Actions

Work Header

for auld lang syne, my dear

Work Text:

1937

Brooklyn, New York

It’s fucking freezing. Coldest winter he can remember in years, and every scrap of his meager savings has gone to extra blankets because the landlord refuses to spend a little extra money to keep the boiler running for more than once or twice a week. It still isn’t enough—Steve’s had a cough for weeks that just won’t quit, rattling around deep in his lungs. Every night, Bucky listens to Steve trying to muffle it in his pillow and prays that he’ll still be alive in the morning.

He’s pulled some extra shifts at the docks to buy medicine, since a doctor’s visit is out of the question. Even did some repairs for other tenants around the building in his spare time: fixing a stove for Mrs. Kauffman two floors down and radiators for old Mr. Schaffer who lives next door. It’s still barely enough. They’ve been eating watered-down soup for a week and he’s been surreptitiously giving Steve half his portions.

But it’s Christmas in two days and he can’t let it slide without doing something. It’s just the two of them now, since Steve’s mom died last year, and his own family is long gone to war and illness. They managed to scrounge up some cheap decorations to hang around the apartment—most of them donations from sympathetic neighbors—and Steve has been insistent that he doesn’t need anything else.

Steve’s a fucking martyr, though, and Bucky’s determined. He’s been setting aside some of those meager savings to get Steve a gift: a brand-new sketchbook and some pencils. He’s gone through his old one back to front and worn his supplies down to stubs. He pretends not to eye some of the displays at the art store when they got out to get groceries, but Bucky’s always been able to see right through him.

It’s probably going to mean cutting his portions down to a quarter for the next month. He doesn’t care.

For Steve Rogers, he’s long ago learned that he’ll do anything and he’s stopped examining too closely what that might make him. What the twist in his stomach means when Steve’s eyes go wide at the sight of the newspaper-wrapped present. Or the ache in his chest at the awe in Steve’s voice when he says, “Buck, I thought we agreed no presents this year.”

“No, you said that. I never agreed,” he insists, shoving the twist and the ache and the flutter deep, deep down where no one can find them. “So, open your present, punk.”

“Jerk,” Steve fires back automatically, but he’s enthusiastic tearing open the paper. He freezes, when he sees what’s inside. His voice goes all quiet in what Bucky hopes is a good way. “A sketchbook?”

“And pencils.”

“Buck … we can’t afford this.”

“Shut up,” Bucky says. “Let me be the judge of that.”

Steve laughs. Bucky pretends not to notice him wiping at his eyes. “Okay. Thank you.”

He sets the sketchbook down on the table, all reverent, and then gets up and goes digging around in their shared dresser. Pulls a brown package out from beneath his socks.

“You fucking hypocrite,” Bucky says to combat the deepening ache.

Steve just shrugs and hands him the gift. Stays quiet while he opens it. It’s a book: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. He’d eyed it a few times, sitting in the window of the bookstore he passes on his journey home from the docks, but put it out of his mind. Books were frivolous things to own—all the ones he’s read have been borrowed from neighbors or checked out on rare occasions from the library.

Steve, ” he says, hating how choked his voice sounds. “What the fuck is this?”

“Merry Christmas,” is all Steve offers, a crooked smile in the corner of his mouth.

Now it’s Bucky’s turn to wipe frantically at his leaking eyes. He sets the book next to Steve’s sketchpad and pencils on the table and reaches over to fold him into a careful hug.

“Thank you.”

Steve coughs into his shoulder. “You’re welcome.”

It’s the last truly good Christmas they’ll have for a while, but he doesn’t know that yet. Just closes his eyes and drinks in this moment, the feel of Steve alive and warm in his arms, the fleeting certainty that they’re going to make it.

And if his stomach still twists and his heart is aching, no one is gonna know but him.

 

_ _

 

1947

Washington, D.C.

Walter Reed General Hospital is in an uproar, nurses rushing to and fro in a frantic search for Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, who has been missing from his room for the better part of an hour. Peggy, arriving after a long day of meetings, was accosted as soon as she stepped through the door—does she have any idea where he could have gone? He’s not cleared to leave yet and this could result in a court martial, etc., etc., etc.

She firmly informs that no, she hasn’t the slightest idea where he could be, and quietly slips back out into the snow as soon as their backs are turned. She debates “borrowing” the car from Jarvis while he’s preoccupied, but decides that going on foot will cause less of a stir and after a day in stuffy rooms, she wants to enjoy the bracing chill of the night air.

She still retrieves the wine bottle from the back seat, and liberates a pair of glasses from Howard’s secret compartment, slipping them into the large pockets of her winter coat. Her heels crunch loudly in the snow as she heads down the street and her breath hangs thick in the air around her face. It’s one of D.C.’s colder winters, though each often seems colder than the last. She still prefers the snow to the wet, perpetual damp of London and so many other English towns.

It’s December 24 th and the Christmas decorations scattered around the city pair well with the dusting of white on the ground, creating a scene not unlike one she’s seen painted on holiday postcards in all the souvenir shops.

She checks her watch and picks up her pace, trying not to give into the panic that is bubbling in her nerves. Just three weeks ago, after hearing news of Steve’s death, Barnes tried to slit his own throat, and while he has not tried anything since, Peggy still fears reaching her destination and finding him dead in the fresh snow.

It’s a foolish thought, the idea that failing to save Barnes really is failing Steve, but it still lurks in the back of her mind. Unshakeable. Even though Steve is over two years dead. Perhaps, finding Barnes alive—a ghost turned human again—also instilled in her the even more foolish hope that the same might happen to Steve.

To her right, the Lincoln Memorial gleams like a golden beacon in the darkness as she starts across Arlington Memorial Bridge. Which is surprisingly quiet, considering that it’s only eight o’clock. She supposes that most reasonable people are indoors with their families, enjoying Christmas Eve dinner and listening to President Truman’s speech on the radio—not traipsing over seven miles in heels, in the snow, with a wine bottle and pockets full of glass.

She’s never been very reasonable, though. It was one of her mother’s greatest complaints.

The gates of Arlington National Cemetery are open and crossing the threshold feels like entering another world—the rush of the city fading completely in favor of an ethereal stillness that she’s always found more chilling than peaceful. As though the whole world is sleeping alongside the dead.

But she has come here often, in spite of that, and she could walk the path to the memorial with her eyes closed. It’s on a hill, not far from the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, nestled amidst tall trees.

America’s tribute to its fallen Captain, though the grave itself is empty—Steve’s body was never recovered from the Arctic, in spite of Howard’s near tireless efforts.

And there is Barnes, slumped against the base of one of the trees. He thought to put on a coat and boots, at least, though she’s still unused to the sight of his shorn head. He’s got a bottle, as well, of vodka. Two more empty ones beside him in the snow.

“It’s stupid,” he says when she stops next to him, red-rimmed eyes fixed on the memorial. “They should’ve buried him in Brooklyn.”

She agrees, though President Truman and Colonel Phillips did not. “He’s a war hero, they felt it would be more appropriate to bury him here.”

Barnes laughs, an unpleasant sound, and scrubs a hand over his ashen face. The scar on his neck from where he took a scalpel to it has already faded white. Soon, she imagines, it will gone all together.

“A war hero,” Barnes mutters. Raises the nearly empty bottle. “Let’s hear it for Captain fucking America.”

He knocks the rest of the vodka back in one experienced gulp and then drops the bottle next to the others. “Did you know we can’t get drunk?”

“Yes,” Peggy says, taking a seat beside him. “It’s an unfortunate side effect.”

“It fucking sucks,” Barnes agrees. “I’ve been trying all night.”

“You shouldn’t be out here,” Peggy admonishes. The snow is already starting to seep unpleasantly through her layers. “You’re still recovering.”

“Don’t worry, Carter.” Barnes waves a dismissive hand. His other sleeve is empty, since the monstrosity welded onto his skin by Leviathan was removed—a long and painful process she’d rather not dwell on. Howard is already hard at work on a new one, pacing around his rented townhouse and covering the walls in finely sketched diagrams and complicated equations. “A little cold isn’t gonna kill me. That’s a proven fact.”

“You’ve still caused quite a stir at the hospital.”

Barnes shrugs. “They’re probably gonna court martial me, anyway.”

Peggy opens her mouth to protest and Barnes levels her with a flat look. “C’mon, Carter, I may be fucked in the head, but I ain’t stupid. It doesn’t matter how many interviews you conduct, they’re still gonna worry I’m a sleeper agent. Or too deranged for civilian life.”

He shrugs again. “They may be right.”

“Enough of that talk,” Peggy says, though she has the same fear, deep down, and loathes herself for it. “It’s Christmas Eve.”

“I’m Jewish,” Bucky says.

She refuses to be swayed. “But you still celebrate it. Steve told me.”

Bucky laughs again, a little more genuine than before. “Of course, he did.”

“He talked about you a lot,” Peggy says as she attempts to fish the glasses from her coat pockets. “And he would hate the idea of you sitting alone by a grave on Christmas Eve.”

“You said it yourself, Carter: Steve’s dead. Don’t think what he would hate matters.” He tilts his head toward the dark sky. “You hear that, Stevie? You went and crashed a plane in the goddamn Arctic. You don’t get a say anymore.” A quiet sniff, and she averts her eyes while Barnes wipes at his face. “A plane in the goddamn Arctic. Never thought that would be how it ended.”

It’s too easy to remember Steve’s crackling voice over the radio, cutting out in the middle of a sentence. The horrible silence that followed, louder than anything she’d ever heard. She focuses on opening the wine instead of dwelling on it. Barnes isn’t about to notice if her fingers are shaking a little.

“He seemed so invincible,” Barnes continues, mostly to himself now. “Strange, considering how many years I spent terrified of him dying.”

“He did,” Peggy agrees.

It seemed, sometimes, like he burned brighter than the sun—and that he would keep right on burning long after they were all gone. For all the wounds in her chest, though, she doesn’t begrudge him his choice. In the end, he burned out to save them all.

“He was a goddamn idiot,” Bucky says, eyes still on the sky. “I loved him.”

She pours the wine into the glasses. In the dim light, it looks almost black. “Of course, you did. He was your best friend.”

“No, Carter,” Bucky says softly. He doesn’t offer anything else, but in an instant, a punch to the gut, she understands.

She thinks, distantly, that it should shock her. Unnatural, her mother would call it. Illegal, the laws declare. But instead it feels like a missing piece slotting into place: Barnes’ face in bar-golden light and shadow, fingers curling into a fist at his side; Barnes, freshly tortured and still healing, shouldering a new rifle to follow Steve back out to war; Barnes, with a scalpel at his throat; Barnes, now, smearing salt from his cheeks.

She hands him a glass of wine. He takes it with timorous fingers.

“Shit,” he mumbles. “I shouldn’t have said anything. Forget it, Carter. Maybe I am drunk.” He isn’t, but she’ll let him believe the lie if he needs to. “Doesn’t matter, I guess.”

It does. It changes the shape of the grief inside of him—even after two years her own cuts her to ribbons on bad days; she can’t imagine the force of his, though she thinks she can feel the echo of it in her own aching chest.

Another thing they share.

“It’s all right, Barnes.” She raises her glass. “To Steve.”

“To Steve,” Barnes echoes, voice thick with still unshed tears.

They drink.

 

_ _

 

1957

Manhattan, New York

“C’mon, Carter,” Barnes says, leaning in the doorway of her apartment, dressed up in what she suspects is the only suit he’s owned for the last four years.

He wore it for nearly a week when he was testifying before Congress*, barely even bothered to change the tie. As the days stretched on and Senator McCarthy’s questions became increasingly grueling, the suit began to look as rumpled and faded as Barnes himself. He seems more present now, though the deep bags under his eyes are an almost permanent fixture.

“It’s fucking Christmas,” he informs her, like she’s incapable of reading the calendar hanging above her dresser. “You’re ain’t spending it sitting alone in this dump.”

“How did you even get in here?” Peggy asks. The landlady is one of the strictest she’s ever met and her absolute, number one rule: no men allowed in the building, especially after dark.

“We’re spies, Carter,” Barnes says, flatly.

“Don’t underestimate Mrs. Fry,” she fires back.

Barnes rolls his eyes. She wants, briefly, to punch him, but beyond that she’s grateful that he’s here. Things have been tentative between them for so long now. Ever since Operation Paperclip* and Zola—Barnes shouting at her at the SSR headquarters, demanding to know what the hell she was playing at, then unceremoniously removing himself from her life all together—then the McCarthy hearings after that, and his reluctant return to military service.

It’s been twelve years since Steve was lost to the frozen wastes of the Artic, and she never misses him more than when she sees Barnes’ grief radiating out from him, still sharp and visceral after all this time. Perhaps, it will always be so, no matter how many decades pass.

Tonight, though, there is a smile lurking in the corner of his mouth. He’s slicked back his hair and hidden his metal hand beneath a glove. “Get dressed,” he insists. “We’re going dancing.”

“Dancing?” she says in surprise.

“Yes.” The smile fades. “I know I ain’t Steve, but.” He shrugs.

She softens, taken aback by the gesture. “Dancing sounds lovely. Now get in here before Mrs. Fry sees you and has a conniption.”

Barnes shuts the door behind him and takes a seat on her bed while she digs around in her closet for a suitable dress. It’s been years since she’s gone dancing and most of her clothes have become boringly practical. But in the very back, hidden behind a cluster of trousers, is a sea green cocktail dress. She fishes it out and holds it up for inspection. It’s in decent shape, still, and the skirt is loose enough for dancing.

Right. It will have to do.

“Give me fifteen minutes,” she announces to Barnes before she shuts the bathroom door behind her.

She wriggles into the dress, pleased to discover that it still fits. Ten minutes for makeup and five to tame her curls into a more manageable bob. On a whim, she went and cut most of her hair off last month and still isn’t sure if she likes it.

Barnes has gotten up and is unabashedly poking through her things, the arsehole, but his eyebrows make an impressive jump for his hairline when he sees her. “You clean up good, Carter.”

“Oh, do shut up,” she huffs, struck by a strange, sudden bout of shyness. “Let’s go dancing.”

He offers her his arm, like a true gentleman, and they sneak their way out of the building into the bracing winter night.

He takes her to the Stork Club, still in operation all these years later, and she pauses on the sidewalk, peering up at the canopy* with lead in the pit of her stomach.

Barnes frowns at her from closer to the door. “Carter?”

He couldn’t know, she decides. She’s never outlined her final conversation with Steve in any real detail. He’s just brought her to one of Manhattan’s most popular nightclubs, chosen on a whim—or perhaps because they’re serving discounted drinks for Christmas. And while a part of her wants to turn on her heel and march away, an insistent voice whispers that this could be a good thing.

An exorcism of sorts—a laying to rest.

“I’m fine,” she says, and follows Barnes inside.

It’s surprisingly busy for Christmas Eve, packed full of people like them who are trying to dance away their holiday melancholy. The band is playing Santa Bring My Baby (Back to Me)* and Barnes drags her towards the dance floor right away. He’s a good dancer, better than she expected, and soon they’re flying across the floor.

The rest of the evening passes in a blur of music, dancing, and numerous drinks. Though neither of them can get drunk, she likes the burst of alcohol on her tongue, the burn of it in the back of her throat—an almost visceral reminder of life.

It’s late or early by the time he walks her home, hand in hers. His suit is a mess and his hair is falling onto his forehead, long regrown since the hospital.

A decade ago now. Twelve years…

She kisses him in her apartment, arms around his neck. This is new, something infrequent they started three years ago, in the middle of the senate hearings: a night of passion she refused to regret. He apologized, though, eyes on the floor and shoulders hunched up small, like he was trying to disappear. Said a lot of crock about stains and ruin, that supposedly unnatural love that still sits between his ribs, the two brutal words stamped into his medical file before she had them purged.

She told him, she remembers, to shut up because she didn’t want his guilt, didn’t want to be a mistake he attempted to bury or wipe away.

“I loved Steve, too,” she said, hand cupping his cheek. “I understand.

He looked at her with those gray-blue eyes—the ocean before a storm—and she felt something fundamental shift between them.

He has his hand in her hair now—the flesh one. He’s always so nervous about touching her with the metal, convinced that she’ll be repulsed, no matter how many times she tries to persuade him otherwise. She slides her tongue into his mouth, tastes the remnants of gin, and nudges him towards the bed.

“You’re sure?” he rasps, searching her face. “I didn’t come here to…”

“I know,” she says, because he’s never been anything but honest with her. “I’m sure, James.”

He sinks down onto her mattress, springs creaking beneath his weight, and starts to unbutton his wrinkled shirt. His gaze feels a little like worship when she steps out of her dress.

He was unexpected—she remembers barely glancing at him, thirteen years ago—but in this moment, sinking onto his lap and feeling the warm press of his lips against her shoulder, she’s suddenly, furiously grateful he’s here.

She has him to help her feel alive. She’s still here, in spite of the fact that she hasn’t aged a day in twelve years. She’s still here, in the aftermath of a plane and a static radio—of wars and brutal battles in the shadows, the accumulated scars that even the serum can’t erase, and all the ones the serum did that she still remembers.

She’s still here and James Barnes is sliding gentle fingers between her legs. Scraping his teeth against her neck.

She pulls him closer, closer, until she can hear the staccato beat of his heart mirroring her own.

 

_ _

 

1967

Paris, France

It’s been over a year and she’s still not used to the wedding band on her finger. Keeps twisting it around and around, and notices him doing to the same. She hasn’t taken his last name, for simplicity’s sake. Everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D. knows her as Agent Carter, and it would be too confusing to have two Agent Barnes’ running around.

She was expecting more to change, she thinks. But the years march on as they always have, turbulent and stubborn and inevitable. There is another war brewing across the ocean, and one raging in America itself.

She can still see Gabe Jones lying in his hospital bed in the wake of the Harlem Riots*, surrounded by concerned family but as fierce as he was on the battlefields of Europe.

“Change, Carter,” he told her, grinning. “It’s coming.”

And he was right. It’s everywhere—in the bullet that took down a president, in the anti-war protests lining squares and streets, in the civil rights marches engulfing cities, in Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the rebellion of a younger generation. Peace, drugs, and the Summer of Love*.

It’s in the monsters that creep in the shadows, the long arm of Russia they are still struggling to counter.

(“I don’t know if we can win this one, Peg,” Howard confessed to her after half a bottle of scotch, news of President Kennedy’s assassination dominating every TV channel.

“We have to,” she had replied, seething at their failure.)

She still looks twenty-four. She’s approaching fifty and has yet to find a single gray hair or wrinkle. Howard has been discussing a new birth certificate, toting her as Peggy Carter’s niece, named after her war hero aunt. She wonders if some day she will be posing as her own granddaughter, even though the serum has made certain that she’ll never have children.

Twenty-two years now, since Steve crashed into the ice. Two whole bloody decades.

“Penny for your thoughts?” James asks, drawing her out of her melancholy introspection.

She glances out the towering hotel window to the falling snow and the distant beacon of the Eiffel Tower rising above the rest of the city, then to James sitting cross-legged on the massive bed and looking fairly ridiculous in the fluffiest robe she’s ever seen.

When Howard Stark insists on footing the bill for a vacation, he does not settle for anything less than the best. Hence their frankly ostentatious room in the Hotel Prince de Galles*.

“They’re rather sad,” she declares, getting up from the chair to join him. “I doubt you’d want to waste money on them.”

He huffs a laugh and wraps an arm around her waist. He got a haircut recently (she teased him about adopting the long hippie style instead) and it’s sticking up in tufts on the back of his head.

James, her husband.

She’s not sure she’ll ever get used to calling him that, for all that she has come to love him. (She’s never been able to call him Bucky, either, and suspects he never wants her to. He buried Bucky with Steve.)

“Sad, huh?” he says, and rests his chin on her shoulder. The metal of his arm is cool against her bare skin. “Well I know one way to fix that. Stark’s paying for this whole lark and we aren’t spendin’ nearly enough of his money.”

(“You both need a break,” Howard had declared after they got back from a grueling and fruitless undercover mission in Poland. He’s gone almost completely gray now—crow’s feet burrowed deep in the corners of his eyes. “I’m sending you to Paris.”

“I hate Paris,” James intoned, even though he hasn’t been since the liberation in ’45.

Howard remained unmoved.)

Peggy laughs now, sinking back into the warmth of James’ body. The serum makes him burn like a furnace while she, for some reason, still always runs cold. “What did you have in mind?”

His plan: a long walk along the Seine and then back to the hotel to order every single item on the room service menu.

Which sounds perfect to her.

He holds her hand on the street, gloved fingers laced tight with hers, and they stop by a bench to watch the dark water flowing through the heart of the city. Snow is still falling in thick flurries, dusting their shoulders and hair, but she likes the brace of the frigid air moving through her lungs. It reminds her of walking through a sleeping Washington, D.C. twenty years ago, in search of the man now sitting at her side.

“It’s beautiful,” he says, tilting his head to peer up at the amber glow of the streetlamps. “Never would know there was a war.”

It’s true. The bombed-out buildings have long been restored to their former glory, the rubble cleared from the streets. The world has moved on.

“Sometimes, I think we belong in a museum with the rest of it,” she says.

James squeezes her hand. Though he never talks about it, she knows that he still sometimes thinks it’s a grave he belongs in. “We’re not that old, Peg.”

“I feel old,” Peggy grumbles.

“You sound old,” James agrees. Peggy punches his arm. “Too old.”

He stands up, pulling her with him.

“Where are we going?” she demands.

He leads her up the street to the Ponts des Arts and stops halfway across. They’re the only ones on the bridge and James’s grin is sharp and wild in the shadows cast by the lamps.  

“Dare you to jump off,” he says, nodding his head toward the railing.

“You can’t be serious,” Peggy says. “It’s freezing.”

“Yep, and we can’t get sick.”

You jump off.”

James shrugs. “Fine.”

She watches, a little amazed, as he calmly takes off his shoes, slings them around his neck, and vaults the railing. He hits the water below with a massive splash and a loud yelp at the cold, resurfacing as she leans over the side.

His teeth are clearly chattering but he gives her a jaunty salute.

Well. She’s never backed down from a challenge in her life.

She toes off her own sensible boots, but instead of copying James, she pitches them in a calculated throw over to the bank. James whistles in appreciation, still treading water in the middle of the river.

Idiot.

She puts a foot on the railing and launches herself in the air. It’s exhilarating. For a brief, glorious moment, she’s flying … and then the water rushes in like a furious slap, instantly freezing her to her bones.

“Fuck!” she shouts when she resurfaces.

James laughs, shoving his wet bangs from his forehead.

“It’s blood freezing,” she snaps through her own laughter.

God, if Howard could see them now—don’t know how to have fun, her arse.

“Stating the obvious there, Peg,” James says and finally starts to swim for shore.

She’s shivering from head to toe by the time she climbs onto the bank and collects her shoes. James is swearing up a storm trying to get his sopping shoes back on his feet, but they’re both laughing, still.

They laugh the whole way back to the hotel, sprinting through the quiet streets.

“See,” James announces once they’ve crowded into their suite’s equally ostentatious bathtub, “we’re not old yet.”

She shakes her head and kisses his shoulder. “No, just mad.”

“Again, with the obvious.”

“Oh hush.”

After a rather luxurious bath, complete with scented soaps that make her nostrils itch, they retired to the bed—both clad in ridiculously fluffy robes now. James gamely rings downstairs and, as promised, orders every single item on the room service menu. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing is that, with their heightened metabolisms, they’ll probably be able to finish all of the food between the two of them.

“I got you something,” she announces to him while they wait for it to arrive.

He frowns. “Peg, we said no gifts this year.”

“It’s only a little thing,” she insists and clambers off the bed to fish it out of her suitcase. “Hardly worth being called a gift.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” James says when she puts the small box in his hand.

She watches him open it, watches his eyes widen, and bites her lip to quell the sudden nervousness that’s swept over her.

“Do you like it?”

He gently lifts the Star of David pendant, reverence bleeding away the surprise. “Yes.”

“I remember, you said you wore one during the war, and I saw that and I thought … well.”

It was in the hospital, when he shared that information—footage of the Nuremberg Trials* projected on the wall. His voice was tight with anger when he described the empty village he went through with the Commandos; the mass grave Jones and Morita stumbled upon, bodies of children littered with bullet holes; the bent pendant he found under a broken painting and put around his neck.

( “I wanted every single fucking Kraut I came face to face with to know what I was as I killed them. I swore I’d never be ashamed of what I was again…” )

“I love it,” he insists now, eyes suspiciously wet. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she says and leans over to kiss him.

 

_ _

 

1977

London, United Kingdom

Monty looks old, is all she can think when he greets her and James at the airport, though perhaps that’s because she hasn’t seen him in over a decade. His hair has gone snowy white, but his arms are still strong when he wraps them around her and he’s still sporting well-groomed mustache.

“God, look at you,” he says, sweeping his gaze over her face. “You haven’t aged a bloody day.”

“I found a gray hair yesterday, actually,” she declares, though that’s a lie.

“I haven’t,” James says, slapping Monty on the back.

“You still look terrible, though.”

“Fuck off, Falsworth.”

“And still the horrid manners. I thought you trained him out of that, Carter.”

“I’ve tried, it’s impossible.”

Monty laughs, full-throated and booming, and shepherds them towards his car.

_ _

 

Monty and his family live on a small farm in the South England countryside, not far from Aldershot. The rolling hills, dotted by small woodlands, make her ache for her own childhood in Hampstead, though she knows she’ll never go there again.

That part of her life is long gone.

“It’s gorgeous here,” James says when they emerge from the car. Overhead, the setting sun has turned the sky brilliant red and gold.

“Wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Monty says, cheerfully.

He has a wife and three daughters, all mostly grown now and all with his mischievous blue eyes.

I’m dying, he wrote to her and James a month ago, though the news arrived through Howard, as they were stationed in Vietnam. You’d better come.

Cancer of the lung is the official diagnosis. This will be his last Christmas, but no one is speaking of that.

He won’t be the first to leave them— Dernier died in a car accident two years ago—but the ache is still notched deep in her chest, weighted by the knowledge that she’s going to be attending a lot of funerals in the future.

( Do you think it will just be us?” she asks James that night, after Monty and his family have gone to bed. “You and me at the end of the world?”

“No,” James says, grim. “I’ll end myself before then.”

She has nothing to say to that.)

“Morita’s coming out in January,” Monty tells them over Christmas Eve dinner. “Bringing Dugan and Jones with him, apparently. I told them they don’t need to make a fuss, I’ve got some life in me yet, but they’re insisting.”

She wishes, suddenly, that she had more serum to give him. But she would also never condemn him to such a fate. He looks at peace, surrounded by his family, mellowed by age and life.

(“It’s a good ending,” he says to her in the morning, before his family’s woken up. “Better than I could have hoped for. So, chin up, Carter. Wipe that bloody frown off your face.”

She pours herself another cup of coffee and flashes him a beatific smile.

“There we go. Keep that up, now. No mourning, though I expect Barnes to say something nice at the funeral, at least.”

“You might be hoping for too much, there, I’m afraid.”

Monty laughs.)

Christmas morning dawns clear and cold. Monty’s wife, Elizabeth, makes a delicious cake for breakfast while the girls chatter around the table. They all seem quite taken with James, which is amusing, and she’s content to bask in the boisterous chaos, soak in this rare glimpse of domestic life.

She doesn’t regret her globe-trotting adventures with S.H.I.E.L.D., or her choice to take the serum, but sometimes … well, what-could-have-beens are tempting to dwell on—rose-tinted and magnetic.

James is showing the girls a card trick he picked up in East Berlin, or perhaps it was Argentina? Maybe Vietnam. Either way, they’re delighted by it, laughing and ahhing and demanding more. Monty catches her eye when James cuts the deck again and inclines his head towards the door to the back garden.

She follows him out into the misty-morning air, drawing her shawl tighter around her shoulders.

“Should you be doing that?” she asks when he lights a pipe.

“Cancer’s already here, darling,” he says. “Might as well.”

She shakes her head at him, but doesn’t argue any further. He breathes out a cloud of smoke with a contented sigh.

“What a world we live in, eh, Peg? Men in space, nuclear weapons, the goddamn Russians. I don’t regret retiring from the service, but.” He shakes his head. “Sometimes I wonder if I should have stayed.”

She offered him a place in the SSR after the war, but he turned it down, wanting to go home.

“No, Monty,” she says now, glances back to the happy scene inside the house. “You made the right choice.”

“I did, didn’t I?” Monty eyes her. “I still worry about you, though, Carter.”

“Me?”

He takes another long puff of his pipe. “Yes, you. How many wars are you going to fight before it’s enough?”

“As many as it takes.” It’s been her answer since the beginning, and though she sometimes feels exhausted down to her bones, it hasn’t changed.

“Well, good thing you’ve got a long life, then. There always seems to be another one right around the corner.”

It’s true. The fires are still cooling in Vietnam and there are already ominous storms brewing in the Middle East. Howard might have been right, all those years ago, about fighting a losing battle, but goddamnit it, she’s going to go down swinging.

Monty fishes around in his pocket and pulls out a pair of weathered dog tags. “Now, this isn’t my Christmas present, don’t worry. Rather a favor.” He holds them out to her. “I was wondering if you could put them with the good Captain? Seems like that’s where they belong.”

Her throat closes up. “Monty…”

“Oh come now, Carter, none of that.”

She slips the dog tags into the pocket of her jeans, blinking away her traitorous tears. “Right, of course. I’ll do it as soon as I get back.”

“Excellent,” Monty says with another contented puff of his pipe.

(They’ll stand and watch the sun come up over the forested hills, then there will be breakfast with Monty’s family and a large pile of presents: knitted scarves from Elizabeth for her and James, new shoes and skirts for all the girls, an engraved pocket knife for Monty.

The whole family will spend the afternoon playing games in the living room while drinking far too much eggnog and mulled wine. Monty will hold court as the sun goes down, spinning tales of his days with the Howling Commandos. For the first time in quite a long time, talking about Steve won’t instill an ache in her.

Her and James will fly home two days later, and she’ll convince him to drive down to D.C. to lay flowers on Steve’s memorial. Monty’s dog tags will be buried next to it and they’ll pour wine over the soil in a toast.

Three months later, Monty will be gone.)

“Thank you, Carter.”

She smiles at him and he smiles back, laugh lines furrowed into the pale skin around his mouth.

“Any time, Monty. Any time.”

_ _

 

1987

East Berlin, USSR

“Shit,” Peggy grumbles to herself as she ducks into an alley, pulling James behind her, pressing him against the brick.

His blood drips steady onto the cobblestones and his eyes are glazed. In the street beyond, a car slowly trundles past, dark figures peering out of the windows.

The whole night’s gone straight to hell in a bloody handbasket—their Red Room contact dead, the KGB looking for them, James wounded, and a super soldier escaped into the shadows once again.

How many of them are there, she wonders: these Winter Soldiers that Leviathan’s* managed to mold from a bastardization of Erskine’s serum.  They’ve dismantled most of the Red Room program over the last six years, as well as taken out several labs, and it feels like they’re no closer to answers than they were before. The Soviets have built a labyrinth of secrets built atop lies masked in illusions.

“Peg,” James rasps, clutching her sleeve with red-slick fingers. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Getting you out of here,” she hisses.

James coughs. There’s blood in his mouth from what she suspects is a punctured lung. He was shot at least three times before the Winter Soldier unceremoniously picked him up and threw him off the roof as though he was made of paper.

“Forget about me, you need to go after him.”

“He’s lone gone.” She takes several steps forward and peers cautiously out of the alley.

Good, the car’s moved on.

“You’re my priority right now.”

I can’t lose you, she doesn’t say, but suspects he hears, anyway. He softens, stops trying to resist the arm she slings across his back. Their rented apartment is halfway across the city, though, and she doubts he can walk the whole way. The KGB or the mysterious Winter Solider will pick them off like a pair of sitting ducks.

“Right,” she declares and shifts positions again, carefully pulling both of James’s arms over her shoulders, drawing him closer until she feels the blood from his chest wounds seeping onto the back of her jacket.

“What … the hell …” he rasps, coughs again.

“Stop fussing,” she commands and heaves him onto her back.

He muffles a shout of a pain into her shoulder, but shifts his legs to brace against her sides and curls his fingers in the front of her coat.

“Can … you make it?”

“Of course I can,” she says with a confidence she doesn’t entirely feel. “Just stay with me, James.”

He mumbles something incoherent in Russian. (They’ve spoken so much Russian in the past decade it almost feels like a native tongue.) He’s fading, she can feel it, and she sets a brisk pace, following her mental map of winding streets. They have to stop several times to dodge patrols and cut through an apartment building to hide from another roaming car—nearly terrifying a poor old woman when Peggy slips through her door and then out her kitchen window, apologizing for getting blood on her floor.

James is unconscious by the time she finally reaches the apartment, head lolling and arms limp, forcing her to grip them tightly and let the rest of his body hang off her back like a sack of potatoes. The metal of his arm bites into her shoulder even through the thick layer of her coat, gears whirring quietly, as if they’re somehow distressed about the state of their host.

She hauls James up the fire escape to avoid causing a scene at the front door, and picks the lock on their own kitchen window to get them inside. There is very little time for relief, though—James’s breathing has gone worryingly shallow and he’s so pale he looks ghost-like. He probably needs a proper surgeon, but there’s no time to rustle up one of their contacts. She doesn’t think their cover’s been blown, but she’d also rather not take any chances.

So James ends up on the sofa with every towel they own spread out underneath him. She takes a knife to his bloody shirt, grimacing at the amount of bullet holes in him, but the panic coiling in her gut has frozen to icy focus and her hands are steady as she prepares the surgical tools she keeps under the sink. This isn’t the first time she’s had to patch up James and she doubts it will be the last.

She pours disinfectant on the wounds, which jolts him back to consciousness with a gasp and a groan.

“Hold still, darling,” she says when he jerks beneath her hands.

“Shit,” he slurs, but obeys. Grits his teeth while she fishes the bullets out of his torso and readies a needle and thread. “Got ... shot.”

“Yes, you did. Quite a bit.”

“Did you…?”

“No, I dragged your sorry arse all the way back home instead.”

“Peg…” he tries to sit up in protest and she pushes him back down onto the sofa.

“Lie still, James,” Peggy insists, grimly. “There’s nothing we can do about it now.”

He slings an arm over his eyes with another muttered curse, but once again obeys while she stitches his wounds closed. There’s nothing she can do about his punctured lung or his broken ribs, but the serum should kick in soon.

She won’t lose him tonight, by some miracle.

Once she’s thoroughly wrapped him in gauze and bound his ribs to the best of her ability, she eases him upright. He groans, long and low, and presses his face to her neck.

“I’m okay,” he whispers into her skin. Perhaps he can feel the tremors that have started to set in, now that the danger has passed and the adrenaline is steadily leaching from her. “I’ll be okay, Peg.”

“Of course you will,” she huffs, running her hand down his back. “We both will.”

“Still wish we’d got ‘im, though.”

“There will be other days.” She stands up from the sofa. “For now, it’s Christmas.”

“Shit,” James says, eyes widening. “You’re right.”

She fishes a bottle of wine out of their decrepit fridge. Can’t quite remember how long it’s been sitting in there, but it will have to do. Long hours on stake outs and trailing leads and dismantling labs also left no time for gifts. The fact that they’re alive will have to suffice.

“Merry fucking Christmas,” she announces, raising the bottle in a toast.

He laughs and then winces. “Shit, don’t do that.”

She takes a massive swig from the bottle and hands it over to him.

“Merry fucking Christmas,” he echoes, and drinks.

To Steve, she thinks. It’s something that they’ve stopped voicing a long time ago. Over four decades now and the ache of him has tempered to something dull and unobtrusive. She loves him, she will always love him, but there is James and there is a world to save and she’s laid him to rest. Hasn’t even been back to the memorial in over a decade.

She knows, though, that Barnes is echoing it in his own thoughts. Always.

 

_ _

 

1997

Vukovar, Croatia

Consciousness returns slow, her vision blurred and her head stuffed with fog. She hurts, but the pain is a distant, creeping thing-not worthy of her attention at the moment. She blinks, and the blur sharpens. Again, and she finds herself staring at a white ceiling. Fluorescent lights. A steady beeping, growing louder.

Hospital.

But where?

Her memory is still fuzzy. Mogadishu? No, that was years ago now. Bosnia? Wait … the peacekeeping mission ended there, didn’t it? Yes, back in ‘95. It’s … ‘97 now. Yes, that’s right. Almost ‘98.

Which means they’re in … Croatia. The aftermath of the war for independence*.

But that doesn’t answer the question of why, exactly, she’s in the hospital.

She blinks a third time and tries to turn her head. Her vision blurs again, black creeping into the corners, and a burst of pain flares through her skull.

Shit.

“Peggy?” A very familiar voice says from somewhere above her. “Can you hear me?”

Ah. James.

Of course it’s James. There’s no one else left now. Even Howard is long gone - killed in a car crash on a deserted highway.

But there is still James, perched anxiously by her bedside, holding her hand.

She tries to unstick her tongue from the roof of her dry mouth. “Wha…?”

“Hold on,” James says, squeezing her hand. “I’m callin’ for a nurse.”

His hand leaves hers. The click of a door opening and his voice shouting down the corridor. She racks her aching brain, trying to line up the events that led to this rather uncomfortable hospital bed.

They’re in … Vukovar, she thinks. Helping with the rebuilding efforts, training up the Croatian police, settling land disputes*. They’ve been here a year? At least. Their United Nations mandate was extended in June, or maybe it was July?

The door clicks again. Shoes on a tiled floor and a blur above her. The nurse, she suspects. She says something, but her voice is too garbled for Peggy to understand. Before she can open her mouth to ask for clarification, she feels something cool in her IV. Sedatives. They shouldn’t work on her, but she supposes, in her weakened state…

 

_ _

 

She wakes far more clear-headed than the first time. The sequences of events still have not arranged themselves into a sensible order, but she thinks she remembers rubble and darkness-the sense of being trapped.

Honestly, what the bloody hell happened?

James is still by her bedside, in uniform with his blue helmet resting on the table behind him. His hair is a mess, like he’s constantly been running his fingers through it, and he freezes when he looks up and meets her gaze.

“Peg,” he says, the syllable thick with relief.

“Hey,” she croaks.

He stands to fetch her water and then helps her raise her bed into a more upright position. Her head still aches, but she can feel the serum working, repairing whatever was damaged.

“You’re a goddamn idiot,” James declares once he’s got her situated.

She notices with a jolt that his eyes are red-rimmed and there are drying tears on his cheeks. There is also fury practically crackling off of him, which means she was probably very close to death.

Bloody wonderful.

“What … happened?”

James raises his eyebrows in disbelief. “What happened? Let’s see: you ignored direct orders and went into a fucking condemned building and the entire thing collapsed on top of your stupid head.”

Ah, right, she remembers now. She thought she had heard shouting coming from inside the building and, worried that a civilian had wandered in and gotten trapped, had rushed to investigate. Not her brightest moment, she will admit.

“I can’t believe you,” James is still ranting. “After everything we’ve survived, Peg, you nearly get taken out by a fucking building.

“If,” she starts, licks her chapped lips, “I remember correctly … it was a rather large building.”

Exactly. Which is why you shouldn't have been anywhere near it.

He’s probably right, but enough innocent people have died in this war, and she wasn’t willing to risk another. Not if there was something she could do about it. She’s not sure if joining the UN Peacekeeping Corps after the collapse of the Soviet Union and her dishonorable discharge from S.H.I.E.L.D. has soothed or exacerbated her reckless tendencies. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Always another war around the corner, Monty said, all those years ago. And he was right. They failed in Russia, to completely stop Leviathan before the Iron Curtain fell. The extent of the mysterious Winter Soldier program remains shrouded in shadow, even more so in the chaos that has come after the collapse. Wars everywhere, like a hundred fires: Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Guatemala - it never ends.

(“Maybe we should stop,” James said, after Pierce finalized their discharges. “Maybe this is enough, Peg.”

“No,” Peggy insisted, still furious at their failure in Russia - twenty years of missions, ten straight years undercover, and nothing to fucking show for it. “We can do more. We have to do more.")

“I’m fine,” she rasps, though she doesn’t feel it.

She’s exhausted.

“It took us nearly twelve hours to dig you out of the rubble,” James snaps. His metal hand whirs as he curls it into a fist at his side. “Your skull was fractured in four places and your heart stopped as we were loading you into the ambulance. If it wasn’t for the serum you’d be dead five times over. You still almost fucking were.”

She’s terrified him, she realizes. More than she has in a long time, perhaps even since their final, brutal fight with a Winter Soldier, when she’d nearly had her spine severed. She supposes it’s her turn. He scared her half to death when he nearly died in Mogadishu*. She’s carried him across far too many cities over the years.

“I’m sorry,” she says, because she owes him that. If she had the strength, she’d reach for him. Try to soothe the distressed lines furrowed into his brow.

“Don't you get it?” he says, but of course she does.

Fifty years, countless wars, even more missions, the brink of death and back again, still never aging a day - it’s going to be her and him and at the end of the world.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats and manages to wave weakly at him. “Stop glaring and get over here.”

James huffs, but the anger drains out of him, and he sits on the bed. She takes his flesh hand in her own. It’s covered in fading scratches.

“I helped dig,” he says when he notices her looking.

She winces. “How long was I out?”

“Three days.” James shakes his head. “I was worried you were going to sleep through Christmas.”

“It’s Christmas?” she asks, startled.

“According to the calendar.”

“Shit,” she grumbles. He arches an eyebrow. “I was going to take you out to dinner.”

“In Vukovar?

“No,” she huffs at the disbelief his tone. She is aware that the city is unfortunately still eighty percent rubble. “In Zagreb.”

“Somewhere fancy?”

“Definitely.”

“Damn.”

“I even made reservations.”

“Can they reschedule?”

“Doubt it.”

“Damn.”

“It will have to be New Year’s, then.”

“Looks like hospital food until then.”

“Damn,” she says. She hates hospital food.

“Your fault,” James says, with far too little sympathy in her humble opinion.

“Well could you at least keep me company.” She gestures towards the bed with another limp wave.

“What the hell you think I’ve been doing?” he grumbles, but softens immediately, leaning in to kiss her cheek. “Let me change and then I’ll be back.”

She might, she thinks as she watches him go with a twist in her stomach, have gotten a little too attached over the years. She’s used to him sharing her space, her life - in the roiling history they’ve lived through, he’s remained her one steady thing.

(If she were inclined to poetry, she’d describe him as her true north. The star by which she can always find her way home.)

He’s back half an hour later, dressed in civilian clothes and freshly showered, and he climbs into bed beside her without hesitation.

“Hey,” she says, turning to rest her forehead against his.

“Hey,” he whispers back. Nuzzles her cheek.

“Merry Christmas.”

“We really gotta stop doing this.”

“We’ll strive for normalcy next year.”

“Right.”

She pokes him in the shoulder. “Well?”

“Merry Christmas,” he says.

She reaches for the chain that he still wears around his neck and pulls the Star of David pendant free from beneath his shirt. The edges of it dig into her palm.

 

_ _

 

2007

Carmel-by-the-Sea , California

“It’s too damn sunny,” James grumbles, which she finds rather hilarious considering the fact that they’re currently sitting on a beach.

“It’s California, dear,” she says, adjusting her sunglasses.. “The sun is why people come.”

“Don’t see why.” James squints up at the nearly cloudless sky overhead. “It’s annoying.”

“We’ve probably spent too long in the cold.”

James grunts and pulls his baseball cap lower on his forehead, shading his eyes. He looks fairly ridiculous in a long-sleeved shirt and tropical swim trunks, but they have to keep the arm hidden somehow. California was her idea, a shot at a real vacation. They’ve been officially retired from all active duty, UN or otherwise, for five years - she figures it’s long overdue. Nevermind that relaxing has never been their strong suit.

(“I’m done,” she told him, watching as on a television screen President Bush declared war on Iraq*, in spite of the pressure she put on Fury, on Pierce, to persuade him otherwise. Another goddamn war. Another pointless goddamn war.

All these years trying to hold back the tide and for what? Chaos still spreads, humanity invents new and more effective ways to kill each other, rivers and forests dry up and governments fall and famine racks the earth, and everywhere, everywhere, people die.

“I want to go home.”

“Where is that?” James asked her, her own bone-deep weariness reflected on his face. In that moment, he looked ancient.

“I don’t know.” He’d followed her all over the globe. He believed in the causes they’d fought for, she’d never doubted that, but he let her choose them. It was his turn. “Where do you want to go?”

He looked out the cafe window to the D.C. skyline and said, after a long moment, “Brooklyn.”

So Brooklyn it was.)

“I was always trying to convince Steve we should move out here,” James says, suddenly.

“You were?” She can’t picture either of them lounging on a beach or soaking up the sun.

“Thought the warmer climate might’ve been good for him. He was sick every winter.” James draws a random pattern in the sand by his feet.

They haven’t talked about Steve in a long time, even though he is the ghost that will probably always haunt them. James has settled, over the years, purged the self-loathing from his mind as riots unfolded at Stonewall, as signs and marches and colorful flags filled the streets, as men died, as words emerged to remind him he wasn’t alone.

(“Bisexual,” he told her quietly, back in 1972. “I think that’s what I am.”

In 2002, she bought him a mini flag with pink, purple, and blue stripes and he put it on his desk in their new Brooklyn home.

“You’re not mad?” he asked her once, in 1958, “that I loved him?”

“Of course not,” she said, because she’d had eleven years to let it settle in her heart and mind and that was more than enough time. “I loved him, too. How can I begrudge you the same?”

“Don’t think it’s that simple, Carter.”

“I do.”

In 2005, she suggested going to a pride parade, but he shook his head. Said, ruefully, that he was far too old for those things. She hadn’t pushed him, even though she saw more than a few gray heads of hair in the newspaper photos online.

In his own time, has always been her motto. This is a battle she cannot fight for him, but it’s one she knows he’s winning.)

“He would have hated it,” she says and James laughs.

“Yeah, pretty sure he would have lived and died in Brooklyn, given the choice.”

“He did love that city.”

So much that he died for it, perhaps above all the others.

“Do you think he’d be proud?” James asks, glancing over at her. His sunglasses make it difficult to read the expression on his face. “Of us?”

“Yes,” she decides after a moment of deliberation. There have been far more failures than successes over the last sixty years, or so it feels like, but she doubts Steve would care much about any of them. He would be glad at the very least, that they tried. “I think he would be.”

“I miss him,” James murmurs and then laughs. “I keep expecting to stop counting the years, but it never happens. Six fucking decades and here I am.”

“Here we are,” she corrects, because she counts every year, too. Sixty-two since Steve died, sixty since she rescued James from the facility in Belarus, forty-one since she married him.

“We’re a pair of saps,” James says, dryly. “Pining for sixty years.”

“I don’t know if I would call it that.” But she doesn’t have a label to replace it with. It’s different from grief, duller and often more persistent. It lingers, deep beneath the surface, for all that Steve was a flicker in her life.

She knows James far more deeply and intimately than she ever knew Steve, though the reverse is less true for him.

“I love you,” she says and sees him straighten in her peripheral. It’s not a declaration they make often. “Very much. I don’t feel like anything is missing.”

“I love you, too,” he says. “Don’t know what the hell I’d do without you. Be dead a hundred times over probably.”

“But?” Peggy prods.

He shakes his head. “But nothing. I miss him, sometimes, I always will. You’re right, though, it’s not pining.”

“What is it, then?” Maybe he’ll have some insight that she doesn’t.

He shrugs. “I don’t know. We've got plenty of time to figure it out, though.”

They do. They have bloody centuries.

“For now,” James says, pushing himself to his feet, “I came here to go in the ocean, not just sit and look at it. You coming?”

“In a minute,” she decides and watches him head for the water, plunging right in.

He isn’t the man she expected to marry, but this isn’t a life she could have ever predicted.

(They have a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn that overlooks a tree lined street and is full of plenty of natural light. Their furniture is old and careworn, the floorboards creak in places, and the bookshelves are stuffed full. James’s piano takes up one whole corner of the living room and his sheet music always ends up piled on the armchair next to her code books.

They have a black cat called Verne, because James is just as much of a nerd for good literature as he is for science. There’s a cache of weapons hidden under the bed and in the kitchen wall that neither of them has touched in close to a decade. Her paranoia has even died down enough to let the neighbor come and feed the cat while they’re away.

She wears more jeans than skirts or trousers now, but still fancies red lipstick and prefers her hair up. She doesn’t miss stockings in the slightest. They have an old radio and a record player and some nights, when they’re both feeling nostalgic, they slow dance to music long gone out of style.

Their bed is too soft and covered in a mess of pillows and blankets that never match, gathered over years and years. She still has a quilt her grandmother knit—has painstakingly restored it many times—that sits draped over the footboard, always, no matter what else comes and goes. James brings her tea in bed most mornings and she likes the way the springs creak sometimes when they fuck—when it’s rough and fast and neither of them is holding back.

Honestly, it’s a bit of a miracle they haven’t broken anything.

It isn’t the life she imagined for herself - far too quiet, most days - but it’s a good one and she’s long come to realize she wouldn’t trade it.

Perhaps not for anything, even her ghosts.)

Merry Christmas, Steve, she thinks, as James wades deeper into the water. Wherever you are.

 

_ _

 

2012

Brooklyn, New York

She’s never believed in miracles, not really, but someone coming back from the dead? She doesn’t know what else to call it.

After sixty-seven years, Steve Rogers is sitting on her couch.

She keeps having the overwhelming urge to pinch herself. Three months, and she’s still waiting to wake up from this strange dream.

(She’d collapsed into uncharacteristic tears when Fury called, dropping to her knees in the middle of her kitchen. James went down with her, face also wet, and reminded her over and over that this wasn’t her fault, she couldn’t have known, they looked - Howard looked for years.

“He’s alive,” she hiccuped. “He’s alive .”

“Yeah,” James choked out. Then he started to sob.)

Steve looks exactly the same as the last day she saw him in ‘45 - sixty-seven years has been ten minutes for him. She’s still angry at Fury for pulling the stunt he did, for allowing Steve to wake up in a brand new millenium alone, but Steve is adjusting, slowly.

(His face crumpled in stunned amazement when she stepped into the interrogation room at S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters - James watching through the two-way mirror because they didn’t want to give Steve a heart attack.

She cried all over him and him all over her, his arms wrapped around her, clinging to her: his one familiar thing. She explained as much as she could through her tears. Howard, the serum, these long years. Told him she had a cat, of all things, and he let out a loud, snot-clotted laugh, wiping at his face.

Then James couldn’t stand it anymore and burst into the room. Steve looked like someone had shot him, breathed “ Bucky?” like it was a prayer, and James fisted a hand in the front of Steve's shirt and kissed him clean on the mouth. Which really only served to make Steve reel even more, gawping at James like a dying fish. Then he shook his head, as if to clear it, and hauled James right back in.)

He’s sleeping in their guest bedroom for now, while he acclimatizes to the 2010s and figures out what it is he’d like to do in this bright and shiny future. Fury is practically climbing the walls to get him to join S.H.I.E.L.D., a special task force he’s apparently setting up, but she and James have demanded a little space.

They’re working Steve through the decades, showing him music and movies and giving him websites to read up on cultural events. He’s taken to technology like a fish to water, much the same way James did, though certain things still blow his mind: CGI, how fast jet planes can go these days, the endless amount of devices people carry around with them, that Bucky actually lets people call him James, that she cut her hair.

They feed stories to him slowly, too, about rescuing James, about their many years in S.H.I.E.L.D., how the Commandos grew and aged and eventually passed, and Howard’s death.

And their own marriage, which surprises Steve much less than they expected. (“I’m more surprised you two haven’t killed each other.”)

They’re still figuring out this thing between the three of them, what shape they want it to take. They both love him, he loves both of them, which is a good enough foundation to build on.

And they have plenty of time.

For now, it’s Christmas and Steve has insisted on decorating. For the first time in years, they went out and bought a tree. Gathered up a whole collection of eclectic ornaments, hung fairy lights from all the windows. They’ve agreed on no presents, since even though money is no problem for Steve after sixty-seven years of back pay, he admitted that he would have no idea where to even begin shopping.

The fact that they’re all together is more than enough.

James is playing Carol of the Bells on the piano while she makes eggnog. They’re all full and sleepy from a massive dinner, with a plan to spend the rest of the evening watching Bing Crosby’s White Christmas*, for nostalgia’s sake (even though it came out nine years after Steve "died.")  

“Can I help at all?” Steve asks from the doorway to the kitchen.

“No,” Peggy says, grinning at him over her shoulder. “It’s only eggnog, Steve.”

Steve shrugs. “Still wanted to offer.”

She hands him two mugs. “Then you can take these out to the living room.”

He nods and does as asked. When she rejoins them, James has closed the piano lid and sprawled in the armchair, the code books and sheet music dumped onto the floor. Steve is sitting on the edge of the couch, curling up his large frame into an impressively small ball. He’s got a hand on James’s arm - is constantly touching both of them like he needs a reminder that they’re solid and real. (She can relate.)

She sits down next to him and pokes him with her foot until he shifts to let her put her legs in his lap.

Her heart is perhaps too full, flooding all over the inside of her chest. All these years: all the wars and failures and victories and funerals - the relentless forward march of time. And here they are...

She raises her mug, blinks back her gathering tears. “Merry Christmas, Steve.”

He clinks his mug against hers, then James’s, a tender smile on his face and eyes misted by his own tears. “Merry Christmas, Peg. Buck.”

Together.

 

_ _

 

1947

Washington, D.C.

He hates this goddamn hospital bed. Hates the constant ache in his arm from the prosthetic. Hates the hole ripped into the middle of his chest where Steve used to be.

(He never imagined he would have to live in a world without him.)

But Carter has brought champagne and glasses, a determined expression on her face as she uncorks the bottle and flips on the radio she probably bribed off the staff. Or Stark.

It crackles for a moment, clearing out the static, then Guy Lombardo drifts through*: Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot …”

In less than a minute, it will be 1948.

“What are we toasting to?” he asks as Carter takes a seat in the rickety chair by his bed.

(She’s logged more hours there than he expected. He wonders, sometimes, what’s driving her. Guilt? Steve? It’s probably better not to ask.)

“The future,” she declares, raising her glass.

The future. Bright and shiny and full of possibilities. Dark and mysterious and unknown. A world without Steve.

He lifts his own glass, breathes through the sharp grief cutting into his lungs. “The future.”

(May it be a bearable one.)

Their glasses clink.

On the radio, Guy Lombardo continues to sing as the clock chimes midnight. 

“For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne. We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne….”

Fin