Sharon Carter grew up knowing the feel of bullets in her fingers, not rosaries. She learned Mandarin, German and Japanese, not Latin, because Latin was a dead language and Sharon, even at eight, knew her work would be for the living.
Some afternoons Sharon stayed in Aunt Peggy's office and colored. Once, left alone while her aunt went to a meeting, an eight-year-old Sharon walked the perimeter of her office, sounding out the words on each plaque and award. She picked up the little plexiglass box of crumpled bullets on the desk (when Aunt Peggy got back, she would explain they had been dug out of her hip somewhere in Burgundy). Sharon looked at the shining metal awards, the battered polaroids of dirty, tired, grinning soldiers and her aunt’s young face looking steadily at the camera. Sharon looked out of the office’s wide, clean windows at the city beyond that glimmered in the muggy summer heat.
“That’s my job,” Aunt Peggy had explained to Sharon years before, hoisting her up to stand on the sill. It had been night, then, each light in DC blazing into the gloom.
Now, the city was wreathed in sunlight. Sharon, a few years older, had five of her own fingers wrapped around the sill, ten toes pressed into the carpet so she could peer over the edge of it.
I want this, she thought, this, here, I want my life to be keeping this safe; gleaming in the day, glowing at night. She squeezed the plexiglass case of metal shards an exhausted field surgeon had pulled out of a young Peggy after the Howling Commandos had hauled her miles back to base. They were gleaming in the sunlight, every old trace of blood long washed away. I will be this brave, Sharon thought, and she was right.
Sharon collected names as she went, almost by accident. Later, she would wonder if that was how Natasha felt, that as she went she kept finding names dropped in her lap, thrown in her face, built up like a wall around her.
She was Sharon in school, neither popular nor unpopular. She spent a little too much time in the shooting range, maybe, but it was Virginia, after all.
Carter was the other half of that name, or maybe a name of its own. In the halls of SHIELD it carried an echo with it.
Sharon had seen the news reports, read the SHIELD reports about Tony Stark and all his screaming antics. Immature, destructive, very much not her style, sure, but she thought she could understand the desire to drown out the ghosts on your heels.
Sharon was Peggy Carter’s legacy. When Aunt Peggy got sick, pity followed Sharon in the hallways. The old guard, the ones who had been here when she had colored inside the lines tucked into a chair in Peggy’s office, they treated her like a mascot. The ones who only knew Sharon as an adult and her aunt only as a legend treated her like a legend herself, something not quite human.
Sharon was only as impermeable as her SHIELD-issue bulletproof vest, but all the same she felt, now and then, like she might have some insight into Steve Rogers. She was pleased when they assigned him to her. When they spoke, pretty Nurse Kate and her neighbor, she looked him in the eye. She didn’t stare. In her reports, she had codenames to use and “the Captain” tripped easily from her tongue to her superiors, but Sharon made sure to think of him as Steve. It wasn’t much of a gift, but it mattered to her.
Agent 13 was a name she had earned. Kate the nurse was one that had been handed to her, along with a pair of pink scrubs and a harmless smile, to don.
Sharon walked among waking legends. She would have flushed and stammered, awed, the first time she met Captain America, except that was hardly her style and, after all, she had had enough people goggle at the name Carter to not want to put that on anyone else.
But even walking among legends, when the Black Widow drops by your office for a chat, you sit up straight.
“Agent Carter?” The Widow slid easily in to the room, as though she had ever exchanged a glance, let alone two words, with Sharon before.
“Not a ma’am,” said Natasha. “I need some information. You have a moment?”
Natasha Romanov had ways of getting information out of people—when it came to Sharon, it was with coffee and pastries. She sat Sharon down at a bustling café and eyed her over a steaming mug.
What Natasha wanted to know about was Steve Rogers. “Your reports only cover his safety,” she explained. “I want to know more about him.”
“You’re the one he works with,” said Sharon.
“And you’re just his cute neighbor. But I’ve read your file, Agent Carter. You’re observant, analytical, got high marks in profiling—and you know how to speak to his idealism. I keep… missing. I want to know who he is when he’s not on a mission. Me knowing where his head is might save both our lives on some dark night.”
It was the right card to play. "It's not a good place," Sharon warned.
"I've heard worse, I promise," said Natasha.
So Sharon held her breath and sipped her coffee and spilt out all the half-formed reports SHIELD hadn't been interested in from Cap's glorified bodyguard-housesitter. The hours he kept, the way he ran his fingers over his knuckles like he was looking for old fractures he wouldn't find, how she fought to keep her aunt's old accent out of her voice because of the way he looked when she let it; the nightmares she could hear through the apartment wall.
Natasha thanked her politely, paid for the coffees, and disappeared. Sharon didn’t expect to see her again.
After work, a few times a week, Sharon went and sat with Aunt Peggy in the home care facility. Peggy Carter wasn’t precisely Sharon’s aunt. She was a great aunt or some distant cousin—Sharon didn’t know, or particularly care. She was Aunt Peggy, and she mattered.
Sharon told her aunt every non-confidential thing she could about her job as she moved from probie to agent to Captain America’s protection detail. It broke Sharon’s heart to have to bite her tongue here, of all places, to keep secrets from Aunt Peggy, who had once known everything.
Once Peggy interrupted Sharon’s debriefing to show her a framed photo of herself, blond and beaming, lifted from her bedside table. “That’s my niece, Sharon,” Peggy said. “She’s eight this week. She’s getting so tall.”
It was Sharon’s birthday in three days. She took Peggy’s hand and squeezed it. “How very nice of you to remember. I bet your niece loves you very much.”
Peggy smiled. “Well, she’s my best girl.”
Natasha showed up at Sharon's office door, her apartment balcony, her private quiet lunch in the most secluded booth of a unpopular cafe on a slow Tuesday. They talked about Steve, tried to pull apart the head of a brave man and a lost boy. "He took his shield off, and his helmet, after a little goading from a pirate," Natasha complained, during one of their last meetings before the end.
They talked about Steve, but sometimes they would slip up. Sharon, who had been expecting a quiet evening with her cat, would make tea and grumble over it, and they would fall into talking about Fury's drama queen tendencies or the advantages of the coffee machines on various floors of the Triskeliion.
One afternoon, they tumbled into a conversation about legacies written in blood; your own blood, in Sharon's case, hearing the name Carter pumping through her veins, or other people's, in Natasha’s, who had spilt so much of her own over the years of her life, but so much of other peoples', too; those were the stains that mattered.
Natasha fled a bit, after that one, not that the fleeing was in any way obvious to even the trained eye, but she came back a week later with a mocha in a traveling mug. Sharon decided it was an experiment, on Natasha's part, like pushing at a loose tooth with a tongue. She shrugged and took the hot drink.
Natasha didn’t talk about her secrets, but sometimes she talked about the fact that she had them.
“I liked your aunt,” she said at one lunch. “She was a tough old broad, when Clint brought me in. Clint’s got a good pair of eyes on him. He knew to sell me to Fury on my usefulness alone, but old lady Carter took a bit more convincing. She didn’t like me for a long time.”
“And you like her for that?”
“She saw people as people. I’m harder to trust if you’re looking for humanity than if you’re just in the market for a pair of steady hands.”
Sharon said, not because it was kind but because it was honest, “You’re not just a pair of steady hands.”
“Cap thinks he’s only a body,” said Natasha. “A shield. The way Clint thinks he’s his aim. Though Clint also thinks he’s funny, the clown, so there’s that. But Steve—he thinks that’s all he is.” She sipped her green tea. “And maybe I can understand that.”
Sharon thought about the way Carter rang in the halls of SHIELD and said, “Me, too.”
The night they lost Fury, Sharon heard the radio in Steve's apartment and thought he had left it on. She never quite forgave herself for that. The Winter Soldier's heavy slugs had ripped through Steve's wall and the Director's chest and she had broken in, too late, in her pink scrubs with her little gun. She had kept vigil over Fury while Steve chased a ghost over rooftops. Sharon had never felt more like a good name with a useless shell attached.
“I’m sorry about Fury,” Sharon wanted to tell Captain America (wanted to tell Natasha, maybe even more). “I heard the radio. I should have been suspicious. I should have checked it out. I should have called it in. I should have gotten him out of here before the sniper found him.”
But she didn’t tell them. They were busy. They were gone.
“You care about him,” Sharon had accused Natasha once, mildly, over blueberry scones and chai lattes.
“You spend a hell of a lot of time thinking about him not to.”
“I don’t care about people,” said Nat. “I maintain them.”
The day SHIELD fell, as Natasha and Steve braved air-to-ground missiles, Sam's cooking, and frantic car chases, Sharon visited her aunt during her lunch break. Sharon didn't know about HYDRA's algorithm, but, when she was told about it, it would haunt her for days.
The algorithm evaluated peoples' pasts to predict their futures. Sharon held her aunt's dry hands, catalogued every picture on the bedside table, listened to scattered stories about the War--today, Peggy was young, high on adrenalin in the midst of an army camp. In her world, there was no SHIELD, no Fury, no Pierce. "You should've seen the look on his face when he saw what Bucky had done to his chewing gum collection," Peggy confided wickedly to a young blond woman she almost recognized. "Rascals, all of them."
"Your rascals, though," said Sharon. She kissed her aunt on the forehead and went back to SHIELD for the last time.
Sharon pulled a gun in the operations room, pointed it at a soldier of her country and readied herself to shoot. Gunfire was Sharon’s catechism. SHIELD was her holy ground. She was ready to sully everything she loved, to keep a bully from shooting a computer tech who was only trying to do the right thing.
"You're on the wrong side, agent," said Rumlowe.
"Depends on where you're standing."
He got her gun away from her. He got away. (He didn't get to kill the tech, because Sharon shoved him out of the way). Gunfire erupted in the air, shattering it.
The fight didn't stop after Rumlowe had fled the operations room. Techs scrambled for cover--Sharon saw the curly-haired young man whose chair she'd kicked out of the line of Rumlowe's shot curling around himself under a table.
The remains of the strike team were firing at them, but not all the agents in the room were shooting back. One pulled an injured tech to safety behind a knocked over table (electronics lay smashed on the floor).
But other agents—the redhead who liked her bagels plain, an older man who had once given Sharon advice on her stance in the shooting range--weren't firing at HYDRA agents, but at Sharon's people.
Sharon pulled her curly-haired tech out of the line of fire for the second (and not the last) time that day and shot the redhead in the knee. The redhead went down but raised her gun.
Sharon fired again.
They heard the evacuation notice, but with gunfire in the air they were hardly in the position for an easy, peaceful retreat. Sharon thought of rowdy bar nights with her coworkers (the ones bleeding around her, or bleeding somewhere else, or sighting her down the barrel of their SHIELD-registered guns), and thought, “Let’s take this outside, gentlemen.”
They heard something that sounded like thunder, too. Days later, someone would tell Sharon about the helicarriers firing at Falcon. Floors above them, Natasha was saving the world wearing another woman’s face, was choosing to burn all her covers, but here Sharon was holed down behind a barricade of overturned tables, the injured pulled and huddled into the storage closet behind her.
Sharon rose on her knees and fired three times, getting two in one man’s shoulder and clipping a second. There was a flurry of gunfire in response and when she raised her head again she saw the last of the HYDRA agents disappearing past the glass door.
“We scared them good,” the tech beside her gasped.
Sharon shared a glance with another agent over the tech’s head. “I don’t think so,” she said.
She itched to give chase, to stop the strike team from going to back up whatever they had been called away for. But she had injured noncombatants and the evacuation notice still blaring.
Guns drawn, they stalked down the corridors, crept and stumbled down flights of stairs. They carried their injured on stretchers made from curtains or hoisted on the light carts they had stolen from the mail room.
They were below the 41st floor when the helicarrier struck, but they heard the building roar. Dust and smoke dogged their heels, leaving them retching and terrified as they fled down the stairs. Sharon’s curly-haired computer tech held one end of a curtain stretcher, his face taut and pale in the gloom.
Sharon checked the next landing for gunmen and then they went down, they went down, they went down.
Finally they stepped out into the light.
There was a wide space left at the base of the Triskelion, to keep personnel at a distance as the building tore itself to pieces, to give the snipers a clear shot.
“We’re SHIELD,” another agent screamed. “Don’t shoot. We’re SHIELD!”
So were they, thought Sharon. So was Rumlowe, so was Pierce.
Across the space, there were EMTs and armed guards waiting, a hastily erected tent with cots and tarps laid down.
They stumbled across the empty diameter, dripping sweat that was black with dust and smoke, dripping with gunshots and terror. They made it to something like safety.
“Carter?” said the FBI agent in charge of debriefing her. It was either hours or minutes later, Sharon wasn’t sure. “Well if we can let any SHIELD fellow walk free and still sleep easy at night, it’s a gal with a name like that.”
Sharon felt offended, she felt lost, she felt villified. She offered the man a hand. “Agent 13, Sharon,” she said. “I’m not leaving while there’s work still to do.”
“Not anymore,” said a voice. One of the deputy chiefs stood behind her, hands in his pockets. “SHIELD’s been officially compromised.”
“Really,” said Sharon dryly, glancing toward the crumbled ruins of the Triskelion.
He snorted. “Yeah. But no SHIELD, no SHIELD agents, Miss Carter.”
Sharon’s spine stiffened.
“We’re sending rescue crews in now,” the man continued blithely. “We need an armed escort. There’s HYDRA in there as well as our own men and women.”
“Sir,” Sharon agreed.
“Get your vest and some ammo,” he said. “Northeastern corner, in five.”
Sharon had stocked up the first moment they’d taken their eyes off her after their arrival. She’d never taken off her bulletproof vest. She couldn’t imagine ever taking off the vest. She supposed she would start to smell eventually.
They climbed up into the smoking carcass of SHIELD HQ. A large swathe of the floors above 39 or so had sheared off and tumbled to the ground. The floors below that had been crushed by the descending weight of the helicarrier. Every now and then the supports of the building would creak and scream as some new section collapsed.
Sharon and the others climbed up, starting in the intact, lower floors—here, the damage was smaller, colder, human-made—doors kicked in, windows and computer screens shattered from gunfire, bloody lumps on the floor, some gasping, some shooting back, some cold to the touch.
When Sharon had pulled a gun on the strike team leader in the operations room, he had told her, “You’re on the wrong side, agent.”
She had spat back, “It depends on where you’re standing.”
Sharon climbed the stairs she had stumbled down with injured, loyal techs and agents behind her, where she had shot at men and women with SHIELD badges in their pockets, where she had climbed up her very first day as a SHIELD agent, her hands shaking with excitement.
Her hands where not shaking now, wrapped around her gun as she escorted medics through familiar halls.
Where am I standing? Sharon asked herself.
If she had been a more melodramatic young woman, she might have admitted the answer was inside of my broken heart.
Sharon went to see Aunt Peggy, after everything had died down enough that she wasn’t just living in the wreckage. (She would always be living in the wreckage of that place).
Bucky Barnes had dropped into churning water and then dragged himself up from the depths. Steve Rogers had borne a trial by fire, an entombment in the circuit-brain of an old enemy, in the place where his strength and shield were born, had witnessed destruction at the hands of his country’s own missile. His shield had covered him and Natasha. When Steve had pulled them out of that wreckage, he had gone to the door of the kind of man who he could still believe in.
Sharon Carter had drawn a gun on her own holy ground. The heart of her was smashed to shards of glass and twisted rebar. When they let her go, three days later, after screenings and an ideological quarantine, Sharon took a taxi home and washed the concrete dust out of her hair. Then she went to see her aunt.
Peggy tried to straighten when Sharon walked into her room, but it made her cough instead. "Sharon, what's the matter? Did that Johnson boy break your heart?"
Sharon had had a crush on Timmy Johnson in sixth grade and Aunt Peggy had heard about every sordid moment of it. Agent 13 lowered herself into the chair beside her aunt and said, "Yes." She had a policy of not lying to Aunt Peggy. "What do you do, auntie, when it turns out you can't trust the people you thought you could?"
“Oh, honey,” she said. “You move on.”
“But it was my life. I spent all my life fighting to get there and now--. I thought we were doing good." But a good man just nearly got his curly head blown in by one of our own strike team, for refusing to be complicit in a million murders. Sharon shook her head. “I can't trust them. And if I can't trust them, who's left? They were the good guys.”
“So don't trust them,” said Aunt Peggy. “Trust you.” She squeezed her niece's hand. It was an old hand, Peggy's, had held knives and guns, the pen behind signatures on powerful documents, a button that had kept the radio line open to a HYDRA plane until Steve finally went down. "The world is changed, and none of us can go back."
When Sharon went home and tumbled into bed, she found a note tucked under her pillow. Tomorrow’s date, a time, and an address were written in Natasha’s precise handwriting.
“I’m going to lie low for awhile,” said Natasha the next morning when Sharon slid onto the stool across from her in a little café on a crowded street. “Well, go dark anyway.”
“Send me postcards,” said Sharon. “Though my access just got a helicarrier flown into it, so I’m a bit less of a useful asset to maintain these days.”
Natasha shook her head. “What do you think I’m doing here? Maintaining.” She broke off a bit of Sharon’s biscotti. “People are going to underestimate you all your life, Sharon. Don’t do their work for them.”
“People are going to chase you off all your life, Nat. Don’t do their work for them.”
“I’m not running away,” she said. “I’m looking for something.”
Natasha smiled. She could hear the can I help even in Sharon’s tired, bitter new voice. “Me.”
Natasha’s wreckage was under her skin, wrapped up in old fractures and old ghosts, all the old names now dug up and strewn across the world. She had to disappear, into herself, away from these legends other people had written around her.
They were, both of them (this woman who had trusted the legacy of her name, and the Widow who had never been her name at all), both looking to find their cores.
Natasha had to disappear. Sharon needed to stand here, in her rubble, and figure what pieces she had left, what pieces were worth keeping, and what she would choose to build with them.
Before she left the café, Natasha stood and gripped Sharon’s shoulder tight. “Regimes fall every day,” Natasha said. “But we don’t.”
Sharon wasn’t the sort who could go sit at her parents’ nice house in Virginia for a week, to breathe and heal. She would have shaken herself to pieces. Instead, she went back to ground zero. She stood in the rubble and helped clear it out, seizing files and computers, all that remained. She spoke to the CIA and FBI agents who supervised the breakdown of their fellow agency, and when they offered her an application she took it.
The world is changed and none of us can go back.
“Sometimes the best we can do is start over,” murmured Sharon.
She was Agent 13. She was Kate the nurse, laundry on her hip, smiles on her lips, a gun strapped down under her scrubs. She was her parents’ daughter and her aunt’s legacy, a Carter in her blood, her bones, in the trigger callus on her finger. Sharon was an eight year old child, bullet fragments in her open palm, a shining city spreading out before her, a promise heavy on her tongue.