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when we came home

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Eight seconds after disappearing, Steve reappears on the platform.

Banner laughs in relief as the machinery powers down with an audible whirr. Sam steps up onto the platform to clap Steve on the back. "How did it go?"

Bucky stays back, just watching Steve with his arms still crossed over his chest. Steve turn his head towards Sam. He smiles and drops a hand on Sam's shoulder, nodding.

"Everything back where it needs to be?"

Steve touches his utility belt where the three canisters of Pym particles are now all half empty. "It's done," he says.

Bucky finds himself swallowing against a sob clenching his throat tight, the angry prick of tears threatening to break his expression. He'd thought--

Steve steps off the platform, pulling out the canisters and handing them over to Bruce. Bucky has to turn away and clench his fingers into his arms, tilt his chin down so his hair falls across his face. He tries to calm his own breathing but his throat won't loosen, won't give in without forcing a shuddering breath. His vision blurs, this traitorous body of his.

Someone puts their hand on his shoulder. Bucky doesn't need to look to recognize the familiar curl of fingers against the back of his neck, Steve's solid presence smelling faintly of wind-blown static and cigarette smoke. A brand that his old handler used to smoke, back when Bucky had been a weapon in the Cold War. He clings to the memory of the scent, measures his breathing, and furiously tries not to let on that he's crying.

"Hey Buck." Steve's voice sounds simultaneously like he's standing right next to Bucky and a million miles away. Bucky shuts his eyes. He'd thought--

"Let's go home," Steve says and it's the best thing Bucky's ever heard.

_____

Steve's two bedroom out in Red Hook is on the fourth floor with an attached generator on the roof. He'd installed it initially because the electricity was spotty in the year after the snap as Brooklyn slowly consolidated westward. They'd turned off entire swathes of the power grid. The first two years were the roughest, Steve had told Bucky on the long drive back from upstate New York where Tony's funeral had been held. Only enough police to patrol the gentrified parts of Brooklyn while gangs gathered territory in the power vacuums left behind by the snap. They'd eventually reached an equilibrium too.

It's nearing midnight by the time they reach Steve's apartment so they have to climb the stairs in the dark. Bucky keeps a hand on the railing, while Steve navigates by the flashlight on his phone. "They're probably trying to figure out how to power the whole city now," Steve says, fishing in his pocket for keys, "I'll get some more gas for the generator tomorrow if there hasn't been a run on gas already."

Bucky feels his lips twitch into a wry smile. "Better or worse than the thirties?"

"Guess we'll find out," Steve says, pushing his door open and stepping in. Bucky pauses on the threshold, fingers rubbing against the rough strap of his duffel bag.

Steve straightens from where he'd bent down to drop his bag and unlace his boots. There is enough moonlight from the tall windows across the living room that his profile is silhouetted, standing in the middle of the room while he takes off his gloves. Bucky keeps his eyes on Steve's face as he takes a hesitant step into the apartment.

"Close the door, Buck," Steve says, dropping the gloves onto a side table and stepping towards the kitchen. "You hungry? Probably shouldn't eat anything in the fridge but I've probably got some canned soup somewhere."

"I'm okay," Bucky says.

"Sure?" Steve asks. He turns a knob on the stove and it clicks a few times before Bucky sees the faint blue outline of a flame. Steve flicks it off again before opening one of the cupboards. "I'm starving."

"If you're eating," Bucky amends. Steve hums in approval and puts three cans on the counter before turning towards Bucky.

"Come on," he says, "I'll show you to your room."

Bucky lets him walk a few steps down the side hallway before following.

"It's real plain," Steve says, "I didn't really decorate it. Hell, I didn't really decorate any of this, you know--" He gestures to the bare walls of the hallway before opening a door to a linen closet. "Didn't really think it was, uh, permanent." He grabs a towel from one of the shelves and hands it to Bucky before opening a second door.

"Bathroom's the next door down if you don't mind showering in the dark." Steve looks at him and Bucky finds that he can't quite meet his eyes. He busies himself with shifting his grip on his duffel bag, moving the towel from one hand to the other. The silence stretches uncomfortably until a muffled ambulance siren wails down the street outside before quickly receding.

"Not quite the same as Wakanda," Steve says at the same time that Bucky steps into the doorway to move past him and says, "Thanks Steve." Steve is quiet again, but Bucky has spent too long looking at him not to read the tension in his shoulders, the way his weight is shifted onto the balls of his feet in anticipation of something. Maybe what Bucky is telegraphing himself. He'd been half dreading this moment ever since climbing into the car with Steve from Stark's lakehouse.

"Just take me a week to find my own place," Bucky says, "Maybe two since I have a feeling lots of people are looking right now. Then I'll be out of your hair."

"Wish you wouldn't," Steve says, so quietly that Bucky isn't quite sure he'd heard him. Steve clears his throat and lifts his chin, looking Bucky in the face. "I'd really like you to stay. Here." He swallows and Bucky is briefly captivated by the nervous movement. "I mean, if you want to."

It was never a choice, really. The decision had already been made for Bucky long ago, the first time he couldn't help but follow Steve into a schoolyard fight, alleyway, battlefield.

"That'd be nice," Bucky says and drops his bag onto the bedroom floor.

_____

"My sister sold my house," Sam tells them over a cup of coffee in a diner that was miraculously somehow still running somewhere in midtown.

The subway was working too, even if they had to wait nearly half an hour for the F train and subsequently squeeze into an already overstuffed car. But given that half of Brooklyn didn't have any running water at the moment, Bucky's willing to chalk up being able to even get onto Manhattan a win.

"I don't blame her," Sam continues, dumping another packet of sugar into his coffee, "I mean everyone thought we were dead for five years. I got an actual human being from the bank on the phone yesterday and they told me that it's going to take at least three years before they get to my case."

"Anyone actually living there?" Steve asks. Bucky keeps his head down, pushing his toast through the remainders of egg yolk on his plate.

"A couple and their toddler," Sam says, sounding resigned. "Not like I can just kick them out. And my sister sold it to them anyway, it's not like they stole the place."

"Sounds like you're looking for a new neighborhood," Steve says. Under the table he shifts so that his knee presses against Bucky's thigh, a comfortable weight. Bucky chews his toast and doesn't move, not wanting to risk Steve moving away. It's almost sad, the way that Bucky will take anything Steve gives him. He doesn't like to think about it.

"You gonna make an argument for Brooklyn?" Sam asks, "You know the rations are coming right? It's just a matter of time."

"Nothing we're not used to, right Buck?" Steve nudges his elbow. Bucky looks at Sam over the top of his coffee mug and makes a noise of assent.

"Don't worry," Sam says, "I haven't forgotten how ancient you two are."

Steve snorts. Bucky rolls his eyes and drains the last of his coffee.

"I'll think about it," Sam says.

_____

We can't just sit around, Steve said. Which is how Bucky finds himself carting rations from Fort Hamilton to Crown Heights in a beat up van that was probably older than Sam.

It's not really a surprise when the van breaks down in Kensington, barely five blocks from Prospect Park. The distribution point is on the northeast side though, near the subway stops and even the two of them can't haul twenty pallets of bottled water by hand, much less the other non-perishables that'd been delivered in hundred pound crates.

"We could get out and push," Steve suggests after trying to restart the damn thing for the third time to no avail. It'd been dying slowly over the last week and the garage that had lent it for the recovery efforts had been stalling its inevitable demise from the very first time the check engine light had appeared.

"I'll text Sam and see if he's around. He's good at this machinery stuff, isn't he?" Bucky suggests instead, turning on the hazard lights. Steve sighs and gets out of the car. Bucky taps out a brief message to Sam and looks at the back of Steve's head as he leans against the car door. A moment later, Steve lifts his phone to his ear, head tipping back against the window.

Bucky can't stop himself from looking at Steve. He has an irrational hunger for it, like he's somehow afraid that if he stops looking he'll wake up and find a reality where Steve has left him behind. Steve's caught him at it more than once and Bucky had only looked away quickly, embarrassed by the quizzical smile that crosses Steve's face each time.

Bucky can't hear the words that Steve is saying but he catches the way that he gestures at the street in a useless motion, the muffled tones of a question, then the low volume of resignation. He runs a hand through his hair before turning back around and opening the car door again.

"They said they'd send someone to tow this over," Steve says, "What'd Sam say?"

"Hasn't texted back yet," Bucky says, tilting his phone screen towards Steve. He wets his lips and looks out his own window at the rearview mirror. At least there were fewer cars on the road these days.

"Come on," Steve says, leaning in to pull the keys from ignition. "We're close enough to the hospital. Might as well as make a trip and see if they need any help."

_____

It's not exactly an unfounded fear. After Stark's funeral, Steve had slipped away into the woods without telling anyone. Bucky had only debated a moment before going after him.

It was louder out here among the trees with dead leaves and pine needles crunching with every step. Too many birds calling out to each other in the trees, flitting from branch to branch. There was only one path through the trees and it lead to Steve sitting at the edge of the lake, on an old sun beaten log.

Bucky didn't bother to hide the sound of his approach. Steve closed his hand around something as Bucky approached and it didn't take a genius to figure out he was looking at his compass.

Bucky picked up a stone and threw it at the lake. It skipped twice before sinking.

"She was a hell of a woman wasn't she?" Bucky said. He turned rocks over with the toe of his boots, half in effort to find a flat one but mostly just to distract himself.

Steve let out a breath through his nose.

"You miss her, don't you?" Bucky asked because he didn't know what else to say.

"I do," Steve said.

Bucky found another stone and weighed it in his hand. Steve watched him as he hefted it across the surface of the lake. This time it only skipped once. They both looked as the last of the ripples flickered out of existence.

"I wish things were different, pal," Bucky heard himself say. It was easier to pretend than to give in to the hurt.

Steve didn't say anything for a long time. Bucky shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, looking out over the lake. Then Steve finally said, "Me too."

_____

Summer is coming. Bucky misses his Wakandan clothing. Here he only has the remnants of his old tactical clothing and pieces of his winter clothing when he'd been on the run in eastern Europe. He'd torn the sleeves off a threadbare shirt but it still gets hot trying to patch up drywall in his combat pants, dust getting everywhere. But he supposed that this was better than what he and Steve had been doing the day before: clearing overgrown vines out from doors and windows of abandoned buildings in Flatbush. The sun had been relentless.

"Left a bit," Steve directs, pushing his own side of the drywall left as well. Bucky obliges and keeps it still while Steve starts to drill.

"You never told me about your trip to space," Bucky says in between the drill running, holding out new screws for Steve to take.

"Nauseating," Steve says after the next screw is in, "I almost threw up on the way up. Nat handled it way better than I did." He takes another screw from Bucky and drills again, squatting to get the right angle. Then he says, "Also, amazing."

"Better or worse than jumping out of planes?"

"Mmm. Faster," Steve looks up at Bucky and grins. He has a streak of drywall dust across his left eyebrow where he must have absently pushed at the fringe of his hair. Bucky pushes down hard on the sudden swell of affection. He mechanically holds out another screw.

Steve takes it and finishes drilling near the floor before getting back to his feet and holding the power drill out so that Bucky can do his side. Bucky takes it.

"Maybe we can go together next time," Steve says, "If you want."

Once Bucky would have jumped at the prospect. Now he's not so sure about being trapped inside a metal container for that long. "Maybe," he says.

_____

It was one of the first things that came back: the way that he felt about Steve. It came back before any vague recollection of the things that he'd done, before he could remember that he had any preferences for food or otherwise, long before the faces of his handlers or even his own family. It came back practically an eternity before he could even attach any names to people or places.

He'd gone to the Smithsonian and looked at this man, not fully understanding the way his chest felt too small in that moment. He'd collected photographs and pictures, trying his best to wrap his pitifully frayed mind around the depth of the emotion, both fascinated and terrified by the way his memory coalesced around this man. The bitter smell of medicine when he wandered through the marketplace would turn his stomach with a strange sort of longing. A certain way that the sunset would hit the sides of buildings in Bucharest would suddenly bring him back to evenings walking home from work, to where someone was waiting for him.

It wouldn't be until later that Bucky understood why the feeling was always accompanied by a certain level of fear. Not until months later when he understood that no one else could know, least of all Steve himself. That he wasn't supposed to even be having these feelings in the first place. It was another part of him that had been corrupted, just like the rest.

_____

Two and a half weeks after the repopulation happens, Steve gets a manila folder in the mail without a return address. Bucky finds him sitting at the island counter, holding the papers up to catch the last rays of the sunlight through the open windows of the living room. The electricity hadn't been on since the moment they'd stepped into the apartment late that afternoon and gasoline for the generator had just been added to the long list of items that would have to be rationed for the foreseeable future.

"Who's it from?" Bucky asks, wringing the ends of his wet hair with a towel.

Steve shakes his head and holds out the paper. Bucky picks it up and reads in the fading light: I, Natasha Romanoff, declare this to be my Will and I revoke any and all wills and codicils I previously made.

Bucky looks back at Steve who's slowly flipping through the pages, stopping only when he finds a page that has been hastily highlighted, neon yellow slashing across the page. He tentatively sets his hand at the back of Steve's neck, leaning over his shoulder. But Steve's fingers curl into the page, hand trembling minutely and Bucky can't read a word.

He leans into Bucky and lets out a long shaky breath. Bucky drops his chin onto the side of Steve's head, nose in Steve's dusty hair. He pulls Steve close.

"She wants me to take care of her cat," Steve says thickly, "I'm the only person her cat has ever purred at."

Bucky rubs his thumb against the back of Steve's neck, pressing a closed-mouth kiss to the side of his head.

"I've only ever gone to her apartment once and her cat came up to me." Steve sounds like he's hurriedly forcing the words out. "Nat said she never did that for anyone else, not even Clint. She usually just hid under the couch."

Slowly, Steve eases his hold on the paper. He tucks his face into the side of Bucky's neck and wraps his arms around Bucky's waist, pulling him closer. Bucky lets him, wrapping his other arm around Steve's shoulder.

He watches the shadows outside lengthen and the streets darken. He doesn't let Steve go.

____

The old woman who has Natasha's cat lives out in Brighton Beach and doesn't speak a single word of English. Bucky's Russian is rusty but serviceable as she deposits the grey tabby into Steve's arms.

"You're lucky you came in time," she tells Bucky in Russian, "I was about to send her to the pound. Natalia owes me an extra two weeks. And with the rations now too! I barely have enough to feed myself."

"Natalia's dead," Bucky tells her bluntly.

"Hey Liho," Steve says to the cat who twists in his arms, trying to wriggle away. Steve readjusts his hold on her, putting her head over his shoulder. She stills after a few moments and starts to purr.

"Natalia's dead?" the woman repeats, bewildered.

"How much do we owe you?" Bucky asks, reaching into his pocket for his wallet.

"Never mind that," she says, waving his money away, "Here. Wait a moment." She steps back into her apartment, leaving the front door open.

"What's happening?" Steve asks.

"I don't know," Bucky says. A black cat wanders past the open door, pausing among the shoes collected in the entryway and looks at them. It meows and Liho stirs again, wiggling.

"Here," the woman says, suddenly reappearing with a wooden box, "You are Clint Barton?"

Bucky shakes his head.

"Nicholas Fury?" she asks, "Steven Rogers?"

"He's Steve," Bucky says, pointing.

"Take this then," she says, holding the box out at him.

"It's Natalia's?"

"I have never looked inside," the woman says, "I was only told to keep it safe until she asked for it back or until she died."

Bucky takes it and looks at Steve. Steve just nods so Bucky tucks the box under his arm and opens his wallet again. "How much do we owe?"

"Natalia was a good woman," she tells both of them, though Steve can't understand. She pauses a moment, licks her lips and says in English, "Good woman."

"Yeah," Steve says, "She was."

_____

Bucky discovers two things about Liho very quickly: first that she meows piteously for food whenever they have dinner, even if she had just finished eating her own food. And second that she was impossible to move from where she'd made her bed in Bucky's laundry basket. Any attempt only encouraged her to sink her claws into the nearest object and after Bucky had experienced this a few times in his flesh arm and in the only pair of pants he owned, Bucky was loathe to try again.

"She's getting settled in," Steve says, a little too fondly like Liho was just a kitten instead of the five-year old terror Bucky was pretty sure she actually was. "We can get you a new pair of pants. You can borrow mine for now."

This is how Bucky finds himself wearing Steve's clothes as they fix the roof of a house somewhere in Bed-Stuy. Steve's shirts are too tight around the shoulders and he manages to rip the seam of Steve's left sleeve when reaching above his head to steady a corner shingle that Steve was stapling down with the nail gun.

Steve pauses, staring down at Bucky. Bucky stares resolutely back. Steve's lips twitch and Bucky sighs in response. A moment later, they are both howling with laughter, Bucky clutching at the side of a window in effort not to fall off the ladder.

"You asshole," Bucky tells Steve who's still laughing, "Did you give me your smallest shirt on purpose?"

"Fuck off," Steve says in between laughter, "All my shirts are the same size."

"Do you wear these on purpose?" Bucky demands, shrugging his metal arm in a fluid motion that rips a good portion of the remaining seam. Steve reaches down and tears the rest of it off.

"You owe me a shirt," Steve says serenely, "Or if you don't have a shirt, I'll also take your leather jacket."

"In your dreams, Rogers," Bucky says, heaving himself onto the roof to steal the nail gun.

Steve's reply is an infectious grin that Bucky can't help but return. It'd been a long time since he'd seen Steve smile like that, he realizes. He wants to make Steve smile more.

_____

"You never told us anything about putting the stones back," Sam says over beers on the roof of Steve's apartment. Steve had found a grill from somewhere and he's flipping burgers. Four frozen patties made up their entire week's ration of meat but they'd wordlessly agreed that they'd cook them when Sam came over.

"Not much to say," Steve says. Bucky leans against the fire escape railing, turning his head to look at Steve. In the distance, Bucky can make out the edge of the bay. Below them, two kids are playing on the sidewalk. A neighbor across the street has her window open and is practicing for an opera. She's been singing the same song for the last three days. Strange that the world is in such uproar and someone is still practicing for an opera.

"Come on," Sam says, "There's no way you don't have any stories to tell."

"I almost got caught in Asgard," Steve says, "Ran into Thor's mom. He must have run into her already because she helped me put the stone back."

"Details, man," Sam insists, handing him a bun on a plate.

"I guess the stone was possessing Thor's girlfriend. Jane, I think was her name? The physicist." Steve slides one of the burgers on the bun that Sam's holding out. "I had to stick her with a vial while she was sleeping. Didn't feel great. Not my best moment."

Sam holds out the burger towards Bucky. Bucky takes it.

"I tried to get Nat back," Steve says, prying open a bun for the second burger. "Argued with the guardian for a long time. He kept saying that all exchanges were final, that we couldn't get anything back for putting it back." He slides a cooked burger onto the second bun and hands it off to Sam. "His voice sounded familiar but I couldn't get a good look at his face. He had this huge hood that he wouldn't take off."

Bucky opens the cooler to find some ketchup, watching Steve out of the corner of his eye. Sam silently takes the second burger.

"Not a lot to tell," Steve concludes with a tight smile.

_____

"You know, I saw her," Steve says later, when it's just him and Bucky washing dishes. The electricity is on tonight so the whole kitchen is lit up. It's strange but Bucky actually prefers the candles. Maybe it's nostalgia. Maybe, he thinks, it's easier for Steve to be with him in the dark, where he can just be a presence instead of a reminder.

"I saw her the first time we went back, when we were trying to get the stones," Steve says, handing Bucky another plate to dry. Bucky knows just by the tone of Steve's voice that there's only one her that Steve could be talking about and it's not Natasha.

"Just for a minute, when I accidentally hid in her office," Steve continues, "I was terrified of the thought of running into her again, the second time."

Bucky doesn't know what to say. He doesn't know what to do with his body--whether to step closer to Steve or to move away. Did he need comfort or space? The old Bucky would have known, he was sure.

"I didn't, though," Steve says, shutting off the sink. He hands Bucky the last of the plates and Bucky can't help himself--he reaches out and grasps Steve's wrist. Steve looks up at him, stilling.

"I'm sorry," Bucky says hoarsely, though he's not sure why. He's not sorry for the fact that Steve is here with him. He's not sorry that Steve came back, no matter how selfish that makes him. But he hates the haunted look that Steve wears sometimes, when he thinks nobody is looking. He hates that Steve had been wrestling with demons on his own for the last five, ten, seventy years. After all, Bucky played a role in that.

Steve smiles faintly and steps closer. Bucky has to hold himself physically still, to not to take this for the invitation it wasn't. "Don't be," Steve says putting his own hand over Bucky's, the corner of his mouth tilting up wryly. The sweep of his eyelashes, the unearned redemption freely offered--Bucky wants to lean in and run away all at once.

"I know how much she meant to you," Bucky says, because this is dangerous territory and he's never been as reckless as Steve.

"Yeah," Steve says, lifting his hand from the back of Bucky's to take the plate and set it on the counter. His smile dims a little as he looks away, contemplative. "I hope that in some other timeline or some other universe, I might have been able to be with her."

"You could have," Bucky starts, moving his hand away from Steve's wrist.

"No," Steve says, interrupting. "I don't think so."

After a moment, Bucky says, "You would have changed the timeline too much."

"Yeah," Steve agrees after a moment, not looking at Bucky, "I guess so."

_____

Liho chews holes in Bucky's socks. He's given up trying to put his laundry out of reach--Liho manages to climb onto every shelf into the entire house, even somehow managing to get past closed doors. Bucky swears he's seen her get up on her hind legs to open doors--not that he'd expect anything less from Natasha's cat. Steve won't hear of replacing the door handles with knobs so Bucky's fairly sure that Liho has managed to brainwash him.

It also means that Bucky has to borrow more of Steve's clothes. Tentative plans to shop for clothes keep getting pushed back by one reason or another. But Steve's got more than enough clothes to spare. Companies had flooded him with clothing in hopes that he'd wear their brands in public, Steve tells him guiltily.

Bucky tries to be considerate--he really does. But he can't help himself from stealing the fraying shirts and the soft sweatpants that he knows Steve's worn for the longest, like somehow Steve has imparted presence onto them. Like some part of him feels closer to Steve by wearing his old clothes.

Steve, to his credit, doesn't say anything at all.

_____

Bucky thinks that maybe it would have been easier if he'd been left a blank slate. It's hard to remember who he had been--the Bucky that had been Steve's best friend, loud and unafraid--and think about who he's become now: a man with nothing to say after ruining so many good things, scared of people looking at him a moment too long and recognizing the blood on his hands. Steve deserved better than this--he deserved the smiling version of his best friend back and not this hollow ghost who had appeared in his stead.

It'd been easier if he could exist without knowing who Steve was. He wouldn't have to give up knowing the joy of being near Steve again, the certainty of watching his back and keeping him safe. He'd somehow managed to do it before. But now Steve had looked him in the eye and asked him to stay.

Bucky doesn't know why. Maybe Steve is waiting for the old him to come back. It'll be a disappointment when Steve finds out that the old Bucky is dead. But until then, Bucky will hold tight to this miracle of a gift until he runs out of time.

_____

Barton agrees to meet them in Philadelphia, midway between New York City and Barton's farm way out in rural Pennsylvania. The trains running between New York and Philadelphia have been condensed to once every four hours to conserve fuel. Bucky spends the two hour trip wedged between Steve on his right and a young family with a stroller on his left. He'd given up his seat for a teenage girl on crutches and Steve had given up his for the mother who was accompanying her.

Steve had been recognized the moment he'd stepped onto the train, even in civilian clothing and with the scruff he'd built up over the last few weeks. No one outright approached him but there were a few too many phones pointed at him for surreptitious photos, few too many stares. Steve doesn't seem to pay them any attention. He keeps his eyes down or on Bucky's face as they talk quietly about the project up in Bushwick, if Steve had racked up enough hours mucking around in sewage to be considered a plumber at this point, the plans for next week when Steve would work security for the food van going into Brownsville. And all the while, Bucky is half plastered to Steve's side, the solid heat of him and the scent of his shampoo.

Bucky tries not to look at Steve's mouth or lean into him too much. He tries not to want too much.

Barton is waiting for them at the train station, grey truck double parked near a poster advertising Scranton as the perfect place to restart your life now that life has moved on without you. They find Barton leaning against the driver side door, studying the photo of picaresque hills.

"A bit blunt, don't you think?" Barton asks, gesturing at the poster. His eyes fall on the paper wrapped box Steve has tucked under his arm. "Is that it?"

Steve unwraps it and holds it out. Barton takes it, holding it with both hands. All three of them look down at it silently, broken only by the sound of the rail below and the faint rumble of bus engines.

"I didn't open it," Steve says, "I thought--since you knew her best."

"I don't know if I was the one who knew her best," Barton says, "You know, she was someone who showed you what she wanted you to see."

"She was human," Steve says, "She was honest when it really mattered."

Barton holds the box out toward him, not saying anything. Steve seems to understand because he reaches out and lifts the latch, opening it. He pulls out a piece of paper and unfolds it before reading out loud.

"If you have this box, then I am dead. I don't want it to fall into the wrong hands and have innocent people targeted for the sole misfortune of having once been in my life. Please destroy these documents. With love, Natasha."

Bucky pushes his hands into the pockets of his jacket, looking down at the sidewalk as Barton sets the box on the hood of his truck. He feels like he's intruding on this moment seeing as the only real memory he had of Natasha was through a sniper scope in Odessa.

"These are the originals?" Bucky hears Steve ask.

"She wouldn't have asked us to destroy this box if it was an alias," Barton replies.

Steve takes a deep breath. Bucky looks up to see Steve pulling photographs out of a Russian passport. He goes through a few of them before looking up at Barton. "I want to take these."

"I don't think she'd object." Barton says, taking one of them out of Steve's hand and looking at it. He swallows. "God, we were so young."

"I wish they had her in them," Steve says.

Barton wipes at his eyes with a quick motion, nodding. After a moment he says, "I'll cremate the box."

"There's a lake upstate," Steve says, "We sometimes went when it was slow."

"I've been there," Clint says.

"Do you think she'd want to be scattered there?"

Clint rubs a hand over his face, letting out a shaky exhale. He eventually says, "I'll take care of it."

"Will you let me know when you go?" Steve asks, "I'd like to come."

Barton closes the box. "Yeah Steve," he says, "Of course."

_____

"You know, she was my only friend for the last five years," Steve tells Bucky on the train ride back. There are fewer people on this train meaning that they actually have seats for the two hour trip. Steve slept all the way to Newark, leaning on Bucky the whole time while Bucky kept still and watched New Jersey pass by, hat low on his face.

"I told you about my support group but she--you know, Nat was the only person who really understood," Steve says quietly, watching the skyline of lower Manhattan pass into view. Bucky closes his hand around Steve's, squeezing lightly. Steve curls his fingers around Bucky's, eyes still tracking the skyline outside.

"She didn't always spend so much time at the compound. Those first two years, we got lunch every Friday. She'd tell me what new fires the team was putting out. I'd tell her about what was going on in Brooklyn, how the hospitals were coping, that sort of thing." Steve's voice gets so soft that Bucky has to lean in to hear him. "She'd always ask if I wanted to suit up. Get my shield and start doing missions again. I did for a while, but then I stopped. It felt small. Like nothing we did really mattered."

The train rounded a corner and Bucky was met with his own reflection as it moved into a dark tunnel. Steve turned his head so that he was facing Bucky, their foreheads nearly touching.

"She never lost sight of it," Steve says, "The big picture. She saw it through, all the way to the end."

_____

The support group that Steve used to lead was based out of a basement room in the library out in Grand Plaza Army. "I don't know if lead was the right word for it," Steve says as they make the trek through Park Slope to attend the first meeting since repopulation, "Everyone wanted to be there. Everyone had things to contribute."

They see the crowd gathered even before making the turn around the corner of Prospect Park. People are are congregated around the library and the arch, some of them holding signs. Bucky instinctively moves closer to Steve, unable to help the way that he immediately starts to assess the crowd for threats, evaluating the fastest escape route just in case.

But as they get closer, Bucky can make out the words on the signs and the drawings of Captain America's shield. THANK U 4 MY FAMILY, one reads. YOU BROUGHT THEM BACK on another. Someone must spot Steve because there's a whoop and applause that immediately sweeps through the whole of the crowd.

"Oh," Steve says, stopping in his tracks. He reaches out and catches Bucky by the wrist. They stand there on the street, listening to the crowd cheer. Steve laughs nervously and says, "Buck, I don't know if I can go in there."

"You don't have to," Bucky says, already turning. But Steve doesn't let go of his wrist and he doesn't step away.

"I should say something at least," Steve says, "I'm still Captain America. I owe them that at least."

You don't owe anyone anything, Bucky wants to say, but Steve has that set to his jaw, the same one that he used to get when he was still scrawny and ready to take down whatever bully had the misfortune of crossing Steven Rogers. Bucky knows a lost cause when he sees one.

There's no speakerphone ready for an impromptu speech and the crowd is too big. Someone shouts that they'll use a human microphone and there's a murmur of assent from the front of the crowd.

So Steve says, "I wasn't expecting this today. But I appreciate all of you coming out," and pauses as the crowd repeats it for the people further back. "I'll make this short," Steve continues once the repetitions have quieted down, "There were many people who died to make what happened possible." Pause. "I wanted to acknowledge two of them by name." Pause. "Tony Stark."

The name ripples through the crowd and it falls silent. Steve bows his head, a flutter of a breeze moving through the trees. He says, "Natasha Romanoff."

Her name is repeated through the crowd, quiet and reverent. Silence, save for the distant sound of traffic. Steve draws in a deep breath and manages a smile.

He looks up and says, "Thank you."

_____

Fury shows up a week later, the day that the memorials go up at the old Stark Tower site in Manhattan. Bucky's cutting wrinkled cherry tomatoes in half for their pasta when the knock comes at the door. Steve looks up from where he's putting food in Liho's bowl and meets Bucky's eyes.

"You said he'd probably drop by today," Bucky says, picking up the next tomato, "I already put extra pasta to boil."

Steve sighs and puts the cat food back into the cupboard. Liho meows at him and then when Steve leaves, turns to meow at Bucky. Bucky strokes her tail with his foot and she moves away, fluffed up and offended.

"You could have been there," Fury says as he moves into the apartment, within earshot. Steve has already collected Fury's jacket so Bucky figures they're in for the long haul. "And you got a cat?" Fury stoops to make kissing sounds at Liho who surveys him suspiciously from behind Bucky's legs. Bucky's never really met Fury except once to try to kill him, but he can tell from the expression on Steve's face that this is wildly out of character.

"I didn't know you liked cats," Steve says.

"Isn't this Natasha's cat?" Fury asks by way of reply. Liho approaches him, sniffing his outstretched fingers.

"Natasha left her to me in her will," Steve says, "And we would have been at the memorial unveiling but we don't do crowds these days."

We being Bucky. Because Steve managed crowds just fine on his own.

"I don't know how I never convinced Natasha to let me babysit her," Fury says, scratching Liho under the chin. Liho tolerates this for a moment before darting back behind Bucky's legs. Fury watches her for another moment before straightening and smiling fondly. "Just as shy as always."

Bucky wouldn't exactly use the word shy to describe Liho. But he figures he owes Fury one for shooting him in the chest so he doesn't argue.

Later, over the rotini and pesto, Fury turns to Steve and says, "So Cap, you ready to lead a new team?"

Steve smiles around a bite of pasta. He sets his fork down, swallows, and says, "I've been thinking about that."

Fury's head tilts to the side. "I'm not going to like your answer, am I?"

"My team is gone, Nick," Steve says and Bucky can't believe that this is the first time he'd given more than a moment's thought to what Steve would do next. He'd been so sure that helping to rebuild Brooklyn was just a temporary measure before Steve would pick up his shield and rejoin the fight. After all, Steve had never been good at backing down before.

"Tony and Natasha are dead," Steve continues, "Bruce has been forced into retirement. Thor's somewhere else in the galaxy. Besides Wanda, I barely know any of these new people."

"You're just going to hang up the shield," Fury says flatly, "Forget the rest of the world."

"I didn't say that," Steve says, frowning. "I'm saying that I've outlived my usefulness here. This world has changed so much even since I came out of the ice. You need people better adapted to the world now in order to bring the Avengers to their full potential."

Fury frowns back at him but doesn't interrupt.

Steve says, "I'm a soldier, Fury, and this world can't be lead through the lens of war any more."

"So what then?" Fury asks.

"I was thinking," Steve says, "Of passing the shield on."

Bucky has a brief moment of panic before the implications of what Steve's said sinks in more fully and he immediately feels stupid for thinking that he'd been under consideration at all.

"You sound like you have someone in mind," Fury says.

"I do," Steve says. "Someone who understands the consequences of trauma."

____

Man I can't believe you, Sam texts the next morning. Bucky reads it over Steve's shoulder, leaning over the couch as Steve laughs to himself.

How does it feel? Steve texts back. Bucky hands him half of an orange that he'd peeled. Steve sets his phone aside to pull the pieces of orange apart.

Like I'm pretending to be someone else, Sam texts back a few minutes later.

"Wish you could have told him," Bucky says, settling onto the couch. "Would have loved to see his face."

_____

The new memorial space on a Tuesday morning is nearly empty. Bucky stands in front of Stark's swooping glass monument. There's supposedly a twin statue on the MIT campus, to commemorate the advancements he made to science.

Across the plaza, a smaller steel statue for Natasha. Two walls of names curve around the circular monument, creating a quiet enclosed space for people to reflect.

"Steve," a voice calls out. Bucky looks up, surprised to see Thor standing at the other end of the memorial. Thor spots him and gives a wave. "Comrade Barnes."

"Never got into that whole communist thing," Bucky mutters, mostly to himself as he walks over, hands in his pockets. Steve lets himself be enveloped by a hug, Thor slapping him on the back.

"What are you doing here?" Steve asks, "Last I heard Quill piloted you guys out past Morag."

"Oh, we were well past Lovox," Thor says, "Kept running into stranded starships that were repopulated without accounting for such in the supplies. Ran out of fuel before making their next resupply checkpoints. Not to mention the refugees fleeing changes in political balance over the last five years. The situation out there is really quite dire."

Steve tilts his head. "But you're here?"

"A change of plans for me," Thor says, "The Ant Man told me about what happened during your time jump to 2012. That Loki took the tesseract and disappeared. There's a rumor that the tesseract surfaced here in New York again. And he's my responsibility, obviously."

"Our tesseract is gone," Steve says, "Thanos destroyed it."

"Yes well." Thor claps him on the back again. "Loki, you know?"

Over lunch--or rather, over the sandwiches that Steve had packed and they are now sharing with Thor--Steve tells Thor about giving the shield to Sam.

"A fine choice," Thor says, brushing crumbs out of his beard after eating an entire half of a sandwich in two bites. "But this means you are retiring, doesn't it?"

"From the Avengers, maybe," Steve says, half smiling, "I guess I'm looking for something new."

_____

Bucky saw it the moment that Thor mentioned the stranded ships and refugees: a certain look that Steve adopted and a shift in the way he stood: straighter, at attention. Here was a Steve Rogers who had just identified a new problem to solve.

It's not particularly surprising. Bucky recognized that when Steve proposed that the mantle get passed on to Sam, he never had any intention of sitting back. Without the responsibilities of Captain America, Steve was free to choose where to focus his attentions.

And if that choice was space. Well.

It's not that Bucky wouldn't follow Steve into space. It's that Bucky severely doubts he's the type of person anyone would want to waste resources on to send into space.

And even despite Steve, the thought of spending months in a tiny space confined by steel and darkness on all sides makes Bucky want to crawl out of his own skin. And maybe he hasn't spent enough time on earth.

So.

_____

Sometimes Bucky goes by himself to see movies by himself a cinema that he'd pretty sure had been a warehouse back in the day, though it's a definite possibility that his old memories are suspect. The vast majority of the films they play are foreign or completely wordless, sometimes both. Bucky likes to sit in the foreign films and close his eyes, quietly listening to the speed and lilt of the speech. It's easier when he doesn't have to follow any sort of story; only have to concentrate on one thing.

He'd gone to Times Square only once when they'd just finished help painting some basement apartment out in Bed-Stuy that'd been flooded when the entire family had been snapped out of existence. Maybe he'd been hoping to lose himself in a flood of tourists, try to be nobody for just a little while. But there were few people there, this close to repopulation. Too busy dealing with issues at home. Bucky had just pushed his hands into his pockets deeper and wandered Manhattan until he felt stifled by the endlessness of the tall buildings and missed Wakanda desperately.

He and Steve run along the piers early in the morning, past the serious runners who are all training for some marathon or another, grimly eating up mile after mile of asphalt. Their route passes the IKEA and the old warehouses that have now all been converted to high end stores. Sometimes they go so early that they can watch the ships move over still-dark waters, lights cutting through morning mist and blowing their horns as they pass each other.

In Wakanda things had been simpler. Just a few animals to take care of, the garden to water, and weeds to pull out of the soft earth. A wide sky. The furthest thing from the iron door of a cryo tank, closing over him.

Here: Steve. Though maybe not for long.

_____

Carol Danvers breaks into their apartment building by way of the rooftop and knocks on their front door, wearing jeans, a leather jacket, and an old ACDC t-shirt. Bucky doesn't recognize her when he opens the door. She tilts her head at him and asks, "Is Captain Rogers around?"

"Captain Marvel," Steve says from behind Bucky and Bucky's heart skips a beat. He steps back numbly to let her in.

"I met Sam Wilson," Danvers says by way of greeting, "Didn't know he'd been in the Air Force."

"He's a good man," Steve replies, "Great teammate."

"I'm not going to be on earth long," she says, "And I'm not taking Fury up on his offer to join the Avengers."

"Would you like something to drink?" Bucky asks, in hopes that he'll have something to do.

"No I--" she looks at him and takes a small step back, "--sorry for dropping in on you like this. I didn't have much time here. I just wanted to make sure I understood what was happening here on earth."

"Sam's going to lead the Avengers," Steve says.

"I gathered that much," Danvers says, "I'm asking about you."

A beat. Bucky can't help but stare at Steve too.

Steve's eyes slide from Danvers to Bucky when he says, "I don't know yet."

"Have you considered leaving earth?" Danvers asks, "The problems here on earth have enough people to solve them. There aren't very many people who are qualified to leave here to help elsewhere in the solar system. You're one of them, captain."

Silence. Bucky pushes his hands into his pockets and focuses on keeping his face blank.

Eventually Steve says, "I'll think about it."

_____

They haven't had a power outage in over a week. The rate of inflation is slowing. Some prices are even declining as new crops from repopulated farmers make their way into the Brooklyn market now that repopulated long haul drivers have had the time to fix their trucks. Rations are loosening. No need to bring giant pallets of water out to food distribution points now that most of the population has access to running water again. The number of damaged homes that Steve gets calls about has declined dramatically.

It means that they have a lot more free time on their hands. It means Bucky sitting at the kitchen counter, pretending to do a crossword when really he's watching Steve on the couch, petting Liho with one hand and reading a book in the other. It means Bucky lying awake with insomnia now that he doesn't have a day's worth of labor to knock him out at night, staring up at the ceiling and wondering if he can convince T'Challa to let him come back to Wakanda when Steve decides to leave. Brooklyn wouldn't be the same without him in it and Bucky doesn't need the reminders.

He'll miss this though. Steve crowding him in the kitchen as they cobble together lunch from whatever was available from the morning market. Liho winding around their feet, purring for treats. Steve smiling at him, laughing kindly at his poor attempt at jokes. Steve standing at the living room windows, looking down at the street--a moment that could have been stolen from Paris, during the war. He wonders how often Steve thinks about that time, the other Bucky.

_____

"Sharon's going to stop by," Steve tells Bucky as he comes home from his second run of the day. He's carrying a bag of coffee beans. Bucky takes it from him as Steve sets his earbuds onto the side table and disappears down the hall to take a shower.

Bucky steps into the kitchen and stops, just holding the bag of coffee beans. Steve had, he was reasonably sure, kissed Sharon before he'd climbed back into the car and gone to Russia with Bucky. That was who Sam said the blonde woman was.

He pours the beans into the nearly empty coffee jar. He then pulls on his shoes. He stands in the entryway for a moment, listening to the ring of running water in the bathroom. Then he opens the door and goes for a long walk.

It's nearly midnight by the time Bucky gets back to the apartment, long after dinner. Liho greets him with a meow as he shuts the door. There are no new shoes in the entryway. Liho runs off as he looks down the hallway, listening for any sound of another person still there. There is no light under Steve's door. Liho meows again, from her food dish.

Bucky takes off his shoes, and moves over to where Liho is lapping at her water. He crouches down and scratches her neck, murmuring, "You act like we don't feed you."

"Bucky?"

Bucky looks up. Steve steps out of the hallway, half naked form lit by moonlight, pyjamas low on his hips. Bucky can't help the way his body responds--always fucking responds--stirring the low burn of desire.

"Hey. Where did you disappear to?"

Bucky straightens to his feet, keeping his eyes on Steve's face. "Went out to clear my head."

"I was worried," Steve says, stopping in the kitchen doorway. Bucky digs fingernails into his own palms, swallows.

"Sorry," he says, "I just needed a long walk."

Steve looks at him for a long moment. Maybe he's searching for something. Bucky doesn't know. He drops his eyes to the ground, unable to trust himself with looking at anything else.

"Is everything okay?" Steve asks.

No, Bucky wants to say. You're leaving me, he wants to say. "Yeah," he says instead, "How was Sharon?"

"She just came over to pick up some old encrypted equipment I had lying around since I'm not part of the Avengers any more. Fury asked her to."

"Oh," Bucky says.

Disastrously, Steve steps closer and puts a hand on his shoulder, near the crook of his neck. Bucky can feel the warmth of his palm through the thin jacket. Steve's jacket. That he'd borrowed and essentially stolen. Like everything else in Bucky's life.

"You missed dinner," Steve says, soft and very close.

Bucky can't look up at him because if he does he'll break. He is not allowed to break. So he says, "Not really hungry. Just tired."

"Buck," Steve says, still soft.

Bucky shuts his eyes. "I should go to sleep," he says, and steps away.

_____

In the ever lengthening procession of unannounced visitors, Rhodey shows up two days later on their rooftop as War Machine, landing with a loud thud that rumbles briefly through the entire apartment. Steve, the fucking idiot, runs up the stairs immediately while Bucky finds the gun he keeps taped to the bottom of the silverware drawer before making his way up.

"Got a proposition for you," Bucky hears Rhodey tell Steve by the time he reaches the roof. "Barnes," he acknowledges.

Bucky nods in return, relaxing but not putting the gun away.

"Nebula's got coordinates on a starship out near Alpha Centauri," Rhodey says, "Sounds like a bunch of refugees were trying to flee Inuin and ran out of gas. We've got a ship to help tow supplies and fuel but it needs at least three people to properly pilot."

"Three people," Steve repeats, "Why's that?"

"It's an older model gunship, at least a couple of centuries old. Lot of stuff to do manually." Rhodey looks at Bucky. "Has a nice long range gun if you wanna come, Barnes."

Bucky smiles tightly and shakes his head.

"Are you expecting trouble?" Steve asks.

"Oh no. It was just the only space-ready vessel in this entire solar system that Nebula could get her hands on."

"How many refugees?"

"Don't have a census but probably a couple thousand. Nearest life-friendly planet is most likely ours."

"How fast can Nebula's ship go?"

"Maybe about a week there, a week back. A couple of trips to tow enough fuel out there, then the big ship can travel really fast in hyperspace and we'd hitch a ride back. Two months max."

Bucky thinks about being in Brooklyn without Steve for two months. Running along the pier by himself and trying to comfort a crying Liho like she did every time Steve left for more than a few hours. But mostly, the vast emptiness that grows in him like an ocean at the thought of Steve gone.

"You should go," Bucky hears himself say. He swallows even though his mouth is dry, a nervous tic. "There's nothing left to do here. Brooklyn can recover on its own."

Steve looks at him, the expression on his face unreadable.

"What do you say?" Rhodey asks.

"I can't come," Steve says slowly, "You should ask Shuri though. I'm sure she'd love to be the first to get a look at all of that alien tech."

"Steve--" Bucky starts.

"Sorry," Steve says, note of finality, "I've got a prior engagement."

_____

The moment that Rhodey leaves, Steve turns to Bucky and says, "I'm not going anywhere."

"You want to go," Bucky says, "You want to help."

"Of course I do," Steve snaps, and then quieter, "I can't go Buck."

Bucky spreads his hands. "You've passed the shield on to Sam. We fixed half of Brooklyn. What is there left to do here?"

Steve steps forward and grabs Bucky's hands. "Can I be selfish? Can I just be with the person I love for a little while?"

This isn't happening, Bucky thinks wildly, rooted to the spot. He has to think about his breathing, measure out the rhythm. "Pal," he manages to get out, "You left her in the 40's."

"I didn't," Steve says, eyes sliding shut for just a moment before opening again, clear and blue. Bucky can't breathe. "You're here, right in front of me."

"Steve--" Bucky says, and it's all he can say.

"I came back," Steve says, leaning forward so that his forehead is pressed against Bucky's, "Because I'm your Steve. I came back because I wanted to be here, with you." One hand lets go of Bucky's hand and cups Bucky's jaw, sliding back towards his ear and into his hair.

Steve's shaking, Bucky realizes, just as badly as Bucky is trembling himself. Bucky puts his hand on Steve's neck, thumb against Steve's rapid pulse. Steve tilts into his touch and gasps minutely as Bucky strokes his thumb against Steve's neck, fascinated and burning with need.

"Bucky," Steve says, low and urgent, "Please."

Bucky dares to kiss him, a tentative closed-mouth brush of his lips against Steve's mouth before he's pulling back, expecting that he's gone too far. But Steve just makes a low broken noise and pulls him in with so much desperation that their teeth click and Bucky cuts his lip.

"You have to be sure," Bucky says when they pull apart, "Steve--I can't--you have to be sure," Like he hasn't already given in, wouldn't already be ruined if Steve said no.

"I'm sure," Steve whispers against his lips, "I promise, I'm sure."

_____

The second time they meet with Steve's old support group at the Brooklyn Public Library, there are no crowds. Someone has brought coffee in an urn and someone else has brought mismatched cups--half styrofoam, half red plastic. Someone else has brought homemade cookies in a tupperware. There are also way more than the eight people who usually showed up to the meetings pre-repopulation.

The moment that Steve and Bucky step through the open door, someone starts clapping. Other people turn around to see what's happening and soon half the room is clapping. The other half has their hands full of cookies and coffee but they're smiling at the two of them, some nodding enthusiastically.

"Steve," a woman says to their right after the applause has died down, "I just wanted to introduce my family." A man and a girl stand together behind her.

"David. It's finally nice to meet you," Steve says, holding out his hand. The man looks visibly surprised as he shakes it. Steve drops to look the girl in the eye. "And that must make you Tiffany."

"Hi," she says shyly, "Are you really Captain America?"

"Captain America is my very good friend," Steve says, "But he's not here today, I'm sorry."

"Oh," she says, "That's okay. It's nice to meet you anyway."

"Steve," a balding man with a cup of coffee says as he approaches, "Can I introduce you to my family too?"

"Sure," Steve says, straightening to his feet. He turns and stops, looking at Bucky. "Wait, can I introduce you to mine?"

Bucky half wants to hide. But Steve takes his hand in front of everyone and says very simply, "This is Bucky." He looks at Bucky, giving him a shy smile and Bucky thinks dumbly that he loves this man, more than anything in the world.

_____

The moment they get home, Liho meets them at the door to meow at them. Bucky takes off the jacket he uses to hide his arm and hangs it up in the hallway. Liho runs toward her food bowl and sits in front of it, meowing plaintively again.

"You're going to get fed at dinner," Steve says, leaning over to pick her up and put his face in her fur. She settles onto his shoulder and looks at Bucky, meowing her dissatisfaction at not being fed immediately.

"What do you want for dinner?" Bucky asks. Steve drops Liho and wanders closer to Bucky, reaching out to poke his finger through where Liho had chewed through the corner of Bucky's right sleeve while pawing around his laundry.

"Your hands are cold" Bucky tells him.

Steve grins and slides both of them under Bucky's shirt. Bucky jumps, but lets Steve wrap his hands around his waist. Steve nuzzles against the side of Bucky's head, murmuring, "Hey."

"Hey," Bucky replies softly. Liho rubs up against his ankle. Golden sunlight streams through their living room windows. Bucky closes his eyes and holds Steve close.

It is enough.