2. A Handsome Young Couple

The next year was a rather eventful one for Peggy professionally at least. She went from loathing her job – being treated like a piece of pretty furniture rather than a useful, competent agent, to teaming up with Stark full time, working together piecing together the foundations for what they hoped would be a new and better future in Intelligence. It wasn’t easy, but she hated easy, she loved a challenge, heading to bed at night her head so full of ideas and plans, her body wrung out from exhaustion. It was appealing in more ways than just the workload, it kept her mind busy, which kept it from wandering, which thankfully put to rest – at least for a time – her grief and sadness. That she allowed now only in the late of the night, it crept in even when she willed it not to. But, for the most part she was able to compartmentalise her problems. The job came first, and once she had her priorities straight it was a brave or stupid man who would even dare deter her from her tasks.

For Bucky it was different, for a time after the war he had considered going back to the army, in some capacity, just to keep busy. But he looked at the uniform hanging in his closet, next to Steve’s and just couldn’t make himself do it. For the first few months it was a rootless, drunken stupor, as he moved out of Brooklyn as far away from their old haunts as he could and still be in New York, technically. He had taken up a job at a textile factory, one he knew he was lucky to get, considering the demand for jobs jumped as the men who managed to actually survive war had to contend just surviving life on the return. He knew he was what they called ‘shell shocked’, knew most of his men were too, no one came back from a war the same man after all. But his concern laid less with his mind and more what they did to his body. What Zola did, what exactly was in those injections and drips, what they did to him when he lost days of time, waking up for seconds only to be put under again? He battled with that daily and nightly more than the guilt of killing, less than the grief of losing Steve.

All in all his mind kept him too busy for his body to do much else other than barely survive.

Steve would be furious.

Seeing Agent Carter at the memorial was a surprise and not all at once. He had thought about her over the course of the year since he had last seen her, since he stormed out of that control room holding back sobs, unable to breathe, showing no concern for her or what a shock she had also just received. Hindsight left him feeling like an asshole, but at the time it was as if he had tunnel vision, and felt as though his heart was being ripped from his chest.

She hadn’t changed much in the year, not that he had expected her too. She was a little paler, her hair a little longer; noticeable absence of her trademark red lips too, now in their place a more natural shade of dusk rose.

She was still that frightening yet beautiful porcelain covered steel.

The discomfort he felt around her was still very real. He didn’t fear her because she was a strong woman capable of ending his existence with a mere look, no. He feared her because of the feelings she invoked within him, always had done.

She had seen Steve for who he really was, the first woman to actually do so, and he knew then that he never stood a chance with her in the picture. With her, Steve was able to have a real life, a normal life with no dark corners, no dirty little secrets.

And he was the ultimate dirty little secret.

And she knew that now, she knew – she had to have done – neither he nor Steve had cared about hiding their feelings in his last moments, regardless if it was only her or a hundred people in that room. It wouldn’t have changed his words in the end.

‘I love you, I need you, please don’t do this, please come home, Steve. Please.’

But she didn’t treat him like he was dirty or wrong, not then when she treated him with the same professional coldness reserved for anyone but Steve, and maybe Philips – their father daughter relationship had always amused him somewhat. But now, it was just them, and seeing her there knocked the breath out of his lungs for longer than he cared to admit.  They were two people who could not be more different in every way.

Every way except one, they both loved and mourned the one guy it seemed neither of them could live a full life without.

And that was something Bucky hadn’t had in a long time, someone with mutual life experience.

The next year passed in the same hazy blur as the one before, he got drunk too often, slept too late, ate too little and felt and looked like hell because of it, though the struggle to care was very real. He made the same trip as the year before,  this time taking a little more care with his clothes – clean and pressed for a change, and a few other things just in case.

She was there before him this year; his cab dropped him off not far from where she stood, but enough of a walk that he could silently admire her from afar.

Her long hair down in soft waves that blew in the wind slightly, it was a warm enough day but the breeze wasn’t unwelcome. She stood in a navy dress, stockings, and low heeled shoes in the same shade as her dress, he looked down at his suit and realised that they were accidently matching. He didn’t want to wear black, was sick of black suits and crisp white shirts, of what they represented – funerals, death. Instead he was in navy and a light blue shirt, no tie; he felt more at ease though walking up to stand beside her quickly threw that ease a mile away.

“Hi there.” He said, far enough away that he wouldn’t scare her, though; he figured it took a lot more than that to scare a woman like her.

She smiled as she turned, her eyes glassy, her hands still holding some pretty red roses.

“I was wondering if I would see you today, how are you?”

He shrugged. Taking note of the grave, the dozens and dozens of notes were here again, though less than before. That irked him, for some reason. But, instead of focusing on that, he laid the single white rose he had bought on a whim, stupid because Steve wasn’t even there. God only knew where Steve was.

“I’ve been okay, getting by. You?”

She nodded.

“Much the same, working mostly, avoiding life’s other responsibilities the rest of the time.”

She went on to explain she was working with and for Stark full time now, and that even though he tried her patience on her best days, he was still a thousand steps up from her old position.

He took a seat then, on the grass as he had done before, this time offering her a spot next to him, which surprisingly she took.

“Same old, though I have seen Dugan and Jones from time to time, just the usual shooting the shit with them –“he blushed – “Excuse me, I don’t mean to –“

“Barnes, really, you think I spent all those years surrounded by burly entitled men and managed to keep an innocent school girl’s vocabulary? I can swear it up with the best of them, don’t be fooled.”

He smiled at that, he was sure she could. He found himself wanting to see it in action.

“I’ll bet. You’re a real bad ass woman, Carter.”

She smirked then, flipping her hair to the side of her neck, and there it was again a waft of rose and lavender. It was beautiful.

“Yes, and don’t you forget it.”

“In that case, I think we should raise a toast.”

She looked confused for a second before he opened his coat to expose the quarter bottle of liquor stashed in his pocket, and on the other one two small glasses stacked.

She closed her eyes in exasperation and laughed.

“You brought glasses?”

He shrugged.

“Figured you were a lady after all,” she interrupted him with a scoffing laugh, but he continued, “and ladies drink proper and what not.”

She just rolled her eyes, not commenting on how he must have anticipated seeing here there that day. Instead, she took the glass and nodded for him to pour. He did, before he clinked glasses with her.

“To badass Dames,” She cocked a brow and he nodded.

“Ladies, women, females – May we know them, may we love them, and may we have the luck to see them run the world.”

She smiled at that before they drank the drab, before refilling and she watched Barnes spill some onto the ground.

“For Steve.”

She nodded.

“The fucking idiot,” He continued before he downed the drink in one. The drink burned the back of her throat but seemed to have zero effect on Barnes.

“You know he was such an easy drunk, not hard when you’re less than a hundred pounds and a lightweight to boot, but man.” He shook his head putting down the bottle “Three drinks in and he was out like a light.” He spoke, lost in thought with a sad smile, “More times than I can could count had to carry him back and dump him in his bed, but he never got sick though, probably too damn polite to throw up.”

Steve loved everyone when he was drunk, the bartender was his new best friend, the women of the night they’d pass on the way home were the most beautiful women he’d ever laid eyes on ‘what they do to earn their crust is not our business, Buck!’ he’d argue and he wasn’t wrong, and his Bucky… Well.

“It annoyed him to find out he could no longer get drunk, because of the serum, he said you would find that hilarious.”

He smiled then, just for a second.

“When I got back… seeing him changed it was a huge adjustment, you know? My …Steve all …well… different.” He stammered before pouring himself another drink, offering her another, which she allowed. “Had to make sure he was okay, that couldn’t have been easy, but he seemed fine, seemed good. Healthy for the first time in his damn life… I mean the height and the muscle and all the power was great, but one of the first things he said to me was ‘Buck, I can breathe.’ And that’s when I stopped being worried about what it did to him, whatever else he was able to breathe and walk and hear and see perfect, everything else was just…gravy.”

“He was so utterly convinced you were alive, that faith was something I hadn’t witnessed before … or since. He was prepared to walk all the way there just to see, on the slight off chance that you might be alive.” She shook her head with a smile, taking a small sip from her glass. “It was truly something.”

“Something idiotic.”

“No,” she chastised him with a look and her tone; he had the sense to look abashed. “He risked everything, not to mention his life, just on the off chance –“

“I know, believe me I know, I’m sorry I just… I know Steve was a damn hero. The problem was I knew it long before he got tall and was subjected to whatever the hell you people did to him. So, believe me when I say Miss Carter, that I know what Steve Rogers was capable of. It just …never mind.” He picked at some grass then, firing it to his left.

“It just wasn’t fair, I understand that. He was too young, too willing to do the right thing for everyone else but himself. But, had he not, we’d all be dust right now and I don’t know but for me that’s a comforting fact to hold on to. I miss him and the life we might have had … might have being the operative phrase mind you. But, I miss my friend and I know you do too, and that’s the bottom line.”

He looked at her then, eyebrows scrunched together in confusion.

“That all he was? A friend?”

For some reason his tone irked her. It was almost mocking her choice of words.

“He was as much my friend as he was yours.”

It was as if a switch flipped then, the tension between them tripling.

“Yeah,” He sounded out before taking a slug of his drink, “We’re both smart enough to know that’s a lie.” He sighed then before speaking. “I’m not drunk enough for this conversation.”

She looked onto the vast grounds before them, covered in death, and yet something beautiful and peaceful at the same time. He was helping himself to another top up, and he took discarded glass to do the same for her.

She was driving back to her hotel, she had to slow down.

“It is a conversation you should have, with someone, at some point.” She offered taking the glass and taking a sip this time.

“It won’t change nothin’ if I talk or keep my mouth shut. It’s better this way, for everyone. People don’t need to be knowin’ this.”

He had a point, what they were both implying was still very illegal and could end badly for him. She knew Barnes thought more of Steve’s reputation, even in death, than he thought for his own life. His concern and love for the other man was something she admired, whether she had the right to do so or not. After all, it wasn’t any of her business.

She stood then and he squinted up at her, the mid-afternoon sun in his eyes.

“Walk with me Barnes, I need air to fade some of this alcohol before I drive back to the hotel.” She held out her hand, nervous to touch him, nervous that he would reject her.

He didn’t.

Instead a large, warm and surprisingly soft hand took hers as she pulled him to his feet. He offered her his elbow and she smirked.

“As I said before Miss Carter, I was raised right.”

“Mmmhm,” She said with a smile, taking his offer as they left the memorial and their drinks behind them and began what would turn into a twenty minute stroll around the grounds. “It’s peaceful here.”

“Graveyards usually are people here aren’t so chatty you know what I mean?” He sassed, earning him a dig in the ribs.

“Very funny you.”

He just grinned down at her. Though he was shorter than Steve just by a little, he was still a very tall, handsome man in his own right. Something about his eyes they gave him away, beyond the cocky exterior; his eyes told a much more sombre tale. He was thinner in the face than he had been even the year before, dark circles under his eyes meant no sleep or proper hydration, and judging by how his suit hung on his frame, little care for proper nutrition either.

“And if they are it would be more terrifying than social.” He grinned again before they turned the corner, passing another, older couple on their way who nodded at them in way of passing.

“Such a handsome young couple, Pauline,” They heard the man comment, causing them both to look at the other awkwardly, and bust out laughing. Cautiously Peggy let go of his elbow, choosing instead to walk unaided. Bucky tried not to take it personally, after all, he wasn’t her type and being mistaken as such probably wasn’t what she wanted. As they rounded the corner again, this time at her car, their conversation about Stark and his newest crazy innovations came to a halt.

“Listen, I’m staying at the Beaux Arts Hamilton in the city, I …well if you wanted you could drop by for dinner.” She was flustered, and she hated that feeling. It wasn’t like it was a date or anything of the sort thank you very much, but still; all the same she felt the anxiety rise in her body. She could kill a man from twenty feet, in the dark and in the rain, but ask one out to dinner and she’s a mess.

Bloody hell.

He bit his bottom lip then, surpressing a smile.

“Oh I …”

“I mean only if you want. I hate eating alone, really so this is an entirely selfish invite.” She attempted to sound casual, because it was causal damnit.

“You sure know how to make a guy feel special, Carter.” And he was ribbing her, she knew it, so she just rolled her eyes as she hopped into her car.

“Oh please, your delicate sensibilities astound me, Barnes. Eat or don’t eat I don’t care; just know that I – a person who needs more than liquor to survive shall be eating at seven. Whether you decide to show or not.” With that she closed the car door and revved the engine to life.

She ignored the fact that she was blushing hot as she drove away. Because really it was just the walking and the sun. that’s all it was.

That’s absolutely all it was.

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