Tony flipped his helmet back. "Yeah, it's a time portal for sure." The giant glowing circle was made of nothing out of Earth's periodic table, so it was of alien origin as well, quelle surprise. "Banner, you got a theory as to how it works?" he asked. "Because with that power signature, I'm guessing that it's making tiny rips in space-time, like pulling threads from a sweater—"
"You're nuts, you know that?" Banner said, almost admiringly.
"—and all versions of reality converge at the hole. In the sweater. It's a metaphor, work with me here." Tony looked around at the other Avengers. "Seriously, any of you got a better theory?"
Thor was slowly walking around the portal, staring at the flickering gray matrix that had formed across it. "There are portals such as these in our legends," he said, frowning. "One was said to have been a knothole of the great tree Yggdrasil, and to have given immense power to—"
"Right, okay. Knothole is a good theory too—Banner?" Tony demanded.
It was Natasha who answered. "Are you sure it's not a bomb?" she asked, peering over Banner's shoulder. "Because I don't like the way that energy's building. That buildup says weapon to me—"
"It's not a weapon," Tony interrupted.
Banner looked up from his tablet. "You don't know that," just as Natasha said, "What's it going to do with all that power if it's not a—"
"It's not a weapon!" Tony repeated, and yanked the tablet from Banner's hands. He gestured frantically at the readouts, then flipped them outward. "Look. Look. You can see it: the equations are all fourth dimensional. Time portal, I'm telling you. I just want to know how it works—"
"Who the hell cares how it works?" and everyone fell silent, because that was Steve Rogers, using a terrible, thick voice that was nothing like him. Tony tried to formulate a crack about science in Steve's time which involved patent medicines and there only being six planets, but he stopped when he saw the alarm on Natasha's face; she'd figured out what was going to happen.
"Don't," she said, voice breaking; she was in motion, arm stretching out, reaching for him. "Steve!" but it was over before Tony understood what was happening. Cap was moving too, moving fast, and then abruptly he turned, looking desperately at her, blond hair flying. He called out, "I'm sorry! Natasha, I'm sorry!" and then he jumped, flying headlong into the portal.
There was a crackle of electricity—Natasha's hands closing on empty air—as he disappeared, and Clint's arms swiftly closed around her to drag her back and stop her from falling in after him.
The matrix of the portal flared again, and then the outer circle began to strobe furiously, bright white and blinding like an LED. Everyone cringed back and shielded their eyes, and Tony slammed his helmet down. "Jarvis!" he shouted, as a blast of energy knocked him off his feet; okay, Natasha might have had a point about the energy buildup. There was no answer.
"Jarvis!" he called again, and peered at his displays: he was getting local readings, but none of the analysis; nothing from— "Oh this is so not good," Tony said, and forced himself to stagger up, to his feet, to the window. They'd found the portal in an abandoned airport terminal outside of Cincinnati, flanked by now-dusty fake palm trees and rows of chairs with orange fabric seats. It had apparently been mistaken for a typical piece of ugly airport architecture until it had started to glow and hum. Now Tony looked out and saw that the sky had changed—that everything had changed. The windows had given out onto a blue midwestern sky and cracked tarmac, a scraggle of green mountains at the horizon. Now the sky had an ominously orange tint, and the field was full of sleek gray airships cheerfully branded Hanseflug—Fly Better! and Focke-Wulf—There's No Stopping Us. This was probably truth in advertising: all the planes had swastikas on them.
"Holy Christ," Barton breathed, coming up next to him. "What the..."
"Cap's fucked it up," Tony said; he sounded calmer than he felt. "Cap's fucked it all up."
"I don't understand," Natasha said slowly. "If Steve's changed the future—"
"If?" Tony boggled at the Nazi hell outside the window.
"—then why are we still here?" Natasha finished implacably. "How do we still remember?"
It was Banner who answered. "Force field," he said pointing. "Look. There's the line of demarcation," and Tony saw the curve of what he'd taken to be a blast radius. On their side was the scrabbly grass and the faded grey tarmac; on the other side, smooth black tar under the airships. "It makes sense," Banner said. "The portal needs to protect its own existence." He turned, craned his neck, looked around. "They probably built this whole structure around it."
Thor was staring out the window, horrified. "My lady Jane!" he cried, and Tony's stomach twisted as he thought about Pepper.
"Wait a second," Barton said, "does this mean everything outside this room has changed?"
"Outside that circle, yeah," Banner replied grimly. "Whatever Cap did has changed the whole—"
Thor turned on them all, furiously. "How could you not know the dangers of interference with the past?" he demanded. "The golden prince Dygr cast his kingdom into a thousand years of darkness by meddling in the timestream. This," he added, with a pointed look at Tony Stark, "the youngest child of Asgard learns, from the tale of the knothole."
"Hey, don't tell me, buddy—tell Rogers," Tony shot back.
"You couldn't have told him," Natasha said quietly. "Steve was already out of time."
"What joy he buys with this coin must be paid for in sorrows athousandfold," Thor intoned.
Tony sighed and scratched his head. "Okay, look—Debbie Downer—can you please be a little more constructive?"
"Constructive?" Barton turned on him. "The Nazis won the war! We don't exist outside this room!"
"There are swastikas on the planes, Stark," Natasha said, pointing.
"Yeah. It's really terrible. If only we had a time machine," Tony said, and rolled his eyes.
Everyone stopped and looked at him.
"We have to fix it," Tony said. "We have to fix it. It's our only—well, all of us except Thor. Thor can probably just fly out of here, go back to Asgard and forget us. But for the rest of us: we fix this or we die. And leave the world in the hands of the Nazis besides."
"He's right," Banner said, a moment later.
"Yes," Natasha sighed. "He is, unfortunately. So what's the plan?"
Tony thought about it. "We have to get there before him, try to talk him out of it. Stop him by force if we have to. We'll need brains and brawn—"
"So, me then," Bruce said.
"We might need them at the same time," Tony said.
"So, not me, then," Bruce said.
"Right," Natasha said. "I'm in." She looked at Tony: "What do you say, Stark? Shall we dance?"
"Yeah," Tony said, and then: "Wait, I'm the brains, right? You're the brawn and I'm the—right."
Natasha looked at Barton. "You're the reserve team," she told him. "When you think you've waited long enough, you'll have to try, too. Take Banner with you—he's your scientist. Worst case scenario, we'll all be alive somewhere."
Tony frowned. "Excuse me, I thought I was running this mission..."
"Thor," Natasha continued, turning her face up to his, "if they don't come back... "
"I understand." Thor gently put his hands on her shoulders and bowed his head. "I will devote my life to protecting the Earth. I will not let these barbarians despoil or tyrannize her."
"Okay, seriously? We have a time machine?" Tony pointed out. "We should be able to do this."
"We don't even know how it works," Natasha objected.
"Steve didn't know how it worked either: didn't stop him." Tony turned his full attention to the portal, which had gone back to glowing quietly, waves occasionally rippling across its flickering gray matrix like wind blowing across a pond. It had no visible controls, no console, no interface. "Something this sophisticated, it's got to be pretty intuitive." He stopped, cleared his throat, and said to it: "Hello? On? Power up? Siri?" Nothing. "Right, okay. So it's telepathic—"
"That's a hell of a leap," Barton muttered.
"No," Tony said, wheeling on him, "what Rogers just did was a hell of a leap. And he didn't do anything except make moony faces at Natasha, which—points for taste—but judging from the result, we can be pretty sure he didn't go to ancient Rome or 14th century Florence or Mars. Captain Rogers knew where he was going: he went home. Something this sophisticated, it can figure out a human being. We're simple, really. We're not going to work it: it's going to work us."
Natasha considered this. "Okay," she said. "So we just, we want to go where Steve went."
"Right," Tony said. "But earlier. We need to get there first."
"How much earlier?" Natasha asked.
"Hm," Tony said, and thought about it. This being Captain America, they could be following him straight into a war zone, or a firefight—a battle he won, or failed to win, second time around. They could also find themselves hanging around the moviehouses of Brooklyn while Steve Rogers talked himself out of enlisting and decided to open up a delicatessen instead.
"I don't know," Tony said finally. "I don't think we can know. We have to hope that it does."
Natasha had that look she sometimes got when they were dealing with aliens or gods or monsters. "Right." She sent a quick, sad smile around to the others. "Wish us luck."
She looked surprised when Tony took her hand, still wearing the suit. "What," he said. "We're probably going into the middle of World War II. I'm not going without battle armor."
"Why are you holding my hand?" Natasha asked warily, looking down at it.
"Because I think we need to click our heels three times," Tony said, squeezing, "and I'm not even kidding. I wish I were." She smiled at him a little ruefully and squeezed his hand back. "Okay, focus," he said, and closed his eyes. "We're going where Cap went. In three. Two. One—"
They stumbled out into a narrow cobblestoned alley between two grey-brown buildings. They alley was piled high with trash, washing lines criss-crossing overhead, a drainage ditch running in a line down the center, beneath their feet. Natasha looked out toward the mouth of the alley, where cars were zooming past, tooting their horns: they were large, mostly black, old fashioned.
"Is this Brooklyn?" Stark asked warily.
She crept stealthily toward the road to do recon. "No," she replied, hugging the corner of the wall and looking up and down. A row of shops, some of them boarded up, ended in a gigantic pile of debris, the remains of a collapsed building, the roof cracked and slanting, concrete slabs jutting upward. "London, I think," and Stark lumbered forward to see for himself. She yanked him back as a truck rumbled past, an army vehicle covered in canvas, helmeted heads peering out.
A door opened across the street and two women came out, wearing dresses and cloth coats; they slammed the door behind them and walked away, chattering happily. Natasha drew back.
"We've got to change," she mused, glancing up at the washline. "We're way too conspic—"
Stark seized her arm and she turned; he'd just happened to look in the right direction. "Look—there he is," and there Steve was, his proportions recognizable even at a distance. He was wearing a brown army uniform with a hat and sunglasses, and he looked ridiculously, unmistakably happy, Natasha thought, and felt a little pang of sadness for him. He was walking alongside another soldier who was telling him a story, hand lazily sketching a picture in the air. Steve nodded and grinned, then laughed, and then stopped to interject: stepping out and whirling around to grip the other man's shoulder, then drawing an even larger and more expressive picture with his hands.
"Wow, that was fast," Stark muttered. "We have to—"
"It's not him," Natasha said softly. "It's the other one, the one who belongs here," and they both turned back to look at him; the man in his time; the man of the hour, in fact. "Our Steve hasn't come through yet, though I guess this means we've come to the right place."
The pavement sloped down where Captain Rogers and his friend were walking, and they watched as the other man stopped at the corner, took his hat off, and yanked the heavy brown wood door open, gesturing Captain Rogers inside with elaborate courtesy. They disappeared, the door shutting behind them, and Natasha launched into action, two large jumps bringing her on top of the trash to halfway up the wall, and then she leaped up, and caught her fingertips on the bottom of a window ledge. A moment later she was crouched on the sill and examining one of the washing lines: it was like going shopping. "Pick me out something nice, will you?" Stark said from below; he looked up just as she dropped a floral print dress onto his head. "I'm not doing drag," he said, yanking it off his face and holding it up, "even if this is England. Though this is totally my color," he added, and she smirked.
She tossed down a shirt and a pair of trousers that looked like they would fit him, then carefully raised the window and slipped into the flat. She found most of what she was looking for in a freestanding wardrobe—a man's jacket and hat, a battered leather case with a handle, and a pair of men's shoes—and tossed them down to Stark, but she had to slip into two more flats before she found a pair of pumps that would fit her. They retreated to the back of the alley to take stock, Stark stepping out of his armor, which helpfully folded itself up into a shiny red rectangle. Natasha handed him the battered case and he packed the suit away, turning it into a properly innocuous object. Stark, she noticed, was shamelessly waiting for her to undress, so she flashed him a tight smile and unzipped the bodice of her suit to reveal her highly functional white bra. Looking gratifyingly disappointed, Stark yanked off his boots and began to shimmy out of his pants: he himself was wearing a pair of very tight, very red underwear. She leered appreciatively.
The clothes did more than she would have thought to make her feel like another person. The floral dress had looked dowdy on the line, but it was oddly flattering on her, clinging to her breasts and hips and making her feel like a softer, nicer person than she was. Tony's clothes were cut slightly too big, but they did the job, too: hiding the glowing arc reactor and successfully altering the shape of him. He bent to tie the brown leather shoes, then stood and set the fedora onto his head. She grinned as he did a little pose, smoothing his hand to the left, and then to the right. He looked a lot like old pictures of his dad, and just a little like Sinatra. He looked great.
She nodded her approval and Tony said, feelingly, "I know. Why did we stop wearing hats?"
"No idea," Natasha said, smiling. "Guys look great in hats."
"I'll start a trend when I get back." Tony picked up the case holding his suit, then offered her his arm, gallantly playing his part. She smiled and took it. "Shall we see where they went?"
"Let's," Natasha replied, "but let's try not to let them see us. Let's try to be unobtrusive."
"Right," Tony said, and started to move: she held on to his arm.
"Unobtrusive," she explained, "means that we don't want to draw attention to ourselves."
"Okay," Tony said.
"Which means no smiling, no flirting, no sparkling. Don't make eye contact if you can help it."
"Gotcha," Tony said.
"In fact, just stand behind me when you can," and then she let him escort her down the street.
The door Steve and his friend had gone through opened onto a narrow hallway with a threadbare carpet, and beyond it was another doorway. Music, laughter, and conversation drifted through, and so Natasha and Tony exchanged glances and went in. The pub had a long curved wooden bar and tables crammed in everywhere, many of them lit by brass gas lamps topped by glass globes. Here, suddenly, it looked like pictures of the past—the warm glow of the light making everything sepia-toned: the wood of the bar and the beat-up furniture, the faded beige and red patterned wallpaper, the muted colors of the soldier's uniforms and the women's too-practical dresses, the tall cloudy glasses of beer. Natasha tugged on Tony's sleeve and he followed her to a small table in the corner. She sat against the wall, facing the room, and let her face fall into an uninteresting expression as she mapped out the other patrons at the various tables.
Tony sat down opposite her and asked, in a low voice, "Do you see them?"
She did; Steve and his friend were sitting with their heads bent together, deep in conversation. Their drinks were already gone, and as Natasha watched, Steve got up and went to the bar for two more. That left her with a better view of the other guy. Natasha leaned close, smiling as if Tony'd said something charming. "They're here," she muttered. "A few tables down. The barmaid seems to know them. Tony," she said carefully; Steve's friend had taken off his hat and she could see his thick brown hair, the dark circles around his eyes, the wry curve of his lips: they were familiar features, and yet unfamiliar at the same time. "I think that's Bucky Barnes."
Tony, damn him, immediately whirled around to look, and Natasha kicked him, hard, in the shin, with the toe of her pump. He suppressed his yowl and turned back to her, a grimace on his face. "You know, I'm beginning not to like you very much. Ow. Bucky Barnes, did you say?"
Natasha smiled at him sweetly. "Yes."
"Cap never found him after the Triskelion."
"No," Natasha said. "Not yet. He hasn't stopped looking. I don't think he'll ever stop looking."
Tony telegraphed a look of intent, then glanced over his shoulder with a lot more subtlety. Steve was bringing their drinks back to the table, and Barnes was watching him with a relaxed and open affection, striking to Natasha in its honesty, its nakedness. Bucky Barnes seemed totally unashamed of his feelings, and his eyes followed Steve around the room as if it should be obvious to everyone that he was the most wonderful person in it, which was, Natasha reflected, probably true, even with a disguised Tony Stark in the corner. Still, there was something slightly frayed about Barnes, something cracked and barely held together. It wasn't visible: he'd styled his hair, his uniform was pressed and neat. But there was something desperate in him, some longing in the way he turned toward Steve. He'd been a POW of course, and Natasha knew how that left scars that you couldn't see. Steve had rescued him, and there was something in Barnes that was still looking to Steve for rescue. He reminded her of a dying plant stretching toward the sun.
"You think he's here for Barnes?" Tony asked. "What: to stop him becoming the Winter Soldier?"
She didn't answer; she was watching Steve set the drinks on the table: a pint of ale for him and a glass of whiskey for Barnes. Then Steve dropped his hand on the back of Bucky's neck and fondly smoothed up, across his shoulder. He's seen the damage, she thought. He knows, he's noticed - and, well, of course he had: Steve knew Bucky Barnes better than any man alive, and when you knew a guy like that, you knew when something was broken in him. Steve sat down across the tiny wooden table and sipped his pint: he'd obviously already mapped all of Barnes's internal injuries and was determined to hold him together, to pull him to shore. And then, right before her eyes, the current of their relationship reversed. Suddenly Steve was talking haltingly, staring down into his beer, and Barnes had leaned forward on his elbow and put a hand on Steve's arm, obviously the older brother, the caretaker.
He's never going to stop looking for him, Natasha thought, and averted her eyes; their intimacy had somehow become terrible and painful to watch. "We've really got to hope he's not here for Barnes," she told Tony, "because if he is: I'm not sure we're going to be able to stop him."
Tony's jaw tightened. "But we've got to. I mean, we've really, really got to do this, here—"
"I know," Natasha said implacably.
"Though we have a really limited arsenal." Tony's eyes went dark and focused like they did when he was thinking really rapidly. "Anything we do will have repercussions. We just have to hope, for instance, that whoever's clothes I'm wearing wasn't late for his job as a code breaker or something and missed some crucial information that affected the course of the war— That could totally happen. Or it could be a loop, a time loop," Tony explained, "where we were always already here and we always already affected everything. We always already stole that guy's pants, that guy always wondered what happened to his pants. I really like that idea," Tony said, and sat back with a pleased expression. "Maybe I always helped win World War II and I never even—"
"Tony." Natasha looked at him. "If we wanted to be sure, we would wait in the alley for him."
"Yeah, and then wh—" He stopped, and she was surprised that he got to it as fast as all that. Then again, he had grown up a tactician and a warmonger. And then he surprised her. "No," he said, low and firm and more grown up than she had ever seen him; his face twisted. "God. We can't—"
"We're talking 50 million people, just in the war. Entire races exterminated. Global domination. All for the life of one man—who should have died anyway. Years ago."
Tony's eyes were horrified, a flush purpling his face. "Natasha, no. I don't care, I just won't—"
She nodded, her point made. "It's what we're asking him to do."
"Oh God. Oh, Jesus." He pressed his lips together, and she stared; she'd never seen Tony Stark so vulnerable and undone. Then he stared down at the scarred wood tabletop. She knew what he was doing: looking for a practical objection. Because morally the situations were parallel: the world would be saved if Steve Rogers died in an alleyway here, or if Bucky Barnes fell from a speeding train. But it was impossible to choose the lives of the abstract millions over the life of your comrade.
"We probably can't take him," Tony said finally, gnawing his lip. "Even with the suit, he's Captain America, he's—" He was wincing a little, his normal bravado at odds with his need for what he was saying to be true. "Much as I make fun of the old guy, he's got game. Even if we go two to one against him, there's no saying we'd take him, and we'd probably end up taking out a building or two. He won't go quietly, is what I'm saying," Tony said, gaining confidence now, "and he might even take us with him. Three dead superheroes in an alley, Captain America, me with all my technology... I think people will notice, don't you? It could change the world—"
"I could do it," she said quietly. "He wouldn't see it coming." Tony looked at her and she added: "His suit doesn't cover the carotid artery. It would be quick."
"I need a drink," Tony muttered, and that sounded like a good idea to her.
She stood up and said, "I'll get it," and then: "I'm a better pickpocket than you."
"No doubt," Tony said with a hard little smile.
She edged around the room and had enough money by time she reached the bar. Steve and Bucky hadn't looked up, though she caught snatches of their conversation: "...go together once the war's over," Barnes was musing. "See all those pictures you like where the women have three eyes and four noses." "Yeah, I'd like to go to Spain," Steve replied. "And Florence. Gosh, you'd like Florence, Buck. It's so beautiful. I'll show you a picture—" Natasha wanted to order a vodka but knew it would make her stand out, so she ordered a shandy and a glass of whisky, and brought the shandy to Tony.
He took a long swig of it, said, "Mmm, this is yummy," and then: "Okay, I think you're probably messing with me. You don't want to kill Cap. You love Cap, because everybody loves Cap. Even people who hate Cap love Cap. That guy behind us, the 20th century's deadliest assassin?—he loves Cap. Probably even Hitler would have loved Cap. Besides," Tony said, gesturing at her with his shandy, "you said that if we wanted to be sure, we should wait for him in the alley. But we're not in the alley, and you just bought me a drink." He took another long swig of shandy.
"I just wanted you to appreciate the difficulty of the situation," Natasha said. "We're asking Steve to be bigger than us, to do something so hard and terrible that we can't even contemplate—"
"But he's Steve," Tony interrupted. "That's what he does! He's professionally superior to us, that's his whole point! Sometimes—I don't mind telling you this, being as we're trapped in the past together, possibly forever—but on those rare occasions when I'm uncertain about things, I ask myself: what would Steve do? And it's always the right goddamned thing. It's depressing."
"I know," Natasha commiserated, and sipped her whiskey.
"Okay, so presented with this situation, and knowing what we know: what would Steve do?"
"I don't know," Natasha replied. "But I think we should ask him." She saw the penny drop. "I think that if anyone deserves to make this choice, if anyone could make it..."
Tony looked calculatingly at her, reassessing, and then whistled. "You're betting a lot on that."
"I don't know." She shrugged, then smiled at him. "Maybe."
Natasha had finished her first drink and was considering a second when things started happening: a boy, coming in and fighting his way to the bar, the barmaid pointing him to Steve and Bucky's table. "Here we go," she muttered. The boy handed Steve a telegram; Steve tore it open and read it, then gave the boy a coin and sent him away. Then he slid the piece of paper over to Bucky Barnes, and the two of them put their heads together and discussed it, their faces growing serious. Must be something important, Natasha thought. Well, it would have to be.
"Here we go," she said again as Steve stood and picked up his jacket and hat. She'd been waiting for something to split them up: their Steve really couldn't approach Barnes with his old self hanging around. And now they were standing, shaking hands, hugging; Steve was taking his leave; he'd been called away.
"Should we split up?" Tony asked, standing and chugging the last of his drink. "I'll follow Cap, you stay here with Barnes?"
She frowned; following Cap hadn't occurred to her. "What do you mean?"
"In case he—" Tony looked at her. "I mean, there's two ways this goes, right?" and Natasha frowned and listened, because say what you wanted to about Stark, he was smart as fuck, really. "Either Steve intercepts Barnes—or he intercepts himself."
"He—" She found the idea genuinely shocking. "He can't do that — can he?"
"Sure he can," Tony said. "This isn't fucking Star Trek, he can totally do it."
"But," Natasha frowned; suddenly uncertain. "It's so much easier to work things from Barnes's end. If Steve interferes in his own life too much—"
"I don't think he cares. Seriously. Steve probably cares just enough to try and conceal the fact that there are two Captain Americas running around Europe right now, but he can do that by Clark Kenting with himself or by waylaying himself. Remember, Natasha: Cap takes a plane down two days after Bucky Barnes dies. I bet there aren't going to be two Caps for long."
She felt the skin of her arms prickling. "Which one, do you think—"
"Do you even have to ask?" Tony replied. "Problem solved, Barnes and Rogers live happily ever after. Except they don't, and the rest of us are totally fucked," he added, and then he said: "Stay with Barnes; those boys'll have us on an intercept course soon enough, one way or another," and then he was grabbing for his hat and following Captain Steve Rogers out the door.
Tony followed Steve back onto the half-bombed out street –Kennington Street, he now saw, seeing a sign high up on a wall in black enameled lettering. Steve turned back the way he'd come, and Tony pulled his hat down low and made to follow at a discreet distance when he attention was caught by movement in the alley across the street.
It was a nothing, the barest flicker of a shadow. But.
He hesitated, turning—torn between losing the Rogers of the then and possibly finding the Rogers of the now—then cursed under his breath and crossed the street to investigate the alley, hoping it wasn't a fucking cat or a London Street urchin or something.
It wasn't. It was Steve, who'd already managed to find some period appropriate clothes—they looked better on him—and who had obviously decided to bareface it out to whoever it was coming into the alley, coming forward with a pleasant smile on his face, never dreaming —
Tony stopped before him and took off his hat.
The look on Steve's face was beyond priceless—he gaped, then looked back over his shoulder, and Tony realized that from Steve's perspective, he'd only just left them in Cincinatti.
"I—" Steve said, obviously astonished. "Tony? How. How are you— "
Tony raised his hands, reassuring and supplicating both. "You can't do this, Cap," he said, coming forward slowly, trying to put the truth of it into his voice. "Whatever it is you think you're here to do, you can't do it. You have to believe me on this. You just can't."
Something broke on Steve's face. "I can, though," he said. "I know I can. Tony, you don't understand," he said, quickly coming forward and lowering his voice confidentially, pleading with him: "I've done it every night for years. I've played it over and over in my head, a thousand times, a million. I've dreamed about it over and over and I know I could do it if I just had the—"
"Do what?" Tony asked, lost in the cross-conversation.
Steve stared at him. "Catch him," he explained, as if it were obvious.
Oh my God, Tony thought. "You can't," he said seriously.
"I can," Steve insisted. "I'm telling you, I—"
"No, I mean—you can, but you can't," Tony said. "You do what you're planning to do, and the future changes: everything changes. That's why we're here: to stop you. You do this thing, Cap, and the Nazis win," and Steve jerked like he'd been electroshocked. Tony reached out to grab at him and nodded slowly, holding his eyes. "I swear to God, Cap: I saw it happen."
Tony tightened his hands on Steve's arms, because something in Steve was collapsing: he was going down like a battleship that had taken one too many blows and was now gradually taking on water. "That can't— That just can't be—" and Tony steered him back against the wall of the alley, because there was no way he was going to be able to hold Steve up if his legs gave out.
Steve leaned back against the rough brick, breathing hard, then bent double, bracing himself on his thighs. Tony gave him space to pull himself together, admiring the fuck out of him that he was somehow managing to do it. "Tell—tell me more," Steve managed when he finally straightened. "What happened, who's here, what did you see?"
"Me and Natasha," Tony answered. "Right after you went through, the gate pulsed, there was an explosion—and then everything was different. There were—swastikas," he said, awkwardly, "on the planes. They had new names. German names—" and then he stopped, because Steve had raised his hand: it was enough, he didn't need to go on. But Tony did need to go on. "Cap, this is real serious," he said. "Serious enough that Natasha actually considered killing you—"
"I wish she had," Steve murmured, and then he sighed and closed his eyes. "No, I don't. Where is she?"
"In the bar across the street," Tony replied, and Steve rolled off the wall and went to look.
"The Old House At Home," Steve sighed.
"What?" Tony asked.
"The pub, that's what it's called. It was our favorite," Steve said, and then: "Is he there?"
Tony hesitated; he wasn't sure Steve could resist the temptation of having Bucky Barnes 200 yards away. But Steve apparently took his silence for an answer. "I want to see him," he told Tony.
Tony winced. "Cap, I'm not sure that's a good…"
Steve raised his palm. "Just don't," he said, low and ragged, and headed out into the street.
Natasha was instantly on her feet and moving to intercept—she knew it was their Steve at a look, even before she even saw Tony hurrying in behind. Steve looked exactly like the man who'd just left and nothing at all like him, because something was broken in him now, too. She glanced over at Barnes, who hadn't looked up; he had taken his whiskey and moved to the counter. "What the hell are you—" she said, through a smile that was all teeth.
"Yeah, you stop him," Tony said, irritably, tugging at his collar.
"Hey, Natasha," Steve said quietly.
"You can't be here." Natasha stood her ground and stared him down. "Steve. You really can't—"
"Be careful or she'll gut you like a fish," Tony cautioned, and Natasha turned to him, incredulous. But Steve just flashed a tight smile and said, softly, "I know. She's a brave girl," and then: "I just want to see him, Natasha. He doesn't have to see me but I have to see him."
Natasha thought about it for the space of a few deep breaths, then muscled him over to a table in the corner and sat him down on a cushioned bench. She pulled over two chairs for herself and Tony opposite, hoping to obstruct Bucky's view. "This isn't smart," Natasha told him flatly. "This really isn't — do you understand the consequences of changing these events?"
"I think I've grasped the basics," Steve replied bitterly, and then he closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. "Shh. Shh. Just let me be here for a few minutes. The last time I was here, this place was a bombed out shell. Someone buy me a drink." Natasha and Tony exchanged glances, and then Natasha handed Tony some money and muttered, "Order a pint of best: don't talk and don't tip." Tony nodded and went, and Natasha stayed there and watched Steve sit with his eyes closed. He was listening intently, and she found herself hearing the pub in a different way, too: the rhythms of the speech were different, and there was a radio playing faintly, a song she didn't know that had lots of horns. Steve opened his eyes and looked around, finding Bucky almost immediately: she could tell by how he lit up. It was palpable: the banked fires of Steve's loss bursting into a white-hot blaze of outright longing.
Tony came back with Steve's pint, and Steve drank deeply from it and sighed happily, his eyes still fixed on the back of Barnes's head, the strong line of his shoulders. The song changed, another up-tempo number, and Steve began to sing along softly, almost absently, under his breath, his fingers mindlessly drumming the beat against the tabletop. She'd never heard him sing before, and she felt a sudden twist of sadness; she'd never thought about what it would feel like not to know any of the songs on the radio. His voice was surprisingly fine.
Tony noticed it, too. "Hey, you can sing," he said.
Steve glanced at Tony, eyes narrowing. "I can sing, yeah, because we sing. I can dance a little, too, because we dance. It's what we do here. We're not gonna have cable for another fifty—"
"You don't have be snarky about it," Tony said.
"Snarky?" Steve seemed visibly to be struggling for control of himself. "Are you—" He stared down at the tabletop, then jammed his thumb down, against a knothole in the wood, like it was a button that would blow up the entire world. Natasha understood; she'd seen Bruce do it too. "Do you understand," Steve managed to choke out, finally; he'd gone red in the face, "can you possibly understand, what it means to me to be here, how hard it is for me to—"
"Yes," Natasha interrupted; she put her hand over his. "Steve. We do. Tony just misspoke—"
"The hell he— Look," Steve said, looking up at them with haunted eyes, "you guys are two of the smartest people I know. Are you telling me that, even with a time machine, there's nothing I can do to stop the person I love best in the world from going through seventy years of torture?"
Natasha was searching for words of consolation, but then Tony opened his big mouth and said, almost breezily: "No, I'm sure there is," and seriously, she could have gutted him like a fish. "There are probably thousands of ways to do it. The problem is that we don't know what they are, and there's no way that we can know. The problem is the infinity of variables; the problem is chaos. Listen," Tony said, and leaned forward, "we've been going on the assumption that the future we saw is the result of you saving Barnes. But maybe you didn't. Maybe you fell in, too, and so maybe you weren't around a couple of days later to stop that bomb hitting New York," and okay, she sent Tony a mental apology, because the idea of an atomic bomb hitting New York was a vivid and concrete reality to Steve, who'd actually ridden the thing down.
"Maybe there's a reality where you saved him," Tony was saying, "but maybe there's a reality where Hydra got both of you." There was a muscle twitching in Steve's jaw. "But the only reality we know—the reality that produced us—is the one in your head right now." Tony leaned in, arms on the table. "And I think you'd remember meeting yourself seventy years ag—"
"Hey," Bucky Barnes said. "You came back," and they all looked up, mouths falling open.
"Bucky," Steve scraped out; he'd gone white.
Barnes frowned down at them. "Everything all right? Did the briefing—" He looked at Tony, and visibly did a double take. "Oh, I—Sorry, I—Geez. I thought you were Howard Stark."
Natasha sat there, blindsided—was this it? was the situation recoverable?—but somehow Steve seemed to be getting a hold of himself. "This is—Tony Stark," Steve said haltingly. "He's—Howard's cousin. He's just over for the week — as a — consultant." Steve turned to Natasha and looked hard at her for a second. "And this is Agent Natasha Romanov. Natasha, Tony, this is — " and his throat tightened so much it came out nearly soundless: "—Bucky Barnes."
Bucky reached out to shake Tony's hand. "How d'ya do," Bucky said, and then he turned his smile on Natasha and muttered, "Good Lord, Steve: where do you find them? I hope she's for me. You can't keep all the good looking agents for yourself." Natasha felt immediately, oddly, drawn to him as a kindred spirit, because she sensed the formality of his charm: flirtation was a game to him, a dance; tactical. She tilted her head at him, gave him her hand, danced back.
"Nice try, but no." Steve's voice was still raspy, but the corner of his mouth had turned up, and she saw that he wasn't the slightest bit threatened by Barnes's games. "The briefing was over quick, and they just wanted to know where a good pub was."
"Oh, well, then: this is the place," Bucky said. "England's a great country — there must be a thousand pubs within a couple of blocks of Carlyle House, but this one's the best." Even as Barnes politely kept up his end of the conversation, his eyes kept moving distractedly back to Steve. He'd picked up on Steve's emotional distress, and he was sure to have noticed Steve's change of clothes—but could he possibly guess the truth, Natasha wondered? Surely 'doppelganger from the future' couldn't be the first explanation that sprang to mind?
"The Duke of Sussex is also good," Steve said.
"The Duke of Sussex, yeah," Barnes said.
"Not that we've tried all of them," Steve said.
"We've tried a lot of them," Barnes said in a vaudeville rhythm. "We're Irish, you see: we take it as a sacred duty. We go a lot to The Three Stags, too: they have a band most nights, so it's cheerful." Barnes's eyes now came to rest on Steve; he'd given up pretending to look at the rest of them. "The guys in our unit like it better, but we—sometimes it's hard to talk. Speaking of which: Steve, you got a minute?" and Steve came to his feet like Bucky Barnes had yanked on a cord attached to the center of his chest.
Natasha sent him a look of warning, but Steve met her eyes and said, levelly, "I won't be long. I'm just gonna have a word with my friend," and then he said to Bucky, much more offhandedly, "I promised I'd see them back to HQ. They're afraid they'll get lost around here."
"Oh, it's easy to get lost around here," Bucky agreed. "Whole town makes no sense."
"Steve," Natasha said, putting the plea into her eyes, but Steve just looked at her and said, "It's all right; I'll be back, I promise," and even this might not have been enough, except Steve pressed a hand to his chest and drew a tiny X over his heart with his thumb. She sighed and sank back in her chair: there was no choice anyway. She'd made the only choice she had when she'd decided not to kill him, and it was too late to go back on that. Now they had Bucky Barnes's attention, and Natasha was willing to bet that, even now, the Winter Soldier was in there somewhere. They laid a finger on Steve Rogers—any Steve Rogers—and things would get extraordinarily ugly.
Bucky's hand touched his arm, his shoulder, guiding him toward the back of the pub, and Steve felt each touch as a small explosion. It was all he could do to stay on his feet. He'd never been indifferent to Bucky's casual physicality, but now— but now—
"That dame seems really possessive," Bucky muttered.
"Not the word I'd use," Steve said, "but you're not wrong. Here?" he asked, gesturing toward a table, their usual table, but Bucky shot him a strange look and said, "No," then took his arm and yanked him down a narrow hall past the toilets and the kitchen to the green door which led out to the pub's poky courtyard. Bucky fiddled with the latch and they went out. The small space was stacked high with crates: this was where you came for a private transaction: to buy ration books, nylons, fake passports.
There Bucky wheeled on him. "What's going on?" he asked, voice low and concerned. "What the hell happened at that briefing?"
"I—" Steve stared; he couldn't remember what briefing it was, couldn't think clearly enough to place himself back in time. Even outside, the air was thick with the presence of him, the smell of him— He'd forgotten the smell of their uniforms, the washing powder that they used; Bucky's aftershave, which clung to his collars and his ties.
"HQ goes to all the trouble of calling you in, then sends you back in civvies and looking like hell? What on earth—" and Bucky fished in his pocket and came out with a crumpled telegram, "—is it all about?" and with a single glance at the paper Steve knew what day this was.
That whole day flooded back to him: having a drink with Bucky, the boy, getting the telegram. Being called back to HQ for a briefing—he was, himself, even now, still at that briefing—and of course it was this day; of course it was; of course it was.
The ground rocked under his feet. He put a hand on Bucky's arm to steady himself, but that was worse; another explosion, the warm reality of him, the strength. "They've added another mission," Steve said faintly. "It's an intercept. In the Alps—"
"Fuck," Bucky said, quietly serious. "Is it—" and he must have seen that Steve's legs were just barely holding him, so he grabbed him tightly by the upper arms. "Steve," he said, a little desperately, staring into his face, "be straight with me. Is it a bad one? Do you think we won't—"
"No, we will," Steve said, voice cracking; he was overcome by the horror of it. "We a hundred percent will, both of us, just—it might be really hard, and—"
There was no helping it, and if it changed history, there was nothing for it. Steve surged forward and kissed Bucky almost savagely, this man who was the whole problem and the only consolation life had ever offered him. He fisted the wool of Bucky's jacket and leaned into this first kiss that wasn't: he'd kissed Bucky before, but this was the first time Bucky was kissing him. The world fractured into a dizzy double vision, and he could feel Bucky trembling with shock even as Steve was flooded with memories of what hadn't happened yet: how their thighs had—would—press together, how they would roll over together in the dark.
They finally broke apart to breathe, and stood close, gasping into each other's mouths. Bucky looked utterly poleaxed. "Why didn't you say something, you shitwit?" he said; it was almost a whine. "How could you leave me hanging like this, for all this time?"
"I'm sorry," Steve said, stomach sinking, because he'd done it now; he'd changed history. "I didn't mean to. I was afraid," and that was true, he had been afraid. It had been Bucky, of course, who'd been brave enough the first time; Bucky who'd orchestrated their night together.
Bucky's hands tightened on his arms. "Don't be afraid, Steve. Don't be af—"
"You keep telling me that," Steve whispered back, and then Bucky leaned in and kissed him the way he remembered Bucky kissing: lips barely touching, just a little bit of tongue. "Oh criminy," Steve breathed, and then they slid their arms around each other and squeezed the air out of each other's lungs.
They were both breathing hard when they fell apart. "Steve," Bucky said, his hands were moving almost helplessly over Steve's shoulders, his arms, his chest, but he sounded uncharacteristically uncertain, "don't take this the, but, would you get a room with me?"
"Yes. Yes," and Bucky blew out a breath and let his head roll forward. "Here?" Steve whispered, glancing up; he knew there were rooms to let above the pub.
"No, too many people know us here." Bucky thought for a second and then said, "There's a hotel near The Queensbury All Services Club—" and Steve jerked, startled, as everything shifted again; what he'd thought were two timelines wavering, merging, coming together after all.
"At Dean Street?" Steve asked.
Bucky looked surprised. "You know it?"
"I—I think you mentioned it," Steve managed, and felt the terrifying click of his present connecting up with his past. Nothing had changed—he hadn't changed anything—and he felt as if he were literally being torn between relief and agony. The world was safe even as the doom settled down across Bucky's shoulders. The Dean Street Hotel —
—and of course he remembered coming out of the briefing, remembered leaning his shoulder against the wall of the corridor and rereading the notes in his brown notebook: the train, the Alps, Zola. Steve remembered rubbing his head, trying to figure out how the hell they were going to do it; he remembered smiling and waving at Peggy and Colonel Phillips as they passed. And then a young private had called his name —"Captain Rogers! Telegram!" — and Steve had wandered down the hall to the security checkpoint and smiled at the boy in the square blue hat, who couldn't have been more than fifteen. Anyone older was at the front, or on their way there.
He'd torn open the envelope and read the message: COME AT ONCE DEAN ST HOTEL SOHO RM 417 BUCKY, ten words on the nose. "No reply," he'd told the boy, and then gone to sign himself out. Weirdly, he hadn't thought about what the telegram meant—what it might mean—until he'd pushed through the door into the lobby: Bucky'd called, and he'd gone, no questions asked. But Bucky had sent him a room number, which meant he could bypass the reception desk—and that suddenly felt—conspiratorial. Steve had swallowed and sped his pace up the stairs.
The carpet on the fourth floor had been faded and twined with vines. 417 was in a little cul de sac at the end of the hall, and it wasn't until Steve had approached the door with its little brass number plate that he'd felt a shiver of intuition. Even then he hadn't been sure: with Bucky, it could've been anything. He wouldn't've put it past Bucky to have brought two girls—or three; for there to have been a poker game in full swing; or for Bucky to have decided that he and Steve needed some time alone with a bottle of Irish whiskey. He'd hesitated for a moment, and then he'd knocked.
The door had opened immediately, as if Bucky'd been waiting behind it, and he'd yanked Steve into the room, into darkness, into a kiss so searingly hot that Steve had sagged back against the closed door, Bucky crashing against him. The blackout curtains were drawn, but the darkness only intensified Steve's other senses: the smell of Bucky's sweat and arousal—he'd stripped to his undershirt—and the warm muscles of his arms. Bucky's lips had moved off Steve's mouth and skittered across his face. "Don't be afraid," he remembered Bucky whispering against his skin.
"I'm not. I'm not afraid,"—and mostly he'd just been awed at Bucky's guts; Bucky's courage.
He'd come twice before Bucky even wrestled him onto the bed: once propped against the door with Bucky's hand in his pants, and once flailing wildly for balance with Bucky on his knees in front of him, arms wrapped tight around his legs, mouth on his cock. The bed, when they'd finally collapsed down on it, let out a horrible eeeEEEeeeEEE of screeching springs, and they'd both laughed. "Fucking fuck!" Bucky'd yelled and then he'd slid off and tugged wildly at the bedclothes. Steve had rolled off next to him and together they'd dragged the entire mattress down to the floor.
They didn't sleep at all, and they didn't talk much, either: they'd both known that this was the culmination of years of wanting, years of denial. They'd made love all night, doing everything they could think of to do and then some. Steve had worried a moment about his lack of experience, but it had turned out not to matter: sex with Bucky had been the easiest thing in the world. He knew Bucky's body as well as—no, better than his own; had known it for longer: his hands, his scars, his rough masculinity. So easy to run his hands over Bucky's chest hair, to feel his nipples harden beneath his fingertips. That was what it was to be lovers: that easy familiarity of bodies, pressing his face to the sweaty crook of Bucky's neck, nosing around his armpit, kissing the smooth skin on the backs of his arms. He got now why so many people wanted to save this for the wedding night, because done right, Steve thought, there was no coming back from this.
Steve had let Bucky rub his cock between his thighs, and fuck inside him, and then he'd taken him the same way when he offered himself up. The fourth—or fifth—time Bucky had come, tears spilled from his eyes and Steve had kissed them away. He'd known that they'd hurt him, those bastards: had seen it right away in the wild look in his eyes, the ragged twitch in his movements. They'd laid hands on him, hurt him in ways Steve couldn't imagine. He'd held Bucky tight and kissed his eyes, his mouth, the hollow at the base of his throat, and whispered, "I would kill them. I want to kill them," and Bucky had snuffled raggedly and said, stroking Steve's sweaty hair away, "Geez, pal, you say the sweetest things."
By morning, they'd been a smelly and sore tangle of limbs. "We should go," Bucky'd groaned, but Steve had grasped his arm, mutely pleading, and Bucky had said, yes, immediately; and so they'd made love one more time. Afterwards they'd just lain together, forehead to forehead, breathing.
"I'm dead," Bucky had said, lying there limply with his eyes closed. "I think I'm—" and dear God, he had laughed; he'd actually somehow thought that was funny, and then a week later—
—he'd lost everything. A week later James Buchanan Barnes had fallen from a train in the Alps, and now he had to let it happen all over again.
"Steve," Bucky asked, brow furrowing, "you're not having an asthma attack are you?"
Steve blinked and came back to himself, to the courtyard behind the pub. "No, I— I'm just—overcome, I guess," and then he hooked his arm around Bucky's neck and drew him close, then helplessly tighter, tighter. Knowing what he had to do, why he had to do it, how all the pieces fit — nothing made it easier. He felt the impending loss as a physical pain, like a cancer in his bones, and to his shame he wept a little against Bucky's neck, trying to control his breathing. Bucky just hugged back and didn't judge, never did.
"I love you so much, you can't know," Steve whispered furiously against Bucky's ear.
"I got an inkling," Bucky murmured back, and squeezed tight.
Steve whuffed laughter against Bucky's neck, then lifted his head. Bucky kissed him again: barest touch of lips, little bit of tongue. Steve went hard, his whole body turned on.
"God. What I want to do to you," Bucky whispered, rough and sweet.
Steve managed to keep taking in air. "You know, I've got an inkling, too. I've—seen the future."
Buck grinned darkly. "I just bet you have," he said, and then he grabbed Steve's arm and tugged him toward the door. "Hurry and get rid of them, and I'll meet you at—"
Steve, taken aback, planted his feet; he wasn't ready, how could he ever be ready? "Wait, who—"
"Stark and the pretty girl." Bucky yanked the door open and paused, waiting. "Just ditch them somewhere and meet me at—"
"Bucky." Steve was sick with dread—he wanted to stop everything, to stop time — and Bucky was hurrying him along, going inside now—going. He sped after him, grabbing the door as it closed and catching Bucky's shoulder in the pub's narrow back corridor. "Wait a minute, wait—"
Bucky wheeled on him impatiently, and Steve hesitated and then went for it. "I think we need a plan," he said. "For if we get separated—"
Bucky rubbed a hand over his hair. "Well, there's a shelter right at Old Compton—"
Steve shook his head. "I don't mean a raid; I mean, on a mission. I think you and me need a plan for if we get separated during a mission," and now he had Bucky's full attention; Bucky tilted his head and looked at him, hard.
"This new mission's got you spooked," Bucky said.
"Well—yeah," Steve replied, swallowing.
"Well, I won't complain," Bucky said wryly, "not if it means you carping the diem all over the place. You think too much, you always have. Look," he said, crossing his arms, "we can't go to Florence cause it's full of Fascists, and we can't go to Spain because it's full of Spaniards."
"That is true," Steve said; he was already missing him with a physical ache.
"So I say if we get separated, we meet back in the home country," and then Bucky whistled a snatch of tune and made a face at him before heading away down the corridor. Steve stood there, thinking, "Brooklyn?" the tune rattling in his head, da-da-da-DA-DA, and it took another second for words to come: …a long way to go. It's a long way, to Tipperary— "Ireland?" Steve yelled, bolting after him into the tap room, where impossibly, Bucky was leaning over a chair to talk to Stark, while Natasha looked over at Steve, her eyes huge and luminous and worried.
"Bucky," Steve said breathlessly, and Bucky turned to him—but it was impossible now, they were in public, and he could feel the gears of time grinding into life: coming to grind them up. Bucky flashed him a knowing look, then turned to Natasha and said, "Enjoy the rest of your stay. If you should happen to want a personal guide to the city's nightlife, Steve'll know where to find me. Otherwise, I hope we'll meet again sometime," and there was nothing in Natasha's smile to suggest that the next time they met there would be a Soviet rifle involved; bye bye bikinis.
Bucky straightened, clapped Steve on the shoulder, and said, meaningfully, "I'll see you soon, all right?" and Steve reached to clap back and missed, hand moving through air as Bucky turned, and put on his hat, and headed for the door. Steve helplessly took a step toward him but then Natasha was there, twining her arm around his, which looked affectionate but felt like an iron manacle. Stark came to his other side and, more gently than Natasha, curved a hand around his arm, obviously hoping to hold him back. "Cap," Stark murmured with more raw sympathy in his voice than Steve ever would have given him credit for, "you're doing really good, here—" and it would be nothing, nothing, to shake them off, and two big leaps—one foot on that chair, second leap angling off the bar—would bring him to the doorway, to Bucky, and—
— Bucky was clinging to the rail with both hands, his legs dangling over the ravine and his body swinging wildly with the momentum of the train. Steve leaned into the whipping wind, then slid out and quickly started moving down the car, hand over hand over hand all the way to the end, and he bent down low and grabbed Bucky's hand just as the railing snapped and fell away, tumbling end to end down the ravine, and he was hauling Bucky up, Bucky flailing for a handhold, and then they were panting into each others faces as they sped through the icy air—
—and Bucky took a brief step to the side so a smiling young couple could enter the pub, and then he went out without looking back, and Steve stood there with Natasha and Tony flanking him and watched him go, hearing the loud tick-tick of the clock, and the laughter of the three British airmen at the bar, and the wireless playing Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen just beneath the sound of the wind roaring in his ears.
"Cap," Tony said softly. "Cap?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "What?"
"Leave him alone," and then Natasha shoved a chair behind his knees and he was sitting. "Get him a drink—"
"The serum doesn't just affect my muscles, it affects my—" His head swam with déjà vu and he dropped it into his hands. "I can't get drunk," he said. "I wish to God I could."
"Steve," Natasha said softly, and then she pulled her chair close and put her arms around him, and he let her comfort him, unembarrassed, because this was wartime, and he wasn't the only one. The landlord would get a telegram tomorrow about his boy. In a week Steve would sit right here in the rubble and mourn Bucky all over again.
After a while, Steve raised his head and wiped at his eyes with the heels of his hands. "We should go," he said, "but there's something I got to do first." Tony and Natasha looked warily at each other but they followed him out and around the corner, to the Westminster Bridge post office.
"Wait here," Steve said, and went inside to send the telegram.
He got a slip from the counter and a nub of pencil, and then filled out the address: TO CAPTAIN STEVEN ROGERS, CARLYLE HOUSE, LAMBETH SE1. Then he carefully wrote out the words, forever burned into his brain: COME AT ONCE DEAN ST HOTEL SOHO RM 417 BUCKY. Ten words on the nose, so it could be sent at minimum rate.
He stared for a long minute at the room number. Bucky hadn't told him the number—Bucky hadn't known it, couldn't have known it—and yet it had been in the telegram. Steve remembered reading it, and of course he had gone there and Bucky had been there, in that room at the little cul de sac at the end of the hall. It was like a little private loop between him and himself, and maybe it was because Bucky'd just been whistling a war song, but Steve was reminded of another. "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here," he sang under his breath, and then he went up to the counter and sent the telegram back to himself.
Natasha stumbled with Tony through the portal into Cincinnati, still dressed in their forties clothes. The first thing she saw was Clint's face, which lit up at the sight of her. "Well, look at you," he said and whistled softly, and she hadn't wanted to get emotionally inveigled, and had fought hard against any kind of scene at the portal. But her friendship with Clint now seemed to her almost unimaginably precious, and so she let him twirl her around in her floral dress, then put her arms around his neck, hating herself a little for how totally surprised by this he was.
Tony rushed immediately to the window. "Are we good?" he asked, and Natasha supposed that should have been her first concern too. "We're good!" Tony crowed, turning with his fist in the air. "Fucking A, we totally rocked this mission—" and then the portal shimmered again and Steve came through carrying his Captain America suit and his shield; he had, Natasha'd noted with some amusement, stashed it in a trash can, bending the lid to grab the shield on its inside.
"Hi," Steve said, looking uncomfortably from Thor to Clint to Bruce. "Um. Sorry about that."
"It's okay, we're good," Tony said triumphantly. "We fixed it," and then he turned to Bruce and said, eagerly grasping his shoulders, "This portal's so fucking amazing, I can't even. We have to figure out a way to take it back to the tower. On the other side, it was totally invisible; you'd never have found it if you weren't looking for a wave displacement—"
"How long were we gone?" Natasha asked Clint.
"Not long," Clint replied. "You and Stark went through, and then it was like everything happened in reverse: another energy burst—look," he added pointing up: the light fixtures were all cracked, "and then the Luftwaffe was gone. And then you came back, looking like—" he smiled, "Barbara Stanwyck," and okay, Natasha could maybe be a little bit in love with him.
"What about you?" Clint asked. "What happened on your end? Was it the forties? I see you found a way to fit in," and Natasha wanted to tell him the whole story of wartime London and the pub and seeing who Steve Rogers was before he lost everything, and meeting The Winter Soldier only to find out that he was just a young charmer named Bucky Barnes. She glanced around for Steve—and didn't see him. The shield and suit were lying abandoned on the floor.
"Oh, hell," Natasha muttered, drawing away from Clint. "Guys? Hey, guys!" and everyone stopped talking and looked at her. "Where's Steve?" she asked. "Did anyone see where—?"
"He's gone?" Tony asked, and she saw right away that he understood how bad that was.
"He seems to be gone," Natasha's retorted, "unless he's hiding under Thor's cape, or—"
"He is not, I assure you," Thor said with great dignity.
"Maybe he wants to be alone?" Tony asked worriedly. "You think it's a good idea for him to—"
It was all she could do to control herself. "He left his shield," she said, and they all stared at it.
"He'll come back," Bruce said finally, taking off his glasses.
"You think so?" Natasha challenged him.
"I do, yeah." Bruce rubbed his eyes, then put his glasses back on. "Because he's Steve."
"Ha, see?" Tony said, wheeling on Natasha. "Told you! He's professionally superior to us—"
"Oh, shut up," Natasha said.
It actually was a long way to Tipperary, because he had to change planes in New York, and then fly on to Shannon Airport. Then he had to take the 343 bus from the arrivals terminal to Limerick Bus Station and get the 55 out to Tipperary. The bus let him off on the Link Road, which was two steps up from a dirt lane, and he followed an arrow to Main Street, where all the shops were. A major metropolis it wasn't, but Steve still found himself flummoxed: he'd gotten here, and now what? He wandered past a pub, a pharmacist, a hardware store, and then saw a sign advertising O'Brian and Son—Estate Agents. It seemed as good a place to start as any.
It was quiet inside. A graying woman was sitting behind the counter, reading a magazine and listening to pop music on the wireless. She looked up when he came in. "Excuse me, ma'am," Steve said, and then: "My name's Steve Rogers, and I've got kind of a crazy question…"
Her face changed and he stopped. "Oh my dear Lord," she said, "you're Captain America. I don't know why I didn't connect the name up. I suppose it's not a thing you expect," and then she was reaching under the counter and coming up with a thick white binder with pages in plastic sleeves, and Steve stared at her as she paged through them. He hadn't expected to be expected.
"Here we are," she said, and then copied some numbers from the sheet she'd turned to onto another piece of paper. "I'll need you to sign at the Xs, dear," she said, and flipped the paper toward him with a practiced hand. Steve stared down at it –"Tenancy Agreement" was printed at the top, and beneath that she'd written, "Cooper's Cottage"—and there was an X at the bottom next to a line reading, "I have received my key." Steve looked up and saw that she was pulling a latchkey from an unmarked pigeonhole in the wall behind her. She put it down on the counter.
"Right," she said, fixing her eye on him in a way that immediately reminded him of his 4th grade teacher, who'd had a similar look and even a similar accent. Steve straightened instinctively and tried to look attentive. "Cooper's Cottage is right on the edge of the parish, and a sensible person would hire a car to get there. There's a car hire right across the road. That said," she continued reprovingly, "Jimmy B is not a sensible person,"—Jimmy B? Steve blinked,—"and he has not hired a car. He walks. Quiet, he says he wants—well, I guess he's got plenty of that out there." She rolled her eyes. "The post gets delivered, of course, but nothing else: no takeaway, no pizza. "
Pizza? It was a lot to take in. "I understand," Steve replied earnestly, and signed the form.
She shook her head a bit sadly, as if she realized that he wasn't going to rent a car either. "All right; you'll want to go north up St. Michael's Avenue onwards toward Friarsfield, past the roundabout and then just keep going. It's over six miles, just south of Coolacussane. Have you got a phone or a satnav?" she asked, and when he shook his head, she sighed and pulled out a paper map. Steve watched as she uncapped a marker and drew a route that went from Main Street onto a smaller road, then onto a smaller road, and a still smaller road. There she drew an X.
"Much obliged," Steve said finally, and then he smiled at her and said, "Don't worry. I'll find it."
"Jimmy B usually comes to town Wednesdays for market day and sometimes for the races on Friday," she said, smiling back. "My name's Grace," she said. "I hope we'll see you, too."
Even with a map, he almost didn't find it. Cooper's Cottage was at the end of a lane so narrow and muddy that for a while Steve was sure he'd taken a wrong turn somewhere. But then he saw white through the trees: the cottage was small and whitewashed, with a gray slate roof. The front door and the window frames were a cheerful red. Steve felt sick with anticipation as he knocked on the door; everything since the portal seemed like a dream. It seemed impossible that Bucky could be here, but Bucky had been expecting him, had even left a key for him.
Steve knocked again, then slid his key into the lock and unlatched the door. "Hello?" he called, stepping inside. It was small and sparsely furnished—a sofa near the fireplace, a small table and two chairs beside a tiny kitchen—but his attention was drawn immediately to the one really modern place in the room: a large desk. There were three computer screens angled toward the chair, a printer on the floor and sloppy piles of books everywhere. There was a bottle of vodka—full—and a bottle of whiskey, almost empty, which Steve took as a good sign. And there, on the wall adjacent the chair—Steve slowly came closer to look—was an enormous corkboard covered in paper, and Steve immediately saw that Bucky had been recreating a timeline of the century.
At the center of the board were headlines announcing Steve's own death in 1944 and the discovery of his body in the ice in 2011, and it looked like Bucky had been working to reconstruct what had happened in between. Bucky's own death in 1944 hadn't made the papers—it had been classified, Steve remembered—but apparently it had been de-classified in 1961, when he and Bucky had been posthumously made founding members of SHIELD. Steve leaned in to read the printout of the article, then his eyes slid over to the pinned-up obituaries of Bucky's brother and two sisters, of Vasily Karpov, of Arnim Zola, of Alexander Pierce. He saw stories about Cuba, about Romania, about Laos, and some color pictures printed from Google Earth: a brownstone in Brooklyn, a crumbling apartment building in Prague. An innocuous-looking house had an X violently scratched over it, and Steve recoiled and turned toward the window.
There was a stone-edged garden out back, and beyond that, a gate opened out to a meadow. Steve got a glimpse of white cloth in the tangle of grasses and flowers, went out through the back door, then broke into a run.
Bucky was sleeping on a blanket spread out in the grass; at Steve's approach, he opened his eyes. "Bucky?" Steve asked hesitantly, but Bucky pushed up on one elbow and sleepily reached for him with a black-gloved hand, and Steve flung himself down on his knees on the blanket and hugged him, dragging him upright. Bucky clutched at Steve's shoulders, and Steve had the distinct sensation of Bucky smelling him—sniffing at his hair, his ear, his neck—before almost sagging into his arms. "Took you long enough," Bucky sighed. "I've been waiting."
"I know, I'm sorry. I only just got the message," Steve said, and cupped Bucky's head, and kissed him, feeling it in his cock as Bucky made fists in his shirt and moaned into his mouth.
"God I missed this, I missed this, I fucking missed this," Bucky said, shaking Steve a little as he broke off the kiss, and then: "I've been trying — so hard — to put all the pieces together. My head—you can't know. What they did to me—in and out, in and out: whole years I think I was dead for. And you," he said, his hand moving to Steve's face. "You were really out all that time?"
"Yeah," Steve said.
"They didn't—" and Bucky's thumb slid over his cheek, and something hard flashed in his eyes: the first time he'd seen the Winter Soldier since the helicarrier. "They didn't fuck with you?"
"No," Steve said honestly. "I don't remember anything."
"Because I'll kill them," Bucky said.
"Oh pal," Steve breathed, and pressed their foreheads together, "you say the sweetest things."
Bucky tumbled him back down onto the blanket, and they lay there for a while staring up at the sky. Then Bucky whistled a few bars of "It's A Long Way To Tipperary," and Steve picked it up.
"You didn't come," Bucky said. "I was so afraid you wouldn't come," and Steve looked at him. "I didn't know what to do, how to make contact with you. Everyone was watching, and it was no kind of message to send: 'Hi, it's me, sorry I just tried to kill you. Can you come to Ireland?'"
"Come at once Dean Street Hotel," Steve murmured, and then: "Do you remember Dean Street?"
"No, I don't remember," Bucky drawled, and Steve grinned stupidly at the sky, delighted by the depth of sarcasm in Bucky's voice. "You're such an idiot: do I remember Dean Street? They could've cut my whole brain out and I'd remember Dean Street. That was the best day of my whole—"
Bucky yelped as Steve abruptly rolled on top of him, pinning him down on the blanket. "No it wasn't," he said breathlessly, shaking his head; he raised a warning finger when it looked like Bucky was going to argue. "There's still nine hours of today left, not to mention tomorrow," and then Steve kissed him roughly, and felt Bucky smile against his mouth, and then they tumbled off the blanket into tomorrow, into forever.