"I need your help," he said, and Natasha didn't recognize the number, but she wasn't surprised to hear his voice on the line. She knew immediately what he was talking about, and one of the things she liked about him was that he never pretended to think that she wouldn't know.
"I thought I could manage it, but I can't," he told her, and Natasha knew what that meant, too. "Getting in and out—recon, another set of eyes. I need somebody to—"
She had grabbed her keys and her jacket and was already heading for the door. "Are you here yet?"
"We're in the car. I rented a car. Call it an hour and a half," he said. "I'll go straight there but I'll need you to talk me in—"
"It's all right, don't worry," Natasha said, shifting the phone to her other ear as she shrugged on her jacket. "Call me in an hour, I'll have a plan by then."
It took her twenty minutes to do a full recon. No one else was in the loop, though Barnes obviously had sources as good as hers were. So it was best to stay as inconspicuous as possible: no main entrance, no visitor's log. She stole a pair of pink scrubs, then went out and bought a Diet Coke and a pack of Newport Lights before going back in through the dank underground parking lot to smoke and bitch with a couple of green-clad orderlies and two nurses loitering down by the staff elevator. She followed them in when break was over and bluffed her way into the supply closet, where she was able to steal the rest of what she needed. Then she went back to the parking lot and waited for Barnes to call in.
The car that finally came down the concrete ramp was so nondescript that she couldn't tell it was them at first, not until Barnes flashed his brights and turned sharply into a spot. Natasha moved toward them as Barnes got out on the driver's side and slammed the door. The heavy clunk echoed inside the garage.
"Hey," Natasha said, as Barnes came around to the passenger side. "Good timing. There's a shift change soon, so there'll be commotion before it goes quiet, but we'll be inside by..."
She trailed off; Barnes was opening the passenger door and hauling Steve out. He looked terrible: pale and disoriented. He'd shaved his beard, which only increased her sense of deja vu—Steve looked just like he used to before he escaped, and it seemed like the old deep sadness had settled back upon him.
He didn't say hello—he didn't even seem to register that she was there, and Natasha wondered if Barnes had maybe given him three or four of those super-powered pain killers they had at their place. He had the look: his face was slack, pupils blown. Natasha handed Barnes a pair of scrubs and he began, calm, all-business, to help Steve get into them while Steve just stood there, looking distracted and numb.
When Steve was in the pale green scrubs, mask tied loosely around his neck, Natasha passed Barnes a white coat, a pair of surgical gloves, and a stethoscope, which Barnes slung around his shoulders.
"Okay," he said grimly, taking Steve by the upper arm, "lead the way," and Natasha understood then that Barnes was prepared to take Steve on his back, if necessary; had, in fact, more or less carried him this far. They set off together toward the staff elevator; once inside, Barnes carefully tied Steve's pale green surgical mask over his nose and mouth. It wouldn't do to have him be recognized.
The elevator crowded and emptied as they went up and up, but they were the only ones inside when it reached the top. They came out into an elaborate high-ceilinged atrium—THE STARK WING, it said in gold letters along the wall: In Memory of Howard and Maria Stark—and Natasha took the lead as they moved together down the wide granite-lined hall, Barnes firmly towing Steve along. They passed state-of-the-art medical stations, duty nurses at semicircular banks of monitors, and they were nearly at the last door when Steve suddenly came to life and turned, gripping Barnes's arm. "Buck, I can't."
"You can," Barnes said. "Steve, you have to," and Steve said, faintly, "No," and then again, "No," even as Barnes was dragging him down the corridor to Peggy Carter's room.
Now Natasha saw why Barnes needed her help: he had his hands full wrangling Steve, nothing left in him for surveillance or defense. Natasha glanced at the duty-nurse—Steve clearly wouldn't be able to keep up his part in the deception for long—and so she put on a look of bored, slightly beleaguered tolerance and went over to the nurses's station and braced her elbows on the counter.
"Hey," Natasha said, smiling wearily in greeting, and then she jerked her head towards Barnes and Rogers and said, "Doctor Monroe bringing one of Carter's grandsons in to see her." It was the first story that had occurred to her. "Kid supposedly just flew in from Iraq," she elaborated with a shrug.
The nurse looked over at Steve and nodded sympathetically. "PTSD?" she asked quietly.
"Yeah. A little bit," and Natasha'd said it just to say it, but of course the nurse was right: it was true.
Barnes had gotten Steve to the door, but now Steve dug in his heels and pushed back; the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. Natasha tensed; she didn't want to see how that fight panned out.
"—too late, what if I'm—" Steve was white-knuckled.
"Then you just say what you need to," Barnes said implacably, and then, gently, "Steve, if you don't do this, you're going to regret it the rest of your life." He opened the door.
Peggy Carter's room was dim and cool, lit only by the glow of the bank of monitors behind the bed. She was, Natasha saw, nearly gone already; she was immobile, comatose, her vitals barely registering.
Steve hesitated just inside the door, himself looking sick in the pale green light. Barnes growled, "I'm going in if you won't," and Steve detached himself from the door frame and went to her, face stricken. Barnes's shoulders slumped, the tension draining out of him; mission fucking accomplished, Natasha thought.
"Peggy," Steve said hollowly, bypassing the chair and going straight to her bedside, and then, so faintly that Natasha barely registered it, "...darling?" and she and Barnes turned to go, to give him some privacy, when they were arrested by the altered tone of his voice—"Peg? Peggy?"
Her eyes were open; Peggy Carter was staring up at Steve, who'd dropped his face close to hers—and of course he'd shaved: he wasn't going risk Peggy not knowing him. Barnes, open-mouthed, had stumbled halfway to the bed, and Steve was babbling urgently, the words spilling out: "Peggy. Peggy, I love you. I love you, darling," and then: "I'm sorry: I think I'm going to be late again. I'm hopeless, I know," and he'd found her hand and was kissing her face, her papery cheek.
It didn't seem Peggy could speak, but that didn't seem to matter. "Thank you," Steve scraped out. "Thank you for everything. I love you so much, Peg, you'll always be my best—" and then, "Peg?" and more plaintively, "Peggy?" and the monitors were dropping, blood pressure 0/0, heart rate 45, 42, 32, 25. She was going. Natasha held her breath; holy Christ. She saw Barnes ramping up to red alert again, even through his own evident distress, and then he surprised her by going, not to Steve, but to Peggy and blurting raggedly, even as her heart stopped, "Peggy, I got him. Don't you worry, I got him."
The door opened and the nurse came in, and Steve backed away from the bed, though he looked wild-eyed and shocked when she began simply switching off Peggy's monitors and the IV pump.
"Aren't you—" Steve said, gesturing helplessly. "Isn't anyone going to do something?"
"No, Stevie; no," Barnes said softly, all kindness; moving toward him with hands outstretched.
The nurse looked at Peggy, lying there peacefully, and then she said, with a sad knowing shake of the head, "I've seen it a thousand times. When they hang on like that, they were waiting for someone," and Natasha didn't know who looked more horrified, Steve, whose eyes immediately filled with tears, or Barnes, who looked like he wanted to strangle her with his goddamned stethoscope. "If someone they love is coming, they'll wait," she explained, "and even if they're late, they'll hold on until..." and Barnes turned to Steve and said, low and forceful, "She doesn't mean, she doesn't know what she's—" but Steve just fell apart, dissolving into noiseless sobs. Whatever had been holding him together just gave way, and Barnes had to make a grab for him, tug him into his arms to stop him crashing to the floor.
Natasha bit her lip and glanced away—and saw the nurse's eyes widening as she took a closer look at Steve. "That's not her grandson," she stammered. "That's—" and Natasha snatched her I.D. off her chest.
"One word of this ends up in the papers," Natasha threatened, "and I'll know just who it was."
Her words seemed to galvanize Barnes. "Steve," he begged, gripping Steve's under the arms, holding him up, "please, pull it together, all right? We've got to get out of here," but Steve was staring at him with blank incomprehension, face dripping with tears. "Steve, I loved her, too, you know I did," Barnes said with urgent sympathy, "but she's gone, and they'll be coming now. We can't be here," and of course, he was right; even if the CIA hadn't been smart enough to set up a health-watch on Peggy Carter like she and Barnes had, they'd almost certainly have set up a death-watch. They'd put out an alert, because if anything could was going to bring Steve Rogers back to the surface, it was this.
But Steve couldn't pull it together; his face was contorted; he was out of control in a way Natasha hadn't ever imagined he could be. He couldn't even quite stand on his own, and Barnes shot her a pleading look, and so she dragged Steve's arm over her shoulder and, together, they began to tug him out the door. Steve twisted, turning back to look at her—Lot's wife—but Barnes didn't give him any quarter and so Natasha didn't either. They moved quickly down the hallway toward the elevator bank.
They pushed the button, and Barnes hauled Steve into his arms, taking his weight, while Natasha wormed her phone out of her pocket and started texting. "He's, you know. Got a lot wrapped up in her," Barnes muttered awkwardly, and Natasha stared up at him from her keypad and said, "You think?" Barnes limped Steve onto the elevator as Natasha murmured, "I'm getting help, can I get help?"
"You bet," Barnes shot back. "I'll take all the help I can get; you must have me confused with someone." Natasha hit send and put her phone away. She gently reached up to tie Steve's mask up so that only his wet, red-rimmed eyes showed, then stretched up to kiss his cheek through the green cloth.
"Who'd you call, Stark?" Barnes asked as Natasha slid her arms around Steve again, braced to move.
"Better yet," Natasha replied. "Pepper," and Barnes nodded as they went down, and down and down.
By the time Pepper called back with an address, they were already in the car—Natasha driving, Barnes in the back with Steve, who was leaning against him with his eyes closed, unnaturally still. This building had an underground garage, too, though it was gated, and you needed a code to get inside, and another code to get into the elevator, and a third to get the elevator to take you to your floor, which for them was the penthouse. Barnes braced Steve up as Natasha punched in the string of numbers.
The elevator door slid open onto a huge sunken living room, a dining room and a bar: behind them, a wall of windows gave onto the lights of the D.C. skyline. "Stark doesn't skimp, I'll say that," Barnes said as they went in, and then he looked at Steve and said gravely, "You've got to eat something."
Steve's voice was barely audible as he shook his head. "… I can't. I'm not…"
"You gotta," Barnes said. "Toast or something," and he was settling Steve into one of the hard-backed dining chairs and going into the kitchen to see what, if anything, was there. Steve sat at the elaborately carved dining table and stared blankly out at something only he could see. Natasha did what was meant to be a quick security check but wasn't, because there were ten bedrooms and a den and a game room and a gym and a patio with a pool; the apartment took up the top two floors of the building.
When she got back, Steve was pushing up from the table; on it was a plate of buttered toast with two bites taken out of it. "I can't, Buck. I'm just...too tired." Steve had dark circles under his eyes; he looked beyond exhausted. "'I'm gonna lie down, okay?" and Barnes sighed and said, "Okay."
It was only then that Steve really seemed to really register her, his face twisting into an apology that she tried to wave away. His voice was the barest hiss, "…sorry, Natasha…sorry," and then his eyes were leaking again and he brought his arm up to cover them. She wanted to go to him—hug him, kiss him, but she didn't want to make anything harder for him, so she just stood there and let Barnes tug him into one of the bedrooms. And then, furious and helpless, she went to the bar and poured herself a glass of cold vodka. She slugged it down, then poured out another and drank that one down too.
When Barnes came out, he made a beeline for the enormous sofa and collapsed down onto it, head lolling back, looking almost as exhausted as Steve. Natasha refilled her glass, then poured a large slug of vodka into a tumbler and brought it to him. "Oh, you're a nice lady," Bucky Barnes sighed.
Natasha didn't smile. "How're you doing?" she asked, eyes fixed on him.
Barnes shrugged, clinked his glass against hers, muttered "Na zdorovie," and took a long swig. She drank too.
"I'm okay," Barnes mumbled, and then: "We're restoring a Studebaker. A '49—practically rusted to nothing, couldn't go more than a half a block when we got it. Steve got it for me, actually. He knows what I like in cars." Barnes took another slug. "It'll take years, probably. Sourcing all the parts – some things you want stock, other things new. They made some nice cars while we were dead," and then he tightened his hand on the glass and muttered, "It's been fun building something together anyway."
Natasha stared down at her drink. "He's not thinking," she said quietly.
"Course he's not," Barnes snorted. "Not for days, not since we got word she was close."
"So are you thinking?" Natasha challenged. "Cause somebody's got to be thinking—"
"Hell, I'm trying to," Barnes shot back, "but there's only so much I can…" He drained his glass, then let it fall to his side. "I can only think so many moves ahead, all right?" He pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead. He looked older than Steve; hell, he was older than Steve. "There's—factors involved."
Natasha shook her head. "Steve will understand. He'll see that—"
"It's not that simple," Barnes insisted. "Look, you know and I know that he's going to be the first line of her obituary," and Natasha jerked a nod, because that was true. Margaret "Peggy" Carter, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America's best girl. "Which means every goddamned news agency coast to coast is gonna have eyes on that funeral, searching for him, trying to spot him in the—"
"Right," Natasha agreed, "which he why he can't possibly—"
Barnes rode right over her. "—which means there's gonna be stories. Either way there's gonna be stories. Picture the stories," he said, eyes fixed on her. "Picture how they go," and Natasha groaned, because she hadn't thought—but of course. "STILL TOO LATE: CAPTAIN AMERICA MISSES CARTER FUNERAL." "STOOD UP AGAIN!" "CAP GIVES CARTER FUNERAL A MISS." "Right." Barnes hauled himself up of the sofa and lumbered back toward the bar. "Now you got it."
"Bring one for me?" Natasha raised her glass.
"I'm bringing the fucking bottle," Barnes said, coming back with it. He filled her glass and then his own before setting it down. "So I could keep him in a hole, total news blackout, with a bag over his head for, I don’t know, couple of years?—and don't think I haven't thought about it," Barnes said, taking a swig. "That's a viable Plan A as far as I'm concerned," and Natasha giggled, blackly, into her glass. "Or—well, you tell me what's a reasonable or here, smart lady." Barnes sprawled back, glaring at her.
"Or," Natasha sighed, "Steve goes, and we get a bunch of retread stories about Cap's first love – one news cycle, boom – but he's back on the map, and every government agency has an up-to-date picture."
"Yeah." Barnes stared into nothingness. "And maybe that goddamned Studebaker never gets finished."
They sat contemplating that for a while, and then threw back the rest of their drinks. This time it was Natasha who filled their glasses, making Barnes's twice the size of her own. "I'm two ahead," she explained, settling the bottle clumsily down. "And half your size."
"Lucky you," Barnes muttered.
"I thought you couldn't get drunk," she accused.
"Tha'ss him, not me," Barnes said; he was slouching down even further into the couch cushions. "The thing I keep coming back to," he said softly, staring up at the ceiling, "is that in his heart of hearts he wants to go. Or would want to—will want to," he added thickly. "He will, once he's thinking. When he realizes that there's going to be a funeral, which he hasn't yet, because he hasn't gotten that far. But when he does... in his heart he's going to want to be there for her. And that might be all that matters."
"Is this weird for you?" Natasha asked, frowning.
"What?" Barnes said, sounding almost offended. "No."
"This must be really weird for you," Natasha said.
"Honey," Barnes said irritably, "believe me, ain't nobody wanted him to get with her more than me. I did my level best on that front. It just wasn't meant to be, is all. Peggy was great, she was—" He fumbled for his glass and, finding it empty, reached for the bottle, lifted it, shook it. A tiny bit sloshed at the bottom. "—a fantastic person. She was good enough for him and that's the nicest thing I could say about anybody," and then he looked at her and said, "There's another bottle over there, right?"
"Oh, yeah," Natasha said. "At least one," and Barnes awkwardly pushed himself off the couch cushions with both hands and went to get it. "Okay, so..." Natasha said, as Barnes came back and collapsed next to her, pulling the cork out of the bottle with his teeth before clumsily filling her glass, the bottleneck clinking loudly against the lip. "We just have to do it all over. That's what you're saying, right?"
"Yeah—I think so," Barnes muttered. "Dye him up blond again. Blond as the sun."
"Put Steve back onto the map and then take him off again," Natasha said. "In front of two hundred witnesses—most of them former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents—and the scrutiny of the global media."
"Right," Barnes said, and slugged his glass back in one gulp. "No problem. Piece of fucking cake."
She fell asleep mashed against Barnes's shoulder, but when she next opened her eyes, he was gone, though he'd pulled her boots off and covered her with a blanket. She pushed herself up off the sofa cushion she'd been drooling on and went to check on them. Steve was tucked into the bed with Barnes sprawled next to him, on top of the covers; fully clothed, boots on. She carefully closed the door and went back to the sofa, and she was sitting there, blinking into the morning sunlight when she heard gears churning and humming and then the sudden whoosh as the shiny chrome doors of the elevator slid open. Tony Stark and Pepper Potts stepped into the vast room, carrying luggage.
"Morning, sunshine," Tony said, and Natasha instinctively winced and put her hands to her ears. Tony frowned. "What's the—hey, are you hung over?" and he was coming down into the conversation pit and looking at the abandoned glasses and empty, overturned vodka bottles. He laughed, and the noise went through her skull like a drill. "Drinking with Barnes, huh? You, I'm disappointed in you, letting that guy drink you under the table. What's the expression—she had a wooden leg? He had a metal arm, don't tell me," and Natasha groaned but then Pepper was there, politely but firmly pushing Tony aside and offering her a glass of water and a handful of aspirin. Natasha looked at her gratefully and took them.
"Are they asleep? Is he a mess? I bet he's a mess." Tony sat down on one of the sofas opposite her and jiggled his foot on his knee. "Hey, if you drunks didn't finish the vodka, we could make screwdrivers!"
"How is he?" Pepper asked gently, ignoring Tony.
"He's a mess," Natasha replied, "but he'll be okay. She—Peggy died while we were there."
"Oh my God," Pepper said, and then: "Was that—a good thing? Or would it have been easier if—?"
"I don't know. I think it was a good thing. She regained consciousness. He got to talk to her."
"Wow," Pepper breathed. "Well, that's something. Poor Steve. Poor both of them, really..."
"Poor nothing," Tony snorted. "Peggy was a dynamo. You didn't know her; I've known her my whole life. She was sad but she went on. She—" and Tony raised his hand and slowly squeezed it into a fist. "She turned her grief into diamonds," he said. "She wore it on her head like a goddamned tiara. She—"
He stopped, looked up. James Barnes was standing there; they hadn't heard him come in.
"I heard voices," Barnes said, and then he looked at Pepper and awkwardly combed his hair with his fingers. "Ms. Potts, I'm James Barnes. I—we haven't properly met. Thank you for arranging this."
"Of course," Pepper said, gesturing for him to sit. "We came straight down this morning; I think Clint and some of the others are coming down, too, though we can go elsewhere if you—that is, if Steve—"
"I called Katherine this morning," Tony told Barnes. "I thought it best to open that door right away."
"Katherine?" Barnes asked, frowning.
"Eldest granddaughter; she's arranging the funeral. She says there's only a couple of things in place – things Peggy specifically asked for. I thought if we could hash out a plan, we could..." and they both must have been staring, because Tony frowned between her and Barnes. "I mean, we gotta put Rogers back on the grid and then take him off again. Right? That's the plan, right?" Tony asked. "I didn't just fucking fall off the turnip truck, you know. Just because I didn't go to the Russian Spy Academy—"
"What Russian Spy Academy?" Barnes said. "I learned my tricks on Flatbush Avenue."
"I went to the Russian Spy Academy," Natasha deadpanned. "I was head cheerleader there."
"Well, I went to Spence," Pepper Potts said, and they all turned to look at her, "and then to Smith College, where I studied Finance and English Lit, but it seems to me that a funeral is the perfect setting for a bait and switch. Everyone in identical black limousines and wearing identical black suits. Or near-identical," she said; Barnes was nodding at her. "I think the tailoring will be crucial—"
"Wait, sorry," Tony said irritably. "I don't follow this thing about the tailoring."
Barnes made a face. "That's cause you never bought a suit off the rack in your life."
"So?" Tony shot back. "I'm lacking appropriate experience in bad taste?"
"A suit off the rack," Pepper explained, "or rather, the wrong suit, on Steve, with his shoulders—"
"It'll look like a bag," Barnes said. "He'll look like a goddamned rectangle, like a hobo."
"It'll hang," Pepper said, rather more tactfully.
"He'll drop six social classes in five seconds," Barnes said, a little resentfully, "and that'll make him near-invisible, which is good. You make him drive the limo, Stark, nobody'll look twice at him."
"Okay, well, before you guys put all the finishing touches onto this plan, let me drop in a few more pieces of information, 'kay?" Tony said. "The funeral's at St. Luke's—it's Episcopal, Anglican or something—which is good because otherwise it'd be at Arlington and there'd be military police all over the damn place. In any case, Katherine says we should expect plenty of former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, plus members of the intelligence and armed services committees, delegations from veterans groups, that sort of thing; Peggy worked with all those people for years. The White House is gonna send someone, too, though not the President or the Veep, so we're spared the Secret Service at least."
"Okay," Barnes said; he was obviously thinking hard, taking this all in.
"It gets better," Tony assured him. "Katherine says she's willing to let me—that is, Stark Industries, by which I of course mean Pepper—handle security. Doesn't that make your heart beat fast, Tin Man?"
Barnes nodded slowly, mouth pursing.
"You want to be head of security?" Tony asked him.
"Oh, you bet I do," Barnes said.
"Good. We'll put everyone in identical suits, with walkie-talkies and gloves—ah-ha, don't forget the gloves, right? Gloves for everybody. Okay, last thing, last but not least: the most interesting bit, really. Katherine told me that while Peggy's funeral is here in DC, her last resting place is in—any guesses, do I hear a buzzer, anybody want to spin the wheel? Come on: Peggy Carter's final resting place for $500."
They all stared at him, and then suddenly Natasha had it, and knew she had it. "Brooklyn," she said.
Tony tapped his nose and said, "Give the lovely lady a prize. The Russian Spy Academy takes it."
Natasha nodded knowingly: some places were important; some places made you, had been the goddamned making of you, and based on Peggy's history she'd guessed it was London or Brooklyn, because Peggy Carter had been made by Captain America as much as Captain America had been made by Peggy Carter all those years ago. Some part of Peggy had been born in Brooklyn, Natasha figured, or maybe had died there; enough to make her want to come full circle, and go back.
But Barnes's mouth was open; he looked poleaxed; not so cool with this after all, she thought.
"Are you...you're shitting me," Barnes said.
"I'm not," Tony said. "It's in the will, she left detailed instructions. Something about cremation and the Brooklyn Bridge," and James Barnes groaned and pressed his fingertips, metal and flesh both, to his eyes and rubbed wearily. Natasha felt a stab of sympathy for him; mission not accomplished; not yet.
They were going over the plan for a second time when Tony frowned and said, "Is this weird for you? This has got to be weird for you. Planning Peggy's burial, like you're the second Mrs. DeWinter—"
Barnes let out a snort of outrage. "Okay, well: first of all, I'm obviously the first Mrs. DeWinter," he said, eyerolling, "if that's the way you want to play it: dead and looming over them and ruining both their lives, thanks for fucking nothing. And second—seriously, nobody wanted Steve to get with Carter more than me, all right? Tell me where to sign, I'll sign it in blood. I'm only sorry they didn't get together and have a passel of beautiful children. Like six, maybe seven, all named James, even the girls—"
"Fish," Steve said, and they all turned. Steve was standing in the doorway to the bedroom, hair mussed and dark shadows under his eyes. "There could be fish," he told Barnes. "Six fish named James."
"Well, that's just not the same," Barnes said, shaking his head as Steve came down into the pit.
"I'm not having six of anything else," Steve told him, pausing to bend and kiss Pepper's cheek before going over to Tony, who stood up.
"Can I—hug you awkwardly? I guarantee it will be awkward," Tony said, and to Natasha's surprise, that produced the first real smile she'd seen on Steve's face.
"Yeah," he said. "Please," and they hugged each other with surprising fierceness. "What," Steve asked finally, frowning around when they broke apart, "what are you all doing here?"
"I was just trying to explain to these guys," Barnes said sincerely, "that I offered Peggy twenty bucks to take you off my hands all those years ago—"
"Twenty bucks was a lot of money in those days," Steve agreed amiably.
"—but she said she had to think about it," Barnes said, wincing and showing empty hands.
"Well, Peggy was no fool," Steve replied, collapsing onto the sofa beside him and pressing in so that they were shoulder to shoulder. He looked over at Tony and added, "You've met Bucky, I guess."
"Kinda," Tony replied, staring at them. "I think I'm meeting him now." He looked at Barnes and said, "This is your buddy who's interested in art, right?"
"Yep," Barnes said. "Crazy for it," and when Steve jerked to look at him, mouth opening, Barnes elbowed him and muttered, "Ix-nay on the Andinsky-kay, s'il vous plait, okay? This ain't the time."
Steve smiled into his chest. "Okay." And then: "Seriously, why are you...?"
"We're trying to figure out how to get you in and out of Peggy's funeral," Tony replied.
"Peggy's funeral?" Steve repeated, looking blank, and Natasha exchanged a quick look with Barnes: there you go; now he was thinking. "There's going to be a funeral." Steve frowned. "Of course there is," and then: "I can't go," and then he turned, pleadingly: "Buck, I can't go. I won't go. We can't risk—"
"We've got it all figured out, pal," Barnes said.
"It'll be noticed if you're not there," Natasha began. "The press will—"
Steve's back straightened. "I don't give a damn about the press," he said, and she'd never imagined he could sound so scornful. "They can write what they want; they will anyway. But...I mean..." He looked lost. "I would want to be there to honor her, in a perfect world. Peggy's life should be honored."
"Yeah," Barnes said quietly. "That's what I figured. So we've got a plan, we'll make it happen—"
Steve grabbed Barnes's hand, then yanked it upright, like they were going to arm wrestle. Barnes blinked as Steve clutched tight. "Bucky, I mean it, I do not want to risk losing the life we've—"
"You think I do? Do you?" Barnes shot back. "Look at my face, do I look like I'm fooling around?"
Steve stared hard at him for a moment and then abruptly relented. "Okay," he said.
"We've got a plan, I said," Barnes said. "You just do what we tell you. Shut up and say yes, all right?"
"Yes," Steve repeated, a bit numbly. "All right."
The morning of the funeral, Steve came out of his room looking immaculately put together and utterly miserable. He was wearing a well-fitted black suit, his blond hair carefully styled, shiny gold highlights glinting in the morning sun. Behind him, Barnes was almost literally a shadow: his suit was boxy, his shirt a dingy white. He was wearing black gloves and a visible earpiece; a pair of cheap sunglasses was tucked into his breast pocket. "You should eat something," he told Steve.
"I told you, I've got no appetite," Steve said absently, drifting to stare out the window over D.C.
Barnes's mouth tightened as he went over to Natasha, who'd put on her own black dress and heels. "You're gonna stick by him, right?" Barnes muttered, almost looming over her.
"Yes," Natasha said.
"Because he's not a hundred percent there," Barnes warned. "He's not focused on the plan, he's thinking about her, his head's with her. He could make a mistake and blow everything—"
"I know," Natasha said. "I won't let it happen, James," and something flickered on his face—fear, worry—and disappeared, but she saw then that he was barely keeping it together himself; the cracks were beginning to show. "Here," she said, frowning, "drink this," and then she was pushing a cup of coffee into his hand, and Barnes looked at the mug and then at her, like he was unaccustomed to kindness.
She stepped back, unnerved. His eyes never left her as he drank the hot coffee down, and then he said, with surprising awkwardness, "Thank—thank you. "
Tony and Pepper came out, both looking sharp—Pepper wearing a simple string of pearls that had to have cost at least as much as her car. Barnes had drifted away, one hand to his earpiece; now he turned and said, "The cars are here. Let's go," and then, to Natasha, "Glue yourself to him. Don't let him—"
Steve came away from the window and shocked everyone by going straight to Barnes and kissing him on the mouth—not gently, either, but hungrily, the way Natasha had seen them kiss once before when Steve hadn't thought anyone was looking. Now Steve didn't seem to care who was looking, and even as Barnes jerked back Steve dug his fingers into the unpleasantly shiny fabric of his suit and kissed him until he relented, kissed him until he was blue. Natasha ducked her head and at least pretended to look away as Steve clumsily groped for Barnes's face and opened his mouth to the kiss. Pepper was tactfully smiling down at her hands. Stark, by way of contrast, was watching with straight-up enjoyment, like he maybe wanted popcorn, and after a while, he started checking his watch and nodding appreciatively.
Then Steve let go, and Barnes stumbled back, flushed and a little breathless. "Okay, uh," Barnes said faintly. "Does everybody remember the plan?"
"I do," Steve said, and took Natasha by the arm.
There were two limos outside. Pepper and Tony got into the first one, with Barnes sliding into the front seat beside the chauffeur. Steve and Natasha got into the next one, and their car had another of Stark's security people sitting beside the driver. Steve sat beside her, then surprised her by almost absently taking her hand in his as they drove along. He stared down at her fingers, studying them.
"I haven't said thank you," Steve said finally, "for everything you did at the hospital. I wasn't, I couldn't—"
"You're welcome," Natasha said seriously. "You know I'm here for you."
"I do, yeah." His eyes were fixed on her hands. "I wish I'd been there for her the way you are for me. I can't help but feel like I let her down in every possible way." His mouth trembled and he turned away quick.
"That's….ridiculous," Natasha said slowly. "You didn't let her down—you got killed, Steve, like lots of men in the war got killed. And she went on, like lots of women went on when the men they loved got killed. She had an amazing life, Steve. She survived your death, just liked you survived when James—"
"Did I?" Steve's laugh was harsh. "I don't think I survived Bucky's death. I tried to," he said. "She tried to help me through, but..." His lips pressed together and he shook his head. "I'm not sure I did."
"You did, Steve. You survived, and somehow he did, too, and if anyone deserves to be happy—"
"—it's Bucky, you're right," Steve agreed, nodding; misunderstanding. "He deserves to be happy after all he's been through," and Steve was telling the truth, Natasha realized: something in him really hadn't survived Bucky Barnes's death—had only come back to life when Bucky came back to him. Steve's been dead for such a long time now, Peggy had told her. "Bucky's the best man in the world," Steve scraped out. "You can see it now, can't you. He—God." His voice cracked. "I love him so much."
"Do tell." Natasha arched an eyebrow at him. Steve's pale skin had flushed, his pupils had dilated; there was a hitch in his breath; he'd come alive right in front of her. "You catch fire for him, Rogers."
"Jesus. Yes. He burns me to pieces," Steve said.
"And Carter? She burn you up like that?" Steve whooshed out a long breath and pulled a pleading face.
"Peggy was—she was like Bucky: she could set you on fire with a look. Or me, anyway. I was always incredibly susceptible to..." He gestured helplessly with his hands. "There was a lot of Peggy to like, put it that way. She was—you know. I mean, you know. Just—hubba hubba."
"Hubba—what?" Natasha said, staring at him. "You did not just say that."
"That's what we said!' Steve said defensively. "It's no stupider than what you say now. It's less stupid, in fact—the way people talk about sex today is—God, so rude, I just can't..." but their limousine was slowing, and Steve trailed off, frowning, and leaned to one side, trying to see out the smoked glass window. Pepper and Tony's limousine was slowing, too, then turning, pulling around the corner of a large church, where Natasha saw line of four other limousines. There was also a barricade manned by a group of black-suited, black-gloved Stark security officers, all of them wearing earpieces identical to Barnes's. Behind the barricade was the press; a mob of them, holding cameras with telephoto lenses.
"What," Steve asked faintly, "what do we—?"
"Just wait," Natasha said, putting her hand on his arm, and sure enough, Tony Stark got out first. He handed out Pepper Potts to the Stark security guard who emerged from the front seat—Barnes, she reminded herself—and Pepper kept her face carefully blank and tilted away from the cameras as he escorted her to the side door of the church; she was a veteran of scenes like this. Then Barnes and the other guards began making their way down the line of limos, escorting several couples (children? grandchildren?) and other relatives (Natasha spotted Sharon Carter, Agent 13) into the church.
Meanwhile, Tony had approached the barricades and stood there brazenly, staring down flashes. "Mr. Stark! Mr. Stark!" they shouted, and Tony shook his head and said, "You know, none of you should be comfortable standing this close to holy ground. In fact, a couple of you—and I don't want to name names but, George, Peter, Jimmy—I'm frankly worried you guys might burst into flame."
"Mr. Stark, tell us about your memories of Agent Carter?"
"Mr. Stark, isn't it true Peggy Carter was your father's mistress?"
"Mr. Stark! Tony! Has anyone heard from Captain Rogers? Has he been told? What was his—" and Tony turned toward the question and said, elaborately casual, putting his hands in his pockets, "Oh, Cap knows. He's around here somewhere. Wouldn't miss it," and then as the press corps went nuts, fumbling out their phones and calling the story back to their home offices, Tony rocked back on his heels and began, "My father adored Peggy Carter, and he never stopped trying to win her approval—which was a rare thing; Dad normally didn't kowtow to anyone," and everyone started shushing each other. Tony paid no attention, just frowned thoughtfully to himself and went on. "He respected her: more than anyone else, really. And when it came time to run S.H.I.E.L.D, he went to her first."
Tony looked like he was about to say something else, then said, "Play nice," and turned away from the barricade. Behind him, people had been arriving, climbing the church steps; the church had been steadily filling with people, and now Steve turned to Natasha and said, "I see Ben," and when Natasha frowned and shook her head, Steve said, "One of Peggy's grandsons—I met him at the Roosevelt Home, years ago," and then put his hand on the latch. "I want to get out; can we get out?"
"Let's get out," Natasha said, and banged on the partition to notify security.
Steve opened the limo door and Natasha could immediately hear the reaction from the press as they spotted him, the crazed whirring of cameras and flashbulbs. Steve seemed oblivious to it—she supposed he'd had worse, flashbulbs literally popping in his face since 1943— as he reached in and offered her a hand out of the car. She took his arm, determined to stick with him, as he went over to greet Benjamin Parker, who was, Steve explained; Peggy's daughter's son; Peggy's daughter, Natasha knew, had been a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, killed on an operation sometime in the mid-1970s.
"Kate told us that you went to see her," Ben told him. "It meant a lot to Granny, I'm sure," and a torrent of emotions passed over Steve's face, but he didn't say anything; he didn't seem able to speak.
The guard assigned to them touched his earpiece and said, "They're coming," and for a moment, Natasha didn't know what he meant, and then she saw the hearse turn the corner. Steve stiffened, and Natasha tightened her grip on his arm, and Ben said, "Kate said that you and Tony would…"
"Yes," Steve choked out. "Yes, of course."
Natasha felt a hand on her arm and looked up to see Barnes, eyes hidden behind his sunglasses. He jerked a nod, and she let him tug her away from Steve, who went with Tony and Ben and three other men she didn't know to the back of the hearse, where together they removed a coffin draped with the Union Jack and, between them, lifted it up and began to carry it up the steps to the door of St. Luke's.
Steve sat perfectly still, hollow-eyed and hollowed out, during the service, but on her other side, Tony was distracted and fidgeting. "I was telling the press about Peggy," he muttered to her, head down, mouth tilted toward her ear. "And I realized…he wanted her to be his Pepper. But she didn't love him. She loved the other guy. God," he said, shaking his head, and she'd never quite seen Tony look so distraught, "I've never in my life felt bad for my father. But I feel bad for him now. Poor Dad."
Someone Natasha vaguely recognized from S.H.I.E.L.D.—Amy Something, she thought – got up and talked about Peggy's long career, from the S.S.R. to the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D. and beyond, ending with her support of Steve's decision to take S.H.I.E.L.D. apart. Natasha glanced at Steve; his face was stoic, if a little pained. Then Kate got up and spoke about Peggy more personally; as a grandmother, as a role model; how her children had not always got on with her, it being the 1960s and all—Peggy Carter seemed to have had the dubious honor of being discriminated against as "the girl" and railed against as "The Man" during her long lifetime, but Natasha supposed that the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. was "The Man" if anyone was—but how her husband and her grandchildren had always adored her.
And then the priest got up and said a few well-meaning words before looking around and venturing, "Does anyone else have anything they wish to say?" and Natasha looked at Steve (everyone was looking at Steve, or pretending not to look at Steve, the way they'd been doing the entire service) and could see he was struggling with himself, but eventually he stood up and went to the lectern.
The church fell silent.
"I won't take much time," Steve said, and there was a little whistle of feedback from the microphone. "I just wanted to say that I know perfectly well that there's going to be talk about me and Peggy in the papers tomorrow. They're going to say she was my lady-friend and—well, she was. But the truth is that I was a very small part of her life, while she was a massive figure in mine. Peggy Carter taught me how to fight. She taught me how to be a soldier. She taught me not only about fighting the odds, but how to be cheerful about it. There was a quote I heard recently—one that I actually understood—about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did except backwards and in high heels. If you kids don't know Ginger Rogers—well, you're missing out. Anyway Peggy didn't have any superserum, or a shield or anything, and it didn't seem to slow her much. I missed out," Steve managed. "She missed nothing. I miss her," he finished. "I really miss her," he said, and stepped away from the podium.
Outside, afterwards, people were milling about, hugging and talking. Natasha stayed close to Steve as he shook hands with and hugged various members of Peggy's family, and then the crowd parted and Sam Wilson was there. "Man, you missed your calling," Sam said, sliding an arm around Steve's back, and Steve turned and hugged him hard, hard. "You got the gift of extemporaneous speaking," Sam said.
"Is that what you call it?" Steve asked. "My ma called it blarney."
Sam smiled and shook his head. "My ma would've said you shoulda been a preacher."
"Nah. I get into too many fights," Steve said, and then, lowering his voice: "You got my messages."
"I did," Sam returned gravely, "but I'd still like to see you in person every once in a while."
Steve nodded and said, "We'll make it happen. I'll find a way," and then the crowd was beginning to break up around them, some people heading for their cars. Natasha saw Pepper and Tony moving to the press barricade to give them cover, and she took Steve by the arm. "Come on, let's go," she said.
Steve nodded and walked with her back to their limo, and once inside and protected by the smoked glass, he moved fast, unbuttoning his jacket. He put on a duller shirt, a wider, uglier tie, under the cheap jacket, and the effect was immediate, even without the chauffeur’s cap and the earpiece. They opened the sliding partition between the passenger compartment and the front and Steve studied it for a moment, contemplating the least awkward way through, and then he ducked in, slithering and twisting to land more or less gracefully in the driver's seat. He straightened, fixing his cap, his earpiece and his tie. He put on his sunglasses. "Okay," he said, twisting to look back at her. "Wish us luck, Nat."
"All the luck in the world," she said, meaning it, and then the partition between them was closing and she was alone with the minibar. It would take some time before the funeral procession got started—the hearse and eight limousines leading the pack of cars back to the crematorium—and she settled back on the huge seat to wait, stretching out her legs and kicking off her heels. People were still being helped into backseats by black-gloved guards in ill-fitting suits moving between and among the limos, but Natasha was surprised when one of them stopped at her car, opened the door and ducked his head in.
It was Barnes, of course, and she scooted forward, tilting her head inquisitively. "I just wanted to say," he began, then hesitated. "I don't have a lot of friends," he blurted finally, "not anymore. So I—" He stopped, and then abruptly he stuck out a hand, and Natasha reached out and gripped it.
"Get out of here. Go home and finish that goddamned Studebaker," she said, and he was nodding, his face creasing into those awful, terrible pain lines that had convinced her not to kill him, and ducking out, again; disappearing like the ghost he was.
Natasha watched through the smoked glass window of the limousine as the hearse paused in front of the crematorium, then pulled away and went around to the back. The first limousine in the procession took its place, and some of Peggy's relatives stepped out, under the portico, and were ushered inside. The second and third limos also carried relatives, and Tony and Pepper came out of the fourth. There wasn't as much press here as at St. Luke's, but a couple of the more enterprising paparazzi were already set up at a distance with telephoto lenses, black-suited guards standing warily by to keep them at bay.
Tony's limo pulled away, and then it was her turn; car pulling up, the door opening, a black glove extended to help her. She slid her legs out of the car and let the guard help her to her feet. It wasn't Barnes. She glanced at the chauffeur driving her car; it wasn't Steve. She smiled and twined her arm around the guard's arm anyway, let him escort her inside with the others. There were refreshments set up and—this made her smile—pictures of Peggy in the old days, all shining brown curls and red lipstick, looking beautiful and strong in military jackets and flared pantsuits. One picture in particular caught her attention; Peggy'd obviously been tricked out for an op, hair pulled back, wearing an ancient bulletproof vest and an elaborate set of holsters, but even from this distance of years she was glowing with excitement; she exuded strength and confidence. Hubba hubba, Natasha admitted, and laughed.
She found Pepper and Tony in the next room, standing together near the Union Jack-draped coffin, which had been set up on trestles—Tony, she noted, was holding Pepper's hand a little anxiously.
"Think anybody's noticed?" Tony muttered.
"No?" Natasha frowned. "Or, at least, I've never seen anyone open a casket to see if the body's still—"
Tony barked out a laugh, turned away, bit his lip. "I don't mean—" he began, then let out a giggle, which turned into a pained hiccough as Pepper smiled and dug her nails into his palm. "I don't mean that," he whispered, eying the coffin. "I mean Steve. You think anyone's noticed that Steve is gone?"
"I don't know; possibly?" She shrugged. "Probably? One of the photographers must have noticed that Steve didn't get out of the limo, and if they're smart, they're reviewing the footage from the church. The suits are just coming in now, and it'll take them a while to confirm Steve's not on the premises—they probably won't know for sure until everyone sits down for the service and he doesn't. Even then—it's not like they can put us up against the wall for a head count. It's a funeral, after all."
They all stood there and stared at the empty coffin, which had been covered with a duplicate flag.
"How far'd they get by now, do you think?" Tony asked, and Natasha looked at her watch.
"Must be past Baltimore already," she said.
"Let me do it," Bucky said, meaning the talking. and Steve nodded without meeting his eyes. They both knew that you could fall off some maps just by being a working man, by getting behind the scenes and into the seams of things, but this—he wasn't going to make Steve have this conversation.
They had all the right paperwork—cremation being irreversible, there was a lot of paperwork—but it wasn't fair to Steve to make him pretend to be one of the undertakers. "Stay in the car with her," Bucky said, getting out of the hearse and crossing the garage to shake hands with the smiling man who'd come out to meet him; undertakers, he thought, were always such surprisingly cheerful guys.
"All right," Bucky told Steve, bending his head down to the car window once he'd arranged everything, "come on, let's go. We can come back in a couple of..."
Steve looked up emptily, and Bucky suddenly thought he couldn't take another goddamned second of it: this horrible feeling of watching somebody he loved being murdered over and over.
"So that's it, then?" Steve asked. "We just leave her here? In the garage?" and Bucky had to fight an unexpected blast of anger—Yeah, Steve, we do; she's dead; at some point, we have to— He choked back the words; Jesus, that was the strain talking. He was tired, he needed a sandwich, he needed to sleep, he needed—
Bucky rubbed his eyes. "No," he said, "we'll come back and get her. Finish it off the way she asked."
Steve said something indistinct, and Bucky had to mentally play it back before he made out the words. "Do what Peggy says," Steve murmured to the steering wheel, and then he looked up. "Okay."
Bucky moved away from the car door to let Steve out. Steve pulled off his cap and tossed it onto the car seat. Beneath, his hair was streaked brown, though they'd probably have to do it over, or something more radical: pictures of Captain America at Peggy Carter's funeral were already trending across the news blogs. He wondered if any of their neighbors or customers would recognize Steven Grant in the pictures of Captain America; he wondered if any of their neighbors or customers would turn them in.
Best to be prepared, Bucky supposed wearily. He should start preparing another life for them: another set of aliases, another place to live, somewhere far away where they wouldn't be—
"How long have we got?" Steve asked, and it took a second for Bucky to realize that Steve wasn't reading his mind, because Steve could do that sometimes, and the question was right on the money.
But that wasn't what Steve was asking. "Couple of hours, they said. Do you want to walk?" Bucky asked, and flexed his shoulders, which hurt, the metal arm dragging down. "Because I need to walk."
"Yeah. I could walk," Steve said, and they set off together toward Prospect Park.
He could see that Steve was working up to say something. He was struggling with it, trying to unknot it, to find the right words. "Look, it's all right," Bucky said finally, once they were deep into the park and protected by trees; the Indian Shelter and the Dairy Farmhouse were gone, but he would have sworn that some of these trees were the same trees he'd climbed when he was a boy. "You don't have to—"
"I do, though. I—" Steve's jaw tightened. "Buck, I—"
"You think I don't know. But I know. Steve. When I died, you opened your heart to her—"
"I did," Steve said through gritted teeth. "You told me to, you said—"
"I know," Bucky said, and Steve's eyes filled with tears.
"Buck, after you died, I was so empty, I just, I couldn't—"
"I know, and I'm glad you went to her. I am. Didn't you know I'd be glad?"
"I fought loving her for so long. Because you...you bastard—" and Steve's hands were warm on his neck, and Steve was pulling their mouths together and Bucky trembled a little, always surprised, still surprised, that Steve wanted him like this, in what he'd always thought was this sick, wrong way. But Steve hadn't ever seen it like that: had held on even in the face of a bombshell like Carter, even when Bucky'd been a bastard and shoved him away; so loyal in his love. "But then you were dead and..."
"You made love to her," Bucky said.
"No. Yes. Not exactly," Steve breathed. "There wasn't time for... but I wanted to. I did. I— She kissed me. I touched her. She—" and he could imagine Carter doing it, too, her face twisted in sympathy, because Steve would have been such a mess: all alone in the world and terrifyingly conscious of it. He'd have turned to her, and she'd have guided him, because Steve's inexperience with women would have been obvious. Maybe she'd pulled his hand to her breast as they kissed, or dragged her red-lacquered fingers over the fly of his pants. It would have overwhelmed him, Bucky knew; Steve would never have been able to take such an experience lightly. There would have been promises: a three-day pass, a furlough; maybe even a plan for a wedding—and then the crash had happened, and Steve had woken up to find Peggy married to someone else; he had lost her, too.
"I figured I'd be killed," Bucky heard himself saying. "I thought I was being such a fucking hero," and suddenly he was overcome with regret for everything he hadn't been able to imagine back then: not just the terrors of the past, but the sympathy of the future, which didn't give a shit if he and Steve kissed in a goddamned public fucking park. "And she was—she loved you, Steve. She loved you so much—"
"I know," Steve said. "I loved her, too, I really did."
"I mean, who could imagine?" Bucky said, meaning all of it; he put his hands to his face and tried to compose it. "All the science fiction in the world and I couldn't imagine it: me, you, here at the end of the world? I wanted you to marry her. I wanted you to go home with her. I wasn't picturing—you still in the outfit, me with a metal arm, living here in the year four billion with all this shit to atone for—"
"—and nobody smokes," Steve said, and then they were both laughing, and maybe crying a little.
"I know! It's like it's in bad taste or something," Bucky said. "Look, I'm trying to make it up to her. I'm trying to do right—by her, by you, I swear to God," and for the first time, Bucky let the strain show on his face, because he wanted—okay, it was weak of him, but he needed Steve to know. "I've done my part, haven't I? I'm doing my my goddamned best to—" and Steve was nodding and tugging him close and kissing him again.
"You've done your part," Steve said; "hell, you've done everything. I know it's been weird for you—"
"A little bit, yeah," Bucky said.
"Can you do any more?" Steve asked. "Will you come with me to the bridge?"
"If—I mean, if you want me to," Bucky replied uncertainly. "I'd understand if you wanted to be alone—"
"I don't," Steve said.
The sun was setting pink and gold as they walked onto the bridge, cables spiderwebbing into the sky overhead; Kandinsky colors, no Joseph Stella blues tonight. Steve was carrying the small scattering urn in both hands: amazing, Bucky thought, that a person could be reduced to so little: especially Carter, who had been so amazingly goddamned vibrant to the end. Steve paused halfway down the bridge and stared across the harbor at lower Manhattan. "Here," he said. "She must have meant here," and Bucky nodded, because they could see the Statue of Liberty, and one kick-ass dame had to respect another.
Steve's hands were trembling as he tried unscrewing the urn's cylindrical cap, and then he stopped and clutched the urn to his chest. "If I drop her, I'll kill myself," he muttered, and then he took a breath and tried again. This time the cap came off easily, and Steve stared down at the gray ashes for a moment before shoving the urn into Bucky's hands and turning away to pull himself together, shoulders shaking.
When Steve turned back, he was pale but under control. "All right," he breathed. "Okay," and he took the urn carefully back from Bucky's hands. "Goodbye, Peg," he scraped out, and then he tilted the urn so that the ashes streamed out and down. "Goodbye, my darling. This isn't you, the world's known the best of you. My best girl, the bravest girl in the..." Steve's voice dissolved and he swallowed wetly, and Bucky braced his forearms on the railings and watched the ashes drift down off the bridge to the water.
Bucky unlocked the battered front door next to the two-story rolling metal garage door and half-shoved, half-kicked it open; inside, the smells of paint and oil and wood and arc welder and cat was like fucking paradise to him. Steve went in through the dark past the Studebaker without breaking his neck and flung open the dog door, and Bucky could hear George and Gracie's joyful barks from the yard: they were on Steve in a flash, jumping and licking his face, and Steve crouched down and opened his arms to them, stroking and petting them till they calmed, with little yips, both tails wagging.
Steve looked up at him and said, "Can we—"
"Yeah," Bucky said. "Yeah, sure," and they let the dogs upstairs.
Bucky stripped off his jacket and stuffed it into the trash—he never wanted to wear it again—on his way into the shower. He washed and then braced himself under the pounding hot water, trying to loosen his aching shoulder, and thought about Peggy—let himself, in these moments of privacy, have his own thoughts and his own feelings; his own grief. He remembered, clear as day, a mission they'd done in France. Peggy'd gone with them, and she and Steve had bent over the table at the farmhouse where they'd taken shelter, maps spread in front of them, while Dernier stood over the stove making that terrible shit he called coffee. Bucky remembered, too, slipping around to the barn to clean his guns, willing himself invisible, hoping that Steve and Peggy would slip discreetly into one of the bedrooms. But come darkness it was his doorknob that rattled, and he knew it was Steve, though he'd locked it.
It was during that same mission that Bucky got shot—feeling the bullet as a surprise, a sting, fuck, I'm hit—and stared down at the hole in his body. It was a bad one, the kind a guy didn't come back from, and he couldn't have explained it, even now, but he felt the instinct like a compulsion—hide, don't let Steve find you—and he dragged himself behind a pile of stones and rubble and collapsed, to bleed out.
It was Peggy who found him, of course, and he didn't think he'd ever seen her so angry; she was furious at him, blazing; she came this close to hitting him. "It's no good," he'd gritted out. "Peg. You take care of him," but she'd just said, "Oh no you bloody well don't...." and then she was tearing at his jacket, his shirt, and applying pressure to—except his body was knitting up around the wound, and Bucky'd just stared because he hadn't understood about super-healing then and what they'd already made him into; he just knew that that bullet should have killed him, and it hadn't. But Peggy was glaring at him like he'd somehow meant to die, which—"I didn't," he whispered. "I wouldn't," and that was true: he'd never have left Steve alone and vulnerable in that fucking war if he could help—
The shower door slid open and Steve got in with him, hands moving to his shoulders—and then Steve was digging his fingers into the right spot, the knot he always got from the weight of the arm. He grunted with pain as Steve pressed hard against the muscle, smoothing it out; Bucky could feel it rolling like a marble under his skin. Finally, it stretched, and a wave of relief spread out across his body. The pain stopped, and then Steve's arms were coming around him and Steve was pressing against him from behind, his mouth moving over Bucky's wet skin. Steve slid his hand down over Bucky's chest and belly, then cupped his cock, which curved and hardened in his hand, and then Steve was jerking off him and kissing the side of his face. Christ, Steve knew his dick better than he did, fondling and squeezing and caressing him, and Bucky gasped and went up on the balls of his feet, one hand braced against the wall, and thank God, Steve had him, because he was dizzy with it, balls tightening.
He let go and came against the tile, across his belly, and the warm water washed it away. Bucky turned his head and muttered to Steve, boneless and a little sleepy, "You can put it in me if you want," because he was as relaxed and open as he ever got, and he thought that maybe Steve could use the release, too.
"Come to bed," Steve said instead, and switched off the water.
They toweled off, and stumbled, sleepily, to bed, switching the lights off and trying not to trip over the dogs, who'd sprawled out in exhausted adoration outside the bedroom door. There was a moment of bliss when Bucky's head hit the pillow, where he thought he might just wink out, but he could practically see Steve staring at the ceiling, thinking, and he couldn't leave him thinking; not tonight. So he turned and draped himself across Steve, curving over him and kissing down and down, trying to be skin to skin as much as possible, until he could tip Steve's dick into his mouth. Steve let out the sweetest moan, and Bucky went to work in earnest, tonguing and sucking and lipping until his mouth and chin were wet with it, and it turned out that dick-worship was A-OK here at the end of the world; and geez, why had he been in such a tizzy over it way back when, back when Steve had been a skinny kid with a black eye and the same lovely slim hips? Bucky ran his thumbs over the smooth pale skin of Steve's hipbones, then closed his eyes and listened to Steve's whispered oh, oh Christ, oh yes, please, please.
Afterwards, Bucky drifted off against Steve's belly, Steve's cock softening against his cheek and Steve's hand gently, absently stroking his hair. He was nearly off when Steve muttered, "Buck. Bucky?"
"Bucky, something you said..." and Bucky came awake, then, without opening his eyes: Steve was still thinking after all, and after his best blowjob, too. "About the fish..."
"I'm tired, Steve," Bucky muttered, wanting to foreclose it.
"Just tell me," and Steve was the most persistent bastard in the world. "It was you, wasn't it, who..."
"Yeah," Bucky said, because Steve knew him well enough to read something like that right off the inside of him.
"Because Peg and me, we never particularly..." Steve said.
"No. It was me," and Steve had been bound to realize sooner or later that was always Bucky who'd talked about children; of course, Steve hadn't come from a big family. Steve's children...God, he would have loved Steve's children. "Nothing to do with her; she had a country to run. All those brains." He lay there on Steve's belly, thinking it over; Peggy'd spent the '50s and '60s fighting the Cold War; Steve had been dead; he'd been in hell. God, they'd all been so naive. "It was always a fantasy: the end of the war," he told Steve. "It was never going to be what we thought. Wife and kids, white-picket fence. I knew I'd never get it but I figured you might. I thought you'd let me live over the garage or something—"
"You do live over the garage; we both do," Steve pointed out, reasonably enough. "And hey, we got the Studebaker," and Bucky's head jerked up in the dark as he laughed, because yeah, okay, fine: there was that.