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A Better Version of Our Past

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They find him just three days later when they’re cleaning out a Hydra facility.

A week after he fell, and three days too late.

“Steve?” is the first thing he says (it could never have been anything else). Dugan’s face falls, and Morita’s eyes drop to the floor, and Jones and Dernier glance uncomfortably at each other, and finally Falsworth slowly shakes his head.

It takes all five of them to restrain him, even with his mangled left arm, until a medic arrives and sedates him. (“It’s too late,” Dugan keeps saying—sobbing—into his shoulder over his screams, one big arm around his chest. “There’s nothing you can do, it’s too late.”)

When he wakes at the basecamp twenty-four hours later, his arm is gone but he’s calmer. He follows all the medical staff’s instructions, allows Carter to debrief him, and thanks everyone who had a hand in his rescue. Howard Stark sends a telegram informing him that Stark Industries has made some exciting breakthroughs in prosthetics, but for now he just ties his left sleeve off below the stump. When the Commandos come to visit he’s subdued and stable. He lets them lead the conversation, only interjecting the occasional question or comment to direct it to the information he wants. After two days, he requests and is granted an immediate transfer to the SSR London headquarters, where he can continue his recovery more privately.

The seventh night after they find him, Bucky Barnes walks into Arnim Zola’s conveniently unattended cell. He only needs one arm to put a bullet between his eyes.

-----

There’s no trial. The cover-up is swift and unquestioned. Zola is cremated immediately and his official cause of death reported as heart failure. Bucky, meanwhile, is sent to join Howard Stark’s search for the downed Hydra aircraft.

Howard is waiting when he steps out of the helicopter at the docks.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I should have been there when Rogers—”

Bucky punches him.

“Okay,” says Howard, scrambling to his feet and rubbing his jaw. “I deserved that.”

They don’t talk much in the following weeks as they clear gridpoint after gridpoint. After two months, the SSR recalls their ship.

They never find a damn thing that matters.

-----

His first visitor when he gets back to New York is Peggy Carter.

“How are you holding up?” she asks, after Bucky reluctantly invites her into the barely habitable flophouse room where he’s staying until he can find a permanent place. There’s nowhere to sit so they both stand awkwardly next to the bed, a little too close in the tiny space. “I imagine coming back has been difficult for you.”

Mercifully, the apartment he shared with Steve got rented out after Steve left with the USO a few years ago, although Flanagan, the superintendent, was nice enough to store their things. Bucky went to sort through them his first day back. He picked up one of Steve’s sketchbooks, flipped through a few pages of diner patrons and Brooklyn landmarks, and then came across his own Army uniform-clad image, something Steve must have drawn a few days before he shipped out, all soft lines. He hasn’t been back to Flanagan’s since.

“Was there something you wanted, Agent Carter?” he says. “I understood the official report had been filed.”

“I’m not here on SSR business,” says Carter, evidently deciding to copy his directness. “I have a proposal for you. Well, a confession first, and then a proposal.”

“I’m no priest,” says Bucky.

“I’m well aware,” she says. “But I believe you’re the only person I can trust with this information. You see, the night before he— the night before the attack on Schmidt’s base, Steve and I were… intimate.”

This is so far from what Bucky wants to talk about. He doesn’t want her here in the first place, doesn’t want to deal with her and everything she represents at all, and he certainly doesn’t want to hear about this. He tamps down on a wave of rage and with a great effort keeps his voice as neutral as possible.

“Like I said, I’m no priest.”

“I don’t require absolution when I’ve committed no sin,” says Carter acerbically, and she instantly rises in Bucky’s already begrudgingly high estimation even if he still can’t bring himself to actually like her.

“So why tell me?”

“I’m pregnant,” she says bluntly. “There’s been no one else.”

Bucky just stares at her. He doesn’t want to know any of this.

“Okay,” he says finally.

“I’d like you to marry me and claim the child as your own,” she says, direct and unapologetic.

Bucky snorts.

“You asking me to save your reputation, Carter?” he says unkindly.

“I don’t give a damn about my reputation,” she says. “I never have. If it were just about that, I wouldn’t have come to you.”

“Then what is it about?”

“The SSR thinks the key to unlocking Erskine’s formula for the supersoldier serum resides in Steve’s genetic code,” says Carter. “Genetic code they believe was lost in a plane crash in the Arctic two months ago.”

“Genetic code that’s part of your baby,” Bucky concludes.

“I’m asking you to protect my child from being turned into a lab rat,” says Carter. “To protect Steve’s child.”

Bucky wishes she hadn’t added that last bit. He doesn’t want to know this, doesn’t want to talk about it, doesn’t want any part of it.

He wants to bury this. He was going to bury this.

“Why don’t you ask Stark?” he questions, stalling for time. “He’s wealthy and a lot more powerful.” And would definitely be more willing, he doesn’t add.

“And give Howard exclusive access to Steve’s genes?” says Carter. “He of all people can’t know the truth.”

“You think he won’t figure it out? The timeline won’t match,” Bucky points out. “Two months have passed and we’ve barely seen each other.”

“I’ll tell Howard we comforted each other shortly after you were rescued,” says Carter. “It was all within a week so it’ll match near enough.”

“You really think he’ll buy that?” says Bucky skeptically. “It’s not like we’ve ever been close.”

Carter shrugs.

“Grief makes for strange bedfellows,” she says dispassionately. “He’ll spread it to the rest of the SSR. No one should question it.”

“You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you?” he says, getting angry again because she’s clearly been mulling this over for awhile and he hasn’t even fully processed it.

“I have, as it happens,” says Carter. “I don’t expect you to make a decision right away. But I will need your answer by next week. If you decline, I’d like to disappear while I can still conceal the pregnancy.”

“Disappear?” Bucky echoes, with a sudden flare of panic.

“Yes, disappear,” says Carter. “I don’t want the SSR—or Hydra, for that matter—chasing after us. But that’s not my first choice. My first choice is you.”

No, Bucky wants to say, your first choice was Steve. Just like his first choice was you.

Bucky was never supposed to be part of this. He’s not sure he wants to be anymore.

But he knows he doesn’t want the last bit of Steve to disappear.

“I think that’s what Steve would have wanted,” Carter adds quietly.

“Steve would have wanted to raise his child himself,” Bucky snaps.

“I believe that’s true,” says Carter. She reaches for the door knob but aborts the movement halfway and turns back to him.

“Sergeant Barnes,” she says, “I’m not sure this will make a difference, but for what it’s worth, I loved your friend very much.”

Bucky doesn’t meet her eyes.

He wants to say, You didn’t know him enough to love him.

He wants to say, But I loved him first, and that should mean something, even if it never did to Steve.

He wants to say, It’s not worth much and it doesn’t make a difference at all.

He doesn’t goddamn want any of this.

“I’ve never doubted it,” he tells her. He wishes it didn’t matter.

He wishes it were a lie.

-----

He meets her a few days later at a crowded Manhattan diner where the waitress glances at his empty left sleeve and thanks him for his service. He thinks he maybe smiles in acknowledgement.

“Before I agree to anything,” he says after the waitress departs, “I have some concerns I’d like addressed.”

“All right,” says Carter.

“What if it looks like him?” says Bucky. “You two weren’t a secret. We won’t be able to pretend the kid’s the spitting image of someone’s great-uncle. Somebody will notice.”

“Yes, I’ve thought of that,” Carter admits. “But it might not be a problem, and a marriage will buy us a few years to plan for that particular contingency. And at least we’ll slow down anyone looking at the paper trail.”

The logic is solid enough. Bucky moves on.

“If I agree to this, I have a few conditions.”

“Such as?”

“We don’t live in Brooklyn,” says Bucky. That one’s a deal breaker. Brooklyn is now nothing but constant reminders of his life with Steve.

“Seems doable,” says Carter.

“We have equal say in how the kid’s raised,” says Bucky. “You want me to say it’s mine, then it’s half mine.”

“That’s fair,” says Carter. “Though on the subject of fairness, I don’t intend to stop my work with the SSR. If you expect me to sit quietly at home while—”

“That is the last thing I’d expect from you,” says Bucky honestly. It’s actually a relief. The SSR can occupy her in a way their sham of a marriage certainly won’t.

“Good,” says Carter, with just the hint of a smile. “Anything else?”

Bucky drops his gaze to the table.

“The terms of the marriage,” he says. “I don’t want— it won’t be a true marriage, of course. But we’ll be faithful. We won’t be free to do what we want. It’s too dangerous.”

He forces himself to look up at her. He’s clearly surprised her, but not, he thinks, negatively.

“You’re placing this restriction on yourself as well?” she clarifies.

“Of course,” says Bucky. It’s an easy promise to make. The only person he’d want to stray for is—

“Agreed,” she says.

-----

They marry at the Brooklyn courthouse the following Monday, with Howard Stark as their witness. Bucky repeats the vows mechanically; Peggy (which he guesses he has to start calling her now that she’s his wife) recites hers with only marginally more alacrity. They exchange rings (plain gold bands that horrify Howard with their simplicity) without once meeting each other’s eyes. When the officiant gives them permission to kiss, they only allow their lips to touch for the briefest possible microsecond.

“Well that was the most depressing thing I’ve ever been part of,” says Howard as they descend the courthouse steps. “And I spent most of the last three years on the frontlines of—”

“Shut up, Howard!” Peggy snaps. “Thank you for accompanying us; the commentary is unnecessary.”

“Got it,” says Howard. He turns to Bucky. “I’ll see you tomorrow for the prosthetic fitting. It’s rudimentary right now, but give me a few years and it’ll be so advanced you won’t even miss your old arm.”

Bucky seriously doubts that, but doesn’t trust himself to say so without exploding. He’s been simmering with barely-suppressed rage all morning. This should have been Steve’s day.

“In the meantime,” Howard continues, “Jarvis will take care of anything you need. In fact, he should be wrapping up the move as we speak. And Ana’s already designing the nursery. I think it’s beach-themed.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Bucky says for the hundredth time. Howard has insisted on moving Peggy and Bucky into his Manhattan mansion until they get settled in their post-war domestic lives. Bucky’s agreed to it mostly because it allows him to think as little about his new family circumstances as possible (and also because he feels Howard owes him for what he did to Steve).

Howard shrugs.

“It’s nothing, seriously,” he says. “I’ve been summoned to the desert for the foreseeable future, so it’s not like I’ll be using it.” He looks at his watch. “Speaking of, I’m late for a call with a very irritable physicist. Mazel tov, kids.”

-----

They don’t see each other much in the following months. Bucky gets fitted with a mechanical prosthetic arm and returns to Europe to sweep up the remains of Hydra with the Commandos, while Peggy gets stuck with desk duty in New York (of course, the SSR had wanted to send her on leave permanently once the pregnancy started showing, but Howard and Bucky had thrown their not inconsiderable weight around to land her the office job: Howard because he actually loves Peggy; Bucky to mitigate the guilt of abandoning her).

“You did the right thing,” Dugan tells him his first night back.

Bucky’s mechanical arm starts whirring.

“Did I?” Nothing about his marriage to Peggy feels like the right thing.

“I’m sure Rogers—”

“Don’t.”

“We all miss him,” says Dugan softly.

“Fuck off,” Bucky snarls and goes to relieve Falsworth from his watch early.

The Commandos quickly learn not to bring up Steve, Peggy, or the baby.

By mid-October they’ve stopped getting sent to apprehend Hydra operatives because Bucky always kills them on sight instead of capturing them for interrogation.

“Anyone ever tell you you’d make an excellent assassin, Barnes?” Colonel Phillips says the sixth time their mission ends with one of Bucky’s bullets in the target’s skull.

“Thank you, sir,” he says flatly.

“It’s not a compliment,” Phillips snaps. “The SSR doesn’t employ you as an assassin. The objective of your missions is to capture Hydra operatives, not to kill them.”

“I don’t agree with that objective. It’s arrogant and dangerous,” says Bucky. Especially in light of Operation Paperclip, he doesn’t add, since he’s technically not supposed to know about that. “Sir.”

“You are also not employed for your opinion,” says Phillips. “Good god, I thought Rogers was bad after we lost you.”

Bucky’s mechanical arm whirrs as he unconsciously clenches his hands. No one has uttered Steve’s name in his presence in months, and now it’s to dare to compare Steve’s motivations to Bucky’s, as if they are or have ever been in any way alike.

Bucky’s read the files. He’s listened to that goddamn recording. Steve’s last words were planning a date he knew full well he’d never go on, and it wasn’t even—

“Fortunately,” Phillips continues, “you are not my problem anymore. The transfer papers finally came through. You’re being reassigned to New York.”

“I didn’t ask for a transfer,” says Bucky.

“Consider it an early Christmas present,” says Phillips. “I understand your wife is having a baby soon. You can be at the hospital to pass out cigars.”

The baby’s imminent arrival is one of the many reasons Bucky isn’t anxious to return to the States in general and New York in particular, but it’s not like he can say that to Phillips.

“Best of luck to you, Sergeant Barnes,” Phillips concludes, waving his dismissal. “You will not be missed.”

-----

“We’re thrilled to have you, Agent Barnes. Maybe you can rein in that wife of yours,” is the very first thing SSR Chief John Flynn says when Bucky steps into his office a week later.

Bucky instantly hates him.

“My wife doesn’t need reining in,” he says icily. He may not like Peggy for entirely personal (and, when he’s being honest, mostly irrational) reasons, but he’s never questioned her talents as an agent. He has no doubt that all things being equal, she would be sitting in Flynn’s chair right now.

Flynn’s smile falters.

“Hey now,” he says. “I only meant—”

“I know exactly what you meant,” says Bucky. Peggy was circumspect when he asked her about the New York office, only telling him Flynn “shouldn’t give you much trouble,” but that careful emphasis told him enough. Flynn is exactly the kind of asshole who didn’t appreciate Steve Rogers until he’d been shoved in a machine and spat out as Captain America.

Flynn clears his throat.

“Agent Barnes—”

“Sergeant Barnes,” Bucky corrects.

“What?”

“Sergeant Barnes,” he repeats. “Peggy is your agent; I’m not.”

Though Peggy isn’t “Agent Barnes” either: she’s retained her maiden name (which Bucky is only too happy about).

“Actually,” says Flynn, “you’ve been granted agent status as part of your transfer. And I’m sure your wife will want to focus her energies on more domestic duties going forward.”

Bucky has no idea why Flynn would be sure of that, unless he’s confused Peggy with a completely different person, but only says, “That’s entirely up to her, of course.”

“Of course,” Flynn echoes, his smile becoming even more strained, and something in Bucky snaps.

“I’d remind you, Chief Flynn, that Peggy Carter was a skilled and valuable agent long before she met me.” His mechanical arm whirrs. “Or Captain Rogers.”

“Well I wouldn’t know anything about that,” says Flynn, his eyes flicking uncomfortably to Bucky’s left arm.

“That’s the first thing you’ve gotten right,” says Bucky. “Regardless of Agent Carter’s decision, I will be taking eight weeks’ leave, starting today.”

This is a bad idea. He knows it’s a bad idea even as he says it. How is he going to handle everything having the baby will entail if he doesn’t have work to escape to and bury himself in?

But he also knows he won’t be able to deal with the baby if he also has to deal with Flynn.

Flynn is flipping through a file on his desk, clearly flustered.

“You haven’t been approved for leave,” he says uncertainly.

“Court martial me,” Bucky snaps, already halfway out the door.

-----

When he finally forces himself to go to Howard Stark’s mansion—his new home—several hours later, Peggy is already there and furious.

“If you wanted to make my life harder, congratulations, you’ve done it,” she says.

“I’ve never wanted that,” says Bucky honestly. In another life… well, nothing permanent would have happened between them in any life, but he’s always understood why Steve loved her. It’s one of the reasons liking her is so difficult.

“Then you might have treated my boss with a bit more respect,” says Peggy.

“Flynn is an arrogant asshole,” says Bucky. “I don’t know how you put up with him.”

“I have been putting up with arrogant assholes like Flynn my entire life,” says Peggy. “It’s not as though I’ve had other options. I’m more than capable of handling whatever he and idiots like him throw at me. I certainly don’t need you to sweep in to defend me.”

“I know you don’t,” says Bucky. “But he was making these snide remarks and I— it’s a bad habit, I’m sorry. I’ve been told it’s… cloying.” His arm whirrs, just for a second.

“That’s one word for it,” says Peggy, but she seems somewhat mollified. “At any rate, I’ve been suspended for my health through at least the end of the year.”

“He can’t do that!” says Bucky, outraged, his arm starting to whirr in earnest. “I’ll go tell him right now—”

“You’ll do no such thing,” says Peggy. “I just told you I don’t need you to defend me.”

“But—”

“Not to mention Flynn won’t be at the office,” Peggy adds. “It’s late, and tomorrow is Saturday.” She sighs. “The baby is nearly due anyway, and Howard claims he has something in the works that will actually allow me to prove myself.”

“You’ve already proved yourself,” says Bucky, a little surprised by his own sincerity.

Peggy looks surprised too, but also pleased.

“If only the rest of the SSR shared your opinion,” she says. “But never mind. We have a more pressing matter to discuss.”

“We do?” says Bucky warily.

“Names,” says Peggy, smiling, and Bucky finds himself smiling back a little in relief.

“Well, Sarah for a girl,” he says. “For Steve’s mom. It’s what he would have wanted. For a boy…” He trails off. He purposefully hasn’t let himself think about this.

“We could call him Steve,” Peggy offers, the obvious option Bucky hasn’t wanted to contemplate.

Now he forces himself to imagine it: seeing after-images of the man he loved and lost every time he calls the kid’s name.

“No,” he says. “I— we can’t do that. Too much to live up to.”

“All right,” says Peggy; he might be imagining it, but he thinks she looks a little relieved too. “We could name him after his father, then.”

Bucky frowns.

“We just—”

“James,” says Peggy softly.

Bucky gapes at her.

“We could say it’s for Falsworth and Morita, too, if you’d like,” she adds.

For a moment he lets himself wonder if Steve maybe would have named his son after Bucky, if he’d been around to do it.

He shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “We should name him something new. Give him his own identity. It’s what Steve would have wanted.”

They both say that a lot, he thinks, for two people who have absolutely no idea what Steve would have wanted. It’s not like either of them ever discussed child-rearing with him.

“All right,” says Peggy. “We’ll call him something new.”

-----

Nathaniel Roger Carter-Barnes is born in the early hours of November 3, 1945.

“He has your eyes,” the nurse tells Bucky when she places the baby in his arms, and Bucky’s heart clenches. He forces himself to look down into what are unquestionably Steve’s eyes, a piercing blue he thought he’d never see again, and for a moment it feels like coming home.

Then the eyes slide shut and the baby nestles into his chest. His arm whirrs.

“There you go,” the nurse coos, “he knows his daddy,” and Bucky has to force a smile because of course he doesn’t. He never will.

His true father is gone.

To his parents’ immense relief, Nate, as they end up calling him, grows to resemble his mother. He has the same dark, curly hair, the same round cheeks, the same infectious smile. The only thing he doesn’t have is her eyes.

“He’s got your eyes, pal,” Howard tells Bucky at the christening. “No doubt.”

Bucky’s arm whirrs as he nods in agreement, but he’s more relieved than anything. If they can fool Howard, they might just pull this off.

Peggy returns to the SSR at the beginning of the year, but Bucky officially resigns, and Howard sets him up at Stark Industries to plan another search for the Valkyrie.

“Privately funded, so I won’t have some bureaucratic jackass whining about draining resources,” Howard explains with great satisfaction. “And speaking of bureaucratic jackasses, I have to go schmooze a few in DC. Pain in the ass, but when it works out, we’ll all be better off. Pegs will be thrilled.”

“Good,” says Bucky. “Someone should make her happy.”

Howard frowns a little but only says, “Jarvis says Ana’s enjoying herself.”

With Peggy back at the SSR and Bucky at SI, Nate’s daytime care has fallen to Ana Jarvis, the wife of Howard’s butler. The Jarvises live in a cottage off the main house, and while Bucky doesn’t interact with them much, they seem to give Peggy the support he’s incapable of providing, so he’s happy to have them around.

“Oh yeah? Great,” he says. “How do I get her to let me pay her?”

“You don’t,” says Howard. “I’m paying her.”

You’re paying for my son’s nanny?”

Howard shrugs.

“Why not? I’m his godfather.”

“Full disclosure, that was all Peggy’s doing,” says Bucky. He gets along with Howard well enough, and has no compunction about accepting his generosity, but he still doesn’t particularly like him. Not that Howard seems to notice or care.

“Yeah, well I’m not being totally selfless,” says Howard. “I’m gonna need Peggy free once everything in DC gets worked out. And I owe you two for… well, you know.”

Bucky doesn’t think Howard actually does know why he owes them, or at least not why he owes Bucky.

Howard returns from DC in time to head out with the search party in late March. They don’t find anything on the six-week expedition, and while Bucky would be more than willing to stay out on the ship until they do find something, even if it takes years, as Howard unhappily points out, neither of them is actually free to do that.

“I know you and Peggy aren’t exactly gaga over each other, but I’m pretty sure you should see your wife and kid at some point,” he says. “Jarvis is very concerned about that. And I’ve got a company to run. Jarvis is very concerned about that, too. Not to mention the AG wants a meeting.”

“I thought the whole point of this was to keep the bureaucrats off our asses,” says Bucky.

“There’s always a bureaucrat on my ass for something,” says Howard. “Can’t get SHIELD off the ground from an iceberg. I asked. Here, what do you think?” He passes Bucky a scrap of paper covered in barely-legible scribbles.

Bucky mostly thinks the name SHIELD reminds him too much of Captain America, but since that is, of course, the point, he just tries to decipher Howard’s chicken scratch.

‘Supreme Headquarters’?” he snorts. “Really?”

“Yeah, I have a feeling Clark’s not gonna go for that one,” says Howard. “Sounds intimidating, though.”

“It sounds ridiculous,” says Bucky. He squints at the paper. “‘Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division’? ‘Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate’? ‘Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division’? Stark, these are all gibberish.”

Howard rolls his eyes.

“And ‘Federal Bureau of Investigation’ is so coherent?”

“Yes?” says Bucky. “Aren’t you supposed to come up with the name before the acronym?”

“You have no imagination,” says Howard dismissively. “Forget it, I’ll ask Peggy when we get home.”

“Speaking of home,” says Bucky. “Will we have to move to DC when this all goes through?”

“Yeah, about that,” says Howard. “DC is Clark’s choice, but not mine: all the politics is a real buzzkill. Like the SSR, it won’t be an exclusively American agency, and since the SSR works out of New York, there’s precedent. We could just stay. But…” He trails off, looking awkward.

“But?” Bucky prompts.

“I’m diversifying Stark Industries,” says Howard. “Branching into motion pictures. Whole industry’s a goldmine if you’ve got the right tools.”

“Now?” says Bucky skeptically. “While you’re trying to start a government agency?”

Howard waves this concern away.

“I wouldn’t have made it this far if I didn’t know how to delegate,” he says. “There’s a perfect place for a training camp just outside LA, and we can take our pick for headquarters downtown. We’ll have to run it by Peggy first, of course, but—”

“I’m on board,” says Bucky immediately. Living in Manhattan stops staying in New York from being completely unbearable, but it’s still hell. It’s not like he and Steve never left Brooklyn, after all.

They never made it out to California, though.

“Oh. Great!” says Howard. “I really thought that was gonna be a tougher sell.”

Bucky shrugs.

“Six weeks in the Arctic is all the sales pitch you need,” he says. “Year-round summer sounds appealing right about now.”

-----

They move to California in September. Bucky feels nothing but relief when he watches New York fall away from Howard’s private jet, even with the baby howling in his lap. If he’s lucky, he’ll never have to see that city (Steve’s city) again.

Howard insists they take the main house on his sixty-acre compound, which includes a detached bachelor pad/workshop for Howard, a slightly smaller 3000-square-foot “cottage” for the Jarvises, two swimming pools, a tennis court, and a nine-hole golf course.

“We can get our own house,” Bucky tells Howard with slightly more conviction than when he’d tried to decline the New York mansion. Howard never stayed in New York for more than a few weeks at a time. In LA it seems he’ll be a more permanent neighbor.

“Consider it a perk of being married to the SHIELD director,” says Howard. “Besides, you want poor Ana to have to commute?”

Bucky’s forced to concede that point, at least. He has to drive to Pasadena a few times a week and it’s not something he would wish on anyone, especially Ana Jarvis. And while he and Peggy are getting along better than they ever have, he can’t imagine their marriage will be improved by isolation, so after a few weeks he drops the subject.

Commuting aside, Bucky likes California, likes how different it is from New York, how few things there are to remind him of Steve. He only has one really bad moment, their very first week there. He’s unpacking the last of the boxes in the main house with Ana, while Howard, Peggy, and Jarvis are out checking over the new headquarters, and Nate is down for his afternoon nap.

“I don’t recognize these,” says Ana from somewhere to his right.

Bucky turns—and feels his arm start up.

“That’s not meant to be opened,” he somehow chokes out.

Ana is standing in front of a box Bucky belatedly recognizes as containing all he has left of Steve’s belongings, an open sketchbook in her hand.

“These are beautiful.”

“Yes,” Bucky agrees, whisper-quiet, even though he can’t actually see which sketches she’s looking at. He comes up beside her, his feet moving of their own volition. He doesn’t want to see this.

“The artist loved you very much.”

“What makes you say that?” asks Bucky sharply.

Ana holds up the sketch she’s admiring: Bucky’s face in three-quarter view, half-smiling and tousled and impossibly young, even though it can’t be more than five years since it was drawn.

“It’s a very good likeness,” she says, turning it back toward herself and gazing down at it. “The detail is extraordinary. But it’s imperfect—or maybe too perfect. It softens the imperfections.” She smiles, tracing but not quite touching the portrait’s cheek with a fingertip.

“I was younger then,” Bucky offers, but Ana just shakes her head.

“I know what someone looks like through the lens of love.”

Bucky gently takes the book out of her hands, closes it, and sets it back in the box without looking at the other contents. One day this box will belong to Nate. Until then…

“You must miss them.” Ana’s whisper is almost lost in the buzz from Bucky’s arm.

“Every goddamn second,” Bucky admits softly, allowing himself this one moment of weakness. His arm whirrs to a halt, casting them into silence.

Nate’s high-pitched cry cuts across the stillness. Ana rushes to fetch him, and Bucky seals up the box and places it in the pile bound for the attic. They don’t talk about the sketches again.

-----

The next several months are dedicated to building SHIELD.

Peggy, of course, is brilliant as the director, overseeing staffing, signing off on (and occasionally leading) missions, and refining the agency’s purpose.

Howard heads the weapons and technology side of things, recruiting top scientists from around the world to fill his cutting-edge labs and workshops.

Bucky is put in charge of the training camp.

“Those who can’t do, teach, is that it?” he says when he’s told his new position.

“Those who can’t follow orders, give them, if that’s how you want to look at it,” says Peggy. “You’ll be out of the field until I’m sure you won’t blow an asset’s head off.”

Bucky’s arm whirrs, but only briefly. He can’t exactly argue with Peggy’s reasoning.

He throws himself into his new job, studying the training programs of the SEALs, the Rangers, the FBI, and the now-defunct SSR, and combining and intensifying the toughest aspects.

“No one will get through this,” says Peggy when he shows her his sixteen-week training plan.

“Then they shouldn’t be in the field,” says Bucky. “You could. The Commandos could.” Steve could. His arm whirrs.

“You can’t train for every contingency, Bucky,” says Peggy gently. “You know that better than most.”

“You can try,” Bucky mutters. “You want the best, right? This program will give you the best.”

“This program will give me no one,” says Peggy, but she doesn’t make him modify it.

The training base is called Camp Rogers—a name Bucky, with Peggy’s support, vehemently fought against, but the bastards in the War Department pushed through anyway. Maybe it’s appropriate, though, he thinks when he watches his recruits joke around during mess, bright-eyed and naïve and still alive, still whole: another Rogers claiming him for a purpose he doesn’t want, shredding his heart with disinterest.

His first class has just fifteen recruits, most of them Army and Navy vets from the war, but a couple poached from the FBI (SHIELD automatically absorbed all SSR agents). He tries not to get too close to them, wishes he didn’t have to learn their names. He can’t help looking at them and wondering what each of them will lose in this cause. Their limb? Their life?

Their soul?

He pushes them harder than is probably necessary, almost certainly harder than he should. He wants to scream at them all to run, that they somehow made it out of the war unscathed and they won’t be so lucky twice and it’s not worth it. Six recruits drop out in the first eight weeks.

“You’re doing the right thing,” he tells them. “It’s for the best.”

They probably take it as a parting shot, but he’s sincere each time he says it. They’re getting out before they’re damaged beyond repair, before loss after loss chips away at them until they shatter. He envies them, even if he can’t make them understand why.

Of the nine that complete the program, only five pass the final set of tests.

“A thirty-three percent success rate,” says Peggy as she double-checks the results. “It’s not ideal.”

“It’s one-hundred percent successful at weeding out unfit recruits,” says Bucky. “I’m giving you my best.”

Peggy looks up, her expression unexpectedly gentle.

“I know you are,” she says softly.

A week after the first graduation, he and Howard head out to look for the plane again. Ana and Nate come to see them off, Nate babbling more or less unintelligibly the whole way to the airport. Bucky thinks it might be a ploy to make him stay, but entirely Ana’s, not Peggy’s (even if it were Peggy’s style, she would never ask the six-months-pregnant Ana to participate). It doesn’t work, of course, but it does make it a little harder to say goodbye.

It’s become his habit, after the hardest days of training—days when someone quits, days when someone doesn’t quit, days that remind him far too much of the war—to slip into the nursery and just watch Nate sleep, tiny chest rising and falling in a visible confirmation of life.

You can hurt me, he always thinks as he gazes down at the peaceful, unblemished face that so resembles the woman he resents and in sleep contains no trace of the man he loves, just like your father. You can destroy me, just like he did.

As hard as he’s fought it, he’s grown attached to the kid. Of course, Peggy would probably say it’s what Steve would have wanted. Maybe she’d be right.

The expedition finds nothing but ice. Bucky spends most of the time refining the training program and discussing ideas for SHIELD’s future with Howard, although he takes time to read and reject a couple scripts Howard is thinking of producing.

“Yeah, that was my instinct too,” says Howard when Bucky tells him they’re garbage. “You ever get tired of showing amateurs how to shoot guns and pick locks, there’s a producing job at Stark Studios waiting for you.”

Bucky’s been tired of shooting guns since the second he got his draft notice, but he just rolls his eyes and says, “SHIELD training is slightly more complicated than that.” He’s not like Howard, who can dip in and out of SHIELD whenever it suits him, no worse for wear. It’s all or nothing.

He’s married to Peggy. He’s raising Steve’s kid. It’s all.

In July, shortly after little Eddie Jarvis is born, Jim Morita joins Bucky at Camp Rogers as his second-in-command. Bucky’s happier to have him than he expected; in many ways, Morita is a living reminder of the worst time in his life.

But Morita also gets that Bucky doesn’t want to talk about Steve in a way no one else at SHIELD really does. He immediately rechristens the base “the Forge”, and smoothly redirects every overeager recruit’s questions about Captain America from Bucky to himself, steering them not just verbally but physically away so that they leave Bucky and his whirring mechanical arm in peace.

They settle into a rhythm. With Morita’s help, Bucky gets his graduate rate up to nearly seventy percent. Howard divides his time between his labs and his studio lots. Peggy starts feeling confident enough in both the SHIELD hierarchy and Bucky’s parenting abilities to run missions in the field every few months. Bucky and Howard go out to the Arctic the first six weeks of every spring, leaving the spring cycle of training in Morita’s capable hands.

Bucky and Peggy become something like friends. They don’t really have a choice. They’re a public couple, if not a private one. Howard is Peggy’s companion as often as possible whenever she has to make an appearance in DC or London, or host a government delegation in LA, but Bucky can’t avoid every state dinner or visiting general, and it’s easier to get through it when he can keep a conversation with his date flowing.

It’s also imperative they present a united front to the bureaucrats interested in undermining Peggy’s authority at every opportunity. For Bucky it’s by far the easiest and most enjoyable aspect of his role: his professional respect for Peggy is absolute, whatever his private feelings; and he relishes politely eviscerating every member of the old boys’ club who makes the mistake of thinking he can sweep Peggy aside, the same way he would have swept aside pre-serum Steve Rogers. Turns out the war didn’t kill all Bucky’s passions.

“Didn’t realize you were a child-rearing expert, sir,” he says mildly, every time one of them not-so-subtly suggests Nate might be irreparably damaged by having a mother who dedicates her days to running an intelligence agency instead of spending every waking moment with him. “Maybe we should hire you to watch our son.”

Most of them back off then, but if they push it he’ll add, “Can’t make more of a mess of that than you did of Operation Diadem,” or whichever wartime campaign they bungled.

That usually ends the discussion, but very occasionally, much as he loathes it, he’s forced to play the Captain America card.

“Children have been cared for by nannies for centuries,” Peggy points out when someone refuses to let it go.

“Maybe that’s how you do things in jolly old England, director, but here in America—”

“Steve Rogers’ mother was a war widow who worked every day of his life so she could put food on their table,” Bucky interjects. “While she was nursing patients at the local hospital, he spent his days with a neighbor. Surely you’re not suggesting, general, that Captain America grew into anything less than a model citizen.”

That always stops the debate dead in its tracks (the hilarious irony of Steve Rogers, of all people, being referred to as a model anything is, of course, tragically lost on these audiences—just like Steve himself, and Sarah Rogers, and anyone else who could actually appreciate it). When the subject changes and Peggy gives Bucky a slight smile, he returns it and forgets for a moment why he resents her.

George Jarvis arrives just eleven months after his older brother, so Bucky and Peggy try to take Nate out on weekends—to the beach, to the fair, to the Knott’s ghost town—so he won’t run over to the Jarvises’ cottage when Ana is supposed to be having somewhat of a break. At first they alternate weekends—partly because they’re both busy trying to get SHIELD up and running; mostly because it’s awkward—but as Nate gets older that becomes less tenable. He’s a nightmare of a toddler: stubborn, defiant, and curious to a dangerous fault. To Bucky it’s the first indication (besides his eyes) that he really is Steve’s child, but everyone else, thank god, declares him his mother’s son through and through. Peggy rolls her eyes and says he’s just a normal toddler.

“You’ll grow out of it, won’t you, darling?” she says, ruffling Nate’s hair.

“No!” Nate declares, setting his tiny jaw in an expression so reminiscent of Steve it sets Bucky’s arm whirring.

-----

“Nate’s starting to ask questions.”

Bucky looks up and sees Peggy leaning against the doorframe of his bedroom, watching him pack. He shrugs and his arm starts up, just a low hum. He can’t control it completely, but he’s gotten better. The upgrades help.

“He knows about Steve.”

Not that he knows everything about Steve, of course. He knows Steve was Bucky’s best friend, and that Steve, Bucky, Peggy, Howard, and his uncle Commandos fought in The War together. He knows about Captain America, too, although Bucky’s not sure he’s made the connection between lost Uncle Steve and the mythologized war hero (and Bucky will be perfectly happy if he never does).

He doesn’t know what Steve really was to Bucky and Peggy. He doesn’t know what Steve should have been to him.

“He doesn’t know why his father disappears for a month and a half every year,” says Peggy, and before Bucky can retort that Nate’s father disappeared before anyone even knew he existed, which is the whole point of these expeditions after all, she adds, “Frankly, neither do I.”

“You never have,” says Bucky bitterly.

Bucky will never forgive Howard for his role in Steve’s transformation, but he loves him for this annual pilgrimage. Howard is the only one who has ever come close to understanding.

“I loved him too,” says Peggy quietly.

“That’s the difference between us,” Bucky snaps. “I still love him.”

Peggy shakes her head.

“It’s been five years,” she says. “You have to let go. You have a family—”

Bucky slams the suitcase shut.

“I have his family, you mean,” he snarls. “You think I wanted any of this? This— this twisted version of— I’m raising his son and it’s not even with—” he cuts himself off, abruptly aware just how much he’s let slip. His arm is suddenly deafening.

“It’s not even with him,” Peggy finishes softly. She gives him a small, sad smile. “We have more in common than you think.”

He flinches a little as she moves toward him, but all she does is sit on the edge of the bed and pat the space beside her in an invitation he doesn’t really want to take but does anyway, very deliberately not letting their shoulders touch and staring at his feet so he doesn’t have to look at her.

“Do you know why you were my first choice for Nate’s father?” Peggy asks after a moment.

Bucky shakes his head, eyes fixed on the small hole near the toe of his left sock.

“Because as Steve’s son, he was already sort of your son too.”

Bucky’s head snaps up.

“Don’t you think?” Peggy adds quietly. She’s still smiling a little, like she doesn’t realize how insane she sounds, verbalizing things Bucky’s never allowed himself to speculate even in his own head.

“No.” The denial feels wrenched from him against his will, even if it’s what he’s always known, deep down. “That wasn’t— Steve didn’t think like that. He didn’t want what I wanted.” He didn’t want me.

“You didn’t see him after the train,” says Peggy. “Everything he did… storming Schmidt’s base… the plane…

“I think about that day a lot, you know. I wonder, sometimes, if we’d found you in time… if he’d known you were alive… if you could have…”

“I could never talk him out of anything,” says Bucky. “If you couldn’t stop him, I never had a chance. He didn’t—” he breaks off... but what’s the point when Peggy’s already dragged everything else into the open? “He didn’t love me enough.”

Admitting it aloud doesn’t sting as much as he expected. His arm has quieted.

“You’re dead wrong,” Peggy whispers.

Bucky finally meets her eyes. It’s never occurred to him that Peggy might be just as uncertain about Steve’s feelings as he always has been, but now he realizes they’re bound together by more than just Nate. They were both widowed by the same man: a man who hadn’t promised them anything; a man who hadn’t loved either of them more than his own sense of duty (and really, isn’t that why he resents Peggy: because she took Steve but hadn’t been enough to keep him?); a man who left them nothing but an empty marriage and a child who will never allow them to move on.

They move toward each other at the same time. It’s their first kiss since their wedding (if that perfunctory peck even qualifies) and just as unromantic, but this time there’s no guilt or shame attached to it, and though he’s still filled with rage, none of it is directed at the woman in his arms. She is his ally, his comrade; she is the only one who truly understands what he was denied because she was denied the same, and the only one who knows the truth of their compensation, so much more than they could have hoped for and so much less than they need. In five years, he’s never fully appreciated what a gift he was given in her. In five years, he’s never really understood what shitty reciprocation he’s been.

They go slowly. Bucky keeps waiting for her to stop it—keeps waiting for him to stop it—and keeps waiting. Time narrows, brightens, eclipses the past just for a moment. The suitcase topples to the floor. A ghost flickers out.

Afterward, lying next to her on the still-made but rumpled bed, he waits again but the guilt doesn’t come.

Maybe it’s what Steve would have wanted, he thinks with only a trace of irony.

Peggy’s hand finds his across the quilt; their fingers tangle together.

“I don’t understand why you need this,” she murmurs, “but I understand you do need it. So for six weeks a year you can be his. Just… be ours for the other forty-six. Be here. All right?”

You don’t ask for much, do you? Bucky thinks, but he knows she’s offering him so much more than he deserves; more than he’s ever offered her.

They can never be for each other what Steve was. Maybe that’s all right though. Maybe it’s not all or nothing.

And hell, maybe it really is what Steve would have wanted.

“All right,” he whispers.

understanding