“Okay,” Bucky said, “I can’t ignore this. What’s with the beard?”
Steve pretended to be suprised by the question, even as he stroked his beard. “What do you mean?”
“Rogers, I’ve never seen you with a beard and I’ve known you almost a century.” Bucky stared at him a little more. Besides the beard, Steve hadn’t really changed that much since Bucky had seen him last, although it was true Bucky was in more of a condition to notice now than he been then.
Steve winced. “Don’t exaggerate, Buck. It’s only been 90 years.”
“Yeah, I’m rounding up. Old people do that, you know?”
“Wow, did you guys flirt this much in the old days too?” Natasha said, peeking up behind one of the shield-prototypes that Steve had been testing out. She looked mildly curious, picking up tiny vibranium spear and testing it against her finger.
“We’d be kicked out by now, sweetheart,” Bucky said, flashing her a grin.
She grinned back. “You remember me, Barnes?”
“How can I forget? You thighs almost killed me.”
“Good.” The knife whistled through the air and cut off a wisp of Bucky’s hair. “Don’t call me sweetheart again.”
“Don’t get fresh with anyone,” Steve said, with a wag of his fingers. “We have a universe to save, remember?”
“You think we’ll do it? Save the universe, I mean.”
Steve sighed and suddenly he looked as old as Bucky felt inside. Bucky had always been shit at comforting people and he wouldn’t try now, but he took a few steps closer to Steve, invaded his space. Steve let him do it, not moving away.
“We’ll try, in any rate.”
“Yeah. We can try.” Then, in an undertone, Bucky said, “I guess you haven’t told her.”
Steve looked at him, exasperated. “It’s no one’s business but ours, Buck.”
Bucky grinned. He didn’t know what else to say.
In the old days — that really, seemed like it was about a decade and a half ago, in the past, yeah, but still reachable, still still something you could carry along with you — Bucky had been as cocky a son of bitch who’d ever lived. He acted like the sun shone out of his asshole and the world treated him like that too. At first, he thought he was doing his old friend Steve a favor, really, bringing him on double-dates with cute girls.
One of them, one of these days, had to see what Bucky had always been able to see, right?
Once, drunk and thoughtless, Steve pressed his hot forehead against Bucky’s shoulder and muttered, “You like it, don’t you.”
“Being the — one people want.”
“I’m not a slut, Steve.” Bucky laughed at the thought of it, but Steve was glaring at him. He must not have thought it was that funny.
“So I’m the one no one wants and that’s why we’re friends?”
“No! What the hell, why would you think that? You’re — drunk. I’m gonna ignore it.”
“I hate it, you know,” Steve said so close that it sent a shiver down Bucky’s spine. “I hate that you —”
“Do you want to fight?” Bucky said, impatiently. “I’m trying my best here, Steve. But if you want to fight, we can do that.” He’d left a pretty girl behind to take her friend home, so he could go back and nurse Steve’s feelings. Did that count for nothing?
He dodged Steve’s first punch easily enough and the next one too, but the thing about Steve was that he was vicious when crossed and he never, ever fucking backed down. So they got to fighting and got thrown out of the bar and found themselves in the alleyway behind the bar. It was dark and smelled like garbage. Perfect, really.
Now, Bucky really didn’t want to hurt the little bastard, but Steve had no such compunctions. He went all in and soon Bucky was pressed against the brick wall, blinking owlishly into the dark. “Hey, Steve,” he said, a little breathlessly. “You’re getting pretty good at this.”
“Shut up, Bucky,” Steve said — really, growled. “We’re fighting, remember.”
“Sure, sure. It’s just that — if you keep this up, I won’t have to keep rescuing you from all those assholes who keep hassling you.”
“You’re an asshole who keeps hassling me.”
“Aw, you don’t mean that. Let’s make up. Give us a kiss.”
Steve scoffed, but didn’t let go of the lapels of Bucky’s shirt. So Bucky did what he had to do — he leaned in and kissed Steve, firmly, on the lips. Just as he’d predicted, Steve yelped in surprise and let him ago.
“Takes one to know one. You done feeling sorry for yourself?”
Steve gave a long, shuddering sigh. “Yeah. I guess.”
Soon enough, Steve wouldn’t need Bucky for that sort of comfort. Soon, Steve would be on the top of the world, and Bucky would be at the bottom. Easy come, easy go, nothing in this world was ever fair.
Bucky thought about the past a lot, in that little house in Wakanda. The air was always hot and fragrant with growing things, completely unlike the sterility of his cryochamber and his sepia-tinged memories of home. It was a new world, and a better one than he had left behind.
If he could be a new person in this new world, it’d be absolutely perfect. He thought about it, leaning in to the new name the Wakandans gave him. Be the White Wolf, leave Bucky Barnes behind. He was tired of Bucky Barnes, tired of being the shambling old wreck of man, the living debris of another century. He was tired of it all.
His fingers twitched and he wished he had a cigarette. He thought he probably hadn’t smoked in nearly half a century, not since HYDRA stopped sending him on covert missions overseas.
Sometimes they’d send him over with a woman with bright, green eyes and sharp teeth. Dottie was her code name and she was at times his handler, at times his backup. They’d once pretended to be a honeymooning American couple and took out an entire traincar of diplomats that way.
Dottie had given him what must’ve been his last cigarette, on his very last mission with her. “Enjoy it,” she said, with a secret little smile. He hadn’t.
Bucky sighed. He knew this was all bullshit anyway. He’d always choose to be Bucky Barnes, every time he could chose. If he wasn’t Bucky, then who would Steve look for when he came looking?
He’d stayed for Steve for this long, he might as well continue with it.
They’d had sex. Once. People in the future were casual about sex, casual about touching. Casual about everything. They didn’t get how it was like before, where everything was furtive, everything had a secret, double meaning. Bucky was jealous, he knew was, he knew he’d lose Steve the instant he saw Peggy Carter, and those long legs of hers, and that beautiful face, but especially, oh, especially those dark, intelligent eyes.
Steve was a goner, for sure.
So Bucky acted on impulse. He got drunk when the Howling Commandos were in London for the last time -- with him, anyway, and even then Bucky knew time was ticking away. He was pushy and he was loud and he was an embarrassment. And though Steve owed him nothing, he hauled Bucky away from his liberated whiskey and away from the people laughing at his antics -- not all kindly.
“I fucking hate it,” Bucky snarled, showing his teeth. “They think they’re so much better than me? I can take them. Fuck them!”
“I’m not going to let you get busted by the MPs for fighting,” Steve said, dusting off the front of Bucky’s jacket. “Can you imagine if the newspapers got a hold of that?”
“Captain America’s Sidekick Gets Side-kicked Out of London Pub,” Bucky said with a dramatic sigh. “I’d like to read such a thing.”
“I’m glad you never got that writing gig, that’s a terrible headline,” Steve said.
“Smart aleck. Like you can do better.”
“I know I can,” Steve said, spinning him around and into the room they’d been sharing. Bucky had to stand perfectly still for a moment to get his bearings again and it occurred to him that Steve might not be as sober as he seemed. He shot Steve a suspicious glance.
Steve shook his head. “Can’t get drunk. The serum, you know?”
“My heart, it bleeds for you,” Bucky drawled. “No, really, I pity you.”
“Thanks. You sprayed my face with all that pity.”
“Yeah.” Bucky peered deeply into Steve’s eyes. Had his eyes really been so fucking azure before? They couldn’t have been, right?
Steve smirked. “I didn't know you knew that word.”
Shit. He'd said that aloud? Bucky decided to brazen it out then. “Well. I do. But I bet all you have to do cast those pretty blue eyes at anyone and they'd come running. You don't need me anymore.”
“I never needed you, Bucky,” Steve said, tilting his head to the side, looking slightly quizzical. “Not for that.”
“Ha-ha, what did you need me for, then?”
“Are you really gonna make me list them?”
“Yeah. Maybe. What are friends for?”
“What are friends for? Well, to ask questions, I guess, like -- why are you falling apart like this?”
Bucky blinked in surprise. Steve wasn't usually one for blunt questions like this. He must really want to know.
“I got tortured, over there,” Bucky said, swallowing up his fear and his self-loathing for a moment of honesty. “HYDRA fucked me up. I don't know what they did, but I'm afraid of finding out.”
“Buck.” Steve said his name as if he'd received a hit on his stomach, a blow strong enough to take his breath.
“Yeah,” Bucky said slowly. He smiled at Steve then, like he would to a girl he really wanted to sleep with. It hardly ever failed, this smile. His use of it was extremely judicious and his instincts, perfectly accurate.
It worked here too, although, to be honest, Bucky was surprised how well it had. But that was the thing, wasn’t it? He’d always loved Steve, he’d always been jealous of Steve -- had envied him then and now -- and he’d always, always wanted him.
He let Steve pin him down, mutter words of comfort into his skin. Meaningless, broken. They shared the same breath, eyes glazed with the pleasure of forgetting, for a little while, who and what they were.
Later, they could pretend it didn’t happen, that it wouldn’t happen again. The war would end and Steve would marry Peggy Carter and be happy and normal and all that bullshit.
And Bucky? Well, Bucky would fade away.
It was go-time. Shuri had started working on Vision and the Avengers were getting ready to go. Bucky dawdled a little, watching her work. He wasn’t an Avenger, after all, he was a guest of Wakanda. He owed them so much.
And besides T’Challa, Shuri been the first person he’d spoken to in -- hell, the first person in this waking world who hadn’t come at him with a whole host of expectations of what he was or who he was supposed to be.
She’d taken him and put him back together. He owed her something. She was the smartest person he knew, but she was also a kid. He wanted, more than anything, for her to keep that sparkle in her eyes for a while longer. It wouldn’t happen if Thanos came to Wakanda and smashed everything to pieces.
“Bucky, you ready?” Steve called for him. “We’re heading out.”
“You really are getting old,” Steve said, with only a slight lift of his lips to show that he was teasing. Bucky rolled his eyes.
“What are you talking about, old man?”
“We got a lot to talk about, actually,” Steve said musingly.
“Lots of time to do it too,” Bucky said, not bothering to keep the sarcasm from his voice. “I’m sure. Maybe this time I’ll remember it.”
“What if I told you I’d had a beard before and you didn’t remember it?”
“Liar. I’d remember that.”
“It doesn’t matter if anyone else remembers, you know,” Steve said quietly. “I remember and so do you.”
“Is this about the time we fucked?” Bucky asked, since he was trying to get better at communicating. That was pretty important, T’Challa said. As was honesty. And since he and his sister were really the most well-adjusted people Bucky had ever met, Bucky was willing to believe it. So, honesty. Clear communication.
Steve turned red as a lobster but didn’t say no, exactly. “... We’ll talk later.”
Sure they would.
Sometimes it felt like Bucky had a kind of double-vision, seeing scenes floating on top of each other, the present on top of the past. Maybe it was his brain had been defrosted a few too many times or maybe he’d always been destined to fall apart, but he hoped, God, he hoped like hell that when he finally had to go, he’d do it right this time.
That he’d die like he was supposed to -- besides Steve, dying so Steve would live. That’s what he wanted.
“You’re a depressing guy,” said Romanoff, passing him by.
“Steve?” as soon as his name left Bucky’s mouth, Bucky could feel himself fall apart. Not metaphorically. Not like that. A moment later, he was reconstituted somewhere else. It was somewhere vast and dark and echoing -- and he was alone.
“Goddamn it,” Bucky bit out. “God fucking damn it. Steve!”
There was a rustling nearby and Bucky turned. He didn’t have his weapon, or his arm. From the gloom, he saw a figure of a man emerging into view. It was T’Challa, and behind him, Sam and then Wanda.
“What happened? Where are we?”
“We’re waiting,” said Wanda. Her hands grew red for an instant before it fizzed out. “Somewhere.”
“Are we dead?” asked Sam.
“I don’t feel dead,” Bucky offered. He’d worked so hard not to be dead. He wasn’t going to give up on it now.
“We are not dead,” T’Challa said and Bucky chose to believe him. T’Challa was a convincing guy, after all. He had that whole gravitas thing going on. “We will find a way to get back to Wakanda and help our friends.”
“Right. So, Thanos -- he wanted to wipe out half the universe, right?” said Sam.
“Yup,” Bucky said. He really, really missed his weapon. Had that talking space raccoon really taken it?
“... Does that mean half the universe is here? With us?”
That was a good, terrifying question.
Bucky really wished he’d taken the time to talk with Steve before all of this. Maybe kiss him goodbye or something like that. Since, he’d seen, that was a thing people like them could do now.
He’d have to do it when he saw him again.