Steve will say they had work to do. They had paths to find and tools to build. Steve will say that there was no more time than those moments on decimated ground with the ashes of souls beneath his knees, and Steve won’t say that his own was one of them, left there while his body carried on without his own consent.
Steve will say they had work to do, and a universe to put to rights. They had people to find and hearts to unbreak. They had a mission. There was no time to mourn.
Steve, as it turns out, says a lot of things that are mostly bullshit.
He carries on because he doesn’t know what else to do—drags his body without any meaning toward a goal he fears is endless and pointless and won’t bring any solace even if it comes to some tangible end. They want him to have answers, but the fact is he’s as much a man as any, human to a fault and that fault is that he was on the other side of a random line, luck of the fucking draw to hurt this bad, to know this pain: not losing a heart but to have it remain, and tear wide, and bleed, bleed, bleed endless so that every breath he takes rakes sharp ribs over the torn muscle and opens the wounds wider.
They want him to have answers.
His answer is turn back time, and let me turn to dust instead of him.
And, failing that: let the rest of me disappear with him.
But in the end, his answers wouldn’t have mattered. In many ways, he’s a warm body and an extra pair of hands to other people’s rage and want and determination and that’s fine, because Steve’s heart’s bleeding and he can’t stop it, and he shouldn’t be the one making decisions, not alone, because Steve will say that they were faced with the impossible, and there was no time to mourn, but the truth is—
The truth is he mourns in every moment. The deeper confession is that, batterd and flayed wide as it is, the shredded pieces of his heart will not accept that this is how it ends.
He will not allow this to be how it ends.
The rabbit has to apologize for stealing a battery.
This is what Steve’s life, and any chance at knowing what that means—life—ever again, comes down to.
And to set the record straight: they’d actually spent time tracking down a goddamn rabbit so that Thor would be clear that Rocket wasn’t one. Rocket even chased a racoon—which, while he personally rankled at that comparison, he preferred it to rabbit—but Thor, as it happened, didn’t personally see the difference.
The Sovereign have a weapon: an entity, an Adam with no Eve and maybe that’s better, to be unto oneself, to know loss singularly as clear as purpose. They have a Sorcerer Supreme who can only be dubiously trusted: one potential future isn’t a straight line when time is relative, Captain, as I’ve been trying to explain to—; they have one Tony Stark who claims he could feel it, when Pepper Potts was erased from the cosmos.
Steve believes him, too.
They have a Hulk, but he can’t come out to play just now, thanks for asking.
They have a cyborg with a thirst for vengeance, as much an Avenger, maybe, than any of them ever were—and together they stumble into the impossible. They destroy, and they burn, and they do things none of them would be proud of if they hadn’t already been torn apart, if their worlds hadn’t already ended and their moral compasses broken when they’d lost their own truth norths. They find less a demon and more a father watching a sunset with a gauntlet at his side. They let Nebula do the honors of destruction, of revenge, and Steve understands that.
He still wishes he could have sliced the Mad Titan in two himself.
Strange takes the emerald stone and weaves endless webs of firelight for what seems like an eternity; and it might be, for all anyone knows, because time is relative, what did I tell you, and the Sovereign demand a stone as payment for their weapon, and their batteries, and the slights to their pride done by those who are lost, and it doesn’t even churn Steve’s stomach to give it to Adam, glowing amber in that cursed golden glove; Steve doesn’t care when the man, the Being, vows to do better, to be better than those who held it before because he was made to be, was created for that reason: Steve doesn’t fucking care.
Steve doesn’t care because he’s beginning to see himself on the battlefield in Strange’s weaving lights, the strings forming and the glimpse, thin as air, that he gets is enough to steal his breath and drive him to his knees once again, those hands on a gun where Steve can feel them on his back in embrace and Steve needs to believe they can do this. Steve needs them to finish them, to take it all back, to do, to do—
Steve never said the words. He doesn’t even know for certain if Bucky feels the same.
And Steve knows he’s more than out of chances, and he knows it’s largely on him to have wasted the ones he’d gotten but good god, if there is one, if there ever was:
He needs to say the fucking words.
If Steve hears the words Time is relative again, he’s going to fucking scream.
He’s also going to fucking scream if Tony asks any variation on the question of so will they remember it, but then how does all this stay put if we go back in time, like, then, do we forget, but then if we forget wouldn’t we just end up here again, and you can’t change time, the physics doesn’t add up, it’s a fixed thing, shut the fuck up Zoltar and—
Anything like that, anything at all, and Steve will scream. Because those are the words that bring about Time is relative, and Steve just wants time.
He wants time he hasn’t earned, and squandered too long. He wants time, goddamnit, and he doesn’t care which direction is goes or who owns it or shapes it or bends it.
He wants to breathe without it slicing through his chest. He wants to hold Bucky in his arms again, even if that’s all he gets.
He wants to see if there’s more, but that’s greedy just now, because he just needs Bucky.
Natasha’s hand settles on his shoulder where he sits watching Strange roll his eyes at Tony’s pacing back and forth, like maybe she understands even if she never could. No one can.
Steve just wants time.
Some things do change.
People reemerge from the ether across the globe, across the cosmos: not all at once, and people start to go mad with hoping, but over time—relative—it happens. Nick Fury, of all people, crawls out from whatever rock he’s been under. Pepper returns and Steve’s never seen Tony cry before, not like that, but she says something about children and Steve leaves with a grudging-but-honest invite to the wedding, so he thinks that’s something.
But Loki doesn’t make a grand reapperance in a smoke of wry illusion. And they tell Steve to stay away from Vormir, and for once he doesn’t have it in him to fight, let alone to ask why. He knows it’s not because Gamora’s body still lies motionless on the stones, but it pains him to hear nonetheless, because, well.
Because while some things change? Some don’t.
Okoye and Shuri have kept Wakanda safe for the King’s return, and there is great rejoicing when he phases back into existence once more. The tree-man—Groot, Steve learns, who was not in fact introducing himself when they first met but instead cursing the rabid Outrider he’s crushing for destroying some video game—but Groot returns much larger, and sturdier, and Steve wonders why he’s changed when no one else has, when they return.
And most of them have returned.
Steve sheds a few tears for Sam’s reappearance—he’s known for a long time how much the man means to him, but losing a person into nothingness, for no reason, sets things in sharp relief. Wanda, as well, though she retreats to the palace where Shuri is waiting, anticipating the needs of a woman bereft because Vision didn’t disappear, he was taken, and there is no coming back from that.
And the world starts to right itself, so far as unbalancing goes: it’s starts to be messy and wild and real again as the pall of devastation starts to lift and life begins to rebuild.
People have returned. Nearly everyone, if the news reports are to be ignored but Shuri’s projections are to be believed.
But not Bucky. Not yet, at least.
And Steve sits among the trees that are beginning to mend themselves with the power of the land and the science of the people: he sits among the trees and barely moves, because Steve asked for time.
And he’s done with looking gift horses in the mouth, if this is what time looks like. If this is what it takes.
He’s sleeping. He tries not to sleep because in his sleep is when he hears it:
The last word Bucky said, and Steve can’t escape the fact, the guilt that surrounds the reality that Bucky’s lost everything so many times, and it’s been Steve he’s looked to, never-wavering. Falling from a train, choosing ice over freedom for the cost it could demand, fading from being and wrenching most of Steve’s own self with him: that word, that name, the last: Steve.
And dreams and nightmares had stopped being two disparate things a long time ago, but this. This is what’s going to finally finish the job, and tear his heart in two, and he’s not ready yet. The bits of that heart that still beat are only doing so for love, so much love—but that voice, that word: him.
Steve tries not to sleep.
But he is sleeping. He is sleeping, and he does hear it.
And Steve feels himself cave in as he jerks awake, whimpers with it because he can’t keep doing this. He has to and he can’t and what if Bucky doesn’t come back, what if some things don’t change and Steve lost everything, again, even the millionth chance to speak and let his heart shatter where it may, at least then it would have been of his own choosing, not like this and fucking hell, fucking hell, why couldn’t it have been him—
Steve jolts. Because he’s dreamed in his heart and soul of the weight of a touch on his arm, just one more time, please, just one more time—
Steve’s dreamed of it, but never in his sleep.
Steve turns to the touch slowly, so afraid, so fucking terrified it’s not real, or that it doesn’t match that voice and he’s just breaking all the further and he can’t risk it, he won’t be able to stand it, he—
He can’t risk not to try.
And the eyes he meets are things he’s never, in a century or more, been able to dream up with any truth. He’s never been able to see the color just right. He’s never been able to replicate the depth.
The sob that rises from his chest is made of the few things left trembling there, but they’re enough for Steve to reach to grab Bucky’s body—real, solid, real—and it can’t be, can it? Steve doesn’t even know how long he’s been out here, waiting, praying because he was desperate, and it can’t be real, can it, can it?
“Steve? Are you okay, did it, did you,” and Bucky’s eyes widen, his hands trailing over Steve quick like they used to after a scrap in the street, making sure he’s intact, and oh.
Bucky remembers everything. And he’s afraid that Steve—
He loves him. Steve loves him.
“I love you.”
The words are unstoppable. Inevitable, at this point, even if they come as a surprise to them both, Bucky’s hands stopping on the splay of Steve’s shoulders as he blinks rapidly, jaw just a little slack, like he’s trying to figure out if he’s heard right and if so, what the hell it even means.
And the momentum of the moment overcomes him, maybe, but more likely, Steve feels too much, far too deep, for far too long and miracles can’t come forever, he knows, and Bucky’s hand is warm and his touch so familiar, too familiar to be anything but the impossible made flesh and fuck, but he couldn’t hold it back if he tried.
“I mean,” Steve takes a deep breath because the rough strips of muscles beneath his ribs pumping the loose blood from his veins hurts, it hurts and he won’t get another chance at this, he knows that somehow deep in his bones and he has to say it.
He has to say the words, or there’ll be nothing.
“I love you, I’m in love with you and you’ve been my everything since before I can remember and before I understood and I was scared, because what it, how it used to be but then, then I could lose you, what if I lost you because I needed you and,” Steve dares to look up, and Bucky’s just staring, mouth slightly open, and fuck, but Steve can’t read this, read him but Bucky’s hands are still on his arms and Steve can’t stop now.
“But I have,” Steve swallows, voice breaking and dragging onward like rust; “I’ve lost you so many times and it’s killed me more than anyone should have to die and it’s my own fucking fault because I never said and you never knew, and watching you leave, watching, watching…” and he sobs, gasps, shit:
“And I didn’t disappear, but I did,” Steve gasps, grasps, chokes; “I did, and I—”
Steve's voice cracks, and his chest is so tight, but maybe that means there's life in it. Maybe that means the blood's finding where it belongs and can mean something again, like this. With this.
“And I’ve been such coward except, except it’s not even that, it’s not cowardice, it’s worse,” and it twists out of his mouth, his throat, his soul like a moan: “it’s worse because it’s everything and I never said, and I, I...”
Steve stops, because the words are so big. The words are all that he is, and hell, but there's only one person, one place he—all of him—has ever belonged. They're so big, it's so big:
“I love you, James Buchanan Barnes.”
It's all that matters in the entire universe. In all of space and time.
And, yes. Finally. Finally. And Bucky hasn’t moved, hasn’t spoken, but Steve’s heart is a heart enough, again, a shape that can pound and that means something, it has to, and his eyes are stinging, his cheeks are wet, and oh.
“Dear god, but I love you.”
Bucky’s throat works, and he starts to speak once, twice, never looking away or pulling back and Steve’s pulse is heavy and high between his collar bones and then Bucky’s face falls, Bucky’s eyes soften, and his hands are on Steve’s face with a tenderness, a cherishing, and he’s stroking Steve’s cheekbones to wipe the tears away, and hold them in trust and hope when they refuse to stop falling, when they follow the joins of his left arm, trace the veins of his right.
It feels sacred, somehow. It feels complete.
“Oh,” Bucky breathes, more of an exhale than a word but so much more for it, in it as Bucky’s palms open and slide to the sides of Steve’s neck and around, and his eyes.
No matter what is said or isn’t, from here: Steve doesn’t think he could ever have imagined what this looks like, the fullness and burning in Bucky’s gaze, and maybe it’s too much to give it a word without Bucky’s permission, but it’s so much, it’s so much:
And Bucky wraps Steve in his arms but Steve clutches, clings harder until he can feel Bucky’s heartbeat against the trembling in his own chest as Bucky’s breath on his cheek, at the crook of his neck starts to give it life again, stitch it together so it can pound with all due feeling, and Steve shakes in Bucky’s arms and doesn’t hide the sobs because sometimes mourning comes later, sometimes breaking waits until someone is there to pick up your pieces, and fuck, fuck but Steve thanks whatever powers that matter—because they listened.
He’s got time.