Going home from art class, they take a shortcut across a vacant lot and down an alley. They're halfway through the alley when there's a lightning strike in the lot behind them - brilliant in the dark sky and throwing their shadows far ahead of them. The thunder that follows is eardrum shattering.
They both jump. "Holy smokes," Bucky says, after a moment, and clears his throat. "That was close."
Then it happens again - a blinding light, a deafening roar. They both manage not to flinch this time.
Steve holds his hand palm-upwards, frowning. "There's not a drop."
"Probably won't be long now before it's pouring." Bucky glances over, grinning. "Wanna race? Last one home washes the dishes for the rest of this week."
But Steve isn't listening. He's looking back over his shoulder again and suddenly his breath catches. "What the hell..." He backs up, and nearly stumbles over the uneven ground. Bucky turns too and then swears, instinctively stepping forward and pushing Steve behind him.
Five guys, military from the look of them, are ghosting out of the shadows. It's already obvious this is no ordinary backstreet mugging. The set of their shoulders and the coldness in their eyes tell the story as much as the guns pointed direct at their heads.
Fuck, Bucky thinks, heart beating jackhammer fast, fuck fuck fuck. His eyes scan the street for something, anything, even though he knows it's futile - what good is a trash can or a plank of wood gonna do against a bullet to the head? But maybe, he thinks, if he can just hold them off long enough for Steve to escape...
"Steve Rogers?" says the one in front, cool and cold.
"Yeah," Bucky says, real loud so he drowns out Steve's voice. "Yeah, that's me. Whaddya want?"
Before the gunman can reply, there's a gunshot - dark red spurts from his head and he drops like a stone. Quick as a thought, before anyone can even think to move, there's another shot and a second man goes down.
As the remaining three spin to face the threat behind them, spraying bullets into the dark, Bucky shoves at Steve, shouting, "Go! I'm right behind you!"
But Bucky lingers a moment longer, looking back to see the third gunman is already down, clutching at his arm and screaming. A flash of light on the edge of a blade, and the fourth goes down too, blood gushing from his throat. The last one is disarmed and scrambling backwards as a figure all masked and in black advances on him, menacing and implacable. Bucky swallows, a chill running down his spine, and then he turns to run too.
By the time they make it home Steve is wheezing, his hands shaking. "Who," he still manages to say, collapsing on to the couch, "what the hell-" He breaks off, doubled over with coughs.
"I don't know, pal," Bucky says grimly. He sits down beside Steve and rubs his back, until he stops coughing and his breaths are coming slow and only a little wheezy. "Why would those guys be looking for you?" he says, shaking his head. He gives Steve's shoulder a little shake and says, in his best gangster-movie style, "You ain't mixed up in any funny business with the mob, are ya?" As if that's even a possibility. Steve's the most genuinely good person he knows.
Suddenly there's a scratching noise at the door, metal on metal like someone's working at the lock, and they both freeze. Slowly, the door knob starts turning.
"Okay, christ, you've gotta get out," Bucky says, springing up and grabbing the baseball bat they keep next to the door. "You go down the fire escape and I'll-"
"Bucky, I'm not gonna leave you behind!"
Then it's too late to argue because the door swings open and it's the man in black. His eyes are like ice above the mask covering his nose and mouth. "Steve Rogers," he says, and unlike the last time it's not a question.
"Stay the fuck away from him," Bucky snarls, hands tightening on the handle of the bat, just as Steve says, "What the hell do you want?"
"I'm not here to hurt you, Steve." Slowly the man crouches down, laying his gun on the ground between them. As he stands up he pulls off the mask, and Bucky freezes right there, the blood running cold in his veins, because the man has Bucky's own face. Beside him, Steve makes a strangled sound.
"I've come from the future," the man says grimly, "and I'm here to save your life."
The killer with Bucky's face says he's from the year 2018. He claims that he was sent back in time with one mission only - to protect Steve Roger's life.
"So what you're saying," Bucky says skeptically, bat still clutched in his hands, "is that my boy Steve here somehow helps the good guys win the war? And so these bad guys, whaddya call them-"
"Hydra," he repeats. He's tied to a chair, gloved hands bound behind his back, and - as far as they can tell - disarmed. His knives, guns and grenades make an impressive pile on the kitchen table, but Steve's not entirely certain they found them all. He doesn't seem fazed but seeing as he just took down five soldiers without breaking a sweat, Steve is fairly sure that his compliance is just a show. If he'd wanted to, he could have overpowered them both without blinking.
Speaking of - his gaze is unnerving. Every time Steve looks up, the man is staring. Like he can hardly believe Steve is real.
"Yeah, yeah, Hydra. So you're saying eighty years from now these Hydra guys build a time machine just so they can back and assassinate Steve before he can save the world? And what's with the, you know," Bucky gestures at his own face, vaguely. "Are you gonna try telling me I'm your grandfather or something?"
"Yeah," he says. "Something like that."
Bucky laughs, but it's shaky. The man is older and the look in his eyes is beyond chilling, but the resemblance is unmistakable. They could be brothers. "Oh, boy. I've heard some tall ones in my time but this one takes the cake."
"It's not the most likely story I've ever heard," Steve admits, looking up from the table where he's been sorting through the contents of the stranger's pockets. "But I have to say, he might be telling the truth."
There's a gleaming black tablet, the perfect size to fit into a hand, that lights up with brilliant colours when Steve presses the button on the front - "20:40 10/04/2018," the bright white type declares - as well as other small, odd-looking devices Steve doesn't even know how to begin to approach, and a bunch of light, brittle cards. There's a few coins, familiar enough in appearance, except the designs aren't quite right and the years of issue are decades in the future. Even his guns are strange, made from unfamiliar alloys, their loading and firing mechanisms far advanced beyond anything either of them have ever seen.
"Even if he's not from the future," Steve points out, "he did save our lives."
"Your life," the man corrects. He never even looks in Bucky's direction. His eyes stay fixed on Steve, as though he thinks maybe Steve will disappear if he looks away. "I saved you, Steve, because you're important. Because you need to live."
"Okay, now that's the part I don't believe. I mean, I'm just - me." Steve shakes his head, trying to wrap his head around a future where he's not just some schmuck who can't run a block without gasping for breath, who struggles to hold down a job let alone help win a war.
"Nah. I can believe it," Bucky says unexpectedly. "Smart guy like you. I'm always saying you got more brains then sense, aren't I?" His eyes are warm and Steve ducks his head, aware the back of his neck is burning.
"Look, I don't care if you believe me," the man says harshly, his voice overly loud in the small room. "Call me a liar or a madman, whatever you want. It doesn't change the fact that Hydra's trying to kill you. If you want to live, then we've got to start moving. Now."
"Bucky," Steve says hesitantly, "I think we have to trust him. At least - we have to give him a chance."
Bucky scowls. "Fine," he says at last. "But we're splitting the weapons between all three of us, you hear? And one false move from you and I'll-"
The man flexes his arms. There's a ripping sound as the ropes around his wrists snap and fall to the floor like bits of string. "Fine," he says, getting to his feet as both of them stare. "Now let's get out of here."
The man says they need to get somewhere more easily defended, somewhere that it'll be harder for Hydra to find them; and that it has to be close, because they won't have much time now with Hydra on their tail.
"There's an abandoned factory," both he and Bucky say at the same time, before stopping to glare at one another.
"There's an abandoned factory," the man says again, "three streets from here. I know the layout and it's the best option we have within the surrounding five blocks."
"Just what I was going to say," Bucky mutters as they get ready, pulling on coats against the cold and divvying up the weapons between them.
As they start to leave, Steve pauses. "Wait," he says. "You know us, but we know nothing about you. We don't even know your name. What are we supposed to call you?"
The man's eyes cut sharply in Bucky's direction and then away again. "Barnes," he says at last. "You can call me Barnes." He's out the door without waiting for a reply.
"Great. So now I have to share a name with this jerk," Bucky whispers angrily to Steve as they follow.
They make their way through the darkened streets of Brooklyn single file, Steve in the middle with Bucky bringing up the rear. They avoid the main roads, sticking to alleyways and backstreets - away from the streams of people still going about their normal, everyday lives.
At the factory, Barnes is first to scale the brick wall at the front. He waits at the top as Bucky gives Steve a boost, before hauling Steve up with unthinking ease. Bucky scrambles up after without needing any help, and then all three drop down into the yard. The front door is locked and barred, and the windows all boarded up, but the back door comes open when Barnes gives it a shove. Inside, the building smells musty. There are track marks through the corridors but elsewhere thick layers of dust are testament to the months it's stood empty.
"I'm gonna do a sweep. Wait here by the front. Keep your guns ready," Barnes says tersely, already moving off into the dark.
"How do you know about this place?" Steve says quietly when he's out of sight, their voices echoing in the empty hall. The pistol is heavy in his hand. He shifts it to the other one, his palms sweaty.
Bucky flushes unaccountably, visible even in the dim light from the street. "Um."
"Let me guess," Steve says, keeping it light, his tone drier than dry. He's always known when Bucky comes home late, smelling of sweat and sex, that he must be taking his dates somewhere but until now he'd never thought to ask. "You bring girls back here, right? Gosh, Bucky, I always knew you were a cheap date but this has gotta be taking it-"
Bucky looks even more embarrassed, if that's possible. "No," he says through gritted teeth. "I mean yes, but not girls."
"Oh," Steve says, astounded. Thinking back over years of Bucky's comments and Bucky's sideways looks, thinking it was his own wishful imagination that made him read more into them than was there, because he'd always thought - always assumed - it was only dames that Bucky felt that way about. "Oh."
They look at anywhere but each other, by unspoken mutual agreement. Steve's mind is suddenly too full of images of Bucky pressing some faceless boy to this very floor, or up against that wall, or going down on his knees...
"Ah jeez. I can't believe I said that," Bucky says, sounding furious and miserable at once. "Jesus, Steve. I'm sorry. Forget I said anything."
"Ha," Steve says weakly, his mind still full of images he knows are going to haunt him for nights on end. "Not likely."
Bucky's head whips up at that. "What do you mean?" he says, warily. His eyes are very wide and Steve's all too aware of how close they stand to one another, less than an arm's length away.
"I mean." Steve licks his mouth nervously. He clocks Bucky's eye tracking the movement; and now he's the one flushing. "I mean. I just wish you'd told me sooner."
"Why is that, Steve?" Bucky says, softly. "Say it. Just say it."
There's a loud cough from Barnes and both of them jump a little. Barnes glares at both of them as he stalks back into the room, though he seems to save the worst for Bucky. Steve wonders guiltily how much Barnes actually heard.
"The place is clear." Barnes' voice is icy, though he thankfully makes no other comment. "We'll have to secure it, then try to get some rest."
They spend an hour or so setting up tripwires, nailing doors shut, scattering the stairs with jagged glass. Then Barnes drills them on their firearms, making doubly sure they know how to aim, load and fire the unfamiliar weaponry.
"They still use bullets in the twenty-first century?" Bucky says, loading and unloading a pistol, then reloading it again. "Not, y'know, ray guns?"
Barnes just gives him a look. But what he says is, "Yeah, and this is all the ammo I have. You're gonna have to shoot, so shoot. But just so you know, there's no more where this came from."
With the factory flanked by warehouses on two sides, and the third side completely bricked over, the front is the first point of ingress. They barricade themselves in the second floor, in a room with a narrow window that overlooks the yard. The window's the perfect place for a sniper to take up position - unsurprisingly, it's where Barnes chooses to settle.
Steve insists on taking the first watch (it's accepted, without much questioning from either of them, that Barnes isn't going to sleep) and reluctantly Bucky agrees. Despite his protests, he's asleep within moments, huddled under in his coat on the far side of the room.
Steve goes to sit by Barnes, staying out of the window's sightlines at Barnes' insistence. He hefts the pistol in his hands; it's heavy and cold, only just starting to warm up in his hand. Tonight, he realises, he's probably going to have to try to kill someone. Several someones. The thought is horrifying.
"I've never killed before," he says, softly so Bucky's not disturbed. "I've never even shot at anyone before."
"I'm sorry," Barnes says, sounding truly regretful. "If it were possible - I'd make it so you wouldn't have to."
"You'd prefer to kill them all yourself, just so I can walk away thinking there's no blood on my hands?" Steve shakes his head. "That's not how it works. We're in this together, Barnes. All three of us."
Barnes' expression doesn't change much, but Steve has known Bucky long enough to realise he's said something that Barnes finds faintly hilarious.
"I still don't get it," Steve says after a moment. "Why me? What makes me so special? Can't you tell me anything at all about the future?"
"Nah. I'm not gonna give you exact details," Barnes says, his rifle cradled easily in his arms. "I don't know what would happen if I did that - if it would cause a paradox or collapse reality or something. I'm not real sure how time travel works, to be honest."
"That's okay," Steve says, deadpan. "Neither am I."
Barnes actually barks out a laugh at that one; and for a moment the resemblance to Bucky is so breathtaking that Steve can only smile right back. For all that he's a stone-cold killer, and even knowing it might just be the resemblance, there's something about him that Steve instinctively trusts.
"You're a good man, Steve," Barnes says, looking away for a moment, blinking rapidly. "You're the best man I've ever known. Just stay true to yourself, and you'll be okay."
"You say that like you know me." Steve hesitates, thinking back to Barnes' intense stares. "Do you - did you know me?" He realises as he says it that it's incredibly unlikely that he's still alive in Barnes' time. The thought makes him swallow hard.
"Yeah." Barnes' eyes fix on him again. He leans back in the shadows, until it's hard to tell if he's smiling or not. "Yeah, I knew you."
Bucky wakes up to Steve shaking him by the shoulder. For a moment he thinks he's in his own bed - though uncommonly hard and uncomfortable - but then he remembers everything, realising only a few hours have passed and Steve's just waking him for his turn to stand watch.
He groans and rubs at his face. "This is such a disappointment," he mutters. "I was hoping this was all just a horrible dream."
"Look on the bright side," Steve says. "It's been over five hours since we last had a gun pointed at us. C'mon. Up you get." Steve grabs Bucky by the wrists and hauls him up to sitting position before letting go. Bucky takes the opportunity to ruffle Steve's hair and Steve grimaces, batting his hand away. "Stop, stop. You've had your beauty sleep, it's my turn now."
"Enjoy it while you can, princess," Bucky says, yawning hugely and stretching, joints cracking.
When he looks down, Steve is looking up at him and smiling softly, that same fond look in his eyes that always kills him. "Night, Bucky," he says, eyes already blinking closed. "Hey. Can you just - just sit by me until I'm asleep?"
"Course I will."
When Steve's asleep and he finally gets up, he sees Barnes is giving him a stare hard enough to smash a pane of glass.
"You got something to say?" Bucky says, quiet but belligerent, spoiling for a fight. He can't help it.
This guy has rubbed him wrong since the moment he first appeared and made it clear that he couldn't care less if Bucky dropped dead, so long as Steve was okay - as though Bucky hasn't spent years of his life already doing just that, keeping Steve safe and sound. Maybe this Barnes guy really is from the future, maybe he actually does know what Steve's grand destiny is, but it still doesn't give him the right to act like he knows Steve better than Bucky does himself. Because he can't.
"Yeah," Barnes says, in a low whisper. His stare doesn't let up any. "Yeah, I got something to say. You're an idiot."
"Jesus, what's your fucking problem?" Bucky snarls, despite knowing he's just making it worse.
"My problem is that he looks at you like, like," and Barnes' mouth twists, unable to finish the sentence, shaking his head as though to rid himself of a bad taste. "But you don't even notice. You don't even fucking deserve it."
"You think I don't notice?" Bucky shoots right back - even though, until a few hours ago, he truthfully hadn't. "You think I don't know he's too good for me?" This, at least, he's known all his life.
Before he can say another word, Barnes is on his feet and across the room with the same deadly speed he showed in the alleyway. His gloved hand locks around Bucky's throat, hard as steel; Bucky pulls at his forearm, claws at his fingers, to absolutely no effect.
"You think you know," Barnes says, still in that soft, dangerous tone. "But you have no idea. You haven't even begun. You've still got so very, very far to go, and it's down all the way. The only one who's ever been worth saving is Steve. If I didn't need you, maybe I'd kill you right now," Barnes says. "I could kill you and wipe you right out of the timeline. Save us both a lot of suffering. But..."
His fingers release. Bucky drops to the ground, gasping as quietly as he can.
"But I do need you. For tonight, anyway." Barnes goes back to his post at the window, settling into position as though nothing ever happened. "If we keep him alive through tonight, then we'll have done what we need to do."
"At least we agree on one thing," Bucky croaks, getting to his feet, massaging his throat. "You know I'd die for Steve if I had to, if it kept him safe. I know you would too. Yeah, I saw how you looked at him."
"Yes, I'd die for him. And you do," Barnes says, very calmly. "And you will."
Before Bucky can even react to that, Barnes is on his feet, rifle butt coming up to his shoulder. "They're here," he says sharply. "Wake Steve. Get your goddamn gun."
From up on high they pick off as many Hydra soldiers as they can, forcing them away from the gate and the yard and inside through the doors instead.
They hear the cries as the Hydra soldiers hit the first of the booby traps - the floor sawn through by Barnes' laser cutter, sending them plummeting to the basement. Soon after they breach the factory, Barnes fires the last of his rounds. He flings the rifle to the side, swearing softly, and draws his knives.
"You two still got some ammo?" he says. Bucky takes a shot and nods tersely, while Steve reloads the other pistol as fast as he can. "Good. I'm heading down. Don't follow me and don't open this door to anyone."
Then he's gone, slamming the trapdoor behind him.
They take a few more shots at the last of the soldiers coming in by the front, but after that they're down to their last few bullets and those they've got to save. So then there's nothing for Bucky and Steve to do except wait, and listen, and hold themselves ready. As they sit beside one another under the open window, waiting to find out if they're going to live or die, Steve reaches down to take hold of Bucky's hand. Bucky's hand squeezes back, and doesn't let go.
Eventually, the sounds from below die and fall into silence.
At last they hear slow, dragging footsteps, and the clump of boots on the stairs up to the attic. Then, thankfully, Barnes' raspy, weary voice: "It's Barnes. Don't shoot."
"Come up then," Bucky says, training his gun on the trapdoor in case it's a trap.
But it's just Barnes who lifts the door open and staggers up into the attic. He's got dozens of fine cuts and grazes along the side of his face, as well as a deeper wound in his calf that's slowly soaking through his makeshift bandage. The left sleeve of his shirt, ripped off for that purpose, leaves exposed an arm of solid metal.
"House is clear," Barnes says shortly, before gingerly lowering himself to the floor.
"Oh." Steve lets out a long breath. "Oh, jesus. You're bleeding." He kneels beside him and starts binding the wound, relieved as the flow of blood starts to slow.
"Forget about me," Barnes says, pushing his hands away. He holds Steve by the shoulders, looking him up and down with an anxious stare. "What about you? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Steve says, shaking his head. "We should get-"
They all see and hear it: the crack of an unnatural lightning, the rumble of thunder. It's the time machine. They're all thinking the same thing in that moment - that Hydra has come back with more soldiers, and that they're out of ammo and out of time. There won't be a second victory.
Barnes staggers to his feet regardless, heedless of his wounds. Bucky gets to his feet too, with the same grim, set look to his jaw. They exchange glances, as though in silent agreement; and Steve thinks despairingly that they both have the look of men about to do something stupidly, needlessly heroic.
But then Barnes' face comes as close to lighting up as Steve has ever seen it, looking over Steve's shoulder at the open window. Steve and Bucky turn around, and there's a man standing in the window frame - a man who has wings.
"Sgt. Barnes," he says, saluting casually, and hopping inside. Then he sees Bucky and Steve, and he does a visible double take. "Whoa. Guess we really are in 1940."
"Shut up, Wilson," Barnes says, but the words have no sting to them. "You're late. Could've used your help ten minutes ago."
"Yeah? Looks like you have it all under control." Wilson shrugs apologetically. "I'll pass that feedback on to Dr Foster anyway, I'm sure she'll appreciate it for the next time we ask her to reprogram a time machine. Personally, I'm just glad we made it to the right place - she had a hell of a time tracking your location."
Far off in the distance, they can finally hear the wailing of police sirens.
"Come on, Rogers," Wilson says, holding his hand out to Steve. "You ever wanted to fly?"
Apparently Dr Foster, whoever she is, had emphasised the importance of "minimising their temporal footprint," so Sam Wilson's team spends the next few hours deflecting the efforts of the police, disposing of evidence, and taking survivors into custody.
When they get back to their own time, Wilson tells Steve, they're disabling the machine. "It's too powerful, too dangerous, especially if it falls into the wrong hands. Time is nothing to mess around with, you know? Still," he says, and he grins, "I'm glad I got this chance to meet you - both of you."
Then it's time to say goodbye.
Barnes shakes hands with Bucky, mirror images, alike but not alike. Barnes leans in close, whispering something in Bucky's ear. Bucky's jaw tightens. "I know. I'll be ready," Steve hears him say.
As for Steve, Barnes takes him by the shoulders and just looks at him. His eyes drink him up, as they have done ever since they met, as though Steve holds the answer to a question that Barnes has only been waiting to ask. Yet all he says is, "Goodbye, Steve Rogers," before turning away.
Steve calls after him. "Hey, Barnes, wait up!" He turns and looks over his shoulder. "Just - thank you," Steve says, "and goodbye."
This time, in the early morning light, he can actually see him smile.
Then the portal opens up. A great gash in space and time, bleeding light and sound. One by one, the people from the future step through - Barnes goes last, a figure all in black.
Then they're gone.
"What did he say to you?" Steve says as they walk up the stairs to their apartment. "At the end, I mean."
Keep him safe, Barnes said. You might still have to die for him one day.
Bucky shakes his head. "Nothing. Nothing I didn't already know, anyway."
After they walk back into the apartment and shut the door - and it's strange to think only hours have passed since they left, not days - Steve grabs hold of Bucky's hand, of both his hands, and doesn't let go.
"Hey," Steve says, "You know, I haven't forgotten what we were saying back there at the house." He looks at Bucky steadily, refusing to drop his gaze.
"Oh yeah?" Bucky says, and he realises he's shaking a little, still afraid to be the one to make the first move.
"Yeah," Steve says firmly.
As Steve pulls him down into a kiss, he thinks that he's always known that Steve was the braver one.
Later, as they lie in bed together with Steve snoring into his shoulder, he thinks maybe Barnes was right. Maybe he doesn't deserve this, maybe Steve is too good for him.
Or maybe Barnes was wrong. Maybe he had it the wrong way around.
All he really knows, Bucky thinks as he falls asleep, is that he's going to spend the rest of his life trying to be the man that Steve Rogers deserves; and that it will be worth it.
James Buchanan Barnes stepped back through the portal, back to the future, back to 2018.
He emerged on the platform in the Hydra base, now swarming with operatives, where they were greeted by Dr Foster and a squad of scientists. He checked the date on his cellphone as it linked back up with the network - five days had passed since he'd stepped through the portal.
"Nothing's changed," he said to Sam and Dr Foster, part question and part statement.
"No!" Jane looked tremendously excited. "You see, I've just discovered - and I don't think even Hydra realised - that what they built wasn't just a time machine. It was a multiverse machine."
"Wait. What?" Bucky blinked.
"You went back, but in a different timeline. You never went back in our time at all. You might have changed their future, but you couldn't have changed ours."
"So you're saying," Sam said dubiously, "that wasn't our Steve and Bucky that I met just now? They were alternate versions?"
"Exactly. That world was virtually identical to our timeline up to that point, as far as I can tell, but the charts show there were probably some fairly big divergences from there." Jane clapped her hands, then looked instantly crestfallen. "It's pretty sad we're going to have to shut the machine down so soon. I mean, just think of the possibilities..."
He left Dr Foster talking excitedly with Sam, and started limping for the medical bay. The grazes and cuts on his face were already starting to heal, but the wound in his calf needed treatment.
A part of him was disappointed, thinking he might come back and find his past in some way erased or written over, that maybe his arm would be restored, or his time as the Winter Soldier undone. He'd even come so close to wiping himself from the timeline - not realising it wouldn't have made any difference to his own future at all.
He probably wouldn't have been able to do it anyway. Not with the way that other Steve had looked at that other Bucky, with all that untarnished hope in his eyes. That same part of him was glad to think that perhaps in their timeline, or even a multitude of others, they were possibly - for a time, or for all time - happy together. But it seemed his own past would have to remain written in stone. He clenched his hand; let it fall open again.
The medic had just finished up with his leg when Steve found him - just back from a mission himself, judging from the state of his uniform.
"Bucky," he said, crushing him in a hug, sounding choked up. "God, Bucky. Why did you do it? Why didn't you wait for back-up at least? What if you'd never made it back?"
"What?" Bucky said, baffled.
He hadn't thought twice about it before leaping through after the Hydra soldiers, hitting the switch himself when it was clear no one else would. According to protocol he should've waited and got the go-ahead from command, but the fact was he'd have gone through anyway, orders or no.
He'd never even thought about how he'd get back.
It was a simple equation. No one else was better suited to protect Steve under those circumstances; and no one else in the team was more expendable if he didn't return. Simple.
Steve only looked horrified when he tried to explain it in those terms. "Bucky, no," he said. "No. How can you even think that? If I'd lost you again..." He shakes Bucky by the shoulders, hard. "You are not expendable. Not for me, not ever. End of story. Okay?"
Which was when Bucky realised he had been very, very wrong.
It had been easy to recognise when he was on the outside looking in, when he was the one watching young Steve, in turn watching young Bucky. How furious and contemptuous he'd been of his other self, who'd been given something so precious and never even noticed; who would, in time, lose it irrevocably.
But maybe it had never been lost, had never gone away.
"Bucky, did you hear me?" Steve said, frustrated. "Are you even with me right now?"
He was looking at Bucky so intently, and Bucky forced himself to really look back. And he saw it finally - the fact Steve still looked at him now the same way he did eighty years ago, in this timeline and the other and maybe countless more, with that same hope in his eyes.
"Yeah," Bucky said, his voice hoarse. He swallowed and repeated it, stronger. "Yeah, I'm listening."
He could hear it now in Steve's voice, that he felt the same about Bucky as Bucky did for him. And maybe Bucky still wasn't good enough and maybe he would never be, but he couldn't go on without at least trying to deserve it. The past was past, and history couldn't be changed - but the future remained unwritten.
In this timeline it was Bucky who leaned forward first, and pulled Steve in for that kiss.