Bucky isn’t there when Steve dies.
They haven’t seen each other in a long time. Only six months, but it feels like longer. Because six months ago, Steve had decided to live his entire life in the past, only returning when he was showing pretty much every year of his 104.
And hell, maybe Bucky should’ve seen that coming. They hadn’t been as close as they used to be since before the war - and no matter how many wars he’d lived through in the 21st century, there was only ever one he meant. The fights before and after The Blip were just that, fighting Thanos. Whatever the fuck had happened between Steve and Stark had been bloody, but it wasn’t a war in any way that counted.
Back in 1943, back when he’d been drafted, that had been the beginning of the end. It’s just that the end never seemed to arrive - it was a series of false bottoms that kept on coming, time after time when Bucky thinks that things can’t get any worse before they inevitably do. But he’s pretty sure, sitting in the back rows at Steve’s funeral, that this is when things have, truly, hit rock bottom.
The first rows are filled with Steve’s family. Peggy isn’t there; she passed nearly a decade ago. But their kids are, and their grandkids. Sharon is there, and when she sees Bucky she doesn’t acknowledge him. He doesn’t want her to.
The only other Avenger, or hero or whatever, present is Sam Wilson. Everyone else is either dead or just never got close enough to Steve to care. In the past, Bucky would’ve been mad as hell about that. Now, he’s not sure Steve deserves them, not if he’s willing to up and leave everybody for no goddamn reason.
Steve’s son speaks. “The world knew him as Captain America,” he begins, “but to me, he was just my dad.” Bucky’s already tuning out. He shouldn’t have come. He can’t listen to these people talk about knowing Steve, about how good he was, when all they knew was the carefully-constructed front Steve wore. When they only exist because Steve gave up.
He stands up and quietly leaves the church, closing the door silently behind him.
Sam catches up with him outside. He’s two rows over from Steve’s grave, which only avoided being in a military cemetery because this version of Steve hasn’t been on active duty since 1945. Instead, he’s in a church lot outside the city, filled with graves from the last two hundred years. Steve is buried next to Peggy. Bucky doesn’t recognize any of the other names.
“Needed to get some air?” Sam asks.
Bucky doesn’t say anything. He sits on the edge of a raised ledger stone, which is probably super disrespectful to whatever 19th century dead person is under there. Methodically, he tears up blade after blade of grass, shredding them until the pieces are too small to rip anymore.
That doesn’t seem to deter Sam, who asks “Mind if I sit?” as he’s already sitting down. Bucky glares at him, but he doesn’t really mean it.
“When I first met Steve, he seemed lost,” Sam says. “I don’t know if this is what I’d call finding himself.”
Bucky snorts. “You can say it was a fucking stupid decision. Ain’t like he’s around to hear you.”
“Thought you weren’t supposed to speak ill of the dead.” Sam still isn’t looking at Bucky, staring off into the too-blue sky or over at Steve’s fresh gravestone. It’s too nice of a day for something like this, sunny and pleasantly warm with just a hint of a breeze. Small wildflowers are popping up around the edges of the tombstones, places the groundskeepers missed with their weed-whackers. Days like today are supposed to be about opportunity, not grief.
“That’s when the dead didn’t get that way by messing around with time travel.”
They’re quiet for a long moment. The background hum of the service escalates into a hustle that indicates people will be filing outside soon.
“I miss him too,” Sam says. “Thickest skull I’d ever seen, but a damn good friend.”
Bucky tears up the next blade of grass with unnecessary force. “Sure,” he says.
There’s a lot he’s thinking. That he can’t forgive Steve for this, for leaving him behind in the future with absolutely nobody. Sam’s his closest friend now, and they’ve tried to kill each other more times than they’ve talked. That of all the people Steve could’ve settled down with, he picked the one that meant he would live his entire life away from Bucky.
“You know you can talk to me, right?” Sam says, standing up. “Not just about this. If you wanna catch up on the last hundred years, I can show you a movie or two.”
Mourners begin to spill from the steps of the church, and Bucky makes an attempt to smile at Sam. He thinks his lips curl up a bit at the corners, but even he can tell it doesn’t come anywhere close to his eyes.
“I’ll think about it.”
It’s not a lie, technically. He will think about it, and he’ll do largely nothing, because right now, wishing desperately he’ll wake up from what’s gotta be one shitty dream is better than trying to move on from this.
Sam claps him on the shoulder and walks away, and Bucky is once again left alone. The sun streams down on him, and there were decades when he would’ve given anything for that feeling. Now, all he wants is to be anywhere else.
It’s a long time before Bucky takes Sam up on that offer. They’ve had each other’s phone numbers for ages, since before Bucky’s pardon and even before The Blip. They never texted.
Sam had texted Bucky, on occasion. Sometimes it was as simple as Hey, how’s it going? Other times it was a Facebook meme Bucky knew Sam only sent him because they were made by ‘boomers’ like himself, ignoring that Bucky had been declared dead by the time the oldest boomers were born. Today, it’s In nyc for a couple days - want to catch up?
Bucky does not, particularly, want to catch up. It’s not that he doesn’t like Sam. It’s just so damn hard to try. It’s hard to date, when dating apps are full of men who think posing with a fish is hot and women who filter themselves to look like plastic. When he’s got no idea of social etiquette and can’t even take off his gloves or people will be scared of him. It’s harder still to have friends. He had one, once. A friend he cared for more than anything, who he’d died for. And if Steve had left him, well. It’s just not his fault it’s hard to let himself care after that.
But his therapist was getting on his case about not having any friends, so he texted back. Sure.
It shouldn’t surprise Bucky when Sam texts back right away. But it does.
You got anything you want to do?
I live here. I’ve done everything already.
Sure you have.
Despite himself, Bucky smiles. He might not have known Sam for anywhere near as long as he’d known Steve; he might not have that same connection to him. But he can practically picture Sam’s expression as he reads that text, and he thinks he might not mind seeing Sam after all.
I dunno what’s around here. Don’t exactly get out much.
He gets out frequently. Most of those trips are to the grocery store or to cross names off his list.
You free in 15?
Bucky is not free in 15. He doesn’t have plans, but social outings require planning. They mean knowing where things are happening, making sure there is always an available exit strategy.
Yeah, he types.
Great. I’m coming to you.
He shoves his phone in his pocket and picks up the pile of blankets from the living room floor, throwing them into what was, on paper, his bedroom. There’s not really any food in the apartment, aside from a bag of tortilla chips and a couple oranges, but it’s too late for that. It’s also way past too late to pretend this place is lived in - aside from the now-absent bunch of blankets, it’s bare.
Thankfully, Sam barely even pokes his head into the apartment.
“We’re going out,” he says.
Bucky crosses his arms, so he continues. “You ever heard of a walk, Barnes?”
It’s too warm for it, but Bucky shrugs on his jacket anyway, pulling his gloves over his hands. This is another reason he doesn’t go out - being recognized as ‘that war criminal who killed JFK’ is exhausting, even more so than being forced to cover his left arm at all times. Still, he follows Sam out the door.
“It’s weird being here now,” Sam says as they walk down the sidewalk. Someone not too far in front of them is smoking some horrific-smelling vape, and Bucky wrinkles his nose. Sam looks to the sky for a moment. “The city used to be home base. Now…”
“Barely even recognize it,” Bucky finishes.
Sam nods. “And it’s only been five years for me.”
“I went to Brooklyn once,” Bucky agrees. “Before… this. If I hadn’t had a map, I wouldn’t have believed I was in the same place.”
A street musician at the corner is playing something. It’s loud even over the ever-present bustle of the city, something on buckets and tins. It’s surprisingly calming.
“Why stay?” Sam asks.
Bucky shrugs. “It’s where I live.” He doesn’t have a home, not anymore. Home had been Steve, wherever he was. But he does have a government-mandated therapist and an apartment, which is all he really needs.
Sam makes them buy coffee, raising an eyebrow when Bucky orders one of the ones that’s more sugar and flavors than real coffee.
“The 21st century has its perks,” Bucky says with a straight face, taking a sip of his dessert beverage. That the supersoldier serum means he doesn’t need caffeine to stay awake helps too.
“Whatever, man,” Sam says, stirring in a couple packets of sugar to his own coffee.
It’s almost too hot for the coffees, especially with the gloves Bucky has to wear, but they walk down the street anyway. It’s nice to be out. Not out making amends, just out.
Several blocks from Bucky’s apartment, they pass a fancy art gallery, and Bucky turns to point it out to Steve. He catches himself early on, before opening his mouth to say what he’d always told Steve when they’d passed places like this before the war. “That’s gonna be you in there someday,” or “That ain’t got nothing on your stuff.”
A flash of something like pity crosses Sam’s face. Bucky’s ready to drop his drink and lay into him in a second - pity is the last thing he needs. Yeah, maybe he’s a sorry asshole who thought he had something good just to find out that surprise! he was second best, but he sure as fuck didn’t need anyone to feel sorry for him, and least of all about that.
But that isn’t what comes out of Sam’s mouth. Instead, he says “I miss him too, you know.” And that stops Bucky cold.
“He used to draw all the time,” Bucky says. It’s an olive branch, and they both know it. “Anything he could get his hands on. Napkins, receipts, you name it. And he was damn good, too.”
“I only saw him draw a couple times,” Sam says. They’ve stopped outside the gallery, but they aren’t looking in the window and have no intention of going in. Something about this is just too painful to talk about while walking. “He drew you once, when we were in Europe looking for you. Barnes, you gotta understand, you were a legend. A historical figure. All I knew of you was the picture in Steve’s exhibit and what I saw when we fought. And Steve said he was gonna show me you. He drew you laughing. To this day I’ve never seen you as happy as he drew you.”
“Got a lot less to be happy about.”
The future is a trade-off. Bucky has a vaccine and medicine to keep him from catching the flu Steve had always brought home. He doesn’t have parents anymore. He has money for food and there is fresh produce all year round, even if the bananas taste like shit now and the strawberries are weird. His sisters are dead. The world has risen from the Depression and Hitler isn’t about to take over half the world anymore. He is utterly alone in it.
“The future ain’t so bad,” Sam says. “Better for pretty much everyone.”
“It isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was back then.”
He doesn’t know why he says anything. Maybe it’s that Sam is the closest thing he has to a friend - he might actually be a friend at this point. Maybe he’s just damn tired of keeping everything to himself.
“I thought the future was gonna be great,” Bucky says. “Not like I thought before the war, flying cars and all that. But when I was in Wakanda, I thought I could have a shot at being happy in this century.”
Neither of them say the obvious: and then The Blip. And then Steve left.
“Don’t give up on it just yet,” Sam says. The ‘like Steve did’ hangs heavy in the air between them.
Suddenly, Bucky can no longer stand to be in front of the art gallery. It’s not even the kind of art Steve used to do, full of brighter colors and stranger shapes, and he can’t look at it. Sam falls into step beside him as they walk away, and thankfully picks up on Bucky’s fragile mood. He switches the topic to Sam’s family in Louisiana, how frustrated he is that the bank won’t give his sister a loan and how her kids have gotten big enough to start helping them in the kitchen sometimes. He carefully stays away from mentioning The Blip, from anything to do with the fighting he does overseas. And Bucky is grateful.
Sam isn’t in town again for a while. The next time he is, Bucky has speedrun the hobby of felting - getting to stab something with a needle is strangely comforting when it’s to create rather than to destroy, but after countless times of accidentally stabbing his fingers, he’s had enough - and been on one absolutely disastrous date. From the beginning, it had been obvious it wasn’t going to work out. (And half the time he doesn’t know why he bothers. What’s the point in dating if he’s still hung up on a dead man?) It had ended with him being accused of being a serial killer due to his strangeness and refusal to take his gloves off, even though it’s the middle of the summer. And technically, Bucky’s pretty sure he does count as a serial killer, so it’s not like he could deny that.
Sam invites Bucky to his hotel room, which isn’t nearly nice enough given that Sam’s there on official government business and is an Avenger. (Was an Avenger? Did the Avengers exist anymore?)
He pulls out the Lord of the Rings DVDs and a bag of kettle corn, and they settle down on the hotel bed to watch.
“You’re telling me this comes after the Hobbit?” Bucky asks not long into the first movie. When Sam nods, Bucky asks “Why aren’t we watching that movie first?”
“The Hobbit movies came out after these ones,” Sam explains. “Also, they’re bad. Lord of the Rings are classics.”
“They’re barely 20 years old,” Bucky says, just to be confrontational.
Sam laughs. “I’m not about to be showing you silent films, Mr. 1940, now am I?”
Bucky wants to cross his arms, but the kettle corn is really good, so he settles on glaring at Sam. “We had talkies in the 40s.”
“See! You call them talkies!”
“Shut up,” Bucky says, but he’s not mad.
Sam’s switching out DVDs in between movies when Bucky says “This is nice, watching a movie here.”
“Where, in a hotel?” Sam jokes.
Outside, it’s still light, and there’s a glare even through the thin curtains on where the menu screen for the next movie is playing.
Maybe it’s Sam’s leftover instinct from being a therapist, or maybe he’s just a good friend, but he doesn’t press play yet. He waits for Bucky, going to refill his water as a pretense for taking the extra time.
“Steve didn’t care much for movies,” Bucky says eventually. “So we didn’t really go. ‘Course I went sometimes, dates and whatever. But I think Steve liked to be able to make up what things looked like in his own head. Used to ask me to read him whatever book I had while he was drawing, and then he’d complain when they all ended up being sci-fi.”
Sam, who knows very well what Bucky’s taste in books is, pretends to be shocked. “Barnes,” he said, a hand over his mouth. “You’re a nerd?”
Bucky holds eye contact as he says in a completely flat voice, “You’re the one who suggested Lord of the Rings.”
“Whatever.” Sam settles back onto the bed, clicking play. “They’re cinematic masterpieces, I’m telling you.”
Bucky just shrugs. He’ll admit they are really damn good, even if he’s got next to nothing to compare them to.
Bucky visits Sam in Louisiana. He’s not really legally allowed to work, so it’s not like he’s missing anything leaving New York for a few days. Though as soon as he steps off the plane, he wishes he’d waited another few months.
Back home, September means the beginning of fall. Things are starting to cool off, and there’s the barest hint of orange in the leaves of the few trees the city puts on street corners. After sunset, there’s a breeze that could even be described as chilly. Louisiana is nothing like that.
September is, apparently, still the height of summer here. The air is thick with humidity and the heat is heavy enough that it sinks into Bucky’s bones. If he didn’t have to wear that jacket, he wouldn’t mind, but as it is he feels like he’s suffocating.
“You never been down south before, Barnes?” Sam laughs when he picks him up from the airport. The air in Sam’s car is cool, and Bucky’s sweat immediately chills him. He hates being cold.
“No,” he says.
“You’re gonna love it. It’s a million times better than New York.”
Bucky is not so sure about this.
He’s barely in the door at Sam’s sister’s house when Sarah Wilson looks at him from across the main room and says “How have you not died of heatstroke in a jacket like that?”
“He’s dedicated to the look,” Sam says, joking. “You can take your shoes off, Barnes. This is a no-shoe household.”
There are fans in every room, on the ceiling and set up in windows. It only takes a moment after he loses his shoes for Bucky to lose the jacket and gloves, though the long sleeves on his shirt stay covering as much of his arm as possible.
“What’s wrong with your hand?” a kid asks. This must be one of Sarah’s children, Sam’s nephews.
Another one pops up out of nowhere. He flicks the hand. “It’s metal,” he says. “Sweet.”
Sarah gives them a look. “Come on now, don’t be bothering our guest.”
“You one of Uncle Sam’s friends?” The first kid asks.
“That why you got a metal arm? Like Uncle Sam’s metal wings?” The second one chimes in.
“Yeah, we work together,” Sam says. “But he isn’t really used to people, so maybe don’t bother him?” He turns to Bucky to see if this is what he should be saying. Bucky doesn’t know. He hadn’t really thought about it, meeting Sam’s family, aside that he’d like to. That’s half the reason he’d flown down here, after all.
“I don’t mind,” Bucky says. “I’m Bucky. What’re your names?”
The kids tell him, talking over each other to ask about nearly everything - is he an Avenger too? Is he cooler than their Uncle Sam? Why’s his arm metal? And it’s nice. Really nice. It’s been a long time since Bucky had siblings - he hasn’t seen any of them since 1943. But he hasn’t forgotten them, or what it was like being the older brother. His therapist was right, he thinks as he’s able to maintain a conversation with them almost effortlessly. Coming down here really is good for him.
Of course, it’s not all fun and games. By Bucky’s second day in Louisiana, Sam drags him out to the docks. They’re old and sun-beaten, and the smell of the marsh around them is dirty in a completely different way from New York. It’s salty and muddy and it smells alive.
At the end of the dock is Sam’s family boat. It’s equally dilapidated - clearly well-loved, but old. The paint is peeling and some of the boards on the deck are warped, the glass into the cabin is old and practically opaque.
“We,” Sam tells Bucky, “are gonna fix this thing up.”
Bucky looks at the boat, at Sam, and back again.
“I don’t know shit about boats, Wilson.” The only boat Bucky had ever been on was the one that shipped him to Europe. Back in Brooklyn, he’d worked at the docks, sure, but that was moving crates and shit. That was nothing like a shrimper’s boat.
“That’s all right. You’re just here for the heavy lifting.”
It’s a joke, and Bucky huffs a small laugh.
Working on the boat is painstaking, but they make progress. The sun is hot, pounding on them relentlessly, and the bit of wind that came in off the marsh doesn’t help with that at all. After an hour or so, Bucky is half tempted to just jump in the water to cool off. He would’ve, too, if he knew anything about what lived in marshes. As it is, he sees the oysters on banks and the occasional fish jump from the still water, and he figures it’s probably best to not tempt fate. There could be an alligator or a shark or something in that water, for all he knows.
Sarah brings them lunch, two disposable trays of pilau and greens out of the dozens she’ll take into town.
“You don’t have to do this,” she tells Sam. “Fixing her up doesn’t mean I’m not gonna sell her.”
Sam shrugs. “It’s the least we can do,” he says.
“Thank you,” she tells Bucky. It’s almost a joke when she says “Can’t believe a supersoldier is fixing my boat.”
Bucky, who had pushed his sleeves up to combat the heat (and is getting a nasty sunburn for his trouble) is taken aback for a moment before looking down at his vibranium arm.
“It’s an honor,” he says. That must be a little more formal than he should be, because Sam snickers from behind him.
Sarah smiles. ‘You two keep this up, you won’t need to be fighting all over the world.”
“Wilson and Barnes, boat repair,” Sam says with a laugh.
She heads back down the dock, and Bucky watches her go. Sarah belongs here, he thinks, on this dock over the marsh. She’s comfortable here. He thinks about where he would belong like that. He doesn’t know that he’s felt that kind of comfort since his and Steve’s apartment eighty years ago.
“You checking out my big sister, Barnes?” Sam says. He’s not serious; there’s a hint of humor in his voice.
A heron on the far bank takes off, the bird flying just over the surface of the water, elegant despite its long legs.
“If you were, I wouldn’t mind,” Sam says. “Sarah deserves a good guy.”
“Isn’t Sarah married?” There hadn’t been a husband at the dinner table with them last night, and the only cars outside the house were Sarah’s truck and Sam’s old Corolla, but still. She had kids, and there was a wedding picture hanging in the living room.
“Her husband’s been dead a long time. Since before The Blip.” There’s still grief in Sam’s expression when he says that. Whoever Sarah’s husband had been, he’d been a good man. And especially for Sam, who hadn’t had those extra five years to adjust to his absence, his death was still painful.
“It takes a long time to move on from losing someone like that,” Bucky says. He’s not only talking about Sarah.
“Whatever, man. It ain’t like she’s gonna be some kind of nun now. She’s barely forty.”
Bucky looks at Sam, willing him to understand. He didn’t particularly care about whether or not Sarah Wilson was dating again. She deserved good things, he knew that after only knowing her for a day, but those good things definitely didn’t mean him.
“Oh.” Bucky watches as a look crosses Sam’s face, an understanding now in his eyes. “You…”
He doesn’t say anything else, apologize or anything. “Now you know,” Bucky says and leaves the boat. He doesn’t stop walking until he’s at the far edge of the dock, where he sits down, knees pulled against his chest. Sam can’t see him from here, not if he’s still on the boat.
Because, the thing is, it wasn’t a secret. Not really. It just hadn’t come up. At any point from when Steve and Sam found him in Budapest onward, if someone had asked him if he was in love with Steve, he would have said yes. Hell, if Steve had asked him any time after they were fifteen, he would have said yes. But no one asked him, and so he never said.
Over that time, what hadn’t started out as a secret became one.
He stares out at the marsh, at the still water and the solitary kingfisher hopping along the shore. Life is still going on, even though Steve abandoned him and died and he’s never coming back.
Sam sits down beside him. “I’m sorry, man,” he says. “I had no idea.”
Bucky shrugs. “Nobody did.”
They sit in silence for a long moment.
“I used to wonder if he would’ve stayed if he’d known,” Bucky says. “Used to be so damn mad at him. At myself. But I realized a long time ago wondering ain’t gonna do me any good.”
“Gotta move forward,” Sam agrees.
Six months after Steve’s death, one year since Bucky came back from The Blip, he stands at Steve’s gravestone outside of Washington. It hasn’t been long enough for time to begin to weather it, and it looks out of place beside Peggy’s much older marker.
He doesn’t say anything. There’s nothing to say. He had loved Steve, and that hadn’t been enough. This visit isn’t even about Steve, not really. It’s about moving on.
He still leaves flowers. Colorful ones, ones with enough shapes Steve would’ve drawn them. The gesture feels empty as they lie on the ground, the grass a little soggy from yesterday’s rain.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get to see this century,” Bucky says. “I think you would’ve loved it if you could’ve just let go.”
There is no response. Bucky doesn’t expect there to be. He walks away from the grave, jacket pulled tight against the wind blowing off the Potomac. His eyes are dry.