Steve woke before dawn on the morning of what would have been Bucky's thirty-sixth birthday.
He pressed a soft kiss to Peggy's cheek before extricating himself from their bed. She shifted awake just as he was buttoning his trousers and glanced with bleary, half-shut eyes out the window at the barely risen sun.
"Where are you going, darling?"
"Just to the beach. I want to watch the sun come up, get some drawing done. I'll be home before you leave."
Peggy just looked at him, sleepy and wary, before settling back on her pillow. She mumbled, "I'll never understand you, waking up before sunrise when you don't have to."
Steve just laughed, kissed her once more, and then was out the door.
It was almost a twenty minute walk to the little strip of beach near their house; the sun had nearly crested the horizon by the time Steve got there. He sat down right in the sand, catching his breath. Even this early in the morning, the air was hot and humid, and that did no favors for his asthma.
There wasn't a single person around at this hour. It was still and quiet; the only sound was the water lapping softly at the shore. Steve pulled out his sketchbook and a pencil and started drawing. The lines and curves he formed were so familiar, it was practically muscle memory. He could draw this picture in his sleep.
When the penciled shapes began to turn into a coherent image of Bucky's face, Steve started speaking softly.
"Hey pal. Happy birthday." He added in the wavy lines of Bucky's hair. Bucky had liked to keep it slick and styled with pomade, but Steve's favorite way to see it had been without any product at all, his gentle curls loose and uncombed.
"I miss you so much. You have no idea." He moved his pencil lower on the page, starting to sketch out Bucky's upper body. Feeling his eyes beginning to sting with tears, he looked up and stared out at the horizon, at the water glowing warm and golden. "I wish you could be here to see this. You always loved the beach, and it's beautiful here, Buck. It's like summer all the time without the hot garbage stink." Steve took a breath and kept on drawing.
"I miss Brooklyn sometimes though, don't get me wrong. I miss Mr. Bianci yelling at all the kids in Italian. I miss that cat that had part of it's ear missing that hung around the neighborhood. I even miss Donny upstairs singing loud and off key. I miss your Ma and Pa and your sister."
Steve started shading in the muscles of Bucky's arms and his broad, strong shoulders. He started thinking about how it had felt to be held by those arms, to be snug against Bucky's warm, solid chest. His throat went tight but he couldn't help the memories bubbling up. He swallowed.
"I miss home, I do. But I want you to know I'm okay, Buck. I know you. I know you'll worry about me even from beyond the grave. So I want you to know I'm happy. I'm a big shot artist, just like you always said I was gonna be. I'm married to the most amazing woman in the world..."
Steve broke off, wiping his eyes. He looked down at his drawing. It wasn't finished yet, but it was still so obviously — painfully — Bucky.
"I miss you. I love you. I don't think I'll ever stop missing and loving you."
A few minutes later, Steve finished the drawing and then hugged the sketchbook to his chest. He stared out into the distance for a long while, letting himself fall into the emotions he hadn't let himself feel in so long. How much he missed Bucky. How much he loved him still.
And then, when the sun was long past over the horizon, Steve picked himself up, dusted the sand off his clothes, and walked back home.
When Steve came in through the kitchen, Peggy was sipping her tea and scanning the morning paper. She looked up when he came in and gave him a fond, sad look.
"Are you going to call Winnie?" she said gently and pushed a plate of toast in front of him. Steve knew that was her saying I know what today is. I'm sorry , and he didn't think he would ever stop being grateful for her.
"I'll call when I get to the office," Steve said, and he would call. He just… was dreading it, a little. Sitting out on the beach and thinking about Bucky already had him feeling a bit homesick, and he knew the sound of Winnifred Barnes' voice would open that wound up even more. But still, he would call. Of course he would call. Even after all this time, even after everything, the Barneses were family, in every way that mattered.
"I expect I'll be home late tonight," Peggy said, getting up and picking up her briefcase. She didn't elaborate further. They'd argued about it constantly in the beginning, when Steve had first found out the truth about Peggy's job at the "theatrical agency". It still made a vaguely angry feeling flare in his chest, knowing she was keeping things from him, fighting enemies he and the rest of the public would never know about. More than that, he just plain cared for her, and it stung that there was a part of her life he was shut out of. But after five years together — three of them married — he now knew better than to ask.
Instead he just quipped, "What is it now? The Russians using aliens to spy on us?"
Peggy rolled her eyes. "Something like that." And then she kissed him on the lips, quick and tender, and was out the door.
Howard Stark was one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth-century. However, if one expected organization and structure under his employment, they'd be sorely disappointed.
Steve had learned that when he'd first started working for Howard, nearly eight years ago now, back when was just starting out as a background artist. The trick of it was, even though Howard didn't have any expectations of when people should be in the office, he did expect work to get done, and so while his peers had taken advantage of the lax scheduling, Steve's tenacity and eagerness to prove himself had gotten him promoted in quick order. So now, as one of the lead animators, he had his own office space.
It wasn't much — certainly nothing as grand as the space Howard had for himself on the top floor with a view of the ocean — but it was his. To anyone who walked in, it looked like a disaster with overpacked folios stacked high on every surface, pencils and charcoals and pastels and sketches in varied states of completeness strewn about. But Steve knew where everything was.
When he got in that morning, before he even pulled out a pencil, he picked up his desk phone and dialed a number he knew by heart.
Winnie Barnes picked up on the third ring. "Hello?"
Steve could cry just hearing her voice. "Hello Winnie. It's me."
"Oh Steve, how are you, dear?"
"I'm good. I just wanted to call and see how you and George are. I know today can be… hard." That was an understatement if there ever was one.
"We went to visit him early this morning, with the girls and Becca's kids." Her voice broke. "Brought some flowers."
Steve squeezed his eyes shut. He could tell she was on the verge of crying, almost certainly not for the first time that day. He wanted to go to her suddenly, to hug her tight just like she had held him after his Ma passed.
"That's nice. I'm glad the kids go too. Bucky would have loved them."
Winnie let out a choked sound and then sniffled. "I miss him every day."
"I know." God did he know. "I miss him too."
There was another couple seconds of sniffling and then, after clearing her throat, Winnie said, "So. How's California treating you?"
"Well, can't say I miss the weather in New York this time of year."
That made Winnie laugh. "And how's Peggy?"
"Peggy's great. Work keeps her busy, but she loves it."
Winnie hummed. "You two thinking about starting a family soon?"
Now it was Steve's turn to laugh. "We'll see. It's kind of a busy time right now."
"Well, I can imagine. You know Jamie made Becca take him to see Captain Americ a four times? Everyone in the neighborhood is talking about it. We're all so proud of you."
Steve couldn't help smiling, his cheeks going hot. His first production as lead animator at Stark Pictures had been a critical and commercial success, but no LA Times review would ever feel as good as knowing he'd made everyone back home proud.
"Aw, hell, Winnie."
"You should hear it. The kids tell all their friends that their Uncle Steve made Captain America."
"Maybe we'll come for Christmas this year." The words were out of Steve's mouth before he could really think about it, but Christ his heart was aching so bad for home.
"Oh you know we'd love to have you!" The delight in Winnie's voice was obvious; Steve could almost forget she'd been in tears the first half of their call.
"Alright, we'll try to make it happen," Steve said, meaning it. "Listen I've got to get to work now, but it was good talking to you. It's nice, hearing from you."
"You too, Steve. I'm glad you're doing well out there. Bye-bye, now."
After he hung up, Steve grabbed his sketchpad and flipped to a new page. Rather than start the character designs he was supposed to get done that day, he drew and colored Captain America. In the top corner of the page, he wrote:
Anyone can be a hero.
Peggy spent her drive to work that morning thinking about Steve. He was good at hiding when he was hurting, but after six years together, she'd gotten just as good at catching his tells. The way his shoulders fell. The clench in his jaw. They'd fallen into a sort of song-and-dance about it: Steve could still spare his pride, and Peggy could still offer him the comfort he was too stubborn to admit he needed.
Though, when it came to Bucky Barnes, even after all these years Peggy was still at a bit of a loss. She supposed it was because, at the root of it, Steve's grief was for more than Bucky himself. That part of it, Peggy could understand just fine. She'd lost her own brother in the war, and though Bucky hadn't been Steve's family by blood, he was family in every way that mattered. She knew that bone-deep grief all too well, what it's like to lose someone you've shared your entire life with, who knows you like nobody else did or ever could.
But Peggy knew Steve's sadness wasn't just for the person he lost. It was for the before, too. Steve was homesick. And though he could visit any time he liked, it would never be the same. It would never be the way it was before the war, before he lost his best friend.
Peggy knew that feeling too. Michael had been the only one in her family she felt had really known her; with him gone, visiting home and seeing family all just seemed like a farce. Like she was acting in a play rather than living her own life.
But losing Michael had been what sparked Peggy to take the leap and start pursuing her own ambitions. Not what her mother wanted. Not what everyone else expected from her. She missed him everyday, but Peggy could see now that loss was something she had been meant to go through, an essential part of the journey that brought her to where she was supposed to be right now.
And that was where she and Steve differed in their grief. She knew Steve loved her, there was never any doubt about that. She knew he loved his job and was proud of the pictures he made. She knew he was genuinely happy. But, he would never acknowledge losing Bucky as the catalyzing event that took his life on this track, he would never express anything even vaguely reminiscent of gratitude toward that event. To him, it was something that was never supposed to happen.
Peggy shook herself out of her spiraling thoughts as she pulled up next to a small, unremarkable building with a barely-noticeable sign that announced itself as a theatrical agency.
"Good morning Rose," Peggy greeted the bespeckled redhead who sat at the front desk.
Rose gave her a knowing smile. "Morning Director Carter."
It had been years since the SSR had been formally dissolved by the US government and she and Howard had founded SHIELD in its place, but Peggy had yet to stop feeling a little shot of pride whenever she was called "Director".
She stepped over to the filing cabinet, pulled out drawer S-R, and as she did so, the wall panel slid aside revealing the entryway to the SHIELD offices. She'd barely made it two steps inside before her Deputy Director, Daniel Sousa, intercepted her.
"We've got another one," he said without greeting, face grim. "He was robbing a grocery store and took out four policemen when they got called to the scene. One of our agents managed to hit him with a long-range tranq."
Peggy changed course from her office to the stairway that lead to the basement holding cells, Sousa keeping up beside her.
"Has he said anything?" Peggy asked.
Sousa shook his head. "No. And I don't think we have much time. Dr. Zola measured his heart rate when they brought him in, and it was over a hundred and climbing. And he's sweating bullets, just like the other two did right before they—"
"Yes, I remember," Peggy said, pushing open the observation room door. Through the one-way glass, she could see inside the cell where Agent Jack Thompson was looming over a man whose arms and legs were shackled to the wall. Sousa was right about the man's state; his skin was flushed red and slick with sweat, even though the basement was cool. His eyes were wide and manic, unfocused as his gaze flickered Thompson, the door, and his shackles.
In the past few weeks, they'd had three cases nearly identical to this one: a man displaying out of control violence with inhuman strength. Each time, the men had been feverish and wild-eyed, not saying a word to any of the interrogators. And then, within hours of being brought into custody, each of them had collapsed and died suddenly.
It looked like this was about to be the fourth.
Peggy peeled her eyes from the scene in the interrogation room and turned back to Sousa. "Have we been able to ID any of the others yet?"
Sousa shook his head. "We've reached out to all the local law enforcement, but so far nothing."
Peggy narrowed her eyes, considering. There was something odd about this case, even beyond usual SHIELD standards. There was just no explanation for what was happening, no connection between the men besides the fate they all shared. And the crimes they were committing when they were found… it was all just assault or robberies. Nothing that would require men to be so impossibly strong, nothing with high stakes at all.
And then there was the fact that they all died. Once, she'd visited Howard's lab when he was in the middle of trying to develop a drug that would put off sleepiness. He'd given a version of the experimental drug to rats and within the hour they were all dead.
That's what this reminded her of: an experiment gone wrong.
"Whoever did this," Peggy began, voicing her thoughts aloud as they came. "Whoever made these men like this, I don't think they meant for them to see the light of day."
Sousa raised an eyebrow. "What, you think they escaped from somewhere?"
"It's possible." There was something else too. The inhuman strength reminded her of a report from the war. There was barely a page on it, but she swore there had been mention of HYDRA experiments.
"I need to check the archives."
The Soldier woke to the loud metallic clanging of his cell door opening. He immediately lifted himself up from his cot, standing at attention.
"Come," his Handler commanded in Russian
The Soldier obeyed, following his Handler through the hallway. After walking a while, they came to a large room with padded flooring and targets set up along the walls. The Doctor was waiting for them in the room. He looked at the Soldier with wide eyes behind his round glasses. Expectant. Nervous.
"So," his Handler began, speaking to the Doctor in accented English. "You're here to check on progress."
"SHIELD has the last of the escaped subjects," the Doctor said. "As with the others, his heart will give out some time tonight. But Director Carter has grown suspicious. She is looking into old SSR files from the war." The Doctor spoke his next words hurriedly, frantically. "If he is ready, it may be time to use the Asset."
His Handler laughed, loud and sharp. "' If ' he is ready?" He turned toward the guards accompanying them and pointed to one of them. In Russian, he commanded, "Soldat, kill this man."
The Soldier moved toward the target instantly, and in the same second, the man shouted out in anger, looking around at the others, pleading for help. But nobody moved, they just watched. The guard raised his gun but the Soldier was much faster, wrenching it from his grasp and pointing it toward him, all in hardly more than a second. The Soldier's finger had just found the trigger when his Handler shouted.
The Soldier froze. The guard glanced between the Handler and the Soldier, shaking.
"Soldat this man is no longer a target. Return his weapon."
The Soldier held out the gun and the man snatched it back.
"Soldat, what is your name?"
The Soldier gave no answer because there was none to give.
"Soldat, where is your home?"
Again, the Soldier gave no answer.
His Handler turned to the Doctor, smiling. "Years ago, you gave me an American soldier. The only one to survive the serum. But he was stubborn and angry. He fought for a long time. But he could not fight forever and he broke like all the rest. You come here asking about progress. Here it is."
The Doctor looked at Soldier with wide, astonished eyes, and he said, "Have him readied for transport to Los Angeles tomorrow."
The Soldier perched on the rooftop, waiting. He was in a hillside neighborhood just outside the city; he could see the sprawling lights and busy streets from where he was perched on the roof of a two-story home. His eyes were trained on one of the front windows of the house directly across the street. It was the home of Margaret Carter, director of SHIELD and his current target.
It was the bedroom window he watched, waiting for the right moment, the right shot. He'd been there since dusk, motionless, unbothered by hunger or fatigue or boredom.
The light in the bedroom was off and the lights downstairs had been on for a while. It was hours past twilight; any minute she would be going to bed.
The Soldier waited.
At last, the downstairs lights switched off, and a moment later, the upstairs bedroom window was illuminated. The Soldier picked up his sniper rifle, crouching low and peering through the scope.
He watched a dark-haired woman in a neat suit walk into the bedroom. Carter. He tracked her movements as she made her way across the room until she stopped in front of a dresser, unpinning her hair and stripping out of her clothes before putting on a silk nightgown. This was his opportunity.
The Soldier brushed his finger over the trigger. He was a fraction of a second away from taking his shot when another figure entered his sights.
A blond man walked over to Carter, wrapping his arms around her waist and pressing a kiss to her shoulder blades. He was small and thin, wearing only his underwear.
Even with the man's presence, the Soldier knew he could still make the shot. But… he didn't.
He was frozen, mind and body. Unable to think. Unable to move. All he could do was stare at the man, an awful and profound feeling growing inside him. It made him shake. It made him dizzy.
He tried to fight against it, against the overwhelming feeling that everything about what was happening was wrong. In his confused desperation, he took aim and fired.
He'd taken the shot in a haze of confusion and panic and it was a terrible one, only grazing Carter's shoulder and shattering the window and the dresser mirror behind her. The glass broke with a great crash and immediately after there was shouting — from Carter, the man, and from the neighbors.
Even in his disorientation, the Soldier knew he had to leave. He took one last look through the window, at the small blond man, and then leapt from the rooftop.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Peggy heard the window shatter an instant before she felt the bullet tear across her shoulder, brutal and sharp. Letting out a yell at the burning pain, she dropped to the ground on reflex, yanking Steve down with her and trying to shield him from the falling glass from the bullet striking her vanity mirror. Panting, she waited a few seconds before slowly lifting her head up to peer out the bedroom window, just in time to see a dark figure drop down from the rooftop across the way.
Standing back up, she darted across the room, retrieved the pistol she kept in the nightstand, and bolted out of the room and down the stairs.
Steve was close on her heels, still in his underwear, shouting near-hysterically. "What the hell are you doing? Peggy, your shoulder is— You can't just— Peggy! Peggy!"
He kept on shouting at her even as she ran through the kitchen and out the front door. She spotted the shooter at once. He was hard to make out, wearing all black in the middle of the night, but she could still see him, sprinting fast away, already several yards up the street.
She tore after him, firing her pistol. Each shot was a miss and he kept on running. Peggy chased him up the street, her feet pounding against the pavement, but he was moving fast — inhumanly fast — and the exhilarating rush she'd felt earlier was quickly fading, the pain in her shoulder growing more and more pressing by the second. She felt herself slowing, noticed her vision blurring…
Steve's arms came around her just as she fell, guiding her gently to the pavement.
"Peggy, oh my God..."
From where she laid on the ground, Peggy saw the shooter stop and turn around. He stared at her and Steve for a few seconds before he quickly turned back around and fled into the night.
All around them, Peggy could hear the shouts of their neighbors. Lights were flickering on and people were stumbling out of their houses to see what the hell was going on.
She blacked out just as Steve was shouting at someone to call an ambulance.
Peggy let out a groan the instant she woke up, before she even opened her eyes. Her left arm and shoulder ached terribly, stiff and painful. Blinking her eyes open, she realized she was in a hospital room.
She turned slowly, being careful of her throbbing shoulder, and saw Steve sitting at her bedside. He was smiling tiredly at her, relief plain in his eyes.
"Steve..." She remembered it all suddenly. The shooter. The chase. The way the man had run so impossibly fast. She sat up abruptly, wincing as the sudden motion brought a stab of pain to her left side. "Steve, the gunman, did they catch him?"
Steve's expression fell and he shook his head, reaching out to take her hand. There was something burning behind his eyes and it took Peggy a second to realize what it was because it was something she'd rarely ever seen Steve express. Fear.
She squeezed his hand back, tight, and they were silent for a few seconds. Then Steve let out a quiet, hollow sound that could almost be a laugh.
"You know, I forget sometimes, how dangerous your work is. I know you don't do a whole lot of fieldwork anymore, being director and all, but..." He sighed, rubbing his thumb over her fingers. "Well, I guess being the one in charge comes with its own kind of danger."
"I'm alright, darling," she said, pouring everything into sounding as sure as possible. Because even as her own heart thundered at the idea of someone targeting her, she couldn't stand the sight of Steve looking so afraid.
"I hope they find the bastard," Steve said, low and angry. And this Peggy was familiar with, the mask of anger that Steve would put over his fear. "I hope he rots in a cell for the rest of his life."
Peggy just squeezed his fingers tight.
Daniel and Howard came in shortly after. Howard was in a panic — Peggy could tell that right away. He probably thought the gunman was after him next, which wasn't an entirely unreasonable assumption. He rambled about increasing security at the office for a full minute before Daniel cleared his throat.
"Thompson is leading the search," he said, and Peggy gave him a grateful look. Not for the first time, she was reminded of why she'd chosen him as her deputy. He knew that, right now, she wanted answers and action, not reassurances.
Daniel shook his head and then glanced at Steve, who was still sitting resolutely by her side. "Steve already told us everything he saw. Anything you want to add?"
"I think he might be one of the enhanced men," Peggy said immediately. "He dropped from the roof of a two-story building without hurting himself, and he ran faster than any man I've ever seen."
She glanced briefly at Steve and saw his expression had gone pinched. They never talked about her work, about the things she saw. That was the whole point of SHIELD, of course. To keep things like supermen in the science fiction pulps and away from the everyday person's awareness. And it was the hardest thing in the world for Peggy to count Steve among the everyday person. Because, really, he was anything but.
This, though, she could not keep away from him. Not when it had come so dangerously close to shattering everything for them.
"You think he might end up like the others?" Daniel asked.
"I suppose we'll see," Peggy said and then turned to Howard. "Has your team looked into those old HYDRA files I sent you?"
At the mention of HYDRA, everyone in the room froze. Steve's hand tightened around hers. Howard stopped his pacing and came close to the bed, looking serious. "Yeah, actually, I was going to talk to you about that. Before all... this." He waved a hand, gesturing broadly to her laying in the hospital bed. "We ran the blood tests, and whatever compound those men were injected with was targeting the same systems that were outlined in those HYDRA files. Nervous, cardiac, muscular, endocrine… all meant to increase strength and healing."
"Do you know what was causing them to all die?"
Howard shook his head.
Peggy considered all this. The man who shot her had to be one of those enhanced men. The way he moved, his speed… but there was a key difference, she suddenly realized.
"The gunman was different," she said. "The others, they were out of control, half mad. But this man tonight, he knew exactly what he was doing. It wasn't a random outburst — he clearly had a mission."
"To kill you," Steve stated, voice low. It was the first time he'd spoken since Howard and Daniel had come in. He was shaking, not with fear anymore, but with anger.
"Whoever he is, he must be working for whoever is creating these enhanced men. They must know we're onto them."
They were quiet for a moment, the implication of Peggy's words sinking in. And then Daniel frowned and said, "Peggy. Are you saying this is HYDRA?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "But there's a connection somewhere, and I don't like it one bit." She rounded on Howard. "Keep an eye on Arnim Zola. I trust him about as far as I can throw him."
"Do you really think I'm stupid enough to—"
"Howard, please. Just, don't let him anywhere near this." She turned to Daniel. "Let me know as soon as Thompson's team finds something."
The two of them left shortly after that, and the second the door closed behind them, Steve let out a noise that sounded half exasperation and half amusement.
"What?" Peggy asked.
"Still giving orders, even from the hospital bed."
"Well somebody bloody has to!"
It came out more biting than she intended, and the thing about her and Steve was, just as she could tell when he buried his fear beneath anger, he could tell just as easily when she hid hers away under the guise of snappish control.
"Hey," Steve's voice went soft. "They're gonna find the guy. You think Howard's just gonna rest when there's a crazed gunman on the loose targeting SHIELD directors?"
That made Peggy laugh a little. After a moment, she said, "I'm sorry for all this. You know I try to keep my work from affecting our life at home. And now my job has put you in danger."
"You have nothing to be sorry for," Steve said, sounding so sure and resolute. "I know what I signed up for when I married you. You're making the world a better place, doing what you do. I would never ask you to stop."
Peggy felt her heart swell with emotion, filled by affection and gratitude and love. She didn't know how to put it into words, how much Steve's unwavering support, even in the face of what had been a true life or death situation, meant to her.
"And maybe..." Steve went on, now sounding a little hesitant. "Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if the wall between our home and your work wasn't always so strong. I know it's all top secret most of the time, but I want to know what's going on with you. I want to know when you're scared, when you're hurt, when you've finally cracked a difficult case. You don't have to tell me the specifics, but you don't have to lock that part of your life away completely, either."
Peggy was stunned. He'd never put it quite like that before. Whenever he'd expressed frustration at her not sharing the details of her job, she'd assumed it was borne out of a desire to know for himself the dangers SHIELD was keeping away from the rest of the world. This was the first time he'd expressed it in a way that was so personal.
And the thing of it was, what Steve was asking, it wasn't impossible. In fact, in many ways, it was a new level of intimacy she'd craved deep down since they'd been together.
"Ok, darling," she said, meeting Steve's earnest gaze. "I can try."
Steve leaned over and kissed her on the lips, fierce and sure. When they broke apart, he pressed their foreheads together and said,
"It's going to be okay."
When it was Steve saying it, Peggy couldn't help but believe it to be true.
The Soldier opened his eyes to an orange-pink sky. He was laying flat on his back. In the sand, he realized when he moved his fingertips and they brushed something coarse and warm. He sat up and saw he was on a beach. Nobody was around; it was barely sunrise.
He had no idea how he'd gotten there.
Something was wrong. Something was so terribly wrong. It felt like a storm inside his head. Thoughts and feelings whirling in an indecipherable mess.
He was supposed to kill—
But he didn't so he should go back to—
On and on, his mind warred. He knew that protocol said for him to return to the rendezvous point after a mission failure, but the idea was suddenly revolting. A small part of him was screaming at him that he couldn't. That he shouldn't.
But if he didn't go back, then what would he do? He didn't know where he was. He didn't have any place to go.
A wave of dizziness came over him, his vision swimming, and the Soldier collapsed back into the sand.
Rough hands seized the Soldier, and he jerked awake in an instant. He rolled away, striking out as he reacted on instinct before he was fully conscious. He was on his feet in seconds. Staring around, he realized he was surrounded by a group of men in suits, all armed. They had the same kind of look as the agents that usually accompanied his handler, but none of them were familiar.
He reached for his own weapon, only to come up with nothing. The men surrounding him must have taken it while he was unconscious.
The Soldier shifted his stance, readying for a fight. It wouldn't be pretty, but he was certain he could take these men, or at least disable them long enough for him to get away. Whoever these people were, he couldn't be taken in.
He had to go back to—
No, that wasn't right. He had to find—
One of the men stepped toward him, pistol raised. He was tall, with blond hair and sharp jaw. He was the leader of this squad, the Soldier could tell.
"If you'll just come with us," he said to the Soldier calmly, "this doesn't have to get messy."
A tense second passed and then, before any of the men could react, the Soldier punched the blond man right in the face, cracking his jaw with a sharp pop. The man stumbled back at the impact, and by then the other men were on him, firing their weapons.
The Soldier tore away, dodging their bullets, even as the sand made his movements ungainly. He made it about ten yards before something struck him in the back of the leg. Not a bullet. Something thin and sharp. A needle.
He kept on running, but it wasn't long before his legs suddenly began to feel heavy as stone, his eyes closing with sudden fatigue.
When he collapsed to the ground, the last thing he heard before he closed his eyes was the blond man saying, "Damn, that Howard Stark is a genius."
The Soldier came to handcuffed to the wall of a cold, cement room. He pulled at the chains with his full strength, but they didn't budge. Not even on his left side. Whoever had him locked him up must have known about his strength.
There was a metal door across the room, and the Soldier could hear voices outside. It was barely audible, even with his enhanced hearing, but he could still make them out. Two men.
"Dr. Zola, you are not authorized to have contact with this suspect." It was the voice of the man from the beach.
"Agent Thompson, surely Director Carter would want a medical examination performed as soon as possible."
The second voice — high-pitched and nasally — unsettled the Soldier. A chill ran through his whole body, an unpleasant feeling settling over him. He didn't know why, but his whole being was repelled by this Zola.
"Director Carter would want her orders followed," the first man — Agent Thompson — said, his tone sharp. "Which were that nobody but myself and my agents were to have any contact with this suspect until she says otherwise"
Director Carter. His previous target. That meant he'd been taken into custody by her agents. This was bad. The enemy had taken him prisoner.
But Director Carter had been with Steve...
The thought came unbidden and filled him with an emotion he couldn't name, he only knew that it made him feel confused and unwell. In spite of that, he latched on to it amid the haze in his mind.
He had to get to Steve. That was the priority now. He didn't understand why or how or what that meant, but it was the only thing inside him that felt solid. It was something he could actually grasp at and hold for more than a fleeting second. The two men argued a bit longer before the Soldier heard footsteps walking away. Shortly after, the door opened and the blond man — Thompson — walked inside, crossing halfway into the room, still far enough away that the Soldier couldn't touch him.
"So," he said. "You're the shmuck who's dumb enough to try and kill one of the highest ranking intelligence officers in the country."
The Soldier said nothing.
Thompson frowned. "What's your name?"
Again, the Soldier said nothing. He didn't have an answer to that question. That made him feel strange.
"Who do you work for?"
At the Soldier's continued silence, Thompson's face flashed in anger and he looked with disgust at the Soldier's left arm.
"The Russians, is that it? Can you even understand English, pal?"
The Soldier did not reply, and Thompson gave a frustrated huff before turning away and walking out of the room.
The door shut with a loud slam, and the Soldier was left alone.
Time passed. The Soldier could not say how long. The room was in constantly dim light. It must have been several hours because he did fall asleep once. He saw all sorts of things in his head when he slept. Dreams, he knew was the term, though he couldn't remember ever experiencing them before. He dreamt of people he didn't remember seeing and places he was sure he'd never been.
Occasionally, he heard voices outside the door, just clipped exchanges about changing guard. Eventually though, the Soldier heard a new voice, belonging to a woman. Director Carter.
The door opened and she strode inside, heels clacking with each step. The Soldier could tell by her gait that she was hurting in her left shoulder, and the sleeve of her jacket was raised just slightly there, meaning it was still bandaged.
Her eyes were furious as she walked toward him, and then suddenly, her expression changed. She froze, her eyes going wide, lips parting in shock. After a second, she took a slow step forward, staring at his face, searching.
Several seconds passed, and then she said, "Bucky?"
"Who the hell is Bucky?"
Steve sat at his desk, working on sketches for the new picture the studio was supposed to be starting on. After the success last year of Captain America, Howard had been eager for another hit and had told Steve his vision.
"I want one of those fairytale movies," he had said. "You know, with the princess and the songs and the happily ever after? But I want ours to be different." And then he'd clasped Steve on the shoulder and told him. "You're a creative genius Rogers, I know you can do this."
And so, with those as his only instructions, Steve had gotten to work. He was still in the brainstorming stages, idly planning ideas and beginning half-formed character sketches. He'd been at it for weeks and still nothing had quite felt like the right idea.
Today, as he drew the vague beginnings of a knight's magical armor, he was especially distracted. Peggy had come out of the hospital the evening before, after staying only one night, and was already back at SHIELD.
Steve had wanted her to stay home at least another day, but after she'd gotten word they had the suspect in custody, there was no way she wasn't going to be there. And, honestly, Steve couldn't really blame her. He only wished he could be allowed to get his hands on the bastard.
But still, he worried for her. She was smart and brave and more than capable of handling herself, but in her line of work, anything could happen. And their most recent brush with danger only solidified that knowledge.
So it was no wonder that, when his secretary let him know his wife was on the line, his heart seized in dread.
"Peggy? What's going on?"
"Oh God, Steve." She sounded shaken and uncertain. "I don't quite know how to explain this, but the assassin — I think it's your friend, Bucky Barnes."
He couldn't have heard that right. There was no possible way he could have heard that right.
"The photograph we have in the sitting room, I swear it's him."
Steve still couldn't fathom it. It was impossible. Bucky was dead. Bucky would never kill a woman in cold blood from a shadowy rooftop. There had to be some kind of mistake or trick or some terrible explanation.
"Peggy, I don't understand—"
"I think you'd better come down here," she said, her voice going gentle, placating.
"I— Alright. I'll be right there."
And with a sick, awful feeling in the pit of his stomach, Steve hung up the phone and walked with shaking legs out of his office.
Peggy was already waiting for him when he stepped through the secret door at Auerbach Theatrical Agency that led to the SHIELD office. Her expression was hard to read. She wasn't angry or frightened exactly. She just looked… haunted. Like she'd just seen a ghost.
Steve swallowed. "Peggy, I don't understand what's going on here."
They started walking down the hallway and she said to him in a hushed voice, "I don't either but… first you have to tell us whether or not it's him. Then we'll figure out what to do next."
Whether or not it's him. It couldn't be him. Bucky was dead, and he didn't dare let himself think too much of the alternative.
They made their way down a narrow staircase to a concrete hallway lined with metal doors. Peggy led him to the very last door at the end of the hall. Daniel and Jack stood outside of it. They both glanced between Steve and Peggy uncertainly but said nothing as Peggy unlocked the door and gestured for Steve to follow her inside.
The door closed behind them with a metallic slam and the would-be assassin raised his head.
It was Bucky. Steve was sure in an instant. He couldn't say what made him so certain so immediately. It could have been his eyes, those soft baby-blues he'd stared into thousands of times. It could have been the angle of his jaw, exactly the same shape Steve had long ago memorized with his fingertips. It could have been the way he breathed, the beat of his heart, any vital part of Bucky that Steve would just know with his whole being.
It was Bucky, and he looked terrible. Steve had seen him in just about every state of unwell before: from sour moods to sickness to piss-drunk. But he'd never looked this bad. His hair and face were streaked with dirt, his back hunched over and trembling, and his eyes frantic and unfocused.
And God, his arm. The left sleeve of his black tactical outfit was cut off, showing off the metal prosthetic with it's bright red star and all Steve could think was Oh God, what happened to you?
Steve nearly sank to the ground right then and there, his knees turned to jelly. He never thought he'd hear that voice say his name ever again.
"Yeah Bucky," he said gently, like he was talking to a skittish animal. "It's me."
Bucky had looked at him and said his name, but something still wasn't right about the look in his eyes. It was almost like the haze of too much to drink but leagues beyond. He was so far out of his right state of mind, more scared and confused than Steve had ever seen him.
Steve had no idea where to begin with any of this. Bucky was alive and something was terribly wrong with him and he'd nearly killed Peggy and…
Before he could fall too far into his own dizzying thoughts, Peggy came up next to him and said, "So he really is Bucky Barnes?"
"Yes," Steve said raggedly. He clung to that thought in this terrible sea of circumstances: Bucky was here and he was alive.
"So the question is," Peggy said, eyes fixed on Bucky. "How does a presumed KIA American sergeant resurface ten years later as an enhanced Russian operative?"
Bucky didn't say anything. But Steve could see his breathing was getting faster and his eyes looked even wilder until he squeezed them shut as if in pain.
After a few seconds, he gritted out, "I don't—- I can't remember—"
Steve ached to go to him, as if he could chase away whatever demons had taken hold of Bucky's mind.
"Could you tell us anything at all?" Peggy said. "A name? A location?"
"Russians," Bucky said quietly. "And HYDRA."
That made Peggy still. "HYDRA?"
"Yes. I don't know names. Or where they kept me."
Where they kept me. He'd been a prisoner. They must have found him and taken him, after the Army had declared him as good as dead. Now fury was quickly joining in on the storm of emotions raging inside of Steve.
Peggy just stared at Bucky thoughtfully and then said, "If you remember anything else, anything at all, say so."
And then she turned to leave, but Steve said, "Wait" and then walked up close to Bucky, right within his reach even in the chains.
"Do you know who I am?"
"Do you know who you are?"
"You call me Bucky."
Steve felt his heart sink into the pit of his stomach. "Do you know where you're from? Do you remember your family?"
Bucky looked down at the ground, saying nothing. He started trembling terribly again.
Steve moved closer. "Bucky—?" And then he felt Peggy's hand on his arm, pulling him back gently. He stopped but didn't turn away.
"You're James Buchanan Barnes," he told Bucky. "But everyone calls you Bucky. You're from Brooklyn. We've been best friends our whole lives."
When Bucky still didn't look up at him, he let Peggy gently lead him out of the cell.
Daniel and Jack were still waiting in the hallway. Peggy led the way as the four of them went upstairs into the main SHIELD office space. They gathered in Peggy's office, and when the door was closed, Daniel and Jack glanced at Steve before exchanging looks with each other and Peggy.
"So, guessing from the way your husband looks like he's just seen a ghost," Jack said, "the guy in there really is an American sergeant?"
"Yes," Peggy confirmed. She still had a hand on Steve's shoulder, and though he was loath to admit it, he probably would have collapsed to the ground without that steadying touch.
"You saw the star on that robot arm of his arm, right? So, what, is he a traitor?"
"No," Steve said at once. "He was captured. Probably right after he was declared KIA. Whoever got him — the Russians, HYDRA, maybe they're working together — must have tortured him. Broke him so bad that he—" Steve cursed and rounded on Peggy. "You saw it. You saw he wasn't right. He didn't even know me. He didn't even know his own damn name ."
Peggy said nothing for several seconds. Steve knew what the look on her face meant; she was unsure, and if there was anything Peggy hated, it was being unsure.
"Agent Sousa, get in touch with the Army offices. I want every scrap of information they have about James Buchanan Barnes. Agent Thompson, see to it that Sergeant Barnes is given a meal and clean clothes."
The two nodded and departed to fulfill their orders without argument. When the door closed behind them, Peggy sank into her chair with a sigh.
"Peggy," Steve said. "You have to believe he wasn't acting on his own free will. Whoever had him, they must have used drugs, torture, God knows what else."
"That doesn't make him any less dangerous, Steve."
"Just… promise me you'll try to help. Promise me you won't let him rot in that cell."
"Just promise me. Please." He knew he sounded desperate, pleading, but he couldn't help it. It was exactly how he felt.
Peggy squeezed her eyes shut, letting out an exasperated breath. Finally, she said, "He's dangerous and unstable, and he'll be watched closely. But," she met Steve's eyes. "I think you're right. Which means the real enemy is still out there."
"They'll pay for what they did to you. And to Bucky."
Reaching across the table to take his hand, Peggy promised, "I'm going to make sure of it."
While Peggy pored over old war files and conferred with Jack and Daniel, Steve left the SHIELD office and returned with a shopping bag from the grocery store down the block.
"Find anything?" he asked, coming into Peggy's office as the three of them were standing over a scattered mess of musty papers.
"A messenger from the Army office is coming by the end of the day with documents," Peggy said. "Right now we're just looking into old lab files the SSR seized from HYDRA at the end of the war, seeing what matches up. There's definitely evidence that they were experimenting with operant conditioning and neurochemicals, as well as an enhancement serum."
Steve suddenly pictured Bucky strapped down in a lab, men in white coats surrounding him, puncturing his skin with needles and injecting him with God knows what. He clenched his fists and then took a breath.
"Do those files say anything about undoing it? The drugs and the conditioning?"
Peggy shook her head. "Their research was only preliminary at the time we got these files. Whatever they did to Bucky, they developed it after the war. Actually… they might still be developing it."
"What do you mean?"
"Bucky isn't the first enhanced man we've taken into custody. There've been a few incidents just these past couple of weeks. But Barnes is the most stable of them, if you can believe that. And also the only one to survive more than a few hours in our custody."
Steve feld a wave of cold dread come over him. "What?"
"The others were violent and erratic when we took them in. And then within hours they all died of a cardiac episode. Our current hypothesis is that they were escaped test subjects for whatever enhancers HYDRA was developing, and Bucky is the only one for whom the serum took and that's why he was sent to kill me."
"Fuck." Steve didn't have words beyond that expletive to describe the overwhelming immensity of what was happening. It was almost too much to comprehend, the sheer implausibility of everything that led to this point, to Bucky being alive and in the custody of the organization run by his wife.
"There's still a lot we don't know," Daniel pointed out. "Like how the Russians are involved, who the hell is in charge of this operation, where they're operating..."
"It would help if our only lead was capable of remembering anything besides your name, Rogers," Jack said with a frustrated sigh.
"I actually had an idea about that," Steve said, lifting the shopping bag he was carrying. "I got some of his favorite things. His brand of cigarettes, the candy he used to love. Maybe it'll help him remember who he is."
"It's worth a shot," Peggy said, a strange look crossing her face, almost pitying. Steve didn't think he liked it.
"I want to talk to him alone."
"Steve, I don't think—"
"If anyone has a shot at getting through to him, it's me. And it can't feel like an interrogation."
Peggy's lips formed a tight line as she looked at him, deliberating. He could read the uncertainty in her expression and when their eyes met, he tried to convey how sure he was about this. He knows me. Deep down. I can get through to him, please.
At last, Peggy let out a sigh. "Alright. You can go in alone. That room is equipped with audio and video surveillance; we'll monitor you from the control room."
Steve made his own way downstairs shortly after, gripping the shopping bag tight. He could feel his heart thundering in his chest as he reached out to open the cell door. It didn't quite feel real, that Bucky was going to be on the other side.
But, there he was. He still looked terrible, but after being given clean clothes and a quick wash, he at least seemed better than when Steve had seen him an hour ago.
"Steve," he said. And maybe Steve was just being hopeful, but he could swear Bucky sounded lighter when he said his name, relieved.
"Hey, Buck." Steve cringed at the high pitch of his own voice, like he was talking to a scared child. He took a breath and then said, "I brought you something."
Bucky just stared at him, wary and curious, as he walked over and sat down cross-legged less than a couple feet away from Bucky. He could picture the furrow that must be in Peggy's brow as she watched him from the control room. But this was Bucky. It was impossible for Steve to find it in himself to be afraid of him.
Slowly, Steve emptied the contents of the bag onto the concrete floor: a pack of Chesterfields, a lighter, a couple toffee chocolate bars, a bag of cherry licorice twists, and two bottles of Coca-Cola. Steve held up the lighter and cigarettes first.
"Want a smoke?"
Bucky didn't make a move for a few seconds. Then he reached out and took the items from Steve's hand. The moment the cigarette pack and lighter were in his hands, some deep down memory must have taken over because his next few movements — tapping out a single cigarette, lighting it between his lips — were done with an easy familiarity that was so Bucky .
Bucky seemed to have startled himself, eyes going wide as he exhaled the smoke like he'd done it a thousand times. Which, well, he had.
"I remember this," Bucky said quietly. He took another drag, and then reached for one of the Coke bottles.
That made Steve smile, despite everything. Bucky had always said nothing went better with a cigarette than an ice cold Coke. We can do this , Steve thought. In small, little steps, he could bring Bucky back. Today it was Chesterfields and Coke. Tomorrow it might be his sister's name. And then eventually he might remember it all.
Steve's heart clenched, realizing what that would mean, Bucky remembering everything about his life, including what he and Steve had been to each other. A complicated mess of feelings suddenly threatened to break through the surface, and he squashed them down at once. Buck had just been discovered alive after years of capture and barely knew his own name; one life-altering challenge at a time.
"How are you feeling?" Steve asked. "Are you injured anywhere?"
Bucky shook his head. "I heal fast."
Another beat of silence passed between them. Bucky exhaled a plume of smoke and sipped at his cola. Steve thought he'd never get to watch Bucky do that again; the sight made him want to cry.
"What do you remember, Buck?"
"I don't… It's..." Bucky let out a frustrated sound, face twisting into a frown Steve had seen countless times before. Even as there was an air of confusion and wrongness to him, Bucky was slipping back into his usual mannerisms more and more by the second. "I don't know."
"Do you remember who wanted Director Carter dead?"
Bucky's gaze fell, his frown deepening in the way Steve knew meant he was deep in concentration. "There was… my handler." He spoke slowly, like he had to pry the words from inside himself. "Russian. And… a doctor. German accent. Round glasses."
"Ok," Steve said gently. Bucky was trembling again, like giving up the description of his captors physically pained him. He hoped that description might be a useful starting point for Peggy to investigate because he didn't think he could force anymore from Bucky, not right now anyway.
"Here, Buck, let's have some chocolate."
They sat eating the chocolates in silence for a few moments, and then the cell door opened suddenly. Peggy walked straight to Bucky, eyes alight. She held out a small photograph in front of him — a man Steve had seen a handful of times in the SHIELD office, wearing round glasses.
"Do you recognize this man?" Peggy asked, although she certainly didn't have to. Bucky's reaction to the picture was immediate, eyes going wide and startled, his breath turning rapid. Steve fought back the impulse to reach out and soothe him.
"That's him," Bucky said hoarsely. "That's the doctor."
Peggy put the photo away and knelt down, looking Bucky in the eye. "Do you remember anything else about him?"
Bucky shook his head, still distressed.
"Peggy," Steve said quietly. "That man… he works for SHIELD."
Peggy turned to him, and she looked like she had the night she'd been shot: hurt and terrified and determined.
"Yes," she said. "Yes he does."
Steve was with Bucky a few more hours while Peggy disappeared doing God knows what. Tracking down and interrogating that doctor, most likely. A part of Steve wanted to be with her, wanted to give his own punishment to the man who had caused unspeakable harm to the two people in the world Steve loved most. But he knew Peggy had it more than handled. He would only be in the way. He wasn't a trained agent, just a man filled to the brim with fury.
So he stayed with Bucky, because maybe by spending time with him, he could do something to help this absolute mess of a situation. Maybe if they sat together sipping on cola and eating sweets long enough, Bucky would remember himself. Maybe.
Bucky, though, was clearly shaken by the photograph of the doctor, and stayed mostly quiet the rest of the time Steve spent with him. Still, even though he'd retreated into himself, Steve could not bear to leave him. He was content just being in the same room with him, breathing in the same smoky air as him, even as much as it ached his ashtmatic lungs.
Steve did go upstairs once, to retrieve his sketchbook from his briefcase. Bucky said nothing when he returned, still quiet and petrified. But he watched with a curious expression as Steve sat back down and opened his sketchbook, pencil in hand.
"You… you used to do that. All the time." Bucky said, gravelly and slow.
"Yeah, Buck, I did. Still do." I used to draw you all the time. Steve didn't say. Hair slicked back on weekend nights. Smoking a cigarette outside on the fire escape. Naked and tangled in the sheets after we took each other apart.
Steve shook those thoughts away and looked at Bucky in front of him, here and now. And then his hand was in motion, the lines and curves coming together. He couldn't say how long he worked, but by the time Peggy came to retrieve him, he had a finished sketch.
A knight with a broken sword and haunted eyes, trapped inside cursed armor that bore the emblem of a red star.
That night, when Steve and Peggy were in bed together, Steve drew her close and pressed his lips to hers, pouring all his love and adoration and gratitude into the touch. They hadn't talked about what she'd learned since discovering the doctor's role in everything, but he could see the weight of it, heavy on her shoulders. He wanted her to know how much he admired and supported her wholeheartedly.
When they parted, Steve laid a hand on her cheek, thumb caressing her jaw. "That doctor… what did you find out?"
Peggy sighed. "I shouldn't be telling you any of this."
Steve said nothing, just waiting. After Peggy had nearly been killed in their home and Steve's childhood best friend had turned up alive, they both knew Peggy's usual compartmentalizing rules no longer applied.
"The doctor's name is Arnim Zola," she said. "He was a HYDRA scientist during the war, but the government recruited him afterwards. I never trusted him, but we had to play nice with D.C. so he's been at SHIELD for years. Turns out, though, he never forgot his old allegiances. He's been working to rebuild HYDRA all this time. Inside of SHIELD."
Her voice hitched at that last part, and Steve held her closer. SHIELD was everything to Peggy; she'd put her entire heart and soul into that organization, into carrying out the ideals of making the world a safer place.
"Zola, he admitted to all of this?"
Peggy nodded. "He's a spineless, pathetic man. Jack was barely with him five minutes before he was spilling all HYDRA's secrets. He was proud, I think. Wanted the satisfaction of watching our faces when we learned what he'd been doing from inside SHIELD."
"So what now?"
"Now we put the undercover agents Zola named on trial and investigate the bases he told us about. Now we try and root out this parasite."
"Did he say anything about Bucky? About what they did to him?"
"After Bucky's unit was captured in '43, the weapons plant they'd been taken to was raided by our forces shortly after and most of his unit was rescued. But by then, Zola had already been experimenting on him. He escaped with Bucky before the weapons plant was destroyed, and meanwhile the Army assumed Bucky had been killed in action.”
Steve grit his teeth. He remembered it all too well, Winnie Barnes showing up at his doorstep, weeping with that damned Army-stamped letter in her hands.
"After the war, the remains of HYDRA allied with the Soviets and they worked together to create the perfect human weapon. They had a number of test subjects, but Barnes was the only one to react well to the serum."
"Christ," was all Steve could say; it came out as a ragged exhale. He brought his forehead down, tucking himself against Peggy's chest. He held her close and she held him back just a tight.
In the weeks that followed, Peggy directed all of SHIELD's focus and resources towards the eradication of HYDRA. It was a twofold operation, removing the traitor within SHIELD and then going after HYDRA's bases and agents in the field. Peggy hadn't known Bucky Barnes before this, but she and Steve were now twins in their feelings, both raging and grieving for what had been taken and corrupted without their knowing.
But, just as Bucky was coming back to himself day by day, neither was SHIELD completely lost. Good people still remained loyal to their cause, and that was enough for Peggy. They were disheartened and fewer, but as long as there were people committed to keeping the world safe, Peggy would be there to lead them.
Still, though, it was an exhausting time. Peggy barely ate, barely slept. She was sure it would have taken a toll on her marriage if Steve hadn't also been fighting the same battle himself. He visited Barnes every single day, bringing him cigarettes and soda and candy each time. They sat together for hours. Steve usually brought his sketchpad with him, and it seemed, for the time being at least, he had decided to work from right there in the SHIELD holding cell.
There was an agent in the control room at all hours, monitoring the audio and video feed. Sometimes, Peggy would go in there, under the pretense of wanting to make sure the security on James Barnes was as tight as possible. But really, she was curious. Curious about the man who was her husband's best friend before HYDRA had hurt him so badly. Curious about how he and Steve passed all those hours Steve visited.
" You're married to Director Carter ," Bucky said to Steve one day while Peggy was observing. He did that sometimes, stated facts to make Steve elaborate and fill in the gaps of what he'd forgotten or missed in the past ten years.
" You can call her Peggy. And yes, I am. " It was hard to see Steve's expression in the grainy video footage, but the tone of his voice was happy, if a little sheepish.
" How did that happen?"
"After you— I mean, after I thought you died, I didn't really have much reason to stay in Brooklyn. So I went to Los Angeles, thinking maybe I'd give the animation business a shot. I'd always dreamed about it, ever since we saw Snow White . I got a job with Howard Stark's studio. He and Peggy had worked together during the war, and we met at one of his parties. Some jerk was talking about how glad he was that women could 'go back to their place' in the kitchen now that the men were back from the war and their wives didn't need to work anymore. And, well, Peggy put him in his place." Steve laughed and Peggy found herself smiling too as she recalled the memory. "I fell in love right then, I think."
Bucky said nothing for a long while, and then, " Are you happy ?"
" Yeah, Buck. Yeah, I am. "
A long silence stretched between them, only broken when, after a few moments, Steve asked if Bucky wanted another licorice twist.
On nights when Peggy worked late — which was most nights, lately — she and Steve would have dinner together in her office, getting take-away from the Italian restaurant down the street.
"Bucky has been doing better," Peggy remarked to Steve on one such night, in between bites of ravioli.
"He remembers a lot now." A strange expression came over Steve's face, a mix of wryness and upset Peggy couldn't quite decipher, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. "And he's more himself every day."
Peggy nodded. She had spoken to Bucky herself a number of times over the past few weeks, of course, but it was never anything more than asking him about intel. Still, even as brief as their interactions were, it was impossible not to notice how much he'd improved since that first day. There was a hint of Brooklyn in his voice when he answered her questions now — the same endearing accent Steve had — and just a few days ago, when she'd told him they were planning to raid a base in Pennsylvania soon, he'd honest to God grinned and told her in a soft voice that she'd "better give those bastards hell".
"He doesn't belong in that cell anymore," Steve said.
Peggy looked up from her dinner reluctantly. She'd known this conversation was coming. "Steve, he's an extremely valuable informant with a number of interested parties probably after him. I can't just have him out on the streets."
"He wouldn't be out on the—"
"Oh, you know what I—"
"He can stay with us!"
That made her pause. Steve was looking at her, suddenly desperate and intense. She swallowed, and not for the first time in the past few weeks — not for the first time in her entire marriage to Steve, if she let herself be completely honest — Peggy started to… wonder.
Steve loved her, desired her, wanted her intimately in every definition of the word; there never was and never would be any doubt about that. But the way he'd clung so desperately to Bucky's memory all those years… Peggy had seen the drawings, noticed the faraway look in his eyes each year on his birthday. She knew what it was to lose a brother, and so that was the pain she had ascribed Steve's heartache too, not daring to think of what other sort of relationship could bring about such steadfast devotion.
But these past few weeks, as Steve worried himself to pieces over the man in the holding cell downstairs, the truth had become increasingly impossible to ignore.
Peggy sighed and closed her eyes. She had never acknowledged that to herself before, the possibility that she wasn't the only one who held Steve Rogers's heart. She didn't know what that meant, what she should do. If it meant anything at all, if there was something she should do.
She did know one thing, though. It would wreck Steve completely if he lost Bucky for the second time.
"Alright," she said softly, meeting Steve's desperate and sure eyes. "After the HYDRA base in Pennsylvania is no longer a threat, Bucky can stay with us."
A look of utter relief broke over Steve's face, and the last of Peggy's uncertainty was cast away.
"So," Peggy said, putting on a smile and deciding to change the subject. "How is the new picture coming along?"
"Great actually. I think I have the character designs down." Steve pulled out his sketchbook from his briefcase, opened it up to a page in the middle, and showed her. "What do you think?"
There were two characters on the page. One was a knight in broken armor, bearing Bucky's haunted and terrified face. He was standing behind another character, under their protection. This other character was a woman, powerful and radiant, with resplendent armor and sword outstretched, ready to fend off anyone who would attack the vulnerable man behind her. Peggy recognized the woman's face as her own.
She looked up at Steve and smiled, suddenly filled with love and fondness.
"I think it's lovely."
The raid on the Pennsylvania HYDRA base proved to be very fruitful. Four days after they were sent out, Thompson and his squad returned with crates of intel — documents, photographs, pieces of lab machinery Peggy didn't even want to begin imagining the uses for — and a man who had been found in one of the base's cells. According to Thompson, the man claimed to be a scientist held prisoner and forced to create a serum that would grant men impossible physical ability.
"My name is Abraham Erskine," the man told Peggy when she sat across from him in the interrogation room. He had a German accent. "I would shake your hand, but..." He held up his cuffed wrists with a raised eyebrow.
Peggy did not let her amusement show. "Dr. Erskine, how long were you HYDRA's prisoner?"
"Since the beginning of the war. Johann Schmitt found out about my research on cell regeneration and forced me to cooperate with HYDRA and help them develop a serum. They had found my daughter, you see. Threatened to kill her and her husband and my grandchildren if I did not do as they said."
"What did they plan to do with the serum?"
"Anything they wanted. If that serum worked, if they had an army of the strongest men in the world, nobody could stop them."
"It's a miracle, then, that you were never able to perfect the serum."
"Ah." Erskine's eyes glinted. "The failure of the serum's ability to work was not an error on my part."
"What do you mean?"
"The serum is meant to amplify the innate qualities of a person. Good becomes great. Bad becomes worse. Men who are unworthy of the serum's power will become corrupt, both mentally and physically. They will go mad, and their bodies will not allow them to survive the transformation."
Peggy felt a chill run down her whole body as she realized the implication of what Erskine was telling her. "There was one man who survived it."
Erskine nodded. "Yes. There were whispers of him in the lab. The American who took to the serum. I had wondered if it was true."
So there it was. The reason Bucky had survived while the others had not. He had been worthy. He had possessed innate goodness while the others had been evil. And HYDRA had taken him, body and mind, and turned him into a weapon, into a tool to hurt and kill. It made Peggy sick and angry to think about.
"He's here with us now," Peggy said. "They broke his mind very badly. Took his memories. Made him do awful things. But he's coming back to himself a little more every day."
Drawing himself up, Erskine met her eyes, suddenly looking very serious. "He is a good man. No matter what they did to him, no matter what they made him do. Do not let him doubt that."
Afterwards, when Peggy finished her questioning, she found Daniel and told him:
"Start making the arrangements for Sergeant Barnes' release from our custody."
Art in this chapter by xPixelx
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
Bucky took a moment to stand in the driveway and look up at Steve's house for the first time in daylight. He still had a hazy memory of what it looked like at night through a sniper scope. Up close, he could see there wasn't much special about it. White with blue shutters. Two floors. A neat little yard.
Steve squeezed his shoulder and it made Bucky tense. He tried to recover quickly, but Steve already looked sheepish about it. "Come on, Buck," he said with a soft smile and led him through the front door.
Director Carter — Peggy he was supposed to call her — was already inside, standing in the living room. She gestured. "Through that way is the kitchen. Over there is the downstairs bathroom."
Bucky looked around. The space was cozy without being cramped. Steve and Peggy had nice things: a big brown sofa, a television in the corner, bookshelves lining the walls. A photograph on the mantle caught Bucky's eye. Himself in his army uniform. It struck him suddenly, the weight of it; Steve had truly thought he'd died. Bucky had been mourned. He'd been memorialized.
Steve was staring at him, no doubt having noticed where his gaze had landed, and Bucky made himself look away. He'd been as good as dead, and now he was back and he still hadn't figured out quite what that meant yet. It was too much to think about, too colossal.
"I'll show you your room upstairs," Steve said and Bucky nodded.
The bedroom was sparsely furnished, just a wide bed, nightstand and dresser. There was a stack of books on the nightstand, and Bucky walked over, peering at the covers.
"There's a couple of your favorites there," Steve said. "And a couple new ones. I don't know much about science fiction, but my secretary is a big fan and she said—"
"Thank you," Bucky said quietly, still looking at the books. Some of the covers did stir up a familiar feeling, but he couldn't recall a single detail about any of the stories.
"There's clothes for you in the dresser, too."
"Steve, you didn't have to..." He trailed off. His gratitude went well beyond the clothes, but he had no idea how to express that. He had no idea how to tell Steve that he owed him everything, that he knew how much of a burden he was, with his tattered memories and fragile temperament.
"Buck, it's no trouble, alright?" Steve was looking at him very seriously, like it was critical Bucky understood him. "Anything you need, it's yours."
Bucky had to look away again, feeling overwhelmed. Steve had been having that effect on him in recent days, as he'd been piecing himself back together. Steve made him… feel. Security. Affection. Want. And he didn't know what to do with any of that. Particularly the wanting.
"I think I'm just gonna rest for a bit," Bucky said, sitting down on the bed.
"Okay," Steve said, face falling just for a second before he recovered with a reassuring look. "I'll, uh, I'll let you know when supper's ready."
After Steve was gone, he laid down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. He wasn't tired enough to sleep, but he did close his eyes, taking deep breaths in and out. He wasn't in a cell anymore — HYDRA or SHIELD's. He was safe. He was with Steve.
He repeated those thoughts, over and over, until Steve came back and knocked gently on the doorframe and Bucky jerked up.
"Food's ready downstairs."
Bucky followed Steve down to the dining room, where Peggy was already sitting, the table already set. The savory scent hit Bucky hard, shaking loose not-quite-memories. He didn't remember any event specifically, but just a feeling , an overwhelming familiarity.
"I made stew," Steve said as they sat down. "Your Ma's recipe."
Bucky looked down at the portion Steve had given him, still reeling from the way the smell alone had so strongly stirred his memory. Feeling Seve and Peggy's expectant eyes on him, he put on a smile and said, "You let Steve cook?"
Steve made a startled noise that was halfway between joyful and affronted. Peggy laughed and said, "Believe it or not, I'm worse."
"Not everyone can be Winnifred Barnes," Steve said.
Winnifred. It was the first time Steve had said Bucky's mother's name aloud. He remembered what she looked like, remembered the sound of her voice.
"My Ma..." Bucky began. "Is she… is she still in Brooklyn?"
"Yeah. Her and your Pa are still in that same house."
"And Becca?" He hadn't remembered her name until it had come unbidden from his lips.
"She still lives in the borough," Steve said slowly. "But she moved out a couple years after you— after the war. Got married and has two boys now."
"Oh." Bucky felt like he had when he'd seen his photograph in Steve's living room, the reality of the situation hitting him again. Steve had mourned him and moved across the country to start a new life. His little sister was a wife and mother now. He'd died and the world had gone on and Bucky had no idea where he fit now — if he could fit at all.
But, God, he had to try .
"Could I call them?"
"Yeah, of course," Steve said right away. "After dinner, we can."
Bucky turned to Peggy, because she would understand. "It's safe?"
Peggy nodded. "This house has a secure phone. If there's anyone out there looking for you — and that's a very big if , given the hit HYDRA has taken these past couple of weeks — they won't be able to trace your calls here."
"And my folks, they don't know I'm alive?"
Steve shook his head. "We wanted to wait until we knew what was gonna happen."
Until we knew if you were going to prison or a mental institution, Bucky knew Steve wasn’t saying. He let out a breath.
"Okay. I'll call after dinner."
They ate quietly, most of the conversation being between Steve and Peggy, talking about Steve's work with Howard Stark. Steve could do his work out of the office, if he wanted, and he was going to be spending the next few days working from home.
Despite Bucky's teasing of Steve's cooking abilities, the stew did taste very good, warm and meaty and making Bucky think home with each bite. It made his anticipation for the phone call increase every minute, so by the time everyone had finished and the dishes were cleared away, Bucky could feel his heart racing.
He was nervous, but there was also a feeling of defiance, of victory. HYDRA had taken this from him, but he was going to seize it back. He was going to have his family again, even if the thought made him shake.
They agreed that Steve would be the one to call and explain everything, before handing the line to Bucky. The three of them sat together in the living room, Steve standing at the wall phone while Bucky and Peggy were on the couch beside it. While Bucky stared at Steve dialing, he was startled suddenly by the sensation of someone touching his right hand. Peggy.
"It's going to be alright," she said quietly. Her hand was still over his, comforting without gripping too tight. "They all missed you terribly; they'll just be happy you're okay. The rest of it won't matter."
Could it really be that simple? With Steve, it seemed to be. He'd done all he could, given Bucky all he had, like no time had passed at all since the days he called Bucky his best friend. Like Bucky wasn't some kind of half-formed amalgamation of his old pieces. Would it really be the same for his family?
Someone picked up the phone on the other end. A woman's voice — his mother. He listened to her and Steve talk back and forth, exchanging pleasantries, easy and familiar, despite Steve's obvious nervousness.
"There's something I have to tell you," Steve said. He paused, glancing over at Bucky, and then he let out a ragged breath. But when he spoke, there was a tiny smile on his face. "Bucky's alive, Winnie. He was captured by Nazi scientists during the war and Peggy's agency found him."
Bucky couldn't make out the words, but he could hear his mother on the other end, her voice sharp and disbelieving.
"Winnie, I swear to God. He's— they did a number on him, I won't lie. But he's alright. He's staying with me and Peggy." There was more frantic talking on Winnie's part, then it was quiet and Steve held out the phone for Bucky to take.
"Hello," Bucky said into the receiver and the sound his mother made could only be described as a wail . It wasn't necessarily a noise of despair — just too much emotion to be contained.
"Oh God, oh God ," she kept on repeating, barely coherent through choked sobs. Bucky looked at Steve and Peggy, hoping for some kind of direction. But Steve was crying too, not the same gross sobbing as his mother, but there were certainly tears running down his cheeks. Peggy wasn't crying, but she did reach out to grasp Steve's fingers with her left hand, still comfortingly touching Bucky with her right.
"George! It's him! It's really him," his mother was saying and then Bucky could hear movement on the other line as his father took the phone.
"Hi Pa." It came out soft and broken — Bucky realized then he'd also started crying. He cleared his throat. "It's me."
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," his father gasped, and Bucky could picture him suddenly: over six feet tall, portly and strong, but good-humored and gentle despite his intimidating appearance.
"I'm alright," Bucky said, barely able to speak, body shaking and tears falling. "Steve and Peggy are taking good care of me. I'll come see you when I can." He didn't know where that last part had come from, only that he meant it. He imagined it, seeing his mother and father again, holding them close. Seeing Becca, all grown up with his nephews. His throat closed up and he found he couldn't get another word out.
Steve gently took the phone from his hand and started speaking quietly into it. Bucky didn't hear a word. He bent forward, overcome suddenly with sobs, weeping into his hands. It wasn't sadness so much as a catharsis.
Peggy put a hand on his back, rubbing gentle circles. And then Steve put his arms around his shoulders, gripping tight and sure. They stayed like that for a while, until Bucky had cried himself ragged and he excused himself to go back upstairs to his bedroom. He felt raw and wrung out, but also lighter, like a heavy and awful part of him had finally been ripped away. He fell asleep not long after, and his last thought before he drifted off was imagining what his nephews looked like.
Bucky woke the next morning at sunrise, the soft light coming in from the curtains he'd forgotten to close in his upset state the previous night. He felt a little better, if a bit embarrassed about weeping like that in front of Steve and Peggy.
Getting up, he made his way into the upstairs bathroom. There was a new-looking toothbrush and comb by the sink, which Bucky assumed were his. Brushing his teeth, he stared at his reflection — really stared at it, for the first time since he'd been found. It wasn't great. He was pale and scruffy and his hair…
His hair really needed to go.
He dressed and went downstairs, noticing the scent of egg and bacon before he even made it into the kitchen. Steve, standing over the crackling frying pan, looked up with an easy smile when Bucky approached.
"Hey. Good morning."
"Peggy just left," Steve told him, probably noticing the way Bucky glanced around. "I'm making breakfast."
"I can see that. Still can't believe she lets you cook."
Steve snorted. "Believe it or not, I've gotten better."
They were both quiet for a moment after that, the indirect acknowledgement of all the years Bucky had missed hanging in the air. Bucky cleared his throat.
"Sometime soon, could we go somewhere to get my hair cut?"
"Oh, yeah, sure Buck. I know a place in town, if you want to go after breakfast?"
Bucky nodded and sat down at the table, watching Steve cook. The sight of him puttering around in the kitchen drew up an achingly familiar feeling, similar to what his mother's stew had drudged up but this feeling was… fonder.
He couldn't deny it anymore: he'd been in love with Steve, before. Was still in love with him now, if the way his insides felt like gelatin whenever he looked at Steve for too long was any indication. But, surely, he had never told Steve about his feelings. He had no memory of it (not that his memory was to be trusted these days), but more crucially, he couldn't have told him. Men weren't supposed to feel that way about each other, and they certainly weren't supposed to express it aloud.
And now… now it didn't matter what Bucky felt. Steve was married, and more than that, he was happy in his marriage.
They ate in companionable silence; Bucky appreciated that Steve didn't force him to talk, didn't make the quiet feel awkward. When they finished and headed toward the door to leave, Steve retrieved two riding helmets from the hallway closet and held one out to Bucky.
Bucky took it, confused. "What's this for?"
Steve smirked and opened the front door. "You'll see."
He led Bucky along the driveway to the garage that sat adjacent to the house. Steve hefted the door up and inside there was a shining black motorcycle.
A laugh came out of Bucky. "This yours?"
"Yeah," Steve said, a proud look on his face as he climbed on the bike. "It was a gift to myself after I made lead animator." He jerked his head behind him. "Get on."
Bucky complied, a grin spreading over his face. The bike suited Steve, somehow, despite the fact that he bore no resemblance to the tall, burly men that Bucky usually saw riding motorcycles. He climbed on behind Steve, and feeling a little ashamedly thrilled by it, put his hands on Steve's waist.
Steve turned around and gave Bucky a smile that made electricity spark in his chest. Then the engine came to life with a roar and they were off.
They made their way through Steve's neighborhood, full of picturesque houses and palm trees. Quiet and spacious and full of green, it was a far cry from Brooklyn. California was very beautiful, Bucky couldn't deny that, and if there was ever a place for a new beginning, this was it. And that made Bucky think about Steve coming here, all those years ago and he wondered: was Steve ever homesick? Did he still ache for the skyscrapers that had been the backdrop of their whole lives, or had he fallen in love with the constant warmth and brightness?
Eventually, the cluster of residences gave way to a busy downtown, filled with shops and restaurants and people milling around. Steve parked the bike next to a building with a sign that said: TOM'S BARBERSHOP.
They had to wait a bit while the barber — Tom himself, it turned out — finished with a client. Bucky had to take a breath to calm himself; the chemical smells of hair products and the buzzing sound of the razor made his heart race and his stomach turn. Bucky felt Steve's hand on his arm.
Bucky nodded. He was in a barbershop. He was with Steve. Steve wouldn't let anything happen to him. To distract himself and to get Steve to stop looking at him so warily, he jerked his head toward one of the magazines on display in the waiting area. The man on the cover had his hair slicked back and styled so it came up almost half a foot from the top of his head.
"Think I could pull off a look like that?"
Steve laughed. "You could sure as hell try."
Tom called Bucky over to his chair then, and Bucky sat down with nervous anticipation.
"So what can I do for you today?" Tom asked. He was an older man, heavyset with a greying beard. He looked down at Bucky, eyes roaming over his overgrown hair and scruffy jaw, and to Bucky's surprise, Tom didn't look at him with suspicion or disgust; he regarded Bucky with something like sadness.
"A shave. And all this...gone."
Tom nodded and clapped Bucky on the shoulder, smiling at him warmly. "You'll give Marlon Brando a run for his money when I'm done with you."
Bucky had no idea who that was, but Tom's kind tone put him at ease. He got through the cut and shave without incident. It helped that Tom put the radio on as he worked. Bucky passed the time focusing on the music, the upbeat jazz a clear reminder that he was so very far from HYDRA's hands.
"Alright, kid, you're all set."
Bucky stared in the mirror. He looked like the man in the photo on Steve's mantle: clean, sharp, handsome . He stepped off the chair and turned toward Steve, still sitting in the waiting area.
"What do you think?"
Steve's eyes went wide. He spent a second just staring at Bucky, a dozen emotions crossing his face before he said, "Buck, you... it looks great."
That lit something up in the pit of Bucky's belly, and the burn of it lasted the whole rest of the day.
Bucky couldn't quiet his mind that night. The haircut had spurred something within him, made him really start to think about the fact that he was really beginning anew. What was he going to do with himself now? He couldn't live off Steve and Peggy's charity forever. What did he even want to do?
With a frustrated huff, he got out of bed and went downstairs, his lighter and a cigarette in hand. He'd found lately that nothing soothed him like a good smoke.
When he stepped out onto the front porch he was surprised to find he wasn't alone.
"Oh, hello," Peggy said, looking startled. She was sitting on one of the wooden outdoor chairs, a lit cigarette in one hand and a glass of amber liquor in the other.
"Sorry," Bucky murmured. "I didn't mean to… I'll just..."
"Sit down," Peggy said, not unkindly. "I don't mind the company. Trouble sleeping?" Bucky nodded and Peggy gave him a sympathetic look.
He asked her, "Did you just get home?" She hadn't been home when he and Steve had gone to bed.
She sighed, smiling ruefully. "It's been a busy few weeks. Turns out dismantling a rouge Nazi science cult is a lot of work." She took a drag of her cigarette, and Bucky found himself staring at her lips, perfectly shaped and stained crimson. Peggy was a beautiful woman, and her elegance was even more exaggerated under the soft porch light, wisps of smoke drifting from her mouth. She tilted her chin towards him. "Your haircut looks very nice."
Bucky felt his cheeks go warm. "Thank you."
"Did Steve take you to Tom's?"
"He's a good man. You know, one of his sons was in the war? Came back… troubled, I suppose is the word."
That would explain the man's kindness, his understanding. He'd probably taken one look at Bucky and known exactly what the haunted look in his eyes and his unkempt appearance meant.
They fell into silence, both of them smoking, Peggy taking the occasional sip of her drink. Bucky still didn't quite know where he stood with Peggy. There was a lot of mixed thoughts and feelings. Guilt for nearly killing her. Gratitude for all she'd done to stop HYDRA and advocate for his freedom. Envy for the life she'd gotten to build with Steve while he'd been a ghost.
"I don't think I've told you," Bucky began. "Thank you for, well, everything. For not locking me away forever or shipping me off to some asylum. For letting my stay here. And... for being here for Steve, all these years I couldn't be."
Peggy looked at him, expression gone soft. "Bucky," she said very seriously. "You don't have to thank me for any of that. I helped you because it was the right thing to do. Because you're a good man who was hurt very badly and made to do awful things against your will. And in regards to Steve," she grinned. "Well, loving him was no trouble at all."
Bucky huffed a laugh because Steve Rogers and "trouble" were practically synonymous. "You sure about that?"
She snorted, and it meant everything that she knew exactly what was so funny.
Weeks passed since Bucky came to live with him, and Steve still had yet to fully shake the feeling that he was living in a dream. Every time he saw Bucky descend the stairs in the morning, Steve would feel a jolt, still unable to believe that Bucky was alive and with him. And he was getting better each day. Tom had offered him a job at the barber shop, ringing the house a few days after they'd been there and telling Steve he was looking for someone to do a little cleaning and bookkeeping if "that young man you brought in the other day" could use some work.
So they'd quickly fallen into a routine — him, Bucky and Peggy. Each of them spending the day at work and then they were home together in the evenings. To Steve's delight (and occasional chagrin), Bucky and Peggy got on like a house on fire. For all the time she spent at work bossing everyone around, Peggy was not without gentleness and compassion, and it made Steve feel something soft inside to see that side of her with Bucky as she shared cigarettes with him in the evenings and always made a point to ask him how his day at Tom's had been. And Bucky was good for her too, never failing to be impressed when she told him stories about her adventures as an agent.
Steve's own relationship with Bucky was good, too, but his old feelings still kept gnawing at him. He loved every minute he spent with Bucky, treasured ever laugh he elicited, every smile he caused, but there was a pang of guilt that underlied everything. Because he wanted Bucky. Wanted to kiss him, wanted to be wrapped up in his arms. Wanted him in the way he'd missed so badly, in the way Bucky didn't seem to have any memory of.
And it didn't make him want Peggy any less. God, if anything, he'd never loved her more, after they'd both been tested so brutally and she'd shown nothing but heart and resilience. He wanted them both, needed them both. He had no idea how he'd lived without either of them. And that's why he couldn't dare act on what he felt for Bucky. He couldn't risk Peggy leaving him, couldn't risk Bucky rejecting him. The way things were now was more than he'd ever dared hope for and it would have to be enough.
For Steve's birthday, nearly four months after Bucky had been found, the three of them had a picnic dinner on the beach, with intent to stay and watch the Independence Day fireworks. They got there in the late afternoon, Bucky and Peggy immediately going in the water. Steve hung back, sitting on the beach blanket with his sketchbook. He'd finished the concept art for his new picture earlier that week. It was going to be a story about a princess who donned armor to rescue a knight who had been captured and put under a curse. Steve had never felt so inspired, ideas flowing like water as he created storyboard pages one after another. Howard had loved the concept, greenlighting the idea for production within minutes of their first meeting about it.
Now, though, rather than drawing fairytales, he sketched the scene before him: Peggy and Bucky standing together in the water. They were beautiful, both of them. Peggy wore a dark red swimsuit that hugged the curves of her body with devastating perfection, her hair was loose and windblown. Every inch of Bucky's muscled torso and arms were on display, his skin no longer sallow and pale after he'd spent the past few months in California sun. His metal arm glinted in the sunlight, the painted red star having been scraped off months ago.
Eventually, Bucky and Peggy cajoled him into putting his sketchbook away and joining them in the water. They swam for a while and then ate sandwiches as they dried. Peggy and Bucky had each brought books to read, and Steve was content to keep drawing them while they waited for the fireworks to start.
The show began shortly after dark, with a high-pitched whistle and then a bang as a purple firecracker sparked across the sky. Steve grinned like a child. He'd always loved fireworks. They made him think of his Ma, telling him when he was very young that they were special just for his birthday. They made him think of Bucky, sitting on the rooftops together, sharing Cokes and beers and secret kisses. The first time they kissed had been during 4th of July fireworks, when Steve was sixteen years old and the way he'd felt about Bucky had been more explosive than the lit up sky.
He glanced over at Bucky, expecting to see wonder and joy on his face. But Bucky's eyes were wide in terror, his lip trembling. Steve reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, but Bucky jerked away.
"Buck, hey, are you alright?"
Bucky nodded stiffly. His face slowly settled, but Steve wasn't convinced.
"Is it the noise? We can go if—"
"It's fine. I want to stay."
"Steve. Please. I just wanna watch the damn fireworks."
Something harsh in Bucky's tone made Steve leave it alone, but he still kept glancing at him every few minutes. Every time he looked over, though, Bucky was staring resolutely at the sky, lips pressed into a hard line.
They walked back to the house as soon as the show was done. Bucky said nothing the entire way, and Steve and Peggy exchanged worried looks, though they both knew better than to make Bucky talk when he didn't want to. He disappeared upstairs without a word as soon as they were home.
"He hasn't been upset like this in a while," Peggy observed.
"I'm going to check on him," Steve said, already moving up the stairs, a feeling of dread heavy in his throat. Bucky had been doing so well; he didn't know what could have upset him.
Steve knocked twice on Bucky's door, to no response. He called his name, but there was no answer. He was ready to turn away, not wanting to encroach on Bucky's clearly-stated request for space, when he heard a noise from inside the room. A sniffle. Steve could dredge up a lot of self-restraint when he wanted to, but there wasn't a force in the world that could make him turn away from Bucky when he was upset to the point of tears.
Steve opened the door, and Bucky was on the bed, lying on his back, tear marks on his face. In an instant, Steve was at his side, sitting down on the bed.
"Buck, hey, what's wrong?"
Bucky just shook his head wordlessly.
"Whatever it is, you can tell me. I just want to help. Please."
Bucky was silent for a long while, and Steve sat there, helpless as he watched the tears streaming down his cheeks. And then Bucky sat up slowly and said, in a barely audible whisper, "I remember us, Steve."
Steve swallowed hard. "When you say you remember 'us'..."
"We kissed for the first time watching fireworks on the roof." Bucky was still speaking in a whisper, not looking Steve in the eyes. "I remembered that tonight, and then all the rest just came back."
All the rest . All the years they'd loved each other, protected each other, sacrificed for each other. To get all of that back at once would be like getting hit by a truck; Steve didn't blame Bucky for his weeping. He didn't know what to say.
"We were supposed to be together! This was supposed to be our life!" Bucky, suddenly angry, gestured around them, at the bedroom inside this house that Steve had bought with Peggy. "HYDRA took it from us! They took everything!" The last word came out as a sob.
Steve blinked tears away in his own eyes. Because Bucky was right. They had promised to be with each other forever, "to the end of the line" had been the vow they'd whispered to each other in the dark. And Steve didn't regret the life he'd built when Bucky was gone, but he felt deep in his bones the sheer wrongness of the fact that Bucky had been gone at all.
"I can't do this," Bucky was saying. "I can't stay in this house."
That jolted Steve out of his own thoughts, and he reached out to grasp Bucky's arm. He couldn't lose Bucky again, he wouldn't survive it.
Bucky stilled at the contact and finally looked up to meet Steve's stare.
"Don't go," Steve said, uncaring for how desperate he sounded. "Please."
Bucky crumpled at that, his intense resolve draining away as he hunched over, face in his hands. Without a thought, Steve put his arms around him, drawing him in close so that Bucky's head was tucked against Steve's neck.
"It's gonna be alright," Steve said, trying to control the tremor in his own voice. Before he even knew what he was doing, he guided Bucky down so that they were lying side by side on the bed, Steve still holding him tight. He told him again, "It's gonna be alright."
They didn't say anything else, just clung to each other. Sometimes he and Bucky spoke better without words, and Steve was glad that way of communicating hadn't been lost. He could tell, from the way Bucky buried himself in the crook of his neck, that he was saying, I won’t go . And Steve said right back, with soothing hand running through his hair, We'll figure this out.
Steve had now idea how they would go forward, but he was certain of one thing: he would not lose Bucky Barnes for the second time.
They fell asleep like that, Bucky first, his quiet sobs slowly turning to the deep breaths of slumber. And Steve, unable to pry himself away, drifted off soon after.
He woke early the next morning, when the sun was just barely beginning to rise, and managed to separate himself from Bucky without waking him. His emotions no longer so raw, he was able to think more clearly about the situation. He had to talk to Peggy. He didn't know exactly what he was going to say to her or even what he really wanted to happen, but she deserved the whole truth.
He crossed the hallway into their bedroom, and Peggy stirred as soon as he walked in, sitting up. "Are you alright?" she asked.
Steve huffed out a humorless laugh. "I honestly have no idea how to answer that."
"I checked on you and Bucky before I went to bed," she said. "I saw you both asleep." There was an unspoken inquisition there, Steve knew. She'd seen him and Bucky curled together, and she was giving Steve this chance to explain.
Steve swallowed, heart pounding. He could lose Peggy forever, after he spoke his next words. But a marriage of lies and hiding would be far worse.
"Peggy, you should know, before the war, Bucky and I… we were lovers." It was a rush, to speak that truth aloud for the first time in his life. He barrelled on, "But you have to understand, that doesn't make my love for you any less real. I want to be with you, always, but I couldn't keep this from you."
Peggy, to Steve's surprise, remained very calm. "Steve," she said. "Do you understand that it's my job to read people, to figure out the things they won't ever say aloud? I knew what Bucky was to you from the moment you stepped foot in that cell the first day we had him."
"And you… aren't upset?"
"I never once doubted how you felt about me." She leaned closer to him, laying a hand on his cheek. "If there is anyone in this world who has a heart big enough to love two people, it's you."
Steve just blinked, dumbstruck. "I don't… I can't have you both."
The corner of Peggy's mouth twitched up. "Why not?"
Steve found he couldn't come up with a good answer. It was something he'd never dared allow himself to think about, a fantasy that would have been senseless to entertain. He had no idea how it could work, how he could be allowed to love both of them the way he wanted, the way they both deserved.
"I know what Bucky means to you, and it's obvious the way he feels about you. And he and I have grown very fond of each other these past few months. I think we could all be very happy."
Steve was still in a state of complete shock, feeling like he was in some kind of dream. "Are you serious?"
Peggy got out of bed and started making her way across the room. "Let's go talk to him."
Steve trailed after her into Bucky's bedroom, where he was curled up on the mattress, lying still but definitely awake. He sat up when they walked in, looking between them with a faintly panicked expression.
Steve went over to him and cupped his jaw. "She knows about us," Steve told him and then broke out into a grin, unable to control himself. "It's alright."
Bucky just stared at him, disbelieving, eyes flickering between him and Peggy. Steve could think of no other way to make him understand; he drew Bucky in close and kissed him for the first time in over a decade. Bucky leaned into the kiss, responding like no time had passed at all since the last time they'd done it. But then he broke away, still looking between Steve and Peggy with suspicion and confusion.
"I don't understand."
Peggy walked over to him, leaning in close. "I'm not going to make Steve choose between us," she said, and then pressed her lips to Bucky's. It was a gentle and brief gesture, but the sight of it had Steve dizzy.
Bucky blinked and then a slow smile came over his face. "You're serious?"
Peggy nodded and reached out to grasp both of their hands tight. "How about pancakes for breakfast? Bucky can cook."