As he hurried forward he had, just for a second, the strange sensation that he was two people. And this was because, for the merest fraction of a second, he was two people. They were both called Samuel Vimes.
To history, choices are merely directions. The Trousers of Time opened up and Vimes began to hurtle down one leg of them.
And, somewhere else, the Vimes who made a different choice began to drop into a different future.
-Jingo, Terry Pratchett
HYDRA had taken James Buchanan Barnes and turned him into a weapon. Steve Rogers had found James Buchanan Barnes, had found Bucky, had dug him out from under the skin of the Winter Soldier, had torn him free of the weapon into which he'd been shaped.
Steve Rogers had shown him that he was more than a weapon. Had shown him that the tattered remnants of the man he'd been were still alive inside the shell of the Winter Soldier. Steve had held him up until he could stand steady on his own two feet and when he was standing, straight and strong, had let him go. Bucky had turned around and thrown himself right back at Steve, had given him his heart and his body and everything he had left in him to give. Together they were making a new life and Bucky had taken the weapon they'd made of him and turned himself against the evil in the world.
But it was Steve who had found him, Steve who had set him free, and Steve who would keep him free, whatever it cost.
There wasn't a person alive who didn't know that.
So when the remnants of HYDRA and a new guard of evil decided they wanted the weapon back, they knew what they had to do first: rid the world of Steve Rogers.
It proved no easy task. Which shouldn't have been a surprise: if it had been that easy to be rid of Steve Rogers it would have been done long ago.
When every ordinary attempt—mercenaries, robots, mutated animal invasions—failed they were driven to desperate measures. Bargains that should never have been made with beings that should never have been approached, but finally they had what they wanted.
"This will work?"
"It will remove him from the world." The figure was cloaked and hooded and the hand that held out the device had too many joints in its too many fingers.
They were so pleased they didn't think too much about those words, which were, after all, exactly what they'd asked for: Steve Rogers gone from the world.
The device was a shiny silver sphere divided into two parts. It came with clear instructions, neatly typed on a piece of white paper: bleed onto both halves and repeat the words (provided phonetically), then activate the device in his presence and Steve Rogers will be removed from the world.
The being they'd approached may arguably have been an eldritch and unknowable horror from Beyond, but it was a professional. And because it was a professional, when it realised there were two seemingly different but connected Steve Rogers who fit the request, separated (in eldritch terms) by only the smallest stretch of time, it simply set the device to remove them both.
At no extra charge, of course.
"Is it just me, or are things getting weirder?"
"Not just you, pal," Bucky agreed, voice low and reassuring through the comms.
An eerie calm stretched across the street, radiating out and around him as Steve's eyes flicked back and forth. Nothing was moving, what was left of the fighting had shifted down past the buildings, only him and Bucky left here in the centre of town. Bucky was perched up high on a building overlooking the town square, which was currently hidden under several tons of giant squid.
Dead giant squid—it couldn't be a squid, Nat had pointed out, not if it was breathing on land, but it had tentacles, stunk like two-day old sushi, and no one had suggested anything better, so Steve was sticking with squid.
Movement caught his eye and he turned, shield held high, but it was just a ball, bright silver, rolling across the ground. He backed away, putting space between him and it. "Bucky, you see anything?"
"Nothing." He sounded tense. "Get out of there, will you?"
He turned, nose wrinkling because he was going to have to climb over the squid, when light exploded out of the ball. It slammed into him, blinding him, burning down to his bones. He could hear Bucky screaming his name, but he couldn't move, he couldn’t breathe, and the world disappeared into white.
Steve woke up flat on his back on the cold ground, cold air swirling fine grit around his face. He curled his fingers and felt sand under his left hand, the shield under his right. His head was pounding with the echo of Bucky screaming his name. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. The sky above was a cloudless iron grey and a quick look left and right showed a barren landscape, nothing but flat, grey sand stretching as far as he could see. "I'm probably not dead, but where the hell am I?"
"Kinda wondering that myself." The voice came from behind him.
Steve rolled to his feet, shield up, before it registered that the voice was familiar. He knew the voice. He knew it. Slowly, he let the shield drop as he stared at…himself. Shorter, skinnier, but himself. Himself who suddenly had his fists up, a wicked glare sprouting from under lowered brows. "Watch it, pal. Don't get any ideas," he was saying.
Steve carefully set the shield down on the ground, pushed the cowl off his head, and met the eyes of the man he used to be.
It took that man a minute. Steve stared into his own blue eyes until they went wide and his fists lowered. "What the hell?"
"Yeah." Steve drew in a deep breath and let it out slow, because seeing himself like that was making it hard to breathe.
His younger self's eyes travelled slowly over him, taking in his size, his height and breadth, the uniform, the shield. "What happened to you?"
"What happened to you, you mean."
There was a definite hint of rolling eyes. "Sure, that's what I meant. What happened to me?"
Steve thought about it. "I'm not sure I should tell you. Might screw up the future."
"Like those novels Bucky's always going on about," he said, shoulders slumping, and Steve frowned.
"Hey." He studied himself, taking in what he was wearing, what he looked like, trying to work it out. "What time is it when you, where you, shit I don't have the language for this," he said, frustrated, and it got him a half-smile. "What's happening where you, when you, came from?"
"Bucky left for Basic today."
"Oh," Steve said softly as his younger, smaller self wrapped his arms around himself and shivered in the cold. "Right. I remember." It was the first time he'd lost Bucky.
"Yeah, well, I'll be following him soon enough," he added, chin up, fists clenched around his elbows, and shivered again. Steve saw the light in his eyes, that bloody, determined, stubborn light, and had a moment's sympathy for Bucky and all the years he'd had to deal with it. He shivered again, the cold too much for him, and Steve made a decision. He took two steps back, picked up the shield and hefted it, then drove it into the ground, making his younger self blurt out, "What the ever loving fuck are you doing?"
Steve shoved it with his boot and nodded in satisfaction when it was stable. "Making somewhere to sit," he said, and dropped to lean against it. Bucky had trackers in every piece of equipment Steve was carrying, every bit of Steve's uniform, even under his skin—not that Bucky knew Steve knew about that one. He'd bribed a nurse to implant it after Steve had gotten shot, but it turned out even money couldn't outweigh the guilt of having planted a tracking chip in Captain America's ass, and she'd confessed, wringing her hands, never meeting Steve's eyes.
Steve hadn't cared, didn't care, if it made Bucky happy, and it did mean, wherever this was, Bucky would find him. "Making somewhere for both of us to sit," he added, slipping the harness that held the shield off over his head. His younger self was eyeing him warily and didn't get less wary when Steve unsealed the front of his uniform, exposing his undershirt, and patted the ground between his legs. "Sit."
"I'm not your dog and I'm sure as shit not your girl, so whatever you've got in mind, you can count me out."
Steve sighed. "No, you're me, you dumbass, and you're cold and getting colder."
As if on cue, he shivered and tightened his arms around himself. "What the hell's a dumbass?"
"I'm looking at one."
"You realise you're insultin' yourself?"
Steve huffed at him and pointed at the ground. "Will you please sit down? I don't want to suddenly pop out of existence because you got pneumonia and died."
After a long moment, younger Steve—and maybe Steve shouldn't think of him like that, but looking at him, he seemed so damned young, like he was centuries younger than the Steve he was now—gingerly lowered himself to sit in the space between Steve's thighs. Steve knew it was part reluctance and part because the cold was making his joints ache. He remembered how much that hurt, how it had crept into his spine and his knees and his hips. "Now shuffle back." It got him a long, suspicious look, to which he replied, "Jesus, will you just trust me? I'm you, what do you think I'm going to do to you?"
Finally, he shifted until his back was against Steve's chest. It took less than thirty seconds for him to let out a tiny gasp, say, "Christ, you're warm," and turn to practically plaster himself against Steve.
Steve folded the edges of his uniform jacket around him. "Told you," he said smugly, looking down to meet his younger self's narrow-eyed stare.
"That's really annoying."
"I wonder if it's that annoying when I do it."
He made a low hum in his throat. "I'm not gonna stop."
"Good. People would think you'd gotten hit on the head."
He was quiet for a bit, leaning into Steve, absorbing his warmth, and Steve folded his legs around him, shifting to try and make him more comfortable. "Was there a flash of light before you wound up here?" Flash didn't quite cover it, he could still feel it burning into his bones, but he knew there was no point asking if it had hurt.
"Yeah. One minute I was sitting in the kitchen, next thing I know, I'm here watching you drop onto the sand." He glanced up at Steve. "I'm more interested in how we're gonna get out of here. Any ideas?"
"Someone's going to be coming for me. For us. We'll figure out how to get you home."
He watched his younger self's eyes, watched the question drift through them, saw it there, waiting to be asked, and saw him decide not to ask it. Saw him set it aside. Instead, he asked, "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." Younger Steve nodded, falling silent again. Steve looked down at him, thinking, then said, "Steve?"
"Yeah, Steve?" He looked up, grinning a little.
Steve smiled back, but his eyes were serious. He remembered the last night he and Bucky had been together before Bucky had gone off to Basic. Remembered almost taking that leap and telling Bucky how he felt. Remembered backing out, backing away, walling those feelings up and leaving them there—there they'd stayed until Bucky, just about a year ago now, had grabbed him and kissed him and torn down that wall.
For this Steve, he'd built that wall just last night. For this Steve, Bucky had just left.
"I'm sorry Bucky's gone," he said. He felt his younger self stiffen, felt him try and pull away, but he held on, the way he remembered wishing, in his deepest heart, that someone had held onto him. He'd wanted it to be Bucky. Steve couldn't be Bucky for his younger self, but he could hold onto him. After a bit he stopped trying to pull away, stopped trying and curled closer, and Steve held him tight.
It was a strange feeling, to hold his younger self, to run a gentle hand down his back as he pressed his forehead against Steve's collarbone and took long, slow breaths. It was a strange feeling to be allowed to. Back then, he'd never let himself be soft, not even with Bucky—but it would have been different if you'd told him, wouldn't it?—he'd always had to be tough. "You okay?"
"Fine." His tone dared Steve to say anything different. "You're really warm, you know?"
"I know. Just a bonus on top of all the rest of it."
"Looking forward to that. I hate being cold."
Steve shivered, remembering the ice. "That's not going to change." Younger Steve leaned back to look up at him, studying his face, and Steve shook his head. "Don't worry about it."
"Easy for you to say," he grumbled. "You're not going to have to pretend all of this," he poked Steve's bicep, "is a surprise."
"You'll be fine." But he did wonder why he didn't remember this. Why he didn't remember any of this. Maybe it wouldn't kick in until they were out of wherever this was and back where they belonged.
His younger self grumbled again and pressed closer as a chill breeze swirled around them and Steve held him a little tighter, trying to block it. With his head resting over Steve's heart, younger Steve gradually fell into a light doze. Steve let his eyes slip half-shut, other senses alert, one hand resting between his younger self's shoulder blades.
Bucky would be here soon. He knew it was only a matter of time.
"Okay, Stark," Bucky muttered under his breath. "This better fucking work or I'm going to skin you alive and turn you into a hat, maybe some gloves, some shoes…" He flicked on the machine and it hummed, sending out waves of sound as it fixed onto the trackers Bucky had planted all over Steve's clothes, his equipment, and on Steve himself. Stark's trackers, designed to send a signal through time and space. Apparently. Bucky had his doubts, but right now he'd keep them to himself since here was the signal, loud and clear.
Stark had built the machine from salvaged Chitauri technology and it could open a door to anywhere.
The hum built to a crescendo, there was a flash of red light, and a hole appeared, torn into the air in front of him. Through it he could see a grey desert. The readout said Steve wasn't far and without hesitation Bucky stepped through.
The tear closed behind him.
An iron grey sky stretched out forever over a flat, grey landscape, but Bucky could see a heap of blue in the distance and he started running. There was Steve. Bucky was vaguely aware there was someone else with him, someone who'd scrambled to his feet as Bucky had approached, someone who was standing off to the side as Steve rose to his feet, staring at him, but Bucky didn't really give two shits. He only had eyes for Steve, who'd vanished in a flash of light, who'd been snatched away from him, who he'd thought might have been dead, and he put Stark's machine on the ground and grasped Steve's face between his hands, harder than was probably comfortable. "Don't do that again."
Bucky swallowed hard and nodded once, let his grip gentle, ran his thumbs over Steve's cheeks. Leaned in and kissed him. "Okay."
"Bucky?" His name was soft, hesitant—it was Steve's voice, but Steve's lips hadn't moved. He met Steve's eyes and they were gentle as he touched Bucky's hand.
Bucky slowly turned to face the other person, hands falling to his sides.
The other person. The other person that was Steve. Steve like he used to be, before the serum, before the war, before everything. Steve, who was looking at him like he wasn't sure this was Bucky. Like he didn't know if the man standing in front of him—too big, too rough, long hair and a metal arm, scars no one could see, except Steve had always been able to see them—was his Bucky.
He wasn't. Of course he wasn't.
Bucky shied away as he came closer, backed off, hands held up like he could ward him off but he should have known that wouldn't work. Should have known it would have the exact opposite effect, because suddenly Steve—young Steve, little Steve, Steve with a light in his eyes like someone was going to pay—had wrapped his hand around Bucky's metal wrist and was tugging him to a halt. The light in his eyes was so much like the light he saw in his Steve's eyes, only this one was simpler, brighter, more innocent. This was his Steve, he realised as he stared down at him, just his Steve from a different time, from a time when he was a different Bucky. "Bucky." This time his name was certain, no question, no hesitation, and Bucky forced himself to hold still and meet his eyes.
"Hi, Steve." He was proud his voice didn't shake. Proud—hell, he was amazed.
"Bucky." It was barely breathed this time, and this small Steve was so close, leaning up on his tiptoes to press his hands against Bucky's face, studying him, staring into his eyes, and Bucky wanted to run. He felt Steve come up behind him, felt those strong hands close over his shoulders, and it held him steady as not-his-Steve, the Steve who used to be, sank back down on his feet and let his hands fall, let his gaze fall to Bucky's metal hand, his metal arm, and he touched it gently. Looked up again into Bucky's eyes, searching for something, and Bucky had never been able to hide from him, not when he'd been determined to see. His eyes shifted, met his Steve's over Bucky's shoulder, and they blazed with anger. "You're supposed to look after him."
He felt Steve flinch against his back.
"You're supposed to keep him safe." Bucky felt himself being pulled, being tugged, let himself be moved, and then young Steve, small Steve, he didn't know what to call him, was standing between him and the Steve he'd come looking for, hands balled into fists. "That's your job. It's what you're supposed to do. What's the point of being like this," he waved his hand at Steve's body, "the point of all the muscle and the size and everything if we can't keep him safe?"
Steve's expression was stricken, his eyes deep and sad, and Bucky cleared his throat. "I think you've got that backwards," he said, trying for light. He was suddenly the target of identical, exasperated looks, two sets of blue eyes looking at him like he was profoundly stupid. "What?"
They looked at each other and shook their heads. "He doesn’t get it."
"He never did," younger Steve said. "Jerk always thought it only went one way."
They shared a moment of perfect understanding, then Steve looked away. "I tried." His hands clenched into fists. "I tried."
Before younger Steve could respond, Bucky put a hand on his shoulder. His right hand, and it was tentative, but it still pulled his attention back to Bucky. "It wasn't his fault. It never was. In the end he saved me. You saved me. You, Steve." He pulled in a shaky breath and it steadied as his Steve stepped closer and took his metal hand, sliding their fingers together. "Steve Rogers is the reason I'm walking around free in this world, knowing who I am. He looked after me. He kept me safe."
Younger Steve looked at their hands, then up at Bucky. "You're sure?"
"Okay. Okay. Sorry, I guess," he said to Steve.
"Nothing I haven't already told myself a dozen times or more. Once more isn't going to hurt."
Bucky watched his Steve's smile, crooked and not quite reaching his eyes, but warming as he looked at his younger self. Then Steve's words caught up with him. "Hey," he said sharply, tugging at Steve's hand. Steve shrugged. "We're going to be talking about this," he warned.
"Whatever you say, Bucky. Have you got a way to get us out of here? And get him home?"
"Yeah, but it's gonna be a couple of hours before Stark's machine is ready to go."
"Of course it is," Steve said with a sigh.
Bucky set the machine up on the sand with the recharge light facing them. Steve sat down, his back against the shield, and motioned his younger self to sit in front of him. With a quick look at Bucky, he did, leaning back against Steve's chest with a barely concealed sigh of relief.
The cold, Bucky realised, when Steve folded his uniform jacket around him. If he could feel it, it must be getting to him, given he wasn't dressed for being outside. Bucky sat down in front of them, cross-legged with his knees touching Steve's, blocking the breeze that would have swirled around them.
"I wonder why I don't remember any of this?" Steve asked.
"New universe theory," Bucky replied.
"What?" It was both Steves, looking at him like he was talking another language.
"When you make an important decision, the world splits into a new universe. You being here's not exactly the same, but I figure it's close enough. So when we get you back home," he said, nodding at younger Steve, "you'll be in a new universe, so you're not exactly him," he pointed at his Steve. "There's a writer I like, he says it's like pants. You make one decision, you go down one pant leg, but there's another you who made a different decision and they go down the other pant leg. The universe splits in two. Two new universes, two new people, where there used to be one."
"And that's why I don't remember this," Steve said, meeting his younger self's eyes. Or maybe not his younger self's. They both turned to look at Bucky, who blinked under the sudden onslaught of intense blue. "Because it never happened to me."
"That's right." Bucky shifted around so he could lean his head on his Steve's shoulder and closed his eyes. "Or maybe not. I'm just a guy who reads a lot of sci-fi and has to listen to St— to someone babble while he messes with my arm, what do I know?"
Younger Steve was dozing, curled against Steve's chest with his head tucked under Steve's chin. Bucky was dozing, his head on Steve's shoulder, his metal arm around Steve's waist, his body curved in a protective arch that didn't touch but ran directly parallel with younger Steve's body. Steve was awake, looking between the two of them, when the machine beeped politely.
The light was green. They could send his younger self home. Bucky opened his eyes at the sound and met Steve's. The look they exchanged was sad, like Bucky shared Steve's sudden strange wish that they could just keep him, not send him back, but he knew they had to.
"He's a sound sleeper," Bucky said quietly.
"He didn't get much rest last night." At Bucky's questioning look, Steve added, "You left for Basic today."
Bucky's mouth twisted and he reached out to touch younger Steve's shoulder, then pulled back before he could make contact. "You'd better wake him up. It can't be good for him being here in this cold."
Steve touched Bucky's hand, then gave his younger self a light shake. "Hey, Steve. Wake up, will you? Can't sleep forever." Younger Steve curled up tighter, grumbling, then pushed against Steve and sighed, blinking as he caught sight of Bucky.
Bucky nodded at the machine. "We can send you home."
"Oh." He blinked again, then scrambled to his feet. "Good." He looked around as Steve and Bucky stood. "That's good." He fixed Steve with an intent look and Steve's heart skipped a beat.
Part of him knew he shouldn’t. The rest of him… He glanced at Bucky. "Can you give us a minute?"
Bucky looked between them. "Sure," he finally said and walked away, staring up into the iron grey sky.
Steve knelt in front of his younger self. Voice low, he asked, "How do you feel about possibly risking the future?"
"If it saves Bucky?" His voice was just as low but it was fierce. "The future can go to hell. I don't know who hurt him, and I don't know how, but what I can see in his eyes?" He shook his head. "Fuck the future if that's what it did to him."
Steve grinned at him and it was just as fierce. "I don't know if he's right, if the reason I don't remember any of this is because you're not really me, if they made a new universe when they plucked you out of the past, but I'm willing to risk it. There's things you're not going to be able to change. But you're going to end up on a mission, capturing someone on a train. Leave Bucky behind. He might hate you for it, at least for a little while, but leave him behind. If you can't, don't let him fall. He's going to try and save you and he's going to fall. Don't let it happen. And if he falls, if you can't stop it, he's not dead. Don't let anyone tell you he's dead. Go after him. Find him. Don't stop until you have him back. Whatever it takes. Understand?"
"Don't let him on the train. If I can't stop it, don't let him fall. If I can't stop him falling, he's not dead. Go after him. Find him. Whatever it takes." He nodded once, nodded again. "I won't let him down."
"I know you won't."
They looked at each other for a long moment, then Steve raised his voice. "You can come back." As he stood up, Bucky came walking back.
"I'm not going to ask," he said to Steve, then shifted his gaze to younger Steve. "I'm only going to tell you one thing."
"He loves you. He's dizzy with it."
Hope flashed across younger Steve's face before it was shuttered away. "How do you know?"
Bucky smiled and it was as warm as the sun. "I know because I remember."
His cheeks went pink and he looked at his feet.
Bucky glanced at Steve and Steve tilted his head. Seemingly satisfied, Bucky slowly, carefully, giving him time to pull away, cupped younger Steve's face between his hands. His eyes went wide but he didn't move, didn't flinch from the metal fingers, held still under Bucky's touch. "Trust me, he loves you." Bucky pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead. "He always has." He sighed and leaned in to wrap his arms around Bucky and Bucky pulled him into a hug. "And if I remember right, you're about all he's thinking of right now. If you say something, if you let him know how you feel, he'll listen."
He held on for a long time, Bucky gently running a hand down his back, then pulled away. "I should go. Can't hang around here all day."
"Yeah, okay." Bucky backed off, scooped up the machine and pointed it at younger Steve. "Ready?"
Bucky calibrated it to his signature, the machine emitting a low hum, and activated it. A hole tore in the air, showing a Brooklyn back alley. Bucky reached out unthinkingly, met Steve's hand reaching for his, and held on.
Younger Steve stared through the tear, turned to look at them both, then squared his shoulders, met Steve's eyes, nodded once, and walked into the alley. The hole closed behind him.
"There you go," Bucky said, leaning down to set the machine on the ground.
"Maybe not me."
"Maybe not," he said and smiled. "I'd forgotten how cute you were when you were small."
"You saying I'm not cute now?"
"Nah, you're still cute." He paused. "Think it'll work?"
Steve froze, then quickly asked, "What do you mean?"
"Steve." Bucky slowly shook his head. "This is why you never beat me at poker," he said, nudging Steve's shoulder. "I can always tell when you're bluffing."
He let out a gusting breath. "I don't know. I hope so." He toed the sand. "You mad?"
"Nope. I knew what you were going to do as soon as you asked me to go. Who knows, maybe it'll work."
"When history didn't cooperate, history was changed," Steve murmured, staring into the distance as he remembered who'd said those words.
"Nothing." He gave himself a mental shake. "Nothing worth repeating. And hey, it's not like I was the only one," he added with a quick smile.
The corner of Bucky's mouth twisted. "Maybe they'll get their shit together faster than we did, get a bit of happiness before..." He trailed off and wiggled his metal fingers.
Steve lifted his metal hand, kissed each finger in turn. "I was always happy with you, Bucky. No matter what we were."
"Sap," Bucky told him, but his eyes were warm.
"Yeah," he agreed easily. "For you I am."
Bucky's smile got wider and he hooked his free hand in Steve's waistband. "We've got a couple of hours to kill while Stark's machine recharges. Any ideas?"
He wrapped his arm around Bucky's waist. "Want to get sand in uncomfortable places?"
Bucky smirked at him. "You can get sand in uncomfortable places. I'd rather get you in uncomfortable places."
Steve started laughing and dragged him closer. "I love you," he said and kissed him, thoroughly, intently, like he was never going to stop, and Bucky wrapped his arms tight around Steve like he was never going to let go.
They'd both seen too much, lived through too much, carried too many shadows, but their broken pieces fit together and where their shadows overlapped they made something that looked a lot like light.
The universe splits in two. Two new universes, two new people, where there used to be one.
Steve never said a word about what had happened, afraid of the potential consequences. Afraid he'd screw up his chance, the older Bucky's eyes, the feel of metal fingers gentle against his skin, burned into his memory.
Never said a word when Bucky came home from Basic, but with the other Bucky's words ringing in his ears, he found the courage, not for words but for actions—he'd always been better with actions, anyway. When he backed Bucky up against the door Bucky's eyes were wide with panic, but his hands landed on Steve's shoulders and they weren't pushing him away. "What are you doing, Steve?"
"What I should have done before you left," he said, and leaned up to kiss him, one hand firm against Bucky's jaw. Bucky froze, utterly still, and Steve thought he'd made a mistake, that the other Bucky had been wrong. He started to pull back, heart sinking, hand falling to his side, when suddenly he was wrapped in Bucky's arms, so tight he could barely breathe, and Bucky was kissing him desperately.
He loves you, the other Bucky had told him. I know because I remember.
He'd been right.
Zola's going to be on that train. We're going to have to take him there if we want to take him at all.
This was it. This had to be it. So many times he'd cursed himself, so many things he could have warned himself about, but now he was just fighting to seem normal. Fighting to keep his eyes off Bucky. Fighting to keep his voice even as he said, "Sergeant Barnes, you're staying behind."
Silence rang out through the tent.
Bucky gave him a flat look. "Very funny."
Bucky whirled to stare at him in disbelief. "Steve, you can't—"
He cut him off, heart in his throat. "No. You're not going and that's an order."
Bucky glared at him for another few seconds, then pulled himself to his full height, spine rigid, and snapped off a perfect salute. "Yes, Sir, Captain Rogers. Permission to leave?"
"Just go, Buck, if that what you want."
He watched as Bucky turned on his heel, striding out of the tent, back of his neck red with fury. He turned back to the map. No one would meet his eyes. "Right. We'll intercept the train here. We should be able to take Zola easily once we're there."
It had gone just as he'd planned. Arnim Zola was in custody, the rest of the Commandos were tucked up in their tents, dreaming whiskey-soaked dreams, and Bucky was safe.
Just like he'd planned.
He winced and pressed a hand against his side. Okay, maybe getting shot hadn't exactly been part of the plan, but it'd been worth it. A small price to pay. A very small price to pay for Bucky to be safe. As he made his way to Bucky's tent, he looked up at the sky, midnight black instead of iron grey, remembering the words he'd said to himself in a place out of time.
But you're going to end up on a mission, capturing someone on a train. Leave Bucky behind. He might hate you for it, at least for a little while, but leave him behind. If you can't, don't let him fall. He's going to try and save you and he's going to fall. Don't let it happen. And if he falls, if you can't stop it, he's not dead. Don't let anyone tell you he's dead. Go after him. Find him. Don't stop until you have him back. Whatever it takes.
"Whatever it takes," he murmured. "Now let's see if you're right about him only hating me for a little while." When he reached Bucky's tent, he hesitated, then pushed the flap open. "Can I come in?"
"Seems like you're already in, Captain." Bucky was lying on his back on his cot, arms folded behind his head. Steve couldn't help letting his eyes travel over him, comparing him to the mental picture he carried of the other Bucky, the Bucky whose eyes were deep and dark with pain and death, who didn't have that spark, that life, that his Bucky had. When he closed his eyes, he could still feel the touch of those metal fingers against his skin, driving him to keep his Bucky safe.
His gaze met Bucky's as he came all the way in. "You're still mad at me, huh?"
"Gee, now why would I be mad at you?"
"Just because you left me behind to jump onto a goddamn moving train, left me here where I couldn't watch your back. Left me here where I was fucking useless, where I wouldn't know if something happened to you."
"Is it because of what Zola did to me? You think I wouldn't be any good against him? Think I couldn't have watched your back? Think I would have frozen up? Goddamn it, Steve," he rolled to his feet, paced across the small space, paced back, "why, why would you leave me behind? You've never left me behind, and now, now when it really mattered, you decided you didn't need me? I've never once let you down, not once, why in the ever loving fuck would you leave me behind?"
"I did it to save you!" Bucky's eyes went wide and he jerked back as Steve lunged forward, but Steve's hands were fisted in his shirt and he couldn't get away. Steve's heart was racing, he was breathing hard, and he wanted to haul Bucky in and never let go. "I did it to save you." They were so close he could feel Bucky's breath on his face, and he closed his eyes, took a deep breath of his own before he opened them again, fighting for calm.
Bucky was staring at him, anger temporarily banked behind confusion and worry. "What do you mean, you did it to save me?"
Steve made himself let go, let his hands fall, but Bucky didn't move. "Can I tell you a story, one I swear is true, even if you're not going to believe it?"
"Can I stop you?"
"Okay." He rubbed a hand over his face. "Can I sit?"
"Be my guest."
He sat on the edge of Bucky's cot, wincing a little as it pulled at his side, and Bucky sat next to him, careful and cautious, like he was afraid Steve was going to break, like he used to when Steve was small. "The day you shipped out for Basic I got hit by something."
"Steve." He stirred, leaning closer, and Steve shook his head.
"No, let me finish." Bucky subsided. "It was a light and it pulled me somewhere else. I met," he drew in a breath, eyed Bucky, then looked away, fixed his eyes on Bucky's hands. They were both flesh and bone and if he'd done this right, if his older self had been right, they'd stay that way, "I met us. Us from the future, I guess. But you were," he shook his head, "doesn't matter. I told me what I had to do to keep you safe. To keep it from happening to you. And that's what I did. It started with not letting you on that train. If I couldn't do that, I gave myself a list. But that was first. Keep you off the train. Even if it made you hate me. So that's what I did. I kept you off the train."
There was silence while Bucky digested that. "You know what that sounds like."
"What came after the train?"
Steve closed his eyes. "Please don't ask me that."
He could hear Bucky shifting next to him and then he sighed and pressed into Steve's side. Thankfully, the unshot side. "Okay. Okay, I won't ask."
Every muscle went limp with relief and he opened his eyes. "Thanks, Buck."
"You really mean it, though. It really happened."
He turned his head to meet Bucky's eyes. "It really happened."
"Then I forgive you."
"You believe me?"
"You wouldn't lie to me. Not about that. I do have one question, though."
"How come you didn't tell me this before you ordered me not to come?" Steve opened his mouth, then closed it again, because he didn't have an answer. "Mmmm, that's what I thought." Bucky shook his head. "Would have made things a hell of a lot easier."
Steve ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "Because I'm a dumbass."
"What's a dumbass?"
"I like that, a dumbass. Captain Dumbass. Suits you." Steve rolled his eyes and the corner of Bucky's mouth pulled up in a smirk. "And don't think I didn't see you wincing before, Captain Dumbass. Take your boots off and lie down."
It was easier to obey Bucky than to argue, especially when it was what he wanted to do anyway, except for the part where leaning over to unlace his boots stung like a son of a bitch. He was healing fast, by now there'd barely be a mark, but the ripped muscle and chipped bone still hurt. Bucky shook his head and did it for him, then shoved him until he was stretched out and lay down half over him, a warm reassuring weight. There wasn't really room for both of them on the cot, but neither of them cared. They made do. "What were they like?"
"Sad," he finally said. "They'd been through a lot. You were, god, Bucky, your eyes." He reached out to gather Bucky in, pulling him closer, and Bucky let him. "I yelled at me for not looking after you, not keeping you safe. He said he tried. He told me how to fix it. I'm not going to let that happen to you." Steve could hear a note of desperation creeping into his voice and he couldn't help holding Bucky tighter.
Bucky flattened his hand over his heart. "Easy, Steve. I'm right here. You did fix it, right? You did what he said. You didn't let me get on the train."
"Yeah." He let out a shuddery breath. "Yeah, I did."
"Then it's okay." Bucky pushed himself up on his elbows to lean over Steve. "It's okay now."
"It's okay now," Steve repeated, feeling tension uncoil in his gut.
"You've been carrying that around all this time. All alone." Steve shrugged, looking away. Bucky caught his chin, giving it a little shake. "You could have told me."
"I didn't want to risk messing anything up," he said, staring up into Bucky's eyes. "What if I made it worse? I knew what I had to do."
Bucky's fingers were strong on his face, his callouses rough against his skin. "Dumbass," Bucky whispered and bent his head to kiss him. Steve pressed into the kiss as he slid his hands down to grip Bucky's hips and shift him so he was lying between his legs, and Bucky laughed softly against his mouth.
Even with a new universe, even with a new future, the path of fate can only be shifted so far. Some things are carved so deep they punch through the heart of every universe: Captain America sacrifices himself, flies the plane full of bombs into the ocean. It's a truth written in the soul of all worlds, but it's a generous truth, a malleable truth, one that can be amended, altered and scribbled over.
In this universe, in this truth, in this time and this place, when he made his choice he didn't make it alone.
Steve made his choice hand in hand with the man he loved: they chose to give their lives so that others would live. When they set the plane on its collision course with the ocean they were smiling a little, because at least they were together and there were far worse things in the world than dying with the one you love. They were wrapped in each others arms as they hit the water, Bucky tucked safely in the curve of Steve's body.
Steve's body protected Bucky from the impact. Zola's serum, inferior though it might have been, did its job. When they freed Steve Rogers from the ice and revived him he didn't come alone.
He was never alone. They were never alone.
Together, they faced the future, all of Bucky's enthusiasm for everything it had to offer dragging Steve along in its wake. Steve remembered the Bucky he'd met, who had held his face so gently, who had kissed his forehead and said He loves you while his eyes had been shadowed wells of pain. He looked into his Bucky's eyes, which held sadness, yes, for all they'd lost, but still glowed with joy and love, and wished for some way to reach across the walls of the universe.
We did it, Steve thought, hoping that somehow, someway, his other self would know. Thank you.