Soon after Steve arrived for Tony's memorial service, Pepper offered him one of the spare rooms at the country house. It wasn't a huge house and they didn't have many beds to spare; most of the space was filled up by Rhodey, Happy, Peter Parker, and an engineering student whose education Tony had been funding. But Pepper took his hands in hers and said, "He'd want you here, Steve. He always wanted you here."
You weren't there.
Those words haunted Steve, kept him awake sometimes when he was beating himself up about all that had gone wrong at every step in the fight against Thanos. So he politely refused to stay in the house, on the grounds that he was needed elsewhere. The entire upstate New York area was teeming with super-powered people and Wakandan soldiers, all on high alert while the Infinity Stones remained in the vault Tony sunk deep in the ground, in those beautiful woods outside his home. The place where he'd retired, and had lived a good life, but not for long enough.
Steve chose instead to stay at the bed and breakfast a few miles down the road where Wong was quartered, along with Sam and Bucky. He put Mjolnir in the closet with his change of clothes and his good shoes, and stood there staring at it for a long moment.
"In place of your shield," Thor had said, when he refused to take the hammer back. Thor had lifted his own axe - it was surprisingly light in battle, so different than Steve had assumed - and smiled, and it had seemed so wrong to Steve, that the hammer felt natural in his hand. Mjolnir had sung softly to him for years….but on this final battlefield, it had signaled to him, singing to him with purpose. Calling the hammer to his hand had been like taking a long, deep breath.
Had he ever not taken up the weapon, the shield, the gun? He couldn't remember a time that he hadn't been fighting. It was all he'd ever wanted. What he'd been reborn to do. And even when he was tired - when he stopped fighting for a year or two, and turned toward helping people with words and compassion instead - that itch was still there. Have you ever met a fight you could walk away from? Bucky would say when they were kids, shaking his head with exasperation every time he set Steve's broken nose or bandaged his cuts.
Steve's cell phone buzzed constantly in the drawer of the bedside table, where he'd tossed it the moment he checked in. Dozens of text messages from people in his support group, telling him about those who'd returned, full of assumptions about the miracle and thanking him, even though he didn't deserve their thanks. They owed everything to Nat, whose loss he hadn't even had time to truly mourn. She had been a true friend, who saw the shape of him without the serum or the shield.
And they owed Tony, who had tried over and over to stay away, but never could. Neither of them had ever been able to walk away from what they thought was right; it had pulled them apart, though they were more alike than they could ever admit to each other.
His friends deserved the credit, and all the others who had joined the fight, who had risked their lives to save everything they loved.
So he ignored those messages, and all the messages from politicians, too. Nat had been their leader, and her absence had left a gaping hole in the foundation. Fury wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. Ross had left a fawning voicemail, offering to 'forgive past transgressions' if Steve would return to lead the Avengers - according to the rules of the Accords, of course -- and at the sound of his voice, Steve had barely managed not to crush the phone.
He didn't want it. Any of it.
At 3AM, he padded barefoot down the hall to Bucky's room and tapped twice on the door. A second later, Bucky opened the door, clad in plaid sleep pants and a frayed Air National Guard t-shirt. Steve remembered what a grump Bucky could be when he was roused out of peaceful dreaming; this time around, he'd clearly been awake. The memory of that young, irritable Buck put a little smile on Steve's face, and the ghost of it was mirrored on Bucky's.
"Been expecting you," Bucky said softly, mindful of the other sleeping guests. "Want to take a walk around the lake?"
"More like a ten-mile run."
"Pal, I'm in no shape for a ten-mile run, I just got my molecules back together." Bucky pointed at his feet. "Shoes for you; let me grab a jacket."
A few minutes later, they met on the B&B's porch, and Steve handed Bucky a cup of coffee he'd coaxed from the fancy coffeemaker in the kitchen. Bucky sat down in a rocker awkwardly, the wicker creaking under him, and took a sip. "You still can't make coffee worth a damn," he said, taking another, longer sip.
"Why do you think I kept you around during the war?" Steve grinned at him, and for a little while, they sat in rickety twin rockers, drinking Steve's bad coffee and listening to the night sounds. It was as if they were just two old friends, without time and death and the world between them.
Eventually, Steve's thoughts took shape and order, and he sighed and put his mug down. "When I traveled back to get the Tesseract, I saw Peg."
"Saw, as in--?"
"Watched, I guess. She was working. She didn't know I was there, but...it got me thinking."
"Always dangerous," Bucky said lightly, but all his attention was on Steve, the same intense precision he'd sighted targets with back in the day.
"When I return the stones to the point where they were taken, I think...I think I might stay a while, back there. Spend some time with Peggy."
Bucky was quiet for a long moment, and then said, "Back where, exactly?"
"Around 1946. I have a plan," Steve said immediately, in a rush, and then Bucky said,
"Of course you do," wry, and all the heaviness of it lifted off Steve, and he drew in a deep breath.
"I talked to Dr. Pym in confidence last night after the funeral. He helped me fix a few sets of coordinates, points in time; all I have to know is the date and place."
"Well. For starters, if I...If I'm going to travel without an assist from the quantum tunnel the way Tony and I did, I have to be able to get back here, using the suit and the GPS. It's not that complicated, thanks to the bracelets."
"And you get how to do that? How not to...get lost out there?" Bucky waved his hand; the vibranium gleamed in the waning moonlight.
"I think so." Steve leaned back in his chair and chose his words carefully. "I've never fit in here, Buck. The future's all right, but I'm always wishing for what's gone. It's always been...from the moment I came out of the ice. It's been." Now the words had deserted him again. He sighed. "I found purpose in a fight that turned out to be meaningless, discovered I'd been working for the enemy, and then I found out you were alive, and for years I focused everything on finding you and keeping you safe."
"Seems like a pretty narrow goal set," Bucky said, one eyebrow arched.
"It was what mattered. Still does." Bucky nodded, once; this was something they'd never talked about, and never would. Steve paused, and then said, "I'd have to go back to just after I went into the ice."
"And leave yourself in there?" Bucky said, jerking forward. "You'd have to leave yourself. Steve. That's-"
"Crazy? Yeah. But that Steve would still be found one day. Hell, I could be the one to point the way to him. Captain America, the living legend. Just a little chilly, no worse for the wear."
"You're going to steal back your own life...from yourself?" Bucky stared at him, and Steve looked back, resolute.
"That me made a choice, just like this me did. This me is honoring that choice."
"Knock it off with the double talk. You're dooming that Steve to the same thing that's driving you to go back," Bucky said, and now Steve could see it: the Bucky who had always been right there in the alley with him, vibrating with distress about whatever pickle Steve had gotten himself into.
"And if I fish him out, then what? He'd go back to..."
"...what you're trying to go back to. And...I get it, you're the one who always has to give it up for the other guy." Bucky frowned. "But this is not a great plan, Steve."
"I didn't say it didn't have a few holes."
They lapsed back into silence for a while, as the first glimmers of light began to thread their way into the sky. Steve glanced at Bucky every so often, waiting for...he wasn't sure what, really. Not approval; his mind was made up. But it mattered, whether Bucky understood. Steve was ready to walk his path alone - he always had been. Having Bucky there to call him out when it was wrong, though...that was a gift they'd lost and regained, and neither of them would ever take it for granted again. Whatever Bucky's verdict was going to be, Steve wanted to hear it.
"At least one of us should have a chance at a normal life," Bucky said finally.
"Both of us," Steve said, fierce and immediate. "You could - come with me. We'll tell Bruce you're going to watch my back while I return the stones."
Bucky was very still, and if Steve didn't know his tells so well, he would have wondered why. But Bucky's eyes were shuttered, and his body was tense; Steve knew the answer before Bucky spoke.
"Steve. I'm not that man anymore," Bucky said. "Whatever happens for me after this, I'm...never going to be who I was. Who you remember. I know you understand that, so let me finish," he said, shaking his head when Steve tried to protest. "In whatever timeline you're making when you go back, there's one of you, and one of me, and that me is probably already dosed up with the bad serum, but he's still human. He hasn't been changed yet."
"And he never will be," Steve said grimly. "Buck. You have to know, the first thing I'm doing is finding you."
"You going to go back and shoot me before I fall off the train?"
"I'm just asking, Steve. Are you prepared for this all to go sideways, and do what has to be done? Because any version of me would rather you shoot him in the head than let him become...what I became."
"I will find you," Steve said, "and I will bring you home. I promise you."
"Home," Bucky said. The way he said the word sent a chill down Steve's spine. He turned that calculating gaze on Steve. "You really think you're going to be able to sit out the fight and burn the hearth fires with Peg? Because she's a great dame, Steve, and I'd be happy for you both, but the Steve I know has always had that fire in him for the fight."
And there it was. Steve cleared his throat. "Not really planning on sitting out, no."
A tiny frown furrowed Bucky's brow, and Steve could see the moment he got it - the entire plan, not just the parts that he'd set out on the table. His face contorted with emotion. "Isn't one lifetime of fighting enough?"
"When it's enough, I'll come home," Steve said simply.
Bucky shuddered, and put his hand over his face. Steve allowed himself the luxury of looking at Bucky - really looking, and loving him, the broken parts of him that had been put back together by Shuri's careful tending, and the parts that had always stayed shining and true, even when Buck hadn't known they were there.
"It's what I was made for," Steve said. "To fight. To stop suffering. To end wars, if I could. So much I can be useful for, Buck at so many points; the serum should keep me from aging for a long time. But the endless fight wasn't meant to be your life, too. I know you stayed in Europe for me. I wanted more for you then. What happened to you...it shouldn't have been you. I couldn't stop it then, but I can now. And fighting doesn't have to be your life anymore."
"You can't go this alone, Steve. You'll always need a me to watch your back," Bucky said, and there was plaintiveness in it that tore at Steve's heart.
"There'll never be another you. Not for me, in any time." Steve reached over and covered Bucky's hand with his own, and turned his own gaze to the lake when those tears spilled over. "And if you're looking for a back to watch, Sam might need that."
"Well. There are worse choices," Bucky said, pushing his wet face against his hoodie. "I mean, not much worse, but times are tough."
Steve rolled his eyes, because what had been real hostility had already begun to evolve into jokes and teasing. Bucky's growing friendship with Sam was a surprise to all of them - especially Sam, it seemed, to Steve's amusement. But Steve could see now that beyond any doubt, they would have each other's backs, when it mattered. "I'll have to bring him a shield," Steve said. "I'll figure it out. Tony said Howard made more than one, but I haven't found any in Tony's vault or the workshop. Maybe I'll go straight to the source."
"It's never about the shield," Bucky said, and now the tears were thick in his voice, too.
"No,' Steve agreed.
The screen door behind them creaked open, and Sam said, "What are you two grandpas plotting about out here? Where's my coffee?" Then he yawned hugely, which broke the moment, though neither moved to separate their hands.
"What, are your arms broken? Make your own coffee," Bucky said, as Sam grabbed a porch chair and yanked it over next to Steve. He side-eyed them both, with a glance at their joined hands, and then settled into the chair with a sigh.
"I will, and it'll be a damn sight better than Steve's, let me be the first to tell you."
"Hey!" Steve said, mock outraged, as Sam chuckled.
"Nah, you know I'm just playing." He curled up in the chair, and less than a minute later, he was fast asleep, snoring softly.
"Handy skill for a soldier," Bucky said, as they watched him sleep.
"That it is." They smiled at each other, memories of foxholes and burned-out barns and basements shimmering between them.
"I wish we had more time," Bucky said.
There was so much Steve wanted to say. So many things to share. He remembered the way Peggy had greeted him often in the first days after he saw her again, old and frail in her hospital bed, but filled with joy. Steve. You're alive! You're finally free of that terrible ice! At first he'd assumed she was confused, mixing up what he'd told her on his first visit with her own belief he was dead.
But he'd started to wonder.
Why she grew confused and vague every time he asked her about her husband, their life together. Why there were no pictures of him at her bedside. Why the staff never spoke about Peggy's family; he'd had to find out about Sharon at Peg's funeral.
Why Peggy'd had a picture of him on her desk, decades after she believed him dead.
Those questions had been nagging at him since the moment he returned from the past, and it was time to put his suspicions to the test. Time to square up and meet Tony's perpetual advice head-on, too; the memory was an oddly persistent whisper in the back of his mind, one that had been more difficult to ignore since the moment Tony sacrificed himself for them all. Get a life, Rogers.
Don't waste this.
It wouldn't serve any purpose to speculate - and if Steve was right, Bucky would see for himself soon enough - so Steve just squeezed Bucky's hand. "I've got a long life ahead of me. There're a lot of stops between here and the end of the line."
"Maybe try not to get yourself killed on the way to your normal life," Bucky said, eyeing him.
"You know me, Buck; gonna follow Bruce's plan to the letter," Steve answered, as innocently as he was still capable of, just to hear Bucky's incredulous snort.
After a moment, Bucky covered Steve's hand with his own and pressed, and then sat back in his chair. "Before you go, though," he said, "tell me more about what it was like in space. Space, Steve! I gotta know."
From flying cars to interstellar travel - that curious, enthralled gleam in Buck's eyes was still the same, the constant between their past and present, and Steve grinned. "You always did love the future."