Staring at the empty platform where Steve had stood just a moment ago, Bucky experiences one of the longest five seconds of his life. Steve’s not coming back, he thinks, over and over, Steve’s not coming back.
A weird distortion shimmers in the air as Steve materializes on the platform. Bucky lets out his breath in a quiet rush. He was so sure. He said his goodbyes and convinced himself that he’d get by just fine, that he was happy that Steve could finally have the life he’d always wanted with Peggy. He knew enough about the machine to know that Steve had a chance to go back to the 40s and pick up the life that was lost to him when he crashed the Valkyrie. And yet, here’s Steve back again, looking tired, dusty, disheveled. Bucky can’t tell what Steve’s thinking as their eyes meet. He’s never seen Steve’s eyes look so blue.
“You stole the fucking shield from your past?” Sam laughs, loud and incredulous.
That’s when Bucky notices the round leather case Steve’s holding in one hand. The hand that’s no longer holding Thor’s goddamned god hammer. Steve steps off the platform, looks at Bucky again, then back at Sam. Something in the way Steve squares his shoulders and sets his jaw has Bucky settling back on his heels and folding his arms. There’s a conversation Steve needs to have with Sam. Bucky can wait to speak to Steve. He’s got time. Apparently, he’s got a whole future’s worth of time to ask Steve why he decided to come back.
He watches as Sam takes the shield almost reverently, sees the surprise on his face as they talk, uncertainty, then acceptance. The mantle of responsibility settles on Sam like it belongs there. It does. Sam’s the right choice for this new future. When Steve steps away to speak to Banner, Bucky goes over to Sam and punches him lightly on the arm. “Cap.”
“Fuck you,” Sam says, automatically. He sounds a little punch drunk as he looks at the shield on his arm.
“Looks good there,” Bucky says, nodding at the shield.
“Could’ve been yours.” Sam drags his gaze away from the shield to look at Bucky. “Should still be his.”
“Time for you young guys to show the way.”
“So he’s just gonna disappear into the woodwork?”
“Steve? You ever seen him run away from a fight?”
Sam pulls a face as if to say Fair. He eyes Bucky. “What about you?”
Bucky shrugs. “I’ll always have his back. Whatever that idiot decides to do.”
A hand settles on his shoulder. He turns to find Steve looking at him, still with that strange look in his eye, smile quirking at his lips. He’s close enough that Bucky can see flecks of dust on the white chestplate of the quantum suit. “Thanks, Buck.”
“What’re you gonna do now?” Sam asks.
Steve’s eyes go distant, the smile slides off his face. Sunlight shifts and dances on the grass as the breeze moves through the leaves of the clearing. “Nat left a vacuum. She did a lot to keep things going, keep the world safe. I guess… I’m gonna try to fill that vacuum. I think she’d like to know someone’s carrying on the work she started.”
Bucky can hear the grief in Steve’s voice, raw and fresh, see it on Sam’s face. He grips the hand Steve has on his shoulder. Bucky hadn’t known her well enough to feel that same grief, but Steve’s trust and faith in her is testament enough to the person she was. Steve squeezes his shoulder, and his lips compress.
“So what do we call you now,” Sam says, probably in an attempt to stave off tears.
“Captain’s taken.” Bucky lets go of Steve’s hand, the warmth of it lingering on his skin. He curls his hand into a fist to trap that warmth there.
“How about…” Sam rubs his chin and assesses Steve. “Commander Rogers.”
“I get a promotion?” Steve quirks his brow. “We’re just handing them out now?”
“The world can bite my whole ass,” Sam says. “You dumped a title on me, turn about is fair play.”
“I like it,” Bucky says. He smiles as Steve gives him a little shake.
“Then I guess Commander Rogers it is.”
“Ross is gonna lose his goddamned mind.” Sam’s snicker is rich with glee. “Who’s gonna tell him.”
“I volunteer.” Banner walks towards them carrying the switchboard that operates the time machine. “I like giving him bad news.” Without any sign of visible strain even though he has to be carrying at least a hundred and fifty pounds of equipment, Banner places the box down on the platform and holds out one large green hand. “No second thoughts?” he says, to Steve. On the palm of his hand, dwarfed by its size, is a small wireless remote.
Steve’s gaze slides to Bucky and then away. The leather of Steve’s glove squeaks as his hand tightens into a fist. In one swift, efficient move, he removes the time GPS band strapped to his hand and tosses it onto the platform. “None.” Steve takes the remote from Banner and presses the button.
Bucky closes his eyes and turns away as the power cells in the platform and the switchboard short circuit and discharge gigajoules of energy all at once. When the arcing blue light fades, the equipment crackles and sparks, black smoke billowing into the air. A time machine is too dangerous to leave lying around and Bucky is very glad to see it destroyed.
“That’s done,” Bucky says.
“It is.” Steve looks at Bucky, gaze weighted. “Ready to go home?”
Steve is silhouetted against the night sky as he stands in front of the apartment window, hands in the pockets of his old, ratty sweatpants, looking down at the streets below. Bucky can’t imagine what it must be like to see the cars and people and bustle after five years of the city being mostly silent and half-empty. Perhaps it’s something like the feeling he gets every time he sees Steve and is reminded five years have passed for him while Bucky was… gone. It seems to be the pattern of their lives. One going into stasis while the other moves ahead, forever out of sync.
Steve’s been quiet and pensive ever since his trip back to the past. Bucky is almost afraid to ask him about it, but he steps up next to Steve and bumps his shoulder. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Steve glances at him from under his lashes. That look has made Bucky’s knees weak since he was fifteen and realized most people didn’t feel quite as strongly for their best friends as he did. It’s still as effective at making him weak in the knees nearly a hundred years later.
“I didn’t think you were coming back.”
Steve turns away from the view to give his full attention to Bucky. “Is that why you said you’d miss me?”
Bucky shrugs, tips his head forward so his hair hides his face from Steve’s too-perceptive gaze.
“I thought about it,” Steve says. “I saw her, you know. When I went back for the Tesseract. I needed a place to hide and ended up in her office.” Steve’s voice is soft and fond. An old, familiar ache springs up in Bucky’s chest, whether for Steve or himself, he’s not sure. “She had a photo of me on her desk. From when I was a private. Before the serum.”
Bucky looks up straight into Steve’s oddly intent eyes. The hair on the back of his neck prickles under the force of that gaze. “I know which one.” Steve in a white T-shirt, ninety pounds soaking wet, squinting into bright sunlight that made a halo of his hair. He looked like a scruffy, scrappy angel who would pick himself up again and again and keep on fighting the good fight no matter what. “She always did have good taste.”
“Yeah?” Steve’s voice sounds intimate and low and very close in the dimness of their apartment.
Bucky nods. A strange tension hums in the air.
“It was next to the photo of her husband and kids.” For someone who’d been confronted by the visible evidence of his old flame moving on, Steve sounds oddly unaffected.
Steve huffs a laugh at Bucky’s unguarded response. “I was gone, what… thirty years by then? I’m glad she moved on.”
There’s nothing but sincerity in Steve’s voice. Bucky feels unsettled and twitchy at the unexpected turn the conversation has taken. “You could have gone back to the Peggy you knew.” Bucky doesn’t know why he says it. Maybe he just needs to remind himself where he stands. “You had another vial of that Pym stuff.”
“I could’ve.” With a sigh, Steve drags a hand through hair still damp from his shower. His fringe flops down onto his forehead like it used to do when they still lived in Brooklyn and believed their lives would never break out beyond the borders of their city. “But I’m not the Steve she knew. I haven't been in a very long time.” He steps a little closer. “So. Peg had good taste, huh?”
Bucky feels transfixed as Steve stares at him like he’s searching for something that can only be found in Bucky’s eyes. It's disconcerting and distracting and might explain why the next words out of his mouth aren’t carefully considered. “I never could understood why none of those dames would give you the time of day.”
Steve takes another step closer, close enough that Bucky can feel the heat of Steve's body seeping into his own. Steve reaches out a hand and picks up a lock of Bucky's hair. He rubs it between his thumb and forefinger like he's learning the texture of it. “Would you have? Given me the time of day, I mean.”
Bucky licks his lips. His stomach swoops inside him when Steve's gaze falls to his lips before he jerks it up again. “If you'd asked, yeah, I would have,” Bucky answers. The first, hesitant, tendrils of hope start to unfurl inside him.
“What if I'm asking now?”
Part of Bucky wants to answer ‘yes’ without any hesitation, but years of living with his secret traps the word in his throat. “Why now?”
“I saw you die twice, Buck,” Steve rasps. “I saw you fall off that train. I barely even got you back before you turned to ash in front of me.” He looks old, suddenly. Tired and worn down. “I see you die again and again when I sleep.”
“Hey.” Bucky clasps the back of Steve's neck. Even after so many years, his first instinct is to comfort Steve. He never could stand to see him in pain. “I'm here now.”
Steve swallows. Nods. Presses his forehead to Bucky's and takes a few deep breaths like he’s gathering up his courage. He leans back and looks at Bucky, solemn and resolved, and maybe a little bit scared. “I’ve been an idiot long enough, I don’t want to waste any more chances. Going back, seeing Peg again… it confirmed what I already knew.”
A strange feeling grips Bucky as Steve speaks. It’s almost like he’s disintegrating again, body turning to ash, painless, weightless.
“I'm home, Buck,” Steve says. “This is where I belong now. With you.” Steve slides his hand into Bucky’s hair. “If you’ll have me.”
It takes nearly half a minute for Bucky to fully accept what Steve’s asking him. He’d given up hoping so long ago, ever since the night when Steve only had eyes for Carter, the night she’d walked into a pub in red dress that matched the color of her lipstick.
“You’re a fucking idiot, you know that, Rogers?”
Steve’s eyes close as he lets out a shaky breath. “Is that a yes?”
God. Bucky stares wonderingly at the beautiful idiot in front of him. Did Steve really have no clue that Bucky’s loved him for most of his life?
Instead of answering, Bucky kisses him once, and once again just to be clear. When Steve kisses him back, he holds Bucky like he’s the most precious thing in the world.