No Happy Ending
‘This is the way you left me
I’m not pretending
No hope, no love, no glory
No happy ending…’
“I think— I want to stay. After the jump. I want to stay.”
Bucky closes his eyes against the words, the impact of them like a physical blow; deeply painful, creating a resonant ache.
His back is to Steve, his face free to express his anguish, and so — for just a moment — he allows his expression to crumple with grief; lets it wash through him, all-encompassing.
Then Steve is stepping forward, bringing himself to stand at Bucky’s side, and Bucky blanks his face of everything save quiet attentiveness.
Silence descends. Together, they stare out over the lake near Virginia Stark’s home, its scenery punctuated by the sounds of gentle waves lapping softly at the shoreline. A cool breeze rustles through the trees.
In truth, Steve’s words are not unexpected.
Bucky recognizes the exceptional opportunity that has been laid before his best friend. Really, he‘d be shocked if Steve wasn’t considering taking advantage of it.
Bucky’s always known, since Steve had rescued him from his first taste of torture back in Azzano, about the invisible pull that drew Steve to Margaret “Peggy” Carter.
He’d seen clear evidence of that connection on the day they’d marched into camp over seventy years ago, Steve heading the return of hundreds of POWs — men who’d already been written off; as good as dead to anyone asking. Steve’d had eyes for only one person that day, and Bucky realizes with more clarity now than ever before, that that devotion has never wavered.
Bucky remembers watching Steve and Carter that day — staring into each other’s eyes, heedless of the commotion around them. Remembers recognizing the beginning of the end. His end.
Any connection Bucky might once have had with Steve was fading away, and he was helpless to do anything about it.
“I’m invisible,” Bucky had murmured later, words slipping out with too much candor as he’d watched Steve watch Agent Carter, her red dress and high heels turning heads all throughout the bar. “It’s like some terrible dream.”
He’d forced out a strained chuckle, lips twisting into a parody of a smile in an attempt to cover the bitterness of his words.
But he’d known then. It was obvious: He’d been replaced.
Quickly, effortlessly — as he’d always known he would be — by a woman who’d finally recognized in Steve what Bucky had seen all along: honor; integrity; a pure, unmatched goodness, uniquely Steve’s.
Carter had seen that goodness, the brightness of Steve’s spirit. She’d seen Steve, and Steve couldn’t help but love her for it.
Standing there, staring at his girl, Steve hadn’t seemed to notice Bucky’s internal struggle.
“Don’t take it so hard, ” he’d quipped, clapping a friendly hand to Bucky’s shoulder. “Maybe she’s got a friend.”
Now, against all odds, Steve’s gotten another opportunity to be with Carter, and Bucky cannot be surprised at his decision to take it.
Because he’s always known.
Relegated to the sidelines all those years ago, watching Steve with Carter, there was no way Bucky could have missed it. The truth had been just as plain to see then, as it is now: When called upon to choose, at the end of the line, Steve’s choice would always be Carter.
Now, in the face of what he’s always know would happen, Bucky knows there is only one right response. Only one thing he can offer to Steve who wants, so very badly, to go after the woman he loves:
Bucky’s got no right to ask any more of Steve than he’s already been given. So he’ll let Steve go; release him from any sense of obligation he might be feeling toward Bucky.
Because he loves Steve.
And at his end of the line, Bucky wants Steve to be happy.
Even if that means Bucky won’t be — can’t be.
“This kind of opportunity… it will never come again,” Bucky says into the quiet peace of early evening. “You should take advantage of it.”
Steve turns to look at him, but Bucky doesn’t — can’t — return the searching gaze. He’s holding onto the shreds of his composure by the skin of his teeth.
Seventy years of mastering his emotions, pushing them deep down where his tormentors couldn’t reach them, and still, in these moments, he isn’t confident Steve won’t be able to detect what he’s fighting so hard to conceal.
Not if he looks into Bucky’s face. Sees into his eyes.
“If I stay,” Steve begins slowly, “we might never see each other again. Are you— What will you do?
A lifetime spent existing without Steve has given Bucky enough experience to know the answer to that question. Without Steve, Bucky will survive.
His life will stretch out before him.
Days, weeks, and years will pass; he will go on.
Along with that, he will work everyday to atone. However he can. For all the horrors wrought by his actions as the Winter Soldier. As long as it takes.
Perhaps, at the conclusion of his life… perhaps he will have done enough, been good enough, to be allowed to find Steve again, beyond the finality of death.
It’s a grim future. And while Bucky has every intention of accepting it, he has no intention of supplying Steve with the details.
Instead, he summons the shadow of a smile, allows it to lift one corner of his mouth. Whatever it takes to be convincing.
“You deserve to be happy, Steve,” he responds, neatly sidestepping Steve’s query. “You’ve given more than enough to this world. No one can blame you for wanting something for yourself.”
Bucky doesn’t. How could he?
Steve doesn’t respond right away, letting the words sink in. After a long moment he sighs, voice soft, wistful, “I wish…” he says, quiet. “I wish you could come with me.”
And Bucky finds the smallest bit of comfort, a selfish kind of solace, in the fact that going with Steve isn’t an option for him.
For one thing, there are not enough Pym particles to send both of them back.
And even if there were, there is the matter of the metal arm.
Something as conspicuous as Bucky’s prosthetic — the weapon grafted to his body — is too high-tech, too conspicuous for the time period he’d originated from. It would be impossible to explain away.
For this, Bucky feels a wash of pathetic gratitude, followed by a quick surge of self-hatred. After all he’s done — the countless lives he’s destroyed — the agony of watching Steve and Carter spend their lives together is well deserved. It would be a unique brand of torture, stretching out for a lifetime.
Turns out though, that in the end, this is a thing Bucky doesn’t think he could withstand.
“There is no place for me there,” Bucky says, in response to Steve’s wistful words.
This, at least, is entirely the truth.
Don’t do anything stupid until I get back, Steve tells him, and Bucky dredges up a brittle little smile, completing the familiar exchange by rote, saying the lines expected of him.
He follows the lines with words that express his feelings so superficially they broach on absurdity: I’m gonna miss you.
The statement is paltry, weak. Barely managing to skim the surface of the sea of emotion he’s fighting to keep locked down deep.
It’s gonna be okay Buck, Steve tells him, and Bucky swallows against the words lodged in his throat — staystayIneedyoudon’tleavemeplease. His best friend pulls him into a hug, and Bucky presses down the strangled sound that builds and builds, stoked by the waves of grief that clench tight in his chest.
It’s not going to be okay. It won’t ever be okay.
Bucky, can’t seem to force his expression into anything remotely resembling happiness after that, can scarcely even maintain eye-contact, and Steve — caught up in the joy of returning to the love of his life — doesn’t notice.
Then Steve is stepping onto the time-travel platform and, moments later, Bucky’s best friend, his only connection to the most important pieces of himself, his memories, his past… is gone.
“Did he know?” Sam asks, searching Bucky’s face with far too-perceptive eyes.
Bucky averts his gaze, wiping his combat blade — wet with the blood of the enemy operatives who had foolishly attempted to attack the newly-minted Captain America — on a less-bloody segment of his tac gear. He glances around at all the dead bodies and feels a flash of muted horror — everything is muted for him these days.
Bucky hadn’t thought, hadn’t processed past the fact that Captain America was being targeted. In those bare moments, he’d completely forgotten that the figure in red, white, and blue was no longer Steve. Was, in fact, his hand-picked replacement.
Instead, he’d seen the enemy closing in and had reacted instinctively, unthinkingly. The operatives hadn’t stood a chance against the full brunt of the Winter Soldier’s lethal rage. They’d gone down swiftly, and they wouldn’t be getting back up.
He thinks about Sam’s question, sliding the blade back into its sheath.
It’s entirely possible that Steve had been aware of Bucky’s feelings, despite how Bucky had worked to keep the sentiment, so obviously unrequited, to himself.
From time to time, even Bucky has found himself wondering whether Steve knew. In the end though, Sam is asking the wrong question. It isn’t about whether Steve knew.
The real question, the one Bucky chokes on, words coming out broken and bitter, is “Does it matter?”
Bucky stares sightlessly at the ceiling in the guest bedroom of Steve’s former living quarters — one of the few portions of the Avengers’ compound to have miraculously survived Thanos’ attempt to obliterate it a year ago.
He’d woken hours ago — jerked from the throws of a nightmare — and has been lying here ever since, waiting in motionless silence for the sun to rise, for the hour allocated by his self-determined schedule as the appropriate time to begin his daily routine.
When it’s light enough, he will go for a run around the restored compound.
He will shower.
He will eat breakfast.
He will go to the office where he does Avengers-related work.
Later he will eat dinner, will go to bed.
Tomorrow he will begin again.
These days Bucky spends a great majority of his time alone. He lives within the compound, but it stays mostly empty as the majority of remaining superheroes are busy with other obligations.
Barton and Lang have families to attend to. Thor spends his time in space, partnering with the team who call themselves the Guardians.
And while Maximoff is one of the few to spend some time at the compound, Bucky doesn’t really know how much — he doesn’t run into her often.
She is there when missions require her assistance. Occasionally, he’ll come across her in the kitchen; the training room; on the sofa in front of the TV in the communal living room.
They don’t talk much, both preferring silence, both absorbed in enduring their own personal kinds of grief. Though, admittedly, Maximoff seems to have a better handle on hers.
Because while Bucky’s grief touches everything he does, Maximoff’s seems to have settled to some extent. Still deep, and achingly painful, but not like Bucky’s, which feels as raw and bloody as a new wound no matter how the time passes.
(He wonders if it helps that Vision didn’t choose to leave her. Would never have left her behind of his own volition.
Does it give her more closure, knowing he’s dead? Truly gone, and not simply living in another place, another time, alive but inaccessible?
Is there comfort to be found in the knowledge that the reason he’s not with her is because he didn’t get a say in the matter? That if it were up to him, if there were any possibility, he’d go through hell or high water to get back to her?
It’s not something he’ll ever ask.)
Technically, Doctor Banner lives at the compound. Though the scientist tends to keep himself tucked away within labs that Bucky has never seen. Has no intention of ever seeing.
Since Steve left, Banner has been keeping a watchful eye on the machine that sent him away. He keeps it active, monitors it regularly, still seeming to have some belief that Steve might return. Steve, who told only Bucky about where he was going; his actual plans.
Bucky can’t find it in him to tell anyone else.
(He thinks Wilson has figured it out by now. The part-time counselor seems to be one of the few people to have truly known Steve at a level deeper than most of the people who had called themselves his friends. And it was Wilson to whom Steve had bestowed the Captain America mantle before he left. Along with the shield — repaired by Shuri and as good as new. That, at least, is a major indicator of what Steve had been planning.
By now, the others must at the very least suspect what Steve had done. Still, no one says anything. The words remain unspoken, as if keeping it silent might change the truth.)
Apart from Banner, and Bucky himself, Wilson spends the most time at the compound, utilizing the place as a base of operations.
While Bucky’s taken over monitoring the worldwide media — both public and intergovernmental — and sifting through stacks of intel gathered by the agents Fury’s got scattered throughout the globe, Wilson routinely checks in, going over whatever bits of data Bucky flags and handling the brunt of communication with Fury and agent Hill.
Bucky avoids dealing with both of these agents as much as he can.
Something about the act of reporting to them, of deferring to them as commanding officers, makes his stomach turn; his brain fill with static; the core of him shudder with disquiet. Wilson thinks that Bucky’s aversion stems from the fact that Fury and Hill were once SHIELD: the other side of the Hydra coin.
Bucky doesn’t care to know why, only avoids the two agents whenever possible.
When he isn’t on a mission — where he is focused, sharp, present — Bucky floats through his days in a kind of half-existence. He eats when he remembers eating is something necessary for survival. Sleeps, between nightmares, enough to keep himself functional.
He withstands the slow passage of time .
You have one unheard message. First unheard message:
“Sam. It’s Bruce. I’m gonna need you to come in. Something’s up with the readings on the time-machine. It’s been fluctuating up and down for the last few hours. I think… I think something is trying to come through. Call me when you get this message. Or better yet, just get down here as soon as you can.”
End new messages.
“It’s been doing this for hours,” Bruce says when Sam, caught somewhere between cautious hope and deep dread at what could be causing the portal to act the way it is, makes it down to the lab.
“Could it be,” Sam says, barely daring to put his hope into words, “Do you think it could be…?”
“There’s no way to be sure,” Bruce replies, carefully objective. “But there’s only one person I know of who had a suit and the particles to activate it.”
Steve , neither of them say.
It could be him. It has to be. Sam hopes, perhaps more than he’s ever hoped for anything, that it is.
But… if it is…
As great as that would be, it also opens up a whole barrel of complications.
Because while Steve’s disappearance had raised a number of unanswered questions, his return could make things even more complicated.
At first, when Steve had failed to return as everyone expected, the fear that he’d gotten stuck, or worse, lost, had been exceedingly difficult to bear. Bruce had been distraught; worried that something had gone wrong with the machine. Frustrated by the fact that not knowing what was wrong made it impossible to fix.
It was Barnes’ reaction that made Sam start to wonder, though.
Because Barnes wasn’t acting like someone who was afraid something terrible had happened to a loved one. Barnes seemed like he knew exactly what had happened.
And Sam thought about the undeniably odd fact that Steve had passed on the mantle of Captain America before he left. That he’d insisted on doing it before he made the jump, even though Sam had said that he could easily do so when he came back, assuming he still wanted to.
Because — while Sam had been more than honored — he couldn’t help the need to caution Steve against making what appeared to be a hasty decision. Steve had assured him that he’d put a lot of thought into it, though. That he’d held the mantle long enough, that it was time to pass it along. And so, satisfied with Steve’s reasons, Sam had accepted — with exuberance.
Thinking back though, all evidence points to the fact that Steve never planned to return. That he’d gone back in time with every intent to stay there, permanently.
But, if he had decided to stay in his own time-period, as Sam now suspects, that raises other questions.
Why, after so much time, would he come back?
Also, had he honestly thought his leaving wouldn’t affect Barnes? After everything Barnes has been through. Without anyone around to ease the burden of being stuck in an unfamiliar world, and few, if any, friends to lean on. Did Steve honestly believe that Barnes would be just fine left so alone?
Sam doesn’t know if he can wrap his head around that sort of miscalculation on Steve’s part. Because surely it was a miscalculation. He wouldn’t have left Barnes behind, he wouldn’t have, if he’d known what it would do to his best friend. Right?
Because despite the front he puts up — and he puts up one hell of a front — Barnes is not doing well. Hasn’t been since Steve left. He’s withdrawn into himself, more closed-off than Sam’s ever seen him. More so even, than when he’d first been recovering from Hydra, when Sam had assumed he was as closed-off as a man could get.
In Wakanda, for example, Barnes had been quiet. Reserved. Visibly cautious around anyone who wasn’t Steve.
But he hadn’t been soulless.
These days, he walks around like he’s only half-present, as phantasmal as the ghost he’d been rumored to be when he’d still been Hydra’s weapon. Apart from when he’s on a mission — where he’s competent, and deadly, and most assuredly present — he moves like he’s been hollowed-out, like he could shatter at any moment.
(It would be better for Barnes if he did shatter. If he could somehow release some of the unbearable pressure of the grief and pain that’s fused around him like a hardened shell. A fortress that keeps him locked inside. Keeps everyone else shut out.)
Except Sam doesn’t think he’ll shatter — doesn’t think he can, at this point, as tightly closed off as he is.
More likely Barnes will end up disappearing into himself.
From what Sam has seen, he’s already on his way down that path. And no matter what Sam has tried, Barnes shows no signs of reversing course.
It’s painful to watch, but not particularly surprising. Barnes has had about the worst luck of anyone Sam’s ever seen, ever heard of, even in all his years spent counseling damaged war veterans. None of those people had ever been through anything remotely close to what Barnes has. His is a category of suffering all its own.
At this point, if it turns out that Steve really is returning... Sam’s not so sure how Barnes will take it.
It could be the balm needed to soothe his fragmented spirit.
It could also be the trigger that sends him over the edge.
These thoughts circle through his brain as the machine begins to surge with suddenly more power.
“This is it,” Bruce says. “Whatever’s coming, is coming now.”
Sam braces himself for the worst. Hopes for the best.
“Sam!” Steve bursts out, overjoyed. The last shimmers of quantum light fade, leaving him standing on the time-machine platform, staring into the incredulous face of one of his closest friends.
“Steve?” Sam’s expression of shock turns to delight, and he meets Steve as he steps off the machine, pulling him into an embrace with a wide grin, slapping him on the back good-naturedly.
Steve feels his own answering smile, just as wide. “It’s so good to see you,” he says, with a laugh. “God, Sam, I’ve missed you. You wouldn’t believe how much.”
Sam pulls back, searching Steve’s face with inquisitive eyes. “I think I’ve got some idea, Steve,” he says, smile going dim.
Steve feels his own smile falter, a shiver of apprehension trickling down his spine. “What do you mean?”
Sam presses his lips together, a frown of uncertainty slowly eclipsing the joy in his expression. “It’s been… quite some time,” he says.
“But—” Steve begins. He glances around, finally taking note of the nagging detail he’d brushed aside while reuniting with Sam: Where he expected to be in a clearing on the outskirts of the forest on Tony’s property, he is, instead, in what looks like Bruce’s lab within the Avengers’ compound.
He turns to Bruce, still standing behind the controls of the machine, feeling his own face crease with concern. “I don’t understand,” he flounders. “Bruce said— You said it would only be five seconds...”
“We can’t answer that for you, man,” Sam replies, reclaiming Steve’s attention. “Time works differently when the quantum realm is involved. Scott’s five hours was five years for us, remember?”
He’s right, Steve realizes, taking an unsteady breath, dread settling heavy in his stomach. “How long has it been?” he asks quietly, the gravity of Sam’s words starting to sink in.
Sam hesitates. In the face of Steve’s growing desperation though, he finally admits, voice soft with empathy, “It’s been three years.”
Steve takes a sharp breath, turning abruptly away. He raises a hand to run through his hair, taking several quick steps forward before he pauses and does a one-eighty, stalking back to Sam.
“How’s— I need— Where’s Bucky?”
Sam’s expression becomes, if possible, even more solemn. And something else, something Steve has never seen Sam direct at him. His friend’s expression is suddenly guarded, protective, as if Steve is a threat. “He’s...here,” Sam admits finally. “But I don’t think… Things are different now, than they were. He’s different.”
Steve frowns. “What does that mean?” he says, frustration seeping into his tone. “Sam. What aren’t you telling me?”
Sam grimaces. “I just think you should be careful,” he says. “Barnes isn’t... He’s in a dark place. He’s going through some things. I’m not sure seeing you would… help.”
“He’s my best friend,” Steve counters, incredulous. “He’s— Sam. Whatever he’s going through, I can— I want to be there for him.”
Sam’s face does something complicated before he states, neutrally, “Be that as it may, I still don’t think it’s a good idea to rush things. Maybe let me give him a bit of warning first.”
The very implication that Bucky needs protecting, from Steve of all people, jars disconcertingly. Why the hell would Bucky need to be warned?
“Where is he,” Steve demands flatly.
“Steve—” Sam begins, but Steve has heard enough, has seen enough of the wary, guarded looks Sam and even Bruce, have been shooting him. He’s going to find Bucky, right now.
Steve finds Bucky in the common room, just stepping out of the elevator. He’s outfitted in sleek, dark combat gear, eerily reminiscent of his Winter Soldier getup, and looks to be just returning from an op.
“Bucky?” Steve calls softly, and Bucky halts, going preternaturally still.
Steve finds himself thrown back to that day on the bridge, staring at the assailant who’d worn his best friend’s face, a flame of hope fluttering in his chest.
It’s with similar feeling that he watches Bucky slowly raise his eyes to meet Steve’s, and a similar agony pierces through him as Bucky stares at Steve with the same blank eyes of the Soldier.
“Steve,” Bucky says, after a too-long pause, brow ever-so-slightly furrowed. His gaze goes to Sam — standing just behind Steve — as if he’s seeking reassurance, as if he needs confirmation that what he’s seeing is real. He looks back to Steve only after Sam has offered a subtle nod, face pale as milk, and very empty. “How— Why are you… here?” he finally says, tone flat, distant.
Looking at Bucky now — obviously shaken, confused, and more lost than Steve’s seen him since that day on the Helicarrier — Steve begins to understand what Sam had been trying to tell him.
He’s spent so long not thinking about him.
For years, Bucky’s made it through by shutting down all thoughts related to Steve; locking them into a dark corner of his mind where they can’t touch him anymore.
Now, seeing him here, truly here — not a figment of his imagination, or a memory just a bit too tangible — is too much, too raw. Bucky feels himself reeling.
“Why are you here?” he hears himself ask from a distance. He— Steve — answers him, sounds coming out of his mouth, but Bucky can’t comprehend the words past the rushing in his ears.
He jerks his head to the side — eyes darting about, fighting to orient himself — and the words abruptly cut off.
“I—” he says into the silence; swallows roughly as his voice rasps from his too-dry throat, “I need t-to— I can’t—”
His chest aches, a dull pulsing pain as he turns, stumbles blindly away. His limbs shake unsteadily, heart beating overtime, lungs suddenly unable to draw sufficient breath, and he just— can’t.
He can’t do this.