If Bucky was really honest about it, the truth was, he’d always known it was going to end with Steve sacrificing himself to save the world. Yeah, at the time he was in a bigger body than the little scrappy one only Bucky remembered, and it happened in a way weirder war than the Big One, but at the end of the day, that stuff was almost immaterial. And it wasn’t like Bucky had never thought about this possibility of being left behind. He loved Steve with all his heart and soul, but when it came down to it, he was a realist. And Steve—Steve had always been the guy who’d lay down on a wire, let another soldier crawl over him to survival, without thinking about what it would cost either himself or the other guy when he did.
Bucky had spent a lot of time talking to other people while he was stuck in the Soul Stone—he could argue all day about whether it was actually Limbo or Purgatory or something else entirely, but half the world had ended up there, so at least it wasn’t lonely. And while he was there, Strange—which definitely wasn’t the guy’s real name, the spider-kid was right about that—tried to “educate” him on a bunch of half-scientific, half-mystical mumbo-jumbo called multiverse theory. As far as Bucky could tell, it boiled down to the idea that some real scientists in the real world sincerely believed that every choice you ever made created its own baby universe, which meant that somewhere there was another version of you who got to live with it. By that logic, there was a world out there in the multiverse where Steve survived and he, Bucky, was the one who didn’t. And there was probably another world still where they were both fine and dandy and retired to a crappy little apartment in Brooklyn, where they sat on their asses all day playing Mario Kart and the biggest problem they had was whether they were out of Steve’s favorite sugary breakfast cereal. It made it a little easier if he could believe that somewhere, there was a world that didn’t have to lose quite so much in order to win.
Not easy, but easier. Hell, if Bucky could think that somewhere there was a Steve who was actually okay, and that asshole would give him a disappointed look for giving up, then maybe he could keep going, at least for a little while.
So, for Alternate Universe Imaginary Steve’s sake, Bucky tried to do all the stuff a relatively healthy bereaved person was supposed to do. He gave himself space to mourn and feel his feelings and all that jazz, and he went to the funeral and put flowers on Steve’s grave, but it all felt kind of unreal. He even tried, tentatively, to hang out with the remaining Avengers—a newly chastened Tony Stark seemed to think he owed Bucky something, and he wasn’t exactly wrong about that—but at the end of the day, they were Steve’s friends, not his, and their presence just enhanced Steve’s absence. That was why it was surprising when Thor approached him as he was putting on his jacket and preparing to head back to Brooklyn. He was even more surprised when Thor put a hand on his shoulder and, instead of repeating the same trite line everybody else had given him about how he was so sorry about Steve’s passing, he said, “I have a favor to ask you, my friend.”
“Yeah, okay,” Bucky said, because really, what was he gonna say, no? Whatever Thor wanted, it wasn’t like he had anything better to do.
“Take this,” said Thor, and held out the Time Stone.
Bucky stared at it. Liberated from Thanos’s ugly gold gauntlet and returned to its original container, it was a small green gem in an eye-shaped gold necklace that fit neatly into the big Asgardian’s fist. Plenty of thoughts crossed his mind in that moment, but the one that came out of his mouth was, “You sure you wanna give that to a human again? Because I don’t think we did such a bang-up job with it the first time around.”
“That’s exactly why you should have it,” Thor said seriously. “Because no one will expect us to make the same mistake twice.”
Bucky wished he could tell if the guy was kidding. “Honestly, though,” he said, “why me?”
“Because you can keep it hidden. You can keep it safe. And you can put it somewhere it will never threaten the universe again.”
“No pressure,” Bucky said dryly. “You do realize I’m limited to just the one planet, though, which doesn’t really seem to be a deterrent when you space guys get involved.”
“Well,” Thor said, and that was when things got interesting.
The spaceship was a big transport that had been salvaged off some planet called Sakaar, and while it was parked in a remote corner of Norway, a few of the remaining Asgardians had cleaned it and painted it and retrofitted it into something that felt more like a luxury yacht than the clunky spacefaring hulk that Thor described from its initial journey. Some of the swooping curves and gleaming metal of the control room felt more Art Deco than alien, to the point where Bucky almost—almost— wondered if Thor had given his spaceship designers a pile of books about the 1940s and told them to go nuts. Honestly, though, Bucky was more interested in the nuts and bolts of an actual, working spaceship, and it didn’t disappoint him there, either. The engines ran on something that sounded like super-refined vibranium and would haul him around the galaxy for decades before they needed replenishing; the nav system made Stark’s F.R.I.D.A.Y. look like a disoriented toddler; and the computer held workups on hundreds, maybe thousands of planets, which, Thor said, Bucky could sort through at his leisure until he found one that was satisfactory. Bucky tried to hold onto his habitual cynicism while Thor gave him the guided tour, but he had to admit that by the end of it, he felt a kind of… well… a kind of wonder he hadn’t really felt since he watched a flying car lift off the ground in 1943.
There was never any question whether he was going to say yes.
“So what would you do?” he asked, once he’d gone through all his preparations, said his goodbyes (Shuri, in particular, he wished was going with him—she’d rigged up a communication ray that would let them send messages back and forth, but it wouldn’t be the same), and Thor had metaphorically handed him the keys (he’d actually undergone a complete biometric scan that told the ship to trust him, but that was no fun to say). “What would you do, if you had the whole universe at your fingertips?”
“But I do, my friend,” Thor said, giving Bucky a lopsided grin. “And right now, I’m exactly where I want to be.”
Of course he was. Thor still had a chance to be with someone he loved. Bucky tried not to let the thought be too deeply tainted with bitterness. “Okay,” he tried again, “then let’s say you felt like you had a couple of things to atone for, and that you decided what you should do is try to keep as many people from suffering as you possibly could.”
Thor considered it. “In that case,” he said, “I suppose I’d have to do something about my sister.”
“Sister?” Bucky repeated.
“Her name was Hela. She was the goddess of death.”
“Indeed, much shit,” said Thor. “She murdered millions, perhaps billions at my father’s command, and many more after he cast her aside. As with my brother Loki, I don’t believe she was blameless, but neither was she entirely at fault. My father… I’ve come to accept that, for all he was the god of wisdom, perhaps he wasn’t the best at raising children.”
“How old was your sister when Odin had her start killing people?” said Bucky, and he almost immediately wished he hadn’t asked, because Thor told him.
People in movies about time travel got really paranoid about how the tiny unintentional consequences of their actions could end up changing history, or worse, creating a paradox that would ultimately destroy the universe. Bucky’s opinion was that history was mostly a shitshow anyway, and as for the whole paradox thing, he felt pretty sure that if he tried to go back in time and change things, then either 1) anything that would cause a paradox just wouldn’t work, because the thing had clearly already happened; or 2) it would count as a decision, which would spin off one of those new universes that Doctor Quantum McMagicPants was always on about; or 3) worst case, it would only catch him in the infinite unbreakable time loop, which would probably suck only slightly more than what Hydra used to do to him on an average Tuesday.
Hence: Asgard, 10,000 BCE, give or take a decade or ten. (He’d put the ship’s computer in charge of translating time into terms he could get his brain around, but it had seemed kind of fuzzy on the human concept of leap years.)
Hiding a landing shuttle in a floating city in the middle of space and making his way through a royal palace into the princess’s bedroom would have been a tall order, even for the Winter Soldier. Fortunately for Bucky, the ship came with something that Thor had told him the official name of, which he’d immediately discarded from his patchwork memory in favor of referring to it as “the ‘beam me up’ thing from Star Trek,” a show Shuri had made him watch because she thought it was funny. The upshot of which was, it was really no big thing to materialize himself inside the bedroom of the crown princess of Asgard.
The princess who was six years old, and crying.
Bucky had been through a lot of shit in his life, and contrary to popular opinion, suffering didn’t necessarily make a guy stronger or smarter or better. Sometimes suffering was just suffering, end of story. But a crying little girl? Bucky had grown up with three little sisters, and this was a situation he was actually kind of qualified to handle.
“Hey, kiddo,” he said, quietly, so he wouldn’t startle her too bad. “Rough day?”
There was a bad moment where the little girl just stared at him, and Bucky waited for her to scream and bring palace security crashing down on his head before he could smash the button to reverse the teleport. But in the end, Hela swiped the back of her hand across her tear-stained cheeks and said, in a voice that was more curious than scared, “Who are you?”
“My name’s Bucky.” Bucky approached her carefully—again, she might be tiny, but she was a tiny goddess of death, and he knew too much about the Red Room to assume that something was harmless just because it was little-girl-shaped. “I can be your friend, if you want. Kind of looks like you could use one right now. Do you wanna talk about it?”
The tiny goddess of death sniffled. “My daddy—he said I, I had to—”
“Did he ask you to hurt some people?” Bucky said, as gently as he could.
Hela nodded. “I didn’t want to,” she said. “But he said… he said that’s my purpose.”
“Yeah,” said Bucky. “People used to say that to me, too.” He took a deep breath. “Hela, if you really don’t like hurting people, I can give you a choice. I could take you someplace where you never have to hurt people again. But you’d have to go with me right now, tonight. You couldn’t say goodbye to your mom and dad first, and you might not ever see them again. I know that’s a pretty awful thing to ask you to decide. But if you stay here, I think your dad will ask you to do a lot worse things than what you did today. Whatever you decide, it’s completely up to you, okay?”
Hela was silent for a long moment, and Bucky held his breath while, not for the first or last time, the weight of the future hung by a thread. Then Hela made her decision, and this time, the multiverse fractured in Bucky’s favor. She reached out her small hand to him, and he was about to take it when she abruptly flung herself into his arms instead.
Until that moment—until that very instant—Bucky Barnes might have been entertaining some thoughts of taking Hela and dumping her off on, say, for example, Pepper Potts, who came across as one of the most stable and put-together people he’d ever met and therefore more than capable of dealing with a single alien murderbaby. He might have thought about taking her to Brooklyn in 1940 and handing her to his cousin Louise, who’d tried and failed to have a baby of her own for years and still hadn’t managed it by the time he’d gone off to war, or—fuck, this one was a really long shot, but maybe he even would’ve said damn the time paradoxes and given her to Sarah Rogers, who had a proven track record of raising amazing kids in spite of some fairly shitty circumstances. But when Hela’s little body shuddered against his metal shoulder, Bucky could almost feel those alternate universes closing themselves off, one by one, because there was no way in hell he was doing anything but devoting the rest of his life to making sure this kid was as well and happy as she could possibly be, and that she never, ever, ever got forced to kill anybody ever again.
“Hela,” he said, “hang onto me,” and he pushed the button that would teleport both of them back to the spaceship.
It wasn’t until they were back on the ship, and Hela’s sobs had subsided into occasional hiccupping gasps, that something else occurred to Bucky. He drew back and held her out at arm’s length, looking into her tearstained face solemnly. “Hey, Hela,” he said, “do you think you might like to have a little brother?”