Bucky was sitting in the shadows at the edge of the garden. He’d long since smoked the one cigarette he’d allowed himself— now that Steve’s asthma was gone, he could smoke if he wanted, but he rarely wanted— but couldn’t bring himself to go back inside. He was only dragging the party down, moody and weird as he was nowadays.
He didn’t like himself. Steve had been changed, but so had he. He hadn’t told anyone what Zola had done to him. They’d seen the healing scars from the little burns and cuts, but he’d never told anyone they were only four or five hours old and had looked like they were a week healed. He hadn’t shown anyone that they were gone now, either. He certainly hadn’t told anyone he could see in the dark now. (He could, he could see everything in this garden even though there was no moon tonight.) He didn’t sleep much now, he didn’t feel cold the same way, he didn’t tire as easily. He was different, and not in the good ways that Steve was. The change intensified everything good about Steve, but what was there to intensify in Bucky?
No. He’d never been that good a guy, and now he was worse. Jesus. Steve was in there, golden and brilliant, and everyone could see now what a great guy he was, and he looked just as beautiful to everyone else as he always had to Bucky. And Bucky’s ugly, mean little heart had gone immediately to jealousy. The most beautiful dame he’d ever seen was making eyes at Steve and Bucky could only be jealous. How many times had he wished a doll would see Steve for what he really was? How many times had he tried to talk him up and get a girl to give him a chance? And now that one was, it was the worst thing Bucky could imagine. All that time— all that time, had he really just been hanging out with Steve so he could feel taller and bigger and more attractive?
How fucked-up was that?
That wasn’t it, at all, but the truth was even worse.
The worst part, the most fucked-up part of all, was that the booze didn’t fucking work. He’d had half a bottle of goddamn whiskey by now, and rotgut that it was, he should’ve been properly fucked-up, but it hadn’t even made him dizzy. He was stone cold sober and feeling like a piece of shit. And the cigarette hadn’t made him light-headed either. It ought to have, always had because he’d never been in the habit of smoking them so they always hit him hard. But nothing. He’d gotten nothing.
The door opened, and Dugan came out and poked around a bit. It was apparent after a while that Dugan was looking for Bucky. He really ought to say something, ought to get up and go back inside. But he really didn’t want to, and hell, he could always say he’d just gotten drunk and dozed off, out here. It was as good a reason as any to stay still and in the shadows.
After a little bit, Dugan gave up and went back in, and Bucky chewed his lips, thought about it, concluded there was nothing good that’d come from showing his face back in there.
Fuck it. He lit a second cigarette. He’d been planning to save it, to gamble with later, but since they didn’t seem to touch him anymore, it wouldn’t hurt to smoke it. So he took a drag, a heavy feeling settling in his gut when again, it failed to make him even a tiny bit nauseous.
The door opened again and he held the cigarette down, lit end cupped in his hand to hide the light. The dame stepped out, Peggy, red dress a bright flutter in the yellow light from inside as the door swung back shut. He waited, but no one else was with her. Her heels clicked on the paving stones as she shuffled her feet, readjusting her balance— pulling her coat on. She was leaving? Great. Maybe he could go back inside when she wasn’t there. He felt worse around her, weird and ugly and jealous and awkward. She’d totally caught him looking at her ass, which, c’mon, he was better than that— and she’d instantly twigged to his jealousy. Hopefully she just thought he was jealous because usually dames noticed him first, which was what he’d expressly tried to pass it off as to Steve.
Thing with Steve was, you could often fool him right away, but he always thought about stuff afterward and nine times out of ten he’d figure it out by the next morning. Bucky wasn’t looking forward to that conversation.
He’d have to admit that all those times he’d so generously given Steve lessons in the ways of women, teaching him about kissing and all, had really been excuses. He’d have to admit that he was queer as a goddamn three-dollar bill. And he couldn’t face that. He hadn’t only been lying to Steve about that, he’d kind of been lying to himself too, and that kind of thing was not a pretty thing to look at head-on. He’d avoided thinking too hard about it his entire goddamn life, but here it was, doubly intensified: he was himself, only more so, and his more-so self was even more-so in love with goddamn Steve Rogers who was also even more so himself and it was fucking impossible to stand, it was going to break his mind to look head-on at it like this.
Maybe they’d be lucky and there’d be a big mission or something. Something, anything Bucky could hide behind, be distracting about. He’d managed this long to not talk about what Zola had done to him. Maybe he could hide from this conversation too.
The cigarette was hot; he was wasting it, he should put it out if he wasn’t going to take a drag. He looked up and Peggy was looking right at him, in the dark. She couldn’t see him, he could tell that, but she knew he was there.
She took a step forward. “Barnes?” she said quietly.
He closed his eyes a second, then brought the cigarette up, took a drag. “Yeah,” he said.
“Dugan said you weren’t out here,” she said, walking toward him; he’d illuminated his face with the cigarette, but he’d intended to, so. Face the music.
“He didn’t ask me if I was,” Bucky said.
She came right up to him, stopped less than a pace away, and held out her fingers, wordlessly asking. He handed her the cigarette and she took a drag, looking thoughtfully at him. He could see her perfectly, but he knew it was dark here. “Who are you hiding from?” she asked.
“Force of habit,” Bucky said. “I don’t smoke indoors.”
“Steve didn’t think you smoked at all,” she said.
Bucky shrugged, not sure if she could see it. “Gave it up for him,” he said.
“Had you really started?” she asked.
“No,” he admitted. “I like it, but I never got in the habit.”
“I think it smells terrible,” she said, taking another hit, then handing the cigarette back. “But then, if you never smoke them, they’re effective when you do.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said, “that’s why I save ‘em up.” Except they don’t work anymore. He didn’t say that. Christ, she was the last person on Earth he’d ever breathe a word of it to.
Except maybe Steve.
Which was stupid. Steve was always the person he’d told everything to.
Except the stuff that might jeopardize them being them. So, everything but the really important stuff. Like this.
But no help for it.
“You’re incredibly important to Steve,” she said.
Fuck, man, of course Steve had to fall for the smart ones. He liked ‘em smart too, but the smart ones never wanted much to do with him. Bucky looked up at her; she could probably make out the reflection of the light in his eyes, even if the rest of him was most likely lost in shadow. He took a drag off the cigarette. “Fair to say that goes both ways,” he said.
“Lady,” Bucky said, “you got somethin’ you want to ask, you better ask it.”
“I don’t have to ask,” she said.
Fuck. He had to look away, at that. Was it that obvious? It was probably that obvious to her, because she was really fucking smart. “He’s not queer, okay?” Bucky said quietly. “That’s it, right? He’s not.”
“Is that it,” Peggy said, but it wasn’t a question.
“I assume that’s what you want to know,” Bucky said, and took another drag. “If that’s not it, then I don’t know what the fuck you want from me.”
“Are you queer, then?” she asked. “Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“I don’t figure that’s any of your business,” Bucky said, watching her through narrowed eyes. She held her hand out and he gave her back the cigarette. “Finish it,” he said, “I don’t want any more.” It wasn’t doing jack shit to him. Certainly wasn’t helping.
“But you think Steve is my business,” she said.
“I think he wants to be,” Bucky said.
“Do you want him to be?” she asked.
“Do I want— Lady,” Bucky said, “I just want Steve to be happy. I want him to have nice things, I want him to find somebody who’s gonna take better care of him than I ever could. I want things to go his way for goddamn once. If that means he’s your jurisdiction now, if that’s what he wants, then that’s what I want.”
She finished the cigarette, stubbed it out carefully against the stones of the wall, field-stripped it efficiently. “You’re a good friend to him,” she said.
“I’m a shit friend,” Bucky said, “to him and everyone else. I’m just the best he’s been able to do so far.”
“That’s not how he tells it,” she said.
“Of course it’s not,” Bucky said. “It’s not how he sees it either. Because Steve has never had anything nice in his life and wouldn’t fucking know better if it bit him.” He wished for the cigarette back, wished for something he could destroy between his fingers, something to harmlessly shred, but he had nothing.
“Do you really think that?” she asked.
“No,” Bucky said, on a weary exhalation. “I’m just sayin’ it to be goddamned contrary.” He pushed to his feet. “Is that really what you came out here to ask me?”
“No,” she said, looking up at him. The light was hitting his face a bit more now, he realized; she could see him. “I’m not here to plumb the depths of your self-esteem.”
“Good,” he said, “it’s not really what I’m here for either.” He stuck his hands in his pockets, not quite willing to just walk away from her, though it would have been a pretty good parting shot. Yeah maybe so, but she’d probably have a better one, and he’d look like an idiot if he had to turn back around. “What,” he said grudgingly, “you want my blessing or somethin’?”
“Do I seem like the blessing type?” she asked.
He breathed out slowly, feeling himself deflate a little. “No,” he admitted. “But I don’t know what you want from me.”
“I just want to understand him a bit better,” she said.
You want to know everything I’ve done for him, Bucky thought, so you can do it better, and it hurt badly, right where his throat came into his chest, and he had to look away. “Of course you do,” he said quietly. “There’s… there’s nothing hidden, lady, there’s nothing secret for me to tell you. Everything he is, is right there on his face. You want me to tell you how to take care of him?” He shook his head. “He, most of what I know is outta date. He don’t need that kind of takin’ care of anymore.” But I loved him when he did, you can’t think I’m gonna stop now. His teeth stuck shut and he sat back down, slowly and carefully, abandoning any hope of escape.
“Please,” Peggy said, “he has absolutely no sense of self-preservation, he’s no more self-sustaining than he was before. Of course he still needs taking care of.”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t gonna,” Bucky said, but it was the wrong thing to say, he was supposed to be doing the opposite of chasing this girl off, and he set his teeth again, holding them shut now against anything that might work its way out.
“Good,” she said. “I don’t want you to stop.”
You just wanna take over the good parts of it, Bucky thought resignedly. Well, fuck. He’d signed on for this, he just hadn’t ever really figured on how bad it was gonna hurt when it happened. And it wasn’t fair to think of it like that, like there were bad parts and good parts of being Steve’s friend. Bucky had taken a lot more right hooks to the jaw than he’d ever gotten back in kisses, and he’d signed up for that open-eyed too. Wasn’t the kind of thing you kept a tally of. Wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted a tally of.
“Promised him the end of the line,” Bucky said. “That kinda thing’s… you know?” And that was the same as it had ever been, just now he was a lot more likely to stop a bullet than a fist. That was his job now.
“I haven’t asked him about you,” she said. “I only know what he’s said.”
“You’re smarter than that,” Bucky said, “you know plenty.” She’d met him, now, and judged him, and pretty clearly found him wanting. Right now she was trying to figure out what Steve saw in him. And it was pretty clear she wasn’t finding anything.
“It makes me wonder what he’d say if I did ask him,” she said.
Jesus, it hurt. And if there ever was such a thing as a world after this war, if Bucky somehow managed to survive it and come out the other side close enough to human to still fake it, he was staring down the barrel of a lot of years of Steve having a wife who really didn’t think much of him at all. And he’d have to keep coming around, because he’d promised Steve and that wasn’t the kind of thing you backed out of. But it was hard to think which would be worse— Steve hanging on to it and insisting Bucky keep coming around, or Steve figuring it out and releasing Bucky from his promise, cutting him loose.
The first scenario made Bucky’s teeth hurt where he was gritting them, but the second opened up a big cold empty space behind his ribs, big enough to fall to his death in. He wanted absurdly to plead with her, don’t take him away from me, but that was plain stupid. If he wanted Steve to be happy he had to let go of him.
“I’d never hurt him,” Bucky said, real low, barely out loud. “And if he loves you, I’d never hurt you. I don’t know what else you want me to say. I don’t know what he’d say to you. You’d have to ask him.”
“You were lovers,” she said.
Bucky closed his eyes. “Not like that,” he said. “It wasn’t like that. It was— he’s not queer, lady.” She didn’t say anything, and he knew he had his shoulders up around his ears, hunched around the pain in his chest. “We never— it wasn’t like that. He’s, he’s—“ There weren’t words for it. “He’s good, Miss Carter, he’s, he’s like a— he’s above that kind of thing, and fine, it is your business. I’m not. I’m not a good person, I’m not above things like that.” He shook his head. “It’s me, it’s just me. He’s not like that.”
“I’m not asking you to excuse it,” she said mildly.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” he said, and he felt beat down to the ground, defeated and humiliated and crushed and humbled, and there was nothing he could do about it, and no point getting angry. It was like being back in those cells, right around the time he’d realized nobody was coming for them, and when he’d recognized that what he had was definitely pneumonia, the kind that killed you, and his cellmates weren’t going to be able to hide it when the guards came around, and he was definitely going to go away and not come back. And there was no point fighting, and nothing left to fight with, or for, anyway. He’d gone meek as a lamb to let them strap him to that table, and not only because he was too weak to stand.
He’d expected a bullet to the back of the head, but they’d pumped him so full of poison he didn’t even know what he was anymore.
“I expect you don’t,” she said, and she sounded almost amused. And he’d hate her for that, he’d hate her for being cruel, except she wasn’t wrong. She was only doing what she had to. He felt like he should probably crawl on the ground, only that wouldn’t be low enough.
“I can’t promise to stay away from him,” Bucky said miserably. “I can’t, you gotta understand that, because I already made a promise and that’s that I wouldn’t ever leave him behind. But I wouldn’t— I wouldn’t ever do anything to hurt him, I really mean that, and if that’s, if it’s you he wants, of course— I wouldn’t ever—“
“Oh Bucky,” she said. Don’t you call me that, he wanted to say, but there was the hard truth of defeat. She had all the cards in her perfect slender-fingered hands, and she could call him whatever she damn well pleased. “That’s not what I want at all.”
“I can’t give you any more than that,” Bucky said, ragged and desperate. “God— cut off my hands if I touch him, cut out my eyes if I look too long, cut out my tongue if I kiss him, just don’t make me hurt him by breaking that fuckin’ promise I made him.”
“Bucky,” she said, and was that pity? He didn’t want her goddamn pity, he just wanted her to leave him the fuck alone. But he couldn’t blame her. If he were her he’d fight tooth and nail for Steve’s heart. But he wasn’t, he had no right. “Bucky, you’re breathing like someone shot you.”
His chest felt sort of like someone had, but it didn’t bear talking about. That was definitely her telling him he was being pathetic. “I’ll live,” he said. “It’s what I do.”
“I’m not interested in hurting you,” she said.
“You wanna stop hurting me, you stop makin’ me talk about this,” Bucky said. “You’ve won, ma’am. And you’ve got your questions answered. So take your heel off the back of my neck and give me a little peace, hey?”
She stepped a little bit closer and put her fingers under his chin, tipping his head up, and he wanted to snarl at her and jerk away, as bad as he’d ever wanted anything in his life, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t be the one who tipped this over into outright enmity and made Steve’s life impossible. Steve would tear himself apart over it, and for what? So Bucky could keep a scrap of pride?
Forget it. He let her lift his chin so he looked up at her, the little spike of hurt rage dying down to flat despair.
She’d moved him into the light from the window, and she looked into his face now, dark eyes and red lipstick— he shouldn’t be able to see color in the dark, that was crazy — before the change, Steve wouldn’t have been able to see the lipstick’s color even in bright daylight, bet that was drawing his eye like crazy now, he’d seen how Steve couldn’t stop looking— she was really, really pretty, and really really dangerous, and even like this, even from here Bucky could see that she was the same kind of good as Steve, she deserved him and he deserved her and if Bucky survived this war he was looking at decades of hell and he wasn’t even going to be able to drink himself to death in the time-honored fashion of his people.
“I don’t want you to stop touching him,” Peggy said. “I don’t want you to stop looking at him. I don’t even want you to stop kissing him. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I don’t want you to give him up.”
Okay, he’d lost the plot now. “I thought— Don’t you want him?” Bucky pulled his chin out of her hand and stood up, confused and a little angry on Steve’s behalf. “Don’t let me get in the way of that.”
“You’re not in the way,” she said. “Bucky, there’s enough of Steve to go around. He loves you so sincerely, I couldn’t ask him to change that.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, lost.
“I’m saying,” she said patiently, looking up into his face with a funny half-smile, “we both want him, he wants both of us. I don’t see any reason why we can’t all get what we want.”
Bucky blinked at her, incredulous; she couldn’t mean what it sounded like she meant. “Are you seriously suggesting we take turns with Steve?”
“No,” she said.
Okay, phew, he had missed something. But he couldn’t figure out what. “Then what the hell do you even mean?”
“Well,” she said, “I mean, I suppose if you want, it could work like that. And it’s foolish to make plans in detail when we don’t even know who will still be alive tomorrow or next week. But come on, Bucky. I know you don’t think I’m completely hideous. And I’ve heard, queer or no, you certainly don’t object to spending time with a woman.”
Wait, okay, this was even weirder than what he’d thought she was saying before. He stared at her, completely dumbfounded, and finally managed to say, “What?”
“I’m saying we could both have him at the same time,” she said. “We don’t have to take turns, Bucky. I know you don’t like me much now, but I can’t blame you given what you assumed was going to happen.”
Bucky sat down abruptly, almost missing the low wall he’d been sitting on before. “Wait,” he said, “wait, what?”
“I think I’ve explained it as clearly as I can,” she said, but the curve of her mouth wasn’t unkind. “Could I reassure you that I am not joking with you about this?”
He nodded slowly. She really meant exactly what she’d said. He swallowed hard, mouth suddenly dry. “Um,” he said. “Ahh. I um. What did Steve say about this?”
Her mouth pulled to one side and she turned, looking back toward the warm room where they had gone back to singing. “He hasn’t,” she said. “I haven’t asked him. I thought it would be stupid of me to wind myself up over asking him about it before I knew whether my suspicions were true. I hadn’t met you before, you know?”
He nodded slowly, looking at the bright window. “I don’t think Steve would go for it,” he said, but he honestly had no idea. It wasn’t the kind of thing he’d ever— well, the fact that seeing Steve with a dame truly interested in him had knocked Bucky for such a loop was kind of a testament unto itself to how far this was from anything Bucky had ever thought about.
Although, to be fair, it was partly because Steve was so changed, too. Bucky didn’t know where he stood now, as the smaller and weaker of the two of them. He had no idea what his role with Steve was, no idea what his place in the world was. His old job was a lot higher-stakes now.
“Really?” She tilted her head, looking at him thoughtfully. “I think he would.”
Bucky looked up at her. “Maybe,” he said. He dredged up a good smile for her, one of the slow ones that curved unevenly, got his eyebrows involved. “Yeah, if he’s in, I’m in.”
She smiled back at him, bright and clever. “We’ll talk later,” she said. “Come back inside.”
He followed her, obedient. It would never work, he knew that, but if it let them have each other without worrying about him, it would be a good way to ease the transition.
Fuck, a big mission as a distraction wasn’t gonna be anywhere near enough. With any luck, he’d get himself killed before it became a problem. That was the only way he could see this going. He couldn’t keep the flat despair out of his face, but everyone but Steve was too drunk to notice, and Steve— well, he was too busy looking at that red lipstick.