Margaret “Peggy” Carter’s funeral falls on a Sunday.
Diana takes the day away from preparing the Justice League’s base with Bruce, snags a flight to London at the last minute once she gets the call from Sharon.
She passed in her sleep, Sharon had said, her voice tinged with grief. She’d been losing her aunt bit by bit, with each passing year, but Diana knows that it still hurts—losing someone by inches, and then all at once.
At least when the end came for Peggy Carter, it had been peaceful. Diana is glad for that much.
She sees Steven Rogers holding up the coffin. It’s the first time in years that she’s been in the same room as him, and it breaks her heart to see the grief and the sorrow, written on his face, in the slump of his shoulders, already bearing the weight of the world upon them.
He’s young, is the thing. Barely thirty-one, and yet somehow at the same time so much older than that—even from this distance, she sees the lines etched into his forehead, around his eyes.
They weren’t there before, when she first met him.
The first time Diana meets Captain Steven Grant Rogers, she breaks his nose.
See, she and the SSR don’t exactly work together very often. Etta keeps her updated on them and the rest of the war effort, certainly, as do the rest of their friends and her contacts within Germany, but Diana’s job is different, these days. She cannot fight on the front lines as she did in the first war—she can do more good defending innocents from the horrors of this war that have reached into their homes.
She can do more good smuggling people in and out of places, these days. Chief is one person, after all, and he can’t take everyone.
Her Steve, she’s sure, would be surprised by the path her career’s taken. Pleasantly so, even.
Anyway—she’s smuggling a spy out of German-occupied France, a young woman with a briefcase full of stolen files and furtive eyes who stares at her, in her furred cloak and battle-scarred armor, but follows along.
The woman—Nightingale, which is an oddly romantic codename for a spy—sticks close to Diana’s back. A wise choice to make, considering the contents of her briefcase: the formula for a gas that could cause hallucinations and heightened paranoia, turn someone from a reasonable person into a half-frenzied murderer, and another attempt at an enhancement serum, like the powder that Ludendorff had breathed in that made him a close match for an Amazon.
Someone was testing them both together, experimenting with combining them for no other reason than to sow fear and suffering. Nightingale had seen it at work, imperfect as it was, and had been so sickened by just the demonstration that she’d stolen the files the moment she saw an opportunity.
And thus does history—well, it doesn’t repeat itself, but Diana does not miss the rhymes here.
Nightingale presses up against her back, the briefcase bumping against Diana’s shield. The two of them are taking a route zigzagging from backalley to backalley, avoiding the squads of soldiers on patrol, and they’re almost out when Diana spies movement, out of the corner of her eye.
“Stay behind me,” she murmurs to Nightingale.
Nightingale nods, clutching her briefcase close to her chest, furtive eyes darting about.
Diana settles into a ready stance.
She steps around the corner, and the first gun that’s pointed at her she rips away from the man’s hand, idly noting the plain, nondescript clothes, and the hint of bright blue underneath his collar. Then she punches him in the nose.
There’s a hard crack. The man staggers back, bleeding from his nose, and says, “Oh, Christ—”
Her eyes tick upward, just in time to catch sight of the glint of a sniper’s scope. She deflects that bullet away into a wall, then whips around once more to block the man’s punch.
“Diana!” Nightingale calls. “Non, Diana, il est—”
“Stay back—” Diana says.
“Agent Nightingale?” says the man, in an American accent.
“Captain America,” says Nightingale as she steps out of the shadows, holding her briefcase close. “How do you say—please, do not fight. Diana is my protector.”
There’s an awkward silence. “Um,” says Captain America.
Diana lets go of his fist. “Call off your sniper,” she says, and catches the pebble thrown at her from above. “You’re our getaway driver?”
“Yep,” says Captain America, wiping blood away from his face.
Diana sighs. “You look different without your uniform,” she says.
“Technically I’m wearing my uniform,” says Captain America, unbuttoning his coat just enough that Diana can see the hint of a white star on bright blue. “You’re, uh.”
“Steve,” says the sniper, climbing down from his perch and landing on light feet, “you can say she’s a very attractive, very strong woman.”
“Bucky,” Captain America yelps, and Diana’s heart aches suddenly. Blond hair, blue eyes, in the middle of a war bigger than he is.
History rhymes, doesn’t it.
Nightingale inches closer to Diana, murmurs something in French. Diana says, “We need to get Nightingale and her briefcase to your superiors as quickly as possible.”
“Yeah, the gas, we got briefed on that,” says Bucky. “All right, ladies, this way to the getaway car—oh, and don’t break Steve’s nose again, please. He’s already ugly enough.”
“And you’re not?” Steven snipes back, affectionate. Bucky rolls his eyes at him and punches him lightly in the shoulder, shaking his hand out with an exaggerated look of pain.
“I am a work of art,” Bucky says, loftily.
“Abstract art,” says Steven, with a grin. “The shitty kind.”
“Y’see what I gotta put up with, sweetheart?” says Bucky, to Nightingale, who’s staring wide-eyed at the two of them. “Or ma’am. Whichever.”
“Agent,” says Nightingale. “Um. Are you the only ones?”
“No, the rest of the Howling Commandoes came along,” says Steven.
Diana grins, and says, “I’ve heard of them. I’m glad Jacques has found you, though—have you played poker with him yet? I should warn you he cheats.”
“Oh, yes, he does,” says Bucky, darkly.
“He took Bucky’s stash of chocolate,” says Steven, sadly. “We’ve been in mourning ever since.”
“You’ve been in mourning,” says Bucky, “I’ve been planning my revenge. Gonna be a beautiful thing when I finally win the rest of it back, just you wait.”
Diana laughs, says, “Well, you won’t have to. I have some chocolate.”
Bucky whips around and says, “Where?”
Nightingale fishes around in her bag and offers a single, solitary bar. “We are, ah, saving it up,” she says. “So you only get one.”
“Oh, God,” says Bucky, dazedly.
“We’ll have to split it,” says Steven, “so don’t go thanking God just yet.”
“None for Dernier’s cheating ass, though, right?”
Diana watches the two of them talk, folding Nightingale into their easy banter. They’re old friends, that much is obvious, almost brothers if not for the way Bucky looks at Steven, as if he’s the one solitary light in the darkness of war. As if he’d do anything, to keep that light burning bright.
She thinks of her own Steve, dead for almost thirty years.
She wonders if anything Bucky can do will be enough, to keep a man such as his Steven alive through this war.
Washington, DC, 2014.
“We rather—mucked it up, didn’t we?”
“We did,” says Diana, sitting by Peggy’s bedside. “But you did all you could.”
This is the hardest part of immortality: watching everyone she loves, everyone she calls friend, wither away in time, while her face stays the same, while her heart breaks more and more.
“Was it enough?” says Peggy. She’s lucid for the hour, contemplative and tired, and yesterday someone told her the news. Diana lays a gentle hand on hers, feels the bones under paper-thin skin and faded scars. “Was it ever enough?”
“I don’t know,” Diana answers, honestly.
Peggy shakes her head, rueful. “I suppose that’s what I get for asking you,” she says, a spark of her old humor in her voice. “This is the point where you tell me that yes, it was.”
“I’d be lying, though,” says Diana. “And you know how much I’d rather avoid doing that to you.”
“Always so honest,” Peggy says. “I’m sorry, I’ve been feeling maudlin lately. What with SHIELD, and all.”
“I can’t blame you,” says Diana. “You didn’t know.”
“I used to be the director of SHIELD,” says Peggy, “and a damn good spy as well. I should’ve had an idea.”
“Not even the best spies on your side knew,” Diana says. “Peggy, what happened to SHIELD—”
“—isn’t on me, I know,” says Peggy. “All we can do is move forward.”
“See, you’ve got it,” says Diana.
Peggy huffs out a laugh. “I’m not certain I’ll be able to keep moving much longer, though,” she says, clear eyes meeting Diana’s. “These old bones aren’t quite what they used to be.”
Diana smiles, tears beginning to sting at the corners of her eyes. A day, a week, a month, a year from now—she will lose her, and it will hurt. It will always hurt, even when she knows it will happen. “Do you remember California?” she says.
“How could I forget?” says Peggy, with a soft laugh. “You kicked someone through a wall for me.”
“And you smashed a beer bottle over a Red Room agent’s head to get her attention,” says Diana, smoothing a few strands of silver hair away from Peggy’s eyes. “I thought you were beautiful, then. I still think you are now.”
“Flatterer,” Peggy teases.
Diana laughs, and even to her it sounds wet, halfway a sob already. “I only ever tell you the truth,” she answers, pressing a chaste kiss to Peggy’s forehead.
“I always could count on you for that,” Peggy muses. She lifts a frail hand to trace Diana’s jawline, and says, “We must be like mayflies to you. Lives flashing by in the blink of an eye, here and then gone.”
“Oh, Peggy,” Diana whispers, shaking her head. “It doesn’t work that way.” Time is slow, is the thing, and it takes everyone and releases only a few from its hold, condemning them to stand forever still and unchanging.
“Diana—” starts Peggy, before she starts coughing. Diana curses under her breath, fetches a glass of water, and returns to see bright eyes staring, wide, at her.
“Peggy?” Diana asks.
“Oh, Diana,” says Peggy, in wonder and awe. “You came by! I haven’t seen you in so long, where have you been? I have so much to tell you.”
Diana smiles, the crack in her heart widening ever more, sits down, and says, “I’m here now.”
Peggy picks her way through the unconscious, moaning bodies on the floor, and says, “And here I thought you’d hung up your sword and shield.”
“I did,” says Diana, with a sigh. “Would you believe me if I said I was truly just investigating Lotus Newmark’s disappearance?”
“I would,” Peggy says, dropping to one knee and rifling through the pockets of an unconscious goon. “You have this habit of telling the truth, you see.”
Diana touches the lasso, resting at her hip. Her sword and shield are in her home in London, but she’d taken the lasso along in the hopes of using it to tease the truth out of recalcitrant parties.
“And you have a habit of getting into trouble,” she says.
“Comes with the job,” says Peggy, taking out a wallet and some folded up papers. “Anyway, as I was saying, before we were so rudely interrupted by these thugs—would you care to have a dinner with me, Ms. Prince? After we find Newmark, of course.”
“I would love to have dinner with you, Agent,” says Diana, with a smile. “As it happens, I know a lovely place in California that serves an incredible lobster.”
“We would need to have some sort of pretext for it, I suppose,” says Peggy, with a sigh. “A—business dinner of some kind. How does that sound?”
“We do have some business with each other,” says Diana. “It’s none of anyone else’s business what it is.”
Peggy smiles and steps closer. “Ms. Prince,” she says, “I look forward to our business dinner.”
It’s a dark night in Berlin, and Borchardt has just emerged from a dark alleyway, eyes glancing furtively about. Peggy taps manicured fingers against the armrest, keeps her eyes on her book as Borchardt sits down next to her.
“Director Carter?” he whispers.
“Agent Borchardt,” Peggy murmurs, resting her fingers lightly over his. “What is it?”
“I’ve been made,” he hisses. “They’ve—They’ve been tracking me since I left my apartment, they know I memorized their plans, they might have someone on us right now—”
“Then follow my lead,” says Peggy, looking up from her book now and smiling lovingly at Borchardt. “There’s a garden just a few miles from here, it’s a nice night, and the roses are in bloom. Pick twenty for me?”
Borchardt relaxes, and she sees the faith in his eyes, that she’ll get him out. That she’ll get him through this, safely. “I’ll pick you a hundred,” he promises, and she translates: Safehouse twenty miles, east, understood.
Then there’s the unmistakable crack of a gunshot. Peggy swears as Borchardt ducks, eyes wide with terror. “Move!” she barks at him, as another shot shatters the silence.
Borchardt moves, picking up speed as Peggy fires back at their assailant, covering his back. A sniper, she thinks, and a quick-moving one at that—every shot that comes seems to be coming from a different window, a different rooftop, but the pattern fits that of a lone sniper. Strange, wouldn’t the Russians send a bigger team if they wanted her?
Peggy grabs hold of Borchardt, hauls him behind an alley, swearing all the while. Borchardt is quick on his feet, at least, and doesn’t stumble as he scurries along behind her. “They found us,” he babbles, all the while, “they found us and they sent—they sent him—”
“Who?” Peggy demands. “Who did they send?”
“A—A corpse,” Borchardt stammers, “some kind of walking corpse, that’s the only explanation, blonde hair and blue eyes and black mask and he’ll kill us please Director get out—”
“I will,” says Peggy, “but I will not leave you behind. Now move.” She shoots out a window, and the two of them sprint down an alleyway, towards a sewer grate, towards a safe way out—
Borchardt falls, just inches away from safety. His eyes are wide and terrified, and he collapses, his brains splattered out onto the wall.
The gunfire only stops, then.
They weren’t after her.
They weren’t after her at all.
It’s a warm spring day, and in the midst of the crowds at the market the Soldier—Barnes blends in, just another tired vet in the crowd.
But there are more people than usual here. More variables than usual, should things go wrong, and it sets Barnes’ teeth on edge, to not have all the exit routes within easy access. In case of disaster these people are going to stampede.
There’s a guy here today, apparently, here to talk up his impending presidential campaign—some guy named Griffin, who’s a fairly progressive candidate from what Barnes is overhearing of his speech.
It’s not a bad speech. Hell, if Barnes could vote, he’d have voted for him in a heartbeat. As things stand, Barnes just tunes out the rest of his speech and tries to haggle with the vendor over the price of bananas, because in his opinion, bananas that don’t taste like bananas should do not deserve to cost Barnes his remaining arm.
Then the shot rings out and breaks the relative calm. Then another, then another. Griffin’s bodyguards all fall.
Barnes is already in motion before the first body falls, the bananas dropping to the ground. He doesn’t have any strong feelings on Griffin, whatsoever, but someone’s gunning after the man, and the police aren’t going to get here in time to stop them.
He takes a shortcut when he spies the glint of a sniper’s scope, cutting through stalls and bales of hay to break down the door of a nearby building and race up four flights of stairs.
He kicks the door down.
For a moment he half-thinks, Steve?
But—that’s not Steve. Wrong shade of blue, for one thing, and Steve’s eyes were never that dead. Wrong hair, for another, this is a darker, dirtier shade. This is someone else—his predecessor.
Outside, Griffin has already collapsed, red bloodstain blooming on the white of his suit.
“Soldat,” says the man, his voice a hoarse rasp through the mask.
Barnes’s fucked-up brain provides him with a helpful list of names: Dmitri, Joseph, Charles, Sam, James, Jack. (That’s not my name, the same man whispers in his head, soft and sad, and we both know that, soldat.)
“That’s not my name,” says Barnes. “James, Jack, whoever you are—it’s me. You know me.”
The man watches him for a moment, and Barnes is pretty sure this is how Steve felt, staring him down on the helicarrier, pleading with him to remember, your name is James Buchanan Barnes—
“No, I don’t,” the man snarls, and in a flash he’s got his knife in his hand, and Barnes just barely gets his metal hand up in time to catch it, inches from his cheek.
He’s shoved up against the wall, the knife almost biting into his skin. I owe Steve so many apologies after this, he thinks, tilting his head to the side as the knife sinks into the plaster.
So many, he thinks as he’s thrown halfway across the room, right after their fight leaves a long, angry scar along the wallpaper. He leaves a dent in the wall, and has to duck five shots. The sixth catches between two plates in his metal arm, and precious time is wasted trying to dig that out.
He very narrowly avoids getting his head smashed into the floor, and slams his knee into the man’s gut instead, yanks his mask away for good measure. He rolls away, tosses the bullet and the mask aside.
“Brussels,” he says. “Tell me you remember Brussels—”
“I have no fucking clue what you’re talking about,” spits the man. Without the mask he sounds more human, somehow, and it’s easy to see the way his lips curl into a snarl as he charges once more.
Barnes ducks and sidesteps the pistol stock about to collide with his head, spins and kicks the man’s knee out from under him. Then he grabs hold of his tactical vest and slams him up against the wall hard enough that the plaster cracks, metal arm pressing into the man’s throat, flesh hand pinning his wrist to the wall.
“Brussels,” Barnes says, desperate. “Come on, tell me you at least vaguely remember some of it—”
A siren wails.
Barnes turns to look. It’s a mistake he regrets in the next second, because the man smashes his forehead against his nose.
Barnes staggers back, and a knife flicks into the man’s hand once more. His blue eyes dart between Barnes and the fire escape as the sirens draw closer, and he cuts a final glance back to Barnes before he runs out.
“Wait—” Barnes snaps, racing after him and trying to track him, but the moment he steps out, he knows it’s a lost cause. His predecessor’s gone, vanished into empty air.
Like a ghost.
“Stay still,” says the prototype, with a huff of breath, patiently. Bright blue eyes flick up to meet the Soldier’s. “You keep moving, how’m I going to dig this out of you?”
The Soldier has not learned yet to stay still without orders during a medical procedure. One day he will, but for now he settles down, fingers digging into the arm rests as the prototype extracts a bullet from his side.
“Lucky shot, huh,” he says.
“Your shot,” the Soldier shoots back.
“I didn’t get the new orders until mid-mission,” says the prototype, with a shrug, cleaning out the wound as best as he can, with steady hands. “For what it’s worth, though—I’m sorry for the hole in your side.”
Not the dead handlers, the Soldier notes. It’s just a little bit concerning.
“The target?” he says.
“Still using the same hotel,” says the prototype. “I—took the liberty of booking us a room.” He tosses the rag aside, eyes meeting the Soldier’s. “We have a few more days until the window’s gone. I’ll scope out the target’s room while you recover.”
“I have a healing factor,” says the Soldier. “I can be operational in a day, maybe less.”
“With a bullet wound in your side?” says the prototype. “I have a healing factor too, soldat. I know it’ll take more than a day for you to recover, it does for me.”
“You don’t know that,” the Soldier points out.
The prototype’s fingers linger briefly on the Soldier’s skin, thumb skimming absently over a faded scar. “Zola wasn’t the first person to come up with a formula,” he says. “He wasn’t even the one who stabilized it.”
Maru and Erskine, the Soldier knows. Zola hardly had to do anything except improvise in the places where he lacked, and improve what he believed needed improvement. It stings Zola, who has always wanted to be better than his peers, who has always prided himself on the strength of his mind, if not his body.
The Soldier’s metal fingers twitch, gears whirring softly, oddly. He needs to perform maintenance on the arm, he supposes.
The prototype’s eyes flick down to the metal arm, then back up to the Soldier’s face, concerned.
“Do you know how to—” he starts, uncertain somehow. Maru’s program, the Soldier had heard from Zola’s rants on the subject, had not been exhaustive enough, to completely get rid of undesirable elements—like, say, asking first before he flipped open a panel on the arm.
The Soldier nods. “Some,” he says. “The basics. Just enough that I can fix it if I need to, even with rudimentary materials.”
“Talk me through it, then,” says the prototype.
So he does, and the first thing that strikes him about how the prototype works is that he’s almost gentle. It’s absurd—he’s seen him snap a man’s neck and break another’s fingers for information—but there you go.
It’s—strange, as well. The Soldier is not used to gentleness, especially not from someone cut from the same cloth as he is. He wonders if this is what Zola meant, when he called Maru’s prototype defective.
He cannot find it in himself to mind. Weakness, he’s sure.
He doesn’t mind that, either. It’ll be their little secret.
Agent Carter looks at Nightingale and Dernier, wearing matching grins and soot on their faces, and says, “Well. You seem like you’ve had fun.”
“I,” says Nightingale, happily, “have not had this much fun in months.”
Dernier cackles, says something in French that makes Gabe crack up from across the table. Bucky’s not sure what it was, exactly, but he hopes to god they’re not talking about him losing his pants at any point in the mission.
He’s pretty sure they are, from the way Steven is whistling innocently beside him.
It’s been something of a long mission, and Bucky’s glad to see the inside of the debriefing room, for once. Usually he’d be itching to get out of here, hit the bar with the rest of the Howling Commandoes, but he keeps thinking of—
“Here I thought,” grouses good old Colonel Phillips, coming into the debriefing room and snapping Bucky out of his thoughts, “that we sent you out for a simple retrieval. Get in, get out, no engagement necessary.” His canny gaze cuts to Diana, sitting nice and cozy in her chair, clad in armor and a cloak still. “I suspect I’ve got you to blame for that.”
“The factory where they were making the weapons with Nightingale’s stolen files was operating just fifteen miles away from our planned route and ten miles northeast from the nearest village,” says Diana, meeting his gaze with a steely one of her own. “I could not stand by and allow them to test their gas on an unsuspecting population.”
“Neither could I,” says Steve. “We saw an opportunity and we seized it.”
“With lots of explosions,” Morita adds.
Dernier sighs dreamily.
“Suppose that’s what I get letting the both of you meet,” Phillips grouses, and Diana grins at him. “One day you’re going to need to learn what subtlety means, because clearly, you missed it in the dictionary, and I can’t be bothered to get mine from my old school bag.”
“The enemy we are up against is not known for subtlety,” says Diana, “considering their penchant for tentacled symbols and overly powerful weapons.”
“Yeah, you’d think the Red Skull’s compensating for something, right?” Dugan jokes, nudging Bucky’s side with his elbow.
Bucky manages a chuckle. It sounds almost like his usual laugh, enough to fool most of the Commandos into snickering along, though Falsworth covers his with a cough, because unlike the rest of them sorry bastards he’s got a title and a reputation to keep up.
But Steve looks at him, worry written clear in his blue eyes. Bucky wants to shake him, snap that there’s nothing to worry about, that he doesn’t need Steve playing nursemaid and fussing over Bucky every time he’s just a little bit withdrawn, but—
Not the time and place.
The rest of the debriefing passes him by, and Bucky occasionally contributes clarifying details and starts a small argument between Carter and Dernier about the amount of explosives they might’ve employed on the way out. Phillips dismisses them after about two hours or so, and Bucky’s almost out free when—
“Buck? You okay?”
Bucky turns, gives Steve a grin. “Never better, Steve,” he says.
Steve rolls his eyes. “Bullshit,” he says. “What happened? We couldn’t contact you, I was going to run back inside if I had to—”
“But you didn’t have to,” says Bucky. “I was fine then, I’m fine now, you don’t gotta worry about me.” He runs a hand through his hair.
“What happened in there?” Steve repeats. “Morita says there was a special HYDRA operative on the base and that you ran into them. Are you okay?”
Bucky sighs. Of course Morita was monitoring the frequencies. “I am now,” he says. “It doesn’t matter, Steve. Really.” He forces a smile onto his face. “They weren’t that special in the end. I mean,” he shrugs, “they were real shitty at their job, if they left their flank wide open.”
(“Go,” the man had rasped. Through the black mask, his voice sounded like an awful, mechanical mess, but Bucky saw the plea in his blue eyes. “They can’t catch you if you go now, you have to—”
Bucky had nodded, then smashed the butt of his rifle into the man’s face, so he couldn’t say where Bucky had gone.
Then he left.)
He slips inside the apartment, hands shaking as his feet hit the floor. He shuts the window, pulls the curtains closed, and slumps against the wall.
He looks down at the file in his hand. It doesn’t belong to him, technically—it’s a mission report, it belongs to some long-defunct organization whose still-living members cling on to its ideologies like a lifeline, but. Well.
The number of still-living members is not significant enough for him to care about stealing it from them. Even if it were, he’d still have taken it—the lack of them just means he’d allowed himself a little more slack.
He opens the file and skims over it, committing the most important information to memory. There isn’t much, just stuff about a mission to Brussels.
His eyes catch on a phrase. Made contact with the Winter Soldier, it reads, and he frowns at the file, pushes his hair away from his eyes. The—The Winter Soldier? From DC, if he remembers his recent history right, and the scapegoat for last year’s Vienna bombing.
(Brussels, tell me you remember—)
The file almost falls from suddenly nerveless fingers.
New York, 2012.
When Diana’s plane touches down on the tarmac, someone’s already there to greet her.
“Oh, wow, you haven’t changed a bit,” is the first thing out of Captain Rogers’ mouth that Diana’s heard in seventy years. He flushes, says, “I mean—”
“Neither have you, Steven,” says Diana with a smile, before she pulls him into a hug. “I’m glad you’re alive,” she murmurs into his ear.
He hugs her back, warm and kind. “Me too,” he says, before he pulls away. “I thought—seventy years, y’know? And everyone else is—”
He stops, looks briefly away as he steps back. Diana’s heart breaks for him, for the loss of all that time he should’ve rightly had, for the loss of all he had ever known. She’s known loss, herself, has stayed the same while everyone else fell to time or disease or violence around her, one by one.
But she was at least able to say goodbye to all of them. She at least had the time to brace herself for the loss, and let them go. She still does.
“They lived well,” she says, because it’s that or I’m sorry for your loss, and she has a feeling Steven’s heard the latter enough times already. “I brought pictures, if you want to see them.”
Steven swallows, and nods. “I’d like that,” he says.
So they take a SHIELD van to his temporary apartment, amongst the silver and steel and glass spires of Manhattan. She tells him stories, in that time—stories of Dum-Dum, of Dernier, of Gabe and Morita and Falsworth and even Nightingale, who’d lived to ninety-two even after getting shot through the chest once.
She tells him of meeting up with Peggy over the years.
“She’s really something, huh,” says Steven, with a proud smile.
“She is,” says Diana. “You should speak with her, when she’s lucid. She’d love to see you again, I’m sure.”
Steven’s smile fades, turns sad. “I know,” he says, “I just—I don’t know what to say to her. What to do.” He sighs. “Don’t really know what to talk about.”
“Anything at all,” says Diana. “Steven, you could talk to her of taking up accounting and she would still want to see you.”
“Still a lot to do,” Steven says, looking out at the ruins that they pass by. By now the bodies have long been taken away, and all that’s left is to clear away the debris, but the space between his eyebrows still creases.
“Now why does that sound like an excuse to me?” says Diana. “You still have time left, with her. Go talk to her.”
“And you?” says Steven, turning to her now.
“I’m going with you,” says Diana. “As insurance, so you don’t jump out a window.”
“That only happened once,” he grumbles. She laughs, and nudges his side with her elbow.
“I thought I’d find you here,” says Peggy, autumn leaves crunching underneath her sensible shoes.
Diana does not stand, nor does she turn. The only acknowledgment Peggy gets to her presence is her head, raising slightly upwards. “Hello, Peggy,” she says, softly.
Peggy stops next to her, and the old, old gravestone she’s kneeling in front of. Etta Candy, the letters carved into the stone read. A Wonder of a Woman. “You nosy old biddy,” she says, fondly, bending down to place a small bouquet at the base of the stone. “I brought you flowers.”
“She’d have appreciated them,” says Diana, leaning back in her hands. “I thought you wouldn’t come. You’ve been rather busy, lately.”
“Not so busy as to forget to pay my respects to my predecessors,” says Peggy, sitting down next to her and smoothing out her skirt. She’s older now, she knows, can’t quite shoot as straight as she used to, and in the meantime here’s Diana, as young as she was in 1948, when Peggy first took her to bed. Or when she first took Peggy to bed. “Are you all right?”
Diana sighs. “As well as I can be,” she says. “You look tired. How much rest have you had lately?”
Not enough. “As much as I can get,” says Peggy, with a shrug. “Director of SHIELD isn’t an easy job.”
“I can imagine,” says Diana. “But you’ve earned some rest, surely. You’ve lived far longer than most spies do.” Her gaze darts away from Peggy, then, up towards the sky then back to the gravestone.
“Do you?” Peggy asks. “Take a rest, I mean. And don’t tell me you’ve hung up the armor, either. I’ve seen you work outside of it.”
Diana doesn’t say anything, but she glances at Peggy once more. Touché.
“I thought so,” says Peggy. Her fingers, wrinkled and calloused, inch closer to Diana’s, roughened from handling a sword and lasso. “We could use you at SHIELD.”
Diana shakes her head. “The life of a spy is not for me,” she says, with the tone of someone who’s seen how it ends far too many times. “I can save lives outside of SHIELD, far more than if I were inside.”
And—well, Peggy can’t really argue that. She says, “It was worth a shot to ask.” She breathes out, looks up at the blue, blue sky, Diana’s fingers in hers. “Do you remember California?” she asks.
“How could I forget?” Diana replies, with an amused smile. “The lobster was lovely.”
“And the after-dinner entertainment?”
“Even moreso,” says Diana, which sends Peggy’s heart all aflutter like a schoolgirl’s. “Why? Do you want dinner? I’m sure I can make some.”
“For an old spy like me?” says Peggy, a corner of her lips quirking upwards.
“For you?” says Diana. “Of course.”
Diana is not the first person to lay a bouquet on Peggy Carter’s grave. She’s not even the second, that honor goes to Steven Rogers.
She waits until everyone has left, until the last mourners have staggered out of the cemetery, before she steps forward and places a bouquet on the grave—roses, and lilies, and sprigs of lavender.
She turns, sees Steven Rogers, his hands tucked into his pockets.
“Hello,” she says, stepping aside.
“I saw you,” says Steven. “At the funeral, I mean.” He huffs out a breath, says, “Thought you’d be kinda busy.”
“Not so busy as to forget to pay my respects to someone I loved,” says Diana, tucking her hands into her pockets as well. “Are you all right, Steven?”
Steven lets out a breath. “Yes,” he says.
Diana arches a brow.
“Okay, no,” he amends. “I—I miss her. I’ve been missing her for a while, it’s just—” He stops, as if unable to find the right words to say.
“I know,” she says. “I’ve missed her too, for some time.” An old, familiar ache, by now, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt. “But I wasn’t just asking after that.”
Steven’s breath hisses out in between his teeth. “Bucky,” he says, quietly.
“Among others,” says Diana. “I keep an eye on the news too, you know.”
Steven’s hand slips out of his pocket, runs through his hair. It’s shorter now than it was when Diana first met him. “We—tracked down Rumlow, in Lagos,” he begins, and then tells her the whole sordid story: the gas (the kind that could kill a whole village, men and women and children, melt skin off muscle and bone and turn organs into ash), the bomb, Rumlow’s last words. When you gotta go—
“He’s still out there,” says Steven, finishing up his tale. “Bucky, I mean. And I have to find him, because if I don’t—” He stops, falters, face crumpling into something miserable. “I lost him once before,” he says.
“Have you found him,” she says, “at any point in three years?”
Steven shakes his head. “Then again,” he adds, somewhat self-deprecating, like he thinks it his fault, somehow, “between the Avengers and Ultron and everything else, I haven’t really had the time.”
Diana breathes in, then out. She knows Steven well enough to know that he’d follow his best friend into war, behind enemy lines, into death, if he could, and damn what anyone else, including said best friend, thought. “If he wanted you to find him,” she says, softly, “I think you would’ve, by now.” She crosses her arms across her chest. “People like him are very good at disappearing, when they want to.”
“And very good at keeping themselves safe,” says Diana.
Steven huffs out a breath. It sounds almost like a laugh, save for how much sorrow weighs it down. Seventy years’ worth of it, were to Diana to make an estimate. “Point,” he concedes. “For someone who’s not a spy, you know them pretty well.”
“A spy brought me here from my home, a very long time ago,” says Diana, looking back at Peggy’s grave. “I’ve grown to like them, ever since.”
Steven’s phone goes off, just then, and he huffs out a breath. “I gotta go,” he says, apologetic. “I kinda promised someone I’d drop her off at her room.”
Diana inclines her head. “Go, then,” she says. “And—I’ll see you around, Steven.”
“You too, Diana,” says Steven, pulling her into a brief hug before he breaks away, walking back to the church. Diana watches him go, watches his shoulders slump with the weight of the world, his head bow low.
Her hand slips into her pocket once more. Her thumb runs over a worn leather strap, the face of a watch just a little too big to be a modern watch. The Trevor men had passed it on from generation to generation, and Steve’s father had seen the advantage in taking off the chain and attaching a leather strap, instead.
And Steve—her Steve—had passed it on to her.
“If only you had more time,” she says—to Steven Rogers and Peggy Carter, to Steve Trevor, to her friends who left too soon.
No one answers. Steven is too far out of earshot now, the earth is fresh on Peggy’s grave, and Steve Trevor has been dead almost a hundred years.
She breathes out, and moves forward.
En route to Siberia, 2016.
“You know how I told you I’m not the only Winter Soldier?” says Bucky, suddenly, at the plane’s controls. He’d said, in calm and even tones, that he would be damned first before he let Steve pilot, seeing as the last time Steve had piloted a plane he’d gone and crashed it in the Arctic, and Steve had—gracefully surrendered, is how he’ll put it to everyone he knows.
Really Bucky had dragged him out of the pilot’s seat and taken over to his protests, but still.
“Yeah, that was kind of a shock,” says Steve.
“Yeah, well,” says Bucky, with a tired breath, “I wasn’t even the first one. Or at least I wasn’t the first successful attempt.” He runs a hand through his hair, and says, “They called him the prototype.”
Steve blinks at him. “What?” he says.
“Remember when we were escorting that agent Nightingale out of France?” says Bucky.
“Yeah, we took a detour when we realized the factory making the weapons was nearby,” says Steve, brow creasing. “You ran into a—special HYDRA agent Jesus fucking Christ Buck what the hell.”
“I figured you’d say as much,” says Bucky, unruffled by Steve’s outburst, the little shit. Then again, if there’s anyone the Captain America Respect Zone™ doesn’t work on, it’s Bucky Barnes, who’s seen Steve at five foot nothing headbutt someone for disrespecting a girl he barely knew.
“You said he left his flank wide open!”
“He didn’t,” says Bucky, distantly. “He let me go—don’t ask me why, I still don’t know for sure, but. I think.” He scrubs a hand over his face, lets out a tired sigh. “He didn’t want me to go through the same hell he did, whoever he was.”
Steve sucks in a ragged breath, slumps back down into his seat. This, he decides, is officially the worst week of his life, and it’s only Wednesday. “Are we going to find him at Siberia?” he asks.
“Nope,” says Bucky. “Small miracle. Isabel Maru—the dame responsible for the prototype, she and Zola never really liked each other that much even if they worked together—she fell out with HYDRA and then took him with her, when she left. He’s definitely not at the bunker, but.” He hesitates, and goes on: “God only knows where he’s gone now.”
“But you’ve got an idea,” says Steve.
“More like I know where he last was, and it ain’t gonna do either of us any good, he’s better than I am at covering his tracks,” says Bucky. “He even taught me that, in fact. Whenever we met up and we weren’t trying to kill each other.” There’s a weird fondness in his voice, a protectiveness that has Steve sitting up and staring at him, understanding slowly breaking over him like dawn breaking over the horizon.
“You didn’t,” says Steve.
“Unlike you, I didn’t spend seventy years straight on ice,” says Bucky.
“You did,” says Steve.
“He was nice,” says Bucky. More thoughtfully, he adds, “I mean, he always had somebody else in mind, y’know? But he didn’t mind that I did too.”
“Bucky,” says Steve, in flat tones, a hint of Brooklyn blurring into his voice, “I don’t wanna know. I do not want to know.”
“I haven’t even told you about Brussels yet,” says Bucky, with a familiarly shit-eating grin.
“Y’know what,” says Steve, making a grab for Bucky’s sleeve, “get out of the damn chair, I’m piloting us out of memory lane.”
“And into a glacier, no doubt.”
(They reach Siberia, and Steve does not miss the quiet breath of relief from Bucky, when they see the corpses. As if he hadn’t been sure, that the man he called the prototype hadn’t made it back after all. As if he’d been worried.
He must’ve been some guy.)
2017, three months before Mokhovoye.
The mask comes off, and the battlefield narrows down to the two of them.
(I wish we had more time.)
(I love you.)
He bares his teeth at her, as if he doesn’t recognize her. “Who the hell is Steve?”
When she wakes, Steve’s slipped away to the kitchen—she can hear the song on the radio just as well as she can hear Steve singing along, just a second, we’re not broken, just bent, and we can learn to love again.
She gets to her feet, pads out of the bedroom to the kitchen, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. In an hour they’ll have to be out the door to the Louvre, but for now she leans against the doorway and says, “You sing well.”
Steve flips an omelette onto the plate with ease, and says, absently, “Better than Charlie.”
Diana laughs, ducks her head. “You remembered?” she asks.
“Some,” says Steve, his face scrunching up, the way it does when he’s remembered something he thinks is mildly unpleasant but nonetheless amusing. “He sang for us in Veld, I remember that. And—after that, I think. It went like, green grow the rashes, oh—”
“The sweetest hours that e’er I spent,” Diana sings along, “are spent among the lasses, oh.”
“Oh, now I remember,” says Steve. “He sang that song a few times and I was sick of it by the third. And—oh, god, you asked him to keep going.”
“He was a very good singer,” says Diana, but she can’t keep the grin off her face for very long.
“You mean you were laughing at us,” grumbles Steve.
“That, too,” says Diana, stepping closer to pick up her plate. She presses her lips to his cheek, a brief and feather-light kiss, before she sits down at the table, breaks her bagel in half. “Did you ever sing for anyone else?”
“I don’t really think so,” Steve starts, but then he stops. Breathes out, softly. “I did, I think,” he says. “There was—someone in Brussels who I sang to once. Part of my cover, then.”
Brussels. Diana sits up.
Steve picks at his omelette, says, “Do you know the Winter Soldier?”
“Bucky Barnes,” says Diana. “I’ve met him. I met him before he was the Winter Soldier, when he was still a sergeant embedded within the Howling Commandos. Why?”
“I met him before he was the Winter Soldier too,” says Steve, blue eyes fixed on his plate despite not eating anything, his tone slipping into something dead and flat. “Dr. Poison got shunted to the deep science division once the Second World War got started, and I went with her. She had a rival, Zola, who wanted to duplicate and surpass Erskine’s success with the serum and Maru’s success with me.” He flicks a strand of hair out of his eyes, looks up to meet her gaze. “Bucky was the only one he succeeded with, in his lifetime. And even then—it was after the war was over.”
Something cold settles in Diana’s stomach. She reaches out to brush her fingers against Steve’s, and he does not flinch away.
“Maru fell out with them, after the end of the war,” Steve continues. “She went to—fuck knows where, I certainly don’t, and she brought me and Zola’s notes on cryogenic tanks along. I don’t. I don’t remember every mission we ran across each other, but I do know that whenever we met we made each other feel—a little more human, I guess. Less like a weapon.”
He pauses, as her hand goes up to touch his cheek, stubble rough against her skin. He smiles at her, and Diana hadn’t known a smile could hold that much sadness.
“You loved him?” she asks.
“Sort of,” says Steve. “He was thinking about somebody else, I could tell that much.” He shrugs. “Wasn’t like I could call him out on that. I was doing the same.”
Diana thinks of Bucky Barnes, and the tenderness in his eyes even as he and Steven joked around with each other—like Steven Grant Rogers was a bright, blazing light in the midst of the darkness of the war, like all the hope of the world had been bundled up in a smart-mouthed, blue-eyed captain.
“That was—how did they say it?” she starts. “Something of a dick move.”
Steve shrugs, his hand slipping out of hers. “I know, and we both knew that,” he says. “But—when we weren’t trying to kill each other? I could trust him to watch my back.”
And there hadn’t been many he trusted at all, then. She thinks she can understand, now. Or at least she can start to.
“He must’ve made an impression on you,” she says.
“He did,” says Steve.
It’s dawn when they make it to Peggy Carter’s grave, a few days after the anniversary of her death. A cool spring breeze has Steve turning the collar up on his coat, but Diana doesn’t seem to notice, continuing on instead until they’re in front of a simple headstone.
Margaret Carter, it reads. Plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the world, “No, you move.”
No wonder they got along. Carter sounds like exactly Diana’s kind of person.
Steve tucks his hands into his pockets, steps back from Diana and the grave to let her have some measure of privacy, a moment to herself.
She kneels down, laying a bouquet of flowers on the grave, the colors a mix of red and white. She smiles, soft and sad, her hand reaching out to trace the letters engraved on the cold marble, like she’s caressing a lover’s cheek.
Steve looks away, eyes fixing on some other small detail away from Diana and Carter’s grave, bouquets of flowers and little trinkets left on other graves, a woman with short blonde hair standing kneeling at the foot of another grave. Some small part of him wonders, suddenly, where his own grave is, if anyone still leaves flowers there. If there’s anyone left to, besides Diana and the Chief. If anyone else leaves flowers on Etta’s grave, or Sameer’s, or Charlie’s.
How many graves must Diana visit each year, he wonders.
He bows his head, retreats into his coat somewhat.
“You would’ve liked her,” says Diana.
Steve looks back to her and the grave. “Director Carter?” he asks. “I—might’ve taken a shot at her. Once or twice.”
“And she would’ve been very cross,” Diana amends, taking a candle out from her bag and a lighter from her pocket. “But you would’ve liked her. She was not the sort of person who took nonsense from anyone, not even someone she loved.”
She places the candle, still unlit, on the grave. Then she flicks the lighter on, touches the flame to the wick.
“And she was stubborn, as well,” she says. “When she was on to something, she wouldn’t stop until she had it, and knew what to do with it. That was how we started—dating, I suppose.”
“You dated the founder of SHIELD?” says Steve, impressed. Compared to Peggy Carter, he’s pretty sure he doesn’t measure up.
“Off and on, yes,” says Diana. “But the first time, I was trying to find Lotus Newmark and she was tracking down Newmark’s smuggling operations in California.” She stands up, gives the cold marble headstone one last lingering touch before her hand drops to the side. “She broke a beer bottle over a Red Room agent’s head.”
“You’re right, I do like her,” says Steve, with a wistful sigh. “I’m starting to wish we met. Properly, that is.” The first time he’d ever seen Peggy Carter, he’d shot out her agent’s brains from a distance. That, he’s sure, isn’t much of a good first impression to make. “She sounds like something special.”
“She was,” Diana agrees, stepping away. “Even towards the end, with Alzheimer’s eating away at her—she was still sharp. You couldn’t lie to her while she was lucid, she’d see right through you.” She breathes out a tired sigh, looks up at the sky for a moment before she looks back to him. “I miss her,” she admits.
Steve bumps her arm, slightly. She doesn’t budge, but her hand settles in the crook of his arm, fingers brushing lightly against the inside of his elbow. “I’m glad that you were happy with her,” he says. “That you had a little more time with her, before she left.”
Diana closes her eyes, and breathes out, resting her head against his shoulder.
They stand in silence at the grave for a while, Diana watching the flame flicker, Steve watching Diana.
Then Diana says, “We should probably go, before someone chances on us.”
“Preferably not a SHIELD agent,” says Steve, as they turn to go. “Did you notice the woman earlier? With the blonde hair.”
“I did,” Diana confirms. “I can’t be sure, she had her back turned to us the entire time, but I think that was Natasha.”
“You know the Black Widow on a first-name basis?” says Steve, a little incredulous.
“She, Peggy’s niece, and I used to meet up sometimes for drinks whenever I was in DC at the same time they were,” says Diana, wistfully. “When you help a woman haul her drunk friend home at the start of your acquaintance, you can call her by her first name from then on.”
Steve chances a glance back, sees the Black Widow stepping closer now to Peggy’s grave, kneeling down as Diana did and placing a single white lily at the foot of the grave.
There’s something about her that tugs on something missing in his memory, something that makes him wonder where he’s seen her before—through a sniper’s scope, perhaps. Or in a dark alleyway, somewhere. Or—
It slips from his grasp, like smoke. He lets it go, and they step out of the cemetery and into a world beginning to wake.
An island off the coast of Greece, 2018, four months after London.
The first time Steve Trevor ever meets Bucky Barnes, he points a gun at him.
It’s an accident, really. Really.
He’s sitting on the boat keeping an eye on things while Diana’s leading a small team to infiltrate a large and deeply foreboding, monitoring the frequencies and trying to pick up on some mysterious new channel that’s just shown up, when he hears the sound of combat boots thudding against the deck nearby.
“Shit,” he mutters.
“Steve?” says Diana, over the comms, worriedly. “What did you find?”
“Nothing on the new frequency that’s shown up yet?” Barry asks, concern in his staticky voice.
“Something,” says Steve, checking back on the data he’s been getting off the new frequency that’s mysteriously appeared, and the unidentified heat signatures on an island that’s supposed to be almost completely deserted. “Someone’s eavesdropping on you.”
“All right, unnecessary chatter off the comms, now,” comes Batman’s voice, stern and calm. “That means you, Superman. Mission Control? Do you copy?”
“Something’s nearby,” says Steve. “I’m gonna go check it out. You guys have fun.” He pauses, then, because he’s pretty sure Batman will come give him a good long lecture about Following Communications Protocol otherwise, he adds, “Over.”
If they need him, they’ll call, he’s sure. But for the most part, Diana, Barry and Batman know the general layout and Clark, flying overhead, can keep an eye out for any suspicious activity. He can spare five minutes to check out whatever’s sneaking around on a boat that’s supposed to be out of sight.
He steps out of the cabin. Technically, the boat’s a luxury yacht owned by Bruce Wayne for his occasional vacations and round-the-world trips, but Batman had discreetly turned it into a mobile HQ for missions like this, where the League would be out of contact with Alfred for an extended period.
And Batman, paranoid as he was, installed a top-notch security system on the boat that should’ve been hell to get past. Steve should know, he’d volunteered for playing guinea pig with it.
Which means that whoever’s managed to sneak in is a possible threat.
“Deserted, he said,” he mutters to himself, drawing his gun and thumbing the safety off. He really should’ve bribed Victor into coming out with them on this one. “Deserted my ass.”
He presses himself flat against the wall, gun held downwards, finger off the trigger. He steps closer to the corner, as lightly as possible, heart beating fast against his ribcage.
Some months back, Diana’d mentioned that one of the floorboards on the deck tended to creak when someone put too much weight on it. Batman had been annoyed, up until Victor had tried to very discreetly sneak into the cabin because he’d forgotten some parts for a new car and stepped on that floorboard. Then Batman had decided to let it be, for now.
Steve waits, and listens.
The floorboard creaks.
He whips around the corner, bringing his gun up and aiming at—
“Soldat?” is the first thing that slips out of his mouth.
“Oh,” says James Buchanan Barnes, eyes wide. He’s aimed a gun at him, too, but Steve sees the moment recognition sinks in, sees him lowering the weapon. “Oh, god, not you—”
“What the hell are you doing here?” says Steve, because, honestly. Last he heard anything about Bucky Barnes the guy was on probation.
“Mopping up the mess Madame Masque left behind,” says Bucky. “Stark got intel that there used to be—”
“—a secret facility run by a Whitney Frost in the 1940s that’s rumored to hold plans for some kind of device that could level a whole city,” says Steve, a little dizzy, lowering his own gun. “Yeah, that’s what got me and my team here, too.”
“You have a team?” says Bucky, incredulously.
“Technically I’m the support staff,” says Steve, before realization quickly dawns on him. Bucky’s here, which means the Avengers came here, which explains the new frequency and oh fuck. “Wait. If you’re here, then—”
“Oh, shit,” says Bucky.
Steve tears off toward the cabin first, hits the switch and says, “Guys I figured out who else is on the island don’t punch Captain America—”
“I didn’t punch Captain America,” says Diana, her staticky voice bringing relief crashing down on her. “Again, anyway.”
“She punched Hawkeye into a tree!” Barry says in the background, excitedly, like he’s trying to shout into the comm over Diana’s shoulder. “Aaaaand then I pushed Captain America after him.”
“Yeah, of course she did,” says Bucky.
“Trevor,” says Batman, over the comm, “is that who I think it is.”
“Trevor,” says Bucky, incredulously, and Steve belatedly realizes that he never actually said his name. His real name. “Dorogoi, is that—”
“It’s my last name,” says Steve. “And yes, Batman, this is the Winter Soldier. Don’t worry, he’s on our side.” He turns to Bucky and says, “Listen, we need to stop meeting like this, all right?”
“Bucky!” says Diana, over the comms, as if greeting an old friend. “There you are. I wondered where you’d gone.”
“Hi, Buck,” says Captain America himself, in the background, sheepishly. “So I just met Superman—”
“Get me an autograph,” says Bucky, automatically.
“I already got you one,” chimes in another voice. “I got him to make it out just for you.”
“Uh, actually,” says Clark, over the comms, “Mr. Wilson, I’d like that back for a minute so I can do some editing.”
“You asshole bird,” says Bucky, with an offended huff. “What did you make Superman write?”
“The truth,” says Wilson, and Steve shakes his head, stifles a laugh. He likes this Wilson fellow already.
“What have I said about chatter on the comms?” says Batman, in his sternest tone, the built-in filter making it come out harsh and authoritative.
Then another voice, breezy and light and coming from the unknown frequency Steve is pretty sure belongs to the Avengers’ channel, interrupts, “Ignore Bats, this is higher-quality entertainment than HBO’s latest try at a Game of Thrones-style hit. Steve, you never said you knew Wonder Woman!”
“Well—” Captain America starts.
“Which Steve?” says Steve, unable to keep the grin off his face. “There’s two of us now.”
There’s a moment’s silence in the cabin, then Bucky says, in tones of deep horror, “Oh, fuck.”