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Two weeks after Captain Steven G. Rogers is recovered from the Arctic Circle, a SHIELD psychiatrist declares him mentally unstable, citing the extremity of his grief.

Captain Rogers has lost everything that he knows, the report writes. Everyone that he knew is either dead or dying; without a tether to the modern world, I fear that he may become entirely non functioning.

This is a lie.

.

In 1944, Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes of the Howling Commandos fell several hundred feet to his death at the bottom of an icy ravine.

In 1958, Agent Margaret Carter, formerly of the SSR, was killed in action on a routine SHIELD mission.

These are also lies.

.

One hundred and seven one-armed push-ups for the 107th, that’s the deal. It’s Dum Dum’s idea -- this sort of thing is always Dum Dum’s idea and it never quite works out as well for him as he wants it to, and this time is no different.

Steve is banned from the competition due to a grossly unfair advantage, and James begs off, muttering something about a sprained wrist that Peggy doesn’t believe, not for a single damned second. He won’t talk about it, though -- not about how he sleeps a little less than he should and not about how he shoots a little better than should even be considered possible by any one human man. And if not to her and not to Steve, then who? He has decided to keep this fear close to the chest, locked up tight inside of himself, covering it up with his easy humor and some well placed charm.

The charm is one hundred percent genuine Brooklyn and the laughter usually reaches his eyes, most days, so she doesn’t worry as much as she probably should.

She catches him sometimes, in the early hours between sleep and the war, peering into her hand-held mirror and running a dirty, callous-roughened hand along the length of his jaw like he’s checking for irregularities.

“Just admirin’ my handsome mug, Pegs,” he cracks whenever she finds him, like she can’t see the fear making his eyes go wide and bright, but they are in the middle of a war and he cannot end up in another lab. Steve won’t allow it and neither will she, so she lets it go, and she doesn’t ask the questions that are fighting to crawl their way out of her throat.

Now, though, James watches her with a carefully blank expression because it just wouldn’t do for Captain America’s right hand man to be seen eyeing up his best friend’s girl. He’s lucky that no one else is even remotely looking in his direction because as good as he is, he still keeps on slipping up. He can’t quite stop the smirk curling around the edges of his lips or the hunger in his eyes that says he can’t wait to eat her alive after this.

Ninety-nine. One-hundred. One-hundred and one. Next to her, Dum Dum collapses into the dirt with a groan and finally gives up.

Dum Dum was the the lone holdout; Gabe and Dernier have already long since cracked open a bottle of bourbon and started taking bets on when Dum Dum would lose. Monty is perched on a crate with his head between his legs, taking deep, gasping breaths.

One-hundred and five. One-hundred and six. One-hundred and seven.

Peggy rises to her feet with a triumphant shout, aching muscles be damned, and lets Howard lift her right arm up into the air like she’s a prized boxer who’s just won the match of the century.

“Peggy fuckin’ Carter,” Howard shouts, putting on his best showman’s voice. “Someone get the lady a drink, alright? Dugan, you’re buying.”

“Fuck off, Stark,” Dugan grumbles around the edge of a cigar. “The only one buyin’ anything around here is you and you know it.”

Peggy takes a deep pull from the bottle of bourbon Gabe passes over to her, and meets James’s gaze head on, tossing him a wink before she can think better of it. The tips of Steve’s ears turn bright red as James throws his head back and laughs, slinging an arm around Steve’s shoulders and reeling him in so that they’re pressed flush together, hip-to-hip. Every inch of it is a promise for later: that warm, bourbon-thick laugh, that closeness, the way James ducks in close to whisper into Steve’s ear all while never taking his eyes off her.

The Commandos ship out to go after Zola in the morning but for now, they’ll pretend like they have all the time in the world.

.

There is pain and then there is the serum, running liquid hot through her veins and she understands, now, why Steve screamed the way he did, like an animal being flayed apart at the seams over and over again but it is not, Peggy finds, the worst she has had to endure at the hands of this war. She grits her teeth and she takes it, swallows it whole and keeps on going and on the other side of it -- on the other side of it, she is the same as she always was, just more.

.

Gabe is the first to hand her the bottle of bourbon, after.

Gabe and Dum Dum both, they sit on either side of her like they’re the only thing holding her up and it’s the damndest thing because they’re not meant to know what she’s lost, but she guesses maybe the three of them weren’t quite as subtle as they thought they were.

Peggy drains the bottle before setting it down with a clatter, moving to smooth a hand down the front of her skirt, straightening out the wrinkles. She drags a finger under each eye to chase away the tears and then stands up. The Commandos are scattered in a heap on box and dirt ground alike, every last one of them looking as if they’ve just had their insides scooped out, like they’re going through the worst kind of hangover and they’ll never be able to find their own two feet again.

James was the glue, is the thing. He bartered and he teased and he sang and he held them all altogether through blood and mud and snow. It didn’t matter that he woke up most nights with a silent scream lodged in his throat, it didn’t matter that there were days when he could barely hold himself together because James took his duties as a NCO seriously -- it wasn’t his right to fall apart, not when his men needed him. He held himself to duty and rank like it was the only thing keeping them all sane, and by God, did these men love him for it.

She loved him for it.

No, she loves him for it.

There is no past tense.

Peggy straightens her shoulders and lifts her chin. “Well, gentlemen, what do you think?”

Jim raises a weary head. “You look like shit, Carter. But you’ll do.”

Peggy gives him a watery smile before turning heel and making her way to the bombed out bar.

She’ll have to be the glue, now.

.

The history books read like this:

Steven Grant Rogers, born July 4, 1918 in Brooklyn Heights, was Project Rebirth’s only successful Super Soldier.

More lies.

She files it away with their comic books and their radio shows and calls it done. There is a line between fiction and reality and between that line, Peggy Carter falls beneath the cracks.

She gets erased from the history books but she makes history, anyways.

.

She finds Howard in a lab with a vial of blood, eyeing up a machine that might just work, but here is what Howard doesn’t know just yet: he’s too fucking vain for anyone’s good.

He looks at the machine with a curious gleam in his eye, and he probably thinks that he hides it well, covers it up with scientific conjecture but she knows what that obsession looks like -- like that machine could offer him all of the answers in the universe that no one else ever thought to go looking for; he looks at the machine and he looks at himself and he thinks, what if.

What if it could work just one more time? Could it work for him -- could it work for a bright, charming Jewish boy from the wrong part of New York with a grin far too sly to ever be accused of innocence?

Here’s another thing Howard doesn’t know:

It already did.

.

It is 1964 and a man, an American scientist, has just gotten his brains splattered all over the pavement in broad daylight on Friedrichstrasse. A professional hit, no doubt -- an impossibly good shot, the likes of which that she hasn’t seen since, well.

Since James.

Peggy combs every building in the surrounding area from top to bottom twice over and at the end of it, all she finds is just one single, solitary bullet casing: Soviet-made.

Two weeks later, she is walking down a crowded street in Atlanta when Dum Dum Dugan slips a folder into her purse, and in that folder, she learns this:

Leviathan had a weapon. A man, an asset. An assassin. It’s a scary thought -- she has seen what Leviathan can do, what hell it can unleash because this is what she does, every day, she lives and breathes this mission, this impossible mission to keep the world safe as best she can, and she knows that an agent this talented in the hands of Leviathan is no small danger to sneeze at.

But here’s the truly bone-chilling part, here’s the part that sets her teeth on edge:

Leviathan’s lost him. He was stolen from right underneath their noses. And no one knows who did it.

.

They send her to Iwo Jima and they send her to Okinawa, and they pretend all the way through it that Agent Peggy Carter is not the new leader of the Howling Commandos -- they lie to the brass and tell everyone that she’s just another codebreaker tagging along, but everyone and their mother knows that the Commandos will take orders from no one but her.

She tastes blood in the back of her throat the first time Jim collapses, shaking and miserable as he dry heaves into the sand, and it is not just the muggy, hot miserable sun that lets them know that this war, this war is not theirs, not anymore.

She won’t let them die out here, though. Not now, not at the end of things.

If she can do one more thing in this war, it will be to bring what’s left of her men home safely.

She won’t be made to bury another Commando.

The first time she puts a fist through a solid block of concrete, Gabe slips up and calls her Cap, and the look he gives her afterwards, one that’s equal parts sheepish and despairing, says please don’t make us bury you too.

They make it home, in the end, but maybe not all in one piece, not entirely.

.

Agent Margaret Carter, formerly of the SSR, was killed in action on a routine SHIELD mission in 1958.

Timothy Dugan wrote up the report and Montgomery Falsworth signed it; Jacques Dernier was the one who turned it in, with tears gathering in the corner of his eyes and a rattle in his throat, like it’d gone hoarse with grief.

There wasn’t a body but then again, there didn’t need to be; it’s not like it was the first time.

.

Before, she was a soldier.

Before, she was a nurse and a spy and a damn good commander officer.

Now? Now, she’s a ghost.

Now, she is a boot to the face and a knife in the dark -- she is the garrote wire wrapped around the throat of an enemy agent, and she is the shield standing between the innocent and the guilty.

She wakes up every morning and she forces herself to keep on pushing -- she has no shield of her own, no backup and no propaganda reel but she’s never needed those things, not really, because at the end of the day, when she falls into bed aching and tired in her little nothing of a flat in Sheepshead Bay, she can still look at herself in the mirror without flinching.

Somehow, she doubts that others can still say the same.

.

“Are you gonna come in or are you gonna lurk outside my window all night, English?”

Peggy looks up from the newspaper that she was hiding behind, caught out. Angie towers over her from this angle, with both hands balled firmly at her hips but laughter dances in her eyes, and Peggy understands, finally, that whatever else there ever was between them, Angie will always be the girl who befriended her in an automat a whole lifetime away.

Angie’s just as lovely now as she was then; lovelier, even, for all that grey curls at her temples and laughter lines have made themselves at home in the firm, stubborn set of her mouth.

“I’m a customer in a coffee shop that happens to be across the street from your apartment building, I hardly think that counts as lurking, Ms. Martinelli,” Peggy says primly, folding up her newspaper and tucking it under her elbow as she rises from the table.

Angie rolls her eyes. “You say tomato, I say tomahto. C’mon, Peggy, I’ve got a tray of melanzane with your name on it.”

Angie’s apartment is large, marked by high ceilings and bright windows that Peggy tries not to see as a security risk. Becoming a famous Hollywood actress has treated Angie well over the years, if nothing else.

Peggy sits herself down on Angie’s couch, the newspaper crumpled beneath her fists. Now that she’s here, she finds that she doesn’t know what to do with her hands, or her face or her words, or any of it, really.

It’s been so, so long.

“Look at you,” Angie says, reaching out a hand to brush a curl away from Peggy’s face. “You look just the same.”

“So do you,” Peggy says, and it’s a lie, of course, a foolish, romantic one -- the sort of thing Steve would say, and it’s stopped surprising her, how that’s still a punch to the gut.

“Don’t bullshit me, English,” Angie says, settling down into the easy chair across from Peggy. “My eyesight’s not going any time soon, I still know what I look like in the mirror.”

Peggy shakes her head. “I call it how I see it, Angie.”

They’d loved each other once, as best they could, so many years ago when Peggy was still trying to hold together the fragile pieces of her broken heart, and if it weren’t for that -- if it weren’t for the war, weren’t for the serum, weren’t for the many obstacles stacked up in their path, they could love each other, still.

Angie reaches out, folding a hand across Peggy’s, lacing their fingers together. “Hey, English. How are you holding up?”

Peggy takes a deep breath, as if to pull strength into her lungs, and then abruptly lets it all out. This is Angie. She doesn’t have to hide here. She lets the tears gather in the corner of her eyes, lets her head drop forward to Angie’s shoulder as Angie reaches up to card a steady hand through her hair.

“Oh, you know me. I’m not exactly the crying-on-the-hall-phone type.”

.

She has this dream, sometimes. There are three lovers in a kitchen. All of the curtains are thrown wide open and sunshine is spilling into the room, warming their faces. There’s a low murmur of laughter, of sharp banter softened by easy touches and naked affection, and all the while, the radio plays a song, on and on and on, it’s been a long, long time.

.

She’s got a couple of cracked ribs, probably, and there’s a cut above her left eye that’s bleeding freely, streaming into her line of vision that Peggy tries her best to brush away impatiently.

She has found him, finally, the mysterious asset, Leviathan’s wayward, stolen assassin.

He comes at her again, relentlessly, with metal arm and guns and a knife, and there is something methodical, almost mechanical about it, like he’s nothing but a human being stripped right down its base parts and then wound back up again.

She meets him measure for measure, blow for blow, tearing at his hair and shoving his own knife straight into his gut.

The Winter Soldier, they call him, but there is nothing of a soldier’s honor or discipline in the way he wraps his metal fist around her throat and throws her against the wall, holding her close and squeezing real tight. Peggy can feel her chest start to tighten and she panics, almost, feels herself scrabbling uselessly at his fist because she’s not going to die here, she’s not going to die here -- not here, not yet. She damn well isn’t going to let him kill her, not here, not when there’s still so much to do.

Peggy relaxes her grip for a beat or two, lets him think he’s starting to win and then jams the heavy metal toe of her combat boots into his groin before twisting away, grabbing at a crowbar from the ground and smacking him clear across the face with it. The sound of bone cracking echoes in the alleyway and it’s all in slow motion, how the mask that was fixed tight around his face goes flying, flying, flying and Peggy reaches up to wipe blood out of her eyes, so sure that she must be seeing things, but.

“James?”

He blinks at her, once, twice, and there is no recognition in that gaze. “Who the hell is James?”

Peggy is angry, suddenly, angrier than she can ever remember herself being; she feels the blood burning in her veins, the rage clouding her vision as much as the blood in her eyes and whoever is responsible for this, she will give them cause to regret it.

He’s quiet, thrown off -- there’s a shift in his stance, like he’s lost focus and Peggy takes advantage of it to close the space between them and drag him up by the collar and push him back up against the wall, holding him in place. She’s never seen anyone look so lost.

“You are. You’re James and I’m -- I’m Peggy, remember?” Peggy says, and she hates how her voices cracks at the end of it, but she is acting on instinct, now, instinct and adrenaline and a tiny, rising shred of hope.

“Pegs?” His voice is low, uncertain.

Peggy swallows hard. “That’s right. Do you remember me?”

James shakes his head. “I, no….where am I, Pegs?”

They’re standing in an alleyway a block from the nuclear power plant in Buchanan, New York, and it’s too much, isn’t it, the most ridiculous sort of irony.

There’s a burst of bullets to the left of them; men in dark combat gear run towards them and Peggy jerks back, out of instinct, goes to pull James with her out of the line of fire but when she turns around, he’s already gone.

.

He finds her in the cold, in the middle of a blizzard that’s already knocked out all her power and rattled her windows almost to the breaking point. She’s standing at the kitchen sink, wrapped up in a blanket and eating beans from a can when there’s the crunch of boot upon snow on her fire escape, and she’s already abandoned the beans to the sink and got a gun trained on the window by the time he’s eased it open.

James drops down into her flat, holding one hand up in surrender and reaching the other one back to shove the window shut but it’s too late, he’s already let in a whole host of snow along with him and it collapses onto her carpet, seeping into the threadbare rug.

His hair is long, down to his shoulders and ragged, unclean, cheeks covered in an uneven stubble and deep, bruised circles cut a deep ring under both of his eyes. It’s funny, they’re bluer than she remembers them being. And here, she liked to tell herself that she didn’t forget a single damn thing about either one of them.

She wonders what else’s she forgotten, what else has been lost to these empty, aching years.

Her hand shakes and the gun shakes with it. What a sentimental fool she’s become in this false old age of hers.

“Hi, Pegs,” James says, and his voice croaks from disuse.

“How much do you remember?”

“You take your tea with milk but you refused to so much as touch it during the war ‘cause of rationing, said the powdered milk just wasn’t the same and you’d rather drink Frenchie’s jet black coffee instead. You’ve got a hell of a right hook and a hell of a left hook, come to think of it, and you only ever called me Bucky right when you were about to come,” James says, the left corners of his lips twitching up into the ghost of a smirk.

The gun drops to the countertop with a clatter, and Peggy shoves her hands inside the pockets of her dressing coat to keep herself from reaching out to him.

“That’s privileged information, James,” Peggy says. “I do hope that it’s not something you go around sharing lightly.”

James shrugs. “Nah, you know me, Pegs. I’m a man of discretion.”

“Well,” Peggy starts. “Anything else you’d like to share, then?”

James wraps his arms around himself, hunching his shoulders down as if the very motion would allow him to climb into himself and disappear completely. There’s not a single damned inch of him that doesn’t look miserable.

She already knows what he’s gonna say.

“Steve’s dead, Pegs,” James says, voice cracking at the end, and it’s instinct, now, she has to reach out to him, has to stride across the room and tug his head into the crook of her neck. Right now, she is the pillar propping him up, running her hands down his back in steady, concentric circles as he sobs into the collar of her dressing down, his tears staining the soft cotton.

She remembers what it was like, to have this grief be raw and new and all too close to the surface, like an infected wound that couldn’t ever possibly heal. It still hasn’t, if she’s being honest with herself. Probably, it never will.

She doesn’t say anything. There’s nothing to say. She just stands there and holds him for minutes and minutes on end, until he is all cried out and her joints get stiff from the weight of holding James up.

It’s a terrible, selfish thought to have but she is furiously glad for him -- glad for his existence, glad for his tears warm against her skin, glad for the horrific, nightmare-inducing series of events that brought him into her kitchen and into her arms once more.

She’s not alone anymore. And hope, that bright flame that once burned so hot and steady, slowly starts to rekindle itself.

.

James sits in a chair at the kitchen table for seven full days; he doesn’t move much and he doesn’t talk much, but he always eats the food that she puts in front of him, for all that it’s usually nothing more than canned vegetables and toast.

It takes her a day or two to figure out what he’s doing, that he’s not just been driven to inertia by whatever hell he’s been through, that there is a mode and a purpose to his actions. They will never have a body to bury but he sits shiva for Steve anyways, alternating between silence and quiet, murmured prayers in Hebrew that she can only understand brief snatches of.

When it is done, when seven days have past and James stands up from the table and makes for the bathroom, shedding his clothes as he goes, Peggy gets this feeling, this thrum just beneath her skin, like she’s standing right on the precipice of a new era.

The tide is finally turning.

She walks into the bathroom an hour later to find James peering at his bearded face in front of the mirror, with her razor and a pair of scissors set out carefully on the porcelain sink.

“Sit down, Sergeant,” Peggy says. “You’ve never cut your own hair a day in your life; you’ll only make a mess of it.”

James settles down onto the downturned toilet seat with a groan, one hand idly worrying at the heavy scars around the shoulder of his metal arm. “You’re probably right. Just, you know. Don’t -- don’t make it like it was, alright? I want it cut but I can’t -- “ He pauses, clearing his throat. “We can never go back, can we?”

“No,” Peggy says, reaching for the shaving cream. “We can only move forward.”

“Easier said than done,” James says, and she taps him on the shoulder with the razor.

“Stop talking, or I’ll wind up slicing your face open on accident,” Peggy says, placing two fingers beneath his chin and tilting his face upwards.

“Yes, ma’am,” James murmurs, steadying himself with a hand on her waist, a little too warm to the touch for all that there’s a layer or two of clothing between them.

“Forgot how damn cheeky you are,” Peggy says, but as she gets to work, they fall into a steady, companionable silence, the only sound the snick of the razor blade against skin and the quiet snip of the scissors as Peggy works to trim his hair.

James reaches for the towel to wipe off the remnants of the shaving cream when she’s done and runs a hand through his ear-length hair. “Not bad, Carter.”

Peggy scoffs.

“It was HYDRA,” James says, suddenly. “That’s who had me. Who stole me from Leviathan.”

Peggy digs her fingers into the soft skin of James’s shoulders, startled. “HYDRA? How is that -- Operation Paperclip,” Peggy finishes, the last of the puzzle pieces falling swiftly into place. It wasn’t so long ago that she can’t recall Howard’s angry, public resignation from SHIELD, how he had retreated in disgust into Stark Industries and never, ever looked back.

It figures, that they could grow within SHIELD so easily when there was no one around who would care enough to look.

“Got it in one. They’re active within SHIELD. I don’t know a lot -- not, well. They did a little more talking in front of me than they should’ve, let’s just say that.”

“Steve died believing he’d defeated them,” Peggy says, and digs her fingers in a little harder. She’s sure there’ll be marks in the shape of half-moon crescents worn into his skin, after, and she can only wish that it had been under far more enjoyable circumstances.

“Well,” James starts, a wry twist to his mouth. “Guess we’ll just have to go and finish his fight for him, then. Same as usual.”

.

Alexander Pierce dies alone, at home, in his bed, with a knife stuck straight through his jugular, and James comes home to her with blood on his hands but there’s a grim line of satisfaction to his thin smile that she can’t begrudge.

Pierce is the first but he is not the last.

Cut off one head and still, the bastards keep on coming.

.

“You know, pal -- ” James starts, swinging both legs over Steve’s lap, and leaning over to drag a hand through Steve’s hair. “It’s a good thing you’ve got Agent Carter around, she’s the real brains of the operation.”

“Obviously, I’m the only one who ever remembers to lock the door,” Peggy says, leaning into Steve’s shoulder, cramped as they are, all three of them trying to make space for one another on this small, army-issued cot. They don’t have long, here. Colonel Phillips wants them all for a strategy meeting with the rest of the Commandos in an hour but for now, they can learn to make do.

Steve laughs, his whole body rumbling with it. His smiles come much easier now that they’ve found their rhythm, here, now that he knows he’ll never have to choose. “You know, I never could figure out why you weren’t in the running for the serum. You’d have made a better Super Soldier than me.”

“Captain Peggy Carter,” James says, slowly, as if trying out the sound of it on his tongue. “Cap. What’d you say, Pegs, do you think it suits you?”

Peggy turns her head and smiles, all soft and fond, pressing the curve of her lips into the warmth of Steve’s skin. “Save it for the next war, Barnes.”

.

It is 2014 and Steve Rogers is alive, alive and still so tall and broad and taking up all of the space in their kitchen. He keeps clenching and unclenching his hands, like he’s trying to stop himself from reaching out, from pressing skin to skin to make sure that this is all real, that they’re all really here.

James trades an exasperated look with her before coming in from behind, sneaking both arms around Steve’s waist, and pressing a kiss to Steve’s shoulder. “C’mon, Rogers, you’re thinking so loud the whole neighborhood’ll hear ya.”

Peggy steps up to the both of them, hooking her fingers into the belt loops of Steve’s pants. “Now, now, Bucky, I think we’re all a little overwhelmed here.”

James crows. “Ha! Bucky! She’s only doing that for your benefit, I’ll have you know -- I’ve had decades and decades of Barnes and Sergeant and God for-fucking-bid, James, all of the fucking time.”

Steve huffs a laugh and the look that he turns her way is so unbearably fond that her breath catches at the sight of it. “You two haven’t changed a bit.”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” James murmurs.

“So,” Steve starts, “HYDRA, huh? Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“We’re working on it,” Peggy says. “We’ve been working on it. I suppose we could use your help, you’re good at that sort of thing.”

“What, the fighting Nazis sort of thing?”

“The dumbass crashing-planes sort of thing,” James grumbles, but there’s no heat to it.

“Alright, then,” Steve agrees easily, leaning down to kiss her, and it’s a small, sweet kiss but it still manages to send a shiver running up and down her spine. “The next war, it is. Peggy still the brains of the operation?”

“Obviously,” she and James speak in unison, because there are so many worn down edges between them now, so many decades spent breaking in a routine of their own, but it’s hardly a surprise that there’s always been space in the grooves for Steve.

“So,” Steve says, “what’s the plan, Cap?”