He meets Bucky’s eyes as he drops out of the quantum realm and onto the platform; only Bucky’s eyes, as everyone else seems occupied over by the lake, but it’s really only Bucky’s eyes he cares about seeing anyway. But Bucky looks at Steve like he’s impossible, like he cannot be real and Steve isn’t entirely sure what to do with that, unsteady on his feet after the jump; he loses his balance and stumbles, falling to his knees on the metal.
“Easy,” Bucky’s at his side, reaching for him before he pitches forward and crashes any further, hands on Steve’s chest to steady him, and it’s the most necessary, grounding thing Steve didn’t realize he needed until that very moment: he’s back.
It worked, it’s done, and he’s back.
Steve’s nearly huffing out a laugh of wonder, but it catches halfway because Bucky’s still looking at him like he’s not sure Steve’s there, like he wasn’t expecting Steve to be there, exactly where they’d planned for him to be, and Steve spares a second to think about what might have gone wrong after he’d made the jump, what could have put that look of surprise and disbelief and something unnamable that Steve wants to chase and find and hold in Bucky’s eyes. Except it’s not a pleasant thing, it’s a hateful thing because it looks like it fucking hurts, and Steve Rogers has oriented so much of his life around trying to make up for all the hurting Bucky Barnes has had to endure because Steve wasn’t strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough, or—
“What,” Steve finds it in him to ask, to quirk his lips around a question: “Did I grow a moustache in the 70s and not notice?”
Bucky’s still wide-eyed when he answers, straight and nearly without emotion, save for the faintness of his tone:
“There were some terrible moustaches in the 70s.”
Steve laughs, a little flat. “There are some terrible moustaches always.”
Bucky’s eyes rove over him swiftly, but surely, like he’s double-checking Steve’s existence before he asks:
“Were you there long enough to grow one?”
“God no,” Steve frowns, pulling back a little and only realizing fully, when he does, that Bucky’s hands are still braced on him, and that’s what stops Steve from moving any further, because something in him doesn’t want that touch to go away.
“You think I wanted to stick around with those goddamn Stones any longer than need be?” Steve asks, incredulous, not leaning back into Bucky’s touch but bowing his head closer to bite out the truth with fervor:
“They unleashed hell, Buck,” Steve says from the heart of him; “I wanted them gone, and I’d really like them to stay that way.”
It’s then that Steve notices how heavy Bucky’s breathing is: probably undetectable for anyone else but Steve hears it; feels it.
“What is it?” Steve asks, reaching out to wrap his hand around the back of Bucky’s neck and then he feels it, because where Bucky’s braced against Steve’s chest, Steve’s heart’s still pounding; distracting. When Steve touches Bucky’s frame in kind, though, it’s obvious.
“Buck, you’re shaking, what—”
Because Steve can’t get an answer from Bucky, who doesn’t stop shaking once Steve turns toward Sam’s voice—Sam’s voice that’s incredulous and Sam’s gaze which is just as wondering, though more confused and less…heartbreaking than Bucky’s, and just what the fuck is going on?
“Sam,” Steve smiles tightly, on shaky footing without knowing why in the hell his simple presence, exactly where he was meant to be, seems to be such an unexpected find.
Steve nods slowly.
He’s not expecting the comment, or the shock in it, and the laugh he huffs out is more of a reflex than anything else.
His hand is still on the back of Bucky’s neck, and maybe no one can see it, but Bucky’s still shaking.
“Not really,” Steve answers ruefully, hoping to find the joke, but Sam just shakes his head.
“No, I mean,” he turns behind him, and it’s only then that Steve notices something big and familiarly-sized in Sam’s grasp. He casts his gaze around to Bucky, who isn’t looking, and then to Bruce, who’s coming up behind with a deep-set frown on his own face.
“You saw,” Sam demands of him, almost hysterical; “you saw—”
“What am I missing?” Steve finally says, when Bruce starts looking at him like he can’t make sense of him, either.
“Old you, he was,” Sam wheels around again, surveying the shore of the lake before his face falls and he asks Bruce, a little lost: “Where’d he go?”
“He just,” Bruce answers, voice far away as he shrugs helplessly: “vanished.” Bruce finally makes it up the path and sets eyes on the platform fully, now: eyes that widen just like everyone else’s, apparently.
“Bruce,” Steve nods, and tries to navigate foreign territory. “Went off without a hitch.”
“Well,” Bruce says, with no small amount of criticism: “apparently there’s some hitch involved. First, you’re late, and second,” he gestures behind him toward the lake. “What did you change?”
“Nothing,” Steve says, and it’s true. “Spent more time getting a few of them back than I’d have liked but, I thought I followed the instructions to the letter.”
“He’s telling the truth.” Bucky’s voice is low and rough and it startles Steve, who lets go of him abruptly and misses the contact; Bucky doesn’t let go of him, though, as if he physically cannot stand what it might mean to even try, and for Steve, that helps.
“I know what he sounds like when he lies,” Bucky says, just straight-out states it as fact, and Steve knows that it is less because Bucky believes that he’s not lying, and more because Bucky would know it, would know it better than Steve himself. He always had.
“But he was,” Bruce starts, and then regroups with a note of entreaty in what follows: “Cap, you would have had to have—”
“Bruce,” Steve cuts him off, because there’s something unsettling about what’s being said around him, about Bucky’s touch still trembling that little bit against him, about Sam’s eyes and the bag in his hand and what had to have been changed and someone old and—
Shaking. The worst part is that Bucky’s still shaking.
“I put them back and came home,” Steve says carefully, but firm. “Interacted less this time than we did the first time, even. Only person I talked to was the…” he thinks a moment, because it feels odd to say it aloud and he wants to make sure he does it right: “The Ancient One?”
“Right,” Bruce draws the word out, watching Steve like he thinks he can read the lie off of him if it’s there; he wouldn’t be able to, of course. Steve’s a damn good liar when he wants to be, and like Bucky’d said: only one living soul knows how to catch it.
Steve sighs, and tries to piece together a response that they all seem to be waiting for. He doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be, but he can try.
“I have no idea what,” he takes a hand and throws it outward toward the water dismissively; “what that was,” then he looks down at the weight leaning against Sam’s leg, and assumes whatever ‘that’ was brought a very tellingly-shaped gift. “Though I’m glad for that,” he nods indicatively, because it’s true. None of the rest of this makes sense but an out, a way to step back and maybe do what Tony suggested, find a life outside the fight? That makes sense. And Sam makes sense as the one to pass it on to.
“No one better suited to the job.”
“But the shield, you’re,” Sam starts, gesturing at him and sizing him up as he is because apparently the old version of...him? Was it even him, how could they know? And Steve didn’t do anything, he’d left all the versions of himself in the past where they belonged, and goddamnit, if things didn’t quite make sense before, then what the hell was he supposed to do with all of this?
He doesn’t realize it until it’s done, but his hand reaches for the one Bucky’s still got splayed on Steve’s chest, and Steve didn’t realize how much of his weight was still depending on Bucky’s strength to hold him up; Steve’s grabbing for the touch, though, like he might need it just as much, or more.
He doesn’t know what to do with this, so he leaps at what he can understand; what he does know.
“Don’t let it become you,” he looks at Sam, tone solemn. “You wield it, and you live up to what it means, but remember that above anything else, you are Sam Wilson.”
Sam swallows hard, but nods. And Steve nods in kind, tries to smile and knows he at least manages a grimace and maybe that’s okay, for now.
“I’ll be here for you every step of the way, as your friend,” Steve tells him firmly; “but not as your brother in arms.” Sam’s eyes get wide, and the trembling in Bucky stills, though it might be less from calm and more from shock, but Steve isn’t surprised at himself, more just surprised that the words finally come out and feel right, not selfish—or else, not any more selfish than he’s okay with, because he can recognize a line now; thinks he’s finally got a shot at finding a happy medium if he tries.
“The shield’s yours now, not mine,” Steve says simply. “Not anymore.”
It gets quiet, eerily quiet, and Steve is suddenly so fucking tired he can barely think. Bucky’s hands move on his chest, readjust, because Steve seems to be leaning on him entirely, now, keeping all of none of his weight up on his own. He sighs, but it’s more of a huff because he can’t seem to even lift his lungs that much, the exhaustion hits him so hard, so the question just kind of slips out, sounds like much less of a plea than it is in his bones:
“Can we go inside?”
Steve finds himself hours later, staring out the window and thinking of absolutely nothing in particular except finding the evidence of Bucky nearby in the subtle din of noise in the kitchen: the low rumble of his voice, the distinct footfalls that are deliberate because if they weren’t, even Steve wouldn’t hear them. Sam’s making dinner, and Bucky’s helping, and Bruce is still trying to figure out what the hell happened with this “old Steve” they apparently encountered before Steve himself came back, but Steve can’t bring himself to square with whatever that was, because the fact that he’s here, that they’re here, that he’s got—
Bucky moves. Steve feels himself sit up a little straighter, following the sound; he turns a little as it grows closer, but lingers in the doorway. Steve wishes he could just let the feeling of those eyes—those present eyes, those living eyes, those eyes here—wash over him for a lifetime or two, but there’s still something frantic in him, something that can’t sit still and just accept all the loss alongside all the found.
“What is it?” he says softly, but Bucky just shakes his head.
“Just,” he shrugs; “just watching.”
Steve nods, and turns back to the window. Watching Bucky in the reflection seems easier, somehow, to believe. To ease into slowly, a truth his heart’s still too fragile to dive into headfirst.
“Did you go back to her?”
Steve closes his eyes, and listens to Bucky’s breathing behind him; a little shallow, a little hesitant. So this was why he’d looked at Steve that way, when he fell onto the platform. He’d, he’d meant he was going to miss Steve not in case something went wrong; not enough to be soothed by Steve’s assurance that it would be alright: no.
No, he thought Steve was going to choose to stay.
“Didn’t even see her,” Steve says, shifting so that Bucky’s in his peripherals. Somehow he can’t bring himself to look at him head on when he speaks; his heart’s in his throat already at the implications of him thinking, thinking Steve would—
“Avoided her office entirely this time.”
Bucky’s quiet, but he leans back against the wall, weight shifting, breath exhaling long and slow before stopping, like Bucky can’t bring himself to breathe in again yet, like he has to decide something, to hold possibilities in tension and come to a conclusion before he’s allowed to move on.
The hesitation, and the lack of sound, the lack of ability to track Bucky’s very existence and the fact that Steve’s still not sure he can trust his eyes to do it: it’s wreaking havoc beneath his ribs.
“But,” Bucky finally says, voice too low to read anything from the tone. “Didn’t you want to stay?”
Steve processes every word, in the absence of the ability to draw anything from the way that they’re said. He finds himself lingering on the one word: want.
Steve’s been so detached from wanting for so long, or maybe that’s all he’s been made of, secretly: want. He swallows hard.
“She was happy,” Steve says simply. “Had a family, a doting husband. I would have been a memory, and hell,” he huffs a breath; “maybe not even all that good of a one, to bring up to a woman who’d been living a life, and a damned beautiful one at that,” and it had been, because Steve knew about it. Maybe it had been forty years later that he’d learned, but he knew.
“And she, then,” Steve shakes his head, a little rueful, and Bucky’s still holding his breath: “she would have been the same for me.”
Bucky exhales, and Steve’s heart settles out of his throat, if only just.
“I had my time with Peggy Carter,” Steve finds himself saying, without even intending any of it to come out. “I heard all her stories, laughed and cried with her,” he smiles a little, because on the good days, his time with her was beautiful, too. “I visited her every week, before you,” he turns a little more toward Bucky, and the first thing he notices is Bucky’s pulse at the neck: heavy. Steve only realizes his own is just as leaden when he swallows.
“Still went whenever I could, up to the end.”
Bucky’s eyes slip from watching him for just the barest of seconds as he looks to the floor and crosses his arms tighter over his chest.
“Point being,” Steve sighs deeply, and it’s not a shaky thing; it’s a sure thing. “I said my goodbyes to her years ago, and so many years after what I would have been dropping in on while putting the Stone back, and...” Steve shakes his head, and shrugs, and turns toward Bucky who’s looking straight at him again, so intense with it that it sends a shiver down Steve’s spine, one that only shakes him all the deeper when Bucky’s lips part and he speaks:
“You owed her a dance, though.”
Right. Right, and the look in Bucky’s eyes from before, from catching him on the platform, the one that hasn’t gone away for all that he’s hiding it as best he can: that look is made of sound now. That look is found in words.
“And I gave her one,” Steve tells him, a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips; “a particularly lucid day in 2013. She was only strong enough to stand upright and sway a bit, but that was probably for the best,” Steve chuckles, just a little. “Didn’t step on her toes.”
“You tell her that?” Bucky asks, and Steve meets his eyes and there’s a little softness, there. There’s a little joy that peeks out.
Steve lets the grin that tugs grow full.
And Bucky smiles too, just a little.
And Steve thinks maybe that’s enough, maybe he’s done enough to prove that he means to be here, and never meant anything else, and—
“You could have gone back further.”
Steve seems to be wrong a lot, these days. Steve seems to have forgotten everything he knew about Bucky in the five years he’d suffered without him, too overwhelmed now by the fact that he was here.
“No I couldn’t have,” Steve answers, though he knows—and on this, he’s pretty sure he’s right—that he’s answering the question and not the question: “the jumps were preprogrammed.” He snorts and quirks a brow in Bucky’s direction:
“Think I know enough about that shit to figure it out on the fly, without throwing myself into like, prehistoric times or something?”
Bucky snickers, even if it’s only half-hearted—if that.
“Death by dinosaur is maybe the only thing I haven’t worried about taking you,” and something in Steve snags, latches onto the way Bucky phrases it: taking you—
“Do you wish you could have?” Bucky says, before Steve can inspect exactly what feels so ineffable in his chest. “Gone right back to where you…”
Steve doesn’t have to inspect anything, though, to know his answer to that:
Bucky blinks, and then frowns, weight shifting as he straightens out of his lean against the wall.
“No,” Steve says again, and hopes it sounds as certain as it is, as he is, because this is the question Bucky’s been trying to ask, isn’t it; this is the question that had been in his eyes and his words and his shaking hands on Steve’s shoulders.
This is the question that counts.
“I’m not that man anymore, the man who she could have loved,” Steve says it like it’s fact, because that’s damn well what it is.
“And I’m not the man who could love her,” and that he says with real feeling, because he thinks it might be the most important part, and maybe he didn’t think about it as much as he should have because he’d come to terms with that much years ago: “not like that.”
Bucky just stares at him with that same intensity, unflinching, and Steve feels like he needs more than that, needs to get more than that from Bucky, needs to prove something to him that maybe Steve won’t know until it’s done, but it has to happen.
All he knows for certain is that he cannot get this wrong.
“There was a time where we could have given it a go, where we had an opportunity to try,” Steve says, turning fully now and talking to Bucky straight on, catching his eyes and bearing the weight of what they say that words can’t hold.
“But time’s not,” Steve pauses, trying to figure out how to phrase it. “Time’s not just years, y’now? Time is what time does, to you, how you change, how it changes you and what happens to change you, and who you change with and for,” and Steve feels something magnetic when he stares into Bucky’s unwavering gaze; something slots into place when he says it out loud, and Bucky’s there to hear it, because Steve has changed.
Steve has changed so much—
“You can’t go back,” Steve says, and his voice is softer, gentler without his permission but it’s no less certain. “And I,” Steve swallows when Bucky blinks slow, and his eyes look like the first hints of dusk.
“I don’t want to anymore,” he confesses, and for all the weight of Bucky’s stare, Steve feels lighter for speaking the words. “All I’ve been doing is living in regret for the past, for as long as I’ve been here, after the ice. For the things I missed. For the things couldn’t fix, or else, couldn’t fix soon enough,” his voice his gets tight, but he makes himself, he makes himself keep looking at Bucky because Bucky’s so silent, Bucky’s so still and if Steve loses sight of him for a second all the things he’s been regretting might consume him, here and now: “For the things I couldn't stop, couldn’t change, and I—”
His breath catches before his voice can crack; he takes a long strain of seconds to just watch Bucky: his chest rising and falling. Real. Real.
He bites down on his lower lip, hard, to try and prove he isn’t dreaming as he just watches that goddamn precious chest rise and fall, and he wonders if Bucky ever felt this enamored with that simple motion when they were young, when he’d worried over Steve every winter, every too-muggy summer, even—but then, Bucky’s still watching him now like he’s an improbable vision, and Steve only knows that nothing feels real, save for Bucky breathing, but that his heart trips when he blinks and he can’t see it, he can’t see it—
“The person I was then is a person I don’t recognize,” Steve says, eyes never leaving Bucky’s chest for it. “Not necessarily for good, or bad. Just don’t know him,” he pauses, and the breath he takes is shaky.
“Don’t know how much of him was even me, after I got so caught up in the mantle, the shield,” he admits, something that maybe he was the last person to realize, to see. “Hell, seeing myself in 2012, I didn’t know that man, either.”
Steve leans forward, and the pitch of his body gravitates ever so slightly toward where Bucky stands: automatic.
“Kinda wish I could have seen myself a few years later, though,” he murmurs, studies his hands because he can hear Bucky’s breathing now, and he can focus on it without watching Bucky for proof of life. “Just to,” he tilts his head and catches Bucky’s eye in the corner of his own: holds it close as he can:
“To compare. How much of me came back when you did.”
Steve follows the way Bucky’s throat works around the words he hears; something warm and terrifying runs through Steve for it, and he swallows hard, too.
“I haven’t been able to just be me for a long time, for so many reasons,” Steve tells him, and wonders if this is the first step toward that unthinkable thing, finding a life to live. “I think I forgot who me was, and I’m not sure I could even tell you who me is, here and now.”
“I can.” Bucky’s answer is immediate, earnest; eyes narrowed. Steve smiles, softer and more natural than anything he feels like he knows.
“I think what I want is to work on getting to know the man I am now, see what his life’s like,” Steve says slowly, like he’s trying out what the syllables taste like, whether he can stomach them. So far, so good. “What his future holds.”
Bucky’s eyes on him are still sharp and wide and taking in every angle, every moment, every space between heartbeats. He exhales long and slow, and then says:
“I think dinner’s ready.”
Steve takes a second for it to sink in, and to recognize that Bucky’s not going to move first, so Steve gets to his feet and starts to walk past him, but as soon as he’s even with Bucky, Bucky moves, and their shoulders touch as they walk, when they move just so and Steve feels something in him ease that he didn’t realize was waiting for this.