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ghosts in the machine

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Peggy Carter kissed Steve Rogers once, in 1945. That’s what history knows. Colonel Phillips told the story to a documentarian in the mid-70s, the fond reminiscence of an old, old man.

It’s a secret that hurts no one to tell, he thinks at the time. After all, Steve Rogers has been dead since 1945. Peggy Carter, since 1963.

That’s what he thinks. That’s what history knows.

History, Peggy has learned, never tells the whole story. There are always gaps. Like: history says Abraham Erskine was a kind man who dreamed of a better world, a soft touch for an underdog-- which is true enough. But history also says his serum was only ever successfully tested once, that he only ever chose one man to use it on.

That’s false. Or at least, incomplete. But it was their secret, hers and the good doctor’s, and he took it to his grave.

She hasn’t taken it to hers, yet. She’s not sure if she ever will.

Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead. Peggy learned the truth of that a long, long time ago. She’s been left with a lot of secrets to keep, down the years. Like: Peggy Carter doesn’t age, not like a normal woman. Peggy Carter faked her death, with a little help from Howard Stark. Peggy Carter found out there was a cancer at the heart of SHIELD, and she’s been trying to stop the rot for a long, long time.

Peggy Carter is old, and tired far beyond the years she wears on her face, and fighting a losing battle. History is pretty clear about what usually happens to people in her position.

It’s lucky, then, that history is often wrong.

***

Peggy has not had the luxury of sentimentality in a very long time. Her one concession is a bottle of wine, every ten years, on the anniversary of the date on her gravestone.

The first bottle she drinks with Howard, in a safehouse that’s been swept for bugs by them both enough times that they almost feel able to relax. It’s the first time they’ve been face-to-face in nearly half a decade, and he looks tired in a way that she still doesn’t, gray in his hair and lines on his face.

They toast Zola’s death, though Peggy wishes it had been a less natural end. Lord knows she did her best, but the little worm had friends in high places. Dead women can’t pull so many strings as live men. For that matter, live women usually can’t either.

It’s a hopeful night, at any rate. They’ve lived ten years with the knowledge that Hydra has its hooks in their government, their society, the organization they built up from nothing, and now that the man responsible is dead, perhaps they’ve reached a tipping point.

At the twenty-year anniversary, Peggy drinks her bottle alone. Howard’s dead, and Hydra’s influence has grown beyond anything she could have anticipated. Alexander Pierce’s ascendancy has made for a rough decade. Peggy has spent ten years bugging offices, stealing documents, trying to get close enough to Pierce to take him down. But a one-woman crusade, with her allies all dead or too old to be of use, isn’t the sort of thing that stands good odds. She still hopes, but Hydra has proven true to its name, its tendrils multiplying too fast for her to fight. It’s frankly a miracle that they haven’t caught and killed her yet, all things considered.

The thirty-year is worse. Peggy’s spent more of the intervening decade on the run than on the offensive. Pierce is bad, but she’s begun to suspect that there’s more to it than Pierce. Some malevolent intelligence is masterminding Hydra’s continued growth, something older and smarter than Pierce by far. She’s nearly desperate enough to go to the new head of SHIELD and confess all, but she doubts she’d get more than a bullet between the eyes for her trouble. Nicholas Fury was Pierce’s choice for the position, after all.

By the forty-year, she’s gone to ground entirely. She takes mercenary work here and there, a too-long lifetime of well-honed skills making her useful, when she can bring herself to compromise the woman she used to be. Saving SHIELD from itself seems an unlikely dream. She expect the next decade will pass much the same, if she lives to see the end of it. History suggests as much.

History, it turns out, doesn’t know shit. Peggy’s offered a job protecting an Iranian engineer in 2005, and nearly backs out when they try to partner her with another merc. But the other woman looks her up and down and shrugs, smiles with a bitter twist to her mouth, says “I usually work solo, but if you think you can keep up, why not?”

Peggy doesn’t look much older than this redheaded chit of a girl, not really, but damned if she’ll be shown up by an infant who thinks she knows spycraft. She takes the job.

The girl earns a little bit of grudging respect when she’s still conscious at the bottom of the cliff, and together they drag their engineer from the wreckage. The respect solidifies when a masked man with a shining silver arm catches up to them, and the girl turns out to know how to handle herself in a firefight. Between the two of them, they get their engineer out of the line of fire, but they’re pinned down, with no good avenue of escape.

“Who the hell is he?” the red-headed girl asks. “I’ve never seen anyone fight like that.”

Peggy hasn’t either, not in person, but she knows him by reputation, and she has a score to settle with him for poor Howard’s sake. “He’s Hydra’s,” she says. “The Winter Soldier by code-name, though who knows what’s under that mask.”

“Hydra?” The girl looks skeptical. “Thought they got wiped out well before the Cold War.”

“Oh, my girl,” Peggy says. “The things I could tell you about Hydra--”

She doesn’t get the chance to say the rest, too preoccupied with the grenade that’s come their way. Peggy’s dose of the serum didn’t have quite the spectacular effect it did on some, but her reflexes certainly got a boost. She manages to fling the grenade back in the direction it came, and just for the hell of it follows up with a grenade of her own at a different trajectory. They go off with two concussive booms in quick succession. When the dust clears it’s shockingly quiet, but for the rubble settling.

The redheaded girl-- Peggy supposes she ought to be calling her Natalia-- looks up from where she’s flung herself over the unconscious engineer, which Peggy approves on on principle. “How’d you do that?” she asks Peggy. “Nobody’s that quick.”

“I am,” Peggy says. “Now, if you don’t mind waiting here a moment, I think I’ll go kill the Winter Soldier.”

She strides out into the lobby of the building they’d taken shelter in, which now has a skylight where none had been earlier. The Soldier’s backup is dead; the man himself is pinned under a slab of concrete, his metal arm mangled, struggling to get loose to no avail. His goggles and mask seem to have been knocked free in the explosion; blood is streaming from his temple, matting his hair to his face.

It’s not until Peggy’s in point-blank range that he bothers to look up at her. With his free hand he swipes blood and grit and hair out of his eyes, and for the first time in decades Peggy’s gun falters in her grip.

“Barnes?” she says.

He blinks up at her, concussed or worse. “I know you,” he says, slow and a little slurred. “Don’t I?”

“Oh, you poor devil,” she says. “What have they done to you?”

Natalia, to her surprise, doesn’t protest much when Peggy returns with their recent assailant’s flesh-and-blood arm slung over her shoulder. They bundle him into the very back of the first van they can steal, bound hand and foot, and deliver their engineer with unseemly haste.

Peggy has safehouses everywhere, but she rarely has company in them. Three people make the space a trifle cramped, especially when one insists on bleeding all over the place.

“I thought you were going to shoot him,” Natalia says, when Barnes is bandaged and sedated to Peggy’s satisfaction.

“You don’t recognize him?” Peggy asks. “I thought every schoolchild knew about Captain America and his Howling Commandos.”

“Not Russian schoolchildren,” Natalia points out. “And I was never really one of those, either. What the hell’s going on? Were you serious about Hydra?” She looks very young, sitting there. Peggy never had much of a mothering instinct, but perhaps there is an urge to mentor in her that she hasn’t had a chance to exercise.

“I am always serious about Hydra,” Peggy says. “They never got wiped out, and they’ve been a parasite on the world for as long as I’ve--” She cuts herself off. “For a long, long time. I don’t know how they got hold of Sergeant Barnes, nor what they’ve done to him, but I intend to correct it.”

Natalia cocks her head, curious. “How old are you, anyway?”

“Older than I look,” says Peggy, feeling every day of it.

She sends Natalia on an errand, and the girl accepts the pretense for what it is and leaves her be for a while. Peggy sits by Barnes’s bedside while he sleeps, and he stirs far faster than he ought to for the amount of sedative she gave him. That’s a fact she files away; he and Steve were always rather vague about what happened in that Hydra factory, and at the time no one had pressed. She’s had suspicions for a long time, and here they are, all confirmed.

So when Barnes groans and tries to sit up, Peggy’s there to offer him a sip of water. “Lie still, Sergeant,” she tell him. “You’ve got an impressive array of injuries, and I don’t care to count your broken ribs.”

He tries to focus on her, still muzzy. “Who are you?”

“You don’t remember?”

He shakes his head minutely. “Not s’posed to,” he says. “Got a procedure t’morrow, ‘cause I’m not s’posed to. You called me Sergeant,” he adds suddenly, changing focus.

Peggy doesn’t want to think about what has happened to this man, who had been her friend, once. Who had been like a brother to the best man she ever knew. She’s not very good at being gentle, not anymore, but she tries her best. “Yes, I did call you Sergeant,” she says. “You are one, you know. Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, of the Hundred and Seventh. Do you remember that?”

He shakes his head again. “They always make me forget,” he says.

“Do you want to forget?” she asks him.

He doesn’t answer at first. His brow furrows in concentration. “It hurts, when I forget,” he says. “But it hurts when I remember, too.”

“It might be worth the hurt, remembering,” she tells him. Certainly she would not trade the memory of her long life for ignorance, despite everything.

And apparently Barnes agrees, because he nods, just a little, before his eyes slip closed again.

When Natalia returns, she sits down across from Peggy and says “So I did a little research, while I was out.”

“And what did you find?” Peggy asks.

“Captain America and his Howling Commandos,” Natalia says. It was brave of her to come back, Peggy thinks. She likes this girl. “The Winter Soldier looks just like one of them. And you, you look like--”

“Like I said,” Peggy tells her, “I’m older than I look.”

It takes a long time for Barnes to recover anything of himself. It’s arduous, keeping Barnes from lashing out, keeping out of Hydra’s sights. Peggy expects Natalia to leave them to it half a dozen times, but to her surprise the girl sticks it out. She’s good with Barnes, even-- cajoling out hints of his old self, calling him James with easy affection that doesn’t seem feigned at all.

Peggy knows she’s being allowed to overhear, one night, when Natalia tells James a secret. “I’m not like you,” she whispers to him. “I wasn’t a real person yet when they got me, and I’m still not now I’ve gotten out. I’ve got nothing to go back to being.”

James, who remembers more day by day, who looks at Peggy like a mournful ghost, reaches out to tuck a lock of Natalia’s hair behind her ear. “I almost envy that,” he tells her. “You can be anything you want. I only want to be what I was, and I can’t.”

Peggy has been what she is for forty years and more, and nothing else. She is a blade worn so sharp and thin that she’s not much use for anything but wounding. Abraham Erskine gave her a gift, lifetimes ago, that he hoped would stop Hydra, and she’s failed in the mission he set her.

But maybe it was never a mission that could be achieved alone.

Things start moving faster, after that. James is, if anything, more single-minded than she in his desire to take down Hydra, and Natalia proves a willing and capable third. “I think I’d like a cause that’s actually worth standing up for,” she says, “and I kind of like the idea of beating Hydra at their own game.” So they send her off to infiltrate SHIELD.

“If Barton is Hydra, he’s doing a remarkable job of hiding it,” Peggy tells Natalia, before she goes. “He plays basketball in the inter-office league with a few of them, and he flirts with the secretary on his handler’s floor, but those are the only associations with known Hydra agents I can find. And his psych profile’s all wrong for it, besides.”

“Should I bring him in?” Natalia asks.

“I wouldn’t. If you’re wrong, you’ll lose your access to SHIELD. Trust him in the field, but I wouldn’t go any farther.”

“If he earns it, you’ll know,” says James. Peggy shoots him a curious look, and he shrugs. “I mean, if not telling him starts keeping Nat up at night--”

“Please,” Natalia says. She’ll be Natasha, soon. “I’m a professional.”

“You sure about this?” James asks her, on her way out the door. “It’ll be lonely as hell, and we can only do so much to help if you get burned.”

Natasha smiles at that, bright and sharp. “Solo ops, I can do,” she says. “Never been much of a team player. And if I had to pick a team, yours comes with the best resumé.”

So their little red bird leaves the nest, off to play cuckoo in Hydra’s tree. Peggy and James have work of their own, and it keeps them busy. They make a good team, between her decades of experience and his brutal, hard-earned skill. They take out a lot of viper’s nests, between them, but they’re only a few heads on a creature with too many of them.

“If we could get Pierce,” James says to her one night, holed up outside of Cairo. It’s punishingly hot. He’s shirtless, his arm shining dully in the light that leaks in from the street. They’d had to rebuild it nearly from scratch after Odessa; it shows the repairs, but works as well as it ever did. Just like James does.

“We can’t show our faces inside the Beltway without setting off every alarm in the Triskelion,” she reminds James, as she strips and cleans her rifle. “It’s unfortunate, but true. Natasha might get a shot at him one of these days, though.”

“Well, we can hope,” James says. He sighs. “You know, Steve woulda marched right up to Pierce and socked him one on the jaw, and somehow not gotten shot,” he said. “Wish that worked for us.”

“Steve had us to watch his back,” Peggy said. “Maybe if we had him, to watch ours.”

They don’t talk about him much. What’s there to say? He’s been a ghost looking over her shoulder for far longer than he’d ever been a part of her life. She knows it’s different for James, knows the shadow looms larger. With all the time James spent frozen, Steve is only a few years in his past, and was a presence in far more of his life. But dead is dead, and Steve’s memory won’t help them achieve the task at hand.

Time slips by. Peggy starts thinking about the bottle of wine she’ll drink to mark fifty years of this life. James’ night terrors come less often, though they never go entirely.

And then Natasha, deep enough into SHIELD that she can’t contact them often, calls Peggy on their in-case-of-disaster secure line. “You need an extraction?” Peggy says, fearing the worst.

“No. But something’s happened that you need to know about. SHIELD found the Valkyrie.”

Peggy’s breath catches in her throat. James, at the window, looks up at her inquiringly from his rifle scope. “We can’t let them have the body,” she says. “God knows what they’ll get from it--”

“There’s no body,” Natasha says. “Or, well--”

“Spit it out,” Peggy says impatiently.

“He’s alive,” Natasha says, and Peggy very nearly drops the phone.

James is at her side in an instant. He plucks the phone from her hand, says “Nat? What--” and then sits down abruptly in the nearest chair. “Is he-- how?” he says. Peggy can’t hear the answer, but it makes James go white at the mouth and cover his eyes with one hand. “Jesus,” he says. “And Fury-- he thought Steve would buy that? Serves him right.”

There’s a pause, while James listens. “Okay,” he says, finally. “Okay. Just-- look after him, if you can, will you? Yeah. Thanks.”

He hangs up, and says nothing for a long moment. “Fuck,” he says, at last.

“How?” Peggy asks.

“He froze,” says James. “Like I did, but not on purpose. SHIELD found him, thawed him out, tried to convince him it was still the forties, which went about as well as you’d expect--”

Peggy manages a smile, thinking of the clever, clear-eyed man she’d known. “I can imagine, yes,” she says dryly.

“And now they’ve got him,” James concludes. “And we can’t get near him, because he’ll probably have three compromised agents watching him for every one that’s not.”

“He’ll have Natasha,” Peggy says. “She’ll do what she can. And so will we.”

Steve’s in New York, so they’re not. Steve’s in SHIELD’s dubious care, and they have to stay away. But Steve’s alive. Steve’s alive, and that makes all the difference.

Peggy can see it in James. He’s lighter, less careworn, more prone to reminiscing. But he has blacker moods, too, sometimes, when he thinks of telling Steve what the years have done to him. “I don’t know how I’ll face him,” he tells Peggy.

“Worry about how you’ll get the chance, first,” Peggy tells him. “Then work on your speech.”

Peggy’s trying, resolutely, not to think about it. If she ever sees Steve Rogers in the flesh again, she’ll likely have more important things to do than confess her sins to him. If that day comes, it’ll likely be because he’s learned about her failure to stop Hydra, so the worst of it will be taken care of in advance.

That’s not, actually, a comfort.

They’re halfway around the world when the skies open up over Manhattan, and an army from another world pours through. They can only watch and worry, like ordinary people, from their bolt-hole in Manila, flipping between news channels for glimpses of what’s happening.

James is the one who spots him. “Change it back,” he tells her, and she flips back to the last news feed, now showing a camera-phone blur of red and blue. “There he is,” James breathes, his whole face lighting up.

They watch Steve take out aliens in company with an unlikely band of allies, Natasha and Barton included. “We probably should have brought him in already,” James says, watching Barton put arrows through the monsters.

“Possibly, yes,” Peggy muses. Then the channel cuts to footage of Tony Stark in his ridiculous suit, wrestling a warhead into the sky. The monsters fall out of the air. The hole closes, Stark falling through at the last possible moment. Peggy sends up a silent thank-you to Howard’s ghost, not often thought of anymore. There is cheering coming from the street outside.

“Jesus,” says James, leaning against her for a moment as if he needs the support. She puts her arm around him. They don’t do this, not often: neither of them are used to the kinds of touches that mean anything, anymore. But James hides his face in the crook of her neck, his breathing a little ragged, and she presses her cheek to the top of his head, and they hold on to each other because they can’t hold on to Steve.

“We’ll get to him,” she promises James. “Sooner or later. I swore I’d finish the work he started, and I meant it. I’ll get you back to him.”

He stifles a laugh, and it comes out sounding more like a sob. “Shouldn’t I be the one promising that to you?”

“I wasn’t blind back then, James,” she says. “And I’m certainly not now. I know perfectly well what he is to you.”

James goes still, and looks up at her. “You knew about that?” he asks. “But you--”

“I liked him,” she said, “very much, and I wasn’t above giving you some competition. I think he liked me, too. Who knows what he’ll think of me now.”

“Who knows what he’ll think of either of us,” he says. He looks so mournful. Having him at her side, these last few years, has given Peggy the first hope she’s had in decades of winning her long, lonely war.

So she tips his chin up, and kisses him. He doesn’t kiss back at first, too startled, but then he cups her face with his good hand and opens his mouth under hers.

If Steve were here, she’d tell him she had a great many good reasons for taking James Barnes to bed. She might list them for him, sensibly, one after the next. But knowing Steve Rogers, he’d look at her, that clear-eyed look that saw through all sorts of subterfuge, and she’d admit that she was lonely, and she still missed him even after all this time, and she wanted to get and to give what comfort she could in his absence.

After New York, the world knows that Captain America is alive, and Peggy lets out a breath she’d hardly been aware of holding. Steve can’t be disappeared, now, can’t be quietly locked away or put down, and even if she and James still can’t get near him he’ll be safer than he was. Funny, that it took an alien invasion to ensure that.

SHIELD has what seem, no doubt, like good reasons for moving Steve to Washington, but Peggy knows it’s more to keep tabs on him than anything else. Hydra must know that James is still at large, even if she’s kept her own survival secret, and they can’t want to risk him getting to Steve and spilling all their dirty secrets.

At least Natasha’s partnered with him regularly, often enough to know how he’s doing. She can’t update them anywhere near as often as Peggy would like, but it’s better than nothing.

For whatever reason, Hydra has minimal interest in Baltimore. Peggy and James find themselves spending a lot of time there, in apartments and houses that Howard Stark paid for when the world was a very different place. They hover at the edges of Steve’s orbit, as close as they can get without discovery. Peggy drinks her fifth bottle of wine, this time with James for company.

When things start to go to hell, they do so rapidly. There’s a series of terse texts from Natasha. Fury dead is followed by on walkabout with Steve is followed by need you to pick something up from fort meade, then get to DC asap.

It turns out that when every resource SHIELD has is devoted to tracking down Captain America, nobody notices when any other familiar faces hit the city limits. Peggy delivers the package Natasha had requested from Fort Meade to a young man she’s never seen before. “You Natasha’s friend?” he asks her, as she sets the too-heavy duffel down beside her on the park bench.

He has about as much tradecraft as Steve ever did-- which is to say, not much at all. She likes him, nonetheless. “And you’re Steve’s, I believe,” she replies. “I’m glad. He could use more friends.”

Before he leaves with the duffel, he pauses. “Who are you, anyway?” he asks. “Natasha was pretty vague.”

“I’m her backup,” Peggy says. “If things go awry, you’ll see me again. And things do have such an awful tendency to go awry, don’t they?”

“Man,” he says, “you’re telling me.” But he smiles before he goes, and Peggy smiles back.

Things do go awry, of course. SHIELD sends its strike team after Steve and Natasha and their new friend, their Hydra stool-pigeon collateral damage in the first exchange of fire. They’re not shy of collateral damage in general, in fact, laying waste to a generous chunk of southeast Washington. It’s a numbers game, in the end: three people surrounded by too many helmeted Hydra goons, their guns raised.

Peggy and James open fire from the nearest roof. The strike team hadn’t accounted for that variable, nor for the helmeted goon that turns on its fellows, ushering the three captives to safety.

Peggy gets a text with coordinates from Natasha, and she and James meet her in a disused Metro utility tunnel some blocks away. Along with Steve and the young man with the wings, they’ve picked up Maria Hill, whom Peggy has very badly wanted to trust for some time now. Hill is wearing a SHIELD strike team uniform-- apparently she was the turncoat helmet.

“Good to see you,” Natasha tells Peggy and James, who are still armored and ski-masked and goggled, anonymous under their layers. “I’ve had a hell of a day. Did you know Zola uploaded his brain to a giant obsolete computer before he died?”

That explains a great deal, actually. But Hill cuts in, asking “Who the hell are you two?”

“You’re the backup, right?” Sam asks. James nods.

“Names would be nice,” Steve interjects. “Faces, too. I like to know who’s on my side.”

Peggy exchanges a look with James. Now might not be the time for Steve to get this much of a surprise; but then, they’re all in a hurry and not likely to get a better opportunity.

“Aw, hell,” James says, and they pull their goggles off, their masks down. “Hey, Steve.”

Steve goes utterly white.

“I know it’s a bit of a shock,” Peggy says.

“Wait a minute,” Hill says to her. “You look like--”

“Yeah, and he looks like--” says the young man whose name she really should get.

“I’m afraid we do,” says Peggy, “because we are, but it’s the sort of long story that should wait until fewer people are trying to kill us. Peggy Carter. Charmed, I’m sure,” she adds, and offers the young man her hand.

“Uh,” he says, “Sam Wilson?”

“Clock’s ticking, folks,” says Natasha, blessedly pragmatic. “Hill, Peggy; Peggy, Hill. James, Hill; Hill, James. Steve, you know ‘em already, so let’s go.”

“Go where?” Steve asks, his voice a little faint. He’s been looking between Peggy and James, and nowhere else, since they took their masks off.

“Well, I had a plan for that,” says Hill, “and apparently we’re all on the same side, so I guess that still works.” And she takes them to see Nick Fury, who is, it seems, not dead either.

“Okay,” says Sam Wilson, “is Gabe Jones gonna climb out of a trapdoor in the floor in a minute? ‘Cause I wouldn’t even be surprised at this point.”

“Me neither,” says Steve, who is still white around the mouth, who spent the drive to Fury’s hidey-hole staring at the both of them, the words shocked out of him.

“I could use an explanation, too,” says Hill, which Fury seconds.

“Might we have a minute or two with Steve, first?” Peggy asks, and after a moment Steve nods stiffly and stalks out of the room. She and James follow, looking nervously at one another.

As soon as they’re through the door, James says “Steve, I--” and is cut off when Steve whirls on the spot and flings his arms around James, clinging tight. “I don’t care,” Steve says, “I don’t care why, you’re here and you’re not--”

“Hey,” James says, and puts his arms up to return the hug. “It’s okay, Steve. I’m okay.”

They stand like that for a little while, before Steve sniffs noisily and draws back to look at James’ face. “I guess I do want to know why,” he says, and looks at Peggy. “Both of you. God, Peggy, come here--”

And it’s her turn for a bone-crushing hug, one that lifts her clean off her feet. “You don’t know,” Steve says, when he sets her down, “how much I’ve missed you, both of you. How is this even possible?”

“What else?” Peggy says. “The serum. Dr. Erskine did me a favor, before he died, and when it became apparent that I’d stopped aging as a result, Howard helped me fake my death. We’d discovered that Hydra had infiltrated SHIELD, and I meant to root it out.”

“How’d that go?” Steve asks, wry, and Peggy pulls a face.

“Not terribly well,” she says. “It got a bit easier once I ran across James. His route was a little more circuitous than mine.”

“Zola gave me something in that factory,” James tells Steve. “Some version of the serum, and that’s how I survived the fall. Russian soldiers found me, and I ended up in Soviet hands. It, uh, wasn’t a lot of fun.”

“We crossed paths some years ago, along with Natasha, and sent her to SHIELD to be our eyes and ears,” Peggy cuts in, wanting to spare James the telling of that story, at least for now. He shoots her a grateful look.

“So you two have been trying to take down Hydra from the outside, while Fury’s been trying to do it from the inside,” Steve says. “Why didn’t you ever combine forces?”

“He didn’t know about us,” Peggy says, “and we didn’t know if he could be trusted. Given that Pierce is in it up to his neck, and Pierce appointed Fury--”

“So you’ve been working at cross-purposes, while Hydra’s all pointed in the same direction,” Steve says, clear-eyed as ever. “Great. Well, at least that’s not a problem anymore.”

When they come back in, Natasha’s deep in conference with Hill. “If you three are done with your touching reunion,” Fury says, “we have some business to conduct.”

“Dude,” says Sam, “I think they’ve earned a minute.” Fury’s glare, which according to Natasha is legendary within SHIELD, has no noticeable effect. Peggy likes Sam.

Project Insight is a horrible sort of surprise to Peggy, and if he weren’t so recently injured she’d throttle Fury for ever thinking it was a good idea in the first place. “If you were wondering why I never trusted you with my identity,” she tells him, “this is why.”

“Well, maybe if you hadn’t sent Romanov in as a mole, I’d have trusted her enough to tell her about Insight!” he answers back.

“Technically Peggy still outranks you,” Natasha points out, “so if anything, I was more on SHIELD’s side than you--”

“None of that matters,” Steve interrupts, “because there’s nothing we can do about it now. Right now, we need to figure how to take down SHIELD.”

“You mean Hydra,” Fury says, but Steve’s already shaking his head.

“I mean SHIELD,” he says. “It all has to go. It’s rotten through.”

“He’s right,” Peggy puts in, “and this is me saying it. There’s no saving it.”

Hill nods, and Natasha, and when Fury looks pleadingly at Sam, Sam puts his hands up and says “Hey, I was pretty clear whose side I was on from the start. Which is the side with all the World War Two folks, if you’re wondering.”

So: they have a plan. Get to the Triskelion, reprogram the carriers, set off the most glorious circular firing squad in history, dump most of a century’s worth of intelligence to the Internet. “Sure,” James mutters, en route. “Easy.” Peggy smiles at him, instinctive, and then realizes that Steve is doing the same.

Steve claims a carrier for himself, and with benefit of flight Sam does the same. That leaves one to James and Peggy. After Steve delivers his speech and SHIELD erupts into chaos, she and James make their way through the building, taking out any agents they know to be Hydra that they can hit. When they arrive at the airstrip outside, the carriers have already begun rising into the air. There’s a gunfight in progress between the loyal agents, trying to provide Steve and Sam with air support, and the traitors, whom Peggy and James are only too happy to help dispatch.

“Thanks,” says a flight-suited agent after Peggy shoots three Hydra agents in a row, freeing up a plane. The woman does a double-take when she gets a good look at Peggy’s face. “Hey, you look like--”

“Yes, thank you, I’m aware,” Peggy says, whipping around to fire again at someone behind her. “My associate and I could use a lift, if you don’t mind.”

“Your--” the woman begins, and then James comes running up the wing of the nearest plane and backflips off it, guns blazing. He lands heavily behind Peggy, just as a swarm of strike team goons rush them.

But James still has the Winter Soldier’s skills, and Peggy might not have his strength but she’s certainly got the reflexes and a lot more practice. And they work well together, and have for quite some time. The swarm is reduced in number very, very quickly. The pilot blinks at them both, her eyes widening when she sees James’ face.

“You said you needed a lift?” she asks, a little weakly.

Swapping out the computer chip’s easier than expected, with the skeleton crews the carriers are running, and Peggy’s back in the air with James and their new pilot friend with a quickness. She can hear in her earpiece that Steve and Sam have done the same, over the echoing booms of the carriers blowing each other to pieces. Before they land, though, she directs the pilot to drop her and James on the roof, as close to the helipad as she can manage. Fury’s just gone inside, she sees, and Peggy’s got a score to settle in the penthouse office.

Fury is saying something about clearances when she nears the door. “--both eyes open,” he’s finishing up as she enters, James at her heels.

“You won’t be needing his clearance,” Peggy says. “I doubt anyone’s ever thought to revoke mine.” When Pierce sees her-- sees James-- his eyes go comically wide.

“You,” he begins.

“Yeah, me,” says James, and socks him one on the jaw. “That felt really good,” he says.

She and Fury unlock the files. When Pierce recovers enough to reach for his phone, James kicks his hand away hard enough to make Pierce scream and curl into a ball, which is also rather satisfying. Outside, the carriers are listing dangerously close to the building.

“I think it might be time to go,” Natasha says. She unclips the tracker on her collar, and the other councilmen do the same. “Are we taking Pierce? He’d look great in an orange jumpsuit.”

“You think I’m ever going to face this country’s sorry excuse for justice?” Pierce spits at them, hauling himself to his feet. “The world needs men like me, and they know it. I’m going to disappear, and a year or five or ten from now I’ll be back, because I’m never going to stop until I get what I--”

Two bullet holes bloom in his chest. Pierce looks down at them, and then up at Peggy and James, who still have their guns up. “We’re not like Steve,” Peggy says. “We don’t fight fair.”

“And even Steve would agree you’re an asshole,” adds James. Pierce collapses to the ground. “Let’s get out of here.”

They get out of there.

Even leaving the bullet holes aside, Steve’s apartment is probably still bugged, so after Natasha leaves them to take Sam home, and Hill shepherds off a still-injured Fury, Peggy steers Steve and James to a Woodley Park safehouse she hasn’t seen the inside of since the Ford administration. “This is a really ugly apartment,” Steve observes upon entering, taking in the avocado-and-mustard color scheme.

“Blame Howard,” Peggy tells him, then surprises herself with a huge yawn. “I promise we’ll explain all of it in the morning,” she tells Steve, “but right now I’m properly exhausted, and I doubt it’d come out making much sense.”

“What she said,” James adds. “I know I got the cut-rate serum, but I’m beat.”

Steve nods. “I can wait the night,” he says, and then looks away, seemingly embarrassed. “Um. I don’t know if I want either of you out of my sight for that long, though.”

Peggy glances at James. They’ve habitually shared a bed since Manila, and they’ve talked the possibilities over, but she doesn’t know how Steve‘s actual presence is going to change things. She feels like a bit of a dirty old woman for it, but she finds she’s attracted to Steve as much as she ever was, and from what she knows, James’ devotion hasn’t wavered at all.

James doesn’t seem worried about any of it, though. “Sure,” he says, deliberately easy for Steve’s benefit. “We can all fit in one room. Maybe there’s some couch cushions we can put on the floor.”

Steve laughs at that. The larger bedroom turns out to have a truly massive, if hideously upholstered, bed. They drop a pile of military surplus, weaponry, and historically-priceless uniform onto the shag carpeting, and pile themselves into the bed. Peggy sleeps soundly for the first time in a very long time, all her missions accomplished.

When she drifts awake, early-morning sunlight is filtering in, and James is talking softly to Steve over the top of her head. “...not your fault, okay?” he says. “It sucked, but I’m clear of it now, and there wasn’t anything you could have done.”

“I wish I could have been there to stop it,” Steve says, and he reaches across Peggy to touch the metal of James’ arm. “Feels like every time I think I’ve got a grip on what I missed, I get thrown another curveball.”

“I’m not well acquainted with American sports metaphor, mind,” Peggy says, stretching, “but I would like to ask whether we count as a bad curveball, or a good one.”

Steve grins at them. On the rare occasions Natasha had been able to report on Steve to them, she’d mentioned how he hardly ever smiled. Now he can’t seem to stop, and it does Peggy’s heart, withered old thing that it is, good to know she’s responsible for that, at least in part.

“It’s the best curveball I could have asked for, having you two here,” he says. “No matter how it happened.”

Peggy smiles foolishly up at Steve, and James at her, and they are thoroughly ridiculous, the lot of them. She pushes herself up on her elbows to drop a kiss on James’ mouth. He smiles into the kiss, making a contented noise and nipping at her lower lip as she draws back.

Steve seems to realize for the first time that he is minimally clothed and sharing a bed with two other people. His eyes go wide. “Um,” he says, “are you two-- I mean, I don’t mind if you are-- but if you want I can, uh--”

Peggy laughs, and reels Steve in for a kiss of his own. It’s chaste, just her mouth pressed to his, and when he draws back his eyes flick anxiously to James.

“Relax,” James says. “I mean, I did kind of make off with your best girl, so if you’re sore about it I understand. You were dead at the time, though, so I don’t think it counts.”

“And, to be fair,” Peggy interjects, “once we knew you weren’t dead we came to an agreement rather quickly.”

Steve’s gaze darts between the two of them, and he licks his lips. “What kind of agreement?”

“That we’d share,” James says.

“If you’ll have us,” Peggy adds.

Steve’s smile in response is a slow-blooming thing, but it’s brilliant by the time it’s done. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay.” He leans across Peggy to kiss James, open-mouthed, still smiling.

On occasion, over the last several decades, Peggy has had cause to regret her longevity. Now, though, she’s grateful for it, for the twists of fate that brought her here, to these men and this place. She might have felt adrift, without Pierce to hate or Hydra to fight, but James and Steve, she thinks, will serve her well as anchors. Even if she’s got no idea what will happen next.

History doesn’t have anything to suggest about her future. It’s wide open.

Peggy likes it that way.