Steve doesn't answer.
Thing is, he probably could have. Maybe he even thought of it, in a split second somewhere, while the plane was diving towards the ocean. Despite his nearly perfect memory, he couldn't quite remember...
No, it was the smart choice. Who knows what would have happened with the plane if he'd jumped out? Something could have gone wrong in the last second, and then he'd have done nothing. He would have survived to see the destruction, devastation of entire cities, millions of people dead, just like--
It had nothing to do with... with Bucky. With what happened.
He'd had Peggy. The Howlies. His duty as Captain America. So many people relied on him.
He'd had so much to live for.
It was just...
No, he had to do it. There was simply no other choice.
And if it was relief he felt in those final seconds, if the freezing water that slammed into him finally soothed the burning agony in his chest; if the deep silence put a stop to his frantic thoughts, to the scenarios that kept playing in his head, things he could have done differently, ways he could have saved him; if the end he was facing felt deserved, even welcome, because to continue was a betrayal, pointless, drab and grey and meaningless--
No one ever has to know.
It didn't take anyway.
Surely it doesn't count, then?
(He was right. Since the very moment he got dragged out of the ice, barring the times he was fighting or pushing his body to its limits or trying to outrun his own thoughts, everything was grey. He struggled to find a point to all of it, the will to get up in the morning. It was mostly habit that got him through each day.
But when he looked up on that highway, body aching, lungs burning, not believing what his eyes were telling him, he simply... woke up.
He finally broke the surface, and color, sound, fucking life itself rushed in; terrifying and painful, every breath a harsh stab to his chest.
Every second that passed hurt like hell.
It felt glorious.)
He missed them all so very much.
Sam. Wanda. Bucky.
It just seemed unfair, is all. That he lost him, kept losing him, again and again. Like a perverse sort of punishment, his very own Sisyphus task.
What did he do to deserve this?
Was it the lying, the forging of official papers? Was it his wrath, one that has been burning inside him since before he can remember? The rage at the world, at the people in it, at whatever deity made him this way, laughing all the while, probably.
Rage at himself and his useless, failing body.
So much anger, tangled up in the core of him. He could never tell if he was born this way or learned it somewhere along the way. In some alley, perhaps, or from a cruel and vicious tongue.
Because it must've been something he did, the sins he committed, not Bucky.
Bucky didn't do anything wrong. He was light, and goodness, and kindness. He was science facts whispered in the dark, gentle hands helping when Steve's body failed him again, ever-watchful eyes at his back.
Bucky's only sin was standing too near Steve.
And look what happened.
The poisonous aura that surrounds Steve took him, tortured him, broke him.
And Steve can't even tell him he's sorry.
He thought about it long and hard, seriously considered all the implications and consequences, the weight a decision like this carries.
Staying with Peggy in the past was The Dream, the life he longed for and imagined for years. One he mourned after waking up, packed away carefully in a dusty corner of his mind.
Hadn't he earned it?
He finally talked to Bucky about it, stilted and awkward.
Bucky nodded and ducked his head. He didn't say anything.
Well, it didn't matter what it felt like, the decision was made.
He said goodbye, returned the stones, went all the way up the porch steps and...
He stood there, fighting with himself, desperately trying to figure out what was wrong, why couldn't he just move. Everything he had wanted for so long was right in front of him, literally at arms length. All he had to do was reach for it.
His entire body seemed to rebel against him, a panic attack rushing in - vision graying out, hands shaking, cold sweat breaking out on his forehead. He couldn't draw in a proper breath, and no matter how hard he rubbed at his chest, his heart kept contracting painfully.
It felt wrong.
it wasn't supposed to feel wrong. He was supposed to be overjoyed, eager to start his life, grab this second chance with both hands and never look back. He was supposed to be happy to be here.
A sob broke through his clenched teeth, tearing at his throat, and he stumbled back from the door.
What the fuck was going on?
He came back at the designated time, exhausted and no closer to any sort of solution or answer as to what was wrong with him.
Bruce gave him a thumbs up, Sam smirked and nodded, and Bucky...
Bucky was looking at him like...
"You fucking dumbass," Bucky said, eyes shining, voice cracking half-way through the sentence.
There was something Steve was missing, something at the very tip of his tongue, at the edge of his vision, in the darkest depths of his mind, but...
He couldn't stop looking at Bucky.
Distantly, he was aware of Bruce and Sam leaving, of himself stepping down from the platform, walking towards Bucky as if in a daze, but it was all irrelevant.
The niggling feeling was turning into an itch, building up like a wave in the periphery of his senses.
Bucky was still looking back, eyes dark, now close enough to touch, mere inches away.
Why didn't they? Touch more, that is, apart from the occasional hug and manly pat on the shoulder. What was stopping them?
It would be...
Steve was struck with a sudden, vivid image of running his fingers through Bucky's silky hair, thumb tracing the shell of Bucky's ear, palm cupping the back of Bucky's head.
Bucky's skin looked so soft.
Steve's fingers twitched, and he swallowed, throat dry.
He... he wanted to touch Bucky.
He wanted Bucky.
He wanted Bucky, in all the ways, by his side, now and forever, until they both die.
Both of them, together.
Never to be parted again.
The world tilted on its axis as Steve's brain went through a paradigm shift, his entire life rearranging with this new understanding. Funny, how a single feeling can color your reality, past and present, until it's almost unrecognizable, yet at the same time, hardly any different at all.
Just a small step to the side, and there it is.
"Oh," he said dumbly, hand trembling as he reached out to touch Bucky's cheekbone, half-afraid he'd hurt Bucky with his clumsy fingers, leave bruises instead of the worshiping caress he intended to.
Bucky smiled, wide and warm, loving, something like 'finally' etched into the lines of his face, and 'oh' didn't even begin to cover it. Steve felt dumb, and slow, like he wasted so much of their time. He wanted to apologize for being stubborn, and blind, and--
"Yeah, oh," Bucky mocked gently, interrupting the spinning vortex of Steve's thoughts, and pulled him into a kiss.
Steve's heart skipped a beat, his brain grew quiet, and deep inside him, something finally, finally clicked into place.
He was home.