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we forgive the stars for burning

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They dance.

Actually, that's skipping a lot. They dance, but first:

Peggy punches him.

It's 1947 and Steve knocks on her door, throat tight with panic. Maybe she won't be here this time. Maybe he imagined all of it. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But she opens her door and looks at him like he's a ghost (he is). He leads her inside and sits her down on her own couch and explains. It takes two hours. Halfway through, Peggy stops him and makes a pot of tea. She tips a shot of bourbon into her cup.

After, Peggy looks off into the distance over his shoulder, perfect lipstick pinched in a moue.

"Say something?" Steve pleads, and Peggy stands up and punches him right in the arm over the star embroidered on the shoulder of his jacket.

"A hundred years old and you're still chasing your own past," she murmurs, standing in the middle of her living room with her hands on her hips. "I don't know what to do," she admits, usually so sure, and blinks tears out of her eyes. "You died."

"But I didn't," Steve protests, eager. "I told you, I just got stuck—"

"Steven," Peggy says, and puts a hand over her eyes. He's never seen her look like this: weak. Downtrodden. When she opened the door she was so alive, cheeks pink, laughing at something on the radio. Now she just looks tired. "For me, you died."

For the first time since entering her home Steve notices the pictures on the mantle. There's one of her sitting in a man's lap. They're both beaming. Steve swallows. There's an ashtray on a side table. Baseball memorabilia on a shelf in the corner. Everywhere he looks, the presence of a man is overt and undeniable.

"We're getting married in June," Peggy says quietly when she notices him notice the baseballs. "He takes pictures for the Yankees."

This is the thing that cracks Steve Rogers wide open. Not seeing Peggy, not five years of abject heartache, not the exhaustion of war. The fiance takes pictures. He's an artist. He makes money doing it.

Steve puts his head in his hands and weeps.

When Peggy sits down next to him, much closer this time, her stockings pressed against his knee, he can hear her crying too. She puts her hand on his shoulder over the long-gone bruise and pulls him into her. They cry together.

She stops before him and wipes the tears off his eyelashes.

"You have so many people who love you, Steven Grant Rogers." She says his name like it's a homily. "Nothing in the whole wide world is perfect. You're allowed to rest. You're allowed to try to build perfect around you."

Steve doesn't voice the thought that washes through him: I could just go back to 1945 before you met him. I could find a you that I can have. He doesn't say it because just thinking it makes him feel confused and sick.

"I am not your pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. To escape the burden of one's life—" she says, and squeezes his hand. "Love, that's cheating."

So, they dance. Peggy pulls him to his feet and they sway together through three songs. They both cry again, and Peggy tips her head up and lets him kiss her, just once, long and sweet and awful.

The sun is setting when she pulls her arms from his.

"It's time to go," she says.

"I don't want to," Steve says, petulantly, and Peggy throws her head back and laughs.

"God save me from the neediness of men," she says and for the first time since stepping foot in her house, Steve feels light. "Tell me this. Do we get to meet again in your future? Wait, no. Your past? Oh hells, you know what I mean."

Steve doesn't want to unpack the complexity of time travel, let alone the circumstances of her death, so he just nods and she smiles. She walks him to the door and lifts his hand and kisses it like he's royalty.

"There we are, then. I love you, Steven. The best thing you can do with your love for me is be happy."

. . .

Steve sinks to his knees on the platform when they bring him back. But he's not crying anymore.

"Hey man," Sam says, alarmed. "You good?"

Steve runs his hands through his hair, then scrubs over his face.

"Yeah," he says, even though his voice breaks. "Yeah, I'm okay."

When he looks up, Bucky is watching him, expression unscruitable. Sam comes to help him to his feet.

"What happened? Bruce, why didn't we get him back the first time?"

"I wasn't where I was supposed to be," Steve says. "It's alright. It's my fault." He looks at the sky: bright, clear, blue. Not sunset at all.

"All the stones back where they belong?" Sam asks and Steve nods absently.

"Cap," Bruce says. "Are you sure you're okay?"

Steve puts his hands in his pockets and touches something metal. He can tell it's a key before he pulls it out; the teeth scratch against the pad of his thumb.

The inscription reads World Bank — #143.

. . .

"I didn't think you would come back," Bucky says much later in the quiet of the car.

Steve leans against the window and watches the trees whip by. They're still a couple hours out of New York, and Bucky shifts in and out of curves with lupine ease.

"I tried not to," he says, then laughs. "She wouldn't have me."

"Who'd want to put up with your punk ass for the rest of time, anyway?" Bucky says, and Steve is suddenly so fiercely aware that it might have been a mistake to try to leave that it leaves him breathless. He can't bear to talk about it.

"Did I do the right thing?" he wonders aloud. "Giving the shield to Sam?"

"Yes," Bucky says instantly. The change in topic doesn't seem to phase him. "The way I see it, you're owed about 50 years back pay on your social security." Steve can feel his eyes on him but he doesn't turn away from the window. "He's a good choice. He's the right choice. You should learn to crochet."

Steve closes his eyes. The light dances through the trees and across his eyelids as they drive, warm and orange and unknowable.

"Do you know about amigurumi?" Bucky says. "Morgan showed me. Let's stop for fries and I'll find a Youtube video."

. . .

"She must have slipped it into my pocket," Steve tells Bucky as the banker leads them deep underground to the deposit boxes in the vault. "I don't even know if time works like this."

Bucky shrugs a shoulder and Steve can feel it against his, that's how close they're walking. Bucky's still wearing that leather bomber, and Steve doesn't know why he keeps thinking about it. He has a strange, sudden urge to march down to the war museum and requisition Bucky's dogtags—the original ones—to keep for himself.

"The way I see it, the universe owes you one," Bucky says.

"Gentlemen." The clerk's sharp heels have stopped clicking against the marble floor; she opens the door to the deposit room and lets them precede her inside. They stand awkwardly at the table as she unlocks box #143 and sets it down before returning the key to Steve.

"I can step out," Bucky offers as the clerk leaves the room. "Give you some privacy."

"No," Steve says. "Please."

Bucky nods slowly, and posts up with his hip against the side of the table, hands in his pockets. Steve swallows and lifts the lid. There's a single folded piece of paper on top. It's got white and purple flowers around the edges. Peggy's stationery.

It worked.

He unfolds the letter with shaking hands.

Dearest Steven,

This box used to contain the pearls my mother gave me when I turned 16. Do you know—I took the key out of the coffee can in the freezer when I went to make tea while you were here. I already knew I wanted to give you something when you went back. I hope this makes it to wherever you are. I don't know a single tit about time travel, but it sounds rather complicated and prone to trickery.

Enclosed in this box you will find mementos, of a sort. It's rather strange to be building a time capsule when you know the man who's going to open it. Anyway, by my calculations I've got 76 years to fill up with things for you. I don't know when I'll die—thank you for that, by the way—so this will be as much an adventure for me to curate as it will be for you to discover.

With all of my love and every conceivable drop of adoration,

Peggy

P.S. If I recall, there's a certain young gentleman who was always following you around, getting you out of trouble. We're always so blind to these things ourselves, so do take this to heart: that boy loves you, and I always wondered if you didn't love him right back. I'm so glad you found him again, my dear.

Build your perfect. I hope they're not still so foolish about that sort of thing in 2023.

P.P.S. I didn't tell you when you were here, but your ass looks positively stunning. Do keep up the squats, darling. For me.

Steve laughs, loud and boisterously, and when he finishes that, he sinks to the floor and cries. Bucky comes 'round the table and crouches next to him to put a hand on his shoulder, and Steve wordlessly hands the letter over, terrified and giddy and heartbroken and joyful.

Bucky reads it silently, then Steve watches his eyes skip to the top and read it again.

"Always too damn observant for her own good," he mutters. He folds the letter again, creases it gently, and hands it to Steve.

The way Bucky looks at him, Steve's pretty sure aliens could invade again and the bank could crumble around them and all Steve would be able to see would be Bucky's eyes.

"What's in the box?" Steve rasps, and Bucky takes it off the table. He settles down on the floor next to Steve and puts the box across their legs. They pick through it, smiling, laughing, crying together. There are photos of Peggy's family, her and her husband and her mother and her children. She has five by Steve's count of the last photo. Peggy Carter with five children. He's worried for a moment that she might have been dismissed while being pregnant, but then there's a picture of Peggy standing on an airstrip in her 50s, yelling at an airman who looks two sentences away from pissing himself. Steve grins and puts that one in his wallet.

There are pictures of the world, too, of Peggy in Africa, newspaper clippings of the fall of the USSR, of the creation of the personal computer (dangerous, let me know how it turns out, Peggy has scrawled in the header), of little crafts and drawings from her children to "Uncle Steve." (Steve absolutely weeps again at this, and Bucky rests a heavy hand on his arm and lets him cry.)

There's a little paperclipped bundle of index cards with names and addresses and telephone numbers on them and it takes Steve a minute to realize these are her kids. If you want them, the bottom index card says in somewhat shakier handwriting. She must have added these when she was older. Knowing that makes Steve feel melancholic and so, so loved. I don't know if they'll be up to date, but I've told them about you. If you want to grow your family. They're pretty good, if I do say so myself.

"It's not fair that she keeps making me cry," Steve sniffs into his sleeve, but he's smiling too.

. . .

They go back to Wakanda without mentioning Peggy's letter. Bucky's anxious to know that his goats have been cared for, and they come bleating over to him as soon as he steps in the neighbor's pen. Bucky introduces him to them—Armin and Johann.

"You've got a really bizarre sense of humor," Steve says, startled. Bucky grins at him, hair dancing in the breeze, and Steve pats a goat awkwardly. "Do you pet them like cats?"

Romanda had made sure Bucky's hut was maintained.

"Five years," Bucky says, slow and dumb, when he stands in the middle of his home. "She waited five years. She had no way of knowing we'd come back."

"She had to," Steve says, and looks out the window. Tall grasses sway in the breeze outside of Bucky's hut. The whole place smells like sunshine. "We had to. We all tried to move on but none of us could." Something catches in his throat. Steve Rogers is sick of crying. "I missed you so much," he confesses quietly.

"Shh," Bucky says.

"I've cried more this week than I ever have in my entire life," Steve admits.

"Now, c'mon, that's not true." Bucky's so much closer now. "When Jon Miller stuffed you into that bin behind the fishmonger's, you cried for weeks."

"Because I smelled like anchovies for a month," Steve protests, and Bucky kisses him.

He thinks of Peggy. He can't help it. He thinks of her picture in his compass. He thinks of the way her lipstick tasted when he kissed her in 1947. How gently and lovingly she pushed him here, to this place, to find some semblance of perfection.

"We could get alpacas," Bucky suggests when they part. "Dye our own yarn."

"I don't want to learn how to crochet, Buck," Steve says.

"Okay," Bucky says, and kisses him again.

He pulls Bucky to him with a hand on his hip and lets Bucky breathe into him. Light dances into the hut, the breeze rustles through the grass, a goat bleats in the distance.

It's not perfect. Nothing ever is.

But he can make it work.