"Peggy, you know I trust your judgment, but—"
"Even if the assassin isn’t… even if it’s not him, Howard, it’s someone like him. And we have nothing to counter that save what secrets course through James Barnes’s veins. And if it is him, then we’ll need Barnes all the more.”
"Protecting Barnes was the only thing Steve Rogers ever asked of us, Peg. Going to Barnes now, with this? It’ll be a betrayal of the only promise we made to Steve that we’ve been able to keep. Barnes has been home for years. He’s gotten on with his life, got kids for crying out loud. I’m willing to let you burn your candle at both ends for this, but I can’t let you destroy his life for nothing more than rumors and hunches and hopes.”
"It is. We have no proof. We have a whole lot of coincidences and speculation and the raw grief of a nation that lost a hero and a woman who lost her fella. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not saying that you’re doing this because you got your heart broken. I’m saying that what we have isn’t worth the cost of breaking that promise to Steve. Find me something real, something absolutely true and provable, and I’ll take you to him myself. But until then, let Bucky Barnes be.”
There’d been a car for her to take, but she’d never liked driving in cities and New York was worse than most. Besides, there was something... not right, but perhaps meaningful in taking the Long Island Railroad to Woodside. Following in Barnes’s footsteps, tracing one facet of the life he’d built for himself even as she knew that she was likely coming to destroy it.
But what she understood, what Howard did not, was that such destruction would not be entirely unwelcome and it would not be entirely by her own hands. Bucky Barnes had been swinging a hammer at the foundations of his post-war life even as he’d been building it.
Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes had been honorably discharged from the US Army four months after his rescue from the HYDRA work camp. He’d been sent home earlier than that on a medical chit, but there hadn’t been too much trouble convincing the War Department that Sergeant Barnes’s year-plus of service, including weeks as a POW in extremis, had been a more than sufficient contribution to the war effort. He’d been given a medal and a handshake and returned to the grateful bosom of his family under the watchful eye of Steve Rogers, who had quietly engineered the whole thing.
Steve had been willing to bear the burden of Barnes’s resentment -- of course Barnes had realized what had happened, just as he’d realized that there was nothing he could do about it. But Steve hadn’t anticipated what his death would do to the man who’d spent two-thirds of his life protecting him but had been thousands of miles away on the day he’d been needed most.
On the face of it, Barnes was a glowing example of a returned soldier. He had gone home to his family in Brooklyn and followed his father's footsteps and become a conductor on the commuter railroad. He had married, moved to Queens, and was the father of two young children. He was well-liked at work and in the neighborhood, didn’t drink too much, didn’t hurt his wife, showed up on time to work in good humor. He also showed up regularly at the cemetery where a small headstone was tucked next to Joseph and Sarah Rogers's and had angry, tear-filled, one-sided arguments with the best friend he’d never forgiven and never stopped missing.
The first time Peggy had watched him from a distance, the grief and pain and guilt evident even without seeing his face, she’d left with tears in her eyes, her own pain renewed. The second time, she’d come away sure that Barnes would help them and they wouldn’t even have to ask nicely.
She still planned to ask nicely. It would likely be the only kindness she could offer.
Steve had been in Johann Schmidt's plane when it had gone down over the Black Sea seven years ago. It had been flying southeast from the HYDRA base, but they hadn't known where Schmidt had been looking to escape to and, if Steve had found out, the mystery had died with him. Or was presumed to have died with him, but after seven years of waiting and hoping that Steve had somehow either escaped from the plane or survived the crash, there was little to challenge that presumption. The Russians had found the plane inside a month and had returned Captain America's shield to President Truman at Potsdam with great solemnity and fanfare. That was all they had of Steve, however; the destruction of the crash had been total and there had been no intact bodies recovered, just parts and if none of them had obviously been Steve's, that did not provide either proof of life or its opposite. Schmidt's death had been confirmed with gruesome photographs of his head and upper torso, jaggedly torn away from the rest of him, which was still unrecovered. Steve, however, was lost, in the truest sense of the word, and while the nation and the world had grieved the death of Captain America and moved on, those who missed Steve Rogers had been left in a purgatory with little hope of escape.
Peggy wasn't waiting for him anymore, hadn't been for years, but that didn't change the fact that she'd loved him and he'd gone and not returned to her. Their time together had been measured in quality, not quantity, but it had left her with high standards that none of her subsequent suitors had ever quite met. And, occasionally, it left her doing double-takes at the backs of tall, blond men who might've looked like him in passing. A habit she'd always chastised herself for, but now might possibly have the germ of something besides wishful (and wistful) thinking to it.
Hence the trip to Queens.
She was under no illusion that her visit to Barnes would be welcome; she was a reminder of what the cost of his new life had been and who had paid for it. Barnes didn't blame her for making the offer; he knew as well as she did that the idea had been Steve's from the start. But he blamed her for accepting it, for aiding and abetting Steve in his rashness, and that had been before the final consequences of those actions had been revealed. What he'd do now, when she showed up out of his painful past to tell him that the protection Steve had paid so dearly for was now used up, well that would be seen. She wasn't going to tell him that Steve might be alive, let alone in what circumstances; she had promised Howard that and would have kept that secret even without promising. But what she was going to tell him would be enough to cause damage.
The walk from the railroad station was short and initially quite noisy with the elevated subway rattling overhead and the streets full of shoppers and cars. It was a working class neighborhood, but a pleasant one that quickly became residential once the noise from the El faded somewhat, and was mostly populated by Irish and German immigrants judging by the conversations she heard as she walked. Barnes had married an Irish girl not too far off the boat and it would seem that they’d set up house where she could hear familiar accents.
The Barnes home was on a quiet street, a modest two-story thing with pale green siding and a tiny front yard and a concrete walk currently obstructed by a red tricycle turned on its side. But only temporarily as it was righted and then lifted up by Barnes himself, holding a toddler in the other arm. He looked both completely different and fundamentally unchanged from when last she'd seen him up close and not skulking about in cemeteries; he'd lost the pale exhaustion of the torture victim she'd first met in 1943, but still had a softness of youth about his features that most men had worn away by thirty-five. If anything, he looked younger now than he had back then.
“Judy, come put your bike away or you’re not going to be allowed to ride it tomorrow,” he called toward the rear of the house as he carried the tricycle to the corner of the small lawn and deposited it there. He made sure it wouldn’t roll before turning around and that’s when he saw Peggy on the sidewalk and froze.
"I’m sorry for dropping by unannounced," she began, putting on her best smile. It did not fool Barnes, although the little boy in his arms returned it charmingly. "There’s-"
"Did you find him?" It came out hoarse and full of dread.
She felt her smile falter and the warning burn of tears because his desperation brought forth her own that she'd worked so hard to bury, but she fought for her composure and won. “That’s a complicated question.”
"How complicated a question is it?" he asked sharply. The toddler in his arms, possibly sensing the tension, started to wiggle and fret and Barnes kissed his forehead absently to still him. "You found some sign of him or you didn’t."
Peggy tilted her head a little because Barnes had to know there were more options than that, even if he couldn’t imagine the possibility they were facing. He’d seen too much during his time at war to think it so simple and she’d bet her best pistol on him having spent more than a few moments over the last seven years wondering what else could have happened since Steve’s plane had gone down.
His loud sigh was answer enough, but the little flare of fear in his eyes perhaps said more than he had intended and she did him the favor of pretending to have missed it.
"Bucky, did you want to—" Maura Barnes, black-haired, blue-eyed, and well into another pregnancy, paused as she came around the side of the house. She looked at Peggy sharply and Peggy recognized a threat assessment when she saw one. She held herself still for presentation; she hadn’t come to seduce Barnes into her bed, but she’d come for him nonetheless and pretending otherwise would do herself no favors. Not when Barnes’s posture was still stiff and he was holding his son more closely than necessary.
"Molly, this is Peggy Carter," Barnes said as he adjusted his grip on the squirming boy turning in his arms to see his mother. "She’s—"
"Steve’s sweetheart," Maura — Molly — finished for him, wiping her hands on her apron. The appraising look grew sharper as she approached even as she smiled. "It’s nice to finally meet you."
Peggy shook the offered hand and murmured the appropriate words. Molly Barnes knew this wasn’t a social call as well as her husband did, but insisted Peggy stay for supper as if it were. She took the boy from his father’s arms and sent her husband in to change; he had lost the cap and coat, but was still in his uniform, albeit looking a little askew as his son had been tugging his tie free of the waistcoat.
"This isn’t about finding Steve, is it," Molly said, not making it a question as she led Peggy up the walk toward the house.
Molly didn’t wait for confirmation or correction, opening the door for Peggy and then crouching to let her flailing son free once the door had closed behind them. “Down ye get, Matty.”
Peggy must have shown some surprise on her face — if the file on James Barnes had included his children’s names, she hadn’t seen it — because Molly chuckled as she stood.
"He wouldn’t let me name the baby Steven," she explained with a fond smile as she watched young Matty stumble down the hallway like a tiny drunken sailor. "Everyone thought that’s what we’d do for the first boy and I’d reconciled myself to it before Bucky’d even asked for my hand. But when the time came, he said that there were too many babies named Steve already. But this one—" she patted her stomach, "—he’ll be Steve."
Peggy didn’t ask how she knew or if her husband did. “Steve would have been honored,” she said instead, handing over her gloves and hat to Molly’s now-free waiting hands.
"Steve would have been embarrassed," Molly replied, turning to place the items on the table by the closet door, and Peggy coughed out a laugh because it was true. "I might be spending more time with his ghost, but I met the man once and I don’t think Bucky was wrong when he said Steve wouldn’t want it."
Steve had met the then-Miss Raney on a trip to New York shortly before the plane had gone down, Peggy remembered. He’d come back to London impressed and relieved, glad that Barnes had found someone to be serious about and hopeful that this new bond would someday allow them to heal the still-strained one between them. But while there had been letters back and forth after that visit, it would be the last time they saw each other and, clearly, that repair had not been completed in time. One more item on the list of unfinished business Steve had left behind.
She fought back a sudden surge of feeling, the sharp-jagged bundle of emotions she didn’t bother to identify anymore beyond associating them with missing Steve. “He wouldn’t want it for himself,” she agreed, glad her voice betrayed nothing. “And if he were here, he’d fight you over it. But he’d want Bucky to be at peace and if honoring him by naming a son after him brought that, then he’d grit his teeth and bear it with a smile.”
"Aye," Molly agreed. "The baby will help, but there’s not going to be peace until Steve comes home, one way or the other. And you didn’t come here to say that he had."
The sound of Barnes’s footsteps coming closer to the stairs they still stood near forestalled any reply Peggy might have had. Instead, she followed Molly into the living room, an orderly but comfortable space currently winning the war between tidiness and family life despite the presence of young Judy, who was exhorted to clear up the conference of dolls spread across the floor before her brother could grab them and then go retrieve her tricycle as her Da had asked.
Barnes, now in a collared shirt and trousers, appeared as Judy departed with her mother, cocking an eyebrow and smiling at his son, who’d maneuvered himself into what was undoubtedly his father’s chair and was carrying on a mostly nonsensical conversation with a large toy cowboy. Barnes looked less apprehensive than he had outside, but Peggy knew better than to confuse that with being at ease.
He offered her a drink and her choice of seating; she declined on the first and took a spot on the couch for the second. She’d gotten used to world-changing business over cocktails with Howard, but in James Barnes’s world, drinks were offered to guests and, despite her invitation to supper, she was not one.
"Should I be getting myself a drink?" he asked after Peggy had settled herself. He had followed her, sitting down in the chair nearest to her.
"Would it do you any good?" Peggy asked, figuring it was as good an opening as any. Barnes wanted to know why she was here, after all.
The fear returned to his eyes and she regretted it for a moment, but she’d come here knowing that her arrival would be a wrecking ball against the careful building of lies and denial Barnes had constructed since his discharge.
He sat back heavily, taking a deep breath as he did so and letting it out slowly, eyes on his son before looking up sharply at Peggy. “Enough will.”
They’d known almost immediately that Barnes had been a medical test subject for Zola and for Schmidt and for what purpose those tests had been. And just as immediately, Steve had asked them to make sure nothing came of it. ‘Asked’ was the wrong word — demanded. For all of his naivete, Steve had recognized the power that had come with being Captain America even when Captain America had just been a USO star. And so he’d understood with remarkable clarity what he possessed in the wake of his one-man raid that had netted the Allies hundreds of POWs and intelligence and technology they’d never dreamed of possessing. He’d understood it — and then offered it up in return for Sergeant James Barnes’s freedom.
The deal, such as it was, had been simple. In exchange for Steve indenturing himself to the SSR instead of joining a front-line infantry unit as he could have done, Barnes would go through a full physical exam complete with any and all sample provision, and the results would go into the system without a name. This way, the scientists could see how close HYDRA had been to recreating Erskine’s serum, but there would be no way to trace the samples back to Barnes and thus no way to turn him into a test subject for the Allies. Howard had handled it personally, although Peggy had done most of the behind-the-scenes work to lay down the false trail away from Barnes. Who in turn would go home to Brooklyn, never to be bothered again. They’d lived up to their side of the bargain, Steve had lived up to his, and Barnes had never forgiven anyone for it.
"Why now?" Barnes asked and she could hear the resignation and the anger underneath. "Why now and not then?"
She didn’t know if ‘then’ meant Steve’s death or his own return from captivity. “You know why not then,” she replied, since the answer was the same for both. “Why now… that’s where it gets complicated.”
He looked at her sharply, eyes wide in realization. “You didn’t find Steve. You found someone else. Another one.”
He leaned back in his seat, hand scrubbing his face, eyes everywhere but on her until they found his son, still chattering away to the cowboy doll almost as big as he was. Young Matty looked up and smiled at his father, holding up the doll. "Hungry."
"Why don't you take Tom to ask your Ma when dinner's going to be, hunh?" Barnes suggested, gesturing with a tilt of his head toward the rear of the house, the general direction of the kitchen.
They waited for Matty to climb down from the chair and take his doll out of the room before turning back to each other.
"Three months ago, a brigadier general on the USEUCOM staff was found murdered in the gents at a restaurant in Stuttgart," she began in a quiet voice. "It was a crime of extraordinary brutality, the neck broken so thoroughly that the head was twisted fully about face."
She waited for the meaning to penetrate, seeing in Barnes's expression when he understood that this was a feat that would have required superhuman strength.
"Our investigations have revealed at least two other assassinations that were likely committed by the same assailant," she went on. "I'll spare you the details save for that they, too, required extraordinary strength either in the commission or the escape or both."
The SIS officer in Berlin had been slaughtered like a wild animal on the plain, except it had been high up in an apartment block and the murderer had seemingly climbed up fifteen stories on the outside of the building -- no fire escape to use, just handholds in the concrete -- rather than traverse the always-occupied hallways. The UN official and the lady not his wife had been found in a hotel in Paris with their heads and hearts in no proximity to the rest of them. Peggy had seen the photos and had been one of the only ones not to vomit after, although she had admittedly skipped lunch. It wasn't just the extreme gore that had brought the cases to SHIELD's attention, but the method: no tool marks on the bones, nothing else the forensics people could discern. The bodies had been torn apart with bare hands.
"The killer was sent by the Soviets, the killings themselves messages to more than just us," Peggy continued. "He has been active for at least five years, although this is the first time he's been tasked outside the Iron Curtain. Prior to our general's 'accident' in Stuttgart, he had been used by Moscow Center as a kind of internal control to ensure obedience. As a result, perhaps, he is something of an urban legend in the Soviet sphere of influence, where he has earned the sobriquet 'The American."
She had Barnes's attention now, as if she hadn't before. He sat up, face pale.
"The American," he repeated in barely a whisper. "You don't--"
"We have no idea," she cut him off before he could ask if The American could be Steve. "Moscow is using him to terrify and it makes sense that they're calling him that the same way people on our side see communist bogeymen everywhere. We don't have a description, but there's a chance he simply doesn't have Slavic features or someone saw him in blue jeans. Or it could be nothing to do with what he looks like. It could simply be that anyone displaying superhuman strength is going to be called after the most famous of the type."
She didn't know if Barnes looked disappointed or relieved, but she knew he didn't look convinced.
"Our source in Moscow is aware of the... possibility of who it could be," she said carefully, not wanting to get into the details of who exactly they had reporting from Moscow. Not just for security concerns, but also because Barnes had had little love and less respect for Izzy Goldman even before Steve's death, let alone Goldman's subsequent defection to Moscow, and would not consider any word of his worth the paper it had been printed on. "He--"
"It could be Steve," Barnes interrupted her. "You can say his name. Or can you?"
The hard look in his eyes startled her a little.
"It could be Steve," she replied, biting back her own anger. How dare he doubt her own pain, her own loyalty to Steve. He wasn't the only one who had loved him and lost him and he hadn't been left alone when Steve had died. "But it could also be another American. You weren't the only one to survive, just the only one we awarded as a prize."
Barnes flinched as if struck and she immediately regretted what she'd done. "I'm sorry," she said, looking up and watching his face until he opened his eyes and returned her gaze. "That was uncalled for, untrue, and unbecoming of me."
Barnes chuffed out a humorless laugh. "Not untrue and probably called for," he said quietly, a rueful smile playing at the edge of his mouth. "You miss him, too. You're just better at hiding it than I am."
She gave him a small smile in return. "I have had much more need to."
A shriek of a child's laughter from the rear of the house filled the silence between them.
Peggy took a deep breath before speaking again. "The Soviets took their share of HYDRA scientists East, just as we've overlooked the crimes of a few for what we hope will be the betterment of the many. We don't think anyone they have is capable of recreating Zola's and Schmidt's work, let alone Erskine's, but we don't know for sure."
Zola was mostly dismissive of the names presented to him as being under Soviet control, at least with respect to those involved with the super-soldier serum. He thought more highly of their selection of physicists and aeronautical engineers.
Barnes nodded once, hand over his mouth before taking it away so he could speak. "And I'm not the only one."
"Probably not," Peggy agreed gently, careful not to let any pity into her words. "But there can't have been very many. The problem is that you might have been the only one we rescued. The overlap between the other... candidates and the MIA/KIA lists is nearly total. There might have been more survivors, but it would have been easy to make them disappear."
Just among those Steve had rescued along with Barnes, they'd seen how incomplete the reportage could be. The prisoners had seen men taken away and most of them had been identified, but some had not been -- they'd been from a different unit or a different country and nobody had known their names. There'd been a burial detail from among the prisoners that had been able to identify most of those killed by Zola and Schmidt during their experiments, but not all of them and for the same reasons -- or because the bodies had been too damaged to identify. The list of who'd been taken from the prisoner pens and the list of who'd been buried did not match up entirely, even accounting for the John Does. There had been eight men who'd been taken from the pens and not turned up either as a corpse or among those Steve had brought back. A few of them might have died in the prisoner revolt, one or two might have been among the unidentifiable corpses buried by the detail. But one -- or eight -- might have been moved to a different HYDRA facility before Steve had shown up. They'd asked Zola and he'd said no, but Peggy wasn't sure if he was telling the truth. He lied to them sometimes, usually for a purpose and occasionally for his own amusement, and if he was lying about this, then she thought it would be the former.
"So what do you need from me?" Barnes asked, wary but also curious. "I don't really talk to anyone I served with except for a couple of the guys who're from Brooklyn and, even then, I don't really see them anymore except maybe on the street when I go down to visit my folks."
She gave him an apologetic smile and she saw his face fall. "We would like to update the files of Patient X."
Back in '43, when they'd been fulfilling the terms of Steve's bargain (his deal with the devil, as Barnes had put it), Barnes had been put through a battery of tests to acquire blood and other samples needed or wanted to determine HYDRA's approach to recreating the super-soldier serum. The results had gone to the scientists with the file heading Patient X, no name anywhere on anything as per Steve's demands. The only people who'd known that Patient X was Sergeant James Barnes were Barnes himself, Steve, Howard, Chester Phillips, and herself. The tests had been done in DC, far from the battlefield and the story of why Captain America had parachuted behind enemy lines, and none of the scientists had so much as asked Barnes for his name.
"The working theory is that if The American is another wartime survivor," she went on when he said nothing, "then his situation is probably similar to yours and the effects of the passage of time, if any, would be similar as well. Also, there are tests that either weren't available in '43 or were not administered at the time that might prove helpful in profiling The American's capacity."
They knew what Steve had been able to do; he'd endured an exhaustive battery of tests before they'd turned him over to the USO and then they'd had almost two years of battlefield reportage on top of that. They had little to no idea of what Barnes or any other HYDRA test subject was capable of and the thought was that these men -- this man, until they could find another -- would be a closer match to whatever the Soviets had produced either on their own or with HYDRA assistance or, God forbid, if they'd found Steve's remains and tried to reverse engineer. That the Soviets had found Steve's body (or a part of it) seemed less than likely but more than possible, but it would do them only so much good -- Erskine's own assistants had had full access to all of Steve for years and done nothing with it. If the Soviets had gotten themselves another true super-soldier, they wouldn't be hiding his face.
Barnes exhaled loudly. "Am I being asked or ordered?"
It was both an unfair question as well as a legitimate one and she could take no offense in the asking of it.
"It's a request," she answered. "A plea, to be honest, and one I do not make lightly. I am not only disrupting your life and asking you to revisit your worst nightmares, but I am also breaking a promise made to Steve that was meant to stand forever."
It was a request, but how long it would remain a request if Barnes said no, she couldn't say. SHIELD needed to make progress on this matter and if no other avenues of inquiry opened up, they would have to revisit this one because it had promise, however theoretical some if seemed to be.
She suspected Barnes understood that.
"How much time do I have to give you an answer?" he asked, standing up a moment before she could hear the rhythm of little feet down the hallway from kitchen toward the living room. He took a deep breath and she saw the transformation of Bucky Barnes from shocked former POW to good-natured family man, the ghosts of horrors past leaving his eyes in favor of a charming smile as he turned to catch Judy as she sped into the room and threw herself at her father with full expectation that he'd always be there to catch her.
"Ma says that dinner's ready and you should bring Miss Carter," Judy announced from the comfortable perch of her father's arms.
Barnes kissed his daughter's forehead before setting her down. "Go wash your hands. We'll be there in a moment."
He watched her go, shooing her along when she paused by the entryway to see if they were following, and Peggy stood, which seemed to be enough forward progress for Judy to decide her mission a success.
"Wash your hands," Barnes called after her.
"They're not dirty!" was the indignant reply, but Peggy could hear Molly wade in with her objection and Barnes turned back to her. Waiting for an answer still.
"You can sleep on it," she said. "But an answer, sooner than later, would be kind."
The look he gave her made it clear that kindness had nothing to do with it on either of their parts, but then he gestured graciously for her to precede him out of the living room.
Dinner was pleasant, surprisingly so, and less strained than it could have been or, perhaps, should have been. The children were both balm and distraction, Matty surprisingly well-behaved (and well-distracted by a high-chair tray loaded with both food and toys) while Judy was curious with the guilelessness of youth about their guest. Both her parents and Peggy were inclined to let a little impudence go if it forestalled any awkward questions or answers. Peggy told Judy that she worked for the government and mostly wrote a lot of reports, which was boring, but she also got to travel a lot, which was not. Peggy had apparently been explained to Judy as the girlfriend of the Uncle Steve she'd never met and, when Judy asked her if she'd loved Steve, she'd replied honestly with "very much." Molly had then gracefully steered the topic back to less sensitive ground by telling Judy that Peggy had been to Paris, which Judy had just read a book about and thus had many questions.
It was a pleasant meal, Barnes having recovered enough to be an involved host and father and Molly was an able cook, but it was also wistful and a little painful for reasons completely unrelated to the grenade she'd just tossed into this family's contented life. She'd had ten years to wonder what life would be and then would have been like had Steve survived the war, whether she would have followed him back to New York or whether they might have set up shop in London or DC or somewhere else. They'd have been together, that she'd known with absolute certainty, although the details of what that new combined life would have been like changed as did her dreams. Steve had had his expectations of marriage, to be sure, but he'd also been raised by a woman who'd worked all her life (by necessity, granted) and he'd respected Peggy's desire to be involved in the world outside the home. And while they'd both wanted children, she didn't think it was just her wishful dreams that he'd have been willing to find alternatives to her giving everything up to stay at home with them. Molly Barnes seemed perfectly content with her life as she'd built it, but it wasn't for Peggy and Steve had known that. But Steve-and-Bucky would still have been Steve-and-Bucky and so she and Steve would have come over to dinner at this house, maybe with their own children, and she would not have been an exotic stranger to young Judy. Instead of Miss Carter, she'd have been Aunt Peggy. Instead of bringing the pain of bad memories, she'd have brought a cake.
Judging from the kindness in Molly's eyes despite the protectiveness of her husband and her family, Peggy suspected she wasn't the only one wondering 'what if' at the table.
After coffee (or milk, in the children's case) and a pie that Molly apologized for not being baked for the occasion, the children were dismissed from the table with permission to turn on the television because it was Thursday and The Lone Ranger was on. Molly and Barnes had the kind of silent conversation that came with familiarity and Peggy pretended to straighten her skirt in her lap.
"I'm going to go get started on the washing-up," Molly announced as she stood up with some effort.
"Let me help, please," Peggy said, standing as well. Barnes rose automatically when she did.
"You're a guest," Molly replied, but then grinned slyly. "Also, the washing-up is when the kitchen is absolutely free of little -- and not so little -- hands pulling on my apron strings. I enjoy the peace of it."
Barnes smiled at his wife, fond and amused both. "We'll help you bring the dishes in, then leave you be."
Before the table was completely clear, however, shouting and crying could be heard from the living room and Barnes made a wry face before excusing himself to deal with it. Peggy could hear his voice, the tone authoritative but not harsh, if not the words themselves as she carried glasses back into the kitchen.
"Well that took longer than I thought it might," Molly said, looking at the clock when Peggy explained her husband's absence from the ferry brigade. "Matty'll be trying to be a cowboy and his sister is never eager to be either the villain or the sidekick. Thursdays are a routine here."
Peggy smiled and turned to go back to get the next load, then paused and turned back. "I'm sorry, for what it's worth. For my visit here to be... what it is."
Whether she meant it instead of what could have been or instead of it not happening at all, she left up to Molly. She wasn't sure of the answer herself.
Molly nodded. "For what it's worth, so am I."
When she returned to the dining room, Barnes was there collecting stray silverware and serving pieces. "Peace on the high plains, at least until the next commercial break."
She smiled, then sobered. "I should take my leave. I've asked what I came to ask and you have a routine here that is probably best not to interrupt."
Barnes didn't try to dissuade her. "Did you drive?"
"I took the train," she replied. "A fine ride it was. I commend your colleagues."
He rolled his eyes and, for a moment, she caught a glimpse of the Bucky Barnes the rest of the world got to see.
"I'm going to walk Peggy back to the station," Barnes told Molly on their final trip back to the kitchen. "You want me to take the little monsters with me?"
Molly shook her head. "It's almost time for baths," she replied. "But you could bring some milk back with you."
Peggy said her goodbyes to Molly and the children as Barnes went upstairs to get his wallet and then they left. They walked without speaking for the first block, the noise of the neighborhood much quieter than earlier, if not quite bucolic enough to forget that this was still New York City.
"If I say yes," Barnes began, "I want something in return. I know you can make me do whatever you want, but that'll take a while. You're not here in an official capacity, at least not really official. You're here because you're hoping a hunch will pay off and then you can make it official after the fact."
They were in the middle of a residential street identical to the one Barnes's home was on and while there was the occasional car passing, the only other pedestrians were a young family on the other sidewalk half a block away. It was safe to not be overheard, but the conversation itself was slipping rapidly into dangerous territory.
"I can't--" Peggy began, but was cut off.
"You can," Barnes said and stopped walking, forcing Peggy to stop as well. "And if you want whatever it is you need from me in a timely fashion, you will. Or else we can wait for you to run it through official channels and get all of the paperwork signed and then you'll have to tie me down like Schmidt did because I will not go quietly."
There was anger in his voice and determination that made her think of Steve for its steel, but there was also fear and that was why she bit her tongue and did not rise to his baited threats.
"What do you want?" she asked instead, not backing down but not pushing, either. Because he was right -- her need outstripped her authority right now.
"I want my kids left out of this," he said firmly and she blinked because that hadn't even been on her map of possibilities. Something must have shown on her face because he laughed, dark and ugly and bitter. "You hadn't thought about it? Steve did. He was scared of that, did you know? That he'd have kids and they'd be wanted for what was maybe running through their veins. I told him that the two of you could protect 'em from anything, but we both knew it wasn't just the bad guys he had to worry about."
She did reel then, taking a step back. In her fantasies before Steve had died, she'd wondered what their children would look like and whether they'd be breaking their prams or simply just be healthy babies, but she'd never considered them to be tiny targets. It seemed incredibly naive now, under the harsh light of a street lamp and the weight of Barnes's glare, but in her defense, what else were fantasies but naiveté given room to flourish? She'd been a far more innocent woman back then, even if she hadn't felt so at the time.
"So, that's what I want," Barnes continued once her attention was back on him. "I want the same deal you made Steve back in '43: you can have me for whatever you want, but you forget my kids exist no matter what. And I'll just have to pray that you'll keep this promise longer than the one you made him."
She closed her eyes to organize her thoughts without seeing Barnes's eyes on her, although she could still feel them. She took a deep breath, then let it out and opened her eyes again. "I would have promised you that without the threats," she said. "I will promise you that. No matter what. We have made made many compromises for the sake of the greater good and I say 'we' because I have been part of them. But there is no greater good that imperils children. There will be no mention of their existence."
And then she held out her hand and Barnes blinked, surprised at the gesture, before taking it and shaking on their strange agreement.
"So now I own you, Mister Barnes," she said with a touch of lightness to break the weight of the tension between them.
Barnes smiled then and gave her a wink, the charming man once more. "Nah, now you get to fight Molly for me and with all due respect, Agent Carter, my money's on her."
They started walking again in a much more companionable silence. When they reached Roosevelt Avenue, Barnes led her to the ticket area, which was still open, and greeted the seller by name, asking for a ticket using shorthand and thanking the man who refused to take his money in return. He then guided her to the correct platform and to a spot that he explained would leave her next to the staircase upon arrival at Penn Station. There were other passengers waiting to board, but he stayed with her until the train pulled in, at which point the conductor hopped out to say hello to him. It was all done with grace and bonhomie and none of the strain of their conversation en route that she felt a little whiplashed as she took her seat in the car.
The ride was brief and fifteen minutes later, she was hailing a cab up to Howard's mansion. This was not a conversation to be held over the phone, certainly not one connected by a hotel switchboard operator. And it was one, bless Howard, that would go better with booze.
"How did it go?" Howard asked after Jarvis led her into the study and set about refreshing Howard's drink and preparing one for her.
"We got what we wanted," she told him, leaning back in the well-worn club chair. "But it was harder than I'd planned."