Bruce counts down from five, and on the one Bucky takes a breath. Steve doesn't reappear on the platform.
"Hey," Sam says. "What happened? Where is he?"
"I don't know," Bruce says. He's pushing buttons. "I lost his signal—he's—hold on."
Bucky stands rooted, so heavy he doesn't know where his feet end and the ground begins. He feels a strange chill, like he's about to be back into cryo. Only the feeling is under his skin, in his bones, so quick, like a flashbulb went off in his veins, then gone. Steve is gone. He exhales, long and slow.
"He's not coming back," he says, quiet.
Bruce and Sam look at him.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Sam says.
Bucky thinks he must have known all along that something was going to happen. A hundred million scenarios play out in his mind, and each one is as miserable as the next. He'd wanted to go with Steve, but Steve had been so confident, "I'll be right back, Buck," and Bucky had let him go. He'd let him go. Sam shakes his head and stomps over to where Bruce is hovering helplessly over the controls.
"Fix it," Sam says. "Don't you have like sixteen PhDs? Bring him back!"
"It's not that simple," Bruce says. "Wait, don't just touch things—"
Bucky turns on his heels and walks to the lake. There's a bench there. He sits and wraps his arms around himself, watches the sun cast yellow diamonds on the water's surface. He can't feel Steve anywhere.
Bucky moves into Steve's apartment in DC, because he's got nowhere else to go that isn't Wakanda, and right now this is all that's left of Steve. Sam attempts to help him move in but quickly realizes Bucky owns next to nothing. It's a lot of Steve's old furniture and Bucky's clothes and things Steve got back for him from the Smithsonian to help him piece together memories, moments. Sam sits gingerly on Steve's couch and Bucky unscrews the lid of an instant coffee container and starts making them both a cup. Instant coffee was all he ever got from Hydra, if he got it, and he can't bring himself even still to have regular coffee. Feels too decadent. Sam grimaces a little but doesn't complain, at least not yet. They drink in silence while the sun pushes its rays through the windows, warms the living room and kitchen.
It's been two weeks since Steve disappeared.
"It looks like 1945 in here," Sam says. "But I guess that's probably comforting to you."
"I'm actually used to Wakandan furnishings now," Bucky says.
Sam snorts. He holds his coffee cup in both hands, looks down.
"How are you doing?" he says. "Seriously?"
Oh, Bucky thinks. His flesh-and-blood hand twitches, traitorous. They haven't talked about Steve, he and Sam. Bucky hasn't talked about Steve to anyone, because he can't. He has no idea what he'd say. When he doesn't speak, Sam talks to fill the silence.
"I keep thinking maybe he decided to stay, you know. In the past. Maybe he found something there he needed to do."
Bucky's thought about that. He's thought about Steve dead. He isn't sure which scenario is worse. But he knows it makes him selfish. When the Snap had been reversed, when Bucky came to on the forest floor in Wakanda, then saw Steve on the battlefield and realized they'd won, he thought they had a second chance. A chance to just…be. He's always been doing things like that, ever since WWII. Imagining scenarios where he'll have time with Steve, just the two of them, a want so intense he can't think to give it a name.
His coffee cup shatters under his metal hand. It startles Bucky and Sam both. Bucky shakes coffee from his hand and wrist while Sam grabs a dishtowel, swearing under his breath. Bucky wipes his hand, then the counter. The smell of coffee is pungent now, and it's good. Feels real, grounding. Nothing has felt real since Steve disappeared.
"You have every right to feel however you're feeling," Sam says.
"I know," Bucky says, or tries, but his teeth are tight and crowded in his mouth.
Then Sam hugs him. He does it slowly, like Bucky is going to bolt on him. Bucky doesn't hug him back, not right away. He stares at the books on Steve's shelves, the record player sitting dusty from disuse in the corner. And finally, finally, wraps his flesh-and-blood arm around Sam and realizes the man is crying. It's the first time they've done this, and will probably be the only time. Sam eventually pulls back and wipes his eyes with the heels of his palms, sniffs.
"All right," he says. "Pull yourself together."
Bucky offers him more coffee because he doesn't know what else to do.
"No offense, but that shit is gross," Sam says. "Look, I'm not really a counselor anymore. But if you want to talk. Shit, I think we both need to talk to someone—"
Bucky interrupts him by collecting his shattered coffee cup in his metal hand and putting it in the trash. He feels a headache coming on right at the base of his skull. Needs fresh air. The window to the fire escape is open and Bucky wants to jump out, feel sun hot and run so he can maybe feel something. Just run away. But he holds himself, because that isn't what Steve would want. And that's not even what he wants anymore. Bucky rinses his hands off in the sink and pants them dry on his pants.
"Let's go for a run," he says.
"What," says Sam.
"Steve said you're the slowest jogger in DC."
"Oh really," Sam says, eyes still shrink-wrapped in tears, but smiling now. "Get your running shoes on, Bucky Barnes. I'm about to whoop your hundred-year-old ass."
The official word to the public: Steve died fighting Thanos.
The official word from Fury to everyone remaining: they have no way to travel to the past again, nor should they try. Everything is fucked up enough as it is. They were lucky. Lucky, he says.
Bucky hears all this with water roaring in his ears.
Two weeks later, Sam gets dispatched by Fury to scope out terrorist intel in Mexico City that's already a hostage situation upon arrival. Bucky goes with him. They duck across the street and hide out in a church with good lighting to assess the situation. Bucky holds his rifle close to his chest like it's part of him, a second spine, and exhales.
"Looks like about ten hostages," he says. "Six hostiles. I can snipe out two, but…."
"That leaves four mobile," Sam finishes.
"Yeah," Bucky says, "But if you send your weird little drone out there—"
Sam turns to Bucky suddenly, both of them crouched, and straightens his index and middle finger into a V in Bucky's direction.
"Look at me," he says, turning his fingers back on himself. "I'm the Captain now."
Bucky knows this is some kind of pop culture reference, just not which one. He fixes Sam with a blank stare.
"Aw, come on," Sam says. "You never saw that movie? What the hell were you doing in Wakanda when Steve came to visit? Gossiping?"
"I saw Titanic," Bucky says.
"Titanic," Sam says, as if greatly offended. "Let me tell you something about that movie, okay? There was enough room on the bedframe for Leo's skinny white boy ass to climb up too."
There's shouting from the building across the way. Sam shifts back, eyes focused, and spits out a plan that's actually brilliant and involves them getting tacos al pastor at the end of it all. Sam is a good team leader. The sudden return of half the population has left the planet scrambling to restructure just about everything—food, energy, law. Bruce is helping speed up food production and Shuri and T'Challa are helping power grids maintain the new surges across the globe. Uptick in crime has fallen, in part, to Sam, and when he asked for help, Bucky didn't refuse, though Fury decided Sam would be giving the orders on that front. Bucky doesn't blame him. His track record for stability isn't exactly stellar.
After the situation is neutralized, Bucky is escorting the hostages out of the building into the street. It's a warmer day, just noon now, because the church bell is ringing and it echoes, bounces off the buildings and swells. Fury's second team has just arrived. Bucky scans the scene anyway, it's habit. He can't stop. The gunshots brought some curious bystanders who are now being pushed back by local police and agents. Then Bucky sees a man standing near a jacarandá tree, hair short. His skin is pale, he's—
"Steve?" Bucky says, and it's punched out of him.
He stops moving. The freed hostage next to him pauses. "Qué?" she says.
He's gone. Steve is gone. He was never there. Bucky keeps moving, faster now, towards the waiting EMTs.
He must look like he's seen a ghost, because over their tacos, Sam invites himself over to Bucky's apartment for a movie that evening. They're already being transported back to DC, so the tacos are to-go, the two of them strapped in next to each other while their pilot flies them out of Mexico City. Bucky digs around in his bag with his flesh-and-blood hand and feels the warm softness of the tortilla. That hadn't been Steve, of course not. Steve is gone, he's been gone for almost a month, and is most likely dead. That was some tourist, American or Canadian or British or whoever. Bucky thought he was looking at him. And in the light, for a moment. For a moment he could have been Steve.
"Hello," Sam says. "Earth to James Barnes. I said we're watching Captain Phillips."
"All right, man," Bucky says. "Quite hounding me, I'm tryin' to eat this taco. Whatever you called it."
Sam comes over after they debrief, have a shower, and Bucky meets with his psychiatrist. When Sam realized he was going to start taking missions for Fury, he asked, specifically, for Bucky to back him up. Said he knew him the best. Said he trusted him. Bucky's eyes might have misted up if Sam didn't follow all that by immediately saying it was also his absolute dream to give Bucky orders. Fury had no issue with it, and still doesn't, on the condition that Bucky see a psychiatrist before and after every mission.
Dr. Young is, well, young, but personable, and Bucky knows how to answer his questions. He sees him in his office next door right after debriefing, in a warm room with colors Bucky is sure are meant to soothe him.
"Did you kill anyone?" Dr. Young asks.
"Only three," Bucky says.
"And how are you feeling about that?"
"Like I did my job."
He scribbles something down. There's an analog clock on the wall and Bucky concentrates on the tick of the second hand as it moves.
"Are you sleeping more than four hours?"
"Some nights," Bucky lies.
He won't take sleeping meds. Not even melatonin. Despite still having nightmares, it makes Bucky feel safe to know he can wake up at any time, aware and ready. In Wakanda, Shuri had given him some herbs that helped him relax during the day but didn't sedate him at night. He needs to get ahold of her and ask for more.
"Is there anything else weighing on your mind?" Dr. Young asks. "Would you like to talk about Steve Rogers?"
The second hand has ticked by nine hundred and twenty times.
"No," Bucky says.
Mentioning Steve is a non-option. And stupid. He won't risk being benched. Being on active duty is good for him, gives him a purpose, something to do. Bucky needs this. When Steve rescued him that first time, the first time, during WWII, going back in was the only thing that saved Bucky from falling apart completely. Anything they had done to him didn't matter if he could keep fighting, and besides, he had Steve with him. He had—
By the time he gets back to the apartment Sam is already there on the couch and the place smells like burnt popcorn. Bucky pulls the hidden knives from his clothes except the last two and examines the blackened bag on the coffee table.
"You couldn't have burned the popcorn in your own microwave?"
"Hey, I'm doing you a favor, showing you this movie," Sam says. "Shut up and sit down."
He sits and they tear into the blackened popcorn, which Bucky eats more of than Sam. He knows this is good for Sam, too. Bucky isn't very skilled with words anymore, knows he used to be, just not anymore. But this he can do—he can be a friend in this way. He wants to be. They aren't more than twenty minutes into the film when Sam gets around to asking what he really wants to know.
"Something happen today? You seemed a little off on the way back."
"'m fine," Bucky says.
"Bucky, I'm not going to tattle to your psych."
"Is it about Steve?"
"Don't," Bucky says.
So Sam doesn't.
He falls asleep on the couch that night and Bucky lets him rest, curls up in what was once Steve's bed. He hasn't washed the sheets yet, because they still smell like Steve, and Bucky hates the thought of losing that, but he knows soon he will.
They come for him that night. He bites the mouth guard, feels it white hot in his brain, and he tries to keep hold but he's losing it, all those parts of himself. He's in Oslo not feeling the cold while he crushes a woman's skull with his metal hand, so much blood he's got to wash the plating in the river. And when he looks up, arm submerged in the icy water he sees Steve watching him. He's staying something to Bucky, his mouth is moving but Bucky can't hear him, he looks upset, horrified, he's—
Bucky wakes up screaming.
He's not in Oslo. He doesn't know where he is. Sam is shaking him, has literally kicked the door of the room in and is yelling his name. Bucky bolts upright and grabs Sam's shoulders. He doesn't know what year it is. He doesn't know where he is.
"Where's Steve?" he says. "Where is he?"
"He's—" His voice cracks. "Bucky, he's—"
Bucky remembers, then. He knows where he is. And what year it is.
Bucky exhales and sits back on the bed, chest heaving. He pushes his hair back. Light coming from the hallway is glowing behind Sam, and he doesn't look nervous, Bucky realizes, he looks worried.
"Sorry," Bucky says.
"If you apologize to me again for something like this I'll hit you," Sam says.
He sits on the edge of the bed.
"You getting back to sleep tonight?"
"Nope," Bucky says. He's shaking.
Sam nods and walks back into the front room. A few minutes later Bucky hears him boiling water and unscrewing the lid of the instant coffee. He follows the smell out, watches Sam wrinkle his nose as he scoops the grounds into a cup. He starts listing off other movies they can watch—Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead.
"I want him back," Bucky says.
Sam's hand pauses scooping coffee grounds.
"Shit," he says. "Me too."
The kettle boils over and whistles.
Bucky sees Steve again two days later.
He goes to his memorial for the first time with flowers. It's Monday. It's overcast. Steve's memorial is in DC, though by all rights Bucky thinks they should have it in Brooklyn. The official word is that Steve is dead, because it's easier that way, only it's not, because there's artwork of Steve on the sides of buildings everywhere Bucky turns, and now this memorial where there's no goddamn body, just empty ground.
Bucky wears a ball cap and walks the through the gates. He's relieved to see no one around Steve's memorial, because Steve is…was…more than Steve, after the serum. He wasn't just Bucky's little Stevie anymore. He was Captain America, and Bucky could never explain to him that it felt like he'd lost him somehow already. When Bucky thinks about that now his eyes sting hot. He was wrong, though. After Siberia, after Shuri helped get rid of everything Hydra had put inside him, Steve would come visit him in Wakanda. They'd walk the fields together and Steve would reminisce with him, or give him updates about what was going on outside the Wakandan borders. But Bucky loved listening to him talk about Brooklyn, back when he was just Steve. When it was just them, even if some of it was garbled.
"Ironic to think that I should have been dead by seven," Steve told him once. "Remember that doctor who came by on the house visit when I had Rheumatic Fever? Said I had one foot in the grave already? You threw an egg at him."
"Oh yeah," Bucky said, only he didn't remember.
He knows now there are some memories he'll never get back. Hydra ripped out whole years. Steve asked him about a memory, and if Bucky didn't have it, sometimes he lied, because it made Steve happy. He doesn't remember the moment he realized he wanted Steve but he remembers the shame of it. Sometimes he looks into his mind and the memories are jumbled. He's working at the docks but his arm is missing. He's in France in the '40s and they're tearing into his mind again. Steve comes back to the bed they made out of the couch cushions, and he's so small, and Bucky can't stop strangling him—
Bucky sets the flowers by Steve's memorial. There are older, dead flowers there as well left by others. He wipes the leaves and petals from the area. It just seems so wrong for it to be cluttered. Maybe he'll come back again in a few days and clean it up again.
After he leaves the memorial, Bucky catches the Metro and grabs lunch at a café that's recently reopened. He likes this one, because they put fat slices of avocado in their sandwiches, something Bucky had never had the pleasure of having one until he was staying in Wakanda. T'Challa had sliced one open in front of him during lunch in the fields and Bucky was shocked stupid at the bright green of it. He sits at the corner window now, watches the street traffic and tastes the buttery fat of avocado on his tongue.
At the intersection, just standing there, Bucky sees Steve. It's him. The cut of the white t-shirt across his shoulders, the dark jeans. It must be. Bucky stands so fast his chair scrapes loudly behind him but he doesn't look around to apologize. He rushes out of the café, darts around pedestrians to follow Steve as he turns strangely in the middle of the street.
And he's gone. Bucky stands on the sidewalk, out of breath for no reason, eyes scanning the street helplessly.
He wasn't there, he tells himself. His eyes are playing tricks on him. Barnes, you're losing it.
Bucky walks back to the café and sees that his sandwich has been taken or thrown away, so he keeps walking. Walks all the way back to his apartment. He sleeps three hours that night, and wakes up with wet lashes.
Shuri visits often enough. She checks on his arm. Complains about the atrocious air quality of American cities. Tells him, subtly, that he can come back to Wakanda anytime he pleases. What she says is, "The goats miss you."
Bucky snorts and tries not to move. He's got his metal arm held up in the living room of Steve's apartment—his apartment now—while Shuri scans over it. She keeps correcting him whenever he calls it metal. Bucky keeps forgetting.
"It is quieter there," Bucky says. "But it feels good…to help."
"Uh-huh," Shuri says, then pokes his elbow. "Do you feel that?"
"Yeah. Don't hurt or nothing. Doesn't feel like I'm carrying around a weight anymore."
Shuri beams at him. She'd arrived with something called boba tea that Bucky refused to try. Too much of the 21st century is overwhelming to him. The one thing he does like is the movies. Sam has been showing him a lot of movies, and they go to the theater a lot together. Sometimes Bucky even goes alone. Sometimes it's too much, just because it's so realistic and Bucky doesn't remember that last movie he saw before he lost himself but he knows it was in black and white. But he likes the movies, and that's kind of his and Sam's thing now. His psych calls it shared coping, or something like that.
Shuri taps his arm, lets him know he can put his shirt back on. Inspection over. She hops up on the countertop in the kitchen and sips at her boba. Bucky watches the little black pearls slide up the straw and frowns.
"Don't tell my brother I told you this," Shuri says. "But Wakanda is also recovering from what happened. You'd be helpful there as well."
Bucky exhales. He's thought about it. Wakanda was probably as close as he'll ever get to something like peace—the sprawling fields, the farm work, the way T'Challa welcomed him without making him feel like he was damaged goods. Bucky worked without fighting and he liked it. But things are different now. Bucky gestures helplessly to the apartment.
"This is…here," he says.
Shuri nods, understanding. She's used to Bucky not stringing together more than four five words in a sentence. Bucky clears his throat.
"Do you think it's possible he's not dead?"
Shuri puts her drink down. Her legs were swinging and they halt to a stop. She's young, and Bucky never forgets that, but right now she almost looks like an adult, the way her face draws tight and sympathetic.
"Time travel isn't an exact science," she says. "So I would say it's possible, yes."
Bucky feels his pulse jump in his wrist.
"If Steve were stuck…you could figure out a way to send me back, couldn't you?" he says. "To find him?"
"Without an accurate fix on his location, I couldn't send you to where he was, no. If, and it's a big if, he were alive and his GPS were damaged, he could have been sent to any point in time, any place. You would have to comb through decades. You would need a lot of these Pym particles to do so." Shuri pauses. "Ugh, I'm renaming those. Anyway. It would be near impossible to find him, Bucky….I'm sorry. If he is there."
"Oh," Bucky says.
His pulse is still throbbing under his skin even as he feels this last little hope slipping away. He's never considered himself a smart enough guy to know much about science, despite his interests in it. Bucky's talents lie in hurting things. And Steve…Steve isn't coming back. Shuri hops off the countertop and grabs a pouch of herbs from her bag for Bucky. These were what he wanted, right? He nods and thanks her. She squeezes his flesh-and-blood arm and sets the pouch on the coffee table.
"I'm sorry," Shuri says again. "It's just been so long, and time moves differently in the past."
"It's not just that." Bucky licks his lips, unsure. "The other day, on the street, I thought I saw—"
The phone issued to Bucky by Fury buzzes. It's Sam. Wants to know if he's up for a mission. Bucky slips his phone back into his pocket. Shuri waits for him to continue. He stays silent.
"It's what?" she says.
"Nothing," Bucky says, and he knows she doesn't believe him, but she doesn't press it either.
After she leaves Bucky boils the herbs down into tea. He sleeps almost six hours, that night.
At their hotel in Lyon, Sam picks them up food rations while they wait for word from Fury. There are rumors about Hydra cells popping up, or trying. It doesn't surprise Bucky much. Seventy years, and no matter how much of it he spent on the ice, Bucky saw what he saw. They might not have control of his mind anymore, but it doesn't stop the hairs on the back of his neck from rising when he hears the name. Sam scoops some rice onto his plate and watches him carefully.
"You okay with this?" he asks.
"All their programming is outta me," Bucky says.
He stabs his chicken breast with his fork and bites into with bothering to use his knife. Then he asks Sam if he believes in ghosts.
"You afraid of ghosts?" Sam says. "Please say yes. Please say you're afraid of ghosts. It'd be too good."
"I'm serious," Bucky says.
Sam shovels rice into his mouth and shrugs.
"Honestly, if you'd asked me ten years ago I would've said no. But after everything I've seen, don't see why not."
Bucky nods. Sam leans back in his chair, staring at him, and Bucky chews, not staring back.
"Are you going to tell me why you asked such a random question or just leave me in suspense?"
"Nah, I'm gonna leave you in suspense," Bucky says.
"Asshole," Sam says. "I'm taking the last of the rice."
Fury calls. Intel was right, there's a Hydra agent in Lyon, looking to make his way to Paris. Intel also says they're working for Red Skull, which doesn't seem possible. It's like 1943 all over again, only everything is different. Over the call, Fury asks Bucky if he has anything information that might shed some light on that, and he doesn't.
"We had a pretty brief meeting," Bucky says. "If there was anything else…I don't have the memory anymore."
He almost says, and I was a different person, but stops himself. He almost says, if Steve were here, but stops himself.
Fury and Sam are staring at him like they're waiting for Bucky to say something else. Bucky has nothing to say. Nothing makes sense to him anymore.
"Well pick this guy up, then," Fury says. "I want him alive. I've got some questions."
They head out into the French sunshine and clock their man leaving a bank alone about forty minutes later. Bucky heads right toward the agent, as planned, when he sees Steve. Sees him sitting right there outside a café staring at Bucky like he's waiting for him to come over and say hello. It puts a rod of ice up Bucky's spine, startles him so bad he blows his cover. The Hydra agent notices him. Pulls his gun a fraction faster than Bucky.
It's Sam who covers him. Two shots later the Hydra agent crumples on the sidewalk and people start screaming, running. Bucky sprints to him to try and stop the bleeding but he's already dead, a hairline of blood leaking from the corner of his mouth. Bucky looks up to the café where he'd seen Steve. There's nothing, no one at all.
Sam lands next to him and swears when he sees the blood and the agent's open dead eyes. Bucky can't stop looking at where he thought he'd seen Steve. It takes him too long to realize that Sam is saying his name.
"What?" Bucky says. He feels disoriented.
"What the hell happened?" Sam says.
He looks startled. Startled that Bucky was distracted, because Bucky is never distracted, goes terrifyingly blank-faced during missions, effective. He shakes Bucky's shoulder and asks him where he's at.
"I'm here," Bucky says.
He looks around and sees nothing.
It comes as no surprise to him that he's benched. Bucky watches his knees while Dr. Young talks to him, hears the words "risk assessment" and "temporary" and "recovery" and everything else is sort of a blur. He listens to the clock tick. The guilt at having failed at bringing in the agent alive would be enough, but he feels even worse knowing Sam had to kill for him. Bucky knows he can't be in the field right now.
"Can you say what distracted you on your mission?" Dr. Young asks.
"Can't say I know," Bucky says, because really, what can he say?
He goes back to Steve's apartment fully aware that Sam has let himself in and prepared what looks to be just a plate of sliced avocado. Bucky stares at the plate. At Sam. At the plate. At Sam.
"T'Challa said you got some weird thing about avocados," Sam says. "Guess you didn't eat those much in the '40s, with the boiling and shitty food and all."
Bucky sets his gear bag down on the floor and grabs a slice between his thumb and forefinger, eats it.
"I'm sorry about France," he says, to get right to it.
"Yeah, you should be. Could've gotten your stupid ass killed. Or mine." Sam's anger sparks and fizzles out as fast as it's come. "But just…just tell me what's going on."
Bucky takes another slice of avocado. Another. His fingers are slick with it. He eats the whole thing using only his thumb and forefinger, almost desperate for the feeling of fat on his tongue, down his throat. He swallows and licks his fingers clean.
"That's just it," he says. "I don't know."
Sam watches him, and Bucky knows that's not good enough. He's trying. He spent a long time not being expected to talk. Finding words for mundane conversation is difficult enough, and Bucky really doesn't know what's going on.
"I feel like he's still here. Sometimes I can swear he is."
There's a long silence. Bucky's been staring at the plate, the smear of green on white, and when he looks up he seems Sam's eyes are wet. He nods, lips tight, and saws a hand over his eyes.
"I don't know who I am here," Bucky says. "Guess I thought I'd figure that out eventually, but I'd have Steve with me."
It speaks volumes about the state of their friendship, Bucky thinks, that Sam doesn't say anything. Instead he pulls another avocado from the grocery bag on the table and slices it cleanly with the knife. He twists it open, removes the pit, and places the two halves on the plate. Then he grabs two spoons from the cutlery drawer. They eat like that, the two of them, in the heavy silence of the apartment, until they are scraping the skin, until Bucky is tired of having to stand, of having to think. He and Sam fall asleep on the couch and later Bucky wakes up and watches Sam's six until the sun rises.
Over the next week, he catches shadows, and at the edges of them are Steve. Steve. Steve. In some hazy distance, Steve. Across a train platform, Steve. And that shouldn't be possible. Steve is gone. Bucky runs for miles around DC and comes back to Steve's apartment sweating and out of breath. He showers and wears Steve's shirts, his sweatpants. He plays the record Steve had left in the player—Ella Fitzgerald—over and over. He's going crazy. His mind is finally cracking, he's—
Friday afternoon he gets a call from someone named Happy asking if he'll take a trip to New York to see Pepper.
"Is this a joke?" Bucky says into the phone.
"No," the phone says back. "She wants to know if you'd like to have lunch."
Bucky's first instinct is to say no. His training tells him this is a trap, better pull back, better cut off contact with anyone and everyone for a few days and maybe skip town. He can finally take Shuri up on her offer to come back to Wakanda. Bucky realizes he's close to crushing the phone to pieces in his hand and forces himself to relax. He still does this sometimes when he's tense, when Hydra's training tries to slip back into him. He ends up shattering things in his hand. Bucky takes a deep breath from his stomach. This isn't a trap. These are Steve's friends.
"Uh, hello?" Happy says.
"Okay," Bucky says.
A car takes him upstate because he doesn't have one, and Pepper is grilling burgers. Bucky takes awkward steps into the backyard and inhales the smell of charcoal. Morgan is running is around in the grass, spinning herself dizzy. Pepper smiles, uses the spatula to flip the burgers. Bucky hasn't announced his presence, but he's sure she knows he's there—he made himself purposefully loud. She turns after flipping the burgers and waves.
"Do you want cheese?" she asks.
Bucky nods. Morgan finally stops spinning, finally notices there's something else there. She stares at Bucky like she's trying to place him from somewhere forgotten. A dream. A nightmare. Bucky looks at his shoes.
"All right," Pepper says. "Lunch is ready. I hope you don't mind eating outside, Sergeant Barnes."
Morgan forgets Bucky in favor of chasing after her mom and the food. Bucky follows them to the little picnic table by the lake, set up near where the platform had been, where Steve had disappeared. Where Bucky had last seen him.
"Bucky is fine," he says.
With all the energy a five year old has, Morgan is up and playing right after lunch, kicking up leaves in the yard again. Bucky and Pepper move inside but leave the door open. She pours him seltzer water. It only took him about five minutes into lunch to realize why she invited him out here—she knows he's been taken off active duty, and can probably guess why. Sam Wilson has a big mouth.
Pepper tells him about the work she's doing at Stark Industries, about how Morgan is so much like Tony it's like having him here still, how she's seriously sick of eating cheeseburgers for lunch every day, how much she misses Natasha. She slips her shoes off and tucks her legs up on the couch, completely at ease, despite not knowing Bucky at all, not really. They hadn't met until Tony's funeral. She sips her water and laughs softly.
"The other day Morgan told me that when she grows up she wants to 'cancel' science classes, so I'm sure Tony is somewhere having an absolute fit right now."
Bucky sets his glass on the coffee table.
"Do you ever see him?" he asks. "Tony?"
Pepper glances down into the bubbles of her water, then up.
"In very good dreams, yes."
"Never awake? Sometimes…do you ever think…that he's there?"
Pepper watches him carefully, like she can't decide if she'd want that or not.
"No," she says finally. "I can't say that I do."
There's a sudden shriek from outside and Bucky tenses up. It's just Morgan tossing leaves.
"She doesn't know," Pepper says, voice soft and somehow firm.
"I never got the chance to apologize," Bucky says.
Pepper reaches out like she's going to touch him, then pulls her hand back.
"Those five years Tony and I got…he said resentment was corrosive. He let go of so much. He forgave you. If you know anything, know that."
Pepper takes a long drink of water and sets the glass on the coffee table. She stands suddenly and marches towards the open back door where Morgan is, and tells her firmly not to dare think about starting a fire with those sticks she found. Bucky relaxes into the couch. A breeze filters in through the door and pushes his hair around his face, chills him even in his jacket. Pepper comes back in holding two sticks.
"This is probably very strange for you," she says.
Bucky thinks, if anything, it should be strange for Pepper, having the man who murdered her in-laws over for lunch, and says as much. Pepper laughs from her belly.
"No, I'd say I passed strange about ten years ago," she says. "Let's have wine now."
Bucky can't get drunk anymore, but he doesn't decline.
He wakes to the sound of Steve's apartment door being jimmied open. Bucky is fully alert in seconds and reaching for the gun at the side of the bed. He flattens himself against the wall and slides along it, twists the knob of the door silently and opens it just enough to see a figure moving. Bucky aims the gun through the crack of the door into the darkness. The figure switches on the lights. Bucky squints, adjusting, then looks again and sees Steve.
It's Steve. Here. In his own apartment, dressed like he's about to go on the platform and return the stones, except he's rummaging around in his kitchen. Bucky opens the bedroom door all the way. The hinges creak and Steve turns, startled, nearly tears a drawer out of the counter.
"Bucky?" he says.
His voice forms a lump in Bucky's throat. None of his hallucinations of Steve have ever spoken before. Bucky tucks the gun into Steve's stolen sweatpants, at a loss for what to do, can barely start to think of what to say before Steve is rushing towards him and pulling him into a fierce hug. All of Bucky's breath leaves him at once. He hugs back, struck stupid, because it's Steve. It smells like him. It feels like him. It has to be.
"Is this really you?" Bucky says, throat tight. "Steve, tell me this is really you—because if it's not—I can't handle it again."
"It's me," Steve says. "I'm sorry. Buck, I—"
He pulls back but keeps his hold on Bucky's shoulders.
"God, I'm so damn tired," Steve says. "It's good to see you."
Steve hugs him again and Bucky is happy to stop talking. He doesn't understand, and right now he doesn't care to. Steve is here, really here. They are like that for a long time, their two bodies pressed together, until they finally part. Bucky sets the gun on the coffee table and Steve unzips his suit a bit so he can breathe better. He has a beard again like when he was a fugitive, a stray cut above his cheekbone, but no other injuries as far as Bucky can see. Steve sighs, a little half smile on his face, the one he gets when he's content, happy.
"I'm really glad to see you," he says again.
"Stevie," Bucky says. "You gotta tell me what happened."
"Right, you're right. I know. Just let me get a glass of water real quick." Steve walks back into the kitchen and pours himself one from the tap, calls to Bucky over his shoulders. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"I, uh, live here."
Steve turns while drinking and the water misses some of his mouth, dribbles over his chin and uniform.
"Oh," he says.
"We…no one thought you were coming back," Bucky says.
"Neither did I, for a minute there."
"I got stuck," Steve says. "I was on Asgard trying to return the Reality Stone, and Thor's mother was killed. There was an attack, the GPS got damaged."
He pauses to drink more water. He looks exhausted now, Bucky realizes, can see the dark circles under his eyes, the paleness of his skin. How long has it been, for Steve? How many years was he trying to get back?
"You should get some rest," Bucky says. "Get some regular clothes on, sleep it off. You can do all the hero briefing tomorrow."
Steve's shoulders visibly relax. He nods, drains the last of his water and sets the glass in the sink. He meets Bucky in the living room and slings an arm over his shoulder, then looks down and grins.
"Are you wearing my clothes?"
"I don't like shopping in the 21st century, lay off it."
He elbows Steve half-heartedly, and hopes Steve won't move his arm, and he doesn't, just laughs and presses his nose to Bucky's hair, like he hasn't been gone for months. Like he wasn't as good as dead. Steve lets his arm fall away when they get to the bathroom and says he'll be out soon. Bucky grabs himself a pillow and heads to the couch. He listens to the shower, the sounds of Steve moving in the bathroom, Steve getting into bed. Steve back. Steve. He falls asleep.
Bucky wakes up two hours later because it was a dream. He rabbits up off the couch in a sweat and throws open the door to Steve's bedroom, ready to be faced with the undeniable truth, the awful disappointment.
But Steve is there. Asleep. He stirs when Bucky opens the door, eyes sliding open.
"Sorry," Bucky says. "I thought…"
Steve holds an arm out. He doesn't say the words, doesn't ask, doesn't command, but Bucky goes to him. He sits on the bed, tentative at first, then slides down and lies on his side. Faces Steve.
"I'm here," Steve says.
Bucky nods. For a moment, he thinks the bed is shaking, and he realizes that's him. He's trembling.
"I really thought," he says, but can't finish.
Steve's arm wraps over him, pulls him in. He holds him like that, close enough that Bucky's nose is pressed into Steve's sternum, and Bucky falls back to sleep. He still only gets another two hours in, but when he wakes up Steve is there, and that's all right. That's fine.
Bucky is on his second cup of instant coffee when Steve finally wakes up. The sun is just filling the apartment patches of warm spots that Bucky keeps moving to when Steve sleepily walks out of the bedroom. He sees Bucky in the kitchen and smiles.
"I have real coffee, you know."
"This is real," Bucky says.
Steve snorts and opens his cabinets to see what food Bucky's been eating. He looks pleased at the bread and peanut butter selection, grabs that and pops a few slices into the toaster. Bucky assumes they're going to head out any minute to debrief about whatever the hell happened to Steve over the last month and a half, but Steve moves around the kitchen like this is a leisurely Sunday morning, like he and Bucky are hanging out before getting ready to enjoy the day. And maybe that's what he wants. So Bucky stops standing all tense and weird in the corner and slathers some peanut butter on the toast that comes out of the toaster. Steve scoops coffee grounds into the coffee maker.
They sit at the kitchen table and eat peanut butter toast and Steve pours Bucky a cup of brewed coffee and passes it to him wordlessly along with the creamer. He nods and lifts his brows twice. Bucky pours in the creamer. Takes a sip.
"It's smooth," he says. "It's good. You happy?"
Steve laughs. "It's okay to have things you like, Buck."
Bucky's cheeks are hot. From the coffee, he tells himself. He takes another sip and checks the clock. It's just past seven. Steve has been back for the less than twelve hours.
"How long?" he asks.
Steve watches him across the table. He has stubble from not shaving for two days on his face, and his eyes are still weathered.
"A year and a half," he says, and his voice is so heavy that Bucky wants to reach out and drag Steve across the table to him, wants to hold him for the next month and a half to make up for the time they've lost, that they keep losing.
"Bucky," Steve says. "Last night, when you said you couldn't handle it not being me again…what did you mean?"
Oh. He hadn't even realized he said that. Looking back, Bucky can't remember what all he babbled when Steve hugged him. He works his jaw a moment like he's chewing a wad of a gum. His hands are very warm under his coffee cup, even his metal hand, the sensation dulled but noticeable. Practically human.
"Dunno," Bucky says, shrugs. "My mind still gets muddled sometimes…I was just shocked to see you."
"Sure," Steve says.
Even after they finish breakfast Steve doesn't move from the table. He sits there nursing his coffee, watches Bucky from across their empty plates. If Bucky didn't have years of training, wasn't able to sit immobile behind a scope for hours, he'd be squirming. Steve says nothing and that's fine. Eventually his gaze drifts out the window, to some distant thing perhaps not there at all. And it doesn't matter because Bucky isn't looking. He's watching Steve.
"Okay," Steve says, finally. "Let's call the others."
The debrief is long. Hours long. And it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to Bucky. Steve got stuck somewhere in 2013, just not on earth, though he did manage to make it to earth with the help of Thor. After that it was a matter of explaining things to Tony without giving away what exactly was in store for them…for him. And asking Tony to figure out time travel ten years too early.
Fury doesn't interrupt. He just listens, the air about him softer, relieved. They're at the DC office but everything feels pretty informal. Nothing is being recorded. Bucky is in the room. So is Sam.
"Tony was real sore about not being able to figure it out right away," Steve says. "We got flashes. Just. Moments of our current time, this future. It was 2014 before I made it back. Guess it was just over a month for you guys."
"Month and a half," Sam says. "And it felt like a long ass time."
"I know this is an off-the-record meeting," Fury says. "But for the record, no one is allowed to time travel ever again. Understood?"
Bucky stands there with his tongue swelled up in his mouth. Steve looks at him, briefly, then away.
"I have to figure out how to explain to the public that Captain America isn't actually dead," Fury is saying.
"About that," Steve says. "Could I have a moment alone with you, Fury?"
Sam and Bucky step outside the room. The serum in his blood gives Bucky enhanced hearing, but those sorts of things must have been taken into account, because he can hear nothing once the door is shut. He and Sam loiter outside the door, shuffle about in the hallway. Sam sags against the wall, hands stuffed into his pockets. Bucky squints up into the lighting, then down.
"You okay?" he asks.
"Yeah," Sam says. "Thanks."
He laughs. "Gonna have a lot of fun telling my therapist that Steve Rogers is alive after all."
Steve and Fury exist the room a minute later, no hint as to what they were talking about in their expressions. Sam already hugged Steve earlier. Hugged him, called him a stupid son of a bitch, and punched his shoulder. He hugs him again now.
"I really missed you, man," he says, pulls back. "When are we suiting up together, huh?"
"We'll talk," Steve says. "Just need a few days to lay low and get my 2023 legs back."
He reaches out, and like he's been pulled, Bucky steps forward.
"You ready to head back?" Steve asks, and Bucky nods.
Fury has a car drop them at Steve's apartment. They say nothing to each other, not a damn thing. Steve squeezes a leftover avocado to check its ripeness and starts looking at canned food in the cabinets for lunch. Bucky hasn't been spectacular about picking up food other than what Sam brings over. Steve opens the cutlery drawer and pulls out the can opener. It feels like any moment the air is going to crack, gone solid between them, and Bucky can't move. His tongue still feels sanded and heavy in his mouth ever since Steve explained what happened. He watches Steve pop the lid off a can of tuna.
"We have bread, right?" Steve says.
Bucky can't take it anymore.
"I saw you."
Steve sets the can down. "I know."
"Everywhere I looked," Bucky says. "I kept seeing you. Like a damn ghost, Steve."
And Steve has the audacity to look guilty, like somehow this is his fault. He hasn't changed in all that years Bucky's known him, and that's as comforting as it is heartbreaking.
"I was thinking about you, every time we tried," he says. "I wanted to get back to you. I guess you saw the afterimage."
Bucky has to sit with that for a long minute. Would physically sit if he could feel his legs.
"For a minute I thought…you might have decided to stay."
"No," Steve says. Just like that. No.
He starts opening a drawer, then slams it shut so hard it splinters.
"Do you have any idea," he says. "Do you remember 2014? It's when I found out you were still alive. I had to spend half the year avoiding myself, letting it all play out when all I wanted to do was get to you and stop what was happening. It was killing me, Buck. I can't…" Steve lets out a shuddering breath. "I can't keep losing you."
Bucky is across the kitchen in two strides, but he stops just short of Steve and he hates himself. He hates himself because he doesn't know what to do, hates himself for knowing Steve went through that, even if it wasn't his fault, it still feels like his fault. If only he hadn't fallen off the train, if only, if only, if only. He hates himself for the tight ball of want in his gut, like he's swallowed a wad of gum and it's stuck there. It still feels strange to be shorter than Steve now. Bucky doesn't startle when Steve cups the back of his neck, but his stomach flips and he knows his eyes dilate. Then he laughs. It comes unbidden, bubbles up and leaves his lips in soft hysteria, short and breathless. Steve frowns.
"Sorry," Bucky says. "We just do that a lot, don't we? Lose each other?"
Steve smiles, now, but somehow it's heart wrenching.
"Yeah," he says. "We do. Let's stop doing that, all right?"
Then he kisses Bucky.
And that's what startles Bucky. It's good. It's more than good, and he wants, but he pulls back, lips already tingling.
"Don't," he says. "Not if you're not—Steve—"
"I wouldn't," Steve says. "If I didn't want to."
He has both hands in Bucky's hair now, moves in slowly, gives Bucky plenty of time to move away if he wants. Bucky doesn't. Steve kisses him again and it's soft at first, a kiss from 1936. Eighteen-year-old Steve Rogers, plucky and bird-boned. Then again, and it's 1943, on some snowy ground in France during the war, hard-mouthed. Then again, 2014, to bring Bucky back, to remember, to remember. Bucky twists his fists into the fabric of Steve's shirt and walks them backward—he doesn't know where. They just move.
"Come here," Steve says, even though Bucky is already there, and Steve kisses the bridge of his nose, and the curve of his jaw.
Bucky drags his lips down Steve's neck the way he's wanted to since he knew how to want, feels Steve tremble. Something soft touches his back and he realizes they're on the bed now, legs tangled, clothes pulled over and off and down. Steve's hands run the column of Bucky's body, the hard length of him and Bucky grabs Steve's ass and presses their bodies together.
"Like this," he says, "Fuck," and Steve says, "Bet you say that to all the dames," and breaks off into a moan when his cock eases between Bucky's thighs. His brows draw down, furrow. Bucky reaches up to trace them.
"Steve," he says. "Steve."
And says it again, again, until he is no longer forming words.
"Left the tuna out," Steve says later.
"We gotta work on your pillow talk, pal."
Steve is draped over him in bed still, fingers drifting lazily up and down Bucky's metal arm, soft puffs of breath at Bucky's neck. Bucky's legs are tangled up in the sheets now, one foot exposed and cold, but he doesn't give a damn. He could stay like this for days. Years. Steve props up on one elbow suddenly, gets that look on his face when he's about to talk business. Bucky holds his breath.
"That talk I had with Fury earlier," he says. "It was about passing on the shield."
"I want to pass it to Sam."
Bucky blinks once, twice, and is surprised to see that Steve looks guilty again. Steve's fingers drift over Bucky's shoulder, to his collarbone.
"You don't mind, right?" he says.
"Mind?" Bucky sits up. "You don't even have to ask me, Steve. It's your gig. Sam is…he'll be great. He's already great."
"No," Steve says. "I just meant—I don't want you to think it's because I don't think you're good for it—"
Bucky kisses him. He grabs Steve by the jaw and yanks him forward, kisses him so hard that when they pull back their mouths make a pop sound. Steve's cheekbones are flushed pink, remind Bucky of the wrappers of the Big Cherry candy bars they used to sell at the corner store that he and Steve could never afford. It's so strange, Bucky thinks, because he didn't know he had that memory until just now.
"I know that," he says. "You don't even have to say it."
Steve nods. Leans in and gently presses his forehead to Bucky's.
"So, what now?" Bucky says. "You're not going to be Captain America anymore, I guess."
"Nope. I'll just be Steve Rogers."
"Huh. And what does Steve Rogers want to do?"
Steve arranges them back down on the bed, his fingers slotted with Bucky's, chin hooked to the crook of his shoulder. He presses his lips to the shell of Bucky's ear and Bucky can feel his smile.
"Just this," he says.
And so they do.