Scenes From A Marriage: Mailbag

by Speranza

Author's Note: This is the 4 Minute Window Advent calendar for 2018! As always, my goal is to tell a little bit of story each day (knock wood) between the Immaculate Conception and Christmas. Explicit eventually, the rest as it comes. This year's story features letters written, in world, to Captain America. If you want to write a letter to Cap, drop it in the comments or email me and I might use it (but no promises, because this is a terrifying tightwire act as it is.) Also feel free to request things you want to see and I'll see what I can do. Hope you enjoy: buckle up!

December 8

"Oh," Steve said.

Tony and Pepper were waiting to greet them. Tony was wearing an alert expression that Steve associated with breakthrough discoveries or alien invasions: a calm terror kept in check by curiosity. Pepper came forward, smiling warmly even though her eyes were tired; she was wearing a chic white pantsuit and heels despite the fact that she was visibly, noticeably pregnant. Tony met Steve's eyes and made a series of quick, frantic gestures, desperately trying to convey—what, exactly?—but stopping instantly when Pepper turned to him and extended her hand, which he took, squeezing gently and giving her a dutiful kiss on the cheek.

Steve suddenly felt a bit frantic himself. His heart was hammering, like Tony's panic was cont—

Bucky's voice cut through like a telephone call from another era. "Oh, hey," Bucky said wonderingly, in a tone Steve hadn't heard him use for years; since before the war maybe. "Congratulations." And then, almost as shockingly, he heard Natasha laughing, silvery and warm: Natasha smirked a lot, and sometimes smiled, but rarely she laughed out loud. "Oh, how wonderful," she said, and moved to hug Pepper, who hugged back. "How wonderful," Natasha said again, and looked from Pepper to Tony and back, "you must both be so pleased."

"Oh, we are," Pepper agreed, beaming happily.

"Oh yes: pleased, pleased, very pleased," Tony said, and then, pleadingly, "Rogers, can I—"

"When are you due?" Natasha asked Pepper.

"April," Pepper said. "So in about five—"

"Rogers," Tony said in a low, desperate voice. "I really need to—"

"—months, but Tony's going to need to talk to you before then," Pepper finished, now addressing herself entirely to Steve. "I'm not sure what's bothering him beyond the obvious, but he's been running around the house all morning like a demented squirrel. So if you wouldn't mind—"

"I am not a squirrel. I am nothing like a squirrel," but this was, sadly, unpersuasive.

"—talking to him before we sit down to the lovely Thanksgiving dinner our chef has made, I would personally appreciate it. Otherwise," Pepper added, with a quick, somewhat impish smile. "I'll be sure to put out a extra plate of nuts."

"You're hilarious," Tony told her.

"I think you oughta go talk to him," Bucky muttered.

"Uh," Steve said.

"Please, everyone, come in," Pepper was saying. "Coats in the cloakroom, and drinks are being served by the fire: cranberry champagne cocktails, hot toddies, mulled wine—oh, and a lovely apple cider with cinnamon, you should try it, it's delicious—"

"Buck," Steve gritted out. "I don't—"

Bucky looked sympathetic but shrugged. "You gotta," he said, just as Tony's hand closed on Steve's arm and Tony said, distractedly, to the room, "We'll all eat in a bit. There's a whole turkey thing. And a goose, I think. Yay!" and then he was pulling Steve out of the room.

They went upstairs to Tony's bar, and Tony pulled out yet another dusty bottle of Howard's good scotch and two glass tumblers. He uncorked the bottle—and then seemed to lose the thread of what he was doing, and put the bottle down, heavily, with a thud.

"So I'm freaking out." Tony seemed to be sweating, and dragged his wrist over his forehead. "Obviously. I mean, I do understand that I'm freaking out and maybe not so rational."

"Stipulated," Steve replied warily.

"Just—I wanted this so much but now that it's happening, I realize I'm doing exactly what my dad did. Literally. He found the best woman in the world, late , and had a kid, late , and was a terrible father—I mean, Jesus, am I just replicating the pattern?" Tony sat down, wobbling, on a bar stool. "I think I might just be replicating the pattern. I think—what do you think?"

Steve felt helpless. "I don't know," he said.

"I mean, you knew him. My dad. Howard. And let's face it, you know me about as well as anyone knows me, and you're not blinded by—you know. My charm. Money. Good looks. I've never met anyone as oblivious to money as you. Status symbols are totally wasted on you."

Steve, torn between saying, Thank you, and I'm sorry, said nothing.

"So if anyone's going to be honest with me about this—if anyone can be—it's you. I mean, fine." Tony grabbed the bottle and sloppily poured himself two fingers of scotch. "I know you're fifteen years younger than me, or fifty years older, whatever , but you—I mean, let's face it. You have it—you've just got that solid, fatherly..." Steve stared at him. "You know, the thing: the good dad thing," Tony said, and drank his scotch down. "What if I don't have the good dad thing?"

"I..." This was very possibly the worst conversation that Steve had ever had, including several that had ended with him being beaten up, and one where a bully had broken his arm. But he could see that Tony was suffering, and so he had to try to say something. "Tony, I don't know anything about being a father; I never even had a father. My father died before I was born," but at that Tony moaned and said, "Oh, man, see ? All the best people didn't even have fathers! You, Jesus," and it took Steve a second to realize that Tony wasn't cursing, he was listing: You. Jesus. "Fathers are toxic! I should have our child adopted and raised by lesbians. Do you think Pepper would object if I gave our child away to lesbians?"

"I...honestly don't think I can be helpful in this conversation," Steve said.

December 9

Steve returned to find more people had arrived. Natasha was now talking to Maria Hill in front of the fire, which was roaring in the huge glass and steel fireplace. Bruce was catching up with Clint, and Dr. Jane Foster was talking excitedly to Pepper while Thor stood beside her, sipping carefully and curiously at a long, elegant flute of cranberry-colored champagne.

Steve found Bucky and Sam in the gameroom, Bucky bent intensely over a large pinball machine that proclaimed A-V-E-N-G-E-R-S in glowing yellow letters. The machine flashed pink and red and purple and made loud, annoying sounds - clacks and dings and clangs and laser-fire - and occasionally shouted, "I AM IRON MAN," or "HULK ALWAYS ANGRY." Grinning, Steve came closer and saw that Captain America was at the center of the colorful mural that formed the machine's backglass, crouched forward and ready to fling his shield.

The number on the electronic scoreboard climbed and climbed and climbed: 159 million, 162 million, 166 million. "You're shitting me!" Sam exclaimed, as Bucky smirked and grimaced and twitched, not just hitting the buttons that controlled the flippers but occasionally bumping his right hip into the machine. "No way, Barnes! Where the hell does a fossil like you get off—"

"Must be—" The score rose to 175 million, 182 million, and then a siren went off, wailing, and the machine flashed BONUS BONUS BONUS! "—natural talent," Bucky finished, finally.

Sam shot a helpless look at Steve, who laughed. "We had pinball," Steve told Sam. "I mean, it wasn't as fancy as this, or as annoying , but the basic concept..." The machine let out another blast of noise—whoop whoop!—and a voice shouted, "FOR MIDGARD!" "Anyway, he used to play the machine in the back of Delaney's Bar, if he had the nickel to spare. They got rid of it after a while: Mrs. Delaney didn't like it," Steve explained. "Too much like gambling."

"Speaking of which," Bucky said, taking a breath and stepping away from the machine. The game was over, but it looked like he had the new high score: 216 million. Bucky put out his hand and Sam groaned and reached into his back pocket for his wallet. "Ten bucks."

"It's some trick you're playing with your metal fingers," Sam grumbled, but he paid up.

"You got here fast," Steve told Sam. "Didn't the mayor want you for a photo op?"

To his surprise, Sam laughed. "Oh, I'm guessing that you didn't watch the parade on the TV," Sam said, with a little shake of his head, and at Bucky and Steve's surprised faces, he went on, "because if you had , you would have heard the little speech I made at Herald Square. Calling out the mayor and the governor for their complete lack of initiative when it comes to veterans. Sorry not sorry, Cap," Sam told Steve, "but I'm playing hard with the good name you gave me."

Steve's grin was so wide that he couldn't speak right away, so Bucky got in first: "Are you kidding? Best way to keep the legacy going, causing as much damn trouble as possible."

"Mr. Roosevelt was great man," Steve said. "But after him..." He shrugged. "Politicians are politicians, Sam, and they'll want you to be their puppet and to hell with what's right."

Sam nodded. "Well, considering that you practically brought down the government a few years back," he said wryly, "I guess I'm still in the minor leagues where making trouble is—"

"Hey, where's—?" Tony darted his head in, and then seeing who was there, came inside. "Now here's a picture. Three Captains America all in one place. An Instagram moment if I ever saw one," and Steve suddenly thought of the child's letter in his pocket. Why had he assumed it was for him? Maybe it'd been meant for Bucky, or for Sam...

"Sorry, no photos, no photos," Sam said, raising a hand, as if Tony were paparazzi. He unhooked a pair of sunglasses from his breast pocket and flicked them onto his face with a practiced hand.

"Well, someone's getting a big head," Tony said. "I don't think we've got room for another ego around here."

"I'm out of my class all around," Bucky said. "I gotta tell you, Stark, this is some place you've got here," and Tony shot a smug look at Steve as if to say, see, some people appreciate my assets. Steve rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't mind having a tour if you don't mind me poking into things."

Stark glanced at the elaborate chronograph on his wrist, which probably contained the Iron Man suit and launched rocketships and made toast. "You've got time. Pepper's doing another set of Thanksgiving cocktails by the fire—cinnamon bourbon something—but you could take the long way round to get there. JARVIS'll guide you—or him," Tony jerked a thumb at Steve. "Mr. Useless--oh, wait, sorry, Captain Useless."

"I'm not, I just—" Steve sighed, his head hanging. "All right: no. No, okay? No, you should not give your child to lesbians, Tony, regardless of how--kind, and well equipped they would no doubt be."

"I'm sorry, what?" Bucky asked.

Tony tsked. "I don't think you've sufficiently considered the many and vast upsides of Plan: Lesbian," he told Steve.

"You don't want a piece of this," Sam told Bucky. "Pretend you're deaf. La. La."

"He's—I'm—" Steve said, and then he took a deep breath. "Let me show you around the Tower," he said to Bucky. "And then let's get a couple of those cinnamon-bourbon drinks."

"Hey, wait!" Tony Stark shouted after them, "Which of you freaks beat my high score?"

December 10

They went down to Tony's workshop, first. Steve hadn't planned to go inside—he was vaguely afraid of the workshop, and thought it would be plenty interesting just to peer into it through the glass wall—but when JARVIS opened the doors Bucky immediately went through, almost transfixed with interest. "Wow," Bucky said softly, staring at some piece of machinery on a lab table; Steve hadn't the faintest idea what it was, but Bucky seemed fascinated.

Steve caught motion out of the corner of his eye and turned; a large machine—an animal—an animal that was also a machine was loping over toward them slowly, silently. It was hesitant, but apparently curious—shy, Steve thought, stupidly: could a machine be shy?—like a cat or maybe a gazelle. Steve reached out and touched Bucky's arm, but Bucky already had eyes on it and was standing-stock still, watching it approach. Then Bucky surprised him by slowly raising his hand, his metal hand, and stretching it out toward the machine-animal, though he remained still otherwise. The machine animal seemed to consider this, then ambled forward, moving in fits and starts until it was right in front of them. It stopped there for a moment—looking at them, Steve thought, though it didn't have eyes exactly, just an array of yellow sensors. Then it took one final step and—pushed its head into Bucky's metal hand.

Bucky patted the machine-animal's head, and the thing emitted a quick-moving light: was it a scanner? The light flitted around for a moment and then vanished, and then the machine-animal let out a contented whirr very like a purr and began to wander away.

"He made something gentle," Bucky muttered, his voice surprisingly thick. "I mean, look at that thing," and Steve was about to say that Tony liked to make robotic things and had made any number of them—Dum-E, U, even JARVIS, for that matter—when Bucky surprised him by saying, "Can you imagine Howard making a thing like that?" and that stopped him, because no, he couldn't. Howard made a lot of things: nearly all of them had been weapons.

"C'mon," Steve said, and nudged Bucky with his elbow, "I'll show you the living quarters," and he took Bucky upstairs into the Avengers common room. Steve had always liked the wraparound terrace with its spectacular view of the city, and he went out to stand in the cold November air for a moment or two. He felt like he could see the ghost of himself, standing there, forlorn, overlooking the railing: looking out and wondering where Bucky Barnes was.

Now he knew; now Bucky was here, warm, at his side. Thanksgiving, indeed.

"It's a million dollar view," Bucky said, and Steve laughed and said, "Oh, more than that. It's billions, it's—unimaginable, Buck. It's all unimaginable, except here we are, you and me. C'mon," he said, the cold catching up with him, "I'll show you my old room," and Bucky laughed low and sweet and said, "Oh, is that a come-on?" That wasn't a remark Steve was gonna let slide, and once they were back inside, he turned, quick, and grabbed Bucky by the belt loops.

"May be," Steve said, and dragged Bucky close, by the hips. "Could be."

"They don't know how saucy you are," Bucky said, only half teasing.

"I think there's lots they don't know," Steve said honestly, and Bucky smiled and trailed his knuckles down Steve's bearded cheek.

"Show me your room," he said, but when they got there, Bucky took a quick look around and his expression grew somber. "This isn't a room, this is a whole apartment," Bucky said, taking in the leather sofa, the modern steel-sculptural coffee table, the glass and marble dining table. "You could live like a king in here. Jesus, trust me to rescue you from the lap of luxury—"

Steve gripped Bucky's arm, tight, fingers clawing. "Don't even joke about it," he said, and he was suddenly, deeply, furious. "Don't you even goddamned joke about it," and then he was gripping Bucky's hair and tugging his face close and kissing him hard, to make the point. "I'd live with you in a cardboard box, Buck," Steve gritted out. "In a paper bag. In—"

"Gentlemen," JARVIS said, and they skittered apart and looked up. "I have been asked to inform you that dinner will be served shortly," and Steve swallowed and said, "Okay, Jarvis; tell them we're coming right up."

The enormous round dining table was covered with red and gold cloths and set elaborately with more plates and forks and glasses than Steve knew what to do with. There seemed to be candles and flowers everywhere, enormous blossoms in fall colors. Pepper abided by the rule of etiquette that prohibited couples from sitting together, so she and Tony sat on opposite sides of the table. Bucky sat next to Tony while Steve sat between Pepper and Natasha, who was seated next to Clint—so either Pepper didn't know that Natasha and Clint were keeping company or (more likely) she was doing a little friendly matchmaking. Still, it was a small enough group that everyone could talk to everyone else with a little effort, at least once the giant cornucopia at the center of the table was removed.

"It's just a light snack," Tony said, unfurling his napkin and draping it across his lap.

Pepper smiled mischievously. "Nine Thanksgiving-themed courses," she confessed, "and Georges is an amazing cook, so you'll want to pace yourselves." Bucky shot a look across the table at Steve, who twitched his lips in response: hey, you're the one who said they were family. Though then again, he supposed that this—feeling vaguely uncomfortable and out of your depth—was the experience of family for most people. He remembered having felt awkward—a stranger, an orphan—sitting at the Barnes family table, once upon a time. Bucky'd helped him navigate that situation; now, Steve would keep an ear out and return the favor.

"So what d'ya think?" Tony asked Bucky, as a pleasant, conversational opener, and Steve waited to hear Bucky's impression of Stark Tower and its billion dollar views. But Bucky didn't answer the question that Steve thought Tony was asking him. He answered a different one.

"I think you should get a dog," Bucky told Tony. "A big dog."

Tony stared at him for a second, but he was a smart guy and it didn't take his brain long to jump onto the right track. "Uh-huh. That's your solution, is it? 'Get a dog?' Golly gee, how about we make soap box racecars and go down to the fishing hole on Sundays." Tony was hitting operatic heights of sarcasm. "Pepperidge Farm doesn't remember a fucking thing, buddy. This isn't an episode of Leave It To Beaver—I don't have a split level ranch with a yard for Spot to run around in. I've got ten floors over Grand Central filled with glass and technical equipment and dangerous chemicals. Half of them have open floor plans," and Tony waved a hand around the enormous room, which was full of steel and marble and glass and gold filigree and white brocade and the huge, open fireplace, and had only a thin steel railing to stop you falling three stories to the party space below. "A big dog would wreak havoc in here."

"Exactly," Bucky said. "Big dog'll make a mess, break everything, get into things—then you'll know what you need to fix up. He'll get into trouble, but at least it'll be him instead of the kid. Meanwhile your kid'll love him and it will force you to take them outside twice a day."

Tony stared at Bucky for what seemed like a very long time. Then: "Huh," Tony said.

December 11

"You seem a little distracted," Natasha said to Steve, and Steve, startled out of his distraction, said, "No, no, I'm good, everything's good," and then, without thinking, "Just I got this letter..." He saw that the letter was in his hand - CAPTAIN AMERICA. BROOKLYN, NEW YORK - and realized that he'd really wanted to tell Natasha about it. He wanted to know what she thought.

"What's...?"  She took the letter and stared at it. It bore no stamp and had no postmark, and had arrived. A line appeared between Natasha's eyebrows. "This came to the house?"

"To the garage, yeah," Steve said. "What do you think it means?"

"What does she think what means?" Tony asked.

"Steve got a letter addressed to Captain America," Bucky explained, and Natasha held it up so Tony could see the childishly scrawled envelope. "Written by some kid, by the looks of it."

Tony stretched out his hand. "Let me see that," he said, and Natasha passed the letter to Clint who passed it on until it reached Tony. Tony stared at it for a moment and whistled. "I think it means the guys at the Post Office have been chugging beers with the CIA," he said.

"Yeah, or maybe it's the other way around," Clint ventured. "Your neighborhood's pretty tightly knit,  and your neighbors sure know the score. Kid sends a letter to 'Brooklyn,' maybe your postman thinks, "I know what to do with that; gimme that and I'll make sure it gets to the right place."

"Or maybe the mailman didn't bring it," Bucky said. "Maybe it's just some local kid: heard the parents talking, whispers at school about the superhero who lives down the block..."

"Like he's Boo Radley!" Clint said, grinning and waggling his fingers. "Scaring the—"

"No, no, you're in the wrong story entirely," Pepper said, outraged as only an English major could be. "This isn't To Kill A Mockingbird, this is Miracle on 34th Street —"

Bucky smiled up at the ceiling. "Miracle on Coney Island Avenue, you mean."

"I guess I buy that," Natasha said. "The guys at the post office are bored—"

"We could've had the letter fingerprinted," Tony said. "If you'd only treated it properly."

"--and trying to decide what to do with this letter. They've already got Santa to deal with—"

"Now, of course, it's got fingerprints on it from half the Avengers," Maria Hill said, rolling her eyes. "We're going to have to destroy it for national security reasons."

"--and then some local guy, some guy plugged into the gossip in Steve's neighborhood, says, 'Hey, I know where to send this.'" Natasha looked at Bucky and said, "Does that hold water?"

"I think so," Bucky replied. "There's a big post office a couple of blocks away, on Newkirk. A letter addressed to 'Brooklyn' might have gotten that far."

Steve grunted. "Yeah, and after all the press we got last year—"

"Year before," Bucky murmured.

"--I bet the whole world knows we came back to Brooklyn, even if they don't know exactly where. You didn't even have to follow the story: it was in the headlines. Bucky Barnes Returns To Brooklyn , Our Brooklyn Boys Are Back—"

"Hell, the story broke in the Eagle," Bucky said. "Daily Eagle's a Brooklyn paper."

A new voice broke into the conversation. "What does the letter say?" Jane Foster asked.

"Pragmatism!" Tony Stark exclaimed. "Observation! The mark of a scientist!"  Tony handed the letter back to Bucky, who handed it to Clint, who passed it on: "It's your honor, Cap."

"Is it, though?" Steve asked, taking the letter back from Natasha. "How do we know it's for me, and not for Bucky or Sam...?"

"Man, I live in the Bronx," Sam said.

Bucky stared at Steve. "I'm a deadly international assassin who killed hundreds of people?"

"No, you're not," Steve said. "Not anymore," but he sliced open the envelope and withdrew the letter. It was on a piece of torn out notebook paper, and he read it, then laughed. Then he cleared his throat and read it aloud. It wasn't very long. "Dear Captain America, I would like some walkie-talkies for Christmas. I have been very good this year. Love, Alisa"

For a moment, nobody said anything.

"Well," Sam said finally, "I guess you'd better be getting your ass to Target."

December 12

When it was time to go home, JARVIS said, "May I call you a cab?" and Bucky and Steve exchanged glances before Bucky said, "Nah, we'll take the train." And so they went down in the elevator, down to the lobby and then down into Grand Central Station. Even today, on a holiday, the place was a familiar, reassuring madhouse: people rushing every which way without sparing them a glance: paying them no mind whatsoever. Steve felt it as a weight rolling off his shoulders: not just the anonymity of it, but the community of it: all of a sudden they were just two of eight million New Yorkers.

They walked through the Graybar passage--Fancy Donuts was gone, Steve noticed, replaced by a stand that sold juice - (juice?) - and went into the main concourse with its enormous arrivals and departure boards and blue canopy of constellations: Orion, Taurus, Gemini. Without talking, they stepped out of the flow of traffic, pausing to look up at the stars, necks craned, hands in their jacket pockets.

"I couldn't live in a glass box again," Bucky said finally. "Not even a fancy one."

"I couldn't either," Steve said, and together they moved off toward the subway.

"You ever close your eyes?" Bucky asked him once they'd snagged seats on the Q. "On the train?"

Steve reacted without thinking: "What, are you nuts? You'd get mugged!" and Bucky laughed and said, "You still think like a skinny kid. I don't mean then, I mean now. After."

"I still wouldn't close my eyes on the train," Steve told him.

"Well, when I was--" Bucky began, and then he stopped and rephrased. "Back when they had me. Right after they had me," and Steve's attention sharpened, because Bucky didn't like to talk about back then. "I was so confused, so roiled up and upset in myself. But one of the first things I did was--I came to New York and I got on the train and I felt better. I didn't even know why at first: it wasn't a memory, more like an instinct. All I knew was that for the first time in a long time I felt calm and sane, and then later I realized that if you close your eyes..." and here, Bucky closed his eyes and let his head rest against the back wall of the train, "it's one of the few things from our time that feels almost exactly the same."

Steve sat up a little, struck with the realization. "I did it, too," Steve said, "right after the ice and before--" The glass box. "Before SHIELD came to recruit me for the Avengers initiative. I rode the train..." He laughed, remembering. " Goldie's, actually; Goldie's Gym. Because it was there, and because I wanted to hit something. I went down to Coney, I went to where your old house was--"

"Your house is gone," Bucky said, matter of factly.

"--anywhere I thought might still actually still be there, and then Nick Fury came and... Well, it was cars after that. Cars and tanks and quinjets. They wanted me to have a car and when I said I didn't want one, they gave me a motorcycle. A nice one."

"With a tracker," Bucky said.

"With a tracker," Steve agreed.

"My arm had a tracker in it. Once. I think we're free men now but it pays to be vigilant. There are people out there who don't think that we're people at all, you and me. They think of us only as valuable weapons left in the field."

"You think..." Steve pulled out the letter from his pocket, unfolding it, "little Alisa's gonna turn us into Hydra or the CIA?" He stared at the cat sticker: meow.

"No," Bucky said smirking, "and more to the point, I don't think the mailman's going to, either. That's not the level of government operative I'm worried about."

"What if he's a plant?" The idea of their mailman spying on them seemed terrifyingly plausible.

"If he's a plant," Bucky said patiently, "no way would he participate in a scheme like this. Delivering letters to Captain America? He's not gonna let us know that he knows you're Captain America if he's trying to fly under the radar."

"Right, I guess," Steve sighed: he wanted to think the best of people, except people made that so goddamned difficult sometimes. The train was pulling into their station, and they got out and climbed the stairs and walked the quiet residential streets toward Coney Island Avenue. Most of the windows were lit up - people still celebrating Thanksgiving with their families - and a lot of people had begun to set up their Christmas decorations. Doorways and trees were festooned with strings of colored lights, and they passed at least one lit-up Santa and one lit up Frosty The Snowman.

When they turned onto Coney Island Avenue, things suddenly looked dismal: all the garage doors were down, and the windows were covered with metal shutters. "We could put up a few lights outside, couldn't we?" Steve asked Bucky, waving a hand toward Coney Island Design and Construction; at least its big yellow sign was cheerful. "Just to brighten the street up a bit."

"You want to decorate outside? You do?" Bucky asked skeptically. "Since when?"

"Since now," Steve said. "C'mon, it's a Brooklyn thing. Okay—" he said quickly, raising a hand to forestall Bucky's objection, "--I used to think it was a waste of electricity, but I have learned that people don't seem to care about electricity here in the future, or electricity is different or something. I think these lights don't use a lot of electricity."

Bucky unlocked the door. "You want lights, we'll get lights," he said, and as Steve stepped into the familiar cold of the garage, he felt a wave of gratitude: for Bucky, first and foremost, but also for the home they'd made together, and for the friends they'd just left, and for their loyal, solid neighbors, and even for the little girl who'd written him, who'd been kind enough to remind him that Captain America meant something.

And that probably would have been the end of it, except there were three more letters in the mail the next morning.

December 13

Dear Captain America,

My teacher says we have to write letters to Santa but I don't want to so I am writing to you instead. My Bubbe lives in Brooklyn too. If you know her maybe you could tell her to send me some of those Hatchimals Colleggtibles instead of socks for Hanukkah.

Very truly yours,

Lauren Weiner

Class: 2-201, Eleanor Perkins Elementary School

Dear Captain America,

My brother says that if we put my gecko in the freezer and let it freeze and then defrost it, it will be okay just like you were. I don't think this is true because we don't have any super seerum sirum to give the gecko. My brother says this does not matter.

It is my gecko I got for my birthday and not my brother's gecko. His gecko died.

Is he lying?

Yours truly,

Patrick Miller

Dear Captain America,

Hi, Merry Christmas! I liked your balloon in the Parade! I miss you and hope you are doing okay! Please say hello to Bucky for me!

Love, Cristen

December 14

It was a good thing, really, that the mail didn't come till about ten, because it meant that Steve got in a couple of hours in the studio before he discovered the new letters.

There were only a couple of hours of light in the morning, and sometimes a couple in the afternoon, if he was lucky, so he tried to take advantage of them when he was in a painting mood, which he was. He'd gotten up pretty close after sunrise, leaving Bucky with the pillow dragged up over his head, and gone down to feed the dogs. Then he went into the studio. He was playing with color, a bit; not really doing anything in particular, but just sort of experimenting with blues and greens. He felt like maybe something new was coming, but he wasn't sure what it was yet.

After a while Steve wiped his hands on the cloth and stepped back, satisfied; the colors felt like trees, they felt like warm water, they felt like something alive, anyway. He went back across the landing, put up coffee, and got himself a bowl of cornflakes. The smell of the coffee brought Bucky out, blinking, in his t-shirt and boxer shorts. His hair was flat on one side. Bucky was an early riser when they were working, but on the days they had off, he liked to burrow deep and sleep in.

"Morning," Bucky said. "You've got paint in your beard."

Steve grinned. "Occupational hazard," he replied. "What do you want to do today, lazybones?"

Bucky poured a cup of coffee for himself and sat down at the table. "You want to take a drive?" he asked. "I heard about a junkyard upstate; we could go see what people are throwing away."

"Well, you know I love a junkyard," Steve said, and got up. "Just let me wash up, first."

Bucky looked around vaguely. "Did you bring the paper in?"

Steve did an about face; he was dressed and Bucky wasn't. "I'll go bring up the paper," and he went downstairs to get the newspaper and also the mail, where he found two bills, a check, the first Christmas card of the season--and three more letters. Captain America. Brooklyn. New York.

"Well, I gotta say, I'm seriously worried about that lizard," Bucky said, leaning to read over Steve's shoulder. Steve had opened all three letters and spread them out on the kitchen table.

"Yeah," Steve said absently; in fact, it wasn't the lizard that worried him, "but what can we do? They're not real letters, there's no return address--they're just kids." He laughed, realizing. "Even worse, they're modern kids. They email and text: what do they know about letters?"

"Nothing," Bucky said. "Damn things aren't even stamped." He stood, stretched, and muttered, "I'm going to get dressed. Send Cristen my kind regards."

Steve smirked. "Will do," he said, joking, but then it occurred to him that he probably could do that. Lauren Weiner was more on the ball than the other two kids; she'd signed not only with her name, but with her school's name: Eleanor Perkins. And the other two kids sounded like they were maybe about the same age; could they all be in the same class? Steve frowned, went over to his desk and pulled out his laptop. Eleanor Perkins Elementary School was in Indianapolis, and, it was, as he'd suspected, a public school. Steve frowned, noted the address, then did a little more googling. Then he brought up a clean document in his writing program.

Miss Lauren Weiner

c/o The Eleanor Perkins Elementary School 5510 Stonebridge Avenue Indianapolis, IN 46001

Dear Miss Weiner,

While your school seems good in many respects, you should tell your teacher that it is not appropriate for her to ask you to write a letter to Santa in a public school. Good for you for not doing it! When I was a boy, there was a fight over whether or not you had to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and people also argued about whether children should study the Bible and if so, which Bible, since Catholics and Protestants used different Bibles, and obviously there is a Hebrew Bible, too. In my day, people like John Dewey fought hard to teach all public school students about the importance of democracy and participating in society no matter where they came from or what their religion was.

I am sorry to say that I do not know your grandmother and I bet there are many hundreds of Weiners in New York City. However, I am sure that your grandmother knows best in any case and you should remember that you are very, very lucky indeed to have your grandmother. Happy Hanukkah!


Steve Rogers

He stared at his name for a moment and then hit the delete key, and retyped:


Captain America

The other two letters went faster:

Master Patrick Miller

c/o The Eleanor Perkins Elementary School, 5510 Stonebridge Avenue, Indianapolis, IN. 46001

Dear Patrick,

I'm sorry to say that your brother is lying to you. You should not put any living thing into a freezer ever. Also I would keep a very close eye on your gecko and not leave him unsupervised if you can help it.


Captain America

Miss Cristen (Last Name Withheld)

c/o The Eleanor Perkins Elementary School, 5510 Stonebridge Avenue, Indianapolis, IN. 46001

Dear Cristen,

I am glad you like the Captain America balloon. Sam Wilson is Captain America now and he is doing a very good job. As for me, I have been in the army for a long time and I am enjoying being a civilian again. Bucky sends his regards.


Captain America

Satisfied, Steve shut the lid of the laptop and went to wash up.

December 15

When they were ready to go, Steve headed instinctively for the Studebaker only to stop short as Bucky headed for the driver's side of the dirty white CIDC van.

"You looking for something in particular?" Steve asked, lifting his eyebrows.

Bucky's face was carefully noncommittal. "I'm optimistic," he said. "Besides, I need a project."

The day was cold and clear and they took the Brooklyn Bridge into the city and then headed up the west side highway to parts north, following the curve of the Hudson River. After a while they headed into the Bronx, and then they took the Bear Mountain Bridge across the river and headed west, away from the rich people in the Hudson Valley and through some of the amazing mountains and parks to some of the smaller towns in the Western part of the state. Steve leaned back in the passenger seat of the van and stared at the snow-capped mountain tops and their reflections in the clear lakes they passed. After a while, they came to a single lane road that led down out of the mountain and into a town, Wurtzfield, population 893, said the sign.

The town was basically a single road with a gas station and a church and a liquor store and a veterinarian, and beyond that down the road, a big old barn with junk piled outside. Bucky drove the truck onto the gravel drive and pulled up by the doors. They got out of the van and a lanky guy in a baseball cap came to meet them. "James Buchanan?" he asked, looking from Steve to Bucky, and Steve shot Bucky a meaningful glance: busted. Bucky had been sourcing something.

"Me," Bucky admitted, and extended his gloved hand. "This is my partner, Steve."

"How're you doin', Steve," the man said. "I'm Jeff," and then, "Come in and have a look."

"Show us what you got," Bucky said. They followed Jeff into the barn, which was piled high with--well, everything in God's creation. Sofas, tables, chairs, battered old bookcases, desks, lamps, appliances, dishes and glassware, a whole pile of typewriters, everything you could imagine, crammed in together like the end of Citizen Kane. One wall was hung top to bottom with art - Steve found himself drawn to look - all of it bad. Sailboats, mostly. Terrible landscapes. Deer.

Bucky was looking at some old furniture up near the front. "Yeah, we just got a load of stuff in," Jeff said, lifting his baseball hat and scratching his head; he was bald underneath. "We cleaned out a big old house on the other side of town, top to bottom; they're knocking it down now that the old guy who lived there is dead, 95 he was, God rest his soul. Gonna build an assisted living facility, I think," but Steve could see that Bucky was only half listening; he was looking at a couple of tall bookcases. Then he got to his knees to look at the carved legs of a battered dining table. Steve came nearer and saw a trunk whose black paint was peeling - except that he was pretty sure there was a wooden 19th century dome steamer trunk underneath. Beside it was an old leather club chair with a split back. A filthy old wooden plant box.

Finally, Bucky hauled himself up to his feet. "What else you got?" he asked, and Jeff took them deeper inside, showed them some dark 19th century Italian stuff that Steve knew wasn't Bucky's taste at all, and then some furniture in a style that Steve had learned was called "mid century modern," which was a style he was personally glad to have missed. He thought it was ugly.

"Well," Bucky said finally, "I'd be interested in some of this stuff, I think. How do you sell it, piece by piece or by lot?"

Jeff leaned back on his heels. "Well, that all depends," he said, and the haggling began. Steve took himself away for this part: he had no poker face at all, and didn't want to queer the pitch for Bucky. His attention was caught by a brass floor lamp; it needed rewiring and a little elbow grease, but it would be a nice thing to have beside the sofa in the living room, he thought. The antique shade was in good condition and had a design of laurel leaves and American eagles.

"Hey, Steve!" Bucky yelled finally, and Steve went back across the barn, taking the lamp with him. "We're close to closing the deal, I think - anything particular you're interested in?"

"What're you getting?" Steve asked, and he managed keep his face neutral when Bucky told him that he was buying the whole of the old man's lot, including the bookcases, the plant box and the old chair; smart. Bucky'd managed not to draw Jeff's attention to the things he actually wanted.

"How much for this lamp?" Steve asked, dragging it forward.

"I'll throw in the lamp," Jeff said, and he and Bucky shook hands on it.

It took more than an hour to load all the stuff into their van; they had to take the old table apart, and take the legs off the chair, and still they barely fit everything in. "Nice doing business with you," Bucky said finally, shaking Jeff's hand, and then he pulled out a business card. "Anything with solid planks, oak, walnut, I'm probably interested," Bucky told Jeff, and then they got back into the van and headed back toward the city. They had to drive slow now; they were a lot heavier.

"Want me to use the Google to find a dump?" Steve asked, grinning, once they were on the road.

Bucky cut a quick glance toward Steve across the cab of the van and grinned back. "If we're passing one," he said, and Steve pulled out his phone. He found a dump on the west side of Bear Mountain, and they made a quick detour. "The chair goes for sure," Bucky said, hauling it out and throwing it onto the garbage heap. "But I'm torn about the bookcases - the wood's not bad."

"Gotta store it, though," Steve objected, and Bucky sighed, and agreed: so out came the bookcase. "Okay, what else? I can't wait to work on that trunk," Steve said, catching sight of it at the back of the van. "I'll have to strip off the paint, but if it's what I think, it'll refinish a treat."

"Work on it later," Bucky said. "I'm going to need your help with the--hey, wait, whoa!" he shouted, as Steve roughly grabbed the old plant box; he'd assumed they were tossing that, too." "Not that!"

Steve stopped immediately. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't realize you wanted the planter."

"It's not a planter. At least I don't think it is," Bucky said, and then they slammed the back doors and hit the road.

December 16

Dear Captain America,

My mom actually told me to write a letter to Santa about what I want for Christmas—but I'd much rather write to you. You had all kinds of trouble getting people to take you seriously back when you were just skinny little Steve Rogers, and my history teacher says you were always getting into fights, but what I want for Christmas is know how you figured out how to be yourself, like JUST YOU, when everyone around you was telling you to give up and just be sick and stay home and not fight. How did you keep standing up to EVERYONE laughing at you trying to be something different than what they thought you should be? How did you know they were wrong and you were right and not just a dumb kid?


Frankie DelCiccio

~ ~ ~

Dear Frankie,

I wish I had a more inspiring answer for you but the truth is that I just never really paid other people much mind. When I was a boy it was just me and my mother, Sarah Rogers, and she was a fantastically brave woman. She told me to just go about my business and not spend too much time worrying about what other people were doing or thinking. Life, you will find, is pretty hard, and at the end of the day, there are really only two kinds of people: those who will help you, and everyone else. If you get one or two good people on your side, that's a lot and you are lucky. Don't let people sap your energy because you're going to need it for the real fights and the hard things. My Ma used to say that it paid to pretend to be a little blind and a little deaf. It's good to be a little oblivious, in my opinion.


Captain America

Dear Captain America,

If you go to the White House and punch President Drumft in the nose, can you still be Captain America or do you have to resign because you punched a president?

I want you to always be Captain America! But I also want someone to punch President Drumft in the nose.


~ ~ ~

Dear Rosie,

I agree these are troubling times. But America has had troubling times before, and it is important to remember that this country has had many (many, many) terrible presidents. I was lucky enough to have served under Mr. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he was one of the best presidents America has ever had, but I also lived under both Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover, and that was no picnic, let me tell you. Also I know from history that most of the presidents of the last century—or rather, the 19th century—aside from Mr. Lincoln were nothing to be proud of. There's a reason no one today celebrates John Tyler or Andrew Johnson. The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice—which nowadays people attribute to Dr. Martin Luther King but which was taught to me in school as the words of Reverend Theodore Parker, an abolitionist. In that same speech, Reverend Parker went on to say that "Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble." Let's hope he is right!


Captain America

Dear Captain America,

You are a big part of what inspired me to join the Army. Thank you for all that you do.

1LT Hurwitt

~ ~ ~

Dear Lieutenant Hurwitt,

I am glad that I had a part in your decision to join the armed forces. I know you will understand me when I say that I really had no idea what I was getting into, but I have come to think that that is the case with most of the really important decisions that we make in our lives. At the time it seemed very important that the country stand together and express unity. I very much wanted to serve and—

Steve glanced up at the sound of Bucky's tread on the stairs. The door to their apartment opened and Bucky came in in his wool coat and said, "Back. I went to the hardware store."

"Mm-hmm," Steve said.

— very much wanted to serve, never of course expecting that—"

"I bought, like, seventeen kinds of sandpaper," Bucky said as he shrugged out of his coat. "And four different stains: you're going to have to tell me which one looks right. Also they had a sale on bolts, and I ended up buying—I don't know, too many bolts. I couldn't help it."

"It's a benevolent vice in a man," Steve said absently, and then Bucky was coming over and saying, "What are you—more letters? You're not actually answering those letters, are you?"

"A couple," Steve hedged. "One or two. Here, this one's for you," he said, handing it over.

"Okay," Bucky said, after glancing at it, "we're going to have to figure out what the fuck is going on here. Meanwhile, you don't have time for this—I need you downstairs. I've got that table out back soaking in stripper but now I need you to come and help me clean it and—"

"Yeah, okay, okay, okay, okay," Steve said, shutting the laptop. "I'm coming. Right now."

December 17

Bucky was right, of course—he didn't have time to answer these letters, not if they were going to get Nat's table done in time for Christmas—but it was hard not to think about them once you'd read them. All those people: why were they writing to him? What on earth did they think he of all people could offer them? Steve felt, not for the first time, completely out of his depth.

Dear Captain America,

My name is Steven. I was named after my grandfather and my Dad. My Dad says they were both named after you. He says that's a lot to live up to. I remember when you got in trouble because of your friend Bucky. My Dad says you were a good friend and he is still proud of being named for you. He says sometimes good men do bad things, but they start doing good things again as soon as they can. He says your friend is doing good things now and we shouldn't hold anything against him. So I'm writing you because I have a friend who's always in trouble too. He gets in trouble in school because he can't hold still or be quiet, and because he gets mad all the time and then he fights. I'm trying to help him but so far no luck.

My Dad says you helped your friend. Can you tell me how you did it? Maybe you can tell me something that will help me to help my friend. He wants to be a good guy.

Thank you

Steven Martin

Dear Captain Rogers:

I'm Steven's father, and I helped him with his letter. I don't have any details about his friend's problem, beyond what Steven has said. I agree with him; Stevie and his friend are both good guys.

I am in fact named for you: my grandfather served in WWII; he didn't know you personally nor did any of your missions affect him directly, nothing so dramatic. But he always spoke of you as a symbol of what was best in Americans, and a giver of hope in a very dark time. So he gave your name to his son, who passed it on to me. I like to think that Stevie is named for all of us, carrying on that legacy.

I know there are probably many demands on your time; but if you could find a moment to send a word to Stevie it would mean a lot to him, and give him some encouragement in his efforts to help his friend.


Steven James Martin

Steve got up, leaving the letter in the circle of light made by the desk lamp; he couldn't answer that, how the hell was he going to answer that? Across the dark living room, Bucky was sprawled on the sofa, watching a movie with Humphrey Bogart and— "That's not Veronica Lake, is it?" Steve asked, collapsing onto the couch cushions next to him. "No," Bucky said; the reflected light from the screen lit up his face. "She's called Lauren Bacall. Hot stuff," and Steve settled back against him and put his feet up on the coffee table. The movie was a good one, with Bogart playing a detective called Philip Marlowe and— "Hey," Steve said, frowning, "is that the same Philip Marlowe who—?" "Shh," Bucky said. "I'm trying to watch the picture."

By the time the credits rolled, they were all tangled up together on the sofa, arms around each other, warm and snug. "That was really great," Steve said admiringly, then twisted his neck to look over at Bucky. "What's wrong with you?" he said, doing his best Bogart.

"Nothing you can't fix," Bucky murmured low and sultry, doing Bacall, and Steve grinned and shoved him onto his back and rolled on top of him before kissing him hard, which was mainly a joke until it wasn't; after a while he could feel Bucky getting hard underneath him, and he began to squirm a little without breaking the kiss, trying to get his hand into Bucky's pants. He didn't quite manage it, but he got himself a good palmful of denim and cotton and hardness and, working it, felt Bucky moan. Then Bucky's hands slid down his back, gripped his ass and...

"I just had a vivid memory," Bucky panted up at him, a little breathless, "of you, back when you were skinny, wandering around our old place bare-ass naked with just your shirt-tails hanging down," and Steve smiled; he remembered that too, wearing nothing but his shirt and climbing onto Bucky's lap to flirt and tease. When he was short, a shirt came down his bare legs just enough to be almost—very nearly—decent. Not that he'd wanted to be decent. Not with Bucky. Not then and not now.

"That's a memory that we can recreate right here, you and me," Steve said, and then he was scrambling back and grabbing Bucky's hand and hauling him up off the sofa—and into his arms, yanking him close and kissing him, one arm curving around his neck and goddamn if Bucky wasn't going to get himself a little beard burn, but that wasn't the worst thing. And Bucky wasn't complaining, just slid his own arm around Steve's waist and anchored like that they spun around once, twice, before hitting the doorframe to their bedroom and then rebounding off it toward the bed. Then it was a race to shuck clothes—their own and each other's. Bucky pushed him down and straddled him. He slid down and stroked Steve's pale, hairy thighs till he gasped and trembled, then gripped his cock greedily, running his hands over it, bringing it to his mouth, dragging it across his lips, cheek, face, ignoring how Steve was sucking for breath, how he was whining, begging for it, Christ.

Later, Steve woke up, loose-limbed but sticky with come and needing to pee. He silently slid out of their warm bed, and saw, as he crossed to the bathroom, that he'd left on the desk light. He took a piss and washed up, and on the way back, went to hit the switch. Except...he suddenly knew what he wanted to say to young Steven and his father. Steve sat down, pulled a pen out of the pencil cup, and began to write:

Dear Mr. Steven James Martin and Master Steve Martin,

I'm not an expert in kids, or psychology, or ethics, or any of it. But I can tell you this: sometimes the difference between making it and not making it is one person who just decides that they're going to hang on to you come what may. Who refuses to let go. Sometimes you just have to decide that a person is your friend and you will be there for them as best you can, no matter what. Bucky held onto me at a time when I had nobody else: I was one hand-hold away from slipping down the drain to nowhere. Back then he knew lots of people and I didn't know anybody. Then, after we came back, I'm the one who knew people and he didn't know anybody. But I'm his person and that's that. I'm going to hold onto him for dear life for the rest of my life, because that's just how it is, for us.


Steven Grant Rogers

December 18

Dear Captain America,

Can you fly? When I look at yotube vit vidios sometimes I think you can but I dont no know for sure...

Dear Captain America,

... the big mean kids at our school call us fags and pretty boys and other gross stuff just because I dunno why. And Josh, he gets really mad and wants to fight them. And I tell him, no, that's what they want and it wouldn't help anyway...

Dear Captain America,

My uncle came home from deployment, and he doesn't smile anymore. Mom says I should leave him be, but he isn't getting any better being left alone and not talked to...

Dear Captain America,

My niece and nephew-in-law just had a baby (I'm a Great Aunt!) and are being waffley about adhering to the CDC-recommended vaccination schedule. He is a massive Captain America fan and...

Dear Captain America,

... know you had something special with Peggy Carter. Some of the paper stories said Ms. Carter had Alzheimer's and that she was already losing memory by the time you came out of the ice. My Mom has Alzheimer's too and she can't remember who I am any more. It's awful to lose someone to this disease an inch and a memory at a time. She's still here and I'm grateful but she's also not at the same time...

Dear Captain America,

I hope you can help me. My dog Sadie had puppies, and my dad says they've all got to go to the pound unless I can find them homes. I don't know a lot of people here. We just moved up from Florida and it's cold. But you must know lots of people around here. Can you help me find a home for...

Dear Captain America,

...understand that we Boomers had mixed feelings about you during the '60s-'70s. On the one hand, you were "The Man," the guy our recruiting offices tried to hold up as an example so that we'd do our duty in Vietnam. But on the other hand, you still felt like one of us somehow. Do you know there's a motorcycle in the movie Easy Rider named after you? Do you know I saw your shield spray painted on roadcases, backstage at rock concerts in the '70s?

Dear Captain America,

I don't believe in Santa, so I am writing to you. Because you are the greatest and you can do anything. Except I was reading about you in a book and it said that your dad died in some really big war. My dad died too. In a place called Afghanistan that is a long way from here...

"Okay, stop. Stop. Right now—right fucking now, Steve!"

"Okay, but," Steve said helplessly—

Dear Captain America,

My name is Lucero Oquendo and I have cancer.

I don't say that so you feel sorry for me or treat me special I wanted to say it because I think it's why I understand why you went underground the way that you did...

"Right fucking now, Steve," and that was Bucky's "I-am-really-not-fucking-around-here-Steve" voice, which Steve knew well, having heard it in a variety of circumstances in two centuries. Still, Steve hadn't gotten his reputation as a crazy person for nothing.

"This one's for you," he said.

Dear Captain America,

How do you go back? How do you go forward? How do you be someone else?

I saw you with the uniform half torn off with the star showing. I saw you put your old uniform back on & fight because you chose to, with the star showing on purpose, like insignia. If you can do it, Bucky, anyone can, but I don't know how.

I know you'll never see this but God. Fuck everything. I don't know what to do.

Take care,


Bucky spared the letter the barest glance, then looked at it again; read it once, twice, stony-faced, and then he was roughly gathering all the letters together into a pile and sweeping them up, off the desk. A muscle on his jaw was twitching. "Okay, I want you to listen to me right now, Steve, okay? This isn't going to stop. It's a hashtag, you got it? You're a hashtag."

"I'm a what?" Steve asked.

"Some bright kid got the idea to write to you instead of Santa Claus, which I can totally understand, but then you answered the letter and they posted about it on social media and now it's gone what they call viral, like a virus, which is a like a disease, Steve, hashtag #DearCaptainAmerica or some of the wags are putting down #YesVirginiaThereIsACaptainAmerica but the point I need you to grasp, Steve—the point I really fucking need you to grasp, here—is that it's not going to stop. Okay? It's not going to stop so I'm stopping it. I'm stopping it right now. The end. QED."

"Okay," Steve said, and truth be told, it was a relief to watch Bucky storm down the stairs and return with an empty box that used to hold six bottles of Capstone Motor Oil. Bucky threw all the letters into the box, and the envelopes, and then Steve's pages with his notes and half-written replies, and then raised a warning finger at Steve and said, menacingly, "Okay?"

"Okay," Steve said immediately, and Bucky picked up the box and—didn't move. Didn't move. Just stood there, stock-still and staring at nothing, obviously thinking about something, or maybe waiting for something; remembering something? "Fuck," Bucky muttered finally, and then he was slamming the box down onto the kitchen table and rummaging through it. After a minute he came up with one letter and one envelope. "Get in the car," he said. Steve didn't argue.

December 19

"You sure that's the address?" Bucky asked, and for the sixth time, Steve looked down at the nearly illegible Brooklyn address, like something would have changed since the last time he looked.

"No, I'm not sure," Steve said, nearly groaning, "but that's what it looks like. But it exists, this address, so that's got to be a good sign, right?" In fact, that was a rhetorical question, because Bucky'd already driven past what Steve thought had to be the place, twice now. It was a small, detached house with a scraggly yard surrounded by a chain link fence.

"All right," Bucky said, and finally pulled over to park. "Just it's going to be a weird enough conversation if this is the right place, and worse if it's the wrong one."

"Nah, we can just use the old line," Steve said. "We've come to see a man about a dog."

"A kid, you mean," Bucky said, and got out of the car. Steve followed, slamming the Studebaker's door, and together they walked up the cracked pavement to the little house. This part of Brooklyn felt like another world, even though it was only a couple of neighborhoods east of their own. Steve remembered people saying that'd they'd gone somewhere "by way of Canarsie," and now he saw why; Canarsie felt cut-off, somehow.

Still, he was pretty sure they were in the right place; once they reached the gate, they saw a sign on the screen door that read: BEWARE OF DOG. The notorious Sadie, Steve presumed. "Here goes nothing," Bucky said, and rang the bell. Steve expected to hear barking inside, but there was nothing, and then a minute later the door opened a couple of inches. It was on a chain, and a kid's face peered curiously through the gap.

"Hi, are you Joey?" Steve asked. "I hear you've got some dogs up for adoption."

Joey's expression twisted into a perfect portrait of mixed feelings; he was happy and sad to see them at the same time. "Ma," he yelled, over his shoulder, "there are some guys come for the last pup!"

The door briefly shut before opening again, wider, and there, behind Joey (eight or nine, Steve guessed, with olive skin and a black crew-cut) was least dangerous-looking dog Steve had ever seen in his life. Steve shot an amused glance at Bucky and saw that his lip was twitching, too: the large black dog stared at them with huge eyes and a reserve of apparently endless patience.

"This is Sadie," the boy said, and roughly hugged her head, a gesture which the dog accepted with calm dignity. "She had six pups, but we only got one left." The boy put on a blue and white checked jacket and came out into the yard, his dog loyally following. "He's around the back," he said, and led them to a utility shed behind the house which contained a washer/dryer and an absolutely enormous black puppy, scampering across the linoleum and furiously wagging his tail. Sadie pushed forward to nose at the puppy and gently bit the scruff of his neck a few times.

"That's a beautiful animal," Bucky told Joey, who beamed. "Do you know what he is? What breed, I mean?" Joey shook his head, and so Bucky lobbed the question at Steve: "What do you think he is? He's stockier than his Ma: she's like a Mastiff, but he looks more like a Newfie to me."

"Yeah and maybe there's a little Retriever in there, too," Steve said. "Black lab mixed with a Newfie? Or maybe even a St. Bernard—I mean, look at that head."

"I'm looking at it! He's gonna be huge, this pup," Bucky said.

Now the boy looked distinctly worried. "He's not that big. I mean—" He sighed. "People keep saying he's too big, that's why he's still here. Nobody wants him. The others were smaller, and they went quick, but a lot of people don't want a big dog, because they take up a lot of room and they eat a lot. Dad didn't even want Sadie but Mom put her foot down. She loves big dogs."

"I love big dogs, too," Steve said softly. "Big dogs are my favorite."

Bucky shot him a sharp look: "You said you could hold the line at two."

Steve sighed. "I can hold the line at two," he said reluctantly.

"Well, good," Bucky said. "Cause this pooch has got other places to be." He turned to Joey and said: "Your dog's going to a good home full of crazy people and robots. It's much better than it sounds," and that's when Joey suddenly blinked and looked hard at Steve.

"Wait," he said. "Are you—Captain America?"

"I, uh. Yeah, I was. Um. You know. Yes."

"I don't want to give him to Tony!"

"You gotta give him to Tony," Bucky said. "That's why we got him. Eyes on the prize, Steve."

"But look at him! Look at his face!" Steve, holding the dog in his lap, cupped the furry big head in his hands. "Look at that face. Is that a sweet face or—

"I've got my eyes on the road, Steve, so that I can get us there without getting us killed—though you know, possibly that was a foolish idea on my part, because ending it all seems..."

"What are we going to name him?" Steve asked. "How about Dodger? Or Bogart—Bogart's a good name."

"We're not going to name him anything. He's not our dog," Bucky said. "He's Tony's dog."

"Yeah, but we could still name him," Steve objected. "In an uncle-like—what's the word I'm—?"

"Avuncular," Bucky said.

"Right! In an avuncular way. Like godfathers at a naming ceremony."

"You said you could hold the line at two dogs," Bucky said, almost despairingly. "You said."

"Hey, wait, I know! They should call him Tony Bark," and Bucky exploded in laughter so intense that Steve was afraid he'd crash the car for real. "Come on! It's a great name!"

Bucky was fighting for control of his face. "Okay, you know what? We'll stop and get a box and a collar and a big red bow, and you can put a little tag around his neck that says Tony Bark, okay? Though for the record, this dog hasn't made a goddamn sound since we laid eyes on him—"

"I know, because he's such a good boy, such a good good—"

"Oh my fucking God," Bucky said.

"Okay, so he's here? He's home?" Steve asked JARVIS, when the elevator came down to E-level, and JARVIS confirmed that yes, indeed, Mr. Stark was currently at home in the Tower.

"And you'll see that the dog gets to him safely?" Steve asked JARVIS.

The dog in question sat half in and half out of a giant orange polka-dotted box in the middle of the elevator, a bright red bow around his neck. JARVIS confirmed that he would ensure that the dog made it upstairs to Mr. Stark directly and without difficulty; tout suite, as the phrase had it.

"We should go up with him," Steve said to Bucky.

"We are not going up with him," Bucky said. "We're gonna drop off this dog and run like hell."

December 20

Steve and Bucky were standing in the workshop, contemplating Nat's table, when the first call came.

"Do you think it needs another coat of wax?" Steve was asking him.

"I think it's perfect," Bucky replied. "I think you did a beautiful job with it. What about the style, though—you think she'll like the style?" The table was oak with barley twist legs, and about 100 years old, just like them. But what was really cunning about it was that it had two built-in leaves. Closed, the table sat four. Open, it sat ten. It was a well made thing, Bucky thought.

"What's not to like about the style?" Steve peered down at it contemplatively, arms crossed over his chest. "It's attractive. It's practical. Use any chairs you—"

Bucky's phone buzzed against his hip, and he saw Steve tense and pull out his own phone, which meant it was probably the Avengers line. Christ, were they under attack, were they—

"It's okay, false alarm." Steve looked up from his phone. "It's just Tony being Tony."

"What?" Bucky pulled out his own phone and—

"He's texting us pictures of the dog?"

"Yeah. Not just us, either," Steve said. "I think he's texting everybody—the whole team. Aww, but look at that dog, Buck. He's so happy! Look how happy that dog looks!"

"He should be happy, what's he got not to be happy about? That dog's got it made." Bucky shoved the phone back in his pocket. "Now can we please get back to this?"

"Yeah, okay," Steve said, and put his phone away. "My question is—does it feel good to the touch? Because I could do one more pass with the fine-grain if it needs it. There's still time."

Bucky slid his flesh hand onto the table top and rubbed the grain with his thumb. "I mean, it feels like a table, Steve," he said. "I don't know what else to tell you."

Steve tsked and then came over himself. He slid his palms over the old oak, then dragged his fingertips across. "Smooth, right? No lumps or rough bits? Maybe I should sand it one more time."

"I think you're totally overthinking—" The phone at his hip buzzed. Steve phone's went off too. They looked at each other, but only Steve took out his phone. He looked at it, bit his lip.

"Is it the dog?" Bucky asked.

"Yeah," Steve said, and glanced down at his phone again. "He's—wearing a tie, Buck. Tony's put him in a tie and a—"

"Okay," Bucky said. "I don't need to hear any m—" There was a familiar clatter outside, and Bucky, who'd been waiting for it, immediately went to grab the cardboard box of Dear Captain America letters from the rough wooden counter at the side of the garage. Then he went to the door.

But there was a knock just as he reached it. Bucky frowned and yanked the open. A mailman in a blue uniform stood on the other side—he was Asian; Chinese, maybe—and blinked at him in surprise. He was carrying a bin of about the same size as the box that Bucky was holding. "Hello," the mailman said.

"Just the man I was looking for," Bucky said. "Look, there's been some kind of mistake."

The mailman looked relieved. "Yeah, I think it was a mistake," he said. "We were trying to solve a problem but I think we created a bigger one." He shifted the large bin of mail in his arms. "I mean, we always get a couple of letters each year but nothing like this, never like this. "

Steve came up behind him in the garage, George and Gracie on his heels. Bucky sighed and jerked a thumb back at Steve. "He started answering them," he said. "Now it's a hashtag."

"Oh. Oh, I see," the mailman said. "I guess that explains it."

"What do you mean, you always get letters?" Steve asked curiously.

"I mean, we always get letters," the mailman repeated. "We've always gotten them. To Santa, which everybody knows about, but also to Captain America. A couple every year. It's kind of an honor, really, when you think about it," the mailman said, stealing embarrassed glances at Steve. "People don't write to too many fictional—I mean, not fictional," he added quickly, looking mortified. "Historical. Mythical. I mean, like, people write letters to Captain America and Santa Claus and Sherlock Holmes and Juliet Capulet, and that's about it. It's a pretty select group of—"

Bucky's phone's buzzed; Steve's went off at the same time. They ignored it.

The mailman hesitated politely, but when neither of them made a move to get their phones, he went on. "It's a pretty select group. The Post Office launched Operation: Santa all the way back in 1912 but we never thought to organize an Operation: Captain America. But I guess it's time we looked into it."

Steve frowned. "I don't get it. What would it do, this Operation: Captain America?"

"Well, Operation's the Post Office, first and foremost, but we also work with state and local charities, businesses, private know, answering the letters. You can volunteer to do it—you can go to a participating post office and adopt a letter. Some people send gifts, you know, to the kids, or they organize letter writing parties." The mailman rubbed at his chin. "New York's got the biggest program in the country, I think. Anyway, for Captain America, we'd do some of the same things, I guess. Toys for the kids, but maybe also—"

"Veterans groups," Steve said immediately.

Again the mailman looked surprised. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah," Steve said. "There a lot of letters from veterans. And also, uh—kids who, um—what should we call it?" He looked at Bucky, who didn't know what Steve meant, at first, and then did.

"Oh," Bucky said. "You mean queer kids."

"Yeah," Steve said. "Queer kids—but that's not what they call it now. LGDB. T. A. Q. Something. But anyway, it might be good to get somebody who knows about that."

"And an animal shelter," Bucky said. "We've got kids who want pets, and animals that need homes. Someone ought to try matching them up."

"Right," the mailman said. He put his bin back into the small, three-wheeled Post Office van he'd pulled into CIDC's driveway, and then reached out for the box Bucky was holding and stashed that away too. Steve looked a little wistful, but Bucky felt it as a goddamned visceral relief.

"You ought to come down to Camden Plaza, the Downtown Brooklyn Station," the mailman said, and Bucky and Steve exchanged grins, because Camden Plaza had been the Brooklyn General Post Office back in their day, and it was a beautiful building still. "They keep all the old letters there; I mean, it's interesting. Tell them...who you are, and they'll show you."

"Yeah, I'll do that," Steve said, and swung out his hand.

"Thanks, you've been helpful," Bucky agreed. They stood there together and watched as the mailman got into his van and drove away.

It was Steve who finally caved and pulled out his phone. "Okay, so now the dog's wearing Tony's glasses," he said, and Bucky groaned and said, "All right, all right: this I've got to see."

December 21

They were on the second floor landing, carrying the table (turned on its side, tightly swathed in mover's blankets) between them, when they heard a door open on the floor above. A moment later, Natasha looked down at them, hands braced on the railing. "What are you guys...?"

"Special delivery," Steve said, as they carefully maneuvered the table up the last flight of steps, and then managed to take the sharp curve into the hallway toward Clint's apartment. 3H.

Clint appeared from out of nowhere. "Whoa, that's big. Do we need to take the door off or something?"

"Should be okay," Bucky adjudged. "Just stand back," and together he and Steve slowly edged the table through the narrow door frame and then carried it deeper into the apartment.

Natasha followed them, watching them and saying nothing as they carefully put it down. Steve was caught by the way she looked: relaxed in a way that Natasha rarely was. She was barefoot, wearing some kind of close-fitting trousers and a man's dress shirt. Her red hair had been pulled into a careless ponytail, and strands of hair escaped and framed her face. "I—" Steve suddenly had trouble speaking; he felt vulnerable, exposed. All at once it seemed like too much. Maybe he'd misunderstood. It had only been an offhand remark, after all. Years ago.

Too late now. Bucky was carefully removing the thick, quilted blankets. Steve scratched the back of his neck, awkwardly. "We, uh. Brought you a table. Merry Christmas, Natasha."

Her face did something that he'd never seen it do, and then she was blinking back tears and reaching up for him. Steve pulled her in close to him and hugged her, tight, curling himself down and around her even as she snugged up into his arms and held on.

Bucky told Clint, "The table's for Natasha, but you can sit at it, too, I guess."

"I still haven't forgiven you for launching this fucking dog nightmare on us," Clint replied. "If I got a dog, I wouldn't dress him up in costumes like that. My dog will be manly and eat pizza."

Bucky tsked. "That's still narcissism," he said, and Clint thought about it and admitted that he had a point.

December 22

On the way back, Steve said, almost offhandedly, "You want to stop by Cadman Plaza?"

Bucky shot him a swift look. "You think they'll be open?"

He was pretty sure that wasn't the question Bucky was really asking, but he answered it anyway: "Till 8 most nights." He wasn't entirely sure how to answer Bucky's real question: Are you sure you want to go? Haven't you had enough? Steve had had enough, actually—he'd been humbled by those letters—but at the same time he needed to know what was there.

It was his mail, after all.

"All right, sure," Bucky said, after a moment. "We'll go if you want to."

Downtown Brooklyn was lovely this time of year, the old buildings strung up with lights, and people hurrying to do last minute shopping at some of the city's few remaining department stores. They parked the van and walked around the corner to the old Federal building, gleaming white and castle-like, with its enormous staircase and corner tower. It looked very like it had in their day, though the streets were different: less foot-traffic, and the trolley cars were gone.

They went up the steps into the post office, and without discussing it, Bucky took charge: going up to one of the clerks at the window and having a low, intense conversation with her. At one point he jerked his head back toward where Steve was standing, and Steve straightened his spine a little, knowing he was Exhibit A in whatever conversation Bucky and the woman were having: Yes, that's me, he thought. Captain America. I was the first Captain America.

Finally Bucky turned and waved him over, and together, they followed the row of windows to the heavily secured door at the end, marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. A moment later it opened, and the clerk waved them into the restricted area. She looked Steve up and down, and after a moment, she nodded and said: "All right. I believe you are who he says you are."

"I wouldn't lie about it, ma'am, I swear," Steve told her.

"I would, but it just so happens I'm not," Bucky said. "Show us the letters," and the clerk cracked a smile and said, "Right this way." They followed her through the back, past automatic machines and conveyor belts and people hauling sacks every which way, and then down a flight of stairs.

"We don't have a Dead Letter Office any more," the clerk said. "There's a Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, but we don't send this kind of mail there. Most letters to Santa are dealt with by Operation Santa, but some of them get sent up to North Pole, Alaska—they've got their own program up there. By tradition, I guess, Captain America letters have always come to us." She looked Steve up and down again and said, "I guess they say you grew up around here."

"I did, ma'am, yes," Steve replied. "We got our packages from this post office when I was a boy, though it looked different then."

"Well, I bet." She stopped in front of a frosted glass door stencilled STORAGE and took out a circle of keys. When she flipped on the light, Steve saw that the room was full of canvas mailbags of differing sizes: they filled the shelves lining the walls, were piled on top and below the rough wood sorting tables, and were heaped up everywhere else. There was barely any place to stand.

But the clerk marched in and, with rough ease, cleared off one of the tables by piling the bags in the corner. Then she went over to the far wall and studied it for a second, A moment later, she was dragging down an enormous canvas bag of mail, and Steve helplessly went to take it from her and set it down on the table. The clerk undid the bag's draw string with quick skill and shoved the bag onto its side: letters flooded down onto the table. Steve felt chills prickle up his spine, because these letters—these were letters! These were what letters used to look like: carefully addressed by people who'd been made to develop their penmanship, covered with multi-colored stamps. He smiled and felt oddly heartbroken at the same time as he picked one up; a missive from the past. The envelope was yellowing. It had a 1945 postmark and a three cent stamp.


"Can I open it?" Steve asked, and the clerk laughed and said: "Sure. If not you, who?" and so Steve opened the envelope—the glue had long stopped sticking—and withdrew its contents.

Dear Captain America,

My name is Mary Ellen Thompson, and I do not think you will remember me, but I was at the evening show in Minneapolis on November 7th and we were briefly introduced at the War Bonds event afterwards. You said you liked my sweater—

—and sweat suddenly broke out on Steve's neck, at the small of his back, because Jesus, yes, he remembered her. Mary Ellen had been a pretty girl with thick blond hair, and she'd been wearing a red, white and blue sweater: a tight-fitting one. Back in those days, a tight-fitting sweater had been a provocative thing; he remembered getting warm over Lana Turner, the original sweater girl. And Peggy'd had a red sweater back in the day that made him feel a little dizzy.

—and you were kind enough to sign my autograph book. Now they are saying on the radio that you are missing and that so far all rescue efforts have failed to locate you. They refuse to say that you are dead, which I understand because I do believe that we would all of us have a nervous breakdown, even now at our moment of victory. I find myself that I cannot stand it.

So I am writing to you, because if I am writing a letter to you then you cannot be dead. You are just "away" somewhere. It is easier for me to think of it like that. You, and my brothers Jimmy and Thomas, and my fiance Donald—you have all of you boys just gone away to a place where the post is slow. But all our letters, and our love, will reach the right hands eventually.

Come back soon,

Mary Ellen Thompson

"Need a minute," Steve mumbled, turning his back, and Bucky immediately stepped in to provide cover. "So huh," he said to the clerk, "the franking on this envelope says that it was mailed in 1945. Are there are lot of letters in here that are that old?"

"Yeah, sure," the clerk said, but there was something confused in her tone. "That whole bag," and then: "That's the bag from 1945," she clarified, and then: "This whole room is Captain America letters. That's just the bag from 1945," and Bucky let out a soft, pained sound and said, "Oh."

December 23

"Hey, you hungry?" Bucky asked, glancing at Steve across the van on the way home. "We could stop in at Junior's, if you want. Get a cup of coffee and some—"

"No, I..." Steve was dazed, distracted; his eyes kept drifting toward the window. It had begun to snow, though it didn't seem like it was going to stick. "I'm all right." He'd left all the letters behind, at Bucky's—well, insistence wasn't the word for it. Urging. Exhortation. Bucky'd pitched a fit if he was honest. So he'd left all the letters, all except the one from Mary Ellen Thompson, which he'd put into the inside breast pocket of his coat, next to his heart.

"We've discharged all our goddamned obligations, Steve," Bucky said, glancing between him and the road. "We're entitled to take a little time for ourselves now, don't you think?"

"I do think," Steve said, and felt the first faint hint of a smile; a little time alone with Bucky sounded like heaven. "A little time to ourselves would be great."

"We should go out and get a tree, is what we should do," Bucky said. "It's nearly Christmas and we haven't gotten a tree yet. Then maybe a lazy night on the couch: pizza and a movie."

"A couple of pizzas," Steve amended. "And a couple of movies—double feature, maybe."

"Okay, sold," Bucky said.

"I want to see more of that Lauren Bacall," Steve said.

"We can do that," Bucky said. "There's a bunch of—" Steve's phone went off in his jacket, but only his. "Not me," Bucky said, reading his mind, and Steve frowned and pulled his phone out.

Bucky sighed. "Another dog picture?" The pictures had kept coming: Tony Bark in a Santa hat, Tony Bark in an ugly Christmas sweater, Tony Bark in Groucho mustache and glasses.

"No," Steve said slowly. "But it's Tony. He wants me to call him right away." Steve looked up. "He said please," and Bucky jerked the wheel to the right and pulled the van over next to a hydrant.

"Gimme the phone," Bucky said, and extended his hand.

"I can..." Steve began, but Bucky wasn't going to take no for an answer. Bucky put in Steve's passcode, pressed the button to return Tony's call, and brought the phone to his ear.

"No, it's Barnes," Bucky said. "What do you want with him?" and Steve's super hearing didn't allow him make out what Tony was saying, just that Tony was speaking.

"Because," Bucky said finally, which set off another burst of chatter from Tony.

Bucky was unmoved. "Because," he said again. "Because it's been a goddamned day, all right? You tell me and I'll..." Bucky drifted off, but he was listening, and after a few moments the thunder went out of his face, and he relaxed back in the van's driver's seat, still listening, and Steve knew him well enough to know that Bucky was changing his mind about whatever it was.

After a while Bucky rolled his head to the side to meet Steve's eyes, and there was a question in them. Tony was still talking. "I'll do whatever you think best," Steve murmured. "I will be advised by you utterly," and Bucky pursed his mouth and muttered, roughly, "Is that what we're calling it now? I'd like to take you home and advise you a couple of times if we could get a damn minute—" and then he was saying, to Tony, in his normal voice: "All right, in that case, we're in. We're in! I'll tell him, and we'll be—he'll do it, he'll be in. too, I'm telling you, he'll do it. Jesus Christ, take yes for an answer!" Bucky exclaimed. "What time is the...?" He looked at his watch. "Tonight? Or in the—All right. All right. Yes. Congratulations."

Bucky disconnected and put Steve's phone in his pocket before starting the van.

"You are the worst," Steve said, nearly bursting with curiosity. "I mean, c'mon: give a guy a hint."

But instead, Bucky just came out with it. "He wants to get married," Bucky said.

Steve didn't know why he was surprised, but he was. "Married? To Pepper?"

"No, to me—yeah, of course, to Pepper," Bucky said, rolling his eyes. "He said that he's come over all conventional and he wants to get married before the kid comes. But he's Tony, so it's gotta be right now, at Christmas, and of course they're not going to go down to City Hall or anything."

"No, of course not," Steve said. "Wait, let me guess. Castle in Scotland?"

"No, though you're in the ballpark."

"Paris, France," Steve suggested. "Or hey, is it the Pope? Is the Pope gonna marry them?"

"No," Bucky said, and turned the van into the CIDC driveway. The huge metal garage door slowly rolled up. "They want to to get married on a private island somewhere in the Caribbean. So we all gotta fly down there—you, me, Natasha, Clint, the whole crew." Bucky pulled in and switched off the engine before turning to Steve with a serious expression. "He wants you to be the best man, Steve," Bucky said. "I said you would. I think you should. Because you are. I mean, I can't exactly fault his—" and Steve leaned across the cab and grabbed Bucky by his coat-front and dragged him into a kiss, close enough that Steve could mash their mouths together, cupping his head and working his mouth open to taste his tongue. They kissed for a long time; when one of them seemed on the verge of surfacing, the other pulled them down again—pulled them in, pulled them deep.

Finally Steve did break off the kiss. "I'll be advised by you," he said, a little breathlessly. "Right now—upstairs in the bedroom if you want."

Bucky's face was flushed. "Okay," he said, and then they were scrambling out of the van and up the narrow staircase up to the flat. Steve felt wild and desperate, a little out of control, and he was pulling at Bucky's clothes probably with more force than was necessary, dragging his coat down his arms and roughly undoing his buttons and then bending to drag his mouth over the exposed bit of neck, of collar, of chest, before the shirt was even fully opened. Bucky moaned a little and grabbed Steve by the hair - he could be rough when he wanted to be, too - and tugged his head up to take his mouth, and then they were stumbling into the bedroom and falling across the bed, not bothering to drag the coverlet back. In the end they did it fast and rough, urgent, half on and half off the bed, Steve's pants shoved down and Bucky behind him, moaning and kissing him between his shoulder blades. Steve let his head hang, gasping; he could feel Bucky's fingers leaving bruises on him as he thrust and yanked at Steve's hips and twisted and thrust again, maximizing the delicious sweet drag of friction between their bodies. He came with an unexpectedly tender groan and collapsed against Steve's sweaty back; Steve grasped Bucky's wrist and dragged Bucky's hand around to his cock, coming after a couple of strokes.

Steve didn't think he would doze, but he did; just drifted off with his pants down his legs and Bucky lying heavily across his back. When he woke up, a wool army blanket had been draped over him, to cover him, and Bucky was gone. Steve got up, gingerly, feeling a little sore, and shucked off the rest of his clothes before going to wash up. Then he pulled on an old t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants without underwear: he was hoping to tempt Bucky upstairs for Round 2.

Bucky'd obviously had the same idea - he was standing in the workshop in a t-shirt and a pair of pajama pants that were so thin they were nearly see-through. He was looking at what Steve had mistaken for an old planter: a box of wood so dark it was nearly black. Bucky'd covered it with some kind of chemical so that the old finish was now a kind of misshapen mush. Bucky glanced at Steve as he came in, and then gave him an appreciative doubletake. "Hey, I'm coming right now."

"I won't argue," Steve said, smiling, and then: "Did you have plans for that?"

"I did, but I'm gonna need more time," Bucky said. "Because it's going to need a lot more work. C'mere, though, take a look," and Bucky reached for a tool and began to scrape away a little of the gummy old finish. Steve could see that the wood underneath had been carved with pictures of flowers and leaves and fruits; they'd been painted once, he thought. He'd like to paint them again. An oval at the center bore a date: 1852. He saw then what it was: an antique cradle.

"It'll be nice, when it's done," Steve said. "I'll paint it and make new rockers for the bottom."

"Well, there's time before the kid comes anyway," Bucky said, "unless Stark rushes that too. Come on, we ought to pack a few things; he's sending a car for us, first thing in the morning."

December 24

The car, when it came, was more like a rolling hotel lobby: long sofas of cream leather upholstery with a polished wood coffee table at the center. Steve opened the door and peered in to see Clint and Natasha already inside. Clint was gleefully exploring the amenities, which from the look of it included hot coffee and a pastry bar. None of this was pulling any weight with Natasha, who was sprawled across one of the sofas in head-to-toe black and wearing what Steve thought of as her hangover sunglasses. Natasha was not a morning person.

"He better appreciate this," she growled.

"He will," Steve told her, and then he said to the driver, "Hang on, we'll be right out." He went back into the garage, where Bucky was standing with their baggage...and the dogs, who, true to form, were sitting in perfect obedience at Bucky's heels. Tony's further instructions had made clear that this unusual wedding invitation also included their dogs. That had been puzzlingly head-scratching until Bucky said, with a groan of enlightenment, "He's bringing his own dog. There's probably a whole dog section."

Now Bucky stared at him and said, "So it's for real?"

"Driver says it's for real. I mean there's room in the car. You could fit the whole Dodgers starting lineup in that car."

"Well O-K," Bucky said dubiously. "Nothing succeeds like excess, I guess. Let's go," he said, and then, more sharply, "And I'm expecting best behavior from you. Play nice and no fighting."

"Well I'll try," Steve said.

George and Gracie immediately settled themselves on the floor of the limo, George wisely taking the cat-bird seat and sprawling devotedly across Natasha's tall leather boots. "Well, this is nuts," Bucky said to Clint and Natasha by way of greeting, as he ducked inside.

"You said it," Natasha said.

"There's coffee though," Clint said.

Steve ducked his head in, then thought better of it and ducked out again. He pulled out his keys and hurried to the mailbox; better to empty it before they left. He shoved the mail into his satchel and buckled it. The rest of CIDC was locked down tight and Steve gave it a longing look as he slid into the cabin of the limousine; be it ever so humble, there was no place like home.

And then they were off. "Any idea what airstrip we're heading to?" Bucky asked.

"Don't think it has a name," Natasha said, frowning. "It's just a private helipad near the waterfront. He's coming to Brooklyn to pick us up. "

"Of course he is," Bucky said, deadpan.

"Hey, you guys wanted a normal life: well, this is Tony's normal life." She shrugged. "You get used to it."

Bucky looked over at Clint, who was reaching for another pastry. "I'm personally not used to it," Clint said.

"Yeah, I don't want to get used to it,"' Bucky said.

"Do you think Howard would have let Tony have a dog?" Steve asked Bucky.

"Howard? Nah. Howard might have kept a kennel of show dogs. Breeders. Or— "

"Right—or racing dogs," Steve suggested, finishing the thought.

"Yeah. As an investment. In Florida or South Carolina or someplace like that."

"He might even have gotten interested in them," Steve said thoughtfully. Howard was suddenly vividly present to him, almost visible. But the Howard who lived in his mind was younger than any of them were now. Strange to think of him as Tony's father. "For a month or two anyway. He'd know everything there was to know about dogs. Then he'd probably have forgotten all about them."

"Yeah," Bucky agreed softly. "That was Howard, all right."

When the car turned into the heliport, Stark's plane was waiting. They went up a long flight of stairs and...into a flying house, with several sitting rooms and a dining room and doors that led to places Steve couldn't see. Tony and Pepper turned to greet them, Bruce standing behind them, and then Tony Bark came galumphing forward, nearly tripping over his enormous paws. He was no doubt attracted by the scent of George and Gracie, who Bucky was holding on a tight leash. Steve grinned at the sight of the big Newfie mutt, who seemed happy to have made new dog friends.

Pepper looked exhausted but also very, very happy. "I'm sorry, I know this is such a crazy, last minute thing—"

"They wouldn't miss it for the world," Tony said. "You wouldn't miss it for the world, would you, Steve."

"Not for the world," Steve agreed, smiling.

"Happiest day of my life. Pepper's finally going to make an honest man of me after all these years. My God, how I had to beg and wheedle and bat my eyelashes. But finally I get to be a Groomzilla. Introduce me to these dogs of yours, will you? We've never formally met."

"This is George," Bucky said. "And this is Gracie. Gracie's a little nervous."

"Aren't we all. You can take 'em back there for food, water, doggie treats: I had the whole back of the plane retrofitted. The rest of you guys—dump your coats, grab yourself a mimosa, and buckle up. Flying time is 2 hours and 17 minutes."

Steve took a seat with a view out the plane's port window and stared out at the Atlantic as they headed south. He'd never lost the sense of awe he felt while flying. Of course he'd never been in a plane before the serum; the only people who'd been in planes back then were the pilots of the first World War, men his father's age. Every now and then he turned his eyes from the window to look back at the room: Clint, Natasha, Tony, and Bucky were sitting around a table playing poker, Bruce and Pepper were both settled back in comfortable looking armchairs, reading. George padded over and put his head on Steve's knee; behind him, Gracie sprawled on her back while Tony Bark clambered up and over her, pawing at her head and playfully nipping at her ears and neck. Although only a puppy, Tony Bark was already half Gracie's size.

Steve passed some of the time going through that morning's mail. It was mostly junk and circulars, which he tore up and discarded, but there was one handwritten letter, which he read with some trepidation. It began—

I live three blocks from you on Argyle, and I hear people saying you are Captain America, or that you were, which makes me think I can trust you. Maybe you are and maybe you're not, but you guys have good reviews on Yelp, so what the hell. I'm buying a house and the inspector says the dryer needs to be re-vented, how do you re-vent a dryer? Could you give me an estimate?

Also I could use your advice:

—What paint colors go best with dark walnut floors?

—How about the crown molding?

—What is the best way to remove a chair rail? Or are chair rails a good thing?

—Are subway tiles period for my kitchen?

—and Steve laughed and tucked the letter back into his bag, because this, at least, was a letter he could answer.

The color of the water changed from ice blue to turquoise, and Steve began to see the shape of islands in the distance. Eventually what had seemed like a tiny speck became a landmass with a gorgeous coastline of white beaches, and the plane descended, came down, onto a thin black landing strip that appeared from out of nowhere. "Welcome to Isla Maria," Tony said, as the plane skidded to a stop. "My father gave it to my mother as a wedding present," he explained, "and I'm going to give it to Pepper. Isla Virginia," Tony declared, trying the phrase out. "Hm, I'm not so sure. Pepper Point?"

Pepper beamed. "I like Pepper Point," she said, and Tony, looking pleased with himself, offered her a hand and escorted her out. As he came out of the plane into the warm air, Steve saw the blue skies and green hills and—nothing else, though a sort of open air shuttle bus with a white awning was waiting for them at the bottom of the plane's metal stairs. They all piled in, luggage and dogs in the back. "The house is just around that bend," Tony said, pointing, as the shuttle lurched into motion. "Your villas are dotted up and down the coast," and just then the "house"—a multi-story white mansion with a tower—came into view in the distance, and beyond it the curve of the sea. As they drew closer, they began to pass brick posts with names on them: Villa Blanca, Villa Oceana, Villa Bellavista. These posts opened onto drives with houses beyond.

The shuttle shuddered to a halt and Tony said, "Spies get out here; next stop is Super Soldiers, and beyond that, Scientists. Lunch will be served at the house around one." Clint and Natasha got out at the post marked Villa Blanca, and Bucky and Steve and the dogs got out at the one marked Oceana, whose white gate nearly was obscured by a thick garden of flowering trees in pink and purple and blue. The shuttle then trundled onward toward the big house, but Steve and Bucky moved under the canopy of trees toward the squat white bungalow beyond. An arched wooden door stood at the top of a short flight of stairs. They opened it and stepped into...a paradise of sorts, because the front of the house was nearly all glass and faced a curving cove of sparkling water, so the view was framed by more flowering trees with the white sand and blue ocean just beyond. Steve, his aesthetic senses aroused, was drawn forward, towards the colors: out the double glass doors to the covered patio, down the steps to the garden and then out, along a cobbled path, to the sand. He became dimly aware of Bucky saying something low and guttural to the dogs, and then they were racing past him and leaping into the still, shallow water—splashing, frolicking, racing onto the beach and shaking sprays of water out of their coats before jumping back into the ocean again. Golden retrievers loved the water, he knew that—he and Bucky had taken the dogs to Coney Island a couple of times to watch them play—but he didn't think he'd ever seen his dogs as happy as this.

Beside him, Bucky was yanking his boots off. "C'mon," he said, grinning. "I think the dogs have got the right idea, don't you?"

Steve grinned stupidly and dragged his own shoes off his feet. "How come," Steve said, undoing his belt buckle, "every time you talk about us running away it's always Chicago and never Mexico?"

He'd meant it as a tease except he wasn't thinking; why wasn't he goddamned thinking? "Harder to hide a metal arm in Mexico," Bucky replied, yanking his shirt off his shoulders, and there were the familiar metal plates and the scar tissue and—it must have been on his face, because suddenly Bucky was grabbing Steve's head and kissing him roughly and saying, "No, you don't; no, you don't, Rogers; you are not ruining this holiday with weirdness and guilt," and then Bucky was dragging him, stumbling, into the shallow water fully-clothed. He laughed and shouted, "Wait, my wallet, my keys," hastily tossing the contents of his pockets onto the shore before Bucky cut the legs out from under him and sent him crashing ass-first into the water. And then Steve gave in and lay back, arms spread and face turned up to the sky, and sank down into the warm, clear water until he was soaked.

Pepper and Tony's wedding was held on the beach at sunset, the sky behind them streaked orange and pink and red. Steve had assumed it would be a more formal affair than his and Bucky's offhand wedding down at City Hall, but this was both right and wrong. Both the bride and groom wore white, but it wasn't a white tie affair; in fact, they both wore casually cut linen and were barefoot in the sand. Colonel James Rhodes gave the bride away, Steve stood up for Tony as best man, and attendees included all the Avengers and three happily-cavorting dogs.

The End

Author's Note as of December 26, 2018! Thus ends our 2018 Advent Calendar! I am sorry that the conclusion comes so late! - I kept on schedule until the end but just got totally derailed by my actual familial obligations on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But I have enjoyed doing this so so so so much you can't imagine. I have tried to incorporate as many of your letters and suggestions as I could, while making it look (ha ha!) at least sort of intentional, and I've tried to catch every ball I flung in the air. THANK YOU FOR BEING HERE WITH ME THIS HOLIDAY SEASON. I now return you to your regularly scheduled fannish life. A happy and fannishly engaged 2019 to all of us! <3 <3 - Speranza

Letter in Chapter 4 courtesy of @BallsOnTop aka @BoT
Letters in Chapter 6 courtesy of RosiePaw and zacharypay1_Alisa
Letters in Chapter 9 courtesy of LadyDom, RosiePaw, Just_tea_thanks, and Gillette
Letters in Chapter 10 courtesy of Chelokay
Letters in Chapter 11 courtesy of sinead, Larrkin, Flamingsword, Just_tea_thanks, ReginaGiraffe, Galwithglasses, Twistedchick, Deafen_the_Satellites with beta Femme_Daltia, Andolinn, Ciircee and Sheytsa
Letter in Chapter 17 courtesy of Mellacita.

Thank you Alby for art! --and not just art! But "OMG I NEED A NEWFIE PUP WEARING TONY STARK'S GLASSES." You are the best!

Thanks Alby and Monicawoe both for beta and cheerleading!! <3

Comments very very appreciated and I'll jump in when I can! The Tumblr masterpost is here for easy reference and will be updated, though screw those guys. I am also going to be posting a link every day to Dreamwidth because I'm partying like it's 2006!