It was a little unfair, Steve thought as he looked at Bucky laughing with the others, that everyone managed to get along so easily.
It had taken him months to repair his relationship with Tony after the Accords fiasco, but since Thanos' defeat, the Avengers had banded together once more. They were a proper team now, maybe even—dare Steve say it—a family. One in which he constantly stayed on the periphery, because truthfully he'd always felt a strange tension between him and everyone else. And following his… less-than-brief departure into the past to return the stones, this had only become more true.
He sighed inwardly, hovering at the doorway of the common room and afraid to break the moment of peace. In the end, it didn't matter; Bucky met Steve's eye from across the room and, after an unreadable expression flitted over his face, he smiled, beckoning Steve over. Steve plastered on what hopefully didn't look like a grimace and went to join the group.
"Oh! Hey, Cap," Scott greeted him with a grin, moving over on the couch and patting the seat beside him, accidentally jostling Clint, whose beer sloshed onto the ground. "Whoops, sorry," he said, seeming completely unapologetic as Clint glared at him.
"It's just Steve now," he reminded Scott kindly.
"Right, right." Scott nodded, looking sheepishly towards the armchair where Sam sat. "Falcon's Cap now. Captain Falcon. Cap'n America." Sam snorted, good-natured, and Scott turned back to Steve. "Seems like forever since I last saw you. What's been keeping you so busy?"
"Hm?" Avoiding all of you. That's what's been keeping me busy. "I haven't been busy. Guess we just keep missing each other."
Steve made the mistake of looking across the coffee table where Bucky peered at him over his beer bottle, studying him. His stomach gave a lurch and his heart hammered in his chest as he wondered what Bucky saw when he looked at him. If he could see through Steve, right into his guilt and regret.
It had been four weeks now since he came back from his trip through time. And exactly half a year since he'd told Bucky don't do anything stupid till I get back, with the full intention of not coming back at all. It was only because Peggy had knocked some sense into him that he'd realized he was making a huge mistake in trying to change the past and decided to come home. Steve had reappeared on that platform a changed man, running back to the Avengers' Compound with his tail between his legs and claiming that the second time heist had gone awry.
Bucky had taken one look at him and known. He was the only one who knew that Steve hadn't planned on returning to the present, but he didn't speak a word of it to anyone. Instead, he'd hugged Steve and welcomed him back with open arms.
They all did. Life had moved on for the Avengers since the blip, but they accepted Steve back into the fold even though he'd since passed the shield on to Sam, affectionately calling him Captain Emeritus. It was more than he deserved.
Now they sat together, all watching a movie and taking shots every time someone on the screen did something or another. Steve wasn't really paying attention. Eventually, he got up for some air, claiming he needed to use the bathroom, and they waved him off; he made a beeline for the balcony, leaving a room filled with boisterous laughter behind him.
He leaned against the parapet, looking down at the field and the woods in the distance. Left alone with his thoughts, he managed to calm himself down. It filled him with a sense of inner peace, even just for that moment.
But of course, Steve wasn't alone for long.
He could hear the light padding of footsteps from behind him, but he couldn't find it in himself to mind. He just turned to greet the newcomer, pausing slightly when he saw it was Bucky. He chuckled softly to himself. Figures Bucky would come looking for him; Bucky always did like to say that wherever Steve went, he'd be right behind him.
"What's got you in such a good mood?" Bucky's lips curved upwards, gentle and just a little bit sad even as he teased. He had that dimple on his chin that only came out when his expressions were open, and that just made Steve relax even more.
He took in a deep breath, looking back out at the grounds. The smile hadn't left Steve's face. "I dunno. I think maybe I needed to clear my head."
Bucky hummed, leaning his back against the ledge with his hands in his pockets, looking for all the world like the carefree man he deserved to be. "You've really been out of it these past few weeks, huh. Is it anything to do with me?"
Trust Bucky to get straight to the point; he knew when to give Steve space and when he should prod.
"It's… everything," Steve breathed. The dampness in the cool evening air stuck to his lashes as he closed his eyes, listening to the sound of nature, the thrum of the earth. He tried to muster up the courage to talk, but for a while, they just stood in silence. Bucky waited patiently for him, and Steve appreciated that more than ever. "I guess I just realized what I would've missed out on if I hadn't come back."
Steve opened his eyes. Bucky didn't seem fazed by the admission, nor did he judge Steve for what he'd done; he just drew his hand from his pocket to clasp Steve by the shoulder.
"I'm just glad you did," Bucky said, and that was that.
As Bucky ran the pad of his thumb against the side of Steve's neck, expression softening, Steve shuddered and not just from the cold. When Bucky smiled this time, the sadness was gone.
"You're here, Steve," he whispered. "You're here with me."
He didn't know when it was he fell in love with Bucky. Maybe it was a century ago when they first met; maybe it was when he'd first unmasked the Winter Soldier and realized everything that he'd lost. Maybe it was when he'd seen Bucky on that battlefield after five years without him, or maybe it was right before he'd vowed to go back in time to save Bucky from all the pain.
But Steve fell for Bucky now, too.
Flushing at the realization, Steve ducked his head so Bucky couldn't see the adoration written all over his face. Not that his feelings had ever really been hidden. He'd seen the videos of them in the Smithsonian—him all smiles when he and Bucky hung out in the camps during the war. Whether or not he liked it, Steve Rogers had always had heart eyes for Bucky Barnes.
A soft breeze wafted through the air, ruffling his hair and carrying the scent of Bucky's cologne. For what felt like the millionth time, Steve sent silent prayers of thanks that Tony had invested his sizable fortune in rebuilding the Avengers Compound after the battle against Thanos. It was where Steve had kept Bucky's memory alive during the blip and the space where he felt like he might eventually be accepted now. More importantly, it was where he and Bucky lived together for the first time since their third story walkup, before Bucky shipped out with the 107th and Steve took the serum. Their living quarters in the compound were much more lavish than their tenement in Brooklyn, and the familiarity of sharing space with his best friend occasionally brought tears to his eyes.
How was he so lucky to have found Bucky again after everything they'd been through? How had Steve been so misguided that he'd almost willingly given it up?
"You had enough of being around everybody? Want to head back to our rooms? Maybe watch something from last century instead of these new-fangled movies the youths find interesting?"
"Youths?" Steve asked with a chuckle. "We're so old."
"Speak for yourself, pal. I'm a young whippersnapper at 106," Bucky teased. "My bones only creak every other day, and my memory's sharp as a tack. What's your name again?"
"So charming. Forgetting my name. I bet you say that to all the guys."
"Nah, just to the important ones."
"And that's me?" Steve asked, his heart in his throat.
"You're the most important, Steve. You know that."
Before Steve can decipher what that meant, Bucky threw his arm around Steve's shoulder, and they ducked back inside the building to head to their living space. Passing the common area where the rest of their friends and colleagues remained, the gym, the lab, and the hangar, Bucky leaned on Steve as they paced each other, long legs matching stride for stride, and the ease that only a lifelong friendship can give two people. As much as Steve was buzzing from Bucky's touch, there was also relief that they seemed to be okay, even after Steve had almost made such a colossal mistake as to leave Bucky in the future without him.
The thing was that Bucky would have been fine without him. He always had been. Smart, funny, good-looking, talented, charming Bucky Barnes had only ever needed Steve when he'd been captured. Now that he was free and recovering with the support of the federal government and the other Avengers, Bucky didn't need Steve. In fact, maybe he was actually hindering Bucky's recovery by reminding him of the past. No, Bucky didn't need Steve, but Steve needed Bucky and wanted him even more.
"I can hear the gears turning in your brain," Bucky said as he opened the door and allowed Steve to enter their living room before him. "Whatcha thinking about so hard, Rogers? Got a problem that won't quit?"
"Nah," he lied. There was no doubt his feelings for Bucky were a problem. They always had been. Otherwise, he wouldn't have thrown himself into danger so many times. Well, actually, that was a miserable lie. Steve had always thrown himself into trouble, and Bucky had always been the one to drag him out again. "Just thinking."
"Stop," Bucky ordered. "Sit. I'll grab some beer. You get the movie up on that contraption Tony seems to think we all need."
"It's an entertainment system, Buck. We've already been through this."
"Yeah, I know. I just like watching you get all pissed when you can't figure out which remote to use," Bucky teased with a wink. "Bet you get flustered enough you curse like a sailor."
"Flustered, my ass. None of it makes any sense. You've always been the one who likes technology. I just smile and nod."
"See? It's working already."
Calling after Bucky's back as he walked down the hall to the kitchen, Steve shouted, "That doesn't count!"
By the time Bucky came back with two bottles, Steve was red-faced and irritated beyond belief. Chuckling at his frustration, Bucky pried multiple remotes out of Steve's hands, queued the movie, and flopped onto the cushions. When Steve grunted, Bucky handed him a beer and motioned to the screen.
"Still holds up. Nothing beats wicked witches, flying monkeys, and a dancing lion."
Glancing sideways, Steve took in the peaceful expression on his friend's face, the way his long eyelashes fanned over high cheekbones, and the dimple in his chin. Resisting the urge to touch him, Steve settled for his shoulder and thigh just barely grazing against Bucky's.
"Thanks, Buck," Steve said when Bucky turned his head and smiled.
Throat tight, Steve swallowed hard before answering. "For everything. For always being on my side, no matter what."
"You just can't get rid of me, can you?" he joked, but to Steve, there wasn't anything more that could be said about it.
"Don't want to. Not ever."
Things were easier after that. It definitely helped that the next few weeks brought some much-needed levity:
Strange's birthday came along and Steve found himself being dragged into a game Wong called mystical-magical musical chairs, which was exactly what it sounded like; the floating stools were a charmingly novel thing, at least until one of them crashed into those funky modern art pieces scattered across the compound.
Then came Thanksgiving, which most Avengers didn't even celebrate; but the Guardians were in town, and as soon as Quill remembered what it was like during the holiday he'd insisted on having a be-thankful-we're-back-on-Earth party—which Thor had immediately escalated into a full-blown feast.
Finally, there was yet another interdimensional crisis that was, thankfully, put out by a newcomer named Shang-chi ("Call me Shaun," he'd said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his worn red bomber) and his friend Katy ("Think: less Couric, more Perry." "You know who Katie Couric is?" "Shut up, Shaun. "). They were oddly wise at times, and terrifyingly Gen Z at others, but good kids overall.
It was weird, to say the least. Steve was so used to being an outsider, or the leader to a broken team, and not— this. This was wonderful. This was everything he'd wished the original Avengers could've been, when it was just the six of them on each of their floors in one lonely tower.
And yet, Steve couldn't stop thinking about the past. About everything he'd done wrong and everything he could've fixed. And that doubt led to nowhere good, because sometimes he still wondered whether he'd be able to fit in the present after he'd abandoned it for the past.
Steve stopped, arms still tensed.
"Haven't seen you this angry at one of those things in over a decade," Natasha continued, tipping her head at the punching bag he'd been beating into submission.
"Nat," he said tightly, frowning, and right after her name left his mouth, he cursed himself inwardly for giving so much away with just one word. He didn't shake his head to clear his thoughts, but he damn well wanted to. "I didn't think you'd be back so soon."
She shrugged, lips curving upwards as she crossed her arms. "Madripoor was fun, but it's not really my scene anymore. Sharon says hi, by the way—although she wasn't all that polite about it."
Steve winced. "Yeah, I don't blame her."
"Anyway, Sam's handling things with the UN. Wanted me to tell you that he'll be going back to Nola for Christmas to be with Sarah and the boys."
He found himself smiling at that, at least. "I'm glad," he said with a nod.
"You know, he also said the invitation to come with was still open," Natasha regarded him thoughtfully, "but I had a feeling you wouldn't take him up on it, anyway."
"It's… not really my thing anymore."
She just looked at him with that faint smile on her face, unchanging. "But it used to be," she said simply.
"It used to be," he repeated dully.
Steve was uncomfortable with this already. First there’d beenthat strangely intimate talk he'd had with Bucky on the balcony a little over a month ago, and now came Natasha confronting him seemingly out of nowhere; but truthfully, he knew the conversation was one that had been a long time coming. If it weren't her, it'd be Sam or maybe even Tony, which made him even more grateful for it being Nat.
He began unwrapping his knuckles, figuring he was done for the day. Natasha was right about another thing; it'd been a long time since he'd used this particular outlet for his… anger wasn't the right word, and neither was sadness—if anything, frustration probably came closest to what he was feeling.
It was a restless energy that had settled into his bones, nagging at him at all times of the day, disrupting his sleep. He felt it vibrate in his limbs, making him want to crawl out of his skin.
"Did I ever thank you for what you did?" Natasha asked, startling him out of his thoughts. "For coming back for me, on Vormir?"
He didn't miss a beat. "There isn't anything you have to thank me for."
Vormir had been a cold, unforgiving place just like Clint warned him it would be. He'd hated it there, and when Natasha was finally beside him there was nothing more that he'd wanted than to leave that wasteland behind.
The moment she'd come back, he had gathered her in his arms, intimate in a way they had never been. They'd been at the base of the mountain, the resting ground of the soul stone, and at the time it didn't even occur to him to ask what it was like for her. What a soulless void really was.
Instead, Steve had tucked a lock of hair behind her ear as though she'd disappear the moment he looked away. Then he'd rattled off the coordinates and watched Natasha go home on her own.
"What did you feel," he asked her abruptly, "when you were hanging off the ledge? When Clint was holding onto you, what did you feel?"
Steve didn't know what she would say, what to expect, but now he realized that he so desperately needed to find out the answer. As if he would find his own answer in hers.
But all she said was, "Peace, Steve. I felt peace knowing I'd made my choice."
He inhaled sharply.
Natasha looked at him so, so gently. "I just hope you know that you can feel that too," she said simply.
The problem was that Steve couldn’t. Steve's choice had given him no peace; it had been the wrong one, which he'd regretted almost immediately. In actuality, he’d missed Bucky so much when he was in the past and felt an enormous amount of guilt for leaving him behind that Peggy had boxed him around his ears and sent him back to his timeline. She’d never been one to accept anything that wasn’t sincere, and she’d been almost offended that Steve had tried to shoehorn her into his life instead of being true to himself—being true to his desires, no matter how frightening they may be.
I don’t know this Steve, Peggy had said, and the realization that he didn't recognize himself burned.
Flashing a rueful smile at Natasha, he hunched his shoulders and headed to the showers where he had some time to think (and a minute to use his hand for something besides punching, getting rid of some of that restless energy). By the time he was clean and dry, he was sure of one thing if nothing else.
He needed to find Bucky. When he did, they needed to talk.
Setting out to find him, Steve crisscrossed the compound until there was only one logical place left. Bucky had to be in the lab with Tony, where the two of them puttered with technology for hours after making their peace with each other. It was the only time Bucky looked like he was without a care of the world. Sometimes their heads bent together, dark hair almost tangling, as they worked out a problem. Steve had witnessed brilliant smiles and sideways looks that caused his insides to burn with jealousy and made him want to punch Tony in the face. He had no right to feel that way, but he wanted to, wanted to have a claim on Bucky.
What if it was too late, though? He’d left. He’d deliberately chosen to go back to the forties without his best friend. It was only Bucky’s penchant for forgiveness and acceptance that allowed for them to remain friends. He wasn’t sure he’d have the same grace if Bucky had chosen to abandon him.
When he entered the lab, he was struck by the easy camaraderie of Bucky and Tony as they laughed and bantered together. They used to be like that, Bucky and Steve, and he wanted it back. He also wanted Bucky, who was stunning with an easy smile gracing his face and sparkling light blue eyes that were wise and kind. Things were so different now from when they were young, but Bucky’s innate goodness and gentleness hadn’t faded at all. Not even Hydra could break him of his best traits.
"Hey, Capsicle," Tony called, and Bucky’s face lit up when he turned to face Steve.
"Tony’s letting me play with his Dum-E." For a split second, they all stopped, all considering the phrase until Bucky burst into laughter. "His robot. Jesus, Stevie. Get your mind out of the gutter."
Narrowing his eyes, Tony joked, "You two would know. All that ice and all. Well, always good to talk shop with you, Murder Machine. Have fun with Dum-E. Talk to you later, Cap."
"Sure. Thanks, Tony," Bucky mumbled as he played with the controls. When they were alone, he glanced at Steve and motioned to the robot. "Better than Howard’s flying car, right? Really nice of him to let me mess around with it. He’s a good kid."
"He’s in his fifties."
Chuckling, Bucky shrugged. "Still half our age."
"I guess so."
"You wanting something, Stevie?" Bucky asked as he continued to mess with Dum-E. There was a furrow in his brow as he concentrated, and Steve wanted to smooth it out and brush his fingertips over Bucky’s sharp cheekbones and pouty pink mouth. It had always made Steve’s knees weak.
Sighing, he shoved his hands in his pockets to contain them. "Yeah. Yeah, I want something. Want it real bad."
"Can I help?" Bucky asked, his face open and eager.
Swallowing hard, Steve shook his head. He was too chicken to say anything yet. They needed more time to reconnect, another few days or weeks or months before Steve could find the courage to risk everything and lose the person he cared about most in the world—in any of the worlds that he now knew existed.
"Just wanted to spend some time with you, pal," he said, hedging the actual reason he’d tracked Bucky to the lab. "Missed your ugly mug."
"Ugly? You’re a punk. I’m gorgeous," Bucky announced with a sniff. "You must be looking in the mirror or something. America’s ass is right, but not for your behind. More like—"
"Been checking out my ass, Barnes?"
Smiling widely, Bucky finally released Dum-E’s controls and leaned against the counter before running his eyes up and down Steve’s frame. "Maybe. Doesn’t look that much different from when you were a scrawny little thing in Brooklyn. Not sure what all the fuss is about."
"That’s bullshit, and you know it. I’m a specimen."
"Is that what we’re calling it nowadays?" Bucky asked, an eyebrow arched in that easy way of his.
For a second, Steve was struck dumb by how young he looked. It was like he was the old Bucky in that moment, one who hadn’t been captured and tortured and turned into a weapon. Instead, he was the best friend who took him in and shared a bed when it was cold and they were poor. The hard worker who picked up extra hours to buy Steve’s medicine, who pulled him out of fights in back alleys, set him up with women just so he wouldn’t sit at home alone on Friday nights, followed him into battle countless times just because he refused to let Steve face danger alone. Even at 106, Bucky’s face was the most familiar sight of Steve’s life.
Steve stood there with something like wonder, and suddenly he was aware that he hadn't spoken for a good, long moment—there was something between them then, and he could see that mounting realization in Bucky's eyes as well.
Flustered and indecisive looked terrible on Steve, so he shoved his feelings aside and forced his lips into a sly smirk. "Show me how Dum-E works?"
It was exactly the right thing to say to ease the tension between them. Bucky’s easy manner returned, and he smiled softly and showed Steve how the robot worked and explained its features in meticulous detail. The twenty-first century had been good to Bucky, who was well on his way to becoming Tony’s equal in developing technology if the knowledge he spouted was any indication.
All that did was make Steve fall deeper. He was completely head over heels, and he didn't have one ounce of regret for loving someone as special as Bucky this much.
And it was so easy, standing there in each other's space, arms pressed together and laughing at each other's jokes. It was so, so easy, like it had been staring him straight in the face for forever.
"Can I kiss you?" he said.
Bucky stopped in the middle of a sentence.
It had come out tentative, unsure, like it contained all of the feelings he'd held for Bucky in the last century—and really he knew that of course it did.
His Ma told him something once, right after his father had died, and Steve didn't remember it until now.
It's alright, sweetheart, she'd said, when he'd clutched the front of the best clothes that he owned and told her that his heart hurt. She'd dabbed at her eyes but told him, clear and steady, In order to grow you must let go of the past.
And she'd smiled.
We can say goodbye now.
Steve knew exactly why he remembered that now; because of Bucky, he was finally ready to say goodbye to everything that had been weighing him down.
Bucky was still staring at him. His Bucky, the only one who could've convinced him to say goodbye to the past, his Bucky with the kind eyes even though he'd seen so much of Steve's ugly side, his Bucky, who he loved so dearly.
Steve had only ever cried twice in his life; once when his mother had died, and the other when he'd thought Bucky did, too. But he felt like crying now because he felt so light. So free.
"Can I kiss you?" Steve asked again, more sure.
And Bucky, with his lips parted and looking at Steve like he was the world, blurted out, "Finally." Then he tugged Steve in by the shirt and it was like coming home all over again.
Steve laughed into the kiss, delighted.
Today, they sat at the breakfast nook holding hands.
"Aw hey, is that a chocolate croissant?" Scott walked into the kitchen and then beelined straight to the island. He stuffed one of the pastries in his mouth, glanced at them, did a double-take, and stared. "This is, uh, new?"
"Is it though?" Hope said pityingly at Scott, grabbing the orange juice from the fridge and pouring herself a glass. She offered another to Wanda, who thanked her politely before beaming at Steve and Bucky.
"Get your disgustingly sweet display of affection out of my face," Tony said after he'd strolled in, not even pausing at their joined hands. "Oh, and pass the bacon, would you."
"That would require me to let go, though," Bucky said, cronch ing through a mouthful of cereal.
"Don't wanna," Steve said simply, making heart eyes at Bucky.
Sam made his own entrance then and said, "Who wants some eggs?"
"Come on!" Scott threw his hands up, scattering flakes of bread all over the floor. "I can't even make a bird joke. Is no one else surprised about this?"
A chorus of no 's. Bucky snorted. Steve was too busy brushing a kiss over Bucky's knuckles to be offended. They were a couple, old and in love.
"Oh, by the way," Sam said conversationally over the easy chatter that came with breakfast at the Avengers' Compound, "We need you for that Flag Smashers thing. Clint found a lead." He tilted his head towards Bucky, who nodded.
"Guess I gotta get ready for that," Bucky told Steve.
"Guess you gotta," Steve said in return.
Neither one of them moved.
Eventually, people turned away, going about their days as usual. Natasha stopped Steve after breakfast to give him a smile and a warm hug.
"I'll bring him back safe," she said, before heading to the quinjet. Steve didn't say you better, because he knew that she would.
Steve caught Bucky right at the entrance of the landing pad. "Why do I feel like some kind of housewife waiting for her husband to come home?" he murmured against Bucky's lips.
"Don't be silly, Stevie; you're obviously my Bond girl."
Clint called out to the two of them, "You coming, Barnes?"
"That's my cue," Bucky said, squeezing Steve's hand one last time. "Don't do anything stupid—"
"—till you get back, I know."
It wasn't difficult saying goodbye today. Steve only had tomorrow to look forward to.