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Out Without A Map

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When you're out without a map
And you're too scared to go back
Waiting on the 7 train
Standing in the pouring rain
Ride the city through its veins
Hoping you can love again
Just hold on
I'll meet you there.

(Barnaby Bright, Destiny)

**

He was cold, and hungry, but he didn't want to go back to his apartment.

Not that he didn't like the apartment they had gotten for him--it was decent. It was actually more than decent; it was nice. It wasn't about the apartment.

It wasn't about his arm. He had done his best to make his peace with the arm, and only hated it for the atrocities it had helped to commit. He no longer felt like less of a person because of the loss of his arm, and any residual doubts about it had been chased away most pleasantly by Natasha, who seemed not at all concerned about the things that arm had done or could do.

It wasn't about his friends--and he still felt bewildered and grateful that he had some, given the aforementioned atrocities. Full possession of his faculties or no, it had happened. It had all happened, and he had meant what he had said.

I remember them all.

It was because he remembered them all that he didn't want to go back to his apartment. It was because he remembered them all that he was up here.

And he guessed in a way it was about his arm, because it was his arm that was the daily reminder of how not supposed to be here he was.

He had to be careful with Tasha, for one thing. Maybe she wasn't afraid of it, but he was--he was afraid to press too hard every time he forgot himself and reached to stroke down her flat belly with his left hand, the wrong hand; he was afraid to see her shudder from the chill of the metal when he touched her intimately. He was afraid to grip too tightly when she did that thing with her hips that always sent him over the edge, afraid to hold her too hard with that arm when they lay together after, and he was terrified that one day he would forget himself and hear the crunch of bone, a gasp of pain. He lay awake nights worrying about it, even as she breathed deeply and evenly at his side, curled around him.

He hadn't told anyone--not even Steve--about the coffee mugs. Seven of them there had been, tossed in the trash, their handles broken off, their rims chipped, holes in their sides, all because he had forgotten himself and held too hard, pulled too roughly, reached without looking. The super in the apartment building couldn't stand him, because he'd had to replace three doorknobs (and two door hinges) in a month.

You are hard on shoes, his ma used to tell him, ruffling his hair a lifetime ago....Before, as he had come to think of it. He was hard on his apartment, too.

Because the Winter Soldier didn't drink coffee. The Winter Soldier broke through windows. He kicked down doors. He just plain didn't know how to do those things anymore without breaking everything, because he had never been meant to be normal again.

It was wearing on him.

Yesterday, he and Sam had been sparring (Bucky did not enjoy this, but Fury maintained that he had to learn how to properly defuse a threat that wasn't super-powered, and Sam was the calmest when it came to facing off against him on the mat. Natasha kept volunteering, and Bucky kept vetoing this loud and vociferously, the fears of the snap and the crack and the gasp of pain too real still) when Clint Barton, with his total lack of professionalism and abundance of boisterous enthusiasm, had barreled into the gym yelling, "Look who's here!"

Natasha had, in a rare display of unguarded delight, hopped out of the hip adductor to greet Clint's guest. Sam had looked equally pleased, and had flicked his head as he followed Natasha, indicating that Bucky should follow and the match could wait a few minutes.

Lucky, Bucky thought, was the only creature on the planet more of a fucking mess than he was.

The retriever had only one eye, and there were patches of pink scar tissue all over him on which the golden fur would never grow again. But he was a happy dog, all wagging tail and sloppy tongue, and everyone with the exception of Nick Fury had accepted him as an unofficial mascot. Darcy Lewis begged to walk him whenever Clint brought him around. Natasha had taught him how to catch a billy club in his teeth. And Steve loved to play with Lucky--got right down on the floor with the dog enjoyed himself, and without fail after Clint and Lucky had moved on to visit with whoever else happened to be around, Steve would turn to the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who shared his apartment and beg with puppy-dog eyes of his own, "Please? Please?"

Bucky had been prepared to hate that stately lady simply for her frosty "No," and had given her the cold shoulder--no pun intended--for two straight weeks until she had noticed his disapproving expression and pulled him aside; swearing him to secrecy, she had revealed that she intended to gift Steve with a puppy for Christmas and was simply researching breeds to select a rescue pup.

"I should think," she had said to Bucky with a twinkle in her eye, "someone's little castaway might be right at home with a few other castoffs, don't you agree, Sergeant Barnes?"

The hate he had prepared to hold for her had swung right back to treacherous love, as it always had where she was concerned--that unstable awe of her beauty and devotion, the fear that she might not be trustworthy in the end, and her unfailing ability to put those fears to rest whenever they surfaced--and Bucky had agreed to keep the secret. Christmas wasn't too far off, anyhow.

It occurred to him suddenly, right now, that he might never know what breed she would select. He might never sit idly back on the couch in Steve's apartment and reach a hand to pet the pup.

Which reminded him of why he was out here.

Yesterday, Lucky had trotted right up to Bucky, panting happily, pawing at his loose jogging pants. Instinctively, Bucky had reached out to ruffle the fur between the dog's chewed, notched ears--and halted with a sharp intake of breath as soon as he realized he'd been doing it with the wrong hand.

Lucky had made an inquisitive sound, and Natasha had looked over in concern. Curling his metal fingers into a fist, Bucky frowned at Clint. "You want to get your mutt out of here, Barton?"

Lucky, as if knowing mutt was not a nice word, had whimpered.

Clint hadn't been angry, simply confused, but as always, had played it off. "Aww, somebody's grumpy. We'll let you get back to your workout. Come on, buddy, let's go see if Darcy has any pizza." Lucky, who also knew Darcy and pizza, trotted happily along behind his friend.

"James?" Tasha had asked softly at his side, and Bucky had felt an overwhelming urge to collapse against her and whisper the hateful idea, like a child.

Too hard. I'll pet him too hard--it'll hurt him.

But he hadn't, had simply turned on his heel and stalked off. If Natasha and Sam had thought he would return after he had cooled off, they were wrong--he stayed gone all evening. Bartenders didn't care which hand you drank with, and no one in the city paid too much attention to a disheveled ragamuffin in a dark hooded sweatshirt, jogging pants and less than reputable sneakers. He had drank until they'd thrown him out, and then he'd walked until the sun had come up.

Now, he was here, on the Brooklyn Bridge, staring out at the milky sky.

He thought of Steve, mostly, of Steve in his warm Brooklyn apartment realizing his present under the tree had just wiggled, his confused look turning into one of delight as he opened the lid and watched a puppy pop out like a jack-in-the-box. Bucky could not see the look of fondness on his own face as he thought of Steve's unguarded smile, as if he were still a boy of ten instead of a man; he would lift the pup out of the box and hold it up so it could lick his face, and then he would pounce on the giver in a hug, and she would call him darling--she always called him darling.

Steve would be fine, the traitorous voice in Bucky's head, the one that told him to do bad things, the one that sometimes still whispered longing daybreak freight car, told him. Steve had her, now--against all odds he had her now and she had him, and she would hold him and care for him while he...

...grieved.

He will grieve, another inner voice reminded him. And you will be responsible.

Yeah, well, he'll soldier through, Bucky thought bitterly. He did before, didn't he?

He didn't remember climbing up onto the railing, but he must have; he was on it now, staring out over the water, which was ruffled from the cold wind. Winter was coming.

Winter.

His lips lifted from his teeth. It was not a grin.

He'll be fine. He'll fight through, like a winter soldier...

"Hello."

Bucky's story almost ended right that very second. He grabbed at the railing and crouched, thinking whimsically that he probably looked like that Spider-Kid or whoever, but this was no time to feel self-conscious.

"Jesus," he spat, and she laughed.

"No, but thank you for thinking so." She smiled at him with that red, red mouth.

Bucky frowned, which was easy because she looked so amiable and it was completely out of place given their location and the thoughts that had spurred him up here. "Carter. You scared me half to death."

She glanced down at the wind-chopped water, almost idly. "I didn't mean to startle you. But I am interested to see that you hung on."

He followed her line of sight, first out to the water and then to where his hands--wind-burned red and nonplussed silver--gripped the railing. He swung his gaze down to her hands--she was hanging on too, but more casually than he. She was seated on the railing, although her legs were safely on the street side of it, and her knuckles were not white with strain but red with cold. Her nails were glossy red; they tapped the metal idly. Her dark curls, pinned at the sides just as they had been all those years ago, blew restlessly in the wind.

Before, a lifetime ago, Steve had confessed shyly to Bucky that it really flipped his switch how "Agent Carter" (he had always been so careful back then to refer to her by her correct title, lest someone either accuse him of impropriety or worse, catch on to how he was looking with calf eyes at her) always "looked so nice". Bucky had been able to appreciate this. Carter always looked like she'd just stepped out of a bandbox, and even Before, Bucky's worldly eye had known that the lady had taste. It wasn't just the classy clothes. Her hair was always styled. Nails polished. Makeup. In a modern-day world in which there was a thing called "yoga pants" (Natasha had laughed almost until she had cried at his confusion over these) it was sort of a treat for the eyes, especially if you sometimes felt homesick for the familiar things that had made your heart beat faster when you were a teenager.

Now, she was wearing a little woolen coat, open to reveal a collared rayon button-up blouse of emerald green over a black skirt that her hips gave an arresting angularity to. She swung her feet, as though she were a little girl; her shoes were t-strapped black pumps. He liked them immediately; he remembered that sort of thing from...from Before. As she idly kicked her foot, he could see she had seams on the back of her hose, too. He imagined she might have enlisted Pepper to find her those. Pepper Potts was unabashedly delighted at any chance she got to dress Peggy Carter, and Peggy's updated wardrobe, full of modern garments that still had the sweetness and class of the 1940s, was due in large part to Pepper's assistance.

"You fucking scared me," he repeated. "Of course I hung on."

"Because you didn't want to fall," she pointed out.

His eyes were hot as he thought it over. "Oh, fuck you, Carter," he said. "You couldn't--"

"No, thank you, Sergeant Barnes, tempting as the offer may be," she said airily. "And I couldn't what? Couldn't possibly understand what might inspire you to stand on the railing of this bridge and contemplate the great egress?"

He glared at her. His ankles were starting to hurt, and he was afraid they might start wobbling. He did not want to shift his position in front of her--she would see that as a concession that she was right.

"I hate Snapchat," she said.

Bucky blinked; the mercurial change of subject was too quick for him. "What?"

"Snap-chat," she said, pronouncing it as though it were two words. "I hate it. I hate selfie sticks, too. I hate Uber, and I hate the wage gap. I hate that women are still hunted like deer while they make only seventy-five cents on the dollar compared to a man, and I hate that people are still murdered for the color of their skin, and I hate that the agency I was so proud of helping to found was almost immediately infiltrated by HYDRA and remained that way for years. I hate how much has changed. And I hate how little has changed."

He shifted; slowly, carefully, he slid one leg down from the railing, then the other. When he was sitting, facing the opposite direction from hers--she looked onto the bridge, he the water--he was shocked to realize that he wanted to hear the rest of what she had to say.

"There's got to be some stuff that's better," he said. "I mean, cell phones aren't so bad."

"Indeed, mobile telephones might have saved a life or two back when I was playing spy games in the SSR," she agreed easily. "I love, for instance, ordering food in to the apartment. I love that so many movies are available whenever we want them, in bright color. I love that some of the music I listened to can still be found today. But..."

He waited.

"But back then, I could pretend that I was making a difference." She looked down at her lap. The dark eyes were sad.

"You did make a difference, goddamn it," he muttered. "It wasn't for nothing that Steve had to look at your picture on the wall of the damn building every day while they tried to square-peg him into the future."

She smiled at the mention of Steve's name. "He doesn't like it when I call it 'the future'," she said. "He says this is something new. Something now."

She sighed, and looked out on the water again. "When I was working in the SSR, I missed Steve. I missed him so much it hurt. Now I have him back, and I miss other things. I miss my Victory rolls. I miss the automat I went to after work, and I miss how much less crowded New York seemed back then--not just the people but the buildings themselves, there just seemed so much more room for everyone. I miss dancing in the dancehalls, and I miss my friends--Angie, Mr. Jarvis, his lovely wife. Steve would have loved them all."

"Are you sorry?" Bucky heard himself asking. "Are you sorry that the accident happened?"

She regarded him very carefully; it was a good question, and she knew it. He appreciated that she gave it a lot of thought before answering.

"No," she said. "No, I am not sorry. I wasn't quite sure, before now, but now I know. I am not sorry. I have been given a second chance, and I cannot be anything but grateful for that gift."

Bucky smiled--just a little, and it was almost a baring of fangs, but he liked her answer. "I'm pretty sure he's grateful too."

She smiled back. "I am beyond grateful for Steve--I was not lying when I said I missed him so, and I am not lying now when I say that I love him. But I wasn't just talking about him."

He was back to being confused. "Peggy..."

"So much has changed, Sergeant Barnes," she repeated. "And yet, so little has changed. I thought I was making huge strides in 1946--for women, for myself, for the agency. And maybe I was, but maybe huge strides are like everything else--bigger in memory than they are in real life, and so much smaller now, in the future."

"I don't understand." He knew he sounded helpless, but somehow it was all right. He felt helpless.

"I can try again," she said softly. "I can try again, with what I know now. I can try harder, and maybe this time I will make that huge stride--make that difference."

"And Steve?" He had to ask; some things never changed, and being protective of his best friend was one of those things. "Where does he fit into all of this?"

"Hopefully at my side," she answered immediately, "and I at his, although that is up to him. But you are right--that is another second chance, and I don't intend to waste it."

That was the right answer; he exhaled slowly through his nose in relief. So he wouldn't have to push her and make it look like an accident, he thought with dark humor, but did not say so.

"What are you going to do with yours?" she asked after a moment.

He blinked; she'd caught him off balance again. "My what?"

"Your chance."

He snorted. "I'm not like you, Carter. Not everyone gets one."

"Rubbish. I just talked to you about Snapchat." She said it more properly this time. "We are here, on the Brooklyn Bridge, talking about 1946 and mobile phones and Snapchat...and Steve."

It was Pavlov's bell; it never failed to elicit a response in either of them, and their eyes met in total understanding of that fact.

"What will I tell him, if you do not come down with me?" she asked softly.

"Tell him anything you want," Bucky muttered. "Or nothing. He doesn't have to know you were here."

"He does not know I am here now," Peggy pointed out.

"You keeping secrets from him?" Bucky heard the razor edge slide back into his voice; where Steve was concerned, he gave no quarter and demanded none for himself.

"Not as a general rule, no," Peggy answered, easily and immediately. Bucky relaxed fractionally--once again, she had answered "correctly".

Peggy continued, "But he brings me flowers every week. He cooks supper when I am tired, and coddles me when I am ill. He takes me out on dates, and they are lovely--I can always tell he has given them a lot of thought. He tries very hard to make me comfortable with things like...Starbucks...and...Netflix...and...Halloween costumes." She laughed softly, the love for her Brooklyn boy plain on her face. "He works very hard to show me he is grateful for my presence, and I didn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him that I sometimes wonder what it might be like to..." She hesitated, gaze drifting out over the water and up to the city skyline; Bucky quirked an eyebrow, unsure of where she was going with it, and she finished with a casual shrug. "You know, to be alone."

"Everybody's alone," he said idly, swinging his gaze fiercely out onto the water again.

"You are wrong about that, and you know it," Peggy said, and it was the sternest she'd sounded since she'd frightened him with her abrupt announcement of her presence. "If our positions were reversed, what would you say to me?"

"That you'd better stop acting like an asshole and get back down to Steve, if nothing else," Bucky snarled. "But it's different with you."

"How is it different?" Peggy's eyes were bright and sad. "Steve Rogers is the love of my life, Sergeant Barnes. He woke to a world he never dreamed of, and I was not there for him as he tried his best to navigate it. Now I have woken to a world I never dreamed of, and there is so much I miss, and so much I am afraid of, but he has never given up on me. I cannot make him cry again."

He sensed she wasn't finished, and he was right.

"Steve Rogers is your best friend, Sergeant Barnes. You fell in battle and he blamed himself, you came back and weren't your self. He blamed himself for that, too, but he did not give up on you. You cannot make him cry again." She blinked those sad eyes at him and tilted her dark head, the curls stirring in the chill wind. "You fell, and he couldn't catch you. Would you jump, after all that?"

Oh, that wasn't fair. That just wasn't fair, and he hated her because it hurt so much to hear it, and he hated her because she was right. She blurred in his vision, dark hair, red mouth, and when she spoke again she called him a name that rarely left her lips.

"Bucky," she said from somewhere beyond the filter of tears, "can you possibly understand?"

He nodded, blinking the moisture away, refusing to swipe a sleeve across his eyes in front of her. "Yeah. I get it."

Without planning to, he pointed out over the water, with the wrong hand, the stingy afternoon light glimmering off his metal knuckles. "I can see my house from here." His chuckle was dark and bitter.

She waited.

"I mean, it's gone. But we lived over there." The buildings in the distance blurred in his traitor eyes, but he refused to wipe them. "Whenever things got really bad, Steve would come over. We'd put the couch cushions on the floor for him to sleep on. And I liked it because then I'd know...then I'd know he was safe. With me."

"Sergeant Barnes," Peggy said gently, sensing his direction, "Steve doesn't need you any less simply because I am here. You are still his safe place."

"No I'm fucking not," he lashed out. "Do you want to guess how many goddamn coffee cups I broke because I can't figure out how to work this thing when it isn't killing someone?" He held his arm up between them, the metal hand shining dully under the milky overcast sky. "It's seven, okay? It's fucking seven motherfucking coffee cups I killed."

To anthropomorphize the coffee cups, to humanize them, was a silly thing to say and he knew it. But if he thought any more seriously about it he was going to start to cry, and he did not want to do that in front of her. The arm seemed to thrum with deadly promise--that crying would just be pissing it all out onto the ground, and that it would be better to punch something, hit something, break something, kill something.

She waited, the dark eyes impossibly sad.

"Those coffee cups had families, Carter," he said wildly, feeling a hysterical giggle rise in his chest.

Peggy didn't laugh. Placing both hands on his metal hand and pushing down gently, until his arm rested back at his side, she said, "So do you, James."

"Oh, fuck off," he whispered hoarsely, but the coarse language and hurtful tone seemed to have no effect on her.

Instead, she said, "Why don't you come and stay with me and Steve tonight? You might feel better after a hot shower, there are plenty of coffee cups for you to break and I am not emotionally attached to any of them, and Steve would be very happy to see you. If you like, we can even put the sofa cushions on the floor for you, although it is a pull-out sofa and I think you would be more comfortable on the mattress."

He looked at her like she had suggested they both dress up in Tony's spare Iron Man suits and fly to the moon. "Get the fuck out of here."

"All right, sleep on the bloody floor and wake up with a crick in your neck, for all of me. It's up to you." She turned her head airily, as if the past ten minutes--the past ten months--had been perfectly normal.

"Stop fucking with me." He glared at her.

The offer had truly surprised him--simply because he had never considered it a possibility. Once upon a time, Bucky had felt very secure in his knowledge of both women and Steve Rogers. Even if he hadn't considered himself an expert, a person would have to have been legally blind to not notice the awestruck admiration in Steve's eyes when they rested on Peggy, to say nothing of Peggy's quiet, sincere devotion to the scrawny, sickly recruit who had become the Captain. Steve had looked at Peggy like the world had been a colorful and exciting place because she was in it--and much more importantly to Bucky, Peggy had looked at Steve like she had seen the Captain that that pigeon-chested, asthmatic boy from Brooklyn was in his heart.

No girl had ever looked at Steve like that--like she really saw him--and he, Bucky, would be good god damned if he was going to do anything to get in the way of their time together.

Peggy waited, with the endless patience of someone who had had to sit through Steve's godawful USO show without being allowed to make a disparaging comment.

"You're not fucking with me," he blurted out, unable to quite believe the realization he'd come to. "You'd seriously let me come over and crash on your couch for the night instead of having time alone with Steve, just because I'm having problems?"

She blinked, a slight line appearing between her brows as she considered him. "Sergeant Barnes, if you were previously unaware that that has been an open invitation since Steve and I rented the apartment, the fault lies squarely with me, and I apologize for it."

"Peggy..." He felt his face burn, and it wasn't from the cold. "I can't just...like...come over, whenever I..."

The dark eyes blazed in the pale English rose of her face. "Yes, you can 'just, like, come over, whenever you'. Whenever you want, Sergeant Barnes."

"Would you stop fucking calling me Sergeant Barnes?" he snapped, rediscovering his anger. "I'm not that guy anymore, and no I can't. Two's company, and three's a crowd."

"Yes you are, and yes you can, and three is a family," she shot back, and her voice brooked no argument, just as it hadn't back with the Howlies, when she was in the right and knew it. He almost wanted to reach out and steady her, afraid her vehemence might knock her over the side, so strict was her tone.

"Give me a break." He tried for a flippant snort, and ended up sounding defeated instead. "Back...Before...you cut me dead the first time I tried to talk to you. You'd never have looked at me twice if it weren't for Steve."

"None of that matters now, and this isn't Before," she countered fiercely, and he somehow knew she had adopted his capitalization of that lifetime ago. "Like Steve says, it's new. It's now. You and I will talk. We'll talk more. We'll have birthdays and holidays. You can come over for supper. We'll all three watch all the silly movies everyone makes such a big deal out of that came out in the 1980s. You and Steve can try to get me interested in baseball. You will be my brother."

Oh, his eyes were hot and wet and he hated it and hated her for making such a promise, so easily, without thinking, because he wanted it.

"Come with me," she said, and her voice was softer now, a little coaxing, full of hope for a shared future. "Come with me and help me choose the puppy. You and I will pick one out for Steve. Together."

He looked down at the water, its sharp-toothed promise not quite silent yet, despite Peggy's best efforts to make it less attractive, then looked across at the buildings, at the place he knew his house had used to be. "Christmas isn't for weeks."

"We'll go the week before," she said deliberately. "We'll pick one out, and he or she will have to have their shots and I'm sure there will be paperwork to fill out. I am very invested in giving this present to Steve, and I want to do it right. I would like it very much if you would help me with it."

Bucky knew what she was getting at. Making a plan for the future would be allowing that there would be a future, and that he would be in it.

"And then you can come for Christmas," she said abruptly, holding out a hand. "Come over Christmas morning and see him open it, be there when he gives it a name. Have breakfast with us. Natasha too, if she likes. I'm no chef, but I can make eggs and coffee and toast. Steve would be happy to have you there."

He opened his mouth to curse her out once more, but what he heard himself say was "You...you really don't mind?" He still wasn't entirely trusting that anyone but Steve would have his back, would want him in their home, him and his mug-cracking, door-busting, world-breaking arm. And when he pictured Steve and Peggy at Christmas, he pictured her in a filmy nightgown, curls tumbling onto her shoulders, and Steve draping his gift for her (something expensive, maybe a diamond necklace or a silver pendant) around her slender throat before he carried her into the bedroom like a bridegroom. The sort of thing you saw in romantic movies. He did not picture the three of them sitting at the kitchen table eating slightly burned eggs like in the dumb 1990s sitcoms Clint was always trying to get him and Natasha to watch...

...but the idea was not unattractive, and like her calling him brother, he was full of fierce shyness and anger for what he saw as the weakness of wanting it.

"I wouldn't mind at all. I'd like it." Her voice was unpretentious and sincere, just as it had been when she'd made the offer to let him stay at the apartment for the night, but feeling bled into it as she added one last, quiet entreaty. "Just...just be there."

He did finally swipe his sleeve across his eyes then, unable to stand it anymore, and when he lowered his arm she was off the railing and standing on the pavement, reaching for his hand--the wrong one, the metal one.

"Let's go..." Her eyes looked suspiciously shiny as well, but she was braver than he felt right now; she did not let the tears fall. He remembered broken pieces of the stories he'd heard, between missions, in the fugue of his memories, even upon waking up in the modern world--the legend of Agent Carter, sallying forth in the postwar 40s, without her Captain, without her war, in a world that had not wanted her, until she had "disappeared". She'd always been the bravest of them all, he reasoned sadly, and realized as he thought it that his metal fingertips were touching hers.

"Let's go home, Bucky," she finished, and he started to nod, started to swing one foot back onto the safe side of the railing.

"Jesus jumped-up Christ on a cross," someone yelled, and for the second time that day, Bucky's story almost ended right that very instant. He whirled to see where the interruption was coming from, his leg catching on the railing he sat upon. He overbalanced, and the next thing he knew there was a sickening feeling of the loss of equilibrium, a jerk and snap as the fall was stopped. And then his beaten-up tennis shoes were dangling out over the water that had so fascinated him all afternoon, that had wanted him to jump, that had promised it would catch him. It looked, in the blur of an instant, like it was laughing in triumph.

But neither the water nor Bucky had counted on Peggy--and Peggy had had both feet on the ground and his hand in hers when he'd lost his balance. Now she was belly up against the railing, leaning scarily far out herself and trying her best to yank him back to safety by the damnable arm. The wind whipped her curls into a dark froth around her head, and her lipstick looked like a smear of blood around her gritted teeth.

"For the love of hell, Wilson," Peggy swore, holding onto Bucky with both hands--she had had enough time to see who had yelled out to them.

Slowly, painfully, Bucky craned his neck to look over his shoulder. Sam Wilson was hovering just out past the railing, the thrusters on the winged apparatus he wore making a thin mechanical hissing sound through the wail of the wind. He looked rock steady in midair, in stark contrast to the off-kilter death drop Bucky and Peggy were dangling in. Bucky wasn't sure how Sam's goggles managed to look angry and disapproving, but they did.

"Not again. Not again. Don't drop me Carter oh Jesus don't drop me," Bucky gritted out, without even planning to say anything.

"Not this time, Barnes," Peggy assured him, then called out to Sam over the wind. "Mr. Wilson? Would you kindly?"

Her unfailing good manners while he was swinging haphazardly over his death made Bucky want to scream at her, but it was a small price to pay for her quick reflexes (and iron grip; he wasn't even going to ask how her upper body was so freakishly strong). Sam, for his part, hauled Bucky back over the railing by his scruff, which was as welcome as it was embarrassing. When his shoes were back on the pavement--it seemed a lifetime since they had last been there--Bucky closed his eyes to forget the sound of the freight car squealing against the tracks, tried to remind himself the wind that whipped around them was not flecked with snow.

"The fuck, Barnes," Sam roared, charging towards them and pushing his goggles up on his head. "What the hell is wrong with you? Carter, you OK?"

"Yes, yes," Peggy said, her voice as brisk as the chill in the air. "Everything is fine. We were simply talking. You startled us."

"Yeah, we talk about this kind of talking in group," Wilson snapped. "Next time you wanna try and talk in a Starbucks or something instead of out over a goddamned drop into the East River?"

"Don't yell at him," Peggy said, surprising Bucky. She smoothed down her black skirt, pulling her woolen coat tighter around herself, as if she had finally begun to feel the cold. "Everything is fine. We were in fact about to come down when you nearly startled Sergeant Barnes into taking a header off the railing."

"Why was he even on the railing?" Sam demanded, turning to Bucky. "Steve sent me out to look for you when you didn't go back to your apartment last night. He's worried sick. So is Natasha, although she's hiding it better--she said she went by yours to see if you wanted to jog and saw your bed wasn't slept in. I'm not even gonna ask about that part, but she asked Steve if he knew where you were, and Steve said no and asked me to take a look. I took the wings because I thought it would help me cover more ground and faster, and it's a goddamn good thing I did. What would he say if he knew you were out here like this?"

Once again, Peggy saved the day with an interruption, one that brooked no argument. "He would say," she declared, stepping between Sam and Bucky, "that you should do as Peggy says. And Peggy says that we should go home, because it is cold out here and I want a cup of tea."

She was trying to cover for him, Bucky realized. She would fail--this would be to Steve in no time, and likely all over S.H.I.E.L.D. by evening, and he'd be in a Fury-ordered head-shrinking session by tomorrow--but she was trying.

He thanked her the only way he could.

"Isn't it sort of a cliche that you drink tea?" he snorted, shoving his hands in his pockets as he trudged after Sam's annoyed stride towards street level.

"Isn't it sort of a cliche that you are a womanizing blowhard?" she asked sweetly, but she smiled and took his arm--the left one, and he knew she could feel the metal beneath the thin sleeve of his hooded jacket. "Come on. I'll make you a cup too."

**

Neither one of them got to have any tea, at least not that afternoon, and Bucky did not stay with Steve and Peggy that night. As predicted, Sam told Steve his version of events the minute he had a nanosecond away from them to do so, and Steve promptly hit the roof. Tony hit the roof, too, but for a different reason--this just gave credence to his pigeonholing of Bucky as a loose cannon and someone that could not be trusted to run complicated missions with the safety of civilians in the balance.

Bucky retorted that he didn't actually disagree with any of that, and as he had predicted, he officially landed himself in a battery of S.H.I.E.L.D.-ordered psychiatric exams and a three-day hold. He ended up in a hospital bed, a captive audience to anyone who wanted to chew him out for what he'd almost done.

However, the general attitude was far friendlier than it had been in the recent past--Peggy was already offering to go up to bat for him with regard to job fitness (Bucky sensed an additional unspoken promise to downplay the severity of their conversation on the bridge), Darcy Lewis promised in a manner she clearly thought was very secretive (but wasn't) that she would sneak him in some junk food, and Clint said something in a not-so-subtle stage whisper about how he could help ace the "normality" test.

"I've taken this course twice," he quipped with a grin, snapping his bubble gum, and Natasha stomped on his foot--hard--before flashing Bucky a disappointed, hurt look for only the barest second.

Bucky knew that Clint wasn't actually joking. He himself had not been around for the initial skirmish with the God of Mischief, but he had heard the harrowing tale of Loki's breach of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. As someone who had often found himself in the backseat of his own brain while someone else drove, Bucky was very sympathetic to Clint's trauma and knew well the depression and hopelessness that came with the aftermath of having done terrible things while under the evil influence of another.

Tasha, who cared for both Clint and Bucky in different ways, had elected to make her love tough when it came to that trauma and depression and how each man dealt with it. The look on her face before she was ushered out hurt him a lot, but as much as Bucky cared about her, her disappointment was junior varsity compared to Steve's. For his part, Captain America stormed and paced up and down the small medical room they had corralled Bucky in upon his arrival, then asked Peggy to wait for him outside while the two men talked. She obliged, giving Bucky a pointed look as she exited, saying something about trying to find some bloody tea in the vending machines.

Being fussed over by Steve wasn't as bad as it could have been. Bucky stoically bore the You Must Think I'm Pretty [Expletive} Stupid, nodded self-deprecatingly at the You Should Have Come and Talked To Me, was relieved when he allowed that I Know Things Are Hard, And I Know This Isn't Gonna Feel Better Overnight, felt a traitorous glow of warmth when he got to the You Know You Can Tell Me Anything, and outright smiled at the I'm With You Till The End of the Line, Pal.

"I'm fine, Steve," he said after accepting his friend's brotherly hug. "Really. I was just up there thinking. The whitecoats'll yell for a bit, and Stark will make a big deal out of how he was right all along, but it'll all come out in the wash. Promise. You should go be with your girl. Order something in and ask her why she doesn't like Snapchat."

"She hates Snapchat," Steve laughed, and Bucky could see the change of subject had gone a long way to convincing him he didn't need to sit outside the door all night. "I'm lucky I don't know how to work it. I think she's just plain going to staple something to Darcy's head one of these days."

Bucky smiled. "I'll pay to see that. Go say hi to her. Give her a hug. Make her a cup of tea. She earned it today."

Steve quirked a blond brow but didn't ask how that cup of tea might have been earned; Bucky had a feeling he was pretty eager to see Peggy anyway, but to his credit, he put a hand on Bucky's shoulder.

"You sure you don't want me to stick around? I can pull up a chair. Won't hurt me a bit."

That old love, that dark and golden love that only best friends grown as brothers knew, threatened to close Bucky's throat. "I'm good, pal. Gonna see if they'll give me some of those awesome blue pills and get a decent night's sleep for once."

"Peg will understand."

Bucky felt like he now knew better than Steve could possibly realize that Peggy would indeed understand, but that was exactly why he wanted Steve to go repay that understanding with the attention that had put the fond look on her face he had seen earlier. "I know she would. You are one lucky son of a bitch, do you know that?"

"Leave my mother out of this," Steve chuckled quietly. "Enjoy your drug-addled sleep, you reckless punk."

"Oh, I'm gonna," Bucky challenged. "Not gonna give me a goodnight kiss?"

Steve did something then that Bucky held onto like a touchstone for the rest of his life, as if he had ever needed any more evidence that Steve Rogers was his best friend in all the world--the kid who had lost every fight he'd ever been in until adulthood, who had been transformed into a super soldier, America's new hope, who had gone on to save the world on multiple occasions, kissed his knuckles and then socked Bucky in his good shoulder, harder than he'd ever been able to when they were young.

For the first time in forever, Bucky laughed--really laughed, not the dark and bitter chuckle that often trickled from his lips these days, but a good, honest belly-laugh. He laughed so hard that he eventually gestured to the obligatory plastic pitcher of water that one of the medical staff had left on the side table, and Steve poured some into a flimsy Dixie cup for him, although when he thumped Bucky on the back to stop the coughing that his laughter had deteriorated into he was much more gentle.

"Love you, man," Bucky sighed, leaning back on the pillow, his ribs aching pleasantly and his eyes full of tears for the right reason, finally.

"Jerk," Steve muttered, but affectionately. "Love you too."

Bucky watched his friend leave the room, saw his stride pick up pace as he went in search of his best girl, and smiled at the unconscious eagerness Steve was so bad at concealing. Then he was alone, in another white room, another hospital bed. He sighed and put his hands behind his head, automatically making sure the flesh hand was supporting his head and not the metal one. Funny how that had become as unconscious as breathing. You could, he supposed, get used to anything, given world enough and time.

Blinking, he realized that maybe that was what Peggy had been getting at earlier. Second chances...world enough, and time.

Would you jump, after all that?

No, he decided firmly, and settled down to enjoy the peace and quiet before he had to let the head shrinkers scream at him and try and come up with a way to make this up to Natasha. He had a feeling that after today he'd have precious little time when he wouldn't be under surveillance, at least for a little while. No one would believe he had innocent intentions if he told them that he wanted--

You know, to be alone.

The teeth of one of the gears in his brain stuck on a memory for a moment; something Peggy had said--

something Peggy didn't say

--but it had been a long day, and he was tired; he let the gear go back to turning and settled back against the pillows, closing his eyes until they came in to check on him.

**

Bucky was right about Steve's eagerness to see his best girl. After the harrowing report he'd gotten from Sam--he knew when Bucky was bluffing, and this was likely more of a near-miss than the Soldier was ever going to admit--all he wanted was to go back to the apartment in Brooklyn and cuddle Peggy until he felt like the world was properly tilted on its axis again.

She was sitting at one of the empty tables in the hospital cafeteria, elegant and lovely as always in a blouse the color of emeralds and a neatly tailored black skirt--she didn't often wear trousers, although he loved seeing her in blue jeans on the rare occasions she wore them--her curls pinned at the sides in a way that made him ache with the memory of his first glimpse of her. He halted in the doorway without making a conscious decision to do so, just looking at her.

Even now, after all these months, it still seemed like a dream he was having. He would become very aware of his clothes--like the leather jacket he was wearing now, his jeans, his state-of-the-art running shoes (Brooks Glycerines, a hell of a step up from the All-Stars he'd worn back in his childhood, although he'd been tickled pink to see so many people wearing the same shoes, all these years later). He would catch a glimpse of himself in a reflective surface--like the glass front of that vending machine over there--and be briefly surprised to see his modern Ivy League haircut, fingers reaching automatically up to smooth away a forelock that was no longer there. He would look himself over and be reminded that this was the modern era, that the 1940s had been a lifetime ago--but there she would be, his best girl, sitting at a table or looking out a window or reading a book, and his chest would tighten with emotion until he was nearly running to take her in his arms and feel how real she was, feel that they were together.

Right after he'd shyly asked her to move in with him and she had accepted, there had been an evening he had come back to their shared apartment, feeling depressed and useless after a long, tiring day of public grandstanding, to find Peggy sitting at the vanity table he'd insisted on buying for her, pin-curling her hair. The sight of her in his--their--bedroom, the familiar, feminine action of her setting her hair, the scent of her perfume lingering in the apartment and the knowledge that she was there, she was really there, had threatened to undo him. He had stepped back to linger in the living room, trying to calm himself so he didn't alarm her, but she had heard his entrance.

"Darling?" she'd called. "Are you home?"

That had been too much for him, and he'd had to clear his throat before he'd answered shakily, "Yes. Yes, I'm home."

He'd gone into the bedroom, knelt at the side of her stool and buried his head in her lap so the exhausted, grateful shine in his eyes wouldn't give him away, but she'd not been fooled; she had heard it in his voice. They had sat there for a very long time, Peggy stroking his hair and soothing him with a quiet reminder that he was home, and safe, and she was there, and would be for as long as he wanted her.

Every time, even now, it felt like he'd spent ninety years searching for his heart's desire, only to walk into a bedroom, a library, a hospital cafeteria to find her waiting there on some not so very special day.

"Steve," Peggy said happily, looking up from the table, and just like that the dream was true.

He crossed the room quickly and wrapped her in his arms; she pressed her cheek fondly against the shoulder of his leather jacket and sighed. "Mmm, you're warm. It was chilly out there."

Steve nuzzled into her hair. "Hell of a day you had. My God, Peg."

"I'm all right," she soothed. "We're both all right."

"Thanks to you." He held her tighter. "I don't even want to think about what would have happened if you hadn't been there to talk him down."

"You're making too much of things, darling," Peggy assured him, giving him a squeeze. "Barnes just needed some time to think. We all have bad days. Poor thing, I think I may have given him a start when I called out to him. I didn't realize he hadn't seen me there. He grabbed onto the railing--remember that when Sam tries to make this sound worse than it is."

"Sam's not happy," Steve agreed. "It looked pretty serious to him."

"I know, but he didn't see what I saw," Peggy promised. "Barnes was holding on--tightly, I promise you. Men who want to jump off bridges don't hang on until their knuckles are white when someone frightens them by calling hello."

"He's such a drama queen," Steve snorted, more to make himself feel better than to tell her, and she laughed merrily.

"I agree, and I hope you told him off for it."

"I did, but me yelling at him is going to be bush league compared to Natasha. She'll never admit it, but she was worried sick." This was true. Bucky was Steve's best friend, would always be his best friend, and Peggy was the best friend to him that only his Right Partner could be, and Sam was the friend he'd always wished he'd had ten of growing up--but his friendship with Natasha was special to him in its uniqueness. Natasha was his co-pilot; she tempered his emotional judgments with ruthlessly practical common sense. She said whatever he was too polite to say, and she always shot straight with him. He had come to recognize when she was troubled, and he had been first apprehensive and then secretly supportive of the sweetly broken Black Widow reaching out to the tormented Winter Soldier they'd created by throwing his best friend into a blender, simply on the power of Natasha's growing interest in Bucky and the deftness with which she handled him, like a safe cracker or an explosives expert. Try as she had to be brusque and dismissive today, she had not fooled Steve--she had been very worried about Bucky.

"That's actually sweet," Peggy mused. "In the way a chocolate bar might kill someone who was hypoglycemic."

Steve threw his head back and laughed. "That's Natasha all over."

"Do you approve?" she asked, her tone not one of suspicion but curiosity.

"Believe it or not, I do," Steve said. "I won't say Natasha is all bark and no bite, because her bite is vicious, but she's loyal and she's strong. She can handle Bucky, metal arm and all. And...it's kind of nice, actually. No one deserves to be without a partner, not if that's something they want." He arched a blond brow at his own Right Partner. "Do you approve?"

"Wholeheartedly," she answered immediately. "Those two were made for each other. You know, from defective parts." She winked at him, and he couldn't help smiling a little. Gently, she cupped his face in her hands, and he turned his head to kiss the ball of her thumb, an impulsive caress that he was surprised she was allowing in public.

"How are you feeling?" she asked tenderly. "If Natasha was worried sick, then you must have been out of your mind."

"Your hands are like ice." He rubbed them between his for a moment, then hugged her again. He ran hot, and she was always grateful to cuddle up to his warmth; much as neither of them were for public displays of affection, it had been a trying day, and she seemed just as happy to see him as he was to see her. "I'm better, now that I've talked to him, and better still for holding you. Did you get your tea?" he asked.

She snorted, glancing towards the styrofoam cup she had put down on the table so she could get out of her chair and hug him. "It's Red Zinger, and to call it tea is an insult to tea."

"Want to go sit in a diner? You should get something warm in your stomach."

"Oh, darling, I appreciate that but maybe just home," she said apologetically. "We could order something off that wonderful mobile program you showed me."

Steve grinned. "Anything you want. And it's called an 'app'."

She smiled sweetly, reaching up to playfully tug his ear. "Cheeky."

"Be nice to me, or I'll tell Fury that you're a security risk. Any supervillain who wants to find us just has to look up our Seamless account." He wanted suddenly to scoop her up in his arms like a bridegroom, carry her home and show her he was strong enough to take care of her, but knew she would hate it and held her waist to keep his hands too busy to give in. "You can have anything you want--tonight and every night."

Peggy glanced around, and after realizing that at this late hour there was no one in the cafeteria to see her lack of decorum, rose gracefully on her toes to brush her lips against his. "You," she said softly, her voice full of love. "Just you."

Steve took full advantage of the relative privacy, pressing a big palm against the small of her back to lift her to him for a slow, open-mouthed kiss, never failing to appreciate the miraculous sequence of events that had finally placed her in his arms.

"Are you all right?" he asked after a moment, resting his cheek against her hair as he held her. "Did anyone even ask you that? You saved his life, you know that, right?"

"Rubbish. He would have come down," Peggy said briskly, as if she had contributed nothing to Bucky's decision to do so.

"Peggy." Steve tilted her chin up with a firm hand. "You saved his life," he repeated. "You're my hero, do you know that?"

Her eyes went soft, glittering suspiciously as she smiled up at him. "Hush, darling. All in a day's work."

He kissed her again, but didn't quite let her off the hook. "You didn't answer my question. Are you all right? People train for years to do for people what you did for Bucky today. Do you need to talk about it?"

"No," she said after a moment, and he liked that she had really considered the question. "No, I just want to go home and tuck you into bed beside me, I think." Steve smiled at this very pleasant idea; he was not entirely guiltless of fantasizing about what it might entail.

He was already perfecting a plan to put her to sleep with a bang when she added idly, "Although, there is one question no one has asked, and I would have thought it rather...obvious. I'm not surprised, but I'm a little... amused, I suppose. Anyway, there was no harm done, and that's what's important." Glancing at him, her dark gaze suddenly troubled, she added, "I love you very much, Steve. You know that, don't you?"

Steve blinked. "I love you too, Peggy." Unsettled by both the look in her eyes and the abruptness of her declaration, which was not something she offered flippantly and definitely not publicly, he added, "Is everything all right?"

"Everything is never really all right," she said, after another moment's thought. "It couldn't be, not all at the same time. But we are together, and I love you very much. That is a good thing. I am happy about that."

Unsure of how to respond to that, he wrapped an arm around her and cupped a hand on her shoulder, wanting to touch her; they walked home like that.

**

Bucky soldiered through his three-day psych hold. He had to go to mandatory counseling sessions every Tuesday and Thursday on Fury's orders, and for the first three sessions Steve had made sure to hang around and walk Bucky back to his apartment, stopping for a coffee or a beer to give Bucky time to decompress along the way. When he had not been able to do so the fourth time due to an unwelcome public relations event with Tony that Fury had insisted he attend, he had called Bucky to apologize as soon as he'd been able to leave and had received the mildly shocking but not unwelcome news that someone had shown up to bat cleanup--"It happens, pal. Peggy and me got a beer."

"Peggy and I," Steve corrected absently. "Peggy went to get you?"

"Yeah, she said you were doing some thing with Stank." Bucky chuckled. "My condolences."

Steve couldn't help but smirk at the nickname Tony hated. "Yeah, it sucked, but hip hip hooray, Tony reassured the governor that we probably won't break any more buildings or anything for the next term."

Bucky laughed, and it sounded a lot like his old laugh, if a little more tired. "That sounds lame. Sorry I stole your girl for the night."

"You haven't got a prayer of stealing my girl," Steve said, and meant it; he knew his friend was teasing him.

Bucky snickered. "That's what Carter said when we did the shots. Tasha came too, later on."

Steve blinked, his memory presenting a faded, sepia-toned image of Peggy and Bucky drinking whiskey out of a canteen on a bivouac, playing keep-away from Dugan. He hadn't realized he was smiling at the idea of them now, recreating that pastime in a warm bar instead of on a cold battlefield until he said, "Sounds like she had more fun with you anyway. She hates gladhanding even though she's good at it. Is she with you now?"

The response was immediate. "Nah, she split off after we got to my place. We told her she was welcome to stay if she wanted, but she said she wanted to be there when you got home so she could try to fix you something decent to eat. Something about how they always serve rubber chicken at those things."

Steve smiled; that was something to look forward to when he got back to the apartment. "You OK for the night?"

"Yeah. Tasha's here. She's gonna hang out a while," Bucky said. A pause. "She says hi."

Steve smiled. "Hi, Nat," he said, and listened to Bucky relay this message before coming back on the line. "Just wanted to see how you were feeling, Bucky. Go be with Natasha."

"Okay," was the amiable answer. "Listen, thanks for checking up on me, Steve."

"Anytime," Steve said, and meant it. "Take it easy, Buck."

When he arrived back at the apartment, Peggy was emerging pink and glowing from a bath, wearing a satiny nightgown that was one of his favorites to see on her and looking none the worse for wear after a night out drinking. "Hello, darling!" she said, clearly happy to see him. "I didn't expect you back so soon. How was the rubber chicken?"

He snorted. "Exactly how it sounds. Did you take Bucky back to his place tonight?"

Peggy smiled. "I just lingered around the building after I'd finished my paperwork to let him know you hadn't forgotten about him. He said something about maybe stopping off at the pub, so I tagged along. Natasha came along later; we actually had a good time."

The truth between the lines of this casual explanation was very evident to Steve, and he drew her to him. "You stayed to make sure he didn't drink himself into a stupor. You knew he wouldn't do it in front of you."

"To be honest, I don't think he would have even if I hadn't been there," Peggy argued. "He admitted outright that he does not like his psychiatrist, and he thinks the sessions are a waste of time, but he was in a rather good humor. For him, anyway."

Steve kissed her forehead. "You don't fool me. Thanks for looking out for him."

"Nonsense. He's family," was all she said on the matter, and then said, "Come and see how badly I've burned this casserole I've made for us."

**

It hadn't stopped there. Days turned into weeks, weeks into a month. When Steve wasn't able to keep an eye on Bucky, Peggy did it for him; every so often he would crash on their couch, and Peggy had taken to keeping microwavable popcorn in the kitchen cabinets so they could eat it while they tried to navigate the minefield of all the pop culture they had collectively missed out on. There was one instance in which they found themselves on a bizarre sort of double date with Bucky and Natasha, and Steve had caught himself wondering if that was what it might have been like after the war, if all had gone more smoothly--him and Bucky, out with their girls at some restaurant, the redhead teasing Bucky about the spaghetti sauce he'd slopped onto his shirt, Peggy clinking her wineglass against Steve's with an affectionate smile.

Sometimes it hadn't been so great. Steve had returned home from a mission once to find the sofa open and Bucky sprawled out on the mattress with a sheet twisted around his torso, snoring. Peggy had been at the window, staring blankly out with a cup of tea in her hands that had long gone cold. She had confessed in a haunted whisper that they'd just tried to go to a movie, but Bucky hadn't made it through the opening scene before dashing out of the theater and into the street. Peggy hadn't been sure if it had been the noise or the lights or the crowd that had been too much for him, but it had taken her three blocks to catch him and ten minutes to calm his frenzied breathing; when he was finally steadier he had flatly refused to let her take him to a medical facility. She had brought him back to the apartment and given him a sleeping pill, she'd confessed, because she had not felt right leaving him alone and had not been able to think of anything else to do for him. Steve had sat down in the armchair with her in his lap, feeling her tremble every so often in his arms, and told her a few stories of his own about how he'd first had to grapple with the post-traumatic stress of their unique situation while they watched the Soldier sleep like two worried parents.

**

When Bucky was finally cleared to return to field work, it was Peggy he was partnered with, and Steve, not allowed to work with Bucky due to his inability to be objective if things went sideways, was relieved. He was not as relieved when he had heard what the mission itself actually entailed--through S.H.I.E.L.D.'s extensive electronic influence, a position had been secured for a temp by the name of "Elizabeth Carver" for the day at a private security firm that reports were indicating had some disturbing ties to a splinter group containing a few former employees of A.I.M. She was to hack their system, install a malware program allowing S.H.I.E.L.D. to monitor their dailies for illegal activity, and get out. Bucky, for his part, would be in the opposite building keeping eyes on her, ready to start shooting if it looked like the mission had gone south.

Peggy had been furious, both at her having to play a bubbleheaded office temp (she spent her prep muttering about "nothing ever bloody changes, does it") and at the code name that Fury had clearly chosen to take the piss out of her. It occurred to Steve that it was potentially a punishment for her defense of Bucky, and this was confirmed when Fury warned Bucky that he was "on probation, Barnes, so don't fuck this up."

After they had deployed, Fury informed Steve that they would be meeting the day after to discuss the performance of their two newest field agents, particularly Bucky, and that his attendance--and objectivity--was mandatory. Steve had been too busy worrying about the people closest to his heart to be too angry at Nick for his blunt lack of compassion.

He spent the day imagining increasingly upsetting scenarios--Peggy's cover blown and Bucky away from his post in some kind of PTSD fugue state, unable to assist; Bucky putting his rifle down calmly and opening the window to heave himself out of it; Bucky's abused brain tricking him into seeing monsters everywhere and Peggy across in the next building on the floor, a small bullet hole above one of her soft brown eyes, staring up at nothing. He nearly collapsed in relief when they returned, arguing with each other about, of all things, the wage gap. He almost wanted to knock their heads together and settled instead for hugging them simultaneously as soon as they had relative privacy, as if they'd just won a championship game instead of completing an act of espionage.

That night in bed, he lay in her arms after loving and confessed those earlier fears to her bashfully, feeling as though he was betraying both his best friend's sanity and her competence. Peggy kissed and hushed him, assuring him that she hadn't felt so comfortable with it herself at the outset, that they could only take these things day by day, but that if there was one thing he could place his trust in, no matter the occasion, it was her. Overcome with emotion, he rolled them in the sheets until he was atop her, sealed his mouth over hers, loved her again, more gently this time--his exhausted, brave, best girl.

The next day, prior to their meeting to discuss Bucky's return to field work, Fury asked Peggy to recuse herself, which Steve found ridiculous given that she was Bucky's partner and had had a front-row seat to his first mission back. Still, she assured Steve that she had briefed him on everything he needed to know, and they had the reports, so she didn't seem altogether worried about Bucky easing back into the work.

"I'd much prefer to go in, don't get me wrong," Peggy sighed, still in her dressing-gown as Steve shrugged into his leather jacket in the entryway, "but I am feeling a little under the weather. Perhaps it is best if I stay home. If I feel better later on perhaps I'll go for a run, but right now I've got a bit of a headache."

Steve was happy to kiss that aching head, then told her to rest up. "I'll be home for dinner. Sound good?"

"Sounds divine," she said, and saw him off with a kiss at the door that had him thrilled at their newfound domesticity. "Have a good day, darling."

He told her it would be a good day when he was back home with her, no matter how silly it might have sounded. Upon hearing that, she hooked her hands very suddenly behind his neck and pulled him near once more, kissing him with renewed passion.

"I love you," she told him. "You know that."

Again, her choice of words seemed odd, but her kiss was welcome; he chalked it up to her being overtired after worrying about Bucky for the both of them the day before, and headed out.

It was an unseasonably warm day, and the sun was fighting to break up the drying-cement color of the clouds. Enjoying its warmth on his face and shoulders, Steve employed a trick he had been using to bolster his confidence since grammar school--for better or worse, he told himself, the difficult, unpleasant task ahead would be over by suppertime, and he would be back home with Peggy, in their cozy apartment, the evening theirs to share.

On impulse, he swung into a flower shop he passed on the street, too happy with how much more comfortable his life was now to delay celebrating that fact. Flowers always made him want to sketch, something he hadn't had much time for lately--he resolved to devote more attention to it, the decision cheering him up, and spent a few pleasant minutes selecting orchids and thinking of Peggy's pale and perfect hands.

The florist smiled as she asked him if he wanted her to write anything on the card. " 'For my best girl'," he told her, and her eyes lit up; she wrote it carefully on the white cardstock in a very pretty script. "How's that?" she asked, showing him.

"Perfect," he said, and meant it. "Thanks a lot."

**

After an hour of reviewing the mission reports, Steve went into the conference room fully prepared to defend Bucky's return to field work with everything he had. Peggy had given him plenty of extra ammo; she had thought Bucky's performance had been exemplary and had given Steve several talking points to bring up in case Tony got cranky and tried to torpedo the recommendation.

Still, there was no avoiding the bridge incident, and it did come up in casual conversation before Fury arrived to officially begin the meeting; luckily everyone seemed to have put the ordeal behind them--Natasha and Sam were going as far as to use it as a benchmark to emphasize Bucky's obvious improvement.

"They can't say he isn't at least trying," Natasha said evenly, and Steve envied her her ability to check her passion when she knew she needed to sound neutral. "He hates going to the shrink, but he goes. They did the three-day hold, and they didn't come up with a damn thing that made him any more crazy than the rest of us."

"There's nothing in their notes that is out of the ordinary," Bruce Banner agreed, "aside from the PTSD, and it doesn't keep any of the rest of us out of the field. To hold that against him would be unnecessarily punitive."

Sam, who had laughed at Natasha's calling them all crazy, threw his two cents in. "He's on point physically, at least, too. He almost seems to look forward to getting to productively beat the shit out of something."

Steve smiled at that. "It works for me," he said with a shrug, and Natasha and Sam laughed. Even Bruce smiled.

Tony snorted, but to his credit, he didn't speak. Steve just hoped he wasn't saving any acid barbs for the actual meeting--he wouldn't have put it past Tony.

"I'm glad," Clint said sincerely, putting his feet up on the table as though he were a punk high school kid in detention. "I like Barnes. He reminds me of me."

"Sure," Natasha said, "if you take away the conditioned physique and the fact that women are attracted to him, it's basically you, Clint."

Clint's response was to flick a pencil at Natasha, who batted it away easily with her almost heavenly reflexes.

"Still, Barnes is sure lucky Carter got to the bridge so fast that day," Clint continued. "She must have been nearby."

Just like that, the question no one had asked occurred to Steve.

He glanced around the table, but no one else was following his train of thought. Natasha was rolling the pencil back to Clint. Bruce had gotten up from the table and was pouring water from a plastic pitcher into a disposable cup. Sam was checking something on his phone. Tony was staring moodily out the window, arms crossed over his chest. They had all unconsciously let the implications of what Clint had said pass by them.

Just like they had been doing, Steve realized, ever since that day on the bridge.

His eyes widened with horror as he fully processed what Clint had said. He knew enough specifics to know that Peggy had startled Bucky that day on the bridge with her greeting; Bucky had said himself that he had been so surprised to see her that he had almost lost his balance. Peggy had confirmed this when she had given him her account of things, although she had been quick to stress that Bucky had held on to the railing--she had made very certain that Steve had known Bucky had tried to hold on, and maybe that was what had distracted him from the bigger picture.

Either way, it brought something to light that Steve had never taken the time to consider--Peggy hadn't had to "get to" the bridge. She hadn't had to ascend to the precarious vantage point Bucky had ventured out onto. She had already been there.

She had already been there.

"Cover for me," he murmured to Natasha, who instantly looked alarmed.

"What?"

Bruce looked up from his pitcher; Sam likewise looked up from his phone. Even Tony, to his credit, rejoined the conversation, looking concerned.

"Something wrong, Spangles?" he asked, but his tone was light and not mocking; he was ready to jump in if he was needed, and Steve promised himself he would remember that.

But later--right now Steve was already shrugging into his jacket. "Tell Fury I had to go home."

"Dude, you OK?" Clint asked, taking his feet off the table, but Steve was already out the door; Natasha went so far as to bolt out into the hallway after him.

"Rogers," she called. "What's going on?"

Steve didn't answer, and he didn't run--at least not until the elevator dropped him off at the ground floor.

**

Every second of that run home was carved into high relief in his memory for the rest of Steve Rogers' life.

There is one question no one has asked, and I would have thought it rather...obvious.

And if he hadn't been so overwhelmingly worried about Bucky, Steve berated himself as he pelted down the city streets like his feet were aflame, it would have been obvious. But Bucky had been the more overtly troubled, and as soon as they had come back Tony had lit into him as was Tony's way. Bucky, never one to back down from a fight, had hollered himself right into that hospital room and so the question had gone unasked. Peggy had even hinted at it to him, later, in the cafeteria that night, and he still hadn't been smart enough to ask.

And no one had asked ever after. Not for weeks. Bucky had gone through his three-day hold, had dutifully gone to his appointed counseling visits, had trained to get back to active duty, and Peggy's sincere and heartwarming efforts to keep an eye on him when Steve could not had only served to further distract attention from what now seemed screamingly obvious. Peggy had been right at Bucky's side, so to speak, for the entire day yesterday, making sure the mission had been a success--and still no one had thought to even wonder about the question that had eluded everyone in that first hectic evening.

No one had asked. Not even Steve.

He had been so worried about Bucky--and of course he was worried about Bucky and would always worry about Bucky--but even he, who loved Peggy Carter more than anything else in the world, had taken her calm and poise for granted, had been so blinded by the immediate trouble that he had failed to see the underlying one.

And for the duration of that panicked flight home there was the horrible feeling of having failed her, of time running out, even though the emergency was entire weeks old.

When he finally reached the apartment his eyes were full of tears, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Nose like a firehose, his mother had used to say lovingly when he would come in from the cold, wheezing and sniffling. But he had wanted to play; oh how he had wanted to be outside with the other children and how he had hated having to constantly wipe his nose on his sleeve. And the fights, the constant thrashings from those same neighborhood kids he had wanted so badly to play with, but he had never cried; he had never wanted to give them the satisfaction of thinking they had beaten him.

He was crying now, and he fumbled and dropped his keys twice; by the time he could make his shaking fingers grip the ring (she'd given it to him, a leather fob embossed with his initials, because he had peevishly not wanted to carry a keyring that was shaped like his shield, oh he would remember this day forever every time he looked at his keys if he turned out not to be in time) and slide the key into the lock, turn the tumblers, he was nearly blind with fear and tears. He flung the door open, so hard that it banged against the wall and swung back to nearly close behind him. He shut it himself with a furious push and strode across the entryway in two huge steps.

Peggy was in the living room, in her stocking feet but clearly feeling better--she was wearing a simple blue blouse and a navy skirt, arranging the orchids he had sent her in a vase, her hair styled, her lipstick on. She looked so startled at his sudden entrance that she nearly knocked the entire thing over. She had overfilled it; water slopped over the rim onto the occasional table as she steadied it with one hand.

"Steve!" she exclaimed, circling the table briskly to run to him, and he loved her incredibly for it--for weeks, she had had something in her that was terrifying him more than anything he had ever stared down in the theater of war, and her first reaction even now was concern for him; her first instinct to comfort him.

He had a brief moment to wonder if it had been the same that long-ago chilly afternoon--if the thing that had turned the tide was simply that in that moment Bucky had needed her more--and then she was in front of him, steadying him with gentle hands. "Oh, Steve. What's the matter, darling?"

He told her what was the matter--tried desperately to catch his breath and asked her hitchingly through the tears, the unanswered question, the question, the question no one had asked.

"What--were--you--" He gulped and tried to steady himself, feeling like that asthmatic colorblind child again, "--doing--" Oh God he couldn't get it out. Not saying it wouldn't make it untrue, but he didn't want to say it, hear it, think it.

Still, it had to be said. He forced it out, finally, with the last of the strength he had for coping with it.

"What--were--you--doing--on the bridge?"

Peggy's eyes went incredibly soft; she took his hands very gently in hers, and Steve saw that she knew that there was no way to think of the question without realizing the answer. She took him in her arms, and he buried his flushed, tearstained face in her hair, smelled her perfume--bergamot, something that reminded him so much of years gone by--and just breathed for a moment. His own arms wrapped around her and he rocked her, as if she were the one who needed the comfort--how many times had he been so blind with the delight of having her back that he had failed to offer comfort as she navigated a frightening new life in a world she had never expected to see?

"Steve," she whispered lovingly. "Don't. It really is all right."

"The hell it's all right," he growled against her ear. "Peggy, why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't want to scare you," she whispered. "And...I didn't want to hurt you."

He sniffed wrathfully, drawing back slightly so she could see his red eyes, his flushed face, nose-like-a-firehose, see the terror that had propelled him back here as though his feet had had wings. "Too fucking late!"

She laughed aloud, and then covered her mouth girlishly with one hand; he knew it was at his language and wondered if this was how it felt to go insane. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry, darling. I just never hear you speak like that."

"If not now, when?" he demanded. "I...Jesus, Peggy--" She doubled and trebled in his vision, and he drew in a shaky breath, trying to calm himself.

"Steve," she murmured quietly, her voice full of love. She raised on her toes to kiss him and he let her, and if his response was weak it was only due to the crash after the adrenaline that had spurred him here. He let her pull him gently by the hand to the bathroom, let her twist the taps in the sink and wipe his face with a damp washcloth before pressing it to the back of his neck. She spoke calmly as she fussed over him. "I am sorry that I scared you. It breaks my heart to do that. Settle, darling. Shhh."

She hopped up to sit on the sink after a moment; he was sitting on the edge of the bathtub. She regarded him evenly, with that endless poise he found so alluring (and right now, infuriating). "Are you very angry?" she asked.

He almost answered yes, then realized that wasn't quite the case and thought better of it. He almost answered not very, but a little, but that wasn't strictly true, either. "I'm not angry. I'm upset."

She looked sad. "I was just up there thinking."

"And you felt like you had to do it on the bridge, over the East River, with nothing to hold on to," he quipped bitterly.

"I wanted to look it in the face," she said simply. "I don't think I was ever really serious about it--you know me better than that--but the thought was there. It kept popping up at odd moments, and...and I wanted to settle it once and for all."

He gripped the edge of the tub, sick with the idea that if she had decided to pursue the thought that had kept "popping up", or even if she had done something as mundane as lose her fucking balance, they would not be having this conversation right now. Hell, Bucky could have startled her right into eternity if she hadn't noticed him before he had noticed her.

"I didn't want you to think that you...weren't enough," she said, very softly; it was almost a whisper. "Because you are, always, more than enough. But if I were gone there would be no convincing you of that; I know you. I thought it best to come down, and would have--but for Barnes; I am not sorry that I brought him down as well."

"Neither am I," Steve said. "I don't know if he would have come to the same conclusion as you."

"Oh, but he did," Peggy said, with a twinkle in her eye and an almost-smile. "You are a man people would crawl from the grave rather than disappoint, hurt, or leave behind, my darling."

He stood slowly, walking across the tiled floor to the sink where she perched. The tears were threatening again, and he spoke through them as best he could, unable to force his voice very far above a whisper. "Peggy. I'm not the naive kid onstage in tights trying to hawk war bonds. Not anymore." He took her hands in his. "I'm not going to say that...being with me...makes your life perfect. It's not going to make all the bad stuff go away. It doesn't work like that."

"Darling, I would never, never ask you to take that on," she said, lifting his hands to her mouth, brushing her lips over his knuckles. "That's too big a job for you. I told you, everything can never be all right all the time. No one lives happily ever after, dear."

"But we can live," he said, more forcefully than he had intended, squeezing her hands in his. "We can deal with the bad things together. Stop them--or face them--or ride them out--but together, Peggy. If you...if you stick with me..."

He was purposely avoiding saying it, and she indulged him. "Oh, I think you are quite...stuck...with me, Captain Rogers. I don't believe I would allow Tony to send me back to a time when I couldn't order pasta delivered to my door without having to speak to a single human being, even if he knew how to." Those red lips smiled, and he didn't want to let her out of his sight for the next month, wanted to go everywhere she went and have a hand on her at all times so he could try and pretend that day on the bridge had been some awful dream he'd had in the ice.

"I love you." His chest was tight; it was almost a groan. "I love you."

"I love you too, my darling," she assured him. "And I never, never want you to think, even for a second, that I do not. So I came back here."

"Home," he corrected into the curve of her neck as they embraced, her knees pressing deliciously against his hips as he stepped between them to get closer to her. "You came back home."

"Yes," she whispered against his ear, kissing his temple. "And she was right. There's no place like it."

Steve did not return to the meeting. Peggy insisted on tucking him into bed, scolding gently that he'd worked himself into such a state that she reasoned it was only the serum keeping him from fever. It was she who called Natasha and told her to make up a cover story, promising to explain later and assuring her everything was fine. Steve let Peggy fuss over him--he'd earned it after the scare she had given him--but made a demand of his own. Peggy was happy to oblige, retrieving a novel she had been reading and curling up beside him. He fell asleep with an arm slung over her while she read, and when he stirred an hour later the book had fallen from her hands and she was snoring lightly--Peggy had a slightly deviated septum, which resulted in what could only be called adorable snoring--and Steve reached across her to turn off the bedside lamp before wrapping her hopelessly in his arms and succumbing to slumber once more. The snoring was real; she was real, he had to remind himself, in his bed in Brooklyn, in his arms.

He woke for good in the early evening. Peggy was awake beside him, her novel back in one hand, the other stroking his hair, and he felt he could have lay there forever under that gentle, loving touch. She reported with undisguised satisfaction that according to a later call from Natasha, Bucky had passed the unofficial test of his abilities with flying colors, and that not even Tony had been able to come up with a reason to deny him future field work.

She had even better news, she added--she had taken the liberty of ordering in supper, and told him with a smile that he'd woken just in time. Indeed, the buzzer rang ten minutes later and the sandwich she had selected for him went a long way to making him feel more normal. A shower helped further, the fact that she shared the activity with him further still. He fell asleep for the night cuddled against her side, and she was there when he woke in the morning. She was there when he woke the morning after, as well, and eventually he became content that she would be there as many mornings as they would have. By then, he made a habit of beginning his morning by kissing the ring that he had eventually offered her and that she had accepted--the ring which she, like him, would not take off her finger even to sleep.

**

They did not live happily ever after--Peggy was right that such a thing was impossible, for them or anyone. But Steve was right, too--they did live, and much more happily together than they would have apart. The first Christmas they spent together, Peggy invited Bucky to join them for breakfast, which had made Steve happy, although he couldn't possibly have known how long his friend had been waiting to see him open a particular present. When he lifted the lid of the box and reached in to feel warm fur, he looked with undisguised surprise at Peggy, then at Bucky, and knew instantly from their nearly identical grins that they had been keeping this secret together.

The dog, an enormous-eared, tricolored puppy with a toasty back, a white bib and basically no tail to speak of, happily tumbled out of the box into the lap of his unabashedly delighted new owner; Steve had never fallen in love with anyone so quickly aside from Peggy herself. One of the best parts of the morning was when Bucky carefully petted the little guy, first with his metal hand, as if to prove he could do so gently, then with his right hand to feel the soft fur. Steve wasn't sure what that signified, but Bucky seemed a lot happier once he had completed the action, and let the pup latch on to his metal wrist with an almost impish grin.

Peggy pretended to be her usual unruffled self as Steve turned an adoring, grateful gaze to her, but she was clearly pleased with his reaction to her gift. "You are responsible for training him," was all she said, "and if he makes a mess, you are cleaning it up." But her eyes were full of love, and Steve knew it was reflected in his own.

Over breakfast, they named the dog Brooklyn. Due to their field assignments, neither Steve nor Peggy could be home as much as they wanted to be with him, but Darcy Lewis was very, very happy to oblige, and could be seen often being yanked clumsily down a city street by both Brooklyn and Lucky, her bluetooth strapped to her ear, the leashes in one hand and a hot dog from a street vendor in the other (eventually she started getting more than one, to share with her charges. Peggy complained briefly that the dog was being spoilt and fed junk food, until Steve confessed to Darcy that Peggy often gave the pup leftovers when she thought he wasn't looking. Caught, Peggy let Darcy have her way).

For a long time after he and Peggy were married, Steve labored over an oil painting of the bridge, and while his two favorite critics both pronounced it lovely, it was Bucky who declared that something was missing. On a not-so-special evening in which they had invited Bucky and Natasha over for dinner, Steve returned to the canvas while Peggy brewed the coffee, only to find a Post-it with two stick figures drawn onto it stuck onto the foreground of the painting.

Peggy, busy setting out dessert, denied responsibility, although her eyes were dancing and her face was prettily pink with a blush. Natasha didn't even bother to hide her smirk, but claimed it hadn't been her, either. There was never really any doubt of the culprit--one stick figure had curly hair and a red mouth while the other had a star on its chest; they were either walking hand in hand, Steve reasoned aloud, or stabbing each other with forks.

Bucky grinned, not bothering to deny it. "I think it looks great. If you're so smart, why don't you do a better job?"

Steve did.