The world rewinds, resets, and freezes.
There’s a beard grizzling his cheeks once more and the warm Wakandan sun dapples through the leaves in the trees, but somehow his shield journeys with him. The world is singeing at the edges.
His head is turned and blue eyes meet blue.
He can’t breathe.
One minute frozen, the next, explosion.
A thousand new ships darkening the sky.
A thousand portals swooshing golden through the air.
They fight, and he can’t get to Bucky, but he can see Bucky which is enough, and Bucky, Bucky, Bucky is whole and there and he’s never been lost because they’ve rewritten time and set everything back and.
Thanos is in the middle of the chaos, in the middle of the battle, confused, recovering, damaged, but Thor chops his head off with one smooth motion, and for a moment Steve breathes, but another moment comes and brings with it a giant out of time laughing from the shadows and punching the god away like a rag doll, reaching for the gauntlet, and he can’t, he can’t .
A blur of gold, that somewhere inside contains a woman, sweeps it away, sweeps it down, sparks flooding down from the sky. It rolls out of reach, rolls towards his feet. Glinting as fire rains around them, ravaging the world.
The land shakes.
There’s some unnamed emotion in his heart, some unbearable ache in his soul. It reminds him of the war, for a heartbeat, no man’s land, Bucky at his side. Bucky beside him, Bucky’s eyes on him.
Bucky’s eyes are on him.
He’s so sorry, so sorry, but not sorry at all. Bucky’s eyes are on him, Bucky is whole.
It’s only seconds, but it spins like hours.
The sacrifice play.
The wire on the ground.
Everything special about him came out of a bottle, except the one thing that didn’t, which got him the bottle at all.
It’s a grenade. And he doesn’t hesitate. He leaps.
The gauntlet slips onto his hand, vibrates as though it’s alive, as though it’s deciding, and then molds down smoothly. A breath. And then the power rushes through him, heady, and destructive, and alive, a thousand sparkling lights inside of him. He thinks of the first time he kissed Bucky. He thinks of Tony’s lips twisted into a smile. Of a King offering sanctuary. He thinks of Nat, and Sam, and Peggy. The growl comes low from his lips. For a minute, a wild, unbearable minute, he considers he could have everything, that he could change everything, set it all right. Wipe all the evil away , he thinks, for a wild heartbeat. Flashes of a utopia burst behind his eyes in technicolor, supernovas of possibility, everyone he’s ever lost, everything that’s ever been taken, but already, he knows the stones are consuming him. He isn’t god. He isn’t god’s righteous man, he’s just that little guy from Brooklyn too dumb to run away from a fight.
Bucky’s lips are moving but he can’t hear what they’re saying, he’s getting closer, and Tony is there all at once, five years younger, fresh from space, but there’s a great and terrible grief behind his eyes, there are tears streaming, a hollow loss, the loss of everything left in a time that's gone, and the fear of more to come. He wants to reach out, but he can’t. Maybe he smiles at them.
Just set everything back to how it was. He thinks.
Peace, for them, please. He thinks.
He’s tried to pretend he can live without war, and now war consumes him. It seems fitting. It seems just. He has only ever wanted to do his part. Men are laying down their lives.
I’ve got no right to do any less.
Peace for them.
And he snaps.
He’s tasted the agony of being made, of his muscles growing, of his body righting, and now it circles back to him as he’s torn apart. The serum tries to kick in, tries to heal his cells as they sunder over and over, but there’s no recourse for his body, no possible way to find relief, the waves of pain ravage, the hazy kiss of godliness still twisting around the edges of his awareness blinding, the confusing whirl between power and helplessness. There’s no coherency of thought, nothing he can grasp onto. Just the knowledge, the distant awareness of something blue.
He’s always feared being alone.
He’s never feared pain.
Of the two fates, he accepts this.
The power, burning, burning power, twists into his veins, pumps fire through him, burns the heart of him, the tang of iron and salt, blood and sweat, cloak his world. And then when there’s so much heat, so much flame, so much conflagration in that he’s surprised he hasn’t burst into a thousand tiny particles, come apart at every seam, everything stops in a sickening lurch.
Air trickles into his lungs, barely, barely, and dust begins to fill the world. He can’t understand it, exactly. Can’t make sense of up from down. But there’s quiet. The world is suddenly deafening silent and still, so maybe, maybe they’ve won.
Sam is there in front of him, on his left , and blearily he blinks at him. Sam smiles, but his lips are shaking.
“Hey man.” He says calmly, because Sam is always calm.
“Hey.” He whispers back, a creaking, frightful sound. Shouldn’t he just be able to get back up? Shouldn’t the serum have kicked in already? He pretends not to know the answer. His chest moves slowly as he gathers his sluggish thoughts, ends up at -- “Guess you’d better take it now.”
“Steve?” Sam’s face is confused, his voice, the shaking is worse, still calm. Steve moves his arm, moves the shield. Lifts it one last time.
“S’yours.” He whispers. “You’ll be great.” And he knows, he knows Sam will be. He tries to imagine being able to see it, but then it hurts too much so he stops. “Yours.”
Sam looks back at something unclearly, and then looks back at him again, reaches out to gently pry the shield from his fingers, his hand falls back to rest, down one weight. “You sure?”
But he only has a smile. “Looks good on you.” And Sam fades out of his vision.
T’Challa is in front of him, suddenly, or maybe his world just blinked from one moment to the next, no longer processing anything as it should, warm fingers around his own, and tears fill his eyes a little. A king on his knees. “Guess I should have been a cat.” He murmurs. “Coulda used six more lives.”
The hand squeezes, sunshine warm, a kind of peaceful he has only known here. “Take care of him?” It’s a question he doesn’t need to ask, but he’s a dead man on his last breaths, so they’ll forgive him redundancy, just this once.
T’Challa’s smile is as bright as ever, even through the mottle of sadness that strikes him around the edges. “I promised you he would have peace here and was made a liar.” There’s conviction there and the jagged edges of hope. “Not again.”
The kiss is light on his forehead, benediction, sacrament, he doesn’t believe in god anymore, but there’s a magic in the land here. The promise of something after. Enough to be brave.
“You’re an asshole.” Tony’s eyes are wounds in his face, bruises darker than in Siberia, darker than when they first met, hollow wells of pain. Loss, on top of loss, on top of loss, layers and layers of the hurt they’ve dealt one another. So close, too far.
“I’m so so-” He starts, but Tony’s lips are on his, desperate and trembling.
“Shut up.” Fingers are clenched into his jacket. “Just shut up.”
He does, moves his arm to wrap around the other as best as he can. “I’ll miss you.” He murmurs and lets the other shake against his chest, lets the tears, Tony’s, his own, mix into the blood, run rivers down his neck. He wants to tell him he’s so sorry they wasted all that time, so sorry for Tony’s sacrifices, so sorry it’s always like this for them. That he’s home.
Always out of time.
Tony watches Bucky as he moves closer, drops to his side, paler than a ghost, but substantial, but real, but whole. Tony watches Bucky and says nothing, and Steve wants to beg them to mend this pain, to try without him, but there’s not enough in him for that, to keep the edges of darkness at bay. Maybe they hear it anyway.
He smiles at Bucky this time, genuine, relived, so fucking glad that he’s here.
“Don’t.” His voice breaks, a hoarse whisper, drenched in tears suddenly at his throat. “Don’t do anything stupid till I get back.”
And Bucky’s eyes are so blue, he could drown in them, he wants to drown in them, to die with that blue as the last thing he knows, as blue as the sky, golden with the sunshine that streams through the clouds. The most precious color in the world.
“How can I?” He whispers back, his fingers curving around Steve’s wrist, and he’s not wrapped in Tony’s tumultuous anguish, or Sam’s attempts at levity, or T’Challa’s serenity, the sadness is quiet on him, a breeze on still waters as autumn approaches, the world is dying, and summer is fading, and the lump in your throat tightens with the passing of time, everything that blows away with the wind. “You’re taking all the stupid with you.”
“I love you.” He gives back and it’s as simple as complicated as that. It always has been.
Bucky whispers it back, “Till the end of the line.” He breathes.
And in a shroud of blue, the world spins far away.
The strains of music are the first thing he understands, laughter, next, cheery singing, the dimness of a bar.
He pushes open the door and smiles turn to him.
Peggy is there, and she kisses her husband’s cheek and moves to him, a dream and not a dream. She’s young again, and smiling, full of life. Her arms close around him in a hug, and they sway for a minute, her cheek on his chest, a dance fulfilled, a pain lifted. She squeezes him, lets him go.
The commandos grin in his direction from their table full of beer, vibrant with life, boisterous, toasting, cheering. Next round’s on you.
He makes his way to the back of the room. Pauses next to a nearly empty table.
“Room for a friend?” Working his lips into a smile is strange, and yet, the smile comes.
Nat’s eyes flit up to him from where she’s lounging, feet up on the wood. She eyes him, the barest hint of a smirk on her face, vodka up in salute.
“Gonna tell me to get my feet off the dash?”
His smile shifts into a grin as he slides in next to her.
It’s not peace, but it’s close.