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the freedom and the guile

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Bucky waited. They needed to talk but Steve had just lost two of his closest friends and needed time to process. He had mostly ignored Bucky and Sam, but that was okay for now. They would be there when he was ready.

Bucky hadn't expected Steve to pull him aside just before Tony's funeral. Just a tap on the shoulder and a quiet request for him to follow. Bucky had thought that maybe Steve needed a quiet moment of anchoring. It had been like that in Wakanda sometimes. Steve would visit for only a day or so, barely talk to him, but need to be by his side, always touching him or holding onto him one way or another. When they had been first been reunited, Steve had hugged him for nearly ten minutes straight, burying his face in his neck. Their embraces didn't grow much shorter over time. Steve always held him like it was the last time they'd ever see each other. Then Steve would be gone and while Bucky missed him, he knew he would come back. He had always come back.

But this time he wasn't going.

Steve explained, "Once I've put the stones back, I'm going back to 1945, right after I crashed. I'll make sure I don't get found until I'm supposed to."

Bucky blinked, trying to process what Steve had just said. "You're staying?"

Steve said, "I've got a chance that I'm never going to get again. I can go back to where I belong. I can go back to her."

Her. His heart nearly crumpled. Peggy. After all this time, it was still Peggy.

"I want you to come back with me, Buck. We can go home again. It'll be just like old times, before all of this."

Her. He was choosing her.

Bucky couldn't do this again. He couldn't hide it anymore. Not even for him.

Bucky took in a deep breath before confessing, "Steve, I'm gay."

Steve's mouth parted slightly and Bucky couldn't stop staring at his lips as he continued, "I don't...I know we've never really talked about it or put it in words, but I know you're not straight either. Maybe that doesn't matter to you because you love Peggy so you can put that part of yourself away and just be happy with her. But I...I can't go and watch you do it. I want you to be happy. If you're going to go, I'm not going to stop you. I want you to be happy. And if that's not with me, then I'm not going to hold you to any promises."

He half expected Steve to ask him what he meant or to deny it. But Steve's eyes brimmed with tears and his lip trembled.

"We could have a life together," Steve murmured. "We could-"

Bucky refused, "No. I'm not going to pretend to be someone I'm not. If this is your happily ever after, it's not going to include me."

Bucky was trembling now and Steve reached out to touch his shoulder. Bucky slapped his hand away and pointed at him.

"No," Bucky said firmly, willing the tremor in his voice to stop. "No. If you try to comfort me right now I'm going to start crying and make a scene."

"Bucky," Steve pleaded. "Please come home with me."

Bucky shook his head. "That's not our home, Steve. We can't get what we had back. It doesn't exist anymore. We only have now. We're together. Finally, Steve, we can finally be together. Can't...can't that be enough? You and me. Please, please don't go. Stay with me. Please. Please, stay with me."

Steve confessed, "But that's not the life I want, Buck."

Bucky murmured, "You mean you don't want me."

Steve was openly crying now, silent tears streaming down his face. Steve shook his head and whispered shakily, "I'm sorry."

Bucky was a survivor. He had lived through things that should have killed any man. But at that moment he expected to crumple up and die. It was over. It was all over. He ran away like a child, not looking where he was going. He hit something solid and arms caught him.

Sam asked, "Hey, are you-"

Bucky burst into tears. Ugly, wretched, disgusting, choking tears. He started to apologize but Sam wrapped him in a hug and started murmuring, "Hey, it's okay. Let it out. It's all okay."

Bucky buried his face in Sam's shoulder, sobbing. He clung to Sam, holding on to dear life. Sam rubbed his back and eventually Bucky managed to catch his breath.

"I'm sorry," Bucky whispered.

Sam smiled. "Hey, no one does well at funerals. You've got this, okay?"

Bucky had no right to tell Sam what Steve was planning. He wasn't sure he could even do it without falling apart again. He'd know soon enough.

It felt only a breath before the funeral was over and Bucky was holding Steve for one last time. Steve let go, promising it would be okay, but Bucky knew it wouldn't be. This was the end of the line.

Five seconds. That was all it took for Steve be aged seventy years, to live his life twice over, and become a content old man sitting alone on a bench. Bucky couldn't go see him. He wasn't strong enough. He sent Sam over with barely a word, hanging back to watch from afar.

It seemed an eternity until Sam returned to him, slinging the shield behind him.

Sam asked, "Do you want to..."

Steve hadn't turned around to look at them. He looked straight ahead.

Bucky whispered, "No, I'll talk to him later."

"Did you know?"

Bucky nodded. "Yeah, I knew."

"You really think I can do this? Be Captain America?"

Bucky smiled tiredly. "Yeah, I do. It's not going to be easy, but I'm here. I've got a lot of experience being Cap's right hand man. I might be useful to have around."

Sam clapped him on the back. "I could use all the help I can get."

Sam kept his arm around Bucky's shoulders as they walked off together. It took all of Bucky's strength not to look back at Steve to see if he watched them leave. But Bucky knew it wouldn't make it any easier either way.

*****

Bruce questioned, "Who's going to be the leader of the Avengers then? Tony's dead. Nat's dead. Steve's in the triple digits, Thor's screwed off somewhere in space, Clint's retired again and I'm not exactly leadership material. Then the rest of them have their own countries and peoples to govern. Or were not great optically. The choice really comes down to you, me, War Machine, Captain Marvel and the Wasp. Carol's got half the galaxy to take care of so she's out. Rhodey doesn't want it and Hope's only just joined. Even if that weren’t the case, you'd still be the best pick, Sam. You're Captain America. You represent something really important. I think it should be you. I'll be here to help you, we all will. But I think it should be you."

Bucky wandered off as they continued talking. He knew Sam would take it and he'd be good at it. He had a strategic mind and he understood people. He had a bit of a temper, but no worse than Steve's. It was a good choice. It was the smart choice.

Bucky looked up at the second floor, aware that someone was watching him. T'Challa was with his sister, both gazing down at Bucky with something that looked like pity. When they realized they had been caught, both awkwardly turned away and chatted about something in Xhosa.

Sam left the meeting with Bruce and went to Bucky, patting him on the back. Sam gestured to the courtyard. Bucky followed him shakily, tempted to take his arm to steady himself.

Once they were outside, Sam asked, "How are you feeling?"

"Like shit. How about you?"

Sam sighed. "Feeling like I'm about to have six panic attacks at once, honestly. I'm okay though. I can handle it."

Bucky squeezed his hand. "You can. You're going to be all right."

Sam said, "I'm going to be heading to Wakanda for a few weeks. Shuri's going to make me a suit that accommodates the shield better. I thought you might want to come along. I could use the company."

"You don't have to babysit me, Sam," Bucky muttered. "I'm fine."

Sam snorted. "Yeah, totally fine. You don't have to fool me. I think we could both use a break and you could go visit your goats. Some of them have got to be kicking around still."

"Goats usually live at least fifteen years," Bucky grumbled. "They'll be there."

It'd be nice to see them. Some of the kids might have grown up. Or they could have all been dusted and just be confused little things. He'd visit but he'd gift them to his neighbour. He didn't want to stay at his little house, not in that place he had spent so much time with Steve and even more time pining for him.

But where else was he supposed to go?

"When are we leaving?" Bucky asked.

"As soon as you're ready," Sam said. "So if you want to go talk to him first...."

Bucky shook his head. "No. Let's go."

*****

Bucky blinked awake. How long had he been out? It had been daylight when he closed his eyes and it was daylight again now. He reached around sleepily for his phone, temporarily forgetting he had purposely left it behind. He wanted to phone Steve about every five minutes and he knew he couldn't. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

Bucky wasn't sure how long he laid there on his side before the blinds were forced open and Sam was sitting on the edge of the bed. Bucky muttered at him to leave.

Bucky murmured into his pillow, "Just let me sleep. Please."

Sam ignored him. "How was the village? Catch up with your friends?"

Bucky muttered into his pillow. "Only two of us got dusted but almost all our animals did. Most people moved to the city. They lost everything. Some guy moved into my place. He gave me a box of crap he found around the house."

"Anything good?"

Bucky recalled now what had sent him to bed in the middle of the day. One of Steve's sketchbooks had been under the bed and Hamadi had been so moved they hadn't been able to throw it out. It was mostly empty since it was a new book. There had been a few sketches of locals, but there was one of Bucky, detailed and perfectly shaded, of him asleep in bed. Bucky remembered waking to see Steve drawing, the guy so sheepish at being caught he had gone bright red. Bucky had teased him and wrestled him, trying to get a look, and they had ended up toppled on the floor together, the notebook lost beneath the bed, and Bucky lying on top of Steve. They had looked at each other for just a second too long, Bucky's heart racing as he wondered for the millionth time if he should just lean in and kiss him.

Bucky croaked, "No. Nothing good."

Sam said quietly, "When I lost Riley, I stayed in bed for five days. I know it's not the same, but I know what it's like losing the person you're closest to. I know...shit, I don't know how you're feeling. I don't know what exactly Steve was to you and you don't have to tell me. But the longer you stay in that bed, the harder it's going to be to get back out of it."

Bucky didn't see why that was a problem. Spending the rest of his life in this bed seemed like a real keen idea right around then.

"I'm in love with him," Bucky confessed wearily. "I have been since I was seventeen. Hell, maybe earlier than that. But that was when I figured it out at least. I knew I liked guys, only guys, but Steve liked girls too. I hoped maybe he'd meet somebody and that maybe I'd meet a girl who understood and we'd work something out. I took him out on all sorts of double dates, hoping one of them would stick. But no one ever saw him like I did. Then when I was captured that first time, I swore I'd tell him. I'd seen enough guys like me in the army making it work. And I knew then that I was never going to love anyone like I loved him. Then he saved me like a goddamn prince in a fairy tale and I was going to but...but then I met Peggy and...."

Bucky swallowed hard. "I knew then that he had been waiting for her. She was the one for him. And I couldn't blow that for him, no matter what I wanted. Then...then when we found each other again, I thought that it'd be different this time. I thought...God, I really thought he loved me too. I really, really did. I thought he was taking his time and I got that. Even if the world's different now, it takes a long time for that fear to go away. And I was recovering and he was figuring out who he was without the Avengers. But it didn't matter. Peggy had her happy ending and I thought we'd get ours. I was okay being his second choice. That didn't matter to me. I just wanted him and if that was how I finally got him, I didn't care. But he didn't want me. He didn't want this life with me, or any life with me. He wanted her and he wasn't going to let anything stop him from being with her. And I know he's back now and hell, even as he is, I want to throw myself at his feet and beg, but he left me. Or I left him. He had this whole happy long life without me. I could have been there but there's a difference between being second choice and not being chosen at all. I'm probably just a fond memory for him but he's an open wound for me. I can't. As much as I want to, I can't. I chose me. I chose to live my life for me. I have to keep doing that. But I love him. I'm always going to love him and I'm never going to love anyone or anything as much as I love him."

"I'm sorry," Sam murmured. "I'm so sorry."

Sam touched his shoulder. Bucky put his hand over Sam's but couldn't turn over to look at him. Sam rubbed his back for a moment before rising again.

"Shuri's got you in for a maintenance appointment in three days," Sam said. "You do whatever you need to do so you can be out in the world by then. If you need anything, you just call me, okay?"

Bucky nodded. "Okay."

*****

The next day Bucky wouldn't get out of bed. Or couldn't. He wasn't sure. He pulled up Netflix on his virtual screen and watched Ken Burns' Captain America documentary. He sat against his headboard, holding a pillow to his chest, watching footage of Steve on the battlefield. He looked worn but determined. He was a force of nature. He was unstoppable.

Bucky hadn't seen the whole thing before, just the clips they showed of it at the Smithsonian. He hadn't known there was a section about him. There were old photographs of Brooklyn Heights and Red Hook while the narrator talked about Steve's childhood best friend. A few sketches Steve had done of him - God knows how they got them - while someone read excerpts from a letter Bucky had written him from the front, just before Steve became a superhero. Then footage of them during the war and the clip Bucky had watched a hundred times while he tried to remember. The pair of them, side by side, laughing. Steve had asked the cameraman what he needed them to do and the guy had something along the lines of asking them to act like they were friends. And Bucky had laughed, saying "but we are friends." He watched himself mouthing the words over and over again.

And then there was another letter read, one that Bucky had never seen. Steve had written to George and Winnie Barnes, telling them what had happened to their son.

I don't know how I'm going to live without him. It feels impossible. He was the best part of me. The only part of me that mattered. I loved him.

Bucky screamed and threw the remote straight through the screen, which glitched and faded. The audio still played with historians talking about romantic language in close wartime friendships but Bucky had stopped listening. He had also ripped several pillows in two.

Bucky turned off the movie and laid on his back. What was he doing?

I don't know how I'm going to live without him. It feels impossible. He was the best part of me. The only part of me that mattered. I loved him.

Steve had found a way to move on. Whatever he had felt in that moment, he had clearly gotten over it. Bucky had to do the same or he wasn't going to survive. Even if in that moment he didn't want to, he had gone through too much shit to die of a broken heart over a lying asshole. This wasn't how he went out.

I loved him. Past tense. When had he stopped? What had changed? Or had Steve just finally realized that Bucky wasn't worth it?

Bucky closed the blinds and went back to bed. He pulled the blankets around him as tightly as he could and he shut his eyes, pleading for his mind to let him sleep.