Peggy allows herself ten minutes.
For ten minutes, she lays her head down on the console in front of her and she sobs. Quietly, but uncontrollably. She wraps her arms around herself and feels the grief wrack her body.
She's seen plenty of death, these last few years, seen too many young men cut down before their time. But no death has hurt quite this much. Steve is a pure soul…no…was a pure soul, one of the bravest people she's ever known. And now he's gone, taken by water and ice and Schmidt's mad plan to rule the world.
After ten minutes, she forces herself to sit up, forces her body to still and the tears to stop welling from her eyes. It's the hardest thing she's ever done, but she does it. She does it, because Steve may be gone, but she has a duty to perform, and she refuses to be viewed as a weak woman who lets her emotions get the best of her. It's not fair, but it's the way things are. She knew that when she signed up for this fight.
She sits up straight, pulls her compact from her pocket, and wipes the ruined makeup from her face with her handkerchief. She can't do anything about her blotchy skin or her red, swollen eyes, but she does still the trembling of her lip through sheer force of will.
When she knows she's under control, she finds the Colonel.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Agent Carter," Phillips tells her as soon as he sees her. He's said those words many times, but she can tell he sincerely means it this time. Then again, he always means it.
"Thank you," she says, proud of the way she keeps her voice steady. "I'm afraid I need to ask two favours of you."
"Anything you need." Phillips might be cantankerous and contrary, but at heart he's a good man.
"I need to be on the next plane to London."
"And I need you to make sure that no one tells Sergeant Barnes about Steve until I get there."
She sees the realization of what she's going to do form in Phillips' face.
"You don't have to…" he says. "We have people who can do that."
Peggy tries to imagine what would happen if some unfamiliar officer told Barnes that Steve has perished in the Arctic ice. She doesn't think Barnes would live out the hour. He'd find some way to follow Steve, and given the shape they'd left him in, she fears it would be perilously easy for him to end his life.
"I have to," she insists. "I promised Steve I'd look after Barnes. I can't let him down."
"All right," Phillips nods. "I'll call ahead. Make sure you're the first person to talk to him."
"Thank you, sir."
"And Agent Carter, give my condolences to Sergeant Barnes. He's a good man. Neither of them deserve this."
Peggy nods her thanks, and then begins making her way out of Schmidt's stronghold. She encounters the rest of the Howling Commandos on her way. Morita has clearly told the others what's happened; they all look at her with sympathy, and Falsworth gives her a sharp salute as she passes.
Word of Steve's death spreads ahead of her as she travels to the airfield, to England, to London. Throughout the whole journey, she keeps her feelings shut down. She needs to. Everyone she encounters offers their sympathies. Their kindness would kill her if she hadn't steeled herself against it.
She might be outwardly calm, but she's in no shape to drive a vehicle. She has one of the young men seconded to the SSR take her to the hospital. Private Merton is silent as they drive through the streets, avoiding new bombing sites and check points, and she appreciates that. But as she's getting out of the jeep, he finally speaks.
"Tell Sergeant Barnes we're all thinking of him," Merton says. "The Captain was a great guy. We'll all miss him."
"Thank you, Private," Peggy manages to say, and then she's in the hospital.
The last time she walked through these corridors, Steve was at her side, and she'd just realized the man waiting in a room ahead of her was her rival for his affections. She feels a horrid wave of jealousy crash through her. Barnes had had practically a lifetime with Steve; she'd only had eighteen months. At this moment, she thinks she hates him.
She reaches the corridor where Barnes' room is, and there are nurses and doctors in front of her, offering more kind words, more sympathy. She acknowledges all of them silently, but doesn't speak. She needs to save her words for the sergeant.
She knocks once on the door, a courtesy, before stepping into the room. Barnes is sitting up in his bed. The missing arm is still shocking, but he's looking better than the last time she saw him, when his cocky façade couldn't hide the pallor of his skin or the pain behind his eyes. The wave of jealousy, of hatred, breaks over her and foams away as she realizes the futility of fighting over a dead man. They've both lost Steve now. She promised Steve she'd be Barnes' protector. She'll honour that promise, no matter the cost.
"Peggy!" He greets her with a smile. She cruelly thinks that it's the last smile she'll see on his face for a long time. "How are you?"
She opens her mouth to tell him the terrible news, but no sound comes out. Her voice has betrayed her.
Barnes must see the truth in her expression, but he fights it for a moment.
"Where's Steve?" he asks. "Is he with you?" His eyes grow bleaker by the second. "Is he all right?"
Still, she can't speak, can only shake her head. And that's when it happens.
"Fuck," Barnes says, his remaining hand gripping the railing of his bed so hard that she can see tendons strain against skin. He makes a sound like the sum of all grief, and Peggy knows she is watching his world fall apart, just like hers fell apart in that control room in the Alps.
She doesn't mean to move, but she can't not, can't watch this happen and do nothing. She holds Barnes, careful not to jostle the stump that's all that remains of his left arm. She rubs his back as he buries his face in her shoulder and weeps.
His weeping isn't silent, as hers was. It's loud and messy and wet, and it seems to go on forever and ever, until she's sure that he's going to hurt himself. She finally yells for help, and a nurse and doctor appear on the threshold. The doctor has a syringe in his hand that he plunges into Barnes' remaining arm. Barnes slackens against her and the sedative takes him under, and Peggy wonders if the doctor has had the drugs ready from the time she arrived.
"We'll look after him," the nurse says. She tucks the blankets around Barnes with prim efficiency. "You don't have to stay."
She looks at Barnes. Even unconscious, he looks ravaged. She thinks about him waking up alone in this room with the knowledge that Steve is dead, and she knows she can't leave.
"It's fine." She moves the one chair in the room so that Barnes will be able to see her when he wakes. "I'll just sit here."
It's the middle of the night when Barnes wakes up. She's half asleep herself, but a rustling from the bed makes her open her eyes. Barnes is looking at her, his eyes watery, his mouth trembling.
He tries to speak, fails, swallows, tries again.
"How?" he says, his voice so low she can barely hear it.
"Schmidt had aimed a plane at the States. It was full of bombs. Steve – " She has to stop, her throat betraying her again.
She clenches her eyes shut, only opening them when she feels a light touch at her elbow. Barnes' fingers clutch at her jacket.
"Please, Peggy," he whispers.
"Steve put the plane down in the water." She makes herself continue, putting her hand over his. "He saved a lot of people."
"Dumb punk always did think it was up to him to save the world."
"It really was, this time."
"Jesus." His fingers tighten their grip on her jacket. He closes his eyes and the tears leak out of them.
His crying isn't as uncontrolled this time, but it goes on for a long time. She holds his hand when he'll let her, gets him glasses of water when he needs it, and stays with him until he finally has sobbed himself to sleep.
One of the nurses comes to check on them both, and when she realizes Peggy won't be moved, she makes her sleep in the ward's on-call room.
"I'll fetch you as soon as he wakes," the nurse tells her, so Peggy thanks her, washes her face at the sink, and collapses on the room's thin cot.
The next time Barnes wakes, he can go whole minutes without crying. In between the tears, he tells her stories about Steve. They're not war stories, just stories about Steve as a kid, but they still always end in a fight.
"One time, he found a coupla kids teasing my little sister. Pop had a good job that year and they got Becca a doll for her birthday—first new one she'd ever had—and she carried it around everywhere. But these two older kids had taken it off her and were playing keepaway with it.
"By the time I came across them, Steve had two black eyes and a busted nose, but he'd got Becca her doll back. Becca followed him around like a puppy after that, told me she was his favourite Barnes. I always let her think that." He almost smiles. Peggy almost smiles back.
"It was a good thing his ma was a nurse, Agent Carter, because she was always having to stitch him up or set his nose."
"Peggy," she says.
"Call me Peggy, Barnes." Because after all they've been through these last two days, she won't have him calling her Agent Carter.
"Oh." Barnes looks surprised, and just a bit pleased. "You can call me…" He hesitates.
"Bucky?" she tries.
"James," he says with a wince. "I think I want to be James, now."
He's James to her, to everyone, from that point forward.
The next day, Colonel Phillips himself comes to retrieve her.
"I'm sorry, Barnes, but I'm in need of Agent Carter." He gives James a tight smile. "We've got a war to finish winning."
"Of course, sir."
"I'll be waiting outside."
"I'll be back tonight," she tells James, once they're alone.
"You don't have to." He sits up straighter in the bed, like he wants to prove he's fine, even when he's so clearly not. She could take him at his word, she realizes. She could pull back on visiting him. Do just enough to fulfill her obligation to Steve, but no more. But the thing is, she doesn't want to.
Barnes had never been her favourite member of the Howling Commandos. He'd tried flirting with her almost as soon as he'd met her, and she'd had that reaction far too many times from far too many men to see it as anything but a lack of respect. And then there'd been her jealousy of his connection with Steve. A jealousy that had been only a slim thread before Barnes had fallen, but had bound her like a steel cable when she'd realized exactly how close the two of them were. No, she hadn't liked Barnes much at all.
But James… James was the one other person in the world who knew the real Steve Rogers, not Captain America. James was the one other person who shared her grief. He'd let her see his vulnerability, and had seen hers. James was a friend, and she wouldn't abandon him.
"I'll be back tonight," she insists, patting his hand.
"Thank you, Peggy," he says, and she sees his eyes welling with tears.
"Do what the nurses tell you, James," she says, and gives him a hug. She leaves quickly, before he can see her tears.
Peggy keeps her promise to James. Every night that she's in London, after she's finished with her duties at SSR headquarters, she returns to his room in the hospital. Sometimes, he's already asleep when she arrives, so she sits with him, one hand on his arm, ready to still him if a nightmare strikes. Sometimes, he's awake and waiting for her, with gossip about the nurses, and more stories about Steve and his adventures in Brooklyn. Sometimes neither of them can talk without crying, so they sit together, fingers laced together, in a comfortable silence.
As the days go on, they cry less and laugh more, but she knows he's not going to be the same. James is more serious than he was before. He's lost the ability to turn on the charm that seemed an essential part of every story Steve had ever told her about his Bucky. But then, she's different, too. You don't lose someone like Steve without losing pieces of yourself.
If he's more subdued than he used to be, physically he's healing at an amazing rate. By the second night, they're taking walks around the hospital, his pace faster than she's used to. Before the week is out, they're talking about sending him back to the States.
"Home," he says to her, the evening he finds out. "I can go home. To a military hospital first, but then back to Brooklyn." He sounds almost happy about it, but she finds she's not. She'll miss him. And this isn't what she promised Steve.
"Is that what you want?" she asks.
He cocks his head to one side, confused by the question.
"It's the Army, Peggy. You don't get to tell them what you want."
"Forget about the Army for a minute. Do you want to go back home? Do you have anything back there waiting for you? Anyone?"
"Well, I've got Ma and Pa. And Becca. Christ, I haven't written them yet. They'll be worried about me. And they'll want to know about Steve. Have the reporters got hold of the news about Steve?" He looks frantic, and Peggy thinks that perhaps she's wrong, that the best place for James is Brooklyn, with his family. People that have known Steve Rogers since he was a child.
"I don't think the news about Steve is public yet. And we can get a letter to your family in the SSR courier packet. It will get there faster. We can even let them know when you'll be arriving."
James relaxes, just a bit.
"You're welcome, James. Why don't I go get you some paper so you can write that letter?"
She leaves the room, and gets paper and pen from the nurses station. She starts making peace with James leaving. It's clearly the best thing for him. She'll keep her promise to Steve; she'll look out for him. The war will be over soon enough, and Howard Stark will still need people working for him. But he deserves to be well out of danger. Steve would want nothing less.
When she gets back to his room, James discovers that writing a letter isn't so easy with one hand, one arm. Peggy ends up holding the paper in place as he painstakingly writes a letter to his sister. She's gotten used to Steve's messy scrawl. By comparison, James' handwriting is a precise copperplate. She doesn't read what he's writing, though. The look on his face is enough to tell him how difficult this letter is, how private.
He has a page written when he pauses to look at her.
"You asked me what I want. I think I know." He somehow manages to look both determined and shattered.
"And what is that?"
"I want to finish the fight Steve started. I want to finish off what's left of Hydra and the Nazis. However I can. And I get the impression you've got an idea of what I can do."
She thinks for a minute about how to respond. He's so close to being safe. She's sure that Steve would have wanted that most of all. But then again, she suspects James Buchanan Barnes didn't become Steve Rogers' friend by playing it safe.
"Steve mentioned you're good at fixing things."
"Yeah. I was always fixing Steve's mom's radio. They couldn't afford to have someone look at it when it went on the fritz. And I picked up some hours at the local garage when I could, working on cars." He gives her a wan smile. "I loved reading about new engines and inventions and stuff. Picked up copies of Popular Science when I could afford it. Why?"
"Howard is in need of an assistant. He's complained that none of Phillips' men can keep up with him." The first part isn't really a lie, because the second part is completely true.
"I don't know if I could keep up with Mr. Stark."
"You kept up with Steve."
"Steve used to keep up with me."
"I'm sure he did. Would you like me to talk to Howard for you? You wouldn't be shooting at anyone anymore, but Howard's work certainly will help finish off the Germans."
James taps the pen on his tray as he's thinking. Peggy sees a droplet of ink mar the top of his letter, but he doesn't notice as he worries at his lip. He finally sets the pen down and gives her a steady look.
"If Mr. Stark can use me, and if the Army'll let me, then I want to stay."
"Good," Peggy says. "Now let's get back to your letter."
The next morning, Peggy sets out to find Howard.
He's holed up in the SSR research lab, surrounded by weapons prototypes he's designed, hunched over blueprints for what looks to Peggy like a new version of the flying car Steve told her about seeing in New York.
"Can I talk to you about Sergeant Barnes?"
"Finally," Howard says without looking up. "You figured out he should be dead, right?"
"What?" Peggy thinks she must have heard Howard wrong. Everything she'd planned on saying evaporates.
"Dead. He should be dead."
Peggy stares at Howard, and she fears her mouth is hanging open.
"What?" she says again.
Howard puts down his pen and looks up at her with a raised eyebrow.
"The guy falls off a mountain and, apart from the little matter off losing an arm, survives with only a few contusions."
"He had more than a few contusions."
Howard waves her response away.
"The distance he fell, he should have shattered every bone in his body. He should've been a damp spot on the rocks. I've been waiting two weeks for someone to notice how goddamn weird that is. I thought you finally had."
"I'm here because Steve…" Peggy feels her throat close up. It's getting easier to talk about Steve, but it's still not easy. She swallows and tries again. "Steve asked me to look out for James. He thought you might have a use for him. And James has decided he'd like to stay and continue the fight, however he can."
"James, huh?" Howard stands and leans against his desk, arms crossed over his chest. "I might just at that. Has James ever said what Zola did to him at that place?"
"Not to me. I don't even know if he talked to Steve about it. And what does that have to do with finding a use for James?"
"Given his survival and the frankly unbelievable rate at which he's recovered from his fall, I think there's every chance Zola was using him as a guinea pig for a new serum." Howard sounds obscenely pleased by this possibility.
"A new serum?" Peggy wants to be sure she's clear on what Howard's implying, because she doesn't like it one bit.
"A new serum. Like Erskine's." Howard sounds impatient, as if he can't believe he has to explain this to her. "You know, a serum for producing big, strong super soldiers."
"And what do you want Sergeant Barnes for, Howard? Exactly?"
"Maybe he's the key to reproducing the formula."
"Let me see if I understand," Peggy says. "You want to experiment on a man who has already been tortured and experimented on by Nazi scientists to see if you can reproduce a Nazi formula that may or may not exist. Is that it, Howard?"
"Well, put like that it sounds pretty bad." Howard at least has the good manners to look embarrassed.
"It's more than pretty bad. It's frankly appalling." Peggy pulls herself up to her full height and stares across at Howard. "Steve Rogers asked me to look after his friend, not to allow him to become a lab rat in a cage."
"Point taken. Well, if you're not going to let me use him as a lab rat, what do you think Barnes can do?"
"You were complaining that none of Phillips' men can keep up with you."
"And you think Barnes could?" Howard looks sceptical.
"Steve thought so."
"Far be it from me to disagree with Captain America." Howard bows with a flourish. "Fine, you can bring the sergeant here when he's ready. I'll put him through his paces. See what he can do."
"Thank you, Howard." Peggy goes to leave, then turns back. "And Howard, please don't mention your serum hypothesis to anyone else. I don't want Phillips turning James into a lab rat either." She trusts Howard to do the right thing. But on occasion he needs to be reminded what the right thing is.
"I've already forgotten what I was talking about." Howard has turned back to his blueprints.
"Let's keep it that way."
One day later, she scrounges up a uniform for James and brings him to SSR headquarters, his empty sleeve neatly pinned up. He's pale, and he occasionally overbalances, but otherwise he looks well for a man who should probably be dead.
Howard is waiting for him, several half-completed projects laid out on his work tables.
"All right, Sergeant Barnes," Howard says with a grin. "Let's see what you've got."
Peggy tries to hover, but both of them shoo her out.
"I'll be all right, Peggy," James assures her.
"Yeah, Peggy. He'll be all right."
"Fine. I'll be back in two hours."
Neither of them gives her a second look.
When she does return, two hours and fifteen minutes later, she finds the two of them, heads bent over what seems to be a heap of spare parts on the table, happily poking away at whatever it's supposed to be. Howard notices her first.
"Peggy!" Howard greets her with a smile.
"It looks like you two are getting along."
James looks…almost happy. Howard looks ridiculously pleased with himself. More so even than usual.
"Did you know," Howard says, "that Barnes dragged Rogers to my exhibition in New York? His last night before shipping out, so what does he do? He finds dates for him and Rogers, and brings them all to a science exhibit. He saw my flying car." He looks pleased and proud all at once.
"The car that didn't work," Peggy says.
"It doesn't work yet," James says. "We've got some ideas."
The two of them look like a pair of overexcited kids who've woken up on Christmas morning to more toys than they can possibly play with. And just for a second she thinks Steve will be happy. Before she realizes, not for the first time today, or the first time this hour, that she needs to think of Steve in the past tense.
"I'll just leave you two alone, then, so you can solve this flying car problem." She keeps her expression smooth and unruffled. She is a spy, after all.
They barely notice her leaving.
Howard never mentions the serum and James again. Peggy gets James into the same billet. They have rooms across from each other in a creaky old house in Camden. It's a good arrangement. Peggy can help James with buttons and buckles and pinning his sleeve up every morning before they go into the SSR. And James can make tea for Peggy in the middle of the night when he hears her pacing her room after a particularly bad dream. She never asks why he's up at that time. She's not the only with who suffers from bad dreams.
Three weeks after they've kicked him out of the hospital, the doctors decide his arm's healed well enough to fit James with a prosthetic. He spends the day at the hospital, and shows up at tea time with a prosthetic arm, a thing made of leather straps and buckles and a dreadful metal hook. Howard looks at it like it's an abomination.
"What is that?" he asks, with the tone he reserves for particularly bad engineering designs.
"It's my new arm." James winces, as if he's not happy about it either.
"I hate to tell you, Jimmy my boy, but that thing is not an arm. It's a contraption. And a goddamn ugly one at that." Howard smiles, the smile he uses when he gets one of his frequently brilliant ideas. "But I can make you one that's so much better."
They settle into a rhythm, James and Howard producing ever more effective weapons, while Peggy and the Howling Commandos push ever deeper into Germany, along with the rest of the Western Allied Forces. Peggy's back in London with the Howlies for the V.E. Day celebration.
"Never thought I'd see this day," Dum Dum says as they gather in a pub.
"I'm glad that bastard Hitler is dead," Jones says.
"You know what I wish, though," James says. "I wish Steve had lived long enough to sock that fuckin' asshole in the face for real."
"Here, here," Falsworth says, raising his glass. "To the Captain."
"To the Captain," they all say. And if some of the Howling Commandos, one of the toughest units in the Allied Forces, have tears in their eyes, Peggy's never going to mention it.
By the beginning of July, the SSR is packed up and shipped back to New York. The rumour is they'll be sent to the Pacific front, but somehow that never happens. Peggy's in Howard's new lab, along with James, when they hear about Hiroshima.
"It had to be that fucker, Oppenheimer," Howard says when they hear about the first bomb. "The bastard disappeared to New Mexico with half the physicists in America, and everyone knew he was working on something big.
James doesn't say much of anything. And he's even quieter after a second bomb is dropped on Nagasaki.
But when Phillips arrives to tell them about the Japanese surrender, James finally speaks.
"Steve'd be fucking pissed," he says when Phillips tells them about the Japanese surrender.
"I don't think Captain Rogers would be angry that we won the war, Sergeant," Phillips says.
"He'd hate how we did it," James says. "Steve died stopping Schmidt's Hydra bombs from taking out cities, from killing civilians. Now we've dropped something just as bad on Japan. On their women. On their kids." James' voice cracks and he looks almost as ill as when Peggy told him that Steve was gone. Peggy know he isn't wrong.
"I thought you were the realist, son," Phillips says. "Rogers was the one with the ideals. You know how war's really won."
"Yeah, well maybe Steve left me his ideals along with his sketchbooks."
Phillips leaves him alone after that.
The war is over. Peace has been declared. And the SSR begins to be dismantled, its pieces adjusted so it's fit more for peace time, or for this new Cold War with the Soviets that's lurking on the horizon.
Howard goes back to running Stark Industries full-time, though he's still pulled in regularly as a consultant.
Peggy can see how the wind is blowing, how the women who've done so much for the war effort are being pushed aside in favour of men returning from battle. She knows it's going to be a fight, but she decides to stay. For as long as they'll keep her, anyway.
She's not sure what James wants to do.
He knows Phillips has had a talk with him about staying with the SSR. And she knows Howard would take him for his company in an instant. But she doesn't know which offer he's going to accept. Or if he'll just go back to Brooklyn and put all thoughts of war, the SSR and Steve Rogers behind him.
She should have known better.
One night, as she's staying late to look into a file on German scientists that Truman wants recruited, James appears at her desk, a bottle of very nice whisky held in his flesh hand, and two glasses clutched against his side by the prosthetic arm Howard and James had made together. ("Consider it a first draft, Jimmy, boy. We'll make the next one even better.")
"I liberated this from Phillips' desk," James says, and he gives her what she's come to think of as a shadow of his Bucky smile. The smile that Steve would have been so familiar with but she seldom sees.
"I don't know if I want to be an accessory to a felony."
"C'mon. Live a little." He puts down his stolen liquor, pours a glass, and passes it to her. She takes it. It is, after all, very good whisky.
They each knock back shot after shot. Peggy finds herself getting just a tipsy and hoping she's not too hung over the next day. James seems to barely feel the alcohol. (She pointedly does not think about Howard speculating that James received a Hydra serum.) Neither of them talks until half the bottle is gone, but it's a comfortable silence. After all they've been through together, Peggy knows they're friends. He's one of her best friends, in fact.
"So, Phillips has offered me a job," James finally says.
"I thought as much."
"And so has Howard."
"And which offer will you accept?"
She finds she's anxious about his answer. They both loved the same man, they were rivals, and yet she doesn't want to lose his companionship. She wants to work with him. She wants him to stay with the SSR.
"Howard's offering me a lot of money."
"He has a lot of money to offer."
"More than Uncle Sam ever could."
"Is it money you want?"
It would be…disappointing, she realizes, if James were to be motivated only by the promise of wealth.
"Money ain't nothin'." James swirls the whisky in his glass. "There were a couple of winters during the depression that Steve nearly died because we didn't have any money for the doctor." He downs the liquid all in one swallow, then shakes his head. "But, no, beyond keeping a roof over my head, money doesn't matter to me that much."
"Then what does?"
"Don't know." He carefully pours himself more whisky. "I was maybe hoping you could help me out, there."
"What matters to you?" He fixes her with a look that's equal parts curiosity and desperation.
"Doing what I know is right," she says immediately. "Saving lives, when I can. Preserving democracy. Stopping tyranny." She thinks of the news that's filtering out of Stalin's Russia, and what it might mean to give that madman his head in the world.
"Christ," he says with a laugh, then takes another drink. "It's no wonder Steve loved you."
"He loved you as well." They don't talk about these things openly, but there are no secrets between them. "What matters to you, James?" she pushes.
"Doing what's right, I suppose. Just like you. But mostly, I spent my life following Steve, and finishing up the fights he couldn't. When he got big and could finish his own fights, I kept following him." He polishes off what's left in his glass and pours yet more whisky for himself. "Maybe I just need someone to follow. You're looking like the best candidate I've got."
"I like Howard, but I think you're the one who's going to be fighting the kind of battles I'm interested in. Just like Steve. You're going to have me around for a while, Agent Carter." He hasn't called her that since the hospital in London. She accepts it as the pledge of loyalty it is.
"I'll be glad to have you on board, Sergeant Barnes."
They drink the rest of Phillips' whisky, then go in search of a bar to seal James' decision. Peggy's never sure how she manages to get home; she guesses she must have drunk more than she did on V.E. and V.J Days combined. She wakes up still in her clothes, her shoes by the bed, a quilt thrown over her and a bottle of aspirin and a glass of water on her nightstand. When she drags herself into the office, James looks far better than a man who consumed that much alcohol should (He should be dead, Howard had told her) but she can't resent him. He's following her. And together, she knows they're going to do great things.
Peggy settles behind her desk, looking around the office, all dark wood and leather-bound books on the shelves. After all the years she's put into this organization, the nonsense she's put up with, watching the promotions of men much less qualified than she is, she can't quite believe she's here.
There's a knock on the door, and before she can say anything, James opens it and slides into the office.
"Look at you," he says, hands in his pockets, an easy, impressed look on his face.
"A little more respect for your commanding officer, if you please, James."
"Sorry." James snaps to attention, a gleam of mischief in his eye. "Reporting for duty, Director Carter, ma'am," he says, throwing a sharper salute than he ever did back when he was actually in the Army.
"Director Carter," she says. She's had the title for all of twenty-four hours. She's not sure when she'll get used to hearing it.
"You deserve it, Peggy." James slips into the chair across from his desk. "This is your baby. The CIA would have gobbled us up when Phillips left if it hadn't been for you fighting for our autonomy. Not to mention the name…"
"The name." She smiles. "Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division doesn't exactly roll off the tongue."
"No, but SHIELD does." The mischief fades from James' face, replaced with the melancholy that he's carried with him for the past ten years. He's one of the few people left who knows why she pushed for that particular acronym for the organization. The two of them and Howard are the only ones left who knew Steve personally. All the Howling Commandos have gone and gotten civilian jobs. (Dugan had hung out for longer than the others, but now even he's running a hardware store in Akron.) So many of the new people are so damn… young. "He'd be proud, Peggy." James' voice is low and gentle. "Proud of what you've done, and proud of what you've become."
"He'd be proud of you, as well," Peggy says. Before they can both get too maudlin, start downing the whisky and adding to the tears they've both shed over Steve Rogers the last ten years, she points at his left hand.
"How's the Mark 25 working out?" she asks.
"Mark 26," James says, and wiggles its fingers. "Mark 25 was making a damned annoying squeaking noise, so we made this one last week."
"As always, it's amazing."
"Not yet it's not. But it's going to be." He smiles, and Peggy sees when his attention leaves this room, already thinking of new improvements he can make to the arm, and probably a dozen other projects besides. "This one's still mostly mechanical, but I've been talking to some Japanese researchers about their work on transistors, seeing how small they can make them. We're close to having a computer-controlled arm. And Howard's been making some noise about neural networks, looking for ways to tap directly into the nervous system."
James' arm has become his and Howard's favourite hobby. Howard's done less and less work with the SSR and SHIELD over the years, but he and James get together regularly. Whether they go to a bar or take one of Howard's planes out for a spin, they always end up working on a new arm. Bucky's had arms made of wood and brass and wire, powered by batteries or the energy of James' own muscles. He's had arms with interchangeable utensils, and even one with inlaid filigree. ("Just because it needs to be functional, doesn't mean it can't be beautiful," Howard said about that one.)
The latest arm, Mark 26, is much simpler, but just as elegant. It's made of brushed metal plates that lock together, and it moves more like a real hand than anything James has yet had.
It's nothing short of amazing how well James and Howard get along. Howard had pulled strings to get James into an engineering program, in spite of the fact that he'd never finished high school. ("The Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn are lettin' me in," James had told her proudly. "How 'bout that.") James made it through a degree in two years, while working at the SSR. And working on arms with Howard. And helping Howard out with his flying car. ("We've almost got it working," Howard told her constantly. "You'll see." She was still waiting.)
She watches as James picks up a pencil with his left hand, and spins it through his fingers. Most people she knows would have trouble doing that with flesh and blood fingers. And that starts her wondering.
"Would you ever go back into the field?"
"What?" He looks surprised. "I'm the guy with the fake arm, remember?"
"You've got pretty good control of that fake arm." She nods to where he's absent-mindedly still playing with the pencil. "And I could use more experienced operatives in the field."
"I like being in the labs." And she has to admit, he looks happy enough these days. "Besides, being out there is for the youngsters."
"You're not so old."
"I'll be forty in a coupla years." He grimaces. "Sometimes I feel closer to a hundred."
She knows what he means. The new agents coming in make her feel positively ancient. They're children, the lot of them. Even the ones with Korean combat experience seem green to her.
"You look rather good for a hundred."
"Thanks for nothin'." He stands and knocks on the desk. "C'mon, let's get outta here. I'll take you for an early lunch. To celebrate."
"I can't." She looks at the stacks of files on her desk. All the cases she needs to familiarize herself with because she's suddenly in charge of absolutely all of them.
"Of course you can. You're the boss. C'mon." He reaches across the desk and grabs her hand.
As has been happening more frequently of late, she feels a little jolt of…something when James touches her. It's not surprising. He's an attractive man. He's one of her oldest friends. And they know so much about each other. But they'll never act on whatever it is that exists between them.
They came close, five years ago. James had been feeling glum in the lead-up to Steve's birthday ("That dumb punk would have been thirty next week. Thirty!") so she'd dragged him out dancing. He was a great dance partner—from the Valkyrie, Steve had talked about what a great dancer James was, and he'd been right—making her look better on the floor than she was. They'd both had more alcohol than was wise, not that that ever seemed to affect James, and near the end of the evening, during a slow dance, she'd forgotten herself and pressed her lips against his. It had been a nice kiss, as kisses went. His lips had been warm and soft, and he'd gently returned the kiss without pushing it further. But it had lacked the spark she'd remembered from her one kiss with Steve. As she'd pulled away from him, she'd wondered if James had had any kisses with Steve he could remember. Any jealousy she'd ever felt about the two of them had been blunted by years, and she hoped they'd had that much happiness.
"No?" he'd asked.
"No," she'd confirmed. "You're lovely to dance with, but I don't think that's for us."
"Thank God," he'd laughed, then spun her across the floor when the band launched into a faster number.
This day, they take a taxi to Delmonico's, all the way down to the bottom of Manhattan. They're shown to the best table in the place (James manages that with a firm handshake and a generous tip pressed into the host's hand) and order thick steaks, red wine and rich desserts. They talk and laugh, and it's one of those rare times when they share stories of Steve with no undertow of grief or pain threatening to pull them under. Peggy even risks the Camp Lehigh grenade story and gets only an eye roll from James.
"Dumb punk was always pulling stupid shit like that."
"Careful how you talk about the man we loved."
"Did he or did he not pull stupid shit all the time?"
"I believe the U.S. military referred to it as acts of bravery."
James doesn't even bother answering that. He just shoots her another eye roll.
By the time lunch is done, she's feeling full and happy and just a little bit drunk. She emerges from the restaurant on James' right arm, and while they're waiting for their taxi to pull up, she takes a moment to examine her friend.
James looks golden in the late afternoon light, his hair slightly tousled, his suit perfectly tailored, and his expression content. He's a handsome man. It's no wonder Steve loved him.
Their taxi arrives, and James turns to her, and it strikes her that he looks more than handsome. He looks young. As young as the youngsters they were complaining about earlier. His face has no more lines on it than it did during the war, and his hair has no touch of grey. She knows the same can't be said for her. Or Howard, for that matter.
(You figured out he should be dead, right?)
He starts to open the taxi door for her, then stops with a frown.
"You all right?" he asks.
No, she wants to say, her jubilant mood popping like a child's soap bubble. I think we should finally talk about what Zola did to you. I think you might be more like Steve than you know.
But she doesn't say any of that.
She just says "Never better," takes his arm, and heads back to SHIELD headquarters and her new responsibilities.
It's early and she's at her desk, deciding which of the myriad crises and ops awaiting her to tackle first, when the phone rings. She picks up the receiver, expecting it to be her secretary outlining the day's meetings, or Howard, calling to check on the effectiveness of the last weapon he designed for SHIELD. Instead, it's James' assistant, Janice Campbell. And she's hysterical.
"He's collapsed, Director Carter. And I'm not sure what to do."
"Who's collapsed?" she asks.
"Mr. Barnes. We were preparing samples for the spectrograph and he said his shoulder hurt and then he just collapsed."
"Is he conscious?"
"Is there anyone else there?" Peggy feels adrenaline flood her system, feels her heart begin to beat faster, and she takes that energy and uses it. "Anyone who can help you?"
"No, ma'am. We're usually the first ones in. The others don't usually…" There's a pause, and Peggy wills the girl to get on with it. Then she hears it, a low whine that quickly escalates into an animal howl of pain. "Oh my God…"
Peggy doesn't wait. She slams the phone down and runs from the door, telling her secretary "Call an ambulance," as she heads to the research wing.
She can hear the screaming when she gets off the elevator. She scrambles down the empty corridor and rushes into the lab. She finds James on the floor, his back arching painfully back as sparks arc from his arm and a horrible sound emerges from his throat.
"How do you turn it off?"
"What?" Campbell looks overwhelmed, like a child who's been asked to do an adult's job. Not like the whip-smart Barnard graduate James hired this summer.
"The arm. How do you turn it off?"
"I don't know." Campbell is close to tears. "He never told me. He always worked on it with Mr. Stark."
"Fucking hell," Peggy says. She'll worry later about scandalizing an underling. Right now she needs to save her friend. She examines the arm without touching it—it's sparking alarmingly and she doesn't know what Campbell will do if she loses both her boss and the director of SHIELD to a faulty prosthetic arm—and can see no obvious way of deactivating it.
Instead, she starts frantically searching the lab, at all the devices and gadgets and half-finished projects that line the workbenches. There must be something…there. A brick-sized lump of electronics James had shown her a month ago. ("That's a localized EMP generator. It'll shut down any electrical system in a two-yard radius.") She grabs the thing, thumps it down beside James, and hits the big red button on its top.
The change is immediate. The arm stops sending out sparks, and James's body collapses into a boneless mess. The two lights closest to them have blown out, but she doesn't worry about that.
"James!" She risks touching him, and when she feels no shock, she checks his pulse. He has a heartbeat, thank God, but it's a thin and thready thing. "James, can you hear me?"
He doesn't respond. He doesn't do anything but take a shallow breath, and that terrifies her. She can't lose him. She won't lose him.
She sends Campbell out to direct the ambulance staff in when they arrive, and kneels beside James, her hand at his throat, making sure his heart keeps beating. The ambulance attendants are two efficient young men who place James on their stretcher, and don't protest at all when Peggy follows them through the corridors and into the back of their vehicle. She doesn't interfere with them, and she doesn't say anything, but she will not be kept from James' side. At the hospital, she waits until the doctors have examined him, removed the malfunctioning arm, and assured her that he's in no immediate danger. Then she gets a taxi to the headquarters of Stark Industries, marches through the front doors, and into Howard's office, his secretary trailing in protest behind her. Howard is on the phone, and frowns when he sees her.
He puts one hand over the mouthpiece and says, "I'd love to chat, Peggy, but I'm a little busy."
"You nearly killed James," she says. That gets his attention. He hangs up the phone immediately, waves off his secretary, pours both of them generous helpings of scotch, and then sits her down on the sofa that takes up one full wall of his office.
"Drink that," he says, handing her a glass. She must be in shock, because she follows his instructions without complaint, swallowing down the whole measure without even a grimace. "Now, tell me what happened."
She does. In detail. Using more colourful language than is her usual wont.
"He could have died," she says as her narrative runs down. "He could still die."
"The doctor's said he was stable?"
"Yes. Unconscious, but stable."
"Then he's not going to die."
"How can you be so sure?" Without warning, she's yelling at him. She nearly throws her glass at him, but it wouldn't be Howard who'd have to clean up the mess and her action would only end up inconveniencing some poor Stark Industries underling, not the person she's really angry at.
Howard doesn't answer her. He doesn't really have to.
(You figured out he should be dead, right?)
She stands, pacing the floor, needing the movement to work out what she's feeling, what she should be doing. Howard simply lets her.
"Fine. He's not going to die."
"He'll be fine."
"He'll be fine this time. But what about next time? Because I know there'll be a next time. You two pillocks won't be able to resist building another electric death arm, will you?"
"Electric death arm. Catchy. I might trademark that."
"Don't joke, Howard. You weren't there."
For a second, Howard's smooth and calculating exterior cracks, and Peggy can see the concern it hides. James is his friend too, after all. She forgives him, just a bit. But it doesn't mean she's any less angry.
She's lost track of how many arms they've built.
James has told her it's seventy-eight, Howard swears it's eighty-four, but Peggy just knows they've created one hell of a lot of prosthetic arms over the years. Arms that have gotten stronger. Arms that are more agile, more intricate and much more prone to failure.
Then, six months ago, Howard finally figured out how to connect an arm to an actual human nervous system and James built the electrical network to drive it.
The first one hadn't worked at all, and after two days of walking around with an arm that was no more than a dead weight, James had given up and gone back to the previous version. ("It's heavy, and sometimes the batteries heat up too much, but at least I can button my shirt with it, you know?")
The second one had worked most of the time. Except that several times a day the hand would seize up and Howard and James would need to spend an hour tinkering with it. James kept that one for a whole week. ("I can't count on Howard being on call twenty-four hours a day to help me fix the fucking thing, can I?")
Now they've built one that's actually dangerous. She wonders, and not for the first time, if men really grow up or if they all remain perpetually boys, convinced of their own invincibility.
They sit in tense silence. Peggy is unsure what to say to break the stalemate. Howard is the one who speaks first.
"I'm sorry Peggy. Truly, I am. You know I'd never hurt Jimmy on purpose."
"You know he hates when you call him that."
"Why do you think I do it?" And there's the Howard Stark she knows so well: confident, annoying, and obnoxiously charming.
"I'd better get back to the hospital," she says, not entirely sure what this visit has done, except to make her feel just a bit better.
"Give the patient my best when he wakes up. Tell him I'll be in when I can. We can start working on the next version of the arm."
"Hopeless!" she says, getting up and seeing herself out. "You are both utterly hopeless."
"That's why we have you," Howard calls after her.
By the time she gets back to the hospital, James has been moved into his own room. He's unconscious, but already beginning to show signs of healing.
"Anyone else would be dead," the young doctor says.
(You figured out he should be dead, right?)
She'd like to stay with him, like she'd done in London. But she has a secret international spy organization to run, so she returns to the office and sends back Janice Campbell to watch over her boss. The girl is too flustered to be any use in the labs today, not that Peggy blames her.
James wakes up two days later, minus the new arm and the memory of collapsing in the lab. And what's the first thing he says to her?
"I need to talk to Howard. I think I know how to make the next arm better."
"You two deserve each other," is all she can say in return.
It takes James and Howard a month to confirm what went wrong with the arm, two months to develop another one, and a week more to get up the nerve to tell her they're going to test the bloody thing.
Now here they are, two eager idiots, standing in front of her desk, holding the latest Electric Death Arm, as they insist on calling it, asking for permission to install the thing in her lab. Smiling.
"This one's perfect," Howard swears. "Light, strong. Even better control than the last one."
"And I've figured out what went wrong with the circuits the last time." James has the nerve to sound enthusiastic about this. "I've installed a failsafe switch so it can't overload the host's neural network."
"Host's neural network," she scoffs, doing her best to look completely unimpressed. "You're talking about your brain. Not some piece of equipment you can replace if it overheats."
"I guarantee this one will work." Howard is using his best overcome-bureaucratic-resistance voice. All that does is make her even more suspicious.
"You guaranteed the last one would work. Do I get my money back?"
"You didn't put any money into it. I'm making these for fun."
"Good thing I didn't put any money into it. Because it didn't work. And it nearly killed my employee."
"And friend," James pipes up.
"I’m not friends with people who put themselves in danger for fun!"
They both stop smiling and look at her like she's lost her mind.
"Peggy, you are only friends with people who put themselves in danger for fun." James has his arms crossed in front of him, and the fingers of Mark whatever-the-hell-it-is, the one that's too heavy and has batteries that heat up, beat a rhythm on his flesh arm.
She doesn't argue, because he's got a point. They're all a little crazy. But that doesn't make this a good idea.
"Just feel how light this is." Howard holds the arm out, and she can't resist taking it. And he's right. The arm is surprisingly light.
"What's it made out of?" The arm has the same metal plate structure they've been using since the '50s, but this one is more articulated. It's matte silver, except for a white star edged in blue at the top of the shoulder joint. She wonders whose idea it was, giving the arm the same star that Steve had on his shield. She'd put money on James, but Howard has hidden depths of romanticism.
"Vibranium," Howard says, as if he works with the rarest metal in the world every day. "I had a bit left over from…" He stops, as if he realizes mentioning Steve and his shield is not the best way to convince her of anything. She changes her mind and decides the star was Howard's idea. "Well, you know. And I've been buying up more when it comes on the market. I finally got enough to actually make something, and I know we've got this design licked, so I figured it was time to create our masterpiece."
"Some masterpiece." She tries to sound scathing, but she has to admit that this arm is a beautiful piece of machinery. Not that she'll tell these idiots.
"Don't be mean, Peggy."
"I'm not mean, I'm a pragmatist. And I'll let you do this on SHIELD premises if you meet a few conditions."
"Anything!" James gives her his eager-to-please look. She imagines that look has done quite a lot for him over the years.
"First, you'll inform everyone working with you how to turn off the arm in case of an emergency. I don't want to have to use an experimental EMP generator if this one malfunctions."
"Done." Howard's answer is immediate. She reckons it's something he'd have done anyway.
"Second, I want a full medical team in place when you install the arm, and on premises in the labs for two weeks after."
"Absolutely." James seems eager to agree to that point. Given what he went through before, she's not surprised.
"And third, I want you staying with either me or Howard until we're sure the arm is safe. I don't like the thought of you alone and all the way in Brooklyn if anything goes wrong."
"He's staying with you," Howard says immediately. "I may have some female companionship planned for, oh, the next year or so."
"You've got a mansion," Peggy points out.
"It's a small mansion."
"You always have female companionship," James says.
"Maria might be…different." Peggy doesn't think she's ever seen a smile quite like that on Howard's face. It's the sort of smile Steve used to wear when he talked about James.
"Fine. You're staying with me, James."
"I can stay with Becca. Help her out with the kids. George is turning out like I was at his age. A real handful."
"Do you want to be around the kids if anything goes wrong?"
James only hesitates for a second before he answers. "Point taken."
"You're staying with me," Peggy repeats.
The next day, James brings a valise to her home, a comfortable brownstone in the East Village she bought after she'd been director of SHIELD for a few years, and installs himself in her spare bedroom. Two days later, with a medical team in place, Howard installs the new arm.
It unsettles Peggy, seeing James on the operating table beforehand, with no prosthetic in place. He seldom lets anyone see him without the arm, and she can see why. He looks smaller. Vulnerable. Young. He looks so young that it pulls her back twenty years to the hospital in London where they both had to confront Steve's death.
He must see some of her thoughts on her face, because he grabs her wrist and shakes it.
"Don't worry, Peggy. I'm going to be fine."
He is, of course. He and Howard are right, this time, and the arm goes smoothly into place, locking into the socket they've already built into what's left of James' shoulder. Then Howard opens one of the metal plates to reveal a control panel and turns on the thing's power.
James' mouth immediately forms an amazed O. He clenches the new hand, then flexes the fingers one by one. Finally, he reaches out and lightly touches Peggy's face. She's surprised at the delicacy of the contact, but forces herself not to startle away from him.
"I can feel," he says softly, then turns to Howard. "It works. The feedback sensors work."
"I told you they would." Howard looks smug, as if he didn't have a doubt in the world their creation would do what they'd intended. As if one of these things hadn't nearly killed James mere months ago.
Peggy is equal parts proud of her friends' genius, and irritated at the risks they continue to submit James to, tapping into his brain like they must have. But she has to admit, with the new arm on, James doesn't look vulnerable at all.
Howard and the medical team spend the afternoon running test after test on James, making sure there aren't any unforeseen side effects from the arm. Peggy goes back to work in her office. And at the end of the day, Peggy and James go back to her house.
James stays with her for a month, until they're sure the arm is working as it should and not likely to short out his brain. And then a month longer, because they've both gotten used to the arrangement.
It's like London all over again, Peggy realizes, when they'd had rooms in the same billet. James doesn't need help buttoning his uniform or pinning up his sleeve anymore, but they develop a rhythm with each other. She finds it's nice to come home to another person. Especially another person who knows exactly what she does for a living. Another person to whom she can bitch about operatives and governmental oversight and all the myriad irritating responsibilities that go with the privilege of running SHIELD.
That's one reason none of her other relationships have worked over the years. Dating someone without a security clearance means keeping so much about her life secret. Dating an underling is something she's only made the mistake of doing twice. Both times it resulted in the need to transfer a suddenly ex-boyfriend to another security service. These days, she mostly doesn't bother.
She wonders how James has done in that regard. Their sex life is one of the things they don't talk about. She wonders if he sees women or men, or if he's written off dating entirely the way she seems to have.
After two months, James starts coming home later than she does, with sweaty hair flopping into his eyes and a slight flush on his cheeks, and she wonders if he's seeing someone after all. If he's sleeping with someone. She wonders if it's one of the women in the office who are always staring at him with awe or lust. Or if he's been going over to Greenwich Village, to one of those clubs where men can meet other men. She not jealous; she's happy. Happy that maybe one of them can find a little contentment in a world without Steve.
There's a month of him coming home late and flushed and satisfied. She thinks that she'll miss him when he moves out, when he makes a home with whoever it is that's making him like this. Then one evening, just when she's getting ready to let go of his company, he comes into her study.
"Can we talk?" he asks, his voice as gentle as his posture.
"Absolutely." She stands and directs him to one of the wing chairs in the room, a slightly cosier version of the chairs her father kept in his study. "Can I fix you a drink?"
"No, thanks." He sits and leans forward, forearms resting on his thighs, his fingers interlacing, flesh and metal together. "I have something I need to ask you."
"Oh." Peggy sits across from him, still convinced that he's going to tell her he's met someone, but beginning to think that perhaps it's something else. "What is it?"
James meets her gaze for a long moment, his eyes looking more black than grey in the dim light of the study, before he finally speak.
"I guess you've noticed I've been coming home late." She nods. "You've probably been wondering what I've been doing."
"You're a grown man," she says, wanting to make sure he knows she's not judging him. "You can do whatever you want."
"I'm glad to hear you say that." He gives her a half smile. "You see, I've been spending nights at the training gym at the office, sparring."
And now she's confused. Because this is suddenly not the conversation she expected to be having at all.
"Why would you do that?"
"It started out as a way to test the new arm. Howard and I have been putting it through its paces, and it's outperformed our expectations every time. I wondered how it would do with hand-to-hand. Turns out, it does pretty fucking well." He gives her his Bucky smile, the one that's all mischief and insolence. The one she's seen more often in pictures with him and Steve than in person. "I've sparred with every agent who's been through the office in the last month. And I haven't lost to any of them. So, then I starting trying the gun range. My scores with a rifle are better than they were during the war. And I don't know if you realize it, but I set a few records during the war."
"Why?" She starts to get a cold feeling in her gut. And she wonders why the rumours haven't gotten back to her, about James training on SHIELD premises. "Why do all that?"
"Because I want to go back in the field."
She holds her body still, but Peggy feels like she's been kicked in the gut.
"When I asked if you wanted that ages ago, you told me it's a job for the youngsters." She'd have placed him in the field in a heartbeat ten years ago, but she's lost too many agents since then. She doesn't want to lose her friend.
"I'm better than the youngsters. I'm stronger than them. I'm faster than them. And look at me, Peggy." He looks her straight in the eye. "Look at me and tell me what you see."
She does as he asks. She examines the man in front of her, and sees clearly what she's fleetingly noticed before.
He's not aging.
Not like she is. Not like Howard is. His hair is as dark as it ever was, his face unlined, his skin taut. His body is as trim as it was in his twenties, with none of the trace of a paunch Howard is beginning to develop.
She realizes that it's finally time to have the conversation they've never had, that they've skirted around and avoided for twenty years.
"What did Zola do to you?"
James flinches at the question, but he doesn't look away.
"What happened to that little bastard, anyway?" The question is casually asked, but Peggy can see pain in his eyes. Pain and fear of a sort she's seldom seen in him. She wishes she could tell him that Zola's dead, that she saw his execution herself, but that would be a lie. The truth is far worse.
"After the war, Phillips wanted him to join the SSR. Everyone was falling all over themselves to recruit Nazi scientists."
"I never saw him around."
"I may have talked the Colonel out of it. Zola was a horrible man, and I didn't want you sharing a lab with him."
"Thank you, Peggy," James says softly.
"The CIA took him on," she continues. "He's still there, as far as I know. What did that man do to you, James?"
He wrings his hands before he starts, but then takes a deep breath and begins.
"It wasn't like what Steve went through, the injection and the Vita-Ray." She frowns. "Yeah, he told me about it. I know it was supposed to be classified, but there wasn't much Steve didn't tell me. Zola used needles and pills and electricity and beatings and cutting. All of it seemed so random at the time. All of it hurt. I hurt for months after Steve pulled me out of that place. I was always cold. I was always hungry. But then I realized something else. I was stronger. My eyesight was better, my hands were steadier. I could make shots that would have been impossible before. And I recovered from injuries far faster than I should have, just like Steve. A cut would heal in minutes. A bullet wound in a day." He stops and clenches his jaw for a long minute before he can go on. "It has to be why I survived the train."
(You figured out he should be dead, right?)
"That's what Howard has always thought." She doesn't mention that Howard wanted to experiment on him, to reproduce whatever Zola had done to him. She doesn't want to undo his twenty years of friendship with Howard.
"What did you think?"
"I was just happy you were alive. I didn't want to think about why."
"Neither did I."
They sit in silence for a few minutes while she works out how to go from here.
"Do you really want to use this gift to go out in the field?"
"It's not a gift, Peggy," he says, his voice utterly flat, his eyes frighteningly empty. "It's a curse. Sometimes I wish I'd died when Steve did."
"I'm glad you didn't." She reaches out and takes hold of his right hand. "You're one of my best friends, James Buchanan Barnes." He doesn't say anything, just squeezes her hand tighter.
"Do you honestly want to go out in the field?" she finally asks him.
"Yes." His voice is firm. Resolute. "Not all the time. I like working in the labs. I don't want to stop that. But if you put me on the assignments where I could make a difference…" He looks hopeful.
God forbid she should take any hope away from James. He has little enough of that left.
"I can arrange your part-time secondment to Operations, she says. "After all, I am in charge."
"I've never doubted that for a second, Peggy."
"Good," she says, then reaches into her desk and pulls out a bottle of whisky. The very, very good whisky. "Now shall we toast your new position, Special Agent Barnes?"
"Absolutely, Director Carter."
It's always a bad idea, drinking with James. Especially now that she knows he really does have some secret formula in his blood, the same sort of thing that made it impossible for Steve to get drunk. But frankly, she doesn't give a rat's arse.
Tonight, she is going to get drunk with her friend.
Peggy is always on the lookout for talent. Especially the sort of talent that gets things done.
She'd had her eye on Nick Fury for some time. In the Army, with his sharp mind and a talent for strategic thinking, he'd worked his way up to Colonel. Peggy courted him for six months before he finally agreed to join SHIELD. She's never regretted her decision, and hopes that Nick hasn't either.
She's been hoping for years that James might be SHIELD's next leader, but he's been content to alternate between the labs and field assignments, keeping his own teams safe, but not worrying about the big picture. He doesn't have Steve's flair for leadership or strategy.
Nick does. She sees in him a future leader for SHIELD.
She's been training him up in the months since he joined the organization, having him run increasingly complex operations, and also research SHIELD's history. This last week, she's had him in the SHIELD archives, reading up on their enemies and their allies. Now he's come to her with an armful of files, yellowed paper in curling manila folders.
"I found these in the archives. They were in a box of weapons requisitions from '60s, but they're not our paperwork. They're Russian."
"Yes, ma'am. My best guess is they were from an old intelligence asset, but they were misfiled and never translated."
"Thank you, Nick. You can take them to the translation department from here."
"No," he says. And when she frowns, he continues, "That's not why I brought them to you. I thought you'd be interested in them yourself."
"And why is that?"
"I flipped through the files, to see if I could figure out what they were. I don't know Russian, but I thought there might be diagrams. Tables. Instead I found a page with one word in the Roman alphabet: Valkyrie."
"You're sure about that?" Peggy stays calm, but her heart is suddenly hammering in her chest. She's back thirty years, sitting in a Hydra control room as she listen to Steve put a plane into the water.
"See for yourself." Nick places the stack of files on the desk in front of her and opens the top one. He flicks through the pages until he comes to the one he's looking for. He was right. Half way down the page, mixed in with all the Cyrillic is one word: Valkyrie. "Wasn't that…?"
"Yes," Peggy says, not letting him finish the sentence. She should have known Nick would know the significance of that name. She's had him studying the history of SHIELD, after all. "It was." She closes the file and takes it from him. She can't do this now. Not in front of a subordinate. She's the head of SHIELD. She can't let a subordinate know that where Steve Rogers is concerned, she's as vulnerable as any of them. Bad enough that James holds that knowledge.
Nick's expression doesn't betray his feelings.
"If you need any help –"
"I'll let you know." She's rather more curt than she meant to be, so she gives Nick her professional yet friendly smile, the one reserved for staff that she actually likes. "Thank you, Nick. I'll go through this tonight." She taps the file. "It's been waiting in the archives for ten years. I imagine whatever is in here can wait a few more hours."
She'll take the file home, do the translating in her study there, where her privacy is absolute.
"All right, Director Carter." Nick doesn't look entirely convinced, but he's in no position to question her decisions and they both know it. "I'll get back to my desk."
"Thank you, Nick. I do appreciate you bringing this to me."
She's distracted for the rest of the afternoon, her eyes drifting to the yellowed files on her desk repeatedly. She has to ask her secretary to repeat himself three times when he calls to tell her that Howard has left a message, and she signs a number of lab requisitions after barely looking at them. (They're from James. She trusts him more than anyone, and knows he never asks for more than he needs.)
She finally leaves early, reasoning that she'll beat the rush hour traffic, but knowing her real reason is the file.
Even then, she doesn't read it immediately. She pours herself a whisky when she gets home, then makes herself dinner. Chopping vegetables is more therapeutic than usual tonight. Finally, when she can delay no longer, she takes another tumbler of whisky, unlocks the files from her secure cabinet, and opens the file at her desk.
She resists the urge to rush through the file, taking her time and checking her Russian/English dictionary often. It's a report from a Russian submarine out of Kaliningrad in 1953. It was on a cruise of the North Atlantic, charged with keeping an eye on NATO installation and ships. There's nothing in the first few pages of interest. The sub's commander was monitoring radio transmissions from British ships and following in the shadow of an American sub. But then she turns the page and the name of the Valkyrie jumps out at her.
Her resolve crumbles and she sprints through this page, the description of the sub's course, north of Iceland, and then, there is it, the description of a downed plane the sub found in the Arctic ice. A plane of unusual size and configuration. Schmidt's plane. The plane that took Steve to his death.
She reads more, her throat catching as she finds a description of the body they found in the plane, encased in ice. She lets one tear drop onto the page before she wipes her eyes, not wanting to go any further, not wanting to know what the Soviets might have done with Captain America's body.
But she does read on. Because she's a professional and she should know these things. She reads about how the Russians chipped out the ice around Steve, got the block into the cargo bay of the sub, and brought it back to Kaliningrad, the commander complaining about how the ice was melting and the water was getting everywhere. And then there's nothing, just a standard end-of-mission report and a list of supplies needed before the sub's next mission.
Peggy swears in a manner that would surprise Nick Fury, but not her Manchester-born roommate from university. Then she opens the next file. And the next. And the next. They're nothing but more standard reports from submarine commanders based in Kaliningrad.
She goes through all the files Nick gave her, and long before the bottom of the stack she's stopped taking her time, has stopped carefully translating each word. She's tearing through them, looking for some information on what happened to Steve, what they did to his body, what cemetery he might be buried in. She'll infiltrate the Kremlin itself if it means she can lay a wreath on whatever mean little tomb the Soviets gave Steve. Even assuming they gave him a tomb and didn't just incinerate his body.
When she finds what she's looking for, it's so shocking she has to read it three times before she fully understands it. And another three times to make sure she hasn't lost her mind. Because it seems that Captain America, or Капитан Америка in the report, wasn't dead. That as soon as they melted the ice and warmed him up, Steve started breathing again. Steve's alive! Or he was, twenty years ago.
Peggy feels a bubble of joy and relief well up inside her. Steve, alive. She lost hope for that happy ending thirty years ago. But as quickly as the good emotions come, the bad ones follow. Because if the Soviets found Капитан Америка, why didn't they give him back? Did he not survive his revival? Have they locked him away in Lubyanka or some Siberian gulag?
She flips through the rest of the pages, looking for more answers, and she finds two words: Красная комната. Red Room.
Her hands go to her mouth, and her stomach heaves.
There is no reliable intel on the Red Room, only rumours. But the rumours they have are more than enough. It's a training ground for assassins and spies. It's a place where people are turned into things, where human beings are turned into weapons. If they sent Steve there…
She closes her eyes, wishing she didn't have to go on, but the genie is out of the bottle now so she has to continue.
She turns a page and sees two more words: Зимний солдат. Winter Soldier.
The Winter Soldier is a myth, a legend. A story created to scare hardened spies. She's never really believed he existed until this moment. But now…she takes a breath and reads the rest of the file very carefully indeed. When she's done, she stands, walks to the bathroom, and throws up everything she's eaten today.
There are no details in the file. It's an overview, a summary, but she knows enough of these matters to extrapolate what was done to Steve. What must have been done to him to strip his will, to take away his decency and his instinct to protect and turn him into the most pitiless killing machine of the modern era.
She no longer wants to do a delicate infiltration into Moscow. Now she wants to launch a thousand planes, a thousand missiles, and burn the Soviet Union to the ground. She wants to exterminate the people responsible for turning the most moral man she's ever known into a ruthless killer.
She stands in the bathroom, her hands on either side of the sink, wishing she could unlearn what she's just read. But she can't. She's not built that way. She rinses out her mouth, stilling the trembling in her hands, and then goes back to her desk, where she closes all the files, and sits for a long time, her hands resting in front of her, running through all possible actions she could take.
Much as she would like to, she can't start a war over one man. She can't launch a rescue mission for someone who is, effectively, an enemy combatant. She's in charge of SHIELD. She needs to be responsible to the country she serves.
She nearly calls Howard. Howard isn't bound by the same rules she is, and he has resources far beyond hers. He would help. But Howard is a father now, the one person from the old days who has something resembling a stable family life. As stable as Howard Stark is ever going to be.
No, there's only one person she can go to. One person who won't give a toss about what the rules say. Who's as skilled as Steve ever was. Who'll do whatever is necessary to find the Winter Soldier and bring Steve home.
She picks up the phone and calls James' number, knowing he's in D.C. debriefing the State Department on his last op, and not due back until morning. But she doesn't want any record of this message sitting with a hotel concierge. Or worse, with the State Department.
"James, it's Peggy. Could you call me back when you get this? It's urgent. I've got a file you need to see."
She paces the house for hours, unable to settle down. Finally, she locks the files in her safe, and goes up the stairs to her bedroom. She makes sure she can reach the phone easily, on the off chance James gets home earlier than expected, then readies herself for bed. She doubts she'll sleep, but she'll pretend. She lies back on the pillows, stares at the ceiling and tries not to think about what's happened to Steve, tries not to wonder what he's doing right now. Or what's being done to him.
She must fall asleep sometime in the night, because she wakes with a start as the pale light of dawn is starting to creep into her room. She sits up, reaching out for the phone before pulling her hand back. She can't call James this early. She'll see him in the office in a few hours. That's soon enough to give him news this horrid.
Yawning, she lays back down, and closes her eyes, hoping to go back to sleep, but then she sits bolt upright again. She hears something. The whisper of cloth brushing cloth; the soft tread of a foot on the stair; she's not sure what.
She rolls off the bed, putting the mattress between herself and the door, and then reaches under the night stand where she has a pistol hidden. She crouches there, listening to the sounds of the house, its usual breathing and creaking, until she's sure she hears something else.
Her gaze travels around the room and she plans her defence. She makes her way to the door, standing to the side, her weapon ready in her hand, poised on the balls of her bare feet and ready to attack.
There's a creak outside in the hallway, and then the unmistakable sounds of a pistol's slide being drawn back. Peggy holds her breath as a man enters the room. In the dim light, she can see he's dressed all in black, tactical gear with straps and buckles. His hair is buzzed short as a new Marine's. But the odd thing, the thing that nearly throws her before he takes one more step forward and fires three times into her mattress, is that he's wearing what looks like a muzzle over the bottom half of his face. It keeps him from looking entirely human.
She shakes off her shock and fires her own gun immediately, but the man has registered her presence and dodges her bullets. She keeps firing until her magazine is empty. One of her bullets finds a target. The man lets out a soft "oof," but he doesn't even flinch and he moves towards her. She doesn't wait for his attack, launching herself at him, striking at his head with the butt of her gun, kicking at the side of his knees, aiming for every vulnerable target he has. But he's not vulnerable. He blocks every blow, and throws more of his own. Peggy can't block everything. She takes a hit to the head, to the ribs, to the solar plexus. She goes down, gasping for breath, trying to keep her guard up all the same. But it's no use. He's strong; stronger than her, stronger than anyone she's ever fought. (She hasn't been on field duty for years now, but she keeps up her training. She spars with James regularly. And this man is stronger even than James.)
There's another blow, and she's down, pinned on her back, the man's hands wrapped around her throat.
Her breath comes to her in desperate gasps as the man squeezes, but she's determined not to go down like this. She jackknifes, swings one leg up across the man's throat and forces him back, forces him to release her. She breathes deep and moves. But whoever he is, he's faster, and he regains control of her more quickly than she'd expected.
"No!" she yells at him and flails, all technique deserting her, depending now only on a frantic will to live. Her hand makes contact with his face. She pulls at the muzzle, suddenly angry that the man who's going to kill her is wearing this horrible thing. It comes off with a yank.
The light from the window has grown brighter since she first woke, and she can see now what she should have seen before. The man's eyes are Steve's eyes. His lashes are Steve's lashes. And now she can see his mouth. The same mouth that had smiled at her, thirty years ago. The mouth that had kissed her.
The man has Steve's face, but he's not Steve.
He's the Winter Soldier.
He raises his fist, and strikes her, a back-fisted blow to the head.
"Steve," she says, struggling to maintain consciousness as blackness seeps into the corner of her vision. He strikes her again. "No."
The last thing she sees is the faintest glimmer of recognition in his blue eyes as his fist descends again.