Banner began the countdown— "...four...three...two..." —and Bucky could feel his throat constrict, seize, even. He didn't look at Sam. Didn't look anywhere but at the platform and frame that Steve had vanished from all of four seconds previous.
If you go, I understand, he thought, nodding to Steve, who wasn't there. To no one. To anyone, really, so long as he managed to keep his eyes from stinging.
If you go, I understand, because how many times had Bucky been the one to walk away? Leaving for basic, falling from the train, after pulling Steve from the Potomac, going back into the ice in Shuri's lab? Choices he'd made because he thought Steve was safe, would've never made if he hadn't. But Bucky was the one safe, now, and it was fair. A righting of the scales, he supposed, that it'd be Steve who vanished from sight.
Banner faltered, nerves sending his voice shooting up: "He's missed the jump, he should be—"
Before the nausea could rear its ugly head, before Bucky's knees could tip towards each other and send him to the earth, Steve reappeared. Beautiful and golden and there.
He could've sworn Sam muttered something and Banner shouted in surprise and Bucky—
"Steve," he whispered, no louder than the breeze slipping between the bellies of the surrounding pines. "Steve."
The visor of the quantum suit receded, revealed that mouth to be ticked up at the corners in a pleased, tender smile. There was no discernible changes to Steve's features and Bucky's eyes did sting at the sight of that crooked beak, those too-earnest baby blues in that too-expressive face. He looked tired. A bit drained. More than a little like he needed a stiff drink even though it would do nothing to sway him towards intoxication.
"How long did it take?" Banner prompted, pressing his glasses higher up the bridge of his nose with a large finger.
Steve didn't look over his shoulder to properly respond, didn't look at anyone but Bucky. "'Bout six months."
Seventy years in and out of ice. Two and some on the run. Another in cyro. Five fighting to get back to one another. A half a year shouldn't have been surprising and Bucky would've rather lived in those six months than those five awful seconds over and over like some sort of bastardized Prometheus. When would the world be kind, let them remain with one another without ripping them apart again?
Bucky tracked Steve's steps off the quantum pad, onto the forest floor. Right up until their boots were knocking together and the pressure, the undeniable presence of Steve solidified before him.
"Buck?" Steve tried gently, a worried twist to his mouth.
And it was as if a sieve have been cut, leaving Bucky's bubbling anxiety that threatened to permanently cripple him to surge to the surface:
"For a—I thought, maybe—," and Bucky flapped a hand at the tech at their six, at the tablet Banner was furiously typing data into. "That you—"
"What?" Steve's brow furrowed deeply, a pained ridge between his eyes. "That I stayed?"
He couldn't even force his head into a nod, felt that any further movement would send him scattered into the winds.
Five seconds, in all relativity, isn't long at all, but when you've got a mind programmed to think as tactically and as quick as possible, it's an eternity to spiral.
In that precarious span of time, Bucky felt as though his ribs were metal, that his sternum was made of bolts that could only be tightened until the point the marrow cracked and the shards of bone speared him from the inside. He'd not known the taste of hope in an awfully long time, and didn't allow it to fill his mouth. He couldn't. He'd have choked on it if he'd been proven wrong.
What Bucky did not say: you had the power to go back to Brooklyn, the Brooklyn we knew. You could've gotten that dance with your girl, could've had a long life with her. Got married, had kids, grandkids, even. Christ Bucky would've been gutted, seeing a little girl with Carter's hair and Steve's eyes and he would've loved that child, would've spoiled the hell out of it, only he wouldn't have been there. He would've been in Hydra captivity, would've— would've been too far away and—
"Buck," Steve said softly, his hand landing on Bucky's wrist to cover his hammering pulse. "You didn't think this was the end of the line, did you?"
Anything keeping Bucky from lunging forward and wrapping his arms around Steve was cut loose. He was incapable of repressing the animalistic sound that rose in his throat as he squeezed Steve to him. Bucky's hands fisted in his jacket, gripping at firm muscle and warm tissue and closed his eyes hard enough it felt like an ice pick shot through the hemispheres of his brain when Steve gripped him with equal fierceness.
He buried his face in Steve's shoulder, inhaling that familiar musk. Mouthing, unconsciously you're here, you're here, you're here.
"Didn't do anything stupid did you?" Bucky croaked once he managed to surface, glad that Steve had never let his muscles go lax as they clung to one another. Not once.
Steve's cheeks pinked. "Nothing too bad."
"Good. That's— that's good."
For some reason, the man in his presence only colored deeper.
"We need to talk, though," Steve murmured, and when Bucky's left brow arched in question, Steve's smile only went more tender. "Nothing bad, Buck, I promise. Just— five and a half years? I've... I've had a lot of time to think about my regrets, all the things I never got to say and—," like the sun rising over Wakanda, bright and breathtaking, Steve's face did something that Bucky had only seen in passing. Never head on. Never so... open and again that traitorous feeling of hope made to climb the vertebra of his spine to get at his heart. He pushed it down. He wouldn't survive if he didn't stamp it down. "—I want to say them. I need to."
"Okay," Bucky nodded, tucking his hair behind his ear when the motion shook it lose. "Okay, what is it?"
Steve made a hold tight gesture, glancing to a point over Bucky's shoulder as if realizing the world existed beyond the small bubble they'd formed, and called: "Sam! Come here!"
It didn't take long for Sam to appear at their elbows in a burst of leather, throwing both arms around them and knocking his temple into Steve's. The three of them would reek of relief for days to come. "Yeah, man?"
"In between putting the stones back where they belong, I, well." Steve let the bag on his shoulders drop to the bend of his arm, stepping back far enough to deliberately unzip it and flash its contents Sam's way. "I had a lot of time to consider the life I wanted to have after I got back. I knew it for a long time."
Giving the bag a shake, an unspoken take it out hanging in the air between them.
"Go on," he encouraged, endeared at Sam's widened eyes. "See how it fits?"
Sam took the shield in both his hands, gave it a little spin as if to measure the weight of it. He grinned at the whirl of air zooming off the vibranium, flashing that endearing gap between his teeth only for it to falter when he glanced up at Bucky.
Bucky laughed, a low, rusty thing. He'd never wanted a war, never wanted to fight. A soldier, Hydra's pet, the White Wolf? All were titles he never asked for, but mantles he was white-knuckled into taking up all the same. For all he wanted Steve to be happy, he'd always loathed Captain America. And he sure as hell never wanted to put on the star-spangled suit for himself. Besides, every time he'd picked up the shield, it never ended well. Not in the slightest.
"S'yours, man. Quit holding out and put it on, yeah?"
Sam didn't disappoint, slipping his arm through the well-used leather strap, and squaring his shoulders into a defensive posture. He went as far as pursing his lips, puffing out his chest like some sort of patriotic peacock. Bucky pointed out as much, teasingly, jerking back into Steve's chest when Sam playfully swiped out with the shield.
"Don't test me, Barnes. You like your kneecaps, right? I presume you like your kneecaps."
"I don't need a shield to beat you, yanno," Bucky pointed out, giving the fingers of his metal hand a wriggle Sam's way. Steve laughed, a warm rumbling noise low in his throat. He caught Bucky's gaze, went undeniably soft.
Sensing that beating a hasty retreat was necessary, Sam said something about how he was going to head off to play a game of all-American ultimate frisbee with the shield, leaving Bruce to quietly cart off the equipment in two massive armfuls. Steve nodded towards the water, by the log just big enough for them to squeeze together on. Neither of them sat, though. Bucky had too much pent up energy for it and Steve was silent for a beat before he said:
"Yanno, Buck," he drawled, and there was a lilt to his voice that Bucky hadn't heard since they were deliriously young. "There's no war."
Bucky felt a smile tick up the right side of his mouth. "Nope."
Steve's hand landed on Bucky's shoulder, warm and binding. His knuckle was near enough for Bucky to tip his cheek into. "No fight."
"Not unless you start one."
Steve snorted. There he is.
"Nowhere else in the universe I'd rather be," Steve said, and that hope he'd sat on, that he'd tried to collar and chain, surged up to form a lump in his throat. "Don't you know by now there's nothing that could make me walk away from you?"
He did. He did, but the affirmation only further cemented the fact.
"I made a promise to myself," Steve continued, the hand on Bucky's shoulder slipped down to curl their fingers together and if Bucky weren't too busy watching Steve's mouth, ensuring the shapes his lips made were the ones that reached his ears, he would've tracked the motion. "To Tony, too. We've been soldiers for too long, Buck. I want to live my life and I wanna do it with you beside me."
Christ if that didn't sound like marriage vows, if the clasp of their hands didn't feel like a wondrous lock sliding into place after the key had gone missing for the better part of a hundred years. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," he said softly, but no less clear.
Steve hadn't stepped away, had made no move to put so much as half a foot of distance between them. Bucky was thankful for it.
It was a monumental effort, keeping his tone casual, maintaining a sense of togetherness as he wondered, wagered: "You trying to say you love me, punk?"
Those baby blues shined, creasing at the corners. He was the finest sight Bucky’d ever seen, the only one that had ever mattered.
“I do love you, Buck," Steve said, lifting his free hand to cradle the side of Bucky's neck. His thumb landed on the cleft in Bucky's chin, the pad fitting there as if Bucky'd been made for it. "I'm in love with you."
The dam burst and Bucky's chest swelled with not-quite helium, but something that made him feel light as a feather all the same. He untangled their fingers just to slide both arms around Steve's neck, to properly step between Steve's feet so their hips bumped, their noses slotting beside one another.
"Say it again?" Bucky whispered. "Please?"
No more than a hairsbreadth away, Steve did. It was the sweetest song— "I love you. I love you so much, Buck, and I can't shake you. I don't want to. You're in my bones. I lost my way without you and I never want to be so god damn directionless again."— to ever bless Bucky's ears. So much of him was built of jagged crags and stalagmites, sharp things that destroyed any hints of tenderness before it could fully settle. But not this. Not Steve's words, Steve's love. It was like a bone being set properly, like skin healing and the fresh, sensitive flesh left him raw. He pulled back just enough to run the tips of his flesh hand along that jaw, over those furrowed brows. Smoothing, memorizing. Adoring.
His most well-kept secret poked its head out of the dark. Emerging for the first time since Bucky buried it deep in himself the winter of nineteen thirty-seven. The winter he'd damn near lost Steve to pneumonia not three months after Steve's mother. He'd been so tiny, then, so sickly, and it'd been such a close call that Bucky'd had a priest read Steve his last rites. Bucky and his god hadn't spoken for years even back then, but he'd prayed. God, he'd prayed and promised to do all the things desperate folk do if whoever might be listening to his pleas let Steve live through the season. And then morning came around, and Steve blinked bleary eyes open for the first time in half a week, and Bucky had curled over him, sobbing like a child, and knew he could never live in a world without Steve Rogers in it.
"I won't ever love anyone like I love you," Bucky swore, unable to help the fierceness to his words. "And every day I went without saying it, you can bet that I'll say it so much, now, that you'll get sick of it."
"Absolutely floored. They'll have to make a vaccine for it."
"We're so slow," Steve breathed, but there was no regret. No sign of grief. His grin so wide, so relieved, as if there was even a chance Bucky wouldn't reciprocate his affection. Bucky hadn't even realized how hard Steve was trembling until he'd stopped.
"Slow and steady, right? That's what wins the race?"
"God, Buck," and Steve kissed him, quietly, close-mouthed until Bucky parted his lips with the tip of his tongue, and his breath hitched when Steve's hands slid firmly over Bucky's sides. His hair was soft under Bucky's touch, the back of his neck too-warm, love-flushed.
"You're it for me," Bucky whispered, a little groan of pleasure breaking from his throat when Steve curled impossibly closer. "From the beginning, it's always been you."
"God," was the reedy reply, and then there was next to no words at all.
They must have stood there, learning each other in the one way they'd never dared to, for hours. The sky was certainly losing its color, the sun at a different point in the sky than it'd been when they first set up shop. Steve's hair was a wreck and Bucky didn't want to think of how much of a bird's nest his was, glad he had an elastic at his wrist to tie it back with rather than suffer Sam's waggling, suggestive brows. He couldn't take his eyes off Steve, how that pink, full mouth was swollen thanks to Bucky's ministrations, that there were delicious splotches of color in his face because he was just as affected by Bucky as Bucky was by him.
"So Steve?" he murmured, turning on his heal to head toward the car. Bucky was glad, suddenly, that Banner had come in a separate vehicle with all his equipment, that he'd been generous enough to give Sam a lift, too. "Where are we going?"
And Steve, slipping his hand in the back pocket of Bucky's pants, pressed a kiss to his temple, another to the tip of his nose. "The future."
"Got a roadmap?"
"Best kind of trip, then," he declared, looping an arm around Steve's neck. They stumbled a step, righting their pace on the next stride.
No war, Steve had said, which was absolutely true. For the first time since they were too-thin, scraped-kneed boys with exactly zero knowledge of death and loss and destruction, of the types of atrocities that lead grown men toward early graves, there was a proper light on the horizon with their names written all over it. There was nothing to suggest the minutes they managed to snatch up in each other's company were a rare currency any longer. They could know peace, could live a life without worrying the imminent dawn would be the last they saw.
Bucky couldn't wait to get started.