There is a ghost in the room when Peggy blinks awake.
She is long used to being haunted. For most of her life, Steve Rogers has been a phantom pain in her bones, in her breath, steeped in every dream and memory. Even when he came back, real and solid and undeniable, he was dead to her in all the ways that mattered. Still a lost chance, faded with time.
This ghost, though. This ghost is unexpected. Large and dark and imposing, he stands by the window, the bulk of his shoulders framed by the moonlight wavering in through the curtains. He’s misshapen and half-formed, hidden by long shadows, and at a glimpse of steel, Peggy feels a flash of alarm, old instincts redirecting her brain to the gun in her bedside table, eyes searching wildly for the two easiest exit points of the room. When she blinks again, though, clears her bleary gaze—Peggy can see more than the metal ringing his left arm. She can see his face, chiseled from stone, bewildered and angry. Familiar.
She reaches out, and though her hand trembles, her voice is sure when she says:
The man visibly flinches, rears back. He looks flat. Brittle. Uncertain. He looks, a bit, like a child.
Peggy remembers that he was a child, all those years ago. When he fell.
“Sergeant Barnes,” Peggy says again. “Were you in the ice, too?”
James Buchanan Barnes, or what is left of him, steps closer to the bed then. Though his expression is frozen, cold and immobile, there is a fractured quality to the way he moves. He holds himself like he’s piecemeal, broken.
“For a little while,” he says.
Peggy closes her eyes, overwhelmed with a sudden, swamping grief.
When she opens her eyes again, the man she once knew is gone.
News reaches her that SHIELD has unmade to its very foundations.
The shattering of her legacy might weigh heavy on her soul, except for Peggy’s innate pragmatism. She’s too old now for recriminations, and she knows better than most that HYDRA was a root tipped with poison, buried in the ground, deeper than any eye could see. She mourns, and she rages. But she doesn’t regret.
Not until she rifles through the case files released to the public by former Agent Natasha Romanoff.
Not until she comes across a shape, a silhouette, existing quietly in the untold spaces of murder after murder. A figure that shouldn’t catch her eye, just a blur of grainy black and white. Missable, in photo after photo.
Yet, Peggy knows an assassin when she sees one. And more than that, Peggy knows the easy grace of a sniper, the deadly precision of an eye staring down the sight of a gun.
By now, too, Peggy knows that these angles and lines match the hunched, hunted man from just days ago.
There are other files, whispers, warnings. Codename: Winter Soldier. Always dismissed, for fear of giving the Russians more power over impressionable American agents. Always discarded, for want of any concrete proof. Or living witnesses.
The nightmare, the storm. The harbinger of doom, skirting the edge of history. Sleeping in the margins of death.
It’s Bucky Barnes.
“Steve,” she says into the phone, voice as firm as she can manage, that old hint of iron woven through her words. “Tell me everything.”
The sun is sharp and bright in the sky when he next comes.
Peggy is in her garden, comfortably wrapped in a shawl, sitting in a wheelchair and looking down at the blooming roses, splashes of vivid red and blinding white.
The flowers look like blood on skin. If Peggy were to close her eyes, she wouldn’t dream of her children or grandchildren or great grandchildren, this life she’s built for herself. She would dream of the sickening rush that follows broken bone.
The acrid, acidic bite of rust in the air, sticky crimson, clotted brown.
Gunshot wounds, the cut of a knife. A spatter across a wall. Each wet, wheezing breath she ever heard, ever caused.
Her hands are knotted with scar tissue and age, but Peggy is more than her current avatar. There was a time when she dealt death as easily as she courts it now.
Behind her, there is movement. Peggy crushes the petals of one red rose, the soft red smear curled in the cradle of her palm.
“Bucky,” Peggy says, and the sound of this name in her mouth is unfamiliar. He was always Sergeant Barnes, or James, when she wanted to tease that sullen face into something more reflexively sauve, an echo of what must have been his pre-war self.
“Barnes,” she tries instead. It sits more easily on her tongue. She turns her chair, and he is standing in her garden, a raincloud on a sunny day. There is a dagger tucked loosely in his jeans.
Barnes cocks his head. Under the brim of his ballcap, his brows furrow.
“You know me,” he says. His eyes are very bright when they meet hers.
Looking at him throws Peggy back into the past, moves her bodily so she is pressed against her chair, fingertips curled into her palm.
“I do,” she says. “And do you know me?”
He steps closer, and his hand unfolds. There is a brochure, wrinkled and torn, emblazoned with the Smithsonian’s name. From the annual Captain America exhibit, Peggy dimly recognizes. Her face is a small box below Steve’s. She looks so young.
“No,” Barnes responds. “But I think I should.”
Briefly, she wonders why he doesn’t go to Steve. Why he is following her like a wisp of smoke, brief and insubstantial. Why he is glowering, arms folded, looking to her with uncertainty on his face.
When she asks, Barnes says only: “I don’t dream of you.”
She supposes that’s fair; she remembers the lonely nights and cold, early mornings following Steve’s death. How she’d see his smile, hear his voice. Feel his hair under her fingers, taste that last, urgent kiss. A stamp on her mouth, a brand on her memory.
To dream of a past that won’t stay dead—it wears on a person. Makes them hard. Distrustful.
For Barnes, who is already so lost, the dreams must feel like taunts, unimaginably cruel. Here is what you might have had, they must say. Once.
Unfinished business. She knows better than most, how that can linger in one’s soul. How it’s easier, sometimes, to seek out people with whom there is no yearning. No emotional weight. No expectation.
It’s for this intimate knowledge, this recognition of self, that she reaches out a hand. Beckons Barnes closer.
Says, “Well, I don’t dream of you, either,” and invites him in.
They drink tea.
It’s Peggy’s answer to most everything, even after all this time living in the States. The Tetley's steeps long and comes out deliciously dark, strong. She adds a drop of milk and four sugars, and sips like she’s being restored.
Barnes stares at his cup as if it’s foreign. She wonders, looking at his frame, the haggard quality of his visage, how much of his nutrients were ingested, how much were intravenously administered. Does he even know how to eat for pleasure? For simple sustenance?
There is an agent’s curiosity to her musings. A soldier’s sympathy to the twist of her lips.
“I’m sorry for what they did to you,” she tells him, over a cloud of steam. “And for what they made you do.”
Apologies will not erase the past. But Peggy thinks perhaps someone must acknowledge the truth—that Barnes was turned into something hollow. Filled with the orders from people whose ideals he never would have followed. He was violated, and made to violate others, and it was wrong.
Peggy knows the cost of doing terrible things. But the blood on her hands is the result of a conscious choice. She was able to weigh the cost and benefits of each decision, each time. So she has come honestly by her late night musings, the sick feeling that settles into her stomach like an old friend. Peggy has earned her guilt.
Barnes has not.
His fingers clench around his cup, and he does not respond. Slowly, Peggy places a hand on the metal ridges of his wrist, fingers trembling with age but not fear, and tries to convey as much peace as she’s able.
She has never been anyone’s port in the storm, but it’s time one of them gets to come home from the war.
There are precious few photographs that Peggy has kept from those long ago days. The ones that are for public consumption were taken by wartime photographers, captured moments in time that remain frozen and untouchable. It’s easy to look upon them and feel nothing, which is what she vastly prefers.
Most days, anyhow. Today, over a dinner of soup and warm, crusty bread, she slides across the table a crumbling picture.
A man half-turned to mutter a joke to his friend, sharp in profile, hair glinting in the light. Next to him, a face tilted up, as if to the sky. Square shoulders, strong chin. The impression of a mouth thrown open in laughter.
“This is you,” she says. “And him."
Bucky’s face takes on a hungry expression, eyes going terribly distant as he reaches for the picture. His fingers trace the same pathway that Peggy’s have taken in countless private moments: over the dear, darling imprint of Steve’s face.
Sometimes, it gives Peggy a perverse sense of comfort to know that this yawning chasm of loss no longer lives in her soul alone. That Barnes suffers from it, too. That there are now two people in this mad world who know what it is to have loved and been loved by Steve Rogers, understanding intimately the pain that accompanies the joy.
Of course, Barnes never admits all of that aloud. But Peggy knows; it’s there in the way his mouth forms silent shapes around a prayer, and his body shifts as if to accommodate someone else’s centre of gravity.
The mind forgets, but the body remembers.
“You walked all the way back to camp that day,” Peggy muses, softly. “With nothing but a gun at your back and him by your side."
Her hand is withered with age and sometimes its aim is not true, but in this moment, it finds his easily enough. “Barnes,” she says, squeezing gently. “You were a soldier, and a man. You were his friend."
Whatever else he became, and whatever else he will become.
There is gratitude in the way Barnes squeezes Peggy’s hand gently in return, and relief in the way his eyes rake over the picture once more.
"I was his friend,” he says, and though his voice is rough, the words are sure.
You might've been more than that, is what Peggy never says. I might've been, too.
Just another bittersweet truth, shared and swallowed by the spectre of Death and the vagaries of time.
Sharon visits often.
So often that Peggy finds herself falling back into patterns of subterfuge and illusion, coughing louder and sleeping more, easing into a cloak of frailty that fools even her keenly intelligent niece. The work of returning Barnes back to himself is not a light load. Nor is it…a strictly legal one. Though Sharon has left SHIELD with a renewed sense of suspicion for the rules, Peggy would rather not explain the repeated presence of an ex-HYDRA assassin in her bedroom, of all places.
Still. There’s a day when Sharon visits, her skin glowing pale in the shafts of sunlight that come streaming in from the windows, and her jaw is so obstinate, her hair so gold, that Peggy wishes Barnes were here. If only to marvel at the way they both seem to surround themselves with bright-eyed heroes, even as they make their own homes in the shadows.
“Aunt Peg,” Sharon mutters, touching the blanket over Peggy’s knees. “Tell me a story?"
Peggy rests against her pillows, hand fluttering over Sharon’s and she smiles.
“There once was a man with a very big gun. And no, dear, that’s not a euphemism..."
The story is as familiar to Peggy as the old records she used to play, dancing with Gabe under the stars, footwork all the more sweet for its complexity. She doesn’t name names, but she speaks frankly of blue eyes like shards of glass and dark waves of curling hair.
She weaves the tale as only an expert could, spinning moments of adventure and terror and bravery and a little bit of romance, letting suspense build from thin air. There are bombs, and missions, and spies. There is war. But there is love, too, affection that keeps her voice light.
When Sharon finally leaves her to rest, she settles more fully into bed and lets her eyes drift shut.
Before she closes them all the way, she thinks she sees a flicker of movement near the windows.
She falls asleep with a smile on her lips.
You said I was a crack shot but a damned idiot, a note reads under the glass of water she keeps by her bed. I’d like to hear the context behind that one.
“Lurking under windowpanes, how gauche.” Peggy reprimands dryly, when Barnes returns, a week later and more calm than she's ever seen him.
He sits in his chair with more ease than he did before, legs casually spread and hands in loose fists on the table. His eyes no longer track Peggy’s every movement with suspicion. His mouth no longer looks pursed, drawn tight in discomfort. His hair is still overly long, and his beard is still heavy, but there is a smirk in the hike of his eyebrows, and that is victory enough.
How long, Peggy wonders, has it been since Barnes has had something to laugh about? And what has he been doing that lets him settle so boldly back into his skin?
She thinks of Steve, voice tinny on the phone, asking her whether she's seen or heard from Bucky. Just a feeling, he'd said. Just been feeling—him.
Probably she ought not lie to Steve. But if watching—unobserved and unfettered by the baggage of an unplanned reunion—is what Barnes needs, she'll give him the opportunity as best she can.
I'm not sure whether I'd even recognize him any longer, Steve.
It might even be true, but for the fact that Peggy lives with one foot in the past and one foot in the grave, now. She sees what used to be and what might have been everywhere she looks these days. And when she looks at Barnes, the clatter of dog-tags and the smell of pomade are as rich and vivid as it ever was.
Barnes scratches his chin before leaning over and pouring a cup of tea. His hand barely shakes.
“Didn’t want to scare your company,” he says. “Wasn’t sure I’d be welcome."
Peggy knows by now that he is on the run. There are forces, both malevolent and benign, who seek him out. Who want to understand what he was, what he became, what he will become.
It’s not fair to hand him over until he knows these answers for himself.
“You’re welcome with me,” she allows, taking a sip. “Always."
Barnes gives a sardonic look over his own cup. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he says. “Forever’s a damn long time. Gettin’ longer every day."
Peggy raises an eyebrow to match Barnes, smirk for smirk. “Thankfully, you’ve mastered the art of persisting,” she says.
It might’ve sounded damning, once upon a time. Instead, as much as she’s able, Peggy tries to make it feel like a gift.
Barnes gives a crooked smile, and the sheer boyishness of it almost takes her breath away. She’s seen Steve in all of his youthful glory, the vitality and hope that still burns in his eyes, the weariness well-hidden behind a beaming grin and bulging muscles. But Barnes usually wears his age like a mantle, darkness and sorrow wrapped tight around him. Seeing him shed the cloak he has carried, emerging unblinking into the sun, it’s a bit like seeing someone reborn.
Peggy’s heart aches at the knowledge that he's only becoming the person he should’ve been all along.
“It ain’t all bad,” Barnes says slowly, slyly. “Not if it means running into pretty ladies like you again."
Peggy bites back a surprised grin. “Flatterer,” she accuses, and the years fall away a little more.
Barnes reaches across the table, the metal of his fingers cool on her overheated skin. “Pegs,” he says. “Tell me a story."
And because this is one thing that she can do, old and infirm, but an eternal keeper of stories, a consistent holder of truth, Peggy does.
One day soon, Barnes will have to stop running. He will have to turn and face the one person who can drag him, even kicking and screaming, into living a life, however painful or confusing that journey might be.
One day, for both Steve’s sake and his own, Barnes will have to be Bucky again.
But for now, he sits with her.
And it’s enough.