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S.T.A.Y.

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Time is relative, okay? It can stretch and it can squeeze, but... it can't run backwards. Just can't. The only thing that can move across dimensions, like time, is gravity.
....

I'm drawn across the universe to someone I haven't seen in a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can't understand it.

~ Brand, Interstellar

 

 

 

 

 

"I hope you appreciate the irony," Tony said. "Twenty-five year old me would not approve. But here we are." He leaned forward over the worktable and met Steve's gaze square on. "This is me asking, no, begging. Don't go through with this."

Steve's jaw did that clenchy thing he did when he was stressed or holding back. It had been constant for the last six months. If not for the serum, Tony would’ve been concerned about him cracking a molar.

“I know what I’m getting into,” Steve said. "I've been there before. I've lived it--I know exactly what's going to happen, and when. I'm just changing this one thing--"

"This 'one thing' being saving a man who goes on to have a direct impact on the next seventy years of history. Butterfly effect," Tony shot back. "I know I made you watch the movie."

"Tony—"

"What HYDRA did to Barnes was terrible. Inhumane. It sucks," Tony said. "But sometimes life isn't fair--"

"Not fair?!" Steve slammed one fist down on the workshop table. There was a sharp snap and a crack appeared in the opaque glass. Steve didn't flinch. "Bucky was tortured for seventy years. They twisted and broke a good man, my best friend. All those people he was made to kill—" He stopped and shook his head with a frustrated inhale. "If I have even a slim chance at setting this right, I have to take it. It's my duty to do no less."

They glared across the workbench at one another. And to Tony, the gulf between them had never felt wider. Sure, they'd had their ups and downs the last two years, but the last time Tony remembered Steve being this angry with him was while he was under the influence of Loki's scepter in the helicarrier.

Come to think of it, there was an alien device in the room here, too.

"And you agree with me," Steve continued, his voice softer. "Or else you would have told Thor about the time-travel pod."

Tony glanced over his shoulder at the thing. The Avengers had been on the hunt through HYDRA bases for Loki's scepter. They still hadn't found it, though Thor said they were getting close.

Then, two weeks ago, Tony recovered something from a HYDRA basement that had definitely pegged as 'not from Earth'.

It was a roughly baseball size sphere which glowed an evil vivid blue. Tony’s own curiosity had been his downfall. He'd taken kept the discovery secret and taken it for study – just for a couple days, he'd told himself – before he let Thor return the thing to Asgard.

HYDRA scientists had been working on a way to activate it, but they didn't have Tony's brains or knowledge he'd gleaned from Chitauri tech. It took him a whole day to figure out the sphere’s secrets. If JARVIS's readings were correct, it had the power to open a stable portal into space-time, and transport someone through.

Then Tony made his second fatal mistake: He'd told Steve what he found.

And of course, Steve knew exactly how and when he wanted to use it.

"Do you love him?" Tony blurted. He'd been sitting on the question ever since the helicarrier's crash into the Potomac. Now it came spewing out of him like a bad batch of oysters. "You and Barnes, were you together?"

Steve jerked back like he'd been slapped. "He's my best friend. He was there for me when I had nothing. He's saved my life more times than I can count—"

"Not the question I asked," Tony said, and was glad that Steve had the decency to meet his gaze. "Were you more?"

They probably should have had this talk awhile ago. Yes, he and Steve had been together for going on two years, but much of it had been long distance. Tony had his work, Steve had SHIELD. (Until he took down SHIELD, but from then on he was more distant than ever -- on a futile effort to find Barnes before various government agencies did.) But they'd never had the ex talk. At the time, Tony had been glad. His list was long and extensive, and he figured Steve's past was too painful.

Steve closed his eyes and looked away. The answer was clear on his face.

It hurt. Just like someone had ripped out his old arc reactor. Tony braced himself on the workbench.

Smooth, Stark. Go out of your way to activate a device capable of ripping a hole in the space-time continuum just so your current boyfriend can reunite with his ex-boyfriend. Tony knew he was a self-destructive son of a bitch, but this was a whole new level. 

His reconstructed heart was breaking. He turned away from Steve.

"Once you take that trip," Tony's voice was soft in the silent room, echoing in the wide space between them, "you'll have to return to the present the old-fashioned way. We don't know where HYDRA picked up the time travel pod -- and it only moves objects through space-time backwards. So, if you want to come back you'll have to go through it all again -- the Valkyrie, the Chitauri invasion. I won't know you in the new timeline, or remember we were ever together. You could just... never mention it. I'd never know. As a way to break up, it is very...very clean."

"Is that what you think? Tony..." Steve crossed around the workbench with super soldier speed, and gripped Tony by the shoulders with his big, warm hands.

It was the first time he'd touched Tony in weeks.

Tony should have shrugged him off. But he missed Steve’s touch--was starving for it. When Steve kissed him, he couldn't pull away.

Besides, he had to get close. Parting his lips, he deepened the kiss, using every dirty trick he knew to make the moment linger.

Steve was wearing a replica of his WW2 uniform in preparation for the trip back. Tony's hands smoothed over his chest and touched at the pockets of his red, white, and blue jacket. Just briefly, but it was enough.

Steve didn't notice a thing.

Finally drawing back, Steve cupped Tony's face in his hands.

"I'm not doing this as some convoluted way to leave you. I'm saving Bucky, and then I'm coming back.” Steve stared into Tony’s eyes, gaze soft. “I'm coming back to you, Tony, I swear it."

"Captain America guarantee?" His smile wobbled slightly, and he let himself believe. It was easy to do. Steve's conviction was catching.

"I promise." Steve took Tony's hands and brushed a kiss across his knuckles. “I promise.”

Something in Tony felt like it was breaking. "Don't go," he whispered.

Steve squeezed his hands. "This isn’t goodbye. Tony, no, look at me. I'm setting things right with Buck, then I'm coming back to you."

"It won't be the same."

"It will.” He tried a smile. “Better even, now I know not to take your showmanship so seriously."

Tony broke, clinging onto him in a hug, inhaling Steve’s scent: a mix of leather, the aftershave he wore, and warmth that was Steve’s alone. He wanted to ask JARVIS to lock the doors. Maybe convince Steve to come to bed, or the couch, for one last real goodbye to remember him by.

But Tony was proud enough not to beg for a pity-fuck.

Besides, the moment was ruined when Steve used his thumbs to wipe some of the moisture from under Tony's eyes, and asked, "So, how do I activate the device?"

It was like a splash of cold water to his face.

Tony drew back. Nodded once to himself. Why was he surprised? "It's already rigged to go. Just touch it, fix the time and place in your mind. It can read minds apparently -- fun tech. No way that could go wrong whatsoever."

He stepped aside.

"Save travels, Steve."

Steve looked like he wanted to say something more. Maybe promise one more time that he was coming back. He wasn't. Tony had been around the block a few times and knew the truth. Sure, Steve might intend to now, but once he returned to the good ol’ days… well. He’d be home at last, wouldn’t he? Together again with Barnes.

Turning away, his shoulders hunched like Tony was the one breaking it off with him, Steve crossed the room. He reached out one hand to the device.

There was a flash of white light.

 

 

****

 

 

The frozen wind bit at every bit of exposed skin, but like hell was Bucky going to show he felt it. He had his blue winter coat buttoned tight to the top of his throat, which was more than what some of the Howlies had. He’d survive.

Turning in place, he eyed the steel cable that stretched from the anchor point at the top of the ridge behind him, out over the canyon and the train tracks. The wind swayed the rigging, and Bucky figured it was already collecting ice.

At the angle and speed they were going, if they didn't hit the train, they'd smash right into the mountain face. That is, if they didn't just slip off the zip-line on the way down.

Bucky glanced at Steve out of the corner of his eye and tried a joke cover his nerves. "Remember when I made you ride the Cyclone on Coney Island?" Steve had thrown up all over himself, and his date.

He expected Steve to crack and grin and drawl something back. That was the way it went with them – push and pull. Guts and glory.

Instead, Steve staggered in place, reaching out as if to grab hold of something that wasn't there. Bucky turned and caught his arm.

"Whoa, Stevie, you lookin' to faint on me?"

"What—Bucky?" Steve’s blue eyes were wide. Then he turned to stare around at the ice-crusted ridges. For the life of him, it looked like he was seeing the view for the first time.

Bucky stepped closer, growing alarmed. Maybe this was more than just pre-mission jitters. Maybe Steve was sick. Could he even get sick, with the fantastical serum they’d pumped into him?

"You alright, pal?" he asked.

"Huh?" The confusion faded from Steve’s eyes. He gave his head a shake, then straightened, squaring his shoulders. "I'm fine."

"You don't look fine."

A little unease returned to his expression. "Look, Buck...” Steve glanced to the train tracks, the steep rigging, and swallowed. “I don't think you should go on this mission. I'm switching you out with Gabe."

"The hell you will!" Bucky exclaimed, then stepped closer. "I've been training for this." It wasn't much -- working with a line strung across high trees, but it was something. "And I was the best sticking a landing, next to you."

"I got a bad feeling. I need you to stay behind, watch my six."

Steve was interrupted by Dum-Dum’s call that he'd spotted the train. Bucky shot Steve an angry look, then moved deliberately to the zip-line. The order of decent had been hashed out when they’d come up with this crazy scheme last night -- Gabe was going to be right behind them both. No way was Bucky letting Steve go alone.

He didn't miss Steve’s agonized look, but Bucky ignored him. It wasn't like Steve to get all broody over his men, and Bucky wasn’t about to let it become a habit: It wasn't right thinking in a commanding officer.

Luckily, Steve pulled his head out of his ass and took the line first. Bucky waited until the count of ten to go after him.

The drop was even faster than he thought it would be. Bucky might have yelled, but the wind whipped his voice away. The train was a dark smudge in the distance, quickly growing larger. A black line across a vista of snow.

The Cyclone on Coney Island had nothing on this ride.

He was more than a little surprised when his feet actually touched down on the top of the icy train. Then he was too busy to think about what a lucky bastard he'd been. Gabe barely made it right after.

Ducking to shield himself from the wind, he exchanged looks with Steve, who hesitated, and looked like he wanted to tell Bucky to hold back again.

Gabe found the access panel to the car below, and they went down.

After that, it was gunfire and madness. Bucky swore he’d never seen Steve move so fast -- he performed some kind of fancy kick and sent a man straight through the glass window.

The plan was for them to separate to search the cars faster, but Steve stuck to Bucky like a burr in a wool sock. Irritated, Bucky gestured for Steve to stick to the plan.

“Take the right,” he said. “I’ll search the next car.”

"No," Steve snapped. "We're finding Zola together."

Pity. Bucky had been sort of looking forward to the chance at getting the chubby-faced scientist alone to himself for a minute. Maybe give him a taste of what it felt like to have needles stuck in him.

The door to the next car slid open, and an armored man wearing two guns like suit-sleeves stepped forward. Bucky ducked one way for cover, Steve the other.

Bucky was the first to fire back, cursing to himself when his pistol ran empty. He glanced across the aisle to Steve, who stared back at him, white as a sheet. Like he was watching a slow-motion horror flick.

Not a good time for Steve to get nerves. Bucky gestured for Steve to throw him his extra pistol -- he was the better shot, and they both knew it.

Steve shook his head, jaw clenched, and stood to toss the shield.

"No!" Bucky yelled.

The shield went flying, knocking the HYDRA gunman for a loop, but not before he got his own shot off. The blue energy blast went wild, exploding right before Steve's feet, and ripping open the train car like a tin can.

The force of the blast knocked Steve back one step too far.

"Steve!" Bucky half-rose, arm extended. Steve reached for him, red gloves brushing the tips of Bucky’s fingers.

Then Steve was falling, mouth half-open in surprise. Out of the train and down, down, down to the canyon below.

 

 

****

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

****

Brooklyn

****

 

“You can address your letters to a woman’s name,” Steve said, a note of desperation edging his voice. “Call me Steph. If the postman asks, I’ll say they’re to your sister.”

Bucky sighed. “That’s not what this is about.”

A muscle in Steve’s jaw twitched. The setting Brooklyn sunset cast a glow in his blond hair. Bucky wanted to run his fingers through it, wanted to give in and reconsider – tell Steve it’ll be all right.

But that wasn’t the type of man Bucky was. It wasn’t the type of man Steve was, either.

The uniform he was to wear when he shipped out tomorrow was pressed and laid on top of his bed, like a reminder. Bucky hated every word he forced himself to say. “Stevie, you and I knew we couldn’t go on like this forever. We had to turn reputable sometime – find a wife. Raise a family.”

Steve glared up at him, fists clenched. “You planning to marry some French girl off in Europe?”

“Maybe,” Bucky lied. “I’ll be over there for months. Years, maybe. I can’t ask you to wait for me.”

Steve got that stubborn look in his eye. “Maybe I want to.”

“No you don’t,” Bucky said, sharp. “Look, it’s been fun, you and me, but it’s over now. I’m going off to war, and you—”

“I have to stay behind,” Steve said bitterly. “I get it.”

“Steve, you've..." His voice wobbled, and he swallowed to regain control. "You're my best fella, you know that. I want you to find someone, else. Someone special. Hell, you'll be the available man in the city. If you get gal of your own—”

Steve snapped forward, hand looping around the back of Bucky’s neck. He dragged Bucky down into a bruising kiss. Bumped noses and clicking teeth. Bucky tasted blood, and his bottom lip stung when Steve let him draw back. Both were breathing hard.

“Something to remember me by,” Steve snarled, with a suspicious reddening of his eyes. “See of those French dames give you that.”

Then Steve turned on his heel and strode away, every line in his sharp shoulders tight with anger.

Bucky touched his bottom lip to see if it was bleeding. It was as if a hole had opened in his chest – Steve-shaped and infinitely deep. Everything in him wanted to call Steve back, but was done was done.

He’d always heard there were a few times in a man’s life where he knows he’d made a colossal mistake. The type you can’t take back. Bucky had the sick feeling this was one of those.

 

 

****
Eastern Alps

****

 

 

"We're going after him." Bucky heard his own voice, cool and in command, as if from far away.

It was as if part of him had been left behind to stand in the wreckage of the train car and watch Steve fall. The look of surprise on Steve’s face flashed behind his eyelids every time he shut his eyes.

Steve couldn't be dead. He just couldn't. Not before Bucky had made things right between them again. They’d been a little strained, what with Peggy Carter and all, but Bucky always assumed they'd have time to… to sort it out.

HYDRA had taken a piece of Bucky's innocence – even he knew that. He couldn't allow them to take away Steve, too.

The look on Gabe's face was terrible. "Sergeant, that gorge must have been four-hundred feet deep."

"If you think a little thing like that would stop him, you didn't know the Captain," Bucky said, and saw Dum-Dum and Jacques exchange a look. Well, if they didn’t like it then tough toenails. Bucky was the one in command right now.

"Morita.” Bucky turned toward the man. "Take the prisoner and get a message as fast as you can to Colonel Phillips." He had barely a glance to spare for Zola, who was sitting bound and gagged in the back of an open air jeep.

Sure, Bucky had entertained his revenge fantasies, but finding Steve was everything to him, now. "Stark and Carter might have notes on the serum. Tell them to bring back medics. Steve’s going to need them."

"Yes sir," Morita said.

Bucky nodded and turned back to the rest of the Commandos. "This ain't a recovery. It's a rescue mission, until we find proof otherwise. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," they answered, and there were no more glances exchanged.

"Good. Falsworth, you and I will un-tether the cable we used to zip to the train. We'll use it to repel down. Here’s how I want it done…"

 

****

 

 

The watery winter sun didn't last long, and it was dark before they set out.

It was damned stupid and dangerous to attempt to take on sheer cliff walls at night.  But damned stupid and dangerous was their bread and butter, and if Bucky had room for anything in his heart but determination, he would have been proud that his men didn't balk.

They packed light -- winter coats, gloves, service weapons, and basic medical supplies.  If--when they found Steve, they'd have a hell of a time packing him up the ravine again. But it was more important the Howlies weren’t overburdened on the icy slope.

They went in teams of two: one man to hold the heavy flashlight, the other to pick a path down. The icy rocks were sheer, and it was a miracle no one slipped to their death.

They found no joy at the bottom of the ravine: The snow was up to Bucky’s knees, and the sound of rushing water told him that there was a river nearby. (What if Steve hit it and was swept away?)

The still, frozen air made all sounds echo. Before long, Bucky and his men heard clear voices to the distance – they weren’t speaking English.

Bucky exchanged glances with Gabe, their polyglot.

“Russian,” Gabe said.

“Can you speak it?”

“No.”

And Bucky’s other languages were German and Yiddish, both of which it was best to keep to himself in these times.

“They’re a long way from Moscow,” Bucky said. "I don't like the way the wind's blowin', here." He gestured for Jacques to scout them out. The man could move like a ghost when he wanted.

Jacques returned not long after with word the Soviets had a well-armed force of twenty – double their own. They had come down the opposite side of the ravine and were setting up camp.

“You think word got out about us taking over the train?” Dum-Dum asked. “And they reckon HYDRA pitched some of their high tech guns overboard?”

“No idea,” Bucky said. “But our business is finding the Captain. You said their camp was North? Well, we’ll scour south along the river. Keep your eyes peeled.”

Nothing they could do about the footprints they’d leave behind. They’d just have to work fast and be out again by morning.

Keeping to the river was the right call. They’d gone perhaps a quarter mile before Bucky spied a lump near the bank he didn’t think was a rock. Was that a flash of blue jacket in the moonlight?

Bucky stumbled through knee-high snow. The others slogged behind in the trail he broke. He was easily out-distancing them, but didn't think on it. The closer he got, the surer he became.

“Steve!” he yelled, forgetting about the Russians. Forgetting about everything but terror and joy warring in his heart.

Steve didn’t stir at the sound of his name. He lay on the bank, having missed both the deadly cold water and dashing his head upon sharp boulders by mere inches. 

Feeling faint, Bucky knelt by Steve and peeled his own gloves off with his teeth. He pressed trembling fingers to Steve's neck and found a pulse.

He was alive. He was alive.

His left arm, though was a mess. It had clearly taken the blunt of the impact, and was twisted the wrong way just above the elbow. Maybe Steve would lose it completely -- Bucky didn't know -- but he thanked the Lord that Steve was unconscious. He'd be in agony otherwise.

The others circled around, their gazes a wonder. None of them, Bucky realized, had expected Steve to be alive. It was only loyalty to Bucky that brought them down here.

"Dum-Dum, Falsworth, go cut a few saplings. We're going to have to fashion a stretcher and drag him out of here."

The going up would be worse than the coming down, but Bucky saw new energy to his men’s movements. The Howling Commandos were behind him. Together, they could accomplish anything.

 

****

 

They made it back to the top by morning, and found a field doctor already waiting, thanks to Morita’s message.

The doc worked hard clear through evening on Steve. Later, he told Bucky if it weren't for the preserving effects of cold snow, Steve would have surely lost the arm. (And possibly the serum played a part, though no one could say for sure). As it was, the doctor said the break was clean above the joint. Once he'd reset the bone, new color came back to the gray, dead looking fingernails.

Bucky didn't care. He'd gladly call Steve "stumpy"  if it meant saving his life. As it was, Steve had flinched in his sleep when they'd pricked his palm with a needle. It was a good sign there was no nerve damage. They'd do more testing when he woke up.

And wake up he did, early the next morning, when most men save Bucky were sleeping. At that point, Bucky had been awake for... he wasn't sure. since the train accident. Two days, maybe? Going on three? Huh. He'd never been able to do that before, but war changed a man. He'd get his shut-eye once he knew Steve was out of the woods.

Steve shifted and groaned. His blue eyes cracked open, foggy and confused.

"Hey pal." The chair squeaked slightly as Bucky leaned close to Steve’s sick-bed. "How you feeling?"

"Bucky?" Steve rasped, confused. He looked around the tent. "Where?"

"Temporary camp. You took one hell of a swan dive off that train." Bucky tried to put a smile on it, but wasn't sure he succeeded. "Don't move. Your arm took your landing—"

"Train?" Steve seemed to focus. He looked at Bucky, eyes clearing. "You came back… for me?"

"'Course we did." Bucky rested his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “It’s hard to find a decent Captain 'round here. You know that.”

To his surprise, Steve blinked rapidly, as if fighting tears. "You came back for me," he repeated roughly.

"What'd you think, we were going to leave you down there?" He grabbed for a washcloth. Steve was going to be ashamed of this when he was feeling better. "Your arm isn't hurting you too bad, is it?"

"I'm sorry," Steve rasped, and Bucky opened his mouth to say he’d cleaned up worse than a couple tears, but Steve's good hand closed over his wrist with surprising strength. "I'm sorry. I should've checked, Buck. I should have made certain…. Oh God, I'm sorry."

"It’s all okay, Stevie. You're going to be okay. C'mon, don't look at me all cow eyes... Do you need me to call the doctor?"

But Steve's eyes were already slipping shut. His grip on Bucky's wrist loosened, and his face relaxed back into sleep.

Bemused, Bucky stroked back his hair. Waking up with broken bones and stuffed to the gills with medicine was the worst. Steve would be more himself when he woke again, and probably griping about the arm, too.

He rose, and saw that the doctor  had left Steve’s uniform jacket draped haphazardly on a bedpost. It was stained with blood, and they'd cut him out of it, but Bucky was too worked up to be tired. He could make himself useful and move some of the patches from the old uniform and sew them to a new one. After all, Steve wouldn't be able to do it with his arm in a sling.

Something hard clunked in a pocket. A cigarette tin? Bucky reached in and drew out a slim playing card-size rectangle of... glass? Metal?

"What in the world?" he muttered.

He scraped his thumb across the surface, finding it slick as ice. He nearly dropped the thing when it lit up with its own light and displayed a series of numbers, three rows at a time.

ENTER PASSCODE flashed across the top.

Bucky glanced again at Steve, but he was blissfully asleep.

This gadget was like nothing he’d seen Howard whip up, though the man was usually working on something.

On the corner popped up a picture of a small oval and whirls. Hesitantly, Bucky pressed it, then reeled back in shock as words flashed: INVALID FINGERPRINT. TWO ATTEMPTS REMAINING.

Finger... print?

Bucky stared at his own finger, but there was no damage from the contraption, or any residue. Was this some crazy Stark Stamp Pad, made to take fingerprints without having to wash your hands of ink afterwards? It seemed like the type of thing Howard would come up with.

Steve's good hand rested loose over his chest. The thing had come from his jacket.

Bucky felt both powerfully curious and guilty, but not guilty enough to stop himself from gently taking his friend's hand and tap his index finger to the oval whirl.

The screen flashed again, and there was suddenly an image of a man, right there in the palm of Bucky’s hand. The picture was clearer than Bucky had ever seen on film, full vivid color and so crisp it was like Bucky could reach out and touch him. He was handsome, dark hair and eyes, with a van dyke and oddly familiar look, though Bucky couldn't quite say he’d seen him before.

 

 

 

There was a little sideways triangle hovering over his face. For lack of any other ideas, Bucky touched it.

He nearly dropped the gadget all over again as the picture of the man came to life and spoke. 

“Hi, it’s me. The ghost of Christmas Future,” the man said pithily. His voice came out so clear it was as if he stood in the tent alongside Bucky. “I don’t think I have to tell you: destroy this tablet as soon as it’s over. I set it to self-destruct at the end, and I’m not naming-names just in case it falls into the wrong hands. My advice is to break it into fun-size pieces and toss it in the ravine – you know the one.”

"I made this recording knowing that I probably wouldn’t be able to talk you out of leaving, and if that was the case… well. Consider this me getting the last word.” A sad smile flickered over his face. He leaned forward. “Time’s a tricky thing. I still don’t know for sure if you’ve ended up in a whole new universe, or are really altering this one.”

"Either way, it’s better if you didn’t take the–let’s call it The Long Sleep. The changes you’re planning to make will wreck havoc with history, and someone needs to make sure the world doesn’t steer itself into a ditch. You’re the only man for the job, so… I want you to find a way to disable the plane before it takes off.”

The man paused, one finger tapping out a rhythm on a glossy table top. “I may not know much about healthy, normal relationships, but I do know it never works out when one side holds all the cards. If you come back, you’ll know things about me that I won’t even know about myself, yet. That’s not fair. You’re going to try to rebottle lightening, and life–love doesn’t work that way. We had some good times, but it’s over now.”

"We both know the real reason you went back, why you’ve been so distant since the Potomac, and… I’m giving you my blessing. For you both. So… yeah. Mazel-tov.” His lips twisted and he let out a huff of a laughter. “I’m not totally selfless. If this works I will never know what I’m missing.”

He seemed to stare straight into Bucky's eyes. "Go change the world. Keep HYDRA down. You might even make sure certain laws about equal marriage are passed quicker this time around. And,” his voice broke, “if you run across a certain hero-worshiping little boy… well, he could use a morally righteous Uncle-type to look up to.”

The man blinked a few times, then visibly forced a smile.  "See you on the other side.”

The screen faded to black and a curl of smoke drifted from the device. When Bucky touched the screen, there was no reaction. It had self-destructed, just like the man had promised.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Steve began to stir again by evening. Bucky hadn’t left the tent, but sat by his side, the strange gadget in his hands, thought. Not every conclusion he’d come to were good, or productive, but he'd sorted a few things out in his mind.

Fortune must have favored fools, because Steve woke when the doctor was around.

Bucky stood by, trying not to chew his lip while the doctor checked Steve over. There was no sign of infection, and he had feeling to the tips of his fingers. When the doctor was done and pronounced him healing, Bucky said, "Mind if I have a minute alone with the Captain?"

Maybe some of the stress bled through Bucky's voice, because the doctor gave him a look.  "Of course." He hurriedly packed his kit.

Steve's smile was sunny. "Bucky, I thought I was having a dream."

The tent flap fell shut behind the doctor, and Bucky glanced out after to make sure none of the Howlies were eavesdropping. They weren't. Good men.

Then he turned, and with a flick of his wrist, tossed the gadget over. It landed on Steve's lap.

"You wanna explain what this is about?" Bucky asked.

The sunny smile slipped off of Steve's face. He picked the gadget up (though not, Bucky noted, like he was unfamiliar with it), then glanced at Bucky with a weak, "What's this?"

His response was extremely satisfying. "Letter from your fella."

He was watching Steve like a hawk and saw the slight widening of his eyes, the convulsive way his hand reached to cover the little glass rectangle. "I," Steve started, "I don't know what—"

"Spare me." Bucky took his seat by Steve's bedside. "Dark hair, brown eyes, got a prissy van dyke and had a whole bunch of futuristic lights and gismos behind him. Ring any bells?"

"Bucky—"

"Are you really Steve Rogers?"

"I—yes! Of course. Buck—"

"Because I have you suddenly acting strange, mollycoddling me during a mission just before you nearly fell to your death. Then, I find that in your jacket. It's like nothing I've ever seen before. You say you're Steve? Then prove it."

"How?"

He snatched the gadget out of Steve's limp grasp. "Convince me not to give this thing over to Howard Stark, and you to the MPs." He was almost begging. “Tell me something only Steve Rogers would know.”

Steve stared at him for a long, long moment. Then something in his eyes firmed. Bucky thought he caught a little of the fire he remembered, all those times he found Steve beat up in a back alley in Brooklyn.

"The last day before you shipped out, when you told me to go find a girl... Buck, it damn near tore my heart out," Steve said. "But I did what you asked. I found Peggy, and later... I found Tony." His jaw firmed. "And you have no damn right to feel jealous now because I did just as you asked. I've always done just as you asked."

It was like Steve had upped and punched him.

"That's not. I'm not..." Bucky stammered.

Steve held out his good hand. "Give me the tablet, Buck."

He did, and Steve spent a moment poking the black screen. Then, frowning, Steve pressed a slim button on the top, turned it over, and looked back up. "It's not working."

"He--the man... Tony?-- said it would self-destruct after viewing," Bucky said. Damn it all, but he felt mildly ashamed, even though he had every right to be angry. But the hot betrayal wasn't there. Melted away.

Steve stared down at the broken device, his heart in his eyes.

"It was letter from the future, isn't it?" Bucky said. It wasn't really a question, because sweet Mother Mary, his life was only getting stranger by the day. Time travel was the icing on top the horrors of the Azzano lab, Steve’s transformation, guns that could vaporize a man in one blast, and the Red Skull himself.

Steve closed his eyes, pained. "Buck..."

"That means you're from the future, aren't you?"

"I can't—I shouldn't answer that."

"Do we win the war?" That had been the biggest question eating at him for hours.

"Yes," Steve said, clearly taken by surprise. He opened his eyes and looked at him. "Of course."

Bucky let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He scooted closer. "Okay," he said. "Steve, you need to be straight with me. Tell me what happened, from the beginning."

Steve barked out a rusty laugh. "You'd never believe me. Not in a million years."

"Don't got a million years," Bucky said. "But I have a few hours. C'mon, Stevie. Try me."

Steve stared at him, then swallowed.

Bucky put his hand over Steve's, and Steve looked down, something unreadable in his eyes.

Bucky kept his voice low. "I keep asking myself, why has he come back, now? Why not before the war, before you enlisted – before I made the mistake of breaking it off with you." Steve inhaled, but Bucky plowed on, "Something bad was supposed to happen on the train, wasn't it? Something you were trying to stop."

Steve closed his eyes and nodded once, looking like it pained him.

"I died," Bucky said, "didn't I?"

The muscle in Steve's cheek ticked again, and Steve said, "You were knocked outside that blown-out hole, caught a hand on the railing. I tried to reach you in time—If I'd been any faster..."

"Instead," Bucky said, voice thick, "I got to watch you fall."

A tear tricked down Steve's cheek. He wiped it away, hurriedly, embarrassed. "I hadn't planned on that."

"Christ, I hope not."

That caused Steve to rumble a low, sad laugh. Turning his hand, he gripped Bucky's own with shocking strength. "I had to save you."

"You saved me." He raised an eyebrow and took a risk. "Now what are you going to do with me, Mister?"

Predictably, color rose in Steve's cheeks. He glanced around the tent, as if suddenly worried they'd be dropped in on. "You saw the whole vid--the letter?" he asked. "What did Tony say?"

Bucky let out a breath and reluctantly unlaced his hand from Steve's.

"A lot. He seems like a talker.”

“The fastest talker in the room,” Steve agreed. He gazed at Bucky expectantly.

Bucky thought back. “He said this was his way of getting the last word in. Time travel was tricky business, and you should disable a plane before it takes off. That you shouldn't go down with it -- which I agree with," he added. "And you need to watch over the world -- and that he gave you his blessing about... 'bout you and me." Bucky tried not to feel superior at that last bit. It was a little funny. Like having an unwanted ex tell him that he and Steve were okay in his book.

The look of sorrow on Steve's face wiped Bucky’s smugness away. 

Steve dragged a hand down his face. "He never held a high opinion of himself," he muttered. "It was always an act. Was there anything else?"

"That was the gist of it," Bucky felt more uncomfortable by the moment. Why in the world had he poked his nose into a letter not meant for his eyes? It hadn’t mattered that it was an accident. This was worse than reading someone else's Dear John.

He tapped the little rectangle, wishing it would magically illuminate again. Nothing happened.

"He—uh, Tony didn't mention Peggy Carter, so I guess you two...?"

"She married, had two children," Steve said, making Bucky wonder exactly how far in the future he was from.  "Buck... I have to get back to Tony."

His heart seemed to flip in his chest. "Well, you aren't going anywhere with your arm in a sling."

"I've got time on this side," Steve said firmly. "But I need you to do me a favor. No one can find this." He held out the gadget.

"I'll smash it and chuck it into the ravine. No one in their right mind is down there — well, except—"

"Except what?"

"We ran into a group of Soviets, while searching for you. I don't know what they were up to, Steve, but I don't like it."

A dark looked passed over Steve's face. "I don't, either. But never mind them. What happened to Zola?"

"We collared him after you left, and sent him on with Morita. By now, he's probably in Colonel Phillips tender care."

"Good."

Bucky rose to leave and slipped the little tablet under his sleeve.

"Buck?"

"Yeah, Steve?"

"Be careful out there."

He saluted, somewhat sardonically.

The tablet was jewel thin, and it was a shame to destroy it, but Bucky made short work with a hammer. Then he threw the mess into the ravine. He watched it drop, and felt an odd shiver roll up his spine.

Bucky was glad to walk away from the edge.

 

 

****

 

 

Steve was up and at 'em the next day, left arm still in a sling, but not looking pained beyond that. The doctor said he'd never seen anything like it. Everyone called Erskine a miracle-worker anew.

Steve laughed it off, and gave orders to break camp. They were to reconvene with the brass in London, and receive their next orders.

Bucky didn't have the opportunity to speak to Steve again about the letter from the future, not because he didn't want to, but because privacy was at a premium. Steve was constantly surrounded by well meaning, but attentive men. Everyone wanted to rib their Captain about his fall, tell him again how glad they were to see him. How he had no right to check out on them when there was still a war on.

Every once awhile, Bucky caught Steve shooting him odd looks. There was something both grateful and protective in his eyes, like Bucky had been the one to escape death by the skin of his teeth. And that Steve was the one counting his blessings.

Sure, Steve had a fantastical story about a future gone wonky. (One that was hard to believe in the clear light of day, even with the ‘tablet’ smashed to bits.) But from where Bucky was coming from, he didn't die on the train. He hadn't even come close. So he had a hard time feeling lucky.

Fantastical story about the future or no, Bucky was grateful – damn grateful – that he had Steve back now.

Steve hadn't even mentioned Carter on his own once. It seemed he was well and truly quit of her.

And in love with someone else.

What am I? Chopped liver? A small, bitter part of Bucky thought once or twice. But he knew he wasn't being fair. He had been the one to let Steve go in the first place. It wasn't Steve's fault he managed to make it work with some other, future fella.

He and Steve didn't get time to speak again in private until the whole unit had safely decamped. The two-seater jeep they shared wasn't open air, thank God, though the bit of fabric the MPs had stretched over the top wasn't exactly air-tight. But he and Steve had the cab to themselves, and Bucky could put up with a bit of cold for that.

The drive started silent and awkward, and didn't get much better. Bucky was still trying to figure the smoothest way to bring up the letter from the future when he glanced over and caught Steve taking his arm out of the sling.

"What're you doing?" Bucky snapped. "You idiot, you're going to hurt yourself. The doctor said—"

"It's healed," Steve said, then stretched out his arm easily -- an arm that had been showing bone not three days previously. Under Bucky's stare, Steve rolled up his sleeve and showed the skin. Completely unbroken. Not even a mark.

Bucky cut his eyes back to the road, realizing he'd been gawking. He swallowed. "What did you say they did to you, back in New York?"

Steve was quiet for a few moments. "Same as Zola did to you."

Bucky nearly yanked the truck off the road. 

"Jeez, Buck!" Steve reached for the steering wheel, but Bucky got the jeep back under control. It felt like all the air had been punched out of him.

"What're you saying a stupid thing like that for?!" he demanded.

Steve held up a hand. "I'm sorry. I was trying to figure a way to talk to you about it – it came out wrong."

They'd both been sitting in silence, trying to figure out a way to talk to each other. Wasn't that just the story of their lives?

Bucky took a deep breath, held it, then let it out. Truthfully, he was angrier at his own overreaction than at Steve.

"What came out wrong?" Bucky made himself ask.

Again, Steve went quiet, and when Bucky glanced at him he was rubbing the side of his face, looking pained. "I never knew if you knew it yourself—"

"Steve, I swear to Christ if you don't start talking sense—"

"When you were a prisoner in Azzano, " Steve said, "you were Zola's special project. He gave you drugs -- injections. And afterwards, you're stronger. You could shoot straighter, see further. Endure... more."

Bucky reeled. He'd never told a soul that. Not a damn soul. "How—"

"I found out from a damn file," Steve said, a thread of anger—of betrayal— in his voice. "I put the pieces together."

"What?" Bucky asked, feeling blown. "When?"

Steve closed his eyes. The lines on his face stood out starkly. "Seventy years from now."

Seventy years? He glanced again at Steve. "You know how kooky this all sounds, right? I mean, I watched your future letter, and I'm still not sure I believe it." But how else would Steve know what happened to him in that lab? Bucky felt sick inside.

Steve, typically, was like a dog with a bone once he got on a subject. He asked, quietly, "Did you know Zola was trying to recreate the super soldier serum?"

Bucky swallowed, licked his lips. Then swallowed again. "He didn't exactly talk to me. I was just a piece of meat to poke needles in."

"But you suspected."

Yeah, he'd suspected. He'd always been fit, but he'd been even more so after he recovered from getting out of that Hell. "So?" Bucky said.

Frustration leaked into Steve's voice. "So, it could have made a difference."

"What does that mean?"

Steve looked like he was chewing the inside of his cheek. Then with an angry shake of his head, he looked out the window. "Never mind."

"Is it about the plane?" Bucky guessed. When Steve looked sharply at him, he said, "Don't think I forgot what your fella said – telling you to crash a plane before it takes off— or think I'm gonna let you anywhere near an airport. I'm putting you on notice, pal. You're grounded."

"Buck," Steve said softly. "I have to go back. It's my home."

"Listen to yourself. You belong right here." With me. Or with Peggy, even. I don't care as long as I don't lose you.

He never said those words aloud, but somehow he sensed that Steve knew what he was thinking. The punk was perceptive like that. Or maybe he just knew Bucky too well.

Because the next thing Bucky knew, one of Steve's large hands was placed on his knee, and squeezed.

"I'm sorry," Steve said. He sounded like it, too.

Bucky let out a breath, and a lot of the anger seemed to go with it. "No, Stevie... I'm the one who's sorry. I... I messed us up, didn't I? "

"You did what you thought was right, for both of us."

Summoning up his courage, Bucky said, "Seeing that Tony character make the same mistake I did, brought home some things.”

“Yeah,” he agreed morosely.

 “I'll get over it," he added, giving Steve a sidelong look. "You're not all that."

That caused Steve to laugh aloud. The hand on his knee squeezed, but he didn't let it up. After a few moments, Bucky moved his own hand from the shift-stick to Steve's own.

They stayed like that for the length of the journey.

As the first check-point came into view down the road, Steve spoke softly. "I missed you, Buck."

"You still have me," he said, not adding, whenever you want me because he knew that Steve would get that, too.

One thing was for certain. Steve clearly planned to kept mum on this plane business -- well. Bucky intended not to let him out of his sight. If he thought he was going to sneak off to the future, he had another thing coming.

 

****

 

London had recently weathered through another round of heavy bombing. Some of the buildings were still smoking as Steve, Bucky and the rest of the Howlies rolled down the streets. Hollow-eyed people peeked out of broken windows, then withdrew.

Bucky remembered when they'd been greeted with cheers and waived handkerchiefs, but so soon after the devastation no one felt like celebration.

The bar where they'd christened the Howling Commandos was a shell of itself, part of a neighboring brick building crashed into the back. He hoped no one had sheltered there when the air raid sirens had gone off.

He caught Steve's gaze lingering there as they drove past.

In contrast, the military base was hopping with activity. Word must have gotten ahead of Steve's survival, and a deeply amused Bucky got to see Steve and Peggy's reunion. Her, joyous, but struggling to deep the dignity of her rank and station. Him, clearly embarrassed by her affection. Pained, too, from whatever demons he must have known to be coming in the future.

She was married with kids where he'd come from. Steve still cared, but clearly he'd left his feelings behind.

Thinking it would be cruel for both to let this go on, Bucky walked up and clapped Steve on the shoulder. "C'mon, Rogers. Colonel Phillips wants to have a word."

The look Steve shot him was grateful.

Turns out, Phillips did want a word or two with Steve, and a full report with Bucky as backup. They met in an office adjacent to the interrogation room. Over the Colonel's shoulder, Bucky could see Doctor Zola through the one-way mirror, sitting in an interrogation room.

The Colonel commented on Steve's healed arm, how it looked better than what reports suggested.

"Yes sir," Steve replied. Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

Again, Zola caught Bucky's eye. He stepped closer to the one-way mirror. "He gets steak and potatoes?" he demanded, noting the untouched plate in front of Zola. "Sir, do you know how many of our men he cut up in his labs?"

"Carrot and stick, Sergeant. He's Schmidt's second-in-command. I know how to get weasels like him to talk."

But Steve was in agreement with Bucky. "Sir, I advise you keep Zola under lock and key in the deepest hole you can find. He's more dangerous than any of us can know."

"What makes you say that, Captain?"

Steve looked frustrated for a moment. "As you said, he's Schmidt's right hand. Men like him don't get to the top of that food-chain without being cunning and persuasive."

"Be that as it may, he has provided what may prove to be interesting intel." And Phillips went on to explain about the largest of Schmidt's bases, located on top of a mountain ridge. "They say," he said, "that it's where he's putting the final touches on Valkyrie. That new super-bomber he had our MIA's slaving over.

Bucky was probably the only one who noticed that Steve didn't look all together surprised.

And suddenly, Bucky had a hunch about that plane mentioned in Tony's future-letter.

"Permission to lead the Howling Commandos to take out that base," Steve said.

Phillips waved him away, clearly expecting it. "Granted. As long as you receive medical clearance first."

 

 

****

 

 

They ran into Howard Stark as they were leaving the office. The inventor looked wearier than usual, his eyes bruised from lack of sleep, the brylcreem in his hair mussed as if he'd run his hand through it one too many times. 

"Rogers," he greeted. "Barnes. You two are making a name for yourselves. That's the second Killed In Action letter I've seen Phillips draft and destroy with your names on it."

"Just keeping you on your toes," Bucky said, and because he knew it would annoy the priss, reached over to ruffle the man's hair.

Howard made an undignified sound and stepped away. "Keep your dirty mitts to yourself, pal. This product cost more than the tenement you grew up in."

"Oh, is that a fact? 'Cause it's not doing anything for you.”

Usually, Steve butted in. He liked to play peacemaker between the two. Bucky himself still wasn't sure if he liked or hated Stark. Maybe it was a little of both, on good days. He was pompous and puffed up like a peacock, and it annoyed Bucky that he could mostly deliver whatever he promised.

Still, Steve called him a friend. So he wasn't all bad.

He was surprised when Steve drew Howard aside, a stern look on his face. "Howard, I need a favor."

The man blinked, clearly switching gears. "What’s on your mind, Rogers?"

"Zola." Steve glanced at Bucky, who'd gone still. "I think Colonel Phillips plans to transfer him to special interrogators in New York and wash his hands of him. But he's a threat."

Howard looked more confused than interested. "Well, sure. He's in bed with the Red Skull -- you think Phillips isn't taking him seriously?"

Steve glanced at Bucky, seeking his support. There was a question in his eyes.

Bucky swallowed bile, thick and bitter, and spoke something he'd never dared say aloud. "I think... when Zola had our men," when he had me strapped down and screaming, he didn't say, "he was working on the serum. Trying to recreate it."

"Wouldn't have activated properly," Howard said at once. "Not without the—"

"Vita-ray machine, I know," Steve said. "But Howard, he's dangerous in a way we can't imagine. Look at him, a man like that, who somehow got enough power and connections to be second-in-command of HYDRA. And now he'll be going into the heart of New York? I don't like it, but I'm only a soldier. You have more connections. If you could, ah, keep an eye on him..."

Howard nodded grimly. "I catch your meaning. And two—I'll have two eyes on him—build a mechanical one, if I need to. Ha!" Then he clapped Steve's arm, nodded at Bucky, and walked off.

Steve's shoulders slumped just as he went out of sight.

"Future got you down?" Bucky asked, lightly.

Steve tossed a rueful look over his shoulder. "He reminds me of someone, is all." But he didn't explain further.  Straightening his shoulders, Steve added, "Call the Commandos in. We're going to have to debrief about this new base."

Bucky saluted, somewhat ironically, and did as he was told.

 

 

****

 

 

The plan to storm Schmidt's final hidden base could have gone a lot smoother. Steve proposed a harebrained scheme to use himself as some sort of Trojan horse, claiming that the Red Skull wanted him alive.

Of course Bucky shot it down.

"Bucky," Steve said, giving him a significant look over the table. "I know this will work."

Bucky just smiled crookedly at him, the devil in his eye. "If they'll take you, they'll take all of us. We're all," he looked around at the other Howlies and met their gazes, "on HYDRA's naughty list."

That got a few chuckles from the assembled. Steve's expression quivered for a second, then he broke into a reluctant smile. "Guess that's true."

"We're behind ya, Cap," Dum-Dum said, to the general agreement of everyone else.

So they spent the next few hours deep in sewing -- Bucky's mother would be so proud, God rest her soul. And into the hidden pockets, they stowed knifes and the smallest pistols. Bucky disassembled his best riffle, and the men had a few laughs putting the barrel down the leg. Gabe claimed he'd hold it, since he was already packin'. That got a few guffas from the rest, but they'd all seen each other naked – it was the army – and it was true. He was packing.

Bucky noticed Steve spent individual time with each in their core group, offering a friendly word, a piece of advice or a private joke.

He wondered if it was as obvious to everyone else what Steve was doing: saying goodbye.

Well, too bad for him, Bucky thought as he slid the bolt from his rifle casing, and slipped it into a slit he'd made in his jacket.

He was going to take Tony's advice -- bring down the plane before it could take to the air. He still hadn't a clue what the plane had to do with the future – his guess was that HYDRA invented a spectacular machine inside to send someone ahead through the years -- but Steve wasn't going anywhere near it.

Turned out, that was easier said than done.

They let themselves captured with only the minimum fuss and bruising. Jacques was a little lippy with a guard who spoke French and won himself a bloody lip.

However, when signal to break and fight was given, Steve snapped his cuffs like the metal was made of twine.

Huh.

Bucky jerked his own, feeling the crappy metal part. That's what HYDRA got for not buying American made, he supposed.

It was chaos in the room, with Red Skull retreating, and Steve's shield bouncing with deadly accuracy. Bucky liberated one of the guards of his keys, and set about unlocking the rest of the Commandos from their shackles. As soon as they were free, they joined the fray and the tide turned to their favor.

Steve was a whirl-wind, following hot on the Red Skull's heels as he retreated. The fight took them in the narrow hallways where they got jammed up by more HYDRA guards.

The other Howlies fell behind, leaving Steve and Bucky to push on. One last corner, and they broke into a massive air hanger.

Bucky's stomach sank as he caught the sight of the airplane ahead, and the tips of the Red Skull's boots disappearing into the belly of the beast. It was already taxing down the runway, and Bucky knew he wasn't fast enough to stop them.

That's when Peggy Carter and Colonel Phillips rolled up in a stolen jeep.

"Need a lift?" Peggy asked sweetly. Bucky could have kissed her himself.

They scrambled in. Steve, his jaw set, said, "You all stay back. This is between me and the Red Skull."

"Go tell your mother to suck eggs," Bucky said, cheerfully.

"Teach your mother," Peggy corrected, with the raising of a fine eyebrow.

He could practically see Steve's blood pressure rise. He gave him a hard look. "That's an order, Buck. Stay here."

Bucky turned to Phillips, who was driving grimly faster. "Guess you'll have to court martial me when I get back, Colonel."

"I ain't heard nothing," Phillips grunted. They were pulling even to the plane's tail. "Now or never, Captain."

The look Steve gave Bucky was wretched, but then he turned to Peggy. She pulled him close. "Be careful."

"I will."

For a beat it looked like their lingering moment was going to be more. Then Steve leaned back with a soft smile, and touched her under her chin.

The plane's wheels were starting to lift. They had seconds. Bucky leapt from the seat, catching one of the withdrawing wheels. Steve took the other side. They looked down in time to see Phillip's car skid to a stop, a bare inch from the drop-off.

Then the wheel-well doors shut, and Steve looked at him, anguished. "Buck, you shouldn't be here."

"I should be dead at the bottom of a ravine. That's what you said right?" He didn't wait for Steve to answer. "Look, I have your back. I've always had your back, and I ain't stopping now."

The smile Steve gave was a little soft and sad. "'Til the end of the line?"

It took a moment to place that phrase—something  he'd said to Steve, after his ma died. The sap. "The end of the line," Bucky agreed.

A spray of bullets made them both duck. There were more HYDRA goons coming on fast. There was no more time to talk. Only fight.

 

****

 

Later, after seeing the Red Skull take the comic cube into his bare hand and melt away into the air, Bucky turned to Steve and said, "I give up. Where is it?"

"Where's what?" Steve asked, turning to look over the destroyed control panel.

Bucky waved his hand around. "The little machine that takes you back to the future?"

Steve turned. "Buck," he said slowly. "There's no machine. This plane is loaded with enough explosive to take out a chunk of the eastern seaboard. We're bringing it down. "

Bucky took in the destroyed instrumentation. "Okay. Then what?"

Steve swallowed. "I... uh, froze. In the ice. They said the serum kept me in a state of suspended animation. ‘Till SHIELD – what SSR becomes – found me, seventy years from now."

He sat down hard on one of the half-blasted chairs.  "Mother Mary and Jesus," he blasphemed.

"It won't be bad. It... didn't hurt."

"That's all right for you." He was such an idiot. No wonder Steve hadn't wanted him to jump onto the plane.

"You have the same serum."

Bucky looked out the window, to the endless fields of ice and snow. "You don't know that."

"Call it a hunch," Steve said. "If we hit right it should—" he swallowed, and something in his gaze made Bucky think that freezing solid wasn't all that peaceful as he'd claimed, "it should be all right."

And if it wasn't, then these were the last minutes Bucky was going to have on this Earth.

Steve was moving to the control panel, picking up the radio. Bucky stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Wait, Steve. Before you do this... I gotta tell you—"

Steve looked up at him, his blue eyes clear and sad. "I know, Buck."

"I wanna say it anyway." He stepped forward, moving into Steve’s space. "I thought I was going to die in Europe, and I didn't want you pining away for me. I told myself it would be easier to break it off with you, but I was a coward. I should have never—Steve, you outta know that if I had the choice to go back in time it would be to that day."

Steve's eyes were soft, and he pulled Bucky in. They kissed -- he hadn't kissed Steve while he was in this new body, but those were the same, stubborn lips. The same taste that Bucky knew better than himself. It was slow, and deep, and lingering. A hello and a goodbye all at the same time.

All too soon, it had to end.

With Steve still holding his hand, he reached for the radio to call headquarters.

After their final goodbye, Steve took a breath, looked at Bucky. “We can’t let this plane fly further.”

Bucky nodded and Steve pointed the nose downward.

"Buck," Steve said as a field of ice filled the view, pristine and sharp, "you should know... Know that you'll make it, okay?"

"Sure." He couldn't tear his eyes away from the onrushing ice.

"No, you will," Steve insisted. He gripped Bucky’s hand tight and raised his voice to be heard above the screaming wind. "We'll wake up again. I'll show you the world. It's like nothing you've ever imagined. We'll tackle it together, you and me. This time I'll get it right—I swear to you, Buck. It'll be—"

They hit.

 

****

Chapter Text

 

 

****

THEN

****

 

Steve was gone.

Howard spent frantic hours pouring over oceanographic grids, scouring northern ocean currents. He'd been on the horn with the top minds in the Royal Arctic Institute. Hacks. They'd been worse than useless.

The crux of it all was it was impossible to pin-point where Steve had taken down the Valkyrie. Ten miles one way or the other could change everything.

"Mr. Stark." One of the MP's came up. He looked distinctly embarrassed. "You have a request for a meeting. From, uh, the prisoner."

"Zola?" Howard demanded outraged. Who was he to request anything? The little toad had been demanding steak dinners every night in exchange for dribbling more HYDRA intel.

The analysts were happy. Everyone else hated his slimy guts.

Howard snarled, "Tell him to blow it out his ass. Whatever it is, he can tell his interrogator. Can't you see I'm busy?" Then he turned his back to the maps.

 

 

 

*****

NOW

*****

 

 

"Mr. Stark." One of the MP's came up, looking distinctly embarrassed. "You have a request for a meeting. From, uh, the prisoner."

"Zola?" Howard demanded outraged. Then he caught himself. Steve had requested -- his last request, as it turned out -- that Howard keep an eye on him. Zola was dangerous. And it was true that the toady little slime ball had the analysts dancing to his tune.

And in that moment of hesitation, Howard thought, What if he knows something about the Valkyrie? My God, why hadn't anyone asked?

"I'll be there in a minute," Howard said curtly, and finished his calculations.

It turned out that Zola was a pasty little weasel, but he was -- painfully -- polite, and whip-smart. He did have some useful theories on the downed Valkyrie; its range and the probability of surviving an impact at speed. He was also plainly not telling Howard everything he knew.

Howard left the interrogation room pleasantly surprised. And if what Barnes had said was true, Zola had been trying to recreate the serum. With Steve... gone (Howard's heart clenched, but he shoved that grief away) then Zola might know a thing or two about the genetic changes Erskine had made in his formula.

Howard would be sure to secure the last of Steve's blood, of course.

They could never replace Rogers. He was one of a kind. A truly good man. But they could make sure his legacy was not lost.

And damn it all, if that meant he had to work with Zola to keep an eye on him, he would.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

What happened next was more or less a blur to Bucky. He had the vague impression of cold, of flashing lights, urgent voices speaking over his head, and high beep-beeps of machinery. Then a sharp pinch to the top of his hand.

He woke... comfortable. More well rested than he’d been in a long, long time. Cracking open his eyes, Bucky stared up at a slowly revolving ceiling fan. 

Then, in the way of nightmares, the memories came back to him. Steve’s strange confessions. The plane crash. The ice. 

Sitting up, Bucky took a gander around a sterile room. A hospital?

An uncertain smile spread over his face. He and Steve must have been saved, after all. All of Steve's best laid plans about the future had come to nothing. Steve was going to be livid.

There was a sharp voice down the hall, high with tension. "Captain Rogers, don't! Come back!"

Speak of the devil, and he shall appear, Bucky thought, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He was able to stand easily, with not a twinge of pain. Maybe Steve had been onto something about Zola's burning injections. By all rights, he should be in a hundred tiny chunks spread all over the arctic. 

Reaching the door, he yanked it open in time to see his best friend rush past like he were late for dinner. Steve skidded to a stop almost comically, his bare feet squeaking on the slick-looking floor.

"Buck!"

He 'oofed' as Steve took him by the shoulders, grip painfully tight. Pulling back, Steve looked at him up and down as if he couldn't believe his eyes. "You're awake? You're okay?"

"Sure, pal," Bucky agreed. There were people running up behind them – a redheaded nurse in a hot little uniform, followed by men in dour black suits with ties so skinny they looked like pieces of ribbon.

"Bucky," Steve squeezed his shoulder to catch his attention. His blue eyes were bright with excitement. Alive in a way Bucky hadn't seen since before the war. "We made it."

Bucky blinked. Steve couldn't be saying what he thought he was saying. They’d only been unconscious for, what, a few hours?

The cluster of dour-suited men stopped a good fifteen feet away, then parted. An imposing black man with an eye-patch and long leather overcoat strode forward. 

"Captain Rogers," he said. "Sergeant Barnes. We'd hoped to do this one at a time to spare you the shock."

Steve’s arms dropped from Bucky as he turned to the man. Bucky just stared. "What's that supposed to mean?"

There was the barest flicker of sympathy in the man’s good eye. "You two have been asleep for a long time."

The breath froze in Bucky's throat. No, it couldn't be… could it? This was really the future? 

Fortunately, Steve answered next. "How long?"

Now there was no doubt about it. A look of gentle pity crossed the man's face. "Almost seventy years."

 

 

****

 

 

The man — Director Nick Fury — brought Bucky and Steve to the top floor of the building — SHIELD — they called it. The SSR apparently wasn't a punchy enough name after the war -- and let them look out to the city below. 

They were in New York, but was a New York which Bucky had never imagined. Sure, it wasn't like anyone would let the likes of him climb to the top of a building just for the view, but even from this height he could see the cars were different – sleek things with bubbled tops and squared ends. No one wore hats.

Some of the ladies he passed in the hall wore pants to work, just you please, with hair pulled back into severe styles. 

He wasn't sure what to think, only that he wanted to see more of it. 

Steve took over and asked the questions for them both, playing the part better than Bucky had ever expected. When had he become such a good liar? "Did we win the war?" "What happened to my men?" "How did this happen?" "How did you find us?" "Who is president now?"

Even then, Steve was subtly more relaxed than he'd been in the last few weeks. His crazy scheme had succeeded. He was home again, and to Bucky's eye it looked like he was trying to hide a smile behind his serious Captain’s façade. It was there, though, in the quiet curve of his lips.

That not-quite-smile turned to a brief frown as Fury later passed them off to an Agent Sitwell. Bucky made a note to ask about it later.

They were led to another room, this one without windows, where a thick stack of manila folders rested on the table.

Sitwell indicated the chairs around a sturdy table. "I'm here to answer any questions, and get you up to speed about all that's happened in the last decades," he explained. "I thought we'd start, if you want, on the lives of your men... and family members."

"My sister," Bucky rasped, feeling like one hell of a heel. He hadn't so much as spared a thought about her. True, Becca had been eight-years-old, and living with his aunt after their parents died. Last he heard, she'd been doing well in school.

"Rebecca Barnes is still alive," Sitwell said and pushed one folder to him. "She's a great-grandmother twice over."

Bucky let out a breath that was almost a laugh. "I'm an uncle?" He looked to Steve who smiled back, a watery glint to his eye, and clapped Bucky on the shoulder.

"A few times over, sounds like,” Steve said. “Family reunions will sure be interesting."

Sitwell frowned. "For now, SHIELD would prefer to keep your discovery a secret, gentleman."

Stick in the mud. No wonder Steve didn’t like him.

Suddenly, an odd buzzing filled the room.

Sitwell rose from his seat and unhooked a squareish, playing-card sized device from his belt. He pressed a button on the side, and the thing stopped buzzing. Turning the top to face himself, he let out a long sigh. 

"Pager," he explained to Bucky's visible confusion. "Fury probably wouldn't want me to call them electronic leashes in your presence, but, well. You'll learn to love them."

"What does it do?" Bucky asked.

Sitwell turned the device to face Bucky, which showed a nine-digit number along the top. "Tells me when someone needs to reach me, in almost every major city in the US. When it buzzes, I call the number on the screen to retrieve the message. Excuse me, I need to find out what this is about."

He turned and walked to a — well, Bucky supposed it was a telephone that hung on the far wall. Sitwell pressed buttons on it and held the thin receiver to his ear. It was small enough to curve from ear to jaw in one piece.

 Bucky turned to Steve, eyebrows high.

"Huh. What do ya think of that—Steve?"

Steve wore a baffled expression on his face. "That's different."

"What is?"

"No one uses pagers, nowadays. I've only heard of them." He frowned and leaned forward, keeping his voice low. "And the TV's were boxy."

TV’s? "... What shape were they supposed to be?" Bucky asked.

"Thinner.” He shook his head. “Maybe they're holding back, afraid to show us too much technology too quickly."

"Did they do that to you the first time?"

He hesitated. "No." Reaching over, Steve shuffled through the manila files. Upside-down, Bucky could read the names of each typed across the top: Peggy Carter. General Chester Phillips. Huh. He made general, then? Good on him.

Steve stopped at Howard Stark of all people, and, taking a bracing breath, flipped it open.

"Steve?" Bucky asked again after a few moments. 

Steve had gone absolutely still. He turned a page, turned it back, frowning. He glanced up, and Bucky was surprised to see real fear in his eyes.

"What?” Bucky asked. “What is it?"

"It’s different. It…it says Howard died seven years ago."

Bucky opened his mouth to say – he wasn't sure what. Condolences, maybe? He'd had only a little time to get used to the future – it didn’t quite feel real yet-- but hearing of Howard death was a little shocking.

But before he could voice any of this, Steve continued lowly, "The first time, he passed over twenty years before I woke."

"How?"

There was a beat of hesitation. "Car accident, originally. Here it says cancer. I guess… it makes sense."

"A car accident kill Howard Stark?" Bucky asked, incredulous. That didn't seem very likely. The man could thread his damn plane through a needle. Upside-down.

"There were extenuating circumstances." Steve dropped his eyes back to the file. "I thought there would be some butterfly effect, but this... if he lived longer, why is technology not as advanced as it should be?"

"How do you know that for sure?"

"You remember the little tablet that had Tony's video. Have you seen anything like that around here?"

Bucky had to admit that Steve had a point.  "Okay, so what does it mean?"

"I don't know," Steve said in an undertone. "But I..." He swallowed. "I have a thing or two I need to look up."

Well, sure. They should have libraries in the future, and those would have encyclopedias where they could look up everything they needed to know. Bucky glanced at Sitwell, who still stood with his back to them, but seemed to be wrapping up his phone call. Could he be convinced to scrounge them up a newspaper? Bucky would like to see what the headlines of the future looked like. Sports scores, too.

Steve stood, his chair squeaking backward. His sudden movement caught Sitwell's attention. The man twisted from the phone to look askance at him.

"I think we should read these in private,” Steve said firmly. “Have they assigned us quarters?”

Sitwell looked briefly taken aback, and with a quick word he ended his conversation and hung up the phone. “You’ve been assigned adjoining rooms on D level, but Captain, I’m here to answer any questions—”

“If I have any, I’ll be sure to make a list,” Steve said.

Strangely, Sitwell looked at Bucky as if he’d provide him an answer. Bucky gazed back steadily, butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

“Of course,” Sitwell said with a professionalism that somehow rang false. “If you follow me, gentleman.”

Bucky paused to scoop up the folders as they made their way out.

The ‘quarters’ they assigned had bedrooms that were bigger than the entire apartment they’d shared in Brooklyn. For a moment, Bucky stood in his own room, stunned, wondering if he’d been promoted to General, too, while he’d been asleep.

A side door opened, and Steve poked his head in. Theirs were connecting rooms, with a door in the middle wall. Steve glanced around as if to assure himself they were alone, then nodded to another door on the opposite wall Bucky assumed was a closet.

“Looks like you got the office. You mind?”

Intrigued, Bucky shook his head. Crossing the room, Steve opened the unobtrusive door and peeked his head in. Withdrawing, he nodded for Bucky to follow.

It was a more or less a sterile office. A desk made of light wood with a machine resting on one corner. It had a screen that lit up when Steve pressed a button. The whole contraption whirred softly, and a pretty light blue picture of clouds flashed up along with a logo that read, WINDOWS.

Bucky whistled under his breath. "What is it?"

"A computer."

"They got those this small?" Carefully, Bucky reached out and laid his hand across the top. It wasn't even warm. The electronics must be fine, indeed.

"The first time around, computers were even smaller." Steve pulled the chair away and stood in its place. Bending, he placed his hands over the keyboard as expertly as Bucky had seen any professional secretary do over a typewriter. "It's amazing the things they can do, Bucky. They have a... sort of library, connected to the whole world."

"Through this thing?"

Steve nodded and started to type. Boxes rapidly appeared and disappeared on the screen. "I'll show you later, but right now I'm making sure SHIELD can't track what I'm doing. I'm no expert, but I learned a thing or two.” He typed a few more words that looked like gibberish to Bucky’s eye. “Here we go."

A final square popped up, then filled the screen. The image said, GOOGLE, which Bucky doubted was even English. He bit his tongue over more questions, and watched.

Steve deftly keyed in a phrase, which appeared instantly on a smaller, whiter rectangle. These people sure liked their boxes.

The words read: IRON MAN.

An icon shaped like an hour-glass flickered. Steve let out a breath, as if frustrated. “Slow,” he muttered.

But less than thirty second later, the screen showed full color pictures: Men and women running mid-stride in what looked like bathing suits to Bucky's eye. More folk intensely swimming, then bicycling on frames a thin as a noodle.

"What...?" Bucky asked, looking to Steve.

Steve's eyebrows furrowed. A few more clicks and the pictures disappeared, replaced by GOOGLE. This time he wrote TONY STARK.

Bucky's jaw dropped open. He was no dope: It was easy to put two-and-two together. The man in the video did have a resemblance to Howard, now he thought about it.

He was... what, Howard's grandson? His son? A brother?

Before he could voice the question, Steve made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. The square altered again to GOOGLE then, shockingly, to a title that said Manhattan Birth Registry.

He typed in: Anthony Edward Stark.

0 results found.

Steve jerked his hands from the keyboard as if he'd been burned. His eyes were wide.

"Steve?" Bucky asked.

Shaking his head, Steve didn't answer. His fingers flew over the keyboard, this time bringing up a 'Wikipedia' of Howard Stark. Steve adjusted the picture downward through the article so fast even Bucky had trouble taking it in.

"It says he died childless." Steve said, sounding stunned. "This can't... this doesn’t add up. I didn't change anything that would have stopped...” He backed a step, shaking his head. “He married Maria Carbonell, just as he should have!"

Bucky wasn't sure who he was trying to convince.

"He’s not…" Turning, Steve pressed the button again on the computer again. The entire machine powered down, leaving Steve in the half-lit room, heaving air, his shoulders rising and falling from the force of it.

Bucky stepped forward, a hand outstretched. "Steve, calm down. You're gonna—" Give yourself an attack, he almost said. But that was impossible now with the serum, wasn't it?

"I just…" Steve looked around the room wildly, as if seeking answers. “I—I need air.” He pushed past Bucky and out the door.

Immediately, Bucky heard protest of the guards and rushed out to provide some interference.

By the time he made it to the door, Steve was nearly running down the hall. One guard made as if to go after him, but Bucky caught him around the shoulder and yanked him back. "Give him a minute, God damn you," he said. "The man's lost everything."

"We can't let the Captain go unescorted."

"He won't," Bucky said grimly, and turned the way Steve went.

He heard the guards start to follow, but that was fine by him. Bucky would get there first.

It wasn't hard to see where Steve went. All Bucky had to do was follow the surprised looking agents. Two hallways down, there was an opening into a grassy courtyard.

Steve sat at one of the benches, head in his hands.

Bucky turned to the agents who were doggedly following his footsteps. "I'm speaking to him. Alone."

"Sir, if Captain Rogers is in distress—"

"He just needs to get his head on straight." Bucky flashed them a smile, the same one he used to charm dames with. "I've been putting him back together for decades. Excuse me."

He crossed a large strip of grass. Not too far away, a fountain burbled, lending some cover to conversation.

Steve didn't raise his head at his approach, but clearly knew it was Bucky anyway. When his spoke, his voice was rusty. "I promised I'd come back to him."

He sighed and sat next to him, bumping shoulders. "Yeah. Of course you did."

“He didn’t believe me, but he never thought he was worth it. I wanted to prove to him that he was.” Steve looked up at Bucky, his eyes bright as if he were pleading for understanding. "This is my fault."

Bucky didn’t know what to say. He didn't like the sound of Steve's breathing. It was too deep, too rapid, like he were trying to get control of himself. It was free of the asthma rasp, but otherwise the struggle to take air was too familiar.

With quiet desperation, Steve, said, "I have to try again, Buck."

"What do you—" He stopped short and stared at Steve, horrified. "You mean, go back in time? All over again?"

"Howard died a childless man. Tony wasn't even born."

"What are you going to do?" he demanded, verging between laughing and wanting to take Steve by the shoulders and just shake him. "Go back to the day he was conceived, and make sure Howard gets lovey-dovey with his wife?"

Steve stared at him. "Bucky, I did this. I made a change that affected the future."

"What change?" Bucky demanded. "Letting me live?"

"No!" He shook his head sharply. "That has nothing to do with—"

"Then what, Steve? You're the one wanting play God. Tell me: What do you think you can set right?"

Steve's jaw worked for a moment and he glanced down. His hands were balled into fists. "I don't know," he admitted. "I thought I was being careful. Other than..." He trailed off and glanced at Bucky guilty.

"Falling out of a damn train, you mean." Bucky scooted a touch closer. Their knees brushed. "And now you want to risk it all over again for a man who didn't even want you to come back in the first place."

He jerked back. "You don't understand!”

"Stevie, I know you don't want to hear this. And I'm not going to pretend I like the idea of you and him, but it doesn't mean I wanted him not to be born. It's a damned shame. What's happened to Stark is terrible, but sometimes life just ain't fair. You've always been shit at accepting it."

Steve had an expression that Bucky couldn't quite read. It was as if, for a moment, he were staring through Bucky.  Then Steve seemed to snap out of it. He looked down at his own hands again as if they held the secrets to the world. In that moment, he seemed utterly defeated.

“You know, Tony told me the same thing about you. Almost word-for-word.”

For once, Bucky was taken aback. Then he reached out and gripped Steve’s wrist, hard. “Then take it from two men you trust,” he said roughly. “Going back to change time again is not the answer. Steve, what if something worse happens than you falling out of that train? What if the Soviets had found you? You’d be over their border faster than you could say ‘Kremlin’”.

Steve flinched. "It's not just about Tony," he said, hollowly.

"Bull."

"No." Steve shook his head and leaned closer, as if suddenly worried the agents scattered at the edge of the green area fifty yards away would be able to hear them. "The world needs the hero Tony becomes."

"Why?" Bucky asked, biting back a, What’s so special about him? What’s he have that I don’t got?

Steve looked at him steadily. "Because if things hold the same, in three weeks Manhattan will be invaded by space aliens."

  

Chapter Text

 

"You're certain I can't convince you to stay?" Fury asked, heavily. He sat across a glass table from Bucky and Steve, his fingers steepled. "You're a little behind on technology, but SHIELD could use good men in our ranks. You could help a lot of people."

He'd been throwing out little comments like this the entire meeting, as if pressing every button to see which would get a reaction. And Bucky had to admit, helping people sounded a hell of a lot better than tucking tail and running back to Europe.

Bucky stared firmly ahead and let Steve do the talking. This was his idea. His mission. His fella they were trying to save.

"Right now, what I want is a little rest," Steve said evenly. "I'm not so sure catching up will be that easy."

Fury fixed Steve with a look. "You don't seem like a man to run from a fight."

"I'm not running. Right now, I think I deserve the opportunity to find out where I stand in the world."

Fury shifted his gaze to Bucky. "And you, Sergeant Barnes?"

Bucky lifted one shoulder in a shrug. He'd heard enough comments already from agents that history saw him as sort of a 'younger brother' to Captain America. Slightly irritating, and flat-out wrong, but he'd be willing to play the role if that was what was expected. "Where Steve goes, I go."

Fury stared at him a beat longer than he had with Steve, as if he saw straight to Bucky’s bullshit, but was too polite to call him out on it. Something flickered behind the man’s good eye. As if he’d come to a decision. "Then, gentlemen, I wish you best of luck," Fury said, and pushed several papers across the slick table. "These are the details of your bank accounts and current financial assets. You have, of course, been issued back pay, with interest."

They each took their page. Bucky’s eyes halted at the number at the bottom. That was… a lot of zeros.

Steve, of course, was used to inflation, and had been through this song and dance before. “Thank you, Sir.” He rose to leave.

“One moment, Barnes,” Fury said as Bucky began to follow Steve out the door. Curious, Bucky turned back.

Fury dropped a heavy squareish object into his hand. It was, Bucky realized, a pager just like the one Sitwell had used.

Fury looked at Bucky, and it had to be impossible, but he could have swore that Fury knew exactly what they were planning.

“In case the world needs you,” Fury said, nodding down at the pager. In case you’re not so interested in running, seemed to echo, unsaid.

Bucky acknowledged the unspoken words with a nod. He slipped the pager into a pocket,  safely out of sight, and hurried to catch up with Steve.

 

 

****

 

 

In this new future, people could fly across continents with the ease of only providing identification and purchasing a plane ticket. (Though the cost made Bucky swallow hard.) 

He let Steve make the arrangements, and got a quiet kick out of walking through a futuristic archway ‘metal detector’ while the machine sniffed him over for guns and knives.

As Bucky watched, a man behind him set off the machine in a clanging of lights and alarms. The man had forgotten a set of keys in his back pocket, and had to remove them and re-try.

Bucky wasn't blind. Most people around him looked irritated at best at the inconvenience, at slipping off shoes and half unpacking carry-on’s to fit in separate luggage scanners, but the entire process was straight from the sci-fi pulp novels Bucky had loved as a kid.

It was, he thought, heavily ironic he was heading back to Europe. Only Steve would get him to leave the good ol' US of A again.

Steve, who was grimly quiet, his jaw clenched in a way that made Bucky’s own molars ache in sympathy.

They took what Steve called the red eye, and landed in Berlin mid-morning, local time. Right in the heart of Germany, as casual as you please.

The city was... peaceful. The people prospering. Bucky walked down streets changed so radically he would have never known he'd been before, if not for the names. He bought a bratwurst from a small shop, while Steve was on a phone arranging a car rental.

(No trains. Both had agreed on that, firmly.)

Bucky tried some of his hard-learned German with the vendor, and was surprised to be spoken to, and understood easily in turn.

No bombers in the sky, flags of HYDRA and the Third Reich long put away as embarrassing curiosities from a different era, with his stomach full of good food... For the first time in who-knew-how-long, Bucky found himself relaxing.

Steve, too, seemed subtly changed once they'd landed, now he’d put some miles between themselves and SHIELD. Some of the stiff tension had left his shoulders, as if he weren't constantly bracing himself to be addressed as, "Captain," anymore.

He stole the last third of Bucky's bratwurst. The punk.

Bucky decided to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

“When you find the time travel thingy—” Bucky began, resisting the urge to wipe away a smear of mustard from Steve’ bottom lip with his finger.

“Pod,” Steve corrected, thick around the stolen bratwurst.

“I’m coming back again with you,” Bucky said. “No ifs, ands, or buts.”

Steve paused. “I suppose I outta try to talk you out of it. But…” he shook his head, and for the first time in days, smiled. The sight of it made Bucky’s heart race. “But I’ll be damned glad to have you with me, Buck. I always have.”

Bucky wondered – hoped – there was more weight to those words. He couldn’t be sure. So he playfully knocked shoulders with Steve. “You came all the way back to the war to find me,” he said. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

Steve looked down again, suddenly shy. “I’m glad,” he repeated.

 

****

 

 

 

Their destination was an honest-to-God castle on the outskirts of Sokovia. In the first timeline, HYDRA had a research base there. Not subtle, but then again, that was HYDRA all over.

The first time, Steve and his men had been looking for an alien scepter (a different brand of aliens from the ones about to invade Manhattan, apparently) and instead found the time travel pod.

Bucky and Steve took turns driving an absurdly small car along winding roads. And, haltingly, Steve started catching Bucky up on some of the major events in history. Up until the last couple decades, Berlin had been split by a wall. Men had landed on the moon. The internet was more than just a library – it was an information highway that could hold the darkest parts of a man's cravings, as well as the brightest of his hopes.

He also told Bucky of the team he had led in the other timeline: The Avengers.

"They seem like a good bunch," Bucky said at last. He had noted the pained way Steve mentioned 'Iron Man', but let it go. "A little odd. And," he added, "they're no Howling Commandos."

"No," Steve agreed. "But they’re good in their own way. Say, you remember the French brothel? How you had to talk that dame outta robbing Jacques blind?"

"Steve, that was a whole month ago, for me." But Bucky was chuckling. The first he'd known about the incident, Jacques had come ripping out of his room, wearing a ladies dress and high heels. He'd never asked why. But he did own a pair of nice legs.

They talked, and reminisced.  They drove through countryside ripe with spring, fruit trees heavy with flowers. A part of Bucky wished he and Steve could buy a plot of land, some cows for dairy, and live there forever. But the larger part of him knew he and Steve could not be happy like that for long. Not when there was a good fight to be had.

Steve lost his relaxed look and began to tense up as they entered Sokovia.  But, to Bucky's eye, the country was more of the same: a busy, but mostly peaceful population. Perhaps a little grimmer than the German's (and that's saying something) but nothing that suggested they were under control of an insane Nazi cult.

They came to the other side of the city without being stopped. Suddenly, Steve pointed out the windshield to a sharp mountain ahead. "There it is. There's the castle."

Bucky took a good look around, this time with an eye for trouble. He saw nothing out of place. "Well, the road leading up to is wide open. Let's drive up a little. If we have to break in, I'd want to get as close as we can."

Steve agreed.

The winding road was decorated by leafy trees on either end. They met no resistance, no issues other than a few other, slower moving cars on their way up the track.

The castle door and portcullis were wide open. To the side was a sign in Serbian Cryillic, German, and English which said that tours were held at the top and the bottom of every hour, through five PM.

Bucky let out a breath that was almost a laugh, all the adrenaline for a pending fight going out with it. "It's a tourist trap," he said, edging on a laugh. "Stevie, I don't think HYDRA's giving tours on the side—"

He stopped.

Steve had pulled to the car to the side of the road and stared ahead. The look on his face was of one of numb shock. "It's not the same at all."

Which meant the time travel device probably wasn't there.

Bucky wanted to smack his own forehead. He could be such a jerk. "I... don't think HYDRA took over the castle, this time 'round," he said carefully. "But it's worth a look inside, don't you think?"

Steve nodded once.

They joined up a tour group. Bucky paid with euros while Steve stood there, wall-eyed like he were walking through a gravesite.

He's traded Tony for me, Bucky realized. And I don't think he's too happy about it.

It was a bitter pill for Bucky to swallow, but even when they’d been penniless chumps in Brooklyn, Bucky had always been a friend to Steve, first.

"C'mon," Bucky urged, once their tour was over. He knew he hadn't heard a word of it, and suspected that Steve hadn't either. "Let's get a room back in that city, and we can plan our next move."

Steve nodded without speaking. Hectic spots of color had appeared on his pale cheeks. He looked a little like he had when he was coming down with a fever.

He didn’t say a word until they were halfway down the hill. (Bucky had chosen to drive.)

"I have no Earthly idea where HYDRA found the time travel pod -- where it is now," Steve said. "Buck, I've as good as killed him.

"No," Bucky said. "Now, you listen here, Steve. It's not—"

"I told Howard to keep an eye on Zola, you remember? He must’ve done what I asked. At least enough to keep HYDRA from reforming this time ‘round. The first time around, this castle had been their main research facility since the war. Now, there’s no evidence they were here at all." Steve clenched his fists in his lap. “But that had to be a full-time job on top of running Stark Industries, and… everything else. Howard couldn’t have had enough hours in the day. And he must have decided he didn’t have time for… for kids.”

“If that’s true,” Bucky said, "Then Howard managed to keep HYDRA down. He saved countless lives.”

"And lost Tony." Steve struck out, fist hitting against the plastic dash board. It snapped and Bucky yelled, but Steve only shook his head and stared out the window. "This is my fault," he repeated.

You did it to save me, Bucky thought, but could not bring himself to say. And I can't feel bad over it.

He parked his car at the first inn he found. Steve had gone silent and brooding again, letting Bucky step up to the front desk to make arrangements.

"Two beds?" a bubble-gum chewing young woman asked in slightly accented English, but bent to fill out the form before Bucky had even nodded. Her name tag read Wanda, and she gave Bucky a cheerful smile as she handed back his change.

She seemed unnerved by Steve, who was staring out in the middle distance at a point over her left shoulder. The picture of shock. Bucky gave Steve a sharp elbow in the side, and he shifted his gaze to his feet.

That night, after the lights were put out, he clearly heard Steve’s hitched, uneven breathing. Weeping.

Bucky didn’t say a word, but peeled back his covers and climbed into Steve’s bed. It was a tight fit – Steve wasn’t as small as he used to be, but Bucky wrapped his arms around him and held him close as Steve shook.

Bucky said nothing, and only hoped Steve felt his silent support.

That morning, Bucky’s pager buzzed. He and Steve were needed back in New York.

 

 

****

 

 

Fury kindly sent his own transport back to the states. A long-range boxy “helicopter”, which Bucky had only seen in Popular Science articles back in the day. It looked like they were in full production, now. It was piloted by a bland-looking agent, who greeted Bucky and Steve with concealed enthusiasm. 

"Gentlemen," he said. His handshake was well practiced, but firm. "I'm Agent Phil Coulson and I'm here to answer any questions you have while on route."

When do I get to see the space aliens? Bucky wanted to ask, though he wasn't supposed to know about that yet. While they were waiting for Coulson, Steve had filled him in on some of the bare-bones of the mission: Norse Gods (who were also aliens), and rouge agents under the mind control of that same mystical scepter the Avengers had been after in the HYDRA castle.

It was something right out of a pulp novel. Bucky feared he might be tired of war, after Europe, but this... this he had to see.

One more thing," Steve had told him in an exhausted voice. "I don't know how much was HYDRA and how much was scared men making bad decisions, but if it looks like the invasion's going bad, the World Council’s going to send a nuke in."

"Nuke?"

He pursed his lips. "Biggest bomb you could imagine. It'll level the whole island."

Bucky had hesitated, imagining that. "How'd you stop it the first time?"

"Tony," Steve said, and looked away.

Well. Shit.

Now, sitting in the helicopter, Bucky sneaked a look at Steve to see how he was holding up. There was no evidence he'd spent the previous night grieving -- not a dark circle to be seen under his eyes. He sat a remote but professional expression on his face.

Captain America reporting for duty, Bucky thought.

He was on the verge of scooting closer and saying something to shake that look off his face. Coulson got there first, handing Steve a stack of files for their other team members and mentioning something about watching Steve sleep.

Bucky grinned and caught Steve's eye.

"He got seventy years of shut-eye, and I bet he still snores," Bucky said, coming to the rescue.

Coulson looked vaguely embarrassed. "The defrosting process was—um, gradual."

“He snored," Bucky confirmed.

In what must have been a valiant effort to get the conversation back on track, Coulson hesitantly asked if he could have Steve and Bucky’s autograph for his card collection. They were vintage, apparently.

"They made cards of me?" Bucky asked.

"Cards. Comic books – I have a first edition, under glass.” He paused, then added. “The government had to change the story to fit the narrative."

"They made you my side-kick," Steve said, speaking up for the first time.

Coulson shot him a quick look, probably wondering how in the world Steve knew, which was confirmation. Bucky might have been annoyed, but Steve had the first hint of a smile on his face he'd had since learning 'bout Tony.

"Sidekick?" he demanded, putting on outrage. He turned to Coulson. "Say, do you have a line to the press? Because I have a thing or two to set straight."

Coulson regarded him blandly. "We'll talk after we recover the tesseract."

As if on cue, the pilot's voice echoed over the intercom. "We're coming up on approach to the helicarrier, gentlemen. Please secure your seatbelts."

Bucky looked out the window and got an eyeful of the biggest (and ugliest) ship he'd ever seen, floating out to sea. Huh. He wouldn't have thought SHIELD had a Navy division.

(Later, when he found out the thing had extended propellers, just like the helicopter, and could actually fly short distances, he nearly punched Steve in the arm for not warning him ahead of time.

"I didn't know that would be the same. Technology’s different now," Steve lied, straight-faced. The punk.)

After they landed, they were introduced to two other members of their team: A dangerous looking dame named Agent Natasha Romanoff, and a squirrelly character by the name of Bruce Banner. Bucky hadn't had time to go through the files – he was following Steve's lead here – but everyone seemed to treat Banner with kid gloves. He did the same.

Drifting behind Steve, he was a little surprised to see the other man walk right up to Fury.

"Director," Steve said stiffly.

The man turned in his command station to face him. "Captain Rogers. I'm glad to have you and the Sergeant Barnes on board."

As usual, Steve got to the point with the finesse of a jack-hammer. "Agent Coulson tells me you have SHIELD agents who've gone rouge."

Bucky sauntered over to the side, pretending to be interested in the rows of what Steve had called "computer banks". He couldn't tell which side was up on the screens, but was certain that one man was playing one of those video games he'd seen briefly in an airport.

He kept an ear tuned to Steve and Fury's conversation, across the room.

Fury said, "As far as we've established, the scepter Loki is carrying is able to... bring them over to his side, somehow. You're to avoid it at all costs. We don't need Captain America bowing down to a demi-God."

Bucky almost snorted, but that might have given away the fact he was eavesdropping. Glancing over, he saw Steve's jaw tighten.

"If that's the case," Steve said, "we can assume these agents have told Loki of SHEILD's strengths and weaknesses."

"Where are you going with this, Captain Rogers?"

Steve gestured around the room. "Sir, I know you’ve given orders to fly, but the last place we should be is in the air. Some of these agents may know how to get close, and hit us in our weak spot."

Fury seemed to consider this for a moment, then shook his head. "We need to stay mobile and responsive."

"If Loki sees us as a threat – and if he's serious about taking over the world, he will – we'll be too busy trying to stay in the air to stop him. He knows that." Steve stepped forward, lowering his voice, though Bucky could still hear him just fine. "You have multiple airplanes and helicopters that can launch from this base at sea-level. How fast in the air can you move this barge?"

Again, Fury seemed to consider him for a long moment. "About as fast as by sea," he said eventually. He stared at Steve, assessing him. Then he turned to his crew. "Give the order to take us down," he said to Hill.

Steve's shoulders dropped in relief.

Something went wrong while they’d been in the air, the first time, Bucky thought.

He walked casually over to Steve and clapped him on the shoulder. "One crisis averted?" he asked, very low.

Steve didn't quite shoot him a smile. His lips twitched, then he jerked his head over to the hallway. "C'mon," he said, equally low, "There's a few more coming up. I want to get your take on how to shut down the portal Loki's going to open. "

"I'm all ears," Bucky said.

 

****

 

(Steve was right, of course. There was an attack on the Helicarrier, and Bucky learned why people went out of their way not to make Bruce Banner angry. He came close to sinking the whole damn ship.

It would have been so much worse had they been in the air.)

 

****

 

Meeting a real alien was both more and less exciting than Bucky had ever imagined. Thor was immense, and yet very human looking. Bucky wanted to pick his brain and ask him what his people thought they were doing by leaving their blue, glowing do-dads all over the place.

But, as had become usual in his life: there was a war on. Questions had to wait.

Loki did open a portal – even Steve's future-knowledge couldn't stop that – over a new styled building in the heart of Manhattan called Trump Tower.

Clad in a new uniform thanks to Coulson (who had taken a hit while the helicarrier was sinking, but was expected to survive), Bucky stood back-to-back with Steve. Surrounding them were a cast of characters: Romanoff, Banner (green and angry), Agent Barton with brand new change of heart, and Thor.

Bucky turned to see Steve gazing up at the sky, a lost expression on his face. As if he were waiting for someone else to appear.

"Steve?" Bucky asked, and received no response. He thumped Steve hard on the shoulder.

Blinking, Steve turned to him. His expression was lost and more than a little sad.

Bucky lowered his voice, hoping that the roar of the Hulk would cover his words from the others. "Hey, snap out of it. Remember the plan we hashed out."

Steve nodded, a jerky movement. Then he took a deep breath and seemed to pull himself together. He gave his orders to the others, and added, "Bucky, I want you to get up there and see if you can destroy that portal. I don't care how."

(They both knew exactly how. That scepter was going to come in handy.)

Bucky gave him a salute, just like back in the good ol' days. Steve did the same.

 

****

 

“I can close the portal!” Bucky yelled into the SHIELD issued walkie-talky. It was a fancy thing, hardly any static at all.

A pause. Then Steve said, "Do it."

Bucky pushed the tip of the scepter against the blue light.

 

 

****

 

With their link to the rest of their army gone, the Chitauri became disorganized and insane with rage. The National Guard picked up the slack, and by evening Loki was captured and New York was (mostly) alien-free.

After, there wasn't a ticker-tape parade, but there were cheers and a lot of tired, dirty faces smiling at Bucky and the rest of the Avengers.

Fury managed to show up with his limping helicarrier, and corralled the Avengers for some rest and some much needed grub. Bucky took the first moment of privacy he had to pull Steve aside, down a short hallway and into an empty room.

Steve looked at him, exhaustion in every line on his face. "You okay, Buck?"

"That's what I'm asking you."

Steve drew himself up a touch, and it hurt, that he thought he had to play the Captain America role for him. "Yeah," he said. "Never better."

"Bull."

Steve's face fell, just for a moment. Then he shrugged and looked out the window. "We did it," he said quietly. "I wasn't sure we would, without Iron Man--"

Without Tony, Bucky translated.

"But we beat 'em back," Steve finished. “We saved New York. Maybe the world. Again.”

"Never thought I'd have to fight a war on home soil," Bucky said, ruefully. He noticed the way Steve winced and shifted his weight. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Steve lied. Then, seeing Bucky wasn't buying it said, "One of the Chitauri hit me in the side. Lucky shot. It happened last time, too."

Bucky stepped forward to touch over where Steve indicated. Sure enough, there was a dime-sized hole in his uniform, and a little charred around the edges.

"Lucky shot, my eye. That's what happens when I'm not around to watch your back."

"Guess so."

There was an odd note in Steve's voice. Bucky glanced up to meet Steve’s gaze, realizing how closely they stood.

It was as if a jolt went through his heart, sending it beating double-time. Steve stood, curved in towards Bucky. He smelled like clean sweat and dirt and something indefinably Steve. The same man Bucky had fallen for lifetimes ago in Brooklyn.

He didn't think, just closed the distance. The press of their lips was soft, and hesitant on Steve's part. When Bucky drew back, Steve didn't meet his eye.

"I'm sorry," Steve said. "I just... Buck, you know I care, but..."

"You're thinking 'bout Tony, aren't you? Blaming yourself."

Steve swallowed and closed his eyes, pained. He clearly expected Bucky to be angry with him.

Maybe he should have been. He didn't know. But Steve wouldn't be Steve without being a good man. And good men didn’t go ‘round kissing fellas, while telling themselves they were responsible for their other fellas’ death.

"It's all right," Bucky said.

Steve looked at him. Truly looked at him maybe for the first time since the castle. "Is it?"

Now it was Bucky's turn to swallow. "Yeah. Stevie... this thing between you and me, it'll be good, no matter what. You know? You're my best friend, and that's never changing." Okay, so he might be damned terrible at talking about emotions. It made sense in his head.

But Steve seemed to get it. He even smiled a little. "Thanks, Buck."

“So," Bucky cleared his throat. "What happens now?”

"Now?" Steve hesitated, tipping his head back in thought. Bucky tried not to look at a streak of sweat that had made a clean path down the dirt and soot on his throat. "Thor takes Loki back to Asgard. He'll be gone for most of a year, cleaning up war across the realms. The first time ‘round, I stayed with SHIELD, ran missions under Fury with Natasha and Clint. Tony, uh, was a consultant." He looked down.

Bucky wasn't stupid enough to ask for more details on that. "SHIELD doesn't seem too bad," he tried.

But he should have known better. Steve could see through his bull, just as well as he could. "You don't like that idea?"

Bucky rolled his shoulder and looked out the window, to the smoking remains of New York. "I've been in war a long time." He didn't miss how Steve sort of flinched at that.. "I still want to help people, but maybe not under Fury's direct thumb."

Steve seemed to consider this. "Last time," he said, "They gave me an apartment in DC. A nice walk-up. The neighbor was a spy for SHIELD. A pretty nurse – I think they thought she’d remind me of my Ma."

Bucky snorted. "Yeah, Fury seems to be the type to pull that."

"Maybe," Steve said, carefully not looking at him. "If we put it to them the right way, they could assign a two bedroom, this time?"

Was he suggesting what he thought he was suggesting? Bucky looked at Steve, but didn’t speak. Steve had to be the one to say it.

“You’ve always been more than my best friend,” Steve said after a pause that seemed to take years. “And I need time, and I know it’s selfish of me to ask you to wait…”

“Hey.” Bucky touched him under the chin, turning Steve’s face to his own. “Whatever you need, pal. I’m here.”

Steve’s hand closed over Bucky’s left wrist, warm and strong over his pulse point. “I can’t make promises. I… messed up, Buck. I have to come to terms with that.”

“Whatever you need.” Bucky repeated, his voice rough.

Steve glanced at him again, his blue eyes clear and honest. Sadness in there, but more than a little hope, too.

He’d give Steve all the time in the world, if that was what he needed. After all, Bucky had jumped forward generations. Time was on his side.

As for SHIELD… well. Bucky still had the pager in his pocket, and thought that in a way, he and Fury understood each other very well. Or at least, they understood what kind of men each other were.

So Bucky broke the moment before it could become too heavy. He clapped Steve, hard, on the shoulder. "I'll do the talking, Stevie, and get us that fancy two-bedroom. Fury and I have a couple things to hash out." He grinned, joking. "Maybe we’ll invite the nurse over, this time. Show her, what’s what."

"Play nice, Buck."

"I'm the nicest guy you could meet. Ask anyone," Bucky said cheerfully, and was rewarded with a wobbly smile from Steve. He counted it as a victory.

Hand still on Steve's shoulder, Bucky steered him out. Steve had a team of extraordinary individuals to assemble, and Bucky a director to harass. 

And maybe, just maybe, a future to look forward to.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The two bedroom Bucky asked for turned into a three bedroom brownstone that would have cost a good chunk of Steve and Bucky’s generous back pay, if SHIELD hadn’t offered to foot the bill.

"You need an office," Fury suggested, obliquely.

Bucky couldn't figure out what his ulterior motive was, until he properly met Clint Barton.

He hadn't had much time to make a proper impression of him during the Battle of Manhattan (as it came to be known), but Barton was a mass of contradictions. A long-time SHEILD agent, with no real place to stay when he was on the east coast. A frat boy who couldn't sit still for two seconds, but on a mission could be silent and patient as the best hunter.

And he was a better long-range shot than Bucky. Damn him.

Soon, the 'office' became a guest bedroom for whoever needed to crash there that night/Clint Barton’s unofficial bedroom.

So Bucky moved into his own room, unloading his duffle bag which contained the sum of all his worldly possessions (most of his crap had been lost to the ravages of time, or actually donated to a museum, and he'd be a special kind of head case to want to take stuff back from the Smithsonian.) and started the long process of carving out a new place for himself in this fast-paced world

Steve had his good days and his bad days

On his good days, he was Bucky's best friend. A spirit so bright it would have made Bucky's teeth ache, had he not been used to the chump. Steve still rooted for the Dodgers (even though they had moved to LA), raced Bucky on early morning runs around DC memorials.

He found and befriended a councilor who worked for the Veteran’s Administration -- a man named Sam Wilson, who was a real kick in the pants. Steve, Sam and Bucky would regularly go out drinking together, sharing war stories. Sam didn’t speak of the same war, of course, but the themes were pretty close.

When SHIELD came calling, Steve was the Commander who took his knocks with the rest of his troops. The type of man you could put your trust, and your life in.

Steve's bad days had him despairing at technology (which Bucky couldn't quite get his head around, with everything being so flashy and new. Still, Steve insisted it could be better -- had been better), and gazing morosely at the skyline as if waiting for a figure to appear, and taking his motorcycle for long rides by himself.

Bucky suspected these rides often ended with Steve stopping by Howard and Maria Stark's gravesite. It wasn't the same as visiting Tony’s headstone, but it was as close as he was going to get.

Bucky pretended he didn’t notice.

 

 

****

 

 

 

When Bucky discovered a love for indie-brewed craft beers, Clint called him a hipster. Bucky thought those were high and mighty words for a man who had introduced him to farmer’s markets and heirloom tomatoes.

Still, Clint was good people. He even taught Bucky a working knowledge of sign language -- Starting with curse words, of course.

"What's with you and Steve?" Clint asked Bucky one day, while they were busy sniping targets on one of SHIELD's high tech ranges. Random papermache targets would pop out of prop buildings, giving them a few seconds to aim and shoot.

Some looked like civilians, others mock-ups of Chitauri. They all made a satisfying thunk, and blew bits of paper when hit.

"Whattaya mean?" Bucky asked, lowering his rifle as a mannequin of a little boy popped out of a fake manhole, then down again. No, he wasn’t sniping little Timmy today.

Clint shrugged. "You two are disgusting." He flapped an errant hand at Bucky as the other man give him a sharp look. "Not in a gay-bashing way, but in an oblivious way."

The silhouette of a paper monster popped out of a tree. Bucky barely had time to sight it down his rifle before Clint had pulled and fired. The arrow struck it between the eyes. Bucky shot it afterwards anyway, for good measure.

"I don't know what you're talking about, pal," Bucky lied, and wondered how obvious he had been after all this time.

Clint heaved a sigh. "I'm just saying, you should make your move, man."

His heart seemed to skip a beat. "It's complicated."

"Doesn’t have to be. Things have changed in his century."

"Maybe they haven't changed as much as you think."

Clint looked at him, snark on his lips, then did a double-take. He actually lowered his bow in surprise. "Wait... really? You two were together back in the day? How'd you’d keep that under wraps from the historians?"

Bucky used his distraction to sight the next target and blow it away before Clint could get a bead on it. "No email or instant message programs."

"So?" Clint demanded. He wasn’t even pretending to sight targets. "What happened?"

He'd broken it off with Steve, who'd taken him at his word and moved on, but... had he really? After all, Steve had ended up leaving Tony to come back for Bucky. No way he could tell Clint any of that, though.

"Like I said. It's complicated." He gave Clint a dirty look. “You gonna shoot, or are you gonna gab?”

It looked like Clint wanted to talk more, but he only shook his head. “I owe Natasha twenty bucks,” he said, but raised his bow.

 

 

****

 

 

Two nights later, Bucky was woken by someone murmuring. Speaking to himself, with a distinct distressed note to his voice. Even asleep, he knew it was Steve, who was in his bedroom down the hall. Maybe Bucky wouldn't have heard it at all, if not for his super serum. 

Bucky rolled over in his own bed, determined to ignore it. They'd both been through wars -- had nightmares. Maybe even a touch of PTSD that Sam liked to go on about.

"Bucky," Steve called, sounding broken and lost and so, so alone. "You don't have to do this." Pause. "People are going to die, Buck."

He was on his feet and out the door before he'd decided to do anything about it. Bad enough Steve was having nightmares, but when they concerned him...

"Stevie," Bucky whispered, one hand on the door.

 Instantly, the murmuring on the other side fell silent. Bucky gave it to the count of ten, then said, "Steve, I'm coming in."

His first words must have woken Steve because when Bucky opened his bedroom door, he found Steve sitting up in bed and wiping frantically at his eyes.

"You okay?" Bucky asked, ready to leave if Steve asked it of him.

"Yeah." Steve gave a shuttering breath. "Just a nightmare."

"Wanna talk about it?"

He fully expected Steve to say no. To his surprise, Steve reached out and snagged Bucky by the left hand, drawing him in. "Just a nightmare," Steve repeated, but distantly, as if he were talking to himself. His fingers traced up and down Bucky's arm, drawing gooseflesh in its wake.

Bucky had only worn boxers to bed, and that was going to become a problem if Steve kept touching him that way. So he caught Steve's hand in his own.

"I just..." Steve shook his head. "I missed you, Buck. So much."

"I'm here," he said, not able to keep a touch of exasperation out of his voice. "I've always been right here.”

“Not for a long time,” Steve said.

 “Steve,” Bucky said firmly. “You saved me, remember?"

Steve blinked. Then he looked at Bucky -- really looked at him for the first time since the invasion -- three months ago, now.

A flicker passed between them, and maybe Bucky should have backed away -- Steve probably wasn't all the way awake, and this wasn't fair. But unlike Steve, he'd never said he was a good man, and when it came to Steve, Bucky could never play fair.

Steve kissed him, his hands resting warmly on Bucky's shoulders, ever the fucking gentleman. But his touch sent a fire raging through Bucky -- something long banked out of respect and propriety.

Bucky deepened the kiss, licking between Steve's parted lips, leaning into his space and curling one hand around the back of Steve's neck.

Steve made a low sound in his throat, and suddenly the world shifted, Bucky on his back with Steve over him.

They hadn’t kissed like this since before the war.

It was frantic, as if both having finally arrived at this moment, were desperate not to let it slip away. They parted only to inhale a quick breath, a gasped groan as Steve dragged a thick thigh over Bucky's still clothed erection.

Steve's shirt tore -- Bucky didn't have the patience to pull it off. He ran his hand down Steve's chest -- the muscles were new, but Steve's reaction when Bucky pinched a nipple, was familiar and welcome.

“Bucky,” Steve moaned, sounding broken all over again.

“I’m here,” Bucky said. His hands curled over Steve’s shoulders, drawing him in, keeping him close. “I’m here.”

 His boxers had been pushed down and hung around one ankle. Steve's sleeping pants were in a similar state, but neither cared. His cock was hard and leaking against Bucky's, and Steve murmured his name over and over like a prayer.

Bucky took them both in hand, remembering the way Steve liked it, and twisted his head down to nip a mark into Steve's collarbone.

Steve moaned and spilled against him, fingers digging hard into Bucky's ass as he rode out his orgasm. Bucky followed with a short cry.

Panting, sticky, neither said a word. At least, not until Bucky tried to get up. Again, Steve's hand curled around his left bicep.

"Stay," he said.

And Bucky did.

 

 

****

 

 

Bucky woke the next morning warm, a wall of a chest pressed against his back and an arm thrown around his waist. Huh. Used to be, Steve's sharp knees and elbows would always stick painfully into some part of him. Bucky couldn't say he minded the change.

He must have given some indication he was awake because Steve shifted closer. His breath ghosted along the back of Bucky's neck as he asked, "Any regrets?"

Bucky rested his hand on Steve's arm. "Funny. That's just what I was going to ask you."

"No," Steve said, firmly. "Never when it comes to you."

Now that was a lie if he ever heard one. Bucky shifted around and looked at Steve, his eyebrows raised.

But Steve looked steadily back, not a trace of deceit in his eyes.

It going to be up to Bucky to voice this, then. Being blunt always worked best.

"Not even when you basically traded Tony for me?"

Steve's eyes widened fractionally. "Is that what you think?" His arm curled closer around Bucky's waist. Then he reached up to cup under his jaw. "That's never how I saw it. Buck… My world's never made sense unless you were in it."

A piece of Bucky that had been strung tight for months seemed to relax.

And he didn't ask if Steve loved Tony more than he loved him, not because he didn't know if he'd like the answer, but because he wasn’t sure it mattered.

Steve's blue eyes had gone a little sad, almost as if he had read Bucky's expression. "I miss him every day. And when you were gone—when I thought you were dead—it nearly ate my heart out I missed you just as much, Buck. Just as much."

'When he thought I was dead'? That was an odd way to put it, but Bucky was too relieved to care.

"You know," Bucky said, voice rough, "I missed you, too, punk."

Steve smile could have lit the room. Bucky's lips met his, and soon they were too involved to say anything more.

 

 

****

 

 

Things changed again, after that.

Steve still had his bad days, but they were fewer. He still went out to the graveyard to talk to stand over the Stark's graves, but Bucky found he didn't mind. Not when, every night, Steve returned back to him.

Sometimes Steve would mention Tony in an offhand way -- an anecdote about his eccentricities, or his genius. The marvelous inventions that seemed to roll out of his workshop on a constant basis.  How they paled in comparison to the technology now.

Well, Bucky didn't think the technology of this timeline was too shabby. Sure, it would have been neat to see interactive holograms, and an artificial intelligence with a British butler personality, but Bucky liked to work with computers. Once Natasha sat him down and showed him the ropes, they made sense to him. He got the hang of typing even faster than Steve.

"Googling the internet" was downright useful at times. Bucky always had a dab hand at mathematics -- he'd gotten top grades in high school before he'd had to drop out to support himself, and programming wasn't all that different from learning a new language.

One night, Steve remarked, "You're adapting to the future better than I did."

"Huh?"

"The future. Technology." Steve closed the book he was reading and came to stand behind Bucky to look at the computer, then shook his head ruefully. "You always liked science fiction stuff."

“You don’t?”

Steve smiled. “I hated it, the first time. It reminded me of what I lost, how I’d never be able to go back, and I thought: What’s so bad about using a pencil and a piece of paper?”

“Stevie, I’ve seen you use photoshop.”

He shrugged. “I got used to it.”

Bucky could read between the lines. It was probably Tony who had dragged him out of the dark ages. Well, he could be grateful for the man for that.

Steve’s hand rested on Bucky’s shoulder, then rose to idly play in the strands of his hair. “Your hair’s getting long,” Steve said, an odd note to his voice.

“Yeah?” He felt at the ends himself, not really having noticed. It went well past his ears. His mother, God rest her soul, would have had a fit. “’s not the style to keep it so short, unless I combed it forward like that Bieber kid.”

“I like it.”

 

 

 

****

 

 

Time passed.

Maybe Bucky was a little dense, but it wasn’t until he was thrown by the villain of the week into a jewelry store window, that he got up, dusted himself off, and realized… huh. He should think about making an honest man out of Steve.

(And it wasn’t until the fight was wrapped up and the debriefing held, Clint patched up from a mildly sprained wrist and Steve giving a stern lecture about trick shots, that Bucky counted back the months and realized he and Steve had been going steady… gosh, eighteen months. They’d been in the future for just over two years.)

Long time. Yet it felt like no time at all.

Back in the day, had one of them been a woman, it would have been well past time for marriage.

Bucky was in their shared apartment, pretending to read a book, but secretly figuring out who to rope into ring shopping – Clint knew as little as he did. Natasha might be a good choice, but she might also pull the spy-game on him and disappear halfway through, leaving him alone with a salesman. Sam might rat him out to Steve, or psychoanalyze every decision.

The phone rang.

“We need you and Captain Rogers at the Triskelion on the double,” Fury said as Bucky picked up. “I’m sending transport in five.”

“What?” Bucky demanded. “Clint’s still out. You can’t expect him to draw a bow with that wrist of his—”

There was a pause on the other end. “Thor’s paying us a visit.”

Bucky’s eyebrows rose. Steve would be glad to hear that. Apparently, in the first timeline, Thor had returned not long the Battle of Manhattan. He’d taken his sweet time this time around, and Steve didn’t know why, or what had changed.

He set the phone down and yelled down the hall for Steve to suit up.

 

 

****

 

 

An hour later, Bucky found himself staring at Thor, feeling like he’d been sucker punched.

Judging by the stunned looks around the table, he wasn’t the only one.

“Nine days,” Steve repeated.

Thor looked grim. Then again, the shiny burn scar that covered half his face helped.

“Perhaps less,” Thor said. “For every new realm the Chitauri army have conquered, their numbers have grown stronger. After the fall of Asgard—“ He closed his eyes briefly. “Odin’s final assault was but a dent in their numbers. They are led by a being who calls himself Thanos, and he will stop at nothing until he has conquered all the realms.”

Nine days. They had nine days to figure out a way to stop an army which had chewed through eight other worlds, leaving Midgard, Earth, for last.

Bucky briefly met Steve’s eyes across the table. He looked about as overwhelmed as Bucky felt.

“Well, Cap,” Clint said. “How are we going to do this?”

Steve took a deep breath. “Together.”

 

 

****

 

 

Bucky waited until he and Steve were back home alone to ask the big question.

“All right: Spill,” Bucky said. “I’m thinking none of this happened in the first timeline?”

A flicker of grief passed over Steve’s face. “Iron Man flew a nuclear missile into the heart of the Chitauri motherships. He said… they were bunched together, waiting to go through the portal and attack Earth directly.”

“And in this timeline, I just shut the damn door in their face, and let them live another day.” Bucky turned away, so frustrated he could just spit.

He looked out the window to the Washington DC skyline, and tried not to picture it on fire. The Chitauri had burned through Asgard. What chance did good ol’ Earth have?

“I don’t suppose you have any idea where that time pod is?” Bucky half joked. “I think we could use another do-over.”

He didn’t have to turn to see the look of anguish on Steve’s voice. He heard it loud and clear in his voice. “You know I don’t.”

“Yeah… well, no one in the meeting came out and said it, but it’s not looking good for us, Stevie. They aren’t announcing this publicly until the first ships park in orbit – they don’t want people panicking.”

Steve stepped over and rested his chin on Bucky’s shoulder, gazing outside with him. “We’ve faced long odds before.”

“I never thought I’d see the day when something bad enough would come along to make HYDRA look small,” Bucky muttered.

Steve’s reply was to lean over and kiss him, arm tightening around Bucky’s waist. It wasn’t an answer… or maybe it was.

They made love that night, the cold stars glittering down at them through the window.

Bucky woke in the light of dawn with Steve murmuring beside him in his sleep. He caught the name, “Tony” and knew Steve was dreaming of the past again, and probably having a worse time of it now. Hell, Steve was probably blaming himself for this. As if he wasn’t carrying enough guilt around on his shoulders.

Then, abruptly, Bucky remembered the jewelry store.

No doubt, he and Steve were in for a rough few days. It would be nice if Steve had something permanent, a promise, to carry around with him into battle. Just in case.

Bucky slipped from the bed and dressed quickly in T-Shirt and jeans. He went out without leaving a note – traffic was light this time of day, and depending on how much the salesmen jerked him around, he might be back before Steve finished breakfast.

With those thoughts in mind, he didn’t pay much attention to his surroundings, or the man following him until it was too late.

There was a sharp prick to the side of his neck. Then nothing.

 

 

****

 

 

Bucky woke, mouth dry, the scent of mildew heavy in the chill air.

He rolled painfully up to a sitting position, noting the cold concrete floor, the steel walls, and the thick bars.

For an unsettling moment it reminded him of the prison holds in Azzano. A little cleaner, and he was thankfully alone instead of being shunted in a tiny cage crammed of his own men, but the bass were the same.

Out past the bars, several men in white lab coats worked bent over computers. A man gazed at him from the other side of the bars. He was of average height, light brown hair and a fancy suit. He also had a stick of a lolly pop sticking out of his mouth as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

"Mr. Barnes," the man said, giving the lolly pop a suck.

"Sergeant Barnes," Bucky corrected, getting to his feet. "Mind your manners.”

The man smiled. “You know who I am, of course.”

“Can’t say that I do.”

He actually looked taken aback. Then he smiled, as if Bucky were amusing instead of dangerous. "My name," he said, "is Justin Hammer.” A pause as he waited for a reaction. Bucky had none. “Of HammerTech?”

“That company that makes those cheap rifles no one uses?” Bucky demanded. That’s who nabbed him? This was embarrassing.

“Actually, we’re shifting into biogenetics. That’s where you come in.” Hammer leaned forward. “A little birdy told me you were supposedly injected with super soldier serum—sounds to me like the ultimate steroid, but I’m not here to quibble. I just want the formula.”

“Good for you.” Bucky didn’t have time for this nonsense. Not with the Chitauri coming, and especially not when he had ring shopping to do. He reached over and grabbed the bars.

A painful jolt arced up his hand. Bucky drew back, shaking his fingers out.

“Yeah, you’re going to want to watch out for that.” Hammer chuckled. “I hear it’s quite the voltage.”

"Listen, pal, you’re making a huge mistake." Bucky leaned close to the bars and felt an electric tingle along his skin. Probably electrified. Well, someone had done their homework on how strong he could be when he put his mind to it. "When Steve and the rest of the Avengers figure out I'm missing, your ass is grass. And if I don’t get out of here soon—"

“You’ll what?” Hammer demanded, smugly.

An army of space aliens will fly down and kick your ass, before I get there first. Bucky had the presence of mind not to speak that aloud.

Hammer mistook his silence. “That’s what I thought,” he said, and stuck the lolly pop back in. “It shouldn’t take long to see what makes you tick, and why you didn’t turn out like the rest.” He laughed again, as if this were a joke. “So sit back and relax. Think of it as a stay-cation.”

As Hammer turned to leave, he barked at a lab tech who was hunched over, busily washing out beakers. “You, make sure those are clean,” he said even though that was clearly what the man was doing.

The man nodded and shuffled out of Hammer’s way, impeded by a club foot.

Bucky sat in the lone chair in the cell, letting out a breath. “Son of a bitch.”

He didn’t need this right now, of all times. It didn’t help that being trapped like this reminded him of things he’d much rather forget. (Sam Wilson’s lectures on PTSD drifted in and out of his head – Bucky tried not to listen to them then, and sure as hell didn’t want them now.)

But surely it wouldn’t take long for Steve to realize he was missing. He wouldn’t be surprised if SHIELD had some sort of a tracker on him, or cameras watching his every move. He was valuable. They’d come and get him.

That is, if he didn’t find a way to break out first.

His thoughts were interrupted by an awkward shuffle-step. The lab tech who had been cleaning beakers approached Bucky’s cell door, with a plastic tray loaded like a school boy’s lunch: sandwich, a little carton of milk, and an apple for desert.

But Bucky wasn’t looking at that. His eyes were all for the tech. The man was thin, almost gaunt-looking, with his short dark hair peppered with gray. His dull brown eyes looked in at Bucky with vague expectation.

Bucky had seen that face, those eyes, before. They had looked at him out through a little computer tablet more than seventy years ago.

“Tony?”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The moment Bucky said the name, he knew it had been a mistake. Tony Stark flinched so hard he nearly dropped the tray of food. Clearly spooked, he hurriedly set it down in front of the cell doors and shuffled back, awkwardly, the bum foot giving him trouble. He didn't meet Bucky's eye.

Bucky had half rose out of the chair. He sat back heavily, stunned.

That was the late Tony Stark, alright. How was this possible? Bucky had watched Steve search the birth records -- had he missed something? Perhaps Stark had been born on another day, another city? No, he knew Steve had tried several different avenues just in case. All reports said Howard had died a childless man.

In any case, Tony Stark was clearly much changed from the man Bucky had seen in the video, the man Steve had told him stories about for years now. Bucky tried not to watch him too obviously as he shuffled around the lab with cleaning rags in hand, sweeping the floor, silently bringing the other lab techs lunch when they requested it. Never speaking.

While sweeping, he effortlessly tilted an industrial-sized refrigerator on its end to get to the dust bunnies underneath. A feat that would have given Bucky trouble.

He didn't remember super-strength included in the original Tony Stark's talents.

As for Bucky, the other lab techs had clearly collected samples of blood and hair to work from while he'd been asleep. They didn't seem to want to bother him further -- at least, not today. He watched them spin little vials in centrifuges and use pipettes to transfer one fluid into another. Though what exactly they were doing, he didn't have a clue. He was a sniper, not a scientist.

Again and again, Bucky's eyes fell to Stark, but the man acted as if he wasn't there.

Stark didn't approach him until well after lights out, and the other techs and scientists had left the room. Opening a small metal locker set in the wall, Stark withdrew something. Then, holding it protectively against his chest, he shuffled slowly over Bucky's cell.

Bucky rose to his feet, and approached the bars cautiously. He had to bite his lip to keep from laughing when Stark stopped and held the object out.

"Is that a comic book?" He peered closer. A poor rendition of Steve was splashed on the cover, standing in a heroic pose as bombs exploded in the sky above and generic forms of the Howling Commandos punched Nazis and HYDRA goons in the background. He'd seen a few like it, mostly from Phil Coulson's collection. However, this comic would have made Coulson cry -- it was dog-eared and obviously much read over, the ink faded from age and use.

Stark tapped a finger over one of the Howling Commandos. The one that stood closest to Captain America, the blue coat faded to gray with age.

"Yeah," Bucky sighed. "That's me. James Barnes, call me Bucky." He nearly choked on the next words, "So, you're a Captain America fan?"

Stark said nothing, but watched him with bright eyes.

"If you let me outta here, I'll guarantee Steve gives you his autograph." And probably lay a kiss on him, oh boy.

Again, Tony said nothing.

"You're not much of a talker, are you?" He'd expected something, at least a 'How the hell did you know my name?'.

Stark shrank back as if Bucky had yelled at him.

"Hey, wait," Bucky said, worried he was going to leave. "I didn't mean it in a bad way, kid." Kid. Geez, the man was clearly older than he was -- well, physically. But there was something almost childlike in his manner and expression.

Stark hesitated again. Then, his fingers raised and danced a pattern in the air.

"I was bad. Very bad. Speak no more," he signed.

Bucky jolted. "Sign language? My friend, Clint, taught me. You know, Hawkeye?" He was not above name dropping if it got him in Stark's good graces -- and maybe access the keys outta here.

Slowly, Stark shook his head.

"So... you aren't allowed to talk? Or... you can't?" Bucky asked, doggedly.

Shrugging, Stark signed, "Ran away. Was bad. They cut out my tongue so I'd never tell secrets."

Bucky stared, momentarily stunned.

Obviously, Stark got the wrong impression. He hung his head, his comic back against his chest. "Sorry," he signed. "Sorry." He turned away.

"No, wait,"  Bucky said.

This time Stark did turn and shuffle quickly away, the limp in his turned foot more pronounced. He quickly (though carefully) stuffed the comic back in his locker, then pulled out a thin looking pallet from under a compartment. He laid down, pulling a blanket over him, turning his back to Bucky.

Bucky turned back to his own cell, running a hand through his hair. He wasn't sure what to think, only that he had to throw his ideas about Tony Stark as Steve had known him, out the window. Something had gone terribly wrong in this timeline. This Tony Stark was fundamentally different man.

One thing was for sure, Bucky didn't have much time to parse it out. Steve and the Avengers hadn't come for him yet -- which meant they had little idea where he was, or the Chitauri threat was taking up a lot of time. Probably both. (Though he had no doubt Steve would move heaven and Earth to keep Bucky safe.)

He shot another look over his shoulder at Stark. What the hell had happened to him?

 

 

****

 

The next morning, one of the lab tech's -- a man in a crisp looking coat so different from Stark's stained and warn one, he was clearly no prisoner here -- asked for Bucky's blood sample.

In the spirit of not playing his hand, and getting these people to lower their defenses, Bucky stuck his arm through the de-energized bars and allowed them to prick a vein. After all, the Chitauri were going to blow them to smithereens in about a week. Who cared if they learned a thing or two about the serum?

Stark shuffled up with the morning meal tray in hand, again not meeting Bucky's eye. As he slid it under the bars, Bucky bent to receive it and spoke quietly, "I would have run away, too. I don't think you were bad."

Stark's eyes flicked to his, surprised. He flinched away again, but it mostly seemed to be a reflex.

Bucky wasn't certain if he'd made any progress with him until later that evening when they were once again alone in the lab.

Stark was pulling out his own pallet to sleep, when Bucky called, "Hey, that comic you showed me... That’s the one about the time Cap and us Howlies raided the submarine base in Bordeaux, on the river, right?"

Cautiously, Tony nodded.

Bucky found himself smiling. "You wanna hear what really happened?"

Tony shot a quick, darting look around the empty lab as if afraid one of the techs would come in and find them. But the temptation was apparently too much. He scooted the pallet closer and sat waiting, hands clasped in his lap.

So Bucky launched into a (only slightly exaggerated) story, how the half-built submarines had HYDRA technology. There were giant guns mounted aboard that could vaporize chunks out of ships and buildings. He explained how there were too many to take out at once, but it was Ace who came up with the brilliant suggestion of simply stealing the glowing blue power packs that energized the guns. They'd removed the bullets, as it were.

Stark was a good listener – not being able to interrupt made that a little easier— but at that point he asked. "Did Howard ever see the guns?"

"Not those," Bucky replied after a moment's thought. "The ones mounted on the submarines were too big to transport. But we sent on other examples to Howard and his men." He affected a pause, as if seeing something in Tony for the first time. "You are related to Howard, aren't ya? Yeah, you have his look."

Stark looked down. "Father," he signed.

"Thought so. That's how I knew your name." As an excuse, it was very thin indeed, but Stark didn't question him on it, just stared down at his own hands which were clasped again in his lap. So, Bucky tried, "He was a good scientist, your old man."

"Smart," Stark signed in agreement. Then quickly, "I'm not."

"Oh c'mon, you must have picked up a thing or two working here."

"I clean. I'm strong. Lift things. I lived with Uncle Obie, then he said I live here now. I'm a disappointment. I came out wrong."

Bucky wasn't sure he understood all that. Most of the sign language he picked up from Clint consisted of targeting information and curse words, but he got the jist. Who was 'Obie', though?

"How old were you when you started working here?" Bucky asked.

Again Stark hesitated. Then he held up five fingers, then wiggled his hand back and forth for approximately.

Five years old? Maybe before? A cold sensation trickled down Bucky's spine. He thought he had enough to read between the lines -- and a man like Howard would have his pride, wouldn't he? He had a son, his only son, who ended up obscenely strong and a little slow in the head. So he, what, sent him away? Gave him to this Uncle Obie character to deal with and dump off to another company so they wouldn't be connected, then washed his hands of him. Maybe even covered up a thing or two to make sure no one asked inconvenient questions.

A boy way too strong to be normal.

Had Howard been tinkering with the super soldier serum? He was an engineer, not a doctor, but he had worked closely with Erskine on project rebirth. And...

"Do you know who Zola is?" Bucky blurted.

A look of fear crossed Stark's face. He nodded. "My doctor."

Bucky growled. "He's a son of a bitch." They both had been.

Tony made a funny gasping sound, sort of like a laugh, but mangled in his throat. "Bad word," he signed.

Bucky smiled. "It's still true. And… You know, I'm kinda strong too." And to demonstrate, he walked over to the cheap chair and took one of the metal legs between his hand. He bent it nearly double, then back again.

Again, Tony made that strange gasp-laugh sound. Clearly delighted.

“I saw you lift that refrigerator,” Bucky said. “Were you always able to do that? Lift things that heavy?”

The laughter fell away instantly. “Too strong. I hurt my mom when I came out of her. Too early. Bad leg. Bad heart.” He paused, then tapped his head. Bad mind, he seemed to say.

“Ah.” He wasn’t sure what to say. But it did answer a couple questions, mainly that Howard was probably experimenting himself or authorizing Zola to experiment in vitro.

You low bastard, he thought, certain of it now. You tried to make your son a super soldier just like Captain America, then tossed him away when he came out the oven half-baked. Damn you.

And in that moment, Bucky promised himself he was going to get Tony Stark out of here. One way or the other.

Tony got up and quickly shuffle-stepped back to his locker. He returned with more comics – three, which Bucky was willing to bet was his entire collection. Obviously, these were well known to him because he flipped exactly to the page he wanted, and tapped on a panel.

Bucky squinted, then chuckled when he saw the picture. This comic was clearly based on Rebirth, and showed Steve as rake thin, but still. In the picture he stood a head over the stooped Erskine.

“Steve was smaller than that, believe it or not.” Bucky held out his hand to just below his own shoulder. “But as stubborn as a mule. I remember a time…”

He talked on, and Tony sat on the pallet as a silent, rapt audience. There was a childish innocence in the way he soaked up the words, as if he wasn’t used to having people pay attention to him, and never spoke about a man he clearly idolized.

“Steve will love to meet you.” Bucky wasn’t sure why he said it. Maybe it was twisted. Maybe it was misplaced guilt talking, but it was worth it when Tony’s eyes lit up.

“Captain America’s coming here?” His signs were wide with excitement.

“Yup, anytime now, to break me out. And you, too. You do want to get out of here, right? Tony?”

Another look of fear pinched Tony’s face. He shook his head, and looked again toward the closed door. “I can’t,” he signed. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

The color drained from his face. It was, apparently, a bridge too far. Quickly gathering his three precious comics, Tony backed away from Bucky’s cell. He took the blanket from his pallet and shuffled off to a far corner out of sight, ignoring Bucky’s low calls to come back.

“Damn,” Bucky muttered. Then again, was he surprised? The man was clearly institutionalized, and they had cut out his tongue the last time he’d run off. No wonder he was terrified.

Well, Bucky would work on him. Steve’s ma always said Bucky could sell snow to an Eskimo, given enough time.

Too bad time was the one thing he wasn’t sure he had.

 

 

****

 

 

Another day, another blood-draw.

Bucky kept an eye on Stark and noticed the man went through the same pattern of cleaning every day – the same set number of broom pushes around each table, the same mechanical, swipes of a rag across the counter surfaces. All completed perfectly, all with a dead-eyed expression.

Hell, he’d had years to perfect it.

Suddenly, the moment Bucky had been waiting for. An almighty boom sounded outside, rattling every piece of equipment. The room fell into darkness, then lit back as the emergency generator must have kicked in.

A few scientists turned to gaze at Bucky, who crossed his arms over his chest with a smug smile on his face.

“Calvary’s arrived,” he said. “Whatever Hammer’s paying you, it isn’t enough to face down a pissed off Captain America. You want my advice, you run while the getting’s good.”

The man Bucky privately thought of as the lead scientist turned to the others. “Dump the data onto the offsite servers. He’s right. We need to evacuate.”

Somewhere in the distance, a fire alarm went off.

Within five minutes, the scientists and lab techs had left. Tony Stark stared after them, broom in hand, clearly hoping for instruction that had never come. No one had so much as spoken to him.

“Tony,” Bucky said.

The man whipped around to stare at him, eyes wide with fear.

Bucky pointed to the still electrified bars of his cell. “Do you know how to turn these off?”

He didn’t react.

Bucky tried again. “Captain America’s coming, just like I promised. I say we go out and meet him halfway. What do you think about that?” A pause. “Tony, I promise I’m going to get you out of here. You’ll be free. I promise. You’ve read about me in the comics – you know me and Steve keep our word.”

That did it. Tony swallowed then shuffled close to the bars where a panel was hidden on a wall just out of Bucky’s view. He pushed a button. Then, before Bucky could react Tony grabbed a de-energized bar in his hands and pulled.

Metal shirked and the bars bent wide enough for two men to step abreast.

Bucky whistled low in appreciation, stepped through, and clapped Tony on the shoulder. He had muscles like iron under that shabby lab coat. “Good man. Do you know where they keep the weapons?”

Tony shook his head.

“Okay,” Bucky said. “Then we’ll just find some on our own. Follow me.”

The corridors beyond was a maze of twists and turns. From the booming above and the lack of windows Bucky guessed they were underground. They’d have to fight their way up as the Avengers made their way down.

That was fine by him.

Tony couldn’t move quickly with the bad leg. He seemed to be terrified – his breaths coming in ragged pants. But he stuck close, and Bucky felt a surge of protectiveness towards him. Yeah, he wasn’t the man Steve had known, but he was clearly a good man who’d been done wrong by life.

As soon as they got out of there and the Chitauri were driven off, Bucky would make sure Tony was taken care of. Maybe there were doctors who could help get his voice back. There were voice-boxes for smokers, right?

The corridor suddenly plunged again into darkness. Then, down the hall, Bucky heard the sound of booted feet. The rhythm was too precise to be anyone but soldiers. Maybe Hammer’s security.

Bucky felt for Tony’s hand and squeezed it, signing: STAY into his palm. Then Bucky moved forward.

He pounced on the soldiers before they knew what hit them. Two quick strikes and both were down.

The lights, conveniently, came back up halfway, flickering, and Bucky bent to grab their weapons.  The men wore HAMMER TECH shirts, and were clearly unconscious. Bucky was just deciding if he should risk giving a gun to Tony when he heard the sound of a shoe stepping on broken glass further down the hall.

Shit, he’d missed a guard.

Too late. The third guard fired. An impact – a sudden shove knocked Bucky to the side. Bucky hit the wall opposite, then ducked, bringing his own gun to fire. The direction was a guess, and the shadows down that way were too deep for even his eyes to penetrate, but his aim must have been true.

He heard a cry of pain further down the corridor, then silence.

Bucky glanced to the side and saw Tony slumped again the wall on the other side, one hand pressed to his side, his face white as a sheet.

Cursing under his breath, Bucky scrambled over. “Let me see.”

A bloom of red blood was already spreading below Tony’s lower left rib. Oh no, Bucky thought, and bit the words back only so he wouldn’t alarm him. Oh no, no, no…

He helped Tony lay down and turned him. There was no exit wound. A clean in and out would have been better, but Bucky had the bad feeling the bullet had stayed in and bounced around.

Tony made a soundless gasp of pain as he was turned. There was a bubbling rasp to his inhale.

Bucky swallowed hard and helped him lay on his back, stripped off his shirt and put it under Tony’s head to use as a pillow. “Clean in and out,” he lied.

“Hurts,” Tony signed. “Hurts, hurts.” His skin had gone white as milk, making his eyes look like dark holes.

“I know, buddy,” Bucky said, keeping his voice light. “Been shot a time or two – hurts like hell. Can you walk?”

Tony swallowed and shook his head. Was that blood on his bottom lip? “Hold tight,” he said, preparing himself to carry the other man. It would be awkward – Tony was shorter, but he was by no means small. It would also mean Bucky wouldn’t have a hand free to shoot with, which would do neither of them good.

Maybe some of the fear must have leaked through his expression because Tony signed, “Am I going to be okay?”

“Yes you are,” Bucky said firmly. He caught Tony’s fingers and squeezed. “You took a bullet for me, didn’t you? I don’t let people who take bullets for me die.”

“Had to,” Tony signed nonsensically. “Sorry, my mistake…” His eyes had taken an unfocused look.

Bucky thought, The poor man’s just apologizing by route.

“Hey,” he squeezed his hand again. “You got nothing to be sorry for, you hear me? Nothing at all.”

On the heels of that, he heard footsteps coming down the hall. Bucky tensed and reached for his gun. Then, he heard a sound sweet as sugar.

“Bucky?!”

Steve. He knew that voice anywhere.

“I’m here!” he called back. “Steve, we’re here! This way!” He turned to Tony. “Hear that? Rescue’s coming. Just like I said.”

The man’s eyes had slid half shut. Worried that he was fading on him, Bucky tapped his cheek. “Just hold on a bit longer. I’ve got—“ he stopped, “I have a friend who want to meet you.”

“Bucky?” Steve was right around the corner, from the sound of his voice.

“Down here!” Bucky yelled.

Then there he was. All decked out in uniform, shield in hand, and a wild look in his eye. “Buck!” Steve ran the last few feet to him, then stopped. The expression dropped from his face. “Tony?”

Hearing his name, Tony looked up at Steve with confused, fuzzy eyes. Steve actually took a step back, shock writ large on his face.

“Hey,” Bucky said, shaking Tony’s shoulder. “I told you that you’d meet Captain America. Tony, here he is, larger than life.” He wasn’t sure if Tony heard him or not. Each breath was a rasp.

“Tony…?” The name was broken on his lips. Falling to his knees beside them, Steve reached out to lay a hand on Tony’s chest. He looked at Bucky. “What… how?”

Lifting his free hand, Tony signed sluggishly, “Captain America…”

Bucky didn’t know what to say, only that Tony needed to hear it. “Steve, he saved my life. He helped break me out, and wanted to meet you.”

Maybe Steve got it because he rasped, “Thank you. Oh God… I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner, I didn’t know…”

Bucky wasn’t sure how much of that Tony heard, or understood. Tony’s fingers were going slack around Bucky’s and Bucky held them, bowing his head. The man breathed once, twice, and then died with his eyes half open.

“Oh God,” Steve repeated, brokenly. His hand curled in the fabric of Tony’s shirt. “Oh God, not again… not again, please…”

Bucky swore and turned away from the dead man he’d failed to punch the wall. The bright pain felt good, helped clear the stinging tears from his eyes. “He said he grew up here. Howard,” he nearly choked on the name, “used the serum on him, and when he didn’t turn out right, he basically sold his son to these people.”

Steve didn’t say anything. He stared down at Tony, his face a mask, but his free hand stroking the short dark hair back from Tony’s forehead.

There was the thump of heavy boot heels. Thor came around the corner, his hammer in one hand, a strange device in another. It was pod shaped, the heart of it dark.

“Captain,” he said, “Sergeant Barnes, I see you’re well.” He stopped short. “Who is this?”

“This is my fault.” Steve said, not seeming to have noticed him. “Oh God, this wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

He moved Tony’s head from the pillow to against his leg, bowing over the corpse. Bucky looked away, wanting to give him a moment of privacy in his grief.

His eyes fell again to Thor. “The Chitauri?”

Thor’s expression was grave. “The vanguard of the invasion is set to arrive in less than twenty-four hours, my friend, in numbers that look… daunting. However, we have other concerns.”

More than an invasion? “What?”

Thor held out the thing in his hands. “I found this in this facilities back rooms.”

Steve gasped, “Thor is that…. That’s the time travel pod.”

It took a moment for Bucky to place what exactly he meant. Then he felt the blood drain from his face. “That thing? That’s it?” He’d always imagined it larger.

“You know of this gem, Captain?” Thor shook his head, eyebrows furrowing. “This is no time travel device.”

“Sure it is.” Steve grabbed Bucky’s shoulder, his eyes alight. “That’s it! We can go back, fix Tony, fix everything!”

“Then you are the one who activated it? When?” Thor almost sounded sharp, which was very unlike him.

Steve and Bucky exchanged a glance. Bucky shrugged. A silent, You tell him.

“Two years ago. Well, more. Tony,” Steve gestured to the fallen man. “I sorta guilted Tony into it, because—”

"He did it to save me," Bucky said, seeing Steve falter. "I should have died, back in the war."

He wasn't sure what tipped him off. Perhaps the way Steve wouldn't meet his eyes, a slight, almost invisible flinch that Bucky had never caught before the few times they'd spoken of the train.

Bucky swallowed. "Right, Steve?"

Steve's shoulders sagged. He bowed his head, one hand still on Tony's chest. "I messed up, Buck." His voice was so rough it sounded like he'd swallowed glass. "When you fell -- that gorge was near to four-hundred feet. No one thought you coulda survived."

"Well, yeah," Bucky started saying, then stopped. A sudden, tingling sensation raced up his spine. "Wait, thought I coulda survived?"

Steve raised his head, and the look in his eyes was the same one Bucky had seen only one time before: when he realized that changing the past had caused Tony not to be born. It was a look of absolute crushing guilt. “I’m sorry, Buck,” Steve said. “It’s one of the greatest shames of my life.”

“You didn’t come back for me,” Bucky said, stunned.

Steve shook his head. “As far as we can tell, the Soviet’s picked you up. They… somehow, they knew you were special, surviving a fall like that. Somehow, the remains of HYDRA got wind and they made you their man by force."

“HYDRA?" Bucky demanded, outraged. He looked at Thor, but couldn't read the expression on his face.

Steve continued. "They outfitted you with some kinda metal arm -- you'd lost your left one in the fall. And they trained you, forced you to do their dirty work." Steve's voice came out faster, like he was spilling his guts. A secret he'd kept with him for years. "Plugged you in an electric chair and wiped out your memories every time you came to your senses. They called you the Winter Soldier, and the first time I..." his voice caught, the next few words swallowed, "By the time I was unfrozen, you didn't even know your own name."

Bucky stared at him, horror-struck, then looked down at Tony. For the first time, he understood: His blighted life had become Tony’s.

Only Tony had never had years of normalcy beforehand. He’d grown up in this horror.

“And it was my fault,” Steve said, “It was all my fault because I gave up on you.”

Bucky didn’t know how to reply to that. He wanted to say, no, it’s okay, Stevie. You couldn’t have known what Zola did to me. No man in their right mind would have thought anyone could survive that fall.

Only, Bucky had gone back for Steve, against all odds. And the reassuring words didn’t come.

"When the Avengers took out HYDRA, you scattered to the wind," Steve said. "I looked and looked and everyone told me that man I knew, my best friend, was gone. But I couldn't -- wouldn't believe it."

Thor spoke for the first time, voice falling like a stone. "And you found this gem."

Steve swallowed. "Tony found it, and discovered it had the ability to tunnel through time. I knew I could set things right—"

He stopped as Thor shook his head.

“Captain, I know Bucky is very dear to you, but this is a wicked thing. Fjalar, forged in the forest of Gálgviðr. Through all of time, it has brought but lies and misery to its wielder. I knew as soon as it was activated, that this place is naught but a falsehood.”

“What?” Bucky said. Sometimes it was like Thor was speaking his own brand of English.

“It is no time travel device,” Thor said.

“Sure it is,” Steve said. “I went back. I changed the past, and altered the future.”

“Steve, had you come to me in that other place, I would have warned you.” Thor gestured to the walls, the world around him. “This is all but a lie. An illusion. Eventually, it will fall apart – it has already started.”

“In twenty-four hours, the Chitauri will arrive,” Bucky said, realizing.

Thor nodded gravely. “And if we are to win the day, a fiercer foe will surely follow. There are no happy endings in this dreamland.”

“What do you mean?” Bucky demanded. He pressed his hand to his chest. Two, solid real hands. Not a metal arm or a hook or whatever the other version of him had. “I’m here. I’m real. You’re saying we’re all not?”

“Fjalar contains powerful magic, made from the despair and chaos of a dying sun. This power seeks only to pretend to grant your wishes, before it warps and destroys them. This place is not real.” He put his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I am sorry, my friend. You must return home.”

“That’s bullshit,” Bucky said. “Steve, I’m here. I’m here. I’m real.”

Steve looked wide-eyed. “I can’t,” he said, “We have a chance to defeat the Chitauri. Then I can… I can go back again. Do it right.”

Thor shook his head. “There is no going back. You never left in the first place. I am sorry.”

“No you’re not,” Bucky snapped, angry and despairing, and sick. “The Chitauri never invaded Asgard in the other timeline because he,” he gestured at Tony’s body, “nuked them all to Hell. We go back, and everything’s hunky-dory for you.”

“Bucky,” Steve said. “That’s not fair.”

Thor drew himself up, but said nothing. He probably knew a thing or two about projected anger.

Bucky turned away, gnashing his teeth, wanting to hit the wall again. “Fuck!” he yelled, but he couldn’t deny what was coming: An invasion even Odin and Asgard couldn’t stop. And even if they did, could he continue on knowing what he now knew? Tony’s death, the whole world a lie… Bucky took a breath and made himself say, “I know he’s right, God damn it."

"No." Steve's hand lightning fast, grabbed Bucky's own. For a few moments they were together like that. Steve holding Bucky, one hand on Tony. Steve's blue eyes were filled with despair. "You don't understand what HYDRA did to you."

"I lived through Azzano. I think I get it." And boy, did he. His heart was racing out his chest at the thought, the ghost smell of antiseptic his nose. He pushed it away because if he let himself think of it too much, let it become real in his mind, he would falter and lose his nerve. "But Steve, either I go through that, or this world dies in twenty-four hours.. And Tony..." he swallowed. "He never got a fair shake, did he? He's been down here since he was a little kid."

"No, no. You can’t just ask me to… I can't choose between you." Steve looked at Thor, pleading. "There has to be some other way."

His reply was soft. "This is not a real universe, my friend. If it is allowed to continue, everything you hold dear will fall to ruin and ash and it will end on its own. I am sorry."

Steve stared. "Bucky," he croaked. His hand tightened into a ball on Tony's bloody shirt. It was as if wanted to keep both of them.

Bucky leaned forward to draw him into a kiss. A good one, because it was going to be their last. He could taste tears, though he wasn't quite sure who's it was. Maybe both. His hand curled over Steve's where it rested on Tony's chest.

Bucky drew back. "I'm not asking you to choose," he said. "I love you, Steve. I always will. You gotta remember that for me, even if I can't."

He thought he might have seen the barest hint of acceptance in Steve's eyes. It didn't matter. Bucky didn't pause to linger, because he knew if he did -- if he thought about this, really thought about seventy years of service under HYDRA, he wouldn't be able to do it.

Twisting, Bucky snatched the time pod from Thor. (In one distant corner of his mind he knew Thor was allowing it. Bucky was strong. Thor, so much stronger.)

And over Steve's shout, Bucky brought the thing down as hard as he could to the floor.

There was a cracking sound that sawed straight through his bones, like the world itself had split.

A flash of piercing blue light.

Chapter Text

 

Steve blinked his eyes. The blue light was gone.

"Huh," Tony said, eyeing the time travel pod. "That should have worked. Did you not think of the past hard enough? Maybe click your heels—"

He didn't finish. With a cry, Steve jerked away from the time travel pod and dragged Tony in.

He was exactly as Steve remembered him—whole and bright eyed, with a Metallica T-shirt, and the barest hint of five o'clock shadow.

"Tony," he whispered, grieving, aching, rejoicing, so many things he didn't know what he was feeling except that it hurt and it felt like he'd been given a second chance. "Oh god, I missed you."

And at that moment Steve hated himself a little, too, because he loved Tony every bit as much as he loved Bucky, and what kind of man did that make him?

"What?" Tony flailed for a moment, then awkwardly pressed on Steve's shoulder and pushed away. "What's this? Cold feet? Rethinking the jump back?"

Steve couldn't help it. He barked out a laugh and looked around the room. Everything was as it had been before. All the whirling machinery of the future. The bots, the holograms so real they looked solid. Surely, JARVIS waiting for their command...

And Bucky... Oh God, Bucky....

"I went," Steve said. To prove it, he reached into the pocket of his authentic WW2 uniform and felt for the tablet that he knew was there. He saw Tony stiffen, then lift his chin as if waiting for a fight. But Steve didn't care. He set the tablet aside on the table with a click. "And I came back. Well, Bucky sent me back."

Tony blinked. "I think you've jumped ahead of me, which is not easy to do."

Steve shook his head. Grief over Bucky, over the Tony in the other timeline sat like a hard lump in his throat. He pulled Tony closer, feeling the wiry strength of the other man. How he was so alive in his arms.

"I'm so, so sorry," Steve said. "I've been such a fool. It went wrong – it went so wrong. I looked for you, and I thought you hadn't been born, and it was all my fault. But… it’s like whatever I do, the past repeats itself. It wasn’t Bucky who’d been taken away from me, it was you. I'm sorry."

Tony relaxed minutely. "C'mon, big guy," he said. "Let's move to the couch, I'll get some water. We'll talk and you can tell the story in order this time."

Chapter Text

 

Bucky assumed that death would be a lot like falling asleep. Closing his eyes for one last time, and then a peaceful nothing. He never held to Steve's belief of golden shores waiting beyond.

So when he shut his eyes against the searing blue light, he assumed that was that.

When he opened them to find himself standing alone in an unfamiliar apartment... he was a little surprised.

Shabby was an understatement. The windows were plastered with yellowed newspaper. The air smelled like sour milk, and more than half the furniture was either built of, or propped up by, cinderblocks.

"Steve?" he asked, looking around. Then, less hopefully, "Tony?"

No answer, except for the faint sound of traffic outside.

Bucky started to the window – there was a gap in the newspaper he could look out – but stopped at an unfamiliar lack of sensitivity in his left hand.

His left hand was metal. No, wait, his whole left arm up to the shoulder was metal.

There was a grimy bathroom, sans door. Bucky raced to the mirror.

He.... really needed a haircut. And a shave. And, by the look of it, a week's worth of sleep.

"Oh boy," Bucky said.

 

 

****

Three weeks later

****

 

 

Bucky sat himself down on the couch, and, with the metal thumb, popped open a beer. The arm had been a pain in the ass to get past TSA, but he was finding all sorts of uses for the thing.

Too bad Stark only stocked had the shitty brands in his refrigerator. Bucky had become a real fan of local craft brews in the other timeline, and it was a sad thing to break into a rich man's house and find corporate swill in his fridge.

He knew he wouldn't have long to wait. Tony Stark didn't disappoint.

Tony walked into the living room like he owned it (true). And there he was, the man Bucky had glimpsed in the personal video. Bright eyed, no trace of a limp or imprisonment, and obviously ruffled, through trying not to show it. Handsome, too.

Steve did have a thing for brunettes.

"Is this an assassination attempt?" Tony demanded, in lieu of a greeting. He strode to Bucky, some kind of tablet in hand. A smudge of what looked like grease on one cheekbone.

"Nah," Bucky said. "This is me, trying to drink your shitty beer to kick my jet lag."

"Steve's not here," Tony said. "He’s off running his morning marathon around Central Park."

"I know. You might have noticed, he’s a creature of habit." Bucky said. "I thought you and I should talk."

"A kill type talk? Or a—"

"I'm not the Winter Soldier."

"That's funny, you do a great impression of him."

"Well," Bucky amended. "I was never the Winter Solder. When I smashed the time travel pod, I think I replaced him. Or overwrote him. Somehow."

That caused Tony to pause. He saw the man take a deep breath through his nose, eyes dancing over Bucky as if to reexamine him.

"I think you and I should talk," Bucky said again. Gentler, this time. "We're in love with the same man, after all. Pull up a chair. Have a beer. It’s five o’clock somewhere."

"You come into my house, offer me my own beer. The balls on you." Tony snapped, then backed to what looked like the drink cart and poured himself a scotch over ice.

He came and sat down. Not, Bucky noted, within reaching range. And he kept fiddling with his watch. Maybe some kind of a weapon? Did he hide a gun in there?

There was a very strained silence.

"From the sound of it Steve told you about the other timeline," Bucky said. Tony narrowed his eyes, but nodded. Bucky took a sip of the crappy beer and asked, "So, did you throw him out on his ear?"

"What for? Accidently deleting me from the future? Playing house with you for two years, only to realize, whoops I did it again, my ex-boyfriend's secretly a slave to Justin Freakin’ Hammer.”

Bucky couldn't tell if Tony was being sarcastic or not, but perhaps that was the point. The man had walls thick as Fort Knox. "I might've tossed him out," Bucky said. "Then, you know, let him win me back."

"How charmingly old fashioned."

Bucky aimed a grin at Tony he'd perfected to charm girls and boys back in the day. "That's me all over."

Tony was silent for a few moments, fingers tapping a rhythm on his mostly untouched scotch glass. "No," he said, shortly. "Maybe I should have. But he had a couple good excuses."

"It wasn't like he just jumped right back into the sack with me. He grieved for you – went to Howard and Maria's gravesites to talk to you – he didn't think I knew about that."

"Good," said Tony, flatly. "He put the idea of the serum and working with Zola in my Dad's head. What did he think was going to happen?"

Bucky took a careful sip, fortifying himself. They'd come to the point of the discussion. "Then, you saved my life. I won't forget it."

"That wasn't me."

"It was some version of you. He was a good man – didn't deserve what he got."

To his surprise, Tony barked out a laugh. "You don't know me at all, Barnes."

Bucky remembered back when he’d first seen the video of Tony Stark, and one of Steve’s first reactions was to say: "He never held a high opinion of himself. It was always an act.” Well, Bucky saw that for himself, now. And with Howard as a father, it wasn’t a surprise.

Bucky fixed him with a direct look. "Maybe I'd like to get to know you."

One thing about Tony, he was super quick on the uptake. Bucky saw the slight catch of breath, then the blink as he rejected the thought. But Bucky hadn't expected it to be easy – that was fine. He liked a challenge.

They were in love with the same man, after all. And there was something captivating about Tony. Bucky knew he wasn't too bad on the eyes, either. Now that he'd shaved and tried to even out his long hair.

"Is that why you're here, Barnes?" Tony demanded.

"No," he lied. Then he reached over and lifted a heavy black backpack. The left arm held it like it were made of feathers, though it was filled to the brim with stacks and stacks of notebooks. "When I smashed the time pod—Fjalar, whatever— I came back in the Winter Soldier's body, but I got none of his memories. The man... seemed to be obsessed with remembering his past. He wrote down every single thing in here. After all he went through, it's not right he's wiped out again."

He saw Tony zero in on it.

"I only had time to skim a couple, but it's the stuff of horrors." Bucky took a breath. "And I get the feeling Howard's involved, in some way. He was last time."

He wasn't sure what he expected – what would any man do if you accused your father of treason, or worse? Torture of someone you considered a friend. But maybe Tony knew a little something of Howard's proclivities. He nodded, once.

"Maybe his memories are in there." Bucky tapped his own head. "Maybe they're not, but I figure a bright guy like you would have the resources to get me in touch with the people who could help me out."

"Maybe I do. Why would I?"

Blunt. He liked that. Bucky grinned again and set the duffle back aside to hold up his left hand and wiggle his fingers. "I’ll let you play around with this beauty. I've seen Iron Man, and it's something special, but don't pretend this isn't a step above." He rotated his wrist and curled his fingers, showing how natural the moment was.

He'd seen Tony looking.

"And Steve?" Tony asked.

"I told you, we'll work something out. He's my fella and your fella. I'm thinking we can come to some sort of agreement."

"I don't do timeshare." Tony said. Then, throwing back the scotch, he bravely scooted over next to Bucky. "Gimme that arm. What do you know of it?"

"The thumbnail makes a great can opener."

Tony made a rude noise and pulled the wrist across his lap, elegant fingers dancing over the scaling.

 

 

****

 

 

Bucky heard the thump of footsteps -- the heavy tread he knew so well -- before Steve came around the corner, clad in workout clothes, carrying a duffel bag of equipment, and stopped dead in his tracks.

The look on his face, Tony sitting next to Bucky with the arm half open, was something he wished he recorded.

Tony waved a greeting, but clearly was too involved in the mechanics to look up.

"Steve," Bucky greeted, casual as you please. "When Thor told us to destroy the pod, he left out a detail or two."

The duffel bag Steve was carrying fell to the floor with a thump.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Why me?” Clint demanded, in what was very close to a whine.

“Suck it up,” Bucky suggested, helpfully. “Bruce would end up spilling to Tony, Sam would find a way to weasel out of giving his opinion one way or the other, and Natasha would scare the bejesus out of the salesman. Besides, you’re married. You’ve done this before.”

And wasn’t that an odd change to find in this timeline. Bucky got used to it. Laura Barton was a doll, and their children were holy terrors in the best way. Honestly, the hardest part of the arrangement was convincing Clint they were going to be best friends.

Bucky had done, it of course. Clint had been intimidated by the Winter Soldier, but once he got past that they’d gotten along gangbusters.

Tony had been the real challenge – an incredible challenge – a fun challenge. Bucky had been appalled to learn that Steve had never wooed the guy. They’d fallen in with each other via mutual antagonism quickly turned attraction. And that was that. So it had taken patience and planning to get Tony to give him the time of day.

Steve, too, had his hang-ups. Thought that there was something inherently wrong with loving two people at the same time. It took Bucky and Tony combined to convince him otherwise.  But, well, that was why they all made a good team.

Almost two years on since they’d all made it official, and Bucky hadn’t regretted a day. Not even with the Ultron business, or when the Winter Soldier’s notes revealed some unfortunate truths about Howard and Maria Stark’s deaths, and the fact Steve knew about it.

Maybe that’s another reason they all got on so well: They were all screw-ups, in their own way.

There was still one thing Bucky needed. Something he’d been thinking on and off about for awhile now.

He stopped Clint before they walked past the jewelry store front. The same glass window Bucky had been thrown through a few years and an entire fake timeline ago. It looked the same.

Clint made a resigned face. “Okay, man, I’ll do this with you but I’m not gushing about gem colors.” He stepped forward, but an idea struck Bucky hard and fast.

“Wait!” he said and hurriedly pulled out his phone. He punched the contact list, then dialed.

Thor picked up on the third ring. He was currently in Australia with Jane at a conference. “Bucky! I’m surprised to see your call, my friend.”

“Thor, there’s no… immediate danger of invasion coming up, right?”

“No?” He sounded politely confused.

“Nothing Heimdall’s seen on the horizon?” he pressed.

“All is well within the realms,” Thor said. “Are you well, Bucky?”

He let out a breath. “Yeah. I am now. Thanks, Thor.” He hung up and looked at Clint, who was staring at him like he had two heads. “Okay, lets buy rings for my boyfriends.”