The first time they meet is in Budapest at the German consulate. It's a reception for a German artist named Franz Baecker, a popular surrealist painter in residence at Eötvös Loránd University, and Peggy's handler manages to get her on the guest list at the last minute, a definite improvement from the original plan of sneaking in through the loading dock in the back.
She’s ruined enough heels and hose climbing through windows and scaling walls.
The consulate is a fairly ugly, boxy-looking building from the outside, but it had been gutted in the late 90s and rebuilt inside with a flair for the postmodern. She's been in enough consulates and embassies and government complexes to understand the monotony of the stereotypical bureaucratic structures, so she appreciates the intricate design of the building, particularly in the winding halls that makes line of sight for the security guards milling through the space more difficult. The rebuild also means that the electronic security is far more complex than some of the older consulates she's worked before, but it's nothing Peggy can't handle.
She gets the lay of the land first, a delicate crystal glass filled with champagne dangling between her fingers. There's at least two hundred people here, a flock of men in tuxedos and women in expensive looking dresses and ridiculous heels chattering at a volume that makes the small orchestra near the stairs almost impossible to hear.
She's so busy watching the cycle of armed guards that she doesn't notice the man sidling up next to her until he's practically on top of her.
"Hello," he says, tipping his head to her. He's so close that she can feel the weight of his breath on her neck.
Peggy knows James Buchanan Barnes by reputation. The son of a self-made Jewish-American industrialist, a billionaire on his fifth wife who happens to be younger than his only child, a Columbia-educated boy nicknamed Bucky who lost his mother young and spent the majority of his teenage years and early twenties in and out of the tabloids, a prodigy with a taste for women - and men, if some rags are to be believed - that had led to him to scandal in New York. And it had been scandal that had driven him to the London offices of his father's multinational conglomerate, an affair with the young wife of one of his father's business associates that had led to the dissolution of a crucial merger.
That and his work as an American spook.
(Less covered than his private exploits are the three years he spent in Iraq after he’d joined the army out of Columbia. Peggy’s read the MI6 file on Steve Rogers, the childhood friend James had followed to Iraq and lost there, killed by an IED that had left James with an injured arm and extensive shrapnel scars. There had been a few stories once he’d been discharged, the injured golden child returning heartbroken, but they’d quickly been replaced with the scandalous tales of a young man acting out upon his return. Though the media had done an impressive job of spinning the stories into an out of control playboy rather than a soldier suffering from PTSD.)
"Bucky Barnes," he says, picking up her hand and dropping a light swipe of lip against the skin there. "And you are?"
"Not interested," she tells him, tugging her hand away, and he lets a smirk curl on his face. She rolls her eyes and it only makes his grin grow, a hint of teeth this time.
"Sure," he says, the facade ratcheted down on his face. She knows an act when she sees one, and the veneer is paper thin. His mouth is all mockery and sarcasm, but his eyes are deadly serious, his eyebrows drawn together like he's considering her, disassembling her, looking for weakness. She's sure that he made her as soon as he came in the door; spooks have a knack for spotting compatriots.
"Not even a name?" he asks as she moves away, and his fingers reach out for her, missing her arm just enough that they brush against the skin of her back left bare by the only dress should could find in time for the soirée, some black number that feels a little too tight and a little too revealing. She feels an anger rise when he lets his fingers rest a little too long against her, and resists the urge to slap them away. He may hide by drawing attention, but the same does not apply to her; her cover is not helped by a scene.
"No," Peggy says, dropping her glass on the tray of a waiter as he walks by, "I don't think so."
Later, she sees him slip out of one of the offices with a leggy blonde still adjusting her dress, pulling down at the fabric bunched around her waist. He catches her eye and smiles, and it's at that moment she knows without a doubt that he's already managed to lift the information she was sent to retrieve.
Peggy really doesn’t care for cocky yankee shits.
M looks over Peggy's debrief in her office, reading carefully. One of her eyebrows arches.
"The Barnes progeny?" she asks, not sounding particularly surprised, only vaguely annoyed. M hums as she taps the paper with her finger. "Who was the girl?"
"Low level consulate employee. Works in the communication office. He used her to access the room with the archived diplomatic cables. I was able to get a copy, but I'm positive he has one as well."
M drops the paper and reaches for the glass of what looks like bourbon resting on the edge of her desk. Peggy holds M in the utmost regard; she’d been one of only three recruits in nearly fifteen years that had been personally selected and mentored by M, and her desire to impress M is deep and all-consuming.
"We've had our suspicions that Phillips has been running him out of Langley, but Barnes has done such an immaculate job of drawing attention to himself here in the press that MI5 has designated him a non-threat." M sighs dramatically. "But they're also hapless twits."
It's brilliant, Peggy thinks. A face people expect to see flashing across Europe, the influence and affluence to access parties and places others cannot, where he can blend in seamlessly. The lack of suspicion that comes with superficial notoriety, a pretty face and a bad reputation, military service or not.
Robert, a fellow SIS officer and her technical advisor on the Budapest job, fidgets in the seat beside her. "The Home Secretary has close ties with the Barnes family, Ma'am," he says, scratching at the back of his neck. He's a former navy officer and boring as a blank piece of paper, but he's a talented advisor and has a mind like an encyclopedia. "I doubt if Sir Wallace would let us deport him even if we could get the clearance to do so. And the headache it would cause with Cap Global..."
"Christ, when did we hand off our domestic security to a bunch of bloody infants?" M hisses as she slams the glass back down onto her desk.
It becomes exceedingly apparent that they’re following the same trail when their paths cross in Moscow, then Athens and Montenegro. They circle around each other as they grapple for the same intel, carefully managing to avoid directly running into each other. In Porto Montenegro, Peggy finds a trashed luxury penthouse, a pretty hotel maid with a mouth-shaped bruise round the base of her neck, and a missing contact who turns up stateside a month later.
There's a deal that goes bad in Rome and he's wearing a nasty black eye in London the next week, a planted story in the press about a late night drunken brawl that earns him several follow-up pieces as Europe's newest playboy prince.
There's something different about the paparazzi photos that splash across the tabloids now, the smile not as bright, the look more put-upon. He looks tired in a way that he can’t mask, sad in a way Peggy sometimes sees in the mirror above her sink at night.
(It takes her nearly two weeks to realize she’s started calling him Bucky in her head. It suits the man better than James, though she’s starting to wonder if she’s falling for his facade the same way the mindless saps at MI5 did. Less threatening to imagine him as Bucky, a bad boy with a penchant for playing spy instead of the skilled operator he’s slowly revealing himself to be.)
In Madrid, she's being followed by three men from the small lobby of the hotel one of her contacts is staying in. They're only a few steps behind, her hand slipping slowly into her handbag for the glock hidden inside, when the line of cars parked bumper to bumper beside her suddenly blare to life, their alarms going off simultaneously. The men, startled and searching for cover, take the first left down a small walkway between the tall towers of ugly government housing.
She doesn't see him after, but she knows he’s in the city, likely after the same intel she is. Something tells her that her save was something less than altruistic, but she's grateful all the same.
"He could be a shadow," M suggests to her new right hand man, whose name Peggy hasn't caught yet, brought in to replace Charles Eames-Pfeiffer, who managed to finally fail his monthly polygraph. Peggy shakes her head at the suggestion; as far as she can tell, Bucky isn't surveilling her.
"No," Peggy says, sliding the clip out of her gun and setting it down on the table beside the M-16. "I just think Morita's mole is selling his intel to both sides of the Atlantic."
In Paris, the mission is more complicated. The ex-KGB officers peddling a decoding program move safehouses faster than Peggy can keep up. By the time she sneaks into the small apartment on the third floor of a building in the 6th arrondissement, they've already moved to another, the entire place stripped and bleached down.
They manage to repeat this feat twice.
Peggy sees him first at Gare de Lyon, disembarking from a train originating from Marseilles, a black bag thrown over his shoulder. Bucky's hair is loose and ruffled, the look entirely causal matched with his sunglasses, crisp white button-up and faded blue jeans. He doesn't smile when he sees her this time, instead ignoring her as he reaches for his luggage. The car that picks him up loses her tail with an ease she finds distinctly irritating. She expects to find him at one of the larger, more expensive hotels, but a quick scan of them turns up nothing; it's unusual, a break with the protocol he normally employs of hiding in plain sight. She knows he's travelled to Paris for the same reason she has been dispatched to the city by M, and the fact she can't locate him has her worried.
In the end, it doesn't matter. She gets to it first, copying the program onto a small flashdrive that doubles as an earring before wiping out the hard drives on the laptop in Ketchivet's latest hideout after cracking the small safe hidden in the bedroom closet.
Better luck next time, she writes on a post it, leaving it on the screen for the tall American she sees across the street as she slides out the door and into the shadows of the empty, midnight-coloured street.
Back in London, it only takes three days for the flowers to arrive. It's a huge bouquet of deep reds and rich oranges arranged in a crystal vase that could easily be one of the most expensive things she now owns. She puts the vase down in the middle of her kitchen table, beside the salt and pepper shakers shaped like cows that her mother had bought her when she moved to London.
The note accompanying the flowers is written on a post-it, which the delivery man hands over with an awkward smile before she slips him a small tip and closes the door. She sticks the post it to the pads of her fingers, reading the neat script she recognizes as Bucky's handwriting.
So sad we didn't get the chance to speak in Paris. Another time, perhaps?
She finds the tiny bug hidden amongst the stems in less than a minute, but she's pretty sure he meant her to. She flushes it down the kitchen sink, humming as the water circles the drain.
The post-it ends up stuck to her fridge, next to the photo of her brother Michael holding Peggy's brand new niece, Sharon.
Two weeks later, Bucky makes his first appearance in the small, independent coffee shop that she likes to read her daily non-classified briefings at. She catches the baristas and waitresses sneaking quick glimpses of him when they think he isn't looking, but she knows he can see it, the cocky edge to his smile a dead giveaway when the girl behind the till hands him his change.
He comes back every day that week. On Friday, he doesn't take his coffee to go, instead sitting at one of the tables across the room from the overstuffed couch she's perched on, slowly sipping from the large mug in front of him as he stares at her. It feels like a dare more than anything else, a tacit challenge for her to confront him. Instead, she ignores him, resting the stack of papers against her thighs as she skims each page, searching for identifiers.
The news out of Algiers is grim, and for a moment she forgets Bucky staring at her, forgets about the ridiculous game they are playing.
When she looks up again, he's gone, a crisp 50 pound note under the edge of his cup.
The document pouch in Belfast is empty, just a yellow post-it note with a smiley face accompanied by, Too late. Please try again.
"Fucking wanker," Peggy growls, tossing the pouch into the River Lagan. It floats on the surface of the calm water, moving downstream.
She picks up a newspaper every day on her way to work even though she spends most of her mornings skimming the online SIS feeds. She's always been a fan of the printed word, memories of her father reading the newspaper in the morning when she was a child, the blackened fingertips he used to touch her with after, a quick peck before she ran off to school. Peggy's habits die hard.
She stops at the newsstand near Vauxhall Cross, scanning the racks of papers and magazines. Her eyes stall on The Sun, a large photo covering most of the front page under a thick headline. She picks it up, the thin edge of the paper leaving a nasty papercut on the inside of her thumb.
The shots aren't entirely clear, but it's obvious that it's Bucky, topless, his board shorts loose and slung low, his hips cradled between a shapely set of thighs on a white sand beach in Ibiza.
AMERICAN PLAYBOY CAUGHT IN TRYST WITH TAMARA PARKER-CALTHORPE.
Peggy rolls her eyes and shoves the cheap fodder back onto the stand, paying for her copy of The Guardian.
She stops going to the coffee shop on Holland, opting instead for the more generic Starbucks on Tooley Street. The location is more convenient, but Peggy baulks at paying four pounds for a banana muffin that tastes like cardboard. Their coffee is decent enough though, so she makes do.
Peggy starts being more cautious outside of headquarters, using countersurveillance techniques to avoid trackers, and MI6 briefly employs the CCTV network and ground assets to scan her commute for surveillance, both of which turn up nothing. She's unsure if Bucky is following her - or having her followed - but he fails to find her new coffee shop.
It arrives in the post on a Tuesday. Peggy plucks it out of her letterbox, balancing a coffee, her keys, and a low priority briefing memo in her arms as she carefully shuts and locks the box after. She almost never gets mail at her flat, only unofficial correspondence from her mother and brother, and fliers for curry places and fitness centres. Everything else is run through Vauxhall Cross to avoid interception.
The invitation is on thick cardstock, a rich cream colour with elegant black script scrawled across it. She rubs it between her fingers, testing its weight.
Miss Carter, Cap Global would like to extend to you a cordial invitation to our centennial celebration...
She goes, of course. With M's ever-important blessing. (Easier to keep tabs on him, yes? M says with a smile that does not put her at ease.)
The gala is at The Lanesborough, and Cap Global has rented out all six of the private rooms at the prestigious hotel. Just engaging The Wellington Room would eat up a year of her government salary, Peggy thinks bitterly. The opulence of the rich has never impressed her, and watching men in two thousand pound tuxedos eat canapé and caviar is both irritating and dull. Normally she's able to brush off the annoyance of extravagance, too focused on whatever job she has to pull, on making it out alive and uninjured. But she's not on a job, and the restlessness of being here without purpose starts to itch under her skin.
Bucky's in a tuxedo, his eyes trained on her as he moves towards her through the clusters of party-goers engaged in conversation, a champagne flute in each hand.
"You came," he says, handing her a glass of champagne. He smiles when he notices she's wearing the same dress as Budapest, the tight black number that she hasn't worn since. "Ah, an old favourite."
Peggy shoots him a withering look, ignoring the comment. "I did."
They stand together in silence for a minute, letting the dim noise of the party filter between them. Even in her heels, she's still not nearly as tall as he is, but the physical difference in size isn't as intimidating as it once had been. She's bested him several times. In their game, size doesn't always indicate advantage.
"You switched coffee places," Bucky says, his tone dry and uninterested, but his eyes are bright. If she didn't know any better, she'd suspect he was annoyed. She is intensely pleased at the thought.
"Had to. I was getting a bit concerned about the patronage at my old one. They'll sell to anyone these days, I suppose."
A loud eruption of laughter breaks out across the room, a few loud-mouthed men bellowing at each other, and Peggy and Bucky both crane their heads to look at the scene. "Well," he says, turning back to face her, "it's always important to be a discerning consumer. You wouldn't happen to know of another that might be up to par?"
"I really don't," Peggy says politely, taking a sip of champagne. He really is quite handsome, if not equally infuriating. He’s still staring at her, a bit like the first time they met in Budapest, like he’s trying to pick her apart; there’s a cleverness in his eyes at odds with the role he chooses to play in public, and it’s something she finds intriguing.
Just as Bucky begins to speak, a bevy of well-dressed women wander over, their long-nailed fingers dancing over the inside of his elbow, red painted mouths smiling and cooing bullshit at him. He slips into the role with a practiced ease, the slick smile returning to his face to echo their silly seductive words right back to them. One of the girls, a pretty brunette in a pink gown, sends a vicious look her way, and Peggy smiles back politely, a silent fuck you kindly written across her face.
Peggy makes her way past him as one of the women coos a suggestive comment about their run-in in Cannes. Behind her, she can hear him make his excuses, a chorus of disappointed voices airing their displeasure. She moves quickly though, and he only manages to catch her as she's walking through the main foyer.
"Leaving so soon?" he asks, a bit breathless from chasing after her. He reaches up to tug at the bowtie at the base of his neck, loosening the tight knot of it.
"If you think I'm going to stick around for this exercise, you are sadly mistaken. I've had quite enough of your ego, thank you." She knows M won’t be pleased with this display, a wasted opportunity to learn more, but Bucky Barnes is neither stupid nor lazy, and she doubts he plans to give her much of anything tonight. This is a game, and she no longer wishes to play.
He's still wearing the slick smirk, and she feels like hitting him. "Do I detect a hint of jealousy?"
Her eyes narrow.
"I think you enjoy being the cliche," Peggy says, her voice full of derision. And surprisingly that of all things wipes the smile right off his face. "You like being regarded as a complete waste of space, some pretty face that sluts his way through Europe like he's devoid of conscience and intelligence."
His own eyes narrow and his shoulders rise, a defensive position that exudes nothing but raw power, and she's suddenly reminded of the scene he left behind in Rome, the bodies with broken necks and shattered faces. It's only now that she realizes that his ruse worked as well on her as it did on everyone else; she underestimates him. "I'm good at what I do," Bucky replies. He licks at his lips, but it's not a come on, the tension between taking on a distinctly different tenor. "And I do what I need to do."
Peggy leans in closer, and his eyes flicker down to her mouth, as if he's waiting for her to kiss him. "You keep telling yourself that."
She walks out instead.
He's waiting for her at the door of her flat when she comes back from the market, leaning back against her building, sunglasses pulled over his eyes. He lifts them off his face and tucks them into the pocket of his leather flight jacket when he spots her crossing the street. She ignores him, avoids eye contact as she reaches into her own pocket for her keys.
"I don't sleep with all of them," he says like she cares, but his voice is serious, and for the first time she believes he might not be feeding her a line of complete bullshit. "People believe what they want to believe, all they need is a suggestion, a push in the right direction. You of all people should know that."
"Your reputation really means nothing to you?" Peggy asks.
He's quiet for a moment, like he's contemplating her question. "It wasn't that great to begin with. And there are things you sacrifice." He scratches his chin, and she's suddenly reminded of how stupidly attractive he is when he isn't being a condescending prat. There’s also a deep, lingering sadness that she feels radiating off of him. She remembers his brief, the file on Steve Rogers, the assessment of the impact of his death. Somehow, she thinks this sacrifice is not for himself. "Besides, I honestly don't give a fuck what people think."
He shrugs in response, his hands sliding into his pockets.
When she finally gets the door open, he moves towards it. "You can't come in," Peggy says, moving to stand between him and the open door.
His mouth is flat and serious, and Peggy starts to feel heat uncurl in her belly. "Fine. My place, then,” he says, his voice firm and calculated, but not presumptuous. And there’s a million reasons why she should turn and walk inside her flat, slam the door in his face, go up and enjoy a cup of tea while she watches the telly.
Peggy's lips part, but she doesn't say a word.
"Jesus, finally," he groans, his mouth finding its way to her throat after he tugs her shirt over her head. His body presses into her until she's right up against the front door, trapped there, the cold of the metal sinking into her spine.
"Shut up," Peggy mutters roughly, her hands caught in the buckle of his belt, fumbling with the leather and metal. It refuses to come undone and she growls with frustration, his chest bumping against her when he laughs, reaching down to help her. She doesn't try to take them off, just undoes the belt and pops the button on his jeans, curves her hand to feel him, cock already hard for her. When she squeezes, just a little mean, he tangles his fingers in her hair and tugs it back gently so he can bite at her neck, a little hurt that makes her gasp. He likes that, and tells her as much when he reaches behind her for the snap to her bra.
Then his shirt's gone too and he's leading her through his loft backwards, his hand on her hips and his tongue in her mouth. When she trips over a pair of shoes, he simply picks her up, tucking her against him so she has to wrap her legs around his waist to balance herself. It's another few seconds to the bed, and when they get there, he drops her on it, quickly moving to follow.
She tries not to think of where that mouth has been until it gets between her legs, and then she can't bring herself to care, not when his fingers are spreading her open and he's licking her. It's so good that for a moment she forgets who she's with, how they've ended up where they are, the post-it notes and dirty doublecrosses, and just enjoys the feeling of him between her thighs. Her right one is thrown over his shoulder and she can feel the strength of the muscles in his back against her calf, a strange counterpoint to the lithe movement of his tongue inside of her. She can also feel the rise of the scars, the shrapnel that has been removed and some that must remain.
He doesn't stop when she comes, one of her hands on the expensive headboard above her and the other threaded through his hair. It's too much, a slow burn while she's trying to come down, and he knows it. She can tell. She gives his hair a good tug, and she can feel the muscles in his back tense again, but he continues to lick at her insistently.
"God, stop. Stop," Peggy whines, thumping her leg against his back, and he finally stops, looking up at her from between her legs. "Jesus, just fuck me already."
He doesn't smile, but the satisfaction is written all over his face as he moves over her, reaching for a condom from the nightside table.
She slips out of bed. Bucky's still asleep, the wide expanse of his bare back moving with the minute expressions of sleep, his breath deep and steady. It’s dim in his flat, but she can finally properly see the ruin of his back, the same scars she’s seen on many men returning home from war in pieces.
Peggy can see her panties wrapped in the sheets, but they're half under his body, so she exhales in annoyance and just reaches for her jeans instead, padding to the front door quietly to find her shirt. Her bra is nowhere to be found. She moves gingerly, still a little sore between her legs, but it's a satisfying ache that she feels through her entire body. Her fingers skim over a small bite mark just under her breast as she tugs on her shirt.
A quick survey of his large, high-ceilinged flat reveals several rooms including a study; she hadn't been paying attention earlier as he guided her through it, too concerned with his mouth and hands. It's cavernous, relatively undecorated, just a few prints on plain white walls. His study is neat, no papers left on the desk, a power cord for a laptop, but no laptop in sight. She finds a locked drawer, which takes less than a minute and a few paper clips borrowed from the CAP GLOBAL: THE FUTURE TODAY mug sitting on his desk. Inside, she finds what she’s looking for: A flash drive cleverly hidden in the false bottom of the drawer.
She peeks into the bedroom, checking to make sure he's still asleep before she lets herself out the front door.
By the time she gets back to her flat, the sun is just starting to rise, the sky moving from black to a dark navy, hinting at dawn. She tosses her jacket on the kitchen table next to empty vase, the flowers long since dead, booting up her laptop before tugging her jeans off, pulling a fresh pair of underwear out of her dresser and sliding them up her legs.
She's careful to engage the protective firewall and purge any sensitive data on her hard drive in case the drive is a trojan horse before she plugs it in. It's encrypted, which she was expecting, but the cypher is easy enough for her software to crack, loading the data in seconds.
Which turns out to be thousands of photos of cats.
Kittens playing with yarn. Calicoes lying in the sun and tabbies lounging on chairs. Her computer registers the name of the stick as "FOR PEGGY".
Her mobile starts trilling a few moments later, the number blocked.
"I was thinking about Alain Ducasse tonight. At The Dorchester? I'm in the mood for French. Eight sound okay?" she hears Bucky say brightly. “By the way, you forgot your panties.”
"Fucker," Peggy growls, throwing the mobile down on the counter, watching it slide on the smooth surface.
Bucky shows up at eight sharp.