When Steve lurches awake, his heart is pounding in his chest. His shirt, soaked in sweat, clings damply to his skin. One fist is clutching the sheets of the bed, and the other is clenched so hard he can feel his fingernails making little half-moons in his palm.
The Stones. Dust drifting through the air, ash so thick you could choke on it. Five endless, aching years of white noise. His team. The lunacy of time travel, the mind-bending, fuse-blowing reality of hand-to-hand combat with himself. The bruise blooming across his cheek to serve as proof. A soft jazz song playing on a record, a crackling hearth, red lipstick. Death, death, death—
Beside him, Bucky shifts in his sleep, turns over so he's facing Steve. His eyes are closed and his mouth is parted, and Steve can see the dark shadow of his hair spread across the pillow like an ink-stain. Their bodies are so close to almost touching.
Natasha, dead. Tony, dead. The war-cry of a Wakandan soldier. Thor's eyes, hollow and unfocused; Thor's eyes, keen and electric-blue. The rush of battle, building like a scream in the throat, like a earthquake ripping its way out the body and into the earth. His own hands in front of him, wrinkled and liver-spotted. The gold glint of Bruce's glasses. Burned flesh, acrid and sooty.
Steve breathes in. He uncurls his fists. He breathes out.
He sits up in the bed and breathes in again, out again, in again, out. He is in bed. The war is over. Everyone is alright. He breathes and prays his heart stops racing. He looks at Bucky again and briefly considers sticking his finger in Bucky's open mouth for the hell of it. Or smoothing it over his brow, furrowed even in sleep. Or tracing the slope of his nose.
He blinks and then—a small, somber funeral; a flower garland drifting across water. The blackness of space, so deep you could stick your hands in it and have them come away stained. People pouring out of portals, opening up in the sky, orange sparks fizzing in the air. Elevators, heading downward; glass. Friends with no bodies to bury, falling down ravines and out of sight, on Earth, on Vormir. Dread, roiling sickly in the pit of his stomach.
He is in bed with Bucky. Bucky, who is alive. Bucky, who sleeps with his back to the door again these days, who sleeps with one hand under his cheek. They're in the spare bedroom in Sam's house. Sam, who is alive. Sam, who is asleep in the room next door. They won. They brought everyone back.
Downstairs, in the living room, Natasha is also alive. Natasha, who is sleeping on the pull-out couch because she didn't let Sam give up his own bed for the night. She is wearing a baggy commemorative shirt from a marathon Sam ran in 2013 as a nightdress. Her hair is probably still in the braid she'd stuck it in when she and Sam had cooked dinner earlier.
Clint had told them she was dead, that she had sacrificed herself for the Soul Stone. And she was; she had. They hadn't even had the time to mourn her, to do little more but recognize the body-shaped abyss she had left behind, to clutch desperately at the glowing amber stone she'd traded her life for and pray that it would be worth it. And then they had pulled themselves up and fixed things. And then Steve had pulled her out of Vormir when he'd gone to return the Soul Stone. A soul for a soul. A fair trade.
Bucky stirs next to him. His eyes flutter open. "Steve?"
Steve shakes his head, feels the flicker of a ghost of a vision in the depths of his mind. It isn't worth burdening anyone with. "Go back to sleep, Buck."
But Bucky is already sitting up and dragging a hand down the side of his face, already sliding easily into lucidity. Testament to the lingering effects of his training, Steve supposes. "What happened?"
Bucky is not an idiot. "I'm not an idiot," he says. "Nightmares?"
Steve's shoulders slump down. His heart is no longer racing; it just hurts. He nods. "Every time I try to sleep, I get these weird flashes. Of what happened, or what could have happened. I don’t know."
Bucky reaches out and settles his hand on Steve's shoulder, graces him with a shadowed smile that is small and sympathetic, that tugs at his lips and makes his eyes look extraordinarily sad in the dark of the bedroom. It is a smile that says he understands the residual panic left over from battle, the dogged insistence of grief tugging at the gut, the maddening process of sorting through true memories and made-up ones.
"That used to happen to me too," he says. "Especially just after they'd wiped my mind. It's terrifying not knowing what's real."
It isn't comforting. "I think the time travel fucked up something in my head," Steve says. "Some of the stuff I see actually happened. It's like I'm reliving it. But the rest of it..." He can hear his own voice waver. "I know it isn't real," he adds, defensive.
"So did I. But it felt real. Talk to me, Steve."
They are silent. Bucky's hand is still on Steve's bare shoulder, his thumb stroking softly over the skin there, real and grounding, slipping down to the spot where Steve's collarbone starts. His other hand rests in his own lap, the metal plates glinting in what little light streams through the blinds of the window. Moonlight maybe, or the light of street lamps. Steve's heartbeat speeds up a little again; it isn't because of terror, this time.
"I saw Nat dead," he says finally.
"Nat," Bucky says gently, "is asleep downstairs. You can go check if you want. You brought her back."
Steve knows this. He remembers the rush of quantum space screaming past the windows of his ship, remembers the gaunt red face of an old enemy, remembers the glow of the Stone when he'd opened up his palm and offered it back. He remembers waking up in water, Natasha's body laying next to him, face down. Her arms and legs askew and her suit stained with bright, fresh blood, as if she had died just then. Bile rising up in his throat. Reaching out a shaking hand to check her pulse, despite her being so clearly dead. Force of habit; she was gone after all. It had been in vain. And then Nat jerking to life, sputtering water and coughing up blood, chest heaving.
He remembers the journey back, the color flooding back into her pale cheeks, the crooked smile she'd given him after the shock wore off, the familiar propping-up of feet on the dashboard. He remembers the two of them heading to Sam's ("Just like old times," she'd grinned), remembers all the relieved tears, remembers the four of them settling into some semblance of normalcy over the span of a day. Remembers the phone calls letting the others know she'd come back after all, promising a meeting soon. Steve knows all this; it all happened just a few weeks ago. He even knows he said goodnight to Natasha himself when he'd headed to bed with Bucky that night, but it is unspeakably relieving to have it confirmed anyway.
He breathes. Thinks. Tries to sort things out in his brain.
"Tony was dead, too," he says. The words alone set his teeth on edge.
Bucky's hand tightens on Steve's shoulder. "Stark's alright. He's at his house, with his wife and kid."
"We were at his funeral." It had been such an unfairly beautiful day for a funeral, such an unfairly beautiful place. The sunlight gleaming brilliantly on the surface of the water, the crickets chirping merrily in the trees, the smell of hydrangeas in the warm air. For all the fame and fortune Tony had lived with for so many years, there were shockingly few people there; Pepper had sent out the handwritten invitations herself. He remembers Tony's daughter watching the bed of flowers float to the middle of the pond, her little face screwed up. Pepper standing tall at the very front, willowy and elegant, holding onto Rhodey as tears streamed down his cheeks. Feeling like they had reached the end of something big, even though he and Tony had never seen eye-to-eye. Never even really been friends, when it came down to it.
"There was no funeral," Bucky says. "There would have been one if he hadn't pulled through. But he did. He's healing."
"—is doing better," says Bucky. "He's with that lady with the pegasus. Barton's with his family. Banner's fine, too. Me and Sam and everyone who vanished are back. We're okay, pal."
They're okay. Steve breathes in, breathes out. Relief floods through him. It sinks in, finally, belatedly, that after a long five years—gray and bleak and lonely—this war is over. He'd missed Sam. He'd missed Bucky. He'd missed them so much he doesn't have the words to make sense of how much it had hurt: that dull, relentless panging that hadn't let up even once. Doesn't have the words to make sense of how many times he'd turned around to share a smile with Sam and been met with only empty space. Doesn't have the words to make sense of how devastatingly unfair it had felt to lose Bucky for what felt like the final time, to see his ashes slip through his fingers and scatter in the wind. Just when they had found each other again.
He doesn't have words to describe this, either. How good it feels to have everything back.
So he reaches out and hugs Bucky instead. It's a real, proper hug. The sort of hug he hasn't had for a long time, both his arms wrapped around Bucky, warm and solid. There is no chance of him turning to dust now, but Steve grips him tight anyway. Bucky leans into it immediately, melts, one hand on Steve's lower back, the other at the nape of Steve's neck, sliding into his hair, tugging just enough to feel pleasant. They are pressed so close together he can feel Bucky's heartbeat, can feel the rise and fall of his chest with each breath. They haven't done this properly in God-knows-how-long, and he's missed it so badly. He can feel the last of the tenseness in his shoulders ease up, the fraught haziness in his mind dissipate. There is a warmth tugging at his insides, anchoring his body to Bucky's.
It's the sort of hug that feels like forever. Like clinging to life itself.
Something about it, his sweat-soaked shirt and Bucky's hand bracing his back, reminds him vaguely of their long-ago childhood: Steve, always languishing, always ill. Bucky, always strong, always at his side.
Or no, maybe this picking apart, this dissection of the past reminds him of a few years ago, back when they had just reentered each other's lives: Bucky, newly himself again, asking hesitantly if a particular memory was real. Steve, trying his best to clear things up, careful not to sound pitying.
When they pull apart, Bucky takes Steve's hand in his, threads their fingers together, glances at Steve through his eyelashes, his gaze warm and heavy and comforting. Suddenly, it feels unbearably intimate there, the two of them alone in the dark, and Steve swallows hard. He hadn't forgotten this—can't forget it—but the reminder that Bucky can make his stomach drop with a simple touch, a simple look, is a thrill, even after all this time. It's hysterical that they still haven't put a name to it yet. Haven't gone beyong hugs and quiet looks and reaching out to each other, again and again, fingers slipping just out of reach. He grips Bucky's hand tighter.
Out on the street, through the window, Steve hears a car rush past. Sam's house is on a quiet street; he wonders who is in the car, where they're headed in the middle of the night. If they've been here these last five years, dully working through the motions of life, mourning their wife or husband or best friend the whole time. Or if they've just come back and are readjusting to being alive again. Picking up in an unfamiliar world that moved on and changed while they were dead. Gone. Out of time.
Steve blinks. Something about the thought feels significant, sparks something in the back of his mind. He catches a strain of brassy jazz music playing faintly from outside; or no, it is just in his head, just out of reach—
"Oh," he breathes, when he grasps at it. His stomach lurches sickly. "I just remembered another."
"In one nightmare—vision—dream—thing," Steve says, "I went to the past to return the Stones and I didn't come back."
"That one's not real either. You're here." Bucky snorts softly. Skims his thumb over Steve's knuckles. "Obviously."
"I know, I know. It's just... I missed the return point on purpose. I left everyone here and stayed behind with Peggy. The war was over and we got... We got married. Settled down. Had kids."
This nightmare-vision-dream-thing is the most unreal one in Steve's head; it is also the clearest. He'd named one of his children James. A boy with brown hair and warm, dark eyes.
Bucky's whole body goes stiff. He does not blink. He does not breathe.
"I grew old with her, lived through all the years you and I missed. It was beautiful, I think."
And it had been beautiful. He'd gotten that dance at the Stork Club, after all, and another dance, and another dance, and another. They were in love.
They lived in Washington D.C., for a while, and when S.H.I.E.L.D. had grown enough to be a fully-functioning agency without Peggy's omnipresence, they'd moved to upstate New York and gotten themselves a lovely house with big windows and a pear tree in the yard and music always crackling from the radio in the kitchen. Things were bright and golden. Peggy kept wearing her lipstick, kept leaving red stains on Steve's cheeks and throat and the sides of water glasses.
She worked overtime a lot, and Steve stayed with their children when she was away on S.H.I.E.L.D. business, pinned their drawings to the fridge, watched countless wars rage on halfway across the world. Watched people stand up for what they believed in. Watched people fight. Turned away from the television set and returned to his S.H.I.E.L.D. paperwork. Almost forgot about the enhanced blood running through his veins.
Later, when Peggy's hair started turning gray and his had begun to thin, Howard and Maria were assassinated. He swallowed down the bile and tried not to think of the glint of a cruel metal arm in their rearview mirror. He acted appropriately shocked. He didn't cry himself to sleep that night.
Their children grew up, got married, moved away. His hands grew gnarled and wrinkled, although no less strong. He and Peggy entered the new millennium together. He took up the pencil again and filled up fourteen leather-bound sketchbooks. They stayed in love.
In the end, she died, and he didn't. It had been a good, beautiful life.
Bucky stays frozen as Steve talks, but his eyes are pained. Then something shifts, and he fidgets on the bed, and all that is left is resignment. It all happens in a matter of seconds.
"You could do it, if you wanted to," he says. His hand slides out of Steve's. Steve's heart sinks.
They are silent. Outside, a bird—a nightgale?—sings softly in the dark. It's odd how noticeable the return of the birds have been, how loud the sounds of wings flapping and chirping coming from the trees seem after five years of radio silence. How alive.
His hand feels empty when it isn't curled around Bucky's, catching on cold air.
"I don't think she would have wanted things to work out that way,” Steve says finally, when Bucky doesn't speak. It isn't enough, but does where even he start to convey the sense of wrongness that fills his gut just thinking about it? The nausea that washes over him just considering it?
"I don't think so either," Bucky says.
"We weren't the same people as we were back then. Or, I wasn't," he amends. Yes, the dream had been beautiful, but it hadn't felt right: it had been a stolen life, when it came down to it. After all, hadn't Peggy told him time and time again to move on, every time he'd gone to see her before her passing? She'd had a good life without him; it was his turn to have a good life without her. You couldn't live, she said, with one foot constantly in the past.
And she was right. If he returned the way he was now, full of all the memories of everything he'd experienced in the 21st century, knowing all the movements that would be fought and all the tragedies that would come to fruition, watching it all unfold before his eyes and not saying a word wouldn't be right. And if he had gone under the ice in the forties, how could he go right back to being Captain America? He couldn't. Not before they found him again, decades later, and Steve knows himself, knows that there's no way in hell he'd willingly give up his life's purpose to spend his days cozy in his living room. No matter how much he loved—no, loves? would love?—Peggy and his unborn children.
Not to mention the haunting knowledge of his best friend being broken down and taken apart, sharpened into something deadly, passed around like a prized gun. Steve knows he can't know something like that and sit idly by all those long decades. Can't let it happen like that again.
He lets out a long, agitated breath, feels it hiss out from between his teeth. He thinks of Sam, Nat, the Avengers. Thinks of everyone who had stood at his side on that battlefield, fighting tooth-and-nail against the throes of Thanos's army. Thinks of Bucky. Thinks of dust motes dancing in the air. Thinks of reunions. Homecomings.
He knows where and with whom he belongs.
"I could tell that one wasn't real. I didn't want it to be real," Steve says. He needs Bucky to know that. "Because I would never do it. I have a life here. Responsibilities. People I care about. So much." He needs Bucky to understand who he's talking about.
Bucky looks at him for a long time and Steve can't make out his expression. Is that hope? Doubt? Resignation, still? He isn't sure. "But Peggy—"
"Happened years ago. And anyway," Steve adds, his voice going unintentionally soft. "You just got back, and I don't think I could stand to lose you. Again."
Bucky's mouth twitches in the ghost of a small smile. His shoulders relax a little so their bodies are touching again, and that's how Steve knows Bucky's gotten it. They're so bad at this. "How many times has it been now?"
"You can say that again."
Steve does not say it again. Instead, he takes Bucky's hand back in his and marvels at how well they fit together. He's going to be doing this more often, from now on; he's going to cling to him so hard the universe won't be able to pry them apart again. Bucky squeezes his fingers back, and when they look at each other, it is familiar and foreign, comforting and thrilling all at once. Steve thinks maybe soon they're going to put a name to whatever it is that exists between them. Not tonight, but soon. He thinks they owe it to each other, after all this time.
So he breathes. Thinks. Sorts things out in his brain.
Thanos is gone. They won. They won. The dead are back, flesh and soul made solid anew. His friends and family are all safe. The birds go on chirping, as if nothing had ever changed.
He brings Bucky's knuckles to his mouth and kisses them.
In the morning, the two of them will head downstairs. Sam and Natasha will have laid out breakfast—maybe waffles, maybe scrambled eggs, maybe something Russian, if Natasha's in that kind of mood. One of them will get a call from someone on the team and finally schedule a debriefing to go over the aftermath of their victory. (Everyone's been reluctant to leave their loved ones and get back to business, and Steve gets it. A brief respite is nice, after the magnitude of the war that's just ended.) Maybe Steve will press a kiss to Bucky's cheek at the table and turn red when Sam raises his eyebrows at them, when Natasha groans and says something along the lines of "Jesus Christ, it's about time." And maybe Bucky will smile so hard it'll make Steve's heartbeat trip over itself like it always does, and the sunlight coming in through the open windows will hit them in all the right spots and things will be good.
For now though, Steve lays back down on the bed, just soft enough to sink into and firm enough to actually sleep on. He curls an arm around Bucky's waist so their bodies are pressed close together, bracketing each other perfectly.
When he closes his eyes this time, he does not dream.