Bucky wakes up in the hospital, and he lies very still for a moment, cataloging his surroundings. There's a window to his right with a ledge that has a pigeon on it. He can hear voices outside the room, talking about charts and shift changes and what is happening on the weekend.
Captain America's shield is propped up against the wall where he can see it. Captain America himself is slumped in a chair beside Bucky's bed, cheek mashed up against the sheets and rough blanket covering Bucky. His hair is all messed up and he's going to have sheet marks on his face. Bucky lifts his flesh hand and clumsily half-pats, half-strokes Steve's hair.
Steve stirs and blinks. He lifts his head and gives Bucky a sweet, drowsy smile. He reaches up and captures Bucky's hand, pulling it to his cheek and settling down again with Bucky's hand for his pillow.
Bucky closes his eyes again and drifts off, not quite sleeping, just concentrating on the sound of Steve's steady breathing and the faint strong tick of his pulse under Bucky's hand.
Bucky knows it's going to be a bad one when Steve wakes up again, lifts his head up from the side of Bucky's fancy electric hospital bed, and says, "Now don't get mad until I explain."
His voice has the tone that had meant he'd got into another fight and had two black eyes, or found a HYDRA nest and accidentally forgotten to tell Bucky or the other Howlies that he was going in to clear it out, or that he'd met a stray dog on the way home from the store and given it his share of meat for supper and was planning to eat boiled potatoes and stale bread, while expecting Bucky to eat his own share of the meat as if it didn't choke him.
"Why don't you tell me what you did first," says Bucky. He tries to sit up, winces, and Steve picks up the control lying on the bed and raises the head of the bed up. It's evening, just at the time that Steve had always particularly liked to paint. The light is soft and golden as it comes through the window and lays softly on the brightness of Steve's hair.
On the wall opposite to him is one of those big whiteboard things that has the date and his location and the name of the doctors and nurses. Of course it could be a front, but Steve has drawn a picture of Captain Monkey anxiously putting a cloth on the fevered brow of Bucky Bear, who is lying on a bed with a thermometer sticking out of his mouth in a blank spot of the board. It looks like it's a couple shifts old; the staff have been trying not to erase it but the edges are a little flaked off. Bucky wonders what they're going to do with it after he gets sprung from the joint. Probably laminate it.
"Are you sure you don't want anything to eat first?" says Steve, which means it's worse than usual. "They have lemon jello. And rice pudding."
Bucky says, "I'm not eating hospital pudding." It's unpleasantly reminiscent of army pudding, for one thing. For another, there had been a period of several months when Bucky was only allowed soft foods because his digestive system was totally fucked up from seventy years of being frozen and thawed and living on whatever nutrient goop the Soviets and HYDRA chose to intubate, and then surviving on day old hamburgers from dumpsters. Bucky still can't look at bananas. Steve fidgets like he wants to offer to run to a bodega and buy Bucky rice pudding. "Steve," says Bucky. "Spit it out, pal."
Steve clears his throat. "Remember when we were ten and you wanted to propose to Anella Rosetti?"
"Yes," says Bucky.
"And you got a crackerjack ring and tried to practice on me?"
"Yes," says Bucky.
"They don't have real prizes in Cracker Jacks any more," says Steve. "Just these little paper things, like puzzles or stickers."
"Focus, Rogers," says Bucky. His head hurts. He wants Steve to confess and then go get him a pretty nurse, and then for the pretty nurse to give him the best of whatever modern medicine has to offer in the way of knockout pills.
"And you remember when you went to Basic and you gave me your ma's ring to pawn in case I needed money? And you were trying to make me laugh so you put it on my hand like I was a dame and told me I'd made you the happiest man alive?"
"Yes," says Bucky warily. He remembers giving Steve the ring. Steve had been so skinny that the ring fit perfectly on his hand. Steve had taken it off right away and called him a jerk. Even in their area of Brooklyn a guy wearing a woman's ring would have got some funny looks, but it had looked real nice. The dull gleam of the gold against Steve's skin made his hand look classy, not just bony. Bucky still didn't think his ma would have minded him giving Steve the ring. She'd liked Steve. Everybody had liked Steve.
"So I kept the crackerjack ring, and you know I'd never sell your ma's ring," says Steve, earnestly. "And it turns out they're real strict these days about who they let visit people in the hospital and talk to doctors."
"I gave you that ring to sell if you needed it," says Bucky, and takes a deep breath in before he starts yelling at Steve about it again like he had when he came home from Basic and found Steve skinnier than ever and offering him his ma's ring back like he was proud of keeping it. "You sound like you want me to make an honest girl of you finally."
Steve's ears turn slightly pink.
"Oh sweet Mary Moses," says Bucky prayerfully. "What did you do, did Stark help you, where was Natasha, what the hell was Wilson thinking --"
"It's just that dames and guys can get married now," says Steve. "To other dames and guys, I mean. And they said I couldn't make decisions for you because we weren't next of kin, and I said that we were married in the eyes of God before the war."
Bucky wants a drink. Or morphine. Or possibly the sweet release of death, except who would take care of Steve then? "And they bought it?"
"I think they felt sorry for me," admits Steve. "And then Stark threw a lot of money at them."
Bucky can just imagine that Stark did. He rubs his face with his hand and says, "Look, genius, how are you going to convince them that we're man and husband?" People have seen them around. They're not what you might call a loving couple, although Bucky supposes they do touch each other a lot. And Steve has an irritating tendency to steer him around with a hand on the small of his back. And they eat off each other's plates. And -- okay, Bucky guesses by modern standards they might be able to pull it off.
"Stark's lawyers said we could convince them that we had a common law marriage," says Steve. "Since I kept the rings and also our story is very sad and we're famous."
Bucky knows he can't get a drink until he's off IV fluids and yet it seems to him that he would trundle his ass down in its gaping hospital gown, pushing the IV stand, to the worst dive bar in the world if it meant he could have just one little tiny shot of whiskey right now. "And?" he prompts.
"And you have to sign a lot of paperwork and the hospital wants us to get legally married because HIPAA, so Miss Potts gave someone else a lot of money and we can get married tomorrow if you sign the marriage application today," says Steve, all in a rush.
"In a hospital," says Bucky.
"Yes," says Steve.
"While I am wearing a hospital gown," says Bucky.
"It's very fetching?" says Steve. He tries to look serious but the corner of his mouth is quivering like he's trying to keep it from a smirk.
"What the hell is HIPAA," says Bucky.
Steve says, "Some sort of privacy law." He shrugs. "I wasn't paying attention and Sam said he'd explain it better later."
"I'm not getting married in a hospital gown," says Bucky. His mother would rise up from her grave and strangle him with it. "Christ."
Steve says, "I think Natasha's finding us something." He's smiling, the punk, now that he's getting his own way, and Bucky feels a swell of affection that drowns out even the pain in his head.
"Two things," says Bucky. He considers. "Three. Three and half. Maybe four."
"Okay," says Steve.
"First, you're going to go down and buy me a pan of bread pudding. Second, you're going to keep a muzzle on Stark. Third, I get Natasha for best man."
"And the half?" says Steve.
"If you think I'm going to take your last name, Rogers, you got another think coming," says Bucky, as flatly as he can manage when he just wants to smile at Steve like a dope. This is a terrible idea, but the thought of being actually married to Steve -- to tie him down where he can't escape -- makes him feel reckless enough to go along with it.
A slow mischievous grin spreads over Steve's face. "But you loved Buck Rogers," he says.
"Steven Barnes or you get your own way out of this mess," says Bucky firmly.
"I guess it sounds better than James Rogers," says Steve, like he's making a reluctant concession. He takes Bucky's hand in his and squeezes gently. For a second they just look at each other. Sometimes Bucky still has trouble knowing what he's feeling, but right now it's plain even to him that he's feeling happiness, ordinary happiness.
"Sure would have been nice in 1939," he says. "Or 1942." He could have had Steve get his pension, and the money from his army salary without having to mail it back every month.
Steve's smile fades, goes a little pained. "Yeah," he says.
"Hey," says Bucky, and squeezes Steve's hand back. "Don't look like that, punk, it's almost your wedding day."
Steve laughs, a little choked, and says, "I'll get everything put together. You should sleep some more, Buck."
Bucky is tired again already. He hates this part of the healing process. When he came back home to Steve it seemed like he slept twenty hours a day while Steve hovered over him anxiously. "Let me sign the paperwork first," he says. "The marriage application."
Steve lets go of his hand long enough to pick up a folder full of papers. He uncaps a pen, a real fountain pen like the one Bucky had won sophomore year, and pulls out one of the papers. State of New York Department of Health Affidavit, License and Certificate of Marriage is printed in bold letters at the top of the page, and Bucky has to stop a minute to stare at it. "Did you ever think you'd fill out one of these?" he says.
"No," says Steve. Neither of them had thought Steve would live long enough to have the chance.
Bucky shakes his head. Steve's filled out everything but Bucky's signature and the date in his neat copperplate handwriting. He signs it as carefully as he can -- James Buchanan Barnes -- and lays the pen down. He's suddenly very sleepy, but very happy. "Go get me my bread pudding, punk," he says. "It's your duty as my husband to provide for me."
Steve picks up the marriage license with careful hands and says, "Sure, Bucky, you keep telling yourself that." He puts the paper back in the folder and bends to kiss Bucky gently on the forehead. "Get some sleep, pal. I'll send one of the nurses in."
"Get me a ring, too," says Bucky sleepily.
"The prettiest one in the vending machine," promises Steve, and Bucky rouses himself just long enough to throw the box of tissues from the table by his bed at him.