Chapter 1: the first fight
May 2021 - January 2022
Pervasive grief and angst
Canon character deaths (Wanda, Sam, Shuri, T'Challa, etc)
Some jokes about death (as a coping mechanism, between Bucky/Steve when they meet)
Characters blame Steve for "failing"
Steve blames himself for failing
Self-hatred from Steve
Homophobia/homophobic abuse from a parent (Tony's story, as a head's up - Howard Stark is not great in this)
Bucky lost his arm (undisclosed how in this chapter) and undergoes (non-graphic) surgery for it
Thor makes a joke at his own expense regarding his weight (the narrative, however, does not make a joke about his weight)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Most days, Steve swears he can feel dust buried under his fingernails.
He starts most days at the sink, scrubbing his hands with a brillo pad until the skin turns red and raw. Some days, he hears Sam Wilson in his right ear, voice gruff, maybe that’s enough, Cap, and he can feel his long fingers wrap around his wrists and pull his hands from the burning water.
Why are you punishing yourself like this, Steve, Sam asks on those days, after the water’s shut off.
If Steve closes his eyes he can imagine him leaning against the counter, his strong arms crossed in front of his chest, eyes kind but firm as they assess him, always assessing, never judging, and Steve remembers how to smile because he’s always smiled at Sam.
Because, he says to Sam on those days, the dust of his friends still buried under his skin where it’ll never wash out, I didn’t save you.
Every day, Steve wishes he knew what Sam would say next.
Steve doesn’t watch television anymore.
At first, it was because every channel showed the same kind of footage. Brothers losing brothers; half the kids vanishing at a tenth birthday party, and half the parents screaming for kids who were no longer there, the other half gone with their kids left behind; a groom falling apart at the altar; screams and tears and agony played out in real time with every reporter asking the same question.
What will the Avengers do now?
When everyone realized that the Avengers didn’t have the answer to that question anymore than they did, the questions became comments became condemnations. A year out from the Snap, a few months after the team had come back with Thanos’s head in Thor’s hands, people stopped screaming at them in the street, at least, but Steve thinks he would take back the screaming. Screaming meant they were feeling something.
He doesn’t watch television at all anymore, even when Netflix and Hulu and Disney try to restart the process of entertainment, when they try to help hold back the tide with art and creativity and new programs that he thinks would have interested him before the world fell apart. He doesn’t watch any of it.
His list is buried in a drawer next to his bed; he held it in his hands, once, after the Snap. His penmanship, still scraggly enough to make Sister Mary Eustace frown, makes notes of the things he’d watched, things he needed to watch.
The list is not the problem. The problem is the little, tiny flowing script that he can’t even read - it’s in a language he can’t read, for Chrissake, so the fact that the sight of it makes him break down and sob is equally amusing and horrible.
Steve can’t even touch his list anymore because of the neat, curling letters that weave around his notes, the red and pink letters left by a tiny hand; he looks at them and he can feel the imprint of Wanda Maximoff buried in his side, her small head resting on his shoulder with her feet tucked underneath her.
She’d spent three years in Hydra captivity, and before that, she and her family couldn’t afford internet or television or any of it. In a lot of ways, she’d had as much catching up to do as Steve, and they’d sit together for hours even when they were on the run, Wanda making little comments on the various programs they watched ( for when we re-watch, Steve, we have to re-watch the good stuff - everyone knows that ) and caught up on together.
And now, she can’t catch up at all.
The list stays in the drawer by his bed, and Steve doesn’t watch television anymore.
There are ghosts he can live with, and ones he can’t.
He and Nat share some of them - she’d loved Wanda too, after all, and Shuri - and they don’t talk about the ghost who didn’t even die.
They haven’t seen Clint since the Snap; he took it harder than all of them, and when Nat thinks Steve isn’t looking, she lets her expression slip, and he sees all the cracks Clint Barton made in Natasha Romanov when he grabbed his bow and left to search the world for answers.
I would have gone with him, her face says when she thinks Steve isn’t looking. If he’d asked.
Even if he spent the years between the Chitauri and Thanos wondering why the Widow and the Hawk didn’t just say they loved each other, Steve lets himself think selfishly that he’s glad that he at least got to keep Nat.
His worst ghost is still alive and lives in a mansion clear across the state that might as well be across the galaxy.
He keeps the burner charged and in his pocket, the biggest olive branch he could have offered someone who’d tried to kill him over a governmental doctrine, someone he tried to kill right back.
He wonders, sometimes, if Tony realizes how stupid that fight really was in hindsight.
He did a long time ago. He called Tony nine months after the Snap, eight months after the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist came back emaciated and broken and sobbing over a kid from Queens who he couldn’t save, after he’d screamed all the horrible things Steve already thought about himself and damned him to a Hell Steve was headed for long before they ever fell apart.
He called, but the operator said it had been disconnected.
So, Steve waits for the most stubborn son of a bitch he knows who doesn’t live in the mirror to call.
The phone doesn’t ring.
He gets used to not laughing and saying on your left. He gets used to not turning around and seeing Sam in his space. He gets used to the cold spot in his side where Wanda Maximoff used to sit. He gets used to not dodging Nerf darts when he turns a corner, gets used to not flicking off a victorious Clint Barton when one of them makes their mark. He gets used to not seeing the burner light up. He gets used to it. He tells himself he’s used to it, and doesn’t ask himself why it is that he’s always waiting for it all to happen anyway.
He remembers to start painting, but all his pictures are gray and black in a way that makes him think he’s gone colorblind again. He listens to ball games he’s listened to dozens of times when it feels like his heart is jackhammering right out of his chest. He joins a volunteer group, learns to play nice with others, even if he’s still bad at it sometimes. He sees Nat four or five times a week, and eventually Rhodey too. He calls Carol from across the galaxy and thinks she and him might be mirrors of each other, calls her when something odd or funny or weird happens, calls to say hi, calls to ask how she’s doing, calls her when he catches wind of an obituary from Louisiana, listens to her cry for three hours, hangs up and cries himself to sleep the way he hasn’t since Tony came back.
He runs, every day, around the neighborhood he grew up in, finding the familiar in the strange and usually vise versa too.
He’s moved back out to Brooklyn because he doesn’t think the Tower feels like home anymore; the first two years, Brooklyn barely felt like home with people stopping to stare at him whenever he walked around the block, but the stares are less now that people have given up on the Avengers.
It’s funny. Hatred is something Steve remembers. Hate he can deal with. Hell, he grew up as the queer, disabled child of an Irish immigrant during the Great Depression. He knows hate.
This is beyond hate: the people of New York don’t feel anything at all about him. Their eyes slide over him in public, and it’s not just because of the beard and long hair that’s been dyed more or less brown.
He wonders when it was that he became dust, too.
May 25, 2021
On an overcast, strangely chilly morning, Steve stares up at the office building in front of him with all the trepidation he had when he walked into church three days after he kissed a boy for the first time. He was convinced then that he’d be smote upon entry.
This doesn’t feel all that different.
Still, Sam’s therapist friend from the VA, Dr. Gonzalez, found him a few weeks ago and asked him to come speak with a recovery group. Steve feels like maybe he shouldn’t be leading any kind of therapy group, and Dr. Gonzalez had just smiled and said who said anything about leading ?
So now Steve’s standing with his hands jammed into the pockets of his leather jacket, Dodgers cap pulled down low to hide his face as much as possible, wondering if Dr. G will be too offended if he doesn’t show. He doesn’t typically run away from fights; but if his presence here today distresses someone else ? He doesn’t think that would sit too well with him.
He has nothing to offer these people, after all. Nothing but a painful reminder of what he couldn’t do, the loved ones he couldn’t save. He makes a half-turn to the left, ready to go, and a movement in the corner of his eye stops him quick; he thinks for a moment that there’s a tall figure there at his left, grinning easily at him as he jogs past, and it’s like he’s been struck by lightning.
Steve stares at nothing for a solid five seconds, shocked that he’d even think that Sam Wilson could be here in front of a beat-up office building, decorated with nothing but posters advertising the therapy groups that meet inside routinely, pockets of hope in a desolate world. He doesn’t know why his brain would think Sam Wilson was here when Sam Wilson’s been dead for three years after turning to dust in front of his eyes.
His hands would be shaking if they weren’t in his pockets, and he takes an unsteady breath and then another, a ringing in his ears.
What would Sam Wilson say? He asks himself for the twelve thousand, three hundred, and fifty sixth time. What would he do ?
He’d get his ass into that building, he thinks in a voice he hasn’t heard aloud since Wakanda in 2018. C’mon, don’t make me tell Ma Wilson that the dude she’s got a picture of in her fridge is a total chicken shit.
“Not fair, Sam,” Steve mutters to himself, planting his foot firmly on the steps in front of him. “Not fair.”
A figure climbing the stairs pauses and tilts their head towards him, their hood obscuring their face, and Steve grins sheepishly in case they heard him.
“Sorry,” he says, beginning to walk up the stairs. “Just talkin’ to myself. Swear I’m not a creep.”
He doesn’t know why the fuck he said that because that’s exactly what creeps say, but the figure - a guy, he decides, by what he can see through the bulky sweatshirt and jacket they’re wearing - snorts and gives him a one-shouldered shrug, resuming their half-jog up the stairs.
“Don’t worry about it, pal,” he says in a hoarse voice, Brooklyn accent undeniable. It’s a pleasant voice, and Steve shivers through all his trepidation. “We all talk to ghosts these days.”
Steve wants to say more, speeds up his steps so he can talk some more - and ain’t that something, him wanting to talk to someone these days - but the man picks up pace in a way that would make Steve definitely look like a creep if he tried to match it.
It’s raining by the time he hits the doors, and he sees the hooded man disappearing into a room down the hall; he doesn’t know where he’s going, armed with nothing but the number of the room his group’s supposed to be meeting in, so he heads down to the door the man went in.
The taped-up sign on the heavy oak door says “ Loss of Sibling ” and Steve feels a strange, secondary grief grab him by the throat. He feels guilty, like he’s intruded on the stranger’s life, and suddenly, all at once, it’s too much, this throbbing, aching wound that he had such a hand in creating. No one here would want him here, and if that guy he followed through the doors had any idea who he’d passed today, he would have punched Steve in the jaw. And Steve would have let him.
He shakes his head and turns to leave, but he doesn’t get more than forty paces when Dr. Gonzalez rounds the corner and spots him.
“Steve!” He’s a short man, with a big smile and serious eyes. He’d helped Sam when he’d lost Riley, and Steve’s sure he might be able to help anyone else in the world who wasn’t bearing the guilt of three and a half billion deaths. No one’s that good of a doctor, after all.
“Hey, doc.” He smiles through the panic freezing in his chest, and Dr. Gonzalez doesn’t give him a look of pity when he notices how distant Steve’s expression is.
“Take a minute. Drink something.” He gestures at the water bottles set up on a table on the side of the front hall. “Then come in.” He waves his clipboard at Steve, already walking towards a room at the other end of the hall from the Sibling Support Group. “And if you don’t come in in five minutes, I will send someone to come get you!”
“I don’t know if I’m ready,” Steve mutters, and Gonzalez hears him.
He gives him a steely look over his shoulder. “Everyone has to have a first time, and everyone in that room has been where you are. You don’t have to come in today, but if you don’t, you have to ask yourself: when will you go in? When will you be ready?”
He’s left in the hall, his panic combating his natural inclination to accept challenges. Steve does as the doctor suggested and grabs a water from the table, and he goes through the first bottle, and then another, and then a third, in less than two minutes.
A volunteer’s staring at him when he chucks the third bottle in the recycling and he ducks his head sheepishly before dragging his feet to the door Gonzalez had indicated.
He doesn’t know what he expects when the door opens; maybe for every person inside to turn at once and scream at him, to point as a collective and chant murderer, failure, murderer, to turn their backs and walk away.
Nothing nearly so dramatic happens.
The door opens, and he walks inside. One or two people look over, but most are focused on Dr. Gonzalez as he’s mid-story about how it felt to lose his partner of forty-five years, the person he’s been working with since they left grad school.
“My wife says she feels like she’s been widowed sometimes,” Gonzalez says soberly, his leg crossed so his ankle rests on his opposite knee. “Doesn’t know what to do with me when I’m poking around the house. Used to be I could call Reggie up, maybe go to a ballgame.”
“Don’t get a lot of ballgames nowadays,” an old, thin man with glasses says. He’s wearing a Vietnam Veteran cap with ribbon across the front that shows that he was Navy.
There’s an empty seat next to him, and Gonzalez lets his eyes pass over Steve, not staring or smiling, but Steve swears he sees the doctor’s mouth twitch anyway.
He shuffles to the empty seat and sits next to the Vietnam vet, who introduces himself as Jerry a few minutes later as they go around and share their stories, just a snapshot, just what they’re comfortable with, Gonzalez says, and honestly Steve isn’t comfortable with any of this, but Jerry speaks through what sounds like miles of gravel to talk about losing his wife and son at the same time, how his hands shake every morning when he wakes up to an empty bed, with no new messages from his boy, and Steve takes a few seconds to let it sink in before he starts talking.
“Uh.” He clears his throat, and sits up as straight as he can without taking up too much room in the circle. “I’m Steve Rogers.”
“No shit,” Jerry mutters, but he grins at him, and something loosens in Steve’s chest.
“I’m … I lost a lot of people that day, like all of you. My best friend, Sam. He was good at this stuff-”
“-What stuff is that, Steve?” Gonzalez asks.
“Emotions.” Steve pinches his nose and laughs, a sharp, angry sound. “He was good at it. And he - in front of me.” Steve rubs his hands together as he glances around the group, his knuckles of his right hand scraping against the meat of his left palm, over and over again. “He was gone. It was - and … and my … Wanda. She was seventeen .” His voice cracks unbearably and he stops, shoulder heaving.
He hasn’t said her name out loud in over a year and a half; he made Nat cry eighteen months ago when he pulled out a pint of Chunky Munky and said can you imagine if the kid was here? Wanda woulda eaten this shit days ago, so he got used to keeping her name under his tongue, tucked away where it couldn’t hurt anyone but himself.
“She was my … like a little sister, and -” Steve rubs his neck, unable to go on in his broken sentences anymore and droops, squeezing his eyes shut as his cheeks flush. “Fuck. Sorry - I - I haven’t really talked about - any of it - sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Gonzalez says, “Not for feeling something.”
“Hell, kid, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve lost my shit here,” Jerry says kindly, and Steve snorts, eyes still squeezed shut.
“You’d have a lot of dollars,” someone across the circle finishes for Jerry, “and you’d finally be able to retire.”
Some of the tension in Steve’s body breaks down after they move on from him, but it re-spools when a woman in her forties across the circle talks to him.
“I’m Susan, and - well, you all know I lost my wife.” Jerry nods next to Steve and Steve watches Susan’s face hardens as she looks over at him. “I blamed you, you know.”
“Susan,” Gonzalez says with a warning in his voice. “You know the rules.”
“I know.” Susan nods and doesn’t even look over at the doctor. “I know the rules. I’m not - I was looking for someone to blame, y’know? Anyone to blame when Amy di -- was gone. She was fucking - seconds, and she was fuckin’ - I was so pissed I couldn’t see straight, and the Avengers came back, and there was Captain Fuckin’ America at the middle of it all-”
Steve can’t breathe, and the edges of the room fade in and out of focus.
“ Susan, ” Gonzalez barks, and they all remember that he’s military too -
“But I was wrong,” Susan whispers, her eyes a thousand miles away. “It was wrong - you look so perfect, you know? But - I’ve seen you in the neighborhood, helping everyone, and I remembered that you lost people that day too. You went across the universe to try to fix it, which is more than any of us can - even though it feels like I’ve gone twice that far without Amy, and-” her voice breaks, and Steve feels a tear slip, hot and crooked, down his cheek - “And you tried. That’s all any of us can ask for, right? That we try. We try to move on. And we might not, but we try because they would have wanted us to, and -”
She cuts herself off though, and Susan folds in on herself, staring at the floor, and doesn’t talk for the rest of the meeting.
Steve doesn’t either, but he does grunt in sympathy when Jerry talks about the PTSD he got from Vietnam and how it feels different than the PTSD he has from watching his wife disintegrate, and by the end of the meeting, he has a deep and profound respect for each of the people who show up here once or twice a week and dig into a still open wound to find some kind of communal healing.
They mill about the room when Gonzalez calls the hour, sipping on free lemonade or just standing around and talking, and Gonzalez squeezes Steve’s arm and smiles at him like he did so much more than introduce himself and lose his shit twenty seconds later.
Steve considers leaving then, but he spies Susan still sitting in her chair; he’s always been a masochist, so he goes up to her and clears his throat.
“This seat taken?”
She looks up and blanches before shaking her head.
He doesn’t say anything after he folds himself into the tiny chair, not for a minute or two, and he doesn’t look over at Susan who’s sitting on her hands and staring at the ground like it contains some secret she needs to decode.
“What you said before,” Steve begins, but Susan looks up sharply.
“No.” She shakes her head. “No, I was being an asshole - I didn’t-”
“I blame myself too,” Steve says quietly. “And not in the past tense. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for not fixing this.”
Susan looks at him for a long time, something at war in her expression.
“I don’t think you can fix this,” she says, and it’s not unkind but it isn’t warm either. “I don’t think anyone could.”
Steve nods and smiles at her. “Where’d you meet your wife?”
He wonders if it’s the wrong question the second it’s out of his mouth - she could very well smack him and be on her way.
Instead, she smiles, her eyes on a fixed point across the room, just a little misty. “Salsa dancing.”
“Salsa dancing?” Steve asks, smiling for real now.
“I thought it was kickboxing,” Susan laughs, “but I saw her - she had this flower in her hair, total knockout, you know? And I pretended that I signed up for the class and I got paired with her.”
“And it was love at first sight?” Steve guesses.
“No.” Susan laughs again, tears running down her cheeks as she shakes her head, her wild curls tossing with the movement. “No, it was a goddamned disaster - it was fucking Advanced Salsa. I stepped on her toes every two seconds because I had zero idea how to do advanced salsa. Like. What the fuck is Advanced Salsa?”
“The kind with mangoes in it?” Steve jokes, and Susan laughs and laughs until it turns into a sob, and he holds his arm out so she can bury her face in his chest.
Later, he’s gripping the sink in the men’s bathroom, taking steady breaths in, steady breaths out, the way he used to when his lungs still seized up from the asthma. This feels different from the asthma, but it still feels like dying, like all his nerves were stretched out and prodded at once for no reason except the universe thought it might be interesting.
He assumes he’s alone in the bathroom, losing his shit, until he hears a toilet flush a few stalls away from him, and he stands up quickly and pretends to wash his hands. He wonders how long a person is supposed to pretend to wash his hands when the person who’s just emerged from the stall clears his throat.
“I’ve heard soap helps.”
Steve looks up, mildly offended that a stranger would offer him hygiene tips, and is very promptly struck by lightning for the second time that day.
The person who’d offered unsolicited hand-washing techniques is, in a word, gorgeous. Thick brown hair that’s almost curly, large blue eyes that border on grey, and a cleft in his chin that Steve thinks would fit his thumb nicely if he were to cup his jaw -
“Uh.” He offers eloquently.
“Uh.” The guy shrugs and turns the water on at his sink before snagging some soap with that same hand. He washes it for a few seconds, and doesn’t look over at Steve again, and Steve is thinking c’mon, brain, keep him talkin’, c’mon mouth, be smart, you love being smart -
He notices that the guy hasn’t bothered to get his other hand wet. So, he opens his big, smart, dumb, fuckin’ mouth and says: “I’ve heard washing both hands helps.”
The man fixes him with such a withering look that Steve decides that a more useful superpower wouldn’t be speed or strength or stamina or healing - it would be to summon portals in the floor, like Stephen Strange. He’d summon a nice, big-ass, monument-sized hole to jump in right now because holy shit this guy wants to murder him.
“Gee thanks,” the man says, a slightly hoarse, Brooklyn accent - the guy from the stairs, Steve realizes, blushing even deeper, the man from earlier - “I’ll keep that fuckin’ excellent advice in mind.”
He shuts off the water and half-turns, gesturing at his left side to Steve, and he flicks Steve off with his right hand right about the same time that Steve notices that the man doesn’t have a left hand, or a left arm for that matter; the way his sleeve lies at this side suggests that his arm ends around his shoulder.
“You don’t have a very impressive vocabulary, huh?” The man snorts without mirth and turns to go, but Steve flails and says the first thing that comes to mind:
“You from Brooklyn?”
The withering stare is back, and motherfucker, why didn’t Steve just let the guy walk away?
“Yeah.” The guy nods and walks backwards away from Steve. “You ever talk to a human before?”
Steve ducks his head and laughs, taking his hat off to drag his hand through his hair - it’s an old habit and he thinks nothing of it when he looks back up to nod at the (very attractive, very, very attractive, very nice and kinda mean and perfectly attractive) man.
“I don’t do that much of that anymore,” he admits, and when he meets the man’s eyes, he smiles sheepishly. “Sorta out of practice.”
“Sorta,” the guy says before his eyes widen to the point of astonishment as he realizes who Steve is. “Oh. You’re-”
“--Sorry for being a jackass,” Steve says firmly, “It’s been a tough day. I meant no disrespect before, and I really am sorry.”
“I read your biography,” Handsome-Brooklyn-Blue-Eyes breathes, eyes still wide, and Steve winces, waiting for the typical response to his unfortunate level of celebrity. “You were always a jackass.”
“I-” Steve splutters before laughing and leaning against the sink. The man’s stopped backing up at least, and Steve could almost forget they were in a public men’s bathroom if not for the ceramic pressing into his side. “That’s not in the history books.”
“Between the lines it was,” the guy argues, “You were a total fuckin’ jackass - I found your arrest records.”
“Ouch.” Steve winces and shoves his hands in his pockets. “To be fair, a lot of laws were fuckin’ stupid back then.”
“A lot of laws are fuckin’ stupid now,” his new friend (? friend? Maybe? Steve hates how excited he’s getting at the thought of someone to actually talk to, someone who doesn’t seem at all afraid of him). “I guess you have that in common with the law; you both keep that shit consistent.”
“You callin’ me stupid?” Steve raises his eyebrows in his best I’m-Captain-America-Son look.
“I ain’t callin’ ya bright.”
“Well, I ain’t callin’ you anything,” Steve points out. “I don’t even know your name.”
The man blushes, the first time since they started mutually harassing each other, and Steve worries he came on a little thick - the world has zero idea that he’s queer, only about five people alive know (would be six, but Peggy Carter died and left a crater in his heart years ago), before the guy seems to shrug it off, the confusion in his face shuttering and being replaced with something else entirely (disappointment? Steve hopes it’s not disappointment).
“James Barnes.” He holds his hand out, and Steve nearly takes himself out on the sticky tile floor to grab it.
His hand is much smaller than Steve’s, and he swears that this fact doesn’t interest him that much - or the fact that James is so much shorter than he is, or that he’s prettier than a picture, prettier than anything Steve’s seen in years.
He tries not to let himself think that James Barnes is the best thing he’s been this close to since Wakanda; tries not to feel like he’s hurting him somehow by taking his hand; tries not to feel like he’s spreading the dust under his nails to James’ hand when he touches it; tries to tell himself that touching James Barnes shouldn’t feel like he’s getting away with something.
It’s a lot to take in during one simple handshake, and he tells himself that he’s being dramatic when he feels the earth shifting under his feet, but James smiles at him, a real smile, when Steve repeats his name.
“James Barnes,” he’s blinded, he really is, by the softness of his new friend’s smile, “I’m Steve Rogers.”
“Steve Rogers.” James smirks at him. “...My friends call me Bucky.”
“We’re friends then?” Steve asks with a teasing smile (praying that his voice doesn’t reveal the sixteen thousand exclamation points bouncing around his head because he thinks they’re friends, a friend, someone to talk to, friend ).
“Sure.” James - Bucky, his friend, Bucky - shrugs, that same one-shouldered, entirely endearing shrug. “A lot of my friends are dead, so -- I have some slots open.”
Shocked, Steve stares at Bucky, who looks completely straight-faced - until his lips twitch and he ducks his head, grinning (still so prettily, Steve doesn’t know how a person could be this pretty ). “Now I’m the fuckin’ asshole.”
When he realizes that it was a joke (a sick, awful joke, but a joke), Steve’s already laughing, hard enough that his gut hurts - he clutches the sink now for support as his laugh drops into something more hysterical, and he’s wheezing, with Bucky grinning at him, his nose wrinkled adorably, and Steve wipes his streaming eyes, trying to get his laughter under control.
“Holy fuck,” he gasps, “Fuck, almost all my friends are dead, too.”
“Great.” Bucky gestures to the door. “We should get lunch sometime.”
“I’ll try to pencil you in.” Steve sags against the sink, cheeks sore from laughing like he hasn’t in years (the last person to make him actually belly-laugh was Tony, a thought that stabs into the already aching muscles of his heart). “Have my people call your people.”
“I already told ya,” Bucky says seriously, “All my people are dead.”
Steve laughs, and stops when Bucky pushes open the door; he doesn’t know a thing about him past his name, after all, past the fact that he’s lost someone important to him, multiple someones apparently, but isn’t that everyone these days?
But then, Bucky tilts his head towards the front of the building. “You comin’? Or are you one of those assholes who keeps a busy schedule in the middle of the apocalypse?”
Steve’s out the door so fast, he’s surprised he doesn’t trip.
And here’s how it goes that first Tuesday afternoon:
He and James “Bucky” Barnes get lunch at a cheap diner four blocks away from the community center. He learns what Bucky sounds like when he laughs (a dream, rough like sandpaper but smoother than honey); he learns how Bucky likes his eggs (overeasy, with rye toast dipped in the yolk); he learns where Bucky grew up and where he currently lives (not too far from the diner, not too far from Steve’s apartment).
He doesn’t know if Bucky learns anything of value about him, but he tries to be an open book when Bucky asks questions. To be fair they’re different than the usual questions he gets slapped with in interviews and in forcibly polite conversations with diplomats, world leaders, and billionaire investors:
How come you don’t have freckles anymore? Serum get rid of those too?
You always drink your coffee with six sugars? … Christ, I’ll say that’s a sweet tooth -
You still like the Dodgers? Rogers, they moved years ago. You’re like, past the point of hipster appreciation on that one, pal.
James “Bucky” Barnes calls Steve a number of things during their first lunch together: pal (when he’s laughing), Captain (when he’s being a smartass), and Rogers (most frequently).
Everything is new and good and right when Bucky says it, so Steve doesn’t think too much of it, but when he’s walking home that afternoon, hands shoved in his pocket and a jaunty whistle in his mouth, he can’t help but wonder what his name would sound like in Bucky’s voice.
“You never told me how group therapy went,” Nat says calmly over sandwiches the next night.
“Oh.” Steve wipes a huge gob of peanut butter off his mouth and shrugs. “It was - it went well.”
“Make any new friends?” Nat asks casually, a little too casually, and Steve squints at her.
“...Maybe.” Nat’s expression doesn’t shift. “...why?”
“ Maybe I saw you leaving the center.” Nat props her feet up on the table; a lifetime ago, someone might have pointed out her lack of decorum. But these days, it’s just the two of them at team dinner (Rhodey’s in DC more often than not), so no one really cares if her dainty, stinky feet end up on the table. “ Maybe I saw you leaving the center … with a new friend.”
There isn’t a hint of accusation in her voice, but Steve stiffens all the same.
“You following me?” He frowns over the plate of sandwiches, and Nat honestly looks offended.
“I went there to see if you’d need someone to talk to after your session, Steve,” Nat manages to make him feel like a thousand ton pile of shit with very little effort, and Steve nods, fully chagrined, “But...I saw that you’d found someone to confide in already.”
Again, her face and voice are neutral, and she could very well be making a simple statement here, but Steve doesn’t hedge his bets where Natasha’s intuition is concerned.
“Is there something you wanna ask, Nat?”
“I don’t know, Steve.” She props her elbows on the table and leans towards him, tilting her head. “Is there something you wanna tell me?”
“We met after my session,” Steve says, truthfully, “And we got along pretty well. We went and got a bite to eat.”
“Is he nice?” Nat asks, and Steve feels genuinely touched at how much she means with that simple question; he’d never have guessed that the deadliest assassin in the world would care about his well-being, but it’s a terribly good feeling.
“He’s great.” Steve has a hypothesis that if he talks about Bucky for long enough, actual hearts will come out of his eyes, so he tries to limit himself. “I think we’ll get lunch again next week.”
They will get lunch again next week. Bucky Barnes has Steve’s number; he hasn’t used it yet, but he has it, and he smiled brighter than a Christmas tree when Steve plugged it into his phone.
Yeah, they’ll see each other again.
Yeah, Bucky’s the prettiest person he’s ever met.
Yeah, they’re friends .
(No, Steve isn’t being the least bit cool about it)
“He’ll be a nice friend to have,” Steve finishes somewhat lamely.
Nat nods and grabs another triangle of peanut butter and jelly; she takes a small bite and sips her water, and Steve does the same.
While he’s still drinking, Nat asks, calm as ever, “When were you going to tell me that you’re gay?”
He spits out his water and quite a bit of sandwich too. The next few moments he spends coughing and somewhat gagging over the table, as Natasha watches him, as impassively as a spider watches her meal.
“I’m not-” he wheezes, coughing twice more before sipping his water delicately, “Fuck, Nat, I’m not gay.”
“Right.” She tilts her head to the other side and stares at him. Steve suddenly feels a very fierce sympathy for everyone Nat’s ever interrogated. “But you have a crush on this handsome man from therapy, yes?”
“...” Steve stares at Nat, and she stares back at him, and he grumbles to himself before muttering, “Yes.”
“But you’re not gay?”
“No!” Steve rubs his neck before snagging a napkin and trying to wipe his mess off the table. “I’m - it’s called bisexuality, Natasha. I can be attracted to both sexes.”
“Yikes.” Nat laughs, her eyebrows lifted high. “Am I getting a lesson on sexuality from Captain America?”
He scowls at her until her giggles subside, and she becomes much more serious. “I hope he is nice,” she says, kinder than before, softer than she ever lets anyone but him (and Clint, when he was here) see. “You deserve nice.”
“I don’t know about that,” Steve whispers, soiled napkin in his hand, dust under his fingernails, settling under his skin.
Nat gets up from her chair and walks around the massive island, there in the kitchen of a building designed for dozens of people, and instead is only holding two.
She wraps her arms around Steve and tucks her head into his shoulder.
When Nat whispers, “You deserve something good, Steven Rogers,” fierce and just a little bit ragged, he thinks he can feel a little bit of the dust shaking loose.
Later that week, Steve runs past a man in his forties, taking his dog for a walk in Prospect Park. He stumbles when he moves to get around him - someone’s taking up the right side of the pathway, a kid trying to get the old, rickety water fountain to work - so he’s forced to go on the other side.
“On your left,” Steve says, as loudly as he can with his heart cracking down the middle.
Three blocks away, he collapses against the side of a building and slams his hand into the old brick. It cracks under his palm, sending shock waves up through the wall, and red dust crumbling to the ground.
“How bad was it today?” Bucky asks before their food arrives.
It’s the third Tuesday they’ve met - it’s June now, and warm all the time, hot in a way Steve used to hate when it was hard for him to breathe - and Steve’s been quiet since they sat down.
“It was….” he pauses and stirs his Coke. “I talked.”
“Yeah?” Bucky’s gaze is assessing. “Sucks pretty bad, huh?”
“It really does.” Steve laughs and lets the cool soak up into his forearms where they’re resting on the formica table.
He doesn’t know if he can tell Bucky what he talked about today; if he can talk about Sam Wilson turning to dust in his hands again, if he can mention the way Wanda’s massive, brown eyes tracked his movements as he tried to catch her, too. He doesn’t know if he can keep it together enough for the words to sludge out of him again.
Bucky’s faster on the draw.
“What?” Steve looks up from the tabletop to watch Bucky shift on his side of the booth.
He drags his right hand through his thick, dark hair before dropping it to fiddle with his utensils. He lets out a breath
“My sister.” Bucky blinks and looks up at Steve, sad and old in a way that he shouldn’t be. “She’s who I talk about. When I talk.”
Steve nods and sees that Bucky’s hand is shaking where he’s left it on the table.
He’s traveled to the end of the galaxy, traveled across centuries - the journey to cover Bucky’s hand with his own feels endless, offers him a million and one detours on the way (grab the salt - the napkins - fiddle with the fake mini jukebox - take a straw), and ends with his fingers brushing over the soft skin of Bucky’s knuckles.
He does, and does not want to ask what was her name?
He does, and does not want to ask did you see her die?
He does, and does not want to ask do you blame me, too?
Bucky’s hand is soft and warm under his fingertips, and Bucky’s eyes are the kind of blue that sinks under his skin and threatens to wash away every bad thing he’s ever done and should be holding onto, and contact with Bucky sends a thousand waves of electricity through Steve’s arm towards a heart that disintegrated years ago -
He does, and does not want to hold on.
“A reuben with extra pickle, and an All-American burger?”
The waitress has arrived with their plates, and Steve doesn’t know who startles away from whom.
He does know that the tips of his fingers blush with a heat he thought he’d forgotten as he sits up straight in his seat and takes the plates with a murmur of thanks.
He does know that Bucky stares at him over his burger for a long moment, but he pretends to be too busy with cutting his reuben to notice.
“Buck?” His friend looks up, a blush on his cheeks that makes Steve’s stomach coil tight.
“Yeah, Rogers?” Bucky’s voice is hoarse again, the way it usually is when he hasn’t spoken in a while.
“Uh,” Steve stares down at his plate again, at the utensils in his hand and then looks up, pointing his knife at Bucky’s plate. “Want me to get that for you?”
Bucky looks like he’s half a second away from dumping his Sprite on Steve’s head; and honestly, Steve thinks Bucky probably should dump his Sprite on his head.
He wonders when Captain America became a coward.
Steve helps Susan from group move to a new apartment a week later, and he tells himself it doesn’t hurt to watch her hang up her wife’s clothing.
“She always liked the right side of the closet,” Susan explains, and Steve nods as he hands her another pair of shoes, a pair much too small to be worn by Susan.
She’s crying an hour later when Steve finds her in the kitchen; he’d only walked in to wash his hands, and now he wishes he’d used the bathroom sink.
“Sorry,” she shakes her head and collapses against the counter. “I’m - fuck, I’m sorry. It’s just - It’s so stupid - I just remembered - Amy’s never going to live here.”
Susan covers her face with her hands, and she cries like her heart has cracked wide open for the second time (but Steve knows enough of grief to know that this is probably the twentieth time, the hundredth, the thousandth).
“Do you think she would have liked these cupboards?” Steve asks for something to say.
The cupboards are a heinous yellow-green with rusted handles; Steve thinks they deserve a date with a sledgehammer.
“She would have,” Susan hiccups, “hated them.”
“Alright.” Steve puts his hands on his hips and nods firmly. “That does it. Get your bag.”
“My bag?” Susan blinks and looks at Steve like he’s lost his mind.
“We’re going to the store,” Steve explains, grabbing Susan’s key from the end of the counter. “So we can buy paint and fix those sons of bitches.”
And when they paint them, a rich dark brown that Susan says reminds her of Amy’s eyes, they use the smaller brushes to scrawl things like S&A and AWM and SGR SUX, letters that shine in the kitchen light like chocolate stars until they bury them under fresh layers of paint.
“I swear to God, Rogers, you eat enough to make up for half the borough disappearing.”
“Ha, ha.” Steve shoves another bite of burger into his mouth and chews obnoxiously. “I eat a lot, very funny.”
“No.” Bucky shakes his head, blue-grey eyes serious. “Horses eat a lot. Cows eat a lot. Elephants eat a lot. You? It’s - it’s fuckin’ paradoxical.”
“How so?” Steve chugs a bit of milkshake and frowns at Bucky.
Bucky points at his mouth, and Steve wipes whipped cream off his lip with a furious blush that he swears Bucky has to notice.
“You’re still so skinny!” Bucky says with a solid tone of incredulity. “Like, buff-skinny, sure, but you eat like you should look like Jabba the Hut.”
“I get that reference!” Steve beams, elated. “God, the kid made me watch that half a dozen times.”
He laughs at the memory - Wanda Maximoff, her feet tucked under her, leaning towards the screen with a universe in her eyes that didn’t look like it hurt her for once - until he’s not laughing.
Bucky licks his bottom lip, a move that would normally command much more of Steve’s attention. “...the kid?”
“Wanda,” Steve whispers, hand clenching into a fist on his knee. The food he’d just consumed sits heavily inside him, an albatross weighing him down.
“You had a daughter?” Bucky looks upset suddenly, and Steve shakes his head, smiling slightly, half to quell Bucky’s anxiety, half at a memory of Wanda in 2016, getting him to pretend to be her dad so she could get her nose pierced.
(They’d giggled like they were getting away with something, the tiny Romani Jewish girl with dark red hair and a thick accent pretending that the massive blonde man from Brooklyn was her dad, they’d giggled and giggled in the tattoo parlor and played up the lie they’d practiced, and the artist had given them a very long look and a riiiight before shrugging and handing Wanda a pamphlet on post-piercing skin care)
“No, Wanda was - she was sort of adopted by the team after we freed her from Hydra.” His head hasn’t unclenched under the table, and he knows his fingernails are biting into his palm, leaving deep red grooves that will fade before Bucky can ever see them. “She was just a kid though. Seventeen when we were fighting Thanos. Seventeen when she…” He trails off.
“So a little sister then?”
“My sister was sixteen minutes older than me.”
Steve looks up in sharp surprise - he knows Bucky had a sister, lost a sister. For some reason, the thought that she was Bucky’s twin hits him like a train; there’s entire worlds they don’t know about each other.
“Never let me forget it.” Bucky’s smiling like it hurts around the edges, and Steve’s overwhelmed with the urge to hold his hand again. “Pain in my ass. You woulda gotten along great - have that in common.”
“I’m a pain in your ass?” Steve asks, smirking.
There’s a dozen ridiculously impolite comments he could make about Bucky’s ass and the idea of him being anywhere near it, but this doesn’t seem like the time.
“You’re a monumental pain in the ass,” Bucky corrects. “Rebecca was just a normal pain in the ass.”
Rebecca Barnes , Steve catalogues. Rebecca Barnes, sister to James Barnes. Pain in the ass.
“Hey, we all start out as amateurs,” Steve says with a shrug. “Only a few of us are annoying enough to make it to the big leagues.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Bucky’s smile hurts less now, and he ducks his head to grin at his plate.
Steve takes the opportunity to inhale the rest of his burger; Bucky looks up, still grinning, and catches him in the act.
“Let me guess, Rogers: you’re gonna want to see the dessert menu?’
Steve had woke that morning to find an uncontrollable itch under his skin again; thirty miles later, he’d found himself facing the ocean in a different borough, his toenails bleeding and lungs burning, and he’d screamed towards the water, a nameless, wordless kind of rage that felt too big to keep inside his body a second longer.
No matter what that was, it was a calorie-burning monstrosity, so Steve shifts guiltily and nods.
Bucky’s grin grows a little more ornery, and he flags down the passing waitress.
“Excuse me, miss?”
Steve hums as he makes dinner on a Wednesday in late June; Natasha looks up from her tablet when he’s halfway through I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you sing before.”
He gives the macaroni another stir and grins at Natasha. “I’m not singin’.”
“Yes, you’re singin’.” She mocks his accent with a bright smile that wouldn’t have fit on her face ten years ago. “Why are you singin’, Mr. Rogers?”
“Just in a good mood is all.” Steve sticks his tongue at her when her smile becomes painfully brilliant. “And again: I’m not singin’. You would know if I was singin’.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes.” Steve gives the spoon a shake on the side of the pot and nods seriously. “Because it would sound somethin’ like this:
“ I don't want to set the world on fire... ”
He warbles awfully, playing up his normal tone-deafness, the cheesy spoon in front of his mouth like a microphone.
“That’s awful ,” Nat laughs, hand in front of her mouth, “Oh my God, make it stop-”
“Why, honey, I’m just gettin’ started.” Steve rocks his hips awkwardly and keeps singing: “ I just want to start a flame -” He jumps around the island with a tremolo; Nat jumps off her seat, shrieking with laughter, “ in your heart -”
“I just want to go back to when I didn’t know what your singing sounded like!” Nat declares, and Steve hoots in faux-indignation before chasing her around the island.
Somehow, Steve ends up with cheese in his hair, and Nat ends up on top of a cabinet, but they’re both laughing hard enough that tears stream down their faces, and somewhere along the way, Steve feels a roughshod ache in his chest, one that feels an awful lot like he remembers about living.
Steve runs down the street with the sun crawling on the horizon, warming his back, and he staggers when he catches sight of a familiar figure, walking along with a grocery bag in his hand, the sleeve of his well-fitting grey t-shirt pinned on the left side.
“Bucky!” Steve shouts, waving before Bucky even turns around. “Hey! Buck!”
“You followin’ me, Rogers?” Bucky asks with a grin, and Steve laughs nervously as he slows to a stop.
He regrets, ridiculously enough, not running this route before. What if he could have bumped into Bucky before now, Bucky on a not-Tuesday, Bucky in the morning, Bucky with his pretty hair combed back from his face, Bucky with a t-shirt that fits him like sin, Bucky who -
Bucky who’s staring at him, clearly waiting for him to say something.
“Want to get breakfast?” Steve asks, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder as though a diner would magically sprout out of the concrete of Brooklyn right behind him if he wished hard enough.
“Some of us have responsibilities, Rogers.” Bucky rolls his eyes. “Gotta get to work.”
“Oh. Right.” Steve nods, wringing his hands together.
That’s cool, he should say, have a great day ! Instead, he says: “Can I walk you there?”
“Can you-” Bucky’s mouth hangs open as though he’s working out the solution to some frustrating problem. “You want to-”
“Sorry!” Steve shakes his head, hands raised, “I don’t know why I-”
“C’mon.” Bucky sighs, a great, long-suffering sigh, and nods down the block. “It’s this way.”
Steve notices as he follows along at Bucky’s side that the bag he’s holding contains a dozen bright green tennis balls. He wonders why Bucky would make a purposeful stop on his way to work to collect them - until they turn the corner and the noise coming from a building up ahead tells him why.
“No.” Steve’s jaw drops as he takes in the sign out front.
“Yep.” Bucky hands him the bag of tennis balls as he digs through his pocket, pulling out a key. “You gonna be cool about this?”
“You work with dogs ?” Steve asks shrilly. “I love dogs!”
Not that he loves dogs in a weird way, of course. He likes dogs a healthy amount. A normal amount. Completely normal.
“I do.” Bucky snorts as he opens the door. “I also work with cats, and rabbits, and birds - and sometimes even the odd iguana.”
“Meep!” Something large and furry rams into Steve’s legs as he crosses the threshold into the animal shelter. “Oh my God, hello.”
He drops down to roll around on the floor with the golden retriever that has clearly, very quickly determined how much of a non-threat Steve Rogers is to dogs, and by the time he disentangles himself from the fluffball, he sees Bucky smiling at him with a strange look in his eyes.
“What?” Steve asks, burying his face in the dog’s ruff. “Ugh, this is amazing.”
“Of course you like dogs,” Bucky mutters, quiet enough that Steve will think later that he wasn’t meant to hear it.
“Huh?” He looks up from his new best friend, frowning.
“Nothing.” Bucky shakes his head with a sigh. “Nothing, but c’mon, leave Atticus alone, I have other patients to see today.”
He follows Bucky down the kennel - the sheer amount of noise that greets them when Bucky cracks open the door is cacophonous and joyful and overwhelming all at once - with Atticus hot on their heels.
“I didn’t know you worked with animals,” Steve says as Bucky fumbles with the door knob to the office in the back.
“Huh?” Bucky’s face is screwed up as he tries to listen to Steve over the crashing din. “Hang on a sec-”
He lets them into the office (Atticus jumps into a beaten-up old brown armchair with a huff of happiness and falls asleep almost immediately) and closes the door, which blocks out some of the noise.
“I didn’t know you worked with animals,” Steve repeats.
Bucky plunks down at the desk - there’s no open seat in the room, thanks to Atticus, so Steve stays standing - and begins to rifle through some paperwork.
“Uh, yeah.” Bucky shrugs and opens the desk drawer to pull out a pair of thick glasses.
Steve’s mouth goes dry at the sight of Bucky Barnes frowning thoughtfully, wearing a dander-covered t-shirt and a pair of dorky glasses. Lord above, he’s fucked.
“I was in vet school before…” Bucky’s ears are red as he waves his hand dismissively. His eyes don’t leave the paperwork. “Had a year left. Program sorta dissolved,” they both wince at his choice of words, “but I still had a lotta skills, and there were a lotta animals without homes suddenly. So I came here.”
“Wow.” Steve has an overpowering urge to kiss this man suddenly, an urge that’s really a need disguised as a solid ache in his chest, so he does something else with his mouth, which is talking, something Steve Rogers is, generally speaking, terrible at. “And you’re here by yourself?”
“What?” Bucky looks up and laughs, which does nothing to relieve the ache in Steve’s chest which is spreading to his hands and spreading to his mouth and spreading to his - “No! There’s like half a dozen people who work here, I just provide somewhat legal medical care and I’m on payroll as somethin’ other than Sketchy Vet.”
“Gotcha.” Steve shifts and glances at the door. “...Could I …”
“Could you what?” Bucky goes back to his paperwork.
“Could I volunteer?”
That makes him look up again. “Sorry?”
“Could I volunteer … with the … dogs?” Steve winces his way through the question and prays Bucky doesn’t see through it as a hope for seeing him more often because he also really does like animals. “Y’know. Sometimes? I can - I can probably hold a lot of leashes at once.”
Oh, fuck him.
“That’s probably true.” Bucky sits back and taps his pen on his ledger. “I’ll ask the manager.”
He goes back to his paperwork, and Steve’s thinking that he’s probably supposed to leave now, when Bucky snorts and turns around to grab a packet of paper. He throws it on the desk, a few inches from the edge and returns to his ledger. “Fill that out.”
“I thought you had to ask the manager?”
“I am the manager, dipshit.” Bucky rolls his eyes, but it’s fond, and Steve’s insides go soft. “Go on, fill it out.”
He scrambles to grab the packet and sits cross-legged on the floor before remembering that he doesn’t have a pen. He looks around hopefully, and of course Bucky notices. He hands him another pen with a snort, his eyes flicking over to Atticus. “Y’know, you can make him move.”
“I know.” Steve clicks the pen and starts to fill out the first form. “Doesn’t seem right, somehow.”
“Big softie. Those dogs are gonna walk all over you.” Bucky sounds a little too gleeful at the thought, but Steve’s pretty gleeful too because he’s going to volunteer with Bucky and Bucky is so pretty and he gets to spend time with dogs for fun -
He hands Bucky the packet a few minutes later, and Bucky looks over them, nodding.
“Well, there’s usually a ten day waiting period where I get someone to do a background check, but I have a feeling if I ran a background check on you, I’d have the FBI on my ass, huh?” Bucky grabs a t-shirt from behind the desk and throws it at Steve. “Also, considering it’s your birthday - you’re hired.”
“It’s my birthday?” Steve asks, blinking in confusion as he stands from the floor, t-shirt in his hands.
“It’s the Fourth of July,” Bucky smirks and taps the calendar that’s hanging up near the door. “It’s basically the worst day of the year at the shelter - today and tomorrow.”
“Fireworks.” Steve nods somberly.
“People are so goddamn sad the rest of the year.” Bucky blows some hair out of his eyes. “But they still love their fuckin’ fireworks.”
“Ridiculous,” Steve agrees because he’s still feeling oddly like floating.
“Help out today and keep this place from burning down in the next twenty-four hours,” Bucky instructs, reaching for a clipboard and a bag of medicine that he wears across his body. “And I might just take you to brunch later this week.”
Steve chokes a little bit because is that an offer of a date ?
“You won’t be busy, will you?” Bucky looks shy, so that’s a mark in the might be a date column.
“No!” Steve shakes his head vigorously and feels even more like his feet might lift off the ground. “Only…”
“Only what?” Bucky bites his bottom lip, and Steve forgets any kind of common sense.
“Only I don’t like brunch.”
“Who the fuck doesn’t like brunch?” Bucky waves at him with the clipboard, rolling his eyes despite Steve’s spluttering; he tells himself later he only imagined the flash of disappointment on Bucky’s face. “Never mind. Get to work - Flora’s the shift leader, and she can get you started on Kennel E. Hope you like shoveling shit, Rogers.”
“Love it,” Steve says weakly, but Bucky’s already disappeared onto the floor.
Steve doesn’t have too much time to kick himself because Flora’s waiting for him, a power hose and squeegee in her hand.
Lunch once a week becomes lunch on Tuesdays plus coffee in the break room twice a week plus walks after busy shifts.
Steve feels like a cup running over on those days, and he whistles when he makes Nat dinner; he runs to feel himself move and not to beat back the urge to rip his hair out or to pull the muscle from his bones, and he visits Sam’s mother for two days in late summer; he takes Rhodey on a trip to Philadelphia where they jokingly make Rocky poses in front of the museum, and there’s a name that sits heavily between them the whole time but goes unsaid; Steve laughs like he doesn’t think he deserves, and he says as much in therapy until Jerry flicks him in the ear and tells him to laugh anyway and worry about deserving later.
The summer unspools through his fingers like a ball of golden thread, and Steve feels the dust shaking loose, bit by bit.
He learns where Bucky lives in September; Bucky sends him his address and a request to meet him there as soon as possible.
Steve’s heart thuds in his chest as he sprints there; it’s not five blocks from his own apartment, but anxiety makes everything slow down as his body speeds up, and he bursts up the stairs and pounds on Bucky’s door, soaked by the rain that’s started to fall outside, cloaking Brooklyn in a strange pre-fall fog.
The door opens a second later, and he tumbles into the apartment, slightly out of breath.
“Are you -” he gasps, eyes darting around the room, “-okay?”
“Come in.” Bucky kicks the door shut behind Steve and jabs his finger at the small kitchen table. “And sit your ass down.”
“Uh.” Steve sits as instructed and stares at Bucky, who begins pacing the length of his studio apartment restlessly. “...Everything okay, Buck?”
“Don’t you Buck me, Rogers,” Bucky snaps. “You know what you did.”
“I -” Steve is the embodiment of agape right now. “What did I do?”
“You-” Bucky snarls and grabs a letter from the couch, stomping over and slapping it on the table in front of him. “There!”
The logo in the top corner is devastatingly familiar, and Steve swallows past the wave of anxiety to read the letter’s contents:
Dear James B. Barnes,
Your application to Stark Industries’ prototype prosthetics program has been accepted as of September 3, 2021. We know the wait has been a long one, and we assure you that we have carefully examined health insurance options, suitable recovery schedules, and physical therapy possibilities during our consideration of your application -
He stops reading and looks up at Bucky, confused. “This is good news, right?”
“I mean-” Bucky makes a strangled noise and kicks the table. He howls in pain and hops up and down; when Steve half-stands with an alarmed noise, he waves a hand at him and hisses, “Sit back down! I’m not done yelling!”
“Okay.” Steve sits back down and folds his hands in his lap. “Can I ask what it is you think I did?”
“I think,” Bucky hops up and down a few more times before gripping the edge of the table and leaning over, scowling ferociously, “I think that you pulled some strings with your little Iron Buddy. I think that - that you pity me--”
“-I don’t p-”
“-that you’ve been pitying me,” Bucky stands up straight and raises his voice, pointing his finger at Steve, “and that you went behind my back to ask Stark to get me into a program before other people in line, people who damn well deserve a shot more than me-”
“Bucky!” Steve shouts, standing up from the table. His heart is racing worse than it did on the way over here. “Bucky, please - I don’t pity you! Of course I don’t - I - I respect you, so, so much-”
Bucky roars again and turns from the table, clutching at his left side. His head hangs down, and the anger and tension bleeds out of his body; Steve’s enhanced hearing picks up a ragged sob that he lets out a second later.
“Buck.” Steve’s heart breaks on that one syllable - all the ways it’s broken the last few years, of course Bucky Barnes would be the one to decimate it, turn him inside out worse than he already is. “Bucky, I - I haven’t spoken to Tony Stark in over three years.”
The surprise that radiates from Bucky doesn’t require verbalization, and he hides his face from Steve as he wipes his nose.
“So if I had tried to put in a good word for you - and I didn’t even know you’d applied to any sort of Stark program, please, believe me - if I had reached out on your behalf, you probably never would have been accepted to the program.”
“...What the fuck did you do to him, Rogers?” Bucky asks, sniffing and turning around, his face beet red, his eyes watering, but still the most beautiful thing Steve’s ever seen.
“You got a minute?” Steve asks, rubbing his neck. “...Or a few hours?”
Bucky stares at him, still curled in on himself like a cornered animal, but he loosens a little bit and sighs. “I’ll get the coffee started.”
Natasha is mostly silent for the flight over, but that’s not an oddity.
Steve fiddles with the controls as they soar over the north Atlantic, but Nat bumps his wrists until he moves out of the way - she realizes without asking why his shoulders go so tense at the sight of ice on the water below.
“Go write your sweetheart a letter or something,” Nat jokes in a way that isn’t a joke, and Steve settles a few dozen feet back in the quinjet, at an angle that he can’t see the expanse of endless blue stretching out beneath them - an azure that once imprisoned him, but now creates a dual loneliness in his chest, the thought of isolation, and the thought of something else entirely, something he’s flying steadily away from at three times the speed of sound.
It’s the thought of the blue that makes him put pen to paper, taking Nat’s advice to heart even if she didn’t fully mean it.
Today I realized that I’m less afraid of the ocean now. I was never afraid of the water as a kid. Would pester my ma to take me to the beach any time she had a day off and I wasn’t sick. But then everything happened with the war, and I haven’t been able to think of the water without feeling like I was drowning all over again.
Been feeling as though I were still in the water for years, but I guess you know that isn’t the case anymore. I remember waking up from the ice. Hurt, almost worse than the serum did. Hurt to remember to learn how to breathe. Almost wished I was back down there half the time, frozen and far away from anything that could hurt.
I think after everything in Wakanda, I relearned how to bury myself in the ice while still being afraid of water. Things couldn’t hurt if I couldn’t feel anything. But that changed, Buck. And I think you know why. It hurts, so goddamned much, to have to live in the world again. It hurts when I see you smile. It hurts when you yell at me. It hurts when you don’t say my name. And I wouldn’t trade any of that hurt, for anything in the world.
I’m not afraid of the ocean anymore, not when it reminds me of something familiar. It reminds me of home. All this water, Buck, and it’s trying to copy the color of your eyes. It’ll never keep up. Guess that makes me feel bad for it, in a way. Imagine. A person feeling bad for the biggest thing on the planet. The hubris.
None of this makes sense. And I guess I mean the letter when I say that. But I also mean that it doesn’t make sense that I’m allowed to feel any sort of way about you when I don’t deserve to be out of the ice. Not yet, anyway.
Steve folds the letter up into the tiniest possible square and hides it in his palm. He rests against the bulkhead, rocking his skull against it as he presses his hand to his knee, feeling the faint indent of the letter he’ll never have the guts to send.
“I’m in love with him,” Steve Rogers says quietly, the realization that’s quiet and terrible all at once rising up inside him, too big to hold back. “I’m in love with Bucky.”
“Mark the time,” Nat responds from the front of the plane, her voice expressionless and bored to anyone who doesn’t know her. Steve can hear her keen edge of humor, though. “8:56 a.m. on October the Second. Captain America becomes Captain Obvious.”
Steve has half a mind to throw the crumpled letter at her head, but that would mean letting it go.
When they land half an hour later, they’re met by a small group of attendants wearing resplendent robes of gold and green.
“It’s harvest time,” Bergjlot, the leader of the group, explains as they walk through the village. “Or there would be more to greet you.”
In the fields, dozens work with horses and oxen, and they’re singing something that settles deep and powerful inside Steve’s chest. He feels the urge to cry then, inexplicable and encompassing, and when he glances at Nat, he sees an oddly open emotion on her face, one that matches what he feels.
“This is more than adequate, thank you, Bergljot,” Steve answers warmly, trading smiles with the youngest of the group, a girl who doesn’t look older than sixteen.
Her hair is the color of flames, he realizes, and her brown eyes look familiar in a way that should bring him to her knees. But, her face is flushed with a vitality that suits her, and her face is unlined by grief, and Steve finds that he’s happy for this girl, happy for her to live and survive in a town of her people. There is no grudge and no guilt to her life, only the sort of joy that punches a ragged hole in him with its intensity.
They’re brought to a large, beautiful home at the edge of New Asgard, and Bergljot announces their presence to the guards at the door. They look at her quizzically, and when nothing happens a few moments after their arrival, Bergljot looks politely pained.
They all turn to see the king of Asgard cresting a nearby hill.
He’s holding a bale of hay on one shoulder, and holding a child by the hand; his beard is longer than Steve’s ever seen it, and from a distance, flecks of gold shimmer in it - beads, he realizes as Thor draws nearer, beads woven into tiny plaits in his beard, that match the larger braids in his thick mane of hair.
Thor is larger than he’s ever been, softer too, not that it lessens the power that radiates from him. His blue eyes are still staggeringly bright, and he laughs as he approaches, a noise that rings out and echoes in the hills, and Steve swears the sunlight flares upon the village when he does.
“My lord,” Bergljot says, a little scoldingly, “You are not meant to work in the fields.”
“Nonsense.” Thor throws the bale of hay down in front of his door and releases the child, who scampers away towards the stables. “Gunhild! I do not wish to catch you among the horses again!” He chuckles at the sight of the retreating child and returns his gaze to Bergljot. “A king’s place is among his people, my lady Bergljot. Would you not agree?”
She tsks and beckons for her attendants to follow her as she walks away from the king, who roars with laughter at her, “You are unchanged from your youth, my king.”
“I think you will find I am quite changed, Bergljot,” he answers. It’s quiet though, quiet enough that perhaps it wasn’t meant in response to her at all. His eyes look ancient suddenly as he puts his hands on his wide hips, a trembling breath shaking his broad chest. “Quite changed.”
Like a passing cloud, the grief is gone, and Thor smiles at Steve and Natasha. “I am greatly pleased to see you, my friends. Come, let us dine and you can tell me of your time in the New York.”
Thor drinks a frightening amount at lunch, something that Natasha also notes with concern, judging by the way her eyes tighten over the course of their meal.
“And how have you been, Friend-Steve?” Thor asks after he’s wiped away the foam of his sixth pitcher of mead, after he’s told them tales of life in New Asgard, of his friends from his days as an unwilling gladiator, after he’s slapped his (admittedly large) belly and made a joke at his own expense regarding Midgardian food and his waistline that neither Nat nor Steve laugh at (after he says the name Loki by accident and stares out the window for thirty seconds, hands tight on his flagon).
Steve runs his fingers along the handle of his mug for a second, thinking about how he could phrase the debilitating freeze he’s endured for the last three and a half years without alarming Thor. But, he looks at Thor - the strong king, mighty Thor, Thor the great and powerful, laughing and working and pretending to be fine - and he feels a bravery shake loose inside him, one that he doesn’t think he’s ever felt before, except in glimmers when his group meets.
“It’s been awful,” he says truthfully, and Thor frowns, concerned. “I - I’ve been depressed. Yeah. It’s - it’s been a pretty rough few years, and I hate feeling useless, and I miss being able to fight and knowing where the fight even is. But I’ve been working on it, and I’m feeling better. It just seems like … like the fight is inside me now.” He sips his mead, thoughtful in the warm autumn sunshine that filters through the window above them. “It’s one of the hardest fights of my life, I think. But it’s a good fight.”
“I admire your candor, Captain,” Thor says softly, staring at the table and tracing the carved patterns there. “I must admit, there are times where I feel this … intense darkness inside of myself. As though the prophecy that was shown to me through our little Witch all those years ago was not about Ragnarok of the universe, but rather Ragnarok of my soul.” He looks up and offers them both a shaky smile, like he hadn’t just carved them both open with his ragged admission. “Although I suppose kings are not meant to think such things, but rather, are meant to learn to ignore them.”
Nat covers his hand with her own, and he stills under the weight of her tiny fingers. Her pale skin is striking against his golden tan.
“You’re more than a king,” she reminds him, and Thor’s beard trembles. “You’re our friend, and we don’t need you to be a king with us.”
Salt water sluices down the still powerful jaw of the mighty Thor, and when Steve moves to place a hand on Thor’s shoulder, he feels an electricity jump through his body that feels like so much more than lightning.
“I thank you,” Thor whispers after a long quiet stretches between the three of them. “I find that it is hard now, to find friends who allow me to be myself among them.”
“You never have to look,” Steve swears, tightening his grip on Thor’s shoulder until Thor clasps his hand, squeezing his fingers in return. “We’ll always be there for you, buddy.”
“Whatever it takes,” Nat promises, and the three of them share in the warmth of the afternoon, basking in their quiet oath together.
“Why do you think it is that you’re so willing to fight, Steve?”
Dr. Gonzalez stares at him steadily across the circle, as though he hasn’t just asked a question worth hundreds of pages of words that Steve can’t seem to find.
“I’m not sure, doc.” Steve shrugs and threads his fingers together. At his side, Susan gives him an encouraging nod and a smile - they’d gotten dinner last week, him and Susan and Jerry - and Jerry clears his throat when Steve doesn’t talk.
“I mean, I got drafted,” Jerry laughs harshly. “You signed up for it, right, Captain?”
Steve nods and rubs a hand along his clean shaven jaw.
(He does not think or wonder or speculate what Bucky’s going to say when he sees his clean shaven jaw, or his haircut, which echoes the military-approved cut he had when he came out of the ice, but mixed with something the kids call an undercut. He specifically did not ask the very cute barber what he thought might be attractive, or what kinda look might say I am single and ready to mingle, hello ! Steve can be chill about things. He can.)
“Yeah.” He goes back to resting his elbows on his knees, a much more slumped posture than normal; in a room full of former soldiers, he doesn’t feel the need to act the part. “Yeah, I signed up for it. Wanted to fight more than anything. Feels like I’ve been fighting my whole life.”
“Fighting for what, Steve?” Dr. Gonzalez asks patiently.
Doesn’t anyone else wanna talk? He thinks in shades of grey and black, a cloud of doubt swallowing him whole.
Fighting for the country, of course! Don’t forget to buy some war bonds so I can sock ol’ Adolf on the jaw! He thinks with the flag as a backdrop, showgirls lined up behind him.
For the right to live. He thinks of blue eyes and a full, red mouth, of dark hair that looks softer than anything, of hands in his own, of dates he’s never been on, of the ache in his chest that reminds him that he’s alive even if he doesn’t think he deserves to be.
“It’s all I’ve ever known,” he says instead, hoping the doctor won’t care that he doesn’t quite answer the question there. “I learned how to fight from the best, so it’s been … pretty second-nature since then.”
“Colonel Phillips?” Jerry guesses, and Steve shakes his head with a wry grin.
“Sarah Rogers.” The group doesn’t say anything, and Steve wraps his arms around his middle like it’ll stop his guts from spilling out on the floor. “My ma. She was a nurse in the first world war, where she met my father. He was dead before the end of the war, and she came here eight months pregnant with me. An Irish Catholic immigrant, a widow who coulda very well had her baby out of wedlock for all the other folks in the tenement could care. But she made it work. Hell, she made it work. Ma was the kinda lady who would brawl with the devil himself if he looked at her funny.”
There’s a few giggles around the circle, and Steve smiles in earnest, ducking his head.
“I guess that’s where I learned how to fight. My ma wasn’t a bruiser, not in the traditional way. She never threw a punch, never got her hands dirty unless it was helpin’ someone out. But my ma taught me that you always, always get back up. No matter the size of the fight, or the bully, you get back up.”
He dries his suddenly clammy palms on his trousers and nods, swallowing past the lump in his throat. “I think - know - she wouldn’t want me to give up. So, I fight for Sarah Rogers, and she woulda fought for the little guy too. No matter who they were. I’m willing to fight because my ma looked at a world who thought she was scum, and said So what? I’ll save you anyway. ”
After they call it a wrap that day, Simon, who Steve has never spoken to, comes up to him at the card table laden with coffee and water.
He’s fiddling with the earring at the top of his eyebrow when he talks, his eyes on the floor - survived an IED, Steve knows, survived death in the desert only to watch his best friend die on American soil - and he asks something that shakes Steve a little bit, shakes him past all the ghosts he’s got stacked on top of each other:
“Does Captain America hate gay people?”
“Pardon?” Steve freezes with his hands on the creamer.
“Sorry, it’s just - Entertainment Tonight, 2012. They asked you in an interview if you hated gay people - not - not Steve Rogers, but they said does Captain America hate gay people? - and it was right after Matt Bomer had come out, and you sorta gave a non-answer. So...I’m asking now.” Steve’s still shocked, speechless, and Simon squirms visibly. “I’m not - a reporter or anything, I just … I need to know, for me, y’know? I need to know if you’d … if you’d fight for me too.”
Simon looks close to tears, and Steve can’t even remember that fucking interview, but he clears his throat.
“I had a script,” Steve says honestly. “That whole first year out of the ice - SHIELD gave me a script, and I stuck to it.” I had to stick to scripts, he wants to say, All the videos you’ve seen of me. The government sorta owned my body even if they couldn’t get their hands on my soul.
“Right.” Simon nods, hands fumbling with an empty styrofoam cup now. “Right, of course, uh, forget - forget I asked, sorry-”
“Simon.” He freezes in front of Steve now, nervous and trembling in a way that makes Steve want to cry. “Hey.” He puts his hand on Simon’s shoulder, his thin shoulder that feels cold even through the sweatshirt he’s wearing. “Captain America fought for everyone. For their right to live. For their right to love. It doesn’t matter who you are. Captain America fought for you. And I’d be happy to do it again.”
“Y-yeah?” Simon half-smiles, still fidgeting with his cup. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you managed to save the world, Captain.”
“You can call me Steve,” he says firmly, squeezing Simon’s shoulder with as much pressure as he can without hurting him, and then he lets him go. “Friends don’t call me Captain.”
He doesn’t correct Simon on his faulty assumption that Steve Rogers could save anyone these days.
It doesn’t seem like that kind of conversation.
The last Tuesday in October, Bucky Barnes almost kills Steve Rogers.
Well, kills in the sense that Steve feels his heart stop when Bucky drops a ridiculously casual comment during their lunch after group, and kills in the sense that Steve almost chokes to death when he makes said statement so very casually:
“I met Tony Stark.”
He keeps salting his fries, and doesn’t look up until he hears Steve choking on a particularly large chunk of sauerkraut that went down the wrong tube.
“W-what?” Steve wheezes, coughing viciously. Bucky sets the salt shaker down and slides him a glass of water, slightly alarmed, and he doesn’t speak again until Steve’s finished expelling the fermented cabbage from his trachea. “Holy f- what? You met who ?”
“Anthony Edward Stark,” Bucky says slowly, hand still reached out towards Steve in concern. He gives Steve a questioning look, until Steve waves an impatient hand, silently imploring him to explain. “He was at my consult yesterday.”
“He came to your consult?” Steve repeats incredulously. Not that it would be odd for Tony to oversee a project, more like, the idea of Tony actually existing on this plane when Steve hasn’t seen him in years is odd and strange and uncomfortable and disconcerting and -
“He said that he likes to watch his babies make history, or some shit.” Bucky wrinkles his nose adorably, and Steve tries not to sigh like a lovesick maiden (and it helps that he’s still somewhat coughing from his near-sauerkraut-death experience). “We got along pretty well, at least until I … uh…”
“Until I mentioned that we were friends,” Bucky mutters.
Now, Bucky Barnes being Steve Rogers’ friend has been a goddamn marvel for the last five months; Steve can’t get over it most of the time, how seamlessly Bucky fits into his life, how funny Bucky is, how gorgeous he is, how equal-parts asshole and angel he is - but right now, friend sounds like a curse to Steve. Right now, he’s fully considering how Steve Rogers being Bucky Barnes’ friend could screw Bucky Barnes over.
“How did that go?” The question punches itself out of Steve.
“Not well.” Bucky lifts his right shoulder in a shrug. “Really not well. He, uh, sorta walked outta the consult and took the prototype with him-”
“He fucking what?” Steve’s already standing from the booth. He throws his napkin down on he table and grabs his jacket. “Like fuck he did - we’ll go see him right now, Buck, and I’ll fuckin’ tell him we ain’t leavin’ ‘til he puts you back in the program-”
“Rogers!” Bucky lifts his eyebrows bemusedly and gestures at the empty seat. “Sit down and lemme finish, will ya?”
Steve drops his jacket back on the booth and settle with a huff in front of his pastrami on rye. Bucky lets out a tense breath and shakes his head.
“Were you plannin’ on fightin’ for my honor there, Rogers?”
“Maybe,” Steve mutters, ears on fire from how hard he blushes at the unbidden image of Steve as a knight defending Bucky while they ride through a dark forest on a white horse, pursued by knights in red-metal armor -
- He needs to stop borrowing romance novels from Nat -
“Sheesh.” Bucky taps the table with a fond smile on his handsome face. “My hero.” Steve blushes, if possible, even harder, and it doesn’t in anyway abate as Bucky continues talking. “So, as I was saying, Stark walked out with the prototype, and I could hear him shouting from behind the door - and two minutes later, Pepper Potts herself came marching back in there, and she’s got the arm in one hand, and Stark’s jacket in the other, just draggin’ him along.”
“Sounds like Pepper,” Steve says, fond despite the still-present fear in his chest. “What happened then?”
“Ms. Potts apologized on account of her husband’s rude behavior, and then she left us to have a little chat about professional-personal boundaries.” Bucky sighs wistfully, and Steve thinks Pepper’s clearly got another Potts Fan Club member on her hands.
“And then Stark and I talked for an hour or so, talked about our lives, our trauma, made each other friendship bracelets-” Bucky rolls his eyes at Steve’s jaw drop. “Kidding, obviously. We did talk, but we uh, we got along pretty well, and my surgery’s slated for the start of the new year.”
“Really?” Something flutters in Steve’s chest - happiness, he realizes, relief that he didn’t ruin Bucky’s life from afar. “That’s - that’s fantastic, Buck.”
“Yeah.” Bucky’s pink in the face now as he smiles down at the tabletop. “Stark says I got a lot of work cut out for me in physical therapy before and after the surgery, and we’ll have to do a few more sessions to figure out the neural connections, but … but I think this is going to be really, really good for me.”
His hand is on the table still, and Steve takes a deep breath and takes the plunge: he puts his hand on top of Bucky’s and squeezes delicately, hyper-aware of the shift and slide of Bucky’s bones under his grip. Bucky lifts his gaze to Steve’s face, and it takes a lot of strength not to look away, not to lean over the table and kiss him sweet and gentle, the way he’s wanted to for months.
“Can I ask why you would risk it?” Steve asks in hushed tones, not wanting to startle the soft, warm moment that’s sprung up between them. “You knew things were shit between me and Tony - why would you risk it like that?”
“Well,” Bucky looks like he’s thinking for a second, his expression growing serious. “First: you’re the most self-deprecating asshole I ever met, Rogers. I’m sure you made yourself look as bad as possible in the story you told me; and I still thought you didn’t do anything all that bad, so I figured Tony Stark didn’t totally hate you.”
He wants to argue back, but Bucky doesn’t look like he’s finished, and if there’s anyone in th e world Steve will wait for, it’s Bucky Barnes.
“And second…” Bucky bites his bottom lip hard enough that Steve thinks he can imagine how it would feel between his own teeth. “Second: I don’t ever wanna hide what we have, for any reason.”
The world falls away, out from underneath Steve, and the universe is just two men sitting in a booth in a diner that could be empty except for them; the world falls away and leaves nothing but two souls holding onto each other, and Steve Rogers has never been a poet, but he could write poetry for how Bucky Barnes’s hand feels in his own, how his trust feels as it settles beneath his skin, deeper than the dust could ever touch it.
And what do we have, Buck? He wants to ask. What do we have that would be worth you riskin’ the program for?
“Maybe you could come with me to my next meeting?” Bucky asks shyly before Steve can be brave. “It’s in three weeks.”
“I - I don’t know, Buck,” Steve replies just as shyly. “I don’t wanna cause more trouble for you.”
“C’mon, Rogers.” Bucky looks up at him from underneath his thick, dark eyelashes, and God, Steve’s been fucked since they met in that bathroom, but he is seriously, totally fucked when Bucky Barnes flips his hand over, under Steve’s and curls his fingers around his wrist in a way that should be awkward but instead rewires Steve’s heart even more. “I might need someone to hold my hand.”
“Yeah,” Steve hears himself saying, as though from a great distance, “Yeah, Buck. I’ll be there.”
Bucky’s been behind a closed door for almost half an hour when Steve sees her.
A lot of the tension had bled out of him when Pepper Potts greeted them at the start of the appointment; if she were aware of any animosity between her husband and Steve, she hadn’t let it show, and Steve had felt as warm and pleasant as ever in her presence. She’d disappeared with Bucky and a team of doctors, leaving Steve alone in the waiting room of the Maria Stark Memorial Clinic of Midtown - alone until he sees a door crack open.
Bright, curious eyes meet his, and he smiles without effort.
“Hey.” Steve waves, an awkward thing. “Are you lost?”
The door opens the rest of the way, and a tiny child, maybe three or four years old, walks all the way out into the waiting room and puts her hands on her hips. She assess Steve with that sort of keen innocence that he doesn’t think he ever had.
“Are you lost?” She parrots, her inflections oddly adult for such a small child.
“A little,” Steve says cheerfully. “Maybe you could help me out?”
The girl turns to face the door she just came out of, and then goes back to staring at Steve. “You are stranger danger, ” she declares, and Steve snorts, delighted at her bold statement.
“That is true,” he acknowledges. “So we should meet each other, right? I’m Steve.”
“Steeb,” she repeats earnestly, with a wide-eyed nod.
“What’s your name?” Steve asks encouragingly, even as he looks around for a receptionist or a nurse or someone more equipped to talk to small children and find their parents. He figures she’s the daughter of someone who works at the clinic, but he doubts a little kid should be allowed to wander a medical center by themselves.
Morgan scuffs her bright pink and green sneakers on the floor and tugs at the tops of her star-decorated leggings. Her dark green shirt has a speech bubble that says science rules! with a picture of the Hulk under it, and Steve thinks he’s unfairly charmed at the moment; she could reveal herself to be a Skrull or some sort of interdimensional hellbeast, and he’d just say thanks if she kicked his ass.
“Lava.” Morgan points at the floor at Steve’s feet, and he looks down without really knowing why.
“Floor is lava, ” Morgan explains with a great deal of patience and importance. “Daddy says.”
“Is your daddy here?” Steve asks hopefully, already standing up and craning his neck to look around the office.
“Lava!” Morgan shrieks, scrambling over to Steve and jumping up on the chair. He yelps at her sudden movement and then laughs at himself and laughs when she bounces up and down, pointing at the spotless linoleum floor. “Lava! Lava, lava, lava!”
“Lava!” Steve agree, leaping onto another chair and ignoring how it creaks under his weight.
“We gotta run,” Morgan explains, already climbing over the armrest onto the next chair. “Run! Lava run!”
And she’s off to the races, Steve hot on her heels as the lava creeps up along the plastic legs of the waiting room chairs.
“La-va! La-va!” Morgan chants, and Steve takes up the call as they jump and leap and escape death by molten lava.
“LAVA! LA-VA! LA-VA! LA-VA! ”
He knows they’re louder than the ambiance music at this point, but he doesn’t care. His cheeks are aching with how he’s smiling, and Morgan keeps running, running from lava and death and anything bad that could ever touch them, and Steve thinks that if he can keep up with Morgan, maybe it won’t ever catch them. He’s flying around the waiting room, laughing so hard his gut hurts.
“ LA! VA! LA! VA!”
“Are you corrupting my kid, Cap?”
Steve falters mid-leap across the aisle of chairs. His foot gets caught in an armrest, tangled up in the plastic, and he hits the ground with an office-shaking crash.
It’s there, collapsed on the ground with two chairs on top of him and a bruise forming on his ass, that he sees Tony Stark for the first time in over three and a half years.
He doesn’t look furious, not really, more bemused with a hand on his hip: his words don’t land with Steve, not until he sees the way Tony’s eyes track Morgan’s movements across the room as she careens towards her fellow lava escapee, screeching like a banshee.
“I - I didn’t know,” Steve hastens to say, and Morgan jumps onto his chest, forcing his breath out in a beleaguered grunt. “Oof-
“Steve!” Morgan shrieks, kicking her sneakers in the air. “The lava!”
“I know,” Steve laughs nervously, eyeing Tony and wondering if he’ll pull a blaster beam out of nowhere to smite him the second his daughter is clear from the path. “Hey, Morgan, I think we found your dad.”
“Oh, so all that was you looking for me? “Tony asks, swiveling his finger around the waiting room with raised eyebrows.
“Daddy!” Morgan makes grabby hands up at Tony, and he walks over and scoops her up; he holds her with a tender expression Steve’s never seen before, and he doesn’t miss how quickly Tony puts space between them, walking back at least seven feet away from Steve.
He gets to his feet with a little difficulty and rights the chairs he’d knocked over, his ears burning.
“Hey Morgie, I think Uncle Happy was looking for you.” Tony kisses his daughter on the cheek and puts her on the ground with a pat to her head. “I think he might be trapped by the lava.”
“I’ll save him!” Morgan runs for the door, sneakers lighting up in a dazzling display of pink lights. “Bye, Steve! Bye, Daddy!”
“Bye, Morgan,” Steve calls after her, brushing his hands off on his pants. “Nice to meet you!”
There’s silence when the door closes behind her, and Steve rubs his neck awkwardly.
“Um. How old is-”
“Don’t.” Tony crosses his arms in front of his chest and shakes his head. “Don’t - not now. Not right now.”
“Okay.” Steve nods and shoves his hands in his pockets, kicking his feet on the non-lava floor. “Uhm. You look-”
“Not starved, dying and/or out of my mind with grief?” Tony snaps, more brittle than furious. “Yeah. Time heals all wounds, etcetera etcetera.”
“All wounds?” Steve asks, cocking an eyebrow.
Tony huffs and for a second, Steve swears his lips twitch upward in a smile. “Still a red, white, and blue asshole?”
“Nah, they never convinced me to paint my asshole.” Steve manages to keep a straight face, and Tony sinks into a chair, looking impossibly human as he covers his eyes and laughs.
“Why the fuck are you here?” Tony asks, still smiling with his eyes hard.
“I’m … waiting for someone.” Steve doesn’t pull his hands out of his pockets when he shrugs even though he can hear the ghost of his mother telling him to stand up straighter and look a little prouder.
“Waiting for…” Tony checks his Stark-watch with a thoughtful frown, and then eyes the door to the back offices. “...You wouldn’t happen to be here for the uncommonly handsome brunet who’s currently charming my wife and every last doctor in the joint right now, would you?”
Steve opens his mouth to say something, but snaps it shut and nods, shrugging again.
“Huh.” Tony brings a foot up to rest on the seat of the chair, his knee in front of his face - still spry, then, Steve thinks, probably still using the suit despite his insistent retirement after returning from Titan. “Huuuh.”
‘We’re friends,” Steve says quickly, still standing, but now at attention. “Me and Bucky.”
“Bucky?” Tony makes a weird face and then snaps a hand. “Right - middle name’s Buchanan. I call him Barnes usually, Barnes or Jimmy.”
“He hates Jimmy,” Steve frowns at Tony, who stares back at him. “Hadda ex who called him that, he absolutely hates it.”
“Didn’t tell me.” Tony spreads his hands wide. “Didn’t tell me his preferred nickname either, though.”
“Probably because he’s incredibly grateful for the program,” Steve speaks quickly, skin flushing at how awkward this is, but it needs to be said. “And fuck, Tony - I’m - I’m grateful too. Hell, if I had half your brain…” he trails off when Tony’s eyebrows start climbing his forehead. “I - I know I fucked things up bad between us, and I know I wasn’t there for you on Titan, I wasn’t-” His voice catches and he hangs his head for a second, shoulders trembling before he returns to standing at attention.
He forces his voice to steady.
“I’ll be sorry until the day I die that I wasn’t there for you,” Steve says matter-of-factly. “But you doin’ this for everyone, for Bucky, I - this means so much to him, and I’m -” His voice wavers uncertainly, and he swears he sees the switch go off in Tony’s head. “Thank you,” he says to finish up the rambling. “If I never see you again - know that - you’re still saving lives, Tony. Always were the best of us. Thank you for that.”
He swallows and stares at a random point on the opposite wall, hoping that Bucky’s appointment will end soon, and they can go to an early dinner like they planned.
He doesn’t expect Tony to start talking.
“When I was … oh, nineteen years old?” Tony’s fiddling with his wedding ring when Steve glances over at him curiously; his eyes are also on a fixed point, not on Steve as they rest like chess pieces at an impasse on the board. “My dad caught me in bed with a guy.”
Steve doesn’t let the surprise register on his face; there were rumors, of course, of Tony Stark’s playboy ways, but Steve always chalked it up to aggrandizing tabloid reports.
“We were fucking.” Tony glares up at Steve now as though daring him to wince at the word. “Nice guy, from my Linear Algebra class at MIT. He’s an engineer now - sorry, was. He got turned to dust, too.” He twists his hands together and fiddles with his watch when he starts talking again. “So yeah, we were fucking, and daddy dearest walks in and catches us en flagrante.”
His laugh is an angry one. “My dad almost killed me. Kicked the guy out, dragged me out of bed, told me no decent son of his was going to go down that path. It was like … like I wasn’t even his kid anymore, y’know? Like I was already dead to him after that.”
Tony’s fingers twist in the air as though he’s solvings one kind of problem Steve can’t see; Steve’s breath is caught painfully in his throat now, and he’s waiting to see where this is going.
“He thought of you as family.” Tony comments off-handedly, and Steve takes a half-step towards him, quickly aborted when Tony holds up a hand. “He admired you. Loved you, even. Thought you were the perfect, shining example of manhood, that Star-Spangled-Man-With-A-Plan bullshit. He went all in on it. Howard Stark, leader of the Captain America Fan Club.”
Tony’s a little past anger when he tilts his head back to look up at Steve. He looks tired. “He thought you were perfect. And I spent a lifetime resenting you for that.”
“Tony,” Steve says, something in him yawning open wide with regret.
“Knowing that you and I might be more similar than I thought?” Tony cracks his knuckles and puts his foot back on the ground. “Knowing that there’d be one thing in you that my dear old dad might hate? It’s … a little satisfying.”
Steve risks his personal safety and sits down next to Tony, reaches out to grip his forearm, think better of it, and rests his head on Tony’s armrest instead. “If I were anything like you, Tony, I’d be proud of it.”
Tony rolls his eyes mightily and mutters fucking sap under his breath, but he sounds a little choked up when he says, “Fuck you, Cap,” out loud.
The door opens a second or two later, and Pepper walks out with an exhausted Bucky. She sees Tony sitting next to Steve, and she lets them both see the surprise on her face before she turns to Bucky with a genuine, kind smile.
“You did amazingly in there,” she tells him firmly, a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll see you next week?”
“Yes ma’am,” Bucky responds, his eyes already slipping to Steve.
He also smiles when he sees who he’s sitting next to, but he also looks so incredibly tired; Steve doesn’t imagine the way his knees buckle when he takes a step, and Bucky grips the hand Pepper offers him.
Steve’s up before he can blink, crossing the waiting room to offer his arm to Bucky.
“Let’s get some calories in you, pal,” he murmurs.
Without thinking, he reaches up and tucks an errant strand of dark hair off Bucky’s forehead, slipping it back into place over his ear.
“Sounds nice, Rogers,” Bucky answers, voice hoarse enough that Steve can hear how tired he is, and they walk at Bucky’s pace towards the exit, Bucky leaning into Steve’s side for support, wincing whenever his left side is jostled.
“Thanks, Pepper,” Steve says earnestly, turning when they’re about to hit the doors. “We’ll call and confirm the appointment later.”
“Have a restful afternoon, boys,” Pepper answers, waving cheerfully before glaring daggers at Tony. She jerks her head towards the exit, and Steve huffs a laugh when Tony turns to offer his own sarcastic half-wave.
“See you around, Cap,” Tony says, and Steve’s chest tightens even if Pepper had to force him to say something. “And don’t forget to take notes until your next appointment, Barnes!”
“Will do, Stark,” Bucky grits out, sweat beading on his hairline.
Steve makes a concerned noise and switches to wrap his arm around Bucky’s waist; he sees Tony track the movement, his expression before the doors close between them thoughtful and more than a little sad.
Nat and Bucky meet on Christmas Eve: totally planned, and not at all an ambush. Natasha promised Steve as much.
They sit down in front of a fake collection of lights that dance on a screen at the Headquarters in upstate New York, and Bucky mutters a few apologies about not getting Natasha a present; Steve chokes on a sip of eggnog when Natasha says, her smile sharp but real, you making my Steve smile every day is present enough, James.
Dinner is made by Steve and assisted by Bucky while Nat sits back and sips from a glass of red. They all scream in surprise when something comes slamming out of the chimney right before the turkey’s done cooking:
A figure, clouded in soot and wearing a red hat, straightens up and laughs, a bright and golden laugh that echoes in the room.
“You guys know Santa?” Bucky squeaks, hand to his chest in clear panic.
“That’s not Santa.” Nat pinches the bridge of her nose before grabbing the whole bottle of wine and drinking from it. “And thanks for protecting me there, Steve.”
Steve, who’d jumped in front of Bucky at the first sign of danger, laughs sheepishly and steps away from his friend, who smiles shyly at him before frowning at the would-be Santa.
“Thor.” Steve sighs and points a spatula at him. “What was that?”
“Is that not a Midgardian tradition?” Thor smiles and shakes off the rest of the chimney soot. “I thought you loved it when a fat man breaks into your house and steals your cookies?”
“I think you’re missing the part where you leave presents, dude,” Bucky says before eyeing Thor with a smirk. “And you aren’t fat.”
“No?” Thor slaps his belly with a broad smile, looking Bucky up and down as well.
“Nuh-uh.” Bucky’s worrying his bottom lip with his teeth, and Steve grips the spatual tighter. “Nah, you can still get it.”
“Get what?” Thor asks, polite but still, still checking Bucky out right back. “And who are you?”
“This is James,” Natasha explains, her smile feral as she takes in the scene. “He’s a friend of Steve’s.”
“Steve did not tell us he had such handsome friends,” Thor says graciously.
A screech of metal warns Steve that he’s about to snap the spatula he’s holding right in half.
“Turkey’s done,” Nat announces as the timer goes off. “Steven?”
“Right.” He wrenches the stove open and almost grabs the pan without a glove on. “Fucking-”
“I will get it,” Thor declares graciously, swooping in as Steve straightens up to get an oven mitt.
“That’s really not-”
Thor grabs the pan and places it on the stovetop with a flourish, and Bucky whistles, impressed.
That’s not that cool! Steve wants to snap. I coulda done that too, it woulda just taken my skin half an hour or so to grow back!
“Shall I carve this magnificent beast as well?” Thor asks, pulling a knife out of his belt.
“Are you real?” Bucky asks, delighted, and claps his hands when Thor winks at him.
“Thor?” Nat clears her throat and stands from her stool. “I actually need your help getting a Christmas tree.”
“I don’t know what that is!” Thor shouts, already bounding after Natasha towards the front door. “But I love the sound of it!”
“I can’t believe the god of thunder is actually real,” Bucky says with a thoughtful sigh, after the door has closed.
Steve grunts and starts to carve up the turkey, definitely not taking his aggression out on it at all.
“You okay, Rogers?”
“What?” Steve looks up from where he’s trying to delicately saw the turkey into pieces. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’m great.”
“Okay.” Bucky’s looking at him strangely, like he hasn’t since they met, and Steve grips the knife tighter and resumes carving the bird. “Hey, there was - something I needed to talk to you about.”
“Yeah?” Steve blinks some of the steam out of his eyes and smiles at Bucky, momentary irritation at the beauty of Thor forgotten.
“So, my surgery is next week, and, I’ve been thinking, y’know, what if something goes wrong…”
“It won’t,” Steve says automatically because the universe wouldn’t fucking dare, not Bucky Barnes, not him too . “Nothing’ll go wrong, Buck.”
“We don’t know that, Rogers.” Bucky runs his fingers self-consciously over the metal socket that had been fitted at his last appointment, the one that’s currently fusing to his neural network so his arm will be able to respond to signals from his brain after it’s connected. “And it’s Christmas, so I’ve been thinking, and-”
He cuts himself off, again, pink in the ears and cheeks, and Steve sets the knife down on the counter and walks to stand in front of Bucky, wiping his hands nervously on his pants.
“You can tell me anything, Buck,” he promises in a low voice, one thickened by the weight of the emotion. “Anything at all.”
“Right.” He hungrily watches the line of Bucky’s throat move as he swallows, and lets his eyes linger for half a second longer than normal on his full, soft bottom lip before meeting Bucky’s eyes. The pupils are blown, and it can’t be a trick of the light because it’s still light out, the sun hasn’t gone and the lights are on, and Steve can’t be imagining that the hunger he feels is echoed in Bucky right now, he can’t be pretending that something is building between them, something vast enough that it should be terrifying, but instead everything in him is telling him to jump, jump now -
“Rogers,” Bucky says hoarsely, “I was wondering if-”
The front door crashes open, and Bucky jumps away from him; Steve squeezes his eyes shut, clenching his jaw so hard he feels a tooth crack.
“How did you find a tree already?” He snaps, turning to glare at Thor and Nat.
Instead, it’s Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan, Rhodey, and Tony, the latter of whom is carrying a clearly sleeping Morgan Stark.
“Uh,” Steve stares, open-mouthed, the tension of the previous moment forgotten somehow in the face of all this new and powerful awkwardness. “Hi?”
There’s the sound of an axe in the distance, an axe thudding into something over and over again.
“I leave for a few years, and you all start ripping down the trees?” Tony snorts as he walks in, his voice quieter than normal out of respect for the three-year-old sleeping in his arms. “Absurd.”
“Oh, hush.” Pepper sweeps in to kiss Steve on both cheeks, and then Bucky, who’s standing awkwardly to the side, eyes everywhere that isn’t Steve. “So good to see you, James.”
“You too, Ms. Potts.”
“It’s Pepper,” she assures him warmly, and she beams at the turkey on the counter. “Fantastic work, whoever made the turkey!”
“I did,” Steve mutters, staring at Bucky, willing him to look back up and finish what he started.
“That settles it.” Tony walks over and peers at the turkey. “We’re ordering takeout.”
“F-” Steve sees Morgan stirring and thinks better of his diction. “Gee thanks, Tony.”
“This guy can burn cereal,” Tony tells Bucky before waltzing towards the bedrooms. “Cereal!”
“He’s getting that story confused with a story about himself.” Happy rolls his eyes as he chucks his bag on a nearby sofa. “I’m sure it’s great, Cap.”
He props his feet up on an ottoman and turns on the television, somehow finding the only sporting event that’s on.
“I’ll go get changed for dinner.” Pepper smiles at them both one last time. “Merry Christmas, by the way!”
“Merry Christmas,” they both manage to say before she leaves, and when Rhodey shoots them both finger guns and follows her down the hallway, they’re left alone in the kitchen again, but now with the presence of four new people in the house.
“I didn’t know they’d be here,” Steve says apologetically. “I know it’s fuckin’ awkward and you didn’t sign up for it.”
“It’s family.” Bucky shrugs good-naturedly and goes to grab a glass from the cabinet behind him. “It’s supposed to be awkward.”
He fills it up with water as Steve thinks that over, and when he turns around, Steve smiles at him nervously.
“What were you going to say before?” He asks curiously and a little shy. “Before we were interrupted?”
“Oh.” Bucky’s more red than the stockings they’re supposed to hang up later, and his eyes dart away from Steve’s for a second. “I was wondering if you’d go with me to my surgery next week. That’s all.”
Steve’s been friends with Bucky for months, and he’d like to think that as a master strategist, he has his tells figured out by now; so, he’s wondering why Bucky’s lying.
He figures it’s for a good reason, and he figures he should let him.
“Of course I will,” he says softly. “I’d go with you anywhere, Buck.”
Bucky’s blush deepens, and he smiles down at his feet before looking back up, again through his lashes, again cutting Steve to the quick without trying. “Yeah, Rogers? Anywhere?”
“I’m with you, pal,” Steve promises. “Til the end of the line.”
“I like the sound of that,” Bucky says, voice rough in its quietness. “You and me, til the end of the line.”
Something still settles between them then, threading between them and drawing them together, bringing them back to where they were before they were interrupted, bringing them past that point entirely, and Steve’s going to finally be brave enough to -
Morgan Stark comes screeching towards the kitchen at full speed, somehow clutching a fairy wand and dressed in a lab coat. Steve staggers when she slams into his shins, more to stop her from bouncing off him and falling over; he shoots Bucky an apologetic look as she makes grabby hands at him, and he scoops her up.
“Hello, Morgan. Are the floors safe today?”
“Yes,” she declares with all the authority of a princess. “No lava on Christmas.”
“Whose rule is that?” Steve asks with a grin in Bucky’s direction; it takes him a second longer than normal to return it, but he does, a soft smile that lingers in the spaces around Steve’s heart.
“Mommy’s,” Morgan replies.
“It’s a good rule,” Steve says, and then the door bursts open again to let in Thor and Natasha; the former lets out a roar of joy and scoops up Tony as easily as Steve had picked up Morgan, and they laugh like they can’t remember that they ever had a reason not to.
Privately, Steve wonders what it really was Bucky wanted to tell him before everyone showed up, but as he watches him blend in with what’s left of his family, sinking into place like the missing piece of a puzzle, surrounded and accepted by everyone, he convinces himself that he can be patient for once. He can wait for Bucky Barnes
‘Til the end of the line, like he promised.
The city is still dark when he picks Bucky Barnes up from his apartment on January 3, 2022.
Bucky emerges, groggy and still dressed in soft pajama bottoms, a coat pulled hastily over a warm henley. Steve’s teased by the image of Bucky wearing that henley, tangled among his sheets with his dark hair spread out on a white pillow, face arranged peacefully in sleep, or maybe coyly in seduction, hand outstretched as he pulls Steve into bed with him, pulls Steve into him, never asks him to leave -
“Thanks for picking me up,” Bucky mutters, tilting his head back against the headrest. “Appreciate it.”
“Of course.” Steve shrugs and drives through a sleeping Brooklyn. “Get some rest, Buck. You’ll need it.”
“But ‘m not tired,” Bucky mutters, head still tilted back.
He’s asleep ten seconds later, mouth hanging open, soft snores escaping his soft mouth, and Steve’s overwhelmed with how much he loves Bucky. It ought to fill the cabin of the car, ought to steam up the windows something fierce, ought to leave some kind of physical mark that Bucky will see the second he cracks open those beautiful eyes and takes in the sorriest son of a bitch this side of the river, driving him to his appointment so he can stay in the sun for a few seconds longer today.
They wind through the city streets, and up into Manhattan, where the pre rush hour traffic is starting to form. Traffic’s nothing like it was four years ago, but Steve tries not to let that thought echo in his head to become something terrible, instead just thinks it, accepts it, keeps driving with the most important thing in the world in his passenger seat.
They get to the clinic without incident, and Steve turns the car off and waits until the cold of the morning starts to leak into the car before he puts his hand on Bucky’s leg and shakes gently to wake him up.
“We’re here, Buck.”
“Huh?” Bucky startles awake with a snort, and Steve tucks the sound away into his memory like a magpie hoards treasure. “Oh, fuck - didn’t mean to pass out on you, Rogers.”
“It’s more than fine,” Steve assures him because it is. “Let’s get you inside, okay?”
Bucky grips his wrist as they walk up to the door, Steve on Bucky’s right side because he knows the left makes him uncomfortable; “Don’t leave me,” Bucky whispers, squeezing almost hard enough for Steve to actually feel it. “Please - don’t leave me-”
“I won’t,” Steve swears for the hundredth time. “I’m not going anywhere, Bucky. I’ll be there when you go under, and I’ll be there when you wake up.”
Bucky nods, swallows, and lets Steve go. Steve does his best to pretend that the air doesn’t feel colder on the spots Bucky was just touching.
“Til the end of the line?” Bucky asks, a quiet question as they prep him for surgery, and Steve hovers at his side, stepping in when allowed, stepping out when the nurses and doctors need him to, a tide to Bucky’s moon, pushing and pulling, in and out, out and in.
“Til the end of the line,” Steve echoes, gripping the side of Bucky’s gurney as he’s wheeled to the operating theatre.
He’s wearing a surgical mask, and he’d scrubbed in dutifully when the doctor in charge demanded it, no fuss, only simple, grateful obedience that would allow him to do this one thing Bucky asked of him.
“You’re going to count backwards from ten, Mr. Barnes,” the anesthesiologist says, fitting the mask to Bucky’s face. “When you’re ready.”
He swallows and stares up at the ceiling, looking smaller than he is spread out on the operating table, and he holds his hand out towards Steve, who takes it, hoping that the contact through his latex gloves is enough, wishing he could stroke Bucky’s skin with his own, wanting that electricity for himself, just a second longer.
Tears track from the corner of Bucky’s eye towards his temple, and Steve makes a soft noise as he wipes it away, smiling at Bucky behind the surgical mask when Bucky looks over at him, clearly needing reassurance.
He nods at Bucky and squeezes his hand. “Til the end of the line,” comes out muffled from behind the fabric, but Bucky nods back and tells the technician that he’s ready.
“Countdown from ten, Mr. Barnes.”
“Ten, nine, eight … seven...” Bucky begins, but his eyes flick back to Steve, softening as the anesthesia begins to work. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Steve whispers back.
“Hey, Stevie.” Bucky smiles beneath the mask before his eyes slip shut. “Gotta tell you.”
“Tell me what, Buck?” Steve asks, heart slamming in his chest.
“Alright, we can begin,” the anesthesiologist confirms, and Steve regretfully lets go of Bucky’s hand. “If you don’t mind, Captain?”
He gestures to the viewing room above the theatre, and Steve nods, walking away quickly before he can do something stupid like chain himself to the table and wait out the hours long surgery from there.
He waits up in the room instead, pacing most of the time, his eyes glued to the sight below all of the time; it’s hard to watch Bucky be so vulnerable, watch the ins and outs of the surgery, watch them operate on the man he loves, but he does it because he promised Bucky he’d be there the whole time, and if it hurts this much to watch, it has to be important. It has to be.
Almost half a day later, Steve gets to walk alongside the gurney as it makes its way with its passenger up to the recovery suite, and he settles into the chair at Bucky’s right, watching his vitals, particularly his heartbeat, with an interest that borders on zealous. The new arm, Stark-designed, Wakanda-approved, rests across from its twin, a sleek, vibranium prototype made of scintillating plates that will slide over each other to allow for the mimicry of natural movement. It’s beautiful, but Steve thinks it pales in comparison to the man it’s attached to.
After an hour though, he starts to feel nervous.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” Steve asks a woman who was born four decades after him. She looks at him, unimpressed, as she checks on Bucky.
“Shouldn’t he be awake by now?” Steve is nearly vibrating out of his skin, and it’s that fact that probably causes her to have a little mercy on him.
“It takes a while sometimes,” she assures him. “His vital signs are incredibly healthy, and the scans after the surgery show that everything went according to plan. You just wait, he’ll wake up soon.”
Steve nods and resumes waiting as she leaves the room.
He picks up Bucky’s hand and presses his lips to it, stealing a kiss he wouldn’t be bold or rude enough to normally, but he needs somewhere to press a prayer:
“Please, ” he whispers to the universe, to God, to chance, to the dust that still floats through the air, to whoever the fuck listens to failed superheroes from Brooklyn. “ Please don’t take him, too. God, please don’t take him. Please let him wake up. ”
Threading his fingers through Bucky’s, he leaves their hands tangled together as he continues praying inside his head, something he hasn’t done in almost a century.
Please don’t take him. Don’t. Don’t do it, you selfish son of a bitch. You can take anything else, but not him. Not Bucky. Not him. Not him. He squeezes his eyes shut. Not -
There’s the faint whirring of machinery, and the hand Steve’s clutching shifts slightly in his grip. Steve opens his eyes to meet the most miraculous blue in any corner of the galaxy.
“Hey, Buck.” He’s crying, and he’s a mess, but he can’t remember ever being this happy. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself.” Bucky swallows and it looks painful; Steve hurries to grab a little cup of ice chips the nurse had left a few minutes ago, somewhat melted by now. He helps Bucky sit up so he can tilt the cup back, and their hands slide together as quickly as possible.
“You stuck around?” Bucky asks, eyes already drooping as he guides his head back to the pillow.
“Course I did,” Steve laughs, a wet sound that he hopes Bucky won’t be able to remember when he wakes back up. “Til the end of the line, Bucky. I told you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky breathes, his face already relaxing into an easier sleep than before. “You just wanna see how badass my metal arm is.”
“Got me,” Steve laughs quietly, and a heartbeat later, Bucky’s asleep again, still holding tight onto Steve’s hand, and Steve holds tight right back, like it’s an anchor, like it’s a lifeline, like it might vanish if he lets go for even a second.
It’s there at Bucky’s bedside on a quiet evening in early January that Steve realizes he hasn’t felt the dust under his fingernails in weeks, maybe months.
He doesn’t wonder what he’ll become without it; there are more important things to wonder:
How long can he hold Bucky Barnes’s hand for before a nurse comes in and separates them ?
How long can he not tell Bucky Barnes he’s in love with him?
How long before he asks Bucky Barnes if he could ever love him back?
How long before he makes a worse fool of himself?
How long before -
Steve puts the questions aside for the moment and instead wonders at the feeling of Bucky’s hand in his own, lets them just be Steve and Bucky, Bucky and Steve, two people who care about each other here at the end of the world, two people who found each other through all the pain and suffering and heartbreak, two people who promised to be there for each other until the end of the line.
And it’s enough, maybe forever, but certainly for now.
the next chapter will be March 2022 - the events of Endgame
Chapter 2: the second fight
February 2022-May 2023
Steve continues to fight for peace in the aftermath of the Snap.
WARNINGS, PLEASE READ
MAJOR CHARACTER DEATH: neither of the two main characters die, but people die who did NOT die in Endgame, and vice versa. Please, please check the end notes for spoilers if that could bother you!
CAR CRASH trigger warning: Bucky describes, viscerally, a car crash that took his arm. Again, check the end notes if that's something that can bother you (it happens when he and Steve are at the memorial, a few breaks down the page)
PERVASIVE DEATH AND GRIEF: Bucky still struggles with losing his sister, and often grieves; same with Steve and Wanda/Sam/other fallen heroes.
ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION: consistent issues with mental health, therapy is still a component of the fic here. Steve experiences thoughts that are meant to read like a panic attack. Bucky expresses feelings that he wishes he'd died on the day of the Snap.
SMUT: Several scenes of sex between two consenting parties. Steve hints at being a bit bossy/bit of a Dom, and Bucky is Interested, but scenes between them are more emotional than kink. Oral and anal sex, with Bucky being the receiving partner.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s Brighton Beach: Steve would recognize it anywhere.
The waves crash on the shore, and distantly he can hear vendors who haven’t worked there for decades calling out their wares. He sits on a striped blanket with an umbrella overhead, and Nat’s stretched out next to him on her stomach, her hair long and red again.
It’s a beautiful afternoon - at least, he thinks it is. There’s an eerie orange tint to everything, the sea dyed to look like blood, and Nat’s hair and tan shades darker than they ever were. His own hands and arms and legs are spared the orange, and instead, stand out for their paleness against the backdrop.
“Nat?” He whispers, frowning at the water and then at his friend.
She stirs next to him, looking up from her book, and his breath catches in his throat.
It’s not Nat who sits next to him. It’s Wanda Maximoff, brow furrowed and mouth quirked.
“Did you forget about me, Steven?” She teases with no edge, but Steve feels it cut all the same.
“Never, kid,” he promises fervently. “Never.”
She sits up, her limbs still coltish, her body that of a teenager and not the woman she would be today if he hadn’t failed her, and smiles at him, crossing her legs underneath her.
“It’s okay to forget a little,” she whispers, but Steve shakes his head.
“No it’s not.” His voice breaks. “It’s not even a little okay.”
“Then why aren’t you trying to find us?” Wanda asks, her voice echoing strangely, and someone calls Steve’s name down the beach.
“Sam?” He startles to his feet, and Wanda laughs as she goes back to her book.
Sam Wilson sprints towards him, broad smile on his face, and Steve runs, stumbling on the burning red sand. He’s going to catch him this time, he thinks, he’s going to catch him and he’ll pull Sam and Wanda with him when he wakes back up -
Inches away from Sam, something pulls him, hard, behind his navel, and he screams in protest as he’s dragged up and away from his best friend.
“Sam!” He bellows, heart in his throat and threatening to jump overboard.
Sam shouts something back to him, but it’s lost in the roar of the ocean, and Steve screams again -
He’s sweating when he wakes up, disoriented and crying from a hurt he’s forgotten to feel for a week or two.
His mind must be punishing him for all the times he hasn’t punished himself recently, he thinks as he plants his feet on the floor. Punishing him for more diner days with Bucky, punishing him for taking Morgan Stark to the zoo, punishing him for that road trip with Susan, punishing him for not focusing more on what Nat and Bruce have been working on so diligently for the last three and a half years: finding a way to fix this.
Steve’s been selfish, and it seems his mind has had enough of the guilt he’s been burying.
His phone lights up, and he wipes his mouth before grabbing it. When he sees the name, the phone’s next to his ear in less than a second.
“I had-” the quiet voice of Bucky Barnes trembles on the other side, “-Fuck, I didn’t wake you, did I?”
It’s 3:23 a.m., and normally Steve wakes up at 3:45, even without a strange dream that kicks his ass.
“No, Buck,” Steve promises, cradling the phone next to his ear as he pushes himself up higher on his bed. “I was already awake.”
“Okay.” Bucky takes a shuddering breath. “This is going to sound - I don’t even know what to-”
He waits patiently, frowning as Bucky tries to get it out.
“I had a dream, and Becca was there,” Bucky whispers, and something burns in Steve’s stomach. “It felt - it felt so real, but I got pulled away from her last second, right before she was going to tell me something,” another prickle down his spine, “and - and I don’t wanna read too much into it because it’s so early in the morning, but everything … everything in the dream was -”
“Red,” Steve finishes quietly, and Bucky sucks in a breath.
“...Yeah.” Another pause. “How did you-”
“I had a dream about Wanda and Sam,” Steve mutters, tapping his fingers against his knee. “Same thing - felt like Sam wanted to tell me something, but I was pulled away too. The whole thing was … red or orange, or-”
The color of the Soul Stone, he thinks without warning, and he gags, hard, inexplicably but not so inexplicably because he knows what cost was paid for the Soul Stone to be activated by Thanos, knows from Tony and his prickly friend Nebula who spoke of a good woman, a loved sister, sent to her death by an abuser.
“I’m okay,” Steve promises. “I - you wanna come over? Talk about it some more?”
“Yeah.” Bucky exhales weakly. “Gimme - gimme a minute. I’ll come over. If it’s okay?”
“Course it’s okay,” Steve answers without having to think about it for a second. “You’re always welcome here, Buck.”
They hang up, and Steve sits there for a few seconds longer, frozen with the phone in his hand. Then, he’s dialing another number, one he doesn’t typically use for fear of crossing a line, but one he has memorized all the same.
It picks up after three rings - quicker than he thinks he deserves.
“Tony.” Steve lets out a tense breath. “Did you by any chance have a … dream?”
“I have a lot of dreams,” Tony says cryptically.
“I mean right now.” Steve tries not to snap, but his emotions are still running high, and he pinches the bridge of his nose and tries to slow his breathing. “I had this dream, about - about Wanda and Sam. And it was real, Tony. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was real, and everything - everything was red, and it made me think about the Soul Stone, and what if - what if they aren’t gone at all? What if they’re …” he thinks about what Wanda said about not trying to find them , “...Trapped?”
“And you thought maybe I’d had the same dream, about a girl and a guy who I helped throw in jail?” Tony sounds more brittle than normal. “Thought, gee, I’ll call up Tony in the middle of the night for a laugh-”
“Bucky had the same dream. About his sister,” Steve whispers, heart thudding in his chest while he rocks his head back against the wall.
A quiet pause.
“...Barnes is there?”
“Not yet,” Steve flushes suddenly at the implication. “He didn’t - he doesn’t - we don’t sleep together-”
There’s a rustle and a mutter of something that sounds suspiciously like guess I owe Happy ten dollars, and then Tony clears his throat.
“I might have … had a similar dream.” Steve waits for the next part, can feel it coming before it’s said. “About the kid.”
Steve closes his eyes and feels a sympathy pain course through him for Peter Parker, the sixteen year old from Queens who’d been so eager to be an Avenger, who Tony had kept far away from Steve, maybe out of fear that Steve would tell him honestly what it was like to trade your life and abilities to a country who had bigger and worse plans for how to use them.
“You really think it means something?” Tony asks, more broken that he’s sounded since that night after Titan. “You think-”
“Multiple people having the same kind of dream in the same night means something?” Steve shrugs. “Tony, we live in a world where a madman snapped his fingers and fucking halved the population of the universe. I think we can let dreams mean something.”
Tony laughs weakly. “When did you get so logical?”
“I was always logical,” Steve says, “You were just too distracted by my ass in those pants.”
Another laugh, full and genuine this time. “Now I know this is an imposter - you were never funny.”
There’s a beat of silence.
“But -” Tony’s back to his original point. “God, it felt so real, Cap. It felt - he was real, and I could hold him,” his voice breaks, the pain of a man who’s failed someone who trusted him, someone he loved, and Steve understands, “I held him, Steve, and he tried to tell me something-”
“Let’s meet tomorrow,” Steve says, wild and uninvited and probably pushy, “Or, later today I guess. You, me, Nat, and Bruce. I’m sure they had a similar dream.”
“Yeah.” Tony lets out a ragged breath. “My place or yours?”
“They’re both your places, Tony,” Steve says sincerely. “They always were.”
Another whisper of a ragged breath. “Ass.”
“See you later, Tony.” Steve stands from the bed and heads to the front door, remembering that Bucky will be here in a minute and he left out fifteen Chinese takeout boxes last night.
“Yeah. Happy Valentine’s Day, Cap.”
“Happy,” Steve repeats back, on autopilot, before he freezes, “Wait, what-”
Tony’s already hung up, and Steve’s standing in his messy apartment on Valentine’s Day, waiting for the guy he’s definitely in love with to show up so they can talk about all the shit that’s fucked them up in the last few years -
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Steve mutters before whirling into action with Lysol wipes and a trash bag.
Five minutes later, his apartment is relatively clean and Steve’s relatively out of breath; he scrubs his hands at the sink, and that’s when there’s a knock at the door.
“Coming!” Steve shouts before wincing and remembering that other people live in this building and it is, in fact, 3:50 in the goddamn morning. “Coming,” he whispers more quietly, shuffling to the door.
He dries his hands on his boxers quickly and then opens the door -
It clicks in his brain that he dried his hands on his boxers when he catches sight of Bucky Barnes’s face, watches it go from pale and drawn to flushed and embarrassed.
Because he’s wearing boxers.
End of list.
He’s just wearing boxers, and he opened his goddamn door on goddamn Valentine’s Day to his goddamn crush who’s way more than a crush wearing nothing but his goddamn boxers.
“Uh,” he coughs and gestures awkwardly. “Come in?”
Bucky walks in, looking amused now, and Steve winces and wishes he kept a bathrobe or something near the door.
“Sorry.” He closes the door behind Bucky and rubs his neck. “I wasn’t - sorry, I forgot to get dressed-”
“I came over in the middle of the night, Rogers, you don’t need to apologize for not getting all dressed up.” Bucky smiles at him over his shoulder, and he looks tired again.
“Still.” Steve winces. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“You didn’t,” Bucky mutters, ears red, and Steve’s heart stutters.
“I-” Bucky turns around fully and smiles sadly at him. “Nothing, Rogers. Sorry. In a weird headspace. Haven’t heard Becca’s voice in - in years, and -”
Steve holds his arms open without thinking, and Bucky steps into them. He’s almost half a foot shorter than Steve, so with little effort he can tuck his head under Steve’s chin, and Steve’s arms wrap all the way around his slender frame, holding him tightly.
They’ve touched frequently in the last few months, more and more since Bucky came out of his surgery - Steve can’t help it, if Bucky’s close to him, he can’t help but risk brushing his hand against his while they walk, bumping shoulders, lingering hands on his hip or shoulder during a greetings or goodbyes - but they’ve never quite hugged like this. And, to make matters more intimate, Steve’s conveniently-not-so-conveniently shirtless, which means there’s even fewer layers between him and Bucky Barnes.
His brain goes offline, and stays offline when Bucky burrows the tip of his chilled nose into his collarbone and murmurs, “Fuck, you’re so warm.”
Steve gets caught up on the cosonantive glory of the word fuck in Bucky’s mouth, the dragged-out f and hard ck and he almost forgets to respond.
“Serum,” he explains, wrapping his arms tighter around Bucky and risking pressing his face into his hair for a second. “Keeps me running hot.”
“I’ll say,” Bucky mutters into Steve’s skin, and his heart really does skip a beat.
But, Bucky came over for a reason, and Steve pulls away from the hug, even if he doesn’t want to, pulls away and guides Bucky to the couch, wraps a blanket around him like a shield, and goes to put on a sweatshirt so they can sit in the early morning and whisper about the people they love, the people they lost, the people they won’t ever be able to forget.
The rest of February passes in a blur. Group shifts to Thursdays because the community center needs the building for something else on Tuesdays (speed dating, Bingo, dances, things that are positive, but Steve still wonders why they don’t count therapy as positive when it’s been one of the things that have kept him from the edge in the last year). He sees Bucky after group, for dinner on Fridays, volunteering on the weekneds. The Avengers who remain on earth meet regularly now, twice a week to compare notes on patterns that have been emerging globally, to talk with the Avengers and friends who’ve gone out in the universe (Carol, Rocket, Nebula, Okoye) - and sometimes just to talk about life.
Tony and Steve have moved past a truce now, more towards a tentative friendship, and Steve holds the joy of it in a quiet place of his heart where he won’t ever be able to take it for granted.
They train together, too, an unexpected burst of brightness - Steve feels more alive than ever as he dodges lightning blasts from Thor in open fields in upstate New York, laughs uproariously when Nat drops out of the ceiling at the compound, knife in hand (scares the shit out of him the first few times, but the glee on her face was too endearing for him to stay angry for long), tussles with Bruce, who splits his time between Hulk and man these days (he’s balanced now, Steve notices, no longer on edge, no longer angry, but in control and patient and often smiling at a photo on his screenlock of a beautiful woman with dark hair, and he whispers Betty into that phone when it rings sometimes, smiling the way only this Betty could make him smile, and Steve is happy for him in a way that hurts).
March is the first time he and Tony spar (Tony in a full suit of armor with Pepper watching from the sidelines, cheering indiscriminately), and he knocks Tony flat on his ass with the shield about eighteen minutes in.
He’s on his knees, hyperventilating a second later, shaking Tony, sobbing before he’s caught his breath -
“Tony,” he shakes him over and over again, “Tony, Tony -”
“Jesus, Cap, that’s not gonna help you win a fight.” Tony winces a little as he sits up, and Steve can’t stop his hands from shaking. “I could have blasted your star-spangled ass halfway to Jersey by now.”
“Are you okay?” Steve’s fingers are visibly trembling as he taps the light of Tony’s arc reactor, an odd static lurching from it and making his hand tingle. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Tony flips the visor and squints at him. “That won’t even bruise-”
Steve doesn’t stop shaking, though, and Tony sighs, taps his chest, and the plates of armor retreat back into the nanotech bracelets he wears.
“That’s enough for today,” Tony says softly, standing and brushing nonexistent dust from his knees. He offers a hand to Steve, who stares at it, the world narrow and very, very bright; Tony sighs again and grabs Steve’s arm and tugs him upright.
“I can keep going,” Steve protests weakly. “I-”
“Let’s go watch a movie, Cap.” Tony waves at Pepper - who’s watching from the sidelines with a worried expression, but her worry is directed at Steve, not Tony, which makes no sense because Steve almost killed Tony, he almost killed him - “Hey, I’m going to go grab Morg, honey. Maybe watch a movie upstairs?”
“Perfect.” Pepper waves cheerfully and then turns to Nat. “You and me?”
Nat grins as Pepper clicks her own nanotech into place, the sleek blue armor enclosing her limbs. “You’re on.”
Tony guides Steve away from the training floor and up towards the recreation room. “You seen Moana, Cap?”
“Uh,” Steve can’t stop looking at Tony, searching even now for a wound he’s sure he made. “N-no.”
“Morgan loves that movie.” Tony shakes his head. “We’ve watched it about two dozen times. Who knows, maybe if you like it, you can take over watching it with her. I can quote the damn thing from memory.”
Moana is, in fact, incredible, and Steve and Morgan spend the next two hours in equal rapture, Morgan curled up in Steve’s lap after ten minutes. Tony zones out, falling asleep on the back of the couch more than once, and whenever Morgan taps him and says, “Daddy!” he jerks awake every time, mumbling, “I’m awake, I’m awake, I’m awake.”
Steve’s much calmer by the time the credits roll, and he and Morgan are talking enthusiatically about the parts they liked and didn’t like while they walk back down to the training room.
Natasha’s sitting there with her arm in a cast and an apologetic Pepper at her side.
“I didn’t mean to!” Pepper says quickly, hands hovering over Natasha protectively. “The beam caught her off-guard and-”
“And she broke my arm,” Nat finishes, grinning. “It was wild. None of you assholes ever managed to break my arm.”
A tired-looking medic is scurrying away from the scene, and Steve laughs despite the concern on Pepper’s face - Morgan kisses Nat’s arm and declares it all better, something Nat solemnly agrees with, and then they all go and eat dinner.
Steve figures that’s it, that’s the end of the story, but the next day, he’s sitting with Bucky at the diner when Bucky looks up from his phone in surprise.
“You didn’t tell me Nat was hurt.”
“What?” Fear seizes Steve then, and he can barely get the question out. “She’s hurt?”
“Twitter says she was hurt in a training exercise yesterday?” Bucky pushes his phone across the table, frowning in concern. “Medics on the scene, Iron Man was involved, potential maiming?”
“Jesus Christ.” Steve snorts and pushes the phone back after skimming the first few tweets on the trending page. “No, she broke her arm because Pepper caught her off-guard.”
“Pepper broke Natasha’s arm?” Bucky whistles. “Bet Pepper freaked out.”
“She did.” Steve groans and shakes his head. “She’s going to be apologizing about this for months - or, chasing down whatever idiot leaked it to the press.”
“Both, probably.” Bucky shrugs and then drains the rest of his coffee in one go. “I gotta head into the shelter though, so I’ll see you later?”
He always says that like a question, something that typically makes Steve want to cry, or kiss him, or do something super stupid like declare his undying love in a public restaurant, but Steve’s distracted by the oddity of the twitter trend - the first time an Avenger has been top news in years, he thinks.
“Yeah, sure.” He runs his fingers along the rim of his own coffee cup, staring out the window. “Dinner tomorrow, baby?”
“ What ?”
The world screeches back into focus, and Steve feels himself turn hotter than the surface of the sun.
“Uh.” Steve debates throwing himself out the window like he did all those years ago post-experiment. “Uh, I said, dinner tomorrow, Bucky?”
“Oh.” Bucky blinks, bright red himself and nods. “Oh, I thought you said-”
Steve stares at him, trying to look blank, trying to project even an inch of calm because internally he’s screaming so loudly he’s surprised Bucky can’t hear it.
The truth is, he’s been having more and more dreams where he calls Bucky baby and babydoll and sweetheart, more daydreams where he lets his mind wander to situations where he can wrap his arm around his best guy’s waist and pull him in for a kiss or two - those dreams are clearly very dangerous because he just opened his mouth and let his biggest secret of the last decade , if not the entirety , of his life slip out.
“But yeah.” Bucky’s smiling and it’s strained now and fuck Steve hates himself, “Dinner tomorrow. See ya, Rogers.”
He’s up and out of the booth before Steve can shove his abnormally large foot in his only slightly less large mouth, and Steve bangs his head into the countertop rhythmically after he hears the door close behind Bucky.
The baby incident haunts him to the point where he totally forgets about the Avengers making the news cycle, so he’s caught entirely off guard when he’s at the compound three days later (Bucky had, unsurprisingly, cancelled on their tentative dinner plans and Steve hasn’t really heard from him since, and he’s trying not to think about it and is succeeding to the extent that a bird doesn’t think about the air or the tide doesn’t think about the moon) and someone comes physically crashing through the skylight.
“What the fuck?” Tony shouts, plates of armor already sliding into place.
Nat’s rolled to the side, crouching defensively, and Steve kicks up the coffee table and holds it like a shield in front of Pepper and Rhodey.
Then, they see who’s in the middle of the melee.
“Where is she?” The man demands, eyes wild, hair overlong, sweatshirt stained. “Where’s Nat?”
“What?” Steve blinks and drops the coffee table. “Clint?”
“Oh, hey, Steve-” Clint’s smile is slightly deranged, matched by the cuts from the shattered glass littering his shins and hands. “Where’s Nat?”
“You fucking asshole.” Nat’s shaking as she stands up straight, and her glare feels more destructive than any weapon her hands have ever grasped.
Steve considers picking the coffee table up again.
Judging by the way Tony’s looking from Nat to Clint and back to Nat, like he’s watching tennis, he’s also considering an exit strategy.
“Nat.” Clint gasps her name, color draining from his face. “Oh my God, you’re okay-”
“I’m okay.” Nat nods and starts to walk forward, a lethal prowl that Steve has learned from experience can only end in homicide. “I’m fine. ”
“The news said-”
“Oh, the news said?” Nat’s got murder in her eyes. “The news said? The news said, gee Clint, maybe it’s time to go see your friends after four fucking years?”
“Uh.” Clint eyes her cast. “Oh, you broke your arm! I’ve done that loads of-”
“Broken arm or no,” Nat’s nearly on him now, and Steve is absolutely shocked that Clint isn’t running for the hills, “I am still going to kick your ass.”
“Oh.” Understanding dawns on Clint’s face. “Right, ‘cuz of the-”
“Clint Francis Barton, you have five seconds.”
“To explain myself?”
“No.” Nat smiles tightly. “To get a head start.”
“Right.” Clint nods, looks over his shoulder, and then back at Natasha.
“Meep-” Clint sprints for the corridor behind him, and Nat gives chase three seconds later.
The rest of the gathered Avengers stand awkwardly and listen to the sound of Clint shouting apologies from various locations in the compound for a few minutes.
There’s a crash and a scream from somewhere upstairs, and Tony deactivates his armor, settling back down on the couch.
“Well, they’ll bang out whatever that was. Give ‘em an hour or two.” He props his feet up on the discarded coffee table, whose legs are still pointed at the wall. “Go Fish, anyone?”
Steve hasn’t heard from or seen Bucky since the Baby Disaster of ‘22, so he’s shaking in his metaphorical and literal boots as he waits in the entrance of the community center that second Thursday in March.
His group’s already dispersed for the day, but Bucky’s group goes over sometimes, so he kicks his feet back and forth on the linoleum, ignoring the anxiety roaring in his ears.
The door opens at the end of the hall, something his hearing picks up easily enough, and he pretends not to let the anticipation show on his face until the crowd of people hits the hall.
The faces are all familiar, people who’ve been supporting Bucky through his loss (and the Barnes twins had been orphaned before the Snap, Steve’s learned, Bucky’s completely alone without Becca, completely alone except for this group and this sadsack supersoldier who can’t help but skulk around him, trying to catch any kind of secondary happiness from proximity to the brightest soul in Brooklyn), and they pass by and nod at Steve.
Bucky’s not there.
He clears his throat, forcing back the renewed anxiety, and waits for the leader of the group to walk past.
“Hey.” He nods at him respectfully, and rubs his hands together when the guy gives him an unimpressed look. “I was - I don’t know if you can tell me this - but, was Bucky there today?”
“James.” Steve corrects himself, trying not to look like he’s flailing. “Was James Barnes present today?”
“James?” the group leader blinks and shakes his head with a frown. “Nah, he wasn’t. I was actually about to call him and see if he was okay. Not like him to miss.”
“No, it’s not,” Steve whispers. He shakes himself and resumes talking normally. “But, uh, I can - I can call him if you want.”
“Okay.” The guy shrugs and keeps walking. “Suit yourself.”
Steve’s fumbling for his phone before the guy is three feet away. He dials the number he memorized almost a year ago, hands shaking, trying not to go to the worst possible places in his fear, but he can’t help it.
What if he’s sick? Hurt? What if something happened at the shelter?
Bucky doesn’t pick up.
Could be anything, the rational part of Steve says. Could be busy. Maybe it’s the stomach flu?
He calls again. Still no answer.
Steve’s running up the street five seconds later, phone clutched in his hand. He makes it the seven blocks to Bucky’s apartment in less than five minutes, running at a full tilt sprint he hasn’t used in years. People dodge out of his way, shouting, and he’s sure this will show up on some blog somewhere, but he doesn’t care.
He vaults through the open door of Bucky’s complex and sprints up the steps, not stopping til his fist hits the door of 917, hammering the wood hard enough that he hears it splinter.
“Buck?” He knocks until his knuckles go numb, calling his name the whole time. “Bucky, are you there?”
Even if he freaked Bucky out last week, even if he chased him off forever, Steve knows Bucky Barnes well enough to know that he’d open the door and tell him to fuck off. Hell, he would have texted it at him by now. The silence though.
“Buck, please,” Steve whispers to the door, pressing his palm to it.
He calls again, just to make sure - what if he fell in the apartment on his way to group and hit his head? What if someone broke in and attacked him? The last though makes Steve feel physically ill, and he fights the urge to gag: but, there’s no sound in the apartment, no ringing phone, nothing.
There’s no pause before he’s running down the stairs, out the door, and four blocks over to the animal shelter.
Rosa looks up for half a second when he bursts in the door. “You aren’t scheduled today, Captain Rogers.”
“Bucky?” He plants his hands on the counter and takes a ragged breath. “Was Dr. Barnes in today?”
Sure, he’s not technically a doctor, not with a year left in his program, but everyone at the shelter and in the community calls him Doc, or Doctor Barnes, and that’s what he is, degree or no degree.
“Doc?” Rosa sets her clipboard down, her mouth folding in a tight line. “...No. No, he’s not in today.”
“Did he-” Steve pulls his hands away from the counter when he realizes he’s pushing indents into the metal. “Is he okay?”
Rosa looks at him a long moment, tired and sad and angry all at once, and Steve thinks wildly that Bucky told her that Steve creeped him out last week, that she’s going to get out the powerhose and spray him with it until he leaves, but then she sighs and grabs a post it note.
She scribbles something down and passes it to him.
“I wouldn’t normally, but…” She shrugs and folds her arms around herself. “He shouldn’t be alone, and I’d rather you get yelled at than me.”
Is it an appointment for his arm? Steve had been under the impression that the postoperative healing had been going well. Maybe Bucky’s been hiding it, though. He’s self-sacrificing enough to hide his pain. “Thanks.”
“Yeah.” Rosa gives him a rare smile and grabs her clipboard, returning to the med list for the day. “Let him know we’re all thinking about him, yeah?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Steve remembers to give Atticus a pat on the head on his way out the door, and he stumbles into the weak sunshine; he glances at the post-it note at last, and blinks at the address scribbled there.
And, for the third time that day, he starts running.
This time, his path takes him through the more green spaces of Brooklyn, winding through the nice part of town, crossing small footbridges in the parks, not running with the same speed as before, but just as urgent. He knows the address Rosa passed him. He’s been there a few times himself to pay his respects.
He reaches the Brooklyn Memorial Gardens a quarter of an hour later - at the center of the garden sit monolithic slabs of marble carved with the names of every last person who’d disappeared in 2018, a quiet spot that echoes with grief.
It’s there at the heart of the garden that Steve finds Bucky, his knees pulled up to his chest on a bench, red-eyed and exhausted, sitting under the section of marble that Steve sees at a glance is dedicated to Ba in the alphabet.
Bucky doesn’t look away from the marble, but his lips twitch slightly - up or down is anyone’s guess.
“Hey.” Steve folds himself onto the bench next to Bucky, on his left, and thinks about putting his hand over Bucky’s knee or hand, offering him some sort of support, but thinks better of it. “I was worried about you.”
“I’m fine,” Bucky says automatically, and Steve follows the trajectory of his vision to one of the thousands of entries engraved in the marble.
March 10, 1994 - April 23, 2018
March 10. Today’s date.
It’s his birthday today.
It’s Rebecca’s birthday today.
It’s the kind of loss that Steve can’t even fathom, losing someone that close to him - sure, he lost Sarah Rogers, and that loss ricochets through him even now at unexpected times, but Bucky’s parents died when he was twenty, and his sister died four years later. There are wounds in Bucky, valleys and scars carved into him, that Steve won’t ever know the depth of.
He doesn’t know what to say - he knows happy birthday is the wrong thing, and so is I’m sorry, and so is it’ll be okay - but Bucky speaks first.
“We did everything together.” His voice is cracked down the middle, and Steve wants to ask if he’s intruding, if he should leave or wait elsewhere while Bucky finishing mourning in private, but for now he keeps silent. “Everything. She was - she was my best friend, y’know? Drove each other crazy, got under each other’s skin. But… we lived together. Went to school together. Got through everything…”
He swallows, tears on his dark eyelashes, but he doesn’t tear his gaze away from the stone.
“My ma always said we were two sides of the same coin, and my dad said it meant that we knew how to get into trouble twice as easily as any other siblings. It was true. We got into some shit as kids.” Bucky laughs. It doesn’t sound happy.
Bucky isn’t wearing enough layers, Steve notices. He’s wearing a thin jacket over a shirt, and it’s barely above freezing. He isn’t shivering through, and Steve knows it would be infantalizing for him to pause this conversation so he can ask to take Bucky somewhere warmer.
“She was driving.” Bucky licks his lower lip, to wet it, and Steve makes a small noise of understanding in his throat. Bucky closes his eyes, and a tear finds its way free. It tracks to his stubble and stays there. “She was driving that day. We were goofing around - shoulda been more worried because of that fucking ship over Manhattan, but fuck, we figured - we figured you guys would take care of it.”
No bitterness, no accusation. It stabs Steve all the same.
“We were driving back from Indiana, visiting our parents’ graves if you can believe it - traffic wasn’t too bad, considering everyone else was trying to get the fuck away from New York - when it happened.”
“The earthquake, first. Sky turned red.” Bucky shakes his head, eyes still closed, and everything in Steve wants to stop this, wants to pull Bucky in and beg him to stop carving Steve’s heart out, but it’s not about him. If this is something Bucky needs to do, he’ll sit here and listen to it.
This deserves a witness even if every second of it is agony.
“We thought about pulling over, but Becca freaked out and drove faster, saying we should get to a rest area and not the side of the road - made sense, right? No point pulling over if someone was going to hit us.”
“She was driving,” Bucky says, and it’s more like a sob. “She was a better driver than me. I always - always fell asleep on the highway. We were … going over a bridge, and -”
“- Bucky -”
“She was gone.” Bucky’s voice is almost calm on the three words, and he takes a deep, staggered breath before leaning back on the bench. “We were going sixty miles per hour when she turned into dust, right in front of me.”
Steve wants to be sick. He wants to hold Bucky. He wants to reverse time and make sure this never happened to one of the best people he knew.
“That’s how I lost my arm.” Bucky grips his metal arm self-consciously, and Steve wonders if he realizes that both hands are shaking equally. “In the crash. We - I, I mean, it was just me - I got the car to slow down a little, but I was so freaked and we, I, hit a bridge wall, went over it, and I got pinned. No one found me for six hours because they assumed everyone in the car was already… So I … I dragged myself out as much as I could and screamed until the rescue teams found me.”
He does stop this time, and when he drags his eyes to Steve’s face, the albatross around Steve’s neck gets even more unbearably heavy.
“She was my person,” Bucky says quietly, heartbroken and simple. “She was my person, and I’m never gonna see her again, and I think if that I had fully realized it on that day, in that moment, I might not have fought so hard to get out of that car.”
“Please don’t say that,” Steve whispers, frozen by horror, both at the story and Bucky’s admission. “I mean - say it, it’s … it’s yours to say, but Bucky, you … you survived. You fought your way outta hell, and you survived, and-”
“It’s okay.” Bucky shrugs and looks away again. “I don’t need you to make me feel better, Rogers.”
But I want to, Steve might have argued a year ago. Let me fix this, damnit, let me do what I can to make it better -
“Okay.” He says instead. “But I’m here anyway. And I’ll be here if you need anything.”
Bucky nods, and they sit in silence for almost a quarter of an hour, standing guard at Rebecca Barnes’s memorial, at the memorial of the thousands, millions, billions who died that day.
“Can I ask why you looked so freaked out when you showed up?” Bucky asks eventually, and Steve shifts uncomfortably.
Bucky looks over and smirks at him.
“I, uh- you weren’t at group today, so …” Steve trails off and rubs his hands together, wondering if he could open a sinkhole through sheer willpower (Wanda had always made it look so easy).
“Didn’t think they had some sorta therapy alert.” Bucky fidgets with the frayed bottom of his jacket and gives Steve a half-smirk when he sees him frown in confusion. “They usually send bonafide superheroes to check in on ya if you miss a session?”
“Oh.” Steve ducks his head, grinning sheepishly. “Nah, I … I guess I got used to seein’ you there, Buck. Thought I’d go lookin’ when I didn’t see you today.”
“Is that so?” Bucky wraps his arm on the bench behind Steve and stretches his legs out, fully smirking now.
He looks good in the setting sun, the dark red light casting an otherworldly tint to his hair, and with his lips stretched into a sinful smile and blue eyes sparkling, Steve can see how Bucky Barnes might have looked four years ago before he lost his arm and his other half. He can see what he might have looked like, carefree and happy, gentle in his beauty rather than terrible in it.
And it hurts. It really does, right behind his heart, a sharp stab of pain that soothes quickly into a dull throb that promises to never go away because Steve can see Bucky, happy and unhurt - a Bucky he’d never meet, most likely, a Bucky who’d never have to suffer the way he has - he can see it, and it’s because Bucky wants him to see it.
He’s putting on an act right now, flirting and pouting up at Steve, waiting for him to engage in flirting or to de-escalate to a comfortable setting, and he’s hiding in the act.
All Steve wants to do is let him. Let him flirt, let him use those pretty eyes on him, let him in quick so he doesn’t have to let him in forever -
He chooses a different path.
“Yeah, it is,” he says quietly, and he reaches behind him to take Bucky’s left hand; he pulls it around so he’s holding it in his lap, marveling at the soft noises the metal plates make as they shift to allow the movement.
And he swallows, hard, around every obstacle his brain can concoct to get him outta this, around the dust that clogs his throat. “I was worried, Buck.”
“You don’t gotta be worried about me, Rogers,” Bucky says, his smile cocky. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “I woulda found my way home.”
Steve keeps on hand on Bucky’s and uses the other to trace invisible patterns on the back of his wrist, dragging his fingertips up to skim an outline of Bucky’s knuckles; he lets them both pretend that Bucky shivers because of the cold air.
“I knew it wasn’t logical.” Steve talks to the slats of the bench underneath them, because it’s easier. “I knew it. But when I couldn’t find you, I thought … I thought …”
“That something had happened,” Bucky finishes for him, and Steve nods, a half-aborted gesture.
“And I thought that … that everything else had turned to dust, and - I couldn’t lose you too.” Steve laughs and shakes his head, aware that Bucky’s squeezing his hand now to the point that it would hurt a normal person. But he’s not a normal person, and these probably aren’t normal emotions, but he needs to say it. “I was worried because I don’t know what I would do if I turned around, and you weren’t there.”
“You’d survive,” Bucky says firmly.
“I don’t know if that’s-”
“You would. You’re a goddamned hero, Rogers, you would be just fine if you didn’t see some guy two or three times a week-”
“You can’t think that,” Steve breaks in, his voice cracking clear down the middle.
Bucky’s expression barely conceals shock when Steve looks up to frown at him, and he’s careful - so fucking careful, the way he’d be around glass or anything else precious - as he cradles Bucky’s hand to his chest and leans in, praying that Bucky will believe him.
“You are,” Steve swallows, his eyes burning, “ so important to me. Do you understand that?”
“I’m just a-” Bucky mutters, but Steve shakes his head.
“I don’t care if you’re just anything. You’re important to me. You are. I had nothin’ left when we met, Buck. A few friends, folks that gave me half a reason to keep goin’, but I met you, and fuck, sweetheart. It was like I was walking around in the dark for years, and I saw you and -” Steve shakes his head, frustrated that he doesn’t have the words for it - then remembers that he’s an artist, and he has an explanation for it after all, “I didn’t see color for twenty-two years, right? Then, after the experiment, the world was screaming around me, all sorts of colors I could never have imagined. But I didn’t know. I didn’t know how much more there was left to see until I met you.”
Bucky, for his part, looks thunderstruck, but he hasn’t smacked Steve yet, or pulled his hand away, so it might be okay.
“When I met you, it was like comin’ outta that machine all over again, only this time - this time, I could hear the stars and feel the earth beneath me, and there was so much more -”
Steve laughs a little shakily when Bucky still doesn’t say anything. “I’m ramblin’. Ignore - ignore me, I just - I can’t have you believin’ you don’t matter to me because you do a whole lot more than matter to me-”
“I love you.”
Bucky says it simply.
Three words, unpracticed and unfeigned, fall from Bucky’s mouth and fall into Steve’s lap, feeling an awful lot like absolution he doesn’t deserve.
“Yeah?” He croaks, mortified that he had a whole, rambling speech that could have gone on indeterminately, and Bucky wiped him out with three fuckin’ words. “You-”
“I’m in love with you,” Bucky repeats, pink in the cheeks and not from the cold. “And I’ll say it again if you want. I don’t mind sayin’ it, I was just worried that you wouldn’t want me sayin’ it, on account of you bein’ straight.”
“I ain’t straight,” Steve protests, mildly horrified at the implication.
“How should I have known that?” Bucky laughs, an edge of hysteria to it but Steve understands where it’s coming from as he’s not feeling entirely too tethered to the earth right now either because Bucky Barnes loves him. “You - you tuck your shirt into your pants, and you look like a Robert Redford fifties wet dream, and you do the crossword every day and you say buddy unironically, and you don’t like brunch ? - you’re like, the most straight person I’ve ever seen-”
“Well, I got news for you, pal,” Steve snorts. “I’ve been checkin’ your ass out for ten fuckin’ months - thought about it on days where I didn’t see it - and I don’t even feel a little bad about it right now, motherfucker-”
“The mouth on you,” Bucky shakes his head irately and leans in, squinting at him thoughtfully, bright red lips pursed as he examines Steve’s face. “Outta wash it out with soap.”
“I’m hopin’ you got other uses for my mouth,” Steve retorts and it’s easier than breathing, even when he feels like he’s being ripped in half and like he’s expanding fit to burst all at the same time.
“Christ on the cross .”
“Not quite old enough to remember that.” Steve strokes some hair out of Bucky’s face and notes how cool his skin is; it’s time to go inside soon, or he’ll have to think of a better way to warm him up. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Bucky bites his lip while looking up at Steve through his unfairly thick lashes, and Steve’s heart kicks into overdrive. “You’re a real funny guy, Rogers.”
“No one’s ever accused me of bein’ funny,” Steve murmurs, cupping Bucky’s jaw in his hand. “Whole lotta things besides funny. Funny-lookin’, maybe.”
Bucky snorts but doesn’t say anything, and Steve feels the wind knock out of him all over again as he gets lost in the storm of blue in Bucky’s gaze.
“Hey, Rogers?” Bucky’s voice is sandpaper, and Steve wants to curl up in it. He’s suspended in the moment, not wanting it to ever end.
“I don’t want to kiss you for the first time in a graveyard,” Bucky whispers, his eyes drifting to Steve’s mouth.
“The whole fuckin’ world is a graveyard,” Steve whispers back, the wheels in his head turning to get what he wants because he’s been trying to do just that for as long as he’s been alive, “Everywhere we walk is somebody’s grave.” Bucky doesn’t say anything to that, just shivers and grips Steve’s wrist, strokes his thumb over the back of it like it doesn’t burn him alive. “Haven’t we waited long enough to live, sweetheart?”
He thinks he’s won - he hopes he’s won when Bucky leans his forehead against Steve’s, but Bucky laughs and shakes his head.
“We can wait another hour.” Bucky stands, tugging Steve up. “C’mon. I got somethin’ to show you.”
They take the subway together, back through the city. They don’t hold hands, don’t start pawing at each other the second the doors close behind them - they stand close together though, eyes meeting, dancing away, meeting again, and Steve feels an inexorable warmth building in his stomach as time passes, each hint of contact brushing along his spine like lightning.
They end up back at the shelter, and Steve heads for the front door, but Bucky shakes his head and tilts his chin towards the alleyway that leads out back.
Steve almost makes a joke about Bucky taking him out back to kill him, but it feels wrong to make a joke into the sacrosanct space they’ve buit up between them, so he follows obediently at Bucky’s heels, feeling like Bucky’s reached into his chest and is leading him by the heart.
Bucky loves him.
Bucky Barnes loves him.
He’s convinced at any second he’ll wake up and live in a world where those words were never actually spoken out loud.
They round the corner to the back of the shelter, and Bucky takes a step back and nods at the wall.
Steve turns, and feels his jaw drop.
It’s a mural: massive, beautiful, bright -
It’s the Avengers, as they were in 2018 before Wakanda, before Titan.
Spider-Man at Iron Man’s side, Black Widow crouched in front of Scarlet Witch, the Falcon diving out of the sky at the top of the mural: the Hulk and Thor stand back to back, Thor’s lightning wrapping around Hulk’s fists, and Hawkeye is perched in the corner, keeping an eye on all of them. Black Panther and Princess Shuri are standing in the corner, arms wrapped around each other, laughing at something that Ant-Man says as he’s blown up to fifty times his normal size.
The mural feels alive, and the colors surge brightest around the ones who aren’t here anymore. Steve’s speechless in front of it, and he looks at Bucky, mouth still open, not fully comprehending.
“I had it commissioned,” Bucky explains. “We’re going to post it on the page tomorrow. A local kid did it.”
“A kid did this?” Steve asks, voice hoarse. He doesn’t know how a person could fit this much kinetic energy into a drawing, but it’s vivid and real and makes it feel as though Wanda or Sam or T’Challa could walk right off the brick and back onto the pavement to talk with him.
“Yeah. You’ll love Miles. He volunteers here sometimes, but he isn’t sixteen yet, so he can’t spend time around dogs without his dad.”
Steve nods, only really hearing half of it, and feels his chin tremble.
“You hate it or something?” Bucky asks nervously. “I’ve been meaning to show you, but the last week has been total shit … has been every year since … well, you know, and - do you hate it?”
“I love it.” Steve closes his mouth suddenly and shakes himself internally, making himself face Bucky, well aware that his eyes are wild and filled with tears. “I love it -”
“Yeah?” Bucky’s smile is heartbreakingly hopeful. “I wanted it to be a surprise, figured you needed a reminder that Brooklyn still knows you’re a hero, that all of you are heroes.”
“I love you,” Steve says because there’s nothing left to say. “Holy fuck, I love you.”
“Aw, shucks,” Bucky mumbles, bright red now. He stares at the pavement as he scruffs his feet back and forth. “Bet you say that to all the guys who have fifteen foot portraits of you painted-”
“I’ve loved you for months.” Steve steps closer, hands shaking for a newer, better reason this time. Bucky looks up, slightly surprised now. “I’m so in love with you.”
“Huh.” Bucky doesn’t blink, quirks his lips like he’s considering this. “And now you’re going to…?”
“I intend to kiss you,” Steve confirms, and Bucky’s smile is equal parts joy and relief. “If that’s okay with you.”
“It’s okay.” Bucky nods slowly as Steve places his hands tenderly on his jaw. “More than okay.”
He strokes his thumb over Bucky’s cheek, studying the curve of his upper lip, the slope of his nose, the blue of his eyes.
“I love you,” Steve repeats, glad to have it outside his body now, out in the universe for anyone to hear because somewhere in the last year the chemistry of his body has altered yet again and this time it’s not Erksine’s formula but Bucky’s name that’s transcribed into his DNA.
“That’s good,” Bucky says faintly, wrapping his hands, metal and flesh, around Steve’s wrists. “Cuz I kinda love you too.”
“Ain’t that something,” Steve laughs, and Bucky smiles back.
There’s a distant echo of an old fear, the fear that he should never be allowed to touch anything half as good as Bucky Barnes, the fear that the dust coating his soul and buried under his skin will bleed out and stain him somehow, that Steve will break anything good he holds in his hands -
But Bucky closes the distance between them, tilting up on his toes, fingers tight around Steve’s wrists, and kisses him, and that’s the only thing that Steve’s allowed to know.
He knows how Bucky’s lips feel under his own, how he gasps into his mouth when he scrapes his teeth against the full bottom lip; he knows how Bucky feels pressed up against him, how his nose presses into Steve’s cheek when he tilts his head and smiles into the kiss; he knows how Bucky tastes when Bucky opens his mouth to let Steve’s tongue in to map out the spaces behind his teeth.
Steve kisses Bucky in the fading light on the kind of Thursday that’s never happened before and knows that there isn’t a single fear that could stop him from kissing Bucky Barnes until the universe itself turns to dust.
Spring blooms suddenly, and Steve tries to let it spread its warmth without doubting if he deserves it.
He takes Bucky on a first date, a real one, where he buys him flowers and watches him blush when he picks him up at his front door. They go to the zoo and play with sea lions after Steve works whatever charm he has left on the keeper; Bucky giggles while splashing, and confirms that he’s just as good with these animals as he is with any other.
They kiss over coffee at the diner, and Steve learns that if he brings coffee to the shelter every morning around 10 a.m, he’ll get another kiss for his trouble. When they kiss in the privacy of Bucky’s office, Atticus will bark until he’s allowed to give a kiss to each of them, the old dog wiggling his body joyously while he bestows slobber on each of their cheeks.
Diner Tuesday stays sacred even with the date of therapy moved, and Thursday reserved for group therapy and decompressing after. Steve still cooks Natasha dinner on Wednesdays. Tony shows up more often than not, sometimes with Pepper, always with Morgan, and the first time she calls Steve Uncle Steeb, Steve has to excuse himself from the table so he can cry in the bathroom for five minutes.
(Tony gives him a small plaque a week later that has To my Uncle Steeb in a child’s writing, and Steve swears Tony wants to see him cry)
Weekends are for dates and eventually cuddles (Steve’s personal favorite thing in the world is Bucky Barnes dozing in his arms while Law & Order reruns blare in the background, only slightly louder than the open-mouthed snoring that blows across his collarbone while Bucky naps), and his life fills and expands until it pushes at the boundaries.
It hurts around the edges, there where it expands, there where it pushes up against the holes made by Wanda and Sam, by T’Challa and Shuri and Scott, but when Dr. Gonzalez approaches him in April and asks if he wants to lead a group for men struggling with anger, he says yes without hesitation.
Bucky’s proud of him, proud enough to cry, and Steve gets more than a few kisses out of the announcement (they’re in the office, and when Bucky’s timer goes off to remind him that he has to go and perform the spaying and neutering for the newcomers, it effectively kills the mood, but he’d been straddling Steve’s lap before that point and Steve is of the opinion that without that specific interruption, they might have had a very pleasant afternoon indeed). Nat’s pleased too, smiling her little smile, the real one, when he tells her, and Tony snorts and says “maybe I should stop by sometime” when Nat announces it at family dinner that Wednesday, Steve blushing like she’d pinned his report card to the fridge.
He’s kidding, but he looks genuinely touched when Steve grips his shoulder and says earnestly, “That would mean a lot to me, Tony. And probably a lot to all the guys.”
And he does show up, at the first meeting, then the second and the third. He listens for most of it, listens through the awkward getting to know you parts, listens to people bleed out on the floor of the Brooklyn community center, listens as they talk about all the anger that had been there even before the dust kicked up.
He talks at the sixth meeting, talks without stopping, eyes distant as he fiddles with an allen wrench, talks about his father and the rage he felt for years, the rage that went nowhere at all when Howard Stark showed up dead on the side of the road when he was still a kid; he talks until he can’t anymore, and looks genuinely surprised when men he’s only just met offer him a hug when the meeting is over.
They don’t talk while they walk out to Tony’s car, but Tony looks at Steve for a long minute behind his rose-colored glasses and then shakes his head.
“You’re really hard to stay mad at, Cap.” Tony rubs his goatee and shrugs. “Maybe that’s why I avoided you for so long. Wasn’t ready to not be mad anymore.”
“I get it.” He really does. “I just hope that one day, I can earn your forgiveness.”
Tony claps him on the arm, unsmiling. “It’s not about earn, Cap. Things like that happen. They take time. They can’t be forced. You said that in there.”
And he had. Steve’s surprised to hear the words turned around in this context; he’d been talking about healing with the group when he said it.
But, when Tony hugs him, quick and tight and unexpected before getting in the car, pulling away from the curb without looking back, he figures that’s what this is. A healing.
They have to let it heal.
Morgan Maria Stark comes sprinting through the front doors of the animal shelter towards the end of May; Steve’s working behind the counter when she arrives, and he already has his clipboard in hand.
“Good morning, Morgan.” He greets her with great dignity. “Are you ready?”
“Ugh.” Tony tucks his sunglasses in the front pocket of his suit as the door clicks shut behind him. “There aren’t enough lint rollers in the world for this.”
“Uncle Steeb!” Morgan holds her hand up to him, and Steve takes it. “Daddy loves dogs. He’s pretending.”
“Doesn’t sound like your dad,” Steve says solemnly, smirking at Tony over Morgan’s head.
They walk the kennels, the noise doing nothing to dissuade Morgan, who peers into the cages with a grin of excitement.
When they round the corner towards row E, they bump into Bucky, wearing a white coat with his hair pushed back from his face.
“Hello.” He grins at Steve and then squats down to smile at Morgan. “Who are you?”
“Morgan,” she whispers, ducking behind Steve’s leg and looking up at her dad for confirmation.
“Morgan, this is my friend, James,” Tony nods encouragingly, and Morgan pops back out from behind Steve, her face turned up in curiosity. “We met last year.”
“Your dad built my arm.” Bucky pulls his sleeve back on his coat and shows Morgan the shifting silver plates. “It helps me help all the animals.”
“Are you the vetra-in-arian?” Morgan asks, eyes wide.
Bucky’s inundated immediately with questions ranging from who’s the best dog to how do you tell if an animal is sick, and he takes it in stride. He stands up, and Morgan takes his hand, abandoning Steve entirely, and they walk down the kennel row, talking excitedly.
“Wow. You got ditched by my kid for your boyfriend.” Tony shakes his head in mock sadness. “Must be tough to watch.”
“Not really.” Steve smiles fondly at the sight of Bucky explaining everything every five seconds, and he and Tony follow a dozen or so feet behind. “I’d be worried if she picks him over you, though.”
Tony’s grumbling, and that grumbling becomes much louder when Bucky sells Morgan on one mutt in particular:
A huge, wiry-haired beast that might have been part terrier (if the other part were hellhound).
“I love him,” Morgan says, face pressed up to the bars.
“No, no, we want a dog without rabies, Morganna” Tony insists, staring at the dog in mild horror.
“Fuzzy has all his shots,” Bucky assures him serenely, “And he’s ready to go to a good home today.”
“Uh.” Tony clears his throat, but then Morgan turns around, brown eyes massive, tragically clear and hopeful and happy, face so sweet it makes Steve want to hand over his wallet -
Tony’s signing paperwork ten minutes later while Morgan rolls around with her new dog.
“I love you,” she says, kissing Fuzzy on the nose.
“Maybe become better friends with him before kissing his face,” Bucky suggests kindly, scratching Fuzzy between the ears. “But I think he loves you too.”
And he does: Fuzzy isn’t anymore immune to Morgan Stark’s charm than the rest of them, and he follows her every command on the floor of Bucky’s office.
“Congratulations on your new dog,” Bucky declares, passing over the rabies shot certificate and confirmation of immunizations.
“Who do I call when Hades comes looking for his hound?” Tony asks, but Steve spies him taking a dog biscuit from the jar upfront and feeding it to Fuzzy before he loads daughter and hellbeast into the back of his car.
Steve doesn’t push things physically with Bucky; it’s not that it’s his first time (that was in the thirties, in the back of a dark bar where that sort of thing was allowed, guys pressed up against other fellas, gals kissing and touching far from people who would hurt them for loving another gal), but it’s his first time with a sweetheart, and Bucky’s the sweetest thing he’s ever met.
He gets shivers when they kiss, goosebumps when Bucky trails his fingers down his back, butterflies in his stomach when Bucky presses his mouth to the hollow of his collarbone.
They love each other, and Steve’s so giddy on that that he can’t imagine pushing for more, not when he’s so deliriously, gobsmackingly happy to touch Bucky at all.
So, in June, when they’re sitting on Bucky’s couch and watching a baking show, a box of pizza forgotten on the counter behind them, Bucky catches Steve entirely off his guard.
“Hey yourself.” Steve’s got a hand cupped around Bucky’s ankle, his feet in his lap, and everything is syrup-sweet and slow in the warmth of the apartment.
He takes a long sip of his iced tea, and that’s when Bucky tries to kill him.
“When are you going to fuck me?”
Steve chokes immediately, iced tea coming out of his nose, burning his throat; he hacks up a lung, and Bucky pulls his feet away, sitting up and patting Steve on the back a little anxiously.
“Breathe, Rogers, c’mon-”
“I’m - I’m fine,” Steve wheezes, “Ho-holy fuck, Bucky, warn a guy, would ya?” He coughs a few more times, eyes streaming, and then raises his eyebrows at his boyfriend ( boyfriend, boyfriend, boyfriend, his heart sings even mid-irritation). “When am I gonna what ?”
“Fuck me.” Bucky bites his lip and sits back on his heels, apologetic and beautiful at the end of the couch. “Is it that you’re scared? Because - I mean, I wouldn’t be opposed to fucking you, not at all, but I know topping is less daunting if you’re used to-”
“Oh my fucking God.” Steve slaps a hand to his face. “I’m not a virgin, Buck. Not even a little bit.”
“Ah.” Bucky nods and then scowls. “Wait a minute, who did you -”
“They’re all dead,” Steve laughs without humor, and Bucky looks appropriately chagrined. “No need to get jealous, babydoll.”
Bucky turns bright pink, and Steve smirks at him.
“You like that? Me callin’ you babydoll?” He uses a voice he specifically hasn’t used on Bucky before, a voice that he’s been told drips sex, honey, a voice that’s half-battlefield and half-backroom. Bucky doesn’t answer, just turns darker pink around his neck and ears, and Steve leans into it, crowding him in a little on the couch. He puts a hand to Bucky’s cheek, more delicate than a feather’s touch. “D’you wanna be my babydoll, sugar?”
“Fuck.” Steve’s mollified by how blown Bucky’s pupils are, but then his brain disconnects and his dick takes over because Bucky bites his bottom lip and nuzzles into his hand. “Yeah. Want that.”
Steve sternly reminds himself that his first time with Bucky should be romantic, even if Bucky’s looking at him like he wants to eat him, or maybe, the reverse, and he plays with some hair that’s fallen out of Bucky’s pushed-back style.
“Do you wanna go to bed, Bucky?” He asks softly, his normal voice, a little strained with nerves.
Bucky looks up at him through his lashes, the way he does when he clearly wants Steve to squirm and suffer. “Yeah. Want that.” He takes Steve by the hand and pulls until they’re both standing up. “Want you.”
“Want you too,” Steve whispers, pulling Bucky in by the waist to kiss him in earnest.
They walk backwards to the bedroom, Bucky guiding them fairly expertly for how hard he’s kissing Steve; they bump into the doorframe, and barely stop to laugh before returning to their kiss.
Steve untucks his shirt and pulls it over his head - by the time he’s done with that, Bucky’s down to his boxers, hopping around on one foot while he pulls his last sock off.
“How the hell did you do that so quick?” Steve asks, completely amazed.
“I’m gifted, alright?” Bucky snorts and crowds back in, one hand on Steve’s neck as he pulls him in for another kiss.
Steve curls his hands around Bucky’s shoulder, groaning when he starts to tug at his belt, and in a shockingly short amount of time, Bucky’s got it undone and is pulling it free. “How-”
Next his pants are unbuttoned, and Bucky tugs at the loops. “These too?”
“These too.” Steve decides not to ask questions, just helps Bucky guide the pants down, and then they collapse on the bed, rolling until Bucky’s on his back, arching into Steve and gasping quietly as Steve starts to bite and kiss down his neck.
“Lube.” Bucky whacks him in the shoulder and sits up when Steve gets out of the way; he pulls a bottle of lube and some condoms from his bedside drawer.
Jealousy surges up, hot and real in Steve’s throat - all of his partners are dead, but if Bucky has that on hand -
His poker face hasn’t improved at all because Bucky catches him frowning and paws at his shoulder before giving him a kiss.
“I was being optimistic is all,” Bucky whispers, laying back down so his heads on the pillows, hair framing his face handsomely. “That’s all, I promise.”
“You don’t gotta feel like -” Steve clears his throat, embarrassed, and returns to kissing Bucky’s chest. “Shouldn’t matter none, anyway.”
“Hey.” Bucky tugs on his hair until he looks up. “You’ve been it for me Rogers. Since we met.”
Overcome with emotion, Steve returns to kissing Bucky’s chest and then stomach, all the way down to his boxers.
With those two choked words, Steve’s sliding Bucky’s boxers down, freeing his cock, cut and smaller than Steve’s, but gorgeous and flushed at the tip. He laps at it for a second to hear Bucky gasp and curse, and then swallows it down to the root, ignoring his gag reflex when it hits the back of his throat.
“Mother fuck -”
Within a minute or two, Bucky’s tugging on his shoulders, and Steve looks up, only to narrowly avoid getting hit in the face with the lube.
“You should be more careful when a fella’s got your cock in his mouth,” Steve scolds, stroking Bucky’s slicked cock with his hand and gathering the lube to him with the other.
“Yeah, yeah.” Bucky sighs and lies back with a dreamy expression. Steve commits it to memory, lets it sink down deep into him where it becomes part of his happiest memories. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
After he’s worked two and then three fingers into the heat of Bucky’s body, he’s more or less manhandled back up the bed to kiss Bucky; he goes willingly, and they kiss with Steve’s cock pressed up against the crease of Bucky’s thigh, groaning together at the growing friction.
“Fuck me?” Bucky asks again, mid-kiss, and Steve nods, Bucky’s bottom lip between his teeth before he pulls away to press up against Bucky’s ass.
He rocks his hips once, twice, before gripping his cock and pushing in, watches Bucky toss his head back and gulp air, and then pushes in more.
“I love you,” Steve whispers when he’s all the way in. “Love you so much.”
It’s quiet at first, Steve rocking his hips experimentally, and Bucky staring at the ceiling in a mixture of discomfort and rapture - when he goes to tug at Bucky’s cock, his hand gets slapped away, and Bucky shakes his head.
“Just wanna feel you right now,” he sighs, and they kiss lazy and open-mouthed for a few minutes.
When they pick up the pace per mutual agreement, Bucky squeaks a moan and closes his eyes in bliss. “Fuck, Steve. ”
Without warning, Steve lets out a dry sob.
“Stevie?” Bucky opens his eyes and frowns at him. “W’s’wrong?”
“N-nothing.” He sucks in a breath and braces his weight on his elbows, trying to control his thrust and his emotions, knowing he probably has to pick one. “Nothing. I - It’s just - you never say my name.”
“What?” Bucky smiles and it’s kind and it hurts, and Steve lets out another sob.
“Sorry, it’s - it’s really nothing.”
“I guess,” Bucky’s breath hitches when Steve angles his thrust correctly again, so he tries to replicate the movement. “I guess I was afraid of it not being real?”
“What?” Steve mouths along Bucky’s jaw, brain trying to work, but it’s not going so well at the moment when everything is hot and sweaty and sticky and Bucky.
“Dunno. We can -” Bucky moans again, sharp and sweet, “Talk about it - later just - holy fuck, Stevie, do that again-”
“Of course,” Steve promises, kissing him and groaning, a near-animal sound. “Anything. Anything you want.”
“Steve,” Bucky breathes into the next kiss, tangling his metal fingers in Steve’s hair and tugging almost on the wrong side of painful. “Stevie-”
“Fuck,” Steve chokes, pressing his face into the side of Bucky’s neck and gripping the sheets next to his head more tightly, rolling his hips with more force than before. “Bucky-”
“Steve,” Bucky keeps whispering, flesh hand stroking up and down his back, trailing featherlight over his straining shoulder muscles; he presses kisses into Steve’s jaw, into his cheek, his shoulder, “Steve, Steve, Steve -”
Steve shudders and comes somewhere in the middle of Bucky’s chant, and he doesn’t pull out until after he’s wrapped his hand around Bucky’s cock and tugged three times, doesn’t pull away from Bucky until he’s seen his chest flush and breath catch as he spills, hot and sticky and real, over Steve’s hand.
Bucky moans when Steve bends down to kiss and lick his come away, “ you don’t gotta do that Stevie, ” moans when Steve whispers back into the groove of his left hip, “but I wanna ,” and moans when Steve wraps him up and scratches his nails gently up and down, over Bucky’s pectorals and down to his waist, tracing and retracing.
“What did you mean?” Steve asks into the quiet after. “You were afraid it wasn’t real?”
Do you think I don’t really love you?
“I thought if I stopped calling you what I did when we were friends, it would all - I don’t know, go away? Didn’t want to jinx anything,” Bucky mutters. “Seemed to good to be tree, you wantin’ a guy like me.” He folds their hands together and kisses Steve’s knuckles. “Silly, right?”
“You’re still my friend, Buck,” Steve says thoughtfully, kissing his nose and then his cheekbone, slightly more off-target than he would be normally. “But lemme tell you, this is - this is real. I want you so bad I can’t think from it most of the time. You and me? It’s as real as it gets.”
“Okay.” Bucky smiles, like he’ll need some more convincing but can accept it for right now, and wiggles into Steve’s embrace even more.
“I love you,” Steve comments, glad to know more of Bucky’s heart now, but exhausted from their activities, eyes drooping even if his cock is still hard, an irritating side effect of the serum that in no way reflects how complete and sated he feels with Bucky in his arms.
Bucky tangles his fingers in Steve’s again and kisses where their palms meet. “Yeah,” Bucky whispers back into the dark, and Steve’s chest tightens when he says, “I love you, Steve Rogers.”
He cries then, soft and quiet enough to break Steve’s heart, but he understands that Bucky’s heart is breaking too, breaking in the way his broke months ago on the quinjet, again at Christmas, again in the hospital - the way his heart broke and kept breaking when he realized that loving Bucky Barnes meant that there’d be a whole other person he might have to watch turn to dust.
Things go oddly that summer.
Not odd in a bad way. Odd in an odd way.
At least, that’s how he describes it to Tony, who huffs and says “well, if that’s all, Captain Vaguery,” and Nat tilts her head like she’s thinking about it but doesn’t say anything else on the subject.
Carol calls with a report of strange cosmic activity at the other end of the galaxy, something about particles acting the way they shouldn’t, event horizons going backwards, and none of it means a whole lot of anything to Steve, but Bruce and Tony lock themselves in a lab for days after that phone call, shouting about theorems and relativity and something else that Steve can’t quite catch, but he shrugs and keeps playing Candyland with Morgan and Clint anyway.
A reporter stops Steve on the street in August as he’s walking home from Diner Tuesday with Bucky, shoves a microphone in his face, demands to know is this your boyfriend, Captain America?
Steve almost feeds him his microphone, but Bucky wraps a hand around his bicep and smiles pleasantly at the camera and comments vaguely but sweetly enough that Pepper calls him specially to congratulate him on handling the press than any of the dumbasses she currently helps to manage.
The summer fades into fall, and Bucky’s things show up with more regularity at Steve’s place, and they walk together to the shelter most mornings, and hold each other when they wake up gasping from nightmares and dreams that set their hearts to yearning for people they’ll never see again, and hold each other when the grief becomes too much for one set of shoulders.
The summer fades into fall, and Steve lets his life entangle with another person’s and refuses to think of the consequences.
They get a phone call a week before Christmas - Bucky’s climbing into bed wearing thick socks, boxers, and a SHIELD t-shirt pilfered from Steve’s side of the closet, and Steve’s already under the covers, reading The Things They Carried and wondering if he’s going to stomach finishing it.
The sight of Tony’s name on the screen has him answering in two rings.
“Sorry,” he mouths to Bucky, who shrugs and burrows in under the blankets, burrowing until he’s got his nose pressed into Steve’s chest, his knees curled up to his thigh.
Bucky breathes in and out, happy, eyes closed, and Steve feels his heart expand even more as he swings an arm around Bucky’s back and scratches the top of his shoulder blade.
“Tony?” He remembers to talk into the phone.
He grins and nudges Bucky. “Hey, Morgan. Does your dad know you’re calling?”
There’s some indistinct conversation in the background, and Steve eyes the time - ten p.m. He wonders how Morgan got past Pepper’s strict eight p.m. bedtime rule before he remembers that Pepper’s in LA for a conference this weekend.
“Alright.” Steve runs his fingers through Bucky’s hair and smiles when he feels Bucky smile against his skin. “What’s up, Ms. Stark?”
“Will you come to Christmas?” Morgan asks sweetly, and Steve’s fingers still in Bucky’s hair. His boyfriend makes a questioning noise, and Steve offers him a smile when he looks down at him.
“Uhm.” Steve thinks about his answer carefully. “Is that okay with your dad?”
“He says to ask you,” Morgan responds cheerfully, and Steve tries not to grumble at the non-answer. She’s definitely a Stark.
“I’d be happy to come,” Steve replies. “As long as your mom and dad are okay with it.”
There’s a distant, obviously I’m okay with it, Cap! on the other line, and Steve laughs and keeps laughing as Morgan says, “See you next week!” before hanging up.
He sets the phone down on the nightstand and settles back on the pillow, enjoying the weight of Bucky draped over his chest, and continues to stroke his hair.
“I always wanted kids,” he announces unexpectedly towards the ceiling, and Bucky stiffens slightly in his arms. For half a second, Steve almost turns it into a joke, like, don’t worry, I’ll be the one who gets pregnant, but Bucky relaxes before he can and kisses his chest.
“Yeah?” Steve twists his neck awkwardly so he can look Bucky in the eye.
“Yeah.” They maneuver so they can face each other in the bed, and Steve returns to running his fingers through the dark strands of Bucky’s hair.
Bucky laughs, his mouth twisting up as he traces a pattern on the sheets below him. “Becca always said I’d be her kids’ vodka aunt.”
“Vodka aunt?” Steve tests the phrase out, already pleased by it.
“Yep. Sort of like a wine mom, but the aunt who gets drunk at Christmas off of cheap liquor and stirs the shit so they can watch everything burn.” Bucky giggles, his face scrunched up. “Vodka aunt.”
Then he’s crying, sobbing really, a hand pressed to his mouth, and Steve doesn’t have to ask why because Rebecca Barnes won’t ever have kids, and Bucky will never see her again, and it’s a wound that doesn’t go away and never quite scars.
He holds him, kissing his hair and crying with him for a while, rubbing circles into his back, careful to avoid the sensitive skin around the socket of his new arm.
They’ll talk later, in the quiet dark of the bedroom that’s slowly become theirs the last few months, later, after they’ve kissed and sought comfort in the warmth of each other’s hands and mouths and bodies. They’ll talk later, but for now, Steve will hold him and stop him from falling apart, and when he falls apart the next night, it’ll be Bucky’s turn to hold him because it’s them, together, ‘til the end of the line.
Thor starts to join Bruce and Tony in their science meetings, and Steve shows up and listens as much as he can without his head hurting; he feels the fact that he didn’t go to college in those hours spent talking with them, and while none of them ever try to make him feel small for his relative lack of knowledge, he feels little anyway and he doesn’t necessarily like it.
His group keeps meeting, gets even bigger, and not because Tony Stark is part of it. People come because they need something to hope for, need something to live for, and Steve feels good about what little help he can offer in those hours.
Bucky moves in officially in February when his lease is finally up, and there’s nothing left really to move over when he gets his name on Steve’s lease - they borrow Clint’s truck and drop off his old bed at Goodwill, and eat pizza in their boxers on the couch in their living room and make love lazily on the floor, Bucky riding Steve with his nails digging into his chest, his head thrown back, prettier than any picture Steve’s ever seen.
The team trains like they used to, and when Carol calls again with yet another black hole that appears to be reversing in the next galaxy over, they listen and frown at each other, unsure of what it might mean - Tony and Bruce don’t re-emerge for a week this time, and Bruce stays in Hulk form for almost a month.
Bucky’s birthday comes around again, and Steve calls out for the whole day - cancels on family dinner, postpones a meeting with what’s left of the head of SHIELD, pauses the art project he’s working on - and wraps around Bucky in their bed. They don’t speak much that day, and when they do, Bucky talks of Becca, and Steve talks of home, of a Brooklyn so buried in its own ghosts that he doesn’t think he’ll ever find a way back to it. They talk enough to make each other sad, to make them regret the things they can’t give each other - it hurts and it aches and it cuts Steve open, but he shows the parts of himself he hates to Bucky (the parts that doubt he’ll ever deserve the serum, the parts that doubt he’s making his mother proud, the parts that miss Sam Wilson and Wanda Maximoff to the point of the sort of pain that doesn’t let him out of bed in the morning, the parts that fear what he’ll become if he doesn’t learn to let go of the things he’s sure are right). They hold each other and learn each other and Steve becomes wholly aware that he’s let Bucky in further than anyone he’s ever met.
It should scare him, but he realizes he only wants to let him in further until there isn’t an inch left of his soul that Bucky Barnes hasn’t touched.
Steve’s supposed to be giving a speech about humanitarian efforts at the newly renovated Brooklyn Animal Refuge when Bucky tries to kill him for probably the fourth time.
“I feel like a dancing monkey,” Steve mutters.
He’s in full uniform, the first time he’s worn it in public since the Snap, and people are shouting and waving at him from all directions. Steve waves back and hopes no one in the crowd is mutinously thinking of everything he didn’t do for them five years ago, and Bucky giggles at his side, professional and prim in his white coat and freshly cut hair.
“I like the uniform,” Bucky says idly, waving at Steve’s side.
One of his employees has been uploading TikToks of him dancing and singing with cats and dogs who are nervous during intake, so he’s essentially more Internet-Famous than all of the Avengers (minus Clint) by this point. The Internet has unilaterally decreed him “Hot Animal Doctor” and his presence here today is almost as essential, if not more, than Steve’s.
Steve grins and points at a camera before grumbling to Bucky, “I hate this goddamn uniform.”
“Oh, really?” Bucky takes some leashes from a volunteer with thanks and hands several of them to Steve. Puppies start to jump up on his shins almost automatically, and Bucky laughs, holding onto only one leash, the leash of old, faithful Atticus who’s the calmest person in a ten block radius at the moment.
“Yes, really.” Steve speaks through gritted teeth so his smile doesn’t diminish, and that’s when Bucky decides to attempt murder.
“I really like your uniform,” he says shyly, quietly, too quietly for anyone to hear over the shout of the crowd.
Steve knows that voice. It’s the tone of voice usually reserved for the whisper of I love your cock, or I love the way you feel inside me, and its effect on him is embarrassingly immediate.
“In fact, when I was in undergrad,” Bucky continues in lowered tones while they trot the adoptable dogs up and down the red carpet, “I had a poster of you in my dorm room.”
“Bucky,” Steve groans warningly, well aware that his uniform is not the most forgiving for this situation. He adjusts the four leashes he’s holding to cover his crotch.
“Used to lie there when I was stressed about exams and think about you jerking me off with those fingerless gloves of yours,” Bucky moans so quietly it barely leaves his throat as noise, and Steve chokes on nothing at all. “Would touch myself for hours, thinking about you pinning me down and teaching me about the red, white, and blue, and what I could do for the war effort-”
“Buck,” Steve hisses, fully red-faced now, cock erect and straining at the front of his pants.
Bucky giggles and then waves at a reporter, speaking in an audible tone. “Hey, did you want a word from Captain America?”
After the press conference and Steve’s admittedly rushed and distracted speech, Steve kicks the door to Bucky’s office shut behind him - it reopens, briefly, so Steve can herd Atticus back outside because he sincerely doubts the wizened dog wants to witness what’s about to happen - and sweeps Bucky’s papers off the desk (less powerfully than he could because he’s holding Bucky up with one arm with his legs wrapped around Steve’s waist, and Bucky’s whining in his ear about organization systems and filing and he just got that neat, baby ).
He lays Bucky out in front of him and makes good on the filth Bucky had filled his head with, and as far as he can tell, Bucky has zero complaints as he fucks him into the oak of the desk. In fact, the only thing Bucky says much of at all is Steve and god and baby, his fingers curled into Steve’s harness as he tries to pull him closer and closer until Steve’s thrusts slow entirely, and he rocks into Bucky, kissing his jaw sloppily but ardently, unsure how it could ever be possible to love someone this much.
There’s at least two dozen headlines the next day wondering if Captain America has a skin condition, a sunburn, pneumonia, allergies, something to explain how red his face is during the benefit, and Clint reads them all out loud at the dinner table.
Bucky cackles the whole time.
The universe flips on its head again one April afternoon, a little bit before the five year anniversary.
There’s an insistent buzzing at the front door, and Steve and Tony frown at the display at the same time, unsure of who it could be - “everyone we know is already here,” Tony complains, “I’m not answering that door for fucking anyone” - and they both still at the same time.
It’s Scott Lang.
“Hey!” He waves his hands at the camera, and they can see his shitty old van parked on the driveway behind him. “It’s Scott Lang!”
“Holy fuck.” Steve sits heavily in a chair, a hand over his pounding heart. “Holy fuck -”
“He was dusted,” Tony hisses, jabbing a finger at the screen. “He’s dead-”
“I’m not dead!” Scott’s still shouting at the intercom and definitely can’t hear them. “But I think something really fucking weird happened!”
And something really fucking weird did happen. It seems that in his particle-hopping joyrides through space, Scott Lang accidentally unearthed the secret to -
“Time travel.” Bruce takes his glasses off and rubs his temples with his spindly fingers. “You seriously time traveled?”
“Well, in one direction, yeah.” Scott shrugs and jabs his thumb at the security cams that display his van. “The machine’s in there, in case you wanted to poke around in it. I’m less of a science guy, more of a thief, but-”
“I can’t believe a criminal mastered time travel before the rest of us.” Tony shakes his head in disbelief.
“Uhm, calling me a criminal is a pretty ridiculous accusation, coming from a Stark, ” Scott sneers, and Steve remembers his eat the rich! ramblings from their time together.
“Whoa,” Steve holds up a hand to both of them. “The important thing is - you really didn’t feel the five years passing?”
“It was like seventeen minutes.” Scott drops his aggressive tone of voice immediately and his shoulders sag. “Seventeen minutes to me, five years to my daughter…”
He trails off, and Steve grips his shoulder comfortingly.
“Do you think we could apply the Pym tech to a different approach to time travel?” Bruce asks, the gears clearly turning in his head. “If there were a way-”
“There’d be a million to one chance we’d fuck it up,” Tony says, gentle for him. “You’d have to be a genius to figure it out.”
They all stare at Tony at the same time, Nat, who’s been silent since Scott showed up, Clint, who’s just woken up from a nap, Bruce, who looks bemused and irritated, and Steve.
Tony looks back at them, and then points at himself, and then over at Bruce. “Right. And you have two geniuses.”
He clears his throat and rubs his palms on his jeans before standing. “Okay. Let’s … let’s see what we can do, Bruce.”
Things go poorly, and then very poorly, and then very well as Tony and Bruce tinker with time travel.
Scott is a very eager guinea pig, and Steve is only mildly concerned that he’ll have to explain to his teenaged daughter that her father is a baby permanently, but Bruce and Tony work on the algorithm, and work on the equipment, and work on the algorithm with the kind of focus that Steve’s never seen before.
Nebula shows up out of the blue and joins them, hammering away in the lab and shouting discouraging comments at Scott when she deems necessary. Nat watches at Steve’s side, arms folded in front of her chest, the gears turning in her own head.
She’s the one who points out that, if they plan it well enough, there could be three Stones in the city on one day in their shared past.
It feels a lot like hope.
And Steve knows how dangerous hope can be.
In the month after Scott Lang shows up, Steve takes to kissing Bucky a little more deeply, a little more desperately. With everything starting to move again, he can’t help but feel that every possible second he spends with Bucky is an important second that shouldn’t be wasted, that should be sent showing Bucky how much he loves him.
So, it follows that they spend a lot of that month in bed.
“I wanna disappear in you,” Steve whispers at the top of Bucky’s spine, rolling his hips slow and sweet. “Wanna -”
Bucky places his warm hand on Steve’s, pressing it further into his hip. “Don’t disappear, Rogers.” His voice is low and fucked-out, but genuine with emotion all the same. “We need you too much.”
Steve laughs but he’s really crying, and he buries his face into Bucky’s unscarred shoulder, careful not to jostle his left side too much as his hips stroke a little slower, a lot deeper, into Bucky. “I need you,” he admits, face burning from how hard the truth burns in his throat. “Need you so bad, babydoll.”
“You have me.” Bucky bears down on him while he tilts his head back, and Steve’s half-tempted to lift his face to see how pretty he must be, stretched out against the sheets of his bed, metal hand clutching the oaken headboard. “I’m not going anywhere.”
A real sob breaks loose from Steve’s throat at even the idea of it, the idea of losing Bucky Barnes, and Bucky makes an alarmed noise when he pulls out.
“Stevie?” He barely croaks out the word before Steve’s nuzzling his shoulder and neck, hands impatiently pushing at his hip until he rolls over on his back.
Bucky smiles up at him, kind and patient as ever, groaning gently when Steve fucks back into him, a faster pace than before. He tilts his head back onto the pillows, and Steve drags his fingertips from the top of Bucky’s neck all the way down his chest, loving the way Bucky’s spine arches at the contact, loving the way he tightens around him when he takes Bucky in hand.
“You’re everything,” Steve murmurs, pushing one of Bucky’s thighs up with his free hand, pushing it back towards the bed to improve the angle of his thrusts. “Everything, Buck.”
His voice gets more intense without him realizing, and Bucky wipes away the tears he didn’t feel falling. They kiss until they work their way to a quiet finish, and Steve leaves his mouth pressed against Bucky’s shoulder as he wraps himself around him.
“Everything okay?” Bucky whispers.
“Yeah.” Steve kisses his shoulder and tries not to let the hope slip out of his mouth, not before he’s sure it’s real, not before he’s sure it won’t hurt Bucky worse than he’s already been hurt. “I love you.”
“Til the end of the line?”
Steve thinks about all the things he’s learned about the universe and the laws of nature, and kisses Bucky’s collarbone, tracing the line of it with his fingertips.
“...and then some.”
There’s a breakthrough by early May, and they have a plan within the week.
Nebula agrees automatically, her liquid-black eyes glinting at the thought of revenge. Rhodey agrees quickly as well, a brave soldier through and through.
Nat and Clint hold hands openly now, and Clint presses his lips to Nat’s knuckles when he nods and agrees with the plan. Nat doesn’t look away from Clint when she agrees as well.
“I’m in,” Tony whispers, wearing a thousand-yard stare. “Pepp and I already talked about it, and … she’s right. I won’t be able to rest until … until I know I’ve done everything I can.”
“You are a great warrior, Anthony, worthy of our respect,” Thor tells him gently, a massive hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I will also lay down my life for this mission, even if it means facing my darkest day on Asgard.”
He’s being sent to his own past, to get the Aether from the day his mother died. Steve doesn’t envy him in the slightest, but Thor wears his dread with dignity, and offers them each a smile as he accepts.
“I’m in, of course.” Scott grins and gives them all a thumbs up. “Considering this was my crazy idea.”
“I thought it was Nat’s?” Clint asks, and Scott winces and nods.
“Yes. Very true. Sorry.”
They all look at him, and Steve feels his heart in his throat
Yes, he wants to say. Of course, if Thor and Tony and Scott and Nat and Clint are all going, I’ll go too.
“I haven’t told Bucky yet,” he admits hoarsely, and Nat rolls her eyes at him.
“You haven’t?” Tony glares at him sharply. “At what point did you plan on telling your live-in boyfriend that you’re going to throw yourself at the space-time continuum in an effort to save the universe, most likely at the cost of your own life?”
“Gee, Tony, when you put it that way,” Nat snaps. Her eyes soften when she turns to Steve. “You have to tell him.”
“I know.” Steve nods and winces. “I’ll tell him, and then I’ll … see if he’s okay with me going.”
He stands from the table, knees trembling slightly in a way they haven’t since 1940.
“Cap?” Tony speaks up, and Steve turns to him.
“If he says no,” Tony lifts his eyebrows, rubbing his goatee thoughtfully. “If James says no, no, he doesn’t want you to go … will you listen?”
Steve walks away because he isn’t sure if either of them would like the answer to that question.
It does not go well.
Bucky collapses on the comforter, his hand going to his mouth for a minute. He doesn’t say a word at first.
“Say something,” Steve pleads. “Anything.”
“I don’t think you’ll like what I have to say,” Bucky lets out a harsh laugh.
“Say it anyway.” Steve’s about to fall to his knees if that would help. “Please, Buck. I didn’t mean to keep it from you, really, I just - time travel, and fixing the universe, it all sounded so impossible, and I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, and -”
“That’s not the problem.” Bucky rubs his jaw and huffs tiredly. “I mean … I wish you’d told me if only because I wasn’t sure why you were spending so much time with the team, but I figured you needed your space, and - no, I’m not - I’m not mad about it. Surprised, but not mad about you not telling me.”
“Okay.” Steve nods. “I’m sorry anyway.”
“Of course you are.” Bucky shrugs, accepting it as truth, but probably not accepting the apology. It stings, but it’s fair.
“Could you - tell me what you’re thinking?”
“I’m not giving you permission to go,” Bucky retorts, brittle and angry. “If that’s what you’re hoping or waiting for.”
“You don’t need my permission to do anything,” Bucky continues weakly, and Steve feels his chin wobble from the grief he feels for hurting him like this. “I - I don’t see why you have to go.”
“Because.” Steve sits next to him slowly, giving him time to push away. He doesn’t. “Because, I was there the first time, Buck. I can pretend to be myself in the past, take the Tesseract from the Tower in 2012 without causing any fuss. We can’t send Rhodey because he wasn’t there, and Nat and Clint have their own thing to do because we have go in pairs, and Tony insists that he and I have to go to the Tower, and -”
“You don’t have to die to make things right.” Bucky’s hand is clenched into a fist, and the words hit Steve like a punch to the chest.
“You don’t have to give your life for this, Steve. There are - there are other heroes.” Bucky looks close to tears, but he speaks firmly, and Steve loves him, so terribly much, loves him enough that he almost agrees.
But he doesn’t agree.
“I have more to give,” he says, just as firmly. “And I don’t have to give my life-” Bucky laughs angrily, shaking his head, but Steve keeps going, “But I have to do this.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I need to.”
“You’ve given enough.”
A look of panic spasms across Bucky’s face before he can push it away, and Steve’s gut clenches - just yesterday, he was calling Bucky his everything, buried so far inside him he wasn’t able to tell if they were different people anymore.
But they are different people, and he’s reminded of it here in the light of day.
“We have a chance to save everyone,” Steve tries again. “It could bring everyone back, even Re-”
“Don’t.” Bucky tightens his hand on his leg and glares over Steve’s shoulder. “Don’t say her name when you’re trying to justify the fact that you might die. When you’re trying to justify leaving me here alone.” His voice cracks painfully on the last word, and Steve falls to his knees in front of him.
“I won’t. I swear, I won’t leave you. Look at me, baby - I’m going to be fine, I know exactly where I’m going and I’ve survived it already,” Steve tries again, but Bucky’s already tuned out. His eyes are shuttered and his body language is defensive; he stands from the bed, ignoring Steve with his arms, bionic and flesh, folded in front of his body. “Babydoll, please.”
“If you die,” Bucky whispers, and Steve’s heart slams painfully in his chest at the agony in Bucky’s voice. “If you die on me, Rogers -”
“- I won’t-”
“-I’ll walk up to the gates of Hell and fight the devil himself until he gives you back.”
Steve smiles at the fierceness in Bucky’s voice. “Who’s sayin’ I won’t be in Heaven?”
Bucky snorts and lets Steve stumble to his feet to wrap his arms around him, even if he’s slow to unwind his own arms from around his chest to hug him back. “St. Peter wouldn’t give me any sort of shit for askin’ for you back, jackass. He wouldn’t even ask to see the receipt.”
“The receipt? You sayin’ you bought me, pal?” Steve kisses the side of his head, trying to commit the smell of Bucky’s hair to memory. Who knows how much of an anchor he’ll need for this. “You own me, or somethin’?”
“You’re goddamn right,” Bucky whispers, his metal hand pressing between Steve’s shoulder blades with its eerie strength. “You belong to me.”
“And you to me, right?” Steve hates how his voice wavers.
Bucky pulls back from the hug instead of answering and kisses Steve so sweetly every last one of his teeth ache from it.
Of course, it all goes to hell incredibly quickly, and he and Tony have to make an unscheduled pit stop in 1970 to try and fix it.
Steve can’t think of Bucky, waiting for him fifty-three years in the future, can’t think of Sam and Wanda, still beyond reach, can’t think of Clint and Nat on the other side of the universe - he can only think of those goddamn Pym particles and the task at hand.
He’s focused on that task, which is how he gets tripped up walking around the SHIELD compound. It’s how he ends up in an office with a desk that faces the door. It’s how he ends up staring at a row of pictures on a desk that include three children of various ages, a handsome man with a cane, and a picture of himself as a young man, pre-serum.
He’s in the Director’s office, he realizes, seeing a picture of her on her wedding day. His chest is too tight, and he can’t breathe, and he’s here for something, isn’t he?
He’s distracted and heartbroken and confused, and that’s how he misses the sound of the door opening, and how he misses someone walking up behind him until cold metal presses against the top of his spine.
“Fuck,” he mutters.
There’s a gun jammed up against the back of his skull, and Steve freezes immediately; freezes, until he hears his would-be assailant speak.
“You picked the wrong dead man’s face to wear in this office.”
British. Calm, except for a small waver that flashes to the surface before vanishing. One of his favorite voices, coded so deeply into who he is, he’d recognize it across any length of distance, any stretch of time.
The gun presses up harder into his skull. “Why are you in my office?” She demands. “What do you want?”
“This is going to sound - so fuckin’ crazy, but - it’s me, Pegs. It’s - it’s Steve.”
“Liar.” The gun doesn’t move. “Tell me the truth.”
“Truth is,” he laughs, nervously, “truth is, I never did get that dance.”
“Everyone knows that story,” Peggy hisses, harsh and furious. “The army took it away from me, made it their story, instead of - his and mine.”
“But they didn’t write what we talked about on the way to Erskine.” The gun shifts. He doesn’t think he’s imagining it. “How I told you I was waiting for the right partner.” His voice cracks painfully, and he really doesn’t imagine the gun falling away. “I still haven’t danced, you know.”
“Steven?” She grabs him by the elbow and tugs, not enough to move him if he didn’t want to move, but God he wants to.
Peggy Carter at 49 is just as beautiful as she was at 22. As she was at 95.
“Peggy,” Steve breathes, eyes wide and drinking her in. “Holy shit-”
“You haven’t changed a bit.” Her smile is rueful, but mostly confused. “What are you doing here?”
She looks him up and down as she speaks, shock and emotion tumbling from her expression the way she’s been trained not to let show, and Steve misses her so powerfully in that moment he almost forgets to speak.
“I’m - would you believe me if I said I’m saving the world?”
“Of course you are.” Peggy presses her fingers to her temples and shakes her head wonderingly. “I would be disappointed if you weren’t. But could you please explain to me how it is you’re saving the world, and how you happen to be alive in my office?”
“I’m - I’m not from here.” He winces. “Now, I mean. I’m not from … now. ”
Peggy’s expression says go on , with a simple quirk of a perfectly maintained eyebrow.
“My friend, Howard’s son, uh,” Peggy looks even more incredulous. “He figured out how to travel through time, Pegs. And I know it sounds crazy, but-”
“No more crazy than the weapons the Red Skull used.” Peggy folds her arm and frowns. “And that was almost thirty years ago.”
“Right.” Steve smiles at her sadly, pained at the further reminder of what separates them, of what’s waiting for them. “So .. something horrible is going to happen, in about fifty years. I can’t tell you what mostly because I don’t - I don’t have the time, but - God, Pegs, it’s - it’s -” he runs out of words for what it is without being able to say it, and Peggy places a small hand on his forearm.
“And you need to save the world.”
“And there’s something here that you’d need to do that?”
“Yes.” He stands up straight and nods. “Ma’am.”
Peggy pulls herself up to her full height and nods smartly. “Right. So. Get on with it, then.”
“Of course.” There’s a thousand things he needs to say, but Peggy was always a save the world first, figure out feelings later kind of person, something he’d always loved and respected about her, so he turns to go.
But then he turns back again.
“How would you like to save the world with me?” He nods towards the office door. “For old time’s sake.”
Peggy Carter grins at him, a red, sharp smile that floats out of his memories and into the universe before him.
“Thought you’d never ask.”
The second fight with Thanos is worse than the first.
Steve figures out what Tony’s about to do a few seconds before he tries it - and he’s screaming, slamming Mjolnir through the dog-insects that are back again, screaming because not Tony, not him too, he’s seen what it did to Bruce, and Bruce is so much stronger than Tony -
- He’s seen what this fight has done to Nat, who’s fighting her way through the hordes with a cold glint in her eye Steve hasn’t seen since 2012, he saw what happened when she came back without someone she loved -
Tony puts the gauntlet on, and Steve doesn’t know what he’s going to do, can’t think about Bucky, not on a battlefield, can’t think about the ships that crashed through the sky and most likely landed somewhere near Brooklyn, near the apartment Steve begged him to stay in - but he knows he can’t sit back and watch his friend die, and he hurls the hammer through the air, begging Tony to stop in a voice that’s beyond broken.
Thanos hits Tony. Hard. Before he can finish his sentence, before he can snap his fingers and fix this -
Tony isn’t moving, isn’t moving, but that’s okay, Steve just has to get to him first, has to get to him and pick him up and then take the gauntlet and finish the job, save the universe, never see Bucky Barnes again -
Someone else gets there first.
It’s Thor, son of Odin, god of thunder, who cradles Tony briefly, smoothing a hand down his face, tender somehow even mid-fury of battle. It’s Thor who slips the gauntlet free, ignoring the Mad Titan charging at him, who slips it on his hand and grins, full and wild and beautiful -
“You mortals,” he laughs in the face of Death as Thanos screams in horrible rage, “You’re so petty. And tiny .”
He snaps his fingers.
The world goes white.
Steve staggers through Brooklyn, wounds not fully knitted together.
That’s what happens, he supposes, when you take on an army by yourself.
There are lightning burns on his hands from wielding Mjolnir, most of his ribs are broken, he's collcted stab wounds throughout his body, and he doesn’t know when he stopped counting his concussions.
But he’s walking, and he needs to get home. He needs to find Bucky.
There's a problem with that:
Their apartment building isn’t there.
Steve falls to his knees, ignoring the twinge from its previously dislocated state, and stares in abject horror at the burning crater where his home used to be.
Stay inside, he’d begged Bucky on the phone, as soon as he realized they’d brought the fight back with them. He’d wasted valuable seconds to call him after Thanos’s ship crashed through time and landed in their backyard. Please. Stay inside.
He feels nothing at all.
Their apartment isn’t there, and Bucky had been in there, and he’s … he’s gone.
Bucky Barnes has not made it a habit to listen to Steve Rogers - skips his jacket in the spring, stays up late to finish paperwork, doesn’t stretch after running, rolls his eyes at Steve’s bossiness - so …
“Bucky.” Steve climbs to his feet and starts to scream. “Bucky!”
He continues to stagger through Brooklyn, a splatter of dust and blood that moves through growing crowds. People stare at him, some record him, but he keeps screaming for Bucky.
Then, he hears his name.
“Bucky!” He starts to run, ignoring the scream of pain in his joints, through his body. “Bucky, baby, where are you?”
Steve spins around in the crowd, thinking that maybe he’s lost his mind, maybe he’s imagining this, but then he sees him:
Bucky has climbed a lamppost, of all things, and is waving frantically at him from the end of the street. Steve didn’t even move this fast on the battlefield.
He sprints to his side, and they collide almost violently on the sidewalk. Steve covers Bucky’s face with kisses, patting at him anxiously, searching for any sign of trauma or injury, but Bucky’s fine.
“What the fuck?” Bucky is sobbing though, which makes no sense because he isn’t hurt, “What the fuck happened?”
“We did it,” Steve gasps, still running his hands over Bucky’s shoulders, chest, stomach, face, “We finished it-”
“They said an Avenger d-died, ” Bucky chokes out, shaking his head, “They said two of them died -”
“Clint,” Steve whispers, and a spasm of pain crosses Bucky’s face. “He sacrificed himself for Nat.”
“ Fuck. ”
“And Thor...he used the Stones too, but - he’s not dead.”
“No.” Steve runs his filthy, dust-stained fingers through Bucky’s hair - normally, Bucky would fuss and tell him to wash up first, but he doesn’t say that now - and shakes his head. “No, he’s in something called the Odinsleep. Guess it’s what gods do when they almost die.”
“Okay.” Bucky touches his uniform tentatively, and then scowls at him. “The fuck did you do, Rogers - fight a whole army by yourself?’
Bucky glares at him powerfully enough to be felt, and Steve, despite the grief of the day, despite his bone-deep exhaustion, laughs and kisses the love of his life on a sidewalk, on the day the war ended at last.
People gather at Prospect Park later that day in an attempt to reconnect with lost loved ones.
Steve accompanies Bucky, who’s growing more and more nervous in the absence of Rebecca Barnes. He'd briefly been distracted by the idea of Steve wielding Mjolnir (Steve wonders if Thor would mind if he borrowed it while Thor was in the Odinsleep, and he likes to think that Thor would greatly approve of his intended uses for it).
Bucky paces up and down, waiting to hear from Becca, waiting to see her in the crowd.
“I mean,” Bucky says for the hundredth time, “We were still a few hours outside the city when we crashed and if she showed up there - you don’t think - something happened to her on the road, do you-”
“No, Buck.” Steve, cleaned of blood and wearing new clothes, kisses his temple gently. “She’ll be here. We’ll find her.”
A reporter catches sight of Steve, and starts to call out his name then - Steve tries to duck it, but then realizes the best line of sight is, in fact, up on the stage that was rigged for the news crews and important people giving speeches.
So, he sacrifices some dignity and goes up for a photo-op, dragging Bucky with him.
He mostly ignores the microphones jammed in his face and searches the crowd, giving noncommittal answers, and he can feel the anxiety releasing from Bucky in waves; he’d tried to hold his hand, but Bucky needs his hands to fidget, so he let go, and is just focused on the crowd now, the crowd and sometimes the questions sent his way.
They’re up there for ten minutes when:
“ BUCKY !”
Bucky’s head whips around so fast he loses his balance. “Becca?”
Another reporter catches Steve by the elbow, and he shakes them off impatiently, grunting with little sympathy when the man demands some more attention -
“BECCA!” Bucky screams, pushing off the stage and right into the crowd, his claustrophobia forgotten in the moment. “Stevie, c’mon-”
“Is this your boyfriend, Captain Rogers-”
“Now is not the fucking time, son!” Steve barks at the reporter, jumping down after Bucky and catching his outstretched hand. “She’s to your left, ten o’clock, sweetheart-”
"BUCKY!” It’s harder to hear her now, but Steve thinks he can see her - a beautiful young woman in her early twenties wearing a pretty dress - and he taps Bucky’s shoulder and points.
“Rebecca,” Bucky breathes, his body a single line of tension.
And then he’s pushing, shoving through the crowd; he lets go of Steve’s hand and loses himself to the crush of bodies, and Steve yelps in surprise and tries to follow.
People are pushing and pulling around him, and he can’t get through without seriously causing damage, but he’s gotta keep an eye on Bucky. Bucky moves like a man possessed through the crowd, stumbling as he tries to go faster, and Steve can see the young woman with Bucky’s eyes pushing and shoving with equal fervor.
They fall together, the crowd parting to give them the slightest bubble of space, and the Barnes twins take every inch of it. Their arms wrap around each other so tightly it’s impossible to tell if there’s any kind of distance between them, and Steve can hear two voices sobbing over the roar of the crowd as he pushes through to be at their side.
“Becca, Becca, Becca,” Bucky’s crying hard enough to choke, patting his sister’s hair and burying his face in her shoulder. “ Becca .”
“Hey!” Becca’s lovely face, turned up to the sky, isn’t dry either, but she looks slightly dazed (and if she’s anything like the other Avengers, she has zero memory of the last five years). “Hey, Bugs, I’m here-”
“You’re h-h-here,” Bucky can’t stop crying, and he wraps himself tighter around his sister.
“I’m here.” Becca opens her red-rimmed eyes and smiles at Steve over Bucky’s shoulder, almost apologetic like Sorry we’re doing this in public, but then her eyes widen comically. “Holy fucking shit, that’s Captain America! Bugs! Bugsie - it’s -”
“Hello ma’am.” Steve nods his head respectfully at her, and Becca swats at her brother - who’s still crying, but swats her right back affectionately - until he turns around. “Welcome back.”
“Uhhh.” Becca pats Bucky’s arm a thousand times in a single second. “Bucky, that’s -”
“Yeah.” Bucky wipes his face and swings his arm over her shoulder. “It is.”
“How are you being so chill about this?” Becca hisses, staring at Steve still. “You’ve had a crush on him since the sixth grade.”
Steve gets a real look at Rebecca Barnes as she’s staring at him; and if he hadn’t just seen Peggy in the 70s, he’d think this was her: thick, curling hair to her shoulders, a sharp mouth, small stature that belies a lot of strength. Then, what she said catches up to him, and he smirks at the Barneses.
“Is that true, baby?” Steve grins at Bucky, who’s red in the face for a different reason now. “You hadda crush on me?”
“Fuck you,” Bucky says dismissively, going back to holding his twin tightly.
“ Bucky !” Becca pushes at him, mortified. “You can’t talk to Captain America like that, he saved all of our -- wait. Did you - did you just call my baby brother baby ?”
“I did,” Steve says readily.
“And I’m not your baby brother anymore,” Bucky points out, a wicked grin on his face. “I’m five years older than you.”
“Hang on, you two know…” Becca trails off and then looks up at Bucky, horror settling into her expression, and the world screeches to a halt around her clearly. “Five years?” She blinks and starts to sob, her small hands on her brother’s face. “You were alone for five years? Oh, Bugsie-”
And then Bucky’s crying too, and Steve’s feeling more than superfluous as he watches the siblings hold onto each other like the last piece of land in a flood.
There’s the matter of returning the Stones to their original timelines, a week after the battle.
They’d gathered at Tony’s house for Clint’s funeral, and Steve can see Natasha in the distance, her hair a flame on the lake: Wanda’s at her side, her face buried in Nat’s shoulder while she hugs her.
(Steve hadn’t let Wanda go for almost three hours after the battle; when Sam tried to tease him about it, Steve had pulled him in for a bone-crushing hug, and Sam had, oddly enough, not complained about it at all).
It’s time for the Man Out of Time to return to the past, bringing the relics of the Infinity War with him, and Sam gives him a tight hug before releasing him.
“Good luck, man. See you soon.” Sam grins, so young and healthy and whole, and Steve feels another part of himself slip back into place.
His farewell to Bucky doesn’t go as smoothly.
“I’ll see you in a minute,” Steve promises.
“Yeah.” Bucky sounds muted though, like he’s talking from a far distance. “Yeah, Stevie.”
“I’m coming back,” Steve whispers, kissing Bucky as punctuation. He fits his hands to Bucky’s face, fingers curling under his jaw, pressing their foreheads together in an attempt to make him believe it. “I swear to you.”
“Window’s closing, Cap,” Tony warns from the launch pad, and Steve swallows hard and kisses Bucky on the forehead while he pulls away.
“I love you,” he says, gripping the container of Stones tight in one hand, the other reaching back to Bucky.
“Go finish saving the world,” Bucky says, wrapping his arms tight around his middle. His eyes tighten painfully, mouth twisting, and Steve’s mind is made up in that moment.
When he gets back from this - when, not if - when he gets back, he’s giving Sam the shield. He’s a better man than Steve anyway, even if Steve weren’t completely done with walking away from Bucky Barnes, with walking away from home.
He makes his mind up. He won’t be Captain America after this. He’ll be Steve Rogers, complete, Steve Rogers, entire.
He can give Bucky everything the second he gets back, the way Bucky’s given him everything the past year.
“Any requests, Tony? Invest in Apple? Sabotage Da Vinci?” Steve jokes as he readies himself on the pad, pulling the shield out and holding it in front of his body and the Stones.
Tony’s words tug at something hard inside of Steve, and when he stares at him in surprise, Tony looks away and quietly works with Bruce on the calculations.
Steve turns to smile at Bucky and stands as straight as he can, the way he used to stand before going into battle, and reminds himself that this is the last time he’ll have to smile at Bucky Barnes and try to promise him he’ll be safe with nothing but his eyes. Bucky doesn’t smile back, but Steve doesn’t shift.
“Ready, Cap?” Bruce asks, pushing the machine to max power, the device spiraling around him in a wave of cacophony that registers as nausea. Steve tries not to think of Clint, tries not to think of how Nat’s eyes are just a little dimmer these days, tries not to think about anything but the blue of Bucky’s eyes.
He clenches his jaw and nods.
“I love you,” Bucky shouts suddenly, over the roar of the machine. “And you better come back to me, you asshole!”
And Steve’s laughing as he’s pulled backwards through time and space.
The Stones go back - it takes longer than anticipated, weeks, even, to get the Aether back in place - and Steve knows it’s time to go home.
But, as he takes the elevator up through the SHIELD compound, he makes one last stop before he returns home.
It’s there, in the office of the SHIELD director, that he gets his dance, both twenty-seven and eighty years too late. He presses his cheek to Peggy’s greying hair and smiles as the Vera Lynn song croons from her record player, and Peggy holds him tighter for a second.
There’s a picture of Anthony Stark, born six pounds, eleven ounces, on her desk, a place of honor among the pictures of her own children, from infancy to adolescence. She has a beautiful life, Steve remembers, had and has, and he couldn’t be happier for her.
He’s already warned her about Zola and the crushing, insidious spread of Hydra, and he has no doubts her brilliant mind is whirring and figuring out how to get ahead of it all; they can dance for now, dance in the quiet safety of her office, and Steve knows that he’ll always love Margaret Carter. They didn’t get a life together - but they both had and have a life to live, one life, one glorious, sometimes shitty, always brilliant life.
At the end of the song, Steve pulls away, and they’re both crying but know each other well enough to not point it out.
His hand is on the door when she asks one, final question:
“Did you ever find happiness, Steven?”
“Yeah.” Steve nods and smiles at her, smiles and it costs him nothing. “Yeah. I’m - I’m happy, Pegs.”
She smirks at him then. “I wonder, if we meet again, if you’ll tell me all about her.”
Steve taps the door and ducks his head, grinning at his shoes before he looks back up.
“I’ll tell you all about him.”
Peggy’s answering smile is nothing short of beatific.
“I look forward to it, Captain Rogers.”
“Be seeing you, Agent Carter.”
The year is 2023, and Steve hasn’t felt the dust under his fingernails in months. The year is 2023, and Steve Rogers lives a happy life. It’s happy because it’s the life he chose, the life he chooses every day.
When his one-hundred-and-fifth birthday comes around, fireworks light up the sky of Brooklyn, and parties surge and fade throughout the night, parties thrown in honor of his life, and of billions of lives, none worth more than any other.
His one-hundred-and-fifth birthday finds him swaying in the living room of his new home, Bucky Barnes humming to the record player, their hands clasped tightly together. A distant flash of pyrotechnic joy flits through the window and catches on the ring forged especially for a metal finger.
Steve Rogers smiles, and the world continues to spin.
Instead of Nat, Clint dies getting the soul stone. Happens off screen (as Steve is the POV character)
Tony does not die
For the car crash warning: Bucky loses his arm after his sister turns to dust while driving. He describes having to pull himself from a wrecked car that fell off a bridge (to mirror him losing his arm in canon after falling from a bridge/train), and even the idea of that is, I think, horrific
Thank you for reading <3 I loved writing this, and I hope I did this alternate storyline justice.