Clear Lake Forest, TX. 2049.
“NASA Director Everett Ross announced in a press conference this morning that astronaut James Barnes, presumed dead after the Insight III Mars Mission evacuated two years ago, was found alive but unresponsive by WSA astronauts at approximately 02:00 this morning. The WSA confirmed that Barnes is currently secured aboard the Dora Milaje shuttle, which has officially begun its six-month homebound journey. According to the latest update from NASA, Barnes is reported to be in critical condition—”
He shuts the TV off and sits in the stillness of the living room, curtains drawn against the fireworks outside.
It doesn’t feel real. He doesn’t think it ever will. Like being convinced of a fairytale and having your whole world turned upside down. He knows, logically, that this is good news, a fucking miracle deserving celebration, and yet he spent so long feeling numb that he’s not sure he’ll feel anything else.
America celebrates its independence and the imminent return of a hero.
Steve spends his forty-fifth birthday alone.
He stops answering his phone. He shuts out his crew, his therapist, Bucky’s family. The nightmares return in full force. He doesn’t go back to work. His neighbours helpfully misdirect the paparazzi that come creeping by.
NASA would give him time off if he asks, but he doesn’t ask. They won’t fire him, and he takes advantage of that. He eventually gets an email explaining that they’ve put him on paid leave and ask him to confirm the length of time. He doesn’t respond, so they change the status to ‘indefinite’.
Steve is used to indefinite. His whole life was a series of one unknown after another; his mother had cancer and they were never sure how much time she had left until it ran out, his years spent as a Navy SEAL could’ve ended with retirement or a bullet in the head, he never lived in the same place for longer than a year. He couldn’t even commit to owning a houseplant. He rolled with the punches and took things a day at a time, just trying to get by, because nothing was ever constant.
Not until Bucky.
Early on, Steve was struck with the realization that he had two suitcases he lived out of for almost twenty years, good intentions, and no backup plans. Where would he be in five years, ten, or thirty? What would he have accomplished by then? A few months with Bucky and Steve couldn’t stop thinking of what was coming next, what the future held for him, and if he’d still be the kind of man worth keeping around.
If there was any room for him in the life and legacy Bucky was building.
He made a name for himself as an engineer, an astronaut, and a friend. He was steady and sure, a grounding force that settled into Steve’s bones and rooted him in place. Bucky made Steve want to think long-term, because with Bucky, there were absolutes.
Without him, Steve felt untethered.
There are a handful of places Steve can just about drag himself to, more out of necessity than as an attempt to face society again, and he’d argue that The Wolverine is as close to a middle ground as he can manage. It’s a bar that’s out of the way and invite-only, speakeasy-style, the patronage consisting of vets, bikers, anyone who wants to keep a low profile and not ask any questions. There are pool tables, a free jukebox, and good beer on tap. Steve had spent the first six months of his return from Insight III there. He had hoped not to need another reason to go back.
When he takes a seat at the end of the bar, Logan nods at him once, and sets a stein in front of him without a word. Steve drains it more quickly than he ought to and nurses a second one, trying not to listen too closely to what was happening on the TV behind him.
“—took NASA this long to find out what happened?”
“Well, the storm had severely damaged most of the landing site, and destroyed the Hab communications antennas entirely,” Ross says after a pause, his voice sounding tinny and muffled from the old speakers. “The only other communications terminals were in the MAV and the Liberator shuttle.”
The interviewer presses on. “But why weren’t there any efforts to look over the landing site after the storm had passed?”
“As a public domain organization, NASA must be transparent, so any satellite images we capture must be released within twenty-four hours.” It’s Fury this time, Steve can tell, with scripted and measured words. “Bodies do not decompose in space, if you get my meaning,” he tacks on at the end. Steve almost snorts.
Nonplussed, the interviewer continues his interrogation. “Does NASA have any contingency plans for future missions, to prevent this situation from happening again?”
“Yes, in fact,” Ross says quickly. “We’ve consulted with the WSA and have begun working on communications technology similar to theirs, that use satellites instead of relying on grounded towers—but we’re unable to get into the specifics.”
“Classified,” Fury says, in a tone that dares the interviewer to argue.
He doesn’t. “Are you able to give us any updates on Barnes’ status at all?”
“We remain in close contact with the WSA, and we have nothing new to report as of yet.”
Steve takes a deep, shuddering breath. Logan raps a knuckle on the bartop, startling him.
“Need me to change the channel?” Logan offers.
Steve considers it a moment, then shakes his head. “It’s nothing I don’t already know.”
He pulls out his phone of his jacket pocket, tapping through to the chain of emails he’s received from the WSA over the past several weeks.
The last one came four days ago, and there’s been radio silence since.
The message had been flagged as URGENT , opening automatically as Steve unlocks his phone one day. Attached is a file of flight information; IAH—IND , a four day round trip, business class seating, leaving the next morning. That’s how he finds himself packing a bag for Shelbyville, if only just to pay back Bucky’s parents in person.
‘We have to deal with this as a family,’ the message had said.
Steve can’t run from them anymore.
So he’d gone, with all his feelings of shame and guilt and anger, but he hadn’t been able to hold onto them once he gets there. They’d fizzled away and left bone-deep exhaustion in their wake, making it all the more easier to sag into George and Winnie’s arms when they’d collected him from the airport.
He settles into the guest bedroom and has a quiet afternoon to get his bearings, but dinner time eventually rolls around, and so does Rebecca and her three-month-old. She sets baby James right into Steve’s arms, where he regards Steve with skeptical blue eyes before promptly falling asleep, tiny hands fisted in Steve’s shirt.
Jamie stays there through dinner, soft and warm. Easy to hold. Easy to love.
“It’s really good to see you, Steve,” Rebecca says softly. “We’ve missed you.”
They start a fire in the fireplace. It crackles and snaps beneath the mantle that displays framed family photos, and Bucky’s smiles through the ages.
“He knew what he was getting himself into,” Winnie says, apropos of nothing. “All we could’ve done was pray and be strong.”
Steve watches the rise and fall of Jamie’s chest, his cheeks plump and rosy in sleep.
“We’ve been given a gift, son. Don’t you see?” George says. “You dwell on the past, and you’ll never make something of the future.”
Steve hears the words they don’t say. They don’t call him a miserable drunk, don’t tell him that he’s losing himself again. He almost wishes they would. It’d be easier.
“We never blamed you.”
“He wouldn’t have, either.”
“Steve, he’s coming home. Bucky is coming home.”
And when he does, it’ll be to someone he wouldn’t recognize. Someone who has surrendered to grief, embraced his own self-destruction. He’s no longer the man Bucky deserves, and is far from being the man Bucky will need.
Steve can’t fail him again.
When Jamie rouses and fusses, Steve rocks him gently, shushing him and pressing his nose into Jamie’s soft dark hair.
“It’s okay,” Steve whispers, and wills himself to believe it.
Fall settles over Houston as Steve claws his way back to himself.
He doesn’t ease into work as much as he throws himself into it. Early morning runs keep his mind sharp and focused for those longer, busier days. He finally honors all the dinner invitations he’d taken rainchecks on, and makes good on the promises to catch up over coffee. He commits to weekly appointments with Phillips, and sticks to them. He dumps the rest of his booze down the sink and recycles the bottles and cans.
It has always been difficult for Steve to admit when he’s struggling, to ask for help and accept it. Building walls is easier than breaking them down. But when Bucky’s condition is finally confirmed stable, Steve figures he owes it to him to catch up.
He starts with the laundry.
It had taken him almost six months of living amongst Bucky’s things before Steve had donated them, sent them back to Bucky’s parents, or packed them into boxes and shoved them in the attic, leaving only the skeletal remains of their home. It doesn’t feel right, bringing them back down and putting them back with the house in the state it is, all dust and stale air.
So he does the washing he’s neglected for weeks—clothes and bedsheets and towels. He mops and vacuums, takes out the trash, and scrubs the bathroom to within an inch of its life. He tackles the kitchen next, and hires a gardener to help with the overgrown mess in the front and back yards. It wears him out and takes the better part of two weekends, but it’s worth it. It’s cathartic, in a way, to give the house such an intense, thorough cleansing. Gutting it from the inside out, stripping away the filth and bitter residue of the last two years.
When he opens the windows the following morning, letting in the sunshine, the house seems to breathe with him.
What’s left of Bucky’s things eventually come down from the attic.
Well-loved books find their place back on the shelves of his office. Posters go back up in their bedroom, in the hallways. Awards and picture frames are put back on display in the living room. His favourite sweater is folded and tucked into their dresser, and his favourite mug is washed and hung up on the mug tree to dry.
Almost everything is back in place.
8 Years Earlier.
Steve had dropped the box at his feet, wincing as whatever inside it clattered upon hitting the floor. It was only then that he realized it was labelled KITCHEN: FRAGILE!! , so he picked it back up and shuffled out of the living room towards the kitchen, where it could join the other mountain of boxes.
“I hope you’re putting them in the right rooms!” Bucky shouted, presumably from the front door.
“Yep,” Steve shouted back, gently setting the box down. “Is that everything?”
“Just about. Gimme a hand?”
Steve followed Bucky’s voice to the front hallway, helping him with the laundry hamper full of pillows and blankets while Bucky hauled in garbage bags full of cushions. They arranged everything around the pull-out couch in the middle of the living room; the sole piece of furniture they hung onto, which Steve had picked up from a garage sale when he first moved to Texas. The new furniture they had ordered would be arriving in the morning, but for now, the small, dingy beige sofa sits in their new, spacious home, a stark reminder of where he’d started from. He remembered hauling it up two flights of stairs by himself, setting it against a wall to cover an ominous water stain that came with the apartment, and vowing that the next couch he bought would be larger, softer, and for the house he’d eventually move into.
He had never entertained the idea of being able to afford living in Clear Lake, or even wanting to. Several years and a few promotions later, and Steve ended up an Insight Commander, moving into a six-bedroom home with his crewmate and partner right across from Timber Cove .
“Don’t tell me you’re getting teary-eyed about this ugly sofa again,” Bucky murmured disapprovingly as he slid an arm around Steve’s waist, drawing him out of his thoughts. “I spent five thousand dollars on that new sectional — ”
“—and another thousand on cashmere throw blankets—” Steve interrupted.
“—and they are all going in our beautiful new living room,” Bucky continued, resting his cheek against Steve’s shoulder. “I have a vision. A little industrial, a little rustic—this place is going to look like if Anthropologie, Restoration Hardware, and the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge had a threeway. In a farmhouse.”
“Hell of a vision,” Steve said agreeably. “Feel like grabbing dinner yet?”
“Ugh, I’m all sweaty. Let’s just order in.”
So they ate their burgers cross-legged on the floor, stealing each others’ fries and grinning like loons. They toasted their milkshakes to their new home, their health, and to whatever will come their way in the future.
“Since this is our first night here, we should celebrate,” Bucky suggested, sneaking his hand into Steve’s and entwining their greasy fingers. “Properly.”
Steve raised his eyebrows. “Yeah? Already? I don’t remember which box the lube is in but—”
“Dance with me,” Bucky said, suddenly serious.
Steve made a face. “Can’t I just blow you on the kitchen counter or something?”
“No. We’re dancing.”
“Fine. But I choose the song.”
They pushed the couch back, turned the lights off, and opened the curtains to let the moonlight in. He gathered Bucky in his arms, pulled him close, and did his best to sway in time to something old and slow playing from his phone.
Stars shining bright above you,
Night breezes seem to whisper, “I love you”,
Birds singing in a Sycamore tree,
Dream a little dream of me.
“Really?” Bucky asked quietly, amused. “This is what you’re going with?”
“It’s a classic,” Steve insisted. “Shh. I’m trying to concentrate on my footwork.”
Bucky laughed, his breath warming and tickling the side of Steve’s neck. “You know what I’m going to remember most about tonight?”
Steve looked over his him, taking in the way the shadows played across his face, the smell of fresh paint, the feeling of their socked feet on hardwood, and Ella and Louis crooning in the background.
Stars fading but I linger on, dear,
Still craving your kiss,
I’m longing to linger ‘till dawn, dear,
Just saying this.
“What’s that?” Steve asked.
Bucky smiled up at him, impossibly soft, indescribably beautiful. “Your off-key humming.”
Steve didn’t think he could be more in love.
Sweet dreams ‘till sunbeams find you,
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you,
But in your dreams, whatever they be,
Dream a little dream of me.
Extra-strength sleeping aids always leave Steve with a headache, but he’s glad to have caught up on the much-needed rest. He hadn’t been able to get much sleep the week leading up to this, but he managed a solid eight hours on the flight. He spent the rest of the time rereading the terms of the contracts he’s signed, and trying to convince himself this was real as they flew over endless deserts and jungles.
As soon as the Dora had made it back into Earth’s atmosphere, Shuri had made contact and Steve had been put on a private jet to Birnin Zana.
King T’Challa and his entourage greet him on the runway. “It is a pleasure to meet you again, under better circumstances this time,” the King says warmly, with a firm handshake. “I would offer you the royal tour, but I believe you have another priority, and there will be plenty of time for that afterwards.”
Steve would feel more sheepish if he hadn’t already been about to burst out of his skin.
“I am sure you can appreciate that Barnes is still healing, so you’ll be placed in three-day quarantine in the WSA before seeing him.”
“Of course,” Steve nods, then hesitates. “So is he—”
“Shuri will give you more details later, but you have nothing to worry about, Commander,” King T’Challa says. “I was told that the surgery was a success.”
Steve expected to feel relief, but he’s still on edge, knowing Bucky is nearby, recovering, alive.
Only three more days.
“We can accommodate any food, drink, and entertainment requests you may have while you are in quarantine. Our chefs are trained in all manners of cultural cuisine, and we can access the same streaming services and media outlets you have in America. Is there anything you would like to start with?” King T’Challa asks.
Steve takes a deep breath. “I don’t mean to take advantage of your hospitality and generosity, Your Highness. Thank you again, from the bottom of my heart. If it weren’t for Princess Shuri’s compassion and quick-thinking—”
The king raises an eyebrow. “Commander Rogers,” he interrupts. “Please. Out with it.”
Steve sets his jaw. “I want something NASA won’t release.”