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The Rescue.

—"Gotcha!" and for a second, with Bucky's body swinging wildly above the gorge, hand clutched in his, Steve was sure they were both going to fall. His arm was turned the wrong way. The bit of metal he was gripping was creaking, twisting—he couldn't hold!—but he took a breath and heaved, ignoring the pain, yanking Bucky up and leaning back awkwardly to change their joint center of gravity until Bucky could get a boot hold and clamber up. And then they were clinging, half to each other and half to the side of the speeding train, their arms overlapping, their fingers crooked tight on the metal, heaving chest to heaving chest.

"Jesus," Bucky gasped, and let his head drop forward onto Steve's shoulder. He was shaking.

Steve was shaking too. "Yeah," he said, and yanked Bucky closer, reassured by the warmth of his body, the heat steaming off him in the freezing air. "Don't do that," he muttered. "Don't you goddamn do that."

"I won't," Bucky replied, and pressed his face into Steve's neck. "Shit. I won't."

 

The Chase.

The Howling Commandos and the Fighting 107th had Hydra on the run, but Red Skull was— "He's escaping," Steve yelled, and Bucky immediately swung his rifle up, but it was too late: the shots, though accurately fired, dinged harmlessly off the back of the Valkryie. The plane was picking up speed and—

The Daimler screeched to a halt. "Get in," Colonel Phillips said, Peggy beside him, and they clambered into the backseat and then scrambled to keep upright on as they sped off, accelerating fast and then faster.

Steve stood up, buffeted by wind and momentum as they drew close. "You stay here!" he shouted at Bucky.

"No fucking way!" Bucky shouted back, stumbling after him and raising both arms to keep his balance, and then, with an apologetic glance at the Colonel and Peggy Carter: "Excusing my French, sir! Ma'am!"

"You're excused!" Colonel Phillips shouted just as Peggy caught Steve by the strap of his holster and pulled his mouth to hers. The kiss was soft, a blessing; a promise. "Go get him," Peggy told Steve, her eyes shining, and then she looked at Bucky and said, with brisk desperation, "Bring him back."

Bucky swallowed and said, "Yes, ma'am; I will."

 

The Valkyrie.

"Buck, you gotta get out of here. Now. You've got to take a parachute and—"

"Not without you," Bucky said.

 

The Return.

It took them just over an hour to bring the plane down into the icy waters of the Arctic, but it was four days getting back to London even with Steve demanding transport the whole time, because it took the freighter that rescued them seven hours to make port in Ammassalik and then there wasn't a flight to Europe until the next day and that one had a stopover in Iceland, and then with the Germans doing their last-gasp bombing raids they ended up having to put down in Manchester and take the train down. Peggy was waiting at the station: Steve had commandeered every two-way radio, every military telephone, every signal station, every carrier pigeon they passed. "Peggy, darling; we're alive; we're all right, we're in—" Iceland, Dublin, Manchester Central. "We'll be back as soon as we can," and Bucky would smirk and slouch back and say, "Well, I can see how this is gonna go," which usually earned him an eyeroll or an elbow or a smack.

She was waiting for him on the platform, and time slowed for a moment before they rushed for each other boldly, shamelessly, all pretenses dropped, and when Steve pulled Peggy into his arms she pressed up hard against him, so hard that he could feel all of her, every bit of her. He shivered with longing and held her to him so tightly that her leather jacket creaked, and then she pulled away and turned to Bucky, who was just standing there, and grabbed his face with both hands and kissed him, full on the mouth. Bucky said, "um."

Peggy said, "You brought him home; I know it was you," and Bucky said, "Uh, yeah; guilty as charged."

 

The Decision.

Steve could tell from Bucky's moan that he was about to come, so he pulled back to watch while still working him with his hand. A red flush had spread beneath the dark hair on Bucky's chest, and his face was flushed, too; God, he was so beautiful. His breathing went ragged and his eyelids fluttered closed, and then he was coming, and Steve gentled his grip and stroked him through it, easing from a hard pull into a caress. Finally Steve moved in whisper-light touches as Bucky lay there, chest heaving, catching his breath.

"Give me a sec," Bucky said, panting, "and I'll do you."

"S'okay," Steve said, and bent to kiss Bucky's mouth, lingering and tasting. "I might try to build up a head of steam," and Bucky's lips curved into a smile beneath his; he knew; he knew already. Steve stifled his own grin and went on, trying to make it sound like news, "I think I might ask Peggy to marry me."

Bucky opened one eye. "Well, that's about time," he said.

"You think she'll say yes?" Steve asked.

"Yeah, I think she'll say yes," Bucky said, and slapped at him with the back of his hand.

"Will you help me get a ring?" Steve asked. "I don't know where to get a ring."

"Sure." Bucky reached up and dragged his thumb across Steve's cheek. "Course I will."

 

The Proposal.

"Steve?" Peggy glanced up, her dark brows knitting together. "Is everything all—"

"Uh huh. Yeah. Fine. Peg," and they'd only just ordered dinner, and Steve had the whole night planned, all laid out in his mind—wine, dinner, dancing, and then, over dessert—but he couldn't wait that long; he couldn't think, couldn't concentrate, couldn't— "Peggy," Steve managed, "I wanted to ask you..." and suddenly he was lightheaded, but Peggy reached across the table and gripped his hand, and he calmed.

"I want to get married," Steve said, all in a rush.

Peggy blinked. "All right," she replied.

"I wanted to wait for the end of the war, but I can't. I just can't, Peg. I want us to get married now."

"All right," Peggy said, a little breathlessly. "Yes. All right."

 

The Proposal, Part Two.

"Are there things we should— Peg, I want us to be honest with each other. No false—"

"I can't cook. Not a bit. I mean, I'm sure I can learn if you want me to—"

"Brooklyn, there's so many restaurants—"

"Let's do that, then!"

"Though we don't have to live in Brooklyn. We can live here. England. Anywhere you—"

"Oh, New York, let's go back to New York. Steve—I have such a terrible temper."

"So have I. But I swear I'll never—I'll never, Peg."

"I know you won't."

"And there's Bucky."

"I know."

"I don't know what's going to happen at the end of the war. If I'm lucky enough to—"

"No ifs," Peggy chided. "Besides, nobody knows what's going to happen at the end of the war. That's the whole fun of it."

 

The Proposal, Part Three.

"We'll have to go and see my mother straight away."

"Your—what?"

"My mother. And my sister. Bess, she's two years younger than—I wasn't hatched, you know!"

"I never thought you—"

"My father died in thirty-six. And I have my own money. But even so, my mother will be so pleased to—"

"Of course. Of course. Jesus."

"Breathe, Steve. It'll be fine!"

 

The Proposal, Part Four.

"Aren't you going to ask me to dance?" and Steve laughed and tugged her to the dance floor. He was a terrible dancer, but enthusiasm counted for something, and he swung her around and pushed her away and then pulled her back toward him. They held each other close and kissed during the slow numbers, and then they kissed in the dark outside the club, and when Peggy's mouth opened under his, he let his desire for her off the leash a little, pulling her close and cupping her breast, really feeling her. She ran her hands over him greedily, then curled her fingers around his belt and tugged; she wanted him, too.

 

The Proposal, Part Five.

Bucky'd waited up, and he burst out laughing when Steve came back to the barracks, hair mussed, lipstick all over his face, tie askew. "Jesus, she's a bruiser! Like I ever doubted! I'm guessing she said yes?" and then his face changed and he said, "Steve. Oh, Stevie. Congratulations," and pulled Steve into his arms.

 

Oxford.

They went by train to see Peggy's mother in Oxford, Peggy inviting Bucky along for moral support and to change the ratio of American men to English women at the tea table. Phyllis Carter lived in a small house not far from the station, and Bucky saw right away that Peggy'd inherited her cheekbones and her sense of humor. He could see it in the way she folded her arms across her burgundy cardigan and looked at Steve.

"Well, darling," Mrs. Carter said finally, turning to her daughter, "I do take your point."

Peggy was fumbling with her hat, getting the pin out. "He was five foot tall when I met him, you know."

"Well, you've obviously had a salutory effect," Mrs. Carter said. "And who's this?"

"Sergeant James Barnes, ma'am," Bucky replied, bowing a little: he was determined not to be intimidated.

"James is Steve's best man," Peggy explained, setting her hat down.

"Clearly," Mrs. Carter said. "How do you do. Shall we go through?" and Peggy went out to the garden, where her sister Bess was setting up tea. They hugged tightly; Bess was soft and smiling where Peggy was sharp, though she had the same pretty, dark hair and pale skin. Her yellow dress contrasted with the belted angles of Peggy's uniform. Bucky'd dated girls like her before; he felt on safe ground here, and smiled.

"This is Steve," Peggy was saying, tugging Steve forward with some pride. "Steve, this is Bess, my sister."

"Hello," Steve said. "Hi. Pleased to meet you."

"He used to be small," Mrs. Carter interjected, and Bucky leaned in to mutter to Steve: "You're doing fine."

 

The Wedding.

There were only eleven people at Steve and Peggy's wedding, seven of them Howling Commandos. It took place in the Marylebone registry office, far from their south London base. They made the arrangements quietly and hoped the brass wouldn't notice, but Colonel Phillips appeared out of nowhere just as the ceremony started. Steve didn't notice; he had eyes only for Peggy, who'd managed to find a white dress and even a little bit of lace for a veil.

"The ring," the registrar murmured, after they'd taken their vows, and Bucky stood there stupidly for a moment before frantically patting down his pockets. "Sorry," he breathed, handing the ring over to Steve, "I got it," and a moment later Steve put the ring onto Peggy's finger and they kissed and were married.

 

The Wedding, Part Two.

When the ceremony was over, Colonel Phillips marched straight up and knocked the glow right off their faces. "Colonel," Steve said, startled, exchanging nervous glances with Peggy. "I can ex—"

"Congratulations and shut up," the Colonel said, voice full of gravel. "Mrs. Rogers," he said, and kissed Peggy's cheek. "You lovebirds know you're in defiance of about nine different Army ordinances, right?"

"Are you surprised?" Bucky asked, from behind him. "I presume you've met Captain Rogers, and his lovely wife, Margar—"

The Colonel wheeled on him. "And you. You're positively court-martialable. You stole—"

"Borrowed," Bucky amended.

"Stole," Colonel Phillips repeated.

"What?" Steve asked, looking between them, and Bucky gave Phillips a last glance and then shrugged. He took a small ring of keys out of his pocket and held them up; they jingled faintly.

"I figured you might not want to take the train," Bucky told Steve, and then, to Phillips, defensively: "Forty-eight hours! You'd never even have known it was missing! Sir!"

"Except for how I did." Colonel Phillips snatched the keys to the saloon car from Bucky's hand and then, to everyone's surprise, offered them to Steve. "In case you don't want to take the train," he told Steve gruffly, and then, glaring at Bucky, he shouted: "It wasn't your idea to have!"

"Jesus," Bucky muttered, laughing and shaking his head.

Phillips looked around at the other Howling Commandos and declared, "You're the ugliest bunch of bridesmaids I've ever seen. Who's buying drinks?"

"I am," Bucky said, and there was a vengeful glint in Phillips' eye as he said, "Good."

 

The Toast.

"I may have the ugliest bridesmaids," Peggy said afterwards, laughing, "but—" Bucky took the empty glass from her hand and substituted a full one with a smile. She looked at him gratefully. "—I have the most charming best man." Bucky clinked their glasses together, then slung his arm across Steve's shoulders.

"A woman of excellent taste," Bucky said. "I applaud you." He lifted his glass. "May you live a hundred—" and then a cloud passed over his face, just briefly, but he recovered fast, swallowed, "—a hundred years."

 

The Wedding Night.

Steve and Peggy took the Colonel's car mostly as a red herring; with only 48 hours leave they had no intention of wasting time driving into the countryside. A friend of Peggy's had lent them her flat in Chelsea, so they went straight there and found a vase of fresh-cut flowers and a bottle of wine on the table. Steve set the bags down and looked at Peggy, who stared back, similarly stunned; this was real, this was happening.

"Do you, um," Steve swallowed, angling the wine bottle and pretending to look at the label, "want...?"

"No," Peggy said, coming close. She tilted her head back to look at him. She was unbearably lovely.

He tried to go slow, to be gentle, because he didn't really know what he was doing and he was so much bigger and heavier than she was, except Peggy was kissing him and shimmying out of her clothes, her full breasts tumbling into his hands, and climbing on top of him with her soft, pale belly and strong, downy thighs, and suddenly he was groaning and laughing and pushing up into her and rolling over with her and thrusting helplessly even as he melted into water and came in about eight seconds. Beneath him, Peggy was laughing, too, and Steve, flushed and breathless, lifted his head to say sorry just as Peggy moved beneath him, her skin dragging against his everywhere they touched; they were touching everywhere. He was still inside her. She rocked up against him and set him shivering and hardening all over again. "Oh," he said.

"That's it," Peggy said, her hands sliding greedily down his back, and then she was digging her nails into his hipbones as she kissed him, tugging at him, trying to get him where she wanted him.

He set himself to pleasing her, to exploring and learning her body: eagerly stroking and kissing her breasts, feeling her heart speeding and her nipples perking under his tongue. Steve tried to be careful but found that Peggy didn't like careful: his wife liked firm touches and hard thrusts, preferred having the heel of his hand pressed against her sex to the teasing touch of his fingertips. She liked it when Steve sucked giant red kiss-marks onto her neck. She liked when he fucked her hard, when he rubbed the tangled hair between her legs; she came apart in his hands, in his arms, with soft little cries and rippling shivers shaking her body, and then she pushed the sweat out of her eyes with the back of her hand and said, "Oh, let's do that again."

He didn't think he could get any wilder for her. He was wrong.

 

The Debriefing.

There was no provision for married couples on base, even when the marriage wasn't mostly a secret, so it was agony coming back to the barracks afterwards. Steve plunked down face first on his bunk, aching.

Thankfully Bucky was there, waiting up for him. "Did she make a man of you?" he asked.

"Oh, God, yeah," Steve mumbled into his pillow. "She made maybe six or seven men out of me. She made the entire Dodgers starting lineup out of me."

Bucky laughed. "How long did you last?" he asked, openly curious.

Steve lifted his head and sighed. "About eight seconds," he admitted. "But you know, Buck," he added, smiling brightly, "I'm not a quitter."

"Oh, yeah, I do know that," Bucky said, grinning back.

"I'm still shaking from it, Buck. I'm not kidding," he said, and Bucky reached out tenderly and grabbed his collar, tugging their mouths together. Steve let it go on longer than he should have, feeling sheltered, protected: he was safe so long as he had Bucky. "Stop," Steve said, swallowing. "We'll get caught."

"Yeah, and now you've got a secret wife on top of everything," Bucky said. "You know, for a sickly little street punk, you're doing all right for yourself." He stroked his thumb across Steve's cheek offhandedly; the old gesture of affection between them. "War'll be over soon, you know. Then we'll see what's what."

 

V-E Day.

It was Bucky who heard the news first, the day before the formal declaration and the famous radio broadcast. The news was already spreading through the base, through all of London—wild-eyed soldiers shouting, it's over, the war is over, we're going home!—and Bucky could hear people shouting, laughing, singing, all the doors and windows flung open. A massive crowd was forming outside: a trickle becoming a stream becoming a deluge. Everyone was on the move, faces alight: going up, out.

Bucky turned the other way, fighting against the current of people streaming up toward the celebrations in the street and the courtyard. Instead, he went deeper into the base, looking for Steve—Steve was at a briefing, there weren't going to be anymore goddamned briefings!—but it was Peggy he found as he rounded a corner toward the briefing rooms; Peggy, taking the same route from a different direction.

"Bucky!" Peggy ran to him, arms flung out, and he lifted her up and swung her around, holding her tight.

"I know! I know, it's—" and it was only then he realized that Peggy was sobbing unashamedly, tears streaming down her face and her mouth trembling, which was so unlike her, so cool and unflappable and— "Oh, baby, don't," he pleaded, pulling her close and wrapping his arms round her. "Baby, please—"

"We're alive! We're all alive!" Peggy sobbed. "We're all going to live," Peggy sobbed, and suddenly it was all Bucky could do not to break into tears himself, because—because— He was knocked back by a great wall of Steve, and he was going to pull away, give them a minute to hug and kiss while he pulled himself together, except Steve's arms were coming around them both, he was holding them both together.

Peggy was still crying softly. "I love you," she said, as Steve pulled them into a closer huddle. "I love both of you," and Steve choked out, "Me too," and Bucky laughed wetly, feeling stupid, but said, "Me three," and tightened his arm around Peggy's waist and pressed his face against Steve's and held on.

 

The Telegram.

They were on the third day of the eight-day voyage back to New York when the telegram arrived. Steve read it a bunch of times before showing it to his wife and Bucky. "They want me to join something called SHIELD," he said, uncrumpling the paper from his hand and sliding it across the bar room table. "I guess it's the new SSR: international, but run out of New York, maybe attached to this new kind of League of Nations they're putting together." He stared down at it. "They want to keep me on as Captain America."

"Well, is that what you want?" Peggy asked.

"I don't know," Steve said. "I was an artist before." He laughed ruefully. "I made hardly any money."

"You were a good artist," Bucky said softly.

"Howard's staying on," Steve said. "And Colonel Phillips. They want to know if I'm in before approaching the other guys—Gabe, Dum Dum, you." He shot Bucky a look. "So what do you think, pal?"

"I think you should do what you want. You don't owe anybody anything," Bucky said, absently turning his beer glass round and round. "Still," he sighed. "I guess I'll join up if they ask me. Or—I don't know, maybe I'll take another crack at going to school. Try to pick up a trade that doesn't involve killing people."

Steve looked at Peggy. "What do you think, Peg?"

"I think you should do what you want. For what it's worth I would love to be married to a starving artist," Peggy said, red lips curving. "It's the most romantic thing I can imagine. I might even pose," she added.

"Oh, well: decision made," Steve said, grinning as Bucky laughed, and then he was groaning and leaning back in his chair and stealing Bucky's beer from him. "I guess I've really got to do it, though," he said, and took a swig. "There'll be a lot of cleaning up—weapons to be recovered, rebuilding to do. It's worthwhile work, which isn't nothing." He reached out for Peggy's hand and asked, pleadingly, "Will you still pose?"

"Yes, of course," Peggy said, and then she sighed and opened her handbag. "If you've made up your mind?" Steve nodded, eyebrows raised. She pulled out her own telegram. "Then I suppose I should tell you they've asked me to run it," and Steve and Bucky burst out laughing so loud that heads turned all around the bar.

 

The Harbor.

Steve and Peggy both noticed that the closer they got to New York, the more on edge Bucky got. Steve thought at first that it was the claustrophobia of the boat—Peggy'd gotten a stateroom, and now that the war was over, Steve could stay with her, but Bucky was in the barracks with the other men, down in the hold—but they'd been in worse places than this for longer, and he'd never seen a look like this on Bucky's face.

Finally Peggy looked from Bucky to Steve and then put the key to their stateroom into Steve's hand. "I have so many letters to write," she said. "There are some rather grand desks in the library." Steve kissed her and then slung his arm around Bucky's shoulders. "Come on, pal," he said. "I'll buy you a drink," but they were on their third before Bucky replied to Steve's murmured, "Come on, Buck; what's wrong?" with a sad smile and a shake of the head. "Nothing," Bucky said, and then: "Everything." He looked sick around the eyes; haunted. "I just feel like—I don't know. Like we're all living on borrowed time. My nerves are like glass."

"Come on," Steve said again, but this time he took Bucky to their stateroom, which was small but private, and quiet. Bucky stopped short in the narrow doorway and looked back at him; the room was almost all bed.

"Steve," Bucky said, a little despondently, "this is your room, and Peg's. We can't..."

"I love you so much," Steve said, strangling, and then they were kissing, and then more urgently, shoving the door closed and muscling against each other. They tottered a little in the limited space, and then Steve was groaning and curving his arm around Bucky's neck and muttering, "We should—like we did before you left," and he could feel Bucky's shock; they'd hardly ever fucked, but they'd fucked twice the week Bucky left for the war. It had hurt, a little; it had been fantastic. It came back to him, sense-memory of Bucky behind him, holding his hips and worrying his neck with lips and teeth; so desperate and scared.

"Steve," Bucky said, and he had that same look again now, "we—you're not mine like you were," but Steve shook his head and said, "But I am. I am. You can't undo a thing like that," and then Bucky groaned and began to tug at Steve's shirt tails and tie, unbuttoning and unzipping him, stripping him and pushing him down and getting behind him, taking him with slow, sucking kisses along his spine and steady, deep thrusts inside him. It hurt, a little. Steve gripped the pillow and tried to keep breathing. It was fucking fantastic.

 

The Press.

"Captain Rogers, they'd like a couple of pictures of you in uniform on the port side—if we're quick, we can get the Statue of Liberty in the background. Captain America returns to American soil, and all that. Yes, sir, with the shield. If you could just turn... Could you raise the shield a little...? Take more of a fighting... That's it; yeah, that's good. A little to your left, toward Lady... Great. Now just a few more... "

 

The House.

"This one, I think," Peggy said, tilting her head critically. "The view alone..." and Steve looked at the gentle slope of green grass to the water, and nodded.

They'd looked in Brooklyn first, but all the brownstones they'd liked had been deemed too insecure for Captain America and the Director of SHIELD. The Secret Service had gently steered them just over the city limits to the North Shore of Long Island. Steve had resisted at first—he was a city boy to his core—but it was a damn fine looking house: two stories with a wraparound porch set on a large piece of property that overlooked the Long Island Sound. There was also an enormous garage—a converted stable—that fit four cars and had a spacious and pleasant apartment on top: huge windows, flooded with natural light.

"This one, I think," Peggy said again, and then, in her wonderful blunt way, she turned to Steve and said, "I'll ask him. You do see that it has to be me who asks him."

"Yes," Steve said, and kissed her.

 

The Proposal, Mark II.

He was waiting for her in the back booth of an Upper East Side bar she used to go to before she'd ever even heard of Steve Rogers. "Hello, doll," he said, looking up. "Where's Steve?"

"I wanted to talk to you alone," she said, sitting down, and Bucky tensed but didn't say anything; just signaled to the barman to bring her a drink. She waited until it came before going on. "We're thinking about buying a house. On the North Shore, right on the water. Straight into the city by car or train." He was frowning now so she got right to it: "There's a flat over the garage. It's lovely or I wouldn't even—" and Bucky's eyebrows flew up in surprise (this wasn't what he expected her to say) and then twisted with guilt, and then regret. Sorrow flooded his eyes; he was going to say no, but she couldn't take no for an answer.

Peggy leaned forward and said: "I'm not asking for Steve, consider Steve stipulated. I'm asking for me."

"Peg," Bucky said, and then he was reaching across the table and squeezing her hand. "I, that's the nicest thing I've ever...." He swallowed, then lowered his voice and said, "Doll, you're the best, but I don't think it's a good idea for me to live so close by. I—since the war, something's broken in me. I've got no restraint, no self-control. You can't count on me to do the decent thing, do you understand what I'm saying?"

She held his eyes, then dug her nails into his palms, a little, to get his attention. "I was in the war, too. And if you think I don't understand—" and suddenly her throat closed up, and she could barely speak: "I know what it's like to love Steve till your heart wears out," and then they couldn't look at each other, and Bucky quickly turned one way while she turned the other, carefully wiping under her eyes with the fingers of her free hand so as not to smear her mascara. Bucky was nervously clutching her hand, squeezing rhythmically, and she managed: "Steve needs you. And I need— You have to come; you have to. I don't care what you and he get up to otherwise. It won't work without you. Please," she said. "I'm asking for me."

She ventured a look at him; he was staring down at the table, thinking hard, a muscle jumping in his jaw. Then he jerked a nod and Peggy unclenched, her limbs almost melting in relief. She could have collapsed onto the table. "Oh, I'm glad," she said, and swung her other hand out to clutch his in both of hers. "Bucky, I'm so glad. God, I need a drink," she said, and threw back her whiskey. Then she sat up straight. "I've got to call Steve!" She wormed out of the booth and then stopped: "Hey, have you got a nickel?"

 

Howard Stark.

"Well, well, well," Howard said, arriving unexpectedly at the house one evening, "howdy neighbors. Nice pile you've got here," he said, walking around and opening doors and peering into cupboards. "Not a bad view; not bad at all. I'm just a couple of towns up the road, straight up there. Oyster Bay, between the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts' summer place. Come up whenever you like, we've got the whole schabang: tennis courts, in-ground pool, botanical gardens, golf course. And I just bought a new boat—I'll take you out on the Sound. And—Steve, you'll like this—they're building a whole natural history museum over at the Vanderbilt place. Bears and alligators, plants and animals from all over the—"

"They've got cars, don't they?" Bucky asked, coming up behind him. Howard turned, startled.

"You scared the bejeezus out of me, Barnes," Stark said. "What are you doing here?"

"Just came in to borrow a cup of sugar," Bucky said, looking at Steve and pausing to kiss Peggy's cheek. She smiled at him and murmured, "Help yourself to some turkey and potatoes. I got them from Taylor's."

"Thanks," Bucky said, and then to Howard: "Vanderbilt of the Vanderbilt cup, right? So they've got cars?"

"They've got cars, sure," Howard said, a little irritably. "But I've got cars: I've got a Peugeot, a Bugatti, an Alfa-Romeo—I'm talking about a 16 cylinder supercharged engine with 600 horsepower, my friend."

"Well," Bucky said, leaning back on his heels. "I'd sure like to see that."

 

The Model T.

Steve heard the roars and pops of the engine and went to the window just in time to see the car trundling down the curving drive. "What the hell," he said, laughing, and he was out the door and down the porch steps and jogging across the back lawn toward the garage, outside of which the old Model T had just come to a juddering stop—there was a wild knocking and banging inside the engine like there were gremlins with hammers under the hood, and then the car let out a wheeze and went silent save for the occasional tick.

It was a mess of a thing: a 1929 Tin Lizzie practically red with rust, bouncing on its springs. Bucky got out, beaming, and Steve burst out laughing and said, "Jesus, Bucky: isn't my wife paying you?"

"You have no vision," Bucky replied, pushing his sleeves up. "I'm gonna soup this thing up, and when I'm done, I'm gonna race her." He looked over at Steve. "Want to give me a hand?"

"Weeeeell..." Steve was drifting toward it; interested despite himself. "What do you want to do to it?"

"V-8 engine, change the grille," Bucky said pointing. "Chop it and lower it. New axles, new springs..."

"You're going to take her all the way down to the frame?" Steve asked.

"You bet. Come on, it'll be fun," Bucky said, rubbing his hands together. "Help me push her inside."

 

The Ford V-8.

"Just so I'm clear on this," Peggy shouted, as Bucky revved the new engine louder and louder in front of the house, his grin growing wider and wider: the Model T was basically just an engine at this point, but it made a pretty great sound. "Your general level of peril is just not high enough? You need extra danger at the weekends to top you up?"

"Yeah!" Bucky shouted back, as Steve laughed and said, "Come on, Peg, it'll be fun." There was only a single seat haphazardly bolted into the car—but Bucky sat in it and made frantic gestures to Peggy to join him, and she laughed and ran over and scrambled up onto the rusted, exposed metal and half-into his lap, letting out a shriek as he curved his arm around her and floored it, the car bouncing and jolting on its tires.

"Don't hit the house! Don't hit the—!" Steve yelled, and then he covered his eyes: "Oh God, I can't look!"

 

The Cadillac.

Peggy decided on a brand-new green Cadillac convertible to drive back and forth between the North Shore and her office in the New York Bell Company building in the East 40s. Steve went with her to pick the car up from the dealership in midtown—Peggy was glowing with excitement—and on the drive home she put the top down and impulsively didn't make the turn onto the route leading to their house but just kept going, out toward the beaches further east on Long Island. It was a beautiful bright day though not beach weather, so the coastline was mostly deserted aside from a few fishing boats. Peggy pulled the car into a deserted little picnic area on the south shore, overlooking the Atlantic; with the top down, the waves crashing into the shore sounded like thunder. Peggy switched the car off; her hair had tumbled out of its pins.

"It's just enormous, isn't it," she said, and Steve grinned and said, "It sure is," and then they were kissing wildly and catching fire. Steve blindly unbuttoned her blouse to cup and squeeze her breasts, slipping his fingers into the cups of her brassiere before scooping them out to kiss them, to bury his face in them. Peggy panted raggedly beneath him—he loved her breasts and she knew it—then slid back in the seat and opened her thighs. He understood the invitation, and slid his hand up the inside of her leg, over her stockings, until he reached her lace garter and the warm, smooth skin of her upper thighs. He dragged his fingers between her legs and she inhaled sharply; he grinned, he rubbed rough circles against her and she cried out. She was wet under his fingers and he felt crazy, he was grinding his hips in circles too; he pushed around the little scrap of cotton and put his fingers into her. She gasped, her head falling back and her mouth falling open, and suddenly he was twitching and fumbling with his belt, desperate to be inside of her. They moved together, clumsily but to similar purpose, pulling her skirt up and pushing his pants down and then he was climbing on top of her, sinking into her—she was wet and tight and perfect—and thrusting and when she bit his earlobe he came, feeling like his heart was going to explode. Far away came the sound of sirens.

"Oh my God," Peggy said, breathlessly, "do you hear—" She laughed. "Steve, we're going to end up in the papers! Zip up your trousers!" and they were quickly scrambling and fumbling to put themselves together. Peggy didn't bother with her blouse; just quickly did up her suit jacket and stuffed her underwear into her pocketbook. Steve muttered under his breath, practicing, "Evening, officer. We were just—test driving our new car," but in the event it didn't come to that; the two wailing police cars sped right past their turnoff.

 

The New York Bell Company.

Peggy's office was on the top floor of the New York Bell Company building in the East 40s, though it was only once you got inside and took the elevator up that you saw logos for SHIELD. Steve had an office two floors below, where the tactical units trained, though he was almost never at his desk—he was on out on missions or training teams of agents or, if he had to, out in the world being the public face of SHIELD.

To Bucky's surprise, he was given an office, too, on one of the many lab floors; Peggy asked him to be her formal liaison to Stark's science division. That meant that Bucky was often responsible for logging and securing the various dangerous Hydra experiments that he and Steve and the other SHIELD agents brought in, and on quiet days he and Howard Stark got to sit around drinking coffee and jawing about cars.

 

The Arlberg Pass.

The wire arrived at 10:30 in the morning and Peggy got up and flung open her office door to announce to the bullpen of agents: "Captain America and the Howling Commandos have secured the Hydra base in the Arlberg Pass. They're coming home," and there was scattered applause and cheers around the room. Feeling happy, Peggy went to find a celebratory cup of tea and a biscuit while she waited for more intel.

When she got home that night, she took a bath and brushed her hair out and put on one of her prettier nightgowns—she'd never forgotten the look on Steve's face the first time she came out of the bath scrubbed clean and wearing no makeup, her unwaved hair hanging simply down her back. He'd flushed and gone tongue-tied, and for a moment she worried that she looked a mess without her victory rolls and lipstick, except then he stammered, "P-peg, you look like—like an angel. Like a literal—an actual—" So that had been all right.

She went to bed early, expecting to be woken up when Steve got in; his flight was supposed to land at LaGuardia Field around midnight, and there wouldn't be much traffic at that time. Sure enough, she opened her eyes in the darkness to find Steve leaning over her, bending to kiss her—but she knew immediately that something wasn't right, because he was sitting on the edge of the bed and he was still fully dressed.

She kissed him back in the darkness and then said, "Darling, is everything all right?"

"I don't—yes," Steve said, waffling, and then: "I think. I don't know. I'm—it's Bucky, there's something." He bit his lip. "I'm going to go stay with him, if it's all right with you. I just think I should."

"Of course," she said, but his unease was contagious; Steve often spent the night in Bucky's flat, but not because he thought he should. "Did something happen?" she asked carefully. "Can you tell me what—?"

"I can't, because I don't know," Steve said, teetering between helplessness and irritation. "The mission went fine, there was no resistance; the base was Soviet-occupied, but they gave it up without a qualm. There was a lab there, loads of classified equipment—we've got a unit crating everything up to ship back. A total success, except—Peg, I know him and he just... He isn't... Something's not right."

She nodded, and then ventured, "He was a POW."

"I know," Steve said grimly.

"That—changes a person," Peggy said.

"Yeah. I know," Steve said, and then he kissed her and said, "I'll see you in the morning."

 

The Arlberg Pass, Part Two.

Peggy knew who it was from the quality of the knock before she even looked up. "Mrs. Rogers? Might I have a word?"

"Mr. Jarvis." Peggy smiled and went toward him with her hand outstretched. "Of course. As many as you like." She saw immediately that he was anxious; he glanced into the bullpen and then had a visible argument with himself about the propriety of closing the door versus not closing the door. She stepped past him and closed the door, her smile firmly in place. "Mr. Jarvis?"

"I—" Jarvis began, and then he lowered his voice. "—I hope I'm not overstepping my bounds, but I'm concerned about Sergeant Barnes, He—it's probably nothing, but—" but Peggy was already grabbing her jacket off the hook, and then as an afterthought she went back to her desk and took the master key from the drawer. "Captain Rogers is not in the building," Jarvis went on. "And then I thought that perhaps you..."

"Yes," Peggy said immediately. "Quite. Thank you, Mr. Jarvis. Where is he? Is he in his office?"

"Yes. Well. Yes, I think he's in his office," Jarvis said in a quiet, serious voice. "Though. The door's locked. And the lights inside...seem to be off."

"Right," Peggy said faintly. "I see," and then she was moving to the staircase and swiftly descending, Jarvis trailing behind, trading smiles and nods with the various agents that she passed. Bucky's office door was closed, and just as Jarvis said, there was no light shining from behind the frosted glass. She hesitated a second before rapping on it briskly. "Sergeant Barnes? Bucky, it's Peg. Can I just have a—"

"Peg!" Bucky voice came through the door, strained to the break with false cheerfulness. "Uhh. Can I come see you in couple of minutes? I—I'm just in the middle of—" He broke off, unable even to finish that much of the lie, and Peggy unlocked the door and slipped inside before shutting and locking it behind her.

The small office was dim and cool—and empty, or so she at first thought. It took her a second to realize that Bucky was sitting on the floor behind the desk, his back against a block of wood filing cabinets, and—"Bucky, what have you done to your hand?" because his left hand was dripping with blood; there were, she saw, dark puddles of blood beside him, and jagged angular shards of glass on the floor. She thought for a second, then tugged her skirt up and pulled off her slip and began tearing it into strips for bandages.

"Nothing," Bucky said, but he didn't seem to know what to do with the fact of his bleeding hand; he waved it like he wanted to put it somewhere, then just stared down at it and flexed his fingers. "It's nothing," he said, but when she came close he looked up at her and begged: "Don't tell Steve, please don't tell Steve."

"I won't," she said, no-nonsense, and then: "Give me your hand," and began to wind strips of silk around it.

"Because everything's all right, isn't it?" Bucky said. "Everything's great. I'm so happy; I never thought I could be this happy. You're happy, too, aren't you, Peg?"

"Yes," Peggy said. "Yes, I certainly am. And so is Steve," she added, tying a little knot over his palm.

"Yeah," Bucky said dreamily; he seemed to be drifting a little. "So everything's great," and it was only then that she saw where the glass had come from: he'd broken a picture of them, the three of them, taken on the deck of the boat the day that it had docked in New York Harbor. SHIELD had confiscated the photograph because Peggy was in it—they didn't want pictures of Peggy printed in the newspapers, for security reasons—but Bucky had asked for it. It sat in its shattered frame next to a manila folder marked CONFIDENTIAL.

"What's this?" she asked, and reached for it, but she thought she already knew: it contained photographs of the equipment they'd recovered from the Arlberg Pass: the piles of robotic components, the electroshock machine, the massive steel cryogenic chamber they'd been testing. A corpse floated inside, still frozen.

Bucky surprised her by bursting out laughing. "It's nothing, darling! It's nothing to us at all!" and the world lurched and spun when she looked back at the picture of her and Steve and Bucky on the boat coming home. She closed her eyes to steady herself, but her stomach lurched like she was riding a rough sea.

 

Islip Speedway.

Bucky's car took second place in a totally illegal drag racing tournament held in the middle of the night under the blind eye of half of the Central Islip police force, who had bet heavily on the winner, a yellow 3-window lowboy Deuce coupe driven by a former Air Force gunner. Still, second was a respectable showing, though Steve and Bucky decided that they had to take the whole car apart again to improve its aerodynamics and Peggy was unable to talk for three days afterwards: she had screamed herself hoarse.

 

The Barbeque.

"I think I'm doing something wrong," Bucky said, jerking away from the grill. "It's too much fire," and Steve grinned and said, "No, no, it's fine—look, here, give me that," and took the tongs from him and rearranged the coals a little. "You've got to let it settle down a bit." Steve said, settling down himself in the lawn chair and reaching for a beer. He was wearing a pair of sunglasses and a ratty old t-shirt and shorts.

It seemed like a good time. Bucky sprawled out in the chair beside him. "So listen," he began, and Steve's attention sharpened: man, you just couldn't get anything past a guy who knew you as well as Steve knew him. "It's nothing bad," Bucky said, raising his hands. "Just—something I wanted to run past you."

"What?" Steve asked warily.

"Okay, now you're making me feel bad!" Bucky half-laughed, half shouted at him. "It's not a big—" and Steve rolled his eyes and tapped his wrist; he wasn't wearing a watch. "Jerk," Bucky muttered. "Okay, look, I'm just—I'm about ready to get out of the field." Steve's eyebrows flew up and Bucky went on, fast: "I don't want to fight anymore," and as he said it, he felt a weird little stab of regret: he never wanted Steve to be alone, or to feel alone, in a fight. "I'm just—I'm tired of being a person who fights."

"Bucky," and Bucky didn't know what he expected, but not this soft, kind sympathy. "It's okay."

"Yeah?" Relief was rolling over him like a cold sweat. "You don't mind?"

"I don't; of course I don't. I've got plenty of backup, and it's not like we're at war anymore—not straight out, anyway, though I'm getting pretty tired of armwrestling Stalin all over the damn place, I can tell you. I'm beginning to think he's not such a nice man," Steve said with a tired little smile, and then he frowned and said, "I mean, are you going to leave SHIELD entirely? I always said you'd make a hell of a lawyer."

"Someday, maybe. Right now I'm staying put; your wife's offered me a pretty plum job upstairs—"

Steve sat up. "Wait; you talked to Peg before you talked to me?"

"I kind of had to; I didn't know if she'd let me out," Bucky drawled, bare legs stretching out across the grass. "It's been my primary job, watching you—something happened to you, she was gonna have my head on a plate. That's not a metaphor, either—a real fucking plate, a china plate!"

"But now she will?" Steve arched an eyebrow. "Should I be worried she doesn't love me anymore?"

"Nah, she said what you said: it's all jockeying with the Soviets, now; covert stuff, espionage. Right now SHIELD needs spies more than they need soldiers—at least until Korea blows up, but let's not buy trouble. For now I can be useful—or just as useful—taking meetings upstairs as I am behind a rifle scope."

"She's closing ranks," Steve said, frowning. "Surrounding herself with people she trusts. I can't help her much—it's such an obvious conflict of interest. You're a conflict of interest too, but it's harder to make the case. I worry about her all the damn time, Buck—she's not just fighting Stalin, she's got the Director of Central Intelligence and that jerk McLaughlin from Senate Intelligence gunning for her. I'm glad you're going upstairs: she needs you more than I do. You can watch her back. Something happens to her—"

"—you're gonna have my head on a plate?" Bucky rolled his eyes. "From the frying pan to the fire. Whatever."

 

The Howard Stark Golf Invitational.

"Oh, hey," Bucky said, passing Steve the bowl of mashed potatoes and reaching for the ham, "Howard's invited me for a round of golf tomorrow; want to come along?"

Steve paused, potatoes in hand, and glanced at Peggy, who was staring determinedly down at her plate with a faint smile. "I smell a rat," he said. "Is there a catch to this invitation?"

"Well." Now it was Bucky and Peggy who exchanged loaded glances. "Not really. Kind of. Bill Price is going to be there," Bucky said; Bill Price was the current Director of Central Intelligence. "It's an informal, deniable, not-a-meeting type meeting. For him and me to get to know each other a little."

"Uh-huh," Steve said, and looked at Peggy again. Peggy arched an eyebrow, smiled, and ate a mouthful of peas. "So shouldn't you come too?" Steve asked her.

Bucky grinned and put his elbows on the table. "Steve, you really want to give your wife a blunt instrument and put her within ten feet of Bill Price?" Peggy made a silly face and fluttered her eyelashes innocently, and Steve laughed and shook his head said: "Okay, no, I guess not. Pass the peas, please."

 

The Check In.

She argued with herself for an hour, pacing in front of the cold living-room fireplace in her dressing gown and slippers, telling herself that there was no point; it wouldn't help; it was four in the morning and at least one of them should be resting—but then her body made the decision without her, and she was pushing out the kitchen door and running across the slippery wet grass to the garage. She climbed the external wooden staircase to Bucky's flat, and then hesitated on the landing, turning to look over the railing toward the black water, and then turning back and knocking firmly, wanting the decision to have been decisively made.

For a moment nothing happened, and then the lights came on and then Bucky was opening the door and standing there in a white t-shirt and boxer shorts, his hair mussed. "Peg," he said, instantly awake. "What—"

"He missed check-in," Peggy said immediately, a little breathlessly, and then: "He missed check-in twice, at 11 and 3. That's not like Steve," she pleaded, her chest tight, "you know that's not like Steve," and then he was taking her by the arm, pulling her inside and sitting her down on the edge of his rumpled bed. He went into his kitchenette and she heard the clink of glass, of ice, and then he came back and gave it to her: a double. She took a sip of the strong whiskey and looked up apologetically. "I'm not like this. You know I'm not like this." Her mouth trembled and she took another drink to steady herself. "But just—Steve— I just—"

"Steve can do that to a person," Bucky said with a sad smile. "Believe me, I know."

"It wasn't a dangerous mission," Peggy gritted out, holding her drink in her lap with both hands. "Brussels; a secret meeting, but—"

Bucky frowned suddenly. "NATO's planning a military strategy for Korea?"

Peggy hesitated. "Yes," she said. "My sources tell me that the meeting occurred and everything went as planned. And then Steve disappeared: didn't return to his hotel, no call, no check-in at 11 or at 3." She took another gulp of her drink; a large one.

Bucky sat down on the bed beside her and nodded thoughtfully. "If it wasn't Steve, what would you think?"

She didn't hesitate: "He's gone to radio silence. Something happened, a security breach, so he's gone quiet."

"Yeah," Bucky said. "So that's probably what happened."

"But Steve isn't...He isn't easy to silence," Peggy said, biting her lip. "Steve doesn't—do silence."

"But Steve is smart, Peg," Bucky told her. "Don't be fooled by those muscles and boyish good looks." Peggy laughed despite herself and he said, "I assume everything's already in motion?" and she nodded. "C'mon, then," and got up. "Let's go back to the house so we'll hear the phone," and he followed her out and down the steps without, she noted, bothering to put on pants.

They crossed the lawn together and climbed the steps to the porch, Peggy taking her drink with her. The night was warm and suddenly Peggy didn't want to go into the house, which seemed too brightly lit; instead, she stopped and turned to Bucky and said, "Will you sit out here with me?"

"Sure," he said. There was a swing on the porch—Steve had insisted that it was the perfect porch for a swing, covered and with a view of the water—and so they sat down on the bench, moonlight bright on the water beyond. It took a moment, but Peggy'd known that in the house, with its many comfortable armchairs, it wouldn't have happened at all: Bucky extending his arm over the seat back, letting her snug up against his side, and take comfort. His arm curved around her shoulders, his hand gripped her arm on the far side. She rested her head on his hard shoulder; he was warm and solid beside her, holding her.

"Bucky," she murmured; she felt she could confide in him, "if anything happens to him, I'm going to go on a rampage. I'll kill everybody in the world. I'll murder everyone in the whole bloody world."

"I'll help," Bucky said, and Peggy pressed her face against his arm, because she knew he probably would.

 

The Check In, Part Two.

She'd fallen asleep against his shoulder with her legs curled up on the bench, and so she had to scramble when the phone rang; the sun was just coming up. Bucky steadied her almost absently as she found her feet and rushed for the door and the telephone hanging up in the kitchen. "Carter," she barked into it instinctively and then, instantly amended: "Rogers."

It was Partridge, a reliable man, telling her that they had Steve; that Steve was at Idlewild. She turned to Bucky, who'd come in from the porch and into the kitchen behind her, and nodded, seeing relief spread across his face. Partridge told her to hang up and that Steve would call in a moment, and so she did.

"Hello, Peg," and the warmth of Steve's voice went through her, shook her. "Sorry I'm late. But I need you to meet me at the office right way. We need a secure line," and so something had happened. Her attention sharpened and she saw Bucky straightening up in his t-shirt and boxers; he must have read Steve's words right off her face. "You might want to pack a bag for us, darling," Steve added. "We might have to catch a plane to Washington. I can't say more now," and Peggy said, "Yes, all right. I'll see you shortly." She hung up and looked at Bucky. "He's all right. But something's happened, we have to go to the office right away, " and Bucky nodded and ducked out to get dressed.

 

The Check-In, Part Three.

They stole the quickest of hello kisses before going into the conference room, where Steve exchanged nods with Bucky and then shook hands with Peggy's two other division chiefs, Just before the door closed, Howard Stark hurried in and grabbed a seat, wildly snapping his fingers for coffee. He looked discombobulated; Howard Stark was not a morning person. "Where the hell's the fire?" he asked Steve.

Steve rolled his eyes and waited until one of the junior agents, a young man called Stimpson, brought in the coffee pot. When he was gone and the door was locked, Steve said, "The Soviets have scheduled a test for an A-bomb," and Howard Stark put down his coffee cup and said, "Okay, that's a fire."

"Tell me," Peggy gritted out; they had so narrowly avoided having to use Fat Boy on Japan. Steve nodded and said: "After the meeting, I ran into—or more precisely, I was waylaid by—Bucky, do you remember Alexander Mishurin from the war?"

"Yeah," Bucky said. "From Slovakia; those guys gave us cover when we were helping the rebels."

"Right, yeah. Well, he's done all right for himself, though he's no happier than we are about the state of U.S./Soviet relations." Steve looked at Peggy and said: "They've got a bomb; the RDS-1, codename First Lightning. They've got a test scheduled for August. And—well. Wouldn't it be great if it failed?" Steve's voice was suddenly hoarse. "I mean. I'd give a lot to see that test fail. I would be personally willing to run a mission to make sure that goddamned thing failed. It could—change everything. Korea. Everything."

They sat there for a moment in silence. And then Howard said, "I might have an idea or two about how to sabotage—" just as Peggy turned to the division chiefs and said, "I'm going to need to get the President on the line," and Bucky said to Steve, grinning like a maniac, "You, pal, are trouble. From that first day on Myrtle Avenue, I knew it. You are such fucking trouble, Boy-o: nobody could ever even imagine it."

 

September 23, 1949

RUSSIA'S BOMB IS A BUST.
U.S. Learns of Failed Nuclear Test in Kazakhstan, President Discloses
Details of Test in USSR Not Revealed; Vishinsky Urges Peace Pact
President Tells Cabinet of Failed Russian Attempt to Explode Atom
Pentagon Shows Excitement, But Officials Mum

 

The Weather.

The weather was beautiful, all that fall.

 

The Specialist.

When they were kids, before the war, they would fool around on their ratty old bed in their tiny apartment, kissing and rubbing each other off and sometimes sucking each other off, and then Bucky used to fall asleep sprawled on top of him, head pressed to his chest, pinning him to the mattress. It was the most important thing in the world to him, and even now, Steve had no words to express what it had meant to him, sick and frail as he was, to be loved like that, till he was trembling and breathless, and then to be held and protected—because he was scared to death of dying, but he was eerily certain that he wouldn't die if Bucky was holding him. Bucky Barnes was standing between him and the Angel of Death, pinning him to earth.

And he still craved it sometimes, especially when he was feeling low, and Bucky must have seen it on his face because later in the evening, Bucky set down his whiskey and said, offhandedly, to Peg, "Well, I'm turning in. Mind if I borrow a cup of sugar?" and Steve felt a hot twist of embarrassment and desire.

Peggy was curled up in her armchair by the fire, frowning her way through a thick file. She glanced up at him and replied, "Yes, of course. I'm stuck here with this for the foreseeable," and then she looked over at Steve and said, "I don't suppose you have any brilliant ideas about how best to deal with the Chinese?"

Steve grinned helplessly. "Sorry," he said. "Nothing springs to mind."

"Worth a try," Peggy sighed, and then, "Come and kiss me goodnight," and Steve went over and kissed her, and then she arched her eyebrow at Bucky and said, "You, too," and Bucky dutifully kissed her cheek.

They went out through the kitchen and across the lawn to the garage, and when they'd gotten inside, Bucky didn't turn the lights on, just turned him and pressed him back against the door and started kissing him; they kissed so much more, now, than they did when they were kids. After a while, they blindly steered their way to the bed and fell down on it, and then they pulled each other out of their clothes, still kissing, and explored each other's bodies with hands and mouths, stimulating and teasing; half a game. Steve wasn't sure if it was a game he'd won or lost when Bucky groaned suddenly and pushed him onto his back and slid down his body, but he lay there gasping and rocking his hips up and running his fingers through Bucky's thick hair, letting his brain drift, his anxieties drift: there was only the here, the now; this feeling.

When he came, he could hear his heart thumping, feel it banging against his rib cage. Steve tried to gather himself up to reciprocate, but Bucky was already curling around him, sprawling over his lower body, pinning him down. Steve gasped breathlessly in gratitude and closed his eyes, panic ebbing a little.

After a while, Bucky muttered, "Whatever it is, you might feel better if you told me," and Steve closed his eyes tight and tried to chase the negative thoughts away. They wouldn't go, and so he rolled out from under Bucky and sat on the edge of the bed, naked, hands clutching his knees. Easier to talk without looking.

"Peggy's going to see a doctor tomorrow," he said, staring down at the floorboards. "A specialist."

He felt the mattress shift behind him as Bucky sat up. "Steve. Is she all right?"

"She thinks I don't know. I found out by accident. I think she's trying to find out why we haven't...you know. I mean, it's been a few years now, and we haven't..."

It hung between them for a moment and then Bucky said, awkwardly, "I guess I assumed you—I mean, Peggy's pretty goddamned important, her job, I— I guess I figured you weren't really ready to—"

"No," Steve said faintly. "We—never— We always figured that whenever it happened, we'd—you know, we'd welcome—" His throat went tight and he choked back tears. "The thing is," he said, getting a hold of himself, "it's me; obviously, it's me. Whether it's because I've got lousy genes or because I'm a science experiment— We both know it's me. And if it is," Steve said, forcing himself onward, "do I owe it to her to—you know, at least suggest—-I don't know, an annulment or—"

The bed dipped more radically as Bucky scrambled across the mattress and switched on the bedside lamp. "Sure," Bucky said, as Steve recoiled from the brightness; the light dispelling some of the gloom. "I think you should! I mean, just to see exactly how hard she can hit you. Personally I'd be interested," Bucky went on earnestly, sitting down, naked, beside him. "I always thought Pegs was pulling her punches. I think with a really good wind-up, she could probably crack your jaw, Captain America or no Captain Am—"

"Bucky," Steve said miserably, but Bucky was having none of it.

"That woman is crazy about you," Bucky said. "I mean, like certifiably crazy—like, if she was my sister, I would probably give her a talking to, crazy. She's nuts for you; she'd do anything for you. I mean—" and he gestured vaguely around the apartment, "our whole lives, everything—she's given us everything. For you, you fuckin' moron. Because you're the most important thing in the world to her. I mean, hell," Bucky nearly groaned, "she gives me a run for my money, does Peg! I have to practice loving you in my spare time just to keep up!" and Steve was kind of hiccoughing wet laughter then, because what Bucky was saying was so outrageous and crazy and impossible and yet, maybe even true, though he could never ever deserve it.

Bucky saw he had Steve on the ropes and pressed on, with deep seriousness: "I mean, Steve, just to check—you do know what you're doing, right? Where you're supposed to—" and now Steve was snorting with laughter and smacking him, even as Bucky said gravely, "Because God knows I've done my level best to confuse you." Steve shoved him hard, and Bucky flopped back onto the bed and grinned up at him.

Steve was overcome with affection for him. Bucky was right: Peggy had given them everything; she'd let them hold on to each other. She'd known, had understood without asking, that Steve was in love with her but that Bucky tethered him to life somehow. Steve reached out and switched off the lamp, then got back into bed with him. It felt a little funny, clinging to Bucky in the old way now that he was so big, bigger than Bucky even, but at the same time it felt familiar and safe and right.

"Hold me like you used to," Steve murmured, his face pressed against Bucky's neck, and Bucky did, rolling him over, pinning him down, arms coming around him. "You know, I thank God for you every day. I mean it, Buck. Sometimes I flash back to that day on the train and think about what would have happened if—"

Bucky tensed; his arms tightened around Steve. "Don't think about it," he said. "Don't ever think about it."

 

The Results.

They were in bed, moonlight streaming through the window, but they were neither of them sleeping. Peggy sighed and turned over. "Do you want to know the results?"

Steve didn't say anything for a moment. Then he said, casually, "What do you mean?"

"From the doctor," she said, and before Steve could say anything she said, "It was all over your face."

When Steve spoke, he sounded like he'd just been kicked in the chest. "Yes, of course I want to know."

Peggy showed him a weary smile. "The good news is, it's not that I can't conceive. In fact," she said, sighing and sitting up in bed, carding her fingers through her hair, "they think I've been pregnant more or less continually since we got married."

Steve sat up, too. "I don't understand," he said.

"They—don't seem to be viable. They don't last past a few days." She met Steve's eyes and said: "The doctors don't yet have an explanation, but I've been thinking it over and I think I know—"

Steve's eyes widened; he'd figured it out, too. "My cells," he said. "They divide four times as fast."

"Yes, I think so," Peggy said. "The cells are dividing at an irregular rate—"

"Oh my God," Steve said miserably, putting his head in his hands. "Peg, I'm sorry. I'm so—"

"It's hardly your fault," she replied. "If anything, I did this to you, though I won't be sorry for it. New York isn't sorry." She touched his cheek. "Plus we'd never have met," and Steve turned his head to press a kiss into her palm, and then drew her close to kiss her, practically inhaling her. They kissed with all the desperate intensity of those first few times, the years melting away.

"I'll do anything you want," Steve said, when they broke apart. "We could—adopt? Or—?"

"Hm. Well," and then Peggy bit her lip and said: "I don't think we've quite exhausted all our resources," and Steve stared at her for a long moment before his eyebrows flew up. He blinked rapidly, taking the idea in.

Peggy quickly added: "Of course, that's only if you—"

"—I—yes, of course—I do, I am, I want—it's obvious. It's the obvious— It's what we should do. I—Jesus, I love the idea—though—I mean—I don't know if he—if he'll—he might not—"

"He's absolutely mad about you," Peggy ventured. "Gaga, in fact," and suddenly Steve was flopping backwards in bed and laughing up at the ceiling. She felt relieved; it was good to see him laugh. "Shall I go and ask him?" but this time Steve just smiled and shook his head at her.

"No, darling. Not this time," Steve said. "I think this time, it's got to be me."

 

The Solution.

"What?" Bucky stood there in his t-shirt and boxers. "Wait, what?" and so Steve had to say it all over again. Bucky stared into space for a long time after that, just blinking. "And you're okay with this?"

"I have never been more okay wth anything in my life," Steve said, meaning it. "Are you?"

"I—I don't know," Bucky said. "I mean, it's terrifying and potentially embarrassing but—well, I mean." Bucky stopped, swallowed. "I never thought I'd get the chance to— I mean, it just wasn't in the cards. So to get the chance to— I don't think I can say n—" but Steve was grinning already tugging him out the door and down the wooden steps and through the darkness across the slippery black-wet grass to the house.

 

The Solution, Part II.

Bucky was pale by the time they reached the door to the bedroom. Peggy was nervously pacing in her nightgown; she turned as they appeared. "Hello, Peg," Bucky said faintly. "So, uh, this is awkward."

"I don't see why." Peggy sat on the edge of their bed and folded her hands in her lap. "I thought it was common nowadays to sleep with your best friend's wife—or perhaps I've been deceived by the modern theatre," and Bucky laughed, then, and went to her, and it was easier than she would have thought, pulling him down to kiss her—he was a good kisser—and easier still when Steve switched the lamp off and, smiling, tugged him down onto the bed with them.

He wasn't Steve; that was what shocked her, obvious as it was: he wasn't Steve, his body didn't feel like Steve's, his shoulders, the way the muscles lay over his bones; his skin wasn't the texture of Steve's, the pattern of hair on his chest; his smell, the scrape of beard on her cheek. It was exciting and a little bit frightening, somehow, all this difference; she'd thought him an extension of Steve, but he wasn't. He was another man entirely! She pulled his hands to her breasts—he was more cautious than Steve; uncertain, she supposed, as if he thought she was fragile (Steve knew she wasn't fragile)—and he hesitated for only a moment before sliding his hands over her, sparking desire all through her. She dragged air into her lungs, but Bucky was tense and jittery until Steve yanked him up and turned his head and kissed him—and oh, that was shocking, too, because she'd known (of course she'd known; she'd known from Italy, from the look on Steve's face) that his relationship with Bucky was more than brotherly, but it was something else to see it: her husband kissing another man, kissing Bucky Barnes, and Bucky kissing back like he'd been kissing Steve forever, which she supposed he had been. But it seemed to be working; Steve's hands were moving over Bucky's body with the sureness of an old lover, and now Bucky was breathing hard, and hardening, and this time when she tugged him back down to kiss her, he let himself fall heavily on top of her, and pushed his hips against her, and slid into her.

 

The Solution, Part III.

He didn't know he could feel like this. He had no idea he could feel so much. He could hardly move for fear of being overpowered by feelings, swept away in the churn of them—turned on, hopeful, happy, jealous, sad, desperate, sick with lust and guilty for being sick with—and he wanted to whisper to Bucky, "harder, she likes it harder," but that was back seat driving of the worst sort, and besides, Bucky had already figured it out: was gripping Peggy's hips and tilting her up, and of course Bucky knew what he was doing; Steve had first hand experience of that. He heard the soft little cries that he knew meant that Peggy was climaxing, saw the way the sweat broke out on her beautiful pale skin and the way her cheeks flushed, and was suddenly jealous and guilty about being jealous that Bucky'd gotten her there so fast. Then he pushed those feelings away and went to help Bucky get over, sidling up behind him and wrapping his arms around him, kissing the back of his neck and sliding his hands down over his chest and then lower, over his abdomen, rubbing his palm through the hard scratch of his pubic hair above the hard crease where Bucky's cock—and Bucky made a choked sound and came, and then he was falling into Peggy's arms, and Peggy was holding him close and tightening her knees around his hips. Then she slid her her foot across Steve's leg and reached out a hand to him, tugging him down beside them. Steve draped his arm across Bucky's shoulders and buried his face in Peg's hair, and squeezed them both close, thinking, please; please.

 

The Rabbit.

And he knew it really wasn't his place to, but he couldn't help it, and besides, Peggy had an important phone call scheduled with Clement Atlee. She'd gone in for the rabbit test on Tuesday and the doctors had told her to come back on Friday, except she couldn't make it and Steve thought he might die if he had to wait until Monday, so he went to the appointment himself and sat in the doctor's apple green waiting room surrounded by ladies, and what the hell did he care what anyone thought: he was Captain America.

"Mrs. Rogers?" the nurse called finally, and Steve stood up, and she said, "Oh." Peggy's doctor, a small, bald man wearing thick glasses, seemed equally taken aback when Steve stepped into the office. "Oh," he said, coming around the desk with his hand outstretched. "Of course. You're—Sir. It's such an honor to—"

"Please," Steve interrupted. "Is she or isn't—" and then he literally ran down the twelve flights from the doctor's office to Park Avenue and then south thirty blocks to the New York Bell Company and then up to the top floor and into the conference room where Peggy and four men were sitting around a table, black telephones pressed to their ears. Peggy glanced up at Steve and then stood up and said, in a distant voice, "Excuse me," and clunked the heavy receiver down onto the table and went straight into his arms, and Steve pulled her out into the hallway and kissed her and then said, broke off to say, chest still heaving with the exertion, "The rabbit died," and then, near to bursting with it, "I'm going to be a father. Or Bucky is. We're both going to be a father." He laughed and said: "You can be a father, too, if you want!" and then they were kissing again, hungrily, sloppily, grinning and laughing into each other's mouths.

 

Bucky.

Bucky didn't take it the way he expected. "She is?" he asked, looking up at Steve, who was leaning back happily against the closed door of his office. "She really...?" and Steve said, "Yeah, I told you it was just me, what the serum did to me. There's nothing wrong with Peggy—or with you—" and Bucky opened his mouth to say something and then didn't; just shut his mouth and stared down at the papers on his desk.

"Well?" Steve demanded, grinning; he was so full of happiness he could burst with it, but Bucky just looked blank—no, not blank; that was controlled fear on his face. "Bucky," Steve said, taken aback, but that seemed to snap Bucky out of it, and he got up and came around the desk, arms outstretched, "Sorry, pal, I'm not thinking," he said and hugged Steve hard. "Congratulations! To both of you: I couldn't be happier for you!"

Steve hugged back, happy but worried now. "Well, we literally couldn't have done it without you," he said, and then, more seriously, "Buck, I want you to be happy for us. I want you to be happy with us—"

"I am!" Bucky protested, and was it just his imagination, or was there something a little defensive there; some false note? "Steve, I swear to you—I'm so happy that you get to have this. And that I do—that I get to be around for it, to see it, be a part of it," and then Bucky's voice faltered into a scrape and something on his face clouded, twitched, went terrible: "Steve, I love you," and that should have made everything better but it didn't, because it wasn't something that needed saying; it wasn't something that needed to be said.

Steve asked Peggy about it later. "Do you think he's having second thoughts?"

"You know him better than I do," Peggy replied dubiously, "but I shouldn't think so. It's not like him, is it?"

"No," Steve agreed.

Peggy grew thoughtful. "Perhaps he fears losing you—or losing more of your attention—once you have a child," she suggested instead. "He's already had to share you with me. He might think—"

But Steve was already shaking his head. "He knows, he must know," he said desperately, "that I can't—"

"Well, why don't you go to him," Peggy said sensibly, "and make sure that he does know," and so Steve crossed the lawn and climbed the steps to Bucky's apartment, and when Bucky came to the door Steve pushed inside and pushed him onto the bed and began to worship his body with his mouth and his hands, pressing his mouth fiercely against Bucky's chest, feeling the blood pulse through his lips, filling them, the sensation amplifying as he rolled his tongue against each nipple as it tightened down. He kissed the sparse scruff across Bucky's chest and licked down the dark stripe of hair that led to his cock, loving the roughness of his body, the taste of him. He nosed through the wiry hair, scratchy against his face, breathing in the musky smell of him, reveling in the intimacy of it. Bucky's cock brushed featherlight soft against his lips, and he breathed him in, just sensing him, for a long, aching moment before opening his mouth, and then he was lost in it, the smooth skin and the vein pulsing under his tongue, and Bucky was gasping and knotting his fingers in Steve's hair and fucking his face and choking out, "Oh, God. Oh, Steve." Steve was transported, as he always was by the sound of Bucky's voice, back to their days of desperation, back to when Bucky's love had been the only thing standing between him and annhilation. Bucky had to know that Steve would give up the whole goddamned world for him, if it came to that; he knew; he had to know.

Afterwards, he lay with his head pillowed on Bucky's hip, Bucky's softening cock near his lips. Bucky's fingers were still stroking through his hair and Steve murmured, "Bucky, whatever it is, you might feel better if you told me. You can tell me anything; you know that," but Bucky just laughed softly and said, "Not this. These are just crazy thoughts, pal. Sometimes I have crazy thoughts, that's all; never you mind."

 

1950.

Howard Stark threw a gigantic New Year's Eve party at his Oyster Bay estate to see in the new year and the new decade, and Steve and Peggy and Bucky as well as 297 of Howard's other closest friends came. There was a tiered orchestra set up beside an outdoor dance floor lit with torches and twinkling lights, and a champagne fountain, and buffet tables staffed by servants who would slice you up some roast beef or a piece of suckling pig or offer you a whole lobster. Howard, in top hat and tails, got drunk almost immediately and then held court from a chaise-lounge by the pool, surrounded by showgirls in gold satin dresses. Peggy wasn't showing yet, but she had a certain fullness around the face and she ate two servings of pretty much everything with Steve running cover for her; his appetite was known to be enormous.

Peggy and Steve danced together for much of the night, occasionally drifting past Bucky, who was a much sought after dance partner. Some time after eleven, Howard's staff distributed noisemakers and silly hats, and when they counted down the New Year everyone cheered and shouted themselves hoarse—Ten! Nine! Eight!— except Steve, who slid his arm around Peggy's waist and grabbed Bucky by the arm and dragged them, laughing, off the dance floor and down the path into through the little copse of trees that led to the boathouse, so that at the distantly shouted, "HAPPY 1950!" they could all kiss each other softly in the dark.

 

Harry S. Truman.

When it became obvious that Peggy was expecting, the whispering started and so she sighed and flew down to Washington to take a meeting with Harry Truman. "Peggy," he said, warmly greeting her. "What can I...oh," but the thing about Truman was that he'd been Chairman of the Committee for Military Affairs way back when he'd been in the Senate, so she didn't have anything to prove to him, plus he knew and liked Steve, which helped. "All right," Truman said finally, inviting her to sit down. "Let's not think in terms of a replacement. Let's think in terms of an Acting Director of SHIELD while you're—um—uh—indisposed," and that was good, but when she mentioned Earl Partridge or Douglas Trumbower, Truman shook his head.

"Congress is going to see this as an opportunity for oversight," he said. "They're going to want to bring in someone from outside, someone they can vet and approve and who they feel is accountable to them," and Peggy thought this over, then countered: "In that case, I want to choose the Acting Deputy Director; someone who's accountable to me," and this time it was Truman who thought it over before he nodded.

"I think we can arrange that," Truman said, and then added: "Who do you want? Partridge or Trumbower," and later, when Peggy thought about it, she realized that some part of her had known that things weren't right, because she heard herself say, "Neither; I want James Barnes."

To her surprise, Truman smiled and tilted his head in acknowledgment. "Canny as always, Peggy. Former Howling Commando, decorated war hero: what can Congress say, even if he is Captain America's best friend?" and yes, that was all certainly true, but she hadn't picked Bucky for political reasons. She'd picked him because somehow she'd known that she was going to need to have him there, beside her; because Bucky Barnes was the only other person besides Steve that she trusted in this whole entire world.

 

Bacon and Eggs.

Bucky lifted his head from the pillow and stared blearily at his alarm clock: it wasn't even half-past seven on a goddamned Saturday morning. That was Steve's knock, too; he recognized its irritating little flourish. Groaning, he hauled himself out of bed and blearily went to open the door in his t-shirt and shorts.

"Hey, so look," Steve said; he was annoyingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, "I've got a thing in Los Angeles and—did I wake you?" because Bucky was slumped against the door frame, yawning.

"It's a goddamn Saturday morning," Bucky groaned, and Steve said, made a face and said, "Yeah, sorry, but I've got this thing in Los Angeles, and the doctors don't want Peggy to fly—you know, in her condition."

"What condition is that?" Bucky deadpanned, as if Steve could have let anyone within a three mile radius forget for one second that Peggy Rogers was due to produce a child out of her body that coming July.

Steve ignored him; Steve was slightly more irony-deaf than usual these days. "But Peggy's home, so I just—I thought maybe you could keep an eye on her. Just, you know, an extra special eye. Just in case."

"You want my left eye, or my right eye?" Bucky asked, closing first one and then the other.

Steve ignored him. "She's just being so—Peggy; I mean, the doctor said that, you know, considering all the—the—you know, the other pregnancies, she should maybe take it easy, put her feet up, but will she? No! And when the hell is this new Acting Director of SHIELD supposed to turn up? Aren't you part of that?"

"Confirmation hearings are..." Bucky yawned again. "...supposed to wind up on Monday. Then she's got to brief the guy. It's not like she's parachuting into occupied France with a machine gun. Life's easy, now. "

"I know, I know, just—" Steve made a face; a muscle jumped in his jaw. "I worry, Buck. I worry all the time."

"Yeah, well, you're training to be a dad. I can see the whole nightmare of it unspooling from here," Bucky said. "Look, your ma managed to have you and my ma managed to have me in a lot worse circumstances than this. Peggy's got all those fancy Park Avenue doctors—"

"Sure, if she'd listen to them," Steve interjected.

"It was Peggy you wanted to have a baby with, right?" Bucky shot back, and Steve groaned and said: "Yeah, okay. Yeah. Look, she's making breakfast. I told her you'd come down for bacon and eggs."

"It's seven o'clock in the goddamned morning!" Bucky protested. "On a Saturday!"

Steve ignored him and glanced at his watch. "I've got to get to LaGuardia. Bucky, she's the mother of my child. And you're the father of my child. So keep an eye on things, willya? Have some bacon and eggs."

"All right," Bucky sighed. "All right, all right, all right."

 

The Ladder.

When he finally went down to the house, he stopped short upon coming through the kitchen door, because Peggy was on the top of a ladder with her enormous belly, trying to pull some goddamned thing out of a cabinet. Bucky said, "Okay, wait, wait, whoa, honey," and went to her and said, stretching up his hands to steady her, "Come on, get down; whatever it is, I'll get it for you."

"All right," Peggy said, sounding a little out of breath, and together they slowly manuvered her down; and when her feet hit the ground, Bucky collapsed into a kitchen chair and said, "Okay, look: I understand that Steve's not entirely rational, but you know you really shouldn't be up on ladders, right?"

Peggy sighed and pushed her hair back her face. "I suppose. Why are you up so early on a Saturday?"

"Ask your stupid husband." Bucky put his head down on the table. "What were you doing anyway?"

Peggy shrugged, then shifted her weight to keep her balance. "I wanted to change the shelf paper."

"Right, so whatever this madness is, it's contagious," Bucky groaned. "Please tell me there's coffee."

 

The Swing.

Bucky stuck close to the house all day, and that night, after dinner, he and Peggy went to sit out on the porch swing together; that had become kind of their usual spot. Peggy grunted a little as she snuggled close to him, trying to find a comfortable position; her belly was high and tight like a drum, and Bucky knew that sometimes the baby pressed uncomfortably on her stomach, on her lungs. "You know, I haven't said anything to Steve," he said, looking down at her belly: so wonderful and strange, "but I think it's a boy."

"Do you?" Peggy asked, sounding interested. "Why do you think so?"

"Just how you're carrying," Bucky replied. "All high like that. My ma always said that if it's high and hard like that, it's a boy, and if it's low and sort of spread out, it's a girl. Plus you haven't had any morning sickness: there's more morning sickness with girls."

"Hm." Peggy smiled and leaned her head against Bucky shoulder. "Joseph James, then," and Bucky nodded: they'd told Steve that he was responsible for choosing the name, and he'd gone off and thought about it and come back with Joseph James Rogers for a boy, and Rose Buchanan Rogers for a girl.

"And you're all right with that?" Bucky asked quietly, meaning—not just the name, his name, but everything, he supposed: carrying his child, letting him continue to stay on with them, a part of them.

"Yes of course," Peggy replied, snugging back into the crook of his arm. "I think he chose well," and Bucky's throat tightened, because she wasn't just talking about the name either. "What about you?" she asked, after a moment, rubbing her belly affectionately. "We did rather railroad you into this."

"Tie me to the tracks," Bucky said, tilting his head to smile up at the night sky, and Peggy laughed. "Ain't much I wouldn't give him. My right arm," and then a pain pierced his forehead and he winced, and then he saw that Peggy looked sick too; her face twisted and pained, horrified—she knew! he thought irrationally. She knew, too! and he was paralyzed, bile rising in his stomach, but it was true, fuck, it was true and Peggy was already shaking her head at him, no, no, don't say it, but it was too late; they were looking at each other, on the same page now, and one crazy thought was a fantasy but two—two was a conspiracy.

He couldn't breathe. He could barely speak. "It didn't happen this way the first time," he said, and Peggy's eyes went wide and filled with tears, though they stayed on him; her brown eyes shone in the moonlight.

"No," she managed, and Jesus, she was a tough broad. "No, I don't think so. You died," she said. "You both died; you first and then Steve, a week later," and now the tears were spilling out, tears glistening down her cheeks. "You bastards both died and left me," and maybe he'd been wrong about morning sickness, because now she was lurching up, off the bench, and stumbling to her knees and throwing up in the grass.

He was beside her in a flash, trying to help her up. "Peg," he said, desperately, wiping at her mouth with his thumb. "Come on, let me get you into the house—"

She sat down in the grass, covered her face with her hands, shook her head. "I don't want to go in," she said. "I don't know what's real. I don't know what's happening," and he couldn't argue with that, so he just sat down in the grass with her and waited, looking down the slope of lawn toward the ocean.

 

Steve.

"Do you think Steve knows?" Bucky asked, after a while.

"No," Peggy replied faintly. "I don't think he has a lot of memories from—after. He's not as old as we are."

"Oh my God," Bucky said, and felt sick.

 

Das Unheimliche.

"Every since the war I've felt like things were too good to be true." Peggy knotted her hands. "That everything was on the verge of crashing down around us. But then I thought—well, of course. What we'd lived through; what we'd seen. We'd survived a world war: we were bound to be a little skittish and suspicious of happiness. Natural enough to feel like everything could be taken from us without warning: it happened to us once, already. And it made everything sweeter, somehow, the way fresh flowers are: knowing they could be dead when you next look at them. Don't the Germans have a word for that?"

"The Germans have a word for fucking everything," Bucky said.

 

Peggy.

"What do you remember?" Bucky asked her. "How much do you..." but Peggy was already rubbing her forehead and shaking her head in confusion.

"Not much," she told him. "Almost nothing. Flashes mainly— like memories of another life—but there are more and more of them as time goes on. I remember that you died, and that Steve did. Eventually I married someone else. A good man but—not Steve," she added softly, and she didn't have to tell Bucky that no man, no matter how good, could ever substitute for Steve. "We dropped the bomb—two bombs," she added, seeming surprised, "on Japan to end the war. Then we fought in Korea, Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq—"

"That's not all we did," Bucky said, staring down at the grass, and Peggy inhaled sharply and then said, in tearful horror: "Oh my God, I tried to kill you in 1970. Darling, I didn't know that was you."

"It's all right," Bucky replied with an unhappy smile. "I didn't know it was me, either."

 

Bucky.

"What do you remember?" Peggy asked him, But Bucky just shook his head: torture, murder, mutilation; all the flashes in his head were obscene. He looked down at his left hand and said nothing.

But Peggy was persistent, and grabbed for his left hand and dragged it up. "Bucky. Do you they still have you?" and Bucky stared at her and said, "Peg, they have me. My mind and my body. The things they do to me," and then she was gathering him close and he buried his face in the crook of her neck and held on.

 

The Do Over.

"Maybe we've just been given the chance to—do it over," Peggy said, and he could hear the forced optimism in her voice. "Oh, perhaps not you or me, but Steve: Steve certainly deserves the chance to live the life that he missed! We might just be along for the ride, you and me. Part of his second chance."

"Maybe," Bucky allowed. "I don't know. I don't know what this is."

"Maybe the first time was the mistake," Peggy insisted, sitting up. "Because this is better, isn't it? Not just for us, but for the world! Steve saved the world: why shouldn't he be happy? It's better for everyone!"

"Are you kidding? It's everything I ever wanted," and then Bucky put his hands on her shoulders and said, despairingly, "They're giving us everything we ever wanted," even as Peggy shook her head in mute denial.

"Why must the terrible thing be the true thing?" she demanded, anger putting red spots high on her cheeks.

"You know why," Bucky said, finally.

 

Joseph James Rogers.

"Come on," Bucky murmured after a while, tugging on her hand and helping her get up to her feet. "It's getting late, we've got to get you inside," but Peggy looked in at the brightly lit kitchen and the warmth of the house beyond and said, pleadingly, to him: "I don't want to go home. Not without Steve."

So Bucky took her back to his apartment and they stretched out on the bed together with him spooned up behind her. She noticed that he was being very careful about where he put his hands—careful not to touch her belly in the darkness, though she could tell he wanted to—which was ridiculous, and so she gripped Bucky's wrist and dragged his hand off her hip and onto her swollen abdomen. He froze for a second, then exhaled against her neck and rubbed his palm affectionately over her, and, gratifyingly, the baby moved within her, and Bucky breathed, "oh," and chased the movement in with his hand: his child, Steve's child.

Peggy laughed and squeezed her eyes shut to hold back tears. "That's real. Don't tell me that isn't real."

"I don't know," Bucky whispered into her hair. "But I had the serum, Peg. Whatever's wrong with him should be wrong with me, too."

 

The Red Eye.

There was a frantic knocking at the door. "Bucky!" and fucking hell, that was Steve. Bucky groaned and stumbled to his feet; on the other side of the bed, Peggy stirred; she'd been snoring like a racehorse.

Bucky opened the door. Steve immediately burst out with, "Bucky, do you know where Peg—?" and Bucky blearily opened the door the whole way and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Oh, thank God," Steve said, and then he did a double-take—looking from Bucky to his wife, snuggled up comfortably in the bed.

"Oh, don't be a moron," Bucky said, irritated, tiredly loping back to the bed. "Put your brains back in your head," and then Peggy opened her eyes and said, joyously, "Steve!" and went straight into his arms and kissed him and kissed him. Steve kissed her back desperately and then slid both hands over her belly and bent to drop a kiss on the high, firm rise of it. "Hello, baby," he murmured, and then, to Peggy: "I took the red eye, I wanted to get home as soon as—You left the door open and all the lights—Are you all right?" and Peggy said, breathlessly, "I'm fine, I just didn't want to be alone. Oh, Steve," and burst into tears.

"What?" Steve looked from Peggy to Bucky and back. "Darling, what is it?" and Bucky swallowed hard and steeled himself to ask Steve if he'd ever had the feeling that things were too goddamned good to be true, except then Peggy said, quickly, stroking Steve's cheek, "It's nothing, darling; I'm just—" She laughed wetly. "I'm swimming in hormones," and Bucky had no trouble interpreting the look she gave him.

"Come on," Peggy said, wiping under her eyes with her knuckles and tugging on Steve's arm. "Let's go home," and Bucky was pretty sure he could see from the way Peggy's fingers were twining in Steve's belt where that was going. But she stopped at the door, looked back at him, and said: "Will you be all right?"

"Oh, yeah," Bucky said. "I'm going back to bed," but of course he couldn't, and so he took out the Thin Lizzie out and went speeding along the Long Island coast, faster and faster, the wind blowing his hair around wildly, feeling reckless and possibly even free.

 

The Beach.

It was a beautiful day, already warm for early summer, and Bucky was already past the point where he could enjoy things by himself, so after a while he drove back to the house and found Steve standing, flushed, in the kitchen in an obvious post-coital stupor. "It's crazy," Steve confided. "You'd think that pregnancy would—but it doesn't," and Bucky went and got a Coke out of the fridge and said, "Come on, it's beautiful out; let's go down to the beach," and so they all piled in to Peggy's convertible and took a picnic down to the sandy coast of the South Shore.

Peggy's black and white checkered bathing suit was really more of a tablecloth than an item of clothing, and Bucky smiled and bit his tongue as Steve carefully levered her down onto their beach blanket. Then Peggy sighed and pursed her red lips at him and said, glaring, "Fine. Go ahead, say it," and Bucky leaped in the air and yelled helplessly, irrepressibly, "Whale!" and then ran, stumbling, out of reach as Peggy kicked sand at him and shouted back: "If I could get up, Bucky Barnes, I would hit you so hard!" And then she looked at Steve and said, "I'm not hearing any vehement disagreement from you!" which was a joke in itself because Steve was a terrible, terrible liar and they both knew it, but it was fun watching him open his mouth and close it and then open it again. Finally he swallowed and said, with desperate sincerity, "Darling, there's so much more of you to love," and offered her an enormous Dagwood sandwich, which she eyed, balefully, for a moment, before snatching out of his hands.

Then Bucky dragged Steve out into the surf, and they dived and splashed and wrestled and laughed until they were nearly sick, and when they stumbled back and collapsed, dripping and with sand-encrusted legs, upon the blanket, Bucky saw that Peggy was doing the same thing he was, watching everything intently and marking it all in her memory: the sun and the sand and the sky and the ocean and Steve, being happy.

 

Meat and Potatoes.

Afterwards, Steve wanted to barbeque, which was fine with her, not least because it meant that that she could get in a private word with Bucky while Steve was outside getting the grill going. She found him in the kitchen—he'd piled steaks on a plate and was now roughly wrapping potatoes in foil—though he looked up warily as she came inside. He'd been wanting to talk to her, too; all day. She'd seen it in his eyes.

"I know," she said, wanting to foreclose any recriminations, "and I don't propose keeping it from him."

"Then you're a better man than me." Bucky tossed a potato onto the pile. "I mean, it all depends, doesn't it?"

"Well, yes," Peggy sighed. "If this is an actual alternative timeline—"

"If this is an actual alternative timeline," Bucky said, and then lowered his voice. "If this is an actual alternative timeline, then let's stay here forever. Because back in in the other world—" His hands shook, and he made fists and shoved them into his pockets; the other world hadn't been kind to James Barnes.

"Back in the other world," Peggy said, facing it, "I'm trapped in my body and I'm going to die."

"I'm—" Bucky clamped his mouth shut. "It's not worth talking about. There's nothing for me there."

"But if this is all a lie," Peggy said quietly. "A honeypot..." They looked out the window to where Steve was bent over the grill, gold hair glinting in the late afternoon sunlight. "Then Steve is the one being trapped. And we can't let that happen."

"You think he'd see it that way?" Bucky asked. "You think he wouldn't give his right arm—both arms—to have that baby with you?"

"I'm quite sure he would," Peggy replied. "And I'm sure he'd do anything to save you from torture."

They looked out the kitchen window again; Steve was standing back and regarding the fire with satisfaction, his huge arms crossed over his chest.

"But Steve hates a lie," Bucky said, and Peggy sighed, her shoulders slumping: "Yes he does."

"I mean, Steve really hates a lie," Bucky said, and Peggy replied, sharpish, "I know, I did marry him."

"Yeah, sorry," Bucky mumbled. They stared at each other numbly for a moment.

"Well, I suppose I'll make some lemonade," Peggy said.

"We're so fucked," Bucky said, and took the meat out to Steve.

 

The Red Menace.

"You guys are quiet," Steve said when they'd finished eating and were relaxing in the yard; he'd turned the porch lights on so that they could enjoy the warm evening, but neither Bucky nor his wife seemed their usual selves. Peggy was cuddled against his side, lost in thought; Bucky was staring blankly down the hill at the water, beer bottle dangling from one hand. He turned at the sound of Steve's voice, blinking and lost; Steve knew him well enough to know that he was trying to think of something to say.

Instead it was Peggy who shifted uncomfortably beside him. "Steve," she began, and they'd been married long enough that he knew to be worried at that particular tone of "Steve." But then Bucky swiftly interjected: "We've got a meeting tomorrow with the new Acting Director of SHIELD," and Peggy shot a look at him that made Steve think that Bucky maybe hadn't been supposed to mention that: oddly, when it came to SHIELD business, Bucky's security clearance was now higher than his was.

Still, he was glad Bucky mentioned it. "Well, finally," Steve said. "Who's the guy, do you know him?"

"His name's Velbin, I think," Peggy said, frowning. "Edward Velbin, or is it—?"

"Edmund, I think," Bucky said, shrugging. "Signs himself Ted, so who the hell knows?"

"Comes out of Justice apparently. Probably wants to be sure we're not communists," Peggy sighed.

"Well, who says we're not?" Steve demanded, and somehow that broke the ice, with Peggy laughing and Bucky leaning forward and grinning and saying, no, no, no, this was no joke, honey, because Steve had absolutely joined the IWO back when he was selling papers for the New York Journal American.

"They gave sick benefits," Steve explained, "even death benefits, without a medical, so you could get insurance even if you were—well, like me." He laughed. "Sickly and with no life expectancy to speak of," and a look came over Peggy's face just before she slid her arms around his neck and kissed him, and the wonderful thing was that she'd looked at him like that before he'd ever taken the serum. Somehow, miraculously, he'd seen that flirtatious little smile from the front seat of a Jeep, across the back seat of a cab. No woman had ever smiled that way at him. It had given him the courage to smile back.

Now her arms were coming around him and she was kissing him, her arms struggling to contain him; her enormous belly pressed between them. She wanted him, and he wanted to give himself to her, and to take her; he was putty in her hands and he always had been. And she must have known it because she broke off, cupping his face, and murmured, "Come upstairs," and then she blinked and turned to Bucky—she'd forgotten Bucky, they both had—and to his surprise, stretched out her hand.

"Do you want to come?" she asked, and Steve felt a hard, almost painful twist of lust and shock and, yes, jealousy, because Peggy'd never asked him, never: just that one time they'd made the baby. So why was she asking now? Bucky got up, smiling; he was haloed a little against the porch light, and he was as beautiful to Steve as he'd ever been, but he was already shaking his head as he came over to where they were sitting.

"Nah." Bucky took her hand and gave her fingers a little squeeze before letting go. "I'm going to turn in early," he said, and then he leaned in to put a big kiss on Steve's forehead. It was shocking, and Steve felt it like a burn, but Bucky just acted like it wasn't anything and turned his attention back to Peggy. "Let me drive tomorrow. Steve doesn't like it that you're driving so late in the game."

"Yes, because obviously what Steve wants is the—oh, all right." His wife gave in with a roll of her eyes, and they settled on 7:30 in the morning as an appropriate departure time to beat the traffic, and then Bucky turned and loped off across the grass toward the garage, the beer bottle still hanging from his hand.

 

Lovemaking.

Upstairs, Peggy pushed him onto his back and got on top of him, and Steve tried his damnedest to keep breathing and to keep still and to stay hard and otherwise to let her do whatever the hell she wanted to him, because anything Peggy wanted was a good thing. He tried to brace her up, but she didn't need his support: her balance was fine, her limbs were still strong, and she wanted his hand somewhere else. So he stroked her and kissed her and tried not go come. It was so strange, so strange, to make love to her with this huge belly between them, and some part of him still wasn't sure it was safe—except Peggy was sure. Peggy was taking him with swift, fierce determination, flushed and grinding down, her hands smoothing over him, then gripping his muscles. He kept it together until she was on the verge of coming, then let go, thrusting into her as gently as he could stand to, feeling the warmth of her all around him, everywhere, all that sweet warm sweaty great-smelling soft Peggy. Her nipples were so hard and she gasped when he touched them, he wanted them in his mouth, he wanted—and oh God, he was convulsing and kissing her everywhere he could reach, touching her everywhere he could touch, dragging his lips over her skin: Peggy, oh Peg.

It took some doing afterwards to get her cuddled up against him securely, her belly resting against him. Peggy was breathing hard, her fingernails clutching for him a bit desperately—and there was some current here he couldn't understand, something he couldn't quite interpret: anxiety about the baby, maybe. Steve held her close and soothed her, kissing her and stroking her hair. He found himself wishing that Bucky had said yes and come up to bed with them; he felt having Bucky here might have completed them, calmed them somehow. Bucky'd always had that effect on him; maybe Peggy'd caught it, too.

Steve drifted in memories for a moment, then heard himself murmuring, "When I was eight, I heard a nurse tell my mother that I wasn't going to make it to Christmas."

"Oh, Steve," Peggy breathed, but that wasn't it at all; Steve shook his head and went on.

"Later they told her that I wouldn't see twelve, then they told me I'd never make it to eighteen." He laughed suddenly, remembering his eighteenth birthday and Bucky taking a real racehorse of a piss against the wall of the Cumberland Children's Hospital. "Bucky got me smashing drunk when I turned. He always said they were full of shit, that doctors didn't know anything. But he was mostly trying to make me feel better. The thing is, Peg," Steve said, sobering a little, "that it was supposed to be such a little life, I was always trying to figure out how to make the most of it."

"And here you are," Peggy said softly, and yeah: that was it.

"Right," Steve said. "Here I am—and here you are, and Bucky, and our baby—my baby," he added, grinning helplessly as he ran a possessive hand over the high, hard roundness of her, "because it's mine more than anyone's—you know that, don't you? Because you love me: it's the baby you and Bucky made because you love me. And that makes it mine more than any baby ever was anyone's, the way I see it."

"Yes," Peggy said. "That's exactly right."

 

The Last Breakfast.

Peggy hesitated at her wardrobe the next morning, wanting something authoritative, which was surprisingly difficult in her current condition. She finally chose a simple navy blue dress with a red collar, and wasn't surprised when Bucky turned up with dark circles under his eyes—he clearly hadn't slept well, early bedtime not withstanding—but sharply dressed in a navy blue suit. Steve was up, too, though not dressed—he was in his dressing gown and slippers—but he'd made breakfast: coffee and bacon and eggs and toast.

"Wanted to wish you luck," Steve said with his usual kindness, though of all the things she couldn't give a damn about right now, the status of SHIELD in this fake world was at the top of the list.

"Thank you, darling," Peggy said. "To be honest, I'm eager for it to be over; I'd like to be home."

"Thank you, darling," Bucky said, making a kissy face at Steve as he helped himself to coffee, and Steve grinned and punched his shoulder, hard enough to make him wince, though he didn't seem to mind. Later, Steve wandered out to the porch, holding his coffee, to wave goodbye to them as they drove off.

 

The Meeting.

Ted Velbin was what Steve would have called an "aw golly, gee, shucks," sort of person, and Peggy loathed him on sight. He was tall and lanky and wearing a cream-colored suit, but his "salt of the earth" demeanor did nothing to mitigate the cold, calulating look in his eyes or the falseness of his smile.

"Mrs. Rogers." Velbin reached over her desk to shake her hand but nonetheless dismissed her almost immediately, turning his attention to Bucky, whom he'd obviously adjudged the more substantial personality. "Sergeant Barnes," Velbin said, sticking out his hand, "I'm honored to work with you, sir. It's not every day you get to meet a living legend—I mean, geez," he said, and Peggy rolled her eyes, "you and Captain America, the Howling Commandos; you guys practically won the war all by yourselves."

Bucky showed him a hard smile; he was having none of it. "Well, we had a little help. Have a seat, Mr. Velbin." Velbin did, and looked expectantly at Bucky, but Bucky just sat there, smiling at Peggy. Eventually Velbin got the idea, and turned to look at her, too. "Right," Peggy said. "Shall we begin?"

 

The End of The Line.

It was about twenty minutes into the meeting when Velben opened his leather briefcase, pulled out a manila folder, and put it gingerly onto the desk. Bucky hardly registered this; he was still taking notes about the command chains they'd just outlined, who would be responsible for what in Peggy's absence, what reports would go to whom. The folder sat there for a while, innocuously, at the edge of the desk— some future business—and he didn't catch the moment when Peggy picked it up; only noticed that she had, afterwards, from the quality of the silence. He looked up; Peggy'd opened the folder and was frowning down at it, her face blank. Velbin was staring at her with rat-like intensity, crouched and waiting.

"This?" Peggy asked finally, calmly, looking up. "Was it all for this?"

Bucky didn't know what she meant. Velbin, he thought, did know but was pretending not to. "Ma'am," Velbin said, "my understanding is that that's just a routine review of old business, requested by my superiors in the intelligence community." Velbin shrugged his shoulders; aw, shucks. "Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Committee on Unamerican Activities and chairmen of the—"

"For this?" Peggy repeated, and if you didn't know Steve's wife, you wouldn't have known she was furious; Peggy Rogers had been born British after all. She turned and handed the folder to Bucky; Velben looked like he wanted to snatch it out of her hand. Bucky flipped it open and began to read—there were various requests for information and it took him a moment to get the drift of the questions. Decryption codes, sure, but which? Old ones; they wanted access to the SSR's wartime notes and artifacts. They wanted to get into SHIELD's archives, they wanted maps to their storage units and itemized inventories of the contents; they wanted the Hydra weapons that the Howling Commandos had recovered in 1945 and 1946, they wanted Hydra's captured lab equipment, they wanted the notes detailing all of Hydra's wartime experiments—

Bucky looked up, throat tight. "You can't give this to them," he said, his mind gone red with murder and torture.

"No shit," and Peggy had a gun in her hand, a big silver one, and before Bucky could react she'd lifted it high and shot Velbin right in the head, blam. Velbin flew back in a spray of blood, knocking his chair over and collapsing in a bloody heap of bones. Bucky stared. "I know what this is," Peggy said, coming around the desk; she was flushed and breathless; fierce and beautiful, like she'd been in the war. "I saw it in 1946. The real 1946," she said. "There was a proposal for a machine, built around a doctor who created illusions; deceptions. Bucky," Peggy said, her voice breaking, "I married someone else. You died and Steve died and I married someone else. I have two children, Steven and Caroline," and her face contorted and Bucky sucked his lip in and then nodded; yeah, okay.

"You have a metal arm," Peggy said, staring up at him, and that was true, he knew it was. He stared down at his hand and flexed it, skin and bone, remembering how the plates had once whirred and shifted. "You can get us out of here, " Peggy said, "you can break us out, punch through, but you have to use your arm. Not this one," she said, gripping him tightly. "Your real arm. "

"Yes," Bucky said.

"Once you've got out, you need to find the drives and take down the firewalls—all of them," Peggy said, and Bucky nodded. "Then..." She lost control of her face again, became grieving and sad. "Get him out."

"Yes."

"You'll get him out? By any means? You'll do what you have to?"

"Yes." Bucky turned his face down to hers and said, "You know, I don't know if I love you as much as Steve loves you. I'm not sure anyone loves anyone the way Steve loves you. But I love you an awful lot."

Peggy could barely speak. "Same," she managed, and then he was cupping her face, and they were kissing, fast and sweet. "Good luck."

Bucky managed a faint smile. "Same," he replied, and then he took a breath and flexed his arm, trying to feel it, because it was somewhere: his real arm, his real body. He closed his eyes and pulled back his fist and punched as hard as he could, and was surprised at the jolt, the crack; he had hit something, and he opened—

 

The Tubes.

—his eyes, the world tinted with the green cloudiness of ectoplasm beyond the knuckle-indented glass, a loose hose flailing around his head, and he flailed and jerked in the viscous fluid and bobbed up, down, up. He was unable to maintain a position in the tall glass tube: the gelatinous fluid he was floating in was much thicker than water, and hard to move through. Dimly he thought he could see other tubes in the darkness beyond the clear glass, flickering with green and yellow lights. He became aware of the far-off wail of an alarm, triggered; they would be coming. An articulated metal hose floated out from a mask covering his nose and mouth, and when he turned his head from side to side, he could see where the other hoses snaked out from his body. He looked up and saw that some of them attached to nozzles fitted into the top of the glass cylinder, while others disappeared into the thick base below, and this gave him an idea. He wound the hose he'd pulled loose around his right arm, and wrapped what he assumed was a feeding or waste tube around his left ankle, and when they were tight, he braced his foot against the glass and curled his metal fingers into a metal fist, and oh, yeah, this fucking metal arm was good for something.

He smashed his fist into the glass, again again again until there was a final lightning crack—and then he was clinging to the metal hose like a rope as the glass fractured and the ectoplasm poured out in a rush, trying to drag him down along with it. Gravity reasserted itself: he felt his own weight pulling on his arm as he hung from the hose, and then he was wrenching the mask off his face and kicking his way through the broken glass and out of the tube, ripping the other hoses from his body, choking and gasping.

The lab was dark, but even so he could see that both of the other tubes were occupied. Peggy looked like a medieval angel, her thick white hair floating to either side of her face. He came forward and pressed his hands to the glass: she was old, ancient, nearly wasted away beneath the diaphanous white shift they'd clothed her in, which billowed out from her body. The tube she was in was suffused with yellow light, and the small console beside it was flashing with wildly vacillating readouts and all sorts of alerts: DANGER / LIFE SUPPORT FAILING / PARAMETERS EXCEEDED and then, he saw, terrifyingly, UPLOADING.

Christ, Hydra was uploading her so they could keep torturing her, throwing her into more scenarios, trying to crack her mind open. The firewalls—he yanked open the console nearby. It wasn't locked beyond a basic passphrase; the real security was inside the tubes: a world nobody in their right mind would want to leave. It wasn't hard to find the stored consciousness: massive quantities of data in a cordoned off drive, fenced around with bristling firewalls, and it only took him a minute to rip them all down.

He backed away and turned his attention to the other tube. Steve looked relaxed, peaceful, almost happy as he floated in the tube's thick plasma. If this be a dream, still let me sleep—but he couldn't do that, because they were coming; they were almost here. He went to look at the console beside Steve's tube, which was flashing green—everything stable, all vital signs normal; Steve hadn't been uploaded; not yet—and saw that an orderly shutdown of the machine would take far too long. He flexed his arm; the metal plates shifted.

Steeling himself, he bashed and battered the tube with his metal arm until it cracked, and then dragged Steve Rogers out of the flood of broken glass and ectoplasm, yanking the mask off his face and the tubes from his body. For a moment Steve didn't move, just hung, limp and wet, in his arms, and then he was sputtering and choking, looking around in something like shock, and then he retched twice, shoulders hunching, and gasped, "Buck, what—" but he was already tugging Steve up and across the stone floor.

"Come on," he said, moving mechanically; he thought he knew where they were, which was something. If he was right, if he could get Steve to the tunnel— Despite his best efforts at propulsive forward movement, he saw Steve's head turn, his eyes drifting toward Peggy's tube. "Is that—?" Steve breathed, and there was something terrible in his voice. "Oh God, Buck, is that—Peg?—Peggy!—" and he considered knocking Steve out with a quick blow to the back of the head and just carrying him, because they wouldn't make it out if Steve decided to fight him, except Steve had to be able to run once they reached the tunnels.

Instead he grabbed Steve by the shoulders and snarled, "Listen to me! You've got to listen to me," and Steve was staring at him now, at his overgrown hair and his hard face, the metal arm, the terrible red welts and scar tissue on his chest and shoulder: Steve's body was as perfect and smooth as it had been in 1945.

"Bucky?" Steve repeated, but it was an actual question now; Steve had gotten that far anyway. No, he wanted to say; I'm not Bucky; I don't fucking know who Bucky is, and Steve was staring at him like he remembered, now: that this was the first time they'd been face to face since the Helicarrier, or, if you really wanted to be honest about it, since he'd been mostly out of his mind at the time, the first time since the train. He remembered swinging over the gorge, reaching up—Christ, so desperately—for Steve's hand. Gotcha, Bucky thought savagely, and they certainly had; they'd gotten all three of them but good.

 

The Gate.

He took advantage of Steve's distraction—memories of the three years since the ice were flooding across Steve's face- to drag him out of the lab and into the twisty dank corridors beyond. He was gripped by deja vu, echoes of the prisoner of war camp in Austria when Steve had shown up—unlike him, vastly changed for the better—and half-carried, half-dragged him out. Now it was his turn to rescue and Steve who was dazed and disorientated, barely able to stand. He could hear the grinding of gears overhead, the rumble of ancient elevators lurching into action. Hydra hadn't been expecting trouble, not today; not from down here. This was project storage; he knew all about project storage. He'd been in storage for decades now. He had been stored in labs all over the world.

He was pretty sure he knew this lab, too, and if he was right, at the end of this hall there was— and there it was, the tunnel, but there was now a heavy round gate barring its entrance, and a high-tech lock connected to the rest of the security system. He stared at it in dismay—he could see the tunnel leading off to freedom beyond—and then went to the console and began trying passwords; he'd known all the passwords, once, back before the Triskelion, back before they'd been stupid enough to try to make him kill Steve. His first two tries didn't work, and his third made the console beep angrily, and then the override code didn't work either, and suddenly he was furiously bashing at the iron latticework and trying to rip the gate out of the wall, which was impossible because it was attached by eight bolts into the surrounding rock, like a safe. He felt tears of rage, of frustration as he threw himself at it. He could put his hand through it, but he couldn't—

"Bucky," and that was Steve's worried voice. "We'll get out another way. We can take them. We can—"

"No, we can't. You've got healing powers, you're not fucking bulletproof," and Steve didn't have his shield, or a gun; hell, Steve wasn't even dressed: they were both of them wearing only the long skivvies they'd been warehoused in. He fisted the bars and yanked on the gate with all his strength, teeth gritted, pulling until his metal arm was nearly ripped off the bone underneath, then heard a flash of static over the intercom and suddenly yelled, hopeless and feverish, "Peggy!" Steve looked shocked; Bucky ignored him. "Peggy, if you can hear me you've got to open this goddamned gate!" He yanked at it again, hard; tried to rattle it. It didn't so much as budge. "Peggy," he threatened—

Her voice came back to them, distant and mechanical and slightly irritated. "YES. GIVE ME A MINUTE."

He jerked back and read the serial number off the monitor. "Peggy, it's B-2394—"

Steve's face had gone slack, wonderous, he was looking up, looking around for her. He peered down at the little speaker on the console. "Peggy?" he said, a little desperately. "Peg? Where are...?"

"—YES, I KNOW," she said, and then a green light flashed and the gate's eight bolts retracted with a whir. It unlocked and swung open an inch or two. "I CAN RELOCK IT," she told him, "BUT YOU'LL HAVE TO DESTROY THE CONSOLE AFTERWARDS, OR THEY'LL USE THE OVERRIDE. I HAVEN'T YET CONQUERED THE OVERRIDE. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"

"Yes," he said, and dragged the heavy gate open.

"DO YOU UNDERSTAND?" she repeated, and Bucky Barnes stopped and took a breath and said, "Yes, Peggy; yes," and then he was grabbing Steve's arm and urging him into the tunnel, waving him in and then slamming the gate after him. The bolts whirled and spun, locking him in, even as Steve turned and grabbed the solid metal bars in his fists, looking more shocked and betrayed than Bucky'd ever seen him, ever.

Bucky swallowed and backed away as Steve stared at him, already shaking his head: no, no, no, "No, Bucky, you can't. You can't. Buck. Bucky—" but Bucky just looked at him despondently and said, "I was fucked anyway. I was dead anyway," and then there were the sounds of men's voices, down the tunnel, shouting, and footsteps, getting louder. "You gotta go, pal," Bucky said, "—now—hurry—" and then he turned to the console and said, despondently, "I could really use a gun, Peg."

"THERE ISN'T ONE. BEST WEAPON TO HAND IS A SHORT LENGTH OF COPPER PIPE FOURTEEN FEET TO YOUR LEFT."

"Right," Bucky muttered.

"DON'T FORGET TO SMASH THE CONSOLE," Peggy said, just as Steve shouted: "No! Bucky, please don't!—" but Bucky punched the console hard with his metal fist; it shattered and sparked. Peggy's voice disappeared. Steve let out a small, desolate sound. Bucky impulsively went over to the gate—Steve reached through the latticework to grab at him, bent foward to him—and planted a rough kiss on his forehead, then stroked a thumb along his cheek for the last time. "Get out of here," Bucky said, jerking free. "Go," and then he was turning and snatching up the bit of pipe—it was solid stuff, a good three inches in diameter—and slicing it viciously through the air.

 

The Tunnel.

Steve stood frozen, heart slamming in his chest, as Bucky strode purposefully back down the corridor swinging the pipe; he had murder on his mind but there was only so much an unarmed man could do against an armed squadron, even if that one man was the Winter Soldier. He took a deep breath: he had to get hold of himself, but that was hard. One moment he'd been doing his morning run along the North Shore, the next he'd been crashing to the floor in a cascade of thick fluid and broken glass and Bucky—the Winter Soldier—had been hauling him up. Memories cut into him like broken glass, each more painful than the last. He'd been asleep for 70 years. His wife—Peggy had never been his wife. Peggy was old; Peggy'd married somebody else; Bucky had died; Bucky hadn't died; Bucky had been captured, tortured, made to kill; made into the Winter Soldier; he had forgotten Steve, forgotten himself

No, he hadn't. Steve stared for another second at Bucky's receding back, the curve of scar tissue, metal arm glinting, and then turned and began to run as fast as he could up the tunnel. He had to get out, to get help—to find something, a weapon, a way back in—The tunnel twisted and turned and grew dark and so he barely had time to slow down when he saw the flashing beam of light and skidded around a corner and nearly slammed into Natasha, who had her laser bracelets armed and aimed at him. "Steve," she said. "What—?"

"Do you have a gun? I need a gun," Steve panted, grabbing for her. "We have to—we have to save them, Natasha; I can't—not again—" and Natasha was staring at him like he was crazy, like he was fragile, and maybe he was; certainly he was. But when she spoke, her voice was calm. "Save who?" she asked.

"Peggy," he said, already feeling it was a lie; it was too late to save Peggy. "Bucky," he said, because that was the truth, but would Natasha care about saving Bucky? She looked at him; her eyes gave nothing away.

"Stark," Natasha said, and for a moment Steve didn't understand her, but then she lifted her hand to her ear and said, "He's here, I've got Rogers—he says that Hydra's got Agent Peggy Carter and Sergeant James Barnes," and Steve could have kissed her; really, he could've. "We're in the tunnels, lower level—we need massive backup and we need it now. Shock and awe," and faraway, there was an echo of gunfire, and Steve's stomach knotted, thinking of Bucky, naked to the waist and armed only with a bit of copper pipe.

Steve began to head back down the tunnel. "You've got a laser? We'll need a laser—there's a gate at the—" but Natasha grabbed his arm. He turned, surprised, and saw she was shaking her head. "You're not armed—and you don't have to be. We're all here," she said. "Stark, Clint, Thor, Sam—we've been looking for you. And her; Carter," she added. "We didn't know about Barnes. But we've got this. So you don't have to—"

"But I do," Steve said, and she looked hard at him with those clear blue eyes, and when he asked her again, "Do you have a laser?" she said, grimly, "Yeah." They ran back down tunnel toward the shooting.

 

Sam.

Even with Natasha's lasers, it wasn't easy to get the gate open, and by the time they were through, the air had gone quiet, the echoes of gunfire had stopped. Steve tried to tell himself that it was because Tony had gotten there, or Thor or Hulk, and they'd knocked out scores of Hydra soldiers with one punch. And certainly there were soldiers lying on the ground, though their bruises, contusions, and head wounds suggested that it was Bucky who'd been through here, and not anyone else. And then Natasha was raising her stingers again, and aiming—but it was Sam striding toward them, wings folded behind him but goggles still on, with a face like marble. "Sam," Natasha said, relieved; Steve wasn't so sure he was relieved.

"Steve," Sam said, and Steve's heart sank at his voice, the kindness in it. "I'm so glad to see you, but—man, you've got to stay here." He raised a gauntleted hand; it was clear. He didn't mean to let Steve pass.

"Are they dead?" Steve gritted out; he was shriveling up and dying himself.

Sam hesitated, but Sam knew the value of straight talk. "Agent Carter is dead," he said. "Barnes is..." Nearly dead, Steve thought, even as Sam finished: "They're working on him now. If they stabilize him—"

"Let me through," and when Sam looked like he was going to protest, Steve said heavily, "If he dies, I have to be there. If he doesn't die, I have to be there," and Sam nodded, shoulders slumping a little, and let him continue on down the brick corridor, to where Bucky was lying in a puddle of blood; full of holes.

 

Tony.

Everything happened fast; suddenly the cellar was full of SHIELD and ATF and a ton of what turned out to be local police; Steve hadn't known where they were, but it turned out that this Hydra base had been built in a disused stone armory in Western Massachusetts.

One minute Steve was kneeling on the bloody ground next to Bucky's head, trying to stay out of the way as Banner and Clint pressed hands and knees and shins all over Bucky's body to staunch the torrent of bright, horrifying blood, and the next minute medics were swarming over them, spraying glue on the wounds and sliding Bucky onto a stretcher, taking off at a run. Steve stood to follow, then turned and saw the lab they'd been kept in: two smashed tubes and an undamaged one. The intact one was Peggy's.

They'd roughly cordoned off the lab with yellow tape, but Steve ducked under and stepped in. He could see, even from here, the white shift floating in the thick water, and he found himself moving slowly, afraid of coming close: he wasn't sure he could bear to see her like this; his beautiful, fierce, courageous wife. At the last moment he averted his eyes, only to see Tony Stark sitting on the floor at the foot of the tube, in his Iron Man armor, helmet tossed to one side. He was staring at nothing, and then suddenly he blinked and frowned at Steve's bare feet. His eyes moved up and up and up until he was looking into Steve's face.

"Watch out for the broken glass," he said.

"Yeah," Steve said, as if it was the broken glass that could hurt him.

Tony stared at him. "I'm glad you're alive, anyway." Steve didn't have it in him to agree. "What did they do to you?" Tony asked. "What did this shit—" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the tubes, "—do?"

"It was an alternate reality," Steve said. "We were living on the North Shore. Not far from your father," he added, and suddenly he was letting his knees soften and sitting down on the cold stone floor with Tony.

"You mean, Oyster Bay?" Tony asked, like this was a normal conversation.

"Yeah. I mean, we were further west. But yeah," Steve said.

"I loved that house. We lived there when I was a kid, and Dad was... " Tony frowned. "I wonder why I don't live there now."

"I don't know," Steve replied. "The golf course was amazing. I got a 59 once. Or—I guess I didn't."

They sat there and stared at each other for a minute.

"Peggy was good to me," Tony said. "She—I've known her my whole life, and after my parents died, she and Jarvis...." He trailed off. "But the thing that—you know, the thing I'm most grateful for—was that, when I was a kid, and my father was—you know, being Howard Stark—she would look at me and make faces. You know: wink, or—" Tony raised his eyebrows, then rolled his eyes, then bugged them out. "To show me she knew. He never even noticed. It—made me feel a bit less crazy. That she knew."

Steve nodded slowly, but he wasn't ready to share his own memories yet. Tony looked at him and said, "I thought I'd maybe stay here until they come for her," and then: "She was going to die anyway, you know."

"Yeah," Steve said, and then he was pushing up to his feet and saying, "I have to get to the hospital."

 

The Hospital.

Bucky was still in surgery when Steve got to the hospital, and there was no difficulty figuring out which operating room was his; it was the one that had were more armed guards outside than nurses. "Do they think he's going to leap off the table and kill them?" Steve gritted out to Natasha, who just shrugged.

People came by with questions; Steve didn't want to answer questions, and Natasha interposed herself and made them disappear. The others stopped by to check in: Clint, all wary sympathy, his black uniform still stained with Bucky's blood; Banner, grilling the doctors; Thor, who came and sat, solid and huge, in the chair beside him and said, blissfully, nothing. Thor sat shoulder to shoulder with him for five hours and said nothing, and then, when he was leaving, he bowed his head and chanted something in what Steve supposed had to be Norse. Steve didn't know what it meant but it was oddly calming. He liked Thor.

When the surgery was over, they wheeled Bucky not into recovery but into an isolated and heavily guarded room and hooked him up to an enormous wall of computers. These charted every possible medical data point, all of which had frighteningly low readouts; Bucky's lifesigns crawled along like a worm. Steve could see it on the faces of the doctors and nurses, the way they wouldn't meet his eyes; it was a look he recognized from Army field hospitals. They'd done the best that they could, and they were proud of their work, but they didn't think Bucky was going to make it.

"Get out," he heard himself say. "Please get out," and for a miracle, nobody argued with him. The door shut softly on its pneumatic hinges. Steve dragged a chair to the bed, then scraped the lank, dark hair away from the clammy, pale forehead and pressed his lips there. "Come on, buddy," he murmured. "You can do it."

 

3 A.M.

Night fell and Bucky's room in the ICU was totally dark except for the softly flashing lights of the monitors, and the small rectangular window that gave out onto the brightly lit nurse's station, which never went dark. Steve stared into the blackness, unsleeping: he'd spent his entire goddamned life asleep, it seemed like. He was clutching Bucky's metal hand in his; they'd put the IVs and wires into the flesh hand. But the metal hand was Bucky's real hand, too, Steve thought; it was as real as anything else was anyway.

The hand was warm in his, and Steve felt oddly calm, lulled by the darkness and the quiet pings and beeps of the monitors—so calm that he wasn't even surprised when a voice came out of the darkness.

"HE'S GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT," and Steve didn't ask what or how or even who, just tightened his jaw and said, shaking his head, his chest aching, "Peg, you can't know that."

"OF COURSE I CAN. I'VE BEEN POKING ABOUT IN HIS READOUTS FOR HOURS. HE'S DEFINITELY ON THE MEND," and Steve had to squeeze his eyes shut to hold back tears.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"YES."

He bent forward and stared down at his knees; his whole chest hurt; he was strangling. He didn't want to ask; he had to ask. He'd seen her dead, floating, in the tube, and suddenly he longed for her body, her strong, solid body and the warm brown of her eyes. "What about you, where are you? Are you dead?"

"WELL, I'M NOT SURE. THIS IS A RATHER DIFFERENT WORLD THAN THE ONE I'M USED TO. BUT I'M FREER THAN I WAS. UNFETTERED. I'VE BEEN OLD FOR SO LONG, STEVE."

"I know," Steve said quietly.

"THERE ARE WHOLE OTHER WORLDS HERE. NETWORKS LIKE SUPERHIGHWAYS, A WHOLE NEW GEOGRAPHY TO EXPLORE." The voice stopped. "HYDRA HAS STRONGHOLDS IN A DISCONCERTINGLY HIGH NUMBER OF THEM."

Steve sat up, frowning. "Can you fight them, Peg? Can you take the bastards down?"

"WELL, POSSIBLY. THOUGH IT'S SAID THAT IF YOU CUT OFF ONE HEAD, TWO WILL GROW IN ITS PLACE. BETTER IN THAT CASE SURELY NOT TO DECAPITATE BUT RATHER TO CAUSE—HEADACHES," and Steve could hear a distinct and familiar note of amusement. "I CAN SEE ANY NUMBER OF WAYS TO CAUSE HEADACHES—OH, STEVE, LOOK: HE'S WAKING UP," and Steve turned his attention immediately to the bed, searching Bucky's face for signs of consciousness.

Bucky's forehead creased, his eyelashes fluttered. "...Is that Peg?" he scraped out. "I hear Peggy."

"Yeah," Steve replied. "She's...in the computer."

"...Okay," Bucky said, and Steve supposed it wasn't the strangest thing that had happened to him this week either. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Steve said. "I'm fine, though—I mean, I'm going to beat the shit out of you when you're well enough to stand," and Bucky gave a cough that was something like a laugh and then said, "ow. fuck."

 

The Problem.

"They're going to put me in prison for a hundred million years," Bucky said.

"No, they're not."

"Oh, yeah? Why not?"

"Because I said so."

"AND YOU'RE CAPTAIN AMERICA, DARLING."

"That's right! I am. I'm Captain America."

"Okay, well, I've always liked the uniform, as you know," Bucky said, rubbing his eyes, "but you've noticed that there's about a hundred armed guards outside the door, right?"

"DON'T WORRY ABOUT THAT. WHEN YOU'RE READY TO GO, THERE'LL BE A CLEAR PATH AND A CAR WAITING."

Bucky looked up, not that he could see anything. "What kind of car?" he asked, interested.

"WHAT KIND WOULD YOU LIKE? I WOULDN'T CHOOSE ANYTHING FLASH."

Bucky tsked. "I haven't got your class, Peg."

"And then what?" Steve asked. "What do we do next? Any idea where we should go?"

"SEVERAL, ACTUALLY."

 

The Car.

When they were ready to go, the corridor was miraculously empty; all agents called away. He and Bucky went down the elevators and out, their path cleared, and then, as Peggy had promised, they saw a shiny black sportscar parked directly in front of the hospital; Bucky nodded approvingly. They got in, and to Steve's surprise, the car pulled away from the curb before he'd so much as touched the wheel.

"PLEASE DON'T BE ALARMED," a voice said; a male voice, and it took Steve a moment to place it.

"Jarvis?" Steve asked.

Bucky looked at him and said, "Who the hell is Jarvis?"

"Jarvis is—well, it's complicated," Steve said.

"MISS CARTER ASKED ME TO ARRANGE TRANSPORTATION," Jarvis said. "I HOPE THIS SUITS."

"It's great, Jarvis; thanks," Steve said. "Where are we going?" but he thought he already knew: on the dashboard there was a map, something like a GPS, and he recognized the location of the flashing dot.

"Home," Bucky said softly; he'd recognized it too. "We're going home."

"Or near enough," Steve agreed, and then, raising his voice and tightening his hands on the wheel: "I'll drive us there, Jarvis, thanks," and Jarvis gave him control of the car.

 

Oyster Bay.

The massive gates of the Stark mansion began to open even as they pulled up, and Steve went carefully through and along the long curved drive that took you up to the house. In his memory, you always had to be careful driving along here because of Howard's dogs, but there didn't seem to be any dogs here now. In fact, the place had a deserted feel, a stillness; the golf course seemed to have been mowed, but there were weeds growing along the lines of the tennis court, and the swimming pool was covered even though it was the season for swimming. Steve drove up the familiar road and pulled up by the fountain in front; it was dry.

Steve turned the engine off and for a moment he and Bucky just stared up at the enormous house. He wasn't sure it was a good idea to come here—he was flooded with memories, false ones, because the truth was that neither of them had ever been to this house. And yet...he knew every sandtrap in the golf course, could remember swimming with Peggy along Howard's little stretch of private beach. There'd been a boat, and—

"D'you remember New Year's?" Bucky said in a low, harsh voice, and Steve had to turn away; couldn't bear to look at him. Yes, he remembered New Year's: dancing with Peggy by torchlight, kissing them both beneath the black trees—Steve blindly fumbled for the car's automatic locks, then shoved his door open.

"Let's check out the house," he said.

 

Home.

The door was unlocked and led into an enormous marble foyer. Steve had been here enough times—in his memory, anyway—to know the general layout; there were sitting rooms and ballrooms and a billard room and a salon, a glass-enclosed piazza and a kitchen with four enormous stoves and a cold room the size of their first apartment in Red Hook. Steve peered into the billiard room and saw that everything had been swathed in fabric to protect it from dust; he also saw, to his surprise, that someone had installed an enormous flat-screen television on the wall– so it wasn't exactly the house that he'd known in 1950.

"A little more than we need, huh?" Bucky drawled, and Steve laughed and said: "You think?"

"We could just camp out here in the hallway," Bucky suggested, but then the lights came on and Peggy said, "DON'T BE SILLY," and Steve felt his heart lift; he was so glad she was here. "YOU DON'T NEED ALL THESE ROOMS SURELY, BUT THE LIBRARY IS NICE," and Steve suddenly understood why Peggy'd chosen this for them: not nostalgia, not Long Island: it was because the house, like all the Stark properties, had been wired for Jarvis. Steve grabbed Bucky's arm and said, trying to explain, "Howard's son Tony, he built an AI based on his butler, Jarvis," and then Peggy interrupted, "MORE LIKE BUILT FROM THAN BASED ON—ISN'T THAT TRUE, MR. JARVIS?" and Jarvis replied, tactfully, "WELL, THAT'S REALLY NOT FOR ME TO SAY."

Bucky was already nodding at Steve. "And this Mr. Jarvis, he's integrated into the house?"

"Yeah," Steve said.

"AND YOU DON'T MIND ME POPPING ROUND, DO YOU, MR. JARVIS?"

"NOT AT ALL, MISS CARTER. IT'S LOVELY TO SEE YOU AGAIN."

"Well, in that case, it's just perfect," Bucky said.

 

Epilogue I: The Shower.

All the bathrooms at Oyster Bay were enormous, and the one Steve used was the smallest of them, but it still had room for an enormous claw-foot bathtub and a pedestal sink and separate shower stall with fancy etched glass doors. Steve liked that shower; he liked to take long, hot showers before bed and talk to Peggy.

"I miss you," Steve murmured, bracing himself against the tile with his forearms and letting his head hang, hot water beating on his back. "Is it wrong of me to say that? I know I'm lucky to have you, to still have so much of you, considering the cards we were dealt—your love and your wit, Peg, your advice—"

"BUT IT'S NOT QUITE THE SAME, IS IT?" she said with soft sympathy. "I KNOW. I MISS YOU, TOO, STEVE. I MISS YOUR BODY. I MISS TOUCHING YOU," and he missed her too; her beautiful body, the curve of her hips, her heavy soft breasts and the way her nipples perked against his lips, and then later, the rise of her belly and the baby: but there had never been a baby. The baby hadn't been real, but the love—the love that had made the baby—that had been real. He had to hold on to that.

And one of the great things about the shower was that, if a few tears fell, it wasn't conspicuous. The other great thing was that, if she murmured softly to him like this, he could close his eyes and smell her soap and her shampoo, and he'd always loved how she looked when she came out of the bath, all pink and fresh-scrubbed, her wet hair loose and dripping, and he could almost imagine that his hand was hers.

 

Epilogue II: The Bed.

Afterwards, if he was low, he reminded himself that Bucky would be waiting for him, already sprawled in their bed with a book or a newspaper. Steve's mom had always insisted on sharp edges and hospital corners, but two minutes in a bed and Bucky would have wrecked it, sheets pulled out and pillows stuffed behind his head and the blankets already tugged up on his side. But it would all be warm from his body heat, and Bucky always knew when he was feeling low, and knew how to comfort him. He had only to climb in.

 

Epilogue III: The Garage

At the end of the first week, after they'd pulled the dust cloths off the furniture in the rooms they intended to live in and given the place a good cleaning, they began to explore the rest of the grounds: the clubhouse, the disused conservatory, the boathouse—Steve, it turned out, was interested in the sailboat.

Bucky was interested in the garage.

He had vivid memories of what it was like, back in the day that wasn't; how he and Howard used to go to Islip speedway and the Riverhead raceway and the Westhampton drag strip, and sometimes he would even tempt Howard out with Steve and Peggy and the Thin Lizzy in the middle of the night to whatever airport or parking lot or closed-down stretch of parkway the locals were using for their totally illegal drag races. Steve had loved the illicit thrill of it—the face of an angel, had Steve, but he wasn't as sweet as all that, underneath—and Peggy was worse, half climbing the metal railings and screaming at the top of her lungs, all that British reserve gone; her hair flying and her face flushed. He could remember Howard jumping up and down at the finish line after Bucky brought his car in, a winner; literally jumping up and down.

But that was all a fantasy. He remembered Stark telling him, "I've got a Peugeot, a Bugatti, an Alfa-Romeo—" and then Bucky took a breath and dragged the huge garage door open, willing himself to expect nothing—because who would leave a bunch of cars out here to rot? Tony Stark had to have them in storage somewhere, if he wasn't driving them—but no, here they were, as promised: the Peugeot, the Bugatti, the Alfa-Romeo, plus more: a 1927 Model T, a '36 Mercedes, a '48 Porsche, a '49 Jaguar, and there, at the end of the line, a 1950 Healey Silverstone that made his mouth water: candy apple red, with a long nose, and Jesus, he wanted to fuck that car. He fumbled through the little cabinet of keys with shaking hands.

He took her out without telling anyone; took her out and out and out because none of the back roads he remembered were back roads anymore—it was all fucking strip malls and big box stores—until finally he got past the sprawl and hit some long stretches of road and could really open her up and let her rip.

When he got back, he left the hot engine sighing and pinging in the drive and barreled into the house to find Steve, who smiled and said, "Hey, I was worried, but Peggy said—" just before Bucky slammed him into the wall, making the paintings thump on their hooks, and began rutting against him, groping him with his metal hand: his real self, their real bodies. It didn't take Steve long to get with the program, especially once he'd unzipped Steve's pants and grasped his dick like a gearshift, working him and leaving sloppy, wet kisses on his cheek and chin and neck, and then he was dragging Steve by his stiff cock to the nearest soft thing, an overstuffed sofa, and shoving him down and falling to his knees and blowing him, worshipping him with lips and teeth and tongue until Steve came, groaning, heaving and sucking for air.

"Give me," Steve managed, "a second," and Bucky looked up, slowly licking his sticky, bruised lips and said, "Okay, but just a second," and the look on Steve's face—well, no one who didn't really know Steve could have imagined that look; you'd had to have seen him bloody and bruised and punching all the way down; you'd've had to have seen him kicking someone in the kidneys while wiping blood from his mouth with his fist. Dirty little street fighter, he thought with fondness, and then, "Come on: come and get me."

Steve went and got him, roughly shoving the coffee table out of the way one-handed and pushing him back and over and down, pinning him and kissing him, opening him, fucking him, doing him until Bucky was gasping and laughing face-down in the thick carpet which, Jesus, was really going to have to be cleaned. You could count on Steve not to back down from a challenge; that was the best and the worst of his boy.

"I found a car," Bucky said finally, gasping; Steve was on top of him, heavy; solid; dick still inside him.

"Oh yeah?" Steve muttered against his neck. "Just one?"

"No, there's lots. There's a Ford...and a Mercedes and a Porsche—"

"Let's drive 'em all."

"I'll race you," Bucky said.

 

Epilogue IV: The Vacant Lot.

But it was Steve who felt the desire to go back, to follow the road to where their house had been and see what, if anything, was there. He told himself that it was pointless—that he had almost everything, and for the rest, he had memories—but still he felt it like a compulsion. And then one morning, after breakfast, Bucky looked at him and said, softly, "Come on, Steve; let's go."

He didn't need to say where; he and Bucky knew each other beyond words.

There was nothing there; nothing. Steve had half expected a house, or the remains of one, but there was nothing at all, though the landscape was the same. It was as if their house and the stables-turned-garage that had been Bucky's apartment had been plucked away, because here was their big tree, and here was the familiar grass sloping down to the ocean. Steve stood exactly where he always used to stand on the porch and stared down at the water, shivering. He could almost feel the warm cup of coffee in his hand.

"I'm not angry," Steve said finally, turning to Bucky. "That's the funny thing. I'm grateful, actually. Grateful to Hydra," he said and then laughed. "They gave me five years. I got five years of my life—with you, and Peg. And it was real, Buck—it was real because it happened to us. We're not the same as before."

"That's true." Bucky smiled grimly. "I'm certainly not. You know, I think Hydra put me in there thinking that they could maybe control me," he said. "Use me somehow to direct the action. I don't think they expected us to..." He looked over in the direction of the garage, his apartment. "Well, to do what we did."

"Well, they never knew us very well," Steve said, and Bucky laughed.

"Pal o'mine, they never knew us at all."

 

Epilogue V: The Olive Branch.

"How're you doing, Aunt Peg?" Tony said, ducking into the foyer and hastily closing his umbrella; it was raining hard, and he'd gotten wet even though he'd parked right outside the grand doors.

"VERY WELL, OLD THING. COME IN AND HAVE A DRINK; THE BOYS ARE IN THE LIBRARY."

"Sounds good," Tony said, and shoved his umbrella into the holder. "Tell me again: why don't I live here?"

"CONGENITAL ADDICTION TO NIGHTLIFE, I SUPPOSE."

"Funny," Tony said, and made his way to the library. Rogers and Barnes looked up when he arrived; they were bent over some papers on the desk. "Tell me you didn't print out what I sent you," Tony said, rolling his eyes so hard he almost fell over. "It's not even optimized for printing! Peggy, how could you let—"

"THERE ARE MERITS TO PAPER, YOU KNOW."

"Come and tell us about this mission," Barnes said, "but get yourself a drink first. Bar's over—"

"Yeah, I know where it is," Tony said, and went to pour himself a whiskey. "I grew up in this house, you know. Well: in this house and in other houses. This is one of the houses I grew up in," he amended, and then he came back and collapsed in one of the leather club chairs. "Okay, so the first thing you should know is: I come bearing an olive branch from Nick Fury." He watched their eyebrows go up and up. "Yeah. And look, I totally understand if you want to pick your teeth with it—"

"I didn't say that," Steve said diplomatically.

"Barnes said it with his face," Tony said, jerking his chin at Barnes. "Anyway Aunt Peggy's had herself a little conversation with our boy Nick—"

"Peggy," Steve sounded betrayed. "Did you?"

"I'M AFRAID I DID. WELL, I WAS THE DIRECTOR OF SHIELD FOR 47 YEARS, DARLING. I HAVE RESIDUAL LOYALTIES OF MY OWN. I ALSO WANTED TO REMIND HIM THAT SHIELD HAS A PROTOCOL FOR PRECISELY THIS TYPE OF SITUATION. RARELY USED, BUT—"

"She wants to zero you out," Tony finished.

"What does that mean?" Steve asked warily.

"IT MEANS WE TAKE YOU OFF THE GRID. LIKE NICK FURY IS. YOU'D BE A GHOST—"

"I've been a ghost," Bucky interrupted, low and dangerous, "and I can't say I cared for it much."

"YOU WEREN'T A GHOST; YOU WERE A PRISONER. HERE, YOU'D BE ACCOUNTABLE TO NO ONE; YOU COULD WORK FOR SHIELD BUT TAKE ORDERS FROM NO ONE—"

"That, I can recommend." Tony gestured at them with his drink. "My money buys me that."

"YOUR INGENUITY BUYS YOU THAT," Peggy corrected gently.

"And what does Fury get in this deal?" Bucky asked. "Nobody gives you something for nothing."

"He's betting," Tony said, "that if he gives you guys freedom and agency, you'll revert to your normal heroic do-gooder selves instead of hiding out here and having melancholy thoughts at the ocean."

"Not me," Bucky said, hard. "Give me my freedom, it's all fast cars and loose living from here on out."

"Dude, call me," Tony said, heartfelt. "But I don't think you will. Captain America goes haring off to save the world, I'm not going to find you at the blackjack table. You'll be picking off his enemies with a machine gun, and Fury knows it. He's counting on it. He also thinks," Tony said, looking up, though there was nothing to see on the ceiling, "that if he treats your boys nice, Peg, he might get you back in the game, too."

"WELL, HE DOES KNOW ME," Peggy sighed. "ALWAYS THE LAST ONE IN THE OFFICE."

"Oh, he doesn't want you in the office. That's thing two, actually." Tony reached into his breast pocket. He came out with a small box and handed it to Steve. Steve opened it; inside there was a ring, a simple band made of some strange metal. "Wearable tech," Tony explained. "My idea, not Fury's. Since I can't depend on you to be carrying a phone, and you don't strike me as a necklace or a bracelet kind of guy."

Steve picked up the ring; it was warm and vibrating slightly. He slid it onto his finger. "What does it do?"

"It's an interface for Peg. It'll let you take her with you anywhere, like into the field, even if there's no other computers around. It's not as good as the H.U.D. that connects me to J.A.R.V.I.S., but you'll be able to hear her, anyway; she'll feed into your earpiece, full audio. Directions, intel, up-to-date status reports—"

"No, it's good, Tony," Steve said quietly, staring down at his hand. "Thanks."

"Okay," Tony sighed. He slugged down the rest of his drink. "So let me tell you guys about this mission, okay?" and then: "You know, this place would make a great Avengers headquarters. Hey, I'm just saying."

 

Epilogue VI: The Ring.

They were about to deploy on their third mission as Avengers when Bucky said, offhandedly, buckling his holsters on, "Steve, do you mind if I borrow—" and the memory seemed to hit them both at the same time, and they looked away from each other, momentarily speechless; a cup of sugar, mind if I borrow— "I only meant," Bucky said slowly, suddenly awkward, "that I could use, that it would be useful if—" but Steve was already looking down as his hand and trying to work the thick band off, which was hard; it was tight.

"No, of course. What you're doing, you'll need Peg; Peg can help—" and the ring pulled loose with a faint burn. He didn't want to look at Bucky ("Mind if I borrow a cup of sugar?" "Sure. Come and kiss me goodnight,") so he just fumbled first for Bucky's left hand (metal) and then for his right, and put the ring on his finger. And then it was all he could see; Bucky's familiar hand, wearing his ring, Peg's ring.

"What?" Bucky demanded. "You're distracted. We're about to fight aliens; I don't need you distracted."

"No, I'm good," Steve said, and dropped Bucky's hand, but after the mission, he called Tony and said, "I need another one of those wearable interfaces," and then: "Because I do, that's why. I just do."

 

Epilogue VII: 2016.

They mentioned offhandedly to their friends that they were planning to be home New Year's Eve and that anyone who wanted to stop by would be welcome, but they hadn't expected anyone to come. Without Howard Stark's heat lamps and torches, it was too cold to venture far from the house, but there was a huge outdoor fireplace on one of the verandahs and they'd banked it up high like a bonfire and pulled their chairs up close, and they had kettles of soup and chili and a bubbling pot of hot cheese. Bucky was mulling wine.

They hadn't expected anyone, but they were happy when Sam turned up, carrying a bottle of champagne and a casserole dish filled with pork and beans; it smelled delicious and Sam told them it was a good luck dish for New Year's Eve. Steve liked Sam, and more importantly, Sam and Bucky really liked each other, Sam's initial wariness dissipating once Bucky stopped being a ghost story and became a person. They took Sam out to the fire and helped themselves to pork and beans, and they weren't entirely taken aback when Natasha materialized out of the darkness, bundled up in a wool hat and scarf, and curled up by the fire with a cup of hot soup. They were less surprised when Clint rang the bell at their front door—Clint was often to be found in Natasha's wake—but rather more surprised to see that he'd brought Bruce with him.

Bruce beat his gloved hands together and said, apologetically, shifting nervously, "Just, I generally think the further away I am from Times Square, the better," and of course they couldn't argue with that. They took Clint and Bruce through the house and then brought them out back to eat and drink with them.

Some soft colored lights came on, and then music—a big jazz orchestra, full of brass, playing songs Steve recognized—but it was Bucky who looked up and said, "Oh, that's great, sweetheart; thanks."

"DON'T MENTION IT," Peggy replied, and Steve thought he could hear her smile.

They were all of them surprised when Tony and Pepper appeared sometime after eleven, though Peggy whispered to Steve, "DRUNK, DARLING; HE'S DRUNK. HELP HIM. QUICK," and Steve immediately pulled a chair up beside the fire and helped Pepper maneuver Tony down into it.

"Sorry," Pepper said, meeting Steve's eyes. Steve smiled at her; he liked Pepper. "He just wanted to—"

"—I wass'at another party," Tony said, slurring faintly, "a worse party full of terrible people, and I just—dinna wanna be there anymore. Terrible people. I wanted to be with you guys—be with here—be with my friends here," he said, and then looking around, "Happy Newers—Nee You—" He laughed. "New Years. New. Years. That sounds funny. New Ears. New Jeers. What's there to drink around here?"

"Anything you like," Bucky replied. "But do me a favor: have some bread and cheese first, will you?" and Tony said, "Okay," and then "Wow. Looka that," as Thor landed on the stone verandah like a shooting star.

"I have found you all!" Thor announced. "I am pleased, as I would like to share this festival of your planet with you," and Bucky coughed out a laugh and then covered his mouth and said, "I'll go get the—thing—for the planet festival," and went inside, because they didn't like to laugh at Thor, not when Thor was so honorable and sincere. Thor did the rounds, greeting each of his friends like the warrior he or she was, then took a chair and a mug of wine. Steve glanced at his watch; it was coming on to midnight. Bottles of champagne were chilling in the night air, but they needed more glasses, and—where was Bucky anyway?

He hadn't come back, and Steve went to look for him, moving through the dark and unused formal rooms to the kitchen. And then he heard Bucky's voice, though he couldn't quite make out the words, just the murmur of sound. Bucky was leaning with his shoulder pressed against the closed door of the pantry, and talking haltingly, earnestly to the floor, "—never says, so I don't know, and I'm afraid to ask. No, Peg, I don't want to know the answer if—Darling, no. No. I couldn't stand it. I—" and Steve was sure that he hadn't made a sound, but Bucky stopped and jerked a narrow look at him. "I was just talking to Peg."

"Yeah," Steve said numbly. "It's...almost midnight, Buck. We've got to get—" champagne glasses, but he didn't give a damn about that anymore. He came closer and said, "What are you afraid to ask me?"

Bucky shook his head. "Nothing. It's stupid," but Peggy said, soft and urgent, "ASK FOR US; IT HAS TO BE YOU WHO ASKS," and Bucky sucked in a wet breath through his mouth and gritted out, "Do you hate me? Or her? For taking everything away from you, making the world end," and Steve looked at him, this man who'd stood between him and death until he couldn't anymore, and thought about his wife, who hadn't let death stop her from loving and protecting him, and said with all his heart, "No, Bucky, Peg; no," and then Peggy said quietly, "KISS HIM FOR ME," and Steve leaned in and did; yes, he did.