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it's been a long, long time

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Stephanie Rogers stares at the great, cold white that is coming towards her fast. A bubble of laughter escapes her – technically, she's the one plummeting down. Taking out Schmitt's plane and Schmitt's plan and Schmitt's empire in one final blaze of flames. Suiting, she thinks, considering how she just saw him fall down into Hell.

(When she closes her eyes, she can still feel the imprint of galaxies and stars that are not her own and Schmitt falling, falling, behind her eyelids.)

She does not close her eyes.

The ice is getting closer. And she thinks, well, if Bucky got an icy grave, then she doesn't deserve much more than that. And she wonders if they'll ever find him. If they'll stop looking. If it were up to her, there would be teams prowling the Alps until Judgement Day.

She thinks of Morita and Peggy, who were manning the radio, the radio that had just cut off seconds before. She thinks of Colonel Phillips, and his gruff “I'll kiss you later, go get the son of a bitch”. She thinks of Howard, with his stupid moustache and his smile. Of Dum Dum and his bowler that he kept through gunfire and bombings, of Gabe who taught them all French and German and Russian, of Dernier who wept when they took back Paris.

She thinks of her mother, pointing her towards Lady Liberty, saying, As long as she's standing, sweetheart, you'll still have a fighting chance. Of her sister, who died earlier than she was supposed to, who called her Stacy Stevie Stephy Stella.

She thinks of Brooklyn, of the sound of cars and the sailors from the docks, of jumping the turnstiles to go to art classes in Manhattan. She thinks, I never went to college in the end.

She thinks of Bucky as he falls, falls, falls, who will never get a funeral if she is dead.

And Stephanie Rogers realizes that she doesn't want to die.

The seconds are ticking down now, and her time is limited – she unbuckles herself from the chair, grabs her compass from the dashboard and her shield from the ground. She runs back to the back of the plane, and the thing is shaking, and she falls more times than she would admit. In the end, she falls back down on the hole Schmitt's cube burned through the ground, and she pushes her hands through it, pulling and pulling and ripping the metal away, and there is blood on her fingers -

The ice is getting closer and closer and Stephanie slips through the hole she has carved -

The Valkyrie hits the ice, and sinks beneath the frozen plains.

Stephanie Rogers kicks to the surface, and she was never a good swimmer, but she pulls herself up onto a slab of ice, scrabbling for land, spitting out water anyway.

/ / / / /

Howard finds her – of course he does. There is a plane flying over the ice, and Stephanie can see the Stark Industries (and the pin-up girl) painted on the side of it, and Stephanie is standing immediately, jumping up and down like she was back at Basic.

She waves the shield over her head and yells as loud as she can. “HEY, STARK, ITS ME,” she yells, “OVER HERE, COME GET ME, I'M DOWN HERE.”

The plane circles overhead and starts coming down, and Stephanie runs after it as it comes to a landing about a half-mile away. The door opens and Howard Stark comes tumbling out of it, and he's crossing the ice field and Stephanie staggers, falling into his arms.

“You're alive,” the inventor marvels, his voice hoarse. “I knew it – I told them you survived, I knew it, I knew you could – holy shit, Rogers, you're frozen.”

“Driving a plane into the Arctic will do that to a gal,” Stephanie says, her teeth chattering and her smile strained, and Howard laughs a broken laugh and guides her up the steps into the plane.

Inside, when she's wrapped in a blanket and seated at one of the benches – and she remembers the last time Stark flew her out, out to find Bucky – Howard fills her in on what she missed. It has been three days since she took the plane down. They think that HYDRA is done with, now that the final head has been cut off.

Two more will grow in its place, Stephanie thinks numbly, but she does not give voice to her thoughts.

Howard tells her that Agent Carter and Colonel Phillips and the rest of the Commandos are in London, and that's where they're going; and she hears the whoops and cheers on the radio when Howard tells them that he found her alive.

She manages a feeble smile and asks him if they've found Bucky.

Howard avoids her eyes and changes the subject. Stephanie frowns. “Y'know, I found Schmitt's magical battery,” he says, and Stephanie feels the temperature in the plane drop several degrees.

“What,” she asks, and it is not a question. Howard flicks a few switches and gets up, shows her a case at the back of the plane. He flicks it open, and sitting innocuously is the blue cube that started all their problems.

“Throw it away,” Stephanie says, and when Howard yells she cuts him off with a hand-wave, and repeats herself, voice steely. “Throw it away, Howard. I've seen what it can do, what it did to Schmitt, and no man should have that power. Either it goes overboard or I do.”

Stark hesitates, calling her bluff, and she stands and strides to the door, pulling it open.

“Wait!” Howard scrambles to her, dragging her back by the neck of her uniform. “I mean, Stephanie, come on, you have to admit...” he laughs nervously, but she does not budge. He sighs and slams the lid of the case shut and hands it to her, returning to his seat in the cockpit.

Stephanie throws the case out the side of the plane and closes the door behind her.

“If you try to come back and get it, I will find out, and I will kill you,” she promises.

Howard coughs and looks to the left. “So, how does it feel to bring down Hitler's super secret science program on the fourth of July?”

She hadn't even known it was the fourth when she took on the mission. Happy Birthday to me, she thinks sardonically.

/ / / / /

She's ushered into a recovery room at SSR headquarters as soon as they arrive, and all throughout the hallways she's followed by cheers. Clerks, secretaries, generals and agents alike stop what they are doing as she walks past, and they cheer they stand up and they clap and Stephanie just wants some quiet.

The nurse who leads her to the bed and helps her out of her frozen-stiff costume is familiar to her – she's the one who supplied the Commandos with field aid kits, and she had lent Stephanie a sanitary napkin once in the mess hall.

“Your name is Pippa, right?” she asks as she accepts the SSR shirt and sleeping pants.

“That's right, Captain Rogers,” Pippa replies, pleased. She hustles Stephanie into the cot and pulls about seven different thread-bare blankets over her, brings her a cup of tea. Stephanie thanks her with a smile.

“So what did I miss while I was out?” she asks again, because Howard had been acting shifty, and she wants to know what's going on.

The nurse smooths the sheets down and turns down the radio. “The Red Army took Berlin, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, and Germany has just signed its defeat this morning,” she recites, and then she grins. “It's V-E Day, Captain.”

Stephanie sips her tea so as not to sag in relief. “I imagine that everyone is out celebrating, then.”

The words are barely out of her mouth when she can hear a stampede of feet, crashing through walls and a cacophony of yells.

“Capitaine!” she manages to make out the thick, Marseille-accented French from the rest, “Elle est en vie! La Capitaine elle est en vie, venez par là, elle sera à l’infirmerie, bougez vos culs!!”

She has barely put her mug down before the Commandos come barreling in, and all of them are crowding her, tackling her into a giant pile of arms and men and scratchy beards.

She is near-deafened by the babble and chatter and crying above her, but she closes her eyes and lets her eyes water for a moment before she forces them open and a grin on her face.

“Sorry I'm late,” she means to say, but it comes out as a near-sob. “I had car troubles on the way here.”

And then they're laughing, and Dernier kisses her on each cheek and Dum Dum ruffles her hair, and Morita and Falsworth both pat her on the shoulder and Gabe gives her a high-five, and she tries to forget the ghost of the seventh man that should be there.

(It only works for a second).

/ / / / /

She is not allowed out of the recovery room, so the Commandos camp out on the floor and the table and they squabble over the single chair. Dernier and Falsworth sneak in alcohol bottles with a wink, and the six of them pass them around without glasses, drinking directly from the bottles. Stephanie still can't get drunk, but she can appreciate the atmosphere.

This is how Peggy and Private Lorraine find them a few hours later, and Stephanie is the only one who looks embarrassed at the raised eyebrow and “Interrupting something, are we?”

Morita immediately gets up and offers Agent Carter the chair, which she accepts. Private Lorraine sits on the edge of Stephanie's bed.

“I thought I would see you sooner,” Stephanie says. Feeling bold, she leans over and takes both their hands, and the two women squeeze back.

“We were in a briefing with Mr Stark,” Lorraine explains, toeing off her shoes. “Trust me, Agent Carter nearly shot him in the face when he kept on dragging on.”

“I most certainly did,” Peggy says, and then her face turns naked and dismayed, and her voice is not nearly as poised as usual when she says “You gave us quite a fright, Captain.”

“Couldn't call a ride home,” Stephanie replies, remembering back to a three day march to base. “My radio was busted.”

And Peggy laughs and rests her forehead on Stephanie's hand, and Private Lorraine turns the radio up again, and the Captain and agent laugh as she drags Falsworth into a dance.

“I believe you owe me a dance, Captain,” Peggy says, and Stephanie laughs, and she still feels lost and raw and frozen, but she lets herself be dragged upright and dances clumsily among her men and her girls as her recovery room is transformed into a makeshift dance hall.

/ / / / /

Not even ten days later, they recruit Zola to join the SSR, and Stephanie feels the betrayal like a blow to the gut.

She punches Howard Stark in the face, and it feels better than all those times she didn't punch Hitler, and she gathers the rest of the Commandos for one last expedition, one last mission before they part ways.

She's having a whispered conversation with Private Lorraine outside Howard's laboratory before she sets off to scour the Alps for Bucky's body when Zola waddles around the corner. The conversation stops abruptly as Stephanie glares at him, and the man has the audacity to smile.

“Ah, Captain Rogers,” and he still has that stupid accent, and Stephanie wants to kill him. “Planning an outing?” He leans towards conspiratorially. “A word of advice, do not bother. You will not find what you are looking for.”

He moves to enter the lab but Stephanie grabs him by the lapels of his coat and lifts him up, snarling. “What do you mean by that?” she threatens, shaking him.

The man simply smiles at her as Lorraine and the other clerks grab her and help Zola down. He tips his hat as he passes the door, and Stephanie wants to spit at him. It's only the thought of some poor girl cleaning it up afterward that stops her from doing it.

She goes on the expedition anyway, and the Commandos search for a month and a half. They find nothing, and return empty-handed to a world at peace. The war is over.

(The war is not over by a longshot.)

/ / / / /

Peggy and Howard start SHIELD, and Stephanie's chest glows with pride when she thinks that Peggy is finally in a position she deserves, but she can't help the feeling in her gut that something is wrong.

Liz – no longer Private – Lorraine has stayed on as Howard's personal secretary, and she comes and finds Stephanie one afternoon at headquarters, her face pale and sweating but with a smile painted on her mouth all the same.

“Ah, Captian!” she says, looking like she's about to be sick. “I have something I need you to sign, please.”

She holds out the clipboard, and clipped to it is a note written in hurriedly-scrawled cursive.

'Shield is HYDRA. Trust no one. Come to my flat tonight, don't tell anyone.'

Stephanie's heart freezes like a thousand tonne plane crashing into the Arctic, and some sick sick part of her brain is savagely victorious in that she was right all along. Cut off one head, two more shall take its place.

“Sorry, Liz, I haven't got a pen on me,” she says conversationally, voice betraying nothing. If those damned USO tours were good for one thing, it was learning how to perfect her lying. “How about I just take that and have it get back to you?”

“Sure thing!” Lorraine chirps and hands the note to Stephanie, who tucks it into her briefcase. The second she's in her office, she holds it to the window and burns it with a cigarette lighter.

A couple of secretaries and agents come to invite her out to drinks, she begs off with a migraine and a subtle look towards her abdomen. They look at her with knowing eyes and tell her to get a good night's rest, and one of the agents leaves her a chocolate bar with a wink and a smile.

Stephanie eats it on the subway (she never learned how to drive) and doesn't get off at her stop, continuing on until she reaches Lorraine's street and quietly heading up the stairs.

The door opens before she even knocks on it, and Lorraine smiles at her. “Here, come on in,” she says as if Stephanie were over for tea and a chat. She takes her coat and hangs it up, and leads her to the kitchen table. A radio is playing, and a notepad is set out with a pen.

“Want something to drink?” Lorraine asks as she scribbles something down.

There can be ears everywhere, she writes.

“No thank you, I'm feeling a bit under the weather lately,” Stephanie replies.

What do you mean SHIELD is HYDRA she writes back.

The two make idle small-talk over the sounds of the radio as they write back and forth, and Lorraine spells out the information she's collected over the past year or so.

Zola started it all, of course. He built HYDRA from the inside of SHIELD, and nobody who's noticed cares. I daren't say anything to Howard, in case he's in on it. I don't think he is, but he and Zola are always together, so even if he isn't it's too risky.

Cap, Lorraine writes, Your boy is alive. And Stephanie's heart might burst out of her chest, but Lorraine keeps on writing. They keep him at the Triskelion. He lost an arm, but he's alive. They plan to... She stops for a moment, chewing on her cheek before she continues. Brainwash him, I suppose. I couldn't get close enough without getting discovered. But he's alive, and still himself. He lost an arm.

Cut one off, two more shall grow in its place, Stephanie thinks, and she wants to laugh and cry and punch someone.

Lorraine writes a list of numbers – floor level, password to get there, who she's seen – and Stephanie memorizes them before writing You would have made a good agent, Liz.

Lorraine smiles, and rips the page they've been writing on, along with the five pages under it, out of the notepad.

“You said you're feeling a bit sick, so let's make a fire; warm you right up!”

“Appreciate it,” Stephanie replied, moving to help her set the pages on fire. “You know, I really love when we meet up like this; you're a great friend.”

Lorraine smiles at her and her eyes are tired, but for the first time all day she looks like herself with the impish upturn of her lips. “Well, what are girlfriends for if not a Friday night in?” she teases.

They watch the papers burn and curl on the couch and listen to the radio and plan a prison break. Friday night in, indeed.

/ / / / /

She storms Zola's lab the second time in the middle of one of his “sessions”.

“I should have killed you when I had the chance,” she growls, and she lifts him up again and this time she snaps his neck and lets him fall. There are no guards, only scientists in the room, and none of them move to run, frozen in space.

“If even one if you thinks of taking one of them Hydra pills, I want you to know I've got the antidote in my belt,” she bluffs, voice dead serious, “And once you wake up shivering in a pile of your own vomit, everything you did to him, I will do to you personally.” She points her gun at the one nearest her and says in her levelest voice, “Talk.”

“Doctor Zola administered the Winter Soldier with the Super-Soldier Serum previously, which allowed him to survive the fall,” the scientist stammers. “He lost his arm, so it was replaced with Stark technology once he was found. He has yet to break.”

“How have you been fucking with him?” The coarse language spills out of her mouth.

“The plans were to use memory wipe should he continue to resist, but Doctor Zola has not given his agreement yet.”

“What is the Winter Soldier?”

“He will be the new fist of HYDRA,” the scientist says, looking proud for the first time.

Stephanie squeezes the trigger, and then shoots the rest of the scientists. They all die quickly of a bullet to the chest, which is more mercy than they deserve.

Bucky is strapped to a table, his eyes in a daze, and all of this is familiar in a way that makes Stephanie sick to her stomach.

She rips the leather bindings off and lays a hand on his shoulder. “Bucky,” she says. “Bucky. Bucky.” It's all she can do to repeat it when he blinks and shakes his head, and says “Stevie?”

“I thought you were dead,” she whispers, and he lets out a choking laugh.

“We aren't gonna go through this again, are we?” She helps him sit up and he looks at her with desperate eyes. “You came for me.”

“Always. 'Till the end of the line, remember?”

And he kisses her in a HYDRA lab, surrounded by dead scientists, and she thinks she feels the ice melt.

/ / / / /

Liz Lorraine returns home to her flat, closes the door behind her, toes off her pumps.

Captain America and Bucky Barnes are perched on her table. Barnes' left arm has been replaced with a metal one, and he looks like a proper cyborg.

Stephanie lifts up a piece of paper with written THANK YOU on it. WE'VE DEBUGGED YOUR PLACE is written underneath.

Lorraine nods and smiles, grin quirking. “My pleasure,” she says out loud, because fuck it.

“What are you going to do?” she asks, pulling off her coat.

“Take down HYDRA for good,” Barnes says, looking murderous. With reason, she thinks, and there's no words for the rage she feels for what they did to that boy.

“We're looking for an Agent on the inside,” Stephanie adds, looking directly at her. You would make a good agent, she had written.

Liz Lorraine thinks of her mother, who told her that working for the government would never be for her, and grins widely. “I'm in,” she says.

They call her Agent 13, after the agent who infiltrated the original HYDRA.

She is good at what she does. It's her who recruits Maria Hill, Natasha Romanoff to their cause. She brings Peggy Carter in, arranges a meeting for her and Barnes and Rogers. Director Carter is aghast at what has been going on in her organization, and she devotes herself to weeding out what is left. Even with Zola dead, his imprints run deep.

By the time the USSR falls, their work is almost finished.

/ / / / /

Bucky and Stephanie dance, in their safe-houses. They dance to the radio, to the sounds of the street, to hummed songs and words mumbled under their breath. Bucky's metal arm is tuned, thanks to Stark, and his hand is warm where it grasps Stephanie's.

“Stevie,” he whispers against her lips, and they stop swaying to embrace, and when they separate he presses his forehead against hers. “We did it,” he says, his voice awed.

It is 2010, and their work is done. They have out-lived all their friends, and neither of them have aged a day. They have Erskine and Zola to thank for that.

They work with SHIELD, still – actively supervising everything that happens, making sure that HYDRA has not even a chance of resurfacing. Nick Fury does a good job directing it; or at least, he doesn't do badly. Maria Hill proves Lorraine proud every day as Deputy Director.

Howard's son has a flying suit of armor. Natasha Romanoff has brought in an archer boy to be her field partner. Gods have visited the Earth.

And Stephanie and James dance to Harry James and Helen Forrest, and the world keeps spinning, and their legacy they've all built together continues forever to grow.

/ / / / /

When the Chitauri attack New York, Fury calls them into headquarters.

James turns to look at Stephanie and grins. “What do you say, Cap? Think you can pull on that costume one more time, see if it fits?”

“You making comments on my figure, Soldier?” she taunts, and she laughs as she pulls the armor on once more. “It's a bit old-fashioned, don't you think?”

“Maybe right now they need some old-fashioned, sweetheart. Jesus Christ, an actual alien invasion. I miss the nazis.”

Stephanie punches him in the shoulder, and Captain America and the Winter Soldier link arms as they head to the helicopter that will take them to the Helicarrier, and James kisses her before they get off, for good luck, he says. Stephanie smirks and says that they don't need it.

They have, after all, been doing this for the better part of a century.