Chapter 1: 2023
Watching Steve use the time stone was almost anticlimactic. His outline shimmered for a few seconds, just long enough for Bucky to swallow, and then suddenly Steve was streaming water onto the floor and holding the wadded-up dinghy in his arms instead of wearing it in a pack over his shoulder. Steve dropped the dinghy and shoved his hands under his armpits as a wave of cold poured off of him.
“Jesus, Steve, you stop for a swim while you were there? You’re soaking the rug.” Bucky pulled his sweatshirt over his head and tossed it to Steve, then went to the kitchen to grab a towel.
“You could say that. I had to drag him out of the plane. The landing was a little rough, but we got the boat inflated once he stopped trying to punch me. He wasn’t feeling very trusting.” Steve used Bucky’s sweatshirt to wipe his face and sponge some of the salt water out of his hair, leaving it sticking up in ridiculous crusty tufts. If Bucky hadn’t been so on edge he would have snapped a picture to send to Sam and Natasha. “It took us a while to get to shore. He’d calmed down by then. Enough to listen to what I had to say, at least.”
“Did he believe you?”
“I think so.” Steve dropped the sodden sweatshirt on the floor, then crouched to take off his boots. The damp leather was swollen tight and Steve’s stiff fingers kept slipping off the fastenings.
Bucky nudged Steve’s hands aside and started working on the buckles himself, Steve leaning forward until their foreheads were touching instead of doing something useful like taking off his soaked uniform. Bucky shouldn’t have encouraged that kind of behavior--they were still on the rug, which in retrospect had been terrible planning, and in the future any and all time travel experiments would happen in the tiled kitchen--but he couldn’t bring himself to pull away. Steve could use the warmth. “I guess we’ll never know for sure.”
“He’ll go after you anyway.” Steve said, his certainty unyielding as a clifface. “Even if it’s just a chance, he’ll go. And once he finds you, he’ll know the rest was true, too.”
Bucky pulled the second boot off and lined it up with the first one on the same patch of carpet that had already gotten soaked. No sense in letting the mess spread any more than it already had. “You think it’s going to work? Him hiding? Inconspicuous isn’t really your style, sweetheart.”
“He knows it’s for a good reason. Eventually the timelines will diverge enough that my intel won’t be useful anymore and it won’t matter, but before that he can use everything I gave him. And some things will stay the same.” Steve gave him a soft, meaningful look that Bucky refused to acknowledge. One of them had to hold the line on rampant sentimentality, and his little trip to the past had obviously disqualified Steve.
“Go take a shower, your lips are turning blue,” he said, and physically pushed Steve into the bathroom.
Once the water started running Bucky put his back against the wall and closed his eyes. Maybe this wouldn’t work. Maybe the new timeline Steve had just created would be too different. Maybe Bucky’s hazy memories of his first days of capture were wrong, maybe the coordinates were wrong and the rescue would fail, but maybe--maybe there was one universe where he wouldn’t have to fight his way back to himself.
Maybe in one timeline, he and Steve got a chance to go home after the war. That was worth something, even if thinking about it for too long made him feel like he was in a plane during take-off, his face too tight and his ears threatening to pop.
Bucky put his hand over his left shoulder, relieved when his palm met the slick vibranium surface. He’d just gotten the arm last week. Last week for him, five years ago for Steve. Bucky had gotten good at double-counting the years in his personal history. It was disorientingly familiar to wake up in a world that had leapfrogged past him, but he had thought he was done with stasis, done getting left behind. And God, Steve. It was Steve who had lived through years Bucky had missed, Steve who kept looking at the two sets of dishes stacked beside the sink and Bucky’s boots kicked off beside the door and Bucky’s hands wrapping a kitchen towel around the back of his neck like they were all part of the same miracle. Steve had lost him again, and Bucky hadn’t even known.
Bucky rapped his knuckles against his shoulder, the vibranium only transmitting the faintest whisper of force to the muscle and bone beneath. This was real. Whatever had happened in the past, whatever might happen in other timelines, Bucky hadn’t lost this version of himself. This version of Steve. He’d been planning to take the arm off as soon as Steve was done putting the stones back, but maybe he’d keep it on a little while longer. Just as a reminder.
The water shut off too fast. Bucky had put dry clothes on the edge of the sink, but Steve came out in just a towel, the clean clothes clutched in a damp hand. As soon as he saw Bucky in the hallway, his jaw relaxed.
Bucky tsked at him to cover for the sharp twist in his chest. “Are you trying to get hypothermia, or did you develop some kind of objection to pants while I was gone?”
“It was a hot shower, Buck.” Steve had the audacity to look amused as Bucky towed him over to the couch. Bucky pushed him onto the blanket waiting there and claimed the towel, pressing gently over Steve’s wet hair. Steve wrapped the blanket around himself, his bare knees peeping out from the bottom edge, heat-reddened skin thin over the bone.
“I notice you didn’t say anything about the pants.”
Bucky left the towel draped over Steve’s head and pulled his phone out of his pocket when it chimed with a new text from Natasha. She’d sent him a picture of Sam asleep, his legs sprawled over the shield on one end of the couch and his head in her lap on the other. Bucky snorted and tilted the screen so Steve could see.
Steve shook his head, mock scandalized. “Captain America for five minutes, and he’s already using the shield as a footrest.”
“I know for a fact you scrambled eggs in that thing.”
“That was to feed my team, Buck. It was my sworn duty as field commander.”
“It was a dare from Jones.”
“So it was two things,” Steve said, and ducked out of Bucky’s half-hearted noogie attempt, pulling the towel back to use as a defensive barrier. Bucky sat on the couch beside him and leaned into Steve’s shoulder. It was sharper than Bucky remembered; Steve had lost weight since last week. Since five years ago.
Tomorrow Bucky would buy cheese and protein shakes and peanut butter. He didn’t need to ask Steve how the years he’d missed had been, with Steve grieving half his new friends and all his old ones. The strain was written in the tendons that stood out too clearly on Steve’s thick wrists, and in how fast Steve had come out of the bathroom after his shower, his hair still soaked, in order to lay eyes on Bucky again.
“You think he’ll be okay?” Bucky asked. “The other you?”
“Of course he will. I left him with Peggy.”
“Is that supposed to reassure me? Putting you two together without me just increases the inevitable blast radius.”
“Well, they’ll pick you up again before too long.” Steve draped his arm over Bucky and pulled him closer. His neck smelled like unfamiliar shampoo and lingering remnants of ocean brine.
“I hope they make it.”
Steve ran his thumb over the join where Bucky’s shoulder gave way to metal, putting the lightest possible pressure on the tender skin along the seam. Bucky relaxed into the touch.
“I know it doesn’t change anything here,” Steve said, “but I had to do something.”
Bucky took a breath before he spoke, trying to get the words right. His past felt so distant now that he couldn’t share Steve’s urgency, but he could understand it, the desire to make a timeline where they didn’t have to try so hard to come back to each other. But he’d had enough of being remade. "I'm glad they have a shot, but I wouldn't change what we've got. Where we ended up isn't so bad."
"Yeah.” Bucky flicked his ear. “So quit worrying. And put some pants on, you’re a disgrace.”
Steve just raised the towel up to scrub over his hair some more, utterly shameless. “This is America’s ass, you know.”
“Oh, did they hold a national vote while I was gone?”
“US Weekly poll,” Steve said, and this time Bucky managed to get him into a headlock before Steve tipped them over sideways and flattened Bucky against the cushions.
Chapter 2: 1945 - onwards
Five times someone pretended not to recognize Steve Rogers, and one time they didn't bother
One - Colonel Phillips
Phillips stared down at the identification papers on the desk in front of him. They were impeccable, of course. Cleary Carter’s work. They authorized the transfer of an Australian intelligence analyst with security clearance at the highest levels, one more spy swept up in the SSR’s multinational net. Normally he wouldn’t have given the papers a second glance.
“Colonel Phillips?” Carter said. “Is everything in order?”
Phillips gave her a flat look. Then he transferred that look to the man standing at perfect attention to her left, his regulation posture and crisp uniform undermined somewhat by the enormous floppy cap that hid half his face and the monocle that covered his other eye. Phillips looked back to Carter with the air of a man who expects very little out of life, yet manages to be routinely disappointed. “You tell me, Agent Carter.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Carter said, absolutely straight-faced.
“I’m assuming there’s a reason for,” Phillips waved a hand at the man he was still refusing to acknowledge directly, “all this.”
“This agent has inside information about upcoming events that would be materially altered if the Valkyrie’s destruction hadn’t occurred and been widely publicized. Unfortunately, as we all know, Captain Rogers was lost in the crash.”
“Yes,” Phillips said dryly. “How tragic.”
“In order to preserve the integrity of this agent’s information, it’s imperative that the facts of public record remain public record.”
“Wonderful.” Phillips rubbed his temples, hoping to stave off a very familiar headache. “Is this how Australian intelligence works? Through prophecy?”
“Whatever wins the war, Colonel.”
Phillips had accepted more dubious tactics for lower potential returns before. He stamped the forms and handed them back to Carter, then jerked his chin at the man to her left. “He ever going to say anything?”
“Laryngitis,” the man said, with the worst Australian-by-way-of-Brooklyn accent Phillips had ever heard
“Get the hell out of my tent,” Phillips said, and didn’t look up from his papers until they were safely gone.
Two - The Howling Commandos
“It is I,” Rogers said. He had a monocle wedged under an eyebrow, a hat three sizes too big, and an enormous bushy mustache that was as convincingly life-like as a hand broom dipped in mustard. “Sergeant Sven.”
“Sergeant...Sven,” Jim said slowly. He glanced around the room, checking to see if he was hallucinating this whole apparition. Maybe the long-overdue shellshock was finally setting in. Whatever was going on, the other men were seeing it too. Dugan was openly gawping, Dernier was suffused with rapturous delight, Falsworth’s facing-superiors poker face was firmly in place, and Jones had a hand over his eyes.
“Yes.” After a moment’s consideration, Rogers amended it to, “Ja.”
“Ja?” Dernier echoed.
Rogers nodded decisively. “Ja.”
Jim and Falsworth exchanged looks. Carter had been the one to clue them into their Captain’s survival in the first place, and if she was in on this farce of a cover story it had to at least have a purpose, but hell if Jim knew what it was. When Carter had said Rogers was going under deep cover, Jim had pictured something a little more subtle.
In retrospect, he didn’t know where he’d gotten that assumption. This was Rogers.
“Okay,” Jones said, finally dropping his hand, although he was looking at the wall a foot to the left of Rogers instead of his face, the mustache repelling his gaze like a magnet. “Sergeant Sven. Right. You want to explain what you’re doing here?”
“I’m leading your unit on its next mission.”
Dugan raised his hand. “If you’re a sergeant now, don’t I have seniority?”
“I’ve outranked him this whole time,” Falsworth muttered. “You can imagine how far that’s gotten me.”
“The mission,” Rogers continued, “is of the utmost importance. A clandestine rescue mission for one Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes.”
The commandos went abruptly still, hunting dogs catching the scent. “Rescue?” Jim said sharply. “You don’t mean body retrieval?”
“Not retrieval. Rescue.” Jim recognized this kind of manic confidence in Rogers. It generally signalled that a high-value enemy target was about to explode. “He survived the fall, and he’s in enemy hands. We’re not leaving him there.”
The commandos exchanged looks. Maybe Rogers had finally gone off the deep end. Or maybe Rogers knew things he wasn’t telling. They’d run missions like that before, with only Rogers clued into the full story as a grim precaution against intelligence leaking if any of them were captured. Even when those missions had gone sideways, as their missions so often did, it was never because Rogers had failed to identify the right target, or to guard his men’s backs.
Only one option gave them a chance of getting Barnes back alive. It wasn’t a hard decision. Jim saw his own resolution mirrored in the eyes of the men around him.
“All right, Sergeant Sven,” Jim said. “What’s the plan?”
“We’re leaving at fourteen hundred, but there’s one thing I have to do first. Where’s Howard’s workshop these days?”
Three - Howard Stark
“By God, it’s true!” Stark, beaming wider than Monty had ever seen him smile for the cameras, rushed up to shake Rogers’ hand. Rogers smiled back and put an arm around his shoulders, using it to subtly steer him forward, away from the lab Dugan had rousted him from. Monty and the other men fell into formation around them, cutting them off from the rest of camp. He felt rather like a dog herding sheep. “I got your message, but I didn’t really believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. I should’ve known you’d be too damn stubborn to stay dead.”
“Mr. Stark, allow me to introduce you,” Monty said pointedly, “to this fine addition to our international coalition, one Sergeant Sven.”
“Oh, sure, Sergeant Sven.” Stark winked, then tried to shake Rogers’ hand again. This time Rogers put the handle of the suitcase he’d been carrying into it. Stark didn’t seem to notice. “Not to criticize your christening, but isn’t Sven a first name?”
“Sergeant Sven Svenson,” Monty said, not missing a beat. If there was anything working in this admirably unconventional unit had taught him, it was the art of doubling down. “Fine family name, wonderful how these little traditions carry through the generations.”
Stark slapped him on the back, which Monty suffered without protest. “This calls for a celebration! Drinks on me! I know where a French Colonel hides his brandy stash, we can all be drunk as lords by nightfall.”
Rogers shook his head. “Another time, Howard. You have a flight to catch.”
“What do you mean?” Stark looked down and finally seemed to notice the bag he was carrying. “Hey, isn’t this my suitcase? Is this all my stuff? Why’ve you--”
“Howard,” Rogers said, low-voiced and serious. “I need you to listen to me. I have a message for you. I can’t tell you how I got it, not yet, but it’s about the Manhattan Project.”
Stark stopped mid-word, his mouth hanging open for a long moment, then shot an anxious look around them and lowered his voice. “Ah, you’re really not supposed to know about that, old sport. I’m barely supposed to know about it. Who gave you this message?”
“Who gave it to me doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do about it. I was told to tell you this: if you don’t stop them, they’re going to use it.”
Stark blanched, stumbling so hard that Dernier had to grab his arm to steady him. Monty checked again for potential eavesdroppers, but they were almost to the airstrip, and the whining engine noise was enough to drown out sound beyond a dozen yards. “They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t, not now, we’re winning.”
“They would,” Rogers said, low and serious. “They will. You need to stop it. Howard, whatever you have to do, whatever it takes, you need to stop it.”
Stark stared at Rogers. For a moment he looked stricken, almost childlike, and then his jaw firmed. “Well, I’ll be damned. Then there’s no time to lose.”
“There’s a plane to Washington leaving in five minutes. They have orders to let you board. You can make it if you run.”
“Looks like I’m all packed.” Stark gathered his suitcase into his arms, turned on his heel, and ran flat-out for the waiting plane, the handle bouncing off his chin. “We’ll discuss this later!” he shouted over his shoulder, and Rogers raised a hand in acknowledgment.
“What in Christ’s name were you talking about?” Monty asked.
“I have absolutely no idea,” Rogers said, sounding as mystified as Monty felt. “But it sure seemed important.”
Jones shook his head. “Your weird shit just keeps getting weirder.”
“No use worrying about it now.” Rogers clapped his hands together and visibly refocused, already moving back into camp. “We’ve still got a rescue to plan. Onwards to vehicle requisition, boys. We need to head north.”
Four - Bucky
Bucky had been fantasizing about Steve rushing in to his rescue for days.
Well, why not? It had happened before. Sure, Steve probably thought Bucky was dead, but he had thought Bucky was dead last time, too, and he’d still jumped out of a plane and stormed an enemy base wearing his USO costume and carrying a wooden shield, like he was still a kid playing at being St. George with a mop handle and a trash can lid. Maybe he’d do it again. Maybe Bucky would hear a ruckus outside and the door to this glorified stormroom would burst open and Steve would be in the doorway. Maybe he’d be wearing the tights for old times’ sake. A man could hope, and it wasn’t like Bucky had anything else to keep him occupied while he waited for the Nazi-collaborating shitheads holding him to figure out what to do with him.
Bucky kept his eyes closed and let his mind drift. It was better than staring at the boxes of ammunition sharing shelf space with potatoes around him, the only notable feature of his insultingly amateurish prison. It wasn’t like he could get off the gurney they had him strapped to and go look out the window, all of two inches wide and barred besides. He flexed his toes up, then down, moving as much as the restraints let him, and let his imagination run the way his body couldn’t.
Steve in those tights. Even better, Steve in those tights and Peggy in that red dress. A few weeks back they’d all gotten a rare night of overlapping leave, but Peggy had gotten that same dress covered in mud and coal dust the week before on some classified mission that left her bright-eyed and satisfied for days after, so she hadn’t been able to wear it. Bucky had expressed his disappointment at length, until she’d wound her gauzy scarf around his neck and told him he’d just have to be the pretty one for the evening. Pegs always did know how to shut him up.
The Russians hadn’t bothered to shut him up. They’d shut him away instead, wheeling him into what had clearly been a pantry before the monastery got requisitioned by the military. They’d left him an IV drip, which was mighty hospitable of them, even if their intention was less to provide humane medical care to prisoners of war and more to keep him so loopy from the drugs he couldn’t plot an escape. None of them seemed to know what the fuck to do with him. Someone had bandaged what was left of his arm in between when he’d passed out in transit and woken up in captivity, so they didn’t want him dead, or at least they didn’t want it to be quick. That left plenty of other options.
Bucky turned his mind forcefully back to Peggy in the red dress. Steve in the tights. Then Peggy in the tights and Steve in the red dress. That would be a hell of a rescue party.
When he jerked back to awareness as the door to the storeroom caved in with a crash, he thought he was dreaming. A familiar broad-shouldered outline stood silhouetted against the door. It was an image straight out of his fantasies, until Steve rushed forward and the illusion burst.
Even in his wildest dreams, Bucky would never have put Steve in that atrocity of a disguise. There was an eyepatch covering one eye, which normally would make Bucky worry Steve had finally managed to inflict damage on himself that wouldn’t just heal up, but there was also a ragged scar very clearly made out of pine sap and stage putty streaking out from behind the eyepatch, all the way down to--
“What the hell is that?” Bucky blurted, staring transfixed at the straw-colored mustache that jutted out to either side of Steve’s nose. “Who are you supposed to be, Dread Pirate Rogers?”
“Bucky.” Steve pulled up short next to the gurney, his big hands hovering for a second as he took in the damage to Bucky’s arm. His teeth clenched so hard his jaw creaked. “Can you walk?”
“That’s not yours, is it?” Bucky asked, horrified at the idea that the serum might have sprung a late-breaking side-effect in the form of uncontrollable whiskers. “It can’t be. Remember when you tried growing a mustache to look older and it came in all spotty and ginger and people kept asking if you had ketchup on your lip?”
“People, he says.” Steve’s face had relaxed. He pulled out the IV, then yanked the buckles at Bucky’s ankles and wrist apart rather than undoing them, glancing at the doorway behind them as a distant explosion rocked the room. Dernier must be busy. “Like you weren’t the one pretending to wipe my face in front of Mrs. Huxley.”
“That’s what I get for being helpful.” Bucky pressed his lips together as Steve pulled him upright, one hand supporting his back and the other holding his right hand. The momentum nearly toppled him over. Steve gave him a swift evaluating look, then shouldered under Bucky’s right elbow and hoisted him into his arms.
“Undignified,” Bucky protested weakly, but the jostling and the removal of the IV had him newly aware of just how much pain was waiting for him beyond the haze of anaesthetics. He turned his face into Steve’s shoulder, hiding in his shirt, and focused on not passing out as Steve moved up the stairs and through a maze of corridors at a brisk trot.
“You with me, Buck?”
Bucky opened his eyes and blinked. Steve’s head was looming at the center of his vision, his fake scar peeling around the edges, with a blue sky behind him. The rest of the commandos were crowded together behind the blockade of Steve’s oversized shoulders. Okay, maybe he’d passed out a little. “Course I am.”
Steve didn’t look particularly convinced. He stepped aside enough to let Morita through. Bucky made faces but surrendered to Morita’s tender mercies, looking away as Morita unwrapped the bandages on his shoulder. He didn’t want to see how bad it was until they were holed up somewhere safer than a clearing in the woods.
“We’ve got a few miles to go before camp.” Steve opened one of his belt pockets and pulled out a syringe. “Give him this and I’ll keep carrying him.”
“What’s that?” Bucky asked. The syringe didn’t look like the normal emergency anaesthetics in their med kit, not even the special cocktail designed for Steve.
“Morphine. More or less.” Steve looked a little shifty about it, but Bucky was too busy breathing deep as Morita found an injection site to worry about it. A second later cool numbness spread out from his shoulder. Bucky felt tension drain out of his body as the pain cut out completely.
“Feels like more. Are you playing guinea pig for Stark’s chemistry lab leftovers again?”
“It’s not for me, it’s for you,” Steve said, which was alarmingly not a no.
Bucky would’ve yelled at him for it, but the world had gone pink and soft-edged and he couldn’t muster the necessary levels of outrage. Instead he reached out and covered Steve’s face with his hand, his thumb poking at the stiff whiskers until the edge started to peel up. “What’s with the get-up?”
“Bad news, Barnes,” Falsworth said solemnly, while Dum Dum and Dernier stood behind him with identical shit-eating grins. “Rogers boarded a plane full of Hydra bombs while you were gone, fist-fought the Red Skull, and crashed the plane into the ocean. He didn’t make it.”
“That so,” Bucky said. Steve leaned away from his hand and rubbed the back of his neck, projecting aw shucks in a way Bucky didn’t trust for a second.
“That’s the story. Sad. Isn’t it sad, Jones?”
“Tragic,” Jones said. “I shed a tear.”
“I shed three.” Morita carefully wrapped a fresh bandage around Bucky’s...arm. Shoulder. Whatever. The not-morphine had kicked in enough for Bucky not to worry about it, especially with Steve now sitting next to him and rubbing his back. “Everyone in camp was broken up about it. Isn’t that right, Sergeant Sven?”
“Ja,” Steve said. He was radiating warmth like a hot bath. Christ, Bucky would kill a Nazi with nothing but the one arm and his damn teeth for a hot bath.
“Ja?” Bucky echoed disbelievingly.
“Ja,” all the men chorused at once, before breaking into godawful hyena cackles. Bucky glared at them on general principle. Steve scratched sheepishly at the fake scar, little bits of putty crumbling off and onto his hand.
Bucky slid a hand over his eyes. “Why the mustache.”
“My face is kinda recognizable these days, Buck. Horsehair and candle wax was the best we could do on short notice.”
“Took us ages to run down a horse that would stand still long enough to be shaved,” Jones said solemnly. “It was a treacherous operation. Dum Dum still has the bite marks.”
“I’ll tell you the whole story later, okay?” Steve hoisted Bucky back up into his arms, careful of his new bandages, the other men looking on with suppressed glee. Bucky resigned himself to the commandos reenacting the Rescue of Maiden Barnes as soon as he was recovered enough to torment.
“Sure thing, Sven,” Bucky mumbled. Steve stank like a five-day march, and at that moment, it was the most comforting smell in the world. “Wake me up when it’s chowtime.”
“Will do. Go to sleep.”
Bucky couldn’t have disobeyed that order if he’d tried.
Thirteen hours later, in the middle of the night watch, sleeping birds around a hidden campsite were startled awake by an enraged cry of, “Wait a minute, that plane story was real?”
Five - the USO Girls
They might never have spotted him at all, if not for Grace and her habit of ogling men in uniform. It was Grace who shamelessly flirted with a handsome Private after the previous night’s show, climbed through their shared room’s window three hours after curfew, lost an earring in the town’s garden while on a “nighttime stroll” with said Private, and insisted that Maisie and Rose help her search for it before breakfast. It was fitting that it was also Grace who gasped and dragged Maisie and Rose to a halt when she saw the two men standing in the victory garden beside the town church, loitering amongst the cabbages.
“Maisie, Rose,” Grace breathed, “is that Steve?”
“Who?” Rose turned around and shrieked, her hands flying up to her mouth. The sound caught the attention of the two men, and as the blond man’s eyes widened Maisie felt recognition strike. “Oh, sweet fucking Christ. It is, it’s--”
“Beef Dodgers,” the man standing next to Steve cut in smoothly, stepping forward with a smile. “Friends of yours, Dodgers?”
Steve tried to answer, but Grace and Rose had already rushed forward and thrown their arms around him like he’d get away if they didn’t squeeze hard enough to crack ribs. Maisie wrestled with decorum a moment longer, then gave up and threw herself forward as well, hitting the pile with a thump. Steve didn’t rock back even one step. He’d always been reliably solid, which was a good quality in a man who needed to hold a girl up on a motorcycle without dropping her.
“Uh, yes, old friends,” Steve said. He was putting on some funny accent, but his broad hands patting gingerly over their backs were as careful as ever. He’d always been so mindful of his strength, aside from that one time he’d overslept and accidentally ripped the door right off his dressing room in his rush to make his cue. “I met them while they were on tour with the USO. Where I was working as. A stagehand.”
“What are you doing here?” Grace pulled back, wiping her eyes. Steve, looking vaguely haunted, offered her a handkerchief. “We thought you--”
Grace cut off abruptly as Maisie made vigorous neck-chopping motions.
“We heard about the accident,” Maisie said, widening her eyes meaningfully.
“Oh, yes,” Grace said. “The accident. Such a terrible, terrible accident.”
“We thought you were dead.” Maisie’s voice wobbled more than she wanted it to, and she glared at Steve to cover it. Rose, who still hadn’t let go of him, burrowed in tighter. It was only six weeks ago that Maisie had come down for breakfast and found the whole table silent, all the girls crowded around a newspaper with CAPTAIN AMERICA LOST AT SEA blasted over the front page in the biggest font the print shop had. Even the girls who’d never met him had cried, and they’d nearly run out of cake foundation trying to cover everyone’s red noses for the show that evening.
“You still owe me five dollars, you welching bastard,” Rose said, her voice muffled by Steve’s suit. It was a nice suit, but clearly borrowed, since Steve’s ankles and wrists poked out a few inches beyond the hems. The other man’s suit hung a little loose on his frame, and the left sleeve was rolled up and pinned with a garnet brooch. “You never paid up after the last poker night.”
“I’m sorry I worried you,” Steve said, looking all sincere about it. Impossible man. Maisie sniffed and thumped him on the chest, aiming high enough to avoid Rose’s head.
The man beside Steve was grinning at his obvious discomfort. “Aw, it takes more than a little accident to keep ol’ Dodgers down,” the man said. “Introduce me to your friends, Beef boy.”
Steve introduced the man beside him, after a visible hesitation, as James. Maisie saw Grace’s eyes widen and stepped on her foot before she could do something like ask if this was The James Buchanan Barnes who’d been in half the stories Steve told about growing up in Brooklyn. If Steve didn’t want his real name being said in public, there had to be a reason, and Maisie didn’t know how far the secrecy extended.
Steve gently detached Rose, who pulled back with better grace than Maisie had expected. Rose usually wasn’t what anyone would call biddable. “How’s Arty?”
“Well, he had to get a new act, of course, once you weren’t there to sock him one every night, but his new show’s a big hit. You know who he plays now?”
“Is that right?” Steve asked, elbowing a suddenly flushed James. James elbowed right back until they both froze at the sound of fabric seams creaking under strain.
“Oh, sure, Captain America and his squad are the highlight of the act,” Maisie said. “They got another man in to play Cap, Ronnie Litchfield. Sweet man, good with kids.”
“They had to sew padding into his shirt to get his chest and shoulders big enough,” Grace said indulgently, as if to imply this couldn’t be held against him.
“Oh, now this I must see,” said a woman emerging from between the hedges around the church. As soon as Steve and James saw her, they both got the same look of radiant happiness, with a helping of extra dopiness for Steve. She came up to stand in between them, a hand on each of their elbows, and kissed both of their cheeks before turning to Maisie with a look that meant business. “Do you happen to know when the next showing is?”
“Pegs,” Steve said.
“Tomorrow night,” Maisie said promptly, over Steve’s groan of protest.
“Thank you very much,” the woman said solemnly. “Now, I hate to interrupt, but I do have a meeting with the Colonel to attend after this. The curate is ready whenever we are.”
The curate was in fact hovering around the back of the church, squinting at the woman’s red dress in a slightly dismayed way, but she just aimed a brilliant smile at him until he cleared his throat and turned back to the church, a bit of a flush on his cheeks.
“Better get your face on, pal,” James said.
Steve nodded and pulled a pair of glasses out of his pocket. Not regular glasses, Maisie realized, but Groucho glasses, fake nose and mustache and all. Steve slipped them on like it was perfectly normal church attire.
“You’re lucky we found a nearsighted curate,” James said, sounding more fond than irritated.
“At least I can take these off after the service without half my lip coming with them.”
“You’ve gotta steam the adhesive off before you start pulling. Didn’t you learn any stage makeup while you were on tour with these ladies, Beef?”
“Beef?” the woman inquired.
“Long story,” Steve mumbled, and pushed the glasses further up his nose. “Everyone ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” James said, and offered his arm to the woman.
“So good to meet you,” the woman said, already turning towards the church.
“Nice to meet you, too.” The name Pegs clicked into place with half-remembered glimpses of Steve’s sketchbook just in time for Maisie to say, “And congratulations on your marriage, Miss Carter.”
“It’s Agent, dear,” Carter said, giving Maisie an approving look over her shoulder. “But I’ll be keeping the Carter. Stay in touch, won’t you?”
Steve ducked his head and gave them all one last smile, almost shy, before disappearing into the church.
“That’s Peggy Carter?” Rose hissed. “And she’s taken? God dammit.”
“Well,” Grace said doubtfully, “you probably have about five minutes before the curate’s done reading the vows.”
“Even for me, that would be fast work.” Rose sighed and turned back to the road, Maisie and Grace falling into step beside her. “At least this wasn’t a total waste.”
“It was good to see him again.” And it was good to make the acquaintance of Peggy Carter, who might know of a job or two after the war for an enterprising young woman who’d already carried messages for the SSR during her USO tours. A lot of people underestimated chorus girls, and it was amazing how many cans of microfiche could fit into a garter, once Maisie had spent an evening reinforcing the elastic.
“Sure,” Rose said, pulling a man’s wallet out of her sleeve. “But more importantly, I got my five dollars back.”
“Rose, you reprobate,” Maisie said, too close to laughter to be as severe as she would have liked. “Did you really pick his pockets? In front of a church?”
“A bet’s a bet.”
“If you say that wallet only has five dollars in it, I’m not going to believe you.”
“Two years of deferred interest,” Rose said, without betting an eyelash. “But hey, I was generous. I left him his watch, in honor of his wedding day.”
“Wait.” Maisie stopped short. “Which one of them do you suppose she was marrying?”
“You know,” Grace said, “that’s a very good question.”
Rose shrugged. “Does it matter?”
"Wasn't Steve her sweetheart?"
"Looked to me like they were both pretty sweet on her," Grace said.
What went unsaid, but understood all the same, was the knowledge that Steve’s sketchbooks on the road had held just as many portraits of a certain dark-haired man with a megawatt smile as they had of Peggy Carter’s pin curls. The USO girls prided themselves on being more worldly than the sheltered young ladies of the towns they passed through; they were theater folk. They knew true love when they saw it, no matter what manner of face it wore.
"Well, whoever the groom is,” Maisie said, stepping up between them and linking elbows, “I hope for their future children's sake the father’s name on the birth certificate won’t be Beef Dodgers."
+1 - Maria
Jim had asked to meet at their usual spot--or what had been their usual spot, before Jim moved to D.C. and Maria’s life was subsumed into the rhythms of raising a kid. The bar was familiar, although Maria hadn’t been in a while. It was close enough to the air base to draw in personnel, and Maria exchanged a few nods with coworkers as she scanned faces. Jim was already at the bar, sitting a little sideways so he could see the door, and he slid off his stool as she approached.
“Hey, Jim, good to see you.”
Jim returned her hug. “How’s Monica?”
“She’s good. How’s Tony?”
“He joining us tonight?”
Jim shook his head. “There’s someone else I want you to meet.”
Maria raised her eyebrows, but followed him into the back without further comment. It had been a while, both of them too busy with work to travel, but they’d stayed in touch, calling every week or two. This was the first time he’d ever called to arrange a same-day meeting. Whatever he had to discuss, it wasn’t going to be something they should talk about in front of the bar.
The table he was leading her to already had someone sitting at it, his back towards them and a baseball cap sitting low on his head. He stood up as they approached, offering a hand without fully turning to face the rest of the room.
“Maria, this is Steve.”
“Good to meet you.” The man shaking her hand looked older than Jim, with lines around his eyes and mouth and his blond hair shading gray, but his grip was firm. He seemed familiar, like an actor she’d seen on television a few times, or--
She blinked twice as recognition hit. It was pretty damn unlikely, but she’d seen impossible shit before, sometimes in the company of Jim Rhodes, and she’d always been good with faces. “And your last name is Rogers.”
He smiled at her a little, not taken aback at all. “Most people don’t catch on that fast.”
“Well, you came up a few times in flight school, sir. As an example of what not to do,” she added, and his smile widened. Jim snorted behind the hand covering his mouth, but he didn’t try to give her an Officer look, so she figured she was in the clear.
“I’m always happy to lead by example,” Rogers said, and waited until she pulled out a chair before resuming his own seat. The gesture, his posture, his accent all reminded her of men her father’s age, except that he hadn’t taken his hat off.
Captain America wasn’t exactly a secret, but he didn’t make many public appearances, either. He'd been explosively visible for a while after the war, with the shock reveal of his survival during the Congressional hearings about Operation Paperclip, and for a few decades he was in the headlines more often than he was out of them, but there hadn't been much press coverage lately. He was retired, or so Maria had heard.
His sudden appearance as a drinking buddy of Jim Rhodes indicated otherwise. Jim slid Marie a beer as soon as they sat down, his own glass half empty beside an unmarked manilla envelope. She eyed it mistrustfully.
“What’s this about, Captain?”
“It’s about Carol,” Jim said.
Maria gripped the edge of the table hard enough that she’d have lines on her palm later. Her first thought was that they’d found a body, but she had a half-melted dog tag to prove how impossible that was.
She and Jim had never talked about exactly what Maria had lost when Carol died; it kept both of them safer. Maria might have thought that bringing it up now was Jim’s way of warning her that something had come out, some eyewitness testimony of times when she and Carol had gotten a little too comfortable in public and let something slip, but Steve Rogers didn’t fit into any of those scenarios. “What about her?”
"I came into some valuable information early in life.” Rogers said the words with a measured slowness, not quite like they were rehearsed, but without any stumbling or false starts. “The older I got, the more the world changed, the less reliable it was. Most of it doesn't apply anymore. But seventeen hours ago, this woman was spotted in Los Angeles, and that tripped an alert I put into place some years ago."
Rogers slid a photo out of the folder and across the table. The bottom dropped out of Maria's stomach, the background noise in the room abruptly silenced as her ears started to ring.
"Is this--" She stopped. Looked at Jim, who looked back at her steadily, maybe a little concerned. It wasn't a joke. Jim wouldn't joke about this. "You think it's her?"
"I do," Jim said. He'd seen the photos on the fireplace mantle at her house, knew who Monica meant when she talked about missing Auntie Carol. "What do you think?"
Maria looked at Steve. "You said you had information. What happened?"
“If my information is correct, your friend isn’t dead. She never died.” He leaned forward intently, his hands framing the photo laid on the table between them. “The accident was real. She was hurt, and she lost some of her memories. She’s being manipulated by people who want to control her. But she’s alive, and you can help her come home.”
“Tell me how,” Maria said instantly. Her fingers were trembling, but that was a familiar part of the standard pre-flight adrenaline rush; if she touched the controls of a plane right now, she knew she’d be perfectly fine. Her body knew how to handle a mission. This was what she was made for.
Rogers pushed the folder forward. Jim drained the rest of his beer, set the empty glass by his elbows, and leaned in, all three of their heads drawing together at the center of the table. “Let’s make a plan.”
“Higher, further, faster,” Maria said, the surest prayer she knew, and opened the folder with steady hands.