There by the lake, with his back to you in utter repose, sat a man shrunken from age but whose shoulders hinted at an entire life story. From them, somehow, it seemed as though the weight of the world had been lifted.
If you hadn’t stepped closer, feet inching blindly toward the familiar stranger, you almost might have thought it was the scrawny kid from Brooklyn who was too plucky for his own good, before the serum, before everything. But there was a weathered quality to the man’s posture, speaking of trauma endured, of acceptance, and of a life fully lived.
With disbelieving eyes, you came to a stop next to Bucky. Side by side, you watched as he conversed with Sam, their voices too low for you to hear. You did nothing to stop the silent hot tears coursing down your cheeks.
Then, after an eternity, after the blink of an eye, Sam was slowly making his way back to you and Bucky, shield in hand. You stared at it in wonder—clean and intact, gleaming. Like new.
It was only when Sam was nearly in front of you that his pensive gaze came up to meet yours. For a moment, he remained unspeaking, sympathetic dark eyes searching for something in your expression.
“He wants to see you.”
“Me?” You gasped for air, only then realizing how labored your breathing was.
“What about Bucky?”
Sam’s gaze slid over to Bucky, and in it was a curious compassion that had never been aimed at the other man before. “Bucky’ll get his turn.”
You hesitated, hardly registering his response, your focus entirely ahead on the man by the water.
Then suddenly, a warm flesh hand came down on your back. “Go on,” Bucky told you, strange glint to his somber expression. “He’d never let me outta here without seeing him. I’ll get my turn.”
After further hushed encouragement, your feet were able to work again. With your throat closing in on itself, you slowly headed into the unknown.
His back remained to you as you neared, and he made no indication that he noticed your approach. It wasn’t until you were able to see a small portion of his profile that the air left your lungs entirely.
It was Steve, indeed, and he seemed nothing like the man you knew before.
In the same instant, he shifted his gaze to look right at you.
“Steve?” you whispered, pleaded.
His mouth tilted up in a tender smile, as if he was remembering a secret only you and he knew, and even in his old age, the overwhelming familiarity of that boyish grin echoed through your bones. “Hi, darling.”
He’d never called you that before. His voice, though more withered from old age, was the same as it ever was.
Your heart had come to a standstill. “What have you done?”
With a bittersweet smile he told you, “Everything.”
“Did you mean to do it?”
“To stay? Yeah, honey. I did.”
You were an empty vessel, a ghost. The plaintive words slipped from your weary lips in a mockery of the living. “Why? Why did you do this, Steve? How could you do this to us? Look at you…oh, Steve. What have you done?”
He patted the space beside him. “Come, sit. We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”
There was an eternity of absolute stillness. Then, very carefully, you sat beside him, feeling as though you were soon to wake from your dream.
“It’s beautiful out here,” he said, bottomless eyes still so blue trained ahead. “They really picked the right place, didn’t they?”
You could only watch as he spoke, in terrible fear that he might disappear at any second.
“As you get older, you really start to appreciate the peace and quiet more.”
It took tremendous effort to get your throat working again. “Steve…what happened?”
He turned to you then and again, he gave you that smile. “Life did.”
“And you lived there? Your whole life, with Peggy?”
He nodded. “I did.”
“How could you do this, Steve? Why would you do this? Were we not enough? Did you even think about us? Did you even care at all?”
“Of course I did. I thought about you all everyday.”
“Then why? How could you just leave us like that and all of a sudden come back like—like this? It’s been seconds for us, Steve. Seconds. And now you’re back and you’ve taken all the time we could’ve had with you and…what, are we supposed to pretend everything’s ok now? You stole our time with you away from us, Steve. You stole it.”
He shook his head. “I know what I’ve done. I know what I did to you guys.”
“Then why did you do it, Steve? Why?”
At that, his expression turned even more sober. The breeze whispered over the collar of his jacket. “I’ve always tried to be strong. My whole life, I ran toward the fight. I was always too stubborn for my own good, could never leave well enough alone. After everything, after we did what we set out to do, I suppose…well, I suppose I had finally grown tired of the fight.”
“You didn’t have to go. You could have stayed. You didn’t have to fight anymore. There was no more fight.”
“Oh, sweetheart. There’s always a fight.” His steady, solemn gaze was fixed on you. “I’ve had my fill of war. I’m not so strong anymore, as you can see. Not like you are.”
“No, I’ve never been strong,” you told him, eyes squeezed shut, though it did nothing to hinder the tears that fell. “I don’t know how to be strong. Not like you. Steve.” You broke down, his name escaping your lips as an anguished whimper.
“Shhh.” He coaxed your head down to his shoulder and his hand, the one now so foreign and yet so familiar, swept over your hair with gentle passes. The sobs spilling from your mouth wracked your entire body with desperate heaves.
“Shhh,” he whispered, just before his mouth came to rest on top of your hair. “You can’t let those tears be for me, sweetheart. Not after the life I’ve lived.”
“Steve,” you wept. You wept for him, for you, for all the things once taken from him and thought to be gone forever. For the life he’d grown to accept here in the present, never knowing there would later be one day, after great cost, another chance. You cried for his beautiful soul and all the good he deserved from the world, but still—still you wept for the life and love he’d gone on to experience.
All in the blink of an eye. All without you.
You wanted to hit him. You wanted to make him hurt. You wanted to hold him. You wanted him to come back, for none of this to have ever happened, for all things to be as they were before, when everyone knew what it was to smile without hurting, when he was still a man in his prime who had a whole life ahead of him in the here and now, who seemed at last to find peace in starting over.
“I am sorry, sweetheart,” he said. “More than you’ll ever know. My only hope is that one day, God willing, you might find it in your heart to forgive me, maybe even understand.”
“You were supposed to come back,” you cried. “Goddammit, Steve, you were supposed to come back.”
But in the blink of an eye, everything had changed yet again. You’d lost him forever. And now you were left to pick up the pieces.
“I’m so sorry.” He pressed a firm, lingering kiss to your hair. He was hurting too. “So sorry. Please forgive me.”
The quiet was filled only with the sound of your sobs.
“I lived a good life,” he tried to assure you. “You will too.”
“No, no, no,” you let out helplessly, shaking your head. “No, God, no, not without you.”
“Yes, honey, you will. Do you remember what I told everyone?” His soft chuckle ghosted over your hair. “Feels so long ago now, doesn’t it? I told everyone the best thing to do…was to move on. But I couldn’t even take my own advice. When I went back to return the stones, I saw I had the chance, and I…just took it.”
You wanted to scream at him for being so selfish, for all the people he’d left behind. But then, though it pierced your heart like the sharpest arrow, how could you ever blame him for that? He’d spent so long acting for the greater good, only giving in to the most human aspect of his humanity when it came to the people most important to him.
“Did you forget me?” you whispered, eyes burning at the mere thought. When he found a new life, when he found happiness, had he remembered you at all?
At this, he cupped your head and brought your gaze up to meet his. Fierce tenderness shone in his wise blue eyes. “How could I ever forget you? You showed me so much, my sweet girl. You showed me that life could be beautiful. That I was allowed to dream. You made an indelible mark on my heart, my darling, and it never went away. It never will.”
Taking your hand with his, the one where his gold wedding band shone, he rested it over his heart. “Can you feel that? It’s a heart so full from love and laughter and all the good things life has to offer. Things you’ll have too.”
You were helpless to keep from molding his cheek in your hand, the stark contrast in the two appearances causing a wrenching, profound ache deep in your chest. “You talk about change, Steve, but I don’t think you get it. You happened, Steve. You happened to me. You happened to all of us. I’m not the same person I was a couple years ago, and maybe that’s because of everything that’s…but—I know it’s also because I had the incredible fortune of knowing you. Of being stupid enough to fall in love.”
He wiped your persistent tears away with a gentle hand, sad smile on his lips. “Oh, honey. I know it seems like the end of the world. I know how much it hurts. But one day…even if it’s fifty years from now…one day, one day you’ll be ready to move on. It’s been a while for me, but I know it’s only been seconds for you. I’m not going to sit here and tell you you can’t mourn for me, for what could have been. But your ‘could have been’ can still happen with someone else.”
He slowly turned his head to study Bucky, who stood in vigilant silence not twenty feet away, watching the two of you with an unreadable expression, dip forming between his brows at the newfound attention.
“I saw how he used to look at you—still looks at you,” Steve murmured, contemplative gaze now cast to the ground, before turning back to you so his profile was still visible to Bucky. “You trust each other, you know each other. I see something there, even if you can’t yet. He would never say it, of course, knowing about you and me. But I’m pretty sure he can read my lips right now, and if that’s the case, he’ll be certain to see what I have to say next. That it’s not something he needs, but should he ever find himself wanting it…he has my blessing. You both do.”
You shook your head vehemently, completely thrown off, confounded that he could speak of such things. “What…I wouldn’t…I couldn’t…”
“I know you think that, sweetheart. I know you think there’s room for only one person in your heart right now, that anything else would be a betrayal. But even with Peggy…I loved her more than I knew it could ever be possible to love someone. I loved her more than life itself, but still, you were right there, no less special, no less meaningful. I told you I could never forget you. You continued living out here, but you also lived on in here. You never left, not for a second.” He gripped his chest where his heart thrummed to an unwavering tune underneath.
“We humans are capable of a great many things, including the capacity for love,” he went on. “And one day, when you decide you’re ready, you’ll find someone else to share that beautiful love with. Someone who will take your heart with all the care and respect it deserves and mend it.” He placed a hand to your heart. “As for me, I’ll be right here. Always.”
All of a sudden shy, you chanced a small look at Bucky, whose burning gaze penetrated you from across the distance. Steve’s voice brought your attention back to him.
“Take care of him for me. I know he’s a little better now, but that doesn’t mean he should be alone. After all, he’s been through hell and back. I got to live a full life, but he never got the chance. He stayed with me through thick and thin, gave me a shot when no one else would. The best pal a guy could ever ask for.” He met Bucky’s eye straight on as he spoke next. “He deserves it.”
For the thousandth time that day, your heart broke. “He won’t have you anymore. He suffered for so long, had no one in this world, and then he got you back, an old piece of him that told him things might be ok. And now…”
“He won’t be alone. He’ll have everyone else out there. He’ll have you.”
“We can’t be enough.”
Your brows knitted together in confusion. “Knew what?”
“Knew that I was going back. All the way back. We talked before I left to return the stones and the hammer. He knew, and he accepted it, because that’s the kind of friend he is. It wasn’t easy, but he gave me his blessing. And now, he’s just hoping that in time, he’ll be ok. It’ll all be ok.”
“You never even got to spend time together,” you said with deep sorrow.
“I’ve still got some years left in me, sweetheart. I’m not going away just yet.”
You wanted his words to be true. You wanted it desperately, more than you’d wanted anything before. “You don’t know that.”
His chuckle was subdued. “I suppose you’re right. None of us can really know, can we?”
“Are you here to stay? Are you…” Leaving me again?
He gave you a sad, tenderhearted smile. “No, sweetheart, I’m not going back. Peg passed years ago and our children are, well, no children any longer. They don’t need me anymore. No, I thought it was time I come back, see you all again, let you know I’m ok. And if I’m lucky, live out the rest of my days just like this.” He nodded toward the water. “At peace.”
“What are you going to do now? Where will you go?”
He peered out at the lake, the serene waters, at the colored bed of flowers that floated away in the distance. “This view’s something, isn’t it? It’s been a while since I’ve been here. I’m glad after everything, Tony was able to find some beauty in the simple things.” He remained quiet for a while. “I think I’ll get my own place by the water.” He jerked his head toward Bucky. “And you and he can come visit. Whenever you want. In fact, I’m counting on it. Can’t let an old man get too lonely, now can we?”
You lowered your gaze. “Things are different now, aren’t they? Nothing will ever be the same.”
“Things are always changing, sweetheart, whether you know it or not. The best we can do is learn how to live with it. Things certainly changed for me,” he mused, lost in thought. “I went from a man out of time to a man with more time than I ever imagined I would have. I got to live two lives.” He looked at you then, fathomless blue eyes sparkling with intent. “And I wouldn’t trade either one of ’em for anything.”
You looked out at the water. “Where do we go from here? Where could we possibly go from here?”
“Now?” He squeezed your hand. “Anywhere you want.”
You rested your head on his shoulder, clutched at his arm like it was your last lifeline. Across the distance, you spied the flowers floating atop the water in perfect harmony. “They should be here. They should both be here.”
“I missed them both like hell. I miss them still. They gave their lives for something bigger than any of us. They’re out there somewhere.” He nodded softly. “They know.”
It remained quiet for some time, no words exchanged between you as you sat there together, staring out at the water even as the sun began its steadfast descent, holding on to each other like each moment was your last. You sat there musing at the strange parallels, at how Steve had once watched Bucky die and it would one day be Bucky’s turn to do the same. You mused at how, after everything, Steve had become your Peggy. He had become your lost love.
This new world would know peace for some time, but not indefinitely. There would always be conflict, new and old, whether manmade or from high up among the stars.
You’d lost Steve for only seconds in your time, but with it, the entirety of his youth that once could have been yours.
But there he was again, now in the twilight of his life, with you.
You breathed in the fresh evening air, knowing nothing of what was to come, knowing only that someway, somehow, with infinity in his eyes, Steve Rogers had made his way back to another cherished home.
“Will you stay with me?” you later asked, voice so soft in the evening chill. You didn’t know what you were asking of him—if he would stay with you that night, if he would stay with you for as long as the two of you had.
Still, he answered.
“From here on out, my darling?” he replied, voice equally soft. “I’m here with you. Always.”