Bucky knew. Of course he knew, he wasn’t blind. It was written all over Steve’s stupid, beautiful face. He was going to leave.
He didn’t try to stop him, because nothing could stop Steve once he got the idea in his head. And what kind of friend would he be if he stopped Steve from returning to the love of his life. Poor son of a bitch had been smitten for the last eighty years. If he had a chance to see her again, who was Bucky to get in the way of that?
Just a friend. His best friend. Who’d been there from the start, got detention on the first day of school for busting some kid’s nose just because he’d tripped Steve up in the playground. Who’d dragged Steve out of more fights than his fragile body should’ve been able to handle. Best friends since childhood, Bucky Barnes and Steven Rogers were inseparable on both schoolyard and battlefield- Cleaned the blood off his face fight after fight, wiped the sweat off his brow all night while he writhed in agony from illnesses that should’ve killed him. Lost him over and over and over, leaving for the front, falling from the train, seeing him on the bridge, a flicker of recognition penetrating through the mind numbing fog of drugs before it was snatched away by the surge of electricity that coursed through his brain, watching him fall from the helicarrier, flames and wrought metal, and a tiny speck of red white and blue splashing into the Potomac below and diving after him a second later oh god what have I done please god let me find him, let him live, dragging him up onto the shore, waiting for that weak spluttering cough that he’d heard so many times before, a sigh of relief at the sign that he was going to keep fighting, using all the strength he had to walk away from the mess he’d made of his best friend’s body.
Then Bucharest happened. And Berlin. And Siberia. For the first time they walked away together, broken, but together, and even though he had to leave him again, when he came out of cryo Bucky was finally himself. Not the Asset, not Sargent Barnes, just Bucky. He wasn’t really sure what happened next. People have tried to explain it to him many times. He remembered the battle of Wakanda, watched the God of Thunder drive an axe into the chest of that purple bastard. He knew he’d crumbled at some point, he remembered the feeling as he’d walked towards Steve, as though he was sinking into sand. Someone said that he’d died, that everyone had been dead for five years. Bucky knew what death felt like, and it definitely wasn’t that, but it didn’t matter. They’d returned, all of them, with the literal snap of a finger. He was alive and himself, and Steve was alive, and the war was over. He had fresh start, that maybe he could share with Steve.
He didn’t even care that Steve wouldn’t feel the same way. He had accepted that part of himself a long time ago, in the dark alleyways behind dancehalls and the shadows of the docks. He’d always known his love for Steve was more than just friendship. Bucky’s love for him was like a religion, one he truly believed in. Larger than life. Everlasting. It was like talking to God. It brought him comfort, gave him courage. But it was always one-sided. Unreciprocated.
So Bucky let him go. He smiled, hugged him, pressed his face into the warmth of his chest, breathed deeply, held tight, and tried to make those last few seconds of physical contact last. He watched him talk with Sam, joke with the green guy (he struggled to remember things lately, since his newly fixed brain had been scattered across the forest floor and been put back together again. He still remembered Steve though. He could live a hundred different lives for hundreds of years and he would never forget Steve.)
Steve stepped onto the platform. The red and white suit unfurled over his body, lights began to flicker and whir, and the electrical whine grew louder and the green one counted them down. No one was paying any attention to Bucky as he slowly backed away from them, turning around just in time to miss Steve disappearing from his life. And just like that, he was alone again.
As Steve stood outside of the white picket fence in front of the quaint wood-panelled house on the tree lined street, he couldn’t help but feel like the scene in front of him was too perfect. It was everything he used to dream of. The only problem was he couldn’t remember when this stopped being his dream. White net curtained fluttered in and out of the open window on the breeze, and with them a familiar crooning ballad that he’d heard many years ago on that fateful night when- well. That was in the past now. Or was it the future? If he tried to think about the implications of what he was doing for longer than a second, a throbbing headache began to pulse behind his eye, so he pushed it out of his mind altogether.
Kitty Kallen’s soft voice wrapped around his heartstrings and tugged him forward until he was on the front porch. He didn’t have a plan, not the slightest idea of what to say to the woman behind the door, but his body as usual was ten steps ahead of his mind, and before he could even realise it, he was knocking on the door, and a shadow moved behind the frosted glass, getting closer and closer, then the sound of a lock clicking, the creak of hinges as the door swung open and finally-
They were stood in the living room, swaying gently together as that same song played again. The teardrops that had soaked his shirt at first had dried in the summer heat, and Peggy’s hands no longer trembled as they had when she’d run them up his arms, over his shoulders, his neck, his face, touching every part she could in disbelief, as though Steve was a mirage that could blink out of existence at any moment, and that it was only her light halting touch that kept him grounded in this moment in time. To a certain extent that was true. They hadn’t spoken much since he’d arrived. Steve had barely had the chance to say hello before he’d been dragged into an embrace tight enough to steal the breath from his lungs, and since then only a handful of words had been exchanged between them. Just incredulous questions and gentle reassurances, all in hushed tones, mumbled against his chest, whispered into her hair. Steve could feel her smile on his chest and as he rested his cheek on her head and closed his eyes, he tried to let the weight of the last eighty years fall away.
The sun had set long ago when they were finally too tired to stay standing, and they retired to the sofa, a downy monstrosity that was so soft Steve felt as though he was going to sink into the ground any minute. It was a while before the comfortable silence was broken by Peggy, as she sat upright to look at Steve properly, her voice still recovering from when she’d cried herself hoarse just a few hours ago.
“So. You’re from the future?” she said with a raised eyebrow, picking up the hand that wore the quantum realm navigator. She inspected the piece of tech with a look of wonder on her face.
“Yes. When I went in the ice…I didn’t die, Peg. I got frozen. They found me in the year 2012. Brought be back to life and…just expected me to move on. Like I hadn’t lost out on the past seventy years. Been out of the ice for…eleven years I think?” he said quietly, watching as she ran her fingers over the cold metal. The navigator was out of Pym particles, so she wouldn’t accidently activate it and send him home. Or was this his home now? Once again, he pushed the confusing thought from his mind.
“They have time travel abilities in the future? Wait until Howard hears about this, he’s going to flip his wig,” she murmured with a smile.
“Wait ‘til he finds out his own son was the one who invented it,” Steve said with a grin, watching Peggy’s jaw drop.
“Howard has a son?” she gasped. “Which poor soul did he trick into marrying him?”
“Someone named Maria, I…I didn’t know her. Them. They died…years before I woke up.”
Peggy’s face fell at the news and she looked away, taking a deep breath to steady herself. She was silent for a long time after that, still idly fiddling with the navigator as she thought. Steve knew she had something hard to say, and steeled himself.
“This is…this feels- don’t misunderstand me here sweetheart, I am so, so, so happy to see you. I thought I’d…well. You died. And obviously, for normal people, that means you don’t get to see that person again. And I’m so lucky I get to be here with you, to dance with you, to just…hold you,” she said, lifting his hand to kiss it gently. “But I can’t help but feel that this is wrong. I shouldn’t know these things. I shouldn’t know who Howard is going to marry before he does, that he’s going to die before the year 2012. It’s not right. It’s not natural. And you…you’re burdened with all this knowledge of things that will happen. And you can’t tell me anything more because, rather selfishly, I don’t want to bear that burden either,” she sighed.
Steve stayed silent, the weight of his actions finally catching up with him. How could he have been so stupid? So short-sighted? So selfish? Tony had said he needed to get a life, and he was right damn him, but this – imposing his life on someone else? – this wasn’t the way to go about it. Tony knew what it was like to be burdened with knowledge of the future, and the fear that came with it. That’s what happened to him during the Ultron mess. He saw Thanos coming, he saw his friends, his family, broken apart and in his attempt to stop it created an even bigger mess in the process. What would Steve do when he saw Hydra beginning to infiltrate SHIELD? When Howard and Maria’s death approached and- oh god. Bucky. How could he sit here and pretend to live a full and happy life when Bucky was out there being torn apart by Hydra? He should be out there right now rescuing him, not playing happy families. His free hand clenched into a fist, and Peggy took it in her hands, gripped him tight until he could find it in himself to relax.
“Are you alright Steve?” she asked, and Steve nodded, looking up to meet her concerned gaze.
“You’re not the selfish one here at all Peg. Not by a long shot,” Steve murmured. “And you’re right. Of course you’re right. I thought I could come back, pick up where we left off, and ignore everything else. But a lot of things are going to go wrong in the next century, Peg. The world is…to tell you the truth, an awful place. But you, you’re one of the few good people who work so hard to make it better. And I can’t sit back and pretend like I don’t know what’s coming up. I don’t run away from a fight, you know that. And changing the past…doesn’t change the future. Something about your future now becoming your past- I don’t know, Stark explained it to me once and it made sense at the time,” he laughed, bittersweet at the memory of Tony.
“I won’t pretend I understand all this time travel business, because frankly it sounds like the plot of a bad science fiction movie,” Peggy chuckled, shaking her head. “But I know you, Steve Rogers. You stormed a Hydra base by yourself, for god’s sake. Sitting back and letting things happen, following orders? That’s not who you are,” she said with a half-smile, patting his hand. “Just tell me one thing, to help me sleep better at night.”
“Are you lonely?”
Steve’s brows furrowed in confusion.
“I know it’s a bit of silly question. Of course you’d be lonely, waking up in the future with everyone you know gone for good. But tell me you’ve found new people, who care about you and look out for you. You always try to go it alone, but you don’t have to, Steve,” she said.
Steve closed his eyes. Bucky and Sam were there, watching him with warm smiles and worried eyes. Tony, pulling the shield out of his car, Natasha with her signature smirk and braided hair saying “see you in a minute” (and god it hurt to think about, he never even got to say goodbye to her), Thor, Bruce, Clint, Rhodey, all the Avengers, all their faces flashed before his eyes.
“I’ve spent so long thinking about what I’ve lost, dwelling on the past. It’s taken literally coming back to the past to realise how much I’ve gained in the future. I was lonely at first. But honestly, I haven’t been alone since I woke up. I’ve made new friends, made myself a family, and even found old ones again,” he said, lips pressed into a tight smile at the thought of her and Bucky.
Bucky had been the one constant in his life. He literally couldn’t remember a time before him. When Steve had woken up, he’d been the man out of time. He’d hated that feeling. And when Bucky showed up, Steve had done everything to not lose that part of himself. He’d torn down SHIELD, defied government orders and became a fugitive, nearly killing Tony in the process. All for him. And now he’d just up and left, making Bucky the man out of time, putting him through the same hell he’d experienced. And living in this present, knowing Bucky was out there suffering and he couldn’t rescue him without creating alternate timelines and messing everything up, it hurt. It hurt to know that no matter what he did, one version or another of Bucky would suffer, whether by Hydra’s hand or his own. And the look Bucky had given him before he left, it was clear that he’d known Steve’s plan. His heart ached at that thought.
Suddenly he couldn’t wait to return.
“Someone once gave me some very good advice. Advice I should’ve stuck to, so I could’ve avoided this whole mess. ‘The world has changed, none of us can go back. All we can do is our best. And sometimes the best that we can do is to start over.’ That’s what I did, Peg. Started over. And in between the fighting…I think I was happy,” he admitted.
“That’s all I want for you, Steve,” Peggy whispered, cupping his face with one hand. Steve leaned into the touch, looking into her eyes. Their faces were so close together, and it was one of the most intimate moment he’d ever shared with another person. A kiss felt almost inevitable at this point. He leaned in slightly.
Peggy froze, and Steve frowned, beginning to pull back and luckily the phone rang at that moment. Peggy untangled herself from Steve’s embrace, and rushed over to the phone.
“Hello? Oh Daniel! Hi darling- no I’m fine, I’m fine,” she laughed a little breathlessly, glancing over at Steve. “No, I was just talking to the neighbour, you know how she is, once you start talking to her she won’t stop until she chats your ear off. I’m glad you phoned so I’d have an excuse to get away! What’s that? Dinner?...yes I’m free tonight. Yes, eight o’clock sounds perfect. I’ll be there… Mmhmm…okay darling….I love you too,” she said softly, turning away to hang the phone up to avoid looking at Steve’s face.
Steve stood up, walking over to Peggy to take her hand and turn her around to face him. Peggy looked up at him, her mouth open, about to speak, but Steve just shook his head, squeezing her hand.
“Just tell me one thing, to help me sleep better at night.”
Steve already knew the answer to the question he was going to ask. Those few minutes she had been on the phone made her face light up in a way that Steve had never had the pleasure of seeing during the war. It made him realise that maybe he didn’t know Peggy as well as he’d thought, and any illusions he’d had of living a happy life with her in the past were wiped from his mind the second she’d said ‘I love you.’ She was already living a happy life, and he wasn’t about to screw that up over an eighty year old infatuation.
“Are you happy?”
Peggy’s eyes welled up with tears, and she swallowed thickly.
“I’m happier than I ever thought I could be, Steve,” she whispered, brushing away the few tears that had escaped.
“Well that’s all I want for you, Peg,” he sighed, kissing her on the forehead, and then pulling her into a gentle embrace one last time.
They stayed like that for a while, because they both knew when they parted, it would be for good. But eventually the clock on the wall chimed, alerting them to the fact that it was half past seven.
“You better get going,” Steve said as he let go of her, tucking her hair behind her ear. Peggy nodded, touching his hand briefly before walking away to the mirror over the fireplace, sniffling as she smoothed out her dress and tried to fix her hair. When she turned around again, any signs of emotional distress were neatly tucked away behind a bright smile and a fresh coat of her favourite lipstick.
Steve gathered his things, which just consisted of the small duffle he’d stolen to shove his stealth suit into, and powered up the navigator again, the suit morphing over his body, and he inserted his last vial of Pym particles. Suddenly the navigator went crazy, flashing wildly and displaying a sequence of numbers and letters he’d never seen before. They must know he’d gone off course, they were trying to bring him back. Steve inhaled sharply, thinking about the stress that Bruce and Sam must be going through right now, and Bucky… His hands drifted over the buttons, itching to press them, let himself be pulled back to the future. Or his present. To be pulled back home, whenever that was.
“Will we…do I get to see you again?” Peggy asked, bringing him back to his current present, and he smiled fondly.
“I don’t want to spoil the surprise…” he said as though he was deciding whether to tell her or not, “but honestly Peg, who else do you think would give such good advice?”
Peggy laughed, and the sound was music to his ears. He would treasure these few hours forever. Coming back to see Peggy was everything he’d ever wanted, and there would always be a part of him that wanted to stay here with her, but returning to his own time was the right thing to do. For both of them.
“You’re going to have a wonderful life, Peg.”
“So are you, Steve. I’ll see you soon.”
Steve took one last look at her before pressing the button, and that familiar stomach-churning sensation took over as he folded in on himself and disappeared, a slight breeze blowing from the spot where he’d stood.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know, he blew right past his time zone!”
“Well get him back!”
“I’m trying, I’m trying- wait hold on, I think-”
“What is it? Is it him?”
Bucky stopped in his tracks, turned around to see Banner (finally the name came to him) frantically punching numbered into the machine with his oversized fingers, just in time to see the lights flash back on and the machine whining loudly, his hand started to shake and his heart was beating so hard he thought it was going to bust and he’d die right then and there without seeing him again but then suddenly-
“Buck,” Steve exhaled shakily as the suit folded itself away, and he was there in just shirtsleeves and slacks, faded duffle in one hand. He dropped the bag and made his way over to Bucky in long strides, gathering him up into a proper hug, tight and warm and real. Bucky nearly crumbled in his arms, gripping him back with as much strength as he could manage.
“I know, Buck. I am so sorry. But I’m here now. And I’m with you ‘til the end of the line, pal.”
“Yeah you better be, punk,” Bucky grumbled, shoving Steve away lightly so he could rub at his eyes, which were itching, definitely not wet with tears at all. Steve laughed softly, sniffing quietly himself before turning to Sam and Bruce.
“I’m sorry if I worried you both,” he said earnestly, walking over to Sam and extending a hand.
“Ay ay, none of that handshake crap. If he gets a hug then so do I,” Sam chastised, slapping the hand away and opening his arms wide. “Bring it in, man.” Steve grinned as he hugged Sam, smiling over his shoulder at Bruce, who looked very relieved at having not lost Captain America somewhere in the past. When they let go of each other, Sam went over to Bruce to help him shut down the machine and pack up the equipment, and Steve turned back to Bucky.
His eyes were red, and his hand was still shaking slightly as he watched Steve approach him. God, he looked so…relieved. Steve felt that ache in his chest again, and he didn’t know what to do to make it go away except maybe doing something he’d never done. He walked right up to Bucky and took his shaking hand in his, and squeezed it, then kept a hold of it. Bucky looked down at their joined hands in surprise, but didn’t pull away, instead he held on tighter, and the feeling of Bucky squeezing his hand made the ache fade away. Steve exhaled a breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding, and his lips curled into a soft smile, which only widened when Bucky smiled back at him. Soon they were grinning like Cheshire cats, and in no time, they were laughing and leaning into each other for support. Bucky brought their interlaced fingers up to his lips, quickly glancing at Steve to check it was okay, and after a small nod from Steve, he kissed his knuckles. Steve’s heart thudded in his chest, in a way he hadn’t felt since he and Peggy had kissed all those years ago.
He had no idea what he was doing. Here they were, two hundred-something semi-stable old men out of their time, who’d found their way back to each other across the centuries, laughing and holding hands out in the open. They could do this now, Steve realised. They could do this properly. They could make a life together. Even get married. Family, stability, it was all within reach. He didn’t have to travel back to the past to find it.
“So. We gonna talk about…this?” Bucky asked, waving their joined hand in front of their faces as they walked away from Bruce and Sam toward a bench at the edge the lake. Just the sight of his hand holding Bucky's made Steve’s heart flutter like a hummingbird. They sat down, looking out at the water.
“I told you, Buck. I’m with you ‘til the end of the line. In whatever way you want me,” he said softly, looking over at him, rubbing his thumb over the back of his hand. Bucky had the most smitten look on his face, and Steve briefly wondered how long Bucky had felt this way about him, whether he’d missed all the signs, and that ache began to creep back in at the thought of Bucky having to hide his feelings from him. No, Steve thought to himself, there’s time enough to discover the details, to feel sad, to mourn lost time. Right now, all he wanted to bask in the glow of this newness, this hatchling relationship, tender and fragile and fought for and hard won.
Steve leaned in. So did Bucky.