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Let This One Remain

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Let me take you when I go
When I go
I don't want to do this on my own
On my own
I'm breaking free, but of these chains
Oh, let this one remain
Let me take you when I go

- “Of These Chains” by Red

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

For my Foxhole Sisters:
SergeantToMyCaptain, who literally held my hand through both Infinity War and Endgame;
and CapGirlCanuck, who does what I do, just slower ;)

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Steve lay on the forest floor, unable to sleep despite the warm night air. It wasn't the hardness of the ground or the rock pressing painfully against his back that kept him awake. The air was quiet, the breeze soothing, the only sounds the wind in the trees and the constant chirring of crickets.

Steve's eyes burned with weariness, all of his bones ached from exertion, and his mind was so exhausted that barely any thoughts crossed its blank expanse. But he still couldn't sleep.

His fingers trailed through the flaky brown dust that had once been a man. The wind had blown some of it away, and every handful he touched crumbled into a fine dust that became indistinguishable from the dirt beneath him.

Steve pressed bits of decaying leaves and the flakes of what had once been his best friend to his lips. The breath of his whisper sent them floating into the air, where the wind caught them up and whisked them away.

Take me with you.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

A warm hand closed gently around Steve's left hand, which was tightly bound with bandages. His fingers still trembled, though he wasn't sure if it was due to emotion or weariness.

“Five years?” Bucky murmured.

Steve had to clench his jaw and hold his breath to hold his emotions in check. He nodded once, swallowing past a painful lump in his throat. He couldn't even look up. All he could do was reach out with his other hand and place it over Bucky's, to keep his warmth there.

Bucky blew out a long breath and shifted closer on the log they were sharing by the river. “I'm sorry.”

“It wasn't your—“ His voice caught after only three words and he had to stop.

“I know.” His metal hand closed around Steve's bicep, a surprisingly comforting pressure. “But I'm still sorry I left you alone. Again.”

In group therapy, Steve had told people over and over not to push their emotions down, but to let themselves feel the pain and express it. It was so much healthier than letting it fester inside, denied any outlet. Steve had thought he'd been doing all right on that front, but now he found himself struggling to patch up every chink in the wall between himself and the pain.

Then Bucky reached out and effortlessly opened a door in the wall. “It must have been hard.”

The pain was like a fierce little monster in his chest, clawing its way out and ripping him open. Ignoring the pain of his bandaged fingers, sprained shoulder, and seven broken ribs, Steve ripped his hands away from Bucky's so he could throw his arms around his friend and hold him as tightly as possible.

Bucky hadn't been forced to say goodbye. To him, they hadn't been separated for more than a few minutes in the heat of battle. He hadn't had a chance to miss Steve. But he still held him close and murmured into his ear, “I know...I know....”

“You j-just...disappeared...right in-in front of me,” Steve gulped, clutching desperately at Bucky's shirt. “I-I didn't...I couldn't....

“Shhh....” Bucky pressed a kiss to his cheek and rested a hand against the back of Steve's head, holding him in place. “I'm here now. That's what matters.”

Steve pressed his tear-streaked face to the warm hollow between Bucky's neck and shoulder. He breathed in Bucky's scent: sweat, blood, dirt, metal.... It was the way all of them smelled after fighting for their lives, but Steve thought he could have picked Bucky out of a crowd by scent alone, like a bloodhound. He hadn't smelled this for five years. He hadn't felt like this for five years.

His heart ached with the knowledge that the majority of the time he'd been alive, he'd been separated from his best friend. His brother, in every way that mattered. He'd gotten too used to trying to piece his life back together after saying goodbye to the one person who mattered most.

“It's okay,” Bucky whispered, rubbing his hand in soothing circles on Steve's back. “You're okay, Stevie. Just breathe.”

He felt ancient, sitting here on this log and falling to pieces as if Thanos had snapped him into ash. Old and weary, every inch aching for everything he'd lost and every pain he'd endured. In the last five years, there had been times he'd caught himself wishing he could blow away in a pile of dust too. After all, his life had already broken into a hundred tiny pieces.

But now, Bucky held him together.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“Take me with you.”

The words tumbled from Bucky's lips as he stepped into the room he was sharing with Steve. Steve's time-travel suit lay ready for him on the bedspread, but Steve himself sat on the window seat, looking out at the forest surrounding the Stark house. He'd taken off his suit jacket and tie, and rolled the sleeves up past his elbows. He looked comfortable and at peace except for the crease between his eyebrows that Bucky knew all too well.

“What?” Steve looked away from the window in surprise as Bucky closed the door behind him.

Bucky crossed the room and sat down on the window seat cross-legged, facing Steve. “Take me with you.”

Steve smiled, but shook his head. “It's okay, Buck. I've got plenty of Pym particles, and I'll have Mjolnir too. I'll be fine.”

“But you need someone watching your back,” Bucky protested. His gut twisted as he imagined Steve hopping through time, from one danger to the next, without anyone to support him.

“What, you don't trust me to get the job done?” The smirk on Steve's face made it clear he wasn't offended.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Of course I do, but I also trust you to take a lot of risks when there's no one there to stop you.”

Steve's smile broadened for a moment, then he sobered as he met Bucky's eyes. “I'll be careful. I promise. There's too much riding on this for me to not be careful. But two of us would draw too much attention. It'll be tricky enough for me to pull this off without running into myself at some point. Having you along too...that would just double the chances.”

Bucky sighed, but couldn't find an argument against that. At least for the Stones on Earth, Hydra was an ever-present danger. What would they do if some undercover agent recognized the Asset running free? That could actually make the job ten times harder to complete.

“So I can't do anything,” Bucky muttered, looking at his hands twisted in his lap. “I leave you alone for five years, and now that I'm back...I still can't help you.”

Steve's hand closed over both of his, covering metal and flesh with his strength and comfort. “You can stay here—safe and happy—until I come back. That's what the difference will be, this time.”

Something in his voice made Bucky look up into Steve's clear blue eyes.

“When you fell from the train...when I thought you were dead...when I knew you were out there, but I didn't know where...even those months you were in cryo....” Steve's jaw worked, but he didn't break eye contact. Bucky could see the shadow of those painful years reflected in them. “That's what made it so hard, Buck. But...knowing that you're all right....” He nodded, squeezing Bucky's hand.

Bucky wanted to say, And what about me, you selfish little punk? What about me, sitting here worrying while you're endangering your life? But he knew the protest was a feeble one. Since Steve would come back only a few seconds after he'd left, it would be like no time had passed for Bucky. As usual. Whether it was due to cryosleep or time travel, Bucky was never the one who had to endure the long years alone.

“Yeah,” Bucky murmured, running his thumb over Steve's knuckles. His wounds had healed, but to Bucky's practiced eyes, he could still see a slight discoloration where new skin had grown. “You're always the one who gets the short end of the stick, aren't you?”

With a long sigh, Steve leaned back and turned his gaze out the window. It faced west, so the golden light of the afternoon sun washed over his skin. The shadows caught in the creases of his face and deepened in the hollows of his eyes and cheeks. In that moment, he looked old. Ancient. Weary.

“Sometimes, I think...” Steve said slowly, almost hesitantly. “I mean...time travel. There are lots of things in my life I've wished I could change. Things I would've done differently, if I'd known....”

Bucky opened his mouth, but Steve spoke over him. “I know it would be in a different timeline. I know there's no going back to change what happened to us, but....”

“But what if you could get a second chance?”

Their eyes met. Bucky had known Steve for practically his whole life, so he could easily imagine the thoughts running through his mind. What if he could keep Bucky from being turned into the Winter Soldier? What if he could stop Hydra's rise once and for all? What if he'd been able to walk away from that plane crash and start a life with Peggy?

Steve hung his head and pulled his hands away from Bucky's, hugging himself as if he could still feel the ice around him. “I know it's selfish.”

Bucky snorted. “Selfish to want to be happy? To actually get some peace and stability for once? Steve...you've carried the weight of the world on your shoulders for so long. You've more than earned a break.”

“But....” Steve looked up at Bucky, his expression almost apologetic. “I can't leave you alone either.”

He couldn't keep from smiling, even though his heart ached. “I won't be alone. In case you didn't notice, I have made a life for myself in Wakanda. One I could probably pick up again, even five years later. I've got friends...a place to live.... And there's always Sam,” he added softly. “We'll look after each other.”

Even if you don't come back, he added silently. Even if you decide you can live happily without us. I'll always miss you, but that doesn't mean I won't be happy too.

Bucky nudged Steve's leg out of the way, then slid over to sit right next to Steve and pull him into a tight embrace. Steve hugged him back, resting his head on Bucky's shoulder.

“It's okay,” Bucky murmured, settling his cheek against the top of Steve's head. “You saved me. You found me. You were there for me when I needed you most. But we can let each other go. It won't change what you've already done for me. Nothing can change that I'm here because of you. And I can promise you, I'll never forget it.”

Steve's shoulders hitched as he drew a shaky breath. “You too, Buck,” he whispered, his fingers tangling in Bucky's hair. “I...I'll never forget.... You made me who I am today. No matter the time or place...I could never forget that.”

They held each other close for a long time. But it was still too short.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Bucky stood next to the quantum tunnel, which Bruce had set up in the forest next to the lake, well away from prying eyes. His calm exterior as he watched Steve and Bruce going over the last few details belied the tempest of anxiety and sorrow in his gut. Anxiety, because no matter how many assurances Steve gave, Bucky would never stop worrying about the danger. Sorrow, because he knew what Steve was going to do.

Earlier, Steve had muttered that he hadn't made up his mind yet about the second chance they'd discussed. But Bucky was confident that he could predict his best friend's decisions anyway. They'd grown up together. They'd been side-by-side for almost every important decision of their lives. He knew what Steve would say before he opened his mouth. Often, a glance was all it took to read the thoughts running through Steve's mind.

So Bucky was fairly certain that this was goodbye. For good.

“You know, if you want, I could come with you.”

“You're a good man, Sam. This one's on me, though.”

Steve turned and strode over to the quantum tunnel with Sam at his side. And as soon as Bucky saw his face, the storm inside him stilled. The clouds of worry and grief parted as the sun peeked over the horizon. Because that was Steve. The best man he knew. The best fighter he'd ever seen. The best friend he'd ever been able to call his own.

He loved Steve. He loved him like the brother he'd never had. He loved him like he loved himself. Better than he loved himself.

Go, his heart whispered. Go on. Find happiness. Find peace. I want you to. Even if it means saying goodbye. I just want you to be happy.

So when Steve turned to him, Bucky was able to smile. And not a sad, tear-streaked smile either. He poured out all of the affection and joy in his heart, so that the last thing Steve would remember of him was simply that he loved him no matter what.

“Don't do anything stupid till I get back,” Steve said, wrapping his strong arms around him.

Bucky almost laughed, suddenly remembering saying those very words to Steve the night before he'd gone off to war. The last time they'd seen each other before the world got turned upside-down. The first time they'd really had to say goodbye knowing there was a very real possibility they'd never see each other again. He'd had the same knot of worry in his chest that night as he considered what trouble Steve would get into without him—and that was before aliens and time travel and hammers that summoned lightning.

But what else could he say in response to that? “How can I? You're taking all the stupid with you.”

They didn't linger over the hug this time. Steve pulled back, keeping his hand on Bucky's good shoulder a moment longer. His smile was warm and gentle, the same as it always was.

His heart swooped up into his mouth and spilled out before he could stop it. “Gonna miss you, buddy.”

Steve's blue eyes crinkled a little and his hand tightened on Bucky's shoulder. “It's gonna be okay, Buck.”

He could have laughed. Or maybe cried. That's my line, you punk, Bucky thought.

Then Steve was turning away, stepping up onto the little raised platform, picking up the hammer and the case with the six Infinity Stones. The seconds slipped away, too fast to hold onto.

“How long is this gonna take?” Sam asked, glancing over his shoulder at Bruce. Bucky couldn't tear his eyes away from Steve's face.

“For him?” Bruce said, fiddling with the controls. “As long as he needs. For us? Five seconds.” Then he looked up, his left hand poised to flip the switch. “Ready, Cap?”

Steve's helmet snapped into place, and he nodded once.

“All right, we'll meet you back here, okay?”

“You bet.”

But Steve wasn't looking at Bruce. He wasn't looking at Sam, who watched the proceedings with a worried frown. His eyes shot straight across the distance and met Bucky's. For one last second, they looked at each other, and in that moment, they both knew exactly what the other was thinking.

I love you.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

For someone who had hopped around from one end of the universe to the other, putting Infinity Stones back where they belonged without getting killed or stopped, it was laughably easy to sneak into a TB ward in a New York hospital. And even though it had been a lifetime since Steve had seen his mother, it didn't take him long to figure out which bed she was in.

As soon as Sarah Rogers had realized she'd caught tuberculosis, she'd gone straight to the hospital without even saying goodbye. She'd forbidden him from coming to visit her, and though Steve knew she was only trying to protect him, it had felt like abandonment. He'd only been eighteen—barely old enough to be considered an adult.

But no matter how many decades had passed, no matter how different Steve looked now, Sarah was exactly like the memories he treasured. She looked pale and thin, her golden hair lying in a tangle on her pillow. But he'd intentionally chosen a date early on in her illness, when she would still be able to talk with him. He'd decided this was probably the best way for them to have a long conversation without running the risk of his other self walking in on them.

Yet now that he was here, he didn't know what to say. He stood over her, suddenly aware of how much taller and broader he was than the other version of himself. He was so much older than that young Steve, too. She wouldn't even recognize him.

Sarah had been lying still in her bed, her eyes closed. But she seemed to become aware that someone was standing there, and slowly opened her eyes. She blinked, then her eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Steven?”

Anything else she might have said disappeared in a sudden, violent fit of coughing. Steve hastily pulled up a chair and reached for the pitcher of water on her bedside table. When he slid an arm behind her shoulders to help her sit up and take a sip of water, he was shaken by how tiny and frail she seemed. He could feel her bones through the back of her nightgown, as brittle and delicate as a bird's in his hands.

When Sarah finally regained control over her breathing and lay back against the pillows again, she only closed her eyes briefly. They snapped open eagerly again, running over every inch of Steve's face.

“Don't worry, Mom,” Steve said hurriedly. “You're just...dreaming. There's nothing to be afraid of. It's me...the way I'll be in the future.”

And just as if he were a seven-year-old boy telling her he was a knight in shining armor, Sarah's face warmed with an affectionate smile. She lifted one trembling hand to his cheek; he held it there with his own, closing his eyes to savor that comforting touch. How could he have forgotten what that hand felt like?

“Oh, my boy...you've grown so strong and handsome.”

When Steve opened his eyes again, he found tears dripping from them, falling on the red blanket on his mother's bed. “I've missed you,” he whispered.

Sarah clicked her tongue in that special way she always did—not as if she were irritated or scolding him, but almost as if to tell him not to worry. “Come here, love,” she said gently, opening her arms to him. “Come here...that's it....”

Bending down and laying his head gently on her chest, Steve felt like a child again. The child that had run to these same arms for comfort a thousand times. Sarah wrapped her warm arms around him, trailing fingers through his hair and patting his back the same as she had since he was a baby. With his ear pressed against her, he could hear how labored her breathing was, how weak her heart sounded. The end was coming fast, as inexorable as Thanos himself.

After a few minutes of holding her and crying for the pain of their imminent separation, Steve became aware that his mother was weakly humming a soothing tune. A lullaby that she used to sing to him, even after he was 'too old' for it, especially when he was sick and had trouble falling asleep.

He needed this. He needed her. Even though he was more than a hundred years old, he still needed his mother.

It was another coughing fit that forced Steve to straighten up again. Once he'd helped his mother catch her breath again and rearranged her pillows so she could sit up more comfortably, he found he could only sit there staring at her.

Sarah smiled and reached for his hand. “Well? So you came here in a time machine? Like H.G. Wells?”

Steve couldn't help grinning as he wiped the tears away. “Something like that,” he said, clasping her hand in his.

“And did you come all this way just to look at your old mother?” There was a shrewd look in her eyes, undimmed by sickness.

“No,” he admitted. “I...wanted to ask your advice about something.”

“What's troubling you, Steven?”

He looked at her, opened his mouth...and before he knew it, the entire story spilled out. He told her everything, not stopping to consider whether it was a good idea or whether she would even understand what he was telling her. He told her about joining the Army, getting the serum, fighting in the war. He told her about saving his fellow soldiers, watching Bucky fall to his death, crashing into the ice. He talked about waking up seventy years later to find everyone he'd ever known was dead or dying. He talked about how lonely he was, how hard it was to keep his purpose in sight. He told her about finding Bucky again, damaged almost beyond recognition. He told her about saving Bucky, making friends, trying to build a new life for himself even when everything had fallen apart. He told her about Thanos threatening the entire universe. He told her how half of all living creatures had died. He told her of how utterly hopeless those five years had felt, until Scott showed up on the doorstep with the thin thread of a second chance. He told her how they'd won. How they'd gotten everyone back. How he'd returned the Stones to where they belonged.

Steve kept talking until his voice grew hoarse, opening up more than he ever had with anyone besides Bucky. He paused only for Sarah's occasional coughing fits, but each time she nodded for him to continue. She simply lay there, listening intently with the warm compassion Steve realized he used to take for granted.

With a sigh, Steve looked down at her hand, held gently between his. “I just...I'm not sure what to do. I mean...I have a second chance. To fix things. I could save Bucky. I could...go back to Peggy.” He ran a thumb across her bony knuckles. “I could bring back medicine that would heal you.”

He dared to raise his eyes to his mother's again, and found her looking at him with wistful compassion. “Oh, Steven.... My boy, always so concerned with doing the right thing.”

Steve smiled a little. “Only because you taught me how.”

“When your father—“ Sarah broke off, coughing wetly into her handkerchief again. Steve held her upright, rubbing her back and offering a glass of water. To his dismay, he caught a glance of blood flecks on her handkerchief before she closed her hand around it again. Maybe he shouldn't have come and made her talk so much....

“When your father died,” Sarah began again, her voice low and hoarse, “I thought I would have done anything to have him back. To have a second chance...even just to see him again...just for one more day.”

Sarah had never shied away from telling Steve about his father. She'd told him stories about when he'd been alive, and explained how he'd died and what he'd fought for. She'd made sure Steve was proud of him. But Steve had realized at a young age that it saddened her to talk about him, so he rarely asked. Now, he listened closely to every word.

Smiling sadly, Sarah murmured, “I kept on asking God why He'd taken my Joseph from me. Surely, it would have been better if he'd been able to come home, and to meet his son.” She patted his hand gently. “But after a time...I began to realize the good that came out of it.”

Steve frowned in confusion. “Good that came from Dad dying?”

“Do you remember how your father died?”

“Of course,” Steve said. “Mustard gas.”

“For years, I thought that's all there was to the story, like so many other poor soldiers who came home burned and blinded. But then one day George told me the rest of it.”

George? “Mr. Barnes?”

Sarah nodded, pausing to cough a little. Thankfully, the coughing fit didn't last too long this time. “Your father saved his life,” she said, smiling softly. “George was wounded—he couldn't run for safety when the alarm was sounded, and his gas mask was broken. So your father gave him his, and covered him with his body. Your father got the worst of the gas.”

Steve's heart pounded as he gazed down at his mother. He tried to imagine Mr. Barnes lying in the mud in a trench, with the father he'd only seen in photographs shielding him with his body, breathing in the poisonous fumes so that his friend wouldn't have to.

In his mind, George Barnes looked an awful lot like his son. And Joseph Rogers looked an awful lot like him.

“So you see?” Sarah's smile widened, though her eyes shone with unshed tears. “Your father died to save George. If he hadn't...what would have become of Winnie and Bucky? Winnie would have had to support them all by herself. None of their girls would have even been born. And they might not have been able to help us, either. So, in a way...your father's death saved us.

Steve stared down, unseeing, at the blanket on his mother's bed. He'd never thought of it in this light before. He'd always thought of his father's death as a tragedy, a great misfortune they didn't deserve but had to learn to bear. But what if Mr. Barnes hadn't come back from the war, and they'd had to move away in order to survive? What if he'd never met Bucky? How many times had Bucky saved his skin, both before and after the serum? And how many times had something he'd said or done influenced Steve to become who he was today?

He supposed he ought to know, better than almost anyone in the universe, how much a single small change could send out ripples through time. He had the power to go back and make those changes, even if it wouldn't actually affect his original timeline. But...would any of the changes he'd contemplated make things better? On the surface, it seemed obvious that keeping his mother from dying was a good thing...but what changes would result from that? The interconnecting web of cause and effect made his mind whirl.

Finally, he met his mother's eyes again. “You're trying to tell me not to meddle with things I don't understand.”

“I can't tell you what you should or shouldn't do, Steven. I don't know the first thing about time machines or the things you've described to me. All I know is that everything happens for a reason. You can't always see what those reasons are—you may never know. But no matter what you do, be sure that you do it for the right reason.”

For a moment, he felt small again, a child sitting in her lap and listening to her gentle words of wisdom. “What is the right reason?”

“To know that, you just need to ask yourself a simple question: Will this help someone? Or do I just want this because I'm discontent? If you're discontent, the problem is within you, and no amount of outward change will satisfy.”

The turmoil within Steve's heart calmed as he gazed into his mother's eyes. He felt as though he'd been climbing a mountain for so long, trudging up its slopes and sometimes sliding down into its deep crevasses. But now, at last, he'd stepped onto the peak, from which he could see the world stretching to the horizon on every side.

He knew what to do now.

Steve leaned in to kiss his mother on the forehead. She wrapped her weak, thin arms around him one last time, and he sank into the embrace. “Thank you, Mom,” he whispered. “I needed your wisdom.”

“I'm proud of you, Steven. I know you'll do the right thing.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Steve sat in the empty, bombed-out bar in London where once he had recruited the Howling Commandos. He felt as empty as the ruined building around him. Empty, dark, cold. A place that had once been so full of life and warmth, now nothing but a hollow shell. There was nothing left here but dust and memories.

And empty bottles of alcohol. He'd tried drinking everything he could find in the place—and he'd found the door to the mostly-intact cellar, so there was a lot to choose from. Wine, beer, whiskey...he'd tried it all. The alcohol burned down his throat and churned in his stomach, but he didn't feel even the slightest buzz of intoxication from it. No inebriation to float him away from the anguish in his heart.

He slumped in his seat, sniffling and staring at the glass of whiskey in his hand that wasn't helping anything. Every time he closed his eyes, all he could see was Bucky's terrified face descending into the swirling snow. All he could hear was Bucky's terrified scream, fading away into silence. A silence that would follow him forever.

And then a footstep broke the silence. “Mind if I join you?”

At first, Steve could only blink at the man standing in front of him. Then he peered down at his glass of whiskey again. “Maybe I can get drunk after all,” he muttered to himself.

A man who looked exactly like him pulled up a chair and sat on the other side of the table. Steve stared at his double, unable to look away. He wasn't sure if this was a hallucination or a trick, but whichever it was, it was very convincing. It was like looking into a mirror, except...no. This man had more lines in his forehead and around his eyes, and there was something different about his whole stance. Maybe this was the way Steve would look in twenty years or so.

“Am I...dreaming?” he asked hesitantly. “Or have I gone insane?”

The man held up his hands defensively, watching him closely with eyes that seemed to pierce right through Steve's skull. “You don't have to believe I'm real,” he said—and even his voice sounded like Steve's. “Maybe this is just a dream, or your subconscious talking to you. But I am you. From the future.”

Steve blinked. Then he downed the rest of his glass, as though that would help anything. “My dreams are usually more believable than this.”

The other Steve looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. Then he leaned forward, reaching out and laying a hand on Steve's arm. Steve could feel its firm pressure, as tangible as the cold glass in his hand.

“The last thing Bucky said to you was, 'I had him on the ropes.' You had your backs turned to the door, and you couldn't turn around fast enough when the Hydra soldier came after you. You bit the inside of your cheek when you fell to the floor. Then Bucky picked up your shield and protected you. Just like he always used to do. And after he fell...the first thought in your head was, 'It should have been me.'”

Steve stared into those eyes that knew so much. Too much. There was no way anyone could have found out any of those details that were burned into his mind. He hadn't told anyone the details of what had happened in that train car. He hadn't been able to. And even if this was some kind of elaborate trick...no one could know what he'd been thinking. “How...?”

“Because I remember.” The other Steve's face softened with a look of compassion, an understanding far more intimate than anyone he'd ever known. Because it was him. He was looking at himself.

“Now, I know you're hurting,” the other Steve said quietly, pulling his hand away. “But I need you to listen to me for a minute. Take some advice from someone who's been here before.”

Steve's hands were trembling, so he clenched them into fists. “Look, I know you probably mean well, but I just lost my....” His voice caught in his throat, and for a moment he could barely breathe, his eyes filling with more tears than before.

He couldn't see through his tears, but he could hear the chair creaking as the other Steve leaned forward. “I'm sorry. I wish I could explain everything, but I can't have you getting distracted. There's not enough time; Peggy is on her way here, and you need to talk to her. More importantly, you need to listen.”

Steve wiped his eyes and sniffled miserably. “You came all the way from the future to tell me to talk to Peggy?”

But the other Steve ignored his words. “You're about to head into the final battle against Johann Schmidt. You'll be fighting to stop him from killing thousands of innocent people, and to do that, you'll need to crash-land a plane.”

“Oddly specific,” Steve muttered.

With a stern frown, the other Steve made sure he was paying attention before continuing. “When I did that, I was fully expecting to die in the crash. But I didn't. I froze in an iceberg, and stayed alive for seventy years before anyone found me.” He paused, pinning Steve with his gaze again. “But they could have found me earlier, if I'd just told someone my coordinates.”

A shiver ran down Steve's spine. The other Steve's words had suddenly shone a light on the shadows lurking at the edges of Steve's thoughts. The dark notion that maybe, since Bucky was dead...he should join him. Of course, he shied away from those thoughts immediately. He wasn't going to kill himself, especially not when Hydra was still out there, threatening the world. But what if...when the job was done....

“Hydra won't die with Johann Schmidt.” The older man looked suddenly weary as he leaned his elbows on the table. “There are pockets of Hydra that will continue, even after the war's over. Some will try to continue their work in America, right under the government's nose. There will be human experimentation in several countries, primarily Russia. Search carefully in Siberia—you'll thank me later.” He watched Steve carefully, as if checking to make sure he was listening.

Steve felt exhausted already, just thinking about all the work ahead of him. He'd thought that once the war was over, that would be it. “Then...will Hydra ever be destroyed?”

“Yes,” the other man said immediately. “But there will always be someone wanting to oppress those who can't defend themselves. And you need to be there to protect them.”

He thought he knew now why the Steve from the future looked so tired, as if he'd been holding the weight of the world on his shoulders for such a long time. The years stretched ahead of him, all the way to that distant future his alter ego had come from—years filled with a never-ending battle he'd have to fight on his own. Because his other self was right, of course. He wouldn't be able to just sit by and watch Hydra proliferate, not when he could do something about it.

The other man stood up, pulling his chair away from the table. He stood looking down at Steve for a long moment, then said gently, “You won't be alone. Trust me.”

“Why should I?” Steve demanded, aware that he sounded petulant but not caring very much.

The other Steve smiled. “Because Bucky did.”

And then he vanished, as quickly as he'd come. Only a footprint in the dust proved that Steve hadn't made the whole thing up.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

 

And returning in five...four...three...two...one!”

Bruce flipped a switch...and nothing happened. Steve didn't appear on the platform. He wasn't there.

Where is he?” Sam demanded, his voice tight with anxiety.

I don't know,” Bruce said, fiddling with the controls and frowning in consternation at the empty platform. “He blew right by his time stamp; he should be here.”

Well, get him back.”

I'm trying!”

As the two snapped at each other—more a sign of how worried they both were than anything else—Bucky turned away from the empty platform. So. Steve had decided to stay after all. Bucky smiled slightly, absently wandering towards the riverbank. He couldn't pretend he wasn't sad that he'd never see Steve again...but this was good. Steve deserved to be happy, and Bucky was glad that he'd finally realized that. For once, he'd actually made the selfish choice—the choice that was good for him without reference to anyone else.

I'm proud of you, pal.

Then Bucky's eyes rose from the ground to the river, and he halted in his tracks. Sitting on a bench, gazing out over the peaceful river, was an old man. An ancient man with stooped shoulders and white hair that had certainly not been there when they'd set up the platform and brought all the equipment down half an hour ago.

Bucky's heart pounded. It only took him a moment to recognize that man—the way he held his shoulders, the way his back looked from behind. He could easily pick that man out of a crowd, even though he'd never seen him look like that.

Sam.” Bucky's voice sounded strange in his ears, like it belonged to someone else.

He felt, rather than saw, Sam step up beside him, staring at the old man on the bench. Bucky glanced over at him, watching comprehension slowly dawn on his face. Bucky smiled a little. “Go ahead.”

Sam looked between the two of them, his eyes open wide with shock, then hesitantly strode over to the bench. “Cap...?”

The old Steve turned his head slightly to greet him with a contented smile. “Hi, Sam.”

As their quiet conversation continued, the breeze blew some of their words away, but Bucky stayed rooted to the spot. He could hear Bruce's heavy footfalls receding into the distance as he left them alone to enjoy their reunion. Bucky had a feeling that Bruce wouldn't tell anyone what he'd seen; he'd let the others spread that knowledge if that was what Steve wanted.

Bucky couldn't decide what he was feeling. He hadn't expected to see Steve ever again, so seeing him at all felt like a gift. His heart ached with gratitude as he reflected that the only reason Steve had come back was to say goodbye to his friends—and to hand over the shield to Sam, it seemed. Bucky smiled as he watched Sam heft the shield in his hands with a slightly awed expression, looking over at Bucky as if for confirmation that this was happening. Bucky nodded encouragingly. He and Steve had discussed this subject several times in the past couple years, agreeing that if there were ever to be a successor to the mantle of Captain America, Sam was the best man for the job. Bucky was glad to see Steve passing the torch on at last.

But...was it selfish of Bucky to feel somewhat sad to see Steve like this? Years and years ago, long before the serum, Bucky had come to grips with the knowledge that he would probably outlive Steve by decades. He'd had so many health problems, and kept on putting himself in dangerous situations. Really, it was a wonder he'd made it past his twentieth birthday. Then the serum had changed everything, but they'd been so busy that Bucky hadn't taken the time to imagine what it would be like to grow old with his best friend.

Now Steve had gone off and done it without him. Bucky didn't resent Steve for living a long and hopefully fulfilling life without him. But...he couldn't silence a tiny voice of fear that wondered if they would even have anything in common anymore. How many years had Steve lived in another timeline before returning to them? How many life-altering experiences had he been through that Bucky knew nothing about? He would have made other friendships in their time apart—perhaps friendships who were just as close and meaningful as his friendship with Sam and Bucky. Perhaps more so. Maybe it would be like when Steve had run off with him in Germany, and he'd found himself surrounded by strangers who knew and trusted Steve enough to put their lives on the line for him.

Come on, he chided himself, taking a deep breath. Don't be an idiot. Steve had still done all that for him. He'd risked so much to save Bucky—from Zemo, and from himself. Just because he'd made new friends in the time they'd been apart didn't erase their friendship. Steve's presence here now proved that. He didn't have to come back to them...but here he was.

He could see Steve's face in profile, the wrinkles stretching as he smiled. The same warm smile Bucky knew so well, the smile that made him believe everything would be all right.

In that moment, it didn't matter if Bucky felt sad or disappointed or afraid. Steve was smiling. He was happy, and that meant Bucky could be happy too.

A twig snapped behind Bucky; he looked over his shoulder to see if Bruce had come back, or if someone else had wandered over. But when he saw who it was, his heart skipped a beat. For a second time, he stood rooted to the spot, unable to even think straight for the shock rushing through him.

Steve?

A second Steve stood behind him, leaning casually against the platform. A younger Steve. He didn't look exactly like he had a few minutes ago, when he'd gone back in time—a cut was healing on one cheek, his hair was a little longer, and his suit was grubby as though he'd been rolling around in the dirt. But those eyes were the same. His lips curled upward in the same smile he always gave Bucky, softening every line in his face and making his eyes almost seem to glow with a blue flame.

Hey, Buck.”

Bucky whipped his head back and forth, looking between the man leaning against the platform and the one sitting on the bench. The old man turned around to look at them all, while Sam stumbled towards them.

Wha...Steve...but....”

The younger Steve grinned, stepping forward to greet Sam with a fistbump. Bucky could see the mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he said, “Hey, man.”

But....” Sam pointed between the young Steve and the old one. “But I thought....”

And you'd be right.” Steve's smile softened as he turned to the old man and nodded respectfully to him. “Sir.”

The old man shook his finger at him as he levered himself to his feet. “No sirs here, kid,” he scolded with an impish grin. “You can call me Grant if it gets too confusing.”

With a slight grunt as he straightened his back, 'Grant' shuffled over to them. Sam was still looking between the two of them in confusion. “So...wait. Which one's the real Steve? I mean, the old one—the younger—the...the one who just went back a minute ago?” He gestured towards the platform.

Steve chuckled. “You can't tell? After I put the Stones back, I went to 1945 and had a little chat with myself.” He and Grant shared identical smirks. “Just to give a few words of advice. Then I went to check and make sure I'd followed my own advice, and to pick up the shield.”

Grant clapped a hand on Sam's shoulder. “I don't really know you, Sam,” he said, “but I like you already. And I have it on good authority that you'll do well.”

Then he stepped up to Bucky and reached out for his left hand. Bucky let him examine it, turning it over in his hands and tapping a fingernail against the metal. With a low whistle, Grant nodded, impressed. “That's even better than the one Howard made for my Bucky.”

He drew in a surprised breath. “ Your Bucky?”

Grant smiled up at him. Bucky realized for the first time that the old man had shrunk a couple inches, so he was shorter than Bucky now. “Thank you, Buck,” he murmured.

For what?”

Grant's arms wrapped around Bucky—old, but not feeble. They held him just as close and just as tight as they always did when Steve hugged him. “For everything.”

Grant pulled away, giving Bucky a kind smile before turning to Steve. “All right, sonny,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “It's about time I headed home—my granddaughter's making meatloaf, and I don't want to miss it.”

Thanks for the shield,” Steve said, grinning as he programmed the band around Grant's wrist. Bucky was sure there was a long, interesting story behind how Steve had gotten his hands on another one.

No, thank you,” Grant said quietly as they all stepped back to give him room. “For Bucky.”

The old man straightened up and raised his arm in a salute. He was looking at his alter ego, but all three men saluted in response. In a flash of light and a rushing sound, the old man disappeared to the time he'd come from.

Silence descended on the forest clearing for a moment as they slowly lowered their arms. Sam was the one to break it first. “You really had me going there for a minute.”

Steve smirked. “Gotcha, didn't I?”

Yeah...you're a real jerk, you know that?” Sam glanced down at the shield he still held. “Oh...you want this back?”

Steve's smirk turned into a genuine smile. “It's yours, isn't it?”

A slow grin spread across Sam's face. “Yeah.... Yes, it is.”

Besides,” Steve added, winking over Sam's shoulder at Bucky. “I'm retired.”

Suddenly, it hit Bucky more strongly than it had while he was distracted by Grant. Steve was here. He was back. His Steve. He was here to stay.

Before he even realized he was moving, he was in Steve's arms. He breathed in, catching a whiff of smoke and sweat, aftershave and oil. He squeezed tightly, burying himself in the warm embrace.

Steve chuckled, holding Bucky just as tightly. “Miss me?”

It hadn't been very long at all since they'd said goodbye to this Steve—not even half an hour—but Bucky nodded. “I thought...I thought for sure....”

I know,” Steve whispered. “I'm sorry if I hurt you.”

Bucky growled in irritation, though his eyes filled with tears. He punched Steve's shoulder without breaking their embrace. “You were supposed to make the selfish choice for once, Stevie.”

But this is a selfish choice, Buck,” Steve murmured. “Because I want to stay with you till the end of the line.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Bucky lay on the forest floor, unable to sleep despite how tired he was. It wasn't the hardness of the ground or the chill in the air heralding the approach of winter that kept him awake. The blanket wrapped around him was warm, the air quiet, the only sounds the wind in the trees and the lapping sounds of the river flowing past in the darkness.

Bucky's eyes burned with weariness, all of his bones ached from exertion, and his mind was so exhausted that barely any thoughts crossed its blank expanse. But he still couldn't sleep.

His fingers absently trailed through Steve's hair. They lay wrapped in blankets on a slight slope, gazing up at the stars that twinkled brightly this far from the nearest town. Steve's warmth kept the chill at bay even more than the blankets. His eyes were closed now, but when they'd been open they had reflected a thousand twinkling lights.

“You asleep?” Bucky whispered.

“Yeah.”

Bucky pressed his lips to his best friend's forehead and settled down against his side. The wind caught at his words and whisked them away into the darkness.

“Take me with you.”