“I’m sorry to take up your time, Your Majesty, I know you’re busy.”
T’Challa was indeed busy. Busy enough that in the past few weeks, he hadn’t seen his new guests for more than a few minutes at a time, usually while he was on the way to some meeting or another. Harboring wanted fugitives, it turned out, was rather low on the list of priorities for a newly crowned king. With his father’s funeral and his own coronation finally over, he could now devote some time and mental energy to the problem of Captain America and the Winter Soldier.
T’Challa had no second thoughts about the decision to give them sanctuary. It was what decency and honor demanded of him, and if it was a somewhat high-stakes gamble in terms of Wakanda’s continued security and protective isolation, it was a gamble that could win more for Wakanda than the rushed Accords ever could. The possibilities were hazy and unsettled still, far in the future. But T’Challa could feel and see them, just as he could always feel and see the great statue of the Black Panther, even through the thickest mist.
“I am happy to spare a few moments for you, Sergeant Barnes.”
Sergeant Barnes was not one of those hazy possibilities, though his future was certainly unsettled. T’Challa took the time to appraise him as he was escorted into T’Challa’s office by one of the Dora Milaje. Barnes had recovered from his physical injuries, save the loss of his prosthetic arm of course. When not engaged in or braced for a fight, T’Challa’s overwhelming impression of him was that of a quiet, deeply tired man. Not so tired that he sought death. He fought too hard for his life for that. But he was the kind of tired that even weeks of palace comfort and gentle medical attention could not ease. T’Challa knew Barnes wouldn’t rest easy until he could trust his own mind again. The cryostasis he had asked for was a stopgap measure. The safest choice I can think to make, short of dying. And I won’t leave Steve like that, Barnes had said, as soon as he’d had a moment alone with T’Challa on their arrival in Wakanda.
“Thank you again for your hospitality, and for your help with the cryostasis chamber,” said Barnes, in that soft-spoken voice that surprised T’Challa a little every time he heard it, coming from such a powerfully built man.
“It’s the least I can do for you, for the part I have played in this mess.” T’Challa regretted his rush to judgment bitterly. He had acted in haste and rage that were not befitting a prince, much less a king. The mantle of Black Panther demanded better. Kingship demanded his best.
Barnes gave him a sardonic look. “It’s a hell of a lot more than the least. Still. Thank you. And I don’t think I had a chance to say, given everything that’s happened, but—I’m very sorry for your loss.” Accepting condolences had become a depressingly rote matter for T’Challa by now. Bucky’s condolences were sincerely meant though, and were backed with the empathy of the similarly bereaved.
“Thank you, Sergeant Barnes. Now what brings you here?”
Barnes took a moment to gather his words, looking past T’Challa for a moment to the view of thick jungle T’Challa knew was visible behind him. “I just have to know one thing before I go under again.”
“Of course. Though you know the medical staff will be happy to answer all of your questions as well, and perhaps better than I could.”
Mandisa Mbele, one of Wakanda’s foremost physicians with a specialty in neurology and neuropsychiatry, had taken charge of Barnes’ case. They would need more data to make real headway on the trigger words implanted in Barnes’ brain, but Mandisa had outlined her schedule and plan of attack for them, which had done much to reassure Captain Rogers especially. They weren’t leaving Barnes to gather frost in some forgotten corner of the royal medical suite: he’d be woken once every two to three months as they worked on a way to undo the trigger words and checked on his progress.
“I know, she’s been very kind. I had a question for you.”
“I will do my best to answer.”
“Am I meant to be another weapon in Wakanda’s arsenal?”
Barnes watched for T’Challa’s response with studied stillness. The usual weary sadness in his eyes was overtaken now by something adamant and steely. Not the blank relentlessness of the Winter Soldier, but the will of the man who had survived the Soldier’s making. It sent something like the thrill of the hunt down T’Challa’s spine. T’Challa shoved that aside and instead reflected Barnes’ stillness back at him.
“No. I can only offer you my word and my promise, as King of Wakanda and as the Black Panther. I—Wakanda—will not use you so. It is sanctuary and healing we offer you here, not a prison.”
Barnes tilted his head a little and continued to study T’Challa. Silence sat between them then, as present and solid as the large desk separating them.
Eventually Barnes said, “When the Soviets made the new Winter Soldiers, I thought—” his lips twisted into a small, bitter smile, “as much as I could think, that I would be decommissioned. I hoped, maybe. They sold me off to the American branch of HYDRA instead. Price on my head might be higher, now.”
The fact that Barnes’ tone was even and unbothered made the horror of what he was saying worse. Sold off. Decommissioned. T’Challa’s English was very good, but he half wondered if he was missing some native speaker context. Ships were decommissioned, as were military bases, power plants, nuclear arms—ah. Barnes wasn’t being especially metaphorical, when he called himself a weapon.
“We do not traffic in human life, Sergeant Barnes. Nor do we put a price on it,” said T’Challa, infusing all the authority of his office in the words.
“The price of offering me sanctuary might be too high in other ways,” said Barnes with a grim set to his mouth. “So what do you get out of this, aside from satisfying your honor?” And still, that even, quiet voice that made it an honest question rather than a challenge.
T’Challa couldn’t be offended at Barnes questioning his motives. He was smart to ask. If it made T’Challa’s stomach roil a little that Barnes so readily saw himself as a dangerous weapon requiring containment and acted accordingly, he couldn’t deny that Barnes had good reason to do so. And it was true that T’Challa’s motives were not entirely altruistic. He was king, and Wakanda always came first.
“Captain Rogers is a potentially valuable ally, as are the rest of the Avengers who have remained with him.” T’Challa had offered them refuge too, once Rogers had freed them. “As are you. There will come a time, I think, when Wakanda will have need of such allies. Our isolation has protected us for long years, but it cannot be our only shield.”
Barnes studied him a moment longer, inscrutable, but the answer must have satisfied him, because the intensity of his attention relaxed somewhat. He smiled at T’Challa then, small and shadowed, but still a smile, and said simply, “Okay. Thank you.”
As Barnes moved to leave, T’Challa asked a question of his own. “What would you have done if my answer had been different?”
A muscle clenched in Barnes’ jaw, and a flash of fight entered his eyes. “I’d have run. I won’t be used again.”
T’Challa smiled, then stood and offered Barnes his hand. “Good. I will see you in two months then, Sergeant Barnes.”
Barnes took his hand, his grip firm and measured. His skin was hotter than T’Challa had expected. “Call me Bucky, please.”
It was only a few days after Barnes—Bucky, rather—entered cryostasis that T’Challa had any real time to devote to the project of helping him, and even then, it was in the evening, in what was ostensibly his “personal” time. He supposed he didn’t have to take a personal interest in helping Bucky. He trusted Mandisa and her team of doctors and researchers to do their best for Bucky, and by extension, Captain Rogers. But T’Challa found himself drawn to the prospect of designing and building a new prosthetic arm for Barnes. The old one had been a thing of beauty, if cruelly made. T’Challa could do better.
It had been some time since he had been able to devote any attention to scientific or engineering projects of his own, and building a prosthetic more advanced than Bucky’s old one was a challenge that had T’Challa’s fingers itching to get to work. Bucky was likely to be in and out of cryostasis for a year at least, based on Mandisa’s initial conservative estimates; even with T’Challa’s schedule, he could carve out enough time here and there to have a new arm ready for him by then. Sooner maybe, if he worked with Mandisa’s team. And how long had it even been since he’d last stepped foot into his workshop? Weeks—no, months.
That decided him. He would read up on Bucky’s condition and what information they had on the making of the Winter Soldier, and attend the meetings Mandisa had scheduled with her team and with Captain Rogers to go over initial treatment plans for Barnes. He sent a message to Mandisa indicating as much, and she sent him a link to the secure folder containing Bucky’s medical information, along with the files on the Winter Soldier project provided by Rogers and pulled from the base in Siberia. She included a message: I will be pleased to have my King’s assistance in this matter. Please be advised, however, that this is extremely difficult reading. If Your Majesty so desires, I can flag only those files relevant to Barnes’ prosthetic. He thanked her, but declined the offer. If his staff had to read these files, and if Captain Rogers had as well, then T’Challa could do no less.
Mandisa’s diplomatically worded warning proved to be a profound understatement. T’Challa had known the broad strokes of what had been done to Bucky, and that had been enough to convince him the man deserved sanctuary and healing rather than any imprisonment or punishment. It had been enough for him too, to know that helping Bucky would honor his father’s loss better than vengeance against Zemo could. Reading the details now, he felt the desire for vengeance climb up in him again, though it wasn’t his vengeance to claim. The files were a chronicle of some of the worst depravities and inhumanities that could be visited upon a person, an unutterably appalling instruction manual for complete dehumanization. HYDRA had done its best to empty Bucky Barnes of anything human. And Bucky, thought T’Challa with a sick mixture of pride in Bucky and fury at his torturers, had not made it easy. That the man T’Challa had spoken with just days ago had emerged from that hell comparatively whole and sane was nothing short of a miracle.
T’Challa almost pulled an all-nighter thanks to the files, and judging by the slightly ashen and drawn faces that greeted him in the lab adjoining Barnes’ cryostasis suite the next day, he hadn’t been the only one. Or maybe it was simply the toll of reading the files at all. Wakandan doctors and scientists were not at all accustomed to such horrors.
T’Challa wasn’t exactly accustomed to them either. If the world outside Wakanda’s borders did such things to people, perhaps isolation was best. But no, to turn away from those in need was its own sin. Having seen now, T’Challa couldn’t pretend ignorance or hold to inaction.
By unspoken agreement they all made an effort to look more cheerful when Captain Rogers joined them. The poor man looked wrecked, with a telltale redness and puffiness around his eyes that said he had been crying. Rogers gave them all a sad little smile that was frankly more depressing than the evidence of his tears, and blinked in surprise on seeing T’Challa.
“Your Majesty. I didn’t know you would be here.”
“I’d like to work with Mandisa’s team to assist in creating a new prosthetic for Bucky. If you think that would be appropriate, of course.” Rogers was effectively Bucky’s medical proxy, at Bucky’s request and Rogers’ insistence. For all T’Challa knew, Bucky could have told Rogers he didn’t want a new prosthetic.
“I—of course. That would be amazing. I—I’m sorry, I can’t convey my—our—gratitude to you enough. Just giving us a place to lie low is more than enough, Your Majesty.”
“You are most welcome. And we needn’t stand on formality. Call me T’Challa.”
“No need to call me Captain then. Don’t think I even count as one, any more. Just Steve’s fine.”
T’Challa smiled at Steve, then nodded at Mandisa. “Tell us how we may begin to help Steve’s friend.”
The results of the initial scans and tests, and of Mandisa and her team’s review of the files, were enough to get them started on several promising avenues of research for removing the trigger words. Mandisa’s obvious passion for her work seemed to lighten Steve’s mood, and he listened attentively and asked questions throughout. T’Challa’s mind was already caught up in possibilities for the prosthetic. He’d have to do some catch up on the biology side of things, and make a more thorough examination of the biomechanical interfaces of what remained of Bucky’s original prosthetic…
Mandisa directed the meeting over to the room with Bucky’s cryostasis unit to go over the most current readings and show Steve the small improvements that had already been made to the equipment to promote healing of the damage to Bucky’s brain, and to ensure a more gentle stasis. T’Challa only paid partial attention; he’d gotten the memo covering all this from Mandisa earlier that morning, and he was more interested in getting another look at the area where Bucky’s prosthetic attached to what remained of his shoulder and clavicle. He spared a moment to glance at Bucky’s face. There were still some lines of pain and sorrow finely etched there, but he looked peaceful. Somewhat discomfitingly corpse-like, granted, which was unavoidable given the circumstances. Nothing like the gaunt and pained image of the Winter Soldier in cryo from the Russian file though, and that was enough to assuage any of T’Challa’s worries.
It was not enough to assuage Steve’s. Mandisa was mid-ramble on the efficacy of the gradual warming process for when Bucky would next be revived when T’Challa noticed Steve’s stricken stare at Bucky. He focused his enhanced senses on Steve and heard the rapid pounding of his heart, the almost panicked pace of his breathing.
“Steve, are you well?”
Steve’s eyes didn’t waver from Bucky’s form in the cryostasis chamber. “He’s not breathing,” he rasped out.
T’Challa exchanged a quick, concerned glance with Mandisa. She took a tentative step towards Steve. “Yes, Captain Rogers. It’s somewhat alarming, I know, but as I told you last week—”
“No, I know, it’s stasis, he’s not—dead, I just—he’s not breathing. I can’t—”
Mandisa moved to guide Steve over to a nearby bed. Steve’s own breath was starting to come in gasps, his hand pressed against his chest.
“Easy now, Captain, take some deep breaths for me—”
Steve let out a harsh croak of a laugh that turned into something like a sob. “Used to have asthma when I was little. This—this feels worse. Buck used to—do that, say ‘breathe with me, slow like me,’ and I could—but he’s not—and I can’t breathe—”
Disjointed as it was, the gist of Steve’s meaning was clear enough. The familiar litany of grief: he was here, now he isn’t, and it hurts so much I can’t breathe. Never mind that Bucky wasn’t dead; it was enough that he wasn’t exactly alive at the moment either.
The other members of Mandisa’s team hovered awkwardly, looking either deeply uncomfortable or vaguely heartbroken. They were mostly researchers, and not accustomed to grieving and upset family members. T’Challa himself was falling on the heartbroken end of the spectrum. His own grief for his father flared forth, and choked any words of comfort stillborn in his throat.
Mandisa meanwhile fairly glowed with fierce compassion, and she turned Steve’s face to meet her eyes, and said, “Captain—Steve, listen to me. He’s not dead. Bucky is only in stasis. It is as if he has stepped out of time, and he is caught in the moment between breaths, and the silence between heartbeats. It is only a moment. In a few weeks’ time, he will be with us again, and his breath will come easy, and his heartbeat will be strong, because he’s a fighter and he is fighting so hard to truly live.”
Steve made a wounded noise, but eventually he nodded, then leaned forward to put his face in his hands. His shoulders shook, and a few bitten off sounds of distress escaped the wall of his hands. They gave him a minute to collect himself. T’Challa maybe needed that minute too.
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, when he lifted his head again.
T’Challa swallowed past his own pain, and rested a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. You have the harder part, perhaps, in waiting. But this is not an ending, it’s a beginning. Have faith in your friend, if not in us.”
Grief called to grief, even though the circumstances were different. For the rest of the day, Steve’s anguished I can’t breathe echoed in T’Challa’s head. He knew the feeling. His own grief still stole his breath at inopportune moments. Not because his every decision as king was weighed against the beloved memory of his father, though that was a burden he felt keenly every day. No, it was the absence of smaller things that tore at his heart: his Baba’s warm, cupped palm on his face, or the way he had chuckled at T’Challa’s occasional over-seriousness.
A young Bucky Barnes had eased Steve Rogers’ labored breathing, a century ago, and would again. T’Challa had only his memories of his father to ease the weight of sorrow pressing down on his own lungs. Once, when he had been very small, some childhood injustice or heartbreak had set him to weeping and sobbing with the gasping, heaving sort of breathless intensity that the very young could summon. He didn’t even remember what had set him off now, a fight with Shuri perhaps. But his father had strode into the royal nursery, gathered him up into his arms, and said come now, my son, is not your breath more important than these tears? You worry your guards so. And so under Baba’s gentle and strong hands, he had stopped crying and breathed with Baba, deep, cleansing breaths that had felt like safety.
T’Challa let the memory carry him now, through even the sting of bitterness and surge of rage at his loss. His father’s life had been stolen beyond recovery, that was true. Whatever peace his father found in the undying valleys of the afterlife, it was beyond T’Challa’s reach. What wasn’t beyond T’Challa’s reach was justice, which would wind its slow but sure way through the courts of international law, and healing, which was the least of what Bucky was owed. Maybe it wasn’t enough, for any of them, in the face of what they had lost. But it was all they had.
By the time Bucky was woken from cryostasis for the first time, T’Challa had the designs for the internal workings of a new prosthetic ready, and multiple ideas for a better biomechanical interface that only required feedback from Bucky himself to refine. Though T’Challa’s always full schedule didn’t leave enough room for him to be present at Bucky’s revival, he had received an update that all had gone well, and that Bucky was happy to meet with him the next day to discuss his prosthetic.
When Bucky arrived at his workshop, escorted by Nakia, T’Challa was pleased to see him looking mostly well, and decidedly not frozen. And more than just not frozen, he looked very little like the Winter Soldier. He had shaved, which made him look younger, and his hair was pulled back from his face. It was a very handsome face. T’Challa allowed himself to notice that, now that they weren’t engaged in any fights to the death. Something in the chiseled lines of Bucky’s face reminded T’Challa of European statues of martyrs, or saints, of suffering etched delicately and beautifully on marble and alabaster. That, he told himself, was probably inappropriate, given the circumstances. T’Challa instead focused his other senses on Bucky: a steady and untroubled heartbeat, even breathing, the mingled smells of the royal medical suite and the faint ozone of cryostasis, and under all that, his scent betrayed some stress and anxiety.
“Bucky, welcome. I am pleased to see you looking so well. Is Steve not with you? I thought he might be joining us.”
Bucky shook his head. “I told him to stop fussing and get some rest. The idiot barely slept the other night he was so wound up.”
“He has found your absence rather difficult, I fear.”
This was a diplomatic understatement. Mandisa had told him that Steve fairly haunted Bucky’s cryostasis suite, hovering and offering whatever help he could to Mandisa’s team while looking like an “extremely sad puppy,” per Mandisa. T’Challa had asked her if she wanted him to order Steve out of the team’s hair, but Mandisa had simply shaken her head and said, “Oh no, it is very motivating. Mr. Wilson said Steve’s sad disappointed face is his real superpower, and I begin to think that’s true.” When Steve wasn’t motivating scientists with his sadness, he kept himself busy training and working on strategies to resolve the Avengers’ fugitive status.
“I know. He doesn’t have to be so dramatic about it though.”
That startled a chuckle from T’Challa as he showed Bucky to a stool at his workspace. Given some of the things T’Challa had read in the Winter Soldier files, he had taken care to make sure nothing in his lab reminded Bucky of that hell. And because he wasn’t foolhardy, he’d made sure there was nothing that could serve as an easily accessible weapon either. There was just T’Challa’s own comfortably lived-in workspace, and a full wall of windows that flooded the room in natural light. Bucky appraised the room with keen curiosity and not a little wariness before he settled on the stool.
“Steve told me you’re working on a new prosthetic for me? I’m grateful, Your Majesty, really, but you’re doing so much already—”
T’Challa waved Bucky’s protests aside. “It’s my pleasure to do this for you, truly. I don’t have as much time to exercise this particular skill set these days, and I have missed it.”
“Seems like you’ve got a lot of skill sets, Your Majesty,” said Bucky, raising an eyebrow. The mild, sly tease was a welcome surprise, a glimpse at the less burdened man Bucky had once been.
T’Challa grinned at him. “Call me T’Challa, please. And yes, I do. I am very good at all of them,” he parried back.
Bucky’s lips twitched in a small smile. “And so humble.”
“A king is but the humble servant of his people,” he said, and then turned his attention to the workbench to pull up the schematics for the prosthetic. “Now, let me show you what I have so far—”
He showed Bucky the work he had done so far, including the plans for improving the existing port and biomechanical interface that would, hopefully, be easier on Bucky’s system than the previous prosthetic. The arm HYDRA had provided had been beautiful in its own way, but there had been no consideration for comfort or long-term use in it. The weight of it placed too much stress on the spine, even reinforced as Bucky’s spine was, and the way it connected to his neurological system would probably have introduced problems later on. Bucky listened carefully, and took his time manipulating and examining the light display schematics.
“Will this require surgery?” he asked eventually.
“Possibly. It depends on the extent of the biomechanical integration.” A muscle ticked in Bucky’s jaw, and his eyes took on a hollow expression. T’Challa tried not to wince; Bucky’s experience of surgery with HYDRA had been the stuff of nightmares according to the files.
“It will not be like it was when HYDRA first attached the arm, Bucky,” continued T’Challa, and placed a hand on Bucky’s forearm in comfort. Or, it was meant to be comfort. Judging by how Bucky went entirely still as his heart rate abruptly skyrocketed, it was not received as such.
T’Challa pulled his hand back. “Forgive me, that was poorly considered. We are accustomed to more physical affection in Wakanda.” Bucky just gave a sharp nod in response, stare fixed on the schematic in front of him.
Eventually, T’Challa heard Bucky’s heart rate go back to normal, and Bucky said, “You read the files, didn’t you.”
“Yes,” said T’Challa, because there was no point in sugarcoating it.
Some strong emotion surfaced briefly on Bucky’s face before sinking again beneath a neutral mask. Disgust, maybe. Or no, self-loathing, and horror. Though his face was calm, his eyes still gave it away. T’Challa leaned forward to capture Bucky’s full attention.
“Reading those files only made me more determined to help you. It is not weakness that has brought you to this point. It is strength that I can scarcely comprehend. You’ve clawed your way free of hell, Bucky, on your own. Let us help you the rest of the way.”
Again, Bucky nodded, head ducked down to avoid T’Challa’s gaze. To his dismay, Bucky stayed still and silent as he continued to explain his plans for the prosthetic. He’d pushed too far, thought T’Challa with dismay. But there were questions he really did need to have answered, and Bucky was going back under the next day.
“Can you tell me about the range of sensation in your previous prosthetic, and what you’d like in a new one?”
Bucky swallowed, licked his lips. “Pressure. Temperature, a little. I don’t—more sensitivity would be nice. But the neural load—”
“Yes, that’s what my improvements could fix,” said T’Challa, making a note to himself. “Did you have headaches, with the old prosthetic? Tension headaches from the weight, perhaps, or from the neurological strain of using it?”
“I don’t know. My head hurts all the time, more or less. A little better now, without the arm, I guess.”
T’Challa looked up from his notes, frowning. “Have you told Mandisa?”
“I—no. Painkillers don’t really work much. I tried—after the helicarriers—” Bucky’s throat worked, but no other words came. Eventually he shook his head and simply said, “It was bad.”
“How bad?” He considered some of the things he had read in Bucky’s file, and just what level of pain a man who had undergone those things would deem “bad.” He was already mentally composing a message to Mandisa.
Bucky shrugged. “I’ve had worse. But—bad.”
T’Challa wasn’t quite sure where to start. “You didn’t seek any help?” The question earned him blank incomprehension.
“From who?” asked Bucky, and there was no joking or self-pity in it. It was an honest question. Who could the Winter Soldier have sought help from, without expecting imprisonment, or worse? Who could he have trusted?
Bucky shook his head. “I didn’t—I didn’t remember enough, at first. And when I did—it was safer, for both of us, if I didn’t contact him.” His mouth quirked in a small, mirthless smile. “Can’t say I was wrong about that now, can you.”
No, he couldn’t. “You were just lying low for the last two years then.”
“Yeah. Stayed off the grid, took out any HYDRA agents who came after me, tried to get my head straight. Limited success with that, obviously.”
The picture Bucky was painting was a bleak one: in hiding, in pain and with a mind in tatters, and alone through all of it. T’Challa supposed that was the lot of many an old soldier. Many of those unfortunates sought drug or alcohol-induced oblivion to escape their pain, or violence to subsume it. But Bucky was choosing a sort of oblivion out of his overriding concern for safety—for and from himself, for others. Before T’Challa had earned the mantle of Black Panther, his baba had told him a true warrior must always act to protect, first and foremost. Bucky, thought T’Challa with a painful twist of sympathy and admiration, was trying very hard to be more warrior than weapon.
“There was nothing you could have done about the trigger words on your own, I’m certain of that. Your memories?”
“I think I have a lot of them back. But I don’t know. I can’t be sure. I can’t ever—” He swallowed convulsively, then continued, “I wrote them down. To try to make some sense out of all of it. Lost the journals during the whole mess in Bucharest. They took them when they captured me.”
“It’s okay, not really your fault.” Bucky gave him a wan smile, weary resignation in every line of his face. As if it was only to be expected that the world took and took and took, and left him with nothing but his name, and sometimes, not even that. The thought was intolerable.
Only long practice kept T’Challa’s expression and voice even as he continued their work with what remained of Bucky’s previous prosthetic and the schematics for the new one. But all throughout the rest of their time together, shame and anger clawed bitterly at him. His actions had harmed Bucky more than he had known. Any halfway decent person should feel sympathy for Bucky’s plight and anger at those who had caused it. Life had deeply wronged him, and in T’Challa’s mind, to have the ability and the resources to right some of those wrongs meant that he had the obligation to do so. That was his duty as king and warrior, and as a man too. All the more so if one of said wrongs was his fault.
And the loss of Bucky’s journals was definitely T’Challa’s fault. Not only his fault, to be sure, but his rush to vengeance had led to Bucky being captured. To make amends for that was easy enough, when you were king. Offering sanctuary was even recompense for that mistake, and healing was only what any guest or citizen of Wakanda was entitled to. The loss of Bucky’s already once-stolen memories though—that, T’Challa was ashamed of. T’Challa remembered now that Bucky had had a backpack throughout that long chase, and he hadn’t relinquished it even when it would have been the best way to gain an upper hand in their fight. T’Challa hadn’t noticed or cared then, too caught up in the tunnel vision of his grief and rage. He hadn’t listened when Bucky had proclaimed his innocence. He winced to remember his response to Bucky’s honesty. Why had Bucky run? For his life, self-evidently. T’Challa should have listened.
He could listen now. And he cared now. He cared a lot, if he was being honest with himself. He hadn’t meant to be cruel, hadn’t meant to help perpetrate a profound injustice. But that was what he had done in having some part in robbing a man of his memories, memories that he had fought and struggled to reclaim after they had been stolen from him. Memories that were probably the only thing Bucky owned that had any true value to him.
T’Challa had to get those journals back and return them to Bucky.
He had the opportunity a couple of weeks later. With the full investigation of Zemo only now under full swing and winding its way toward a trial at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, T’Challa had been asked to provide a more detailed statement on what had happened in Berlin and Siberia, and tentative overtures had been made to sound him out regarding his participation in some manner of restorative justice. His lawyers and advisers had initially suggested he send a written statement and forego actually going to the Hague. T’Challa had been inclined to agree, but now he had other ideas.
Zemo was being held in the ICC’s detention centre; the investigation was based there. The evidence would be there too, and while T’Challa wasn’t exactly experienced in engaging in burglary, he was a genius, and the Black Panther. He could figure it out. He started with a bit of hacking. With Wakanda’s advances in computing, it was trivially easy to get past the ICC’s security to obtain a layout of their offices, and find the location of Bucky’s notebooks. From there he just had to plan his infiltration.
By the time he was expected at The Hague, he had a serviceable plan, and was reasonably certain he wouldn't be caught during his planned midnight raid on the evidence room. His plan had even passed muster with the Dora Milaje, who even if they weren’t particularly happy to let him run off on his own to engage in burglary, were at least willing to help him commit it.
He made sure to have an alibi, as unlikely as it was that anyone would suspect the King of Wakanda of stealing the Winter Soldier’s journals. To any watching eyes, the Wakandan royal jet would still be in the air when the theft took place. T’Challa just wouldn’t be on it. He would “arrive” in the Netherlands the next morning. He even made sure to have decoy journals that he could use to replace the real ones. With any luck, no one would notice the swap for some time, and even if they did, the electronic records of them would be gone too. T’Challa prided himself on doing a job thoroughly, even if said job was theft.
Everything went exactly to plan at first: he slipped through security with a bit of judicious hacking, avoided any guards by timing his infiltration for shift change and with the careful use of distractions, and arrived at the evidence locker with time to spare. What was not to plan was Black Widow waiting for him.
“Your Majesty,” she said, drier than the Sahara. She was leaning against a filing cabinet, looking, for all intents and purposes, like a cleaning woman on a break. Either she had dyed her vibrant red hair ashy brown, or she was wearing a wig, and she was wearing the kind of drab clothes with a nothing-to-see-here posture that all but guaranteed invisibility. “I have to admit, you’re not the one I was expecting to see.”
T’Challa gathered all of his not inconsiderable royal dignity, and decided to treat this like running into an acquaintance at a boring official function. Judging by her disguise, she clearly wasn’t here on official business either, and getting T’Challa caught would expose her too. The question was just what her business here was. Surely not to retrieve what T’Challa had come here to retrieve.
“Who were you expecting to see, Ms. Romanoff?”
“Scott Lang. You know he’s an actual thief, right?”
T’Challa frowned. “A white collar thief, Robin Hood type, I thought.”
“Yeah, but he’s also pulled some straight up heists.”
The knowledge that he could have delegated this to a literal thief was a little dispiriting, but no matter. The loss of Bucky’s journals was his wrong to correct.
“Did you need to speak with Mr. Lang?” he asked, all bland politeness.
Romanoff smiled, sphinx-like. “Could you help me if I did? I figured you might be a little upset about the whole tazing thing.”
T’Challa avoided the question about Lang. “I’m just here to retrieve a friend’s belongings. I have no quarrel with you, Ms. Romanoff. Your actions prevented me from committing a grave mistake, and I thank you.” The barest flicker of surprise crossed her face. T’Challa edged closer to the row of shelves he knew contained Bucky’s journals. If it came down to it, he could grab them and make a run for it; he knew he was faster than her.
“Steve’s shield isn’t here,” she essayed. A shot in the dark, but an understandable one.
“I know. That’s not what I’m here for.” Romanoff made no move to stop him as he located the evidence box with Bucky’s journals, and just looked on with avid curiosity. There were twelve notebooks, each in their own little pristine ziploc bag. T’Challa carefully removed each one, replacing them with the decoys. He deliberately didn’t look inside the journals, even if he did feel the sharp prick of curiosity. That would violate Bucky’s privacy.
“As I said, I am here to retrieve a friend’s belongings.”
“A friend, huh? You were trying very hard to kill him, not that long ago.”
He was overstepping, perhaps, in calling Bucky a friend. He wanted to be one to him though, could see glimpses of a man he would be proud to call friend and ally. “And I was wrong.” He met Romanoff’s keen, assessing scrutiny. “He has had his memories stolen too many times as it is.”
Her eyes went warm, sunlight-through-leaves green, even though her face stayed carefully neutral. “I’ll leave you to your cat burglary then.” She paused expectantly. It was a terrible, groan-worthy joke, and yet he found himself amused, the situation’s total absurdity filling a bubble of hilarity in his chest. T’Challa didn’t betray any of that though, instead keeping his face still with a not inconsiderable amount of effort, and she rolled her eyes. “No one gets my jokes.”
“Oh, no, I understood it. I just didn’t think it was funny.”
She let out a nearly subvocal laugh in response and said, “Go. You’ll have four minutes to get back out. Avoid the west corridor, there’s a guard shitting his brains out in the bathroom there, and he might be out any minute now.” There was probably a story there, but he didn’t ask.
“Thank you, Ms. Romanoff,” he said, and made his escape.
As he was leaving, she called out, “Tell Steve I’m working on dealing with the Accords and the General Ross situation.”
So that was what she was doing here. T’Challa didn’t bother to insult her with a denial about Steve. “I will.”
He ‘arrived’ at the Hague the next day, no one apparently the wiser to the burglary or the deception. Thankfully, he wasn’t required to give a further statement on the bombing in Vienna. He had done that in the immediate aftermath, and had no wish to do so again. The sight of his father’s body haunted his dreams and nightmares enough as it was. Today’s statement was instead going over the events in Bucharest and Berlin, and Zemo’s confession to him in Siberia.
It was sobering, laying it all out again and coming face to face with his every mistake and rush to judgment. His position of privilege meant he had been able to escape any consequence as severe as those faced by Steve and his compatriots; T’Challa, after all, had not been unceremoniously tossed into an ocean prison without benefit of due process. Money and apologies had smoothed matters over for him, and cooperating in the investigation and upcoming trial now would hopefully redress the rest of his failures, in the eyes of the law at least. For Bucky’s sake, he made a point to assert Bucky’s innocence in the whole mess as best he could without attracting suspicion. It could only help as the truth about the Winter Soldier trickled out. Apparently, Zemo had already readily admitted to framing Bucky, but T’Challa might as well shore up the story.
Zemo, it turned out, was being mostly cooperative.
“Has he shown remorse?” T’Challa asked the prosecutor, as they were finishing up for the day.
The prosecutor hesitated. “He…professes some regret for what he calls the collateral damage of his actions. It’s difficult to say. He’s lacking in affect, and his psychological profile is…complex. He’s on round-the-clock suicide watch.”
A stomach-turning mix of disgust and rage roiled in his gut and surged through his veins. How dare he. My father, the king of a nation, and he calls his murder “collateral damage”? Every time he thought he had mastered his anger, he was proven wrong. This was a wound that kept opening.
“Would it be possible for me to speak with him? In the interests of restorative justice.” Justice felt unimaginably distant. T’Challa would settle for answers right now.
“Let me check on that, Your Majesty,” said the prosecutor, and left to presumably make some calls.
T’Challa sought calm in her absence, and by the time she returned, he had mostly mastered his anger. He was reasonably certain he wouldn’t try to strangle Zemo with his bare hands, at any rate. “You may speak with him, Your Majesty. We’ll ready an interview room in the detention centre.”
He was escorted to the detention centre, and a grim but clean interview room lit with unforgiving brightness, where he waited for Zemo to be brought in. A pane of bulletproof glass would separate them, something reminiscent of a zoo in the set up. When Zemo was brought in, he was shackled hand and foot, diminished even further from the shadow of a man he had been in Siberia. He had won, in his own way, and yet the victory seemed only to have made him more hollow.
“Your Majesty. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?” He smiled, and it was a pale mockery of courtesy, something not just curdled in it, but rotting too. Unease prickled down T’Challa’s spine. There was a sense of the walking dead about Zemo.
“I want to know why ‘collateral damage’ was acceptable to you.”
“Why was it acceptable to the Avengers?”
It made a sick sort of sense, if you ignored the fact that the Avengers’ collateral damage was mostly in service of saving lives, not in engaging in byzantine revenge plots. T’Challa had his reservations about the ways the Avengers operated, and still thought the Accords were a good idea with bad implementation, but they at least weren’t running around murdering people at will.
“Those aren’t equivalent scenarios.”
“And yet my family are still dead.”
“So you decided to kill my family. My father, the king of my people.”
“I regret the necessity.”
The white heat of pain and rage overtook T’Challa’s vision for long seconds. Regret the necessity. That wasn’t contrition or remorse, it was a craven and sick non-apology. Zemo’s own pain was the only thing that mattered to him, that pain consuming him, and him consuming the pain in some horrifying ouroboros that made a monster of him. Maybe T’Challa should have let Zemo kill himself. His every muscle was tense with the desire to do violence, and for a moment, he wanted it more than he had ever wanted anything. The glass separating him from Zemo wouldn’t hold up against his full strength. He was faster than Zemo, than the guards. He let the scenario play out in his mind: how to break the glass, how many seconds he would have to snap Zemo’s neck before the guards took action, what his exit routes were, what the damage control would be—
But no. His baba wouldn’t have wanted that. And it was too easy; it would be an escape into oblivion for Zemo, or a surrender to entropy, not justice. Maybe there was no real justice to levy against a man this hollow, this close to being the living dead. There was one thing T’Challa could do, though. He could help undo the work of Zemo’s vengeance. Nothing would bring the dead back to life, or turn back time. But maybe the Accords could be salvaged, the Avengers brought back together. Bucky could rebuild a life from the wreckage of the Winter Soldier. T’Challa could lead his people with wisdom and strength, in honor of his father’s memory. Zemo wouldn’t win.
“Thank you, that’s clarified things for me,” was all he said, once he had mastered himself, and left the interview room.
T’Challa had a couple more meetings with the judges and prosecutors before he could leave the Hague. Throughout the day, he stayed alert to any indication that his theft had been noticed, or to any hint of Romanoff’s presence. There was nothing though, so it seemed that both of them had gotten away with it, for now at least, and Bucky’s journals were already safely locked away on the Wakandan royal jet. He just had one brief press conference to give, and then he would be free to fly back to Wakanda.
One brief press conference and a conversation with Tony Stark, he amended, when he saw Stark loitering in the ICC lobby.
“Mr. Stark. I hope Colonel Rhodes’ recovery is going well.”
Stark shot him an insincere smile. “I built him a pretty badass exoskeleton, so it’s going alright, thanks. How’s harboring a bunch of fugitive superheroes and a murderer going for you?”
A murderer? T’Challa wasn’t—ah, he meant Bucky. While T’Challa wasn’t unaware of the crimes committed by the Winter Soldier’s hands, he didn’t consider Bucky guilty of them; a gun wasn’t guilty, the person shooting it was. That distinction was perhaps too fine for Stark to have made in the heat of the moment in Siberia, after being so expertly manipulated by Zemo. He’d hoped Stark would have cooled off some by now though. Wakanda could withstand an assault by Iron Man if Stark decided to come after Bucky, but it would considerably upset T’Challa’s tentative plans.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” he said, and Stark snorted and rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, sure. I’m not blabbing to Ross or anyone, if that’s what you’re worried about. The Ross situation—” he broke off, frowning into the distance, then shook his head and continued, “Anyway, listen, I got Cap’s little olive branch, and whatever, shitty apology accepted. That doesn’t mean I’m happy that he and his assassin bestie who killed my parents are sipping mai tais in a jungle paradise while I deal with—” he gestured around the ICC lobby, and continued, “all of this.”
“I assure you, no one is happily sipping mai tais in a jungle paradise, Mr. Stark. Far from it,” he said, more sharply than he had intended. Talking with Zemo had left him on edge, and the implication that Steve, Bucky, and the others were having a carefree vacation from responsibility in Wakanda tugged at his already fraying temper. Bucky had willingly chosen stasis to protect others, withdrawing from life until he could no longer be used as a weapon. Meanwhile Stark, whose weapons had killed thousands, walked free in the world. The unfairness rankled.
Stark peered at him closely, taken aback a little. “Don’t tell me Stars and Spangles is getting his shieldless ass into trouble. Or—is Barnes, uh—okay?”
“No one is in any more trouble than they already were when the Accords went into effect. And Barnes is missing an arm.” All things considered, Bucky seemed pretty okay with that, but T’Challa was the one who’d had to do triage on what was left of the prosthetic after Siberia, tending to a shocky and half-conscious Bucky before sending him and Steve on to Wakanda, and he wasn’t feeling so forgiving.
“Right. Ha. My bad?” Stark winced. “I was, y’know, trying to—”
Stark narrowed his eyes. “Hey now, I’m sensing a lot of judgment from someone who was also trying to kill Robocop for parental murder vengeance-related reasons.”
“He was innocent, and I was wrong. And I am making my amends for it.”
“Yeah, well, he actually did kill my parents while he was a brainwashed murderbot, so.” Stark fidgeted and half turned away from T’Challa. “Anyway, I talked to Zemo today.”
“As did I.”
“It was fucked up. He’s fucked up.” Stark turned to look at him again. “He killed your dad. You’re cool with him just—”
“Facing justice? Yes. I won’t say it’s easy, but you see what vengeance did to him. To us. I won’t continue that cycle, especially not when it only gives Zemo what he wants. I would rather have my vengeance in undoing as much of his as possible.”
“Well aren’t you disgustingly well-adjusted,” said Stark. His posture took on a defensive stance as he crossed his arms. “I’m working on it, okay? I get it, Barnes was just the convenient gun. Tell Steve and the Terminator they don’t have to worry I’m going to pull an Inigo Montoya.”
T’Challa raised an eyebrow at Stark. “Will they understand that reference?”
“What, no DVDs or Netflix in Wakanda? The resident geezers might as well spend their on-the-run-from-the-law downtime catching up on pop culture.”
T’Challa hesitated, and wondered if he should reveal this particular bit of information, but he was beginning to see the barest outline of a plan to fix the Accords and reunite the Avengers, and that plan would require Stark. A little trust and information exchange now would only come in handy later. “I’m afraid there’s no Netflix in Bucky’s cryostasis unit, no.” That got Stark’s attention.
“You put him back on ice? And Cap’s okay with that?”
“Bucky chose cryostasis as his best option for keeping himself and others safe until we can undo the trigger words. So you needn’t worry about the Winter Soldier being on the loose.”
“His every free choice has been to protect others, and to stay as safe as he can, Mr. Stark.”
Stark laughed, and it bordered on the hysterical. “Yeah? Same here. Hasn’t gone too well.” He ran a hand over his face, and took in a deep, shuddering breath before continuing, “Okay. So, this has been great, good bonding, but I’ve hit my quota for emotional conversations for the day, see you later.”
They went their separate ways then, and T’Challa could only hope he’d made some headway with Stark. He must have, because a week later, there was the digital equivalent of a polite knock on the palace network’s door, and a little packet of files was left there, practically gift-wrapped. Once the files were scanned for any viruses, malware, or other unpleasant surprises, and came up clear, T’Challa took a look at them. He found notes and schematics for a prosthetic arm, with particular focus on a power source for said arm, along with a dossier on General Ross and an I’m working on it. Stark’s version of an olive branch, he assumed, even if it wasn’t exactly an apology.
When he showed Steve, Steve just let out a tired but affectionate laugh and said, “Yeah, that’s Tony.” He smiled down at the plans, a little misty-eyed. “We’re gonna be okay, I think.”
“He called your apology shitty,” said T’Challa, because he was far too honest for his own good. Baba had always said so.
Steve scowled. “Ugh, Tony, I worked on that letter for a couple of hours at least,” he muttered, and stalked off.
T’Challa was out of the palace the next time Bucky was revived, the work of ruling Wakanda having taken him away from the capital to the more remote river settlements to oversee improvements to the hydroelectric power plants, and to broker some disputes between the Lion and Black Panther tribes. Bucky was scheduled to be awake for a few days though, to give Mandisa and her team a chance to work on a solution for the trigger words with a conscious patient, and T’Challa would return in time to see him before he returned to stasis. He would return Bucky’s journals to him then, and show him the progress he had made on the new prosthetic. T’Challa looked forward to it; after a week of juggling the mutually incompatible demands of truculent tribespeople, it would be a relief to give someone a simple gift. Though he supposed it was less of a gift, and more of a restoration.
He reviewed Mandisa’s report on the progress on Bucky’s case on his flight back to central Wakanda. They had activated the trigger words, Steve and Ms. Maximoff on standby to restrain or subdue Bucky if necessary, to get scans and readings of what the Winter Soldier state did to Bucky’s brain. A difficult thing to do, but necessary. The HYDRA records and files weren’t detailed enough when it came to anything other than the horrifying process of creating and enforcing that state of compliance. The team needed the data on the results of that process to move forward. Though no one was injured, and Bucky remained calm even when triggered, it is my recommendation that we only undertake this again if absolutely necessary. It is detrimental to Bucky’s recovery, and Bucky is considerably disoriented and agitated when he is restored to himself. He’s doing well otherwise, and we have effected improvement in his TBI-induced pain levels.
Bad news and good news, then. The work on the prosthetic was going well, at least. T’Challa thought they could probably avoid any further surgery, and keep the work hardware-only, so to speak. That would probably make Bucky feel better. He sent a few comments and suggestions to Mandisa, then turned his attention to other matters. After a week away from the palace, matters requiring the personal attention of the king piled up despite the best efforts of his staff, and it was early evening of the day he returned to the palace before he had time to see Bucky.
They met in T’Challa’s workshop again, this time with Bucky waiting for him there with Okoye as T’Challa rushed in straight from a meeting with the palace steward.
“Forgive me, Bucky, I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long. How are you?”
Bucky greeted him with a small smile that did little to hide the strain in the lines around his eyes. “It’s fine. I’m okay. I hope I’m not taking up too much of your time, Okoye said you just got back today.”
“Not at all. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you, actually.” Bucky blinked in surprise.
T’Challa moved towards the safe in the workshop where he’d stored Bucky’s journals for safekeeping. “I have something for you.”
“Not a new arm already? Mandisa said—”
“No, not a new arm. We have some work to do on that tonight though. No, I meant this.” He pulled the journals from the safe, and turned back to Bucky to place them on the work table in front of him. “Here. When we last spoke, you mentioned having had these taken from you, after Bucharest. That was in part due to my actions, for which I beg your forgiveness. I couldn’t in good conscience allow your journals to remain in the hands of the authorities, knowing what they must mean to you. So I—retrieved them.”
Bucky stared at the journals, and reached out a hand to open one of them. He traced his fingers over the text written on the page.
“I didn’t read any of them,” added T’Challa, suddenly a little nervous. Maybe this had been inappropriate, too personal, even if he hadn’t done anything other than retrieve them. Curious as he had been about the journals’ contents, he knew reading them would be a violation, and Bucky had suffered violations enough. “I erased all electronic record of them as well.”
Bucky’s expression was difficult to read, facing down towards the journals. He was flipping through the pages as if to familiarize himself with them again. “Thank you,” he said, voice a barely audible rasp. “How—?”
“I engaged in a bit of cat burglary, shall we say, at the Hague,” T’Challa answered, brazenly stealing Romanoff’s terrible joke.
Bucky let out an incredulous little laugh, so maybe the joke wasn’t so terrible, and finally looked up at T’Challa, a smile slowly growing on his face. His eyes were bright and clear, less strain there now.
“You stole them. You’re a—a king, and you stole my stupid journals back from a high-security facility, just because—” Bucky broke off, and shook his head. Tears rose in his eyes for a brief moment before he blinked them away quickly.
“Because they’re yours. And you’ve had enough taken from you. What is within my power and ability to return, I will.”
“Right. Of course,” said Bucky faintly. He searched T’Challa’s face for a moment, then looked back down at the stack of journals and frowned a little. “I only had twelve with me. There are more than that here.”
“Ah, yes. Just a few of blank ones in the same style. For if you’d like to continue writing.” That had been a last-minute impulse, and he hoped it wasn’t the wrong one.
“I’d like that,” he said, and looked back up at T’Challa and smiled.
Only it wasn’t one of Bucky’s usual bittersweet or polite smiles. This smile was like the sun bursting unexpectedly through a storm cloud, and it transformed his whole face, turning him boyish and sweet. For just a moment, he was unburdened by even the thought of suffering, the lines around his eyes evidence of frequent joy rather than pain. This, T’Challa thought distantly, was going to be a problem. He beamed right back at Bucky, which was surely a natural reflex for anyone given that smile, and to his fascination, Bucky’s cheeks went a little pink.
T’Challa cleared his throat and busied himself with pulling up the latest plans for the new prosthetic. “So, I have made some progress, and I believe we can avoid any surgery—”
They fell into a pleasant rhythm working on the prosthetic together, Bucky asking questions and offering feedback, and T’Challa taking notes and making adjustments to his designs. The notes Stark had sent over for the prosthetic’s power source had proven to be more helpful than T’Challa had expected. He’d be able to keep the new prosthetic lighter than Bucky’s old one, to Bucky’s visible relief.
“You can thank Tony Stark for this particular improvement.”
“I spoke with him at the Hague. He was there to give a statement as well, and he expressed some regret for the loss of your previous prosthetic. The assistance with the power source is an initial gesture towards reconciliation, I think.”
Bucky stared at him in blank disbelief. “I killed his parents.”
“Not of your own free will. Stark understands that.” Stark wasn’t particularly happy about it, but he understood it, intellectually.
“Did you—” Bucky narrowed his eyes at T’Challa. “Did you make my case to him, or something?” He sounded so incredulous T’Challa wondered if he should be offended.
“No,” T’Challa answered, and didn’t mention that he maybe had pled Bucky’s case a little to the ICC prosecutors. “However, we both spoke to Zemo, and that was rather an object lesson in the futility and destructiveness of vengeance for the both of us.”
“Why talk to Zemo?”
“To get answers, I suppose. To try to be less angry.”
“Didn’t work, did it,” said Bucky, solemn and grave, like he already knew the answer.
“No, it didn’t. Zemo said he ‘regretted the necessity’ of collateral damage.” He was gratified to see Bucky’s immediate anger at that.
“The necessity? Jesus christ. He chose that, it wasn’t—” Bucky broke off, disgusted, and shook his head. “Gotta say, if it’d been me who was there when Zemo tried to kill himself, I don’t know if I’d have stopped him.”
And yet, as far as T’Challa knew, Bucky hadn’t sought any revenge of his own against those who had used and abused him so cruelly.
“Yet you haven’t sought any vengeance against HYDRA.”
Bucky laughed, incredulous and sad. “No. No, I—” he paused, worrying at his lower lip with his teeth. “If I ran into anyone trying to take me in again, I—I handled it. And I hit a few old HYDRA bases, took ‘em out so they couldn’t use them. But—no. Revenge?” He shook his head. “It’s too big. If I’d let it, it would have taken up all the room inside of me, and there wouldn’t be anything left of me. I had to let it go.”
T’Challa thought of Zemo, of his infuriating calm in the interview room, of how he hadn’t evidenced even the barest sliver of true remorse at the collateral damage of his precious, misguided vengeance. It had been one of the hardest things T’Challa had ever done, to look his father’s murderer in the eye and spare his life—save it, even. For long moments of fury in that interview room, T’Challa had very sincerely wished that he hadn’t done so. He had told Zemo, back in Siberia, that he was done letting vengeance consume him. Easier said than done. The desire for vengeance still gnawed away at him, like a rat chewing at the walls of his spirit.
“I confess, I am finding that difficult. Is there no vengeance you would seek against Zemo? He has upended your life, and used you as a weapon, has broken your friend’s team.”
“No. It would only give him what he wants.” That was more or less the same conclusion T’Challa had reached, but the calm, if pained, acceptance Bucky demonstrated felt beyond him.
“That’s all? As easy as that?”
“Who said it was easy?” asked Bucky, some heat in his voice now. “You know, in Berlin, Zemo made like he was sorry, for what he was about to make me do, but he didn’t give a shit. Like he said to you, he ‘regretted the necessity,’ and I was just the convenient gun he could point and shoot. And I hate that. But I won’t be that again. That’s the absolutely fucking least I owe to the people they used me to kill. I get to choose, and this is my choice.” Bucky looked down for a moment, mouth twisting into a sad sort of smile, before he lifted his head again to meet T’Challa’s eyes with that same steely implacability that had first sent a thrill through T’Challa months ago. “It’s all I have.”
T’Challa could scarcely fathom it. He had been robbed of his father; Bucky had been robbed of almost everything, loss after loss, so much that T’Challa didn’t understand how he endured, or why. He didn’t understand how Bucky wasn’t consumed with rage and the desire for retribution. Zemo had lost most of his world too, and it had turned him into a hollow monster. What he did understand better now was Bucky’s decision to enter cryostasis: a choice to live in the silence between heartbeats until he could be assured that all of his choices were his own. There was strength and bravery there that humbled T’Challa.
“Bucky, I am more grateful than I can say that I didn’t succeed in killing you.”
Bucky stared at him for a few long seconds, then threw his head back and laughed. T’Challa was a little stung by Bucky’s mirth. “I am serious!” Bucky just grinned in response.
“Oh, I know. Just—pretty sure you’re the first person who’s ever said that to me. And it’s weird, is all. Thanks, though, I guess.”
“You’re most welcome.”
It was late by the time T’Challa had everything he needed to start the next round of work on Bucky’s prosthetic. They would have finished sooner had they not wandered along various conversational digressions. T’Challa considered it time well spent, given what a pleasant conversational partner Bucky was; still, he needed sleep. Bucky might be headed straight back to cryostasis, but T’Challa had another packed schedule tomorrow.
“That’s more than enough for this round, I think. I should have a basic prototype for you to test, when I see you next.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” said Bucky, giving him another sweet smile. Part of T’Challa started very seriously considering what else he could steal, or buy, that would lead to the reappearance of that smile. Also, he was maybe beginning to understand Steve Rogers a little better. If he had been gifted with this for the better part of his life, T’Challa couldn’t really blame him for waging wars to keep it.
As they were about to part ways on leaving the workshop, Bucky hesitated. T’Challa waited a moment, patient; Bucky’s heart rate had ticked up a little, and there was some apprehension on his face.
“Um, sorry if this is terrible etiquette, but—” he said, then stepped forward to give T’Challa a very quick hug. He only had a fleeting impression of warmth and solid bulk before it was over, and even so, T’Challa could practically feel Okoye give a full-body twitch of aborted violence behind him. But before things turned bloody, Bucky pulled away, waving the notebooks in his hand awkwardly. “Thank you. Again,” he said, and walked away.
T’Challa stood stunned for a moment, a probably somewhat stupid smile lingering on his face, then turned to walk briskly toward the royal quarters. Okoye sauntered along beside him, amusement practically seeping from her pores. Apparently, satisfied that the too-brief embrace hadn’t been an assassination attempt, she now felt free to be amused at her king’s expense.
“This seems not unlike slowly befriending a feral, injured lion,” she remarked.
She was not, perhaps, far off the mark. T’Challa gave her a half-hearted quelling glare anyway, and maintained a hopefully regal silence. Something fierce and warm had kindled in him during that very brief embrace. He would have to nurse the hopeful flame of it until the next time Bucky stepped back into the world.
After Bucky returned to cryostasis, T’Challa found his thoughts returning to what Bucky had said again and again. I had to let it go. He knew it couldn’t have been as simple as that, that Bucky had simply distilled untold days of pain and anguish into a conclusion that only seemed inevitable to him. T’Challa’s own decision to let go of vengeance had taken one rush to judgment, a lot of ill-advised fights, a not insignificant amount of property damage, and witnessing the smoking wreckage of someone else’s unhinged quest for revenge.
What he was only now beginning to realize was that, having made his choice, he had to keep choosing it. Even when faced with Zemo’s sickening calm, even when the wound of his father’s absence tore open again and again, even when he felt and saw the consequences of Zemo’s actions. This, T’Challa thought, was the truth Bucky had probably already learned: to let go of what could consume you was a choice that had to be made every day.
It was not an easy truth to live with. It sent T’Challa out into the palace halls at night, prowling the empty, quiet hallways with only one of his Dora Milaje as a shadow. He wasn’t the only one roaming around though. He spotted Steve, standing alone on one of the balconies that overlooked the falls, a statuesque sentinel in the moonlight. T’Challa went out to join him.
“Your Majesty,” acknowledged Steve.
“Please, call me T’Challa, Steve. We needn’t stand on formality. Certainly not at 2 AM.” Steve gave him a wry tilt of the head. “What brings you out here?”
“An old soldier’s regrets, I guess. And I don’t need as much sleep as most. You?”
“A young king’s doubts.”
Other than the distant roar of the falls, the palace was silent, and he and Steve shared the silence in comfort for a moment, contemplating the moon-soaked view.
“Bucky mentioned you got his notebooks back for him. I know it’s not really my place to say it, but thank you anyway.”
“Thanks are not necessary. It was my actions that caused him to lose them in the first place. It was only right that I retrieve them.”
Steve considered him carefully for a long moment, and T’Challa bore the scrutiny. “I understand why you’re harboring a bunch of superhero fugitives. It’s dangerous, but you’re playing the long game for your country, and with the Accords. But—”Steve shook his head. “You’ve been—kind. To Bucky, especially, and to Wanda.”
“You are wondering if there is an agenda in that.”
“Some. I am King of Wakanda, and I must act in my people’s best interests. It is in their best interests that the Winter Soldier and Scarlet Witch not be potential weapons to be used against them. But it’s also the right thing to do.” T’Challa paused, then admitted, “And I like Bucky. I admire him, even. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.” What T’Challa didn’t admit was ‘he smiled at me and I’d like to see that again, preferably all the time.’
Close second best was the way Steve was smiling at him now though, a wide and pleased grin, his eyes sparkling. T’Challa had the feeling that he’d just won the lifelong approval and loyalty of Steve Rogers.
“Yeah? I feel like everyone looks at him and sees the Winter Soldier. And I know he’s different now, but he’s still Bucky too. And that’s—he’s a guy worth knowing, you know? He’s a good man.”
“He is very dear to you,” observed T’Challa, with what he thought was admirable restraint. There was a lively palace betting pool on just what the relationship between Captain America and his Sergeant was. T’Challa couldn’t encourage it, but he could see why it existed. There was something of the fairy tale about their relationship, whatever the exact nature of that relationship was.
“He sees me,” said Steve. T’Challa frowned; the statement didn’t precisely seem to follow T’Challa’s observation. Steve glanced at T’Challa and elaborated. “He sees me, always has. Small and sick, big and strong, shield or no shield, doesn’t matter.”
It wasn’t an answer that would win anyone the prize in the betting pool, but T’Challa understood what Steve was saying. To be wholly known, and loved, was a rare and priceless gift. To a man like Steve Rogers, adrift in a time that wasn’t his own, it must have been incalculably more precious. How steep the cost, though. How terrible the miracle that had brought Steve and Bucky here.
It occurred to T’Challa that Steve, too, probably had the same choice to reckon with that Bucky and T’Challa did. Had Steve learned to let go?
“I asked Bucky why he never sought vengeance against HYDRA. He said he had to let it go, or else there would have been nothing left of him. That is what’s keeping me awake tonight. I chose justice over vengeance, but still, it eats at me.”
Steve closed his eyes, as if to weather a blow. “He’s always been a better man than me. Me, I choose the fight, every time. When he died—fell—I went after HYDRA. Then after DC, finding out they were still around—it was the worst day of my life, reading the Winter Soldier file. And no matter how many HYDRA bases I take out, how many fucking heads I cut off, it’s not enough, for what they did to him.”
“No, it wouldn’t be. But it won’t fix anything either.” Killing Zemo wouldn’t undo the damage he’d done. The cool, logical part of T’Challa knew it, and yet, still there was a howling knot of rage in him that insisted it could have no comfort but the death of his father’s murderer at his own hands.
“Don’t I know it. But you know, in Lagos, when we were going after Rumlow—Rumlow said Bucky had remembered me, in DC. They had to wipe him mid-op. Rumlow told me that, and I wanted to kill him with my bare hands. Except he blew up right in front of me, and it didn’t—didn’t fix anything, didn’t make me feel any better, didn't do a damn thing for Bucky.”
“What you can do for Bucky is to be here, now.”
“Yeah. If he’ll let me.” Steve looked at him. “And you? Seems to me you’re doing better than me already.”
“Maybe. Attempting to fix what Zemo has broken helps, I suppose.”
That was slow work, a plan coalescing out of disparate parts to turn the Accords into something other than the instrument of control General Ross so clearly wanted them to be. Too slow, for warriors like T’Challa and Steve, who wanted a battle to win decisively. But T’Challa was also a king, and that demanded patience and diplomacy, on a different sort of battlefield. That’s what his father would have said anyway.
“Yeah. Let’s hope it can be fixed.”
“My King, there is a call from Captain Rogers. He says it is a matter of some urgency.”
T’Challa looked up from from the report on grain yields from this year’s harvest, and frowned. “Thank you, Mthunzi. Go ahead and transfer the call.”
Steve and his team had left for an intelligence gathering mission on HYDRA two weeks ago, and were—T’Challa glanced at his watch—due back in a few hours, as far as T’Challa was aware. Bucky was scheduled to be woken again in a couple of days, and T’Challa had assumed Steve would be there.
“Steve? I hope all is well.”
“It’s fine, we’re fine, we got the intel we needed,” said Steve, voice strained through the static on the line. “We’re just grounded. There’s no flying through this storm we’re stuck in, and the roads aren’t in good enough shape either—” The sound of other voices and static cut him off.
“And you do not think you will be able to return in time to greet Bucky on his waking,” finished T’Challa.
“Yeah.” There was a world of misery and guilt in the single word. “If you could hold off a day on waking him—”
T’Challa pulled up a display with the cryostasis chamber’s data and visual feed. Everything was as it should be: all readouts stable and normal, and Bucky looking peaceful, if pallid with the chill of stasis. “I’m sorry, Steve, but the chamber’s warming process has already been initiated. Halting or reversing it could cause complications.”
Complications were unlikely, to be sure. But T’Challa wasn’t willing to risk it, and he knew Mandisa would agree. She certainly wouldn’t countenance a delay just for Steve’s sake.
“Right, of course, sorry. I just—I promised, and he shouldn’t be alone—”
“He will not be alone, Steve.”
“No, I know, your staff are amazing, but—someone should be there for him. I should—I can’t leave him—” Steve was starting to sound like he was on the verge of actual tears, to T’Challa’s alarm.
With a few gestures, he pulled up a video feed of the med suite shortly after Bucky’s last waking, and took it in quickly even as he reassured Steve. On the display, he saw Bucky shake and shiver in Steve’s arms, face tucked into Steve’s neck as Steve whispered into Bucky’s ear. The way Bucky’s hand clenched in the fabric of Steve’s shirt made T’Challa’s decision for him.
“I’ll be there when he wakes.” He ruthlessly bumped an appointment with his chief of staff to make room for it in his schedule; going over the plans for the upcoming dinner with the heads of the White Gorilla tribe could wait. He eyed the resulting changed schedule, and moved his lunch earlier. He’d eat with Bucky.
Steve’s sigh of relief was audible even over the bad connection. “Thank you. Please just tell him I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Of course. And I know he won't want to go back under before seeing you, no matter how long you are delayed.”
The process of waking Bucky from cryostasis was as gentle and close to waking from true sleep as they could make it. Still, there was little to be done about Bucky’s initial disorientation, or the time it took for his body to finish warming up. Bucky was at his most vulnerable then for reasons both physiological and psychological. And while the medical staff took every care with him, they were no replacement for being met with affection and tenderness. T’Challa would be poor second best to Steve in offering that, but he could offer strength and kindness and friendship enough to ease Bucky’s waking.
As soon as Mandisa and her staff pulled Bucky from the chamber, T’Challa stepped forward to take Bucky’s weight and walk him to the bed nearby. Bucky squinted at him in confusion. He looked very young.
“You’re not—Steve, where’s—”
T’Challa settled him on the bed and sat next to him, and held on tight against the shivers wracking Bucky’s solid frame. He could hear Bucky’s heart rate start to speed up, could smell the beginnings of Bucky’s fear and anxiety.
“Shh, be easy, Bucky, it’s me, T’Challa,” he said, pitching his voice low and quiet. “Steve’s fine, he’s safe. He’s just running a little late. Stranded by bad weather. We can call him in a moment.”
T’Challa had worried that Bucky would pull away from him and resist comfort, and then he’d be subjected to Steve Rogers’ disappointment, which was distressingly potent even against the King of Wakanda. But Bucky held on to T’Challa much as he had held on to Steve. T’Challa felt him growing warmer by the moment, and he rubbed Bucky’s back, as if the small contribution of heat from the friction of the action would warm him up faster. And maybe it did. The force of Bucky’s shaking had started to subside some, now more like the fine tremors of a leaf under gentle rainfall.
“I’m sorry, you don’t have to…you have more important things to do than this, I’m guessing,” mumbled Bucky into his shoulder.
“Approving seating charts for a dinner? I assure you, I prefer this.”
“My King, I must see to my patient.”
T’Challa pulled back, but not far, as Mandisa took the relevant readings and asked Bucky the standard post-stasis questions. Bucky answered them, somewhat haltingly, leaning against T’Challa. His heart rate was still elevated. T’Challa raised his eyebrows in a silent question to Mandisa: is this normal? She gave a small nod.
“Thank you Bucky, that’s all for now. Same routine as last time: we’ll get some food in you, and then we’ll talk about what we’re going to try next, okay? Once Steve has returned.”
Bucky tensed at the mention of Steve. “Can we—”
“Of course,” said T’Challa, and entered a few taps and twists to his bead bracelet to contact Steve.
“T’Challa, is everything okay? Is Bucky—?” All of Bucky’s tension melted away as soon as he heard Steve’s voice.
“All is well, Steve, I’m here with Bucky.”
Steve’s sigh of relief was audible. “Hey Buck. I’m so sorry I’m not there, there was this storm and we were delayed—”
“S’okay. Don’t want you to crash another plane,” said Bucky, and Steve laughed.
Bucky’s heart rate slowed, finally, and he rested his head against T’Challa’s shoulder. Perhaps it was just transference, T’Challa being the nearest warm body while Steve’s voice filled the room, but the show of trust was dear to T’Challa anyway. He brought his arm back around Bucky’s shoulders, pleased to feel that his shivering had nearly abated now.
“Our ETA’s in about an hour and a half. Sooner, maybe,” said Steve.
“We’ll see you then. Bucky and I will share a meal, in the meantime.” T’Challa gestured to Ayo, standing guard by the doorway, who nodded and summoned an aide to see to it.
“Thank you, T’Challa. See you both soon.”
“So tell me, what’s been going on in the world in the past couple months?” asked Bucky, finally shifting away from T’Challa.
T’Challa updated Bucky on the world news and what Steve’s ragtag band of former Avengers were up to, and once their meal arrived and he’d exhausted that well, on the news of the palace and Wakanda. Bucky was mostly quiet, offering the occasional wry or insightful comment as he slowly ate his food. T’Challa’s other duties were pressing, but he didn’t want to leave before Steve arrived. And Bucky’s company was pleasant, a welcome respite from the demands and agendas of government.
It was just as T’Challa was about to make his regretful apologies and leave that Steve arrived in the medical suite, a little flushed as if he had run all the way from the palace’s airfield. He may well have, thought T’Challa, amused. Steve’s usual solemnity fell from his face as he greeted his friend with a smile, one which Bucky returned with that sweet, unshadowed smile of his. T’Challa felt vindicated in his own response to that smile when he saw Steve look visibly joy-struck at the sight of it, before he covered his reaction by embracing Bucky.
The two clung to each other for a long moment, long enough that T’Challa was wondering if he should just leave, goodbye or no goodbye, when they pulled apart.
“You’re alright? Waking up from cryo went okay?” Steve asked.
“Don’t be a worrywart. I’m fine, T’Challa was here.”
Steve stepped toward T’Challa and took his hand in an enthusiastic handshake. “Thank you again for that, T’Challa. I know you have a lot of demands on your time.”
“Yeah, thank you,” added Bucky, eyes crinkling at the corners. T’Challa smiled back at him, a little helplessly. “I know I keep saying it, and it’s not enough—”
Before he could second guess himself, he brought a hand to Bucky’s face, and brushed a thumb across the sharp plane of his cheekbone. “This is more than thanks enough.” Bucky’s eyes went wide and his face heated under T’Challa’s hand, which T’Challa took as his cue to make a speedy retreat before the situation grew awkward.
Steve grinned at him as he left, some secret joke dancing in his eyes, which T’Challa only acknowledged with a hopefully regal tilt of his head. Ayo raised an eyebrow as she fell into step with him, which he pointedly ignored. The focus of the palace betting pool was probably about to change, judging by the avid expressions of the researchers unnecessarily lingering in the medical suite. That didn’t matter though, when set against the warm satisfaction of Bucky leaning into him.
T’Challa was in cabinet meetings for almost all of the next day, and the minutiae of kingship took up most of his attention. He knew Mandisa and her team were trying the first of their treatments to remove Bucky’s trigger words, and in the rare moment of downtime, T’Challa spared a thought for how it was going. Not disastrously, he would have been informed if anyone’s safety was at risk, but he didn’t know if it was going well, either.
For weeks, Mandisa and her team had been working on formulating a drug that, if all went well, would hopefully induce a receptive state of consciousness in which they could begin to break the associations between the trigger words and compliance, without resorting to the inhumane and torturous methods HYDRA had used. T’Challa knew both Bucky and Steve had balked a little, when told about the cocktail of psychoactive and anesthetic drugs Mandisa planned to use. T’Challa didn’t blame them. Bucky had been concerned about how dangerous he could be when in an altered state, and Steve had been worried that some novel concoction of drugs would injure Bucky’s mind more.
But Mandisa made her case well, and if this worked, removing the triggers could prove to be as relatively simple as doses of the drug coupled with what amounted to talk therapy sessions. The process would likely still be long and slow, and difficult for Bucky, but it was a comparatively low-risk option to start with before they moved on to riskier or more drastic measures if this one didn’t work. A carefully controlled environment and Ms. Maximoff on standby to render Bucky unconscious from a distance if necessary would be enough to keep everyone safe. Today was meant to be a trial run, to see how Bucky tolerated the drugs.
Not well, it turned out.
Mandisa called T’Challa just after his last meeting for the day.
“My King, I have an update for you on how Bucky’s treatment went today. Shall I begin with the good news, or the bad news?”
She sounded cheerful enough, so it couldn’t be that bad. “Good news first, please.”
“Well! The good news is that Bucky hasn’t harmed either himself or others!” This seemed like a low bar. “And the drugs have not caused any further damage to his brain.” The bar could, apparently, dip lower.
“And the bad news?”
“Unfortunately, Bucky has not reacted well to the drugs. There was little effect at first, and we had to make some dosage adjustments to account for his enhanced metabolism. When it did take effect, we had some positive results at first, but—he’s on what is colloquially known as a ‘bad trip’ at this point. We knew this was a possibility, and Bucky said he’d wait it out if it happened, but—he’s in some distress.” Mandisa paused, considering her words. “I don’t like to leave him like this. He’s not responding to me, and he’s reacting badly to Steve.”
“He’s in no danger though?” T’Challa redirected his course from heading to his own rooms, and turned to go to the medical suite instead.
“No danger,” confirmed Mandisa, but she sounded unhappy. “I’m concerned we’re undoing any progress we’ve made though. I don’t want to re-traumatize him. If someone could just talk him through it, make sure he feels safe—he responded well to you straight out of stasis yesterday.”
T’Challa would have thought Steve would be the best option for making Bucky feel safe. “I’ll be there in a few minutes. Perhaps I can help.”
He arrived in the medical suite’s observation room, and found Steve pacing, Sam Wilson looking grim, and Mandisa looking calm but concerned. Steve barely acknowledged T’Challa’s entrance, his gaze fixed on Bucky as he made a frantic circuit of the small space.
T’Challa looked in on Bucky through the one-way glass. The room was as comfortable as they could make it without compromising safety, but there was no concealing the disconcerting resemblance to a prison cell, even if Bucky wasn’t restrained. Bucky sat on the bed, knees drawn up and staring at the wall, eyes wide and terrified. He was mumbling something T’Challa had to strain to hear: “Barnes, sergeant, 32557038, Barnes, sergeant—” Name, rank, and serial number. Bucky was trapped in some nightmare of an old memory.
“How long has he been like this?”
“A couple of hours,” answered Mandisa. “Steve was with him earlier, but something sent him down a bad path in his mind—he’s not recognizing Steve, at the moment.”
“I can’t leave him like this,” said Steve, ragged. “I have to—”
“Steve, you’ll only make it worse,” cautioned Wilson.
“Why? Why is he scared of me? He shouldn’t ever—”
Wilson just looked at Steve, a terrible sort of sympathy in his eyes. Steve was brought short by it, and stopped his pacing to confront Wilson. “Sam. Why.”
“You ever see a photo of a young Alexander Pierce?”
Steve blanched, horror and fury warring on his face. He reeled, turned to brace himself against the wall with his hands, head hanging down. He was fairly vibrating with barely restrained violence, a fury that could find no outlet. Pierce was long dead. Wilson put a hand on Steve’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” said Mandisa.
“Pierce was one of his old handlers. Would’ve looked a lot like Steve, a couple decades ago. And Bucky’s strongest memories of Steve are probably still of when Steve was—smaller.” That drew an awful, wounded animal sort of sound from Steve.
“Have you had any success reaching him?” T’Challa asked Wilson. Wilson and Bucky had a somewhat antagonistic relationship, to be sure, but to T’Challa’s eyes it was the antagonism of siblings, and lacking true antipathy. If Wilson could offer Bucky any comfort right now, T’Challa had no doubt he would.
“I tried, but he’s not really recognizing me either right now. Just keeps telling me I have to get out, it’s not safe.” Of course that would be Bucky’s concern. Everyone else’s safety before his own.
“Let me try.”
“No offense, but what makes you think you’ll have any better luck? His first association with you is gonna be that time you tried to claw him to death. You’ll probably just trigger a flight or fight response.”
T’Challa dearly hoped Bucky’s first association with him wasn’t still violence. “I didn’t yesterday. He was calm enough with me straight out of stasis.”
Wilson narrowed his eyes at T’Challa. “Yeah? You were there to give Barnes a ‘welcome back to life’ hug and hold on while he tried to remember he wasn’t about to be electroshock mind wiped again? Because if all you did was swing by with a comforting pat on the shoulder and a ‘Steve’ll be here soon,’ before leaving, I gotta tell you going in there right now is gonna take more than that.”
T’Challa felt his hackles rise. He usually enjoyed Wilson’s determinedly unimpressed sass, but not now.
“Sam,” chided Steve.
“I know it will. I didn’t pat him on the shoulder and leave. I held on.”
That surprised Wilson. He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. “Okay then. If he gets agitated, you need to get out. And you shouldn’t touch him, not without asking. If you get a chokehold to the throat, don’t say I didn't warn you.”
“Noted, Mr. Wilson.”
When T’Challa entered the room, Bucky’s stare snapped to him. There was no recognition there, to his dismay, only fear. The entire room stank of fear and stress. T’Challa moved close to Bucky with careful slowness. Bucky was giving off a feverish heat, his face flushed and hair damp with sweat, and his heartbeat had the too-fast drumbeat rhythm of the terrified. The dark of his pupils nearly swallowed the slate blue of his eyes.
“Mandisa, he seems feverish,” murmured T’Challa, knowing she’d hear from the observation room, and that he’d be able to hear her response.
“Yes, it’s a side effect of the drugs, and his metabolism’s reaction to them. I’ve been monitoring his temperature, he’s not in danger yet.”
He was past the point of no return now, and T’Challa had to admit, if only to himself, that he didn’t entirely know what he was doing. Official royal visits to hospitals weren’t preparation enough for this. Generally speaking, he offered some comforting touch and said some bland condolences and encouragements, and then left. Bucky’s distress required more from him than that, and if T’Challa could offer him any comfort, sheer human decency demanded he try. And more than that obligation, T’Challa couldn’t leave him caught in some personal, drug-induced hell and still sleep easy in his own bed.
So T’Challa braced himself as if for battle, and offered up a prayer to the Panther for strength and wisdom. Battle seemed unlikely; Bucky was in no condition to offer a fight. He was shaking, and curled up very small on the room’s bare bed, arm tight around his knees. This battle would only be won with gentleness, the sort of gentleness his father had forged in his wisdom and in his strength, and that T’Challa, in his headstrong youth, had not valued enough. He had to hope that he was enough his father’s son to summon up some measure of that impossibly strong gentleness now, for the man he had chosen to help when his father was beyond any earthly help.
“Hello, Bucky. I’m here to sit with you, if that’s alright.”
“It’s not safe,” rasped Bucky, and T’Challa knew then what he had to say.
He sat beside Bucky on the bed. Bucky gave a full body flinch. “I know it must feel that way right now, but I promise you, it’s safe. I am T’Challa, remember? And it is 2017, and we are in Wakanda, where you are safe.”
Bucky shook his head convulsively. “There’s the chair and the mission, there’s always the—I don’t want—I don’t want to fight, I don’t—” The desperation in his voice was making T’Challa’s own throat tighten in sympathy.
“No chair, no mission. No one to fight. You’re safe, I swear it. On my honor as King of Wakanda and as the Black Panther, you are as safe as it is within my power to make you, and my power is considerable. I won’t hurt you. No one will hurt you here.” T’Challa paused. That probably wasn’t what Bucky was most scared of. “No one will make you hurt anyone else here.”
“Wakanda. 2017,” said Bucky, brow furrowing, finally looking at him.
“Yes. You’re here to get better, remember? Steve’s here too, he’s just outside this room.” Another, more violent shudder this time, and his gaze skittered away from T’Challa.
“No, he isn’t. He’s alive and well. He wants very much to see you right now, he’s very worried. Will you let him come in?”
“Not real. It’s not—”
“It’s real, I’m real. Here—may I touch you, Bucky?”
The tension in Bucky snapped taut and he looked at T’Challa, more awareness of the here and now in his eyes. Two months ago, you touched me unbidden, and I know it was an act of courage, T’Challa wanted to say. Yesterday you let me hold you.
Instead, he said, “I won’t hurt you. I promise,” and waited, keeping his body language open and unthreatening. That took no small amount of effort. It felt a little like Bucky was weighing and measuring his soul, his stare gone sniper-sharp and penetrating.
Eventually Bucky sucked in a gasping breath and nodded, so T’Challa pushed back some of the sweat-damp hair from his forehead, tucking it behind his ear. This, he hoped, would be a touch with no painful echoes. He tried not to show any visible concern about how hot Bucky’s skin was against his hand. If Mandisa wasn’t worried, he wouldn’t worry either.
“See? Real. Steve is real too. You can see for yourself, if he comes in.” T’Challa kept stroking Bucky’s hair, hoping it was doing some good. By slow, painful degrees, Bucky went something close to pliant at T’Challa’s side.
T’Challa stayed where he was as Steve entered the room, just in case Bucky didn’t react well to Steve’s appearance. His heart rate spiked, but that was all. He was looking at Steve with a despair that suggested he already thought Steve wasn’t real.
“You were smaller.”
“Yeah, I was. Still me though, Buck, I promise. I’m real. I’m here.”
Steve knelt beside the cot, and Bucky reached out a hand to trace his face, as if to test the truth of it. Steve went tremblingly still under the touch, his whole, desperate focus on Bucky. T’Challa was, suddenly, entirely superfluous, a feeling he wasn’t much accustomed to. He didn’t dare leave the room yet though, afraid to puncture the bubble-fragile moment.
Bereft of defenses, Bucky’s every emotion flickered across his face, like the waters of a very clear lake rippling and moving with every breath of wind, and just now he looked confused and wondering and grief-stricken.
“Steve.” Bucky’s fingers swept over the crooked bump in Steve’s nose. “My Steve.”
At that, Steve’s expression broke into a tenderness so strong it looked like pain. “Yeah, Buck.” He grasped Bucky’s hand in his own, and turned his head to press a kiss to Bucky’s fingers. “Your Steve. Always that, I swear.”
T’Challa should have looked away, given them some semblance of privacy. But it was hard to tear his eyes from Bucky, even as it hurt to look at someone so utterly laid bare. “You were dead and they took you from me. Over and over.”
“I know,” said Steve, voice cracking on the words. “No one ever will again, I promise.” Bucky didn’t look especially convinced, despair sitting heavy on his features. Steve pressed their foreheads together. “I promise, Buck. It’s over, you can come home.”
A spasm of pain and black humor crossed Bucky’s face. “And where’s that, now?”
“Me. With me, anywhere, any when. Please, come home to me. Or, if you don’t want to—you were doing alright, without me, you can—” A sob tore its way free of Bucky’s mouth.
“Doing alright without you? You think that’s what that was? I hurt you, I almost killed you, I’m not safe—”
“I don’t care, I know it wasn’t your choice, just—come home. Please.”
Some silent conversation took place between them then, in touch and in expression, and they must have reached a resolution, because Bucky tilted forward into Steve, his shaking tension disappearing abruptly. He said, “Okay,” and Steve gathered him into his arms in a crushing embrace.
T’Challa crept out of the room then. He needn’t have bothered with stealth, Steve and Bucky were blind and deaf to anything that wasn’t each other. When he entered the observation room again, Wilson was leaning against the wall in relief, and Mandisa was beaming.
“You did very well, my King.” T’Challa didn’t think he’d done very much at all, but it seemed to have been enough.
“Jesus christ, if I’d known all it would take for Steve to deal with some of his shit was to get Barnes tripping balls, I’d’ve said we should do it a lot sooner.”
“I thought this was about Bucky…‘dealing with his shit,’” said T’Challa, frowning at Wilson.
“Yeah, well, Steve’s been nobly refraining from asking Bucky for anything for months now, all ‘if you love someone, set them free.’ He needed to ask.”
“And Bucky, I think needed to be asked,” said Mandisa. “This isn’t how I would have chosen to do this, perhaps, but this is good progress. A solid foundation from which to tackle the more difficult work of the trigger words.”
The next day, T’Challa had a grand total of twenty minutes free on his schedule. It wasn’t long enough to do much of anything, and any other time, he would have used the time to meditate. Today though, he hadn’t been able to shake the persistent nagging undercurrent of worry for Bucky. When he’d woken early that morning, he’d checked the security feed on Bucky’s observation room: Bucky and Steve were curled up together on the small cot, Steve tucked against Bucky as if he were much smaller, Bucky’s hand clenched in the fabric of Steve’s shirt. Looking at it, T’Challa had had the sense of looking into the past, of an entire lifetime of closeness distilled into the trusting curve of Steve’s neck, and the sweet lean of Bucky’s body towards him. A rare glimpse into the boys they had been, decades ago. It was a heartwarming sight, to be sure, but not one that told T’Challa much about how Bucky was really doing.
So he spent his twenty free minutes tracking Bucky down, and found him outside in the palace gardens, one of the Dora Milaje standing silent guard, for him more than from him. He was seated cross-legged on the ground, one of the many palace cats purring happily in his lap. In the bright sunshine and against the lush green of the gardens, the white of his clothes made him nearly glow. The scene brought a smile to T’Challa’s face, filled his heart with a honey-sweet golden warmth.
“I think the palace might have a stray cat problem.”
T’Challa sank down to sit beside Bucky. “They are not strays. They’re holy avatars of the goddess Bast, and they are given free reign of the palace in Her honor.”
“Hope I’m not offending the goddess then, petting Her avatar.”
“She would let you know, if you were.” T’Challa studied Bucky. He was at ease, and his eyes were clear and calm, untroubled for once. His stillness was the stillness of peace more than his usual wary exhaustion. “Are you well, Bucky?”
“Yeah, I’m alright.” T’Challa put a hand on Bucky’s forehead, testing his temperature. Bucky scrunched up his nose at him, but suffered the attention. He felt a little smug about that.
“You’re still too warm.”
“That’s the serum, me and Steve run hot. Do I gotta deal with your nagging now too? How out of it was I yesterday?”
“Rather out of it. I am sorry yesterday’s avenue of treatment wasn’t successful.”
Bucky shrugged. “It’s okay.” He frowned thoughtfully down at the cat in his lap, still petting her. “Didn’t do much for the trigger words, but I think it helped anyway. I feel—better.”
“Good. I’m glad.”
“You were there, I think?” His gaze was still fixed on the cat.
“Yes, for a little while.”
“I didn’t hurt you.” The uncertainty in Bucky’s voice made T’Challa ache. “Steve said I didn’t, but—”
“No, you didn’t hurt me. Or anyone else.”
Bucky looked up and gave him a tight little smile. “Hey, so tell me about your day. I’m betting it’s been more interesting than mine. If you have time, that is.”
T’Challa glanced at his watch. “I have ten minutes. Though I was also hoping to go over the recent progress on your prosthetic this evening, if you’re up for it. I have a prototype of the frame complete, I’d like your thoughts.”
“Sure. Lookin’ forward to it.”
Ten minutes later, having recounted his day full of reviewing pending legislation and meetings with cabinet members, they were interrupted by Sam Wilson ambling into the royal gardens.
“There you are, Steve was about to mount a damn search party—oh, sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Not at all. I was just leaving.” T’Challa rose to his feet, and looked down at Bucky, who seemed disinclined to move given his lapful of cat. “I will see you tonight, in my workshop?”
“Of course,” said Bucky, smiling up at him, and from this angle the sunlight illuminated his eyes to a molten silver-blue. T’Challa gave him what was probably a slightly besotted smile back. Forget the Winter Soldier’s undeniably deadly skills, this smile was a weapon of mass distraction. He stayed a beat too long, caught in the abruptly perfect moment, everything clear and sharp, and he let his senses expand to encompass all of it: the warmth of the sunlight, the heady green scent of the gardens, the rumbling purr of the cat, and deeper under that, the slow and calm thump of Bucky’s strong heart. A breeze stirred in the garden, making a stray piece of Bucky’s hair fall into his eyes. T’Challa smoothed it back into place, pleased when Bucky neither startled nor tensed under him, his only reaction being his smile turning a little shy. T’Challa only grudgingly took leave of Bucky. That, he thought with warm satisfaction, had been a better use of his twenty minutes than meditation.
As he made his way out of the gardens, he heard Wilson say, “You planning on staying out here all day?”
“Well, I wasn’t, but then this cat sat in my lap. And I’m reliably informed that she’s an avatar of the goddess Bast, so, y’know, I can’t move her.” T’Challa stifled a laugh.
“Right, of course. Cat people, I swear.”
“Awww, bird man doesn’t like cats?” A brief scuffling noise, and then T’Challa was mostly out of hearing range. It took the length of his walk back to his office to school his face back into some semblance of kingly composure.
T’Challa had the skeleton frame and power source of the prosthetic ready for Bucky’s input and testing that evening. The prosthetic looked a little macabre unfinished as it was, and held up with clamps on the workshop table. Stripped to the basics, there was very little human about it. The final product would look much like Bucky’s previous prosthetic though, and Bucky had eschewed any suggestions to make the prosthetic look more natural.
Bucky didn’t look alarmed by the half-finished state of the prosthetic when he entered the workshop with Nakia, just curious.
“Good evening, Bucky. I hope Bast’s avatar relinquished her hold on your lap some time before dark.”
“Hi. Yeah, I was released from my duties not long after you left,” said Bucky with a grin. “How was your dinner with the ambassador?”
“Dull, but productive. Come, take a look at the prosthetic and the specs, let me know what you think. This is only the skeleton, essentially, but I’ve completed most of the wiring and the biomechanical interface. If you’re willing, we can plug it in, so to speak, and get a preliminary sense of how well it’s functioning.”
“That’s not something Mandisa should be here for?”
“No, that shouldn’t be necessary. Obviously if you’re in any pain, or uncomfortable, we can stop, but I’ve dialed back the sensory feedback to just enough for basic proprioception. I’m mostly interested in the response time for movement.”
Bucky hesitated, mouth set in an anxious line. He’d gone tense and guarded, to T’Challa’s dismay, and T’Challa only barely resisted the impulse to place a comforting hand on Bucky’s shoulder. He didn’t think it would go well, just now, when Bucky was so clearly wrestling with the undoubtedly terrible memories he had of testing his prior prosthetic.
“We don’t have to do this right now.”
“Gonna have to do it eventually though, might as well be now.” Bucky rolled the tension out of his shoulders, and gave T’Challa a tense smile. “Go ahead.”
So T’Challa did, and talked Bucky through every step of what he was doing as he connected the prosthetic to the port in Bucky’s stump. He reserved some of his attention for Bucky’s vitals to gauge his response, and didn’t know whether to be saddened or impressed when barely any hint of the physical responses to stress and fear so evident to T’Challa’s heightened senses showed on Bucky’s impassive face. T’Challa didn’t like to see that careful lack of expression, nor did he like to hear Bucky’s voice this flat and even as he tersely answered questions. Some essential part of Bucky had retreated somewhere T’Challa couldn’t follow.
The tests of the prosthetic’s functioning went well at least, and the data from them would help fine tune the prosthetic’s performance even further. Bucky had even relaxed a little as test after test remained pain-free, and T’Challa gave him what he hoped was an encouraging smile once the tests were finished and the prosthetic unplugged from the port in his shoulder.
“Let me just take a quick look at this data, in case I need anything further from you, and then you can go. Feel free to review the rest of the specs and the design for the complete prosthetic in the meantime.”
T’Challa turned his attention to the data from the tests, which were encouraging. The prosthetic connected with the existing nerves and biomechanical interface well, with only a few adjustments required. He would have to do some stress testing of the power source, and otherwise put the prototype through its paces to simulate how it would do after the normal wear and tear of everyday use, and run some simulations for the neural load….thoughts of his next steps for the prosthetic kept his focus on the displays in front of him until Bucky spoke.
“This prosthetic is just as strong as the old one. Stronger even.”
That was a new tone in Bucky’s voice; T’Challa took a few seconds to place it as anger. He looked up from the displays and his notes to see Bucky’s face was set in harsh and stony lines, his hand clenched into a fist as he reviewed the technical specifications of the prosthetic.
“Yes, the improved vibranium alloy allows for greater strength. Is that a problem?”
Bucky glared up at T’Challa. “If I’m not a weapon, why are you giving me an arm that’s a weapon?”
“You are not a weapon,” affirmed T’Challa, and he put all the weight of his authority behind it, then considered his next words carefully. Bucky’s trust in him was still a fragile thing, and he knew this was the one point where it could shatter beyond all hope of rebuilding. “This arm—my intent was to give you the means with which to protect yourself, and others. It is, of course, your choice, and if you would prefer an alternative prosthetic, I would gladly design one for you.”
“None of this was my choice. The arm, this stupid, serumed up body, being in the goddamn 21st century—I didn’t choose any of this. I don’t want—” Bucky cut himself off, and shook his head, then went still and brittle. “I don’t want to kill people, I don’t want to fight.”
“I know. But I also know what you have chosen, and that is to protect people. My father always told me that a warrior’s first duty is the protection of others. Bucky, I have seen that your every free choice since I have met you has been to protect others, even at the expense of your own freedom.” It was part of what T’Challa admired most about him, even as the necessity of it grieved him.
“And it wasn’t enough! The very least thing I owe to the people I killed is to make sure I can’t be used again. I can’t ever make up for their deaths, but I can do that at least. If you give me a goddamn weapon like this—”
Of course Bucky’s concern was to do justice to those he had been forced to kill. He likely didn’t even know how remarkable that was.
“Then it will still be your choice how to use it. You have the capability to be dangerous with or without it, we both know that. I can only tell you that I see the man you are, and trust you with the strength you have been given. I hope that once we’ve removed the trigger words you can trust it too.”
Bucky just looked at him in disbelief. “You see—I don’t know what you see. I’m a minefield of a person, okay, you shouldn’t trust me with this.”
“And yet I do. Because I see a man who has endured the unimaginable, and who has still acted to protect others, who hasn’t sought vengeance over healing, or over justice.” He didn’t know if he could convince Bucky of this, but it seemed important to try.
“That’s a real pretty way to say that I ran away.”
T’Challa crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. “You are not going to argue me out of my esteem for you, Bucky, if that’s what your goal is.”
Bucky laughed, equal parts despair and surprise. “Okay, if you say so.”
“Truly though, if you want a different prosthetic, or no prosthetic at all—”
“No,” said Bucky, shaking his head. “It’s sticking my head in the sand to think I can just make myself harmless. I just--I can’t think past getting rid of the trigger words right now.” Bucky ran his hand over his face, some of that habitual weariness settling on his features again.
“That’s alright. Though…” T’Challa hesitated, wondering how best to put this. He was no healer, but he knew the work of Bucky’s recovery wouldn’t stop with the removal of the triggers. He didn’t want to discourage Bucky with the thought of all the work that remained ahead of him though. “You know you are entitled to all the healing my people can offer you, beyond the removal of the triggers.”
“Wow, that is some good royal diplomacy on display,” said Bucky with a small, sharp grin. “Yeah, I know, I’ll still be a fucked up mess after that. I’ll just be a fucked up mess who’s less likely to turn into a mindless killing machine. And who doesn’t need to be on ice, I guess. I get it, it’s fine.”
“Well, I look forward to your not needing to return to stasis. I would like the opportunity to get to know you better. To be a friend,” said T’Challa, and then immediately suppressed a wince at the stilted nature of his own words. Being royalty offered precious few occasions to make an unguarded, no strings attached offer of friendship, and T’Challa was out of practice. If he had ever been in practice. Alliances and the rare romantic relationship aside, his last earnest attempts had probably been at Oxford with fellow students who alternated between being overawed and affectedly blasé. Bucky was neither, which was frankly part of the appeal.
Bucky didn’t seem to mind the awkwardness, because he just smiled, warm and sweet. Maybe one day T’Challa would stop keeping count of each of these smiles, every one a small, miraculous gift. “Me too.” His smile turned sheepish, and he continued, “But, um, I haven’t really done this in—a while. By which I mean 70 years. So sorry in advance?”
“Done what?” T’Challa dismissed all of the schematics, and tipped his head towards the workshop door in silent invitation. They’d done more than enough for this night’s round of work on the prosthetic. Bucky fell into step beside him as they walked out of the workshop towards the palace’s living quarters.
“You know. Relationships. With people. Uh, friendship.”
“What about Steve?”
“Steve doesn’t count.”
Here was another chance to win someone the prize in the still-going-strong palace betting pool about Steve and Bucky. Judging by the way Nakia’s attention sharpened from her position flanking T’Challa, she had some stake in it. T’Challa really should disapprove, but it wasn’t as if he had the moral high ground given his own somewhat unseemly curiosity about Steve and Bucky’s relationship.
“Why doesn’t Steve count?”
“Steve’s Steve.” That didn’t really illuminate anything. Bucky narrowed his eyes at T’Challa. “You like Steve, right?”
“I—yes?” This, clearly, was a test of some sort. “Of course. He’s a man of great honor and moral conviction, and I value his opinion.”
This seemed to pass muster with Bucky. “Good.” They walked in silence for a few seconds.
“You two are very close,” said T’Challa, a careful non-question.
“Sure. Steveandbucky, Buckyandsteve.” The singsong cadence suggested it was a well-worn phrase. “That’s what everyone in the neighborhood used to say when we were growing up, like we were one person. ‘Inseparable’ according to history books and museum exhibits.”
And yet time and tragedy had separated them. “Not always inseparable.”
“No, not always. Though things don’t seem to go so well, when we’re separated,” said Bucky, a wry and sad curve to his lips now.
They reached the palace guest quarters where Steve and his team were staying, and where Steve and Bucky shared a suite when Bucky was out of stasis. “I hope your reunion is at least one of the undeniably good parts of this entire mess with Zemo and the Accords.”
Bucky’s eyes went soft and warm. “Yeah, it is.” He tilted his head and smiled at T’Challa. “Not the only one though.” T’Challa returned Bucky’s smile, and only barely resisted the urge to lean in and kiss him. That would definitely be inappropriate at this point.
Bucky turned away to open the suite door, and T’Challa heard Steve call out from somewhere inside. “Buck, that you?”
“And T’Challa,” answered Bucky before turning back to T’Challa. “Well, see you in a couple months, I guess. And thank you, again.”
“You’re more than welcome.” Steve joined them at the door, dressed like he was probably about to go to bed. He reviewed the scene before him with an amused twitch of his eyebrows, which was when T’Challa realized he and Bucky were standing close enough together for T’Challa to feel the heat of Bucky’s overclocked body.
T’Challa took a tiny step back and said, “Good evening, Steve.”
“Good evening,” returned Steve, and grinned wide. Steve and Bucky exchanged a complicated and indecipherable series of eyebrow twitches and waggles that ended in Bucky scowling and blushing furiously, and Steve’s grin turning even more delighted.
“Good night,” blurted out Bucky before retreating into the suite. T’Challa gave Steve as dignified a nod as he could manage, grateful that his dark skin didn’t show his flush, and made his own retreat.
Once T’Challa had fully recovered his dignity, he glanced at Nakia, walking beside him. Her face was impassive, but long practice let him see the exasperated amusement in her deep brown eyes.
“I suppose none of that helped you win the betting pool,” murmured T’Challa.
“The mystery of what, exactly, is between Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes remains intact. My King and Sergeant Barnes on the other hand…” Nakia raised an arch eyebrow.
They had reached the royal quarters wing. “Your King and Sergeant Barnes aren’t a subject of the betting pool,” he said, and Nakia didn’t contradict him. “Good night, Nakia.”
“Good night, my King.”
A week after Bucky went back into cryostasis, T’Challa was on his way to his office for a scheduled call with the World Security Council, in which he planned to make not so subtle insinuations about General Ross’s fitness to be in charge of the Accords, when he was ambushed by Sam Wilson. It wasn’t much of an ambush, given that Okoye had seen him coming. She had been ready to divert Wilson with one of the firm redirections the Dora Milaje so specialized in, but T’Challa gave her a small shake of the head. Wilson fell into step with them with careful casualness.
“So you and Bucky are getting kind of close.”
“Hello Mr. Wilson, how are you doing today?”
“Yeah, whatever, how are you, your Kingliness, I’m fine, thanks for asking. I know you don’t have much time. So. You and Bucky.”
“Is there a question there somewhere?” wondered T’Challa. Wilson just raised his eyebrows, unimpressed. T’Challa sighed. “I like Bucky. He’s a good man who has endured terrible things. I’d like to be a friend to him.”
“Just a friend?”
Wilson’s eyes were sharp and keen on his, not unlike his code name’s namesake. It was a fair question, one T’Challa himself had been letting simmer in the back of his mind. Having an aesthetic appreciation for Bucky and those rare and precious bright smiles of his was one thing; acting on that appreciation was another. The odd bit of gentle flirting was harmless enough, especially given that it was reciprocal. Anything more would border on taking advantage of Bucky.
“Right now? Yes.”
Wilson stopped in the hall, and T’Challa stopped too, surprised.
“Okay, well, real talk: if you try for more now, or at any point before Barnes has his shit more together, you are straight up going to the special hell, and king or no king, I will send you there.”
T’Challa’s eyebrows flew up. “I’m sorry?”
“I get it, you’re a king and you get what you want. You’re probably used to people throwing themselves at you. But when he’s not a popsicle, Barnes is in a vulnerable stage of recovery, and you’re in a hell of a position of power over him. You can’t take advantage of him.”
“I’m aware of that, Sam.” He met the challenge in Wilson’s eyes. “The trust Bucky places in me is humbling, and more precious to me than I think you understand. I would not abuse it.”
Wilson studied him for a long moment, arms crossed and expression forbidding, until he was apparently convinced of T’Challa’s sincerity. He snorted in some amusement, and resumed walking. “Yeah, I see it now. Bucky’s really got a type, huh?”
“What type would that be?”
“Consider the other member of the Bucky Barnes Fan Club,” said Wilson, with a wry smile and roll of his eyes.
T’Challa grinned, and chose to be flattered by the comparison. They rounded a corner in silence, then Wilson continued, “Okay, I’m gonna say one more thing, and then I never, ever want to hear about any plans you may or may not have to woo Barnes. If you’re into him because he’s really pretty, and really sad, this isn’t going anywhere good, and you should nip it in the bud for both your sakes. You get what I’m saying?”
“I do not see the correlation between ‘really pretty’ and ‘really sad.’” Wilson glared. “My…feelings aren’t contingent upon him being ‘really sad,’” allowed T’Challa.
“Yeah? You’re not looking at him as a project more than a person? Because I’ve been on both sides of that dynamic, and those breakups weren’t pretty.” Some old pain tightened Wilson’s mouth into an unhappy line.
They’d arrived at T’Challa’s office by now, and stopped at the door. He gave the question the consideration it deserved, a little uncomfortable at the implications. Was he treating Bucky as a project? There was the prosthetic, of course, but that was just the excuse they currently had for spending time together. T’Challa’s desire to know Bucky better wasn’t predicated on that. Neither was it predicated on his recovery. Still, it was something to be mindful of. What if Bucky thought that was all this was?
“That is something to keep in mind, thank you.” He could see that caught Wilson a little off guard.
“Jesus, you really are just like this, aren’t you?” asked Wilson rhetorically, disgusted. “Well, good talk, definitely never talk to me about this again,” he concluded, and sauntered off.
T’Challa exchanged a “well that just happened” look with Okoye, then shrugged and went into his office for the scheduled call.
By the time of Bucky’s next scheduled revival, T’Challa was almost finished working on the prosthetic, and Mandisa had a new promising possibility for undoing the trigger words. All that remained for the prosthetic were the final tweaks to its responsiveness, and the mostly aesthetic concerns: the final finish for the vibranium alloy “skin” of the arm, and matching its form as best as possible to Bucky’s flesh arm. This was the part that was more art than science, and T’Challa wanted Bucky’s feedback and an in-person look at Bucky’s right arm before he finalized the work on the prosthetic. Detailed scans were no replacement for a physical examination. He could fabricate the final prosthetic before Bucky went back under again. If he went back under again.
He was setting out alloy finish options and pulling up various alternate designs for the final prosthetic, when Okoye brought Bucky into the workshop. Bucky waved awkwardly on entering the workshop, a lopsided smile on his face.
T’Challa smiled back, horribly endeared by the awkward little wave. “Hello. You’re well, I hope?” he asked, and indulged in his habitual check of Bucky’s vitals: all calm and strong, with maybe less underlying stress than usual.
“Yeah, I’m good. You?”
“Excited,” admitted T’Challa. “We’re nearly done with the prosthetic. I wanted your feedback and another look at your right arm before proceeding with final fabrication. Come,” he said, gesturing Bucky to the empty stool beside T’Challa’s own. Bucky obligingly came over to peer at the alloy plating samples.
“These my options for the covering plates?”
“Yes, though if you’ve changed your mind about a synthetic, skin-like polymer covering—”
“No, all metal’s fine. I prefer it. These aren’t so shiny as the old one.”
“Did you want—”
Bucky shook his head. “Hell no, the glare from the old one was a pain in the ass.” He ran his fingers over the samples, lingering over a dark, gunmetal gray one. “There any differences between them, apart from the cosmetic?”
“Only at temperature extremes that would kill you.”
Bucky tapped the dark gray plate. “This one then. What do you need with my right arm?”
“A closer look. At your hand, especially. I’d like to match the prosthetic to it as closely as possible. Your prior prosthetic—the fingers were a little unwieldy, were they not? Thicker than your own?”
“Yeah, but I’m right-handed, so anything that needed more dexterity—I got by just fine.”
“Hm. I can do better.” He moved to take Bucky’s hand. “May I?”
He took Bucky’s hand in his, manipulating the fingers gently and feeling the bones under his warmer than average skin. Bucky’s hand was, objectively, a very nice hand. Well-proportioned and strong, balanced between the fine delicacy of an artist’s hand and the power of a fighter’s. Hard to match in any medium other than marble maybe, he thought, and ran a finger along the vein running across the back of Bucky’s hand. As he traced along the length of Bucky’s extensor muscles, T’Challa was reminded of one of Bernini’s sculptures. T’Challa couldn’t hope to replicate that artistry.
If he made the alloy a little thinner for the hand, perhaps he could get a better approximation of the slim length of Bucky’s fingers. He directed Bucky through a range of movements—twisting his wrist, touching all his fingers together, making a fist—and watched the interplay of muscle and bone and lightly tanned skin. No prosthetic could replicate that exactly, but T’Challa could, hopefully, make something with its own kind of beauty, and its own grace.
As he turned Bucky’s hand palm up to test his wrist’s range of motion, he was caught by the feel of Bucky’s pulse in the pale vulnerable skin of his inner wrist, faster than it had been just a few moments ago. He brushed his thumb over it, as if to soothe Bucky’s pulse back to a calmer pace, and heard Bucky’s breath catch, felt a little skip and gallop in the rhythm beating against his thumb.
Abruptly, the intimacy of the situation crystallized: T’Challa bent over Bucky’s hand, Bucky shifted close towards him, his hand in T’Challa’s. He should let go, probably. Instead he looked up to gauge Bucky’s response. Bucky was biting his lower lip, eyes downcast, long lashes dark against his fair skin. The sight was arresting, and T’Challa had to wrench his train of thought back to anatomy and engineering, only to be distracted again by the calluses on Bucky’s fingers. One on his trigger finger, unsurprisingly enough, and another—
“They call this the writer’s bump, don’t they?” asked T’Challa, running an exploratory finger over the rough spot at the top of Bucky’s middle finger where a pen or pencil would rest. There was a tiny smudge of ink there. “You’ve been writing in the journal.”
“Yeah. It’s—you know, every time I come out of cryo here, I—I remember a little more. So I—while I can, I write it down.”
T’Challa looked back up to meet Bucky’s eyes, which were dark and intent on the sight of T’Challa’s hand on his.
“Good memories, I hope.”
“Mostly,” he said, voice bittersweet and a little raw.
T’Challa gave Bucky’s hand a quick squeeze in comfort, and somehow that turned into them tangling their fingers together. They stayed like that for a long, almost breathless moment. Then Bucky tugged on his hand, gaze turned sweetly solemn and a little anxious, and before T’Challa had time to register anything other than the sudden speeding of Bucky’s heart, Bucky’s lips were on his.
Bucky kissed slowly, tentatively, as if he were rediscovering and recollecting the act of kissing with every passing second and he wanted to savor it. T’Challa matched his gentle pace, and brought his free hand up to cup Bucky’s face, a silent encouragement. Bucky responded by turning the kiss smoldering, the promise of heat more than the fact of it in the tease of his tongue, and T’Challa chased that heat and the curl of a smile growing on Bucky’s mouth as surely as he had chased Bucky on their first meeting.
They needed to stop, thought T’Challa, mindful of starting something when neither of them was in a position to follow up on it, and as if Bucky had read his mind, he pulled back with a soft sigh. Bucky swallowed hard, face flushing.
“Sorry. That was inappropriate, probably, and uh, maybe a crime for all I know, or I’m taking advantage, but I just—”
“No, it wasn’t—or it was inappropriate, but not, perhaps, for the reason you think—”
They were talking over each other, almost, and T’Challa had to smile at the situation. Wilson was going to kill him. They were still holding hands, and Bucky moved as if to disentangle his hand from T’Challa’s, but T’Challa grasped tight.
“I think you could tell that was not unwelcome, Bucky. Though why would you think you’re taking advantage? I’m more concerned that I am.”
“You’ve been kind,” said Bucky, and shook his head ruefully. “I shouldn’t assume that means anything more. Why would you think you’re taking advantage?” Bucky seemed honestly confused by the very notion.
“My kindness—my friendship—is not contingent upon anything more. And I don’t want to give the impression that it is, or ever will be. But I am in something of a position of power over you, especially given your ongoing recovery. I don’t want to abuse that power, nor betray the trust you have placed in me.”
He wanted to convey the full import of what that trust meant to him: the trust Bucky showed in stepping into that cryostasis chamber every time, in accepting a new prosthetic, in letting T’Challa touch him in friendship and in comfort. In believing T’Challa when he told him you’re safe, and not only because T’Challa was king or the Black Panther, but for some more essential reason that Bucky seemed to have divined and kept to himself.
Bucky tilted his head, and spent a long moment just considering T’Challa, all his earlier softness gone steely. It reminded him of Bucky’s first appraisal of him, when Bucky had asked if he was meant to be a weapon for Wakanda. T’Challa still wasn’t entirely sure what had convinced Bucky then, wounded and wary as he had been, and with so little reason to expect or trust kindness and sanctuary.
“I don’t think you’d know how,” said Bucky eventually, eyes creasing up at the corners. “You’re right, though.” He worried at his lower lip. “When I can trust what’s in my head and you, then we can—”
“See how things go?”
T’Challa was a patient man: he could wait. And the warmth of that one kiss, offered so sweetly and without expectation, could carry him through a lot of waiting.
Fabrication of the full prosthetic took the better part of a day, the medical-grade fabrication units doing most of the work. T’Challa blocked out half of the day after that to work on fitting Bucky with the newly finished prosthetic, with Mandisa and her team on standby to help calibrate the prosthetic, and in case of any complications. T’Challa was confident it would go well; the existing port in what remained of Bucky’s left shoulder, HYDRA’s painful and horribly unethical work though it was, did a lot of the heavy lifting. Fitting the prosthetic would be a matter of fine-tuning its responsiveness and the sensory feedback, and making sure there were no neurological complications.
When he got to the medical suite, some of his confidence faltered. Bucky was there with Steve and Mandisa, and he did not look well: pale and wide-eyed, holding himself too rigid, and when T’Challa listened closely, he heard Bucky’s heart pounding too fast to be excitement or anxious anticipation. Had something gone wrong with the tests Bucky had undergone earlier in the day? Was he ill? Mandisa hadn’t sent him any messages to that effect. She came to meet him at the door before he entered the suite.
“He’s alright, Your Majesty,” she said before he could even form a question. “It’s only that he does not have any particularly good memories of receiving a prosthesis, and it’s triggered some distress.”
“Should we go forward with fitting the prosthetic today?”
Mandisa hesitated and glanced back at where Bucky was sitting with Steve, Steve looking nearly as anxious as Bucky and sitting close to him on the med suite’s exam table with a hand on his back. “He wants to do it. And I don’t think there’s anything for it but for him to get it over with as soon as possible. If he wasn’t in and out of cryostasis, I would advise easing into this more slowly, but as it is….”
“We could wait until we see how the latest treatment option goes,” he suggested, already considering how he could adjust his schedule for it. Said latest treatment option was highly experimental, but comparatively low-risk in terms of potential side effects, which was why Mandisa was choosing to try it before moving on to more risky options.
“I suggested that, and laid out the options for him. But I was honest with him that the integration of the prosthesis is the more neurologically risky thing right now, and that if something goes wrong, as unlikely as it is, he will need to re-enter stasis to heal from it. In the event that the xenon gas treatment is successful, and we run into problems integrating the prosthetic after it, Bucky has expressed rather vehement opposition to re-entering stasis.”
“I hadn’t realized cryostasis has been wearing on him so much,” murmured T’Challa.
Mandisa’s mouth pressed into an unhappy line, and she shook her head, beaded braids clacking with the movement. “It’s not entirely that. In terms of time spent conscious, he has spent close to three weeks of subjective time undergoing stressful medical tests and treatments. It’s far from ideal, but in the interest of triaging his care, I have allowed it.”
“And of course he wouldn’t complain.” Couldn’t, maybe. Conditioned too long to the total futility of it, and desperate to be free of these last shackles of imprisonment. T’Challa should probably have given more thought to how fraught the prospect of a new prosthetic could be. But he’d been so caught up in the work of building it….
“No, he wouldn’t. Removing the trigger words is the single best thing we can do for him before addressing the rest of his recovery. If this is his choice for how to get there, well—he has precious few good options, and I think respecting his agency in this is crucial.”
“Whatever you think is best, then,” he said, and entered the room, Mandisa following close behind.
Bucky gave him a wan smile when he came in. His eyes flickered to the case T’Challa was carrying; Bucky hadn’t yet seen the final prosthetic.
“Hi, T’Challa,” said Steve. “Is that—?”
“Yes, the prosthetic is complete. Would you like to see it?”
Steve nodded an affirmative, attention shifting to Bucky again, and Bucky nodded too, short and sharp. T’Challa set the case down and opened it to reveal the freshly fabricated new prosthetic. Bucky’s mouth twitched into the barest genuine smile on sight of the prosthetic, while Steve’s eyes went wide.
It looked much like Bucky’s prior prosthetic; there were only so many ways to design a prosthetic arm that still looked like a recognizable human arm, and hewing as closely as possible to the existing port in Bucky’s shoulder demanded some fidelity to HYDRA’s old design. T’Challa had brought a more Wakandan aesthetic to it though, and the new prosthetic took its cue more from the smooth, organic lines of Wakandan design than from the harsh and mechanical edge of the one built by HYDRA. To T’Challa’s admittedly biased eye, it looked like a prosthetic arm, and not the weapon Bucky feared it could be. T’Challa was particularly proud of the prosthetic’s hand, which would offer much greater dexterity, and which closely approximated Bucky’s flesh hand. All that close examination of Bucky’s right hand had been worth it.
“Oh wow. That’s amazing, T’Challa.”
“Thank you,” he said, still watching Bucky closely. Bucky hadn’t yet said a word, still had the poised and watchful tension of a wild animal on the cusp of fleeing. So T’Challa took a risk. “I was thinking of adding vibranium claws for the fingers. Maybe a panther paw print, on the shoulder.”
T’Challa’s stone face was sorely tested by the expressions of disbelief, mild panic, and grim resolution to be polite that flitted across Steve’s too-open face in the space of seconds. Meanwhile Bucky’s brow furrowed in brief confusion and T’Challa met his gaze with overly guileless wide eyes. T’Challa let his lips curl in a very small smile, at which Bucky’s face cleared and he laughed. Not much, but the brief, bright sound eased the heavy atmosphere some anyway.
“You dick,” said Bucky with a crooked grin that T’Challa returned. He looked at the prosthetic again, and took in a deep, shaky breath before saying, soft and sincere, “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
“We don’t have to do this today. You can take a day off from all of this.”
“T’Challa’s right, you can take a day off. It’s been almost all tests and medical stuff every time you’ve been out of cryo, if it’s too much—”
Bucky shook his head. “I know how busy you are, I don’t want to mess up your schedule more than I already am,” he said to T’Challa. “And it’s not gonna get any easier. I’m not—” he swallowed hard, remembered horrors present in his his pained, cloudy sky eyes and in his still racing heartbeat.
T’Challa took a careful step towards Bucky, then another when Bucky didn’t flinch or tense further. Bucky was gripping the edge of the exam table hard enough to dent it. T’Challa put his hand over Bucky’s and swept slow strokes over Bucky’s knuckles with his thumb. He could feel Steve’s attention sharpen at the gesture.
“This will not be like it was with HYDRA. You will likely feel some discomfort and pain as the arm reintegrates with your nervous system, but you will be safe. You know you’re safe here.”
Bucky released his grip on the edge of the table, turned his hand over to grasp at T’Challa’s. “I know.” He gave T’Challa’s hand a grateful little squeeze, then let go. “But maybe it’s not so safe for you, any of you. You should have me restrained.”
Mandisa frowned. “I don’t see why that should be necessary. Are you concerned you won’t be able to stay still while we work?”
“I’m concerned about a flashback. A lot of HYDRA techs died when they worked on the arm.”
“When you fought back,” said T’Challa, imagining it too easily. He exchanged a grim glance with Steve, saw helpless rage swell in Steve’s eyes before Steve wrestled it back and pressed a kiss to Bucky’s temple instead. All the contact seemed to be helping Bucky, each kind touch a reminder that he was among friends.
“Okay, that’s a reasonable concern. But I think restraining you is more likely to trigger a flashback than not. My priority has been to make this process as painless and unlike your past experience as possible. My King, Steve, do you feel confident you could restrain Bucky if he grows violent?”
“Yes,” answered T’Challa and Steve together. “And there are the Dora Milaje as well,” added T’Challa. Bucky still didn’t seem comforted, eyes wide and worried. “What, do you think I can’t take you?”
“That’s not the point,” said Bucky, rolling his eyes. He hesitated then, and took a deep breath. “Use the words. If I—if I lose it, use the words.”
T’Challa’s immediate inclination was to say no, as Steve did, but Mandisa looked considering.
“As a last resort,” she said in something of a bargaining tone. That was, apparently, the right call to make judging by how Bucky heaved out a sigh of relief even as Steve glared at an unbothered Mandisa.
“Okay. Let’s do this then.”
Mandisa set up the assorted monitoring equipment, all of it as non-invasive as possible. The electrodes on Bucky’s forehead made his breathing go shallow and rapid before he got himself back under control again. Steve noticed and started up a steady stream of chatter: what he had been doing while Bucky was in stasis, how the work on the Ross issue was going, what the status of the Accords negotiations was. T’Challa added his own comments occasionally, and by the time they were ready to put the prosthetic in, Bucky was as calm as he was going to get.
“We’ll start just the way we did it when we tested the prototype, with only enough sensory feedback for proprioception, so we can test the movement first.” Bucky clenched his jaw tight and nodded. “Tell me if you need me to stop.”
T’Challa attached the prosthetic and activated the power source, which thanks to Tony Stark, ran with a hum that was inaudible to unenhanced human ears. Bucky made a small noise of surprise and shuddered. The plates on the arm shifted and resettled in sympathy, the mechanical translation of a very human motion.
“Yeah, just feels weird.” He blinked down at the prosthetic, equal parts wondering and anxious.
Mandisa and T’Challa took Bucky through the range of motion tests. To T’Challa’s relief and approval, the prosthetic was on par with Bucky’s right arm, no lag time in its movements and no undue stress on his neurological system. Bucky seemed especially fascinated with the fine control he could exert over the hand. T’Challa felt almost proprietary about that hand. It was his best effort at recreating the beauty and strength of Bucky’s right hand, only in the new medium of vibranium alloy and complex circuitry, and T’Challa thought he’d done a pretty exemplary job of it. Take that, Bernini, he thought as he watched the flex and play of the vibranium alloy limb.
“You’ll need to do some physical or occupational therapy with that hand to regain the full extent of your fine motor control,” remarked Mandisa as she looked at the readouts from the prosthetic. “Not too much, I don’t think, there hasn’t been enough time for any nerves to atrophy. Just to grow used to it, more or less.”
“Okay,” said Bucky, wiggling his fingers with rapt interest.
“Now, this is the potentially difficult part. We can’t be certain what it will feel like when we bring the sensory feedback up to its full capacity. At the very least, it will be uncomfortable, and at worst—”
“You might have a seizure,” finished T’Challa.
Steve looked alarmed, while Bucky was only a little apprehensive. Mandisa was quick to reassure them.
“A seizure is unlikely. But this sort of biomechanical interface is unique, and it’s impossible to gauge the subjective experience of it in simulations or in theory. So it might only feel like pins and needles, as if your arm was asleep, and it might feel—worse, as your nervous system and brain catch up to the input from the prosthetic. If it’s too much, we can dial it back, and work up to greater sensitivity more slowly.”
“We’ll start at about 30%, okay?”
“That’s fine,” said Bucky, as Steve gripped Bucky’s right hand tight in his.
Bucky handled 30% fine, and started frowning down at his arm at 50%. At 70% he went pale and clammy, and T’Challa stopped.
“Bucky, how does that feel?”
“It burns.” He had gone rigid again, and his knuckles were white with the force of his grip on Steve’s hand.
“Let’s take a moment—”
“No, keep going.”
He exchanged a quick glance of concern with Steve. “Bucky—”
Well, Mandisa had said to respect his agency. So T’Challa tried to calm his own racing heart and kept going. At 100% Bucky was shaking and panting into Steve’s shoulder, prosthetic arm cradled carefully against his chest, but the readings didn’t show him to be in any danger of nerve damage or a seizure.
“T’Challa, dial it back,” demanded Steve, but Bucky objected again.
“Don’t, it’ll pass.”
“Give it five minutes,” said Mandisa. “If the pain hasn't improved by then, we’ll reduce the sensory input.”
T’Challa abandoned his post by the monitors and readouts and went to Bucky. “Tell me what you need.”
“Just—distract me, please, anything—” gasped Bucky, so T’Challa stood beside the exam table where Steve and Bucky were one tangled up unit, curled up tight together against Bucky’s pain, and stroked a hand through Bucky’s thick, soft hair. He cast about for something sufficiently distracting to talk about—talking about the prosthetic probably wouldn’t help at this point, and Steve had already covered all the events of interest from when Bucky was in stasis. Eventually he settled on the latest round of applicants for Wakanda’s royal research grants, pitched his voice low and soothing, and just kept talking.
He was five minutes into an explanation of the biochemistry department of the University of Wakanda’s proposal for a research station in the depths of Wakanda’s inner jungles to collect heretofore undiscovered plants, when he realized that he maybe should have chosen a different subject matter. Steve’s eyes had glazed over and he was directing an unfocused stare at the readouts for Bucky’s prosthetic, so perhaps he should have picked a more interesting subject that would actually keep Bucky engaged enough to distract him. Bucky had relaxed some though, and when he turned his face up to look at T’Challa, his eyes were bright and curious through the haze of pain. It made something equal parts tender and painful seize in T’Challa’s chest.
“How many undiscovered species are out there?” he asked, voice hoarse.
“Alright, Bucky?” he asked, and Bucky nodded. T’Challa pressed a grateful kiss against Bucky’s forehead, tasted salt from the cooling sweat on Bucky’s skin. He answered Bucky’s question. “We estimate hundreds, though of course the taxonomists argue about what constitutes a new species….”
It took ten more minutes of holding forth on the biodiversity of Wakandan jungles before Bucky’s vitals evened out, pain evidently easing. Mandisa twinkled approvingly at him from behind the readout displays while the rest of her team hovered in the background pretending not to be paying attention to this very obvious new wrinkle in the palace betting pool. Meanwhile Bucky jabbed an elbow into Steve’s side to make Steve loosen his hold on him.
“Let go, Steve, I’m fine.” Steve let go, but stayed close, propping his chin on Bucky’s shoulder to watch as Bucky opened and closed his prosthetic hand in apparent fascination.
“How does it feel?” asked T’Challa.
“Still a little tingly? Doesn’t hurt though. It’s just—a lot.”
“We can still dial back the sensitivity any time. Once the prosthetic has finished integrating, you shouldn’t feel any pain with it.”
They ran through some tests to check the prosthetic’s haptic feedback. To T’Challa’s probably visible-from-space smug satisfaction, Bucky reported that it was nearly as good as his flesh hand, quiet wonder writ across his face. There were likely still some tweaks to be made and bugs to fix, but that would take daily use and more review of the data from the arm to sort out. In the meantime, T’Challa considered this particular part of the Bucky Barnes project an unqualified success.
“I’d like to keep running a daily diagnostic for at least a week, and a few more tests once you’ve achieved full dexterity, but I think we can consider this a success,” he said, beaming at Bucky.
Bucky returned his smile with one of his own, this one equal parts wicked and sweet, which made T’Challa want to do things deserving of Wilson’s threatened special hell. “What kind of tests? ‘Cause I can think of one I wanna try.”
“Oh? What test would that be?”
Bucky tilted his head at a maddeningly cocky angle, grin turning knife-sharp. “You said you could take me, earlier. Wanna test that theory?” The bright, playful challenge in Bucky’s eyes stirred all kinds of interest in T’Challa, and in one wild surge of heat, he wanted.
“Oh yes.” T’Challa felt himself leaning in towards Bucky, inexorably drawn by the invitation in the tilt of his head. The position put the chiseled line of Bucky’s jaw in sharp relief, left the long, lean column of Bucky’s throat on display. Some time in the hopefully near future, T’Challa was going to kiss his way down it. He would press his lips against the pulse there, and set that pulse to racing for reasons that had nothing to do with pain or fear. Until then, he’d settle for some mediated violence and contact in the form of sparring.
“Jesus christ you guys, I’m right here,” muttered an equal parts amused and exasperated Steve, while Mandisa cleared her throat and said, “Not today. The rest of today is for rest and relaxation, and tomorrow you get the day off, Bucky. I don’t want to see you in the medical suite at all after we check on the prosthetic. Work on improving your dexterity, have a nice, non-injury inducing spar with the king,” this Mandisa said with a pointed glare at him, and continued, “and then we will try the latest treatment the next day.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bucky, and gave Mandisa a sharp salute.
Bucky may have gotten the rest of the day off, but T’Challa didn’t, and he felt more petulant about it than he had since he was a teenager chafing against the princely demands of seemingly endless briefings, state dinners, and rounds of meet and greets, when all he’d wanted to do was train to become the Black Panther or get up to mischief with Shuri. While a teenaged prince could get away with the odd bit of truancy, an adult king could not. Or he could, because the world tended to arrange itself around the whims of a king, but budgets wouldn’t review themselves, and spontaneous days off were the kind of thing that made his steward and assistants look faintly panicked around the eyes as their painstakingly constructed schedules collapsed around them. That meant that no matter how much he wanted to just run off to the training room to spar with Bucky already, or even to spend a few test and obligation-free hours with him, he shouldn’t, and wouldn’t.
He would, however, take a detour past the palace gardens on his way back to his study. Bucky, Steve, and the others had apparently taken Mandisa’s prescription for rest and relaxation as a team-wide edict, and staked out a corner of the gardens for a picnic. The remnants of a simple meal were in evidence, along with a scattering of mostly empty wine bottles. The palace cats were being terribly indulged by Steve and Scott, with Steve feeding one tidbits and Scott apparently engaged in serious conversation with another. Bucky and Wanda were sitting close together, heads bent over something in their laps. As T’Challa got closer, he saw they were braiding some colored threads together, into bracelets maybe. Sam was watching it all with loose-limbed amusement.
Steve spotted him and made as if to stand, but T’Challa gestured him back down and returned the staggered chorus of your majesties and hellos with, “Good afternoon. Having a nice picnic?”
“Yeah, the gardens are gorgeous,” answered Steve. “We’ve still got some food and wine left, if you want to join us?”
“No, I’m on my way to my study. I just wanted to say hello.”
“You oughta take a day off some time too,” said Bucky, shooting T’Challa a keen look before returning his attention to braiding whatever it was he was making. T’Challa walked over to Wanda and Bucky to get a closer look.
Wanda smiled up at him, and sent a finished bracelet floating up towards him. It was a complex, multi-braided thing, threads of purple, black, and gray blending harmoniously together. “I learned how to make these when I was child. I still like to make them sometimes—something to do with my hands, you know? I thought it might help Bucky’s dexterity with the new prosthetic.”
“And is it?” T’Challa asked Bucky.
Bucky frowned down at the rather misshapen bracelet in his lap, and flexed his left hand. “Kinda.”
Steve squinted over at the bracelet. “Well, it’s an improvement on the first one, Buck!”
“That’s not saying much,” said Sam. “Like, is that even a braid?”
“Don’t mock my efforts at occupational therapy or whatever, asshole. Aren’t you some kind of counselor?”
“Not your counselor. You should’ve added another color. Also, it’s all tangled up there. Arts and crafts are not your forte, Barnes.”
“Ugh, I was gonna give this to you, but now I’m feeling too insulted.”
“What? No, give it to me.” Sam made a grabbing hand gesture.
“No, you said it’s hideous!”
“No take backs! Hand it over, Barnes!” A brief scuffle ensued. Sam emerged victorious after resorting to tickling Bucky to get him to let go of the bracelet.
T’Challa smothered a laugh and glanced at Steve, who was beaming happily at his two best friends.
“I’m so glad they get along,” said Steve.
“Is that what that is?” murmured T’Challa, but grinned anyway.
When he walked into the palace training room set aside for the Dora Milaje and T’Challa’s use, he was greeted with the sight of Bucky punching one of the heavy bags. The bags were specially reinforced, but even so, there was a broken one lying on the ground. Bucky was evidently learning the strength of his new prosthetic. T’Challa took a moment to appreciate the appealing picture Bucky presented, before Bucky noticed him and grew self-conscious. T’Challa was a little late for their schedule sparring session, and Bucky must have come early to warm up, because he had worked up a light sweat, his hair just starting to fall out of its short ponytail. Here in the training room, he was making no effort to make himself seem smaller and less threatening, as he usually did, though there was no Winter Soldier menace in his body language. Instead, Bucky had a boxer’s form as he feinted and punched at the bag with his gloved hands. His back was broad and muscled in the sleeveless shirt he was wearing, and there was strength in every line of him.
“How does the new prosthetic feel?”
Bucky jumped and spun around to face him. “Jesus christ, you’re quiet.” He steadied the swinging heavy bag. “Hi. It feels great. Just gotta get used to it.” He tried to shake the hair out of his eyes, to no avail. His ponytail had half fallen out by now. T’Challa was possibly a little obsessed with Bucky’s hair.
“Here, let me help you with that,” said T’Challa, and stepped close to Bucky. Bucky obligingly tipped his head down, which put his mouth distractingly close to T’Challa’s. He could feel Bucky’s warm breath on his skin, and Bucky, as always, was throwing heat as if he was feverish. T’Challa smothered his reaction to it, and focused on putting Bucky’s hair back into its ponytail. Once he was done, he let his hands rest on the now bare and vulnerable nape of Bucky’s neck a little too long, breathed in the scent of clean sweat and the leather of the gloves and heavy bag. Special hell, he reminded himself, and stepped back.
Bucky took in a shuddering breath and said, very quietly, “Thanks.”
“You’re most welcome.”
“So I’m kinda wondering about the wisdom of sparring now, given that I killed that punching bag earlier.” Bucky’s voice was wry, but his brow was furrowed with worry.
“I’m not as breakable as a punching bag,” said T’Challa with a grin. “You want those off?” he asked, gesturing to Bucky’s boxing gloves.
Bucky nodded and held his hands out, still frowning. “Hey, I’m serious. I’m not used to this new arm yet, and I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You didn’t manage to hurt me too badly when I was actually trying to kill you.” Bucky rolled his eyes. “I didn’t know you were a boxer.”
“Yeah, before the war.”
“Were you good?” he asked as he tossed the gloves to the side of the room, and put a little challenge in the words. He checked on Bucky’s left hand as Bucky shook it out; it was moving as smoothly and naturally as his right.
“Was I good?” Bucky smiled, slow and wicked, and T’Challa loved his unshadowed, sunshine smile, but this new one made a darker sort of promise that T’Challa dearly wanted to see fulfilled. “Yeah, I was good. But I don’t think you wanna box.”
“No, not box.”
T’Challa moved towards the training room’s sparring ring, where he usually only sparred with the Dora Milaje, and lately with Steve and his wayward Avengers. Bucky followed, and T’Challa smiled to see the prowl in his walk. Nakia and Okoye, on discreet guard, came to sharp attention at the sight.
When they both reached the ring, Bucky went still and serious for a moment. “Don’t—don’t let me—”
“Hey. This is a friendly bout, nothing more. Whenever you want to stop, we will stop.” If this were anyone else, T’Challa would have assured them that he wouldn’t hurt them, but he knew Bucky, and he knew Bucky wasn’t even thinking of his own safety. “I won’t let you hurt me. Really, Nakia and Okoye won’t let you hurt me.” He smiled at Bucky, trying to lighten the mood. “Let’s give that prosthetic I built for you a test run doing something other than arts and crafts.”
Bucky relaxed then, and rolled his shoulders. “Alright. Let’s go.”
They circled for a while at first, making quick exploratory jabs. When T’Challa finally moved to begin the fight in earnest, Bucky matched him speed for speed, and strength for strength. It was a little exhilarating not having to check his Black Panther speed and strength as he usually did, and even this soon into their sparring match, T’Challa could tell Bucky would make for an excellent regular sparring partner. T’Challa observed his style with an interest and appreciation he hadn’t been able to spare in their prior bouts. Bucky fought with brutal efficiency, a sort of terse grace to his movements that T’Challa guessed was a melding of Bucky and the Winter Soldier. And the prosthetic, he noticed with satisfaction, was functioning beautifully.
Bucky’s unfamiliarity with Wakandan fighting styles gave T’Challa a slight edge, and eventually T’Challa managed to pin him after a particularly clever feint. Bucky laughed as his back hit the mat, and then looked a little surprised at himself for laughing. Bucky’s expression was clear and untroubled, and he was wholly present, his eyes bright and lively. T’Challa had been a little worried that he’d spar like the Winter Soldier fought, but this bout had been nothing like fighting the Winter Soldier, to T’Challa’s relief. He didn’t want to see Bucky subsumed by that blank emptiness.
“That was a good one,” he said, directing a good-natured grin up at T’Challa.
T’Challa rolled away off of him quickly, before the intimate position made his body take notice. Having a breathless and flushed Bucky under him was a very powerful temptation. And oh, if this had been anyone else, in any other situation—T’Challa would have followed this sparring session with an invitation to dinner, and followed that with an invitation to his bedroom. It had been too long since he’d had the leisure or freedom to do that, longer still since there had been someone he’d wanted to do that with. But this was Bucky, and honor and decency demanded he wait. Well, delayed gratification was character building. He hoped.
“Okay?” asked T’Challa, as he sprang to his feet and offered Bucky a hand up.
“Yeah, that was fun,” answered Bucky, still smiling. “The thing with the—can you show me—?” and they spent the rest of their time exchanging holds and throws.
Bucky was an avid pupil of the new-to-him Wakandan styles, learning new moves with somewhat eerie speed and accuracy. Nakia and Okoye looked on with mingled suspicion and approval. The approval was mostly for Bucky, because Okoye definitely narrowed her eyes with disapproval whenever T’Challa adjusted Bucky’s form with touches to his shoulders, or the small of his back. But T’Challa was only human, and it was beyond even his considerable self-control to watch the easy grace and power in the play of Bucky’s muscles without reaching out to touch.
When they were doing their cool-down stretches, T’Challa asked, “So, has it been a good day off?”
“Yeah, it’s been a good day.” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully. “You really oughta give it a try some day.”
“Kingship doesn’t lend itself well to days off.”
“Bullshit, the country won’t fall apart if you take a day off.”
T’Challa glared at him, but it was without heat. “Your opinion is noted.” Bucky smirked, unbothered. “Thank you for this though. I enjoyed it. I’d love to spar more often, if you’re up for it.”
“Me too,” said Bucky. He gave T’Challa a pained little smile. “Guess that depends on how tomorrow goes though, huh.”
After tomorrow’s new round of treatment for the trigger words, they’d have a better idea of whether Bucky would need to go back into stasis or not.
“Let’s hope it goes well then.”
T’Challa was already thinking of tomorrow’s schedule after he left the training room, and considering when he could slip in a quick visit or check-in to see how Bucky was doing. He was practically crowbarring in a ten-minute status update call with Mandisa in between the two cabinet meetings on his prepared schedule for tomorrow when Okoye said, “He should train with the Dora Milaje when he is well enough. He would make for a nice challenge.”
T’Challa smiled. That was as close to an expression of approval of…whatever T’Challa was doing with Bucky, as Okoye would get. And it was a good idea. The Dora Milaje already enjoyed sparring with Steve, and Bucky would make a welcome addition.
“Of course. If he’s willing.” He glanced at Okoye from the corner of his eye, fighting a smile. “So, I take it you think he is a somewhat more tame, injured lion now?”
She huffed and rolled her eyes. “Even a tame lion may tear a man’s throat out. But you smiled more often than I’ve seen in weeks, in just that short sparring session, my King.”
He stopped, surprised. Realized she was probably right. “Take what joy you can,” she said, and left him at his door with a fond press of her lips to his.
The next day, T’Challa tried not to worry too much about how the latest treatment to undo the trigger words was going. He’d read Mandisa’s exhaustive memo and treatment plan, and though neuroscience and psychology were far from his fields of expertise, he knew enough to trust Mandisa. Her new course of treatment was cutting edge and experimental, but the science was sound. Mandisa would be administering xenon gas as part of a course of treatment that would, the hope was, work with reconsolidation and extinction treatments to decouple the trigger words from the conditioning that made them effective.
There was little to worry about, at least in terms of Bucky’s immediate wellbeing: physically speaking, the experimental xenon gas treatment Mandisa was relying on was low-risk, which was part of what recommended it. The likelihood of adverse side effects was low, and what possible side effects there were, were unlikely to do a super soldier lasting harm. And since the plan was to go word by word, they would avoid triggering the activation of the Winter Soldier along the way. It was, in short, the ideal treatment plan. Mandisa and her team were thrilled at having come up with it, and were even more thrilled at the potential for similar treatments to help others.
And yet, T’Challa worried anyway, because he didn’t take comfort in the immediate. T’Challa made sure no one knew he was worried, of course, because it was probably bad for morale. The king must always be the people’s strength. He must be the calm in the eye of the storm, no matter how strong the storm, his baba had always said. And Baba had always been calm, had never let anyone see anything other than dignified concern. Whenever some crisis or problem had popped up, Baba had held to that calm while a young T’Challa could only try to emulate it. After whatever meeting or conference to deal with the problem had passed, T’Challa would pace Baba’s office, peppering him with questions and extrapolating future possibilities, and Baba would answer with seemingly infinite patience.
How are you not more worried? T’Challa had asked one day, after he’d outlined ten different possibilities for looming or certain disaster. T’Challa didn’t consider himself especially prone to anxiety, but possible outcomes and decision trees unfurled in his mind with little to no prompting, roadmaps to the future with both good and bad results. It made him a good planner, a good chess player, made his tutors radiate quiet approval. But it also meant he sometimes fixated more on the ways things could go wrong than the ways they could go right.
Your mind and your foresight are gifts, Baba had said, and to prepare for the worst is sometimes a good trait in a leader. But you cannot allow the worst possibilities to overtake you.
He thought he had been doing pretty good on that score, what with having taken some bolder steps than usual in starting the process of easing Wakanda’s isolation, and in offering support to Steve and his Avengers. With Bucky though, T’Challa worried, and T’Challa thought of the worst possibilities. Because low risk or not, this was going to be far from pleasant or easy, and T’Challa had precious little control over the outcome. And if it didn’t work, Bucky’s options from here grew more and more difficult and risky, and less and less likely to work without doing Bucky real harm. T’Challa’s anxieties weren’t eased any by knowing what Bucky’s final resort would be, if nothing else worked.
Bucky had asked, early on, when T’Challa and Mandisa had been going over the arrangements for cryostasis with him, if Wakanda had the technology to wipe him. T’Challa had emphatically said no. But could you? Bucky had asked, insistent. T’Challa had thought he was seeking reassurance that he would be safe from the sort of tortures HYDRA had inflicted on him, and T’Challa had done his best to give it to him. Bucky had just frowned, frustrated. But Mandisa had understood. Yes, we could, she’d said, with a quelling look at T’Challa. Bucky had relaxed and nodded. Okay. If nothing else works, do it. Take all of it. That would work, wouldn’t it?
It would work. It would be something like murder, erasing a person like that, as if he were a hard drive that needed reformatting. But it would work, trigger words gone along with the memories and experiences that made Bucky the person he had fought to be.
So T’Challa was worried. He was worried that if this didn’t work, they were headed for an inexorable narrowing of choices and outcomes that all led to unmaking Bucky to save him. T’Challa would give Mandisa the go ahead to do it, if it came down to it. But he would do so only because it was Bucky’s choice, and because it was in Wakanda’s best interests. It would be the choice of T’Challa the king, not T’Challa the man. More and more he was learning those could be two very different things.
Luckily (sort of) for T’Challa, he spent the better part of the day in a series of increasingly contentious yet excruciatingly polite negotiations with the UN over the Accords and the still-fugitive Avengers. The longer Steve and the others were in the wind, the more nervous world governments got as they realized they were missing over half a superhero team while the world was just as dangerous as it had been before the implementation of the Accords. The slowly growing consensus was that the pre-Accords status quo was looking a lot better than the post-Accords uncertainty. It certainly helped that T’Challa was ensuring that the ICC’s investigation of Zemo was as public and thorough as possible, with all the attendant airing of unpleasant truths and dirty laundry that implied, while Tony Stark made an unignorable nuisance of himself tying up General Ross in bureaucracy and investigations.
The satisfaction of that particular plan proceeding as hoped for kept him from dwelling on how things were going with Bucky in the medical suite. It was only during his scheduled update with Mandisa that all the worst-case scenarios began spooling themselves out in his mind again.
“How are things going, Mandisa?” He had ten minutes with her before his next conference call, and he’d only managed that by unceremoniously ending his last call early. His assistant Mthunzi was already looking stressed about having to stall for five minutes before the next call on the schedule.
Mandisa beamed, and replaced her image on his office screen with brain scans. “Very well, my King.”
“I will remind you my doctorate is in physics, Mandisa. Tell me what this means.”
“It means it’s working. We’re comparing the results from when we activated Bucky to the results we are getting now with the xenon gas treatment, and the scans show that the link between the trigger words and the conditioning can be broken. It will take multiple sessions for each word, I’ll have a better idea of how many in a few days. But I’m confident this will work.” Mandisa dismissed the scans and her face reappeared on the screen. “I will have a more detailed report for you tomorrow morning.”
T’Challa smiled at her in relief. “That is excellent news, thank you. And how is Bucky doing? I wanted to see him after dinner this evening, if possible.”
“As well as can be expected. This is not easy for him, obviously. I’ll let you know if he’s up for a visit. He may be asleep by then, I anticipate—or hope—that he will be sleeping a lot when not in treatment. Proper REM cycles and deep sleep will help the healing process.”
By the time T’Challa got to the medical suite that evening, Bucky was indeed half asleep. He was in the secure observation room again, and would be for the duration of the treatment, at both his own and Mandisa’s insistence. That meant that Steve was moving in for the duration too, which T’Challa had been informed had involved quite the argument, and had set the palace betting pool into a tizzy. Given Bucky’s anticipated longer stay, some effort had been made to furnish the room and make it less bare without compromising security. There was a nicer bed now rather than the narrow one that had been there before, and T’Challa saw Steve’s handiwork in the paintings on the walls, and Mandisa’s in the richly colored bedding. The little shelf of books was all Bucky. T’Challa smiled to see it, and smiled even more to see Steve sitting up in the bed, Bucky lying half on top of him, while Steve read quietly to him in the dim light of the bedside lamp. He listened for a moment, and heard the steady and slow heartbeat of two people at rest, then knocked lightly to alert them both to his presence.
Steve set his book down and greeted him with a tired smile. Bucky stirred a little and said, “Is that T’Challa?”
“Yes, but don’t get up. I only wanted to see how you’re doing.” He entered the room and took a seat on the edge of the bed to get a closer look at Bucky, who blinked sleepily at him. He looked terribly soft and young. “Mandisa said today went well.”
Bucky hummed an affirmative. “I’m okay, just tired,” he murmured. On closer inspection, he was pale and drawn, glassy-eyed. Nowhere near as out of it as he’d been when drugged to the gills, but still far from his usual self. “Okay” was probably stretching it. There was something like pain in the lines around his eyes.
“He had a headache earlier,” said Steve, voice still quiet. Bucky made a vague noise of protest, but he seemed to be losing the battle against sleep. Steve ran a hand through Bucky’s hair and Bucky’s eyes slipped closed.
“Truly, how did it go?” T’Challa asked Steve, once he was sure Bucky was well and truly asleep.
Steve clenched his jaw. “I’m glad Mandisa said this is probably going to work, but it’s hard as hell to watch him go through it. It was—bad for a while there.” T’Challa didn’t bother to suggest that Steve didn’t have to watch Bucky go through it.
“Mandisa is confident, and I trust her. Bucky knew this would be hard. He wanted to do it anyway.”
“I know,” said Steve, and tipped his head back against the bed’s headboard. “It just feels like we’re torturing him sometimes. And we have to do this again tomorrow with the first word, and then there are nine words to go.” Steve swallowed hard, blinked rapidly up at the ceiling.
“He’s strong, and he wants very badly to be free. He will get through this.”
Steve nodded, and ran his hand over his face. “Yeah. Thank you. For doing this, for caring about him. I’m—I can’t even tell you how grateful I am for it. I’m not ever gonna be able to repay you for this, and jesus, you’re a king, but anything you ever need—”
“There is no debt between us for this, Steve,” said T’Challa, and put a hand on Steve’s shoulder for a quick reassuring squeeze. “You were reading to him?” he asked, hoping that would distract Steve from heavier thoughts. Steve smiled down at Bucky and the book.
“Yeah. Buck used to do that for me, ever since we were kids. When I was too sick, or my head hurt too bad, he’d read to me. The paper, my homework, whatever book or comic he could get his hands on.” Steve’s expression went wistful and soft as he smoothed hand over Bucky’s hair. “He always took such good care of me when I was sick, and I was such a fucking awful patient.”
“You’re not too bad at taking care of him though, it seems.”
“Well, I’m trying, that’s for damn sure,” said Steve with a grimace.
“Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.”
Steve raised an eyebrow at that. “Pot, kettle.”
By the end of the first week of Bucky’s treatment, they had all settled into the routine of it. Mandisa estimated that they could try the full activation sequence after three and a half weeks or so, and having an end date in sight rendered the awful routine more bearable for Bucky and Steve both, and quieted some of the perpetual worst-case scenario planning in T’Challa’s mind. So while T’Challa attended to his work, Bucky endured the treatment sessions with Steve at his side, spent the rest of his time recovering from said treatment sessions, and then T’Challa checked on them both in the evening. If Bucky wasn’t already asleep, then he could usually be found curled up on the bed looking wan and haunted. He didn’t say much, if anything at all, those nights, letting Steve take the lead in quiet conversation. That was fine. T’Challa was happy enough to sit in silence, or let an almost equally tired Steve prompt some topic of conversation.
Halfway through the second week, Bucky said, “You don’t have to keep coming. I’m not exactly good company right now. And I’m okay, really.”
“You don’t need to be good company. I come to see you because I want to see you. If you don’t want me to, I will stop.” As he said it, he found that he meant it more than kingly courtesy or even burgeoning friendship could quite explain. To see Bucky through this felt important somehow, some validation of the trust Bucky was giving him in undergoing his deconditioning in Wakanda.
Bucky shook his head. “No, I—” Bucky went a little pink, a sight T’Challa would never cease to find charming, then gave him a tiny smile. “Don’t stop.”
But a couple of nights later, he got a message from Mandisa before he made his evening visit: Tonight is not a good night for a visit, my King. Before he could worry about what that meant, she sent another message: No one is injured, today was just difficult. Bucky has asked to be left alone. So T’Challa sought out Steve instead.
Steve was in the training room, attacking a punching bag with his wrapped hands. T’Challa was only human, so he appreciated the sight, but the choked off sounds of anger and distress Steve made with every punch drained any real joy in the picture.
“Steve.” Steve kept up his assault on the punching bag, which was holding up admirably well, but probably not for much longer. “Steve.” He moved around to the other side of the punching bag, and Steve finally stopped.
“Tell me this is going to work,” said Steve, voice ragged and furious. “Tell me this is helping him. Because I feel like I’m watching him break into pieces right in front of me, and I can’t—” Steve broke off and turned away from the punching bag and T’Challa with a hand over his eyes.
“I gather today was difficult.”
“The things he has to remember with each of these words—God, it’s unbearable.”
“And yet it is his to bear. This will work, Steve.” He put all his confidence behind the words, as if the will of the king were enough to make it reality.
“What happens if it doesn’t? I need to know the worst-case scenario here. What happens if this doesn’t work, and if the next thing doesn’t work, and the next. Is he just supposed stay on ice for another seventy years?”
T’Challa considered: should he offer comfort, or truth? And did he have any right to tell Steve? “Bucky has told us what he wants, should it come to that.” Either something on T’Challa’s face gave it away, or Steve just knew Bucky well enough to guess what Bucky’s last resort would be, because Steve went white with fury and fear.
“That fucker. He said you should wipe him, wipe everything, didn’t he.”
“It won’t come to that. And I hope I don’t have to ask you not to go have an argument with Bucky about it right now.”
Steve glared at him. “Of course not. But you’re okay with that option?”
“It’s barely a step up from killing him.”
“Perhaps. But I must put the safety of Wakanda, and the world, first. Through no fault of his own, the Winter Soldier is a dangerous weapon. In granting him sanctuary, I have the responsibility to ensure that he cannot be used as such.”
“Yeah. I understand,” said Steve, but he crossed his arms and clenched his jaw, clearly still miserable and furious.
“I care about him, but I cannot put that above my duty. You’re his…” T’Challa paused to consider his word choice. ‘Friend’ seemed frankly inadequate, and he wasn’t sure if ‘brother’ was quite right either. Half the palace betting pool had settled on ‘beloved,’ and he was tempted to use it if only to bring some resolution to said betting pool, but that was more than a little inappropriate given the circumstances, so he mastered his worst impulses. “…friend, so you should—you must—put him first. You have so far, and it’s been the right thing to do.”
Steve relaxed a little and gave him a sad and tense smile. “You’re a better man than I am. Some people think I should’ve put my duty as Captain America before Buck.”
T’Challa guessed ‘some people’ meant ‘Tony Stark and basically every world government.’ “Do you regret it?”
“No. I’m not ever gonna regret doing whatever it takes to keep him safe. He’s worth a hell of a lot more than the shield to me. And you're right, I have to put him first. No one else is gonna, and he always, always, put me first. I can’t do any less for him.”
When he visited Bucky the next evening, Bucky was alone, sitting cross-legged on the floor and writing in one of his notebooks.
“Hi,” said Bucky once he finished scrawling something in the notebook. His voice was hoarse and he looked haggard. And thin, T’Challa noted with a frown, his eyes lingering on the sharper than usual edge of Bucky’s cheekbones and the hollows under his eyes. T’Challa sat down in front of him.
“Jesus, pretty sure the king shouldn’t be sitting on the floor.”
“The king can do what he wants.”
Bucky gave him a flat and unimpressed stare. “Please don’t talk about yourself in the third person.”
T’Challa grinned. “Have you had dinner yet? Where’s Steve?”
“I told Steve to take a few days off from nursemaiding me. This is fucking him up.” Bucky said it with even matter-of-factness.
“He wants to be here for you through this,” said T’Challa, but didn’t contradict Bucky. It was fucking Steve up. He noticed Bucky hadn’t answered about dinner though, so he tapped out a quick request on his kimoyo bracelet.
“He delegated to Sam today. Or I delegated to Sam for him. Anyway, my shit’s not interesting, it’s just depressing. How did your thing with the minister of education go?”
“I thought you were asleep when I was talking about that the other night.”
“I fell asleep right after,” admitted Bucky. “But I promise I am actually interested in that arts initiative.”
The food T’Challa had requested arrived midway through his explanation of the arts program’s rollout, and Bucky raised his eyebrows.
“You didn’t answer my question about dinner earlier. And I haven’t eaten yet.”
“So we’re just gonna have a picnic on the floor?”
“Why not?” Bucky smiled and shook his head, but reached for the food anyway. The sight of Bucky smiling tugged hard at some secret tenderness inside of him. He didn’t think he’d seen Bucky truly smile since that first day he’d started the treatments, and the sight was more of a relief than T’Challa had realized it could be.
After he’d finished answering Bucky’s questions about the arts program and they’d nearly finished their food, T’Challa saw that Bucky was flagging, whatever energy he’d summoned to write in his notebook and talk with T’Challa fading fast. T’Challa gently chivvied him into bed and had the food cleared away. Bucky went with little protest, and without the distraction of a shared meal and conversation, his face settled back into its tired, pained lines.
“How bad is it?” asked T’Challa, as he sat on the bed to card a hand through Bucky’s hair. A melting sort of thrill went through him when Bucky leaned into the touch with a small sigh. He didn’t want to leave Bucky alone until he’d fallen asleep.
“You mean you haven’t checked in to see?”
“Mandisa sends me progress reports. I didn’t want to violate your privacy more than the circumstances warrant.”
Bucky was silent for a long moment. “It’s bad.” He blinked rapidly to ward away tears, and his voice went thick. “It’s—distant, sort of, Mandisa says it’s because of the treatment, but it’s still—a lot. Worse than when it all first started coming back, because now I have to, to actually fucking look at the memories and, fuck, talk about it. Don’t—don’t come to see.”
“Alright,” said T’Challa. He pressed a kiss to Bucky’s forehead and Bucky let out a long, shuddering breath.
“Can you be there when they try the activation sequence?”
T’Challa had already been planning on it, if only for safety’s sake. “Yes, of course.”
Bucky twisted to look up at him, stare gone hard and unyielding. “And you’ll do whatever it takes to keep Steve, keep everyone, safe, right? I don’t care if you have to kill me.”
“Yes,” said T’Challa, though it hurt to say it. Bucky relaxed and murmured a thank you that sent a wave of helpless fury through T’Challa at the unfairness of it all. His father was dead and Zemo was alive and Bucky was thanking him for being willing to hurt him to protect others. It took all his self-control to keep that fury from showing in his face or his body language. It wouldn’t do him or Bucky any good. Let it go, he told himself.
“Tell me a good memory,” he asked Bucky.
Bucky made a thoughtful humming noise, shifted a little against T’Challa’s side. “Coney Island. When me and Steve were, I dunno, twenty or so? Or maybe it’s a lot of memories mashed up together. But we used to go, when we had enough money. Sometimes even when we didn’t. You ever been?”
“No, it’s not really a stop on diplomatic tours.”
“Too bad. Though I guess it’s different now. Used to love the rides and daring Steve to go on ‘em. Played a lot of the games too, even though they were all ripoffs. But my favorite part was just lying on the beach after. Steve’d sketch the people, and I’d just make up stories about them.” Bucky sounded dreamy now, and his face had gone soft and young. “I liked the sun, the sound of the people, swimming, and it was always warm….”
“That does sound like a good memory,” said T’Challa, but Bucky was already asleep. T’Challa hoped the memory of warmth would follow him into his dreams.
For all that he did worry about Bucky and the looming test of if the treatment would work against the trigger words, T’Challa had to confine that worry to his brief nightly visits with Bucky. He didn’t have time or attention to spare during the day. There was the work of governing Wakanda, and the gathering momentum of Zemo’s trial and the investigations into the Accords and the Winter Soldier project it had engendered. Steve and the others were working on the Accords and Winter Soldier end, with assistance from Stark and Romanoff, while T’Challa was preparing to represent Wakanda at Zemo’s confirmation of charges at the ICC. That meant a lot of meetings with advisors and cabinet members, with the chiefs of the tribes, with his own family. He met with his people outside the palace walls as well, because King T’Chaka had been beloved by his people, and he was much grieved.
He told himself this was the work of justice. But as he led meeting after meeting about all the ways in which his father’s loss had harmed his nation, had harmed his family, and all the complicated geopolitical tangles his father’s murder had caused, it was hard to hold on to calm. Every time he thought he was past the worst of his anger, he was proven wrong when it surged back as strong as it had been in the immediate hours and days after the bombing. He took to venting his anger in the training room. That at least wouldn’t cause any international incidents, or traumatize his staff or Wakandans. It was probably annoying the arms master though. Between him and Steve, the palace’s supply of reinforced punching bags was being seriously reduced.
T’Challa thought he was doing a good job of keeping his feelings under wraps, but one week before Mandisa had scheduled the activation test, Bucky noticed. He hadn’t spoken the last three nights, which T’Challa had tried not to be desperately worried about as he filled the silence with the kind of small talk about palace life he knew Bucky liked to hear. Steve had looked relieved almost to the point of tears when Bucky at least hadn’t drawn away from T’Challa’s touch.
Tonight, Bucky was the first to reach out after T’Challa took his usual seat on the side of the bed, pulling T’Challa’s hand towards himself and running a whisper-gentle thumb across the light scrapes on his knuckles. T’Challa hadn’t wrapped his hands as well as he should have before attacking the punching bag earlier. He suppressed a shiver at the touch of Bucky’s warm, human hand on his.
“You’re angry,” said Bucky. He seemed more present than he had the last few nights. Bucky’s eyes were very blue and very solemn where they rested on T’Challa’s hand in his.
He should tell Bucky it was nothing, and divert the conversation to something more neutral. Bucky needed to focus on his own recovery. But then Bucky lifted his eyes to meet his, and T’Challa’s heart simultaneously tried to expand and break. Surely no one had ever managed to refuse Bucky anything when he looked like this, so open and serious, a frown of concern growing on his face.
“Yes. I’m preparing to speak at the ICC’s confirmation of charges for Zemo and it is—difficult, to be reminded of the bombing, and to speak of the magnitude of Wakanda’s loss.”
Bucky nodded. “It’s what your dad would have wanted though, right?”
That sent a fresh stab of grief through his heart, but Bucky wasn’t wrong. T’Challa had let himself lose sight of that in the last few days, too buried under his own and his people’s sorrow and anger, but it was true. Baba would have trusted to justice, and to the power of Wakanda’s voice. A panther’s roar may be a weapon too, he would have said.
“It is. Thank you for the reminder. It’s easy to lose sight of that when—”
“You want to tear Zemo’s throat out?”
Bucky gave him a small, lopsided smile, and squeezed his hand, having apparently exhausted his store of words for the evening. Some of the anger drained from T’Challa, and the worry too. He gave Bucky’s hand an answering squeeze of thanks, and settled in to talk until Bucky fell asleep.
The ICC hearing was just a couple of days after the test of Bucky’s treatment was scheduled, which made for a nerve-wracking slog of a week for T’Challa between the final preparations for speaking at the Hague, and his concern over how both the hearing and Bucky’s test would go. He refused to let Mandisa or Bucky reschedule and put off Bucky’s potential freedom for his convenience though, and he could spare the time to be there for the test. He had promised Bucky, after all. And there was still the possibility that the Winter Soldier would need to be incapacitated.
It was a grim gathering that met in the medical suite on the day of the test: Mandisa and her team looking serious and a little anxious, Bucky and Steve both attempting to be stone-faced while their wide eyes and racing hearts gave away their fear, and T’Challa and two of the Dora Milaje, geared for battle. Bucky would be restrained—while standing, in an effort to avoid unwelcome mental associations with his more recent experiences of restraint—but no one wanted to take any chances, least of all Bucky. The vibranium restraints would hold even a super soldier. Steve had tested them.
Before Bucky went into the restraints, he and Steve clung to each other in a quick embrace, and parted with one of their long speaking glances that seemed to stand in place of any conversation. When Bucky looked to T’Challa—either in question or for reassurance, he wasn’t sure—he nodded back and hoped it conveyed calm assurance. In truth, T’Challa’s hands were shaking a little, where they were clasped together behind his back. If this were just a fight, his hands would be steady. But this was Bucky’s mind and freedom at stake, and the culmination of months of work from Mandisa and her team and Bucky himself, and none of what was about to happen, whether good or bad, was in T’Challa’s control.
He could see Bucky breathing with deliberate, counted-out slowness as members of Mandisa’s team set up the monitoring equipment and placed him into the restraints. The room was silent, save the quiet murmurs of the doctors and technicians, and the low beeps of the equipment. If T’Challa focused, he would no doubt hear the pounding of Bucky and Steve’s hearts, heavy and fast with their hope and fear.
Mandisa went over the plan one more time, though there wasn’t much to go over. She would say the words, and gauge Bucky’s response, checking the readouts of Bucky’s vitals and brain activity against his baseline and the prior results from when they had activated him. Privately, T’Challa thought it would be evident enough if he’d been triggered into the Winter Soldier. Some essential part of Bucky was just gone when the Winter Soldier was activated, locked away behind dull eyes and an almost mechanical relentlessness.
When Mandisa was finished, she checked in with Bucky one last time. “We will only do this if you consent, Bucky. If you want to wait a little longer, or if you’re not comfortable--”
Bucky shook his head. “No. Do it. Just, if it looks like it works—you have to make sure I’m—I’m still me, after you say the words.” He looked to Steve. “You have to be sure.”
“I’ll know, Buck. I’ll be sure.”
“All will be well, Bucky. Even if this doesn’t work, you’re safe, we’re all safe,” said T’Challa. Bucky nodded and swallowed hard, relaxed a little in the restraints.
“Go ahead,” he said.
“Alright.” Mandisa took a deep breath, and started saying the trigger words, keeping her eyes on the readouts from the monitors. “Longing. Rusted. Seventeen….”
T’Challa heard the Dora Milaje shift into readiness behind him, and he did the same. Bucky had clenched his eyes shut, and his breathing was coming almost fast enough to make T’Challa worry about him hyperventilating. He was shaking in the restraints.
T’Challa had read all the memos, had gone over the Winter Soldier file, but none of that told him what fighting against the trigger words seared into Bucky by unimaginable torture and cruel conditioning was like for Bucky in this moment. What war was Bucky waging on the battlefield in his own mind?
“...one. Freight car.”
For a couple of seconds, everyone held their breath. Mandisa’s intent gaze flickered back and forth between the readouts and Bucky, triumph beginning to steal across her face. Bucky opened his eyes and blinked rapidly. T’Challa took a careful step forward.
“Buck?” asked Steve, stepping closer to Bucky too.
Bucky looked at Steve, dazed and glassy-eyed, but present. It was Bucky behind his eyes, not the blankness of the Winter Soldier. T’Challa felt hope and relief begin to unfurl in his chest, but he held them back. They had to be sure. “Yeah. I—say them again.”
“Bucky, I think it’s worked.”
“Say them again. Please.”
Mandisa did. A strangled sob tore free from Bucky’s throat and he sagged against the restraints, eyes closing in something like relief, or exhaustion maybe.
“Buck, talk to me, are you—” Steve’s voice was shaky and hopeful, his arms still folded tight across his chest and his face still guarded, but his whole body leaning towards Bucky.
Bucky opened his eyes again, looked at Steve. “It’s me. I’m—” He laughed, incredulous. Any doubt that this wasn’t their Bucky, that it was some cruel trick of HYDRA’s programming fled T’Challa’s mind. “You used to draw doodles in the margins of our books. Becca loved ‘em, always asked us to read to her and you to draw more.”
Steve’s expression managed to simultaneously look as if someone had just punched him and as if he’d been given the greatest gift of his life. “It worked, oh my god, it worked. Get him out of that thing—”
“Wait, one more time, the words—”
Mandisa, smiling broad and wide now, her fingers dancing along her kimoyo display and eyes still intent on the readouts, obliged Bucky. “Longing, rusted, seventeen, daybreak….”
Bucky still flinched to hear them, and he was still shaking, but nothing else happened. Steve darted forward to help undo the restraints, and caught Bucky when his knees buckled. They sank to the floor holding onto each other for dear life. Mandisa’s team were trying to keep up their professionalism, but he spotted satisfied grins breaking out and congratulatory hugs and backslaps being exchanged. T’Challa moved to give Mandisa a congratulatory hug of his own.
“Mandisa, I am so proud of the work you and your team have done.”
She beamed. “Thank you, my King. Bucky did a good part of that work on his own. But I’m confident the work we have done here can be used to help others.”
“I am as well. You know you have my support in it.” He turned to check on Bucky and Steve, who didn’t look likely to break apart any time soon. Bucky’s face was buried against Steve’s shoulder, his own shoulders shaking. T’Challa stepped towards them, concerned, but Mandisa put a hand on his arm and shook her head.
“They’re fine, I think. This is a much needed catharsis.”
With this obstacle overcome, T’Challa’s mind was already ticking forward to the next steps. “What’s next?”
“For today? I want Bucky to eat a proper meal and get more rest. After that, we will need to keep testing the activation sequence over the next weeks and months, to ensure the extinction treatment will stick. I’m confident it will, especially given that he’s no longer going into cryostasis. HYDRA kept putting him in stasis largely because all their methods of control broke down over time as his brain healed any damage, and his sense of self reasserted itself.”
“He’ll recover more memories, then?” asked T’Challa. Bucky had said he’d been remembering more every time he came out of stasis.
“I doubt he’ll ever get all of his memories back, but he’s well on his way to recovering most of them. And with the xenon treatment, we can reduce the trauma of recovering the memories from his time with HYDRA. Other than that, he has the normal work of recovery to look forward to.”
Steve and Bucky finally broke apart from each other, red-eyed and sniffling. He heard Nakia hiss, “No kiss? Seriously?” to Okoye in Wakandan behind him. T’Challa stifled a laugh. The outcome of the palace betting pool would have to remain in question.
“Thank you, both of you,” said Bucky to Mandisa and T’Challa, voice hoarse and dazed relief writ large across his face.
“You are more than welcome. And thank you, for your trust,” said Mandisa, taking Bucky’s hands in her own and giving them a squeeze. “I want you to stay in the medical suite today, just in case, but you’re done for the day. Eat, and rest for as long as you need, alright?”
“I can make it a royal decree if I must,” teased T’Challa, then said, “I am so pleased this worked, Bucky.” He blinked back his own sudden tears. This measure of peace he had helped Bucky find was one unambiguously good thing to come of the loss of his father. Baba, I hope you would be proud, he thought.
Bucky smiled, big and bright, and the sight of it was as sweet and welcome as the first clear dawn after long and vicious storms. T’Challa smiled back, dragged Bucky into a hug, and they both held on tight for a long moment. Here was one good thing, clawed back from the wreck they had all been left with, after the Accords and Zemo. A ferocious hope took hold in him at the victory, and T’Challa let himself indulge it. They could undo Zemo’s work yet.
T’Challa didn’t have a chance to see Bucky again before leaving for the Hague, Bucky having more or less immediately collapsed into a day-long sleep that had T’Challa and Steve both asking Mandisa if that was normal. She assured them it was, and told them they should follow Bucky’s lead and rest. T’Challa didn’t know about Steve, but he didn’t really have time to rest any more than his usual six hours of sleep a night. He was working until the moment he stepped foot on the jet to the Netherlands, and working still during the flight. He needed to do a final pass over his statement to the ICC, and he needed to review some trade agreements, and he needed to get an update from Stark on the Ross situation, and there were meetings to reschedule in case the hearing went long….
Just as he was about to give in to Okoye’s unblinking glare of disapproval and take a quick nap before they arrived, he got a message from Bucky: sorry I didn’t get to see you before you left. Good luck at the hearing. Before T’Challa could tap out a response, another little flurry of messages arrived: is that a thing people say about court hearings?? I have no idea. Sorry. Anyway you’re probably gonna do great, and your dad would be proud. There was another pause, and then: Steve says hi. T’Challa laughed, delighted by the sweet awkwardness of the messages. I don’t know, but thank you, he sent back. How are you feeling? And hi Steve.
They exchanged a few more messages before T’Challa snatched an hour or so of sleep. It wasn’t quite enough, but it would have to do.
The Wakandan delegation weren’t the only ones there to represent their “views and concerns” at the confirmation of charges hearing. T’Challa was, however, the only victim who was there personally. Everyone else was represented by an assortment of lawyers, even Stark having sent a small army of them on behalf of the Avengers Initiative. T’Challa’s own lawyers had had to resort to some convoluted and aggressive legal arguments to have T’Challa himself allowed as the Wakandan representative, and he suspected the court had agreed more to avoid any sort of diplomatic mess than anything else.
Bucky and the murdered Winter Soldiers were the only ones not represented at the hearing. That sat ill with T’Challa, but he saw the sense in it, for Bucky at least. It was more important to keep him off the radar right now, and Bucky had agreed. If all went well with the plan T’Challa and the Avengers were nurturing along, Bucky too would have some measure of justice eventually.
Throughout the statements of the other victims’ lawyers, T’Challa kept his gaze locked on Zemo, who was seated with his defense team. Zemo’s face was expressionless, empty. He didn’t shift or fidget, his expression unmoved through statement after statement of the collateral damage his vengeance had wrought. He stayed blank even through the grisly reports of his alleged war crimes from when he was with Sokovia’s EKO Scorpion. Zemo hadn’t succeeded in killing himself in Siberia, but it certainly seemed as if some critical part of him had died, or burned out. It should have been satisfying; it wasn’t. T’Challa’s hands itched with the desire to do violence. He clenched his hands into fists instead. Justice, not vengeance, he told himself. Justice would be its own vengeance.
When it was Wakanda’s turn, T’Challa rose to make his statement to the court. It was a precisely calibrated statement, for the most part, one meant to make world governments squirm, to assert Wakandan sovereignty, and to thoroughly damn Zemo as a monster whose grudge had done nothing but garner destruction. He slipped in some praise for the Avengers, who, after all, had been “the only ones to see past the short-sighted World Security Council and identify Zemo as the true suspect.” He risked a glance at Zemo then, whose expression had gained some life and focus. Good, thought T’Challa, took a deep breath, and continued.
“Your Honors, I have told you what it has meant to my people to lose a king. I would like to tell you now what it has meant to me, to lose my father,” he said.
T’Challa dragged his grief out for public consumption, shared some small part of the hundreds of little losses that made up the one, gaping absence of his father from his life. In this, T’Challa was neither prince nor king, just one more orphan. It was a smaller loss, in its own way; it didn’t involve politics or wars or superheroes. Just a boy who had lost his baba. And yet sometimes that loss loomed large enough in his life to nearly swallow him whole.
When he finished, he looked at Zemo again. Zemo’s face had returned to its impassivity. It didn’t last. When Stark’s lawyers gave their statement, Zemo began to grasp something of the shape of his revenge’s destruction, to comprehend the patient, waiting trap that would undo his work and redeem the Avengers. Zemo was a smart man, and T’Challa could see him putting the pieces together. He went pale, and his expression twisted into a gutted, disbelieving sort of rage, burning eyes going directly to T’Challa. T’Challa smiled.
After the hearing, he went to the Wakandan delegation’s hotel suite, already homesick for Wakanda. They were scheduled to leave tomorrow afternoon, after the court’s morning session, in case any further testimony was required by the court. Part of T’Challa wanted to abandon responsibility and just leave. He wanted to be back in Wakanda, to hear the roar of the falls and to feel the presence of the Black Panther monument through the heavy green of the jungle and touch of the mist. He wanted to visit his baba’s memorial, even if it was only an illusion of closeness. Baba wasn’t really there.
He meditated instead, let himself sit with a grief that felt cleaner and lighter than it had in months, if equally sharp. Once he was done, he wiped away the tears that had run unbidden down his face, and returned to work. It was the work his father had left to him, and it remained the best way to honor his father’s legacy. It would be the work of a lifetime.
Two weeks after Zemo’s hearing, the ICC entered its charges against him: they included the expected multiple counts of murder and destruction of property, multiple charges of torture, charges of killing civilians….the list was almost impressively long. To T’Challa and Steve’s satisfaction, and Bucky’s surprise, the ICC’s investigation had turned up enough on Bucky’s unwilling involvement in Zemo’s crimes to include charges of presenting false evidence and torture. The trial was set for three months later. T’Challa adjusted his plans accordingly.
Three weeks after Zemo’s hearing, the World Security Council announced its intention to redraft the Accords, and politely requested the participation of the non-fugitive Avengers, and Wakanda. Good, thought T’Challa. They had been appropriately rattled by the hearing then. T’Challa met with the fugitive Avengers, and Bucky, to give them the good news.
“So, we’re still fugitives, is what you’re saying,” said Sam, arms crossed and looking unimpressed.
T’Challa frowned at him. “You’re closer to not being fugitives. This is a somewhat complex plan, Sam. It will take time to come to fruition.”
“We’ve made good progress,” said Steve. “Is there anything else for us to do? I know Nat and Tony are still working on getting Ross off the Council.”
“Steve wants to know if there’s anything for him to punch,” translated Bucky with a grin. T’Challa grinned back, delighted to see Bucky looking so at ease, and Steve rolled his eyes.
“Nothing to punch just now. There will be more to do after Zemo’s trial, if all goes well.”
“There’s some secret Avenging I was hoping to do though—”
From there, the meeting entered the usual informal back and forth of (secret) Avengers meetings, and wound down once the plan of action for the next couple of weeks had been decided. When they were done and T’Challa was getting ready to head to his next meeting, Bucky stopped at the door before following Steve and Sam out.
“We still on for tomorrow?” Tomorrow was T’Challa’s long-awaited official Day Off, and he planned to spend at least half of it with Bucky, depending on how things went. Things would go well, judging by the wicked smirk on Bucky’s lips. T’Challa would be pleased enough if their date ended in some kissing and heavy petting. He let himself begin to hope for more at the heated look in Bucky’s eyes.
“Barring international disaster, yes.”
“Good,” said Bucky, and then he ducked his head and his smirk bloomed into a shy smile. “Um, I’m looking forward to it.”
“Me too,” said T’Challa, smiling helplessly back.
T’Challa spent half of his official Day Off blessedly alone and as free of kingly obligation as it was possible to be. No calls or emails or messages, no meetings to take or legislation to review or statements to give: just a morning hike along the jungle cliffs surrounding the palace, and a visit to the towering Black Panther monument, where the roar of the falls drowned out his worries. Since he had earned the mantle of Black Panther, he always felt a curious sense of doubling when he visited the monument: simultaneously dwarfed by its immensity, rendered small and young in the face of its ancient solidity, yet also somehow containing that very immensity within himself. It ought to have been unsettling, probably, but T’Challa had never found it to be so. Being Black Panther sat easy. Being king, less so.
Once the sun began to climb higher in the sky, he returned to the palace for an afternoon appointment with a book. Leisure reading was a rare luxury lately, another hobby that was casualty to the increased demands on his time. The book was failing to hold his attention though. All throughout, anticipation for his date with Bucky simmered low and hot in him.
In the weeks since Bucky had freed himself of the time bomb that was the trigger words, T’Challa had gotten the opportunity to spend time with a less burdened Bucky. With no ticking clock running down the time until he had to go back in stasis, and no constant dredging of his very worst memories, it was like Bucky was living more fully in the world, or like some part of him that had been held at a careful distance before was now brought close. He smiled easier, talked a little more. Bucky was still working with Mandisa, only now the pace of his recovery was more of a gentle marathon than the grueling sprint it had been, so some of the ever-present exhaustion had lifted from the set of his shoulders and the lines of his face. If he was not the more carefree boy he had been before his long war, nor the broken and hurting soldier war had made of that boy, he was yet some version of both of them: a man who was within sight of the possibility of peace. That man was worth knowing, and T’Challa wanted to know him.
It was easier said than done, given his schedule. T’Challa hadn’t had a lot of time to spare to spend with Bucky, but when he did, he found Bucky in the palace gardens, where Bucky shared warm, sunlit benches with the palace cats while he read or wrote in his notebooks. Bucky would tell T’Challa whatever new and interesting thing he’d learned about what he persisted in calling “the future,” or he’d ask T’Challa some question about Wakanda. Sometimes they’d meet in the training room to spar, or just hit the heavy bags together. More rarely, they’d catch each other late at night, when the rest of the palace was asleep, and they were the only ones roaming the halls and balconies. They were mostly quiet then, and left their nightmares or midnight worries unsaid. The comfort of silent company was enough on those nights.
As out of practice as both of them may have been at the wholly ordinary process of building a friendship, T’Challa didn’t think they were doing too badly at it. Bucky was an easy person to like, or at least, T’Challa found him so, especially now that he was allowed past Bucky’s guarded wariness. It helped too that Bucky had no particular expectations of T’Challa as king, and few preconceptions. The trust and affection Bucky offered so freely now were anchored in something other than the mantles of power T’Challa wore. He thought he was beginning to understand, a little, what Steve had meant when he’d said Bucky had always seen him.
And still, there was the steady flame of the memory of their one shared kiss burning quietly between them. Months ago, they had agreed to see how things went. T’Challa, still mindful of Sam Wilson’s “special hell” warning and Bucky’s recovery, had carefully avoided doing anything more than flirting. Never mind how much T’Challa wanted to make a thorough and leisurely exploration of Bucky’s body; this thing between them could remain friendship, if that was what Bucky wanted, and T’Challa would accept that with grace and no hard feelings aside from some wistful regret and somewhat more sexual frustration. Either way, it was up to Bucky, and for weeks he hadn’t made any moves apart from cheerfully flirting back.
When he had finally made his move, T’Challa had nearly missed it. They’d been in the gardens, and T’Challa had mentioned that he’d finally scheduled himself a full day off, which had made Bucky squint suspiciously at him.
“Are you actually gonna have a normal person day off, or is this, like, a king day off where you still have to take a lot of meetings and call a bunch of world leaders?”
“A…normal person day off, as you put it. So long as there are no emergencies.”
“Huh. What’re you gonna do?”
“I’m not certain yet. Maybe take a hike up to the Black Panther monument. It has been some time since I was able to visit.”
“Sounds nice. That an all day thing?”
“No, I would return to the palace by early afternoon most likely.” T’Challa had been too busy idly considering what he’d do with the rest of his day off to pay too much mind to how Bucky had been worrying at his lower lip.
“You think you’ll be free for dinner?”
“I don’t see why not. Though please, don’t let Steve cook.” Steve’s cooking was…well, it could only be said that Steve’s artistic talents were definitely in the visual rather than culinary arts. Still, he’d thought a dinner with Bucky, Steve, and the others would be nice. T’Challa had joined them for meals a few other times, and the relaxed informality had been a balm after stiff official dinners, even if Steve’s attempts at cooking had been unfortunate. “Did you want to spar before dinner? Or is that not an acceptable day off activity?”
Bucky had just stared at him. “Why would Steve cook—” He’d winced once he realized what T’Challa had assumed. “I meant dinner. With just me. Um. If that’s—”
“Oh. Oh. Dinner. Yes. That would be a very welcome way to end my day off.” He’d smiled at Bucky, charmed and delighted, while Bucky had blushed and laughed at himself.
“I used to be good at this kinda thing, I swear. And yeah, sure, we can spar before.”
“It’s a date, then.”
When T’Challa entered the training room, Bucky looked up from unwrapping the tape on his hand to smile at T’Challa. He’d already gone a couple rounds with the heavy bag judging by the flush on his face and the light sweat shining on his skin, and how his hair was doing that damnably appealing thing where it was beginning to escape its short ponytail. “Having a nice day off?”
“Yes, I am, thank you. The country is still standing even, which makes it even better.”
Bucky raised his eyebrows in a “see, was that so hard?” sort of expression that made T’Challa chuckle. T’Challa started on his warmup routine, and felt the weight of Bucky’s appreciative gaze on him throughout.
“How has your day been?” he asked Bucky.
“Oh, y’know, the usual. Therapy, 21st century catch up, reading.”
21st century catch up covered everything from Bucky spending the better part of a day on Wikipedia, to Sam, Scott, and the others sitting Bucky and Steve down to watch whatever movie or television show they deemed essential to understanding the 21st century. As far as T’Challa could tell, it mostly seemed like an excuse for Bucky and Sam to wind each other up with pop culture arguments.
“And what was today’s topic in 21st century catch up?”
Bucky regaled T’Challa with the latest round of the perpetual debate over which Star Trek was the best while T’Challa finished warming up, listening with what he was aware was probably an indulgent, fond look on his face. A talkative Bucky still felt like something of a novelty, and T’Challa liked to see him so animated and at ease.
“Best two out of three today?” asked T’Challa when they were both situated on the sparring mat.
“Sure,” answered Bucky, and moved right into an exploratory jab.
Sparring with Bucky lately was more of a dance than a fight, some joy in it unleashed now that the trigger words weren’t hanging over Bucky. They knew each others’ rhythms and limits now, were both comfortable enough to use their enhanced speed and strength without worrying about hurting each other. So T’Challa took the opportunity to show off a little, to tease, with both his body and his words. This was, after all, a date. That meant seduction was on the table, and T’Challa was pretty good at seduction. Though admittedly, seduction via sparring was a somewhat new strategy for him.
It maybe wasn’t a new strategy for Bucky, who was keeping the match close and tight, moving in for holds and grapples when he usually favored feints and punches. T’Challa’s focus narrowed to the sound of their heavy breaths, the feeling of hot skin sliding in and out of his grasp as they made and broke holds. T’Challa nearly got Bucky in a chokehold, only to be distracted by Bucky turning his head and putting his ludicrously long eyelashes in profile. Bucky took advantage of the split second hesitation to shift his weight and throw T’Challa off balance, pinning him to the mat.
Bucky grinned down at him, wolfish. He held T’Challa’s arms immobile, the grip of his vibranium arm just this side of bruising, and he was straddling T’Challa’s hips with his thighs.
“That’s one out of three. Do I get a prize for that?”
“Oh, is that how this is going to go?” asked T’Challa with a slow smile, and gave an experimental roll of his hips. He wasn’t hard yet, but he was getting there. Bucky sucked in a surprised breath.
“Yeah,” he answered, and leaned down for a swift and brutal kiss before rolling off of him and leaping up.
Stakes like those were very motivating, so T’Challa wasted no time in attempting to sweep Bucky legs out from under him. Bucky dodged, and their new match began in earnest. This time, T’Challa pinned Bucky, and the sweat-damp expanse of his bared throat was the prize T’Challa claimed. He pressed a slow kiss where Bucky’s pulse beat rapidly, tasting salt, and drew a moan from Bucky that vibrated against his lips where they were still on Bucky’s throat. T’Challa immediately wanted to hear that sound again. When he pulled back to look at Bucky, Bucky’s eyes were wide and dark, glassy with desire.
“Tied. What does the winner get?” asked T’Challa.
Bucky blinked, dazed. “Anything. Fuck, anything, just—” His voice was low and wrecked, and it was too much for T’Challa. He leaned back down for a kiss, and Bucky went loose and pliant under him, opening his mouth to the kiss to take it deeper, and really, things had moved much faster than T’Challa had expected. But there was something dizzying and narcotic about Bucky’s responsiveness to every little touch, to the way he arched up against T’Challa’s body like he needed more contact, so T’Challa gave up any pretense of continuing on to a third round, and set about kissing Bucky with months’ worth of pent up sexual frustration. Here was the heat that that first kiss had promised months ago, and it was summer sunshine heat, a steady and encompassing kind of warmth rather than a conflagration.
Eventually Bucky drew back for air and T’Challa rolled off to Bucky’s side, both of them panting a little.
“I swear I had a plan here, and this was not part of it. I was gonna—dinner, and, you know, no floors—” Bucky babbled.
T’Challa laughed and got up, offering a hand to Bucky and pulling him in for a quick kiss once he was up. “How about we skip dinner and find a bed.”
Bucky nodded fervently. “Yes, that’s—good idea.”
They managed to get to T’Challa’s suite in dignified enough fashion, though T’Challa was regretting the distance between the training room and his quarters the whole way there. They were walking as quickly as courtesy allowed, and it definitely wasn’t fast enough given that T’Challa knew Bucky could outrun a car.
“Which bed had you planned on using?” asked T’Challa on the way, suddenly curious.
“You share your suite with Steve.”
“Yeah, and I told him to make himself scarce tonight, unless he wanted a show.”
“So you and Steve….” Nakia and Okoye were trailing a discreet and amused distance behind them, though still in earshot, and now seemed as good a time as any to settle the palace betting pool. T’Challa knew Bucky wouldn’t have let things get this far if he and Steve really were an exclusive couple, but T’Challa was still curious.
Bucky frowned at him. “You’re not homewreckin’ or anything.” That still wasn’t really a clear answer as to what exactly was going on with Steve and Bucky. He sent an apologetic shrug Nakia’s way as he ushered Bucky in through his suite’s door, and stifled a laugh at the brief glimpse of her look of baffled fury he got before closing the door.
T’Challa’s bedroom suite was somewhat more modest than he knew many would expect of the king’s quarters. That was partly because he hadn’t yet taken the official king’s quarters, since he was still unmarried and had no desire to rattle around his baba’s old rooms alone. It was also because T’Challa wasn’t given to extravagant tastes, at least not in interior design and architectural matters. He was grateful for it when he saw that Bucky looked around the rooms with interest, but no particular awe or discomfort. T’Challa left him to it; he doubted Bucky would be comfortable until he had some idea of the lay of the land, and T’Challa could exercise a little more patience.
Something in the suite must have reminded Bucky of who T’Challa was, because Bucky crossed his arms and looked suddenly uncertain as he paced a slow circuit of the sitting room.
“I maybe should’ve asked this earlier, but—is this okay? Is this gonna cause a scandal? I mean, you’re the king, and I’m—really not at all royalty, or probably anybody’s idea of appropriate, what with being a fugitive and all—not that I have any desire to be your—I don’t even know what to call it…” Bucky trailed off, wide-eyed and grimacing.
T’Challa went to Bucky and pulled him into a loose hug, hoping to ease his nerves. Bucky sighed and dropped his head on T’Challa’s shoulder. “There will be no particular scandal. Some money and favors will exchange hands in the palace betting pool—”
“Betting pool?” asked Bucky, lifting his head with interest.
Probably best not to explain the betting pool right now, thought T’Challa, and plowed on. “But Wakanda does not fuss overmuch about its prince’s or king’s dalliances. The Dora Milaje are the Adored Ones, and my betrothed, if only in a ceremonial sense at the moment. The process of choosing a consort or queen is, I assure you, a wholly different thing from what we are doing.”
“And what are we doing?” asked Bucky, pulling out of the embrace to look at T’Challa with keen and curious eyes. There was nothing demanding or upset in the question, only honest curiosity.
“We are two fellow warriors, and friends, finding some joy and comfort with each other. There need be nothing secret or shameful about it.” Bucky nodded, clearly relieved. “Though I must tell you…Wakanda always comes first for me, you understand? Above any other relationship or duty.”
“Of course. You know Steve comes first for me, right?”
“Yes,” said T’Challa, and resisted making a juvenile dirty joke. He knew what Bucky meant. Whatever their relationship was exactly, it was clear that Steve and Bucky were each other’s priority. “So we’re in agreement then.”
“Yeah.” Bucky smiled, gave him a heavy-lidded look and tugged him in for a sweet kiss. “Weren’t we supposed to be finding a bed?”
“We were,” T’Challa answered, and took Bucky’s hand to lead him there.
Bucky snorted in disbelief when he saw T’Challa’s bed. “I’m pretty sure this bed is as big as Steve and me’s first apartment.”
“We can discuss the bed, or we can discuss other more interesting things,” said T’Challa, and gave Bucky a gentle push onto the bed before following him.
Bucky went with a grin, already starting to divest himself of his clothing. They were still in sweats and barefoot from sparring, so it was the work of seconds, both of them stripping down with no fanfare and tossing their clothes aside. T’Challa straddled Bucky’s hips, drawing a gasp from both of them as their cocks came into contact, and looked his fill at the smooth stretch of warm skin and muscle laid out before him. The scarring along his left side where flesh met vibranium was no surprise, after so many sessions spent working on Bucky’s new prosthetic, but now T’Challa was at leisure to pay attention to the sparse trail of dark hair leading down to Bucky’s cock, and to the cut of his hips and the solid muscled bulk of his torso and thighs. Bucky was unselfconscious in his bare skin, already half-hard like T’Challa was, and he reached for T’Challa with both hands to run a skimming, intent touch over T’Challa’s hips. The contrast of his vibranium arm against T’Challa’s heated skin raised gooseflesh in the wake of his touch.
Bucky leaned forward for a kiss, exploratory and almost cautious now, some of his earlier abandon gone. When T’Challa pulled back, Bucky looked just anxious enough to worry him. He’d lost his earlier loose-limbed ease and there was tension starting to thrum in his body. T’Challa rubbed what he hoped were soothing circles on Bucky’s hips with his thumbs.
“Is this okay?”
Bucky closed his eyes, nodded, took a deep breath. “Sorry. It’s just—been a long time. Everything feels really intense sometimes.”
“We don't have to do anything more than what we’ve already done. If you want to stop, you need only say the word.”
T’Challa studied him, the flush building on his face and chest, the downward sweep of his lashes. He was beautiful, and T’Challa was suddenly acutely aware that it had likely been decades since anyone had seen Bucky like this, had seen his naked body as something worthy of attention and care, something other than a weapon. Bucky didn’t break so easily, T’Challa knew, and yet he still felt as if he had a feather-light hold on something as fragile and lovely as blown glass. And as clear too, because Bucky wasn’t hiding anything. When Bucky glanced back up at him, there was apprehension and trust in equal measure in the look in his eyes. It made a keen, tender sort of ache take residence in T’Challa’s chest.
“Don’t stop,” said Bucky.
“We can go slower.”
So they turned the heated tempo of the training room into something more delicate, measured, exchanging achingly slow kisses and mapping each other’s bodies with gentle hands. Bucky relaxed again by degrees, and T’Challa felt every little sigh and moan like a victory, and a goad to his arousal. More sweetly maddening was the way Bucky touched him, careful and slow and wondering, those touches paired with an intent focus so total it was nearly unbearable. They were both fully hard now, and rocking against each other, riding the edge of not enough stimulation from the friction of their cocks rubbing together.
“Please,” said Bucky into the skin of T’Challa’s shoulder as he mouthed wet and bruising kisses along it.
“Please what?” asked T’Challa, but he thought he could guess. He took hold of Bucky’s cock, the head already wet with precome, and gave it an experimental stroke. Bucky let out an almost agonized sound and shuddered under him, his hands clenching almost painfully on T’Challa’s hips. T’Challa kept his strokes slow and steady, reveled in the feel of the smooth skin of Bucky’s cock, and in the way he was swiftly coming so beautifully undone by pleasure. “You’re so beautiful like this.”
Bucky gasped, “Faster,” shoving up against T’Challa’s grip with an almost frantic pace, and T’Challa obliged him. T’Challa himself was painfully hard and sensitive, every movement making his cock throb with need, but he didn’t want to come just yet, wanted to make this last. He nearly followed Bucky over the edge when Bucky came in one long wave, and went lax under him. Bucky tugged T’Challa in for a lazy and lingering kiss before he gently repositioned them so T’Challa was under him. They both made a halfhearted effort to clean each other up with the sheets.
“Good?” asked T’Challa, and Bucky hummed a happy affirmative sort of noise as his heart rate settled down.
Bucky’s hands still roamed T’Challa’s body as if there was no amount of touch that was enough. After a moment, Bucky ran an inquisitive and light touch over T’Challa’s cock, making T’Challa jerk and shudder, and asked, “What do you want?”
T’Challa had had a long time to consider what his answer to this question would be. “I’d like to fuck you, if that’s alright.” Bucky’s eyes went big and he let out a sound that was somewhere between a groan and a whimper.
“Yeah, that’s—please. Yes.”
“So polite,” teased T’Challa, as if every little plea didn’t make him want to give Bucky whatever he wanted.
He directed Bucky to lie on his stomach, then fetched the lube from the bedside table, and set about working Bucky open with his fingers.
“Tell me if it’s too much.”
Bucky just moaned in response, the powerful muscles of his back gone loose and relaxed, arms wrapped around one of the pillows. T’Challa pressed a line of kisses along the notches of Bucky’s spine, reveled in the feeling of him tight and hot around his fingers. Though it tested what was left of his patience, he kept to a slow and relentless pace.
“C’mon, more, faster, I can take it,” panted Bucky.
T’Challa brushed Bucky’s hair away from his neck, kissed the sweat-damp nape of his neck and the soft, vulnerable skin behind his ear. Bucky whimpered, his arms going tight around the pillow. The plates of his vibranium arm shifted in one long, rippling wave. T’Challa ran his free hand through Bucky’s hair, and added another finger, crooking his fingers just right to hit the prostate. Bucky groaned and his hips jerked, goading T’Challa into a faster rhythm. T’Challa was breathing faster now, and he wanted—but he wasn’t about to hurt Bucky with impatience, so he kept easing Bucky open until he was sure he could slide in with ease.
Eventually Bucky was reduced to a litany of wrecked little pleases and T’Challa murmured, “Of course, of course, whatever you want, anything you want,” rolled on a condom, and sank into Bucky.
For just a moment, neither of them moved, caught in breathless feeling. Bucky was all heat, inside and out: the heat of him around T’Challa’s cock, and of his skin under T’Challa’s hands. Then Bucky shoved against him and T’Challa moved, fucking him with long and slow thrusts for as long as he could bear it, savoring the feeling of being enveloped. Which was only until Bucky let out a frustrated sort of growl and said, “I’m not gonna break, go harder.”
T’Challa was accustomed to being more careful, with his strength and with his passion, but if this was what Bucky wanted—he tightened his grip on Bucky’s hips and rocked into him fast and hard, skin slapping against skin, and sought the exact angle to hit his prostate. He knew he got it when Bucky moaned and gasped into the pillow under his cheek. T’Challa could only see Bucky’s flushed and lovely profile, his eyes long eyelashes fluttering, and with some distant part of him that wasn’t wrapped in the heat and agonizing pleasure of the moment, he thought that next time he wanted to see Bucky’s face.
He said as much, and more, in the desperate and wanting bedroom babble that came just before orgasm, Bucky clenching around him until he came hard, with his mouth biting a bruising kiss into the meat of Bucky’s shoulder, and his fingers tangled in Bucky’s. Bucky shuddered violently once; he’d come again, thought T’Challa with a little thrill, and pulled out. Bucky sighed sweetly and threw his arm over T’Challa as soon as T’Challa returned to the bed after dealing with the condom. He burrowed in close with a kiss that T’Challa found himself smiling into. T’Challa felt pleasantly loose and drowsy, and warm like he was sharing a bed with a small sun.
“You good? That was okay?” murmured Bucky. His hair was a tousled mess, his face gone soft and unguarded in the aftermath of sex.
“Perfect.” Bucky smiled wide and slow, practically glowing with it, and T’Challa answered with an achingly wide smile of his own, high on the uncomplicated happiness of the moment. Bucky brought his hand up to T’Challa’s face, as if to feel the truth of his joy.
They traded lazy kisses, unwilling to go to sleep just yet. Bucky was hard again soon enough, to T’Challa’s gratified surprise. He dragged himself away from sucking a hickey into the hollow of Bucky’s collarbone to give him a raised eyebrow. Bucky blushed bright red and put a hand over his eyes, embarrassed.
“Oh my god, what the hell.”
“I think I’m flattered.” He reached down to give Bucky’s cock a stroke, and Bucky gasped.
“I think it’s the serum,” he mumbled, already thrusting into T’Challa’s hand.
“This requires investigation,” said T’Challa, and set about engaging in an extremely thorough investigation. It took the better part of the night, but that was okay. T’Challa was a dogged investigator.
T’Challa and Bucky avoided any morning-after awkwardness by dint of a morning blow job, courtesy Bucky, and sharing a hearty breakfast, courtesy the palace staff. T’Challa was reading his morning briefing and catching up on the news from his day off when Bucky got up, dropped a quick kiss to T’Challa’s lips, and made as if to leave.
“I’ve gotta go meet Steve and the others, we were gonna go over some HYDRA intel this morning. I’ll see you…whenever your crazy schedule lets up?”
“Wait, I’ll walk with you. And I think we can continue to squeeze in a sparring session and meal here and there.”
Bucky grinned. “Well, you know my social calendar isn’t exactly packed.”
They left T’Challa’s suite, Dora Milaje falling into step behind them, and headed for the administrative wing of the palace, which housed both T’Challa’s office and the conference room set aside for Steve and his team’s use. T’Challa’s mind was already occupied with the day’s work, but in the background, the pleasant soreness of the night’s exertions stayed with him and kept a small smile on his face. It had really been a very nice day off. He’d have to try it more often.
When they reached the conference room, T’Challa went in with Bucky to offer a quick greeting to Steve, Sam, and the others. Steve took one look at them and laughed, rolling his eyes affectionately.
“Had a good night?”
“I had a great night,” said Bucky with a beatific beam. T’Challa was probably wearing an equally ludicrous smile.
“As did I. It was an excellent end to a relaxing day off, thank you.”
Sam was just shaking his head in disbelief. “I cannot fucking believe your life, Barnes. You two were literally engaged in a fight to the death a year ago.”
T’Challa could scarcely believe his own life. He hadn’t thought he would be king by now, or that he would be orphaned. He hadn’t thought he would be working with the Avengers. He hadn't thought that he would have come to the brink of being a murderer, only to pull back at very nearly the last possible moment. He certainly hadn’t thought that he would come to care for the Winter Soldier. But Baba had always said that you had to accept life’s hardships and gifts in equal measure, and that they could both make a better man. T’Challa hoped Baba would think they had done so for him.
“This is preferable,” said T’Challa with one last smile at Bucky, before he left and began his day’s work as king.