"How long will he be gone?" Sam asks.
"To us? Ten seconds," Banner replies.
Bucky says nothing. He knows Steve will be gone a lot longer than ten seconds, because he knows Steve won't be coming back. Steve hasn't told him, but then again, Steve doesn't need to. Even after all the memory loss and the brainwashing, he still knows Steve better than he knows himself.
Steve is waiting on the platform, and they lock eyes one last time. They've already said their goodbye that wasn't quite a goodbye, just a rehashing of things they've already said to each other. They've never really been all that great with words.
Banner starts counting down, and part of Bucky wants so badly to shut his eyes, to not watch, to not see the moment Steve steps out of his life forever. But he doesn't. He watches, and Steve smiles softly before he shrinks out of the timeline.
"Okay, bringing him back in five…four…"
Now Bucky shuts his eyes. He turns away and faces the lake, feeling the breeze across his face. He's experienced pain in his life. Excruciating, awful pain. But somehow none of that compared to the hole that's gaping in his chest right now.
"Where the hell is he?" Sam demands.
"I-I don't know!" Banner stammers, flicking switches and pressing buttons and calibrating who-knows-what.
"Well get him back!" Sam shouts, and Bucky hears the same desperation that he feels. "Get—"
The machine suddenly starts whirring, and Bucky almost trips over his feet as he turns to face it. There, before his disbelieving eyes, Steve drops back into existence. His quantum suit is a little worse for wear, and he looks exhausted, but he's smiling, and it's still megawatt bright.
"You son of a…" Sam shakes his head and grins.
"Sorry," Steve says, "am I late?" He looks at the device in the palm of his hand. "It got a little messed up in a confrontation."
"Always picking fights, aren't you, man?" Sam says, and Bucky smiles because it's true.
Steve steps off the platform and goes over to Banner and shakes his enormous hand, thanking him for his technology and expertise. Banner then excuses himself to tell everyone that the mission has been accomplished.
Sam turns to Steve and slaps him on the shoulder. "You gave us a scare," he says. "Thought I was gonna have to live in a world without Captain America."
"Well, you know, I had some time to think while I was gone," Steve says. "And I thought, I'm a hundred years old. I should probably start considering retirement."
Sam raises his eyebrows. "Retirement? That's pretty big."
"Yeah, yeah it is," Steve says. "But I'd like to pass the mantle on."
A slow grin comes to Sam's face, and he starts to look at Bucky. A brief panic seizes Bucky's gut at the thought of the shield and the stars and the stripes. He's been a soldier and a war criminal and a most-wanted assassin, and he doesn't really know what he wants to be next, but he knows he doesn't want that. And he knows that Steve knows.
"It's not gonna be me, Sam," Bucky says.
"How about you?" Steve offers.
Sam stares at him for a moment in disbelief. "I don't know if I'm right for the job."
"I believe you are," he replied. "Besides, you've been practically training under me this whole time."
"Oh, is that what we're calling me picking up your slack?" Sam grins, and then they both laugh.
"So…will you do it?" Steve asks. "You'll have to commission Shuri for a new shield. Mine's not viable at the moment, and it didn't feel right taking one from the past."
Sam's chest begins to swell, and he stands a little straighter. Bucky can imagine it then: the red, white, and blue, the shield, maybe even Sam's wings still. Steve chose well.
"Thanks man," Sam says, and they shake hands. "I'll do my best to honor your legacy."
"I know you will."
"What'll you do instead?" Sam asks.
Steve looks at Bucky, and Bucky shrugs, then nods at him. Even after everything, he'd still follow that kid from Brooklyn.
"I'm not quite sure," Steve answers. "But I look forward to figuring it out."
Sam claps Steve on the shoulder, then makes his way up to the house. Steve turns to Bucky, and starts to lift his arms, silently asking if Bucky about his current touch boundaries. Bucky nods, an almost desperate feeling rising in his throat, and they hug.
It's taken some time, some therapy, and a lot of reassurance from Shuri and T'Challa, but he's finally gotten around to trusting his left arm. Even though the Hydra programming was in his brain and could control his whole body, he'd focused his rage and distrust on his arm because he could see and feel it. But now, as he wraps both arms around Steve, he realizes it's just another part of him.
"I thought you were gonna stay," Bucky mumbles against Steve's shoulder.
"In the past?"
Bucky nods, and Steve gently pulls away from him, looking him straight in the eyes. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't cross my mind. But only for a moment. I've grown past the 40s, past my old life. Peggy has too. And besides, I just got you back."
Bucky nods slowly, smiling slightly. "Thanks, Steve."
"I'm not going anywhere, Buck," Steve says, squeezing his shoulder tightly. "Till the end of the line, remember?"
"Till the end of the line," he echoes, and as he says the recycled words—yet another rehashing of things they've already said to each other—he feels something bloom in his chest, something like faith.