Sharon is watching his eyes when Bucky Barnes claws back into his body. The blank face flickers, and suddenly becomes fluid, overwhelmed. He drops her like she’d shocked him, and she sags against the hallway, wheezing, clutching her throat. Her whole body is a current.
“Don’t scream,” he says, pleading with a soft voice. “You don’t have to scream.”
Sharon just stares up at him. That was his flesh hand that grabbed her. As the adrenaline rolls back, she feels the sweat chill on her scalp, her heart throwing itself against her ribs. She gulps for one breath, then the next. This man is a story that followed her home. She knows what the Winter Soldier’s hands can do. She didn’t think he could call up such a voice.
He kneels across from her. “Everyone’s gone. You’re my least bad option. I don’t—” Barnes swallows, then runs out of track. He’s abandoned his body armor; if it weren't for the heat, he’d look unremarkable in his jacket and hat.
She pushes herself upright. She’s had this training. He rises with her, slowly. Barnes stinks of old sweat, and an undertone of silt, a smell she usually passes on the street. She tries to clear her throat, but no luck. Her mouth sparks on a copper taste. He’s all fear, half-crouching. Sharon inhales through her nose, lets the air settle into her chest cavity, lets it gush out, its own signal. Her windpipe struggles to open fully. Sharon is a professional. She waves him toward her, toward the kitchen.
His boots bend the floorboards. Sharon keeps pace with him; they brush shoulders in her narrow corridor. The metal limb is cool against her forearm, but they both flinch back. He tries to hang back, but she won’t let him. In front of her cupboard full of mugs, she faces him.
It takes her a minute to pull the words into the space between them. “If you come at me again,” she rasps, “you will let me do anything it takes to stop you. Agree to this.”
Barnes nods, eagerly. “I’ve got no excuses.” He removes his hat and holds it, his hands at his waist. Sharon is tall enough to look him full in the face. He drops his eyes, but she can’t look away.
Peggy’s ghost stories began like this: “Once, when the unit was trapped in a Nazi bunker,” or “Of course, as soon as Dugan found out I had once learned to play accordion…” All her life, Sharon hung on every word. Peggy’s ghosts were as vivid as she was, an elegant bruiser even into her 80s. All her life, Sharon visited them, daydreaming about witty repartee with Howard Stark, rescuing the Howling Commandos, putting the world in its place.
Those stories propelled her, even into an office deep in the Triskelion.
“No breaking,” Fury told her, once the tape was done. “No little signals, no dropped hints, no ‘Hey, can you guess who I might be related to?’ Nothing to compromise your cover. But I don’t have to tell you that, do I, Agent 13?”
Sharon looked away from the surveillance footage: Steve Rogers drifting through a cabin in an undisclosed location, that morning’s timestamp floating in the corner of the screen. In her peripheral vision, Hill studied a duplicate of the folder Sharon held. “I’m not cute like that, sir,” she said, and she felt the room settle, satisfied.
There he was, though. Real. Captain America. For him, it had only been a few days. Maybe his skin still carried a film of old smoke, of an old war.
She watched him through cameras for weeks before they ever made contact. He seemed indifferent to D.C. The walls were thick, but she rarely heard music, or a radio, or television. He didn’t pace; he had nightmares; he fed himself the same five or six uncomplicated meals. Sharon watched so closely, the stories roiling in her head: We weren’t at LeHigh long, you understand, but once I saw him nearly get in a fight over the Works Progress arts programs. Unfortunately I heard this secondhand, but neither Steve nor Morita knew the first thing about snow, believe it or not. Steve and Bucky both always claimed to know instinctively which way New York was, but scientific tests proved inconclusive on that matter.
She was a professional, and she introduced herself as Kate, and she put him at ease like an agent would. He didn’t seem like someone who’d start any fights.
“What are you doing these days?” Peggy asked, when Sharon would visit. The assisted living home was Peggy’s own plan; better to move in before she truly needed it.
“I’d tell you if I could,” she said, and ached as Peggy took her word for it and moved on.
Barnes mirrors her every movement, sipping coffee when she does. The metal of his palm clinks against the mug. She watches his face, his sunken eyes, his ashen skin trying to be olive.
In her mind, she scrapes off the stubble, crops his hair close, props up his spine, gives him something blue. She doesn’t croak if she focuses. “What do you need, Bucky?” The coffee gives them both something; it scours her throat. He stares into it.
Through a monitor, she’s seen Steve tired, but not like this. This man was in the army too. He liked looking sharp. The pictures prove it. Sharon rolls her lips between her teeth, holds herself still. “I have no excuses,” he says, answering only himself. His eyes settle on her again. “You haven’t called for backup.”
Sharon snorts. “I don’t know who my backup is anymore.”
He bows his head. “That’s why I came to you. And you.” Barnes frowns. “Carter,” he says. “I thought—”
He doesn’t finish. She knits her brow. There’s a truth to complete. She can’t help it. “You knew her.”
Sharon was a teenager before she noticed Cap had a handsome sidekick. “You knew him too,” she told Peggy accusingly, an imperious 14-year-old command to spill some beans.
“He always thought he was quite something,” Peggy said. “The war was very hard on him, though.” She pressed her lips together, and Sharon noticed the perfume of her lipstick, the only scent she allowed herself. When Cap and Bucky knew Peggy, she was young, so strong and steady; her body could keep up with her brilliance. She wondered what Bucky would have noticed. You always notice what you can’t have.
In her throes, Sharon spun tales of tragic couples, of attractive men in need of fierce, caring women, of a dashing hero who simply needed to spring forward in time and realize the help he needed was right there in the year 2000. She never kept journals, because she was already planning on being a spy by that age and couldn’t risk a paper trail, but the sagas remained perfect and ongoing locked up in her head.
Her heart inevitably drifted back to Cap, though. That’s who Peggy told stories about, and it was impossible to judge cleanly when you were young and listening to a loved one with an old love. Bucky must have been in those stories, though. When you’re there, you can’t erase that.
It became her job to be where she was needed too, and otherwise, nowhere. Nobody at SHIELD really knew what Sharon did, much less where she lived. Sometime close to 3 a.m. Friday, with the Triskelion still smoking to her right, with her forearm stinging beneath crisp bandages, she walked the two miles from Georgetown back to Dupont. The night was warm enough that she walked in bare feet, her heels in a plastic bag from the hospital. Even the cicadas were asleep, but she couldn’t clear her head.
Her phone rang. Her phone, with its battery nearly gone. Sharon fished it from her jacket. Her body seemed to ring too. She answered the unlisted number. “Who is this?”
She bent her neck. “Agent Hill.” The concrete was cool underfoot if she stopped too long, a good rough that proved she was alive. She made sure to keep her pace steady. “Where are you?”
“New York,” said Hill. “Digging in. You got a place to go yet?”
“My apartment, first,” she said.
Hill’s frown was always more audible than visible. “That site is compromised.”
“So’s the office, but I can’t sleep at my desk tonight.”
Sharon glanced at the shut storefronts she passed: the stationery shop, the bookseller, tacos for yuppies. “I’m going to Langley tomorrow. That was always my burn plan.”
“Noted. SHIELD cleaned out your equipment, though Hydra could have it. Who knows who’s with who now.” She paused, long enough to scrub her eyes. “No one is at Rogers’ unit. Romanoff just told me he’s still in surgery.”
She turned onto her street. “What are you calling me for?”
Hill took a breath. She sounded like she was running just on her own devotion to staying competent. “This line’s as secure as we can make it, but I need you to listen carefully. The Winter Soldier is still active, status unknown.”
Sharon flashed on Fury, shot where it hurt most through a wall. Of course there was an aftermath, and of course it was worse than the cataclysm. She kept her pace steady. Newer concrete; a smoother walk. “Okay.”
“I’m not your boss anymore, Carter, but you listen to me: That’s Bucky Barnes, the Bucky Barnes. We think he pulled Rogers out of the Potomac and then he left him there. He’ll know about you. Be careful. Do you understand?”
Sharon had spent the day shepherding panicking office workers and giving statements when she was cornered. She’d watched Rumlow run and evacuated the launch room instead of chasing him. She’d watched the last helicarrier drift toward the suburbs, no one to guide as it floated south over Arlington. She had no idea what happened to it; she’d been at the hospital, trying to help her colleagues. Sharon craned her neck; on that rooftop, the Winter Soldier had taken his shot. “How do you know this?” she asked. Hill had vanished when Fury died. Where had she been through all that?
She didn’t sleep after hearing what Hill told her. She stayed up until sunrise, staring at newscopter footage and shaky cell phone videos of a brutal fight, a startling bout of violence. Before all the fight went out of Steve, they were matched.
Maria Hill thought the Winter Soldier knew Sharon’s name.
Only hours later: Sharon woke to a hand on her shoulder. She jerked forward, white-knuckling the waiting room chair. Just an attendant. D.C. was still normal here. She had to see it; she had to be sure.
Peggy was feeling stronger today. She sat in her wheelchair, hand on her chin as she watched the birdfeeder out her French doors. “Oh!” she cried on spotting Sharon. “Oh, dear god, come here!”
“I’m all right, I’m all right!” Sharon said as Peggy hugged her tight around the neck.
“I’m so glad to see you,” Peggy whispered harshly. “It’s been so very long.”
That’s when Sharon knew that Peggy didn’t know about Hydra or Pierce or the fall of the tower. To tell her today would not be kind. “I couldn’t wait to see you again,” she said, her cheek on Peggy’s shoulder. Peggy picked her up and cupped her face in her hands. She furrowed her brow deep.
“What is that smell?”
Sharon knew that smell was the hook of memory, the hound that leads its owner to something true at last. She waited for Peggy to recognize it, to come back as herself. Here is war, she thought. Here’s where you lived.
Peggy smoothed her pants. “Do you know, I had the most incredible news the other day,” she said, her urgency dissolved. “Steve is alive.”
Sharon pulled up a seat next to her. “Captain America?” she said, and partitioned herself. The job must be done.
Peggy turned back to the window. “There’s a drawing over there that they tell me he gave me himself, but I have to take their word for it.” She gestured, dismissive and pained and still elegant at once. “It’s a damnable thing.”
“That’s wonderful news,” Sharon said. Her hair still stank of burning.
“Tell me a story,” she says. “I’ll help you. Just tell me what my Aunt Peggy was like then. I’ve never gotten to ask.”
Barnes’ eyes focus inward; they search down and to her left. “Peggy Carter,” he says, experimentally. They wait. He breathes in. “I really wish I could,” he says.
She nods. She’s a professional. She’s not part of this story. “Why did you come to me?” she says.
“I was right to,” says Barnes. “You called me that name.”
It had just slipped out. It was instinct. She had, and he’d answered.
“Okay,” she says, and sets her mug aside. “Okay.”