Steve's far away; he's taking his time. Reassembly was a cinching belt, a deep inhale. Thanos had beaten them, but not for good; a few hours and explanations later and they'd stepped back into the cosmic battle. No rest for the wicked. No rest for the dead. Thanos is dust now, Stark dead from the effort, and there's hundreds of casualties still to patch up.
That's all Bucky's done for the last four hours; it's all Steve's done, too. They haven't done it together. Occasional glances across the field, but nothing more than a smile exchanged.
There's guilt on Steve's face. Maybe he's moved on. Five years have passed.
Steve's taking his time.
"He talked to you yet?" Sam asks, stepping up behind him.
"Nope." Bucky's tying fabric to a woman's arm—a shrapnel laceration. They're lucky to have whittled it down to the more minor injuries by now.
"Me neither," says Sam. "Something's wrong."
Bucky straightens with a sigh, scanning the field for more wounded. "He's busy. So are we."
"Yeah, but you can take five minutes. He actually brushed me off. Grasp at the shoulder, 'Not now' as he passed. No hug hello, no happy you're alive, no good to see you after five damn years. He at least say hello to you?"
Bucky hadn't tried to get it out of him. It'd been one thing that Steve hadn't been in Wakanda to greet them; it'd been another that he'd seen Bucky and not approached. The message was clear.
"It's been five years, Wilson." Bucky looks him in the eye before walking away. "He's moved on."
"I don't buy it." Sam follows him. "You're gone seventy years and he doesn't rest until he's pulled you out of it, but you expect me to believe—"
"That was different."
"He hadn't lived that long alone."
"You're telling me this guy—"
"Look," Bucky says, turning in place. "I don't know what he's doing, because it's been five years. You saw him on the battlefield; whatever else has happened, Steve's the bona fide Earthbound god of thunder now. I don't know what's happened, but he's not who we knew. Not anymore."
Sam looks at Bucky like he's out of his mind. "You're just taking this at face value?"
"What other choice is there?"
"Sitting him down for a proper come-to-Jesus, for one. You look the part."
"Is that why you're badgering me? You want me to get to the bottom of this? 'Hey, Steve, long time no see, are you part-Thor now? Where were you when we got back? Were you busy, or don't you care?'"
"It's what he'd do."
"Only he didn't!" Bucky shrugs Sam off, half livid. "You think he's not sending a message, but I'm getting one loud and clear. I'm leaving him the fuck alone until he's ready to say his piece."
But Bucky doesn't. He finds a half-dozen people in need of his help and then, against his own volition, raises his head to find Steve in the crowd. He's still a battlefield away, one hand bunched at his hip, leaning on the hammer where it's resting on a rock. Steve Rogers, god of thunder. Bucky should've predicted this ninety years back.
Bucky sighs and steps forward. He woke up in 2018; he'll go to sleep in 2023. He's no stranger to this, more oriented than the others. Another spell in cryo, without the dry skin. It'd be naive to think Steve wouldn't have a limit, naive to think that he'd always wait. That there's no time that could force them apart. Bucky's thirty-something or a hundred and six; he knows better than that. Everything's fragile. Even their molecules fall apart.
Bucky closes the distance faster than he thinks, dread and distraction tugging at his perception. Steve turns to him as he steps near, flashing a smile; it's warm, familiar. Like it's any other day.
"Nice hammer," Bucky says, trying to intercept him from a distance. Steve reaches a hand, grasps at Bucky's shoulder—but it's a distancing gesture. Bucky should know. It was one of those things Bucky did all the time to show his affection when they were in public.
"Good to see you, Buck," Steve says, like Bucky hadn't spoken. A lingering thumb brushing at Bucky's neck and Steve's hand falls as he nods Bucky aside. "You got a second? I think we need to talk."
They walk away from the field in silence. Bucky wishes Steve would just cut to the chase, put him out of his misery; tell him all he needs to know and then leave him alone. Bucky's always half-planned for a life without Steve; always wondered what it'd be to pull them apart. There's always something, usually time. It's not like he hasn't prepared—not for this, but for something. At least this time they've both managed to survive.
"Buck," Steve says into the night—"I'm not yours."
Bucky nods, looking ahead. "Yeah," he says. "I figured that out."
A half-intact room blown out from the Compound, sitting in a parking lot: a wall and a half, a loveseat-sofa pair. Steve gestures for Bucky to sit and sits down across, setting Mjolnir on the asphalt by his foot. Bucky leans his elbows against his knees, wringing his hands, and waits.
"Y'know, ten years from now," Steve mutters, "Pym particles are everywhere." Bucky's head flies up in surprise, but Steve isn't looking; he's massaging his palm, face cast to the ground. "I don't know if it's a totally good thing or not. Now and then they come in handy. I tapped out my counterpart about halfway through that battle, for one."
"Borrowed a trick from a sorcerer friend, dropped him off upstate. He's not too happy with me." Steve gives Bucky a smile, and Bucky's heart skips a beat. The lines at his eyes carve deep through the dirt—a sign of time passed.
Steve isn't his, not anymore. If Bucky's hacked this right, it's been fifteen years. "I want to keep this quiet," Steve goes on. "We deserve a few years. I could never completely retire, you knew that about me. God knows we talked about it enough, but—"
"I don't—Steve, can you—"
"But there's always work to do, especially now. Everything that fell apart is back in the world—the good, the bad. We wipe out Hydra, Buck: you, me, the new Avengers. It takes a little while. They don't know I'm involved."
This is going too fast. "Steve… I need you to slow down. The Steve that belongs here… he's upstate, right now. Is that what you're saying?"
Steve nods, glancing at the sky. "He won't be too much longer. Squeals in here around dawn. You can talk to him when he gets here, but Bucky—I need your help to make this work. Someone's gonna have to replace the Infinity Stones where they're supposed to be in time. Have you been filled in on—"
"Yeah… mostly. We replace the stones to restore the timeline's integrity…?"
"Exactly. And I'm gonna volunteer. I'm better equipped to do this than him: I know how to fly a ship, I've got spaceworthy friends." Steve's hand twitches—an aborted gesture, about to reach out. "After I do it, Buck—I'm not coming back to this timeline. I'll turn up where I started from, ten years from now. If it all goes well, one day in 2033, you'll see me leave and come back in the same day having done the whole thing. And everyone here will think I've disappeared, because this Steve—your Steve—is about to go off the radar without anyone knowing but you."
"But... why? What's the point of all this, why the subterfuge, the secrets?"
At first, Steve doesn't answer. He stares askance, massaging his palm. "In the last ten years," he says quietly, "we haven't fought any aliens. We haven't had to. It's out of our domain now, it's not…" He shakes his head. "Without Nat, without Tony... The Avengers weren't the same. Those of us left, we never reassembled. We don't have a compound. Clint's back with his family, Thor's back in space; Bruce has a life of his own. He's a scholar again, building a life. The Avengers are a new generation, a new family: you and Sam, Wanda and Scott. It's what me and Nat always hoped to build in 2015, and it's what's right. With Sam behind the shield—"
"With Sam behind what now?"
Steve steeples his eyebrows. "Did you want it?"
Bucky sets his jaw. Not in a million years.
Steve smiles at him, warm and calm. He seems at peace; has a tranquil quality Bucky can't parse. A comfort, maybe; a contentment. "They'll move on better without me," Steve goes on. "No one will rise to their full potential if I'm still there. I never wanted Sam to live in my shadow. He's the one who's most pissed when he figures out who your 'contact' is, but he'll get over it."
"What… is this arrangement, exactly, what kind of contact—"
"I'm off the grid," Steve says with a shrug. "Between you and Nat, I learned a lot about infiltration. Hydra never sees me coming. You and me set 'em up, you and the others knock 'em down. You're the only one who knows where I am; we spend time together when we can, run missions in stages when we can't. It works for us. They figure it out eventually, but Bucky—for now, this has to stay between us. It's too fresh, I don't think they'll…" He shakes his head, sighing. "I don't like leaving things behind, but I think this is right. I do my duty, leave no thread hanging. Wrap this all up clean. I just do it in a different order than everyone thinks."
Bucky's eyes fall to Mjolnir, set by his foot. Whatever Steve does, it's worthy of something.
Feet shifting, rubbing his hands, Bucky raises his head and sighs. "Okay," he says. "What do you need me to do?"
Steve's smile is slow and broad. Bucky's smiling back before he catches himself. "He should be here in about twenty minutes," Steve says, checking his wrist, shrugging when nothing's there. When his hands come back together, Bucky sees he's not massaging his palm; he's massaging a finger on his left hand, a nodule under his glove. "Greet him here. Take your time, explain the situation, take a minute for yourselves. I'll cover for you with the others best I can. You should rejoin us alone when you're done; send him off to your old safehouse in Pennsylvania."
"How do you know about—"
But Steve's smile only grows. Goddamn time travel. Gets Bucky every time. "I have to stick around here a few days," Steve goes on. "Missing Tony's funeral will be hard for him, but you can comfort him with the knowledge he'll be here—just ten years late. You can't have two of us bumming around, it's best he gets out of the way." Steve glances over his shoulder, as though looking for the other Steve as he says it. "After I leave this timeline with the stones, it'll be safe for you to meet up with him again. You'll have to go back and forth a lot for a long time, but…" That spark of a smile in the corner of his mouth, those wrinkling eyes. Bucky can't wait to get to know him again. "It's worth it, Buck. I swear to you."
Bucky believes him.
It's been one hell of a day.
"Okay," Bucky says, shifting on a sigh. "I've spent a long time in one place, guess it's time for a change. What happens then, do we—"
God, if only Steve would stop looking at him like that. Their need for distance has made itself apparent: they're not each other's match. They have their own Steve, their own Bucky in the wings. "I might create a diversion," Steve says, getting to his feet, gesturing Bucky to sit as he moves to rise, too. "Something to convince them I'm gone for good. Banner made this machine by accident where time flows through you instead of the other way around, but…" He winces, turning Mjolnir over in his hand. "I dunno if I'm gonna commit. It seems kinda... But I guess it happened. Better do it again."
Bucky's lost the thread. "Okay."
Exhaustion must sound in his voice, because Steve looms over him, gentle and great. He tilts back Bucky's chin with a half-gloved knuckle, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. "Hanging in there?" he asks.
Bucky flashes a weak smile, warmed. "Tired," he admits. "Fought Thanos' army twice today. Also died and came back to life. You'd think I'd be used to that."
Steve's always smiling at him. He has been for years. Bucky can't get used to that, either.
"Won't steal the reunion," Steve mutters, dropping his hand. "He's pissed enough."
"I'll talk him down."
"Yeah, I know you will." Another fleeting smile. "Gonna keep some distance from you and Sam in the coming days; sorry about that. I'll think of something to tell Sam, do my best to seem young." He holds his hands out to his sides and backs away. "How do I look?"
Bucky doesn't say the thousand words that are flitting through his mind. "Same punk as ever," he offers instead.
Steve's smile broadens as he turns away, gesturing with Mjolnir toward the road. "With the sun," he promises; and as Bucky watches, he breaks into a jog, dropping only to a saunter when he's almost out of sight.
Alone, fires still crackling around him, Bucky tips his head back and closes his eyes. Respite between storms. He's been awake for nearly two days; far from a record, but tiring enough.
The distant roar of an engine rouses him again. The light's touching the horizon when Bucky opens his eyes. Steve's hotwired pickup tears into the lot, and Bucky groans to his feet as the truck screeches to a halt, engine cutting fast, lights dousing the lot back in darkness.
Bucky shambles into the strange, still moment. The driver's side opens; Steve swings out. His uniform torn, his body battered, the dirt and blood barely wiped from his face. Unmistakably Steve.
He throws the car door shut and looks at Bucky like he's a ghost.
"It's over," Bucky tells him, hands splayed. "Thanos is dead, his army too. I know you're pissed, but I talked to other-Steve. He's got an idea to cut you a break, which I kinda like, given how I hear your last five years have been. All we have to do is get through the next few days—"
Bucky's sentence cuts off as Steve surges forward to meet him. He's a tangle of limbs, hands grasping, breath haggard as their brows meet. Steve's fingers stay wrenched against Bucky's chest, bent and bracing, nose pressing flush alongside his—taking Bucky in.
Now it's Bucky's turn to smile. This was what he'd been waiting for; nothing's been lost. Five years passed and Steve wants him just the same.
"Hi," Bucky murmurs, pulling him close.
"Bucky." Steve's voice, coarse and worn. Longing. Relief. His hands move to Bucky's face as though feeling him there. Making sure he's real. "It worked," Steve whispers, fingertips at his neck. He puts a thumb at his lips. "Bucky, it—you're...?"
Bucky's smile overtakes him, his throat locking up. He leans in to offer the best answer he can. Steve's mouth is filthy; Bucky's is, too, but they've never cared a thing about that. "Aren't I always telling you not to do these stupid things?" he mutters, pulling his fingers through Steve's hair. "Collecting Infinity Stones, inventing time travel, I mean, Jesus, Rogers. Every time I come back there's some fresh hell to reckon with—"
Steve coughs a laugh without remorse, pulling him close until there's no space between them. "Just keep coming back," Steve murmurs against him. "Better yet, don't leave at all. Would you think about that? How about we stop getting pulled into these damn wars and just—"
"I think we can figure something out," Bucky says, when Steve's voice cuts out; and as they sway together in the coming dawn, for the first time in years, everything they want finally feels within reach.