Peggy is twenty-eight years old, hasn't found her first wrinkle or gray hair, feels infinite and unbreakable.
"This is going to hurt," Howard says. "And I'm going to remind you one more time that god knows what this black market shit might end up doing to you and ask you one last time if you've changed your mind."
Peggy shakes her head, closes her eyes, and bites the inside of her cheek as the needle goes in. A harsh burn runs slowly, painfully through her body, and then everything is fire in her veins, and she tries counting to ten, but the world goes white hot nothing after three.
Howard's grip on her arm is bruising and he counts down slowly from five before pulling the needle out, and Peggy can't help but slump forward and clutch at her arm where the needle was.
When the pain subsides enough so she can think again, her mouth tastes of blood and her hand is wet with red from digging her nails into her palm.
Howard looks terrified.
She opens her mouth to assure him she's fine but all that comes out is a strangled shout.
One down. Four to go.
"Why you?" Howard asks, for the hundredth time, when her breathing has steadied and her pulse returned to normal.
"Why not?" She answers as always.
Honestly, she just doesn't trust anyone else enough to carry the power, to know how to balance it with the compassion and respect needed to make it truly worth it.
She doesn't know if she can trust herself, really, but she'll do her damnedest to do right by Steve.
The next week she's sitting at a desk, her muscles restless beneath her skin, aching to move faster, faster.
She could, if she wanted, flip the desk and run. She could run far and fast and not stop for days, run until her feet bled and her shoes wore out, until she was at the door of the arms dealer she's filing paperwork on and take out his operation in ten minutes tops.
There are only three people who know she could, though, and it needs to stay that way.
Her thumb runs along the edge of a paper just the wrong way, and a single drop of blood forms on the pad. She wipes it off in her skirt pocket and doesn't bother finding a band-aid as she heads back to her desk. It will heal before she gets there.
Peggy is forty-three years old, clips in grey at her temples to keep people from getting suspicious, feels tired and broken from endless war.
"You've been following me for four blocks," she says as she turns around. "Come out of the shadows."
The night is dark and cloudy and a fresh blanket of snow glitters under the street lights. A woman emerges from the dark, her hair red like fire around her face, a fierce contrast to the icy blue of her eyes.
Peggy shivers, not sure if from the cold or the woman's presence. She hasn't felt scared in a long time, but there's something incredibly unsettling about this woman. "Walk with me," she says.
The woman nods and walks to her. Peggy turns around and resumes heading back to her apartment.
"You're a Black Widow, aren't you?"
"Yes," the woman replies.
"A Black Widow, or The Black Widow?"
There's a heavy pause and then the woman says, "You're smarter than they give you credit for."
It's more of an answer than Peggy was expecting. Still. "You knew that already, though. You're going to kill me tonight, aren't you?"
"Well, come in and warm up at least, before you do. I'll put the kettle on. Kill me first or have tea first, I'll let you decide."
She doesn't think twice about turning her back towards the Black Widow as she unlocks the door to her flat. She won't cause a scene by stabbing her outdoors.
Inside it is warm and Peggy feels her skin tighten as it adjusts from being cold for so long. She flips on a lamp and heads to the kitchen, reaches for the kettle to fill with water.
She looks up and the Widow is standing at the edge of her couch, watching her intently. "You can have a seat, if you'd like."
"Are you trying to catch me off-guard? Make me see you as a human being rather than a target?"
"Absolutely not. I would just much rather die warm and in the comfort of my own home than cold and bleeding out in the snow."
The Widow nods and takes a seat.
"Do you have a name? Well, I figure you do, but do you go by your name?"
The Widow just raises an eyebrow at her. They're silent for the next few minutes, as the water heats up and Peggy makes the tea.
"Sugar or milk?"
She pours two cups and brings them into the living room. The Widow nods politely as she takes hers.
"Are you not worried that you're going to die tonight?"
"I'm terrified, actually. Everyone dies at some point, and I figured this is how I would go eventually, but now you're here in my living room, and my heart is in my throat."
The Widow smiles. "Would you like me to get it over with then?"
"I told you it was your decision. I haven't been stalling."
"Will you fight me?"
The Black Widow lunges for her, as Peggy figured she would. They've been in her house for 15 minutes and the woman could have killed her quietly and secretly a hundred ways by now. She is young, though. Young and proud and on a rampage like the world has rarely seen. She could have killed Peggy a hundred silent ways, but wants to prove herself against her.
It's the best fight Peggy has had in years and while she's never gone looking for a brawl, always made violence her last resort, well, that doesn't mean she's one to turn down an invitation. She can almost feel her body relax into the movements, glad for the exertion, glad to be used as it was made to be.
There's blood in her mouth, blood on the Widow's bottom lip, blood on the floor from who knows which of them. Not for a single second has either of them fought nice, and just as Peggy thinks that she's surprised the Widow hasn't brought out a knife, there's the glint of metal as she pulls one out from a sheath around her leg. Peggy is reaching for the leg of the chair close by — whether to pull herself up or shove the Widow away, she's not sure — when she feels the knife dig into her left side and a searing pain rush in.
She rolls over onto her back and the Widow gets up and moves to stand over her, knife hanging casually at her side.
"That's a deep gash," she says.
"I know," Peggy answers.
"You'll bleed out in what, 15 minutes at least, 20 at most?"
"Probably. Are you going to stick around and watch? You don't look too happy about it."
"I wanted to beat you, but you let me win. I want to know why."
"Why do you think?"
"I think you're tired. You're tired of your work, the death you see every day, the awfulness of the world you deal with. But you won't step down, because then they'll all say they were right about it not being women's work."
"And you're scared that's what will happen to you eventually, aren't you?"
The Widow laughs. "I don't get tired."
"We'll see about that."
The Widow sneers down at her. "If you'd let me beat you fairly, I'd have some mercy and speed this up. But now I think I'll let the bleeding take its time."
She turns and gets a cloth from Peggy's kitchen to clean off her knife and then heads to the door. "I'd stick around to watch, but I have another assignment tonight."
"Good luck," Peggy says as the woman leaves her apartment.
5… 4… 3… 2… 1
Peggy rolls over onto her good side and pulls the tablecloth down, thankful she was never one to have a centerpiece. She can feel her skin and muscle already trying to mend, but the wound is deep and she's bleeding faster than she'll heal. She estimates she has seven minutes to get help, ten if she can get the bleeding to slow down at all. Just that small amount of movement has her feeling dizzy, so she gives herself a few seconds to take some deep breaths and regain her sense of stability.
The telephone is on a table to her left, the cord dangling just out of reach. She takes a deep inhale and braces herself for the pain as she sits up and makes a grab for it.
The searing pain she first felt when she was stabbed returns, shooting up her left side and ripping a scream out of her throat. She grabs the cord, though, and the phone comes crashing down with it. She has five minutes left. After she makes the call, SHIELD medics will be there in three.
Why did you let her in? they'll ask.
Why didn't you call sooner? they'll ask.
The Black Widow is young and proud and on a rampage like the world has rarely seen. She has more potential for greatness than Peggy has found in anyone since, well, since a 90 pound man knew that he could take on the world and win.
You don't squander that kind of potential.
Peggy is seventy-two years old, looks thirty-five, feels settled and accomplished and younger than she thinks she ever has.
"Director Carter, are you ready for him?" someone asks over the intercom.
"Yes, send him in."
The door opens and Nick Fury walks in, looking and eager and young enough that Peggy has a split second of wondering if he might be too young for the job.
She looks up and smiles at him. There's a quick flash of surprise — almost missable, and she's impressed with his reserve — and then he nods towards her and says, "It's a pleasure to finally meet with you in person, Director Carter."
She walks around to the front of her desk and holds out her hand. "Likewise," she says as they shake, "Though it won't be Director much longer, from what we see in you."
Fury huffs out a small laugh. "I'll just keep doing my best and hoping that's enough."
"Oh, you can't hope it's enough. You have to make sure it's enough."
Nick Fury looks at her earnestly, determination and resilience etched onto his face. "It will be enough, ma'am."
"Good," she replies, the gestures to the chairs and sofa behind them. "Please, have a seat, if you will."
"You may think this is a final interview," she says once they're seated, "But you already have the job, if it's what you still want. You're going to be SHIELD's next director. I just thought it might be nice to have a talk, any questions or concerns you might have about the job. Obviously," she continues, gesturing towards herself, "there are more secrets in this business than even you might realize. You're going to learn more than you know over the next few months, and you are more than free to consult with me about anything you need."
"I just hope to follow well in your footsteps. You're a legend, Director Carter. You're going to be hard to live up to."
"No, Agent Fury. Don't follow in my footsteps. I hope you make this job entirely your own. The world is changing, and SHIELD has to adapt. You're good at adapting, Agent. It's how you first caught our eye for the position."
"Thank you. Do you mind if I ask, though, why have you stayed behind the curtains for so long? Not that your work has suffered, but seems like it would make it harder to run an organization."
"Look at me, Agent. Did you have any idea that I still looked like a young woman?"
"No, ma'am. I have to say that surprised me."
"Yes. And keeping that knowledge from the public at large has been one of my largest advantages in this game, in more ways than I can list. That's one of the best things you can do for yourself with this job — find out which of your secrets you can turn into weapons."
"So I gather you're not stepping down because of age?"
"No. I could run this organization for another forty years if I wanted to. But like I said, the world is changing and SHIELD needs to change with it. Our work is becoming less and less focused on espionage, and that's what I excel at. I need to work somewhere where I can put those skills to better use, and we need someone with the skills for modern work to be running the show. I can assure you, though, that it was entirely my decision to step down. The job is not being stolen from me in any way."
"I don't think anyone could steal this job from you if they wanted to."
"Oh, you wouldn't believe the people who have tried."
Fury laughs. "I'd love to hear those stories sometime."
"So tell me, Agent," Peggy says, smiling, because, oh, this kid is going to do great things, "do you honestly believe that you're ready to run SHIELD? Do you have every confidence that you will be able to do so successfully and for the betterment of the world?"
"Yes, ma'am, I do."
"Good. That's all I needed to know."
Peggy is ninety-seven years old, found her first gray hair last week, feels like maybe she's finally starting to get the hang of this pseudo-immortality thing.
"How long did it take for you to start remembering you were strong?" Pepper asks one night.
"Years," Peggy answers. "For so long it always felt like there should be one more step at the top of the flight."
"Yep," Pepper says with a small laugh, "that's exactly it. It's been six months, but still, I'll slam a door too hard or break a pen I'm writing with."
"How are you adjusting otherwise?"
"Pretty well. At least I'm not terrified of myself any more. It's strange, though, having all this power, especially since it's not that obvious at first. It was all over the news and everyone knows something happened, but the full story is my own little secret, all this strength hidden inside me. It's just," she pauses (searching for a word, Peggy guesses, because god knows she could never define it herself), "...odd. Scary odd."
"Yes," Peggy answers, "Oh, absolutely, yes. I'd spent so many years having to fight to prove I was just as good as the men, and my physical strength had been used against me so often. It felt like cheating, that'd I'd just flipped a magic switch and not had to deal with that anymore. I could fight and work in ways I'd never dreamed of being able to. Though I had to keep it secret, which just added a level of frustration to everything, having to figure out how to make my strength and endurance useful without making it obvious."
"I guess it was a blessing that nothing about my life isn't public knowledge within two minutes."
Pepper laughs before continuing, "But god, I've spent almost my whole life trying to make space for powerful women in the world, to help women know that it's okay for them to want and hold power. But this is different. It's a completely physical power, something I never dreamed of. I've never felt the need to apologize for my status or position in life, but I can't help but wonder occasionally if adding this to everything else is just selfish."
"If it helps, the way I see it, you were tortured and given an experimental treatment, and not only survived, but came out of it with a new skill set. I'd say you have every right to what you brought out of it."
"Thank you," Pepper says, smiling. "I'm going to talk to Director Fury about work I can do for SHIELD."
"Oh, thank god. I was going to ask if you wanted to lend your talents that way. We need some more super-powered women around."
"Super-powered," Pepper says, wrinkling her nose, "That's going to take a while to get used to."
Peggy Carter is alive, will be for a while, takes the days as they come and go.
"I guess I'm glad I didn't kill you," Natasha says as they're walking back from dinner.
Peggy bursts out laughing so hard she has to steady herself on Steve's arm.
"Wait, what?" Steve asks, looking from Peggy to Nat and back again.
"Oh, it was years ago," Peggy says between laughs. "Lord, I'm surprised that hasn't been brought up yet, honestly."
"So are we going to get the story?" Bucky asks.
"She ran SHIELD. I was the Red Room's best. It was inevitable, really."
"So how did your other mission for the night go?"
"There wasn't one," Natasha says, and Peggy looks over at her to see a smirk growing on her face as she shoves her shoulder against Bucky. "This one had promised me the night of my life if I finished my mission in time."
"You knew about this?" Steve asks, still sounding slightly alarmed.
"I didn't know about this until now! When was this?"
"Oh, that night. Right. We had separate missions in the same city. I told her if she finished hers before I had to leave we could meet somewhere."
"Well, James Buchanan Barnes, I'd like to thank your sexual allure for saving my life."
"It was the arm, in all honesty," Natasha says. "A quick fuck is a quick fuck at the end of the day, but a quick fuck involving a bionic arm? You've got to take advantage of that when you've got it."
Steve throws his head back and laughs. "So the Red Room actually put themselves at a disadvantage with that one, huh?"
"That was my only botched assassination, actually," Natasha says, her tone taking a more serious turn, "And honestly, if we'd had any idea Peggy had a version of the serum, well, it would have gone very differently."
Peggy reaches out for Natasha's hand to give it a small squeeze, not even sure what she means to say by it. I'm not one of your debts maybe, or What's done is done. She doesn't know what all Natasha carries with her from her past, what kind of terms she's come to with herself over the years, so Peggy doesn't say anything, and knows Natasha will take what she needs from the silence Peggy grants her.
She's lived almost a hundred years and has at least a hundred more to go. There are so many clichés about the past, about it being either clung to or forgotten, about time healing all wounds, and she still hasn't decided if they're all true, or if none of them are. She'll figure it out one day, or maybe she won't. She won't be alone, though, however it goes, and in the end, that's really all she could ask for.