“—reports, earlier today, of a jet seen flying low over the Johnson Space Centre, speculated to be Chinese, or possibly Wakandan—”
“Breaking news: the director of NASA confirmed at this morning’s press conference that astronaut James Barnes has finally returned to Houston—”
“—social media accounts of the Insight III mission crew showed the very first photos of astronaut James Barnes since his return to Earth, ringing in the New Year with fellow NASA astronaut and rumoured partner, Commander Steve Rogers—”
Clear Lake Forest, TX. 2050.
After all that, Michelle is still just a satellite imaging tech. She wasn’t given any special recognition and wasn't being hounded for interviews—they didn’t even offer her a raise. She doesn’t mind, really, even if she feels the part she played in the rescue of Astronaut Barnes was not an insignificant one. She was finally promoted to a daytime shift, though. That was almost enough.
But she did ask if she would ever be allowed to meet Barnes. He still hadn’t been made to issue a statement or appear in any public capacity for NASA yet, so she was half-convinced he wasn’t actually here. Ross had dismissed her with an evasive “We’ll see” , and two days later, Fury showed up at her desk with an out-of-office assignment for which she wouldn’t be reimbursed for gas, and had to sign another NDA for.
That’s how she ends up at the doorstep of Barnes’ big, beautiful house, with a car full of gifts, letters, and flowers sent from all over the world, right around lunchtime.
She knows this, because her stomach growls violently at the smell of food coming from the open window.
It would probably make for a bad first impression if she ate some of the snacks people had been sending to NASA for Bucky, even though she’s certain he’d understand. Necessity, and all that.
But she’s got a job to do, so she shifts the overflowing box in her arms until she can free up a finger to ring the doorbell. She supposes she should feel nervous or excited, maybe even honoured. Mostly, she just wants to put the heavy box down.
After a minute or two, the front door finally swings open, and Commander Rogers looks from Michelle to the box and back again. “I’m Steve. You must be Ms. Jones. How many more of those?” he asks.
Straight to the point. She likes that.
“Like, six,” she says, “and a couple of AsCans baked y’all a pie.”
He huffs a laugh, then seems to remember his manners and takes the box from her. “Come on in, I’ll get the rest. Have you eaten?”
“Is that Michelle?” a voice calls out from further in the house.
“Yeah, Buck,” Steve yells back.
“Has she eaten?” the voice asks.
“We just made lunch. Have you eaten?” Steve asks again, more seriously this time, which is how she finds herself in the living room with a bowl of chilli, sitting on a recliner across from a man with mismatched socks, an MIT hoodie that had seen better days, and one arm.
“I figure I should start by thanking you,” Astronaut James—“ call me Bucky” —Barnes says with a wide grin, which Michelle realizes no photograph has ever done justice. “If you hadn’t realized what had happened…”
“I mean. Anyone else would’ve done the same,” she says, because it’s true, and because she’s never been good at sincere moments. “You could thank Peter Parker at the JPL, though. He’s the reason I was going through the sat images in the first place.”
“Parker, huh? I’ll see if I can get in touch.”
Steve finally ambles into the living room with three bottles of soda, presumably having finished unpacking all the perishables. “Oh, yeah, I heard about him. Shuri’s old intern, right?” He settles onto the couch beside Bucky, uncaps the diet Dr. Pepper, and sets it on the coffee table in front of him.
“Thank you,” Bucky says, earning himself a peck on the cheek.
Michelle shovels a spoonful of rice into her mouth and doesn’t blush, because witnessing casual affection between the beautiful men making global headlines is just part and parcel of the job now.
Steve slides the bottle of Coke towards her, and keeps the Crush for himself. “But it really is good to finally see you, Michelle. We haven’t been able to meet with and thank as many people as we need to.”
“Besides the crew, the only people we’ve really spent time with have been my folks and my sister, who are also holed up in here with us,” Bucky adds, “and the only reason they’re out of the house right now is because we ran out of groceries and toilet paper.”
“Well, Maria stopped by the other day,” Steve reminds him. “Gave us bath oil and a voucher for a couples massage at that spa she likes.”
“Right. Then Ross and his wife brought over that ice wine and stupidly expensive ham, and ma gave him the ol’ kosher-stink-eye—”
“—The JPL boys sent us a box of red velvet cupcakes and a Blu-Ray of Mars Attacks!, because they’re so clever—”
“—And Fury gave us that really soft knitted throw and a snake plant, how did you forget?”
“Yeah, I figured you guys were keeping a low profile. I respect that,” she says, nodding, still trying to grapple with the visual of Mars Missions Director Nicholas J. Fury holding a fluffy blanket and a houseplant. Where did he buy them from? Why are those his go-to ideas for a welcome-home present? “You deserve it.”
“Thanks for understanding,” Steve says, tipping his drink at her.
“No sweat,” Michelle says as she picks the black polish off her nails, which is definitely not a nervous habit. “Um, I’m not really sure what I’m allowed to ask, and I know you’ve already got that press conference at NASA happening tomorrow morning, but...”
“Oh, no, please, ask whatever you want,” Bucky insists. “I mean, we can’t talk about Wakanda, but everything else is fair game.”
She braces herself. “Can I grab a quick selfie? I’m sorry, such a dumb request, but I won’t post it anywhere public and it’s going to make my boyfriend really fucking jealous. He’s under half a dozen NDA’s, too.”
Bucky shrugs. “Yeah, why not? Come over here,” he says, patting the space on the couch between him and Steve. Michelle calmly, professionally settles between them and pulls her phone out.
“So your boyfriend’s at NASA, too?” Steve asks, leaning in behind her to get in the shot.
“No, he’s, um,” she starts, giving the camera a tentative smile. She doesn’t smile, especially not for photos, but it’s hard not to when Bucky and Steve are beaming on either side of her. She clears her throat, her smile turning a little more genuine, a little more fond. “He’s JPL.”
League City, TX. 2050.
Steve sips his decaf tea, takes a bite of the raspberry scone provided by Mrs. Phillips, and settles back into the chair. Across from him, Phillips clasps his hands on top of his desk.
“You look well,” he begins.
“I feel well, mostly,” Steve says. “Happy,” he clarifies.
Phillips nods. “How have you been this week?” he asks.
“‘Bout the same as last,” Steve says, then remembers he’d promised to make a conscious effort to open up more, and continues, “Bucky’s been doing great. He’s healing up really well. He’s doing better with the NASA-appointed therapists than I ever did, honestly, but he still hasn’t been cleared to return to work. Not even for desk duty. And I know that’s been tough for him, but he’s on his way, I’m sure.”
“Good,” Phillips says, in a tone that doesn’t sound good at all. “But I didn’t ask about Barnes.”
Steve purses his lips.
“They can see your dark circles from space, Rogers,” Phillips presses on, a little more softly. “Wanna talk about it?”
Phillips knows Steve doesn’t. But he will, anyway.
“We’ve been fighting,” he admits.
“Still,” Steve corrects with a sigh.
Phillips nods. “What about?”
“Work, mostly,” Steve mutters. “We were arguing just before I came over here.”
Not only is Bucky currently off-duty, but Steve hasn’t made a full return yet, either. He pops into the JSC once or twice a week for meetings and PR-related assignments, but his survival training course has been taken over by another instructor, and he’s preemptively pulled himself off any upcoming missions for the next two years. Bucky was livid to find that out, of course, because he thinks Steve is putting his life on hold for him. He doesn’t seem to realize that Steve’s life had already been put on hold the day he lost Bucky.
Steve knows PTSD. He knows nightmares and panic attacks and anxiety that rattles you to your core, but he doesn’t know it half as well as Bucky does. And no one wants Steve to blame himself, fine, but they can’t expect him to go on like nothing happened. Like it doesn’t hurt to see Bucky putting on a brave face when he knows Steve is watching. Bucky shouldn’t have to carry the burden of being strong enough for the both of them.
“What else did you argue about?” Phillips asks, in the way he does when he means to keep Steve talking until he gets to the point Phillips wants him to reach.
Steve folds his arms over his chest. “God. Where do I start? Things were good in January; we were still settling back in, and his family was around to help us out through all the meetings and interviews and press nonsense. Bucky didn’t start making noise about me going back to work until after they left. He thinks it’s easy for me to be away from him, and I know he needs time to adjust, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to walk into the room and have him look at me like I’m a fucking ghost. Or how it feels to see him shut down when he forgets simple, little things, because cryo did a number on his brain. None of that’s his fault, but how can he blame me for wanting to— trying to —be there for him?
“You know, he said I was one of the reasons he survived at all. I apparently gave him a purpose. Said his family would’ve understood if he died, but I wouldn’t have.” Steve chuckles bitterly, shaking his head. “Then he goes and tells me that I’m suffocating him. Coddling him like a baby. Treating him like a stranger in his own house, walking on eggshells around him in fear of a nervous breakdown. That I’m keeping everything from going back to normal. Not the fact that I thought he was dead for two years, not the fact that his fucking arm was shattered into a hundred pieces during an evacuation that left him stranded on an isolated planet—me.”
He almost asks if Phillips can believe that, but figures that he probably can. When Steve glances up at him, Phillips doesn’t say a word, just continues looking over him wordlessly; a silent command to go on.
Steve exhales. “I thought getting him back would solve all my problems. I didn’t realize we’d just be combining ours. I know things haven’t been easy for either of us, but I don’t know how else to be. I just want to help him, he says I’m making it worse. I... disagree.”
Steve stews in the ensuing silence.
“It’s not your place to agree or disagree with the way someone feels,” Phillips says after a long while, with a finality that Steve can’t argue with. “He wants to come home, Rogers. Let him.”
Clear Lake Forest, TX. 2050.
Steve pulls into the driveway an hour later than he expected. He took the long way back, considered stopping to buy flowers and chocolate but getting stuck in evening traffic instead. But the drive was good for him, helped him sort through his thoughts about priorities and compromises, helpfully narrated by a voice of reason that sounded suspiciously like his therapist.
“Buck?” Steve calls out, taking his shoes off.
“Bedroom,” Bucky replies from across the house.
Steve heads to the living room. “You busy?”
“On the phone with Becca.”
Steve grabs the edge of the coffee table, picks it up, and moves it aside. “Come out here when you’re done?”
A pause. “Just a sec,” Bucky yells back.
Steve does his best to shove the massive sectional back, but only risks pushing it a couple of inches in fear of scraping up the hardwood. He hears the soft padding of Bucky’s slippers coming down the hall. He pokes his head into the doorway, warily eyeing up the moved furniture. “Steve?”
Steve crosses the living room towards him and reaches for him. “Still mad at me?”
Bucky scowls, but lets Steve tug him closer. “I don’t wanna be,” he mumbles.
Steve presses kisses to Bucky’s forehead, the tip of his nose, both cheeks, and lingers at his mouth. “I love you. You’re home, and I love you.”
Bucky pulls back and studies Steve’s face. “My birthday’s not for another two weeks, pal. What’s gotten you all sappy?” he asks.
Steve flips the light switch off and takes Bucky’s hand, leading him into the space he cleared in the middle of the living room. There’s enough light coming from the hall to guide them. Bucky smells of clean laundry and shampoo. February is cool and quiet, but their home is warm and alive.
When Steve settles his arms around Bucky and pulls him close, Bucky comes willingly, settling his arm around Steve’s neck.
“Stars shining bright above you, night breezes seem to whisper ‘I love you’...” Steve whispers softly. “Birds singin’ in the sycamore trees, dream a little dream of me.”
Bucky’s grip tightens on the back of Steve’s shirt.
He sings. They sway in place. Steve holds Bucky like it’ll be the last time, and wonders how foolish he was to be doing anything less. “You’re home, and I love you,” he repeats, willing his voice not to crack, “and I’m sorry I haven’t been so good to you lately. Thank you for coming back to me, baby, even if I don’t deserve you. I don’t think I’ve thanked you enough for that, but I’ll do it every day for the rest of our lives, if you’ll let me.”
Bucky laughs wetly, face pressed into Steve’s shoulder. “And be stuck with your moody ass and off-key singing?”
“Yep. For the rest of your life, even.”
“Oh, I’m in. ”
Epilogue: 2.5 Years Later.
Unsurprisingly, Bucky is already leaning against the locker room door after Steve finishes up the day’s parachute jumping lesson and instructs the AsCans to get changed. “Barnes,” Steve says warmly.
“Rogers,” Bucky replies, eyes twinkling as he approaches. “I still can’t believe they let you run this course. Do your trainees know that you almost jumped out of the plane without the parachute during our first class in the air?”
A few of the AsCans snicker as they pass. “Hi, astronaut Barnes,” they say in greeting. Bucky salutes with two fingers. “Bishop. Chavez. Altman. Kaplan.”
“Hey, congrats on the Congressional Space Medal of Honour, by the way!” one of them says.
“All in a day’s work,” Bucky winks.
Once the rest of the AsCans have filed into the locker room and are out of sight, Bucky sidles up to Steve and reaches for his hand. “Please tell me this is the last class you’re teaching today. It’s too hot for this, and I need ice cream.”
“Yes sir,” Steve smiles, running his thumb over the gold band on Bucky’s ring finger before grabbing his hand. “How’s the survival training course going?”
Bucky chuckles. “Great. They take me way too seriously. I think I’m gonna start hinting at aliens soon.”
They drive home in the Jag with the top down, heat up some leftovers, and eat in the back yard as they lounge over the patio furniture. A black puppy settles in Bucky’s lap and eats chunks of chicken from his fingers. “Good girl, Oppy! Such a good, sweet girl, yes, you are!” Bucky babbles. Steve snaps a photo on his phone, and it’s worth the eye roll Bucky gives him.
Later, they’ll undress and slip into their backyard pool, sneaking kisses under the night sky. In bed, they’ll watch the video messages they’ve received from the Insight IV crew on their way to Mars, now led by Commander Carol Danvers. Eventually, they’ll make their way back to Wakanda, and Bucky will be the first American recipient of a Vibranium prosthetic. Their lives together will prove to be comfortable and exciting, difficult and rewarding, but it’s all worth it—whether they find themselves earthbound, or launched back into the endless cosmos—for such small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.