“Am I on Cap watch because of who my aunt is?” Sharon asks Fury point-blank the second she sits in his office.
“That’s part of the reason, yeah,” Fury says. Sharon narrows her eyes at him, and opens her mouth to object. “But not all of the reason. This isn’t a demotion.”
“It sure feels like a demotion. You’re taking me out of the field and out of intel analysis to babysit Captain America.” Sharon does her best to use an even, emotionless tone so she doesn't sound like a whiny child, and she thinks she’s succeeded. Mostly.
“It’s not just babysitting, it’s a protection detail.”
“He’s Captain America, he can protect himself.”
He’d managed an alien invasion like a week after he was defrosted, Sharon’s pretty sure he’ll do just fine against Russian spies or whatever the hell Fury’s worried about. Washington DC’s just not that dangerous, not compared to the European front or a battle with aliens.
“Carter—Sharon—I need someone I trust on his protection and surveillance detail. If it were up to me, I’d leave the guy alone. You’re right, he can handle himself. But this is pressure from the World Security Council and the Pentagon. Cap’s a valuable asset, and he’s still adjusting. No one wants to take any chances.”
Ugh, so it’s politics. But if someone’s going to be on Cap watch, it might as well be her. For Aunt Peggy’s sake, if nothing else. At least Sharon has some idea of who Steve Rogers is, and she’s not some Cap groupie or someone who just sees him as a supersoldier asset. Which is exactly what Fury wants, and probably part of why Fury picked her. Dammit.
“There have to be other agents you trust,” she tries.
“There are. I’d use Romanoff for this if she wasn’t with the Avengers Initiative already.”
“I heard Agent May wanted out of the field, this could be great for her.”
“Nice try. I need May where she is.”
“Seriously, Director Fury. Why me?” She suspects she knows the answer, but she wants Fury to say it.
“You’re a pretty young blonde woman, and your cover job is a nurse.”
Sharon frowns. What does being a nurse have to do with—oh. Sarah Rogers was a nurse. Sharon sits back, a little impressed, and more than a little pissed off. On her own behalf, and on Rogers’. “Oh, we’re going full Oedipal then.”
Fury snorts. “You’re not on a honey pot op, for god’s sake. I’m just trying to push every advantage we’ve got. I need Rogers to not be a suspicious asshole about this and cause me even more problems, and I also need him to not get kidnapped or ambushed by the media. You can help with that, even if your cover is blown.”
“That’s where me being Peggy Carter’s niece kicks in,” realizes Sharon, running through the scenario already. There are other young, attractive and blonde SHIELD agents, and hair dye and wigs exist. But none of them would be able to say I understand how you must feel right now, but I’m here to protect you. My great aunt is Peggy Carter, and I grew up hearing so much about Steve Rogers….
Sharon gets it. She knows what her name means, and she knows what she looks like: harmless and sweet, like the girl next door. At least, she does until you get a look at what her last ex-boyfriend had called her “dead shark eyes.” Can you not, like, glare at me with your dead shark eyes? It’s creepy. You’re gorgeous, babe, but, uh...oh my god, stop that!
Her looks have gotten her more than one undercover assignment, but every one has rankled. It rankled at the Academy when guys sneered at her or hit on her, and it rankled when her coworkers underestimated her, and it’s rankling now, being chosen for a job based on her looks and her family connections. Sharon’s worked damn hard to get where she is.
But this is for Steve Rogers, and Nick Fury is asking her.
So she shoves her anger down and says, “I understand. What do I do while he’s at the Triskelion or on a mission?”
“You’re off-shift while he’s at the Triskelion, his security’s covered there. And when he’s on mission or you’ve got downtime, I want you on analysis on any threats against Rogers. You might even be able to go out in the field when Rogers is away on missions or training exercises.” He slides a folder across his desk at her: the details of her cover, the mission parameters. “When you do need to come in, you’ll be working out of SHIELD’s Arlington office.”
She looks at the folder. Fury’s right, it’s not exactly a demotion. It’s not precisely where Sharon wants to be in her career, but it’s not a demotion. And it’ll be short term, right? She flips through the file, doesn’t see anything about mission duration.
“How long is this assignment likely to last?”
Fury sighs. “However long it takes me to convince the Pentagon and the Council that an undercover detail for Rogers isn’t necessary.” The way Fury’s mouth is pressed in a thin line communicates just what he thinks about his chances.
Sharon’s stomach sinks. “Oh god, I’m gonna be on this detail forever.”
Sharon has a couple weeks before Rogers transfers to DC, so she has more than enough time to get her cover set up and move into the apartment across the hall. As undercover assignments go, this one is pretty easy. Most of the potential threats against Rogers are low priority: some nutjobs, some espionage, some terrorists. Mostly she’ll just be making sure no one can kidnap Rogers for nefarious, making-a-new-supersoldier reasons. Sharon suspects the bulk of the mission will be subtly warning off reporters and invasively curious strangers.
The most exciting thing about the mission so far is the private briefing from Natasha Romanoff. It shows up in her calendar one morning, along with a bland email from Romanoff: need to discuss some Delta Team logistics with you and how that works with your detail. Sharon sends an equally bland email back: sure, see you at 2.
Be cool, Carter, she tells herself firmly. Be professional.
Sharon, like just about every other SHIELD agent, is professionally intimidated by Romanoff while also having a massive crush on her. Alright, she’s probably projecting about the crush thing. Maybe it’s just Sharon who has to mentally chant to herself dead shark eyes, dead shark eyes to keep from doing something horribly embarrassing like, god, twirling her hair around her finger or smiling at Romanoff in a flirty way.
Though hell, Sharon doesn’t know why she bothers. It’s not like women ever notice she’s flirting with them. Sharon always manages to pick the ones so straight they think Sharon wants to be their new bestie. It had happened like three times in college. Somehow, it had happened once on OK Cupid. Who goes on OK Cupid to find a friend? Ugh.
When she meets Romanoff in one of the smaller conference rooms at the Triskelion, Sharon greets her with a (brisk, professional) smile and a (brisk, firm) handshake.
“Nice to see you again, Agent Carter,” says Romanoff.
“You as well, Agent Romanoff.” Yes, good, very professional. Sharon wills herself not to blush.
“Thanks for meeting with me, I just wanted to go over a few things, make sure we don’t step on each other’s toes while Rogers works out of the Triskelion.”
They go over some nuts-and-bolts logistics of how her surveillance detail will work with Delta Team’s schedule and missions. Romanoff gives her a quick briefing on Rogers too, what he does in his free time, his usual routines. It’s kind of...grim.
“So, morning run, work, evening gym, and then he stays home?”
Romanoff nods, mouth twisting. “Yeah. Says he’s still catching up on everything he missed, so he’s reading, watching stuff, you know.”
“He doesn’t go out?”
“He likes to people watch in cafes, parks, that kind of thing. He goes out to museums sometimes, does some exploring the city.”
“Got it.” It sounds lonely as hell.
“Yeah,” sighs Romanoff. “I know how depressing that all sounds.” She gives Sharon a wry, sad smile. “It’s—he’s grieving, we’re trying to be...sensitive, I guess. Give him time. Makes me feel a little better about my personal life, though.” Her smile turns tentative, and she rolls her eyes at herself.
“Right?” says Sharon. “People call me a workaholic, too.”
Romanoff tilts her head, smiles just a little. “What do you do? Outside of work?”
“Go out with friends, you know, nothing special. Dinner and drinks, that kind of thing. I like concerts, dancing.”
Shit, Sharon’s blushing now, she knows it. Romanoff’s smile gets bigger, and now Sharon is definitely blushing, a lot, judging by the heat on her face.
“I like dancing too,” says Romanoff, her voice rough and warm.
For a second, Sharon vividly imagines dancing with Romanoff: hot and sweaty in a club, maybe, music thumping and bodies jumping and shouting around them. Or no, maybe Romanoff is a salsa club kind of woman, or, hell, lindy hop, god she’d look so great in—Romanoff interrupts her fantasy.
“Listen, thank you for taking this assignment. I know it’s not your ideal career move, but speaking as Steve’s teammate, I’m glad you’re on his detail.”
Sharon manages to say, “Yeah, of course. It’s my honor, Agent Romanoff.” Sharon fights off a wince. Your honor? What the fuck, what is wrong with you, Carter.
“Call me Natasha. Here, let me give you my number, in case anything happens while you’re on Steve’s detail, or...anything else.”
Sharon slides her phone across the table to Natasha. “Sure, of course. Um, call me Sharon.”
Now Natasha smiles big enough to show her dimples. Sharon smiles back, and oh, wow, it’s been a while since she’s had that warm, top-of-the-rollercoaster flutter in her stomach. Of course, she can’t do anything about it, not now. Professional, be professional, she reminds herself. Still, it’s nice.
“So the grapevine tells me congratulations are in order! I hear you got a new assignment direct from Fury.”
Sharon smiles even as she rolls her eyes. She can’t not smile when she talks to Trip, even when he’s calling from a crappy satphone connection in the middle of nowhere.
“What the hell are clearance levels for if the grapevine works that fast?”
Trip makes a dismissive noise. “You’re just jealous I got to Level 6 before you.”
“Please. You had a head start.”
It’s an old and comfortable argument. Trip went through the SHIELD Academy a couple years ahead of her, the only other Howling Commando legacy at the time, and while they kept their legacy status quiet from their classmates, they maintained a friendly competition.
“Yeah, yeah, so you always say. Seriously though, I got a memo about your assignment, so I don’t accidentally blow your cover. Long-term undercover assignment out in the field, just like you wanted, huh? I’m happy for you, Sharon.”
“Thanks, Trip.” She hesitates. When he puts it like that, it is what she’s wanted. More responsibility, more long-term, more independence. Shit, maybe she’d been a brat, calling it babysitting duty. “Pretty sure I only got it because of the Aunt Peggy factor, though,” she admits quietly.
“Maybe, maybe not. Who cares how you got it? You’re there, you can prove yourself. Neither of us got to Level 6 because we kept namedropping Grandpa Gabe and Aunt Peggy. We did the damn work.”
“Damn right we did. Speaking of the world, how’s your assignment going? You seen Mack lately? There’s still a pool going on whatever’s up with him and Bobbi…”
They exchange mostly unclassified SHIELD gossip until Tripp has to get back to work, and Sharon ends the call feeling good about her upcoming assignment. Tripp’s right: even if this assignment is just babysitting, she can still prove herself, she can still do the work well. She can do right by Rogers and keep Fury’s trust, and then, hopefully, she can move on to bigger and better things.
This’ll be good, Carter, she tells herself.
A few weeks later, Sharon is in her apartment, laptops with live security feeds crowding her coffee table, listening to Rogers listen to Kid A for approximately the two hundredth time since he moved in. “How to Disappear Completely” has been on repeat for the last two hours. She wants to murder whoever told Rogers to listen to Radiohead. Was it some coffee shop hipster who assured him Radiohead was the best band ever? Was it a SHIELD coworker? An Avengers teammate? Whoever it was, she is going to track them down and make their music player of choice play only “Barbie Girl” for the rest of time.
The closing notes of the song trail off. Maybe Rogers will move on, Sharon hopes. What had she been listening to in the early 00s? N’Sync? Britney Spears? God, what she wouldn’t give for Rogers to spend an hour or so listening to “Toxic” twenty times in a row. At least that would be depressing in an entirely new way. But no. It’s just “How to Disappear Completely” again. Fuck.
Sharon’s starting to get genuinely worried now; no one in a good state of mind listens to “How to Disappear Completely” on repeat.
She checks the camera in Rogers’ unit. Technically, it’s there to catch footage of any intruders when she and Rogers are both out. She rarely checks it when Rogers is at home; she’s here to make sure he doesn’t get kidnapped or something, not to spy on his personal life. Not that he seems to have much of a personal life. Right now, Rogers is just sitting at his bare kitchen table, scribbling in a notebook.
Okay, so maybe he just likes music to get in the zone for his art or whatever. That’s fine, that’s normal. As she watches, he sets his pencil down, and puts his head in his hands.
Oh. Oh no. Are his shoulders shaking? Is he crying? Sharon minimizes the video feed. The audio feed is still live, and as Thom Yorke wails this isn’t happening, she thinks she can make out a brutally choked-back sob from Rogers. She calls Fury. Thom Yorke keeps crooning mournfully. I’m not here, I’m not here. She gets up from the couch to pace while the phone rings once, twice, three times before Fury picks up.
“Am I on suicide watch for Captain America?” she hisses.
“Is Rogers okay?” demands Fury.
“Yes. I mean, no. How okay is someone who’s listening to ‘How to Disappear Completely’ for the thirtieth time in one night?”
“This is not what I gave you my private number for, Agent 13.”
“Answer the question. Am I on suicide watch?”
Fury is silent for a too-long moment. “No,” he says eventually, then sighs. “Probably not, anyway. If Rogers is going to off himself, he’s going to do it in the field.” It’s a cold assessment, but not without sympathy.
“Jesus christ. Is he seeing anyone? How is he even cleared to be in the field?”
“SHIELD psychologists cleared him. His eval said he’s doing as well as can be expected, and that staying occupied and engaged is the best thing for him.”
Sharon’s not sure this counts as “occupied” or “engaged.” But she’s no expert, and Rogers’ psychological health isn’t in the scope of her assignment. She does start to keep a closer eye on him, though. Just in case. Her worst-case scenarios shift away from letting terrorists kidnap Captain America or Rogers getting assassinated on her watch. Now she worries about finding Steve Rogers hanging from his ceiling, face livid and purple, neck snapped into an unnatural angle that not even a super soldier could recover from.
Things do get less dire for Rogers as he settles into working at the Triskelion. He does go out. He goes out alone, but he goes out to explore DC, and he volunteers at the food bank and the children’s hospital. He goes to see Aunt Peggy pretty often. And he’s polite and friendly when she passes him in the halls of the apartment building. If not for her assignment, Sharon would try to befriend him. He seems like he needs a friend.
But she’s on assignment, undercover, and it wouldn’t be ethical. It would only cause more problems later down the line anyway. As it is, she’s uneasy about what will happen when she and Rogers inevitably run into each other in the halls of the Triskelion, once her assignment is over. So she sticks to neighborly courtesy, and idly considers leaving some pamphlets or something in Rogers’ mailbox, maybe a hotline number, but no. That’d be creepy. But she has to do something, so she calls Natasha.
Natasha picks up her phone with a curt, “Hello?”
“Hi, this is Sharon. Um, Agent Thirteen, you know, I’m on—”
“Steve’s detail, yeah, hi. Everything okay?”
“Oh yes, no emergencies or anything. This isn’t an official call. I just. Um, I’m worried about Captain Rogers, I guess. You’re his teammate, and maybe his friend, I don’t know, and I thought—”
“Yeah, I don’t know either. If I’m his friend, I mean.” There’s an awkward silence. “I want to be, obviously, sorry, that came out wrong. Why are you worried?”
“He’s just so sad,” she blurts out.
“I know,” says Natasha. “I’ve—we, me and Clint, Tony sometimes—have been trying to keep him from spending so much time alone, get him out in the world, you know? Not sure it’s working. I mean, how much can it help, really, basically everyone he knew and loved is dead.”
They’re silent for a long moment. “That’s a downer,” says Sharon. “When you put it like that, trying to cheer him up seems…insensitive.”
Natasha laughs, then sighs. “Yeah, maybe. But, um, I don’t know. If there’s something else we—I—should be doing. I’m not exactly…good at that kind of thing. Not something they teach at assassin school.”
Sharon’s not sure how to respond to that. Natasha’s voice sounds wry, and Sharon can picture the accompanying smile, but she knows it’s not a joke. Natasha Romanoff is a Black Widow, and Sharon knows what that means. She knows from SHIELD gossip, and she knows because she has clearance. It means that there are still kill on sight orders for the other Black Widows who were left after the collapse of the Red Room. It means that assassin school isn’t fun shorthand or a joke. It means that people whisper in the Triskelion hallways that you can’t trust Romanoff, doesn’t she seem fake, have you heard the things the Black Widows have done, she’s just Nick Fury’s pet spy and that’s the only reason she’s an Avenger…It means that Sharon might think Natasha’s competent and admirable and hot, but she doesn’t really know her, and maybe can’t.
“SHIELD Academy didn’t really cover that either,” says Sharon lamely. “Sorry. I know—maybe this isn’t appropriate, or ethical, just, I was worried. There’s only so many times you can listen to someone else listening to ‘How to Disappear Completely’ on repeat before you start thinking about staging an intervention, you know? I thought about, like, slipping some Depression and You pamphlets in Rogers’ mailbox, or slipping a hotline number under Rogers’ door—” And okay, she’s babbling now. Sharon stops herself, and seriously considers just hanging up and pretending her phone had mysteriously broken mid-call.
“No, I get it. I’m glad you care, I’m glad you’re looking out for him. I’ll—do what I can, I guess.”
Sharon leaves any concerns about Rogers’ mental health out of her official reports. Maybe her logs have to show 8:06 AM: SUBJECT ARRIVES AT ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY AT GRAVE OF JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES, but they don’t have to include anything about the way Rogers’ fingers trace over and over the headstone, or the sorrow in the set of his back as he stands bowed over the empty grave of his best friend. Rogers’ grief is his own, and he’s more than entitled to it.
At least talking to Natasha seems to have paid off, because Rogers starts improving. He’s focusing more on the fun parts of 21st-century catch-up, and one night Sharon catches him laughing at Young Frankenstein, and she can’t help the relieved oh thank god she lets out. It’s the first time she’s ever heard him laugh.
Rogers spends more time with his teammates, too, and gets a little friendlier with his fellow volunteers at the shelter and hospital. He’s not happy, but he’s okay, so when Sharon goes to visit Aunt Peggy for the first time since she started this assignment, she’s got a pretty clear conscience about doing right by Rogers. Somehow, Aunt Peggy always knows when Sharon is feeling guilty about something. Maybe Sharon has been trained to withstand interrogation and torture, but none of that training covered “how to lie to your beloved great aunt who also used to be a spy.”
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” says Jenny at the sign-in desk. Sharon winces. She tries to visit at least once a month, but being on Rogers’ detail has thrown a wrench in her schedule.
“I know, work stuff,” she says with an apologetic smile. “How’s she doing today, do you know?”
“Pretty good. She’s in the rec room right now, you can go on ahead.”
Sharon thanks Jenny and heads for the home’s airy, sun-filled rec room. This place is undeniably a nursing home, with medical equipment on discreet display and cheerful nurses bustling around the wide hallways. But there’s something genteel and kind about the place, too, more home than hospital, with actual paintings on the walls, not prints, and elegant, old-fashioned furniture. Of course, Aunt Peggy still likes to grumble about ending up in a boarding house in her dotage. If she’s feeling particularly mischievous, she calls it the Home for Old Spies Past Their Expiration Date.
In the rec room, Sharon girds herself for Aunt Peggy’s spotty and fading memory. Some days, Aunt Peggy doesn’t recognize her, and won’t be convinced that Sharon is her niece. Other days, time has come out of joint, and she calls Sharon Private Lorraine or Angie or Anna, or asks her if she’s new to the SSR. Sharon lets Aunt Peggy take the lead on those days, or if she’s especially confused or agitated, just leaves. The staff have assured her that’s for the best, but Sharon always feels like a failure, like if only she could say the right words, she could guide Aunt Peggy to clarity. She knows dementia doesn’t work that way, of course. Aunt Peggy is in the last years of her life, and entropy comes for everybody. Everybody who wasn’t frozen in a block of arctic ice.
Today, hopefully, is a good day. Aunt Peggy’s sitting by one of the big windows in the rec room, reading the paper, a cup of tea by her hand. When she looks up at Sharon, her eyes are blank at first, no recognition, and Sharon’s stomach sinks. She takes a breath, gets ready to launch into the whole spiel again, it’s me, Sharon, your grand niece, but Aunt Peggy blinks, smiles, and sets her paper down on the table.
“Sharon, how lovely to see you, dear.”
“Hi, Aunt Peggy,” says Sharon with a relieved smile.
“Come, sit, have a cup of tea.”
They get through the usual courtesies, though Aunt Peggy doesn’t seem to remember the last time Sharon visited, when she’d mentioned her new undercover assignment. But Sharon’s used to that, and Aunt Peggy is sharp enough today that conversation about the news and family gossip flows easily—until Aunt Peggy mentions Rogers.
“Oh, you know, Steve came by just last week with—” The smile on Aunt Peggy’s face falters. She stops, closes her eyes, and takes a few shaky breaths. “Or perhaps he didn’t. Do you know, Sharon, when you’re this old, all your beloved dead seem so much closer. I feel as if I’m constantly dreaming of them, even when I’m awake.”
“No, Steve was here, Aunt Peggy. They found him, in the Arctic, and the serum kept him alive in the ice. He’s alive, he was really here,” Sharon reassures her. She wonders how often Rogers has to remind her, too, how often Aunt Peggy assumes he’s a ghost.
“Oh, good. Good.” Aunt Peggy trails off, frowning into the distance. “He’s been so sad. He misses Bucky so terribly, I worry about him. Who’s keeping him from indulging in his over-dramatic nonsense?”
Sharon laughs, startled. “Captain America is over-dramatic?” She’s about to say it doesn’t seem like him, but shit, she’s the one who’s overheard Rogers listening to crushingly sad music on repeat.
“Good lord, yes, he is. Everything’s always so intense with him. Bucky was the one who used to keep him from getting too ridiculous. Bucky’s gone now, of course…”
Sharon’s heard a handful of stories about Sergeant Bucky Barnes from Aunt Peggy. The few missions they’d gone on together had been wild, the stuff of tense spy capers. After an ambivalent first impression, she and Barnes had warmed to each other after those missions, and even decades later, a spark of delighted mischief and affection lit up in Aunt Peggy’s eyes when she talked about Barnes. That affection is warming her eyes right now, tempered by the sorrow in the set of her mouth.
“How’d Bucky keep him from getting too ridiculous?” asks Sharon, hoping to keep her focused on better memories. And maybe she can glean some pointers from the sadly departed Barnes. Anything to avoid a repeat of the Greatest Hits of the 90s and 00s [Sadness Version]: Now That’s What I Call Despair.
“By sheer force of personality, as far as I can tell, and being quite blunt. Those two did not spare each other much. Mostly though, I think it was that Steve thought Bucky hung the moon, and would listen to him if no one else,” says Aunt Peggy with a wry, fond smile. Sharon grins, makes a note to tell Natasha. If anyone could be blunt with Rogers, it would be Natasha. “Enough about the past, dear, how are you getting along with SHIELD? What’s your current assignment again, I can’t quite recall—”
“I’m on security and surveillance for a...VIP, I guess.”
Aunt Peggy narrows her eyes. “I hope that isn’t a demotion.”
“I hope it’s not a demotion, too,” says Sharon with a grimace. “I don’t think it is. It’s an assignment straight from Director Fury, anyway.”
“You know your value, Sharon. Is this assignment beneath you and your skills? Is it busywork, or is it important, vital work?”
“It’s politics. Fury’s picked me as the best out of a set of bad options.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not important, dear.”
It’s Steve Rogers’ safety, so Aunt Peggy would definitely think it’s important. And Sharon’s not denying that. She’s just all too aware that she only got this assignment because of the World Security Council’s pressure on Fury. What happens if they want eyes on Rogers indefinitely?
Sharon doesn’t say any of that. “I know,” she says instead, but it must come out without enough conviction, because Aunt Peggy raises an exasperated eyebrow. “I’m just…worried it’s a dead end.”
“Sharon, I have faith that you can forge yourself a new path even out of a dead end, if that’s what this is. Though I doubt it’s a dead end, not if Nick gave you the assignment himself.” Aunt Peggy taps at her tea cup, frowning into the distance, and Sharon holds her breath. Maybe Aunt Peggy’s reached the limits of her good day. Sharon’s about to gently draw Aunt Peggy’s attention when she blinks rapidly and focuses on Sharon again. “Now that you have this assignment, you must excel in it, leverage every opportunity.”
“I do get to work with Agent Romanoff a little,” says Sharon. She’s Delta Team and an Avenger, that’s got to be some kind of opportunity. A totally professional, non-dating, networking and skills-improvement kind of opportunity. “Just for consults and some intel sharing,” she adds. That’s definitely overstating things, but whatever.
“SHIELD’s own Black Widow?” Sharon nods. “How is she settling in, by the way, do you know?” Even after retiring, and even now, Peggy likes to keep up to date with SHIELD, like it’s another of her assorted grandkids or nieces and nephews.
“Fine, as far as I know. Fury trusts her, she’s with the Avengers Initiative. She’s on Cap’s team, actually.”
“Oh, that’s good. I’d worried, you know, when Barton brought her in. The Black Widow program is…not kind. Their operatives were always very good, but not always stable.” Aunt Peggy frowns, her gaze going cloudy and inward for a moment.
“Natasha seems plenty stable to me.”
Aunty Peggy raises an eyebrow. “On first name terms then?”
Sharon fights not to blush, and fails. Aunt Peggy is absolutely going to know this isn’t a just two coworkers, co-working thing. “My assignment, we keep in touch about it.” Aunt Peggy’s silver eyebrow climbs higher. “And I’d like to be friends, maybe. We can be friends! Coworkers can be friends.”
“Of course they can. But be aware of what you might be getting yourself into, dear. Romanoff has undoubtedly been very brave, and a very good agent, but she’s not like your SHIELD Academy classmates. The way the Red Room raised those girls…” Aunt Peggy trails off, shakes her head. “Be careful. I’d rather you not earn yourself a nemesis.”
“Oh my god, Aunt Peggy, did you have a Black Widow nemesis?”
“That’s classified, I’m sure.”
Apparently, the way to handle Rogers and keep him from being “over-dramatic” and “ridiculous” is to be blunt, Sharon texts Natasha. She knows Natasha is mid-mission, so she’s not surprised when she doesn’t get a response for a couple of days.
Good thing i’m russian ;) , Natasha texts back eventually. Sharon grins. They exchange a few more businesslike texts about when Sharon should expect Rogers back and how Delta Team’s mission went, and then Natasha sends her a selfie from the Triskelion mess hall. Natasha’s raising a dubious eyebrow in front of a tray of frankly ominous mac and cheese that’s visibly congealing under a heat lamp. Sharon winces and feels a phantom surge of nausea just looking at it.
Eating in the mess hall after hours is a foolhardy venture at best. Everyone does it when they’re desperate enough, but everyone except the most iron-stomached or genetically enhanced regrets it the next day. Sometimes sooner. Sharon keeps a stash of emergency MREs hidden at her desk to avoid any late-night mess hall regrets. About half of the analysts and her entire cohort of field agents owe Sharon favors for partaking of her MRE stash.
That desperate? D:
YES. I’ve eaten worse. Probably.
I’ve got MREs in my desk, feel free to go help yourself.
THANK YOU. I will absolutely make it up to you.
Sharon wants to send a flirty text back, something smooth and cool like buy me a drink some time and we’ll call it even, but she dithers too long over whether it’d be appropriate or just sexual harassment, and then it’s too late to say anything without being weird.
She thinks about what Aunt Peggy had said, too, about earning herself a nemesis in Natasha. Sharon’s heard enough about the Red Room to know that it hadn’t been anything close to a benign training program. A few members of her SHIELD Academy cohort might interpret Sharon’s friendly overture as a trap, or a weak spot to be exploited, or even a power play—but only the more paranoid members. But for Natasha, trained in the Red Room, it might not be paranoia; it might be automatic instinct. Friendship might not be in Natasha’s vocabulary.
Sharon leaves the ball in Natasha’s court. They both get busy anyway, Natasha with Delta Team’s next round of training and mission prep, and Sharon with a bit of concerning chatter about attacks on Rogers. Sharon gets a few false alarms too, now that news of Rogers living in the building has trickled through the neighborhood. People try to discreetly gawk, or approach him for selfies and autographs and “thank you for your service”s. It’s exquisitely awkward. Sharon rescues him from it when she can conjure a reason to be hanging around.
After a couple weeks, Natasha calls her.
“So, the being blunt thing absolutely works.”
Sharon grins. “Yeah? I got that from Aunt Peggy, and she’d know. She said it’s how Rogers and Bucky Barnes were with each other.”
“Well thank you to both of you, I feel like me and Steve are getting along a lot better now. It’s—honestly, it’s a relief, being blunt. And thank you again for the emergency rations, you may have saved my life with that. I left a replacement in your desk.”
“Oh, you didn’t have to, but thanks. Mac and cheese that bad, huh?”
“I mean, Steve ate it, but even he looked kind of sick to his stomach afterward.”
They chat a little about office gossip, and complain about the new paperwork for requisitions, then, tentatively, slide into a conversation about the best place to go dancing in DC that isn’t overrun with people who work on the hill, college students, or assorted members of the intelligence community.
“Speaking of places to go dancing,” says Natasha, and Sharon gets a stupid little thrill of excitement that makes her shiver, but Natasha continues, “I’ve got a plan to get Rogers to cheer the fuck up.”
“A plan besides just bluntly telling him to cheer the fuck up?”
“Yeah. I’m thinking of setting him up on a date. Get him out, talking to people in a social, non-work way.”
Sharon thinks of how Rogers has been spending the last couple weeks. He’s doing better, yeah, but he still visits Aunt Peggy twice a week, and he’s at Barnes’ or the other Commandos’ graves more mornings than not. Sharon had once briefly dated a guy who’d lost both his parents and broken up with a long-term girlfriend all in the same year. He’d been nice, clearly trying hard, following the well-meaning advice to “just get out there, meet some people,” but neither of them had been able to pull free of the gravity well of his sadness. Sharon gets the same feeling from Rogers.
“I’m not sure he’s ready for a relationship,” says Sharon. Natasha snorts.
“Of course he’s not. He’s a mess. But it’ll get him out of his head a little, and maybe he’ll make some new friends if nothing else. And, I mean, it’ll be funny.” Natasha pauses. “That’s a terrible thing to say, isn’t it.”
Sharon laughs. It kind of is, but— “Maybe a little, but—it probably will be funny. Like a terrible dating show. Imagine the conversational icebreakers.”
“Oh my god,” groans Sharon as Natasha cackles.
“So, got any suggestions? I was going to try someone at SHIELD first.”
“Hmm, Amita in Comms? She’s nice, doesn’t want anything serious, so it would be low pressure. Last time I talked to her, she was complaining about how guys these days don’t know how to be gentlemen.”
“Perfect, thank you.”
Sharon gets the odd update from Natasha about how the quest to find Rogers a date is going. Success seems to be mixed, judging from how Rogers returns to his apartment alone and stone-faced. At least he’s getting out, making an effort. His visits to Aunt Peggy go down to once a week, and his graveside visits become a little less frequent too, so the dates are good for something.
Everyone just says ‘he’s so nice but we just didn’t click’ >:( texts Natasha after a few weeks. Also now I feel like I’m dating a bunch of women by proxy.
Sharon chews at her lip as she considers a response. This is an opportunity to be flirty, or at least feel Natasha out about how she feels about dating women. Are you going to poach any of Rogers’ dates for yourself? ;)
I don’t really date. It all feels like a cover, or an op. There’s a pause, and Sharon winces. Okay. No dates with Natasha. That’s fine. Friendship, or hell, friendly coworkership are fine too. She tries to figure out a sufficiently supportive and commiserating text, but Natasha texts again before she can: that’s fucked up, I know.
But understandable. Dating feels pretty fake to me too sometimes. Sharon stops, considers what she just typed. Sometimes? All the time. At least all the time since she’s worked at SHIELD. Her friends tell her she’s just gotten old and jaded, but Sharon’s not sure that’s it. I always feel like I’m hiding something or covering up some part of me, not just the job.
Maybe us workaholics should just date fellow coworkers.
Sharon wrestles down her inappropriate rush of hope at that, and huffs out a little laugh. Tried that. We just ended up being coworkers who fuck sometimes. It was convenient, but that’s really all that “relationship” had going for it.
That’s not enough for you?
This conversation is a little more real than Sharon had expected. She considers deflecting, making a joke to get back to something light and undemanding. Natasha had been seemingly honest with her. Sharon should be honest back. No. Is it enough for you?
I don’t know.
As her assignment creeps on, Rogers stops subjecting her to his Greatest Hits of Despair and Nostalgia playlists. Either someone in the building complained, or he discovered the technological marvel of headphones on his own, because now he uses them unless he fires up his record player. Sharon doesn’t care about the reason, she’s just grateful: it’s one less distraction while she’s on high alert.
The vague chatter about an attempt to capture Captain America is no longer vague. She asks to have a STRIKE team on standby down the block. Her request is denied. She asks to have Rogers informed—he should know about a threat to his own safety—but that’s denied, too.
It’s just interoffice politics, probably, and a case of boy-who-cried-wolf. Latveria always makes outrageous threats, and at any given time, there’s about five off-the-wall terrorist plots coming out of Von Doom’s regime. They never go anywhere. Some chatter about Von Doom wanting to capture Rogers’ super-serumed self for science is just another day at the office, so the higher-ups probably think it’s not worth mentioning to Rogers. It’s only Sharon who happens to think this plot is legit.
She could take it up the chain to Fury, but she doesn’t want to damage her credibility if she’s wrong. And considering the response time from local law enforcement, or a SHIELD team, she’s confident she can hold off any attack on Rogers until backup arrives. So she hunkers down, and keeps watch.
The week passes with the monotonous tension of a stakeout, long stretches of boredom punctuated by the hyper-alert focus of being on watch while Rogers is at home. For the first half of the week, the biggest possible security breach is Rogers getting food delivered (Thai; Sharon’s honestly a little proud), but Sharon keeps her weapons within reach and an eye on ten different security feeds anyway. Meanwhile Rogers keeps acting like the 90-something-year-old man he sort of is: watching the evening news, then reading while listening to music through his headphones.
On Thursday night, Von Doom’s men quietly swarm the building. Sharon’s ready for them: there are traps on the roof and at the unused back entrance with the sticky door—knockout gas. Two down, three to go, with Rogers still none the wiser. Sharon calls for SHIELD backup, and starts her countdown.
Two guys come through the front door dressed like city maintenance workers. Sharon bumps into them in the alcove and lets them pass, smiling absently and fumbling with what looks like her mail.
It’s not her mail.
It’s a bunch of junk hiding an overclocked taser, and the first guy goes down like a sack of bricks when she hits him with it. He twitches and groans while Sharon disarms the other guy with a kick he didn’t see coming. His gun skitters to the other side of the alcove.
In her opponent’s split-second of shock, they take the measure of each other. Sharon’s wearing her pink scrubs, and she’s about half this guy’s size.
“Captain America is protected by a little girl?” he sneers.
Sharon meets his leering smirk with stone-faced silence and dead shark eyes. He lunges, a clumsy grab she ducks under to deliver two swift punches, gut and balls. He keels over in pain, and she shoves him back toward the hallway, out of the too-visible alcove. God, she hopes this guy’s not going to shout the whole building down around them.
In the hallway, he’s recovered enough to take a few more clumsy swings. Sharon easily twists and dodges out of the way, but then his equilibrium is back and the fight is on.
Action, reaction, parry, punch: Sharon is good at the bruising dance of violence. She takes a few hits now, absorbs their force even when her ears ring and her vision goes sparkling white. She stays on the offensive, trying to keep quiet as she forces him further into the hallway. They’re both fucked if anyone comes out of their apartment right now, and this needs to be over, fast—she’s all too aware there’s another Latverian to subdue, and he could be anywhere. She slips this guy’s hold and tries one of her own, clinging to his back like a monkey until the sleeper hold takes. He slumps to the ground, and Sharon wastes no time in getting zip ties on him and the guy she’d tazed.
The sound of her heavy breathing is unsettlingly loud in the quiet hallway. She checks the security feeds on her phone while she tries to get it under control. Rogers is puttering around his kitchen, headphones still on, so he’s fine. Back entrance is clear, she’s just cleared the front, roof is clear...so where is the other guy? She checks the security feed right outside Rogers’ door: clear. She cycles rapidly through the rest of the camera feeds, until she spots the last Latverian picking the lock of the door to the unit directly below Rogers’.
“Four hostiles contained and in need of pick up, I’m going after the last,” she reports to SHIELD dispatch, then heads upstairs.
Her body aches, sharp and demanding, where she took the full force of the Latverian’s blows, but nothing’s broken. She’s fine. Not that it would matter if she wasn’t. The SHIELD team is at least three minutes out, and she can’t risk waiting for them. By the time she gets upstairs, the last Latverian has already broken into the unit below Rogers’. No shouting, so the guy who lives there isn’t home—she won’t be dealing with a screaming hostage. Or worse, Rogers barging in, shield swinging.
She pulls her gun, and enters carefully. She’d rather not shoot the guy—it’ll be a diplomatic mess if she kills a Latverian, and what if Rogers hears the shot—but Rogers’ and the civilians’ safety comes first. If Rogers notices anything, that’s a problem for future Sharon, after she disables this last threat. She takes cover in the kitchen nook, and peers past the kitchen entryway to where the last Latverian is about to climb out the living room window.
She’s too far away to tackle him, so she shoots him in the ass, and hopes she won’t regret this when she’s stuck in disciplinary hearings and meetings with the State Department. The Latverian lets out a strangled scream—shit shit shit she hopes Rogers didn’t hear that—and falls back into the apartment, flailing for his own gun, but Sharon’s on him before he can manage it.
There’s some very undignified, vicious rolling around as they fight it out, long enough for Sharon to start wondering where the hell her backup is. This guy isn’t as big as the first one, but he has enough mass on her to overpower her, get his hands around her neck. With her last few seconds of consciousness, she gropes around the guy’s ass until she finds the bullet hole, and digs in with her fingers. He shrieks and loosens his grip enough for Sharon to break it and roll free, gasping, and that’s when her backup finally shows up and takes the guy down.
She stays on the ground, takes a few seconds to catch her breath, forcing air past her aching throat and into her burning lungs. Then she fumbles for her phone, checks the security feed on Rogers one more time: he’s reading, headphones still on.
The cleanup is swift and quiet, Rogers remaining none the wiser. God, what fucking book is he even reading, and is he listening to death metal through those headphones? Whatever, she hasn’t blown her cover. She’ll take it.
Sharon directs half the team to stay behind as Rogers’ security detail, then she refuses an ambulance and heads back to the Triskelion with the rest of the SHIELD agents and the bound Latverians. Agent Marks implacably directs her to the infirmary first, which Sharon wants to object to, because she has a report to make, and a diplomatic incident to avoid, and she wants to check in with the detail she left at the building—
“Maybe you can do all that after you make sure you’re not concussed and haven’t broken anything.”
It turns out she’s only mildly concussed, and “beaten up.”
“Is that your official diagnosis?” Sharon asks the doctor on call with what’s left of her voice post-choking.
Sharon’s prescribed some painkillers and light activity only, and when she tries to make a break for the elevators and her desk, she’s stopped by some looming, stern-faced nurses.
“How about you rest up a little before heading to your desk,” says one, and it’s not so much a suggestion as it is a command, so Sharon figures she’ll stay in the infirmary bed until she can get past them.
Of course, then the adrenaline crash hits her hard, and she falls asleep mid-drafting a report on her phone.
When she wakes up, Natasha is sitting by her bed, reading on a tablet while eating ice cream. Sharon moves to sit up, but oh, that’s a mistake. She can’t help the whimper she lets out as every hit she took last night makes itself known.
“Hey, good job keeping Steve from being kidnapped by Dr. Doom.”
Sharon smiles, pleased. “Thanks.”
Then she realizes that she’s in the infirmary, still wearing her baby pink scrubs which are by now smeared and splattered with blood, she’s covered in blooming bruises, and also her hair probably looks horrifying. And Natasha Romanoff is sitting there looking put-together and perfect in jeans and a nice sweater. This is really not the impression Sharon wanted to make on her.
Natasha leans down and pulls something from a bag, handing it to her. It’s a pint of ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s coffee toffee bar crunch.
“For your throat,” explains Natasha, and yeah, ice cream for breakfast feels like a pretty great idea, and now she’s maybe a little in love with the Black Widow.
“Oh my god, thank you,” she says, and shovels ice cream into her mouth in what is undoubtedly a deeply unattractive manner.
Natasha smiles, complete with dimples, then updates her on the Latverian plot to kidnap Captain America. Sharon wonders if this is her debrief, but it’s a little too chatty for that, and she’s never had a debrief involving ice cream before. She and Natasha boggle together at Rogers’ obliviousness, and then they detour into Natasha’s latest attempt to set Rogers up, before Natasha winds back around to the ostensible reason she’s here.
“So, State is probably going to handle it from here, there’s—” Natasha waves a vague hand, “politics and diplomacy involved, whatever. Stick around the infirmary for a bit, Fury’s going to want to talk to you.”
“Who’s covering Rogers’ detail right now?”
“We’re about to head to New York for some Battle of New York, rebuilding PR thing, so don’t worry about it, Barton and I’ll have it covered. Take a few days off, Sharon.”
After Natasha leaves, Sharon gets a parade of visitors while she hangs out waiting for Fury. It seems she’s been missed at the Triskelion.
A gaggle of techies and analysts descends on her, bearing tea and pastries.
“Sharon! You saved Captain America!” says Cameron as he hands over the still-steaming tea.
“Is it true you took out ten Doombots on your own?” asks Amy, wide-eyed.
“Technically, you guys are not cleared to know about that,” she says, but takes the tea and pastries anyway.
They sit with her for a bit while she sips at the tea and eats the pastries, updating her on all the Triskelion gossip. Sharon knows other field agents don’t bother to hang out with the techies and analysts, or even talk to them if it’s not work-relevant. There’s a pretty strict divide between those SHIELD agents who go out in the field, and the ones who stay at the Triskelion. The divide between clearance levels doesn’t help. But Sharon is Director Peggy Carter’s niece, even if most of SHIELD’s rank and file doesn’t know that, and she was taught the value of respecting and appreciating all her colleagues. Aunt Peggy worked her way up from nearly the bottom, and so did Fury, and neither of them got to where they were by ignoring the people who worked at the more unglamorous, tedious parts of the job. So Sharon doesn’t either.
A few of her fellow field agents pop their heads in too, offering fist bumps and congratulatory nods, and then Fury shows up, complete with flapping coat. Sharon’s never going to stop thinking that’s unnecessary. He’s in the Triskelion for god’s sake, he could wear business casual or fatigues like the rest of them. The eyepatch and general aura are intimidating enough.
“Well done, Agent Thirteen. I’ll have a commendation put in your file for last night.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’ll expect a full written report by the end of the week, but give me the highlights for now.”
Fury mostly lets her talk uninterrupted, only frowning when she mentions that her requests for a back-up STRIKE team or to inform Rogers about the threat had been denied. Sharon’s stomach flutters with unease at that, but she’d followed protocol. There’s more than a few layers of command between her and Fury, she’s not usually supposed to go straight to him according to her mission parameters.
After a moment of glowering thought, Fury says, “Report straight to me from now on. If you can’t reach me, talk to Hill. I’m reclassifying this mission as SHIELD Special Service.”
“Alright, continue,” he prompts.
Once he’s been briefed to his satisfaction, Fury dismisses her with orders to spend the rest of the week doing nothing more strenuous than paperwork. Given that she feels like a piece of tenderized meat, Sharon’s happy to oblige.
When she gets back to her apartment, she peels off her dirty scrubs and runs a bath. While she’s waiting for the tub to fill, she takes her painkillers, takes stock of her injuries. They’re nothing serious in the grand scheme of things. She’d gotten off lightly: a lot of bad bruising, a pounding headache, some cuts and scrapes. Her face is going to be kind of lumpy and bruised for a week. But nothing’s broken, nothing’s going to scar. She’s been lucky about that in the line of duty, so far at least, has only broken an arm and torn some muscles, gotten a few bullet grazes. It’s early in her career though. Plenty of time to accumulate more war wounds.
She examines the bruises that cover her arms, her neck, her ribs. There are rapidly darkening bruises on her jaw and cheek. There are some on her thighs and knees too, and the knee bruises are especially painful, close to the bone as they are. She presses lightly on each bruise, testing, feeling out the limits of the pain. Bearable. The bruises are seemingly growing more dark and livid by the moment, some of them so obviously the result of a man’s grip on her that she won’t be able to pass them off as the result of epic clumsiness. She prods at the bruise around her throat, winces at the sharp ache.
Maybe normal people would be horrified or upset at the battlefield of bruises on her pale skin. Sharon’s just proud. She won the fight. She’s still standing. Who cares about some bruises? They’ll heal soon enough. She’s just going to have to wear long sleeved shirts and scarves, go heavy on the makeup and concealer so as not to arouse Rogers’ suspicion.
When the bath is ready, she slides in with a groan. The water is almost too hot to be bearable, and her skin starts going pink almost immediately, but Sharon doesn’t care. The heat overrides all her aches, and she can relax and let the water hold her.
After the thwarted kidnapping attempt, security and surveillance on Rogers enter into a mostly boring routine. Weeks pass uneventfully, Rogers’ routine remaining even and uninterrupted. He does go on a couple more long-term missions, so Sharon gets to go back to the Triskelion for a couple weeks to work on making sure there’ll be no more attempts on Rogers from Von Doom. She doesn’t even tell anyone I told you so about it, though she thinks it, a lot.
One of the bright and interesting spots amid the gray of Sharon’s new tedium is Natasha. Natasha’s gift of post-fight ice cream seems to have eased some reserve in both of them, because Natasha texts more freely now, about non-work things, like her cat Liho, and her personal try-a-new-hobby-every-week-or-so challenge.
Are you going to pick one at the end of the year or something? asks Sharon.
I don’t know, I kind of like just trying new ones. Can my hobby be trying new hobbies?
Sure, responds Sharon, then squints at Natasha’s photo of her attempt at candy-making, this week’s new hobby. The candy is...pretty misshapen, and the texture of the hard candy looks alarmingly bubbly. Doesn’t seem like candy-making is your thing anyway.
Sharon takes to sending Natasha new, increasingly off-the-wall hobbies to try: model train building, making tiny dioramas of historical events, unicycling, mead brewing...Natasha takes each suggestion seriously, and sends Sharon photos of her trying them.
Apart from talking to Natasha, Sharon’s social life takes a hit thanks to her Rogers-surveillance dependent, weird schedule, so she’s down to catching quick lunch dates with friends, and day-drinking with her high school friend Pooja, whose schedule is similarly weird thanks to being a resident in the ER. They commiserate over the horrors of being on-call, and sometimes they catch an early afternoon movie together, sharing the mostly empty theaters with seniors and small children.
It’s not a bad life. Just—dull. It’s decidedly not what Sharon had wanted or expected of working at SHIELD.
That’s no excuse for not doing her job though, so Sharon works on building up a friendly neighbors relationship with Rogers too, riding that edge of just flirty enough to build a good rapport, and not so flirty that Rogers will get any ideas. Which is kind of a shame: under better circumstances, for both of them, Sharon would have been happy to date Rogers. She knows he finds her attractive, his body language gives that away, and while he’s awful at flirting, he’s always polite, and wry in a way Sharon finds terribly endearing.
Rogers is terrible at flirting but I’m a little charmed anyway, Sharon texts Natasha after Rogers fumbles through another attempt at friendly flirting.
Can I set him up with you????
No, that would be unethical. Also I know way too much of his personal business and it’s weird.
Sharon would really like to know less of Rogers’ personal business. Without any pressing security threats to focus on—and she has looked for pressing security threats, if only out of boredom—Sharon just feels like a creepy stalker who knows how often Rogers gets up in the middle of the night to make himself a midnight snack of oatmeal. Oatmeal. Who even does that? It seems like it’s plain oatmeal too. God, Rogers depresses her. She can’t even enjoy the view of him in his boxer briefs if he’s going to eat sad midnight oatmeal while he’s half-naked.
Around the eighth time she’s woken up by the motion alerts on the video feeds in Rogers’ apartment thanks to this midnight snack habit, she emails Fury to request the video surveillance be curtailed.
“Saw something you didn’t want to see, huh?” asks Fury over the phone.
“In my professional opinion, the exterior security feeds are sufficient to catch any attempts at intrusion or sabotage.”
Fury snorts. “Not worried about being on suicide watch anymore?”
“Candidly, sir, Rogers’ life is still depressing, but he seems to be doing all right.”
Sharon had seen him add Nutella to his midnight oatmeal just last week, so things were really looking up.
“I got some pushback, but I did get the okay to scale back to audio bugs only in Rogers’ apartment. You’re cleared to disable and remove the cameras next week, when Rogers is in the field.”
“And the term of my assignment?” asks Sharon, trying not to sound too hopeful. Fury just sighs.
“I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Over the next few months, Sharon stops two foreign governments’ attempts at planting bugs in Rogers’ apartment, one creepily dedicated Cap fanboy, a handful of journalists who should have known better, a gaggle of paparazzi who didn’t know better but who certainly learned their lesson, three freelance mercs’ attempts at capturing Cap for the presumable bounty and/or ransom they’d get for him, and four mad scientists, one of whom insisted “I just need a little blood! A teeny bit! He won’t even notice!” as she’d hauled him away.
I’m sorry I ever thought this job was boring, Sharon complains to Natasha. Natasha just sends her laughing emoji back, plus a picture of Natasha holding Liho up so it looks like he’s hanging onto a curtain rod, with the text HANG IN THERE. It’s stupid and hilarious and absolutely adorable. The cat and Natasha, but especially Natasha.
He totally scratched you after that, didn’t he.
Yes. WORTH IT.
She laughs, sends, yeah, okay, probably, and saves the picture.
Boring or not, Sharon chafes at how this assignment is dragging on, starts worrying that she’ll be stuck stagnating on Cap-watch just as her career was supposed to be starting. It’s not that keeping Rogers (and by extension the super soldier serum) safe isn’t important work. It’s just that an indefinite undercover protection detail isn’t what Sharon wants from her career. Patience, she tells herself. This is part of paying her dues, right?
So she keeps her worries to herself, and does her job.
She keeps up the delicate balance between neighborly and flirty with Rogers, and falls over into flirty a little too much, has to pull back. She handles both the genuine threats to Rogers, and the false alarms and nuisances. And as spring approaches, Fury starts checking in with her more often, which makes Sharon suspect the World Security Council or Pentagon are micromanaging again, or maybe that Fury knows about some threat she doesn’t.
“Sir, if there’s a threat, I need to know about it to do my job effectively,” she says, after the fourth time Fury calls her for a sitrep.
“This involves some things above your clearance level, Agent 13.”
“Then raise my clearance level.”
Fury’s silence after that makes Sharon quail a little before he says, “If anyone from SHIELD apart from the Avengers, me, or Hill, approaches Rogers outside of work, or tries to relieve you of your post, I want to know about it immediately.”
That doesn’t sound good. If this is just office politics, Sharon wants to stay well out of it. But if it’s not…she doesn’t know what the hell is going on. “Understood, sir.”
For weeks, the warning from Fury doesn’t seem to come to anything. Rogers goes on a couple missions, Sharon stays on uneasy alert, and their mutual routine stays uneventful. Sharon only hears from Natasha a few times, but then she’s on the same missions as Rogers is, and just as busy.
Then Nick Fury gets shot in Rogers’ apartment, Sharon blows her cover, and her week only gets worse from there.
Sharon has never thought of firefights or hand-to-hand fights as nightmarish: they are the world reduced to the most simple of processes, action and reaction, the predictable ways that mass and velocity and force interact. For others, she knows the simple presence of violence in their lives, even violence their job demands, never stops feeling unreal. Not Sharon. She thinks she might have found the Battle of New York nightmarish, what with the aliens and the space whales, but she’d been in DC for that, helping to coordinate SHIELD’s response.
What’s later called the Battle of the Triskelion is nightmarish. At every turn, there’s a part of her that cannot believe what’s happening. She’s shooting people she thought were her colleagues, she’s hearing members of her academy cohort chant heil HYDRA, she’s learning that they’re moments away from Project Insight possibly killing millions of innocent people.
It all turns choppy and confusing in Sharon’s mind. She knows she kept Cameron safe and stopped Rumlow from shooting him, she knows she had moment after moment of tense, awful doubt with every panicked person she met in the Triskelion’s rooms and hallways. Are you HYDRA, can I trust you—She knows she got orders from Hill at some point—
Hill, running towards the control room as Sharon shepherds the techs out: get as many non-Nazis as you can out, stay with them afterward, stay safe until you get orders or extraction. How can I tell if they’re Nazis or not, Sharon asks, and Hill doesn’t quite answer. You can trust me, Rogers, and Romanoff, Hill says. Anyone else, don’t lower your gun.
She knows she got as many people as she could out of the Triskelion, that she got out herself before it all went down in flames, only to get out and see the Potomac on fire.
She’s not sure how any of it happened, and by the time she’s getting triaged by first responders, she’s halfway sure she has to wake up. Shock, adrenaline, whatever it is, Sharon can’t find her still center of calm the way she usually can. She vaguely registers that she gets the all-clear (mild smoke inhalation, a little banged up, you’ll be fine), and then she’s being taken to FBI HQ along with all the rest of the uninjured Triskelion survivors.
“Agent Thirteen? What the hell is going on? Cap said—”
“The helicarriers, what happened?”
“Was it aliens again? I don’t, I can’t—”
Sharon wants to scream that she has no idea what’s going on, and she can’t even be sure it’s not aliens or that the people in this van with her aren’t secret Nazis, but she looks at the scared and shocked faces around her, and swallows her own panic. What would Aunt Peggy do, she asks herself, and does that. She puts on Aunt Peggy’s air of no-nonsense, chin up calm, and answers what questions she can, tells everyone to stay calm and cooperate with the FBI because SHIELD has been compromised.
“By Nazis,” says Juan from Accounting, looking pretty crazy-eyed.
“Yeah. Apparently,” says Sharon, and they all contemplate that for the rest of the van ride.
The FBI scrambles to find somewhere to put all of them, and settles on a set of conference rooms kept under guard. Sharon asks for updates, or if she can contact Hill, and only gets a vague response of later. She maybe starts having wild ideas about busting out of this conference room, but she remembers Hill’s orders. She has to sit tight.
When Sharon’s finally questioned, she doesn’t have much in the way of answers for the agents. Her assignment on Rogers’ detail has left her out of the loop, even more so since she started reporting directly to Fury. And Fury, she realizes, must have had suspicions, given his orders to go straight to him or Hill if anyone else from SHIELD got involved in her assignment. She tells the FBI as much. And then, finally, struggling to keep her voice even, she tells them about the shooting at Rogers’ apartment, and about what happened in the Triskelion control room. When they ask her about HYDRA, she has nothing to say.
Well, nothing but, “I have no fucking idea what’s going on.”
The FBI agent sighs, gives her a commiserating, slightly wild look. “Yeah. Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around.”
Eventually Hill shows up, still soot-stained and sweaty, and clearly running on sheer stubborn necessity, and debriefs all of them. It’s the grimmest debrief Sharon has ever received. It turns out SHIELD and a bunch of other government agencies and offices have been harboring HYDRA agents since the Cold War. And SHIELD’s Project Insight was nearly used to murder millions of HYDRA’s enemies. And Romanoff dumped just about all of SHIELD’s files onto the internet. Oh, and Director Fury is dead. Which is probably Sharon’s fault. So that’s great.
“This is worse than the aliens,” says Cameron. A hysterical titter of laughter runs through the room. Hill ignores it.
“A bunch of you were on Insight’s target list. If you were, we’re taking it as tentative confirmation that you’re not a secret Nazi, so congrats, you’re free to go home. You will definitely still be wanted for additional questioning, so don’t leave the area. The rest of you, you’re staying as guests of the FBI for the night until you’re cleared as being...not Nazis,” says Hill. “Agent Thirteen, I need a moment with you.”
“Am I still on Rogers’ detail?” asks Sharon as she follows Hill to another conference room.
“The Marines are on Rogers’ detail right now. He’s at Walter Reed.”
“Is he okay? Is Nat—Agent Romanoff okay?” It crashes in on Sharon all of a sudden, all of the things she doesn’t know, the people she’s not sure are alive or dead or secret Nazis. “And Trip, I mean, Agent Triplett, is he, I need to call—”
“Rogers and Romanoff will be fine, they just got a little shot, they’ll walk it off.” She pauses, and Sharon’s stomach sinks. “I don’t know anything about Agent Triplett’s status, I’m sorry. About Director Fury—”
Sharon swallows hard, the memory of trying to save him welling up as inexorably and rapidly as his blood had. “I’m so sorry. I was the first responder, I should have—”
“He’s fine. I mean, barely, he needs to sit his ass in a bed for longer than a few hours after major surgery, but he’s alive. That information is need to know only, Agent Thirteen. And no one outside of us and the Avengers needs to know. Fury wants to stay officially dead for now. He asked me to let you know so that, and I quote, ‘Carter doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for herself that she got the director killed.’”
“Oh.” Sharon sags on abruptly shaky legs, and Hill guides her over to a chair.
“You did good, Carter.”
“Thanks. Am I—should I—what are my orders now, ma’am?”
“For now, cooperate fully with the investigation. You’ve got nothing to hide, apart from the knowing Fury’s alive thing. Romanoff or I will let you know if there’s anything else. Probably you’re about to be unemployed though. Sorry.”
Within a week, it’s pretty clear that Sharon is, in fact, out of a job. She gets cleared more quickly than most: she was on the Insight list, which at this point is more of a character reference than anything else, and between that, her connection to Peggy Carter, and the work she’s done at SHIELD, it’s obvious she’s no HYDRA agent. SHIELD as a whole has been deemed a lost cause, of course.
She gives herself a day or so to process, and spends most of it numb and staring vaguely at the news, constantly refreshing the casualty lists. And the wanted lists. There are names she recognizes on both. She looks at the Insight targeting list in full too, which by now is neatly categorized and indexed on the internet. Just about every single person Sharon cares about is on that list. It takes a long time before she stops shaking.
Her phone is full of frantic messages that she’s not sure how to respond to: only some of her friends and family officially know she works for SHIELD. But she knows she has to respond, so she calls or texts everyone back, assures them she’s okay and not a secret Nazi. She finally gets a hold of Trip, too, and after the mutual assurances that they’re okay, that they’re safe, they indulge in a bit of near-hysterical panic.
“What the fuck,” whispers Sharon into the phone.
“Nazis. HYDRA still around. What the fuck.”
They laugh in sheer disbelief, and maybe a few tears squeeze out of Sharon’s eyes, and maybe Trip’s breathing gets rough and shaky, but they don’t say anything about it, just have their hysterics together as quietly as possible.
“Your team?” asks Sharon.
“Garrett—he was HYDRA. My superior. It’s been a fucking mess out here, Sharon,” says Trip, voice trembling.
“Yeah, here too. The Triskelion’s gone, and the Potomac’s full of destroyed helicarriers.” And bodies, but she doesn’t say that. Instead, she asks, “What’re we gonna do, Trip?” Sharon’s entire life plan has just gone up in smoke and secret Nazis, and it’s only just hitting her now. She’s never not had a plan.
She hears Trip take a deliberate, bracing breath in. “The right thing. We don’t need SHIELD to do that.”
She can practically see him square his shoulders as he says it. Sharon smiles, and lets that truth plant its roots in her. A tree by the river, just like Aunt Peggy always used to say. Yeah. She can still do the right thing.
Sharon may be unemployed now, but she’s just as, if not more, busy than she was when she was on Rogers’ detail. She has interviews with assorted federal agents, debriefs for cleared former SHIELD employees, hearings in various closed-room Senate hearings.
And she has a lot of funerals to attend.
For a week straight, she staggers home from wake after wake, where the shell-shocked mourners turn from sorrow to disbelief to anger. The betrayal of colleagues turning on them deadens the grief, turns it strangely toxic. Do we even know he wasn’t HYDRA? whispers Agent Cord after one of the mournful toasts. The room goes quiet. But the answer, no, we don’t simmers in the silence.
Some of the dead had been HYDRA. Some of their former colleagues bit down on cyanide-filled false teeth, heil HYDRAing as they seized. No one but the families goes to those funerals.
She spots Rogers at the periphery of some of the funerals, solitary and stern, more like a statue of Captain America than a flesh and blood person. They don’t approach each other. Sharon’s pretty sure he’s still mad at her. That frosty neighbor and the accompanying glare he’d given her in the Triskelion hallway still sting.
Does Rogers hate me she wants to ask Natasha. It’s stupid and silly, given everything. He doesn’t know her. He doesn’t even know she’s Peggy Carter’s niece yet. But she’s tipsy and upset and she’s been to too many funerals and wakes full of people eyeing each other with fear and distrust. She’s had to explain to Aunt Peggy, again and again, what’s happened to SHIELD.
She ends up texting Natasha I never want to go to so many funerals ever again. She doesn’t get an answer. Natasha’s probably ditched her phone by now, or she’s just plain too busy. The disappointment makes Sharon tear up anyway.
A few weeks later, when Sharon gets back from her first interview with the CIA, she finds Natasha waiting in the hallway, leaning against the wall as she stares at Rogers’ apartment door. There’s still crime scene tape up. The pose is maybe meant to be casual, but Sharon sees the weariness in it, something in the careful tilt of Natasha’s head and the almost-tension in her shoulders. There’s a plastic grocery bag at her feet.
“I have the key, if you need to get into Rogers’ place,” says Sharon.
Natasha pushes herself off the wall. “No, I’m here to see you, if that’s okay. I, uh, brought booze. And ice cream.”
“The briefing’s going to be that bad, huh?”
“I’m not here for a briefing. Well, maybe a tiny briefing.”
“I can handle a tiny briefing if ice cream and booze are on offer,” says Sharon with a smile, and lets Natasha in. They head straight for the kitchen table, where Natasha starts unpacking the bag. There’s a pretty ambitious number and variety of ice cream flavors, to say nothing of the entire handle of whiskey.
“I’m glad you got out of the Triskelion okay,” says Natasha as Sharon fetches spoons and glasses.
“Yeah, you too. I heard you got shot, you okay now?”
Natasha nods. “Nothing I couldn’t walk off.”
They sit down together at the kitchen table and survey their ice cream options. The silence sits awkward and heavy, but Sharon’s not sure if she should say something, or wait for Natasha.
“I, uh, hope Rogers isn’t too upset with me, for the whole undercover thing.”
Natasha rolls her eyes and snorts, reaches for a pint of strawberry cheesecake ice cream.
“He’ll get over it, he knows you were just doing your job. Tony was the same way after my cover on his detail got blown. At least you never stabbed Rogers with a needle, Tony will never let me forget that.” Natasha picks out the coffee toffee bar crunch and hands it over to her, and Sharon smiles at her, weirdly touched that Natasha’s remembered. “So, feel free to tell me to fuck off if you don’t want anything to do with SHIELD’s continued shit show, but I figure you’ve been helping all the poor Level 1s and 2s, so you’re at least a little invested. Good work on that, by the way. Maria and Fury really appreciate it.”
“Well, I’m unemployed. Just trying to keep busy,” jokes Sharon weakly.
In actuality, after seeing the sixth terribly familiar name on the FBI’s Wanted on Suspicion of HYDRA Ties list, she’d been this close to going hunting for them on her own. But at hearing after hearing, in waiting room after waiting room, Sharon saw the confused and terrified gaggle of SHIELD’s rank and file, the support staff, paper pushers, analysts who’d never traveled beyond their desks. And while Hill and Natasha and other senior agents were understandably busy rounding up HYDRA traitors and burned agents, that innocent rank and file needed help too. They may not have high clearances or valuable intel, but they shouldn’t be left to twist in the wind, alone and confused. Helping them felt like the right thing to do.
“Guessing you won’t be unemployed for long,” says Natasha with a knowing little smile, then launches into her promised tiny briefing. It’s mostly logistical concerns about the continued fallout of an entire agency going up in flames. Then Natasha opens up the whiskey and pours out a generous splash. “You’ll need this for the next part. Do you know anything about the Winter Soldier?”
“No,” says Sharon, and sips warily at the whiskey. The burn of the alcohol is sharp and hot as it chases out the lingering sweetness of the ice cream. When Natasha tells her who the Winter Soldier is, and how he survived his supposed death, Sharon tosses back the whole glass. God, what is she going to tell Aunt Peggy? So, good news: Bucky Barnes is alive. Bad news, he was horribly tortured and brainwashed into being an assassin for HYDRA! She hopes, with a sick surge of selfishness, that Rogers is the one to break the news to Aunt Peggy.
“Yeah. You’re not likely to run into him, but I thought in case he comes back here, you should know what’s up. Don’t engage or try to apprehend him, just call me.”
“Right, yeah, of course.” She pours herself some more whiskey. “Holy shit, Bucky Barnes is alive.”
“Maybe,” says Natasha grimly. “Not so sure how much of that guy is left in the Winter Soldier.”
Sharon’s starting to feel the whiskey, the beginnings of tipsiness, like the balance point at the top of a roller coaster’s climb. Some of the ice cream is dripping condensation onto the cheap faux wood of her kitchen table. Her half-finished pint of coffee toffee bar crunch has already gone soft. Natasha knocks back her glass of whiskey, then gets up to put some of the ice cream in the freezer.
“Oh, hello. You’ve got the good stuff,” she says, and pulls out Sharon’s emergency vodka.
“Briefing over,” agrees Natasha, and takes the vodka with her to Sharon’s couch. Sharon grabs the whiskey and follows. For a few minutes, they sit and drink in grim silence, staring into their drinks.
“Did you know? Did you suspect? I keep thinking about every mission, every briefing, if there’s something I should have seen—”
It’s what keeps Sharon up at night. If only she’d been more observant, if only she’d been more paranoid...the lack of backup on the Latverian plot against Rogers should have tipped her off. She should have looked into that, instead of writing it off as office politics.
“No. I didn’t suspect a damn thing.”
Natasha’s flat tone gives nothing away, so Sharon risks a look up at her face. Her expression is calm and even before a spasm of some strong emotion overtakes her, and she knocks back another drink. It’s not really a comfort to hear that Natasha hadn’t suspected anything either.
“They’re going to offer you the job at the CIA,” says Natasha, after the silence tips towards strained. “You should take it.”
Sharon isn’t sure. She’d only agreed to the interview because working at the CIA was, once upon a time, Sharon’s fallback if SHIELD hadn’t worked out. She’d spent nearly the whole interview wondering if the CIA was full of HYDRA too, if she’d even know if they were. When the interviewer asked her how she felt about the CIA’s mission and ethos, she’d hadn’t really been able to summon up the expected fervor and enthusiasm.
“Yeah. I mean, unless you want to make a total career change. Wouldn’t blame you if you do.”
“I just want to do the right thing. I’m not sure the CIA is the right place for that.”
Natasha snorts. “No offense, Sharon, but I think we’re all past the luxury of that kind of naivety.”
“I don’t think it’s naive, to want to do the right thing,” says Sharon quietly.
“No. I guess it’s not. But it’s naive to expect it from the CIA, or SHIELD, or any of them.”
Natasha sloshes some of the vodka into her glass, and knocks it back, then sets the glass on the table with just a little too much force. Her empty hands are small and unmanicured, and she sets them uncertainly on her knees, then her thighs, opening and closing her fists. Sharon thinks about taking Natasha’s hand to still the restless motion. They’re sitting so close to each other. Instead, she gets up, wobbles just a little at the head rush from too much alcohol, too fast, and gets them both some water. Natasha’s lips move up into a tiny smile, and she gives Sharon a wry look, but she takes the water.
Sharon curls back up on the couch. “I guess—I just know what SHIELD was supposed to be, you know? I know what Aunt Peggy wanted for it. Part of why I joined was to keep up her work and her legacy. And I worked so hard to get there. And now…”
Now it was all ashes, rotting from the start. Ten years of Sharon’s life to get here, more if you counted the years of picking martial arts over ballet, of working towards acceptance into the SHIELD Academy. She can’t say any of it was worth it right now. The alcohol in her stomach sloshes uncomfortably. Fuck, they should eat something other than ice cream to soak up all this booze.
“For the longest time, I kept expecting SHIELD to be like the Red Room, or Department X. And it was, in some ways. No intelligence agency is squeaky clean, they’re all doing dirty, bloody work, and I can do dirty, bloody work. But I thought—” Natasha closes her eyes, disgust—or maybe self-loathing—rippling across her features.
“You thought SHIELD would be different,” prompts Sharon.
“Stupid, really,” says Natasha.
“It’s not stupid.” Natasha gives her a thin, mirthless smile. “It’s not,” Sharon insists, turning to face her more fully. “SHIELD was supposed to be different, people you trusted told you it would be. And it’s not—it wasn’t all bad. SHIELD’s saved the world a few times, hasn’t it? We’ve done good things, right things.”
Sharon’s maybe trying to convince herself now, to salvage something out of the wreckage of her life plans. She’d gone through the files Natasha dumped onto the internet, looking into all of her own past missions, checking for HYDRA’s fingerprints. She hadn’t found anything conclusive.
“That faith you have that you’ve done the right thing? I don’t have that. I’m not sure I’m ever going to have that. I thought with SHIELD, I could, but look how that’s turned out. It’s just the Red Room, over and over again.”
Natasha’s wide and haunted eyes make her look terribly young. She’s only a few years older than Sharon. With her reputation, it’s too easy to think of Natasha as the ageless and untouchable Black Widow, but moments like this one remind Sharon that Natasha is just another agent like her. She’s human and hurting and touchable, and Sharon wants to offer her some comfort, if she’ll accept it. If not now, when, thinks Sharon, and reaches over to take Natasha’s hands. They’re warm, a little smaller than hers, with the same calluses. Sharon squeezes, and holds Natasha’s eyes with all the intensity her tipsy self can muster.
“You’re an Avenger. You basically saved the world from aliens, and you saved millions of lives by helping to stop Insight. And dumping all of SHIELD’s files online? That was the right thing. Fighting HYDRA is the right thing.”
Natasha squeezes her hands back, tips her head forward as she takes a deep breath in. Her sleek hair falls to cover her face, and Sharon wants to push it back to reveal the curve of her cheek, wants to let her hand rest on Natasha’s jaw, or neck, to feel the warm softness of those vulnerable places. A bit of handholding, and suddenly Sharon wants so much more. She wants to lean closer, wants to feel Natasha’s generous lips against her own. Maybe she’s made a mistake.
“You give a good pep talk, Carter,” says Natasha, that tiny, Mona Lisa smile of hers warmer now as she pulls her hands away.
They end up ordering food to soak up some of the alcohol, and distract themselves from their depressing professional lives by watching some movies from Sharon’s slightly embarrassing collection of mediocre action movies. So she maybe picks up whatever action movies she sees in those $5 bins, what of it? There are worse splurges, right?
“You don’t get enough of this at work?” asks Natasha.
“It’s different,” protests Sharon. “Anyway, I just think they’re kind of funny.”
Sharon finds their over-the-top set pieces and predictability somehow comforting too, when compared to the relative tedium of her actual job. At least, she used to. She feels a brief, woozy flutter of unease before she puts a DVD in the player: will it be different, after being there when the Triskelion fell? Is HYDRA going to fuck up this simple, stupid little joy for her?
It is a little uncomfortable at times, but to her relief, mostly the movies give her the same silly, uncomplicated pleasure. Movies impose narrative and order and sense on a reality that that doesn’t always have any of those things. Or some sense, at least. Some of these movies are admittedly lacking in sense, or a particularly convincing narrative. Still, Sharon finds that she can watch the movies’ fights and the explosions easily enough, with only a few unpleasant echoes; at worst, she’s more aware than ever of the artifice behind the movies. These explosions are carefully staged, these fights are choreographed like dances. Even the most terribly directed of action movies brings more clarity to disaster than there is in being in the thick of the smoke and gunfire and screaming.
Plus, action movies are a lot funnier when watched through the forgiving haze of alcohol.
Natasha snorts with laughter at one of the Mission Impossible movies, and Sharon thinks it’s the cutest thing she’s ever heard in her life. Sure, Sharon’s drunk, but she’s irredeemably charmed by this flushed, giggly version of Natasha. Natasha’s sense of humor is still dry and sometimes groan-worthy, sometimes grim, even when she’s drunk, but her habitual reserve has eased away some, and Sharon’s more than a little smitten now.
“Why don’t I have a cool theme song?” says Natasha as the Mission Impossible theme dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun’s all over the place. “Tony has one. He blares it out of his stupid Iron Man speakers. Even Steve has one!”
“Steve has a theme song?”
“You know, star spangled man with a plan,” sings Natasha, and she’s not exactly on key, but her husky singing voice makes Sharon squirm. “I made it his ringtone.”
“Theme song’s bad for stealth,” says Sharon. She contemplates what Natasha’s theme song would even be, but drunk or not, she has enough self-preservation not to start humming Itsy Bitsy Spider.
“Putting all my shit out there online is bad for stealth,” mutters Natasha, frowning.
“Nuh uh. No mopey drunk!” Sharon levers herself off the couch, and sways as the room spins. “You need more ice cream,” she says once the spinning steadies, and goes to get another pint from the freezer.
They must fall asleep on the couch some time in the small hours of the morning, because Sharon wakes up alone, half-falling off the couch, with a vicious, head-being-gently-pressed-in-a-vice kind of hangover. Before she can feel too sick, or worry about Natasha’s absence, her blurry vision makes out the bottle of Gatorade sitting on the coffee table in front of her, and a pastry bag from the bakery down the block with THANKS :) and what must be Natasha’s new phone number written on it. Sharon smiles wide, pounding head and nausea forgotten for a moment.
She gropes around for her phone, which has ended up squashed between the couch cushions. The brightness of the screen makes her groan in dismay, but she soldiers through the way the terrible electronic glow makes her hangover pulse malevolently to send Natasha a single heart emoji.