The package arrives six weeks after Peggy's funeral. It's stamped "fragile" and addressed to Steve in her perfect handwriting--yet another thing lost somewhere in the decades he was asleep; hardly anyone writes things by hand anymore and when they do, it's all sloppy curlicues or big blocky capitals. It shouldn't bother him but it does. It does.
He imagines he can smell her perfume lingering on the brown paper wrapping and he puts the box away on the top shelf of his closet, promises himself he'll deal with it later, after losing her again stops hurting so much.
Steve eases into life in the 21st century. The things he likes (civil rights, gay marriage, Beyoncé) start to outweigh the things he doesn't (cynicism, disrespect, supervillains). He slowly makes friends with his teammates, gets to know the people behind the weapons and masks. He spars with Natasha, shoots with Clint, learns yoga from Bruce, explores the city with Thor, goes shopping with Tony and Pepper. He marvels at the world he helped save, and keeps trying to make it better.
He visits the memorial for the Commandos, meets their children and grandchildren, listens to the stories he missed out on while he was sleeping. He learns to navigate the minefields of Tony's relationship with his father, Natasha's with her past, Bruce's with SHIELD, when to speak and when to hold his tongue and offer support even when he doesn't understand.
He volunteers, takes some classes, goes on a few dates. He's still terrible at talking to women but he laughs at his awkwardness, turns it into his own kind of charm.
He doesn't let the past go, but he doesn't let it control him, either. So of course that's when it rises up to punch him in the face.
Fury tells him he's been targeted by the Winter Soldier, but when the moment of truth comes, he finds himself face to face with Bucky. They both freeze for a second, and maybe that's what saves them, because then Natasha is there. She hits Bucky with the widow's bite and he goes down like a ton of bricks, and she trusses him up with matter-of-fact efficiency that never stops being impressive.
Clint complains that she should have let him take the shot, but the look Natasha gives him shuts him up. "Oh."
"Yes." And that might be enough for Clint but it tells Steve nothing.
When he finally learns the truth, his head spins. It doesn't stop him from insisting on being at Bucky's side for every step of the deprogramming, even the ones that give them all nightmares. That initial moment of recognition is enough to make Steve believe they can get Bucky back and he's not going to give up.
Still, it's a slow, arduous process, and even Steve has his moments of fear and doubt, times when he's afraid all they're doing is torturing this man who used to be Bucky. Once, after a particularly brutal session, he asks Natasha, "Are we doing the right thing?"
She looks up from her curly fries. "Are you giving up on him?"
Steve doesn't hesitate. "No. Never. I know he's still in there."
"Then fight for him." She curls her hand over his for a moment, warm and callused and shockingly small.
"Always." For all that he says it to her instead of Bucky, it has all the weight of a vow, which he keeps.
The day he walks into Bucky's cell and Bucky says, "Steve," with the light of recognition in his eyes makes all the pain worth it.
It's months before Bucky's allowed out of SHIELD custody, but finally, on a blustery November day, Steve escorts Bucky to his apartment in Brooklyn. It's a little strange at first, being together again, but then it's even stranger because after a couple of hours, it feels like nothing's changed.
Bucky settles in and his presence makes Steve feel like everything about the 21st century has gotten brighter and better, because now he has someone to share it with, someone who gets his jokes and references, someone he can have eyebrow conversations with, the way Natasha and Clint and Tony and Pepper do.
Bucky's the one who finds the package, tucked away on a shelf while he's looking for clean sheets, and maybe now that he's here, Steve's ready to face whatever it is Peggy's sent him.
He sits next to Steve while Steve neatly cuts the packing tape and unfolds the wrapping paper. Two cream-colored envelopes flutter out, one addressed to him and one to Tony.
His letter is brief and pointed, and Peggy all over.
I should have expected you to return, I suppose, late and apologetic as always. Perhaps I did, on some level, and that's why I never opened this. I'm glad that I didn't. As the last survivor of our merry band, it's yours now. Raise a glass for me and the Commandos with your new teammates, and remember us fondly.
He hands the note to Bucky, who looks at him in surprise. "She really kept it all these years?"
Steve's voice is hoarse when he answers, "Looks like." He unwraps the bottle, the label yellow and brittle after all these years, but the liquor inside still a golden amber. "I remember the day Falsworth suggested we save it."
"New Year's, 1945." Bucky gives him a wistful smile that he returns, though it feels a little wobbly on his face.
Dugan had liberated the cognac but Falsworth had been the one to suggest they not drink it until the war was won.
"After you--After we lost you, Jacques suggested making it a tontine." He clears his throat. "We should do something special to open it."
Bucky wraps a hand around his wrist and Steve can feel his pulse beating against the gentle pressure of Bucky's fingers. "I think we both know when we should do that."
Steve writes the invitations by hand.
"Happy New Year," Steve says when everybody's gathered in the big living room at the top of the tower. He sets the bottle down on the coffee table, and Bucky follows with a tray of glasses. "Thanks for coming."
Natasha looks at the label and lets out a low whistle. "That's a seven hundred dollar bottle of cognac."
"I always knew Aunt Peggy was holding out on me," Tony says. "Now I'm glad I never convinced her to give it up and let me drink it."
Steve shoots him a grateful look, and Bucky says, "Me, too," which makes everyone laugh.
Steve waits for everyone to quiet down before he speaks. "Seventy years ago, Bucky and the Commandos and I, along with Tony's father and Peggy Carter, agreed to open this bottle when the war was won and our enemies had been defeated." He glances at Bucky, who gives him a nearly imperceptible nod. "Unfortunately, neither Bucky nor I made it that far, and they agreed to pass the bottle on to the last survivor of the group. Who, oddly enough, turned out to be us." He twists the cap and breaks the seal. "I don't know if it'll still be any good, but we wanted to share it with you."
"We are honored," Thor says, "and will gladly drink to honor your fallen comrades-in-arms."
The others murmur in agreement, and he can see Darcy and Pepper blinking back tears, which makes his own eyes burn a little.
Steve opens the bottle and pours a skosh of cognac into each glass. When they're all holding one, he raises his glass and says, "To Peggy Carter."
"She was a swell dame," Bucky adds, and they all take a sip.
Steve doesn't do more than wet his lips. The cognac is rich and mellow, slightly acrid. He glances over at Tony, who straightens from where he's slouched against the bar, and raises his glass. "To Howard Stark. He was a bastard, but also a genius."
Then Steve and Bucky toast Jacques and Gabe and Jim and Falsworth and Dugan. "They were good men," he says, pushing the words past the lump in his throat, "and good friends, but they're gone now. May they rest in peace." Another sip. "Now I'd like to drink to the Avengers. It's a new century for me and Bucky, and a new year for all of us, and I just want to say that a man couldn't ask for a better team, or a better group of friends." He raises his glass. "Happy New Year."
They all say it back to him, and then Bucky (blinking back tears he'll deny later) says, "Now let's eat."
The somber mood breaks, and it becomes like any other night they spend together, full of laughter and camaraderie.
The party's winding down when Bucky joins him on the balcony. "You okay?"
Steve looks at him and smiles. "Yeah." The night is cold and clear, and the future is full of promise.