It was 4:03 AM and Bucky was wide awake. He’d long left the warmth of his bed, opting to sit on the roof of the cabin that was his temporary home and stare out into the starry night sky. There was too much to process, too much to mentally untangle to get any kind of real rest tonight, and having been dead for the last five years was only a fraction of what weighed on him so heavily.
A thin, soft fleece blanket around his shoulders and his hair tied back in a messy afterthought of a bun, Bucky took a deep breath in and then let it out as he watched clouds pass slowly over the moon. For him, the fight against Thanos in Wakanda had been only a few days ago. In a blink of an eye he’d ceased to exist along with half of the entire universe, painlessly disappearing into the wind as if he’d never been real to begin with. But now here he was, awake and whole once more but unsure of quite what world he’d awoken to.
Waking up to Steve singlehandedly taking on a Mad Titan and his vast army wasn’t surprising, but waking up to a Steve older and harder than he’d ever known him to be certainly was. There was something off about it him that Bucky could feel from the moment he’d stepped through the portal, and Steve didn’t do much to put his mind at ease. He barely even looked at Bucky, their post-Snap reunion nearly non-existent, and Steve even kept him at arms length over the next few days, too. Then, when Bucky caught wind of the plan to send Steve back in time to put the stolen infinity stones back where they belonged, all the missing puzzle pieces seemed to fall into place.
Steve was being strangely distant, unprecedentedly so, because he wasn’t going to come back. He was getting a one way ticket to the life he should have always had all along with Peggy Carter, and didn’t he deserve it after his numerous sacrifices? Who could begrudge him the choice to finally put himself first for once and choose the happiness that he’d been denied as a younger man just trying to do the right thing?
Bucky was his best friend. He loved Steve unconditionally, and he was determined to support him no matter what - so much so that when it came time to say goodbye, he put on a brave face and hugged Steve goodbye, knowing deep down that he’d never see him again. Maybe the last time he’d seen the real Steve was on the battlefield in Wakanda, before the stranger wearing his face had replaced him.
But then Bruce had begun counting down the return sequence, and after a sickening pause and silence that seemed to confirm what Bucky already knew… there was a flash of light, and Steve reappeared on the platform. He collapsed instantly, bruised and bloody and in pain, but he was there . Sam and Bucky each rushed to him and helped him to his feet, and Steve had flashed Bucky a weary but sincere smile before muttering a relieved hey Buck , and Bucky’s vision began to blur with tears he couldn’t stop.
But there had been very little time to talk. Steve got patched up and debriefed with Sam and Bruce, Bucky leaning against the wall and listening as Steve recounted his insane adventures putting the stones back. It was a miracle that he was even alive, each tale more horrifying than the last, but somehow he’d made it.
Thanks to the grace and generosity of Pepper, Steve and Bucky had an upstate cabin to stay in indefinitely. They headed there along with Sam after Steve’s debrief, and upon their arrival Steve almost immediately passed out in a dead sleep. Bucky found his own rest far more elusive, which is what brought him to the roof in the middle of the night, drowning in his uncertain and turbulent thoughts.
The smile that Steve had given him upon his return to the quantum platform had been the first glimpse of the real Steve that Bucky had gotten since coming back from the dead, but that was a small comfort all things considered. He still didn’t understand why he was so different and what the hell had happened to Steve in those five years to make him so… cold and wrong . Maybe it was the crushing grief of losing so many people and not being able to stop it, or survivor’s guilt or PTSD or all of that and more. Whatever it was, it seemed to have left Steve as a shell of who he’d once been. And that broke Bucky’s heart more than death itself ever could.
Sniffing back the threat of more tears that he didn’t want, Bucky lifted his head in surprise when he heard movement on the roof. His heart skipped a beat or two when he found the culprit to be Steve himself, walking his way slowly - limping a little from his injuries - and offering a smile when their gazes met.
“You’re supposed to be resting,” Bucky chided him, “not climbing up rooftops.”
“Yeah, well,” Steve shrugged as he sat next to Bucky on his right, “didn’t give me much choice, did you?”
Bucky stared at him for a moment, searching Steve’s tired blue eyes for… well, he supposed he wasn’t quite sure what it was he was looking for. Steve eventually looked away, eyes shifting down to his bandaged hands in his lap, but Bucky didn’t look away.
This was Steve, dammit, and Bucky had never beaten around the bush when it came to him. Like hell was he gonna start now.
“You gonna tell me what the hell’s really going on?” Bucky asked bluntly. Steve had been expecting the question, judging by the way he took a deep breath and nodded. Maybe that’s why he came up here in the first place.
“Well,” Steve began quietly, eyes still on his hands. “The world ended five years ago. I lost you. I lost everything .” He blinked and looked out towards the sky, hands tensing. “There was… nothing. No fights to distract myself with. No war. No real reason to keep going, ‘cept Nat. And because I knew you and Sam would kill me if I didn’t. It was just… just me and my thoughts and grief and… failure. For five years.”
Bucky watched as the stone facade began to slip from Steve’s face, giving way to a telltale shine in his eye and tremble in his jaw.
“I realized a lot, over that time,” Steve continued. “But it was too little, too late. Couldn’t do a damn thing to fix any of my mistakes. Eventually it became too much, so I just… shut down. Smiled and pretended to be optimistic because that’s what people needed from me. But I wasn’t really there.” He swallowed. “I was… nowhere, I guess.”
Bucky’s heart began to ache. “Steve…”
Steve shook his head, still stubbornly refusing to look his way. “But then Scott showed up and suddenly there was a chance to make it all right. And that was all I wanted, all any of us wanted, and I had something to fight for again. And I did fight, but I… I’d been… shut down for so long…” Steve clenched his jaw and exhaled. “Feeling again was… I didn’t know if I could. If it didn’t work, getting the stones, then how could I go back to just… going through the motions?”
Bucky nodded, nearly in tears himself listening to this. “But it worked.”
Steve nodded, allowing himself a small smile. “Damn right it did. And then you were back, and Sam and Wanda, T’Challa… but Nat wasn’t coming back. And neither is Tony. None of us thought there wouldn’t be casualties, but…”
“Yeah,” Bucky sighed. “I’m sorry. I know they meant a lot to you.”
Steve nodded, finally looking up and looking Bucky in the eye. “But nobody’s ever meant more to me than you.”
Bucky’s heart nearly stopped. The warm, sincere words washing over him hurt almost as much as they healed him, like breaking a bone to reset it. “Then why can you hardly even look at me?”
“Because I’m terrified, Buck,” Steve confessed. “I look at you and I see you falling, and when I don’t I see you turning into dust right in front of me and I’m just… standing there and watching. I’m always just,” his voice broke and he looked away, “standing there and fuckin’ watching you die.”
“But I’m here,” Bucky argued gently, wanting to touch him to comfort him but finding himself too nervous, absurd as that idea was. “Steve, c’mon. Look at me.” Steve reluctantly obeyed, and Bucky smiled. “I’m here. I’m alive. M’not going anywhere.”
Steve smiled back, but it didn’t touch his eyes. He drew in a shaky breath and murmured, “I know, I just… I’m trying to let myself believe it. But it’s been so long. I know it hasn’t for you and I know I haven’t been myself. But that’s because I’m trying to remember who I was before…” He trailed off and sighed. “ Before .”
Bucky nodded. “I understand.” A few moments of silence passed, and Bucky’s next words left his mouth without permission. “When you left to put the stones back, I thought you were going back to her. To Carter.”
Steve’s eyes flew to Bucky in surprise. “ What? ”
Now it was Bucky’s turn to study his hands in his lap. “I couldn’t figure out why you were acting so weird. But then you were so eager to volunteer to put the stones back and I just thought… oh. That’s why.”
Steve furrowed his brows. “Bucky, that’s - she had a family. Why would I -“
Bucky shrugged. “I don’t know. Because you loved her and wanted to be happy for once? Wouldn’t have blamed you.”
“ Bucky .”
Bucky turned to Steve and felt his breath catch at the way that Steve was looking at him. That cold stranger was gone - this was all Steve.
“When I told you to the end of the line, I meant it. What kind of person would I be if I left you to go to the past and… fuck up Peggy’s life just for kicks?”
Bucky sighed and smiled, something within him settling as if the world was finally back in proper alignment. “Not my Steve.”
Steve smiled back. Then he opened his arms and pulled Bucky in close, and Bucky sank into him like he needed the embrace to breathe. They remained there like that for a long time, both men in desperate need of the comfort that they drew from each other. It was nothing like the stiff, odd hug they’d shared before Steve had disappeared into the quantum realm - this was real, this was them , and Bucky finally felt like himself again as he buried his face in Steve’s shoulder and just… let the world be.
No embrace could last forever, however, but when Steve pulled away it wasn’t by very far. He surprised Bucky by leaning their foreheads together, not a gesture that Bucky was used to from him. But he didn’t dare complain, keeping his eyes closed and enjoying the closeness and the warmth between them.
“I missed you so damn much,” Steve confessed as if it were a sin, and something about those words and the timbre of his voice made Bucky’s heart leap. He opened his eyes to find Steve’s still closed, and when Steve’s fingertips slipped into his hair… that was when Bucky knew that something significant was happening.
Steve opened his eyes and met Bucky’s confused, tender gaze, and then he parted his lips and leaned in and… Bucky’s eyes slid shut as he experienced the softest, sweetest kiss of his life. It was tentative and brave and feather-soft, the nerves behind it as palpable as the courage, and Bucky had never felt so much from so little. It lit a fire in his chest, bringing to life a part of him that he’d long forgotten even existed while also leaving in a deep state of shock.
Afterwards, Steve drew away and nervously looked up at Bucky through his lashes. Bucky stared at him, speechless, opening his mouth but finding no words to say. And that was fine - Steve understood.
“Told you I realized a lot,” he whispered sheepishly, cheeks flushing. Bucky continued to stare, utterly awe-struck. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. I wanted to talk to you first but I just -“
Bucky grabbed him and pulled him in for a deeper, harder kiss before Steve could ruin the moment with any more words. Some things were better expressed through actions rather than words, after all, and Bucky had no hesitation in pouring everything he had always felt but always hidden into their kiss. It had been building up inside of him for so long, before he’d even known what it was, and he never thought he’d get the chance to let it go and let it shower them both.
If it took dying and coming back to life twice to get to taste Steve Rogers’ lips, Bucky thought, then that was a fair enough trade. It was the closest to heaven he suspected he’d ever get.
Pulling away once they ran out of air, Steve almost immediately started babbling. “If you don’t feel the same I understand,” he said, eyes cast down between them as their foreheads rested together again. “But I couldn’t keep it in anymore.”
Bucky couldn’t help but chuckle. “Steve, you’re a real dumbass sometimes, you know that?”
Steve looked up at him in surprise, but Bucky simply grinned and kissed him softly, metal hand cupping Steve’s jaw.
“I don’t know how not to love you,” Bucky sighed. “I never have.”
Steve’s entire face lit up, his anxiety visibly draining, and somehow Bucky only fell in love with him even more. “I love you too,” Steve replied quietly but joyfully before kissing him again, and this time they didn’t stop until their lungs burned.
After, Steve laid his head on Bucky’s shoulder and let him hold him close, finally allowing himself to bask in the love and comfort he’d been so broken without for the last five years. Bucky raised his eyes to the moon, arms wrapped around his best friend and his blanket now draped over them both, and for the first time in a long time, they were both at peace.
They fell asleep that night under the stars, curled up in each other’s arms where they’d always been meant to be, in a world where their only real home had always been each other. Nothing lasted forever and nothing ever stayed the same, but so long as they had each other they would be home. And that would never change.