They say to get a swallow tattooed on you, you have to have travelled five thousand miles by sea. You get the second swallow, you see, when you survive the second five thousand miles.
Swallows mate for life, returning home each year. So maybe that’s why the tattoo held such appeal to so many, and why, as a young boy, Bucky had seen so many men with sun-browned skin at the docks bearing the mark of a bird that seemed so otherwise alien.
Imagine returning home. Imagine having a home to return to.
Bucky returned after the snap is undone to a battle, and after, Steve gathered him in his arms like he was a ragdoll, both of them exhausted from the fight, Steve’s five long years longer than his in some ways, but in others – well, they’re about even, all out.
So when the dead were buried, and the monsters were burnt, and the sun dipped low beneath the Wakandan sky, all that is left is the vastness of the horizon, and Steve wilting gently by his side, this man, this man, who he has loved for longer than he can ever recall, like maybe he was born with it tattooed on his bones, like maybe you could flay him and that’s all his spine would read.
Is it over? He wanted to ask, but it’s never over. How can it be over for them? They were born in war, they found themselves to be good at it, so maybe that’s all that holds them together, maybe that’s what stops them from shaking apart where they sit.
The war drum beats, and they march along with it.
Except. Wasn’t Bucky happy, in Bucharest, where anonymity had swallowed him whole and briefly allowed him a life in the small bustle of a city that wasn’t so far from Brooklyn as he remembered it, not really. Children shouted in the streets, he’d dodged bicycles, he’d bartered with shopkeepers. He’d spoken the language without knowing where he’d learnt it, and been laughed at when his pronunciation was, he was told, too Russian, not quite right, but they’d warily accepted him, an outsider, slowly softening vowels and shaving down consonants until he’d made something of a home.
Until everything went to shit.
If his life was ever to be divided into chapters, then that sentence would end every single one of them. And he was tired, tired of that, tired of knowing it was coming. And he could see in Steve’s eyes that it was going to happen again, and he didn’t – he didn’t know if he could go through it again.
Wakanda had been kinder to him than he could have dreamt, and Shuri had allowed him a small space in the universe to carve out as his own. She had never made him a weapon, and the children had never been afraid of him, not really, not like they should have been. It had been nice.
It was gone now, the fields barely recognisable, priorities shifted and realigned as Wakanda had lost half of – everything.
Most swallows only live four years. How many swallows came back to find their mates gone? How many would make the trip over the seas and find that that had been taken from them? Did they know yet? Did they feel it in the very being of them?
Is this grief?
“Steve?” Bucky whispered, and if it had been anyone else beside him, they wouldn’t have heard him.
Steve shifted, barely awake, awake only because Bucky was awake.
“Hmm?” He murmured, not quite able to form words, too tired, tongue too thick from lack of sleep.
“I’ll tell you in the morning,” Bucky said. “We should sleep.”
The next morning Bucky woke alone, and the loss of it, though familiar, still smarted. He stretched out aching muscles and let himself orientate to the world. The year was 2023, and that was okay. He’d lost time, again, but that was okay. Because half of existence knew how he felt. And he was one of the lucky ones.
The tent flap opened, and Steve crawled inside.
“Not what I’m used to,” he said, and passed Bucky a plate of pancakes, still simmering warm and drenched in chocolate. “I guess you’re used to it though.”
Bucky nodded. Didn’t want to explain how the quiet had driven him mad at first, how every sound outside had left him alert and taut as a livewire, until eventually he’d learnt to sleep through the still of it and wake, if not rested, then restful, the demons caged by the gentle monotony of his days.
“You built a life here,” Steve said, watching him eat. Bucky looked up, met Steve’s eyes. There were questions in that blue, Steve was asking for permission, about to do something fucking stupid and just wanting to check that Bucky thought it was fucking stupid before he did it.
“Someone’s got to return the stones,” Steve said.
There it was.
“Why?” Bucky asked, though he knew, sort of. Timelines, fragile tendrils breaking down. The slightest thing out of place and boom. Or maybe it’d be more of a whimper. That’s how all worlds end, after all.
“Why?” Steve echoed.
“Why you?” Bucky asked, because Steve had done enough. Hadn’t he? Hadn’t they both? Hadn’t they done enough? What more? Wring their bones until the marrow had been sapped out.
“I’m the only one without – without a family,” Steve said, eyes drifting away from Bucky’s, fixing intently on the stitching of the tent corner.
“Bullshit,” Bucky said, putting the pancakes down, the mouthful he had tasting suddenly of ash.
“Bucky – ” Steve tried, but Bucky just – couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Wouldn’t do this again.
He’d read a book. About a species of alien whose timelines were all out of sync. So when bad things happened, all they could say was so it goes because time didn’t really mean much to them at all. They’d see their loved ones again or they wouldn’t.
So it fuckin’ goes.
“You have a family, Steve,” Bucky said, swallowing down the ashes. “You have Sam, you have everyone you fought with, everyone you spent the last five years with. Stark’s daughter. People who need you. A whole world who doesn’t know what it’s like to wake up having lost years. Well guess who knows what that’s like? Guess who’s uniquely positioned to help all those people? People waking up alone in their beds today, if they have beds to sleep in, because everyone moved on without them? Who knows that better than you do?”
Steve grumped, and Bucky reached out an arm to grab his shoulder, to make him look him in the eye.
“Steve. Please. Don’t. I know that – whatever you’re planning. I know that you want it. Maybe it’d be better. But it’s rash. And you’ve been five years without me, hell, you’ve been a lifetime without me, and I think you’ve forgotten something important.”
Steve looked at him, searching his face, leaning slightly into Bucky’s hand, more tired still than he looked.
“What am I forgetting, Buck?”
“Me,” Bucky said. You’re forgetting me.
Steve kept watching him, so he kept talking, like he was drowning, like Steve could throw the buoy to save him, or maybe let him sink like a stone.
“I stop you, right? I don’t always do a good job of it. But I remember. When you did something stupid, I either stopped you, or I bandaged you up after. How many times did I sew you up, Stevie? Neat little stitches, like they were never there, even when you pulled on them when they got itchy? Tell me you’re going to let me stop you again. Tell me I haven’t lost that too.”
Steve blinked, looked down at his hands, clasped in his lap.
“I didn’t realise,” he said, voice choked, rasping out like it was sawdust.
Bucky waited, tightening his grip on Steve’s shoulder slightly, relishing the warmth, being able to do this, even if he never got to again.
“Tell me,” Bucky said, afraid of what he was going to hear. “Please just tell me. Tell me so I can try to bear losing you.”
“No – ” Steve said, shaking his head, but Bucky could see it in the tension of his body, in every muscle, written across his face.
“Don’t you dare. Steve, look at me,” Steve wouldn’t, his gaze squarely hitting the centre of Bucky’s chest. “Steve. Stevie. Please.”
He gathered himself, all the threads of himself, the beginnings and the endings and the beginnings, all tied up, not quite as whole as they’d once been, but complete enough to see what they used to be, and what they could be again.
“If I go back, I could – pretend. I think. I guess. I could have a life. Maybe not a noble life. Not a good life, worthy, ya know? But it would be a life. If I stay here, it’s just going to be more. Forever. What if I just – didn’t? What if I was just ordinary?” Steve sobbed out the last few words, dipping his head.
Bucky gathered him to his chest, and Steve let him. Bucky ran his metal hand through Steve’s hair, and Steve’s sobs became shuddering whimpers, contained between the two of them, a dam bursting open.
“It’s been five years, Buck, five years and we lost so much. I’m tired. I don’t know how to fight anymore. I used to know, I used to understand it, but now it just feels – empty. Like you could point me anywhere and tell me that was the bad guy and I’d go. And that’s how I know – that’s how I know I gotta stop. Before they point me at the wrong person.”
Bucky held him tighter, bruisingly hard, like if he let go Steve might melt into nothing and seep into the very earth beneath them.
“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Bucky asked, mouth close to Steve’s ear. “Don’t you think I know what that’s like?”
Steve tried to reel back, but Bucky wouldn’t let him.
“It’s okay, Stevie. I don’t blame you. I understand. Dammit, I understand. And I’d let you go, if I thought for a moment that you had it in you to bear it. To stand on the sidelines and watch. If I thought you could do that, I’d let you go. But you can’t, Stevie, you can’t.”
Steve made a noise like he was going to speak, but Bucky hushed him.
“Staying here doesn’t mean you have to keep fighting though. At least, not in the same way. Sometimes, sometimes you can fight without killing anybody. Sometimes just waking up in the morning is an act of resistance.”
“Did Sam tell you that?” Steve asked, voice muffled.
“He’s not completely terrible, ya know,” Bucky admitted. “You’re surrounded, you realise, by people who are just as hurt as you. Who all want magic time machines to make their lives better. But they’d never do it. Because being here, being present, being now, fighting every single day to make tomorrow brighter, those acts of resistance, that’s everything. And you can’t do that from the past. Not unless you want it all to fall apart.”
“Selfish,” Steve muttered.
“Perhaps. But justified. You don’t think I want to go back? Drag myself out of the snow and get myself on the first boat home? I could get some of those particles and fuck off within the hour. But I never would. Because I belong here. With my family.”
He pushed Steve’s chin up with his knuckles, gently, so their eyes locked.
Steve’s face was a ruddy red mess of snot and tears, but he looked beautiful nonetheless. His sturdiness, his solidness, the fact that Bucky could reach out and touch him, even if he was about to break.
“I’m not who I was five years ago,” Steve said, voice nearly gone. Bucky leant his forehead gently against Steve’s, noses brushing, breathing in the air Steve was exhaling, desperate gasps made calm by Bucky’s lungs, and then recycled, forever, forever.
So it goes.
“You’re not as special as you think you are, Steve Rogers,” Bucky said. “Half the universe could say the same thing. And they’ve got to cope. They’ve got to stay. So what gives you the right to leave? The world needs you. I need you.”
“You don’t need me,” Steve protested, lips almost brushing Bucky’s. Bucky trailed a finger down Steve’s cheek, the carefully carved bone of it beneath flushed skin. Steve let out a shuddering sigh.
“I always need you. Maybe I’m the selfish one, asking you not to go. But losing you – I’d say it’d be like losing an arm, but losing you, I don’t have words for how painful that’d be.”
“I’m scared,” Steve admitted. “Of this world. Of existing in it. I don’t know how to do that anymore. I’ve been drifting – for so long. I think I’ve forgotten how to be a person.”
“I’ll show you,” Bucky said, finding the corner of Steve’s mouth and pressing a tiny butterfly kiss there. “Let me show you. Stay, and I’ll show you everything. Believe me when I tell you I know how you feel.”
“You really do, don’t you? And I’m – ” he paused, as Bucky pressed another kiss to that high cheekbone, “I just walk in like that doesn’t matter.”
“I was always the brains of the operation,” Bucky said, a small smile playing on his lips. “I’m not letting you go. Someone else can take the stones. Not you. I don’t trust you. I wish I could, but I don’t.”
“Fair,” Steve said, and Bucky pressed a kiss to the divot of his chin. “Please, Bucky, tell me it’s going to be okay.”
Bucky pulled back, just enough, to look Steve in the eyes. God, they were so blue, red-rimmed and tired, but ocean blue on a clear day.
“It’s going to be okay,” Bucky promised, “maybe not today, maybe not for a long time, and maybe you won’t even realise it is okay until you wake up one morning and you realise you can’t feel that ache in your chest anymore that tells you that you’re wrong, that you’re all broken inside and it hurts to breathe and you shouldn’t be here. It might take the rest of your life. But it is going to be okay.”
Steve let a hand run through Bucky’s hair, fingers catching on the sleep tousled knots.
“And I don’t have to fight anymore?” He asked.
“Not if you don’t want to. We’ll find a way. Just – one foot in front of the other.”
“Forwards,” Steve said.
“Yeah,” Bucky smiled, “forwards, not back. Ever forwards.”
“Remember what we thought the future would be?” Steve asked, leaning against Bucky’s forehead again, lips brushing Bucky’s as he spoke. “Remember flying cars? Why isn’t it like that?”
Bucky leant in and brushed a kiss onto Steve’s lips, tasting the salt of his tears there.
“It’s better and it’s worse and it’s all that we have. But we get to have it, Stevie, and we get to have this,” he kissed Steve a little harder, a little more dangerously. “If you want it. You get to have it all. You get me. Hell, you’ve always had me.”
Steve kissed him this time, and Bucky groaned into it, Steve pushing him back on the small mattress. With the light of the open tent flap behind him, and his hair longer than Bucky had ever seen it, he looked like an avenging angel, something more than human.
“Me too,” Steve said, bracketing Bucky’s body with his own, nipping kisses down Bucky’s throat, biting, then soothing with his tongue, until Bucky could barely remember how to breathe. “You’ve always had me. I don’t think you realised it, but you did.”
“Do I have you now? Will I have you tomorrow?” Bucky managed, before gasping.
Steve nodded, claiming Bucky’s lips again and growling. He pulled back, briefly, looking Bucky dead in the eyes.
“Still feels selfish, to have this.”
“Martyr, that’s what you are,” Bucky grinned, and pulled him back down. “Only happy when you’re suffering.”
“No,” Steve said, resting his head in the crook of Bucky’s neck, “I don’t want that, not anymore.”
“Then maybe we try to figure out how to be happy. Maybe I get you shitloads of therapy.”
Steve grumbled, and it tickled. Bucky squirmed.
“Not right now, Stevie. But someday. Heaven knows you need it. But right now, I need you to kiss me, or I might just die.”
Steve raised his face and crooked an eyebrow at him.
“Well, I can’t have that. I’m Captain America. No man dies on my watch.”
“Shut up and kiss me, asshole,” Bucky pinched him on the arm, and Steve pretended to flinch.
“And we’ll work on the whole Captain America thing too,” Bucky said as an afterthought. “Because all I can see is Steve Rogers.”
“That’s all I want to be,” Steve admitted.
“It’s all you’ve ever been to me. Now come here – ”
Maybe it would take them a long time to find home. The world, doing what it does best, had moved on, but at least now they were spinning at the same speed, in the same orbit. And as gravity held them to each other, maybe in time they would grow roots, and time would find a home for them, swallowing them up in the heartbeat of the universe. Maybe that’s what home is, after all.
So it goes.