“So, time travel, huh?” Bucky asks.
The room is dark except for the grey dawn streaks of weakened light against the ceiling. Steve presses his fingertips into his eyes. It makes one of his elbows stick out and graze Bucky’s collarbone. “That’s right.”
“Are you going back?”
Steve folds his hands across his chest, withdrawing the only point of contact between them. “I’ve thought about it,” he admits.
Bucky nods against the pillow and curls his knee up a little tighter, one hand fiddling with nothing in particular against his stomach. There’s nothing to say, anyways. Either Steve will decide to go back or he won’t, and Bucky could open his mouth to sway him one way or the other, but he wouldn’t dare do such a thing.
Much later and only partially awake, Steve whispers in the mid-morning light. “Buck?” Bucky has been wide awake for nearly an hour, but he just makes a tired noise. He can feel Steve’s eyes on him. “D’you wanna go with me? If I go?”
Bucky gives up the sleeping act entirely. He blinks a few times and doesn’t look up. “No,” he says.
“No,” Bucky repeats. “I don’t want to go back, Steve.”
Steve closes his eyes again. “Okay,” he mumbles. Bucky doesn’t know what that is supposed to mean, though there’s an uncomfortable pull in his gut that says he should. That he would have, in another time. Or, that he already does know and his brain just can't accept the truth of it. He props himself up on an elbow, careful not to disturb Steve.
The slow rise and fall of Steve’s chest catches his attention; it’s all he can look at. He puts his human hand on the soft fabric of Steve’s t-shirt. Heat seeps through to his palm and it’s not a lot, but it’s the most Bucky might ever get.
He gives himself a slow count to sixty. A few seconds to memorize the tawny natural highlights of Steve’s hair. Six seconds to take in his parted lips, the little glimpse of neat white teeth. Ten more for the exact shape of his eyes and the tiny lines forming at the corners of them. There’s still a twinge of pink leftover from his crying jag in the last few minutes before sunrise, just as they finally got to bed. Nobody else gets to see Steve like this, intimate and vulnerable. Even though that’s likely to change very soon, Bucky has learned to take what he can get, when he can get it.
There are things that he can’t even say to Steve, but he would tell Peggy, if given the chance. He has the insane thought to write this stuff down and tuck it into Steve’s back pocket for Peggy to find while she’s doing the laundry, 78 years ago. (He hates being talked at when he’s crying, but he’ll calm down faster if you pat a heartbeat rhythm against his back. He sometimes starts fights without even realizing the true reason he's doing it.) Bucky hopes she’ll pick up on the little things. She will, he tells himself, she was always real sharp.
When his minute is up, Bucky takes his hand back and gets up from the bed.
He stands in the shower until the water starts to run cold. There’s dim music coming from the front door when Bucky wanders into the kitchenette, so he follows the sound outside.
It’s Sam, on the shared porch between their motel rooms. He’s got mechanical parts laid out on the railing, where he’s moving down the line, fussing with them. His phone – the source of the music – is on the seat of a plastic green patio chair.
“Hey, man. You won’t believe what I found on my jog this morning. There’s an iHop, like, not even five minutes drive from here. Let’s go, I’m starved and it’s gotta be the only thing for miles.” Sam starts prepping to leave, carefully placing the wing parts into a little case. His find is pretty remarkable luck, but Bucky doesn’t feel like eating. He’s about to turn him down, when Sam points to the car parked in front of his room. “Rhodey already let me borrow his car. C’mon, where’s Steve? Get your money, I’m not paying for your ass.”
So, Sam drives the two of them iHop because Steve is waking up slowly and Bucky still, still doesn’t have a license. Back in Wakanda, T’Challa gave him a hoverbike like he was handing over an extra stick of chewing gum. If Bucky never brought up the fact that he never technically learned how to drive, well…
“He turn you down, too?” Sam asks.
What. Bucky stares at him. Just how many people are vying for Steve Rogers’ affections?
Sam elaborates. “I told him I’d go along, help put the stones back. But he was all, ‘nah I got this.’”
“Oh,” Bucky says.
Sam glances at Bucky while he maneuvers the car into a parking space. He’s got that look, like he’s not sure if Bucky was always this way or if it’s an aftereffect of HYDRA. It doesn’t bother Bucky, though. He wonders if Sam always preferred to park backwards, or if it was all the time with Steve and Co. that taught him to always be ready to flee.
“So…you’re not going with him?” Sam asks, putting the car into park.
The radio is off now, and there’s not even the white noise purr of the engine. He feels like he and Sam are having two completely different conversations. Like he keeps asking questions in English but getting responses in Italian. “Going with him where?”
“Man, are you okay? Going with him to return the stones.”
It’s not possible, that Sam knows nothing at all. Right? As far as Bucky is concerned, Sam is family to Steve. He and Natasha might be the only people from this time who have spent extended periods under the red, white, and blue skin of the uniform. This man in the car with Bucky got past the plastic face of Captain America, and he’s not even going to get a goodbye to the fiercely good Steve Rogers.
If the roles were reversed, would he want to know that he is about to lose his best friend? If there’s nothing that can be done to stop it, would telling him only taint the last memories of Steve that Sam is ever going to have?
When Bucky blinks himself out of his own head, Sam is still staring at him. “No, I’m not going with him.” Bucky gets out of the car. He walks straight into the restaurant without waiting to see Sam’s face, fists balled in his pockets.
They bring the food back to the motel in Styrofoam containers.
“This stuff is terrible for the environment,” Sam complains as he digs around for a plastic cup of maple syrup. He and Steve trade little comments back and forth. He gives Steve his extra butter and Bucky the piece of bacon he can’t force himself to finish. “Just don’t interfere with my mama or anything,” he says. “You better not accidentally delete me from the universe, cause I’ve had enough of that.” Sam is funny and generous and he has no fucking clue.
What the hell is Bucky going to say to him when Steve disappears into his own little universe of staticky radios and red lipstick?
He should be soaking up these last few hours, but it’s like there’s noise in his brain. Bucky has had so much time with Steve, can’t even remember his life without him, but it will never be enough. That’s the kicker: he will always want more of Steve.
Then, Bruce comes to collect them, green-skinned and articulate. “We’re ready if you are,” he says. Bucky has had decades and no time at all.
They follow him down the gravel edges of the motel’s driveway. It turns into a rural one lane highway, where they walk along the shoulder. Bruce is beginning to explain the past five years to Sam, but it’s all microscopic in comparison to what is about to happen. The world is about to shift, and Bucky is the only one who knows it. This must be what dogs feel before an earthquake strikes.
A lone car shimmers in the distance, coming at them. “Watch out,” Sam calls. He and Bruce start to move over and Steve and Bucky follow suit, upsetting little insects when they step in the overgrown grass. “Alright, and then what?” Sam prompts Bruce, like if he doesn’t continue to draw noise out of people, the silence will shape itself into red hair and deceivingly stylish black boots.
When the car whizzes past them, Bucky’s hair gets tossed around with it. He tucks it back behind his ear and feels Steve watching. So, he looks over and catches him in the act. Steve smiles, doesn’t look away. It hurts.
They don’t walk far before reaching the fresh black branch of Tony Stark’s driveway. Covered by the thick tree line, Bruce’s set up is invisible from the highway. It’s far enough from the house to keep Stark’s little daughter from getting too curious.
Sam continues to offer his help and it’s unsettling. He doesn’t want to think about a kind, giving person like Sam in a time like the one they’re from.
Steve comes over to Bucky, for the last time. “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back.”
“How can I?” Bucky says without inflection. “You’re taking all the stupid with you.”
Stepping forward, Steve gives him a little reassuring smile. He hugs him like he isn’t breaking Bucky’s heart. All their lives have led to this. A quick hug and a re-used exchange.
“I’m gonna miss you,” Steve says. There it is. The nail in the coffin. The straw that broke the camel’s back. A million other sayings that Bucky did not fully understand until this moment.
“It’ll be alright, Steve.” It’s what you say to someone who’s dying; a pretty lie for someone who isn’t going to be around to see that you weren’t telling the truth.
One of the things that the serum gave Bucky was a photographic memory, assuming no one is messing with it. He’s never going to be able to forget this moment, on the property of a dead man, watching his best friend step up onto the futuristic platform.
Steve stands there with the hammer taken from a god and the briefcase with six universe-bending gems. Bucky watches him, and only him. He’s saying something to Bruce, who is about to unknowingly take away the best and worst thing that has ever happened to Bucky. It’s a hopeless thing, how he adores Steve down to the meat of his bones.
The atmosphere swallows Steve up and Bruce starts loudly counting down from five. It means nothing and everything. His whole life has already been decided; he’s just had to wait until now to see the outcome.
Bruce gets to one.
The air bends like it’s wafting off the pavement on a hot day and then Steve is standing there, whole and solid and real.
There’s a rush of weightless relief. “How’d it go?” Sam asks.
Steve steps easily off the platform, claps Sam on the back. “Good,” he says, “got everything back to where it’s supposed to be.”
His hair is messier than it was five seconds ago and his suit has lost its pristine white, but he looks unharmed. His chin juts out just the same as it did in bed earlier this morning. The little arch of his ear is identical to the man who shared Bucky’s tent in occupied France.
“Buck,” he says, smiling. “You’ll never guess who I ran into.” Steve is fiddling with the device on the back of his hand. He wiggles it off like a watch and then hands it to Bruce, and Bucky watches the joints in his fingers as he flexes them. The device must have been tight, or maybe he was just wearing it for a long time. It’s left behind a red outline of itself on his skin. “Well? Guess,” Steve prompts.
There’s really blood flowing through Steve’s veins in this exact second, in this timeline. There’s air in his lungs and 2023 technology covering his skin. “I don’t know,” Bucky says dumbly.
“The Red Skull.” Steve can’t wait to drop his bombshell, though Bucky’s hardly paying attention to anything but the way his boots leave marks in the dirt.
Sam’s eyes widen. “You mean the same Red Skull that you killed in 1945? That Red Skull?”
“I never killed him. That’s just what people assumed. But – Bucky, are you listening?”
Bucky nods. “The Red Skull,” he repeats. Steve frowns at him, that crinkle forming between his eyebrows. Bucky wants to press his thumb into it and tease Steve about getting wrinkles. Oh my God, Steve is actually back.
He’s actually here, midway through some story that Bucky can’t even hear past the rich warm tones of his voice. Sam reacts enough for the both of them as they walk back towards the motel, leaving Bruce to finish up his calculations in peace.
On their shared porch, Sam hops up to sit on the railing. He’s invested in Steve’s accounts entirely, and it makes Bucky feel a little bit like he used to before the cyro tank. It feels like when the thing you’ve been dreading for the past week is actually happening, and you kind of thought it would never come at all, just from the pure force of you not wanting it so bad. It starts crunching him up so much that he almost doesn’t want to be around anybody who’s acting as cheerful as Steve and Sam are.
Sam’s legs dangle over the rail. He smiles and nods at the incredible tales of Captain America and the Red Skull. A splinter sticks him in the thigh and he interrupts the story with yelps, oblivious to the fact that he was damn near abandoned for a 1940s white picket fence.
The crunching feeling builds up in Bucky’s guts; not entirely mad or sad, just all around, soul crushingly upset. When he can’t stand the sound of Sam’s laughter anymore, he stands up and goes inside without saying a thing. He can feel the viscous silence from Steve and Sam, watching him go. Whatever.
Inside their kitchenette, Bucky sits down hard at the table. He waits for the inevitable screech of the screen door, for Steve to come in with his wide eyes and ask why Bucky is upset.
Back in the war, Bucky used to rehearse conversations that never ended up happening. When he was trying to fall asleep, he’d practice for all the futures that he never got. (Well of course, I love Steve; he’s my brother. No, Steve, I don’t think about that anymore. Yes, Peggy, we were just going over the new maps again…he was just showing me the radiator he picked up…you wouldn’t believe the traffic after the game let out!)
Too bad, though, that nobody ever bothered to tell him he was wasting his time. So, he keeps his mind forcefully blank. He’s going to let Steve stride in here with the stories he’s got, and whatever comes out of Bucky’s mouth, so be it. Better that Steve spin up the stories, rather than Bucky looking Peggy in the face and marveling at how bad the roads were, or how their friends didn’t want to leave the bar.
He’d like to think that he wouldn’t have done that, but he’s truly not sure. He’s done worse things for a lot less payoff.
The door squeals open behind Bucky, who doesn’t turn around. His metal wrist is resting against the cheap cherry wood table. Steve comes around and pulls out the chair next to Bucky’s, turning it sideways to face him. He sits down with his hands in his lap.
Palms pressed together, Steve fiddles with his own fingers. “It’s good to see you, Buck.”
“How long was it for you?”
“Couple of days,” Steve says.
Bucky nods and grazes his finger in a little circle against the table. “I’m glad it went well.” A chunk of ice tumbles from its’ place inside the fridge and the automated air conditioner switches itself to a lower, quieter level.
For all his remarkable qualities, Steve Rogers cannot keep a secret. “I talked to Peggy,” he blurts out.
It’s like a confession, something dirty that he needs to spill just so that he’s not the only one who knows. The fewer people know a secret, the more it wants to escape; and this one is Steve’s alone.
“How was that?” Bucky asks.
Steve seems to be waiting for judgement. Maybe a sentencing or an interrogation. “It was what I’ve been wanting, all this time that I’ve spent in the future. I wanted to see Peggy again, and I got it.” He shakes his head and looks down at his hand on the table, frowning. His lips twitch up in one corner, but it’s not a smile.
Bucky doesn’t say anything as Steve sorts through his thoughts.
“I know you say I romanticize Brooklyn–”
“You do romanticize Brooklyn.”
“–but this wasn’t like that. She was just like I remembered.” Steve pauses. There’s a ‘but’ coming, Bucky knows it. Then, Steve glances up and sees some tell in Bucky and like the stubborn mule he is, refuses to actually say the word. God, he would have missed Steve. Despite all the utter bullshit that comes along with having Steve, not having him would have been damn near unbearable. “She was just like I remembered; it just wasn’t right. She…When I really started talking to her, I knew that I needed to live my life, and let her live hers. And it wasn’t just Peggy. I figured – I knew that it would be different, being back there. I didn’t think it would be that…It just wasn’t what I thought it would be.”
Steve sighs, frustrated with his own circular explanation but unable to force it into something sensible.
“So, you came back here,” Bucky states.
Metal fingers flick a miniscule crumb off the table. “Having Peggy back wasn’t what you thought it would be, so you came back here.” To me.
Something must click in Steve’s thick-skulled head. “Buck, that’s not how it was.”
All the hurt burns its way up his throat and singes into his mouth. “Really? ‘Cause I seem to recall specifically asking you if you planned on going back, and you said you’d been thinking about it. And I dunno if you remember how time travel works, but that was this morning for me.”
Steve shows his palms, like he’s got no clue why he’s in trouble for this and not for speaking to Peggy Carter. “I remember. And then I asked you if you wanted to come with me, and you said that you didn’t. So, I said okay, as in the conversation was over for now.”
“No, you said, ‘okay’ and then you hopped in a fucking time machine, Steve. As in, the conversation is over forever and you’re going to go have adventures with the magic stones and whatever else they’ve got in 1945, and I’m going to stay here in the future.”
There’s no doubt now; Steve can see the acidic jealousy simmering just beneath Bucky’s skin. Steve starts to reach out and then retracts when he sees that it’s not going to be well-received. “That’s not what I meant. There wasn’t any use talking about it when I wasn’t sure what I wanted and you know that I’ve got enough particles for a few trips. Better for me to go on the mission, get my head sorted, and then we could have a real conversation about it. That’s if I even wanted it, which I don’t.”
“Well, this is kind of something you wanna make clear the first time around.” Bucky is all slow, dangerous enunciation.
Steve clenches a hand, then relaxes it incrementally. “I’m sorry.”
“Steve. Shut up,” Bucky says, cold. Steve might be stupid but he knows Bucky better than anybody. He sees when Bucky’s being serious, the same way a little kid understands when they are about to face the wrath of an authority figure. Even when Bucky doesn’t speak, lets the chasm between them stretch, Steve stays obediently silent. Good. He should feel it, like Bucky did.
“You know I love you, but I’m not going to embarrass myself for anybody, not even you.”
Steve panics. “No, Buck, listen. I–…listen, I wasn’t going to stay there, not without you. I was not going to stay there.” His voice goes hard, edging into the Captain America voice. The one he pulls out to use on gods and other mystical beings; it’s how he controls people that he is otherwise overpowered by. That voice makes squabbling crowds of angry, scared people listen.
Problem is, Bucky has been listening since he was six years old and Steve’s missing teeth turned “Buchanan” into “Buckynan” which became “Bucky.” He’s been listening to Steve since before he was Bucky at all.
On the edge of the table, there’s a bare patch where the gloss finish is peeling away. Bucky picks at it. “You should have made your choice in 1945,” he states.
“I did,” Steve says, in a rush. He must be able to see Bucky mentally tick, tick, ticking away. “On the plane. I chose you.” Number 856 on the list of things that they carefully do not talk about.
It shuts Bucky right up, is what it does. Steve scoots to the absolute edge of his chair, leaning forward and looking Bucky straight in the face. “All I ever planned to do back there was check it out. See what I really wanted. Not who I wanted, but when. I would never have left you here, I promise. God, I swear.”
Sliding fully off his chair, Steve kneels on the washed-out motel rug. Bucky moves his leg a few centimeters at most. (This is acceptable, but you’re not forgiven.) Steve knows it, too. He hovers a hand above Bucky’s cheek, asking; letting him feel the warmth without forcing it on him. Bucky presses his lips together and nods minutely. (Okay, I’ll allow this.)
There’s heat covering Bucky’s face now, not the passionate, blinding kind, but a gentle presence and slow, stroking fingers. Two palms, from his jaw to his cheekbones. Fingers curled around the sides of his neck. He feels like a slow, autumnal sunrise. Steve slides his thumbs under Bucky’s eyes like he does when he cries, though there’s nothing to wipe away.
“You are it, Buck. There’s nothing, nobody, no time I’d rather have. I could weigh all the pros and cons, but none of that could ever add up to having you. You’re my deciding factor.”
One corner of Bucky’s mouth quirks up like it takes a physical effort. “You’re your own deciding factor, Steve.”
“Well, then you’re as close as I get to an external deciding factor. I wouldn’t go without you. You not wanting to go back was just the coup de grace.”
“You trying to win me back with metaphors?”
“Depends. Is it working?” It gets Bucky to smile, subdued but real this time. “I can go on,” Steve offers.
Bucky puts a hand on his chest and pushes, forcing Steve to sit back on his bent legs. He tilts his head up at Bucky. “You’re my eventuality.” He says it like he’s on a stage. Like he’s not alone with Bucky in a thoroughly mediocre motel room.
“Now you’re just taking my own lines, changing the wording, and giving them back to me.”
Steve pushes himself back onto his knees, straightening his back like he does before a fight. He braces his hands against Bucky’s legs and leans into his space. “You got me,” he whispers, suddenly serious again. “Bucky, look at me?”
He doesn’t take Bucky’s face when he hesitates. Hell, he’d probably stay there on his knees if Bucky stood up and left the room, and that kind of trust isn’t something you find every day.
When Bucky gives in, Steve starts talking again. “You’re my first choice, okay? You’re the only choice. I know I fucked up, but I swear to God that has never changed.” His hands are still resting on Bucky’s lower thighs, not moving. Steve shifts his weight. It must be an uncomfortable position, kneeling on a cheap rug for this long. “Are we okay?”
“We’re okay,” Bucky says, almost a whisper. Not good, but okay. Workable.
You’d think he’s just said that Mother Nature has decided to go straight from fall to spring this year, the way Steve smiles at him. Oh God, what would he have done without this?
Steve pushes forward, dangerously close. He reaches out for Bucky with both arms, a little lost. “Can I…?”
Bucky nods. He leans into it and lets Steve squeeze him. The thrum of Steve’s pulse beats against the downturned corner of his lips. The distrust and hurt that has been chilling all their interaction collapses away. Steve’s got no business having this influence over him, not that Steve has ever cared to mind his own business.
Now that he’s gotten started talking, sweet little things keep trickling out of Steve’s mouth. There’s no pressure to respond, no guilt for assuming the things he did. Steve is all sure-fire safety, “no matter what” and “of course.” Having Steve back is the promise of someone in his corner. It’s fighting privately and then wholeheartedly defending each other when a third person gets involved. Bucky knows then that they’re back; he’s got this back, solidly.
Steve pulls back enough to kiss his lips, deliberate and smooth. His hands go back to the sides of Bucky’s face, moving just to feel. Then, he slides an arm around Bucky's neck to keep him close and breathing the same air.
Steve breaks away with a sunlight smile. “I almost did something stupid,” he says.
No shit, buddy. “Yeah, you did.”
“No, I mean when I went to check out ’45. The war had just ended and I passed by that little deli on the corner of 36th and Portland, you remember?”
“Mr. Soloman’s place?”
“Yeah, that one. I almost,” he says, fighting off silly laughter, “Buck, I almost grabbed you a pastrami sandwich on my way back.”
Bucky’s mouth falls open. “Why didn’t you? What the hell, Steve?”
Leaning heavily into Bucky’s arms, Steve laughs like a little kid. “I couldn’t do it. Buck, what if that pastrami sandwich was really important? I almost created an alternate timeline just to bring you lunch.”
Fair enough, but it’s got Bucky thinking about the way Mr. Soloman always got the cheese to melt just right, how the toasted rye was a godsend on crisp fall days like today. Maybe another alternate timeline wouldn’t have been so bad. Aren’t there infinite timelines, anyways?
Bucky lets Steve hang onto him for a while. When he pulls back, Bucky feels wrung out. He has lived two lifetimes in the past 24 hours. Steve presses a hard kiss to his cheek and he lets himself rebounds a little from it. One of Steve’s arms is still slung around his shoulders.
“You’re making dinner,” Bucky says. It’s not a question.
“We don’t have any food here.”
“Then you’re finding dinner.”
“Okay,” Steve agrees, leaning into Bucky and planting one foot flat against the floor.
“And breakfast tomorrow.”
Steve kisses his cheek again before he stands, like it’s a reflex. “You got it, Buck.”