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Imagine The End (Then Play in Reverse)

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He dies the way he always imagined he would. Sacrificing himself for some greater good.

Save for the fact that that’s bullshit.

He dies how he’s expected to die since he heard a General say 107th and saw the name James Buchanan Barnes on a condolence letter, and realized what real grief felt like when it clenched your soul. It was stronger than anything Steve had known yet then, or known after, and so he dies how he dreamed of dying since he’d stormed into that room with Bucky on a table, barely coherent but alive and Steve learned in that moment what it felt like to breathe for the first time, so much more than coming out of that chamber bigger, stronger, with lungs that worked: this wasn’t taking in air. This was taking in everything.

But how he’s always imagined himself dying, before and after anything, everything, is so that Bucky Barnes could live, and if that wasn’t possible, then so that he could be where Bucky was. Wherever that might be.

So he dies the way he always imagined: for the only greater purpose he’d ever really cared about, in his heart of hearts—to let Bucky Barnes breathe in this world again, safe, or failing that, to join him, in whatever comes.

Because that’s what this is, he gets that. The swirling is too nauseating, and the branches of realities and strands of time are tangling, moving him rather than him moving through them, and he’d asked Bruce how it was supposed to go, to prepare himself the best he could because he’d carried one Infinity Stone, with the proper equipment, through time and space, but six had to be harder, right? Six surely had to require something more, and Steve wanted to be certain he had it all worked out before he jumped because this could mean the concretizing or the unraveling: if those Stones didn’t get back where they belonged, it was entirely possible the realities would split, scatter, and what they’d done here, and lost here, and found here would be erased in the process.The people they’d gotten back, the world they’d restored, the possibilities they’d managed to bring back to the world and the chances, the missed chances that he’d

Steve would be damned if he let that happen on his watch.

But it’s supposed to work, it’s supposed to be simple, so Steve takes his precious cargo and stands on the platform and lets his pulse countdown doubletime and he’s not sure why his blood is bounding like this because it seems straightforward enough, and Bruce is fairly placid—for Bruce—but then Steve looks up and he sees the grey eyes watching him with something that cracks his pounding heart, and those chances, those things they brought back, Steve will be damned

But as soon as he jumps, he knows it’s different; he knows it’s not like it was when they’d gone back to 2012, or the 70s, or when they’d come back to the present. It feels weighted, too hot and too tight and like the walls are caving in on him, and he can’t breathe and he can’t focus except to see the case with the Stone disintegrate into nothingness and the Stones themself flash bright enough to blind before dispersing, completely out of reach, and Steve tries to scream but it means nothing in the void, and the colors converge in the ether around him and it’s percussive, something he feels break nearly every cell in his body and force him out of wherever he is, which could be nowhere, could be nothingness: the Stones come together, and he’s lost to the time matrix, and he has no idea where he’s going to end up instead.

It could be moments, or it could be an age—when he does come to, though: it’s dark, and it’s quiet, and it’s empty, and after all of that he thinks: this seems like what death could be.

It feels reasonable. It takes him a moment to panic, to realize that he failed and that everything may have be undone because he couldn’t hold on, he couldn’t keep the power of those gems under control and take them back where they belonged, because he wasn’t strong enough or good enough or worthy, and what if they’d lost everything again because of him

He gasps, and it’s fucking freezing, and that seems apt; he moves, and he’s stiff, and he can feel the weight of something pressing in around him, not like the vortex but something heavy nonetheless, submerging his suit and pulling him down to whatever lies below, and some unshakable instinct fights it even though he recognizes that he’s reached the end, after all the close shaves he’s dodged: it’s time to meet his maker and this is purgatory, maybe, the waiting line, or maybe this is all there is except—

It’s an odd thing to draw his focus, but he’s still in the suit. And that seems weird. It hadn’t fit right, hadn’t felt right: maybe ever, if he’s honest with himself.

And, well, residual self image or whatever. He’s seen The Matrix. And it’s his afterlife.

And Steve Rogers wasn’t a suit, much as it had taken him far too long to recognize that fact.

It’s not necessarily that he’s surprised at the outcome, then; just the details. But they set him off-balance, make him hesitate, make him just this side of fearful. He’d had a sneaking suspicion that time wasn’t meant to bend the way they’d warped it, shaped it, remade it and damn near broke it a few times, multiple streams of multiple people at multiple times in pasts that may or may not have ever been real for any of them, any version of who they were, who he was: all of whom Steve couldn’t help but think of as just that little bit less than who he is.

But if this is death: Bucky’s not here. Steve prays to a god he hasn’t believed in in years that that means Bucky’s still out there, still breathing, and if Steve gets the blessing of seeing him again, it’ll be a long time off, after a full life lived; it wasn’t undone. It wasn’t taken back just because Steve couldn't deliver the Stones back by hand.

But then there’s the suit. There’s him, in the suit, and it’s freezing, and what if this isn’t death, what if—

Something cracks around him, and it almost feels like whatever it is cracks through him, too: it’s painful and it’s shuddering and Steve’s felt his bones crack before and this is similar, but not quite that, not quite clear: it’s like his veins are rigid and those crack and bones aren’t meant to split but they do, and can heal.

His veins, his arteries and the heart that pumps to them both, though: those aren’t meant to be solid enough to crack

There’s pressure, like needles at his shoulder and momentum, tearing him apart and fuck, fuck it’s purgatory, no, it’s Hell, and—

It’s bright, it’s fucking pure, hueless white and Steve flinches from it, from everything outside himself and the crackling still going on inside too, and he’s choking, because he can breathe now save that he can’t, save that he’s flailing and gasping and his throat is on fire while the rest of him shivers and it’s wrong, it’s wrong

It takes a moment for him to feel pressure, now, on his back, slapping against him hard. It takes many more moments to work out that it’s a hand, and it’s air that surrounds him, and he’s fucking cold.

This is a strange way for Hell to be, he thinks. The opposite of everything he ever heard in church.

His pulse is stuttering in his ears, and between that and his panting for air in his half-flooded lungs, it takes him awhile to make out other sounds: specifically, the sounds of frantic words he can’t understand, and he turns to the sound, and blinks a good long while before he can make anything out but when he does he sees...people.

Two people, looking like they’ve seen a goddamn ghost, torn between getting closer when they register him looking at them or running away quick as they can. And the pitch of their words, the ones Steve can’t understand, gets higher as they seem to argue between them, gesturing at Steve wildly all the while.

He decides to try his voice, and that was a bad idea, mostly, because it’s nowhere and it fucking hurts.

But if this is Hell then hurting is the rule, he figures: so he works on it until sound comes from the effort.

What?”

The men arguing stop still, and turn their full attention to him. They look at him warily and wonderingly, all at once, but finally one takes a pace toward him and crouches down to speak closer to where he lies on the...ice.

The ice.

“Do you understand English?” the man asks, and Steve nods, though it sets off more of the needles under his skin for the motion, and fuck, the irony: he’s goddamn thawing.

Definitely Hell.

“What are you doing here?” the man asks, almost like he’s not sure what else to say. Because it’s an absurd question, and Steve really thought eternal damnation would be more clever.

Not that he knows what more clever would sound like, but. Still.

“What are you doing here?”

He also thought he was more clever. Maybe it’s the cold.

“Ice fishing?” the man who stayed back answers, but it sounds more like a question, like maybe Steve’s existence or presence makes him unsure of anything at all. Do demons get surprised? Are these men demons? Is that how this works?

They don’t look like Steve imagined. Huh.

“For sharks,” the man closest to Steve adds, like that helps. He makes it sound like he thinks it will do just that: help explain. Make any sense of anything at all.

Demons wouldn’t care if they made sense.

“How the hell did you get down there?” the man near him asks, utterly baffled, staring at what Steve now sees is a very large, superhuman-sized hole in some very thick ice, with cracks at the edges.

“How the hell are you alive?” the other man adds, inching closer almost against his will. And...Steve’s starting to breathe easier, if not warmer, but there’s a general sense of improvement in his condition and that doesn’t seem like something that comes with fire and brimstone, and he doesn’t think the demons of hell would ask how he’s alive, if he wasn’t, well.

Alive.

Which means the question in his heart, first and foremost, isn’t the question on his tongue:

“Where am I?” he asks, more of a cough.

The men exchange a look before one of them answers.

“Greenland.”

Greenland. In the sea where it started. Where it ended. Where he died, or didn’t. Where it should have been over.

Where apparently it will never be over. Because of fucking course: Steve Rogers broke the laws of nature, of god and man, of time and space and Steve figures his soul is destined for hell after that but this, this

The power of the goddamn universe in those Stones plotted his course, and they spat him out here.

He can’t help it. It takes him over, completely.

He wraps a shivering arm around his stomach, and slaps the opposite hand to his very-much-still-beating heart, throws his head back, half-hysterical, and starts to cackle uncontrollably.

________________________

“Stop!”

The two men who’d abandoned their fishing voyage to help get him back to civilization grow still, terror emanating from them both, but Steve’s used to this sort of thing. He turns carefully, warily, taking in everything in his peripherals before he turns full-on: seven figures in the snow, wrapped and goggled so he can’t see their faces. Steve’s not even sure he’d have heard their words for the way the wind’s picked up.

“Who are you?” they call out, and Steve frowns, squinting through the bits of ice and snow that have started a flurry.

“You came to me,” Steve counters, shifting on the defensive as best he can when there’s literally ice forming on his clothes beneath the blanket the fishermen had found for him, but something about their bearing is familiar; something subtle that keeps Steve from standing fully on edge, raised to high alert. “In the middle of nowhere.”

The figures don’t waver, seem to hold fast for some unseen, unheard signal before the front-most one speaks:

“Identify yourself,” and it’s clear and unfaltering. These people, whoever they are, don’t intend to give ground.

“You first,” Steve volleys, and itches for his gauntlets, or his shield, and registers just how out of practice he is at hand-to-hand as he watches them and weighs the advantage, any advantage he can take: the burst of adrenaline in his veins proves again that this isn’t a dream, this isn’t death, it’s too real. It’s too visceral, the tang of iron when he bites down on his own tongue upon seeing that he’s too compromised, not yet recovered from the ice enough for it to be a sure fight against whoever’s come for him, whatever threat has risen to meet him.

He breathes in deep, though, because he’s never been one to care for the odds, and lets the blanket slip from his frame as he steps forward to get this over with, one way or the other.

“No,” the figure at the front holds out a gloved hand: “stand still.”

Steve’s not sure why he listens; again, he thinks: that subtle thing about them. They’re threatening, and dangerous, but there’s a hitch in Steve’s estimation of whether they’re truly threatening or dangerous to him.

“You will accompany us,” a voice to the side rings out, a statement that veils a command for the steel in it.

“I don’t think so,” Steve cocks his head, and there it is: the knife’s edge of the fight to come, the sharpness in his senses that readies him for battle, and he has nothing to lose in this world where he’s lost the Stones and didn’t meet the end, and maybe ruined everything, lost his soul all because he wasn’t strong enough—he can take all the strength that doesn’t measure up and throw into this, whatever the ending to come but then the figure at the front speaks again:

“You will accompany us, back to Wakanda,” they say, “where the Princess Shuri awaits, for it was on her orders that we came for you.”

Steve blinks. His heartbeat skips. Wakanda. They’re War Dogs. But that’s not what trips in his blood.

Shuri hadn’t made it. Shuri had disappeared and returned.

She wants him, and that means, that means

Steve doesn’t know if he follows them, or if they escort him, or drag him alongside them to wherever they’ve come from, to whatever craft they plan to pilot back with him in tow: he doesn’t know.

He knows the pounding of his blood, and the dripping of water much slower from his body as the frost thaws out, and it harmonizes singularly around a single name, a single name that encompassed the last of this world he thought he might ever know: the eyes that belonged to that name making Steve’s heart break for how much sorrow they’d held and god—

His blood, and the droplets of melting ice speak in concert, that single name, and Steve doesn’t know how he gets to Wakanda until they land.

________________________

He finds it in himself to stand, and to follow his...not captors by any means, as he may have originally feared; his escorts? He follows the War Dogs off the jet and onto the landing pad nearest the Palace, where the Dora Milaje themselves are waiting to take him inside. He’s told to wait in an antechamber he’s never seen before, and he waits, and maybe he’s done thawing, but his heart’s not done pounding.

“Steve?”

He turns. and Shuri’s in the doorway, and he can’t let himself blink, lest she disappear.

“What is it?”

He must stare longer than he realizes by that point, because she’s walking toward him carefully, arms reaching for him as if to provide comfort.

“We didn’t have much time before,” Steve says as she approaches him and holds him by the biceps, grounding.

“We,” he shakes his head, “and I was afraid that it might not have,” he takes a deep breath and then rethinks saying anything, because how can he say it? How can he say he was fucking terrified, and still might be a little fucking terrified that it might not have worked, or stayed, that they’d have lost everyone again and everything again and what does any of it matter if Steve had, if he didn’t have him back—

“But you’re here,” Steve says out loud, and looks at Shuri a little desperately, he can feel it and see it clearly in the way she nods. “And...”

“Come, sit down,” Shuri says, leading him far too easily toward a sofa near the corner. “You look like you may fall over.”

He may, actually, fall over, yeah.

“The Stones,” he says, flails for something to say, as Shuri eases him down.

“You were meant to return them,” Shuri nods, sitting at his side and speaking in clear, simple terms like she thinks Steve needs it, and Steve thinks he really does need it because she’s incredible, she’s real and tangible and whole and the fact that she’s alive and well, even though they said that she’d asked for him, sent for him; he’d been so afraid that she was still gone, or gone again, that he’d fucked it up and now to see proof to the contrary is breathtaking.

“And then to return, yourself.”

Steve nods, because yes. Yes, that was the plan. He can follow that and still be reeling with relief that it still worked.

“But you didn’t.”

He stills, and tries to retrace the conversation, to tamp down the fear of what it’s referencing: not fixing it, not getting the Stones back even if it wasn’t him, so not life-ending, not soul-breaking.

He was supposed to return. And he didn’t.

Okay, that part makes sense, he can pick that up.

“Not in the right place, obviously,” Steve says, still a little dazed so the chuckle that escapes him is a little too much, a little uneven, because he ended up in the fucking ocean but it worked, it all worked despite everything because she’s here and that means, that means Bucky, right?

It has to mean Bucky.

“I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t go back anywhere,” Steve tells her, and it feels good to try and makes sense of it in words with someone who won’t think he’s crazy and understands it better than he does, and can maybe make some sense of it.

“The Stones just kind of, took off? The case we put them in couldn’t keep them in, and they just glowed in the time stream and it was like a thunderclap or something, like a sonic boom because it pushed and I,” he gestures awkwardly because, flying, Stones. Pushing him?

To be fair, neither the serum, nor life in general could have prepared him for this.

“I ended up back here, well, not, here-here but here. On Earth,” and that’s another thing that he’s still squaring with, now that he’s got a little time to process it: he knew aliens existed, but traveling in space? Dear Lord.

“I don’t know where they are, I’m sorry about that, and I was afraid if I didn’t put them back I’d put all this in jeopardy, like everyone would be gone again, it’d be like before we fixed it, before Tony…”

“Steve,” and he doesn’t see Shuri, only knows she’s next to him when her hand settles over his.

“Breathe,” and he didn’t realize he was on the brink of hyperventilation until she tells him to breathe, and it’s hard. Her voice is soothing, and he knows it's calculated to be as clearly that as it can be, so he focuses on it. He focuses and tries to hear past the working of his lungs and the racket of his pulse underneath.

“Steve, it is 2023, everyone who was snapped away is back again,” she assures him, voice pitched so soft, so gentle. “Nothing was reversed. For all we knew you had put the Stones back and missed your last jump back.”

He nods along, and tries to get a handle on the gasping that’s still not abating, like it’s the new normal to stop trusting the world around him to provide enough oxygen for him to function, and so it takes him a while to latch onto the last bit of what Shuri actually says, beyond the careful cadence of the words:

“All you knew?”

And Shuri looks at him, and it’s only when he tries, puts real effort into seeing beyond the damn-well seeming miraculous proof of her presence, her living breathing presence; it’s only when he blinks past that, and it’s hard but he manages, that he recognizes the sorrow, the shock in her eyes, her own disbelief that didn’t translate, didn’t sink in past Steve’s own.

“Steve,” she says, and there’s a waver in that soothing tone, and Steve starts to feel it like a sliver in his skin, or a punch to his chest that she’d stayed strong, for him, and now he’s asked a question that makes her falter.

“We’ve been trying to solve it, to understand it,” she explains slowly, and her face is blank: it’s causing her effort to maintain composure, goddamnit. “To get a sense of what could have happened, whether you made the choice to stay somewhere or you got lost or something went wrong with the equipment, anything we could just to get an answer to those questions so that we’d know what to do, or where to look,” she looks at him with wide eyes and just a touch of pleading; like she’s about to say something that’s hard for him to understand when he doesn’t know where to start: he damn well basically got lost because they probably shouldn’t have assumed he was a match for physical embodiments of the elements of all creation but to choose to stay? Why would he—

“Steve,” she interrupts his thoughts: “you’ve been lost for months.”

Steve’s world stops. And he swallows once, twice, and only then does he speak because for all the possibilities and the what-ifs and what-the-hells that opens up to add to the rest, he knows exactly where to start:

“Where’s Bucky?”

________________________

On a mission.

On a mission.

Bucky’s not here. Bucky’s not here but he’s here, alive, just not, where Steve can see it, or prove it, and that discrepancy is growing in his chest, pressure upon pressure until he thinks that something vital is going to give way, or cave in, and—

“I’d pull him out if I could, Steve,” and Shuri looks like she would, too, and damn the consequences; “and he’ll be here soon, the operation isn’t meant to take more than another week, two at the most.”

“Right,” Steve tells her, as much as he tells himself. Bucky, apparently, has proven indispensable to ensuring global stability as part of Wakandan outreach; the nation was always more prepared for a disaster, if not one of such an unthinkable magnitude, but it was also, inexplicably, spared much of the loss in terms of numbers. The toss of the coin to exist had fallen in their favor, and because they were good people, they’d used that to help everyone else; now with their numbers restored, they’re doing even more, and quite frankly it sounds like they may single-handedly be responsible for the fact that the world hasn’t collapsed in on itself already.

And Bucky, Bucky, was an integral part of it all.

Steve may need him desperately, need to see him and know that he’s there, but he’s also not so selfish as to demand Bucky return for his sake. Even if he could demand it.

It’s a close thing, though, to not be that selfish. Very close.

“Does he know?”

Steve turns to Shuri, uncomprehending. He doesn’t know what she must have read in his expression, but her own is soft, almost tender.

“What?”

“Bucky,” Shuri clarifies, “does he know,” she gestures to Steve generally; “I mean, I cannot speak for him but I more than suspect he would be—” she smiles a little playfully and wiggles her eyebrows and Steve’s often confused by people smarter than him, he can admit that, but this makes no sense.

“What are you talking about?” Best to just be blunt, really, he’s found. Particularly with people who are impossible geniuses up against his serum-enhanced-intellect.

“James,” Shuri says emphatically, like just his name will make things clear. “Does he know how you,” and she stops in the middle of whatever she’s about to say and studies Steve carefully. Steve does know, in this case, the only thing he’s telegraphing is the fact that he’s utterly dumbfounded.

“Oh, Steve,” she says, and it’s a strange mixture of sadness and frustration, exasperation and pity, and she looks helplessly toward T’Challa, who is pacing by the window with a mission report in his hand.

“Brother?” she asks plaintively; Steve hadn’t been aware that T’Challa had been listening to them, but he should have known better.

“This is not something for either of us to interfere with,” T’Challa says, never looking away from the screen in his hands.

“But—” Shuri tries, though T’Challa just shakes his head.

“I trust they will find their way.” And he takes his leave with a nod to them both and a knowing smile that Steve really wishes he’d share with the class about, because Steve’s pretty sure he knows next to nothing in this very moment.

“Well,” Shuri says, rallying quickly; “I might have something that will help,” and she waves a tablet at Steve meaningfully. “And you need a distraction, anyway.”

She’s not wrong.

“I’d been doing research on the Stones, in the process of trying to figure out what happened to you,” she explains; “once the time travel element became clear enough to me as to be no longer useful to pursue,” and of course it was clear, probably within hours, because she’s Shuri.

“Anyway, I think I know why you were in the arctic.”

Steve’s brows raise.

“The Stones have a quantum resonance of their own,” she tells him; he thinks he understands what that means. “Stronger than anything else I’ve studied, so that may be why, combined in a single jump, they were too much to control,” and that helps to hear, a little; Steve still feels like he failed, but maybe it wasn’t entirely his own fault.

“The Space Stone, or the Tesseract as you knew it during the War,” she continues; “I believe that it took you back to the space when you first encountered it, as best it could approximate.” Her mouth curves down in a small frown.

“I don’t know why it didn’t just sit you there at the same time you left, though. Or the time you were there first, or before, or much longer after,” she tells him, and something unexpected, and decidedly unpleasant, leaps in Steve’s stomach at the thought.

“But if one Stone exerts influence based on the person,” she ventures; “perhaps the other Stones can help us understand what happened.” And that knowing looks comes back into her eyes.

“Though for them, I think you’re the only one who can know whether what they did makes sense.”

Steve frowns.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not in your mind,” she says meaningfully; “or your soul.” She places the tablet in front of him. “And I suspect those ones count quite a lot in figuring out time and all the rest.”

He looks at her, lost as ever, and she just smiles, tapping the screen of the tablet.

“Reading material,” she tells him, and wanders off. Steve taps the screen and groans. It may be just one tablet.

But it’s got 567 terabytes of information on it. And he suspects this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.

________________________

Self-awareness has never been Steve’s particular strong suit. And he’s not really had much reason to test the limits of his speed-reading abilities, post-serum.

But, well. The speed-reading thing is a little bit scary.

And self-awareness isn’t really necessary—though it all resonates, it makes perfect fucking sense with the thing that’s lived in his chest alongside his heart when it was shitty until it was strong, when it was shaky until it was frozen until it was hopeless until it caught fire on a helicarrier and there was a reason for him to really fight once more; self-awareness isn’t necessary, though, when the answers are staring him right in the goddamn face.

And then his heart stops, and he’s only kept alive somehow by that thing that lived beside it because he hears footsteps.

He hears those footsteps.

They stop just outside the room he’s in. He can see Shuri, and his heart decides to chime back in triple time for the hint of a shadow that’s cast upon her face, the shape of which Steve would know in his sleep; has known in his dreams.

“You have to calm yourself,” Shuri says softly to the shadow, who huffs impatiently and paces backward, his hands bunching his hair evident from the silhouette Steve can catch on the opposite wall.

“I won’t believe it until I see him,” and oh god, Steve didn’t think about what it would do to him to hear that voice; “I can’t,” the voice says; “I can’t, it’s—”

And the voice cracks, and something in Steve cracks with it, and he wants to get to his feet and go toward that voice more than anything in the world, like his entire being and body were meant for that task and nothing else, but he can’t seem to move a muscle.

“It’s too much,” the voice says, and it’s so strained, so pulled taut. “I spent most of my life hoping he’d make it, praying, I—”

The intake of breath hurts in Steve’s lungs, it’s so sharp.

“I fuckin’ prayed because I knew I wouldn’t survive it,” the voice grits out, all gravel on metal. “I don’t fucking know how I’m still here, because I couldn’t—”

“If that is true,” Steve sees Shuri reach out, sees the shadow of her hands meet other hands in kind; “and you are still here, then does that not bode well for the man they have brought us?” Shuri reasons, and the voice says nothing. “He is himself, as best I know him,” and Steve sees enough of her face to see the tight, sad little smile that graces her lips.

"And I know that’s not enough to convince you, even so.”

“I don’t mean,” the voice is quick to reassure, apologetic, but Shuri grips tight to the hands she’s holding and cuts him off.

“Hush,” she chides, but kindly so. “Beyond what I know of him, the readings speak nothing but truth, James,” and Steve nearly buckles, nearly collapses in on himself at the name, the name

“They are impossible to replicate.”

The chuckle that comes out in that voice, from that name, is hollow. “Nothing’s impossible.”

It’s not a hopeful thing to say, not the way it’s spoken here.

“Then neither is the idea that he could be here, behind that door,” Shuri reasons with equal certitude.

“It’s been months,” the voice, the name, the hands counter; Steve can see the shaking of a head, catches the slightest hint of long brown hair moving in the space between Shuri and, and—

“They travelled in time,” Shuri counters, like months mean nothing in comparison, and that’s true. Nothing’s impossible, and that is a hopeful thing.

“You figured out how they did it, and improved on it twenty-fold within a week,” the answer comes, like it’s a refutation, but Shuri has none of it.

“So there’s your proof,” she smiles triumphantly; “nothing is impossible.”

There’s silence, and she lowers her voice, leans closer so Steve can’t see anything but her back.

“He would have been most susceptible to the effects of the Space Stone, from the Tesseract in the war,” she murmurs, comforting. “All my theories about personal resonance with the sentient aspects of the stone would suggest that exposure, even briefly, influences the disposition to respond. Why would it not restore him to where he began?”

“That’s not where he began,” the voice responds, and it cuts Steve to the core to hear both the resignation and the resolution at odds with each other in the tone.

“You misunderstand me,” Shuri states plainly. “The Steve Rogers of this century,” she asks; “is he the Steve Rogers you knew, before?”

Steve knows the answer; despite the silence, he thinks he’s not the only one who does.

“Where he began,” Shuri says with fervor, with weight to it; “where this man you know now, here, a version of himself matured and grown, broken and wounded and made new, for better and worse, in ways he never could have been then, much like yourself,” and then she pauses, with something Steve thinks is particular intention.

“He began the moment they took him from the ice,” Shuri says simply. “Now go to him.”

Her footsteps retreat. It takes a lifetime, and a riot in Steve’s chest, in his pounding blood before other footsteps approach.

Steve’s watching the doorway, can’t breathe at all until it’s filled with Bucky, Bucky—

Bucky.

Bucky, whose jaw drops and whose face pales and who looks like you could knock over him over with a light breeze when he mouths more than speaks:

Steve?”

“Buck,” Steve says, and Bucky steps toward him but Steve’s faster, and he gathers Bucky in his arms and holds so fucking tight he might come apart, or else get put back together for the first time in his life.

 

“I told them,” Bucky murmurs into the crook of Steve’s neck, clinging back just as hard. “I told them, we tried to find you, tried to look for you in time or figure out where you ended up or what went wrong because you weren’t just gone, you hadto be somewhere, but then—”

He takes a shaky inhale, and Steve squeezes him as Bucky shakes his head back and forth against Steve’s shoulder and pulls him impossibly closer, like he needs to feel in order to believe.

“We looked everywhere,” he whispers, and his heart’s so tattered in the words; “I swear to you we looked, but you weren’t, you weren’t—”

“I know,” Steve says, repeats over and over as Bucky shakes just a little against him, or maybe Steve’s shaking; it doesn’t matter. What matters is everything that Steve holds back, the words, the urge to say more and do more and—

He pulls back on instinct, not because he wants to lose contact, because something in him needs to see Bucky, too: head to toe, as real. Breathing and unsnapped-away and living and there.

“Steve?” Bucky asks, hesitant.

“I,” Steve’s mouth is dry; “just making sure.”

And Bucky smiles, soft, like he knows exactly what Steve means but Steve means so much more than that, and he’s going to have to say it, or square with taking it to his grave and they’ve cheated death too many times.

Too many fucking times, for Steve to continue being a goddamn coward. It was one thing when he was oblivious, when he was blind. But now—

“What is it?” Bucky ventures; the conflict must show on his face, or maybe not. Bucky’s always had that uncanny ability to just know.

Steve tries very hard to swallow, but to no avail. He thinks, though, that there’s no possible way he could prepare to do this. Not this. Not with so much to say, and so much to risk.

So he tries to breathe, deep: that’s more successful, but only just.

“I,” Steve starts, still holding Bucky’s arms and keeping him only that far away. “I’ve always known how I’d die,” he makes himself meet Bucky’s eyes.

“I’d die protecting you,” Steve says simply; “I’d give my life for yours, without question, without hesitation, ever,” and his voice gains momentum, gains force around that proclamation, that orienting truth. “It’s the only thing I’ve always believed was worth it.”

“Steve, what are you—”

“I’ll do it,” Steve says, can’t stop his own tongue; “my life for yours, every time, ‘til the end of the line—”

“I don’t want you to give your life for me,” Bucky cuts him off, almost angrily. “I want you in my life, I want to live for you, and you for me, I want...”

He trails off, and Steve dares, he dares because he’s foolish and heartsick; he dares to fucking hope.

Nothing’s impossible.

“I was so afraid that, if I couldn’t put them back, then it’d all be erased, all of it taken away, that I’d have failed and the consequences...” Steve swallows hard. “The only constant I fought for, for you to be safe and breathing,” he squeezes Bucky’s forearms tight beneath his hands. “When I’d failed you so many times, I was so afraid I’d failed again—”

“You have never failed me,” Bucky says, full of heat, like he cannot abide Steve’s words for the life of him, the lie he sees in them and it’s in that moment, that fire in Bucky’s eyes that it hits him, knocks the wind straight out of him and this time it’s clear as day: Steve’s the one trembling.

“You’re here,” Steve says, like a revelation. “You’re,” he looks at Bucky’s eyes and sees them gauging Steve, testing if he’s okay and oh, oh

“You’re really here. I can’t, I can’t,” Steve can’t hold it all, can’t breathe through it, can hardly believe and yet.

“Breathe, Steve,” Bucky tells him, and it’s just like it’s always been, at the heart of everything. Bucky knowing how to save Steve, sometimes from himself. “Just breathe.”

Steve nods, and tries, and protests a little when Bucky’s arms untangle from Steve’s grasp only to rub up and down Steve’s arms.

“Shh, shhh,” Bucky soothes, and Steve remembers an old apartment, but mostly he sinks into this moment, where that touch is real. “Breathe, you’re okay.” Bucky tells him, like it’s a truth. “You’re okay.”

Bucky’s here. Steve’s okay.

“It wasn’t just the Tesseract, the Space Stone,” Steve says, chokes out as he’s still catching his breath, before he can stop himself; starts before he can bail out. “That wasn’t all it was.”

Bucky looks at him, confused as all hell, but keeps quiet for Steve to fill the space.

“They have a sentience, a consciousness,” Steve tries to explain, hedges for time before he says anything that leaves him too exposed, too flayed open and laid bare. “I’ve been, umm,” his eyes go to the tablet on the table: “reading up on it.”

Bucky nods, slowly, but says nothing. Steve doesn’t blame him; he hasn’t said much himself that’s worth a response. Yet.

Steve should probably be grateful for the reprieve, that calm before the storm that might be on its way.

“I couldn’t hold them,” Steve confesses his failure, still something that stings; “a human, even one like me, can’t hold them all and travel through something as unstable and powerful as the time vortex and they just...” Steve exhales in a huff, not knowing how to describe the sheer sonic boom of their release into the nothingness. “As soon as they escaped into the quantum realm I was so afraid everything would be undone, everything we sacrificed for, everything we got back, you—”

And Steve doesn’t hold back the more innocent urge in him, and that’s to cup Bucky’s cheeks and hold him, feel him when he whispers.

“I was so afraid.”

“I’m right here, Steve,” Bucky reaches up and covers his hands: “right here.”

It takes Steve a few moments, just like that, soaking up Bucky’s heat beneath his palms before he nods and lets go, running his hands down Bucky’s arms to grasp again near his elbows.

“I’ve been trying to figure it out, since they found me. I’ve been wracking my brain and in the end,” he smiles ruefully, warily; “in the end, it’s so fucking simple.” His eyes shoot to Bucky’s again, because he needs to look him full-on when he says it, like this:

“It wasn’t just the Tesseract.”

“Steve,” Bucky starts, frowning; “I don’t—”

“They all threw me out, and I could have ended up anywhere, in any time, but I,” Steve tries to distill it all into words, tries to take Bucky on the journey that led him here, so that he’ll understand what it means; all that it means.

“There was a purpose to it,” Steve says clearly, absolutely certain now; there’s not a shred of doubt. “A reason.”

Bucky just watches him; that’s okay. Steve can do this.

He can do this.

“The Mind Stone, it took what I was thinking about the moment Bruce pressed that button,” Steve smiles a little, when he remembers that. He really has been blind.

“The Reality Stone sifted through all the possibilities, I felt so unsteady, so unmoored and ready to tear apart at the seams in those last moments in the time matrix and I think that’s what it was, like looking at all the things it could deliver me to,” and Steve had spent a good number of hours when he’d come to understand this part, fretting over the what-ifs, the endless possibilities of where he could have ended up instead before he made peace with the truth: he was always only going to end up where he belonged.

“It was trying to figure out what I wanted the most, to make sure, so that it could be made, well,” he feels a blush rise in his cheeks, and he knows Bucky doesn’t miss it; “a reality.”

Bucky’s eyes shift, trying to find something to latch onto, to make sense but Steve’s getting there. He’s going to get there. He can get there; he can do this.

“Then the Soul Stone figured out what I wanted from that last thought, all those possible futures, found what I desired most at the very the heart of me, what I wanted most in the world that, maybe I’d never admitted, not fully,” Steve shakes his head, because god, for all that he’d never given it a name it’d shaped his world and steered his course and gave his life color even before he could see the spectrum in full.

“It found it and brought it out,” because Steve had always known, in his bones he is certain that’s true, but hadn’t seen it for what it was; his soul had held is safe for him, but he’s still ashamed, at least a little, that is took so goddamn long.

“I think the Time Stone worked the way it did because it knew when all those things I thought of, all those things in the very soul of me, when they could happen,” he thinks about where they were, where they started and how it was back then; thinks of what the future holds, and how it can be, and he’s breathless with it in a whole new way, with Bucky there in front of him.

“The Space Stone did take me back to where it started, though I think it could have taken me anywhere,” he tries to laugh, but it’s a little strained with nerves.

“But after the others did their work and found what I needed, what I couldn’t live without,” his eyes flick to Bucky and take him in for the longest seconds Steve thinks he’s ever known, for the way it fills him and warms him and seeps into every space and crack inside of him and makes him feel alive.

“It took me back to where I belonged, where I fit,” Steve says, honest as he knows how to be. “Could have done without the ice bath, but,” he shrugs a little; “Shuri said that one might be different, because of having been with its energy before, in the Hydra weapons and when I fought—”

Steve shakes his head at himself: irrelevant. At least for now.

“And then, hell, I think Power Stone probably just made it so I didn’t drown before those damn fishermen found me,” he finishes, hopes Bucky’s still with him; “serum only does so much.”

Bucky seems to take a moment to put it all together, to catch up where Steve’s led him before he comments:

“Fishermen?”

At that, Steve outright laughs.

That’s what you took from all this?”

“It’s the only thing that’s normal about any of this,” Bucky defends himself, but then bites his lower lip. “And somehow the only thing that doesn’t make sense.”

“I’ll tell you the story sometime,” Steve smiles at him softly, so full of warmth; “promise.”

Bucky nods, still at sea with it all, Steve can tell. And Steve didn’t think he could do this, could say all this but it’s worse when Bucky hasn’t put the pieces together yet, and the uncertainty is killing him. He’s got this far.

“Point is,” Steve clears his throat and presses on, lest he lose his resolve. “My head, my heart, my soul,” he gets his tongue around the words, the concepts, all that they represent and mean at the very center of his being: “these...shards of the beginning of existence somehow pushed me into what the deepest parts of me have been saying all along.”

Bucky stares at him, and Steve’s foolish; but he does think he knows that look, and that look is made of hope.

“I wanted to be normal,” Steve says softly, eyes on the floor because he doesn’t think he can say this part to Bucky’s face, not yet. “I wanted to be,” he runs shaky fingers through his hair.

“I didn’t want to be sick all the time, I wanted to be able to stand up to the people who did wrong and have it mean something, have it hold some kind of weight. I wanted to be like other kids when I was growing up, and I wanted to have a normal body, or hell, just one that worked right as I got older and realized I was a burden, a hardship—”

“Fuck off with that bullshit, Rogers,” Bucky damn near snarls; “you were never—”

“I wanted my reality to be something it wasn’t,” Steve cuts him off, looking up and finding his gaze and begging it to settle, to calm, because this is the point. “I wanted us to both make rent, together. I wanted to buy you a Christmas gift instead of hoping I had paper and charcoal to draw you something to try and show you just a little bit of what you meant. I wanted to have what everyone wanted, because a beautiful wife and adorable kids and a house and a best friend, that was normal. That was the ending everyone aimed for and if even after becoming a science experiment and a goddamn dancing monkey, if I could have that—”

Steve’s voice runs out, and rightfully so; he could have had that, maybe.

He can have something, here, now.

“But my reality, the one I needed at the core of my being, the one I made for myself without thinking about it, just because it’s who I am and not who I thought I was supposed to be,” he says softly, eyes pleading Bucky to understand, and even if he can’t walk this path with Steve, he begs him with those eyes not to cast Steve aside for what he’s about to say:

“That was something else.”

Bucky doesn’t stir; Steve’s heart trips, but at least he’s not walking away. Not yet.

“I told myself for a long time that I could ignore my own feelings, my own wants, because they were inconsequential. There were people to protect, missions to accomplish, work to be done. That’s what I was made for,” he laughs bitterly, because that was a bald-faced lie, or at least part of it was. He was scared, is the truth of it, the other side of that coin. It was easier to push it all aside, rather than face the parts he couldn’t live with casting out.

“I tried not to examine them too much, hid them behind a pocket watch and made it enough,” he breathes out slow; “because something was better than nothing, and words spoken, even if they were barely anything at all, were something instead of words never said...”

Bucky moves, ever so slightly, but it’s toward Steve, and it’s next to nothing, but Steve’s heart goddamn soars.

“My heart knew, though,” Steve tells him, and looks him in the eyes no matter how hard that may be. “My soul knew, and I’d always been gravitating in the direction they were pulling, even as I pulled the other way without knowing why, because I was scared, because feelings have never been what I was good at, you know that,” Steve sighs; “unless it’s anger, really,” he admits, not exactly proud of it.

“I don’t think I knew what love was when I told myself I felt it for the first time,” he says, and he’s sorry for it, he’s sorry for everything he lost and everything he could have found and everything he was wrong about; but he doesn’t want to be sorry anymore.

“I did feel it,” and that’s true; “but hell if it was the first.”

That’s the part that matters, here and now.

“My soul held,” Steve shakes his head; “holds, will always hold, the love I might have ignored in my mind but had been acting in line with my whole life,” his voice drops low, and he reaches for Bucky’s hands that curls around his own readily, willingly; “with my whole heart.”

Bucky’s inhale is quick, a hiss through clenched teeth, but his grip on Steve strengthens, and it lends Steve strength in kind.

“And in a time where I could,” Steve’s still a little bit in awe of this part; “where I could recognize it, and live in it, and, and ask it of,” he loses the strand of his thought, just then, because he finds Bucky’s eyes and they’re so goddamn blue.

“A time where it was safe to, where I was allowed to, it—”

His throat closes up, and he blinks too fast. He looks at Bucky’s hand in his and the rest comes out in barely a whisper.

“My last thoughts, when that countdown ran out,” he breathes out, stroking a thumb over Bucky’s knuckles:

Why does he looks sad, please let this work, so I can see him again and make sure he isn’t ever sad.”

Bucky’s hands in his aren’t shaking, but goddamn if they aren’t holding on for dear life. Steve takes that as an anchor, and forges on with the hardest, the easiest, the most dear and true part of his soul.

“I love you,” he breathes, like the first time he’s ever drawn breath at all; “it should terrify me, how much I love you, but it doesn’t,” he squeezes Bucky’s hands just as hard in return;

“It makes me feel like I’m finally home.”

The gasp Bucky lets out is barely audible, but Steve latches onto it; shock, but not disgust. Surprise, but not necessarily a bad one.

“And you don’t have to feel the same, and I won’t go anywhere unless you tell me to and it won’t change anything, I just,” Steve’s voice turns choked, stopped up with the same tight burn behind his eyes: “please—”

And Bucky moves, then, pulls Steve close and holds him like the most dear, tender thing, arms Steve feels impossibly safe in when Steve has the ability to fight the whole world, but has only ever felt safe from it when Bucky was at his side.

He never knew that feeling, before, was nothing compared to this.

“I can’t lose you again, Buck. Ever. I can’t,” Steve starts to break, but it’s okay; Bucky’s going to catch the pieces, Steve knows it. “It’s been too many times and now that I know, now that I can say it out loud and not just have it kept secret and hidden, I can’t, I,” he swallows hard, and Bucky’s hand comes to ease Steve’s head soft under Bucky’s chin, safe against his chest: “so please, please—”

“I’m right here,” Bucky soothes, fingers lacing in Steve’s hair and his breath even, his heartbeat under Steve’s ear like a balm. “I am right here, come on, m’right here.”

Steve nods, and sinks into the feeling, the sound.

“I think you’re right,” Bucky speaks to him, a rumble Steve can feel and hear through his chest as much as in the air around them.

“I think it sent you here, now, for a reason. Because I’m too tired to fight you, and I’m too worn down to try and convince you to find a sweet girl somewhere, or a nice guy, or go ask Bruce for another ride in the quantum realm to go back and try to live a life you deserved after the war,” Bucky says, voice low and deep and full of a truth more real than he’s maybe ever spoken; Steve can feel it.

Then Bucky tenses a little, and his tone changes, hardens:

“The first two were a maybe, that last one though,” he says firmly; “you are never setting foot near time travel ever again, do you understand me?”

Steve laughs, and if it’s a little wet then they don’t bother to comment on it, and nods against Bucky’s sternum.

“But I think you’re here, because I’m done keeping it secret and hidden, too,” Bucky goes back to that low, deep whisper, and Steve thinks that’s maybe what his soul sounds like, and it’s immaculate.

“If you feel a fraction for me, what I feel for you, and you had to see me go as many times as you have,” Bucky breathes out, and Steve follows the sound pressed tight against the lungs.

“I’d never lost you before, Steve,” Bucky bites out like a part of him is lost just to say it; “and if there’d been a shred of doubt for how much I love you, the way it broke me to lose you was proof if there ever was any.”

“I’m here,” Steve whispers, and he dares to press a kiss against Bucky’s chest through his shirt. “And you’re here, and you,” Steve lifts his head, pulse heavy in his throat and it presses out the words he has to hear, because his heart is weak in new, unspeakable ways and it has to know:

“You love me?”

“Oh, Stevie,” Bucky breathes, and pulls him in, and when their lips meet, Steve comes undone entirely.

“We’re here,” Bucky murmurs full against Steve’s open lips, speaking straight through to his soul. “We’re right here, and we’re safe, and we’re together. And we’re going to stay like that, for however long we’ve got because I love you, too,” Bucky tells him unequivocally, with all that he is.

“And I want you to believe it, through and through, I want you to believe it because you can’t possibly think of anything else, the world can’t spin if there’s anything else, because I’ll be right there, always, just…” he reaches and caresses Steve’s cheekbones with his thumbs, like Steve’s precious:

“Just reminding you,” he breathes. “Always, Steve.”

And Steve? He’s gonna fucking marry this man, he’s going to live his life with this partner at his side, he’s going to laugh and cry and see the world and cook dinner and be joyful and devastated and find refuge in this man’s arms and he’s going to goddamn die in bed alongside this man after they’ve lived the life Steve dreams for them both, he’s going to—

He’s going to live. They’re going to live. Mind and heart and soul, space and time and anything else: that’s going to be their reality. They’ve going to live.

The laughter, the fucking joy that escapes Steve’s lips is irrepressible, undeniable, filled with all that he is: because god.

What a thought.