sure we should hit a girl.”
“You know the score, Rogers, empty your pockets or we'll empty them for you.”
James winces in anticipation but, instead of cowering, this little rag of a kid puffs her chest out, stares up at the three tall thieves, and says, “I'm not afraid of you.” James is floored.
Three of them have Steve boxed in between them. His blood rushes hot for a fight. He wants to make them realize that there's at least one person who knows how wrong they are. It's entirely selfish on his part even if it might benefit other kids – he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he just walked by and let them get away with it. Or maybe he just likes getting punched in the face, which is what happens next.
His face throbs deep down to the bone and he bites his lip, pushes himself up as fast as he can, and whips his head around to glare at the boy who threw the punch. He can feel blood running from his nose. He brandishes his own fists and takes a swing, which the boy easily dodges. His two friends laugh and grab Steve's arms to hold him in place. He struggles as hard as he can and refuses to flinch when the bully raises his fist again.
Then – CLANG – the boy collapses forward, clutching the back of his head, revealing James Barnes from school swinging a heavy garbage bin lid. His face is furious.
He rushes the two boys holding Steve. He lands a punch and they drop Steve in surprise and back away. Their friend scrambles up dizzily.
Steve takes the opportunity to swipe up another bin lid and throw it at their assailants. He doesn't have a whole lot of strength but his aim is perfect and the edge catches one of the boys in the face with a muted bang. The three boys turn tail and scarper, shouting face-saving insults over their shoulders.
“Pick on someone your own size!” James hollers back.
The girl tilts her head back and swipes at her bloody nose with her sleeve. James chuckles and his classmate turns to him suspiciously.
“Whaddaya mean 'pick on someone your own size?' I could've taken 'em.”
“Taken what, punches to the face?”
She bristles and clenches her fists. “I can fight just fine, you want me to prove it?”
James raises his hands in surrender. “Easy, I believe you. You've got guts taking on those mugs by yourself.”
“Nah, anyone would've done the same.”
James doubts it but he doesn't want to get hit by this feisty character. “You think?”
She looks at him like she knows what James is thinking. “You did.”
“I'm James Buchanan Barnes, by the way, but everyone calls me Bucky.”
She swipes at her nose again and relaxes. “I'm Steve Rogers.”
'Oh,' Bucky thinks.
“I've seen you around the yard at school,” Steve continues. “Did you just move here?”
Bucky picks up Steve's books and hands them back to him. “Yeah, a couple weeks ago. I get lost a lot.”
They walk to school comparing grazed knuckles.
Shuri straightens up and stretches her back until her muscles release. For the last 8 hours, she has been hunched over a work table smothered in molecular structure models and the latest chemical analysis results. The windows of the lab are dark and still, the vibranium tracks shut off for the evening, her usual team long gone. She turns the music off and rubs her stinging eyes before using her Kimoyo Beads to call her brother. Audio only, otherwise he'll want her to explain over the Beads.
T'Challa answers in a voice hoarse with sleep. “Shuri? What is it? Are you alright?”
“Yes?” she says, confused. “Why wouldn't I be?”
“It's the middle of the night.” A rustle of sheets. “And you're calling me from the lab. Don't tell me you've been doing solo shielding experiments again. Mother will have my head.”
She scoffs at that. “You're the big great king and you're still scared of a time out?”
“Always.” She can't hear the smile in his voice but she knows it's there.
“It's about the results of Barnes' blood tests. I think it might be a problem.”
“Is it an emergency?”
“No. Actually, I didn't realize the time. But...since you're up...”
He sighs. “I'm on my way.”
“Knew I could count on you, big brother.” She's about to hang up before she remembers and frantically adds, “And no pajamas in the lab! Put some shoes on at least.”
When T'Challa arrives (wearing shoes, to her relief) she doesn't bother with pre-amble. “His blood work is a mess. Probably the only reason he isn't self-destructing is because he was given some type of that super-serum.”
T'Challa takes a moment to digest this. “What did you find?”
“Apart from steroids, an extremely elevated lymphocyte count, and a few methyl-group toxins that - ”
“In language I can understand!”
She leads him over to the work table where the coloured models glint dully in the ambient light. “He carries at least three different versions of that serum, which I think is technically a poison.”
T'Challa furrows his eyebrows and opens his mouth so she hastily condenses it: “They must have been experimenting on him for years. His body is a mess of chemical reactions. But even worse- ”
“It gets worse?”
She picks up one of the structure models and hands it to him. “That's Blebbistatin. There are trace amounts in his blood. I had to look it up by its molecular structure.”
He gingerly turns the model over in his hands, bemused. “What does that mean? What is it?”
“It's a drug that ruins the body's ability to hold on to memories, and that's on top of all the probable amnesia caused by ECT.” She tries to think of how to phrase it, moving her hands back and forth in the air between them. “Memories build on one another, like...like those Russian cannibal dolls. They are all linked together and contained within one another.”
“I regret bringing you those.”
“There's no other reason for them to be inside one another like that! It's creepy. Anyway, if your thoughts can't be processed into memory, your brain can't hold on to them. Blebbistatin is used to treat opioid addiction, but this version is slightly altered, so I'm not sure how deeply it works.”
“What did they use it for?”
“Hypnosis. They probably tortured him to break down his resistance. Then, once he was drugged, if the mind is vulnerable, if you can convince it to give up its memories...” She tries not to imagine it. T'Challa starts to interrupt, but she speaks over him. “Which means that we can't just erase those trigger words from his head. His own brain needs to...unhypnotise itself. Unhypnotise, is that a word? Anyway, we have to wake him up.”
T'Challa paces in silence for a few moments, staring warily at the chemical models.
“That's too dangerous. What if he wakes up as the Winter Soldier? We still don't know what will trigger the change, and if he fights he's practically unstoppable. I won't risk putting everyone in danger until we know more.”
Shuri tries to keep her voice level. She knows why he wants peace so badly.
“Unless we wake him up, there's nothing more to know.”
Two days later, after much discussion and hyper-fixated research on Shuri's part, they call Captain America on a secure line to his burner and put him on speaker.
“This is Steve,” a distant and echoing voice states. The line is unusually unstable. Shuri frowns and reminds herself to check the towers later.
“Hello, Captain. Is this a good time to talk?” T'Challa asks diplomatically.
“Depends on who I'm talking to.” He sounds almost jovial.
“It's us, we're calling about your frozen friend.” Shuri quips, and T'Challa shoots her a warning glance. She's never been great with tiptoeing around sore spots – she always felt it was better to dance on them. Better to laugh about it than cry about it.
“Shuri? King T'Challa?”
“No, it's Barbara calling from Big Scam Real Estate, do you have time to answer a few ques-”
He brother cuts her off with a loud, “Yes. It's us.”
You're no fun, Shuri mouths at him.
“Is everything alright?” His voice crackles through the static.
“Sergeant Barnes is fine, not to worry. Shuri found something a little...out of the ordinary in his blood tests. Because of this, she believes that it will be impossible to break him out of HYDRA's programming unless he is awake.”
Shuri expects excitement or, at the very least, some low-key happiness. Anything but the long, tense silence that follows. T'Challa waits. In the silence, Shuri realises that both Steve and T'Challa are concerned about the havoc it would wreak if the man emerging from the tank was the Winter Soldier. T'Challa worries about the safety of his country, and Steve about the safety of his friend. They can practically hear Rogers' brain running through every potentiality until finally he responds.
“Are you sure there's no other way?”
Shuri appreciates his tone – resigned, rhetorical, not questioning her judgement. “Yes. I'm sure,” she answers.
“Okay. I'll be there tomorrow.” There's a pause, then he adds, “Thank you.” From his tone of voice, Shuri knows that he knows what might happen.
Steve Rogers prepares himself to fly to Wakanda. He tells Sam what Shuri and T'Challa told him and packs a bag. He doesn't need much. He doesn't have much. They're wanted criminals now, so settling and accumulating belongings isn't really an option. Despite this, they do still have a few regular hiding places, one of which houses the jet he and Wanda managed to steal from an overflow hangar owned by the Air Force. Between the two of them, Natasha and Sam were able to wipe the system to prevent the jet being tracked, so they've been free to fly it when absolutely necessary. Sam offered to come with him as back up but they both knew he needed to stay and keep track of things with the rest of the team, so Steve is flying solo.
The jet swings down low and speeds toward the ground. Steve double-checks the coordinates as the trees rush toward him. He grips the controls a little tighter. The world is a blur, the crash course set, and then the ground flickers and he's through it, navigating the airspace underneath the illusion.
The sky is open above him as he flies the jet over the metal and earth and green mountains cradling Wakanda. A country more united than his own, he thinks, even with the Jabari schism. He can't help but envy T'Challa his home: Wakanda is peaceful, for the most part, and T'Challa is as much a fixture of his homeland as it is a fixture of him. The two are indivisible.
Steve had felt like that, once. Before he was put up as the wholesome patriotic mascot of a desperate nation he was a scrappy big-mouthed Brooklyn kid, born and raised. Even if (or maybe because) he was from one of the token Irish families in his neighbourhood, even if he was noticeably poor, even if he was branded 'that sick little one,' he belonged. It was Bucky who had been the odd one out, healthy and good-looking and appropriate as he was. An army brat from base, an outsider who had come from the far off mystical lands outside of New York State.
Steve changes his trajectory to loop around again before he has to dock. He doesn't need to, technically, but his thoughts are like Frankenstein's experiment gone wrong, what with the mismatched parts of his past and present pulling him in different directions and tripping over old wounds. Before he can walk in and see his last link to home frozen and unreachable, he wants to get his head on straight.
When he lands the jet he is greeted by T'Challa, Shuri, and a delegation of soldiers just inside the landing port. He shakes their hands and thanks them again. He expects to go straight to the lab but T'Challa leads him to one of the palace galleries.
Wide window panels stretch across one whole wall and the early evening light spills, dusty and indigo, across their faces. He can see a wide landscape view of Wakanda, the secret skyline that is usually covered by an illusion. The walls themselves are calm, as if they're absorbing the force of their collective tension. He waits.
“Thank you for coming,” T'Challa says quietly. “I know you are in a difficult position now that following Sergeant Barnes' wishes is no longer an option.”
“I'm sure he'd want to get it over with sooner rather than later. If he has a problem I'll answer for it.”
“Better you than me,” Shuri pipes up.
Caught off guard, Steve snorts. T'Challa stares at her with his eyebrows raised.
“What? I've seen the footage of what he can do.”
“So what's the plan?”
T'Challa turns to face him again. “If you'd prefer to wake him up now, we can, but we have a room made up for you if you would like to wait until tomorrow.” The possibility fumigates the room.
“I've never been one for beating around the bush, your majesty.”
Shuri claps her hands. “I like your style. So. We don't know what he will be like when he wakes up because we don't know how HYDRA did it. There is almost definitely a protocol for waking him but we don't know it, so anything could happen.”
“He could be disoriented, unsure of who he is, or violent. When he wakes up he'll need to see a familiar face, and it's better if the explanation comes from you,” T'Challa adds.
Shuri nods in agreement. “That's why you're here, Captain.”
“Understood. And, please, call me Steve.”
“As long as we don't have to call you Mr. Rogers. Before we wake him, I can tell you what I know so you can tell him in the way you think is best.”
T'Challa speaks up again, looking Steve in the eye: “Captain, if he wakes up as the Winter Soldier.... You broke through his programming once. If it comes to it, we're counting on you to do it again.”
Steve's stomach tightens and churns. He imagines Bucky's face cold and expressionless like it was on that bridge. Weapons drawn, purposeful uncaring steps, a ruthless stranger looking out through familiar eyes. The last of his old life marching toward him with a gun pointed straight at him. Like losing everything all over again. “And if I can't?”
“Then we will try to overpower him and sedate him. It may only work briefly but it will be enough time to restrain him. If anything should happen, there will be soldiers just outside, and they have been ordered to do whatever is necessary to keep him from leaving the room.”
Steve hears and understands the emphasis on “whatever is necessary” and he nods. There is a shared pause until Shuri speaks up.
“Are you sure you don't want to wait?”
Steve wants to protest that he's not worried, but he's never been comfortable lying. Instead, he settles for a simple, “I'm sure.”
“Then let's go.”
Trying to put yourself in a character's shoes is no fun when they're the villain and a horrible human being.
It's after midnight in the Hamptons but the rickety wooden steps leading from the beach-front to Mike Sinclair's father's house are lit up like the gates of hell by the bonfires along the shore. Music blares across the grassy sand and out over the water from the outdoor sound system as Mike's classmates butcher the end-of-semester party, that last bash before everyone goes home for the summer to internships, part-time jobs, and sponging off their parents' bank accounts. Mike doesn't need to worry about anyone calling the cops because his father basically owns the police force in this area: That's why his house is always the first choice for drunken college students looking to take bites out of the apple of youth while it's still soaked in vodka and free money.
Plastic cups litter the lawn and bob idly in the shallows. Mike is watching his friend Troy grope some girl while she's trying to toast marshmallows for s'mores.
“Stop it,” she laughs nervously, swatting him away. Her nails are long and pink and Mike wonders if they would leave tracks down his back if he fucked her.
“It'd be a crime to leave an ass like yours out alone in the cold, babe.” He leans in close but Mike can still hear him say it.
She edges away from him, still laughing, but there's a note of anxiety in it. “I have a boyfriend.”
“Hm, where is he then?” Troy smiles like an apex predator.
“Amanda, we've been looking for you!” Two girls in sequinned dresses march up to them.
She looks startled. “ I'm not Amand – ”
“Come on, there's something we need to show you in the house!”
Her bewilderment turns to relief as the two girls lock arms with her and lead her away, marshmallows and all.
“Ladies,” Troy says, but they don't look back. Troy stumbles back over to the steps and sits down next to Mike with a thump. “Sinclair, what does a guy have to do to get laid around here tonight? It should be easy pickings.”
Mike licks the edge of the joint he's rolling and seals it. “Plenty of open drinks to slip things into.”
Troy laughs at first but, when Mike's expression doesn't change, he looks shocked. “Are you serious?”
Mike shrugs. “It's just like booze – loosens 'em up. They want it anyway, it's just social lubrication.”
Troy shifts uncomfortably. “Wild. I'm going to get another drink. You want?”
Mike clicks his lighter and answers through the perfumed smoke of his joint, “Nah, I'm good.”
The next morning, students (and a few professors who had come to mingle and receive illicit sexual favours in exchange for better grades) filter out one by one, leaving behind stains, spilled food, empty bottles, dignity, a few phones, and an assortment of clothing. Mike picks up the phones to sell or use for blackmail and leaves the rest as it is. When the last person leaves, Mike scribbles a note on a Post-it and sticks it to the outside of the front door.
Clara, don't worry,
I'll make sure my dad pays you
overtime for this.
He congratulates himself for writing it in haiku and picks a path through the party debris on the floor to the only door he left locked the night before – the only door he ever kept locked – the basement.
He locks the door behind him and descends into the filthy orange glow of the home lab festooned with posters of the heroes of his academic life: Charles Darwin, Reverend Thomas Malthus, Francis Galton, Charles Davenport, Harry Laughlin. They flank the enormous collection of magnets, machinery, vials, and Petri dishes spreading like a disease over the basement interior. In fact, the only thing on the wall that isn't a well-known proponent of ethnic cleansing is a map of the Northeastern United States with select neighbourhoods circled in blood-red pen.
Mike thinks of the pink-nailed 'Amanda' from the night before as he puts on his protective gear, pulls a sample from the mini fridge, and gets to work. He hadn't seen her after those two good samaritans had walked her away. They could try to protect each other but, he thinks carelessly, girls were as good as his from the moment they walked into his house. Good thing for 'Amanda' he wasn't interested in taking what was under that party dress.
He's far more fascinated with his studies. Everyone always told him that he needed to go to college to learn how to change the world, and that was exactly what he planned on doing. Fuck his professors and his politically-correct liberal classmates. They can't see what he can see, they aren't brave enough to break the eggs needed for a clean white omelette.
Shuri leads Steve and T'Challa to a fortified room, windowless, with one door. Apart from the cryo tank against the back wall, the room is bare. They had agreed that, in the worst-case scenario, having anything that could be used as a weapon was more of a risk than a help. Steve, T'Challa, and Shuri march into the room like a special recon team, already on guard even though the glass on the tank is so frosted over that Bucky is completely hidden.
Steve concentrates on running through a plan of action in his head so that he doesn't have to think about his best friend slamming the cryo tank door off its hinges and trying to kill him with it. So that he doesn't imagine Bucky staring at him like a stranger.
“Are you ready?” Shuri asks.
T'Challa's suit spreads out from his necklace and covers him from the neck down. Steve flexes his forearms to adjust the black shields on them and nods tersely. Shuri reaches over and presses her hand to the panel on the side. Steve's heart jumps into his throat and he prays at random out of what he thought was a long-buried habit: Please let him wake up as a friend.
“Release sequence activated. Identity verification required,” a smooth digital voice intones.
“Overachiever,” Shuri says. T'Challa hastily smothers a laugh.
“Confirmed. Please stand by.” The tank glows green and a humming sound rises up from its depths like the breath of someone deeply asleep.
Shuri turns and heads to the door. “Good luck. Don't get killed.”
T'Challa responds before the door clangs shut behind her but Steve can't even hear him over the pounding in his ears. The tank beeps and, with a smooth mechanical whirring, the door slides open.
There he is, looking peacefully asleep except for a paper-thin residue of chilly liquid still covering his eyelids, his cheeks, his hair.
For a moment, Steve is cold in terror. It passes in a split second and, with a steady voice, he calls out.
Bucky's whole body jerks as if electrocuted. His eyes fly open and he grabs at his left shoulder where his prosthetic used to be. T'Challa crouches into a defensive stance but Steve leaves his shields at his sides.
Bucky looks around wildly, feet shuffling for balance, but he groans with the effort of moving his stiff limbs. Steve is vividly reminded of how Bucky used to wake up when he overslept, and fights the urge to laugh.
“Bucky, it's us. It's me.”
His eyes finally focus. “Steve? Are you...” His voice is hoarse. “Am I...?”
“You're in Wakanda.” Give him the necessary information succinctly. “Do you remember how you got here?”
Bucky looks confused for a moment, then closes his eyes briefly. “Yes.”
“You brought me here after Siberia. My arm was - ” Several emotions flicker across his face at that: Relief, pain, sadness. “How long have I been under? Is it safe?” Steve knows he's not asking about his own safety. Not time to relax yet. Test him.
“What did you always say was the worst part of being in the army, even worse than getting shot at all the time?”
A faint and laboured smile. “The five o'clock shadow you can never shake.”
A waterfall of relief. T'Challa retracts the claws and stands up straight. Steve reaches out and grabs Bucky's shoulder, pulls him in to a tight hug. “Glad you're back, pal.”
The guest rooms in the headquarters adjoining the Royal Palace of Wakanda are mostly used for visiting dignitaries and diplomats, so of course they are beautifully designed in burnished metals and wood and patterned wall panels. The room feels enormous even in the low light.
Bucky has never been great with large spaces – his childhood homes at different army bases were never exactly penthouses, and after he joined the army it was all tents and bunkers. Then, eventually, cryo tanks and shoddy motel rooms.
“I hope you will be comfortable here,” T'Challa says from the hall. “Please make yourself at home. If you need anything, this intercom is a direct line of communication. Dinner will be served in about an hour if you're hungry.”
“You should start with what's actually important.” Shuri gestures to a screen on the wall. “There's Netflix on this, and when you get bored with bingeing sitcoms, that gramophone in the corner is not just for decoration.”
Bucky stares at her, floundering with all of those words that might as well have been a Martian language except for 'gramophone.'”
“We will leave you to get settled. Capt – Steve, we have a room prepared for you down the hall.”
Bucky and Steve lock eyes. He can tell they're both briefly thinking the same thing: It's a waste of usable space.
They had both grown up in a time when there was barely enough to go around even though they had been two of the relatively lucky ones. Any excess back then was efficiently examined for the best and most practical way that it could be divided. It's a hard mentality to shake. A memory surfaces in that split second of concern:
Late summer in Brooklyn. Steve and Bucky wander down the street, taking advantage of the rare free time by dawdling and teasing one other. They each carry small rusted lunch pails filled with strawberries, painstakingly paid for by four hours of heavy labour after school in Mr. Windsor's tiny vegetable garden. The smell of strawberries rises up around them in the evening heat and the bubbling anticipation keeps them laughing through the ache in their backs and arms.
“Ahh, my head is burning like I tried to iron it.” Steve's face is bright red from kneeling in the sun all afternoon.
“No kidding, I had no idea,” Bucky replies. He tries hard to keep a straight face, but it works about as well as trying to mow a lawn with scissors. “You look like one of these strawberries! You could fry an egg on your face.” This earns him a good-natured shove.
They bring the berries back to Steve's mother's house and spend the evening washing them from a bowl of cold water and trying to make them last as long as possible. The atmosphere is lighter than usual even though Steve's sunburn is bad for his health. They keep the leafy tops to the side for Sarah to use as compost in her window box of tomatoes. As she gathers them together with hands stained as pink and sweet as her son's face she reminisces, “When I was growing up, we used to just throw these on the ground outside.”
“Well, ma, you're still throwing them on the ground outside – just a very small piece of ground. On a balcony.”
Excess means you can afford to forget about survival.
Bucky holds his tongue even though he feels like this room will swallow him whole if he's left by himself. They aren't in Brooklyn anymore, they aren't soldiers, he isn't The Asset, they don't have to scrape for the scraps of scraps. The whole world is an excess now and it's not his place to ask Steve to stay even though he desperately wants someone to help keep him afloat.
“I'd prefer to stay here, if that's alright. There are two beds, after all,” Steve says mildly to T'Challa.
Bucky nods, relieved. Shuri and T'Challa only look taken aback for a moment, then recover.
“Of course,” T'Challa says. “Then, do you have everything you need?”
Sun beats down on the clamouring mass of brightly coloured bathers on Rockaway Beach. People of all ages are shouting, laughing, splashing, delineating their territory with umbrellas and towels in the sand, hopping up onto the boardwalk to order diner food or attempt to knock over pyramids of tin cans with weathered baseballs in hopes of winning a prize (a whistle, toys, roller skates). A group of girls cackle when one of them says something funny. A woman in the distance is shouting for her son to come closer to the shore or she'd give him what for.
Bucky shades his eyes against the distracting rabble of patterned one-pieces and pale muscled legs in swim trunks to look for Steve. There, just next to the planks of the boardwalk, a flash of blond hair and lanky limbs. He manoeuvrers through the crowd and waves.
“Steve!” Steve looks up and squints, lifts a hand in greeting as Bucky approaches. “I'm telling you, you're a hard man to find in a crowd.”
He expects a bit of sarcastic ribbing about his height or terrible sense of direction but Steve simply says, “And here I was hoping I could hide for a little longer,” and smiles.
“Aw, you sure are sweet! We don't bite.” A high-pitched voice from behind Bucky reminds him.
“Girls, this is my right-hand man, Steve. Steve, meet Linda, Shirley, and Dot.”
“It's Do-LO-res, Bucky,” the redhead laughs, and playfully leans on his shoulder.
“Very nice to meet you,” Steve says. “How do you girls all know each other?”
Linda with the black hair and timid white one-piece answers him quietly. “We're secretaries in the same office.” She has wide eyes and a sweet smile. Bucky likes her for Steve because Steve deserves someone with kindness like that.
Shirley, in contrast, is a splash of bright colours and a wide red smile. She leans in and wraps her arm through Steve's. Her curled hair brushes against him as she adds, “We're going to start nurses' training though, all the other girls are doing it and they got us going. It's the thing to do now! Will we go find a good spot to get some tan? Sure would be nice to sit down!”
They set down their towels in what feels like the only free square of beach on the peninsula. Linda mostly keeps quiet, smiling now and then and letting the sand run through her cupped hands. Dot leans on Bucky with pretty freckled shoulders and laughs at everything he says, which is mostly half-hearted nonsense because he's watching Steve wilt under the weight of Shirley's chatter and feeling a little guilty for bringing her along. He focuses so much on reading the situation that he doesn't hear what Dot is saying until she shakes him a little.
“I said I'm getting a little hungry.”
“Now we can't have that! Girls, who's up for lunch? It's on me.”
“Will you get us some hot dogs, sweetheart?”
“Of course I will, doll. Steve, you coming? Could use a hand.”
“Of course.” Steve extracts himself from Shirley's arm with palpable anticipation and hops up to walk with Bucky across the hot sand.
“So?” Bucky asks straight away.
Steve looks at him, puzzled. “So what?”
Exasperated, Bucky asks, “So what do you think? I thought you'd get along better with Linda but I guess Shirley's taken a shine to you.”
He shrugs. “C'mon, Buck, she's just really friendly. Nice girl, must be the life of every party.” He smiles at Bucky real easy like it doesn't matter at all, which infuriates Bucky because it's all he's been thinking about.
“Sure, she's friendly, but she seems to really like you! Don't sell yourself short. Any girl would be lucky.”
And he means it. Steve is the most upright person he's ever met: Armed with sincerity, a head screwed on right, and a seemingly endless supply of unexpected confidence, his charm is entirely accidental, unlike Bucky's. They reach the boardwalk and find a hot dog stand being mobbed by about every kid within a 100-foot radius. The sweaty frantic man cooking the dogs is so swamped he's letting the kids reach over to add their own mustard and pickles.
While they wait for their turn, Steve turns to look at him with knowing eyes and Bucky feels, like he sometimes does, that his friend had listened to the words he'd just said but had heard something more truthful between the lines, like an echo from a bell coming back clearer, which makes Bucky feel like he missed his own point entirely.
“I'm glad to meet them, Buck, I really am.”
He watches Steve closely. Steve turns to look at the vendor as he replies, “But you know I don't really have the time for it, and...it just doesn't seem that important to me.”
Bucky hadn't known that was an option. He's taken aback and covers it up with amused disbelief. “I swear, Steve, you must live on Mongo. Is Flash Gordon really everything he's cracked up to be?”
Steve laughs and claps him on the shoulder. “Just because your world revolves around getting girls to go out with you doesn't mean everyone's does.” He tosses quarters from hand to hand. “Hey, you were – ”
A buzzing sound fills Bucky's ears and, even though Steve's still speaking, Bucky can't hear him. He shakes his head like a dog. The buzzing sound intensifies and then, as though from a very great distance, he hears screaming. He looks around. The colourful mass of people is swarming like ants from a hill, shouting and fleeing the boardwalk. He can see Shirley and Dot standing where they left them, staring at him in horror. He tries to rub his ears and feels cold metal on the left side of his face. The girls' mouths are open in tinny screams that sound like far-off sirens. Where the hell is Steve? He wouldn't have run off without.... Someone taps his shoulder and he turns around.
“You should really let him go now,” Linda says calmly, gesturing down at his hands. He looks down. His left arm is cold senseless metal, his fingers wrapped so tightly around Steve's neck that his shoulder hurts from the pressure. Steve's face is blue and blood trickles from his nose. Bucky screams and screams and can't loosen his fingers until he wakes up with a violent shock.
To his relief, he isn't screaming or thrashing around, but Steve is sitting on the side of the bed staring at him anxiously, neck clean and unbruised. Bucky immediately feels for his left arm, relieved when the sheets give way to nothing. Steve follows the movement with his eyes.
After the first time Bucky had a nightmare when they shared a tent, Steve learned not to try to wake him up during a bad dream. Bucky had felt ashamed for weeks about the shiner he'd given his friend in his waking panic.
“You alright, Buck?”
“Sorry,” Bucky's voice is hoarse.
Steve shakes his head. “I wasn't asleep.” They sit for a moment in silence while Bucky tries to slow his heart rate by counting the shadows on the ceiling. “Was it a bad one?”
Bucky doesn't want to talk about it. He levels a blank stare at his friend.
Steve nods and stands up. The mattress shifts beneath Bucky as his weight is removed.
“Steve. That day we went to the boardwalk fair at Rockaway, did we both go get hot dogs for lunch?”
“Yeah, we did.” His eyes slip a little out of focus in remembering. “Took so long those girls thought we'd left them stranded.”
“What did we talk about?”
Steve cocks his head. “You were asking me what I thought about them. From what I can recall I basically told you to stop setting me up.” He heads to the bathroom, toothbrush in hand. “You always wanted to see me on some girl's arm. You were too yellow to go out if it wasn't a double date.”
“Who are you calling yellow?” Bucky grumbles, rubbing his eyes.
Steve sticks his head through the bathroom door and, with the toothbrush muffling his voice, shrugs and says, “At least your heart was in the right place.” His face disappears around the door frame again. When he comes back to the room, Bucky watches him. Steve notices and answers the unasked question.
“They just weren't right for me.”
“None of them?”
“Not a one. I always wondered why you kept trying.”
“It's what you're supposed to do, I guess. Didn't want to go it alone.”
Steve grins. “I know. That's why I always showed up.”
Bucky throws the pillow at him indignantly. “Punk.”
“Jerk.” Steve catches it and tosses it onto his own bed. “I'm keeping this.”
It's a restless night, considering the nightmares. When Bucky wakes up again, the sun is past the halfway mark. Must be late afternoon, he thinks, and looks around the room for a full minute before he realizes that he's looking for Steve. He sits up and pulls himself out of bed. Distantly, he hears Steve's tired voice from outside the door.
Steve comes back into the room, slipping his phone into his pocket and trying hard to turn the knob as quietly as possible until he sees that Bucky is awake. “You finally get some sleep?”
Bucky nods once. “Somewhere you need to be?”
Steve's lips turn up at the corners. “Why are you always sticking your nose in my business, Barnes?”
The familiar unfamiliar joking tone clicks Bucky's brain into a gear he didn't know it was meant to be in. “Tough job, but someone's gotta do it.”
Steve laughs and things feel a bit closer to real.
Two days pass quietly, calmly. They eat meals together and listen to Billie Holiday in the evenings and Steve tells Bucky that Shuri found drugs in his system that affect his memory and that she's certain that the Winter Soldier programming is something he has to actively break out of.
Steve looks at Bucky as if expecting some deep well of emotion to burst forth, but Bucky just feels tired. He isn't surprised by Shuri's findings, and the weight of Steve's emotional expectations feels heavier than the weight of carrying his own recovery. He is relieved to have Steve nearby but at the same time he feels as if Steve is looking at him hoping to see some past version of Bucky, someone who knows him better, someone who remembers it all. He's not that Bucky anymore, even if his subconscious still clings to Steve like a life preserver.
Eventually Steve has to leave on urgent business that he won't talk about and he and Bucky say goodbye. It feels like a more important goodbye than a simple 'see you later' but neither one of them wants to treat it as such.
To the one-armed amnesiac, Steve says, in that sincere way, “Take care of yourself, Buck.”
Bucky's memory jumps ahead of him and his mouth says, “Might as well.”
Steve looks shocked for a microsecond, then delighted.
That's right, Bucky thinks, we used to say that.
Bucky, your turn to take over the watch.
Might as well.
Steve, you up for a bout?
Might as well.
On that note, Bucky's mind, left arm, and health are left in Shuri's hands and his recovery begins.
Once Bucky falls into a routine of sorts, his days become easier. Usually he eats breakfast with the royal family and then he and Shuri leave for her lab, passing by the training grounds as they go. When they aren't in the lab, he wanders around the marketplace and forests surrounding the hub of Wakanda. About six weeks pass by like this. T'Challa has told Bucky that he has an open invitation to train with the Guard, but so far he's kept away. He doesn't want to fight anymore. He's happy to keep to himself; to explore Wakanda on foot, to sit silently in patches of shade, to watch people, to be towed into Shuri's lab every day. She's been working on clearing certain compounds from his body and is currently constructing a new arm for him.
Lately, though, he's found his eyes being helplessly drawn to the training exercises in the mornings, though he can't tell whether it's from dread, curiosity, or an unwelcome desire to join in.
At the training grounds, Okoye slashes her spear through the air in a flurry of gold and red. She's a fire with purpose, or power spiralling through space at light speed. Her feet barely touch the floor but when they do they connect solidly. He hears his trainer's voice: Power is all in your stance, Bucky. If you don't have sure footing you might as well be dancing the two-step. She thrusts her point of contact forward so fast that the soldier she's practising with steps back before she can adjust her centre and stumbles.
Bucky's seen enough drills to last three lifetimes and knows full well that the weapons are blunted, but his heart starts to trip over its own contractions. He feels sweat break out on his forehead as the soldier recovers her balance by dropping quick as a cobra and sweeping her feet at Okoye's ankles. Don't let anyone hit you in the legs or above the chest if you can help it. His heartbeat is pounding in his ears, drowning out the sounds of Okoye laughing and correcting the other's technique. The spears of the Royal Guard swish in front of him and glint in the early morning sun. Bucky? D'you need a break, son? His father's voice echoes in the wood-panelled hallway of their old house in the camp. But he's not in his old house, he's in Wakanda.
“Sergeant Barnes. Are you alright?” Shuri asks.
He tears his eyes from the training field and looks at her. Clears his throat. “It's Bucky.” He hates being called 'Sergeant.' He doesn't deserve that title after everything he's done. “I'm okay.”
“There's no need to lie. No one expects you to get better overnight,” she responds kindly, simultaneously respectful and blunt - cutting to the quick of it like a certain teenage boy Bucky used to know. He follows her up to the lab with something like trust. Not quite, but almost.
In Shuri's lab, the smells he expect – fumes, solvent, electrical discharge, sweat, pheromones – don't materialise. It still surprises him even after so many weeks of daily visits. Though it's insulated underground, Shuri's lab is lighter, cleaner, and more open than the HYDRA facilities in which he'd been weaponised. Gone the dark half-rusted metals and mouldering crates of old files that he used to stare at blankly as they held out the mouth guard. His teeth permanently imprinted in the guard, almost to the point of wearing holes in the rubber.
He realises he's drifting out of the present again and has to remind himself to concentrate, has to remember that he's the one in charge of driving his own body now and his consciousness can't afford to relax on the back burner of his mind.
Shuri is setting up her equipment and looking over the work of the other technicians and scientists who are wandering around adjusting dials and beakers and things that Bucky can't identify. Bucky follows her as she speaks to them in Xhosa. He looks curiously over her tools and picks up something that looks like a wrench. It's heavier than it has a right to be and the head is a weird irregular shape.
“Eh! Don't touch!” She whacks his hand. “You'll throw off my groove and then you'll end up with some kind of mutant arm.” She gestures at his usual place on the bench. “Sit and keep your hand to yourself.”
He lifts his arm in surrender, smiling despite himself. He unwraps the sling from his shoulder to reveal the space that still feels like it has an arm in it. He's not used to seeing the knobbly imperfect bareness of it, the discoloured trauma of his fall.
She straps electrodes onto his scarred and puckered skin. Shuri's electrodes are sticky pads like the ones from...before...but the pads are a mesh of thin metal fibres and there are no wires. Shuri adjusts the Kimoyo Beads on her bracelet and waves her hand. A holographic screen appears in front of her.
Several nodes on the skeletal half-built arm she's been working on light up in response. She concentrates and moves her hand against the hologram. Its display crawls with graphs, levels, moving numbers. He feels a phantom tingle in his non-existent fingers.
“How does that feel?”
“Tingly.” It gives him the creeps. He flexes the ghost fingers and some level bars on the screen rise, then fall.
“Oh! Do that again. Wait, wait.” She moves a few more glowing lines around on the screen. “Okay. Whatever you did, do it again. What are you doing, exactly?”
He flexes with his mind again and they both stare intently at the spike of movement. “Making a fist.”
“Now wiggle your fingers. On your real hand as well as your imaginary one.”
He does, thinking of imaginary friends. The bars move again and Shuri looks inquisitively over at the metal arm, eyes skittering around as if she's muttering to herself. He knows she probably is, internally.
He starts to tune out – it's better to just sit and let her have her way with him. He doesn't care deeply enough to ruminate on her plans for the new arm. He wonders sometimes if his feelings will ever dial back up to 100 or if he's permanently stuck at minimal capacity. After Steve fell from the Helicarrier and Bucky started to remember the broad strokes of their friendship, his old mind and heart had slowly begun to stir and gasp for air. But, like he had done with his memories of Steve, all he could do was tug them until they were just out of imminent danger of sinking back into the darkness of his subconscious. The bare minimum needed. Still Winter-Soldier-economical even when it came to his own brain. He lets his mind go blank and waits for a memory, any memory, to surface, determined to grab hold of it and keep it from slipping away.
He remembers the gym in Brooklyn that he used to take boxing lessons in. It was a dive but the woman who ran it was kind and she let Bucky use the place after closing time to practice alone. Bucky had started boxing at his dad's suggestion and found that he loved it: The solid feeling of his fists connecting to the bag, the impact that would clang down the bones of his arm with each punch, the sweat, the headgear that cradled his face and blocked out all distractions. The sound of his own breathing beating out time in combinations.
His best combination started with what looked like a haymaker but...right overhand. Left uppercut. Right hook. Left hook. Cross. All in less than 1.5 seconds. He can see it in his mind, the bag's momentum stalled by his gloved fists and sent swinging back the other way.
A man falling, his nose bloodied. A flash of metal. An alley, not a gym. Blood on his hands.
“Shuri, the king needs to speak with you when you're finished.”
Bucky turns his head toward Okoye's voice, levels spiking on the screen, but Shuri shakes her head, completely engrossed in what she's doing. Okoye waits in the doorway, ramrod straight, her expression more amused than impatient.
“I'm busy, Okoye!”
“When you're finished, I said, not right now. The world won't end if you take a break.”
“It might. How do I ever get anything done with you babysitting?”
Okoye answers in Xhosa and Shuri cracks a smile despite herself.
“Well, if I am, who do you think I learned it from? Okay, okay.”
Satisfied, Okoye turns sharply to leave. The way Okoye moves reminds Bucky of every general he's known; the cruel and the honourable both. Most of them are dead now anyway so the differences don't really matter anymore. Shuri sees his heart rate increasing on the hologram.
“She can seem scary but underneath that she's...well, still scary. But...” She shrugs.
Bucky stays silent. How could he explain that he isn't afraid? Despite knowing this about Okoye already, his body holds decades of crude Pavlovian training linking those abrupt movements to the movement of his own thoughtless body into fights that he only fought because he had no choice. He never had Steve's righteous anger or inner fire to draw on; he was just a dutiful soldier too stubborn and confident to drop anything, for better or for worse. Never leave a man behind, never leave a mission unfinished. That was probably what led Schmidt and Zola to single him out for use as guinea pig in the first place.
After about an hour of flexing muscles, rotating shoulders, and moving the electrodes around, Shuri turns the music off. She likes to listen to talking drums while she works in order to concentrate. It relaxes them both, so they spend most of the time in silence listening to the drums and their own thoughts. Shuri says it makes Bucky the perfect test subject. Once he answered that it was all thanks to a lifetime's worth of experience. He likes that she laughs it off when he says things like that, because most people would wince with pity. I don't want your pity, he wants to shout. Get it away from me. This is just who I am now.
In the startling quiet, she takes the electrodes one by one off his shoulder.
“I need to go see my brother. Here again before lunch?”
Bucky nods and starts to re-wrap his sling as she leaves. The arm sits on the table beside him. There is a marked absence of a glaring red star. Its dark sections are ringed with gold and the structure is similar to smooth scales fitted to the contours of a human arm instead of bulky hydraulic plates. It's an undeniably beautiful piece of metalwork but it still gives him chills. He averts his eyes and leaves the room.
The Tribal Council is assembled and in session when Shuri arrives to meet with T'Challa. She slips in through the door quietly so as not to interrupt and takes a seat behind her mother while the River Tribe Elder continues speaking.
“Their migration pattern is erratic. Something is confusing them; they swim around the same stretch instead of continuing upriver. The people in the north outside of Wakanda are waiting and the run is already weeks late because of the weather. Something must be done.”
“We in the Border Tribe have noticed this as well with the honeybees. We have lost four hives in the last several weeks. They had no sickness, they simply never returned to the hives. The foraging grounds are full of bees, but they don't return to their queens.”
Zuri's successor from the Priests speaks up. “We will perform a divining ritual to determine the cause of this confusion, then perhaps...” And here, Shuri's attention wanders back to her lab and the subdivision devoted to weather patterns and atmospheric monitoring. She should check in with them to see if they've noticed anything going on globally. She doesn't hear the rest of what the priestess is saying.
After the meeting is adjourned, T'Challa agrees to follow the Elders to the rivers and the borderlands to observe and try to work out even a temporary solution. He gestures for Shuri and they are able to speak as they follow the Elders outside.
“How is Barnes doing?”
“He's getting on like a house on fire. His memory is improving and the arm is almost finished. I'm putting the same resistance and kinetic capturing from your suit into its external structure.”
T'Challa hmms distractedly.
“I'm also including a rocket so that, whenever danger approaches, the arm will yeet him into space like a missile,” Shuri tests him.
Shuri rolls her eyes. “What was it you actually wanted to talk about?”
Her brother catches her tone. “I was listening!”
She gives him a withering look.
“Okay, I wasn't. I want to ask you about transmissions. Radio, phone calls, satellite networks, GPS. And electrical systems. Have you noticed anything strange?”
Shuri thinks for a minute, her brow furrowing. “The communication lines have definitely been having some problems. Bad signals, dropping calls. No problems with the electrical that I can see. As for radio, the transmissions are fine for international broadcasts but we haven't run any checks on the national ship-to-shore in a couple weeks. Why? Should we be worried?”
“Not worried. But...aware. There have been some problems with the intercoms and we've had reports of equipment malfunction, especially with global positioning. I think now would be a good time to back up your data and run diagnostics on communication systems.”
“Who do you think you're talking to? Backup runs continually. But I'll check just in case. Doesn't hurt to cover your aaa – butt.”
T'Challa shushes her as one of the Elders turns around. She winks at him and breaks away from the group to make her way back to the lab.
Bucky has only been waiting for a couple of minutes when Shuri returns. She tells him that something has come up and asks him to return tomorrow. He agrees with no small amount of relief and leaves the room.
He decides to take the stairs up to the surface instead of the elevator (or whatever it is – it looks more like some time machine from the future, but it gets you up and down and in his book that's called an elevator). The hallways and stairs are much quieter in the afternoon anyway. On his way up he passes other rooms, other labs, and takes the opportunity to look around.
One room is entirely dark and he thinks it must be unused until he sees the faintest trace of movement in the darkness and a flurry of sparks illuminates several silhouettes with a whirring, grating sound. In another room with two sets of hermetically sealed doors he sees a group of people in biohazard suits gathered around a grid of Petri dishes. He recognizes an air traffic control centre in a third room two floors up, and adjacent to that is a room empty except for a gigantic telescope on a dais.
A few scientists and a Royal Guard walk past him, talking and laughing amongst themselves. They spare him a brief glance and polite nods – he's a daily fixture in this facility, so everyone is pretty much used to seeing a brooding half-armless man wandering around looking lost.
When he exits the Wakandan Design Group the sun is still high and the light seems to be bearing down on him from all directions without a distinct point of origin. The heat buzzes on his skin and warms the top of his head. Weak breezes ruffle the tufts of long grass that he walks through to get back to the guest rooms, of which he is currently the sole occupant.
He stands at the entrance, loath to go inside where the cavern of the room looms over him and makes him jumpy. Jumpy and distrustful of the softness, the convenience, the effortless atmosphere. There are no latrines to dig, no orders to take or give, no rations to be doled out. No all-encompassing mission to keep his own thoughts silent.
Bucky was never good at being alone. When the 107th was captured in Austria, he had kept quiet about the growing pain in his chest that eventually turned into pneumonia. His cell mates had thought it was because he hadn't wanted to be taken out back and shot, but truthfully it was because he didn't think he could stand being confined in a medical bay by himself in enemy territory with everything familiar stripped from him.
Sometimes half-chewed memories of this time come back to him, crawling up from the blacked-out parts of his mind like alligators from a sewer. He can reconstruct some of the conversations he remembers now that he's fluent in a few other languages, or at least recall the gist:
Another failure. His body is reacting badly. His immune system is attacking his own cells.
And the good news?
This version of the serum is keeping it from killing him – his cells are repairing themselves almost as fast as his immune system kills them, though he won't last longer than a few years in this state.
Interesting. We will continue trials.
Bucky was half-insane and talking to himself by the time Steve found him. Sure, it was partly because of the drugs and steroids and serums they had shot him up with, but it was also a side effect of being strapped to a table on his own, surrounded by enemies speaking foreign languages without ever making eye contact with him. He would've preferred to have been looked in the eyes, even if it was by a torturer.
He shakes himself, realising that he's been standing stock still and staring at the door for he doesn't know how long. “It's Bucky,” he says reflexively.
Okoye nods. “Up to you. It's time for lunch. The king ordered me to make sure that you are fed.” She turns and starts walking back across the grass. He watches her go. “This is the part where you follow me,” she calls, without looking back. So he does.
The dining hall for those who work in the palace, royal family included, is Bucky's favourite place to people-watch. It couldn't even be called a dining hall, really. It's a massive cave, half outside and half inside, opening into the back of the palace. The earth slopes down, down, down, grass giving way to sand and cool smooth earth. Under an overhanging ceiling of enormous rock overgrown with climbing vines, the light is diffused, soft like milk, and massive tables are spread from rock wall to rock wall. At the back there are carved columns, glittering with Vibranium, welcoming diners inside, into one of the antechambers of the palace.
Four times a day, kitchen staff emerge and stoke up the clay ovens. They chop fruit and vegetables and fresh goat's cheese, they roast meat, and they use cast iron cauldrons on plasma stoves to cook pilau, quinoa, and couscous with dates and raisins. The dishes are soaked with flavours completely new to Bucky and his unspoken goal is to try everything at least once.
Okoye and Bucky join the throng of Royal Guards filling their plates and chatting. The spears are left by the entrance. Bucky smiles at the older man who hands him bowls of lamb, seasoned pilau, and salad. The man smiles back sincerely. Bucky likes him because he doesn't try to make conversation and because he looks at Bucky with unwary eyes. Bucky should really learn his name.
Bucky gets caught up in the tide of Guards all milling toward the same table. He turns to the nearest one, a formidably tall woman with a plate of fruit and honey, and says in what little Xhosa he knows, “Excuse me. He name is who?” He indicates the man serving food.
She answers in English, “His name is Bonani.”
Bucky nods. “What does it mean in English?”
Her face lifts a little, her eyes lose their edge, and she answers, “It means 'see.'”
They sit down with the rest of the Guards as the area fills up and the delicious smells of cooking waft out over the afternoon.
“And what is your name? I don't think your parents named you White Wolf.”
“My name is James, but everyone calls me Bucky.”
“And what do James and Bucky mean in English?” She takes a bite of fig.
Bucky is stumped. “I don't know. I don't think they mean anything.”
Another woman across the table chips in. “Your parents gave you a name without thinking of the meaning?”
The man sitting next to her says, “Then you don't know your own meaning?”
Bucky hesitates. “I guess we just figure it out ourselves.”
The man laughs, “I let my wife decide. Don't you think that's better?”
Bucky tenses. Okoye, sitting next to Ayo several seats away, doesn't look up from her food as she says, “He chose the name Bucky. The meaning is the man sitting in front of you.” Bucky is reminded of his mother: You can't be anyone but yourself, James, and we wouldn't have it any other way. Just...be careful. People talk.
Okoye turns then and changes the conversation, which phases from English to Xhosa and leaves Bucky free to tune out and focus on flavours and textures and the noise around them. He is profoundly grateful. In the buzz of meaningless sounds, his thoughts wander.
When Bucky was 11, a boy from the base they were living in at the time ran away with Bucky's heart dragging behind him. His name was Pete and, being two years older, he was Bucky's hero for the few short months before he disappeared.
Pete was a wild card. He was into everyone's business, he was fiery and opinionated, and he wanted nothing to do with the military. He would sneak out of school and leave the base, run wild in the streets of the town or go swimming in the river until dusk. Sometimes Bucky would follow him. Pete never minded, he always grabbed Bucky's hand with a friendly whistle and they would play blackjack for candy.
At that age, the blind reasonless love that children have for their heroes was being transformed, in Bucky, into something more adult; complicated and confusing, layered with overlapping emotions and nascent sexuality.
And so Pete acquired Bucky as a shadow that emulated his mannerisms, his way of speaking, his physical camaraderie. Bucky hardly ever left his side and the two of them were constantly horsing around like puppies play-fighting.
One day, his mother pulled Bucky aside after breakfast and said it. You can't be anyone but yourself, James, and we wouldn't have it any other way. Just...be careful. People talk. In his memory, her concerned face is overlaid with Okoye's.
Bucky must have looked confused, because his mother had continued, You and Pete are good friends, and I'm glad, but people might get the wrong idea. Do you understand? He hadn't, at all, until two weeks later when Pete had leaned forward as they sat on the roof and kissed him on the cheek, thrilling Bucky's young heart into palpitations.
Bucky was devastated when Pete ran off but, remembering his mother's warning, woke up every morning and forced himself to act natural, to smile, to bury his confusion until he was alone at night beneath the safety of his covers.
11 years old and he buried that piece of him to suffocate slowly until the war. In the tension before war was officially declared, the world went haywire and the shockwaves crashing into the country's daily life created fissures through the collective emotional terrain. There was no 'normal' anymore. People wouldn't talk about him like his mother had feared; they had more important things to worry about.
I don't know what WASPs eat, do they eat quail? That's a thing, right?
Cutting through the dim reddish hue of the basement, a beam of blue light from a microscope brushes hurriedly around a thin magnet, passes upward through a slide, and beams an image of magnetotactic bacteria swimming through blood onto the retinas of Mike Sinclair, who grins as the bacteria loop around and around the magnetic field, destroying cells as they pass. The stern fathers of eugenics stare down blindly at his experiments from their frames on the wall.
Mike averts his eyes from the micriscope to jot down a few notes and returns to staring through the eyepiece. He reaches around with one hand, turns the magnet a fraction of a centimetre to the left, and watches the bacteria adjust their collective course. They leave trails of torn and sickled blood cells in their wake. He draws an approximate outline of their course on his notepad and then his eyes drift over to the machinery taking up the second half of the basement room.
A loud knock on the door shocks him out of his thoughts.
“Hey Mikey, I'm home! Do you want to do dinner?”
He rolls his eyes and shouts back through his protective mask, “Jesus Christ, Dad, I'm working!”
“Thought you might be hungry. What are you still working on, son? Didn't your classes end?”
“Just pick me up something from the Bay, Dad!”
“Well, I have been wanting to try the quail...” His father's voice trails off as he wanders from the door.
Mike Sinclair waits until his father's voice is completely gone before starting to prepare his machine for a test run. As he clicks parts together, tightens bolts, and adjusts pressure gauges, he glances at the rudimentary magnetic field maps pinned up on the wall.
Three hours later, after a hasty dinner with his father, Mike snatches the keys to the Range Rover from the basket by the door and loads his machine, section by section, into the trunk. His father doesn't ask where he's going, having exhausted his limited supply of fatherly interest during dinner, so Mike leaves unharassed.
As he drives away from the house, he doesn't speed as much as he usually would – there are traffic cameras out this way. He isn't nervous about getting a ticket since the cops all know who his father is, but the last thing he needs is uninvited curiosity.
The houses get smaller and closer together. The lawns become patchier, drier, and crowded with trailers, umbrellas, sun-bleached plastic furniture. He slows to a crawl as he passes one house with worn siding and some kind of religious statue collecting lichen and bird shit beside the front steps. The lights are on and music and laughter leak from within. Disgusting, he thinks. Why can't these people keep it to themselves? He stops the car for just a moment, only long enough to open the car door and place a small metallic pod at the end of the driveway, and then he continues down the road.
He pulls in a block later at an empty baseball field, floodlit and abandoned except for a pair of sneakers hanging on a nearby telephone wire. He parks in a puddle of asphalt missed by the beams of the street lights. He opens the trunk, slots the pieces of the machine together, and snaps the controlling console onto his forearm. The machine itself is so white that it shines in the darkness. It's a mesh of interlocking but moveable shapes suspended in a mag-lev cradle. It looks like a big cube, but when Mike powers it up and adjusts the settings the interlocking pieces shift on their axes into a discordant mass of thick triangular spines. It resembles the old axis cubes he used to play with in prep school. He unfolds the map and powers the machine up. Sickness prepares itself to spring and spread.
From a human point of view, the consciousness in the centre of the nearest star would look like senseless geometric patterns. Hydrogen atoms, tethered and possessed by gravity, follow repeating patterns through the heat and fuse. An endless burning cycle which produces rays that are waves and individual particles all at once: a perpetual cascade of one, of many, of every, calling out joyfully to a universe full of both limitless emptiness and unlimited matter. Planets, stars, energy, gravity, and nothingness all run their courses through space and time on interconnected electromagnetic tracks, and the life in the centre of the star feels this and joins the pattern in contented bursts of radiation.
The surface of the sun roils with heat and light barely held together by gravity and chemical reactions. The consciousness within flexes through the different dimensions in fractals, looking for all the world like an origami distortion. It passes through each dimension in an instant like ripples on a lake, like a deck of cards shuffled. Something is different. Something is calling it from the Earth. The direction of the pull feels familiar to the consciousness – vague waves of the echoes of electrochemical signals. A memory of something...an emotion? A memory of loneliness and loss, then of anger, then of falling into deep, cold water, then of a bridge across time and space. A bridge the consciousness built to save itself from both death and humanity. This pull from the Earth feels wrong.
Wrong: a judgement, an opinion. The consciousness takes shape around it.
A couple miles from back the way Mike Sinclair came, the metallic pod at the end of the driveway pops open with a barely-audible click. A fine mist emerges and rises an inch or two with the displaced air, hovers for a moment, and then curls in a weak arc toward the house. The only pair of eyes that see it coming are those of a cat curled and watchful outside the window. The mist slips through the gap beneath the door and, in the orange light warmed with dinner and human noise, edges toward the laughing family seated at the table. It diffuses under the table, clinging to legs, socks, the folds of a pattu pavada.
Elsewhere, Mike waits for five minutes before he powers off the controller. The machine's sections slide smoothly back together. He packs it back into the car, struggling to control the vicious excitement pounding in his ribs. He pictures the scene he'll find at the house – the door swinging half-open, one of the people inside perhaps fallen on the front steps, blood trickling from their nose. He has to remind himself over and over not to break the speed limit as he drives back. He slows down when he reaches the house, but his animalistic excitement shrivels when he rolls the window down and hears the same happy voices, sees a TV flickering in one window, sees a man unconcernedly washing dishes in the other.
He hisses between his teeth, cursing whatever failing it was that compromised this test run. He doesn't notice the momentary geometric flickering in the air behind him. Parking around the corner, he walks back in the dull evening dark and scrawls 'GO HOME, PAKIS.' on the side of their house, congratulating his own grammar and entirely ignorant of the fact that the family inside are actually from Andhra Pradesh. He takes a photo of the graffiti to send to his friends and kicks over the statue as he leaves ready to review the data, adjust his calculations, and try again.
Before he goes home, he stops at Mulligan's, the cop bar frequented by officers in his father's division. There's usually at least one kiss-ass who buys drinks for him and his friends while the bartender looks the other way. He sends a group text and waits.
An hour later, in the yeasty sodium-orange glow of the bar, Mike wheedles another round out of an irritated bartender and returns to his cohorts with teetering pint glasses. They whoop to beat the speakers and their eyes glow excitedly in their pale faces. It's an army of button-ups and hair products.
The young men, simmering with testosterone, bang their glasses on the table in time to the music and begin to shout along to 'Sweet Caroline' at a woman sitting at the bar. She looks at them in disgust and leaves after a minute or two. Fellow patrons look on in mild distaste, shake their heads, and return to their beers.
Another three rounds and the night starts to waver in front of Mike. The time? Late, doesn't matter. Any plans? Not really, no. Limits? For peasants. They want to stay and keep drinking but the bartender cuts them off and then Mike is in a swarm pushing out the door and into his car. He digs out his keys and they leave the bartender shouting some shit about drunk driving behind them. He knows the roads, even with everyone jostling in the car and turning the volume of the AUX higher and higher. One of them shouts an address over the rest of them and manages to set his GPS. Mike follows the cold mechanical tones of the GPS voice to a house whose mailbox he clips with his wing mirror. His passengers laugh riotously as splinters go flying.
There's a party inside and Mike recognises a majority of them as other students. Lights are flashing through the windows and people are dancing and drinking on the front porch. They try their luck and no one stops them as they push inside and hunt for coolers. It's a riotous dancing mass of skin and hair and sweat. Coloured lights, flashing sequins, explosive laughter. Mike and his followers osmose through the house and Mike sees a small crowd over by what he assumes are sofas. He stumbles in that direction and a scene gradually coalesces in the gaps between the spectators. Mike gets a good view. A college student, limbs drunkenly loose, top slipping off her shoulder, is being prodded to give a sloppy joke of a lap dance to a leering man in a frat sweater. He reaches up and turns the girl around. She stumbles, nearly falling over, and Mike recognises her. Laughing, Mike pulls out his phone and starts recording, calls out to her.
“What's up, quote-unquote Amanda?”
After what feels like aeons of lab work, returning memories, vivid dreams, and tentative connections over lunch, Bucky finally hears news of Steve from T'Challa.
“They are involved in an undercover mission in America. He told me to tell you, and I am quoting, not to worry and that his...rear end...is always covered.”
Bucky grinds his teeth. If Steve needed to point out that he was being safe, then it was definitely dangerous. “What kind of mission is it?”
T'Challa shakes his head. “That was all he would tell me, I'm afraid. He said the less anyone knew, the safer it would be. He only called to see how you were. I told him that you're doing well and that your new arm is nearly ready for testing.”
Bucky feels the ache in his shoulder, sees the flickering of reflective metal in his peripherals, remembers the pressure of metal fingers grinding troughs in asphalt, biting chunks from cement and bone.
“Of course, you don't have to take the arm.” He stares into Bucky's eyes with utmost calm. “It's your decision.”
And Bucky is touched, he is. He honestly can't understand why they're nursing him back to health after everything he's done and been. Part of him has been wondering what the catch is, waiting for Shuri and T'Challa to cash in their favours like poker chips and give him a name and a gun. He knows that it will probably happen eventually but the way T'Challa is looking at him now feels like a moment that calls for tears. He doesn't have any.
“Of course. We have the resources and you have the need. We would do nothing less.”
“No.” Bucky pauses. “Thank you for...” His throat clenches around a swallow.
“Mr. Barnes. You have been through hardships at the hands of war that most people cannot even imagine and you have lived through them with your desire to do good intact. You are a hero and, frankly, you inspire me. I am honoured to be working beside you. As is my family, and my country.”
These words cause something organic and pressurised to pullulate in Bucky's midsection. It spreads its vines through him like flowering lava. Everything is sweetly sore. He doesn't say anything for a raw moment and he knows that T'Challa knows.
That night he sleeps well, for once. Instead of having nightmares, he has a dream in which Steve kisses him, back when they fought side by side with the Commandos. The Howling Commandos were a small tight-knit group and passions ran high, not just between individuals. The men fighting beside Bucky held his life in their hands and he felt the weight of theirs in his. In a world where survival was a mix of talent and luck and those other men, they were all bound together so tightly and so completely that they might as well have been one person. Bucky never experienced a bond like that anywhere else.
It was a love so strong it had to spill out into the physical. If one of the Commandos narrowly escaped death it was second nature to grab them and hold on to them for a moment as if life depended on them, because it did. Conversely, if they had a night free of danger they drank and sang and broke out into dancing or fistfights like there was no tomorrow, just in case there really wasn't.
In the dream, Bucky had done something absolutely stupid. He was supposed to cover Steve and the others as they ran forward to a more easily defensible position. He was firing at the enemy soldiers when one of them threw a smoke bomb. In a few moments the air was so thick that no one could see more than a few feet in front of them. The Commandos were running blind into enemy fire. They needed time.
Bucky tried to pinpoint the location of the shooters from the angles of the bullets cutting through the smoke, and he ran head-first in that direction, firing as he went. In seconds he was lost in the fog but convinced he was headed in the right direction.
“Barnes! What are you doing?!”
“Bucky!” Steve's voice was dangerously loud.
Don't give away your position, you idiots, he thought, and at least one of his bullets found its mark. There was that sound of impact on flesh that he never really got used to and one line of fire stopped. Spurred on, he fired in the direction of the rest.
It was a terrifying few minutes. The air was clearing enough to see shapes but not enough to be certain of anything. His teammates stayed silent, so Bucky drew all the fire. Bullets whizzed by him and he felt a razor-sharp sting as one nicked his cheek. He let out an involuntary shout and fired back. The shots stopped.
He crouched low until the air was clear enough to make out the cover they had been aiming for and the shapes of the Commandos as they huddled behind it. He kept low and made his way over to them, blood running hot on his cheek. Dum Dum signalled as he reached them and Steve grabbed the back of Bucky's head and swung him in so that their helmets clacked together. They were eye-to-eye like wrestlers facing off. It seemed only a natural extension of the movement when Steve tilted his face forward and pressed his lips to Bucky's, hard. Bucky pressed back instinctively. The other Commandos hardly reacted. It wasn't that uncommon during the war.
It was over in a moment and then Steve was continuing toward the now-breached enemy lines saying, “Don't ever pull another stunt like that again. We're a team, not a suicide squad.”
“You're welcome,” Bucky snarked back, but under his breath, so that Steve could pretend not to hear it. His lips felt bruised.
“We don't need any more double-wagers, Barnes.”
“Keep it together. You're no good to us shot full of holes.”
“Whoa!” Shuri reaches over and grabs his hand. “I said unscrew the panel, not demolish it!”
Bucky pulls his hand back and loosens his grip on the screwdriver. “Sorry.”
“Okay, now that you've ripped the screws out, pass me the watt-meter.”
Bucky puts down the screwdriver and passes her the meter from his pack, moving out of the way while she tests it. She furrows her brow, which means that there is no problem, which is a problem. She uses her Kimoyo beads to call the comms centre.
“Can you try again down there?”
“Yes,” a voice buzzes back. There is a moment of silence, then, “We can connect but the signal is inconsistent. We're losing one out of every few words.”
“Damn it. Okay. We'll check the antennae now.”
Shuri twitches her wrist and the communication ends. She hands Bucky the watt-meter and toolbox to put back into his pack.
“How are you with heights?” she asks with a grin that stops just short of fiendish.
“Better than jumping out of a plane!” He raises his voice over the wind, hair getting caught in his mouth. They walk along the wall of a palace rampart, following the raised path up to the radio antennae. The air is crisper this high, the temperature lower by a few degrees, and the equatorial haze slightly lessened.
“Your hair looks insane right now,” Shuri laughs. Her braids are snug against her head and barely whip in the wind. She hands him her stretchy printed band and even with one hand he's able to pull it over his head and push it back up onto his hair.
They sidle up to the housing unit for the antennae, where Shuri measures them and notes their positions. There are no problems with the lengths or positions of the antennae, so Shuri is annoyed as they finish up and head back down. When they get to the comms centre, she picks up the radio.
“Test 2, you can dock now. Over.”
There is a flurry of static and a garbled voice answers. It's almost unintelligible. Bucky thinks that the pilot is speaking Xhosa but can't even be sure. Shuri huffs in irritation and uses her Kimoyo beads to call the pilot instead.
Bucky stays silent. T'Challa has been growing increasingly more tense as seemingly innocuous and unconnected reports of odd events trickle in from undercover Wakandan operatives around the globe. Ships veering off-course. Unpredictable solar flares slightly more explosive than usual. Widespread disruptions to different phone networks. Solar tracking systems in certain towns going unresponsive for hours at a time and causing short-lived but recurring power outages.
Bucky would have to be an idiot to think it's coincidental. Something is happening and he does (and doesn't) want to know what it is. He aches at the thought of another disruption to the new relative peace of his daily life but the uneasiness is impossible to shake, so he'd prefer to confront it head-on. It becomes a choice between walking on eggshells over a thin veneer of calm or crashing into the problem head-on to let the chips fall where they may. Bucky resigns himself to getting involved, but the one person he always trusts to be honest with him when things go sideways is Steve Rogers, who is AWOL.
He waits until breakfast the next morning to bring it up. He's sitting around the table with T'Challa, Shuri, and the queen as the family discuss potential solutions to the problem of the disrupted animal migration patterns. They have been sending aid and food to villages upriver who have been waiting in vain for fish, and have been trying to get the bees to swarm so they can be re-homed and, hopefully, settled back into new hives.
“Talked to Steve?” he asks at a lull in the worried discussion.
A look of satisfaction crosses T'Challa's face. “Yes, he's been checking in. I asked him to let us know if they encounter any of the same issues.”
Bucky mulls over the best way to ask. Instead of a question, the statement just comes out. “I need to talk to him.”
Shuri slaps the table and everyone jumps. “I have been waiting for you to ask! It is time we introduced you to the wonderful world of Skype.”
“Okay, you're all set up. Then you just type in here.”
“In this box?”
“What do I say?”
“Are you kidding? When did this become a teen girl sitcom?”
“Never mind. Just...normal things. 'Hello' usually works.”
Steve Rogers: Who is this?
basicallyjessicajones: It's me.
Steve Rogers: Bucky?
“Oh for Bast's sake. Here, let me - ”
“Good to see you, Buck! Hi, Shuri. Thanks for setting this up.”
“Good to see you. I'll let you guys...” Shuri points her thumb over her shoulder at the door and slides out of frame to leave. Bucky gives her a thumb-up as she shuts the door behind her.
“Hey, Buck. How you been?” Steve looks tired.
“I've been great, sitting here on my ass while you have all the fun.”
Steve smiles and it's only a little bit smug. “I have a few decades to catch up on.”
“Anyone ever tell you to pace yourself?”
“You know that's never really been my style, Buck.”
Bucky nods. Steve never listened before, either.
“What's on your mind?” Steve asks.
“I know something big is happening.” He can tell by Steve's face that he's right and that Steve knows something. “I catch some of what T'Challa and the Council talk about. They're worried.”
“Buck, you should be -”
“Don't give me the spiel about rest. I know you know what's going on. Or at least have an idea.”
Steve leans back and rubs his eyes. “Is there any point in trying to get you to sit this one out?”
“I want to be ready.”
Steve looks straight at him for a long moment, then shakes his head. He's going to clam up. Bucky feels a flash of annoyance and opens his mouth, but Steve speaks first.
“There isn't much to tell - ”
Bucky starts to get angry.
“ - NOT because I'm keeping it from you. We just can't seem to figure this out. Communications are down and wildlife is going crazy all over the world. And Nat just found out yesterday that NASA is on high alert because of solar flares. The only thing that ties them all together is...how did they put it?...'fluctuations in the earthis field.'”
Bucky digests this for a moment. “What does that mean?”
“We don't know. The magnetic field around the earth is warping, and you can't arrest a natural disaster. So...” He makes a helpless gesture.
“What do you think it is?”
“Buck, I'm not a scientist. I don't know.”
“No, ignore all that. In your gut. What does it feel like?”
Steve sits so still that Bucky thinks the video has stopped, but then he leans forward.
“It feels like Ultron. Like something small that spreads.”
The video freezes and glitches, fractures into rectangles, and the image on the screen turns black and white.
“Open your eyes, Sergeant Barnes. Look at what we've prepared for you.”
Bucky keeps his eyes closed so tightly he sees spots. He won't look, he won't look, he won't - ZZZZZT. His body jerks in pain and his eyes fly open. His arms and legs strain so hard against his restraints that the leather creaks like a sinking ship.
Schmidt stands to one side with the cattle prod, human mask askew, a look of outright gluttony on his distorted face. Bucky can't help but see the picture held in front of him. A formal black and white photograph: Himself as a teenager with his sister on one side and their parents standing contentedly behind them. They must have found the pictures in the pocket of his uniform.
A pinching sharp pain in his arm as he squeezes his eyes shut again. The drug floods his system, the build-up in the crook of his elbow painful and sweet at the same time.
“Open your eyes,” Arnim Zola coos. “Look at your life. Don't you want to see it all one last time before it's gone forever?”
The drug makes Bucky feel like he's floating. The pain gradually eases. He opens his eyes a crack. Another photo. He and Steve in monochrome glory before the war. Before the fall. Arms around one another, grinning so brightly that it blinds him. No, wait, it isn't blinding him, that's the drug, it's... His vision blacks out and he loses consciousness.
“Hello? Buck, can you see me? I think the call dropped. Can you hear this?”
“I can see you. Come to Wakanda.”
Steve's brow furrows in confusion. “Is something wrong?”
Yes. No. “Shuri's also trying to figure it out. She has the equipment to do it, too.”
Bucky scrubs a hand over his face. He's felt cut off from everyone and everything for weeks, and this flat digital projection of Steve Rogers feels like blood flowing back into an empty artery. He knows it's selfish of him. He didn't ask Steve to move in after Sarah died solely for Steve's sake; it was just as much for his own. Steve is staring at him more knowingly than he'd like.
“Okay. I'll talk to the team.”
Steve comes to Wakanda alone, saying that the rest of the team is too busy with their part of an investigation. Bucky waits with T'Challa, Shuri, and Okoye on the landing strip to greet Steve, and as soon as his friend steps off the jet he feels like he can breathe again.
“You been busy?” Bucky phrases it as a statement more than a question. He throws his arm around Steve's shoulders with as much restraint as he can manage.
“Glad to see me?” Steve asks.
“Is the Pope still Catholic? Shuri's got the whole lab on high alert and she's got questions, so you're on your own time now.” Read: stuck here until the problem is solved. All hands on deck and no excuses.
“Nowhere else I'd rather be than back in the world.” Shuri and T'Challa walk up to greet him as he says this, so he doesn't see Bucky bite back his reflexive smile. Back in the world. Home from active duty, home with civilians, home with your family.
Shuri and T'Challa greet Steve warmly before T'Challa addresses them both. “You know, if you'd prefer to stay in the guest quarters you are of course welcome, but there are a few empty huts near the herding grounds that would be perfectly suitable with a few repairs. I meant to tell you.”
Bucky looks up hopefully.
Shuri turns to them and stage-whispers, “He can't remember anything because Nakia is home.”
Bucky thinks he sees T'Challa flushing slightly darker as he gives Shuri a Look.
“What kind of repairs?” Steve asks, for the benefit of T'Challa's dignity.
“Just general mainten-”
Shuri interrupts. “All of them. All of the repairs.”
Steve and Bucky look at each other.
“Sounds like fun,” Steve says. “If you're up for it.”
“I can handyman you under the table even with one arm amputated, Rogers.”
Steve answers with a glint in his eye. “Is that a challenge?”
Heading toward the herding grounds, T'Challa turns to Shuri as Steve and Bucky trade 'old man' insults behind them and says, “I'm almost sorry to have brought it up.”
Once Shuri and T'Challa show them how to use clay to mend the walls and how to lay thatch over the beams of the roof, they leave Steve and Bucky curiously studying the raised patterns on the wall of the perfectly circular hut.
Steve and Bucky apply themselves with vigour to finding the cracks in the wall and patching over them thickly. They settle into a comfortable silence and Bucky loses himself in adjusting the mix of clay and keeping the surface of the patches smooth and even. Clay coats his hand and arm, silky on his skin until it dries in the heat and becomes a mineral exoskeleton stretching up to his elbow. He flexes his arm and the layer of clay immediately shatters into an earthy jigsaw. He glances around to show Steve only to find Steve already staring at him.
Steve walks over, covered in a fine dust and splotches of dried clay, face much more serious than it should be. Bucky shifts uncertainly.
“Buck, I'm sorry.”
Bucky cranes his head around to try and see the section where Steve was working. “I hope you didn't knock down a wall, seeing as we've only got the one.”
Steve shakes his head. “No. About everything.” He doesn't break eye contact and Bucky can see himself reflected twice in Steve's pupils, falling between sheer rock faces covered in snow. His heart slams in his chest.
“It was on me,” Steve continues. “I was calling the shots.”
Bucky finally recognizes the feeling bashing his guts to pieces against his ribs as anger.
“Do you feel better?” He cuts in sharply.
Steve blinks in surprise but his face remains composed. He doesn't get emotional, which is something Bucky loves about him.
“The whole outfit was a death wish from the start. Did you honestly expect to live through it? Hell, did you even want to?”
Steve stays silent and Bucky's irritation curls in his centre. He didn't even know he could still feel it. Steve was always gung-ho about running into bullets and jumping on grenades even before what they did to him. It drove Bucky insane, trying to protect someone who ran around with a target on his back, constantly inviting the entire world to pull the trigger.
“We all knew what we were getting into. You never gave us a reason not to trust you. If you want to blame someone, blame the war. But when you're done with the pity party I could really use your help thatching this roof.” It's the most he's said at one time in months, maybe even years.
“Noted.” There's a ghost of a smile on Steve's face. He always feels better when someone calls him on his mistakes.
Bucky shakes his head. “You're unbelievable.”
Steve shrugs. “What can I say, I'm a simple guy. You can throw the thatch up to me and I'll tamp it down. I'll get a ladder.”
It takes them three days and a lot of sweat but they eventually finish the hut, sleeping mats and all. Technically the huts aren't meant to be slept in on the regular (they're for the herders to use during the day or on the odd night during birthing season) but Bucky feels much more comfortable in the fresh air and Steve feels more comfortable with Bucky, so they camp out. Steve asks Shuri about taking the hand-cranked phonograph to the hut and she tells him that it's fine, although Bucky suspects that T'Challa and the Queen are blissfully unaware of its new location.
It's a small space, filled with warm diffused light during the day. It smells of earth but sweeter. At night it would be pitch black if it wasn't for the ingenious mesh of plasma lights all the huts are fitted with. The glass globes are suspended on a net of what resembles fishing line, each small sphere filled with wavering blue streams of light that bloom into flushed flowers where they meet the glass. The first night, he and Steve spend at least half an hour running their hands over them to make them flash with electrical discharge. It's juvenile, but so are they when they're together.
During the day, when Steve and T'Challa are busy, Shuri drags Bucky back and forth between labs and secured practice rooms to test out the new arm.
“It's done,” she tells him. “We just have to calibrate it.”
Every single time she notches it into place he feels sick with apprehension, but he grits his teeth and moves through all the drills that Shuri asks him to with as much determination as he can muster.
“It's looking good, Mr. Barnes, very good! It's responding even better than I expected.” Her face is glowing.
It's true. Bucky can feel the difference. It isn't just that the movements are even more accurate or that the weight is lighter, it's that the arm responds to his brain as quickly as his real arm – it almost feels like having two hands again.
Eventually, it happens. Shuri drags him to the shooting range.
“Let's try it out! And...” She touches her Kimoyo beads and the wall panels of the range slide back to reveal a collection of all kinds of weapons. Bucky feels the blood drain from his face. “...there's a whole toy box to choose from! I designed some of these myself.”
There's a row of targets at the back, paper cut-outs of people that have rings spreading out from the locations of vital organs. His vision shifts, glitches, and the paper cut-outs are briefly real people with pleading faces. He shakes his head and blinks a few times.
People in bloodied suits.
Featureless paper silhouettes.
Mouths open wide in panic.
He rotates his shoulder in discomfort. He wishes the arm would fall off and break.
Shuri turns. “Does it hurt?”
“No,” Bucky says.
The cut-outs are still flickering illusions. He realises that he's gravitated toward the shelves and placed his hand on a gun, a Derringer that feels too itchily familiar in his hand. He yanks his hand off.
“Oh, come on, you'll be good as new!” Shuri lifts her voice into an encouraging lilt.
“I can't,” he repeats.
Shuri finally looks at him properly. “You look really pale, even for a white guy. What's wrong?”
Bucky pushes himself back from the guns a little harder than he means to.
“Put them away.”
Shuri does something with her Kimoyo bracelet and the panels slide back and lock over the firearms. She lifts her hands up placatingly. “You don't need to worry.”
“I'm not afraid for myself.”
“I'm not afraid for you either.” She takes a deep breath. “Which is why your arm has a safeguard built in.”
Bucky pauses. “What?”
“Okay, in case you forgot, this arm is a risk and I'm not an idiot. I built in an override. I know we went over your head and that it's really questionable and I'm sorry and no one knows about it except for me and my brother and....and...why are you smiling?”
Bucky wears the arm out of the shooting range with relief, feeling much lighter than he has in a long time. He stares at the metal fingers curiously as he flexes them, examines the join in the wrist closely as he rotates it, the flashes of gold dipping in and out of the metalwork. The overlapping plates are seamless. It really is extraordinary.
After performing a few more last-minute tests, Shuri tells Bucky to spend the rest of his day as normal and asks him to report any issues with the arm.
“Think of it as a field test. Just...don't do anything I wouldn't do.”
“Don't you blow things up for science?”
A passing lab technician laughs.
“You have a point. Then try to leave at least one building standing.” She claps the metal arm jokingly, as one would a reluctant horse.
“Ow,” Bucky deadpans.
“You know the one thing I didn't put in that arm?”
Bucky raises his eyebrows questioningly.
“I'm sensitive.” He keeps his face as motionless as stone.
Shuri smirks at him as Steve opens the lab door with the soft whoosh of a hermetic seal breaking. “I don't doubt it.”
“Afternoon,” Steve says, and then sees Bucky's arm. “Hey, looking good, Buck. How does it feel?”
Bucky lifts the (his) arm and wiggles the (his) fingers. It feels like a part of him but also as separate as an article of clothing.
“Think fast,” Steve quips, and absolutely pelts a couple of mangosteens at Bucky's face so fast that they blur.
Reflexively, Bucky catches one with the new arm, but accidentally grips too hard and crushes it down to the rounded segments within. The other mangosteen leaves a pinkish splat on the wall behind him and bounces to the floor.
“Hey, watch it!” Shuri yelps.
“Sorry,” Steve remarks, with a twinkle in his eye. “I thought he could catch it. The movements are so smooth.”
Shuri's face moves from exasperation to a self-satisfied smile. “I improved on the original design by fusing the joints with mesh and using a form of kinetic transfer only possible with Vibranium. That way it's lighter, the power is more controlled, and the energy build-up can be vented continuously.” She lifts Bucky's forearm to bend the (his) elbow. “See?”
Steve examines the (his) elbow closely. Bucky clenches the (his) hand into a fist and clears his throat and Shuri hastily drops the (his) arm.
“Anyway,” she tells him, “let me know if you have any issues and we'll see what needs to be adjusted.”
“I will. It's already better than the other one.”
“I know,” she brags, “but it's always possible to improve.”
“That's my name, don't wear it out.”
“How long has it been? And it's still obnoxious when you say that.”
“Hey, I kept it pent up all these years, that phrase only works in English.”
Steve cocks his head curiously. “What do they say in Russian?”
“Damned if I know, they weren't exactly pally.”
With Steve there, picking up the threads of language is getting easier and easier. Steve opens his mouth quizzically, brow furrowed. Bucky can tell he's going to start prying.
“What was it like?”
Bucky tries to repress the sardonicism in his voice as he answers. “Which part?”
“You recognized me on the bridge.”
“Your face looked familiar.”
“But you still kept fighting.”
“Not familiar enough, I guess.”
“I am.” Bucky stays silent for a long time. “My memories don't work anymore. Even when I remember things, they're like dreams.”
Steve looks pensive for a moment, then drapes an arm over his shoulders. “If you need a refresher, you were definitely always weaker than me.”
“Yep. You always got into fights and needed me to back you up. Can't count the number of times you'd get into it like a scrappy terrier and I'd have to sock some 6-foot-tall – ”
“Keep dreaming, Stevie, it would take more than a bit of brain damage to make me forget picking up after you.”
Steve, laughing, keeps going. “No, really, and you were always bugging me to help you train. Your form was so feeble – ”
Bucky cracks a smile, shoves him, and scrambles to get him into a headlock, which only makes Steve laugh harder. Steve twists toward Bucky, ducks his head out of Bucky's elbow, and yanks Bucky's real arm sideways, spinning Bucky around so they're facing each other.
“You are really out of practice,” Steve grins.
“True,” Bucky replies happily, and twists his hand to grab Steve's wrist and pull him sharply closer, into the brunt of his prosthetic fist. He stops just short of actually hitting him, letting his knuckles rest on Steve's ribs. “But I'm still a match for you.”
“Uncle, uncle!” Steve chuckles, and pushes Bucky's fist down.
“What was it like for you?” Bucky asks. The question is out of his mouth before he even knows he wants to ask it. “Waking up 70 years after you died?”
Steve is immediately sober, and his answer is as ready as a dress rehearsal. “I try not to think about it. You can't change things, no matter how much you wish you could.”
“You can drop the schtick.”
Steve's stare is unflinching. “Alright. Most everyone I know is dead, my family is gone, and I don't recognize my own country. All the fighting is strategy and tactics and lying to the public. I'm not cut out for it.”
“That why you're on the lam?”
“Pretty much. But at least I'm not alone.”
“You can count on it.” Bucky salutes and it's only half-sarcastic.
They don't mention the names of everyone else but the air is thick with the weight of them. Their parents, Maggie, Bucky's sister Rebecca, the Commandos, neighbours, pets, childhood friends, people they fought with, fought for, fought against.
That night, they're both restless. Instead of going inside, Steve lets Bucky lead him away from the herding grounds and into the woods. They stumble through the trees for what feels like aeons in comfortable silence. The woods are lit up faintly silver in the moonlight and the air is soft and warm. Even the quiet cracking of their footsteps feels like an intrusion on the peace of the watchful nightjars, who sound for all the world like giant cicadas rasping and trilling to one another in the distance. It's a ceaseless sound, so they don't hear the waterfall until they're nearly in it.
It's less a waterfall than a very steep river. The ground becomes uneven, tilting more to one side, and Bucky stops sharply in his tracks as the ground shifts silver up ahead. Steve bumps into him, then makes a noise of surprise. The forest floor before them is tilted at a 45-degree angle and a stretch of water that must be 30 feet across rushes happily along the grooved rocks that preclude the growth of trees. It isn't deep but the angle is such that it looks unstoppable.
Bucky crouches down and reaches out, lets the water run over his hand. The pull is shockingly strong. Without a word, Steve takes off his shoes and socks, starts rolling up the legs of his pants. Bucky decides against ruining the calm silence by calling him an idiot.
Steve wades into the water with tentative slippery steps. He stretches his arms out for balance and Bucky can see his ankles twisting as his feet find purchase. The water curls around him and Bucky understands it: He also wants to follow a course that inevitably crashes into and around Steve Rogers. Although maybe he already does.
A fine mist of water is sparking up around his submerged hand and the hairs on his arm are covered in tiny droplets. It's as good a time to test it as any, so he reaches his new arm out and trails his fingertips in the water. Nothing happens except for the ripples. His arm doesn't short-circuit or suddenly stop working. He submerges both hands.
Steve is watching him from the middle of the falls, so Bucky walks out into the current. The water is over his waist by the time he reaches the centre. He's only a few steps away from Steve when he hits a particularly slippery rock in the riverbed and the weight of his new arm makes his body overcompensate in balancing. He slips. He inhales sharply in that split second, instinctively preparing for the plunge, but it never happens. Instead, Steve's arm is thrown around his side, keeping him upright until he can find his feet.
A splash of water, a whirl of motion, and Steve is suddenly gone. Bucky yelps in surprise as his own balance is upended and he's sucked down into the water.
Swirling and tumbling in the cold loud press of it, occasionally feeling a hand or his head break through the surface of the water for a microsecond, he tries not to gasp liquid into his lungs. His thigh smashes into what must be a rock, then his chest crashes into another. The world spins and spins and he feels his lungs screaming. Complete darkness. Panic that feels strangely calm. Bucky's brain doesn't even have time to process it before his back scrapes the riverbed and gravity shifts. There's a sudden drop and he's dumped into a pool of calm water, crashing about ten feet down to splash in beside Steve, who's already treading water, his head tipped back at the sky.
Steve was presumably just battered by the same rocks Bucky was. Any one of them could have smashed his skull in. And he's laughing. It's so ridiculous and so typical. Steve's guffawing is contagious, and Bucky can't stop himself from bursting into laughter.
Bucky realises that the prosthetic arm is moving perfectly, apparently unaffected by being underwater. It shines dully in the moonlight and the gold is distorted into thread-thin streaks by the ripples.
Eventually Steve stops laughing and floats on his back, staring up at the stars through the tree tops. Bucky checks to see that he's still conscious, just in case, and then swims in leisurely circles around him as his limbs start to ache with bruises. He knows that they should get out and catalogue their injuries, but he doesn't want this moment to end.
Bucky stops swimming and joins Steve in floating. The sky is huge above them. They can see so many stars it's overwhelming. It's a far cry from the reddish hazy night sky of Brooklyn, where they could never see more than a scattering of a few bright stars at any given time. Here the sky is pitch black and more stars blaze there than they think are able to be counted. It makes Bucky dizzy, that darkness spinning out forever in tunnels of time and an endless sea of stars.
Bucky's shoulder bumps gently against Steve's. He's grateful for the modicum of heat he can feel. Steve shifts his arm through the water. His hand finds Bucky's and turns so that their fingers loosely interlock and curl. They don't tighten their grip. They don't need to. Bucky realises that his body already knows what it feels like.
At the training grounds, Steve and Bucky spar alongside the training Dora Milaje. The grounds are divided into wide circular sections distanced far enough apart that spillover is rare unless someone gets thrown. Okoye and Ayo swirl in a graceful rhythm of clashing spears and glinting armour plates as Steve and Bucky test one other. They fight in a lawless street boxing style that's whip-quick and dirty and solid, completely unlike the spear fighting.
T'Challa and Shuri watch from the sidelines. Shuri indicates Okoye and Ayo with a nod of her head.
“They seem to have forgotten that they're meant to be training their students.”
T'Challa glances to those trying to observe Okoye and Ayo, who are entirely wrapped up in their own match.
“I think they're learning something anyway.”
“Let's hope they don't look too closely at the Captain and Sergeant Barnes.”
“He doesn't like to be called that.” T'Challa watches the two men circling one another, jabbing fists and swinging their arms in short bursts of force. “It's almost graceful, in its own way.”
That's when Bucky chooses to lean back and kick Steve straight in the chest, then rush him. Steve turns his fall into a backward roll and jumps to his feet, arms up to block Bucky's barrage of punches. He ducks sideways and Bucky loses half a second in turning, so Steve is able to get an arm around his neck.
Shuri winces. “Ouch.”
“They're just training.”
“No, that was for Mr. Barnes' pride.”
T'Challa laughs. “He hasn't trained in months and he has a new arm. The pride is in staying in one piece this long. It's a good thing he has the Captain to warm up with.”
Shuri grins wickedly. “That's one way of putting it.”
They watch for another 10 minutes, until Ayo and Okoye and Steve and Bucky call time and drink deeply from their water bottles. The under-worked Dora Milaje look a little unsure of what to do with themselves.
T'Challa gestures for them to step into the pitch and Okoye looks a little surprised, like she forgot they were there.
“Captain, Mr. Barnes,” T'Challa says, “would you care to try your hands as students?”
The Dora Milaje are split into groups; half of them to train with spears and the other half to engage one-on-one. Practice commences in earnest.
“The four of them – they're just as bad as you when you see Nakia.”
“But I would never try fighting her, she would destroy me.”
“Yes, she would. When is she going to come to dinner?”
T'Challa shuffles uncomfortably. “I don't want to keep asking her.”
“Brother, you should change your name to the Black Scaredy-Cat.”
“Oh, shh, I heard the sound of someone who was scared of frogs until she was 12.”
Shuri looks indignant. “Ndiyeke! Frogs eat their own skin!”
T'Challa starts to walk away with false innocence layered thinly over his expression. “Okay, I'm leaving! Keep one eye open for toads.”
“Very mature!” Shuri calls after him sarcastically. “And tell Nakia I said she could do better!”
T'Challa mimes being stabbed in the heart. It's not very mature for a king, but he doesn't care.
Afterwards, Steve and Bucky are still tussling good-naturedly and trying to trip one another. Steve sticks his leg out in front of Bucky but Bucky hooks his ankle underneath Steve's and lifts, causing Steve to stumble forward.
“You've got two left feet, Steve,” he laughs.
“Yeah, well, you went to enough dances for both of us, thought I was off the hook.”
“Wait a minute. Did you...never learn to dance?”
Steve's expression says it all as he replies, “Oh, I suppose you're a regular Fred Astaire?”
Bucky gives Steve his most charming smile, the tried-and-true one that gets him off any hook. “But with a better hairline.”
Mike's tongue curls [beep] around the straw of his iced coffee. The [beep] cubes [beep] rattle against [beep] the cup as he chews the plastic so flat that he struggles to [beep] suck coffee through. His phone continues beeping at him as he finishes the drink and tosses it, ice and all, into the trash. Notifications have been pouring in all morning since he uploaded the video of that travesty of a lap dance. The girl's top had ended up slipping down and she was far too drunk to notice, so the world had been offered an interestingly voyeuristic opportunity through Mike's camera lens. Who was he to deny them? It's not like he had taken off her clothes himself. She should have been more careful, he thinks, savagely. The air behind him distorts into furious crystalline patterns for a moment, and if Mike Sinclair wasn't busy looking at the validation on his phone, he might have turned and found himself face to face with a net of truly disturbing fractures in reality.
The notification tones are interrupted when the phone starts ringing. Looks like a local number. Mike silences it and lets it go to voicemail.
Good morning, this call is for Michael Sinclair. This is the administrative board. It has been brought to our attention that some inappropriate content has been published that regards the college and the privacy of one or more of its students. Several complainants have mentioned your involvement. As soon as you receive this message, please contact us at...
A succession of numbers. Mike can hear the implied '...or else' in the person's tone. He scoffs and deletes the message before heading down to the basement to make some adjustments and prepare for more test runs.
He's in the middle of refining a new version of the sickness when his father bangs on the basement door. Mike checks the time. He's home early.
“Mike! Open up!”
He rolls his eyes and doesn't stop. “I'm working!”
“Right now, Mike! Open this door!” He sounds angrier than Mike has heard in a while.
“Give me a MINUTE, Jesus!” Mike's breath fogs up the eye panel of the hazmat suit. He feels a thrill of something that could possibly be nerves, but quashes it and carefully seals the active area before stripping the suit off. He walks up the stairs and unlocks the door.
“What is this.” It isn't a question. His father is holding up his phone, which is playing the video Mike uploaded. It's just at the part where that fratboy's hand snakes up her skirt.
“It's a video of a party.”
“You know what the fuck it is. Why is it being handed to me by the police chief with your name all over it?”
Mike's nerves pop like tiny fizzling bubbles of fear. “It's just my friends being stupid, it's no big deal.” But he knows it is because his father's free hand is balled into a white-knuckled fist.
“It is NOT just a party. You were stupid. This was stupid. Whatever you kids get up to, you of all people should know better than to get it on VIDEO. Do you know how many phone calls I've had from the police department? From other parents? I had to call in every single one of my god-damn favours to get the police to back burner this. I don't care what you have to do, you fix this NOW.” He's breathing hard, face slowly reddening.
“Yes sir.” Mike keeps his voice cautiously even and dull. He doesn't make eye contact. Instead, he retrieves his phone and deletes the video. His father watches him delete it, then grips him by the shoulder, hard.
“I don't want this to ever happen again. You keep your private life private, you don't publish it. Understand me?”
“Yes sir.” Mike keeps his head down until he hears his father's bedroom door close, then he exhales a slow breath and narrows his eyes before returning to the basement. As he descends the stairs, the air behind him silently shatters and reforms, shatters and reforms.
The next day, on the other side of town, a girl whose name is not Amanda lies in her childhood room and stares at her phone, which has been turned off all evening to avoid the flood of notifications. She lifts her head from her pillow, headache burning a hole in her skull, too disgusted and furious to cry anymore. Over the course of the last two days, all of this shame and guilt and fear has been collecting and pooling in her stomach. She has been trying to hide it from her parents and friends even as it corrodes her from the inside out. But now she witnesses the alchemical magic within her as it turns to determination. She turns her phone back on and decides to file a report.
The chief of police, Joseph Abrams, sweats through his clothes. The young girl across from him, red-eyed and fuming, tear tracks carving their way down her cheeks, is holding her plastic cup of water so tightly he can see it starting to crack.
“I think you need to calm down, Ms. Bradley. Do you have this video?” He tries hard to sound dismissive and condescending, but his voice wobbles almost imperceptibly. He doesn't need this right now. This girl is spewing accusations against the son of the man who basically owns the entire department. If she files a report he'll have no choice but to bring the charges against Mike Sinclair and that means his job will be under threat basically until his retirement.
“No, I don't have it! He uploaded it and then took it down and - “
“He took it down?”
“Yes, but - “
“Ms. Bradley, do you have any proof of the identity of the person who posted the video?”
“Yes, it's there! Even if he deleted it, the record of it will be there on his account! I'll show you.” She pulls out her phone and searches through it for a moment. She shows him a page: It's an empty black square with a message across it: “This video has been removed by the uploader.” The name on the account is a screen name: 'BitchIch69'
“Ms. Bradley. This account says...bitch itch sixty-nine. This is an empty screen.”
“You could hear his voice in the video, everyone heard it! The video isn't here anymore but that doesn't mean it's gone, it's been reuploaded by a bunch of sources. The college was taking action against him. Everyone knows it was Mike Sinclair.”
He settles back in his chair and tilts his head back the smallest amount. His power move. “And what was the content of this video, Ms. Bradley.” It isn't a question.
Her face flushes the deepest pink and her eyes fill with tears again.
He lowers his voice to sound sympathetic. “Ms. Bradley, you need to think about what taking this further will mean for yourself. What it will mean for your future. Your career. Your personal life. We all know what kids get up to at college parties. You should be glad the video was taken down after only a day.”
Her tears spill over and run down her face. Joseph feels a river of pity and dams it up with a thick wall of mental bricks. His family wouldn't be able to make ends meet without his job. Flimsy excuse, his brain whispers. Weak. He passes her a tissue and she takes it to blow her nose.
“He did it. I know he did it.” But her voice lacks conviction.
He smooths his face into a mask of kind concern. “Ms. Bradley, is there someone you can call to pick you up?”
She sits in silence for a moment, then nods. She gets up and leaves without lifting her gaze. Relief and self-hatred wash over Joseph in equal parts. The phone rings just as the door closes and he picks it up.
“This is Chief Abrams. Moran?! Calm down. What's the location?”
While guns may not be an option for him yet, Bucky is happy to step back into the ring with Steve, as it were. Boxing was always his happy place, where he could feel powerful but not dangerous. The technique is all muscle memory for him now, and in this way he and Steve speak the same language – Bucky used to train at the gym and Steve used to train with Bucky. They've developed differently enough since they were children that they can still challenge one another, and working with the Dora Milajae was good practice in adjusting on the fly. During his years as the Winter Soldier, Bucky learned to throw all rules and etiquette out the window – to focus on flexibility, to react as quickly and violently as possible. It kept him alive. He's itching for more.
He fashions a crude punching bag by wrapping layers of rough cloth over an enormous thick tree. It won't move, but he can practice a few combinations with the new arm and hopefully bloody his real knuckles a bit.
He starts off slow, sharpening his aim and practising different styles. He circles the tree, landing punches at new angles, then begins to settle into a rhythm. He gets lost in the sting of it, the crash of fists into cloth-covered bark that bites at the skin of his hand. After three minutes, he's leaning forward with his sweating forehead nearly resting on the trunk. His legs and arm ache. It feels good – the burn and focus of it all. He keeps going, losing himself, letting go of his thoughts and feelings, blind to everything except the force behind his punches.
He remembers his father standing at his side when he was young enough to be shorter than the punching bag and urging him on as he swung at it with thin arms like that would save his life. His father was always busy – there were always lives to be saved, people to be protected, soldiers to be instructed and guided – but boxing was the one thing that was solely about father and son.
Steve is watching him from nearby. The tree is cracked, bark chipping off through the cloth that's been torn away. His hand is bleeding and sweat drips from his forehead.
Perplexed, Bucky asks “How long was I - ”
“Working in forestry? I could hear you for at least 10 minutes.”
Bucky strides past him, unwrapping his hands.
He shrugs and keeps walking. “A-ok.”
Bucky pauses but doesn't turn. He hears Steve's footfalls behind him and a hand lands on his upper arm, turning him around. He doesn't give himself the luxury of avoiding Steve's searching gaze. Bucky wants to pull back and shout I'm not him, not him, not the old Bucky, not the one you lost but he doesn't. He lets Steve raise a hand, lets him hesitate for a moment before touching Bucky's cheekbone. Steve brushes a bit of bark off of Bucky's face. That comfort isn't for him, Bucky thinks, it's for the James Barnes who fought at Steve's side and remembered everything from their past and never let Steve down, but he takes it anyway. And, in taking it, he remembers. This isn't the first time this has happened. Bucky twitches his head, dislodging Steve's hand. He stares at him, hard.
“I remember this.” There's a moment of silence and Bucky watches the realisation dawn in his friend's eyes. There's a definite rising tone of accusation as he continues, “I remember.”
Two bodies beside one another
A hand combing through his hair
The warmth of skin on skin
Twin horizontal scars across Steve's chest
Breath in his ear
“When were you going to tell me?”
“It wasn't my place to, Buck.” And Bucky hates how Steve says his name so kindly. “Shuri said that trying to jog your memory could jeopardise everything.”
It makes sense, Bucky thinks, but he can't imagine that he wouldn't have believed it: He always wanted to be with Steve – whether it was in school, training, the army, or at home. Hell, his primary objective throughout the war had been to keep Steve safe. He can't remember a time when he didn't want to be attached at the hip and he's sure that can't be blamed on his compromised memory.
“When did it start?” It's a stupid question, because as soon as the words are out of his mouth he already knows the answer, and knows that Steve knows he knows. It didn't. It was always. They were always. From the first day they met as children, they both knew deep down that it was permanent and inevitable.
In response, Steve steps forward. Bucky reaches around to the nape of Steve's neck and pulls him in. When their lips meet, it's a familiar warmth. The temperature of his body is already calibrated to Steve's. It's hard and almost painful, tense and tender. The world stops. And that's when they hear someone calling their names. Loudly, repeatedly. Steve gently pulls away and stares at the approaching figure in confusion for a moment until it comes closer and reveals itself to be Okoye, looking as close to worried as her calm and collected facade will allow.
“Captain, Serg – Mr. Barnes. You are needed in the Palace.”
“What's going on?”
Mike's heart is pounding wildly as he reassembles the machine as fast as he can in the midday sun. It worked, he felt it work, but then he also felt...something else. Something ripping the air, tearing it, something that...saw him. There is nothing there but his own sweat pouring down his forehead but he knows something is watching him. A car whizzes around the corner and Mike nearly screams. He throws the parts of the machine into the trunk in a haphazard heap and jumps into the driver's seat. He slams on the gas and drives away as quickly as he can, hands shaking against the wheel.
He sees a flash of movement in the rear view mirror and stares, scarcely believing his eyes. There is an enormous burst of sunlight that half blinds him and he sees some kind of force crash into the earth where his machine was just a minute ago. It hits the ground so hard that the earth flares out like a tidal wave of dirt. Mike realises that he's screaming as he loses control of the car for a moment, weaving all over the road, tires squealing, before yanking the wheel back and gaining control once again. He's too busy hauling ass away from the crash to see the humanoid figure stand up, glitch half-out of existence in fractals, then glitch back into reality. It begins to run after his car, the pavement warping around its feet.
Two squad cars pull up to the house that the call came from and the four officers step out on the alert, weapons drawn. The call had been half-garbled before it had dropped, but they had been able to make out a panicked voice and had (barely) been able to trace it here. The first thing they notice is a small metallic pod at the end of the short gravel driveway. It reminds Officer Moran of one of those air diffusers found almost exclusively in the living rooms of the upper middle-class. Aside from that, nothing is out of the ordinary. It's quiet – the only sounds are a distant sprinkler, a dog barking, and a squeal of tires in the distance. They walk up to the house and knock on the door. No answer. They knock again and wait, tension building. Moran gestures for the others to stand aside and she slams her shoulder into the door, splintering the door frame around the lock. They move into the house with bated breath, checking every room.
Officer Moran steps into the kitchen and freezes. She can't yell, can't even speak. She leans over and vomits on the floor. The bodies stare blankly at the spectacle of it, eyes and mouths open wide and unmoving, their blood spreading slowly across the floor.
As Officer Moran and her squad wait outside, more squad cars pull up alongside an ambulance and the officers start taping off the area as a crime scene. That's when Officer Moran's suspicions are aroused. A crowded neighbourhood like this? Middle of the day on a weekend? Where are all the gawkers, the rubberneckers, the nosy neighbours? She furrows her brow and walks to the house next door. Her partner sees and traipses after her.
“What is it, Moran?”
Officer Moran looks at him sharply, the gestures around them. “Where is everyone?”
She sees the confusion on his face and knows he's thinking the same thing. She knocks. They wait for a moment, then another. Moran puts her hand on the doorknob.
“Moran! You can't. We don't have a warrant!”
“Get ready to check the other houses, just in case, and someone get me a phone that actually works to call the chief.”
The worry is so heavy now in her gut that she ignores her lack of a warrant entirely and opens the door. Not locked. The officers behind her are silent, waiting in dread. She walks in and sees more bodies, more blood. Horror floods her entire being.
Mike bursts in through his front door and slams it shut behind him, breathing hard. He hears a sound and whips around to peer out of the peep hole for a fracturing humanoid figure, but it's just a passing car. There's no movement aside from the sparse traffic outside. He leans against the door and takes deep breaths, trying to calm his racing heart. He doesn't know what that thing is, that beam of white light that dive bombed his test site, but he felt that something had been different with that test. As soon as he engaged the machine, there had been a crackling aura of electricity. He thought that just meant that the machine was actually working this time, and he'd let himself feel the excitement. The machine had engaged, all systems go, and then...a blinding white light had appeared in the sky, hurtling downward like a meteor. His eyes had followed it across the sky as it fell, faster and faster, and he had started panicking as its trajectory pushed it closer and closer to his location.
He speaks logically to himself, imitating a condescending professor. “Don't be ridiculous, Sinclair. It was obviously just someone's drone or some kind of insane weather phenomenon. And you think you saw someone? A person? A glitching glowing person? Who somehow fell from space, hit the ground hard enough to leave a crater, and then got up and started walking? Are you on drugs, son?”
Hearing it said out loud, even in his own voice, makes him feel better. Of course it was just the stress and heightened emotions of the experiment that made his imagination act up. And he had foolishly let his emotions take over and had sped home like a scared child instead of checking to see whether or not his experiment had worked. On that note, spurred on by a twisted curiosity, he walks back out to the car, still nervously looking all around as he leaves the house, and starts the engine to go and check on the test site.
The radio clicks on by itself. All the blood drains from Mike's face as he stares at the controls.
“...remain at the scene, and all traffic is being diverted through 56th Avenue up until Beech Street.” That's Mike's test site. He blanches. “Residents nearby are advised to stay inside with their doors and windows locked. Police are urging the public to remain calm, and if anyone has any information about this horrific incident, or if they notice any strange or suspicious behaviour, please call....” The radio host rattles off a string of numbers, and then signal fades in and out and the radio crackles into white noise.
Mike hunkers down in his seat and turns his head to look all around him. The volume of the static on the radio increases until it's almost deafening. Mike one hand over one ear and fumbles with the car door, desperate to get out. His hand finally closes over the handle and yanks. The door doesn't budge. Mike frantically hits the unlock button, smashes it with his fist over and over, but the door will not open. The static is filling his mind with terror, he can't think. He screams and slams his body again and again against the door.
Suddenly, the static stops dead and the door flies open, depositing a screaming Mike Sinclair on the pavement of his own driveway. Limbs flailing, he feels his hands and arms crash into the ground, scraping them raw. Ignoring the pain, Mike pushes himself to his feet and runs back inside.
Mike locks himself in and puts the chain across the door, trembling and becoming aware of just how badly his arms are scraped. Dozens of tiny beads of blood are welling up across the skin of his arms, and he has the unreasonable thought that some otherworldly virus is turning him inside out. He looks out the peep hole and then again through the tiniest gap in the curtains. There is no movement. He walks, not letting himself run, to the basement, closing and locking the door behind him. In the small stunted sink there he rinses his arms off, wincing against the awful sting.
The consciousness has shaped itself into its previous bipedal form. The memories of how to move come back to it. Her. They come back to her. She lived here once, on this planet, but not quite in this time. And as far as she can remember, this had been the form she once had. Unaffected by her impact with the surface of the planet, she stands, casting her senses out like a net. The electromagnetic pull that had caught her attention had come from here, she was certain, though she now feels it pulling away in a singular direction with a squealing noise. Tires, she suddenly recalls. The sound of squealing tires. She follows it. The form she needs to occupy to remain anchored in this space and this time is relatively slow, but that doesn't perturb her. She will reach it eventually.
She walks. The world darkens around her as night falls. She takes steady, measured, deliberate steps. One foot in front of the other, senses locked on the inexplicable pull she feels.