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Agent 13

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Author’s Note:

The MCU writers had several opportunities using the source material from the comics to introduce Marvel characters in so many good ways. And with a lot of the characters, they managed well enough. But the female characters, I think most would agree, have suffered tremendously from lack of interest from male writers in general, which I feel is no less true in the MCU. I personally find that the majority of problems that people have with the female characters of the MCU can really just be chalked up to lazy writing. The actresses themselves, and my personal opinion once again, I would say have done a spectacular job with the material they were given, and sometimes outdo even the writers in their portrayal. As a dedicated and diehard fan of Sharon Carter of the comics, I was so excited to see that she would be added to the cinematic universe. I was even more excited when I heard that Emily VanCamp of ‘Revenge’ would be playing her, for there was nobody else I would have personally chosen over her for that role. And then we all know what happened. The brilliant and blazing character of Sharon Carter who shines like a bright beacon in the Captain America comics, has overcome so much and still remained loyal and strong, was reduced to nothing more than 15 minutes of screen time, nothing more than a love interest that irritated the fans who only knew Steve’s relationship with Peggy in the cinematic universe, and the role of her character that should have been rightfully hers given to other female characters such as Black Widow and Peggy, positions that should have rightfully held by Sharon, most notably as the female lead in CA: Winter Soldier, a much larger role in Civil War, including the airport battle, and should have been living with Steve for the two years between Civil War and Infinity War, and then, should have been the one that Steve returned to after returning the stones. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any of that, and now I’m hearing that they may just relegate her to the romantic role in Falcon and Winter Soldier. The truth is, I don’t trust the Marvel writers to do right by her. They haven’t so far.

This story is an attempt to present Sharon how I think she should have been introduced in the MCU. In the comics, Steve didn’t even know who she was for a significant part of time after first meeting her, knowing her only as Agent 13. Sharon was not given permission to tell him who she was, acting only as a liaison between him and S.H.I.E.L.D. because, in the comics, Steve didn’t actually work for S.H.I.E.L.D. at first. He only assisted in some of their missions. Their relationship grew over time, at a much slower pace, and usually was born out of working together professionally. Steve fell in love with her first, and for a long time, she brushed off his attempts at a romantic relationship, before finally realizing that she loved him too, and despite long periods of separation, including times when both were brainwashed into working for the enemy, or years thinking the other was dead, they emerged as a fairly strong couple. And presently, that’s how they remain in the comics, even with Peggy back in the storyline in Ta-Nahesi Coates’ “Captain of Nothing” series.

So here is my story, interwoven with the MCU, relying heavily on the comics as the original source material for details, and how I would have written the character of Sharon Carter for the movies if there had been no constraints on time, and if there had been assurances that the actors involved would have been available. I hope you enjoy.
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Chapter 1

Steve Rogers was curled up on the bed in the medical wing, the real medical wing, of the New York S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, staring at a screen in the wall that projected various images designed to look like views of the city skyline out of a window. Apparently it also projected these views at the correct time of day because it was nearing twilight and the image on the screen showed the city at dusk, the buildings turning into dark shapes against a sunset, their windows like twinkling stars. Some small rounded box-like device on a nearby table was playing Frank Sinatra’s “Moon River,” along with other soft music from the 1940s. He barely heard music or saw the images, he hardly recognized the skyline anymore anyway. He was still caught in his own head, trying to wrap his brain around everything that had happened that day. Trying to convince himself that it was actually true, that he wasn’t dreaming, that it was really 70 years later, and he was no longer in the 1940s, but the year 2012.

He couldn’t seem to focus on one particular topic. His mind kept jumping from one subject to the next. Finally, he decided to approach the situation the same way he would planning out a military strike. Deal with the facts first. His name was Steven Grant Rogers. He was born on July 4, 2018. Good, got that straight. His father died in World War I, he never knew him. He was raised by his mother through the 20s and 30s, during the great depression. Her name was Sarah. Sarah Rogers. She was a nurse. She got tuberculosis and died from it. That left him alone at the age of 19. He started working his way through what else he could confirm about himself. He was an art student before the war, he had worked at the corner grocery store, his best friend was James Buchanan Barnes, who everyone called Bucky. Bucky had joined the army at the outbreak of World War II, but Steve had been rejected for medical reasons. He tried many times to join, forging his name and papers. Eventually he was accepted into the army as part of a project. He volunteered for Dr. Erskine’s Project Rebirth experiment, the one that turned him into Captain America. His team, the Howling Commandos, he had rescued most of them from a Hydra Nazi imprisonment camp. He went through all the events of the war in his mind. Coming at last to fighting the Red Skull on the Valkyrie bomber. The cosmic cube had been lost. The Red Skull had fallen to his death. The bomber was loaded with enough fire power to level New York City. He couldn’t find a way to divert the bomber in time. He had to crash the plane on purpose.

His memory took him to that moment, his last transmission on the radio, talking to Peggy. Peggy Carter. Agent Carter of the SSR. Attaché to the United States military for the Project. Beautiful, powerful, and indulgent with him and his fumbling attempts at telling her what she meant to him. Steadfast and loyal, had helped him with Howard Stark when they stood a good chance of all of them been court-martialed. She had been on the radio. She had agreed to a date. They were going to dance. He told her he didn’t want to step on her toes. Then the plane hit the water. He lost consciousness. Darkness and closing, and Peggy’s voice calling his name.

“Steve? Steve...?”

And then the sound of her tears as the radio went silent, and the icy water rushing down. His vision had tunneled, going dark, realizing he had not died in the crash, but that the icy water was rushing in, covering his legs and would soon cover the rest of him. He was angry. Angry that he had not died in the crash. Angry that he now had to face a slow and agonizing death either through drowning or hypothermia. He just hoped it would be quicker than he was expecting. And everything had gone dark.

He had lost all sense of time. He had dreamed, dreamed of blizzards, of ice, a bone crushing cold. He had dreamed of the colors blue and white. Sometimes there has been light, almost as if he could open his eyes, but was never quite able to. Sometimes there was pain. The pain of being frozen, encased in ice, but then the world would go dark again. One time, he came to enough to realize he was still alive, but his entire body was encased in ice, except his face, allowing him to breathe. But then he dismissed the idea. He couldn’t still be alive, not unless it was only a few days after the crash. He must be in hell. He had done something to anger God, had denied his faith in some way, and now he was paying the price. Hell wasn’t fire, it wasn’t like a cold blur. It was cold. Bone crushing cold.

Then, came to voices. The flashlight beams. The shouts. Movement. Movement as he was lifted up, the hum of some kind of machinery that hoisted him free of his resting place. The sound of metal hitting ice, the rocking sensation as he was chiseled out of the block. Shouts in English, “This man is still alive!”

The darkness closed in on him, but sometimes it would retreat. There would be voices, sounds, and more light. There was pain, as feeling returned slowly to his limbs. Beeping sounds. Someone talking to him, but he couldn’t respond. More words. Words about brain waves and heart rate and respiratory rates. He tried to focus, but he had descended into the darkness once again.

The next time he had opened his eyes, it had been in a hospital room, or what looked like a hospital room. There was a radio playing a baseball game, and there was something strange about it. Familiar. There was something wrong with the room. Something about the window, how the light didn’t move as if the sun was outside of the window. The shadows didn’t move. The fan in the ceiling seemed wrong. And then the woman had come in, dressed as a nurse from the 1940s, or someone official, but something was different about her. Maybe it was the way she held herself. Different from the way most women, even Peggy, did. She only spoke a few sentences, but there was something wrong with those as well. Maybe it was a slight alteration in the accent. It was an American accent, but it wasn’t. It was not her native accent, but a very well-practiced approximation of a neutral American one. Her body movements were different. As if she normally moved like an athlete not a nurse. Something was very wrong. He confronted her, then realized he was listening to a baseball game he had already attended before. It was a trap. It was a trick. Men had come in, men who looked like Hydra. Dressed in dark and carrying weapons.

He had easily overcome them, run from the room, ignored her calls to stop, only to find himself in a large warehouse and the room was like a stage, meant to fool him when he woke up. He ran through a door and into a hallway, into a crowd of people wearing clothes that were noticeably different in style. Lights in the ceiling that weren’t bulbs, but seem to glow directly from the ceiling. What was this place!? Did these people mean him harm? Most of them looked utterly stunned to see him, and nobody moved for a weapon. Most had their mouths hanging open, as if they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Steve took that opportunity to run, run out onto the street, where vehicles unlike any he had ever seen were on the roadways. People were wearing clothes of a different kind of fashion, and he wondered what city he was in until he saw the Empire State building, and the Chrysler building.

He was in New York! But how? It didn’t look anything like the New York he remembered. The air smelled different. The noises and sounds were different. He ran more, panicked now. Where was he? What had happened while he was asleep? He knocked over people, and mumbled sorry, but kept running. He got to Times Square, but it was filled with screens, lights. And then he heard the rolling but authoritative voice.

“At ease, soldier,” the voice said.

Any other man might have continued to run, but the conditioning from the army to obey that order and in that tone of voice was strong. He turned to look, and saw that several dark vehicles of that strange sleek design had pulled up behind him, and a large Negro man without hair and a patch over one eye was standing in front of one of them. Steve had been in the military long enough to recognize authority when he saw it, but he was stunned. In his time, it was very rare for a Negro man to attain officer status, much less the sort of authority that this man obviously wielded. Of course, amongst the commandos, Gabriel Jones had been the only Negro, and extremely competent. Steve had, on more than one occasion, submitted Jones for advancement in rank, only to find that the applications mysteriously vanished, were never received, or were outright rejected. It had infuriated him, Jones was a capable soldier and deserved advanced status. But it just rarely happened, due to situations mostly out of Steve’s control. Whoever this man was, he had clearly overcome those limitations.

Steve took in the complement of followers behind the man. They were not dressed in uniform, but rather business attire. Or what looked like business attire, and Steve noticed there were some women among them. Women wearing what looked like feminine business suits. Similar to the uniform Peggy had worn, but still, different in some way. All of them had hands on weapons, but were standing behind the Negro man, clearly waiting for orders. Steve turned and faced him. Society norms aside, he recognized authority when he saw it, and knew to address the authority figure in this group.

Then the man tells him the impossible. He apologizes for “the show back there,” but then tells Steve that he had been asleep, for nearly 70 years. Steve is so stunned he could not respond. He looked around, expecting to find some evidence of a further lie, but then, realizes it must be the truth. It explains the futuristic design of the cars, the dress of the people, the buildings that were now there that were not there before, the screens in place of billboards. It is the year 2012, he learns later. The Negro man looks at him with sympathy out of his good eye, and asks him if he is going to be OK. Steve replies yes, but that he “had a date.”

He stands there for several minutes, and although some of the people in suits, agents he later learns, shift restlessly, nervously looking at the crowd that had gathered, the man with the eyepatch give him space to process for a moment or two. Then, with a subtle hand signal from him, the agents begin filing back into their cars. The eyepatch man, his name is Nick Fury, Steve later learns, beckons him to another car, and Steve really can’t think of a reason to disobey. He had already proven that he was capable of getting out of their buildings, so if he had to, escaping the car shouldn’t be that problematic. Only once he got inside of it did he realize he might’ve been wrong. The interior of the vehicle was nicer than any he had ever been in. The seats were soft, and appeared to be covered in leather, there was a radio, and some sort of ventilation system to control the climate inside. When the vehicle pulled into traffic and got up to speed, there was a clicking sound, which he saw were locks engaging. The glass seemed pretty thick too. However, nobody was making an aggressive move towards him, and when they pulled into the building he had fled, there didn’t seem to be any subterfuge or movement to restrain him. The agents filed out of their cars and into the stairwells and elevators, and Fury beckoned him to follow. He did so.

Fury lead him through winding hallways, glaring at agents who stopped to stare at Steve, one woman actually dropping her papers and some sort of device she was carrying.

“Move along, Agents, you all know what he looks like,” said Fury in a tone that might have been irritable, but was also slightly affectionate and paternalistic. Steve recognized it as similar to a tone used by old grizzled generals when addressing their troops. True leaders were always concerned about their people, treating them more as individuals to be coached rather than servants who must obey. Clearly, Fury thought about the welfare of the people who answered to him. So it was also obvious that quite a few were intimidated by him, and easily moved out of the way when he walked in the hallways. Steve walked behind him just to avoid any further problem.

Fury led him to what was apparently the medical facility for the building, and handed him over to a doctor, one of the teams that had been treating him. Fury mentioned that he would be back, but he had some phone calls to make, and left. Steve found the doctor to be amicable, perhaps a little starstruck, but professional. He asked Steve how he was feeling, asked about any physical sensations, mental sensations, and gave him a thorough examination. He tells Steve that the doctors have been examining him since he was found, and told Steve some about the circumstances which had led the organization, S.H.I.E.L.D., to the resting place of the Valkyrie bomber. Howard Stark had, apparently, looked for him for years, turning the search project over to his son, Howard had a son(!), Tony who did not pay personal attention to it, but continued to fund the search for Captain America. When that search had located the bomber, S.H.I.E.L.D. had been called, and the team sent into retrieve him, which was when they discovered he was still alive.

Because he couldn’t think of a good reason not to cooperate, Steve sat there miserably letting the doctor go on with the information of how he had been found and treated, and brought back to life. Steve said little, not in the mood for conversation, so despondent about the apparent truth of the situation that he even neglected to ask questions about the future in which he found himself, society, technology, events, something Howard Stark would have done for days on end. The doctor pronounced him fit and not in any sort of immediate danger, but also recognized that Steve really had no quarters or place to stay and seemed stunned, so assigned him to a medical room anyway. That had been earlier today. He had been transferred to the medical room with the fake window and the box that played music from his time. There was also a flat pane of glass on the wall, which someone said was a television, though Steve couldn’t see how that could be. He had only seen one television before in his life, and it looked nothing like this. One of the nurses tried to show him how to use the remote control, but Steve wasn’t interested and quickly gave up. So now, he lay on his bed looking at the fake window, listening to music from his time, wondering vaguely if the small box, obviously some sort of radio, could also play radio shows from his time. He had never found out what had happened on the last episode of “Dick Tracy.” The nurse had shown him how to talk to the box, asking it to play a specific song or something, but Steve felt foolish talking to a box. Even when he tried to think of it as some sort of Walkie Talkie. He had never had to talk to or have a conversation with a machine before.

They had brought him something to eat, some sort of liquid food that the nurse called a “smoothie.” Steve had wrinkled his nose at the sight of it, but his growling stomach urged him to at least try it. It turned out to be delicious, and a good thing too, because the doctor said he would have to ease into solid food slowly. He had not eaten anything in 70 years, and what little fat had been left on him previously had been completely depleted keeping him alive during that time, even with a radically decreased metabolism.

He had told the doctor about how the army had discovered his ramped up metabolism, how he had been issued field rations meant for small teams, and saw the doctor make some sort of note on the glass tablet he carried around. Steve was given a second smoothie, one that tasted vaguely of peanut butter, and found that he felt much better after consuming it. Apparently, extra nutrients and calories had been added to them in some way. Now, Steve lay on the bed, with a little else to do, except listen to the music and try not to cry.

The ramifications of what he was facing were finally starting to sink in. If he and his friends had been in their 20s and 30s back in the 40s, and it was 70 years later, then most if not all of them were probably dead. Including Peggy. The Commandos. Everyone. Steve fought down a strangled cry. He was alone. Utterly alone. He knew no one, had no idea what the intentions were of the strange organization that called itself S.H.I.E.L.D. No idea where he belonged or where he could possibly live or fit in with this strange future world.

He just couldn’t believe that this was his life now. He had been in the middle of a world war, fighting Hydra, he had his friends, there was a potential future with a girl. All of these things gone. He had read a book once, just some pulp thing he had gotten from five and dime store, about a man who had ended up on an alien world amongst aliens in a strange civilization. He had learned to become one of them, but he still felt lost, forsaken and alone. Steve now knew exactly how that felt. He might be surrounded by human beings, but he felt as if he were on an alien world.

Eventually he sleeps. The next day he learns to operate the television, and he has to admit, it’s a pretty swanky device. There seemed to be endless amount of stations to tune in to, new stations with people talking endlessly about world events, which struck him as being rather buffoonish. It seemed most of the people on these various stations were idiots. He didn’t have to be well-versed in the events of the world to see that they were simply talking and speculating for the sake of hearing their own voices. There were shows, fictional shows that were like plays being enacted, visual versions of radio shows he figured. Some took place in real world locations. Some were completely fictional and fantastical, and those had effects so realistic he half wondered if one movie he was watching actually had a live dragon in it. He finds a station devoted to historical documentaries and leaves the TV on that. It begins to fill in the gaps between the time he went into the ice and into his present. He was astounded at some of the things that had happened. One focused on World War II. He had heard rumors about the concentration camps, but this documentary with photographic and video imagery made him so sick he threw up in the bathroom. How had he missed this? He could have easily given up on looking for Hydra to liberate those camps if he had known. The nurse finds him collapsed on the floor crying, and the doctor is summoned. Eventually they work out what is wrong with him, and give him sympathetic pats on the shoulder. They tell him that the war was won by thousands of good men, not just one super soldier, and it had been some of those good but normal men who had liberated those camps. Quite a few had survived them. But all Steve heard was 6 million men, women, and children have perished under horrific conditions in those camps and he had never known.

He switches to another history channel, but at first he thinks he has the wrong channel. There’s some strange man with a crazy hairstyle telling the camera that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens. This must be a fictional network. He switches the channel again. He lands on a network about food and watches a man with wild white hair visit different diners around America. He watches with interest, and then realizes he’s getting hungry again. A nurse brings him another smoothie. He likes smoothies, but he’s getting kind of sick of them. After watching the wild haired man eat a cheeseburger at a diner, he suddenly decides he wants a cheeseburger. Someone bring him one. It’s not bad. But he notices something else. The food tastes different, a quality he can’t quite put his finger on. For instance, there seems to be sugar in almost everything. Everything is sweet. Even the bread. The tomatoes are flat and flavorless, different than the ones he used to eat as a kid. Everything seems like it was not ripe when it was picked. Even the milk has a strange quality about it, not like the kind the milkman used to leave at his mother’s door.

He is allowed to go down to the gym for some light workout. The doctor fusses at him good-naturedly, telling him no sparring and nothing too strenuous, but he can have a go on the treadmills, with some of the bags, and perhaps some of the weights. Steve ignores his advice and works out until he was dripping with sweat and his heart rate gets up to 80 from its normal 60. Some of the other agents working out in the gym look like they are awestruck, although some may want to challenge him to a sparring match, but anyone who takes a tentative step in his direction quickly rethinks it and goes back to what he is doing. Steve learns to operate the shower in the bathroom of his medical room, discovering that there are some perks to this future world. For example, there’s always hot water, and the ventilation system keeps the room at a comfortable temperature, so he cranks it up to 78 to dispel any cold lingering in the corners.

After a few days, Nick Fury comes to him again, tells him that he is being issued quarters in the habitation level, so he no longer needs to stay in the medical wing. Steve had grown somewhat comforted by the small space in the medical wing, thinks of it as his, but he follows Fury without a word. In truth, the tiny apartment he is issued is not all that different from the medical room, except it has a real window. Still, unbelievably, this window can be blanked out too and the same projected images from his medical room could be broadcast on the window just as well. There is a bed that is larger than any he has ever slept in, though Fury amazingly apologizes for it being so small. When Steve lays on it, it is just a right amount of comfortable combination of firmness and softness, and the sheets feel absolutely divine, not at all like the stiff ones his mother used to scrub on a board. Or the scratchy army ones he used to sleep in. There is a flat screen TV on the wall with all the channels he had been watching, and a small kitchenette in the corner with a sink, something called a microwave oven, and a hot plate. Underneath the counter is something called a refrigerator, similar to the icebox that his mother used to have in their apartment, only it didn’t drip water into a pan or require a block of ice to stay cold. It used electricity of some sort. Apparently it was a tiny model compared to the kinds that were normally in houses, but it was stocked with energy drinks, food meant to be heated up in the microwave that had instructions on it, and a set of printed instructions on how to operate the microwave and the hot plate on the counter. There was a small coffee pot and mug, also with instructions on how to brew a single cup of coffee. Steve felt his head began to pound. There was so much to learn. He learns later that a low ranking agent had been living in this apartment, but had given it up willingly to room with another agent in order for him to have it. He later finds the man and thanks him. The young agent just shrugs.

There were some chairs and a table, so he sits with Fury at the table as the other man pushes a stack of files towards him, explaining that they were personal files on the people he had known, what S.H.I.E.L.D. knew about them and their current whereabouts and what had become of them. Steve feels a rush of gratitude, as well as trepidation looking at the stack of files, wondering what he will find out about his friends in those papers. Fury explains to him that S.H.I.E.L.D. was in the process of convincing the government that he was well and truly alive, explaining that, since he had never been formally discharged from the military, he was owed quite a bit of back pay. Steve found himself not caring much about that, until Fury explained to him what things cost in the 21st-century. Steve was flabbergasted when Fury told him with something like a loaf of bread cost. Fury explained that he would need his own apartment, and would need to start thinking about what he was going to do with himself now that he was, despite his chronological age, a young man in the 21st-century. Fury tells him that he’s welcome to stay here as long as he wants, but that he expects that soon Steve will become bored just hanging out in this apartment or in the gym downstairs. The doctors saw no reason to continue offering medical treatment, so he was basically free to do as he pleased within reason.

Steve nods and thanks the man, who leaves. He then reads the files about his friends. Dum Dum Dugan. Deceased. Morita. Deceased. James Barnes. Deceased. Dernier. Deceased. Howard Stark. Deceased, along with his wife Maria. One son, Anthony Edward Stark. Tony Stark. Current CEO of Stark industries. Margaret Peggy Carter. Currently alive.

Steve reads all of their files three times, and Peggy’s five. Peggy is alive, but elderly. She shows signs of dementia and memory loss, and was currently being cared for in a nursing home in Virginia, near her family home where she had lived with her husband and two children.

Husband and two children.

Steve pushes the files away and goes to lay down on the bed, allowing the sobs and tears to flow out of him. Unlike the medical wing, likely no one will hear in this place. Loneliness slams around his chest and heart. Peggy. Beautiful Peggy. Of course she would have married and had a family. She should have. He was oddly both heartbroken and relieved to read that in her file. Heartbroken because, of course, that man had not been him. He had begun to dream about what a life with Peggy would have looked like, a house with children and a dog. Summer vacations. Barbecues. Fourth of July picnics under a sky full of fireworks. Christmases. But then he had crashed into some ice, and that was all obliterated along with the rest of his life.

He was heartbroken to have lost Peggy, but still oddly relieved that she had not spent her entire life mourning him, pining for him, and had somehow recovered and built a life for herself. He learns through the files and from careful questioning of Nick Fury and some other agents he meets that Peggy and Howard Stark had been two of the co-founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. They had founded the organization to deal with otherworldly threats the kind of which the Tesseract had presented itself. Threats from outside of the planet, threats from super powered individuals like the Red Skull. Peggy had been one of the most decorated officers in the intelligence community, well respected even after she retired. Her name still echoed through not just the halls of S.H.I.E.L.D., but other intelligence agencies like the CIA and the NSA. More than one senior agent in S.H.I.E.L.D. spoke fondly of her as a mentor, a role model to aim towards, and her picture occasionally showed up in hallways full of pictures of decorated agents. She had married a man who had been a director of a California field office, also a noteworthy agent in his own respect, Daniel Sousa, and had born him two children. Edwin and Lillian. Both were apparently grown with their own children, so Peggy had grandchildren, but there was little mention of them, their names or their ages. Only that they lived in Virginia. They had not followed Peggy into the intelligence world. Steve found himself being glad for that. It wasn’t an easy life to live.

Anytime he feels the pain of having lost Peggy, he tells himself that he should be happy that she lead such a good life. That she could have her career and her family, live into her 90s, and still be so beloved of so many people. He was proud to have known her. Although the files on his friends said they are deceased, he learns equally pleasant things about them as well. Nearly all of the Commandos had eventually married and fathered children. Some of their descendants worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. Apparently Gabe Jones, had a grandson Antoine Triplett, who was an up-and-coming young field agent. Morita had a granddaughter who worked as a technician in the tactical control room.

Then Steve notices a page in Peggy’s file, or where there should be a page, but there was evidence that the page had been ripped out. He wants to ask Fury about it, but he rarely sees the man now. His contact is a young agent named Phil Coulson, who showed him how to make microwave dinners from ingredients found at the grocery store on the corner, and seems to be a walking encyclopedia of Captain America lore and knowledge, including his friends, who introduces him to Antoine Triplett who shake his hand and asked to be called Trip, but seems to have little to say about the torn page when Steve asked him.

“There was probably some classified information in that file that you’re not authorized to see Cap,” says Coulson. “Peggy… Director Carter… went on to do a great many things that will never be known, because so much of it is classified. Even printing out those records took some authorization, we like to keep things digital.”

Steve wants to argue, claiming that he had authorization when he and Peggy worked together that was never revoked, but could see that the young agent, while starstruck with him, was definitely not going to break confidential protocol, and even then might simply not have the answers himself. Coulson didn’t strike him as being is all that high ranking.

He wants to meet Tony Stark, Howard son, but that proves to be more difficult. Apparently Tony is something of a party animal and womanizer, and while he has been told about Steve’s resurrection, he is frequently busy in different parts of the world and when he is in New York, is rarely there long enough to stop for a visit. He sends a card to Steve, a digital one, that Steve never quite learns how to function. But Tony’s administrative assistant, a woman named Virginia Ponce, who introduces herself as Pepper, stops by briefly to say hello.

She is a pretty young redheaded thing who Bucky would definitely have pursued back in the day, but Steve can see when she speaks about Tony that she is enamored of her boss and trying hard not to show it and likely only had eyes for him. She is a consummate professional, but Steve can see that, despite Tony’s shortcomings, that she loves the man. She tells him that Tony would like to meet him when the schedules allow, and instead, hands him one of those glass panels that everyone calls a tablet. He appreciates that she takes time to show him how to use it. Feeling that Steve needed to catch up with modern times, Tony had apparently put forth some effort with his advanced computer systems and custom designed this tablet especially for him. It contained notable songs that were popular in the decades that followed Steve’s disappearance, popular movies, specific episodes of certain television shows that were particularly groundbreaking, books, and a variety of other things, such as something called video games. It all felt fit on this one little device, and Steve had to admit he was impressed. Just the books alone were valuable to him, for an entire library existed on this device, and he found that they could be read out loud by the device as well. He even managed to install a drawing application on it, though he much preferred pencil and paper. Pepper bid him goodbye with a quick friendly hug, and he doesn’t see her again for a long time, nor Tony.

He is in the small apartment for three months before Fury suggest that he take a vacation. Apparently, S.H.I.E.L.D. has some sort of safe house cabin in upstate New York that was built by a Doctor who had some sort of problem that required him to isolate himself for a while until he could get control of whatever his problem is. He had built the cabin himself, and it was very remote and very strong. Steve agrees, and they bring him up there in one of their aircraft they call a Quinjet. The cabin is a one room affair with nobody else around, although there is communication equipment, and Steve is able to talk to the counselors regularly. He stays there for three weeks, just absorbing the information on the tablet that Pepper gave him, catching himself up to the modern world, reading and watching videos. He discovers the internet, specifically YouTube, that seems to have instructional videos on everything from how to set the timer on your coffee pot to how to drive a modern car. The Quinjet and Coulson come to pick him up and bring him back. He sits in the cockpit and carefully watches the pilot. By the time they land, he is reasonably confident he could fly the aircraft himself he had to.

Fury tells him that they found him a place to live. It is a small studio apartment near the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, so he can continue to work out in the gym, though he finds the apartment slightly more cramped than the one at the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility if that was possible, still it is his. Apparently some behind-the-scenes negotiation had resulted in getting him set up as a functional citizen of the United States again, complete with a re-issued birth certificate, Social Security number, something called a state ID, and a bank account with his back pay loaded into it. The amount is staggering. Coulson set him up with something called a cellular phone, which seems to be a smaller version of the tablet, shows him how to use it and programs his own phone number into it as well as Fury’s. It’s understood that he is never to give out Fury’s phone number, though Steve suspects it’s not the only one the mysterious man with the eyepatch has.

Steve walks through the city, trying to re-familiarize himself with landmarks he recognizes in addition to some he does not. The gangs quickly learn to leave him alone, apparently the crime aspect has not changed much since he lived in Brooklyn. He visits Brooklyn and discovers that he doesn’t recognize it at all. Even the park he used to hang out in now has a giant office building sitting on top of it. He goes on tours meant for tourists and learns how the city has changed in the last century. Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. seem content to leave him alone and let him adjust to being in the 21st-century, though they offer the services of a counselor, who he visits twice and then refuses to go any further. Despite being told that seeking professional help for a mental problem is no longer a shameful thing in this day and age, he remembers it being fraught with stigma during his time and feels as if he should be able to handle what is happening to him. During the day, it is not so bad. It’s actually fairly easy to maintain control of himself, there is so much to do and see. So much to catch up on and learn. But it is the nights that are worst. The nights when he puts on the music from his time. Listens to the voices of Frank Sinatra and Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald. Hears the big band music that used to play in the dance halls. And he lies on his bed in the darkness, the tears gently running down his face.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Two agents he does not recognize knock on his door and ask if he could come see Nick Fury at the office. Steve’s first impulse is to say no. He really does not have to obey orders from anyone now, he’s no longer in the military and he’s not sure that S.H.I.E.L.D. qualifies as any kind of authoritative agency that he’s familiar of. Still, the man was responsible for feeding and sheltering him and giving him medical attention, helping him adjust to a situation well out of Steve’s hands. It seems rude to ignore him. So Steve grabbed his jacket and goes. He is brought into Fury’s office, and the one-eyed man shakes his hand firmly.

“So how are you adjusting, Captain? Things a little less stressful?” he asked.

“I’m getting used to things, I suppose,” Steve says, sitting down at the man’s gesture towards a chair.

Fury doesn’t sit in his chair behind his desk, but instead moved to the front of the desk and sits on the edge of it calmly and casually, indicating confidence. It puts him slightly higher than Steve, which Steve recognizes as a tactic some commanders use when they’re about to ask you to do something you may not want to do. He steels himself. He always suspected that Fury might want something from him in repayment for taking care of him, and he supposed that time has come.

“Do you have any long-term plans for yourself?” Fury asks. “Maybe enroll in some art classes at the University? Get a job somewhere?”

“Would I have to tell anyone who I really am and how I got here?” he asked.

“That’s up to you,” Fury said. “If you want to admit to the world who you are, we have excellent public relations specialist who can explain what happened to you in a way that the public will understand and accept. As far as the government is concerned, you are who you are and have been re-issued your identity in accordance with that. So at least some people already know.”

“Captain America wakes up 70 years later, gets job as accountant,” said Steve pantomiming reading a headline on a newspaper.

“You could,” said Fury with a wry smile. “Though something tells me you’d quickly go crazy behind a desk. You’re the sort of man who needs to have an active sort of job.”

Steve leaned back in his chair and fixed his eyes on the other man. “And I have a feeling you’re about to tell me you have just the job for me, correct?”

“I am,” said Fury. “You’re perceptive, Captain. So truthfully, I’ll level with you, we could use a man of your skills. There are a lot of fires that need to be put out around the world, and I hate to be the one to mention it, but Hydra wasn’t completely put down in World War II. Their descendants and offshoots still operate around the world, and S.H.I.E.L.D. has been active in answering the threats they pose for decades. Peggy Carter and Howard Stark started this organization in hopes of answering the kind of threats that you faced with Red Skull during the war. Those threats still exist. How would you feel about helping us answer them?”

“I seem to have lost my suit and shield,” said Steve, looking away.

“Oh no, we salvaged all of that,” said Fury. “It’s in equipment lockup. Colson can get it for you if you want them.”

Steve snapped his head back towards Fury, looking at him and surprised. His shield had been salvaged? But then he looked away again.

“I’m asking you to come work for S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap,” said Fury. “We’re doing pretty good so far, but with you we could do better. What do you say?”

Steve was quiet for several moments. Then he said, “I appreciate everything all of you have done for me, I couldn’t have asked for better care. And I feel like I do owe you in some way, though don’t take it the wrong way, I don’t think I know enough about S.H.I.E.L.D. to commit to anything just yet. I don’t want to say no, but I’m not really comfortable saying yes just yet.”

He thought Fury might get angry, maybe even accuse him of being ungrateful and a freeloader, but instead the other man just smiled knowingly. “I can respect that,” he said. “My father always told me never take a man’s first offer. You don’t have to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. to work with us, Captain. And there’s only a handful of specific missions we would ever send you on, given your circumstances. They would be missions where your unique knowledge of Hydra would come in handy, and where your particular enhanced skills might help save the lives of the agents we do send. How about you operate more as a consultant role? Someone who comes on board only when we need you? You wouldn’t even have to work 9 to 5.”

Steve smiled, but then looked away again. He wasn’t sure if he should accept the offer. His gut was telling him that there was more to Fury’s offer than the surface level offer of letting him go beat up on a new generation of Hydra agents. He knew he was missing something, this man was a seasoned intelligence officer, so Steve already figured he was only getting half the story. On top of all that, he didn’t know how it might affect his future plans. Not that he really had any, but he knew he did want to go visit Peggy in the care home down in Virginia at some point soon. Possibly even meet her family. He wasn’t sure how to go about doing that, but if he was on call for missions, it would put a dent in his availability.

“I could turn down missions if I don’t want to go?” he asked.

“Absolutely, though we would be disappointed of course,” Fury replied. “If you don’t work for S.H.I.E.L.D., I can’t order you around. But would you consider it?”

“Sort of as an independent contractor?” asked Steve.

“Something like that,” Fury agreed.

“I can agree to one or two missions,” said Steve. “I can’t really promise anything after that. I don’t even know what I’m going to do with myself long-term.”

“Fair enough,” agreed Fury, who stood up and walked around to the other side of his desk, sat in his chair and punched a button on the console. “Send her in,” he instructed whoever was on the receiving end of the transmission.

‘Send her in?’ Send who in? Steve wondered.

He didn’t have long to wait, the door to the office opened, and he turned around to look. A woman came striding in purposefully, heading straight towards Fury’s desk, where she came to rest a few paces off, and stood at attention. Although it wasn’t military attention. Her hands were clasped behind her back, but her stance was languid, almost like a cat ready to spring out-of-the-way of something thrown at it. Steve let his eyes roam over the newcomer.

The first thing that hit him with that she was incredibly pretty. So pretty, in fact, that he momentarily forgot how to breathe. Her honey blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, utilitarian and functional, though it still looked good on her. She had feminine arched eyebrows, and hazel eyes, and something about the cast of her cheekbones and nose seemed vaguely familiar, though Steve couldn’t place it. She was dressed in a formfitting outfit, white pants and a black jacket with a black undershirt, and what looked like a couple of holsters on her belt. The boots she wore on her feet barely made a sound on the floor, and were plainly meant for high activity, like running, based on the treads. Her eyes were glued to Fury, as of awaiting orders, but then flipped over to where he sat, and then flipped back again. Then she turned to stare, her mouth dropping open. Her eyes locked with his, and Steve felt an odd jolt in his chest. He suddenly became aware that his own mouth was slightly open and he closed it, and they stared at each other. Then her eyes narrowed, as if she were irritated, and turned back to Fury.

“What’s he doing here?” she asked, definitely irritated. Steve wondered what he had done in such short order that could have pissed this woman off. He was also curious to see how Fury would handle what was clearly insubordination.

To his surprise, Fury looked more amused than irritated, although there was some irritation in his eyes. He stared at the young woman, apparently trying to keep from smiling, but the tone in his voice making it clear that he was not going to allow too much insubordination.

“Captain Rogers has agreed to be assigned to some of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s missions against Hydra.”

The woman raised her eyebrows straight into her hairline, looked at Fury, then looked back at Steve, then back at Fury again. She said nothing. And then she expertly schooled her features, her face going expressionless, and then she just nodded.

Fury pointed to the chair next to Steve, and she easily sat in it without making a sound, not looking at Steve, but her eyes fixated on the director. Steve realized he was still staring at her, actually his eyes had never left her, and that was probably what was irritating her. It was rude back in his time, and was undoubtedly still rude today. He quickly looked back at Fury himself, but his awareness of the woman sitting next to him didn’t leave. It amazed him actually. He had been around a lot of women since he woke up, and none had captivated his attention quite the way this one had. What was it about her that made him want to continue looking at her, staring at her? She was familiar, no doubt, but why?

Fury was talking, to both of them, but mostly to the woman. “For the moment, he is not currently employed by S.H.I.E.L.D. He will act as an independent contractor. That means he will only be assigned to the missions for which we deem him most appropriate. In the meantime, he will continue to live his life outside as he sees fit. You will be his liaison between S.H.I.E.L.D. and himself. When there is a mission available, you will present the facts of the case to him and receive his answer about whether or not he wishes to be included. You will fill him in on any necessary information, keeping in mind that he does not have full security clearance, that will come later. You will also facilitate any training he might need for particular missions. Any equipment requests. Is that clear?”

“Why me?” asked the woman, looking confused and somewhat suspicious.

Steve felt his jaw dropped open and he couldn’t help it, he turned to stare at the woman again. Was insubordination just her default mode? She clearly did not want to be any kind of liaison, especially to him. Not that he understood why. And was it a habit that she talked back to her director who was clearly her commanding officer? He didn’t hear that the other agents did that, in fact pretty much all the ones that Steve had encountered had treated Fury with an appropriate amount of deference. But this woman seem to be angling for a court-martial, assuming they operated under military rules. At the very least, she was barking up the tree of a reprimand. And yet Fury didn’t seem at all angry by this, if anything he seemed amused by her discomfort.

“Do you have somebody else in mind that would be better at the job?” he asked her easily. “Someone who is more familiar with his case file and personal history? Someone with better skills, experience, or willingness to do it?”

Now the woman’s eyes flashed anger, even though her features remain schooled and carefully controlled.

“No, sir,” she replied.

“Good,” Fury responded smoothly. He then began to run down the procedure and protocol for which Steve would be selected for certain missions against Hydra, and how the woman, as liaison, would contact him. Steve only halfway listened, remarking at the skill at which Fury had easily manipulated the otherwise reluctant agent into doing a job she clearly did not want to do. Again, Steve couldn’t help but wonder why. Not to brag on himself, for it was not the way he was raised, but most people seemed fairly awestruck by having Captain America wander the hallways, and it seemed that the majority of them would have relished the assignment of acting as his liaison. So why did this woman seem so reluctant to do it? And while he was pondering that mystery, he realized that Fury had not introduced her. What was her name?

Fury finished up his instructions, and then looked at the both of them. “Any questions?” he asked.

“Uh yeah, I have one,” said Steve halfway raising his hand, and then realized he looked like a goober, so he put it down.

“Yes?” asked Fury.

Steve turned and looked at the woman and attempted to smile. “Do you have a name? Something I can use to ask for you if I have to? Or should I refer to you as ‘that agent assigned to Steve Rogers?’”

Apparently his attempt at humor had fallen flat. She looked at him expressionless, as if trying to decide whether or not he was serious. Then he thought he saw the corner of her mouth quirk up a bit, before settling back into its expressionless mask.

“Agent 13,” she said. “Special division,”

Now unlike her, Steve was less skilled at schooling his features, and he knew right now his face wore an expression of incredulity. “Agent 13, really? Is that the name your mother gave you?”

“It’s the name I go by,” she replied tonelessly.

Fury interjected, “Agents in the special division often perform highly dangerous and classified missions. For their own protection, and the protection of any families or friends they might have, we don’t use their given names. It’s up to the agent whether or not to reveal their name, and around here, only a handful of people know Agent 13s actual name. She prefers it that way. If you need to ask for her or inquire about her, you can use her designation, everyone here knows who to look for.”

Steve realized that Fury had purposely refrained from saying Agent 13’s name on purpose, letting Steve ask the agent’s name and giving the agent herself the option of telling him or not telling him. And Agent 13 obviously didn’t want him to know her name, only her designation. He nodded in assent and let it drop.

“In that case,” Fury was saying, and Steve forced himself to pay attention, “good luck to both of you. There’s a mission leaving in two hours. Thirteen, fill him in if he wants to go and get him set up on communication.”

Agent 13 stood up and gave a short, decisive nod. Steve stood up, recognizing the dismissal. When Fury sat down at his desk, she turned to leave and Steve followed her. She strode out into the hall and turned to face him when Fury’s door closed behind them. Any hostility or irritation in her eyes from before was gone and she was the image of cool professionalism, much like Fury’s second in command, Maria Hill, whom Steve had met a few times and found slightly scary.

“This way if you would, Captain,” she said, gesturing to an empty room with a conference table. He followed.

She closed the door and activated what he later learned was a silencing field that dampened any noise and prevented them from being overheard outside. She pulled a tablet out from inside her jacket and tapped some sort of pattern on the face of the watch she was wearing. Steve was about to ask about it when she sat down in one of the chairs so he immediately sat down next to her. She started scrolling through the screen in her tablet, pointing out certain points of the mission Fury had mentioned. Her scent, somewhat faint, but unique, wafted over to his nose, and it imprinted in his mind. Something slightly musky but also slightly floral, like honeysuckle. It was probably whatever shampoo she used, he was still getting used to the idea of the multitude of various scented products on the grooming aisle of the grocery store, but it wasn’t unpleasant. In fact it was quite nice. He gave himself a mental kick and forced himself to focus on what she was saying.

“Since you don’t yet have certain security clearance, I’ll have to give you the public relations version of what’s going on,” she was saying.

Steve immediately dropped into mission mode and listened. Agent 13 was obviously quite skilled and knowledgeable, despite the fact that she couldn’t be older than 25 by his estimation. He wondered how in the world she became so valuable an agent in this organization at such a young age, until he remembered that most of the people who had fought in World War II were not older than 20, and some commanders of entire bomber units were only about 24 years old in some cases. Enlisting at 26, Steve had actually been considered quite old by soldier standards back then. He had become a commander of a special forces unit at about the same age as this young woman. She pulled up a schematic of a compound on the tablet and pointed out certain locations to him, explaining that the compound was a suspected Hydra facility, possibly holding data and information that would be extremely valuable to S.H.I.E.L.D. It did not seem to him to be heavily guarded, nor was it extremely large a compound, so he was honestly curious as to why they needed him.

“The impression that I’ve gotten so far of S.H.I.E.L.D., “he told her, “was that this agency does not suffer fools. Pretty much everyone employed by S.H.I.E.L.D. is a fairly competent agent and, or, soldier. Am I correct in that assessment?” he asked her.

“Some more than others, but yes,” she replied.

“Don’t take this as me being untoward, or overly complementary, but you strike me as a sort of person who could probably take this compound yourself with only a handful of men. Or women. I’m still getting used to the fact that women are allowed to serve in combat in this organization. You’ll have to forgive me.”

“No offense taken. And you’re wondering why we need you?” she asked.

“Well…yeah,” he admitted.

“Because Hydra prides itself in operating as one large umbrella organization with a lot of autonomous units. Depending on the level of sensitivity of a commanding officer at one Hydra location, you might find nothing more than your regular defenses, guard station, and laser tripwires, waiting for you at the gate. Or you might wander into the facility run by a particularly sadistic son of a bitch, and find yourself with stuff that was outlawed by the Geneva Convention some time ago. Although I don’t know if you’ve been brought up to speed on that?”

“I’ve been reading some military history, or what’s history to you,” he said. “That Internet thing you all have now is really quite miraculous.”

She smiled ruefully, but didn’t continue on that thread of conversation. “Simply put, Captain, you’ve dealt with some of the nastiest crap that Hydra has been known to throw at people. I’m pretty good at ascertaining what we’re facing going into situations like these, but there have also been mistakes. In one case, a team was sent into a facility similar to this one, expecting only minimum resistance based on intel about personnel movements around the perimeter. Only when they got in, they discovered that the entire place was rigged with chemical weapons, and that Hydra agents really aren’t fussy about trying to preserve themselves. Everybody in there, our team and Hydra, died pretty horribly.”

Steve winced. He almost asked her if that had been a mission she had been responsible for, but something about the glare in her eyes warned him that it would not be a good idea. So he refrained.

“That’s pretty horrible,” he agreed. “But one should not blame themselves for not thinking like the kind of criminal a Hydra agent is. It means you still have your humanity if you don’t.”

“I’m not really interested in preserving my own humanity, Captain,” she said. “I do what I do so that others don’t have to. I take the jobs that I do so that some of my fellow agents who have wives and children get to go home to them at night. My job is to think like these bastards, and S.H.I.E.L.D. has invested a significant amount of time and resources into training me to do just that.”

“Which I can appreciate,” he said carefully, “but again, I’m not really sure I can be of much use. I’ll go on the mission, I said I would, I’m just not sure how I could be any different than any other agent you might send. I have the enhancements physically, and you may be correct about my experience, but that was also 70 years ago. Hydra was using technology that has since been supplanted by things I don’t understand. In fact, you’re going to have to tell me what a laser tripwire is. If I don’t know the kinds of resources the enemy has, and what their functions are if I am to face them, I’m not going to be of much use tactically.”

“To be honest, I really don’t expect you to be much help on this particular mission,” she said. “You’re right, you’re not up to speed on modern resources in this sort of field. Which I can ensure that you are given access to resources that will explain to you most of the kind of technology we’ve encountered. But what you can do that our guys can’t is take on 10 men single-handedly. Now that you’ve mostly recovered, your reflexes are much faster than ours, and with you, we can send in a five man team instead of a 10 man team. Less likely to be detected.”

“And if I manage not to fudge up this particular mission, I’ll be offered other ones? Is that it?” he asked. “Sort of like an initiation?”

At that, she actually smiled a real smile, before dropping it back into her customary sardonic one. “You’re not too bad at perceptiveness yourself, Captain. You might have made an excellent intelligence officer.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” he said with finality. “Being able to read the field on which you operate doesn’t make you good at intelligence gathering. Someone else on my team was better than me at that. And she probably would have given everyone here a run for their money.”

“She did,” said Agent 13 looking him square in the eye. “She founded S.H.I.E.L.D. and set forth the pattern by which most of us operate. I’m familiar with your background.”

Steve looked at the woman with no name sitting next to him, and saw an odd look in her eyes. He couldn’t quite define it. But it verified that she knew who he was talking about, and seem to admire Peggy for her skill. Steve actually found himself somewhat relieved at that, that someone other than him knew of Peggy and what she had been capable of, and respected her for it. And now this new generation of intelligence officer, like the one sitting next to him, was basically Peggy’s legacy.

He was about to say something when there came a tentative knock on the door, and Agent 13 looked around to see a junior agent standing there, looking somewhat intimidated, on the other side of the glass door, pointing to something in his hand. She got up, deactivated the cone of silence, and open the door. She took what the man was holding without a word, thanked him and closed the door again, reactivating the field. She came over to Steve and sat down next to him, and handed the object to him.

It appeared to be the same kind of watch she was wearing on her wrist. But as she slid her finger across the face of the dark square, bringing it to life and showing that it was indeed a watch, she began explaining to him something about smart watches. She explained that the one she was holding was specifically manufactured by S.H.I.E.L.D. to be a secure communication device, that it could make phone calls, send secure messages, and provide a wide variety of functions. He forced himself to pay attention, because he suspected she would be irritated if she had to demonstrate a second time. He was about to ask for a pencil and paper to write all of this down, when she showed him how to activate the instruction program on the device, that would go through everything she had just said as many times as he needed. She asked for his wrist and strapped it on him.

“When I need to contact you,” she said, “I’ll contact you on this, not your phone. Cell phones can be secured, but they’re notoriously unreliable. This device makes use of radio frequency not common in the civilian world, and not easily picked up by scanners or jammers.”
Steve had no idea what she was talking about, but made a mental note to use that Google thing to look it up later. He didn’t want to seem completely clueless in front of this woman, for some reason. She stood up, and he followed.

She consulted her own watch, and told him, “We are wheels up in an hour and 15 minutes. Any gear you might need, you can get down in tactical, on the fifth floor. I’ll meet you in hangar two in an hour. Think you can find it?”

He nodded, tapping on the face of his watch, having already figured out how to bring up a schematic of the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. “This thing will show me how to get there, right?”

Now she looked impressed. “That’s correct, and it’s good that you have an affinity for new technology. There’s a civilian version of this sort of device on the market, and my middle-age cousin took two months to learn to operate his.”

“No need to wheel me around yet,” he said. She gave him one of her half smiles, nodded, and then left.

000

Steve found the tactical department just fine, though the only thing they really had for him to wear just yet was a dark suit with bulletproof material built in that made it slightly bulky and heavier than what he was used to. He asked the issuing agent if she had any idea what had happened to his Captain America suit, and she replied that she did not but would find out, as it was probably in holding. He also wondered what had happened to his shield, for it was the weapon he preferred to use along with his sidearm. But nobody seemed to know where that was either, even with Fury telling him that they had indeed been salvaged. They could probably locate them, but not before the mission left. They issued him some weapons, and directed him to hanger two, where he arrive before Agent 13. He spent a few minutes playing around with the new device she had given him, but looked up when he heard her footsteps, which he had already memorized, approaching. To his surprise, she was carrying his shield. She handed it to him.

“I managed to get this cleared for the mission. Your suit’s kind of in rough shape, so they’re fixing it. Wasn’t ready before this mission.”

He took the shield from her almost reverently. “That’s OK,” he said, “as long as I have this I’m good.”

The rest of the team assigned to the mission filed in, five people, Steve noticed. One was the pilot, the other four were assigned to ground operations. Steve noticed that they stared at Agent 13 with a mixture of awe and a little fear. Now he was curious, what sort of reputation did his S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison have with her colleagues? She was all business though, assigning two of the men to Steve, and the other two to her. She explained that Steve’s team was to provide a cover and tactical support, while hers was to provide cover for her specifically while she hacked the computers and gathered data at the facility. She asked if they had any questions, and two of the men asked tactically significant questions for clarification, which Steve noticed and took a mental note of, and then she ordered everyone onto the jet.

They were airborne in five minutes, and heading towards the eastern European nation housing the suspected Hydra facility within five minutes. Agent 13 sat down next to Steve and talked with him a bit about the sort of equipment they might encounter being used by the enemy. Steve had to admit, he was impressed, although, despite common misconception, he actually detested war and weapons and everything they stood for. He was good at soldiering, but it didn’t mean that he actually enjoyed it. It must’ve shown in his expression, because Agent 13 noticed.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

“No, no,” said Steve, “you’ve done a good job of bringing me up to speed. I guess I’m just a little disappointed. In the 70 years I’ve been taking an ice nap, I had rather hoped that humanity would have found a way to use our brilliance to solve things like disease, famine, and other problems. I had hoped the war than I fought in would be the last one of that nature, now I find out it’s just gone underground. All of these things that you’ve shown me, they are the work of geniuses, but they’re meant for fighting, for war, for killing. Imagine if we directed all that energy to solving the problems of mankind? In the last seven decades, seems like the only thing we’ve done is find creative new ways to kill each other. I don’t know, I guess I had hoped that by the time we hit the 21st-century, we’d have moved past all that.”

The look she gave him was an indecipherable one. As if she couldn’t decide whether or not to be impressed by his philosophical nature, or deem him a naïve fool.

“I suppose we might have,” she said, “if man himself had changed very much. All this technology, and yet we are still a tribal, irritable, hyper emotional mess of a species. As long as there are people, I’m afraid there will always be war. About the only thing we really learned from World War II was that we never want to have a kind of conflict that might cause us to drop atomic weapons again. So in order to avoid that, we simply adapted war to be far more sneaky. Like what we’re doing now.”

Steve nodded. He had been in the ice by the time the atomic bombs finally ended the war, but he had seen plenty about them ever since he had awoken. And honestly, he was glad he wasn’t there for that.

The jet landed under the cover of darkness in the nearby field, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. team silently disembarked, leaving the pilot to tend to the plane, and the remaining six of them to head towards the facility. Agent 13 consulted with Steve on approach, and he felt his “Cap mode” take over. Even though she was clearly in command of the mission, everyone immediately deferred to his authority. It was a knack he had, and often made him wonder. Even Agent 13 seem to be looking at him for a final word. He directed them to spread around, found a weak point in the perimeter, and they made it in without being detected. In fact, Steve was a little concerned that it was a little too easy.

Then his concerns vanished as a team of operatives stormed out of the building to confront them. Agent 13 easily blended into the shadows, as did her team, while Steve’s team took them head on. The first thing Steve noticed was that, while they were well trained, they were not very disciplined. The right flank broke ranks when put under too much pressure, so he instructed the two men with him to concentrate on that area. Within a matter of minutes, the Hydra onslaught broke ranks, and they were able to penetrate the building.

Steve had not intended that his new life after the ice would involve taking lives of a new generation of miscreants who now worked for Hydra. Briefly, as he put one after the other on the ground, it occurred to him that the last time he was conscious, these individuals had not even been conceived yet. At some point between him crashing plane, and him waking up, someone had gotten a hold of these soldiers and turn them towards Hydra. Even as he took down one after the other, he couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of sorrow, as if he had somehow failed before to prevent the force that would turn this new generation to the dark side.

Though apparently his combat skills, even if a little rusty, were still sufficient enough to impress the two agents he was with. He found them looking at him with a certain amount of new respect, and they didn’t hesitate to follow orders after witnessing his initial onslaught. But whatever their take on him was, it was probably similar to the one he now had for Agent 13. She soundlessly inserted herself into shadows and around corners, easily taking down the resistance and swapping out clips in her gun without breaking a single stride. It was practiced and effortless, and even though he already knew it, evidence of the fact that this was far from her first show. But when one of the thugs actually managed to get close enough to grapple her, before Steve could even take two steps in her direction, he watched her take down the man without even breaking a sweat in a series of practiced hand to hand combat moves that were impressive. The fighting style seemed familiar, some form of martial arts, though he couldn’t quite place it. But it was effective at any rate. Two more thugs closed in on her, and she sent them to the ground with the same series of blocks and kicks. Then her team was splitting off to go down one hall to retrieve the data, while she motioned at him to hold the cover for the exit.

Steve directed his team to take up defensive positions, which they did, and from that point on, holding the line was simply a matter of having good aim. The Hydra agents had figured out that they were matching a force that was not easily overcome, and were no longer coming at them directly, but instead taking pot shots from behind corners.

Steve hoped the other team wouldn’t take too long doing whatever they had to do. In his day, gathering data meant gathering up files of papers, but he already knew enough about the 21st-century to know that all of the information wouldn’t be on paper, but would be on some sort of device that could fit in your hand. Sure enough, Agent 13 and her team came back around the corner, taking up defensive positions. He looked over at her, caught her eye and she nodded. Her work was done. Now they just had to get out. Steve initially hesitated, waiting for Agent 13 to take the commander role, but when he looked back at her again, she nodded once again in his direction, indicating that she was deferring to his tactical authority.

He carefully surveyed the situation, potential exits and barriers, and then shouted orders to everyone behind him. They listened immediately, shooting down one particular hallway, while retreating down another. One of the agents had an explosive device, and if Steve had guessed correctly, attaching it to one particular wall would blast away to the outside. Sure enough, when the agent activated the explosive device, the cool night air rushed into the hallway, and Steve ordered the retreat. He noticed that Agent 13 waited until all the other agents were out, and then he pointed at her and motioned that she should jump through the hole herself. He half expected an argument, but instead she did what he indicated immediately, then she remained at the opening, firing through so that he could come through the hole himself. Without a word, they regrouped and escaped through their initial hole in the fence.

Once they made it to the jet, everyone rushed aboard and began to strap up. Agent 13 slipped into the copilot seat next to the pilot, ordering him to get the craft airborne. Steve had only just strapped himself in when the jet took off, but it didn’t angle back towards America and the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. Instead, it came to hover over the Hydra facility, and Agent 13 pressed several buttons, and missiles shot from the jet, destroying the compound. Only after they were sure that there was nothing left of the compound did the jet then turn and head back where it came from. Steve had to admit, that kind of firepower was impressive. It far surpassed anything he had witnessed in World War II.

He was quiet on the flight back, not really joining in the conversation between the other agents, although he noticed Agent 13 looking over her shoulder at him curiously, and not really saying much herself. When they landed at the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, they return to the tactical department to turn in their gear, and then, to Steve surprise, the debriefing involved stepping into a small room that was only a little bit bigger than a closet, having several holographic screens come up, and having to answer certain questions to an automated voice about the nature of the mission. It took about an hour, but once he was done, the automated voice told him he was dismissed, and he headed down to the gym showers to clean up and put fresh clothes on. He had to admit, this was the best he had felt since he had woken up. It felt good to be doing something again, something productive. He just hoped that what he was doing was some sort of good in the world.

000

 

She was waiting for him in the hall when he got out of the shower. She was all cleaned up, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a clean outfit, like nothing had happened, aside from a bruise on the side of her forehead where she had taken a hit from flying debris. She looked at him in his civilian clothes, looked him up and down as of checking for something, and then gave him a half smile.

“How are you doing? Feeling OK after the debrief?”

“If you’re asking whether or not the mission call some sort of unforeseen psychological trauma coming so soon after my shock to waking up after a 70 year nap, I assure you I’m fine,” he said with what he hoped was a somewhat good-natured smile.

She gave another half-smile at him. “I’m not really all that concerned about that, though the head shrinkers want me to grill you a couple of questions to determine your mental state. Unfortunately, only half of them have ever been soldiers or seen any combat, so their experience in such matters is a little limited. But post-traumatic stress disorder can be a real thing, and going back into combat can make it worse.”

“I’m able to compartmentalize just fine, I assure you,” he said. “It felt good to be active again.”

“Yeah, in your place, I imagine I’d probably feel the same. Think you’d be open to any more missions?”

“Have any?” he asked.

“Not at the moment,” she said. “But we will keep you in mind for any that come up. Get some rest. See you around, Rogers.”

She turned, and started walking away. Steve felt an overwhelming urge to ask if she wanted to go get coffee or something, but his nerve left him. She could be married for all he knew. He doubted it, but that was just it, he knew nothing about her. Including her first name.

“You can call me Steve, you know,” he called after her. She stopped and turned around. He wanted to “add my friends call me Steve,” but he was struck with a sudden realization that she might not actually appreciate being counted amongst his friends. Maybe it assumed too much. In his day, there were a lot of social rules that he never quite understood, and he was more than certain that the 21st-century had a whole new set of which he was completely unaware.

“I mean, um, we’re not on duty…” he tried not to stammer. Then, he felt his face going beet red. He hated it when that happened.

But to her credit, she didn’t give him hell about any of it. She just nodded.

“Duly noted,” she said, and walked away. He let her go. It was the least embarrassing option. Once she was gone, he went back to his apartment, collapsed on his bed and briefly considered smothering himself with a pillow.

Chapter Text

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Hi all! I'm so sorry for the late update, but this weekend was pure mayhem! Thankfully I managed to get a chapter done. And thanks to everyone who have been enjoying the story well enough to drop me a line and let me know!

 

Chapter 3

It is a week before he sees her again, and when he does, he is coming back from his morning run, and she is waiting for him on the front steps of his apartment building, eating a breakfast sandwich. As he walks up, she hands him a bag that contains three sandwiches of his own, and a couple of patties of some sort of pressed potato that she says is hashbrowns, but would he most definitely assured her was not hashbrowns that he knows of. He takes a bite of one and find it unappetizing, so he gives them to her, as she seems to like them, although the sandwiches she brought him are totally unhealthy and completely delicious. She had come with another mission, of course, it wasn’t a social call, but she was a big believer in not going into a mission hungry. He sat next to her, feeling slightly awkward, and he might have tried to make small talk or conversation, but she seemed to be enjoying the silence, so he forced himself to relax and found that he really didn’t need to talk to her at all. When they were done eating, she asked if he would be interested in another mission, he told her he would be willing to listen to the details, so she told him to meet her at the S.H.I.E.L.D. office in 30 minutes. Then she got up and left. He meets with her 30 minutes later, and decides to go on the mission.

It ends up being an easy one, the facility is abandoned when they got there, along with all of their Intel, unfortunately. The other agents grumble, and he can tell that Agent 13 is disappointed, though she does a really good job of hiding it. Despite the fact that she has the ability to remarkably school her features, he starting to get a sense of her and her moods. She stands in the middle of the abandoned control room, turns around three times slowly looking around, and then purses her lips.

“Someone tipped them off,” she said. “And not today either. They knew we were coming, at least yesterday, probably. A few days before that. And only a handful of people knew about this mission. At least before a couple of hours ago. There’s a leak somewhere in S.H.I.E.L.D.

She turns and walks out, and Steve follows her. He wonders if she thinks he might be the leak or the weak spot in the chain, until he remembers he only knew about the mission a few hours ago. In a facility in this size, it couldn’t have been picked up in only an hour.

“What are you thinking?” he asked, catching up with her.

“I’m thinking the debrief for this mission is going to be interesting,” she said, stopping to turn and face him. “Because of who might read it. Only high-ranking agents knew we were coming. If there’s a leak in S.H.I.E.L.D., it has to be one of them.”

“As long as you don’t think it’s me,” he said ruffling his hair, wondering if that was a smart thing to say. To his relief, she smiled in disbelief.

“Rogers, there’s maybe only a handful of people on this planet that I know for absolute sure are not Hydra or any other form of miscreant. Me being one of them. You being another. That leaves maybe only three other people I’m absolutely certain of. Everyone else, suspect.”

“Not that I’m not glad to hear that,” he said, “but how do you know? How do you know anybody at all?”

“Part of my job is answering that question on a lot of different levels,” she said turning to continue walking and motioning to the agents following them. They boarded the jet and headed back. She was quiet on the jet in front of the other agents, and they were separated for debriefing when they returned. In the debriefing closet with the automated system, he was a little worried about what he should say, whether he should voice her suspicions about a leak in S.H.I.E.L.D., but when he attempted not to say anything, the automated system detected that he was holding something back, and insisted that he answer, it’s tone indicating that there might be trouble if he didn’t. So he did. It also made him realize how good a leak had to be in disguising himself or herself in order to be able to beat this system.

She was waiting for him when he came out, and he sheepishly told her about the debriefing. To his surprise, she only shrugged. “That’s what I want you to do,” she said, “don’t try to hold anything back. Tell the truth when you’re able to. Those computers are specially designed to detect falsehood. You don’t want to be brought up in front of an investigation board for suspicions of being a leak or a problem.”

“Is that machine how are you know who to trust or not?” he asked.

“Only an idiot relies on a machine entirely,” she said. “Oh don’t misunderstand, they rely on it a lot, and that machine played a heavy role in determining whether or not one of our agents who was a defector from Russia was actually legit or not. But I prefer to use my own senses. I was trained by one of the best agents to ever work for this organization. Someone who came up through the ranks before they had cool little gadgets like the one we just stepped out of. The techniques they had to employ back then to determine trustworthiness still work because human psychology doesn’t change that much over the years. Couple those techniques with the machine, and you get a pretty accurate picture of what you’re dealing with.”

They had started walking down the hallway, and he asked her to tell him about the Russian defector, so she told him what she could, and to his surprise he discovered it had been the woman who had come in the fake room when he had awoken from his ice nap. It turned out, the woman whose name was Natasha Romanoff, nicknamed Black Widow, had been a roommate of Agent 13's at one point. When he expressed surprise that she was willing to room with someone like that, she only shrugged and said that if the other woman were truly a double agent, the last thing she would want to do is draw attention to herself by killing her roommate suspiciously. It was everybody else on the hall that was likely in danger. Steve found himself laughing at that morbid logic.

000

Both Fury and Agent 13 tell him a few weeks later that they think they have isolated and dealt with the leak, so there should be no further problems with missions. But when Steve looked over at Agent 13, she didn’t seem completely convinced. He wasn’t sure if it was because there really was still a problem, or if because she was suspicious by nature. A few months passed, and they go on several more missions together. As time goes by, he is given a little more clearance in S.H.I.E.L.D., although he never completely comes on board as an employee. Despite his attempts at personal conversation with her, nothing major, just little details, she expertly rebuffs any attempts at familiarity. But he picks up a few things.

He discovers that her favorite food is cheeseburgers. She makes an offhand comment about being on a mission to find the most perfect cheeseburger in America, and thus far she’s found some pretty close ones, but nothing that meets her criteria. When he asks her what that criteria is, she simply shrugs and smiles. When they are chasing a suspect across the rooftops of Prague, he discovers that she is incredibly agile, something like an Olympic gymnast in her ability to jump from rooftop to rooftop and scamper up walls without equipment. She mentions doing something called parkour in college, which is apparently an athletic sport, and from that he learns that she had been in college getting a degree in criminology, reinforcing to him the way that society has changed in 70 years, for in his day, colleges were not integrated, when women went to college at all. It was a positive change that he was actually glad to hear about.

He tries to get information from the other agents, but discovers that they know even less about her than he does. The other agents only shrug when he asks if they know her name, saying that they only know her as Agent 13, and for all the personal details they know about her, she might as will be a robot to them. He knows the other male agents find her easy to look at, he knows he himself certainly does, and he’s caught a few of them staring, but apparently her reputation precedes her as some sort of deadly agent, and no one is stupid enough to stare too long or make any kind of comment where she might be able to hear it. Phil Coulson seems to know her better than some others, though. He discovers this when he was walking with her in the hallway, and they run into Coulson coming around the corner. He greets them both warmly, and shakes both of their hands, Steve noting that Agent 13 actually allows this. Most people don’t even ofter, and the ones who do, she refuses to shake. But Phil, she great as warmly as he greets her, and she smiles a genuine smile, which Steve knows is rare. For a brief irrational moment, he is almost jealous that Coulson can spark this friendly look on her face, when Steve himself does not seem to be able to.

As Coulson walks away, Steve wonders briefly if there had been something romantic between them, or might still be, until she says, “Phil Coulson is a good man, a good agent. I hope that cellist he’s dating in Portland knows that she’s lucky to have him.”

“Oh,” said Steve, “I didn’t know he was dating anyone. That’s good.”

She gives him a sideways look that might be a knowing smile, but it’s gone when he turns to look at her. “It is,” she agrees. “Phil has been through a lot in his career, and he still has a long way to go I suspect. Not many agents bother with romantic relationships or forming connections, it’s too risky if you piss off the wrong miscreant. Some of manage, though.”

Before he can stop himself, he blurts out “You?”

He expects her to snap at him that it was none of his business, or even maybe look at her with one of her ironic smiles. But instead, to his surprise, she looks a little sad. “No,” she said. “People not in the game don’t understand. None of the guys I’ve dated ever understood my career choice. One even made the mistake of trying to get me to quit. That one didn’t end well. Neither did the last one. It’s not worth the trouble.”

He finds himself feeling overwhelmingly sad at her words, and even a little irritated that she'd give other guys a romantic chance but seemed to have shut down such opportunities before she ever met him, but before he could say anything to her about how that didn’t have to be a permanent situation, that people's lives change, and a lot could happen in the coming years, she bid him goodbye and walks off down the hallway. He watches her go, noting with a little bit of self-pity, that at least the last guys she dated probably at least knew her name.

000

Phil Coulson knows her name.

They are going over some pieces of information when a pause in the conversation causes him to flat out ask Phil if he knew Agent 13‘s given name. Phil looks uncomfortable, and would probably actually be a decent liar and deny knowing any such thing, but Phil is also a little starstruck by Steve, apparently having collected Captain America memorabilia ever since he was a kid, and obviously seemed uncomfortable lying to him. Steve knows that it would be mean to use that against Coulson, to try to get him to tell him Agent 13‘s name, but also, Steve suspects that for all that Coulson is fairly idealistic, he’s a good agent and wouldn’t fall for any ploy of Steve’s to try to get him to divulge information that Agent 13 did not feel like divulging herself.

He and Coulson are pouring over some tablets when Coulson offhand mentions that there were several young agents who had come up together through S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy, who had set the standard for physical and mental excellence as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent early on, and mentioned that Agent 13 had been one of them. From that, Steve was able to deduce that Phil must know her real name, for she would not have been given her designation as a trainee at S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy.

He pointed this out to Phil and says, “You must know her real name then, right?”

Phil looked uncomfortable, but then drew himself up. “I do,” he admitted. “And if she hasn’t told it to you, you know I can’t, so please don’t ask.”

“Why won’t she tell it to me?” asked Steve. “I mean I get the whole secrecy thing, but it’s not like I’m going to get a bull horn and blare it from the top of the tallest building. Unless she thinks her name is completely horrible or something.”

“No,” said Phil, “it’s a pretty name. And nobody thinks you’re going to do anything of the sort, but she has her reasons for not telling anybody. Maybe someday you’ll know those reasons, but not today. Why do you wanna know so bad anyway?”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Steve admitted. “It’s just that, when I spend a certain amount of time with someone working in a dangerous job like this one, part of what makes me able to do what I do is knowing the people I’m working with. Knowing what makes them tick. And if I don’t even know their names, how can I do that?”

“I get that,” said Phil, “but you’ve got to know by now that you can know a person beyond just their name. You’ve gone on 12 different missions with your S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison, and have any of them required you to know her birth name?”

“No,” said Steve, “but I feel like there’s a certain level of trust that’s missing. She knows my name, but I don’t know hers.”

“She’ll tell you when she’s ready, Captain,” said Phil sympathetically. And then tactfully changed the subject back to the information they were reviewing.

000

He isn’t sure himself why it’s becoming an obsession with him to learn her name. Some of it had to do with the reasons he gave Phil Coulson, but some other reasons he wasn’t entirely sure of himself. He was definitely attracted to her, but not just physically. She intrigued him. Her strength, her hidden sense of sarcastic humor, how easily she could take down a thug who underestimated her, her easy marksmanship, and her intelligence. He wasn’t one to laugh much, he was more prone to just smiling when he found something funny, but in the short time he had known her, she had managed to actually get him to laugh twice, both times with well-timed sarcastic remarks that he never would have made himself about a situation that usually wasn’t funny, but somehow her delivery and facial expression when she said it caused him to actually laugh in a way he hadn’t in a long time. When they went over details of a mission, they seemed to be on the same wavelength, leaning in to each other with interest and attention, with him knowing what she was about to say before she actually said it. Their comfortable working relationship over details made him think that Fury had probably been right to assign her to him the way he did, despite her initial reluctance, which he still didn’t understand. She seemed to tolerate him just fine now, like there was never a problem.

He thought about her a lot more than he cared to admit. Thoughts of her would come during the strangest times, like when he was sitting on the sofa watching something on television, and suddenly wishing she were sitting next to him, talking about what he was watching. This was especially odd, because despite his attempts at asking her out for coffee or to try and find that elusive perfect cheeseburger, or even just hang out and talk in the gym or S.H.I.E.L.D. facility rec room, she usually gently brushed him off, or gave some sort of excuse, so it was not as if they made a habit of hanging out. When he’d be sitting at the small café near his house drawing pictures of the Stark Tower still under construction not far away, he’d wish that she was sitting across the table from him, talking with him about anything or nothing in particular. He’d be so deep into the mental image of her there with him, he’d almost not notice the waitress lightly flirting with him until the old man at the table next to his advised him to “ask for her number, you moron.” He’d be in a bookstore perusing the shelves and find himself suddenly wondering what sorts of books she read, what sort of movies she liked. It wasn’t that he thought about her obsessively, or even constantly, but he thought about her often enough. The last person who had occupied his thoughts quite like this had been Peggy.

There was also something achingly familiar about her that he had never been able to completely figure out, and it was driving him nuts. The few times he had talked to the staff psychologist at S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent 13 had told him it was required and that she got a yearly psych evaluation herself which convinced him to go, the shrink had suggested that it might be a bit of meaningless déjà vu left over from his previous life and part of the jumble of confusion plaguing his mind ever since he woke up. Perhaps she just reminded him of someone he had met once in passing that was recessed in a corner of his mind.

He was willing to contend that point, but he honestly didn’t feel as if that were it. He was missing something and he knew it. He was a natural idealist and optimist, it was the generation he came from, and he couldn’t help but notice that people in the 21st century seemed to be quite more jaded and cynical, mostly pessimistic. Agent 13 had told him to look up Watergate, that this had been the turning point and last straw of an idealistic society following the turmoil of the 1960s. That was when he had purchased the small notebook he kept in his pocket to start writing down things people told him to look up during conversations. But he started to worry that this sort of cynical pessimism was wearing off on him when he found himself having doubts about S.H.I.E.L.D. and about the people he knew. Was S.H.I.E.L.D. really a good organization searching for bad guys? Were the people there really good people? What if Nick Fury, Agent 13 and even good-natured Phil Coulson were actually playing him for a fool, getting him to do their work that was not in the best interest of the country or the side of good? He hated having these doubts, especially about Agent 13. He really didn’t want her to secretly be his enemy.

But then, he had to end up pushing all of this aside.

 

Aliens invaded New York.

 

000

 

He was working out in a small gym near his apartment in New York. It was closer and smaller than the gym at S.H.I.E.L.D. though not as fancy. But it also didn’t have cameras in every corner and people staring at him, although he thought by now the S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel had gotten used to him being around and his story. And he could never completely shake the feeling that he was being watched, so he suspected that had to do with S.H.I.E.L.D. being essentially a spy agency. So the smaller privately owned gym, aside from being closer, felt safer, more secure. He got on first name basis with some of the guys who worked out regularly there, and they didn’t really know who he was. He curbed his strength when others were around, not showing off what he could really do, and it was refreshing. He told the gym owner he worked odd hours, and the man was nice enough to let him stay an hour or so after closing, and he rarely said anything about Steve tearing up his old punching bags.

He should have known that S.H.I.E.L.D. knew he was working out there, though, because maybe he would have been not so surprised to see Nick Fury come through the door looking for him after he had busted up a couple of the old punching bags in sheer frustration. He wasn’t really sure why he was so wound up. He hadn’t attempted asking the waitress out mostly because he honestly was not entirely sure what they were supposed to do if she said yes. He had not seen Agent 13 in a while, he hadn’t even seen Phil Coulson for a while either, and it had been months since he had seen Fury. He had been trying arrange a way to drive down to Virginia to the nursing home where Peggy was living now, in hopes of seeing her, but that wasn’t going very smoothly. He didn’t have a vehicle that could make the trip, and apparently there was a mountain of security around her, which was a good thing, but it was making it difficult for him to schedule a visit. In short, things were not going smoothly with anything he attempted, and he didn’t have enough to do.

Fury had come with a mission, which surprised Steve, because it was usually Agent 13 who brought him missions. Fury tells him about the cosmic cube, which he remembered quite well given that it was the source of all of his problems with Red Skull. He had been surprised to learn that Howard Stark had found it at the bottom of the ocean, but that nobody had found the Valkyrie bomber for decades following that. Fury tells him about a superior force, an otherworldly one, that had broken into a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and taken the cube, and compromised several high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who seemed to be under mind control, now following the individual known as Loki, who Steve would later learn was an Asgardian from another dimension. Fury was gathering a team of high powered individuals to face off against Loki, and get the cube back. Steve doesn’t give him an answer right away, but carries the rest of his gear back into the locker room to get ready to leave. Fury is waiting for him on the street. He wants an answer now. Steve says he won’t go, but wants to know where Agent 13 was.

“She’s usually the one that brings my missions,” said Steve. “Is she not going on this one?”

“Agent 13 is currently dealing with another matter,” said Fury.

Once again, Steve was surprised, but in hindsight realized he probably should not be. Of course she went on other missions that didn’t include him. Why would he think that she only went on the missions he went on? So he found himself feeling slightly jealous. He wanted to go on those missions. With her.

But he agrees to the mission without her. He’s not sure what to expect, perhaps something more involved than what S.H.I.E.L.D. would normally deal with, but he expected that he and these other enhanced individuals would confront this Loki character, get the cube back and things would go back to the way they are.

He was wrong.

He is first sent to Stuttgart, Germany to intercept Loki and the rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. agents under mind control, because they need iridium to stabilize the Tesseract. It is on the flight over that he encounters Natasha Romanoff again, who was flying the plane, and then, unexpectedly, Tony Stark. It was the first time they actually met, despite Steve being awake for several months at this point. Ironic that their first meeting should be this way. Loki surrenders, and on the flight back, he finally gets to speak to Tony Stark, who, frankly, is an ass, much like his father. In fact, Tony is so much like Howard, it causes Steve to do a couple of double takes. It also causes him, and not for the last time, to wonder how in the hell a man like Tony Stark managed to get a decent and smart woman like Pepper Potts to hang around him, and on that subject, how did Howard manage to get a woman to hang around long enough to produce a son? Meanwhile Steve wasn’t even able to ask a waitress out to a cup of coffee, or get a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to tell him her real name.

His ponderings were cut short with the arrival of Thor, the other Asgardian who had been in the file that Fury had given him, and Steve was forced to put down a confrontation between Stark and Thor in order to ensure that Loki remained in custody. He manages to get everyone to agree to go to the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, where Loki is imprisoned. It is also there that they meet Bruce Banner, who Steve had also heard about, and honestly, the one he was most curious about, as apparently the man had been attempting to re-create Steve’s own procedure that turned him into a super soldier, but something had gone wrong with the gamma radiation, causing him to turn into the Hulk. Although Banner is only there to study the Tesseract and Loki‘s scepter, things go from tense to worse when the Avengers cannot seem to agree on a proper course of action. This dissolves into arguments of battles of wills, until it is revealed by Stark that S.H.I.E.L.D. is using the Tesseract for themselves to build weapons against hostile extraterrestrial forces. Steve is not too thrilled to learn he has, indeed, been used in this regard. It makes him wonder, although he would never admit it to Tony Stark, but what else S.H.I.E.L.D. has simply been using him for. He thinks about Agent 13. What was her role in all this?

Then once again all hell breaks loose when the rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. agents arrive to retrieve Loki and battles break out. Steve jumps in, helps Stark, and eventually they make their way to New York where the battle against the Cthuthari commences. This battle is unlike any Steve had been in previously. He and the other Avengers eventually find a way to work together, but it means losing Phil Coulson in the battle on helicarrier. Steve mourns the man, he had been something closely resembling a friend, and he wonders if Agent 13 knows about his death? Thor takes Loki back to their own plane of existence to face trial, clean up commences on New York and the damaged buildings and gathering up the alien technology, and Stark actually gives Steve a fairly nice Harley Davidson motorcycle after they all go out for something called shawarma, which is actually pretty good, and Steve finds himself thinking of these Avengers as the first real friends he makes in the 21st century. He is given some peace and quiet for about three weeks before Fury asked him to consider moving down to Washington DC, to work at the hub as a fully-fledged member of S.H.I.E.L.D. Steve thinks about it for a while, still not happy with the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. had indeed been using him to their own purposes, and really wishing he could see Agent 13 again to talk it over with her, but ultimately he agrees and accepts because it will be close enough to where he can visit Peggy. S.H.I.E.L.D. pays for him to move to a small apartment in Georgetown, he was even able to bring his new motorcycle, and even given an office in the Hub on the Potomac River. It takes a little while to settle into a routine, but eventually he is assigned to the S.T.R.I.K.E. force with Brock Rumlow. He stays in touch with the Avengers, Tony Stark actually calls a couple of times, and he is on email and text chat with newly restored Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff, who also transferred to D.C., and occasionally Bruce Banner.

He finds he actually likes going on missions with S.T.R.I.K.E., they are much more like the military than the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. But as much as he hates to admit it, he misses Agent 13, seeing her sitting on the steps of his building eating a cheeseburger and waiting for him to arrive so she could give him details of omission. He wonders what she is up to, if she has been reassigned too or is still in New York, and tries to make some inquiries that come up blank. Then one day, he is sitting at his desk in the small office in the Hub that he has been assigned, going over some mission details, when he hears a soft knock from the doorway. He looks up, and she is standing there. She gives him one of her sardonic smiles, and brushes a strand of blonde hair behind her ear.

“Miss me, Rogers?” she asks.

He’s too stunned to answer at first, but he does manage a smile.

000

Steve know she probably won’t answer much, but he asks her where she has been. While he was working with the Avengers, she had been assigned to a confidential top-secret mission that she couldn’t talk about, but had been across the world in multiple countries, and the mission had been so last minute she hadn’t been able to say goodbye to him. It had been assigned to her literally overnight. When she came back, she had been offered an assignment at any location, and she chose the Hub.

“I’ll be training some recent Academy graduates who might be good material for special operations later on in their careers,” she said. “Since the Academy is in Maryland, it seemed best to move down here. Plus Natasha Romanoff keeps telling me that the restaurants are better in D.C. than they were in New York. I don’t believe her, but here we are.”

“And here I was thinking you missed going on missions with me,” Steve tried to joke.

To his surprise, she got a faraway look in her eyes but quickly snapped back. “Oh no I do. You’re a lot more companionable than some of the jerks I’ve had to work with. And after the kind of mission I just came back from, staying in one place training recruits for a while is actually preferable. The shrinks say it counts as recovery time, or some crap. Something about needing to be settled in one place for a while to readjust mentally.”

He found himself nodding in agreement. If this was her idea of a vacation, he was fine with that. It meant she was here and not in New York, and he might actually see more of her now.

Then she gave him a mock salute, and was gone. His heart felt light for the rest of the day.

Several months follow, and he is glad to see her whenever their paths cross. Occasionally, she still seeks him out for help on missions, and sometimes he runs S.T.R.I.K.E. missions over with her, although she does not bother to hide her distaste for S.T.R.I.K.E. or Rumlow. He has to admit, he doesn’t really like the man that much either, though he is efficient. Agent 13 would only say that she doesn’t like the kind of agent Rumlow thinks he needs to be in order to be effective. He has no idea what Rumlow thinks of him, he always speaks to Steve in a fairly professional and robotic manner, and the one time Steve mentioned working with Agent 13, Rumlow had not reacted at all. Which was fine with Steve. He wasn’t entirely sure why, just a gut feeling, but he didn’t much like the thought of Rumlow thinking about Agent 13 at all. In any capacity. She still wouldn’t go anywhere in public with him, especially now since the Battle of New York and the fact that all of the Avengers are now somewhat famous, their faces and names showing up almost everywhere, and she liked to maintain a low profile. But occasionally, she would find him in his office, and hold up a bag with burgers in it from a new place, and ask him if he would be interested in trying out and see if this truly was the best cheeseburger in the world. He always took her up on it. He asked her once, now that they’d known each other for a year and a half, is she ever going to tell him her name. She only shrugs and says maybe someday. But not today.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

As it turns out, he finds out her name purely by accident, and on the same day he finds out that she is part of a family. He has many talents, but one that he can’t seem to master is cooking, and most of his attempts usually come out woefully inedible. Regarding her search for the absolute most perfect cheeseburger, he had started watching the Food Network, especially these TV shows that visited different diners or had barbecue competitions. He found himself frantically writing down the instructions given by chefs on the television on how to make a specific type of hamburger, and decided to start trying for himself, in hopes that maybe the most perfect cheeseburger she ever ate would be one that he would make for her. It was wishful thinking, especially since he tended to burn instead of cook, but he was willing to try. And Natasha Romanoff had encouraged him to get something called a George Foreman grill, though she neglected to tell him to keep his windows open while using it. The visit from the fire department had not been fun and he knew quite a few had recognized him, despite his efforts to keep his identity on the lowdown.

There were some specific spices that he had to mix into the ground meat for his latest attempt, and his local store around the corner from his neighborhood didn’t have it. He called his local library and asked them if they knew where the specific spices could be gotten, and the good-natured librarian on the phone, instead of hanging up and calling him crazy, cheerfully did some fancy online searching and told him that a specialty grocery store on the outskirts of the city carried what he was looking for, and then gave him directions. Steve hopped on his motorcycle and drove to the marketplace, hoping he would find what he needed. The little family-owned non-chain grocery store was filled with eclectic brands and items he had never heard of, so instead of just running in and getting the spices, he found himself wandering the aisles up-and-down for nearly 45 minutes just looking at what the small unique little grocery store had that his local store did not.

And that’s when he heard her voice.

She was talking to somebody, and at first he could scarcely believe that it was actually her, but he knew her voice anywhere, even the way certain words she pronounce had a certain inflection, one that was familiar that he still couldn’t place, along with the other qualities about her that seemed familiar that he couldn’t place as well. But why would she be here, and who was she with?

Very carefully, he peeked around the corner and there she was, standing there in civilian clothes instead of her customary S.H.I.E.L.D. outfit of white armor pants and black armor jacket. But he’d recognize her anywhere. Unless it was her identical twin, which was also a possibility. Even from behind, he recognized her slender form, the way she held her shoulders, and the way she tended to stand with all of her weight on her left foot, almost as if expecting to have to kick someone with her right foot at any moment. She was wearing what looked like form fitting but well loved faded jeans, some sort of pullover top, a light civilian jacket, and some sort of droopy scarf around her neck. She almost looked like any middle class soccer mom dressed for a brisk game on a fall day.

And standing next to her was a child.

He felt his mouth drop open, his jaw to his chest. OK, so it wasn’t a child exactly, the kid was probably old enough to be a very young teenager, or close to it. But the kid was obviously with her, And from the sound of the conversation, it looked like he was angling for a pack of cookies.

“Come on, please?” The kid was saying. “I promise I won’t eat them all before dinner.”

She laughed. “That’s what you said the last time. You ate that whole box of Twinkies and ended up puking.”

“You can have some,” the kid offered sweetly.

“You’re too kind,” she said in that snarky tone that was painfully familiar to him by now.

She had ruffled the kid’s hair affectionately, and then went back to what she had been doing, which was apparently reading the ingredients on the back of the box she was holding.

“Hmmmm, this one doesn’t have a lot of sugar, and your dad is on that low sugar kick thing.”

As Steve watched, he felt his heart sink all the way into his stomach and straight down through his feet into the floor. She had a family? She had children, was that boy hers? She had mentioned the kid’s father, so he must still be in the picture. He must be understanding if he didn’t mind the mother of his children working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and being gone to all parts of the world for days on end on dangerous missions.

Which meant that for nearly 2 years, Steve had been flirting with and obsessing romantically over a woman who was in a relationship, and had a child? Mortification the likes of which he had never felt in his life crashed over him like a piano dropped on his head and he felt his face burn red with shame. No wonder she had never been interested in going on a date with him, did everything in her power to keep him at arms’ distance, always cool, always professional, while he had been in the process of convincing himself that he had truly seen the occasional spark of interest in her eyes that he thought he had seen more recently. He must have been wrong. He was a fool. An utter fool. And the only saving grace he could possibly get for himself was to sneak out of the store without her noticing.

He started to turn away, looking for a way to beat a hasty exit, maybe out the back door used by employees, when he heard another voice. It was still a young voice, but deeper, older. He turned and looked back. An older boy, definitely a teen, maybe sixteen years old, was coming around the corner calling out to the two standing there. He held up what looked like a heavy bag of flour.

“Aunt Sharon, I found it! Almond flour was on aisle three, not seven. Can we go now?” the older boy said.

“Can we get the cookies?” the younger boy said.

“Guys.... “ she started, sounding exasperated.

“You said we could get something,” the younger boy whined.

“I was thinking more like a Slim Jim and a vitamin water, not an entire pack of Oreos. Your mom will kill me,” she said.

“You gotta admit though,” said the older boy, “with mom and dad starting this no sugar Keto thing, we’re going to need emergency rations. We’re going to starve to death otherwise.”

She crossed her arms and glared at the boys in mock annoyance. “I’d rather face down gangs of international terrorists than your father when he’s pissed off. He sent us here to get Keto ingredients, not stock up on contraband. And you know your mom has no willpower when it comes to cookies.”

Both boys shot her a look of such utter pitifulness that Steve actually had to bite his tongue to suppress a laugh. Surely she wouldn’t fall for this? He had seen her brush off far more insistent requests than this, none the least of which were his attempts at learning her name. But to his surprise she smiled and relented.

“Ok but hide those when you get home and you didn’t get them from me, capisce?”

Both boys grinned and nodded, and they all headed off towards the checkout line. Steve stayed where he was, processing what he had heard. They were not her children, they were her nephews. She spoke of their parents as if they were nearby, meaning she had family in the area, which was most likely why she chose to relocate to DC after the New York battle, instead of for him. But this meant she was likely still unattached, not that he’d have minded if she was single but had kids. The old cliché about men trying to avoid raising another man’s child wasn’t true in Steve. He’d welcome a chance at fatherhood no matter how that presented himself.

All the same though, the warm rush of relief that spread through him was so intense, he hadn’t realized just how thrown for a loop he had been. She wasn’t “taken,” at least that he knew of. But where did he stand with her in this new revelation? She was part of a family which meant she still had her humanity and a capacity to care about someone, still had her soul. The cool detached agent he knew could be a regular person around her nephews. And one of those nephews had said her name. He had called her “Aunt Sharon.”

Sharon.

Her name was Sharon. As soon as he thought this, he knew it was her real name. Surely her family would know of and call her by her birth name. And Coulson was right, it was pretty. Now for her last name. He hurried to the front of the store and saw them leaving out the sliding door entrance. He left his basket and followed carefully but by the time he was able to peek out the window at the parking lot, they had already piled into an SUV and were leaving. He couldn’t see the license plate. And then they were gone and he couldn’t get to his motorcycle in time to follow them.

With a sigh, he retrieved his basket, checked out and drove home. It had been an interesting day. But once again, his waking thought were filled with images of her. Her.

Agent 13

Sharon.

000

In the months that followed, Steve started shifting from thinking of her as “Agent 13” to thinking of her as “Sharon,” which required him to watch what he said when talking to her. The next time he saw her at work after seeing her in the store, he had to force his mind to stay on target and address her as simply “Agent,” or “13” as some of the others did.

But he is human, and he forgets. She finds out that he knows his name, once again by accident. It’s almost cliché, but it is quite literally a dark and stormy night, a miserable night, with little to do but watch TV and sit alone on his couch. Steve usually did pretty well with fending off the overwhelming waves of depression over his predicament, finding himself in the 21st-century, which was becoming easier, although he still mourned the life that he lost. On this particular night, it was more difficult, maybe because of the weather, but he is sitting on his sofa with only one lamp lit, very little on television to watch, and his stereo playing music from the 1940s. He listens to the old music when he is feeling particularly homesick or nostalgic for his own time. On this particular night, he was overwhelmed with thoughts of his friends, and occasionally Peggy. He had still not been able to work up getting to see her, and it is starting to depress him.

Then he thinks about Agent 13, Sharon, and finds himself feeling even more depressed. Just going on two years since they first met, and she is what he thinks about more often than he would care to admit. He knows he should just forget about anything personal happening between them, she is professional, has her own life, and if she wanted him in it, he knew she was the kind of woman who would take the steps in that direction. That she hadn’t done so must mean that she simply was not interested. And he really didn’t understand why he couldn’t accept that. More than once, especially when he was recognized, quite a few women had indicated that they were more than interested in pursuing him. It was quite disconcerting, actually, especially coming off of most of his life being ignored by the female half of the population, especially when Bucky would set him up on blind dates or double dates, for Steve often could recall quite clearly the look of disappointment on his date’s face when she saw him for the first time.

Then after the Project, after so many years of women letting him know that who he was as a person wasn’t enough, he distrusted those who showed an interest. If he had not been enough before he grew the body of a Greek God, then why was he enough now? It was all superficial and he knew it. In the 21st-century, it was even worse, because all they saw was Captain America. But something about Sharon, Agent 13, made him think that maybe she saw him. Just him. She almost never referred to him as Captain America, or even “Captain” when they weren’t on a mission, only referring to him by his designation when they were on official duty or at the Hub. When they weren’t in the middle of a battle, she often referred to him as “Rogers,” although there had been one or two times more recently when she had called him “Steve.” But most importantly, she didn’t seem at all starstruck by him, and he appreciated that.

He remembered the first time she had called him “Steve” and not “Rogers,” when he had gotten into an argument with Rumlow over the version of events that went down when the S.T.R.I.K.E. team had gone on a particular mission, and some civilians had been killed in the process. Steve had put it in his report, Rumlow had not. They had argued about it, and Rumlow had mentioned something about Captain America being soft before storming off. Later on, he had met her for a co-op jog on the treadmills in the gym, and when he was trying not to stare at her athletic form in the workout outfit running on the treadmill next to him, he was griping about Rumlow’s lack of ethics and how the mission had gone to hell with the civilians’ deaths. She had looked thoughtful, and then said, “Steve, he’s an ass, he always has been. You just keep being you.”

It was probably the most perfect thing she could have said to him at that moment, and he had been quite grateful for it. He had thanked her, and they continued the run and silence, with him far outpacing her, but she didn’t seem to mind.

It was only later that he realized that she had called him by his first name. He replayed the moment over and over again in his mind, and realized that it had been a friendly gesture, not just one between colleagues, but one between friends. And he really liked the way his name sounded in her voice. It’s still frustrated him though, that if she thought of him as a friend, why wouldn’t she voluntarily tell him her name? He wanted to know if she thought of him anywhere near as much as he thought of her. And he thought about her a lot. She featured heavily into his guilty fantasies, working her way into his dreams. His fantasies were frequent enough to cause his body to react, to where, when he was actually in her presence, he would find himself suddenly realizing that his pants were getting tighter. It was disconcerting, for she was not the sort of person who would fail to notice details like that, and he frequently had to beat a hasty retreat before the problem got uncontrollable. But it was causing him a certain level of frustration he had never quite remembered experiencing before, not even with Peggy who he had idealized and loved with the vigor of first love. Not that he didn’t react to Peggy, and not that she had not featured heavily in his past fantasies. Sometimes she still did, or the memory of her did. But it was Sharon who was occupying his thoughts frequently enough to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with him.

And now here he was, sitting on the sofa of his lonely dark apartment, listening to music that was nearly 80 years old, thinking about him mourning his life and his friends and his lost love, while the storm raged so viciously outside, it’s a wonder it hadn’t been classified as a hurricane yet or something. In addition, he was also feeling a certain amount of self-pity. Although he still communicated with the Avengers fairly frequently, it was not often enough to say that they were truly his support system. Sometimes Natasha Romanoff checked in on him, but either everybody was busy on this night, or they hadn’t seen the texts he had something asking how everybody was doing. So he was feeling quite forgotten and alone. The feeling was so overwhelming, it was starting to surround him like a dark cloud, one he wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to pull himself out of.

Then, almost as if he had conjured her up, came a knock at the door. At first, he was sure he must have imagined it, for who in the world would be looking for him, much less on a night like tonight? But the knock came again, so he got up, walked to the door and looked out the peephole. He could not believe his eyes when he saw her standing there, and he jerked the door open in surprise.

“Hey,” he said not bothering to keep the surprise, and some amount of joy out of his voice. “It’s a crazy night out there, what are you doing here? Mission?”

She stood there wearing her customary black jacket, but he noticed that she was basically soaking wet. He didn’t see any evidence of an umbrella or a raincoat, her hair was hanging damp and limp from a ponytail down her shoulder, and it look like she had hastily wiped the rain from her face when she ran up the stairs. She actually looked slightly sheepish, a look he wasn’t accustomed to seeing on her, and held up a very large plastic bag that looked full to bursting.

“No,” she said, “no mission. I was just, well, in the area. There’s a Chinese restaurant around the corner with the best cream cheese wontons I ever tasted, I thought you might be hungry. Nobody ever feels like cooking or going out on nights like this.”

Steve wanted to slap himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. She had come here without a professional agenda? No mission? On her own accord? And she had brought him enough food to feed him for two days? In the middle of a cataclysmic storm? There must be a catch.

“You brought all that for me in the middle of a deluge, and there’s no mission?” he asked in disbelief. “Usually when you bring me that amount of calories, it’s because were about to invade Madagascar or something.”

She smiled softly, but shook her head. “No, it’s not only for you. I intend to eat some of it too, though since you asked, the restaurant was in this area of town, and I didn’t bring a raincoat or umbrella, I didn’t think I needed it when I headed out, so it’s easier to hang out here until the rain stops, that is if you don’t mind? I didn’t want to take cover from the storm and invade your privacy without at least feeding you.”

Well that explains it. And suddenly Steve realized he was not being at all a gentleman by forcing a wet and dripping lady who was probably cold, holding his dinner, to stand out in the hallway. He quickly moved aside and gestured her inside. She stepped in, looking around.

He realized how bare his apartment must look. Minimal furniture, nothing personal on the wall, not even a few cheap art prints, not unlike a monastery. “Sorry,” he said, “it’s kind of sparse here. I don’t know much about decorating. Hand me your jacket, I’ll hang it up to dry.”

“There’s something to be said for the minimalist approach, less stuff to move,” she said shrugging out of her jacket and handing it to him. He hung up on a peg, and then retrieved a dry towel for her to dry off with. He brought the food to the table and started unpacking it, and they sat across from each other digging into the mountain of Chinese food. She was right, it was delicious. It crossed his mind how much working out she had to do to burn the amount of calories he had seen her consume. They ate for a bit, and then fell into their companionable habit of talking about work. She had been training some of the special division recruits, and because that wasn’t top-secret knowledge, she was able to tell him about it, and even asked his opinions on some of it. He made some suggestions about the older recruits mentoring some of the younger ones, which she really liked, and tapped out a message to herself on her watch to look into that when she got back to the Hub. She also mentioned that she was supervising the helicarrier room for the next six months because a couple of people were going to be out on personal leave for health reasons.

“No offense, but that seems, kind of like a down step for you,” he said munching on an eggroll.

She shrugged. “I don’t mind. Sometimes it helps to kind of take a step down from the intense work and high level missions and regather yourself. Like I said before. It’s been a couple of months since my last long term deep mission, and I’m still fine with staying in one place doing lesser work for a while longer. I guess I’ll eventually go back to deep missions, but for right now, I’m liking the 9-5 work schedule and not having to live out of a bag.”

They sat in companionable silence for a while, before she asked, “So if it wasn’t so terrible outside, what plans would you have had going for the weekend?”

He looked up at her in surprise, trying to determine whether or not the question was meant as a general conversational question, or if she was really interested in what he might be doing, maybe for her own reasons. Unable to tell, he shrugged and said, “Probably watching a movie or reading some books. I’ve toured around the city some, obviously the nation’s capital is filled with history, some of it I missed, and I’m playing catch-up. I could spend every day at the Smithsonian and still not see everything they had. It was weird seeing the exhibit on me, though. Very weird.”

“Most definitely,” she agreed, and told him about her own recent visit to the Air and Space Museum, where you could touch a moon rock. She then asked him a few other questions about how he was adjusting, if he had made any friends beyond the Avengers, how he was liking his work at S.H.I.E.L.D. Steve answered her readily enough, but something about her line of questioning set him on edge. There was something slightly off about it, although he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Then it hit him. During his first few weeks out of the ice, he had been required to speak with a psychologist several times, something he chafed at, but something that apparently most people in this time period, especially at S.H.I.E.L.D., had no real problem with.

During one such session, the therapist asked many pointed questions about his state of mind, how he was adjusting, and how he felt about certain situations, eventually revealing to Steve that there was some concern that he would fall into a state of depression that might lead to suicidal thoughts. Steve had felt highly offended at the notion that he might be suicidal, although he calmed down a bit when the therapist gently explained that it was not out of the realm of possibility, that many war veterans experienced what used to be called, in Steve’s day, “shell shock,” but was now called posttraumatic stress disorder. It had nothing to do with willpower or strength of character or commitment to the cause, but simply that war was hell and the average human nervous system had to be extensively trained in performing it, and dealing with the aftermath healthily was really hit or miss. World War II veterans, the therapist had explained, had been mostly drafted, as were Vietnam veterans in the war that followed, some literally taken off the front porches at gunpoint by military police and forced to join. They were then forced to fight, and the trauma of these experiences was enough to affect anyone. Then, if they survived the war, they might get a medal or two, a bus ticket home, and were then expected to go back to their old lives as if nothing had happened to them at all. And that just wasn’t sound psychological theory. Taking that and adding Steve’s own personal trauma of his ice nap to the situation, and the therapist had every right to be concerned about his mental state. Steve had grudgingly agreed that the man had a point, though it still rankled him a bit. But now, as he was recalling this, he realized that the questions that Sharon was carefully asking him were just too similar to the ones that therapist had asked him.

He continued to answer her questions truthfully, but he was starting to get a chilled feeling, like she was psychoanalyzing him. And the longer it went on, the more he realized he was right. Somehow, she had known, known that he was having a dark night, probably fueled by the weather, his social isolation, and brought about by a constant string of military-like missions so very similar to the war he had fought, the aftermath of the battle of New York with the Avengers, and the ongoing factor of how he had never completely dealt with his sudden transplantation from the 1940s to the 21st century. She claimed that she had just been in the area and wanted to wait out the storm somewhere, but was that the truth? What if, somehow, she had known, because she had been watching him? Had somehow deduced that he might be having an extremely bad night and had come by with dinner to intervene in his deepening depressive episode? His first thought was to be grateful, but then his next thought was how could she have known he was spiraling down unless there was some kind of monitoring system in his apartment in place? And did she come here as a friend, or as an agent who had been assigned to him as more than just his liaison, but perhaps a babysitter? The more that he thought about it, the more he thought back to other times that she had shown up with food, or some sort of distraction, and while this did not apply to every time they had crossed paths, it certainly applied to a lot of them, usually at a time that he was having a particularly depressive episode or a bad day. He felt himself become irritated, and then angry.

She wasn’t his friend. Perhaps she never had been. She was a spy, and she was spying on him, although he only thought this with about half of his mind. The other half was pointing out that if he were wrong about this, then he was having a very paranoid suspicion about a woman who has done nothing more than bring him dinner on a stormy night, and this sort of thing should probably be mentioned to the doctor. But if he was right, then she had been lying to him, for years at this point. And he did not much appreciate being lied to.

Apparently she noticed a shift in his demeanor, because she asked him what was wrong.

“Well,” he said, before losing his nerve, “I have a question for you. Were you really just in the area looking for good Chinese food? Or did you somehow know in advance that I was having a particularly dark night that went beyond the weather? Did you come here on your own, or did somebody tell you to come? And are you asking me all these questions because the shrinks know I don’t like talking to them? So they thought you might be better?”

He expected her to get angry, to be offended, to even yell at him about what he was implying. So it was the shock of his life, when she took another bite of an egg roll and smiled at him.

“You’re a lot better at this than they give you credit for, Rogers,” she said. “Yes, there was some concern that you were having a depressive episode, and yes, I’m here to determine whether or not you needed intervention. I wasn’t lying about the Chinese food though, it really is the best in the city. And I thought you might want some. But yes, I’m checking up on you. Is that a crime?”

“That all depends,” he said coldly, “on how you know I even needed someone to stop by? How did you know?”

She pointed at the watch she had given him the first day that they met, which he still wore.

“It does more than keep time,” she said, shoving the last of the eggroll in her mouth.

He looked down at the device, which he still wore because she had given it to him, and frowned in disgust. It might as well be a bomb on his wrist. He took it off and slid it back across the table towards her. She said nothing, but pocketed it.

He wanted to yell at her to leave, that he didn’t need anyone spying on him, or babysitting him. But she looked completely undisturbed by the fact that he had found her out. What was it with this woman?

“You don’t seem all disturbed about it,” he said, seething.

“Should I be?” she asked, looking him directly in the eye. “You tell me, Steve, if the roles were reversed, and I was refusing professional help, having gone through everything you’ve gone through, wouldn’t you want to know how I was doing? Are you telling me you would just turn your back and hope that I would be OK? That’s not good enough for me. I’m supposed to ashamed for wanting to look out for you?”

“I don’t need a babysitter,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Babysitter? No, you don’t,” she said. “But everyone needs a friend.”

“Friends don’t spy,” he said.

“Sometimes they do,” she said quietly.

“Not where I come from,” he said.

“Steve, I’m sorry you’re upset,” she said, “but I’m not going to apologize for watching your back.”

“Because Fury assigned you to,” he said, feeling slightly unreasonable without knowing why. “You didn’t even want to be assigned to me.”

“Fury didn’t instruct me to spend $45 on food and bring it to you in the middle of a tempest,” she said. “And you’re wrong. I didn’t mind being assigned to you. I was just surprised.”

“So you came here on your own?” he asked, “Just to be friendly?”

“Is that so hard to believe?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

“I may be from a different time,” he said, “but I’m learning. And I know you’re a spy. I’m beginning to think a lot of things with you are half-truths.”

“And I’m learning quite a bit about you,” she replied narrowing her eyes. “The fact that Captain America can be kind of an ass was left out of the history books.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” he grumbled, looking away.

“On that note,” she said getting up, “looks like it’s time for me to go. Keep the leftovers, you’ll need them more than I will.”

She turned to go, and then turned back and said, “Steve, I know you’ve been through a lot, and I know none of us are the Commandos or... Peggy Carter. But it doesn’t mean that those of us who are here, right now, aren’t every bit as much of your friends as they were. I wish you could see it.”

She turned and headed for the door as another clap of thunder and lightning rattled the windows, and a blast of wind pushed another sheet of rain up against the side of the building. Suddenly Steve felt a wave of remorse. He was not out of line at being angry about being spied on, but he had the sneaking suspicion that she really had come here just to try to cheer him up. And in this weather too. Maybe she had not exactly been ordered to come here to yank him out of his depressive funk, but even if she had, and even if it was only because S.H.I.E.L.D. thought he was useful to them alive rather than dead, it still was sort of uplifting to know that he actually mattered to someone, in some capacity. And his gut was telling him that she really had wanted to come. Now she was heading back out into that storm, without a rain coat, and he wasn’t sure if she had walked or driven, just to get away from him. And he didn’t want her to go, not like this. Spy or not, babysitter or not, he wanted some company, her company.

He stood up as she grabbed her still wet jacket and started to pull it on. In less than a second, he covered the distance between them, and put a hand on her arm, fully aware that he might just lose that hand for doing it.

“Sharon, wait,” he said, hoping that she would at least listen before storming out.

She froze, her back still to him, then spun around and locked eyes with him, now glaring. She had been somewhat sad before when she had gotten up to leave, but now she was positively furious. Steve suddenly realized his mistake. She knew that he knew her name. But before he could say anything else, both of her hands shot out and grabbed the front of his shirt. In a move he had seen her use on thugs twice her size, she flipped him around her hip and slammed him up against the wall, using her right arm as a bar across his chest and pressing her body against his to pin him. Now he realized he could easily toss her off, his strength was several times hers. She had simply caught him off guard, otherwise she’d have never been able to throw him like that. He knew he wasn’t in any real danger of injury from her, but he had to admit, her show of strength was rather impressive, and frightening, because from the look on her face, she was thoroughly pissed.

“I..uh…” he tried to get out.

“Who told you my name?” she said in a cold even voice. “WHO?”

For some reason Steve was having a very hard time talking. She was focused and efficient in nearly everything she did, and he very rarely saw her allow her emotions to get the better of her. He would almost feel better if she would just yell at him or punch him or something, but this laser focused anger directed at him was making him completely forget that only thirty seconds earlier, he had been doing his best impersonation of a jerk to her for spying on him, for which he was completely justified. Also, her body pressing against his, despite the fact that she was probably considering belting him, was causing him to forget the English language. Her legs were locked against his, and her hips were pressing him into the wall. Her arm was barred across his chest as she tried using her upper body as leverage against his, though it was only marginally effective against his muscle mass, but it didn’t quite shield her breasts from pushing into his chest. His mouth went dry and he suddenly had difficulty taking in a full breath. And in about two seconds, she was going to feel why his pants were suddenly getting tight.

“Who told you, Steve?” she repeated, looking just a hint panicked though still focused.

“Nobody,” he managed to get out, knowing his eyes were wide, though mostly in surprise, not fear. He hadn’t expected her to react this way. “Nobody told me.”

Her eyes narrowed and she pressed into him harder. He wished she would stop doing that, but then he also wished she wouldn’t. But his predicament was getting worse.

“I…I saw you in a grocery store with two kids. Your…nephews? A few weeks ago. One of them said your name, called you Aunt Sharon,” he confessed.

She looked slightly confused, and then a look of understanding crossed her face and she reduced the pressure against his chest slightly. “And that’s all you heard? My first name? You didn’t hear my last name?”

He was confused. Her last name? It had taken two years just to get her first name, and truth be told, while he’d like to know her last name, he hadn’t really thought about it as much. “Uh…no, not that I heard. Why?”

Her eyes narrowed again, like she didn’t believe him and pressed him into the wall again. “When you need to know something about me, I’ll tell you. Those were my cousins, my cousin’s kids. And there’s security reasons….”

“As opposed to eavesdropping on someone through a watch to see if they’re depressed or seeing the shrink regularly?” he shot back. “You can dish it out but can’t take it? Not what I’ve come to expect of you, Agent 13.”

OK, now she was really pissed. He felt her take a deep breath. “You son of a ….”

She never finished the sentence. Distracted and furious, she hadn’t felt him shift his weight slightly, and before she could react, he had wrapped his arms around her and spun them both, easily slipping out from her pin, and now she was the one pressed against the wall, with his hips pinning hers firmly and his upper body mass and arms on either side of her creating a box she couldn’t easily escape from. In any situation like this, this would be a perfect time for her to bring her knee up into his groin, so before she could even think about doing that, and before he lost his nerve, he dropped his head down and kissed her.

He felt her stiffen in surprise and her lips were unyielding as she tried turning her head side to side to wiggle loose. Whatever she had been expecting from him, clearly it had not been this. And for a brief moment, he realized this could probably constitute assault. But then she just...surrendered. She made a whimpering sound that shot straight down his spine, and then her lips went soft against his, parting to allow him access. She angled her head, deepening the kiss, and he felt her hands on his shirt slowly unclench. Apparently they had both also been holding their breath, because both of them exhale a long sigh, and then started trying to catch up with normal breathing, but the kissing was making that difficult and they both started breathing more rapidly. Steve felt pure in adulterated need course through his veins.

Despite his age and everything he had been through, his experience with women was woefully inadequate. The two times he had ever recalled kissing a woman had not been what could be called experience, as the first one had been when an army secretary had almost literally jumped him against his will, and Peggy had found them in a lip lock that he was trying to extricate himself from. That one had gone on longer than his second kiss, which had been a brief one he had given Peggy in a speeding car before jumping on the Valkyrie bomber. Then he had taken his ice nap, and his attempts at dating in the 21st-century had been more pitiful than the average teenage boy. This one was going on longer than either of his previous two encounters, had been one that he initiated, and it was sparking feelings in him he wasn’t sure he had any business feeling. The kiss with the army secretary had been awkward and unwanted, the one with Peggy brief but sweet, but this one, with Sharon, was lighting him on fire.

And there was absolutely no way she didn’t feel his arousal now, because he could feel it pressing into her abdomen. If he had any sense of propriety that his mother had tried to pound into him during the Depression as he was coming of age, he would let her go immediately, back off, and apologize profusely. Overcome with guilt, he started to back away, but she followed him and caught him up in another kiss, her arms coming up to his shoulders and pulling him in, and, to his wonder, moving her hips against his to allow him to settle against her more comfortably. He kept both of his own hands on the wall beside her, not trusting himself to keep from gripping her too tightly, or his hands wandering where he definitely knew they weren’t supposed to go at this stage in the game. The kiss was almost desperate, but she did not seem to be upset about it. In fact, she was slowly taking the lead, continuing when he might have stopped. He was almost afraid to let himself believe that she wanted this as much as he did. He knew they should stop, but she felt wonderful. And he was tired of the lonely feeling of this apartment, with only the sounds of his own breathing in the silence. Despite the fact that he was still irritated with her, he really didn’t want her to leave. But before he could try and form another coherent thought, a huge crack of thunder and his windows rattling startled them both enough to break them apart.

Still breathing heavily, they looked into each other‘s eyes, lips still parted as if to go back in, but then cold realization crashed over both of them, and he saw her stunned look give way to her professional mask as it fell back over her eyes again. He forced himself to do the same, let go of the wall behind her, and took several steps back. He tried to give her what he hoped was an apologetic look.

“Steve...” she started to say, still out of breath.

“Shar....agent.... I’m, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that, it was wrong of me, and...”

He felt red hot embarrassment course through him, and unable to face her, he simply turned and walked back to the couch, gripping the back of it and allowing his shoulders and head to slump. She must think he was the biggest cad on earth. She definitely thought he was a jerk. “Captain America the cad,” the headline should read. It would certainly be in keeping with how so many icons seem to have fallen in this age. Why should he be any different?

“Steve,” he heard her say gently behind him. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t want to see her anger, shock, or words, pity.

“I’m sorry, I was out of line,” he said. He still didn’t turn to face her. He heard her take a few steps in his direction and stop.

“It’s OK,” she said.

“No it isn’t!” he said still not looking at her. “In my day, that could’ve gotten you slapped by the girl and punched by her brothers. You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t want it, and I…”

“That’s not true,” she interrupted, “you didn’t do anything I didn’t want.”

He stopped short, registering her words. She had wanted him to kiss her? Did she really feel the same pull towards him that he felt towards her? Now he did turn to face her. He forced himself to look at her face, her eyes. No matter how good of a spy she was, she was never quite able to keep her true feelings out of her eyes when dealing with him, at least that he could see, even with her professional mask. There was no sign of concealment this time, no sign that she was humoring him or putting him on. She looked as startled and confused as he felt, and she wasn’t trying to hide it. In fact, for the first time since meeting her, she looked almost a little lost, almost like a little girl who had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. She dropped her gaze first and looks slightly to the side and down, as if she wasn’t sure what to say or do.

He cleared his throat. “Even if that’s the case,” he said, “I can’t afford to let myself get carried away like that. I could have hurt you.”

“Would have been a good fight,” she said with one side of her mouth cracking up into her famous half smile. “I spar pretty regularly with Black Widow.”

He snorted, accepting and appreciating her attempts to try to smooth his feathers, but it didn’t make when he did any more right.

“Look,” she said, as calmly as she could, “you’re not out of line to be upset about me spying on you. You won’t talk to the shrink regularly, and I’m afraid you’ve got a lot of pent-up emotion that could come out like that. I could tell from my monitoring that you were having a depressive night. So yes, I was worried about you. Nobody ordered me to come here exactly, and I really did want Chinese food. I didn’t expect the weather to be so bad though, and you don’t seem to have done much about trying to distract yourself with hobbies or anything that might pull you out of these kinds of depressive funks. So I came here trying to distract you. I admit though, I didn’t think of this particular type of distraction.”

“You’re my coworker,” he said, “it’s unprofessional.”

“For what it’s worth,” she said, “I’m not your commanding officer and neither one of us are on duty. But that’s neither here nor there. What either of us might want from the other isn’t really the issue. What we do on a daily basis is. I go on highly dangerous classified missions, you’re working with the Avengers. There’s only a certain amount of circumstances where anything more personal would work out for either of us, with anybody.”

He nodded, and then looked at her. “Is that why you didn’t want to tell me your name? Keeping me at bay?”

“I have other reasons, but yeah, that was a big one. I’m not mad that you know my first name, for what it’s worth I was planning to tell you anyway. After two years, it’s probably safe to say you’re not going to blab my identity loud enough to anyone with a grudge against me who could use it. But you saw my young cousins. As you’ve guessed, I do have a family. An extended one. I don’t see them that often, especially when I was stationed in New York. Those kids basically grew up with only pictures and video chats with me. They know I’m a spy, and they think that’s cool, but they have no real comprehension of how dangerous it is. There’s a lot of people who would love to really stick it to me, and those kids are sitting ducks if anyone knew they were related to me, or how important they are to me. My parents are both gone, I don’t have any immediate family, my cousins’ family are it for me. Without them, Christmases and Thanksgiving would be spent on the couch watching reruns of ‘It’s a wonderful life’ and eating a pumpkin pie by myself. I’m grateful for them, and I guard my identity for the sake of protecting them.”

Steve felt a certain amount of chastisement, and nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. And I’m not going to thank you for spying on me, but I thank you for caring. And for not dislocating my testicles with your knee when I kissed you without permission.”

At that, her professional mask disappeared and a genuine smile lit up her face and she laughed one of her rare actual laughs. He found that he loved the bell-like sound. He wished she would laugh more often.

“Rest assured, if you had been anyone else on the planet, quite literally, I would’ve done just that.”

“So Captain America gets a pass?” he asked in what he hoped was a joking tone.

“No,” she said coming serious, “Steve Rogers does. I know the difference.”

For some weird reason, her words, that she regarded him mostly as Steve Rogers and not his icon alter ego, was overwhelming, and almost brought tears to his eyes, funneling an emotion that was a combination of both relief and gratitude.

In order to keep from breaking down into sobs like a baby, he managed to choke out a gruff thanks, and turned to look at the window. If it was even possible, the storm seem to have gotten worse.

She followed his gaze, sighed, pulling her jacket around her even tighter. “Doesn’t look like it’s letting up. The sooner I get home the better.”

“You can’t go out in that,” he said, “I mean, you shouldn’t go out in that. It could be dangerous.”

She looked at him sideways. “I know you don’t want to hear the numerous stories I have about running top secret missions and conditions even worse than that storm, do you?”

“And I’m sure they are numerous,” he agreed, “and while you could go out in the storm anytime you wish, you have the choice not to. Just stay here for the night. You can take the bed, I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“I absolutely am not booting you from your bed,” she said firmly.

He swallowed a sigh, he should have known she would be difficult about that. “Fine,” he said, “I’ll take the bed and you take the couch. But stay here. And besides, it’s...well... really, it’s too quiet around here.”

She looked like she wanted to argue some more, but then her gaze softened and she took a deep breath and nodded. “Couch it is,” she said.

She shrugged back out of her jacket and he went to find her some clothes to wear. She hesitated when he offered the use of his warm shower so that he could throw her clothes in the dryer, but then agreed, and headed off to the bathroom. While she was taking a shower, and he was forcing his imagination not to imagine her naked under the spray in his bathroom, he made up the sofa for her. He grabbed one of the pillows from his bed. But when she came out wearing a long T-shirt of his and some workout shorts that were a little too big on her, he had to force himself to look away because his mouth had gone dry and his pants were going tight again. She thanked him for the borrowed clothes and settled down to get ready to sleep. That’s when he noticed that her hair was loose, free of its normal ponytail, following in gentle waves around her face. He swallowed hard. The sight of her so unwound and natural, beautiful, causes a strange warm feeling in his chest. He forced himself to fight down the urge to wrap his arms around her and bury his face in her hair. He had gotten away with the unexpected kiss, but he doubted he could try his lot twice in the same night with another unwanted advance. Even if she had insisted that the previous one had not been unwanted.

He managed a get out a good night, and then retire to his own room, leaving the door slightly cracked as she settled down onto the sofa, the storm still raging outside. Steve tossed and turned and shifted on his bed, trying to find a position comfortable enough to let him nod off briefly, because he figured he wasn’t going to be getting a lot of sleep tonight. He was still somewhat ashamed of just grabbing her and kissing her like that, even when she insisted that she was not angry about that particular part of their exchanges. On the other hand, part of him was overjoyed to discover that she had apparently wanted to kiss him as badly as he had wanted to kiss her, and had not been put off by his obvious arousal, which took a certain amount of time to dissipate. He could hear her shifting around on the sofa too, and wondered briefly if it was too uncomfortable for her to sleep on, and then realized she must be going through her own mental gymnastics, and wondered what she was thinking.

After what seemed like hours, he finally heard her breathing even out, even a very slight snore, which was, frankly, adorable, and he figured she must have finally fallen asleep. It was saying something about her trust in him that she apparently did not have any concerns about his intentions towards her, especially given that she was a spy and probably didn’t trust many people. That she felt comfortable enough around him to let down her guard and go to sleep on his couch was a bit flattering.
Steve managed to doze a bit, but then his eyes snapped open when he thought he heard her whimpering. He carefully sat up and listened again. It was very faint, and the sound of her breathing told him that she was still asleep. Carefully he swung his feet to the ground, and softly made his way to the door still cracked open to look through it into the living room. She was still asleep on the couch, the blanket drawn up under her arms, and her hair spread out on the pillow he had loaned her. He saw her brow wrinkle, as if something were bothering her, and she whimpered slightly again. He didn’t realize he was moving forward until he suddenly found himself standing beside the sofa, and then realized how this might look if she were to open her eyes right then and see him standing there. But he couldn’t help himself, he wanted to make sure she was OK.

He wanted to reach out and touch her, but he figured that would probably snap her awake and probably get his wrist broken in the process. So instead he leaned down and whispered soothingly to her, telling her everything was OK and, that she was safe. To his surprise, she actually stopped whimpering, and seemed to relax. Her face settled into a mask of peaceful sleep and her breathing even back out again. He watched her, fascinated, as her chest moved up and down, and her eyelashes settled against her cheeks. Her deep blonde hair was like a honey colored halo around her head, and her fingers clutching the blanket or long and slender, so he could see the calluses on her knuckles from working out. What sort of demons did she face that came out in her dreams? It was amazing that he had never really thought about it before, that she might be facing her own dark corners of her mind. When he thought about the missions she disappeared to, coming back unable to tell him about most of them, it made him wonder just what she had to do on those missions? Perhaps her own past was as traumatic as his, but for different reasons. She was always so in control and together, the idea of her being wounded in some way he couldn’t see brought him up short. He looked down at her again, once again wishing he could gather her up in his arms and hold her.

She was so beautiful, especially relaxed in sleep and not on guard, it was almost difficult to look at her. His mind flashed with sudden memory of a few hours before, his lips on hers, her body against his. He wanted her. Wanted her more than he had wanted any other woman he had ever met, and with a start, he realized that also meant Peggy. Peggy had been his first love, had set the bar for every other woman that might come into his life. Like most, he had put his first love on a pedestal, considering her to be the epitome of everything he had ever wanted. Peggy had been beautiful, bold and strong, and for a brief moment, unattainable to him. Before the procedure, he never would have considered walking up to her in a dance hall or ever trying to talk to her. And yet, she had shown kindness to him, even before the procedure, had found him intriguing as a person before he had ever acquired the athletic body that he now sported as a result of Project Rebirth. Peggy had been the first woman to actually be decent to him despite his looks. And he had loved her for it. He had wanted Peggy, of course, but it had been tampered with the ideals of his time, that she was to be put on a pedestal. Because that desperate longing he felt for Peggy was more of an emotional one, coupled with a more tempered physical one, it was less focused, less defined.

One of the hardest things for him to accept after he had awoken from the ice was that he had missed his chance with Peggy. That she had married someone else and had a family and a fulfilling life. That her husband Daniel had been the one there for her during her worst times, which Steve himself had never really seen, the hard times that make a person human and not an ideal. That had hurt terribly. He was glad that she had moved on and been able to have a happy life, but they didn’t remove the pain in his own heart.

But what he felt for Sharon was something completely different, something edgier, more raw, and more intense. She embodied a different ideal, one to be expected from a woman in the 21st-century. Like Peggy, she was strong and capable, beautiful and intelligent, and really didn’t need him for anything more than friendship and camaraderie. But he had seen her wounded in battle on missions, seen her angry, and once, even seen her sick when she came down with a fairly nasty cold and holed up in an office for a week grumbling into paperwork. In some ways, even though he still idealized Sharon to a certain extent, she was not quite the ethereal, unattainable being he had made out Peggy to be in his mind. Sharon was flawed, but still amazing. And his attraction to her was far more intense than anything he had ever felt before. It was almost desperation.

Now, as he looked down at her asleep, he felt something else too. A sense of affection, something he realized might be the beginnings of love. In the two years that he had known her so far, it seem to him that of all the people in the world, including the Avengers, somehow she knew him. I knew the real him. Maybe it was because she had memorized every scrap of information ever written about him, but she also seemed to understand his mind and his heart. He thought about the numerous times she had shown up with a bag of fast food and a mission file, or had asked him to come down to the gym to run on the treadmills to see who gave out first, which was always her. She always seem to know the right thing to say to him, when to be firm and no nonsense with him, or went to joke with him. He appreciated that she was one of the few people that could actually make him laugh. In anyone else, he might find her sarcasm and pessimism somewhat off-putting, but coupled with her humor, he found it endearing. In a lot of ways, she matched him.

She sighed softly and settled deeper into the pillow, and Steve forced himself to reluctantly return to his room. He wondered what her reaction would be if he had invited her to come with him back to his bed. Honestly, she would probably say no. But what if she said yes? He felt a sudden surge through his nervous system at the thought, and quickly squelched out the mental image. He was already having trouble sleeping, no need to add a cold shower to the mix.

But still, he couldn’t help but wonder. What if she did say yes? Not just to his bed, but to him? Could he make it work with her? He had not had much luck in relationships before. He didn’t know enough about her background to know what not to do with her. That was the real problem he suspected. She knew him better than he knew her. And he wanted to know her more.

Chapter Text

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks once again for all the lovely reviews! I'm sorry this week's updates might be a bit delayed, I got hit with a massive project at work and leading a Cub Scout campout this weekend because our leader is sick. Needless to say, I have little time to work on the story, but I hope this lengthy chapter tides you all over for a while. More chapters on the way, and thanks to all who keep reading my humble stories!

 

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Chapter 5

The storm blew itself out around four in the morning, and by 5:30, you would never know it had been so terrible outside, except for the fact that everything was wet. Steve decided that his morning run could happen in the gym down the street on the treadmill rather than outside in the soggy and wet morning. Sharon awoke and rose from the sofa without much of a word, went to the bathroom to pull on her clothes that had dried in the dryer, and emerged with her hair pulled up in a ponytail and looking as put together as she could. She smiled at him in a way he not seen before, somewhat softer.

“Thanks for the sofa,” she said.

“Sure, no problem,” he said. “Want some breakfast? It’s the least I could do for kiss assaulting you last night.”

To his surprise, she laughed. “Thanks but I’ll pass. I need to get home. I’ll grab something on the way, assuming Jack-in-the-Box hasn’t blown over in the storm. See you at the Hub?”

“Sure,” he said with a smile, swallowing his disappointment. He guessed she was one for taking things slow, or maybe not at all. Yes, some things have changed between them last night, but it was best if he didn’t make assumptions. She gave him a friendly fist thump on the shoulder before leaving out of the door. He went to pick up the blankets and pillow from the sofa and noticed that she had left his watch behind on the lamp stand next to the sofa. He frowned a bit. He didn’t really want it. She seemed to indicate that this device was the way she had been keeping an eye on him, maybe even listening in on him. No, he definitely didn’t want anyone, not even her, spying on him. He took it to the door and quickly opened it, hoping to catch her before she left. But to his surprise, she had already vanished.

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He actually did not see her at the Hub until much later that afternoon, where they passed each other in the hallway with a smile and a nod. He thought about giving her the watch then, but he didn’t have it on him just then. Later, despite his misgivings, he decided to keep on wearing it, at least on missions. You never knew, maybe it would end up being more of a benefit than a problem. He didn’t bring it home though, just left it in a drawer of the small desk in the closet sized office he had been issued.

He doesn’t get much chance to think about it, in the coming weeks, though, because he is distracted by Black Widow coming to find him for various missions along with S.T.R.I.K.E. Natasha Romanoff at always been something of an enigma to him, one of the Avengers who he had fought with at the battle of New York. She didn’t work with the S.T.R.I.K.E. team much, since it was obvious that she and Rumlow detested each other, but Steve had to admit that, despite the former Russian spy’s background, he liked her as a person and, as Fury seemed to trust her, so did Steve. He managed to ask Sharon about it and she only smiled and said that she would trust Natasha, so Steve decided to as well.

She started coming on a few missions with them, and Steve found himself relearning how to work smoothly with Natasha, figuring it would be good training for the day when the Avengers were needed again. The only thing he really didn’t like about working with her was that she seemed to have decided that all of his problems would be cured if he could just find a girlfriend. He shrugged off her blunt suggestions, not really thinking of anyone other than Sharon, although in order to put Natasha off, agreed to a few blind dates. They didn’t go very well, and the more she urged him to consider dating some of their coworkers, the more he dug his heels in about work being the most important thing to him.

But one particular mission ended up changing things for everybody, especially him. Looking back, he would realize that it would be the mission to the freighter Lemurian Star, a S.H.I.E.L.D.-owned vessel that had been captured by Ulysses Klaue and Batroc, that S.T.R.I.K.E. had been sent to recapture, and which would be the turning point in a major portion of Steve’s life. He had been out running around the National Mall within sight of the Washington Monument, making laps around the reflecting pool, passing another jogger, an African-American man whom Steve like to tease by running past him several times calling “on your left.” Although irritated, the man was good-natured about it, and when they both stopped for a rest, introduced himself as Sam Wilson, a military veteran who had worked as a pararescue trooper for the United States Air Force, and was currently working as a counselor at the local veteran’s center. Steve liked him immediately, and although they came from different generations, and obviously Sam knew who he was, the two formed a friendly camaraderie over their shared military experiences. But then Natasha had driven up, letting him know that things were afoot, so he bid farewell to Sam after making plans to get together to work out again, and had gone with her back to the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.

After getting the details of his mission, he typed out a message to Sharon asking if she was coming on this one, and bit back some disappointment when she mentioned that no, she was going to be doing more training of recruits that week, but implored him to watch his ass, and try not to get Natasha killed. Steve smiled. He became all business, however, when the team and Black Widow flew out to intercept the vessel, Steve jumping out of the plane without a parachute and relying on his shield to absorb the impact. It always weirded the team out when he did that, though Rumlow apparently found it amusing.

The predictable fight that ensued was not the hardest one Steve had ever encountered, but he was not happy to find that Black Widow had disappeared from the fighting, finding her in the control room downloading encrypted files, apparently having been sent on a special mission by Fury, of which Steve had not been informed. He gritted his teeth, not liking being left out of the loop, and when they got back, confronted Fury about it.

To smooth Steve’s feathers, Fury took him down to a hanger level that Steve had never been authorized to enter. He showed him the three new helicarriers, slated for Project Insight, in which Fury described a plan to use an algorithm to identify threats to S.H.I.E.L.D. and the world before they become a problem and deal with them. Rather than be modified by Fury’s trust, Steve is appalled. Fury tells Rogers that "S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we like it to be," but Rogers responds that, "This isn't freedom. This is fear..." But Fury isn’t moved by Steve’s protest. He’d seen too much of the modern world personally to believe that it was anything but a chaos that needed to be protected and reigned in. Not that Fury was an evil dictator, Steve actually believed that the man did have good intentions. But how many problems had existed through history because good men had good intentions that went the wrong way?

Steve left the Hub feeling somewhat despondent, feeling as if all of his sacrifice during the 1940s and World War II had ultimately been for nothing. The world had not improved after the world wars, if anything they had gotten worse, sneakier, more subtle. Steve preferred an outright opponent that he could fight in the name of righteousness to all this sneaking around spy crap. All this going behind backs and subterfuge things, these were things that people like Fury, Sharon, Natasha and Maria Hill we’re good at. It wasn’t the world he chose to live in, and he felt more like a man out of time than he ever did before. He went to the Smithsonian to visit the display on Captain America, which was weird, seeing a museum display in the National Museum on yourself. The video where an older Peggy discussed how he had changed her life and directed many of her life choices was both flattering and somewhat heartbreaking. He thought again about what she had meant to him, wondering if he had not gone into the ice what kind of life they might have had. Then he thought about Sharon, and wondered about the life he could still have. But she lived in Fury’s world, a world he felt alien in. Would it always be that way?

Then, as if summoned by his very thoughts, a message appeared on his watch screen from Sharon. He smiled widely in happiness, and then nervousness, as her message informed him that she had pulled some strings and gotten him clearance to visit Peggy in the nursing home where she had been residing. It had taken him a year to work up the courage to even ask to visit her, and then another several months of finagling security clearance to get permission. But somehow, Sharon knew the right people, and had gotten this for him. He called right away to make an appointment, and a few days later went to visit.

Apparently Peggy had been informed some time ago that he was still alive, that he had been in suspended animation and had not aged, and had been brought reasonably up-to-date with his activities with the Avengers and working for S.H.I.E.L.D., although she seemed to forget details here and there. He tried not to let the shock appear on his face when he walked into her room and saw her there. He could definitely see the woman he had loved in the elderly ill woman before him, and her voice, while weaker and somewhat more graveled, was still the same. They both cried when they saw each other, and he held her hand for most of the visit. She was apparently suffering from some form of dementia, because she would occasionally lapse into conversation that made him think that she thought it was still the 1940s, then maybe the 1950s, and then she would be back in the present again, talking about her children and grandchildren, although occasionally she mixed up their names. Despite this, she was able to tell him a bit about her life, her family, and showed him pictures of her with her children. They had been adorable, though they were grown now, and Steve told her that he was happy for her and meant it. She wanted to know how he was adjusting, seemed honestly worried about him, and encouraged him in what Natasha had said, to not disregard new relationships in his life because of his past and encouraged him to start over.

Eventually, it was obvious that the exhaustion was causing Peggy‘s mental health to deteriorate, so he took his leave, giving her a reassuring smile that he would visit again, and left. But he didn’t want to go home. Not back to that lonely apartment after the day he had just had. So instead, he went to visit Sam Wilson at the veteran’s center, and stood in the doorway watching with appreciation as Sam ministered to wounded and traumatized veterans. Steve found himself feeling more at home in this building with these fellow soldiers than anywhere else, and started bouncing around ideas about how he might be able to volunteer or help as well. Sam was glad to see him, and they talked some more, with Steve letting him know about visiting Peggy and having difficulty moving forward. Sam was supportive, and told him that while his situational circumstances were unique, ultimately his problem was not so unique to just him that other veterans also face. Years of war, having your life disrupted, losing people you love, and having to start over. Whether it was a 70 year gap between these things or a seven year gap, the psychological trauma was still the same. Steve appreciated that and made plans to visit the center more often. Maybe Sam was the kind of friend he needed right now.

Unbeknownst to Steve, though, at that very same moment, Nick Fury had taken what Steve had said more seriously than he had let on, and in attempting to decrypt the information on the USB drive that Natasha had retrieved from the vessel, and finding that he was unable to do so, started to get concerned about Project Insight. He told fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. administrator Alexander Pearce that he wanted to delay Project Insight until he had a clearer picture of what was going on with all of this encrypted information flowing in and out of S.H.I.E.L.D. servers that nobody seemed to know about. There might be a leak in S.H.I.E.L.D., and Fury had listened to his gut one too many times to ignore when something was seriously wrong. He would get his answer a few hours later while driving to meet Maria Hill at a secret location to discuss the encrypted information on the USB drive, when thugs posing as policemen attacked him and attempt to assassinate him. Fury managed to escape, though not without injuries, and he knows the only person who could have ordered such a hit was the one person he talk to about delaying the project.

Pearce.

Steve only finds all this out later when he returns back to his apartment, climbing up the lonely stairs, wondering if he’ll see Sharon waiting by his door with another bag of cheeseburgers to try to see if these were the world’s best cheeseburgers. He’s almost disappointed when he doesn’t see her, but then his enhanced ears pick up something strange. His stereo is on in his apartment, and he never leaves anything on. He stops, stares at his door, and looks around to make sure the coast is clear. He doesn’t go in the front door, though, but instead goes up to the roof and climbs down the side, coming in through the window. He finds Fury, injured and looking desperate, bleeding in some places, sitting in his darkened living room and asking Steve if he could stay there for the night, that his wife kicked him out. Steve is confused, saying he didn’t know Fury was married, until the other man swivels around the face of his phone which displayed a message that they were being listened to and it wasn’t safe to talk out loud. Steve understands now that his home was bugged, that Sharon probably knew this, and it might not just be his watch that was monitoring him. Fury tells Rogers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised, before being shot several times by an assassin standing on the adjacent building. Fury gives the USB drive to Rogers and tells him not to trust anyone, before falling unconscious.

Just then, Sharon comes blasting through his front door with her gun drawn. Steve whirled around, utterly shocked to see her, wondering how the hell she got there so fast.

“Steve?” she called out almost frantically, before seeing him kneeling by Fury on the ground.

“Sharon?!” he yelped, beyond surprised to see her. “What the hell? Were you just in the neighborhood again?”

“I was next door,” she confirmed. “Apartment 3B. That’s where I’ve been living since you moved in here. That’s how I knew you were having a bad night that night. When I went out and got you Chinese.”

“You’ve been next door the whole time?!” he all but yelled. “You slept on my couch when your own bed was right next door?”

“I didn’t want you getting suspicious!” she said, coming further into the room, her gun still drawn.

“All this time, you’ve been right next door?” he repeated. Well that would explain how she vanished so fast the next morning. She had just zipped into the next door.

“Fury told me to keep an eye on you,” she said dropping to her knees beside them both, looking down at Fury with a stricken expression. She whipped out a com unit and called for backup. Steve told her to tell them that he was in pursuit of the assassin, and jumped out the window after the man who had shot Fury. Steve catches up to the mast man and throws his shield in a perfect shot right at the assassin, but gets the surprise of his life when the other man easily grabs the shield with what looks like a cybernetic arm, throws it back and then disappears into the shadows. After making sure that the man was well and truly gone, Steve returned to his apartment to find it filled with paramedics, and Sharon standing in a corner hugging herself, looking as uncertain as Steve had ever seen her. It was disconcerting to see her so shaken, and he wasn’t entirely sure whether he should feel grateful to her or angry for her, because obviously she had been listening in on him again. Spying on him. She was supposed to be training new recruits, or was that just a cover story? Had she been following him all day? He was about to ask, when she grabbed his hand and yanked him behind her.

“Come on, let’s go,” she said, following the paramedics as they maneuvered Fury on a gurney down to the waiting ambulance. They were silent in the car she had driven as they followed the vehicle to the hospital where Natasha Romanoff was waiting, Sharon having texted her and Hill. Steve wasn’t surprised any longer to see the two women hug and then head to an observation window to keep an eye on the procedures. He had known the two women knew each other, but now he was getting the sense that they had been tag teaming on watching his backside. Sharon when he wasn’t on duty, and Natasha when he was.

To everyone’s sorrow, Fury does not seem to survive the surgery, and his heart stops. Both Natasha and Sharon dropped their heads, and Steve notices that both women are fighting back tears. It occurred to him then as well that Fury must’ve been something of a mentor to the two young agents. Their commanding officer. He could appreciate that. He felt a certain amount of grief at losing Fury as well, since it had been Fury who had helped him the most when he had first woken up from the ice. Maria Hill says that she will collect Fury’s body and arrange for his final wishes. Steve isn’t given much chance to think about anything else, though, because Rumlow arrives and tells him that Pearce wants to talk to him and Sharon about what happened to Fury. Steve fingers the USB drive in his pocket, remembering what Fury said about not trusting anyone, and hides it in a vending machine while Sharon is getting a cup of coffee before heading back to S.H.I.E.L.D. to face Pearce’s questioning. Sharon goes first, and then passes him with a nod in the hallway as he goes to take his turn. Steve doesn’t give anything up, doesn’t mention the USB drive, and doesn’t mention anything Fury says. He gets the impression that Pearce doesn’t believe him.

Steve feels a sinking feeling in his heart, the same kind of reaction he often got before going into Hydra bases that were supposed to be abandoned, only to find out that they were booby-trapped. He discovered his suspicion is correct when he leaves Pearce‘s office to return to the hospital, and finds himself in the elevator with Rumlow and an unusual number of S.T.R.I.K.E. operatives. With a jolt, he realizes why they are really there, and lets them know it by asking if anyone wants to get off. No one takes him up on his offer. So when they attack, Steve is forced to disable all of them and jump out of a window of the elevator to the ground. He escapes on his motorcycle and as pursued by a quinjet, but manages to get away. He later learns from Sharon that at that moment, Agent Sitwell and Assistant Director Pearce walked into the control room of the Hub where she had been checking up on the trainees and told everyone that Captain America is now a fugitive from S.H.I.E.L.D. Sharon, the only one with the courage to speak up, demanded to know why, and was told that Captain America was a liar and had concealed the nature of Director Fury’s death from the administration. Sharon held her tongue from what she wanted to say, but it was at that particular moment that the lightbulb had gone off for her about what was going on, and she went to find a board room with a silence field to call Natasha.

 

000

Steve had to take a roundabout way to the hospital, not wanting to lead any pursuers to his final destination, the result of that being that when he did arrive, and went to look for the USB drive in the vending machine, he found it gone. He also discovered that Maria Hill and Natasha Romanoff were also apparently gone with Fury’s body, and no one could tell him anything about where they had gone off to. But the USB drive was his main concern. He frantically searched around the vending machine for any sign of it, when a familiar voice came from behind him.

“Looking for something?”

He turned around and found Sharon standing there, with a slight smile on her face, holding up the USB drive.

He isn’t sure whether to be relieved that she has it or angry that she got to it first. That feeling of being thrown for a loop because she was spying on him, and probably always had been, came crashing over him again. He felt a surge of anger, and grabbed her by the front of her jacket and pulled her through a side door in the hallway, much like she had done with him that stormy night by throwing him up against the wall, although he tried to be as gentle as he could. She squeaked in honest surprise, as if she couldn’t believe he had actually done it and gotten past her defenses, but his reflexes were just faster than hers. And then her professional cool mask slid over her face again.

“What do you know about what’s going on here?” he asked her angrily. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Tell me why Fury gave it to you,” she replied.

“At this point, why would I tell you anything?” he growled. “What’s on it?”

“I don’t know,” she snapped back.

“Stop lying!” he fumed.

“I only act like I know everything, Rogers,” she snarked in response.

“Bet you and Romanoff knew Fury hired those pirates, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Well that makes sense,” she said thoughtfully, trying to pretend he wasn’t furious with her and still pressing her up against a wall. Again. “Fury knew the ship was staffed by dirty agents, needed a way in, and Klaue is known to be a dirtbag ready to do anything for money but incompetent, and Batroc is competent but soulless…”

“I’m not going to ask you again!” he snapped, running out of patience.

She levelled her gaze at him. “I know who killed Fury. I described what happened and the assassin to Natasha. She knew who it was right away. Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe he exists. I’ve heard stories my entire career, though. Those who do believe call him the Winter Soldier. At least that’s what Romanoff calls him. He’s credited with over two dozen assassinations in the last…50…years.”

He let her go and stepped back. “So he’s a ghost story?”

Sharon shook her head. “Three years ago after Natasha defected to S.H.I.E.L.D., she was escorting a nuclear engineer out of Iran. I was waiting for her in a quinjet, ready to extract. Somebody shot out her tires before they could reach the rendezvous point. The car crashed over a cliff, but Nat pulled them out. She says the Winter Soldier was there, waiting. She covered the engineer, so he shot the man, straight through Nat. I was able to come in when she called for help and drive him off. The engineer was dead, but I pulled Nat on board and they were able to save her. Russian slug, no rifling. We were ordered not to pursue the case, but off and on, we’ve searched in our spare time. Nat especially. She tried hard to find him. No luck for either of us. Like you said, he’s a ghost story.”

She held up the USB drive and handed it to him.

He was quiet for a moment, and then said “Well, let’s find out what the ghost wants.”

“Let’s?” she asked. “You trust me to come with you?”

“At the moment, not especially,” he said, still ticked at her. “But you’re what I have at the moment. Just try not to slip a knife in my back, OK?”

Now she looked hurt. “I’m not an assassin. And Nat…”

“Where is Nat anyway?” he asked.

“Went with Hill when they retrieved Fury’s body,” Sharon replied. “Looks like it’s just me now.”

“Then let’s go,” he said, turning to walk away, and telling himself he didn’t care if she followed.

 

000

 

They need to be able to access the USB drive on a computer S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t monitoring, which left out any computer they might have thought to access regularly, including their own at their homes. It was Sharon who suggested driving to Annapolis, Maryland, and heading to the local mall where there was an Apple store. They stopped at a Goodwill store for some cheap, ill-fitting civilian clothes, and they pulled worn hoodies over their heads as they walked into the mall, hoping to avoid too many security cameras.

As they walked towards the Apple store, Sharon murmured to him “First rule of going on the run is don’t run, walk.”

Steve, who had cooled down a bit towards her, though still angry but not openly hostile, replied “If I try to run in these shoes, they’re going to come off.”

She told him that the drive had some form of encryption on it that alerted S.H.I.E.L.D. to their location as soon as they plugged it in, so they were going to have to be fast. They walked up to the row of laptop floor models and chose one as far away from the others that were occupied as possible.

“How much time do we have?” he asked.

“Oh about….nine minutes, I’d say, starting…” she said nonchalantly as she plugged in the drive, “now.”

Steve felt his heart starting to pound as he started to scan the area around them while Sharon frantically worked at the computer.

“Fury was right about this,” she said, “somebody was trying to hide something. This drive is protected by some kind of A.I., it keeps rewriting itself to counter my commands.”

“Can you override it?” he asked quietly.

“The person who wrote this is slightly smarter than me,” she replied. “Slightly. Tony Stark and J.A.R.V.I.S. would come in handy about now.”

“You know about J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he asked.

“Phil told me. Oh by the way, Phil Coulson’s alive, in case you hadn’t heard. Leading a team on The Bus with my old instructor, Melinda May. But don’t let that news distract you from keeping a lookout.”

In fact, Steve had turned to her in shock when she said that, surprised to hear Coulson had survived his encounter with Loki. But then he went back to scanning the crowd outside the store for trouble. Then Sharon told him she was going to try some sort of other file, something that could trace where the files came from, if they couldn’t read them. He was about to respond when a well-meaning but persistent store clerk came up to see if he could help them, and hopefully get a commission sale. In an instant, Sharon became a bubbly blonde college girl who flashed a dazzling smile at the guy, which clearly stunned him, then wrapped her arms around Steve.

“Oh no, thanks, my fiancé here was just helping me pick out a honeymoon destination,” she gushed.

“Right,” Steve stumbled, smiling, trying to sound convincing. “We’re uh..getting married.”

“Congratulations!” the clerk exclaimed. “Where you guys thinking about going?”

Just then the laptop beeped, and they all looked down to where the screen was displaying a map.

“Uh… New Jersey,” said Steve.

“Huh,” the clerk said, trying to sound impressed. Then he looked at Steve critically and Steve swallowed hard, expecting the man to recognize him. But then the clerk said he had the same exact glasses Steve was using as his disguise. Sharon was shutting down the USB drive and quipped “Wow, you two are practically twins.”

“Yeah I wish,” said the clerk, taking himself off and advising them to ask for Aaron if they needed help. Steve let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding.

He turned back to Sharon. “You said nine minutes, let’s go.” Then he stared at the map right before Sharon clicked it off.

“You know it?” she asked.

“I used to,” he said. “Let’s go.”

He grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the store. As they exited into the crowd, he recognized several members of S.T.R.I.K.E. in the crowd. Damnit, did these cyborgs teleport or something? How had they gotten there so fast? He whispered to her their locations, two behind, two across, and two coming straight at them. He started telling her about who they should each engage and where to run, when she interrupted.

“Shut up and put your arm around me and laugh at something I said,” she said.

“What?” he asked, confused.

“Do it!” she snapped.

So he did, wrapped an arm around her and looked down at her and laughed as honestly as he hoped he could. The first set of S.T.R.I.K.E. agents walked right past them. He was stunned. They headed for the escalators, but right as they got on, going down, they saw Rumlow get on the opposite side going up. There was no way he was not going to see them. Steve tried not to panic, wishing he had some kind of weapon. Anything. Sharon saw Rumlow too. She turned to him suddenly.

“Kiss me,“ she said sternly.

“What?” he asked, not sure if he heard her correctly.

“Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable,” she replied.

“Yes, they do,” he said, feeling awkward.

She didn’t wait. She grabbed his head and brought him down for a kiss. He froze, and then leaned in. He felt his head spinning at the sensation, and he almost forgot that Rumlow was now less than two feet away from them. Steve’s heart was pounding from the adrenaline, both the danger and the kiss, but then they relaxed as Rumlow looked away and seemed to not see them at all. She let him go and looked over his shoulder to confirm Rumlow had missed tem and was continuing on.

“Still uncomfortable?” she asked, heading off the escalator.

“Not exactly the word I would use,” he replied, following her.

 

000

 

They “borrow” an old truck from the parking lot and drive north. They stop for burgers at a greasy spoon diner, but say little to each other. When they get back on the road, she tries to make conversation.

“So where does Captain America learn to hotwire and steal a car?” she asks.

“Nazi Germany,” he replies, “and we’re just borrowing it.”

They are quiet for a bit longer, and then she tries again. “OK I have a question. Which you do not have to answer, but not answering it is kind of answering it, if you know what I mean…”

“What?” he asks, feigning irritation.

“Am I the first person you’ve kissed since 1945?” she asked.

“That bad, huh?” he quips.

“I didn’t say that,” she retorts, trying to sound convincing.

"Well it kind of SOUNDS like that’s what you’re saying,” he shoots back.

“No I didn’t,” she protests, “I just wondered how much…practice…you’ve had.”

“You don’t need practice,” he says.

“Everybody needs practice,” she replies.

“You were NOT my first kiss since 1945,” he says. “I’m 95, I’m not dead.”

“So nobody special since you woke up?” she probed.

He snorted. “Believe it or not, it’s kind of hard to find somebody with shared life experience to mine.”

She says “You could make something up.”

“Like you?” he replies. “Or just withhold as much as possible, like your name? Your real name?”

“Truth is a matter of circumstances,” she replied. “It’s not the same thing to all people all the time. What you’re thinking of is facts. And I told you my reason for not telling you my name.”

“Well no, you really didn’t. How hard would it have been to tell me just your first name? You know it’s kind of hard to trust someone when you don’t know who that someone really is,” he said.

“Yeah, well I didn’t want to start going down that slippery slope.” she agreed. She was quiet for a minute, and then said, “Who do you want me to be?”

“How about we start with friend? With option for something else later on?” he asked.

She chuckled. “Well, there’s a chance you might be in the wrong business, Rogers.”

He isn’t sure why, but this hurts his feelings. He looks at her, but she’s looking out the passenger side window. He catches a glimpse of her face in the side mirror. She looks sad. And not for the first time, but he’s struck by a sense of familiarity, that elusive quality about her that he feels like he should recognize, something about her that reminds him of something or someone, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. For the last two years, since he met her, he’s racked his brains to try and unwind what about her sparks this feeling of déjà vu in him. At first he had thought that she reminded him of someone physically, but aside from his mother, whom Sharon was nothing like, he hadn’t known enough blonde slender smartass women who would have left enough of an impression on him to have someone else remind him of her decades later.

He thought it was maybe her personality, but there were a lot of people who had that snarky sarcastic but loyal attitude, Natasha being one of them. Her intelligence and ability to put puzzles together to form a clear picture reminded him of Peggy, but he chalked that up to the fact that both women had trained as spies and intelligence officers. He thought it might be her smile, her voice, but those were uniquely her. He felt the familiar sense of frustration welling up, and he gritted his teeth. Why was it so important? Yes, it bugged him, but if he had learned anything since meeting Nick Fury, it was that his gut feeling said that he was missing something, being left out of the loop, not being told some kind of critical information, that was usually correct and usually to his detriment. He looked back at her again. She was still staring forlornly out the window.

“You hanging in there over there?” he asked.

“I live,” she said.

He took a breath, and then continued on before losing his nerve. “Sharon, I know you had reasons, good reasons, not to divulge too much about yourself, but now that we’re both fugitives from a government agency, don’t you think we should level with each other?”

“About what?” she asked, not bothering to remind him not to be too loose with her first name. She allowed him to call her that off duty and away from the Hub, but still seemed to flinch a bit when he said it.

“Ever since I met you,” he started carefully, “something about you has seemed familiar. Like I should know you personally. I can’t describe it, not exactly, but being around you is like a sense of déjà vu. I don’t know why. I know there’s a whole novel, hell a whole library, of what could be written about what I don’t know about you. But if I’ve learned anything in the last 48 hours, it’s what I don’t know could get me killed. I know you’re Special Division. I know you guard your identity for the sake of your young cousins and your family and your job. But you don’t really believe I’m a danger to them. I know you don’t. So why continue to hide from me?”

“Maybe I’m just not a chatty person,” she said.

He ignored her quip and continued. “That stormy night when you dropped by and I blurted out your name. You were pissed. Like really pissed. But you were also scared. I could see it. I couldn’t imagine what you were scared of. Am I that monstrous? I mean yeah, I shouldn’t have grabbed you and kissed you, but I don’t think that was what scared you. No, you were scared that I knew your name. And when I mentioned that I only knew your first name, you asked if I knew your last and I said no. You relaxed then. You don’t mind me knowing your first name, but you don’t want me to know your last. Is that right?”

She didn’t answer, but he noticed she looked highly uncomfortable. She wasn’t exactly squirming, but she had opted for silence rather than say anything that might give anything away.

“So here I am thinking, you seem familiar, you don’t want me to know your last name, you don’t want me to know anything, any kind of identifiable detail about you, even after knowing each other for two years, and you purposely keep yourself aloof from me despite the numerous missions we’ve been on and whatnot. And the only reason I can come up with is because I would recognize your last name, recognize something important about you if I did know these things. Stop me if I’m way off base.”

Still, she didn’t answer. But she looked very unhappy.

“You’re related to someone I know. Or someone I knew. Am I right? And you think it’s serious enough to hide from. Something I might be angry about.”

She turned and gave him a rueful smile. “You’re good, Rogers. You should have gone into the espionage division of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“Who are you really?” he asked. “Red Skull’s granddaughter?”

“I’m…I’m…” she seemed to be struggling to say it. Then suddenly she yelled “There it is! Don’t miss the turn off!”

His eyes snapped back to the road, and he quickly turned the wheel before he missed the unmarked drive that led up to what he knew was the abandoned army base. The same base where he had trained in boot camp in the 1940s.

“Crap,” he grumbled under his breath as he jerked the wheel and they came onto the drive on two wheels. The tension in the air seemed to have dissipated as she now focused on their approach to a sliding chain link fence. He wanted to continue the conversation, but he knew that moment had passed. The sun was going down and they had a job to do. They pulled up and stopped, getting out of the truck Sharon studied the screen of her phone that he strongly suspected S.H.I.E.L.D. had no idea that she had.

“Is this it?” he asked.

“File came from this coordinates,” she said watching him walk up holding his shield that he had managed to bring along with him and had hidden in some bushes at the mall.

“So did I,” he said softly.

They easily scaled the fence, looking for security cameras. He led her towards the main barracks, carefully looking around for an attack.

“This camp is where I was trained,” he told her.

“Changed much?” she asked.

“A little,” he said, looking around at the familiar buildings now in disrepair and the dust blowing across the flat parks. He was suddenly lost in a flashback, back before the Project, when his weaker, sickly, unaltered self was struggling to keep up with his unit as they ran in full gear across the lot. Peggy watching from a Jeep. He could still hear his commanding officer yelling at him to keep up. But the memory faded as he heard Sharon’s voice.

“This is a dead end. No heat signatures, no waves, not even radio? Whoever wrote the file must have used a router to throw people off….what is it?” she asked.

His eyes had fallen on a building marked “munitions.” He headed towards it.

“Army regulations forbid storing munitions within five hundred yards of the barracks,” he said, striding towards the locked building with Sharon scampering to keep up. “This building’s in the wrong place.”

He used his shield to smash open the lock and open the sliding doors. She followed him in and they descended to a lower level. Steve hit a light switch and to their surprise, the lights came on. This building should not have power. Sharon looked a little worried as she scanned around, taking in the 1970s décor, light fixtures and furniture. Then her eyes fell on the seal at the far end wall.

“This is S.H.I.E.L.D.,” she said heading towards it.

“Maybe where it started,” Steve said, suddenly remembering that Howard Stark and Peggy Carter had been some of the first founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. He had met Peggy at this very location, she had had an office just upstairs in another building. Would she have chosen this location as a place to start a secret organization dedicated to completing his work of taking down Hydra and containing enhanced individuals? He moved between the furniture, looking around for any sort of identifying feature. They reached the seal wall, and noticed a side door. He went through it and she followed him. It seemed to be a file room, but he noticed some pictures on the wall and walked towards them.

“There’s Stark’s father,” Sharon said, seeing the picture of Howard Stark.

“Howard,” Steve confirmed. On one side was a photo of Colonel Chester Philips, the dry commanding officer who had been in charge of the army end of Project Rebirth, whom Steve had managed to win grudging respect from. On the other side of Howard’s picture was a picture of Peggy. Steve stared at it, expecting Sharon to ask who she was, and then realized that she must know if she had been assigned to him as a watchdog. He looked over at her. There was a strange expression on Sharon’s face. She was indeed staring at the photo of Peggy, but her expression was unreadable. But if Steve had to guess, it seemed sad. He turned and headed further down the room. He felt a strange breeze behind one of the empty shelves. She came up beside him and he looked down at her.

“If you’re already working in a secret office,” he said, grabbing the shelf and pulling it. It slid to one side. There was a freight elevator behind it. “Why do you need to hide the elevator?”

Sharon came up beside him and pointed her phone at the numeric keypad. He watched as the display lit up with a digital version of the same keypad, and then illuminated the correct numbers to push. She punched in the code. The elevator closed and dropped what seemed like an entire skyscraper worth of floors below. The doors opened into a dimly illuminated room filled with ancient, to Sharon anyway, computers running on tape drives, technology considered advanced in the 1970s but archaic by today’s standards. As they walked forward, more lights came on, showing the massive storage databank cabinets that seemed to surround a single terminal desk. Steve’s heart was pounding, and he noticed that Sharon looked particularly spooked too, which unnerved him because she was usually so calm in dangerous situations. Her hand was resting on her hip where he knew she had at least one gun in a holster. She looked around again.

“This can’t be the data point, this technology is ancient,” she said. Her eyes met his, but then her gaze fell on an USB hub on the table, clearly modern and new, with a few drives plugged into it. She walked over and plugged their USB drive into it.

Suddenly the machinery came alive, with tape drives illuminating and beginning to spin. An ancient security camera mounted to the desk began to move and seemed to focus on the both of them. One of the cathode ray tube monitors came alive and displayed the message “initiate system?” She walked forward and typed “yes” in response.

When nothing happened right away, she smiled ruefully and said, “Shall we play a game?”

Steve had no idea what she was talking about. She told him it was a movie reference he didn’t know from the 1980s. He told her to knock it off, but before he could finish his sentence, one of the monitors started to display a digitized version of a human face, one that was hauntingly familiar. A tin-sounding speaker began to speak in a German accent.

“Rogers, Steven Grant. Born July 4, 1918. Alias, Captain America. Currently employed by S.H.I.E.L.D.”

The camera swiveled and locked onto Sharon.

“Carter, Sharon Margaret. Born February 28, 1986. Grand-niece of Margaret “Peggy” Carter. Alias, Agent 13. Currently employed by S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Steve felt as if ice water had been thrown on him. He swirled to face Sharon, whose expression was utterly miserable and stony. She dropped her head and shook it, as if in defeat. He was thunderstruck. She was Peggy’s niece? Steve could hardly believe it. Was the digital voice lying? And then suddenly everything made sense. Her reluctance to tell him who she was, her nervousness at seeing him that day in Fury’s office, why she of all people had been assigned to him, why she was adamant that he not know her name, especially her last name. He looked for the similarities and at first he didn’t see any. The two women were nothing alike physically, one blonde, the other brunette, one curvy, the other one slender and lanky, one American, one British. But there. There it was. In the eyes. Something about Sharon’s eyes reminded him enough of Peggy’s to where he could now see the similarity. And that had been what had been bugging him. Her eyes reminded him so very slightly of Peggy, even though Peggy’s were brown and Sharon’s were greenish blue.

There was also the way she said certain words, similar to the way Peggy had said them, not with a British accent like Peggy’s, but sort of an Americanized version of it, and the way she sometimes used British terminology, like the one time she had called Rumlow a “wanker.” The two women looked nothing alike at first glance, but now that Steve knew to look, he stared at her face harder. She was more lanky in build, slimmer but just as strong, the same sharp mind, the same sarcastic streak, although Sharon was far more jaded. The two women had different hair color and hair thickness, and obviously different timbre in their voice, but there were some similarities. Sharon held herself the same way Peggy did, with a tendency to shove her hands onto her hips when she was thinking hard about a problem…or she was pissed. Something about the way Sharon said certain words was reminiscent of someone who had been around someone with a British accent fairly regularly. And something about the set of Sharon’s eyes, though a different color, was similar to Peggy’s. That was what was so familiar about her. That must have been the ripped page in Peggy’s file, removed so he wouldn’t see it, that she had a niece in S.H.I.E.L.D. named Sharon. She would be the perfect watchdog for him. Not only had she probably memorized everything printed about him, but Peggy had probably added her own stories to Sharon’s fountain of information about what made him tick. He felt a sudden chill down his spine.

Peggy.

Was Peggy safe? Did Peggy know Sharon had been assigned to watch him? Was his own beloved Peggy also in on the conspiracy to deceive him? He looked hard at Sharon but she was avoiding his gaze. He swallowed hard. “Peggy?” he managed to choke out.

“You’re related to Peggy.”

Now she looked at him hard. “Not now. Later. This thing must be some kind of recording. Thought my information is locked and classified. It’s not supposed to know who I am. Peggy made sure of that herself.”

The computerized accented voice spoke up. “I am not a recording, fraulein. I may not be the man I was when the Captain took me prisoner in 1945, but I am alive.”

A screen next to the first one displayed a photograph of a short, balding man with glasses, nothing special about him, but the photograph glared at them. They both moved closer to look.

“You know this thing?” she asked him.

Steve looked at the photograph and back around at the machinery. “Arnim Zola was a German scientist who worked for the Red Skull. He’s been dead for years.”

Zola’s voice sounded miffed. “First correction, I am Swiss. Second correction: look around you. I have never been more alive. In 1972, I received a terminal diagnosis. Science could not save my body. My mind, however, that was worth saving. On 200,000 feet of databanks. Preserving my brain.”

“How did you get here?” Steve asked, not bothering to hide the disgust in his voice.

Sharon spoke up. “Operation Paper Clip after World War 2. S.H.I.E.L.D. recruited German scientists with strategic value.”

“Thought I could help their cause,” Zola said. “I also helped my own.”

“Hydra died with the Red Skull,” Steve insisted. “All that was left were the little pockets S.H.I.E.L.D. has been cleaning up over the years.”

“Cut off one head, two more shall take its place,” said Zola, spouting the old Hydra mantra. Steve felt chilled to hear it again. Sharon looked calm and collected, but her eyes showed she was afraid. This was unlike anything she had ever faced before.

“Prove it,” Steve challenged.

“Accessing archive,” said Zola, as yet another screen came to life. They looked as various bits of information started flashing in rapid succession. Images of Smit, the Red Skull, standing in front of legions of Nazi Hydra agents. Images from the war. Troops storming Normandy. Images of Captain America. Images of Churchill and FDR. Images of Howard and Peggy, the White House. Various assassinations throughout history. Images of Zola with known famous American employed scientists.

“Hydra was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom,” said Zola. “What we did not realize, was that if you try to take that freedom, they resist. The war taught us much. Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly. After the war, S.H.I.E.L.D. was founded, and I was recruited. The new Hydra grew, a beautiful parasite inside S.H.I.E.L.D. For seventy years, Hydra has been secretly feeding crisis. Reaping war. And when history did not cooperate, the story was changed.”

The images had shifted to clips from the Vietnam War, the turmoil of the 1960s, cult leaders, the assassination of social justice leaders, and shady images of an assassin holding a rifle, with a robotic arm with a star on the side. The Winter Soldier.

“That’s impossible,” Sharon protested fiercely. “S.H.I.E.L.D. would have stopped you. My aunt would have stopped you.”

The image shifted to a newspaper headline on the death of Howard Stark and his wife Maria. Tony’s parents. Zola was implying that Howard’s death had not been a simple car accident. It had been murder. Steve felt his blood starting to boil, and then the image shifted again. It showed an image of a man whom Steve recognized as Peggy’s husband, Daniel Sousa. It was an older image, the man had been 73 when he had died. The headline indicated that a former field office director of S.H.I.E.L.D. had died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism attributed to undiagnosed lung cancer.

“No…Uncle Dan,” Sharon whispered, her voice stricken. Steve turned to look at her. Her face was no longer a mask, but wore a horrified expression, an expression of grief.

“For a man who spent a lifetime smoking,” Zola said, “pulmonary embolisms are quite easy to fake. Carter didn’t get the hint when Stark suddenly died, or her husband. She continued digging into the dark corners of S.H.I.E.L.D. looking for me, looking for what she suspected was a security breach but was much more. Incidentally, a case of dementia is easy to bring on with the right combination of drugs. I thought about killing her too, your entire family, even one seven year old little girl who spent her summers at her aunt’s house hearing stories about Captain America and learning martial arts from her aunt. But it would have been too suspicious after Stark. Removing her husband and rearranging her brain seemed the less messy option than killing off an entire family.”

Now Sharon’s face was a terrible grimace and she sucked in her breath. She looked like she wanted to scream in rage, cry like a baby and start smashing every piece of ancient equipment in the room all at once. Peggy didn’t have Alzheimer’s. Her mind had been affected on purpose. Zola had given it to her. Had murdered her husband. Had considered coming after all of them, including Sharon as a child. Steve felt rage like he had never felt before in his life, and just like that, any anger he might have felt at Sharon for concealing her identity from him evaporated. Her reaction, clearly not a faked one, was a genuine reaction of someone who dearly loved Peggy and was thunderstruck that such things had been done to her. Steve realized that Sharon must truly love Peggy, maybe even more than he did, if she had spent a significant enough time with her aunt. And clearly she had loved her uncle too, her murdered uncle who had loved Peggy through the best and worst times when Steve hadn’t been able to be there. A wounded soldier from the war, one of the soldiers Steve had rescued with Bucky and the commandos from a Hydra installation, Sharon would later tell him, who was a hero in his own right, though not remembered. And Howard. His wife.

Steve was not a murderous man by nature, but right now he wanted to kill something. And Zola was already basically dead. He reached out and put a hand on Sharon’s shoulder, half expecting her to shrug it off or slap it away. He could feel her muscles knotted up in tension, but they relaxed slightly under his touch. He needed her to not do anything rash in anger, but he was barely holding it together himself.

Then the screen flashed to an image of Nick Fury with the word “deceased” scrawled across it. Hydra had killed Fury.

“Hydra created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom, to gain its security,” Zola continued, not bothering to hide his glee. “Once the purification process is complete, Hydra’s New World Order will arise.”

The screen was now showing images of the Project Insight helicarriers, linked up to orbiting satellites, and names of people flashing on the screen, some of them they recognized like Tony Stark, but others they didn’t, like Stephen Strange and Peter Parker.

“We won, Captain,” said Zola, gloating, showing images of Time magazine and newspaper headlines already ready to run stories about his death, calling him a hero who sacrificed everything. “Your death amounts to the same as your life. A zero sum.”

Now Steve couldn’t hold back. In rage, he punched the screen holding the image of Zola’s face, shattering it. Not that it helped. The image just popped up on an adjacent screen, and now Steve’s hand was bleeding. Sharon had jumped when he punched, but had drawn her gun, ready to empty the clip into the machine.

“As I was saying,” said Zola, sounding bored,

“What’s on this drive?” Steve demanded.

“Project Insight,” Zola replied, “It requires insight. So I wrote an algorithm. As to what it does, it’s a fascinating reply, unfortunately, you shall be too dead to hear it.”

Now Steve and Sharon looked around, expecting an attack. The elevator door started to close, and Steve sprinted towards them, tossing his shield to try and bar the doors, but he was too late. He caught the shield as it bounced back to him. Sharon looked down at her phone and swiped the screen.

“Steve, we got a bogey,” she said looking at the screen. “Short range ballistic, bunker buster. Thirty seconds tops.”

He stared at her in shock. “Who fired it?”

“S.H.I.E.L.D.,” she said, looking at him helplessly.

“I’m afraid I have been stalling Captain,” said Zola. “Admit it, it’s better this way. We are, both of us, out of time.”

Steve began frantically looking around for an exit, any exit, or some way to survive a bunker buster blast. Sharon reached over and grabbed the USB drive from the port. Steve looked again and saw a grate in the floor. With a surge of adrenaline, he reached down and yanked it clear of the floor. As he suspected, there was a space underneath. Frantically, he motioned to Sharon, and she came running. He grabbed her and jumped with her through the hole, holding his shield over them as they dropped, just as the explosion tore through the building and a fireball erupted over their heads. The concussive shock nearly knocked him out as they fell, hitting dirt a few feet down. He wrapped his body around Sharon’s, pulling her against him and throwing himself on top of her, trying to pull them both under the shield as the entire building came down on them. He heard her screaming his name, and then yelling in fear, he yelled himself, trying to keep the weight of the collapsing building from crushing them. The explosion seemed to go on forever. And then there was silence.

 

000

 

He slowly came to, choking on the air thick with dust and feeling the looming pressure of tons of crumbled building only barely being held in balance above him, on the verge of crushing down. He coughed, breathed in more dust, and coughed again. Every inch of him hurt. It took him a minute to remember what had happened, for apparently he had been knocked silly and lost consciousness. He didn’t know for how long. Suddenly he remembered. Zola. Hydra. S.H.I.E.L.D. was infiltrated, from the beginning. Sharon was Peggy’s niece.

Sharon.

He remembered throwing his body on top of hers. Was she alive? He then became aware that a soft, human form was pressed up tight against his chest. She was still warm, but was she breathing? He managed to snake his hand up around her and hold it in front of her nose. He felt her warm breath on an exhale, and he pressed his fingers gently into her neck and felt her pulse. He exhaled in relief. She was alive, but he couldn’t tell if she was hurt. She was clearly unconscious or she’d have tried to talk to him. He struggled to shift, and shook her gently.

“Sharon? Sharon!” he called to her. She didn’t answer.

He wiggled and maneuvered creating a crawl space, but being careful not to shift the crumbled structure down on top of them. He heaved and shoved, getting his knees under him, and using his shield, pressed up, pushing a hole through the rubble. He kept digging until he broke through an outer wall, reached down and hoisted Sharon over his shoulder, hoping she didn’t have any serious injuries where moving her might kill her, and began to climb. It seemed like hours before he finally broke through into the fresh air of outside, and the clear air free of the choking dust was the sweetest thing he had tasted in his entire life. He pushed his way through the rubble, creating a hole big enough to climb through, and briefly hoped that Rumlow and his team weren’t waiting outside armed to the teeth. If they were at all lucky, the force working against them would assume that they had died in the explosion and the rubble would have masked their heat signatures.

Several things were on fire, so he quickly stowed his shield on his back and hefted Sharon into his arms. She was apparently aware enough now to wrap an arm around his neck, and he hurried out into the night. But just as he did. He saw approaching aircraft with spotlights, sweeping the area. He quickly headed for the tree line, hoping they weren’t using heat detection. They didn’t seem to be, because the aircraft continued to hover over the wrecked building and field teams were deploying. They were searching for bodies. Steve knew they didn’t have forever. It would take a while to search the ruined structure, but once it was determined that Steve and Sharon had escaped, their enemies, and he had not bothered to hide his footprints, Hydra, would be looking for them. How pervasive was the infection in S.H.I.E.L.D.? Could S.H.I.E.L.D. even be salvaged?

Steve ran for the tree line, and circled back around to the truck. He really had no other choice, it was his only transportation. He deposited Sharon in the back seat, grateful the truck was an extended cab, and quickly started the engine and headed for the highway. He had no idea how they managed to get to the highway without detection, he could only figure someone upstairs still liked him. He wasn’t sure where he should head. Sharon probably needed medical attention. She hadn’t come to, though she was starting to whimper and groan in the backseat. He stopped at a gas station for some snacks, drinks and ice, fashioned an ice pack out of a plastic bag, and placed it against her head. She yelped and her eyes slowly opened.

“Steve? Where are we?” she whispered.

“Heading to safety. We got out. Hold this to your head.” He knew his voice didn’t sound too comforting. But she complied without protest.

He wasn’t sure where he should head. His first instinct was to head to New York, back to the Avengers, but last he heard Tony was suffering from PTSD, and Zola had shown that the tower was one of the targets of Project Insight. He fired off quick texts to the Avengers, advising them to get out of their usual places of residence, and said he’d explain later. Tony had been instrumental in uncovering the plot against the president committed by the vice president, and Steve once again considered going to him, but then thought against it. At the moment, none of the other Avengers were being actively targeted by Hydra, though they would be soon enough. Tony didn’t want to bring Rumlow’s team and Hydra right to Tony’s doorstep, not with Pepper living there too. They’d be looking for him there, waiting. He also couldn’t easily bring Sharon to a hospital. They’d be waiting for him there too. Then his thoughts turned to Sam Wilson. Nobody knew he knew Sam, not that he knew of. He didn’t want to put the man in danger, but he was former military. And he didn’t have anyone living with him, not that Steve knew of. At the very least, maybe Sharon could recover and they could be out before putting Sam in danger. Plus they wouldn’t be expecting him to return to D.C. He headed towards the interstate.

Chapter Text

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks everyone for your patience with the slow updating this past week. Real life has been hectic, but never fear, I'm still managing to write! Here's the next chapter, with more to come!

 

Chapter 6

Sam Wilson was home from his run, drinking orange juice right out of the carton when came the knock on his door. Surprised, he answered. Steve Rogers was on the other side of it, holding a woozy woman in his arms, and both were filthy, sporting impressive bruises and gashes. Sam swallowed hard.

“Hey man,” he said carefully.

“I’m sorry,” said Steve. “We need a place to lay low. She’s hurt. And everyone we know is trying to kill us.”

“Not everyone, said Sam. He stood aside and Steve walked in, carrying the woman.

“Set her down here,” said Sam, grabbing a first aid kit. Apparently Sam had some field medic training. He was able to examine Sharon who was staying awake now, and was able to answer his questions coherently. Her pupils didn’t indicate a concussion, and neither of them had any breaks or serious injuries. Steve could hardly believe it.

“Y’all need to rest this off,” Sam said, after Steve had basically filled him in on everything. Sam had the right to know what he had just let into his house. “She needs to be awoken every few hours and asked some questions. Just to make sure there’s no concussion. And I guess hospitals are out?”

“Yeah,” said Steve.

“I got a guest room,” said Sam. “And an extra bathroom. I’ll see about getting you guys some clothes. Go on, get cleaned up.”

Sharon stood on wobbly legs and headed to the shower first. Thankfully they still had some Goodwill clothes in the truck, which Steve retrieved, and then Sam drove it several miles away, with intentions to take public transportation back. When Sharon was cleaned up and dressed in a tank top and yoga pants, sitting on the bed holding ice to some of the worst of the bruises, Steve went to shower and clean up himself. He came out wearing his undershirt and boxers and looked at Sharon.

“You OK?” he asked gently.

“Yeah,” she said softly, squeezing her wet hair between a towel. She looked so lost and forlorn. It was totally unlike her. Steve felt his heart squeeze. He came and sat down on a chair in front of her.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

She looked at him sadly. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was follow her into S.H.I.E.L.D. Peggy. I thought she was so wonderful, so glamorous. Her and Uncle Dan, they were keeping the world safe. S.H.I.E.L.D. was the ultimate in defense of America, the world. I was so proud to be accepted, to join, even though I knew it meant giving up a normal life. She told me all about you. Stories about the war, I knew how much she loved you. She didn’t really feel like she could tell her stories to her kids, you know, with Dan and all. He sort of had a complex about being the second man in her life after you, so she didn’t tell her stories where he could hear, she didn’t want him to think she didn’t love him or that she only loved him second best. And her kids were only about halfway interested. I wanted to hear them all, multiple times. So she would tell me, when nobody else was around, like in the car picking me up from school, or on the porch swing while everyone else was inside. But I didn’t want to stand in her shadow. She casts a long one. I love her. I adore her, but I didn’t want to be her. I wanted to be me. So when I joined, she purged any detail that showed I was related to her, all except in the deep files that only the administration has access to, not even high level agents. I think she understood me better than anyone. Neither she nor I ever mentioned it, and only a few people, like Fury, even knew we were the same Carter. I went into the special division. Became known only by my designation. I was so proud of carrying on her legacy, even anonymously. There are a few of us, second and third generation agents. ‘Legacies’ they call us. Gabe Jones’ grandson, Antione Triplett, he works with Coulson’s group, but he doesn’t advertise his relationship. Morita’s granddaughter, she’s an operations tech at the California Hub. There’s a few of us. But when you’re a legacy, people always say ‘Oh well of course, YOU got in…granddad must have pulled some strings.’ But in the same breath, you get told ‘Well we expect great things from you, you know. Your aunt was a director of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Then when you do well, they’re like ‘Well of course you did good, it’s in your DNA.’ Better to just avoid it altogether. But all this time, thinking I was carrying on Peggy’s legacy, and all this time, it was really Hydra. Hydra.”

She spat the last word like a fly had just flown into her mouth.

He wanted to say something, but he wasn’t sure what. So she continued. “I thought I knew whose lies I was telling. But apparently I couldn’t even tell the difference.”

He smiled. “There’s a chance you might be in the wrong business.”

She snorted, but smiled. Then her eyes locked with his. “I owe you.”

He shook his head. “It’s ok.”

She stared at him firmly. “If it were reversed, and it was down to me to save your life, would you be honest with me? Would you trust me to do it?”

“I would now,” he admitted, meeting her gaze. “And I’m always honest. Besides, we’ve worked together for two years now. I think we can trust each other at this point.”

“Because you know I’m Peggy’s niece?’ she asked.

“Because I know you, Agent 13. Sharon. Sharon Carter.” He smiled at her.

She smiled back. “Well you seem pretty chipper for someone who just found out he died for nothing.

He smiled wide and leaned back. “Well, I guess I just like to know who I’m fighting.”

Then suddenly he looked panicked and sat up. “Peggy. Her family. They’re sitting ducks, Hydra knows about them. Sharon, you have to call them!”

She reached out and took his hand, shushing him. “I already took care of it.”

She tells Steve about what had happened after they passed each other in the hallway at the Hub, and she had returned to the control room following his escape and Sitwell’s speech to the gathered agents to find Captain America, now a fugitive from S.H.I.E.L.D. She tells him that she had spoken up, demanding to know why S.H.I.E.L.D. was now after Captain America, and how it didn’t look like many people in the room had bought the explanation. After their lofty speeches, Sharon carefully slipped out and away from the Hub. She knew when it was time to leave. On her way back to the hospital, she called her grown cousins on the secure network that Peggy had set up before succumbing to dementia, and informed them that it was time to go underground, to institute a plan that Peggy had put into place years ago for her family should something terrible ever happen and their lives would be in danger. Peggy’s son did not ask any questions. Even though Peggy’s children had not followed her into the life of espionage, they had grown up with their mother heavily involved in it, their father also to a certain extent, and they knew that the time for questions would come later. Her cousins assured her that the plan would be carried out, and hung up. Sharon promised to talk to them later. Soon after that call, she knew that they were rushing to pull their children out of school, collect Peggy from the nursing home, and fly on an unmarked jet held in a remote hanger all the way to England where a safe house was waiting for them, set up by Peggy years ago, along with access to a Swiss bank account funded by patents given to them by Howard Stark that would keep them comfortable. They would be safe there. And anyone who was after Fury or Steve would not be able to use Peggy or her family as bait.

Steve sighed in relief, knowing that the Carters were safe. He should have known that Peggy had something in place for a situation like this. And that Sharon, as her niece, would have known about it.

He gazed at her, wondering if he’d see Peggy in her, now that he knew who she was. He was actually a little afraid that he would. He really didn’t want to, it would be too weird. But no, he didn’t. He just saw her. And he felt his heart surge at the image of her. He gently reached out and gathered her in his arms, and she let him. She had always been so aloof, so standoffish, it actually surprised him a little. But she allowed herself to relax against him, resting her head for a while against his shoulder while he gently rubbed her back and wrapped her own arms around him. After a while, she pulled back. She looked up and her eyes locked with his. His pupils dilated, and has eyes darkened. She felt her breath catch in her throat, and knew her own expression matched his. This time, they both moved in at the same time, neither one actually being the one who initiated it. Their lips touched hesitantly. His hands came up to cradle her head carefully, and he moved in closer. She shifted her weight and brought her own hand up to cradle his head, then settled into him. The kiss was tentative, almost hesitant, not like the desperate one he had laid on her that stormy night in his apartment, or the awkward impromptu one at the mall yesterday to get away from the S.T.R.I.K.E. team. If Steve were being honest with himself, it was probably their first real kiss, the first one where they both knew where the other one stood, who the other one was, and what was the likelihood of what would happen after. Unlike the previous times, this time he allowed himself to explore her. Get used to her.

This time, he was aware of her scent, how she felt against him, the very slight whimper she made as he dropped his hands to her shoulders and gently pulled her closer. She seemed to be exploring him as well, her hands slowly moving from his head to his shoulders, then his arms, and then around his back. The thin undershirt he wore basically could not have been there at all, as she had fairly unimpeded access to the planes of muscles on his back and around his chest. He bit back a groan; it felt wonderful. He wondered how much permission he had to do the same to her, figuring her front was momentarily off-limits, so he allowed his hands to drop down to her back, gently rubbing in circles again. He knew she was strong, but feeling her muscles and the shape of her back let him know just how truly in shape she actually was. He felt her tongue brush across his, and it sent an electric spike down his spine.

Now, instead of pulling her closer, he gently pushed her back. She resisted slightly, and then relaxed, allowing him to. He gently lowered her onto the bed she was sitting on, and angled himself slightly on top of her to continue kissing her. She whimpered again, this time with a slightly needy tone to it, and Steve felt his temperature starting to rise. He figured she was probably on board with this sort of activity, but how much further did she want exactly? Steve had zero experience with women in this particular arena, and wasn’t really sure how to proceed. He knew what was supposed to happen, and there had been talk amongst other guys he had known about mixed signals, and the signal he was getting from her was that he should continue, but honestly, he was scared to death that he might be wrong.

This was agent 13. Sharon. Peggy’s niece.

Steve knew that in this present time, this sort of activity was done for random recreation for some people, but in his time, it wasn’t done unless you were seriously in love with somebody, preferably married to them. Could he really keep this in the “make out zone” as these kids called it, and no further? Because the way his shorts were suddenly getting tighter, he wasn’t sure how much time he had left before it was going to be actually painful to stop. Now she was back to actually kissing him with a lot more insistence, and he felt her shift slightly under him, nudging him further on top of her. He left her mouth and started kissing along her jaw and neck. Now she groaned, and there was no mistaking that she was definitely on board with this. The sound shot straight to his groin, and brought him to full attention. He had moved off the chair he had been sitting on, and now was half lying on the bed with her, but had shifted his hips away so she would be none the wiser to his growing predicament. But when she grabbed him and rolled so that he was pretty much completely on top of her, before he could leverage himself in a different direction, he was suddenly completely on top of her, and there was no way she didn’t feel it.

Now it was his turn to groan at the sensation of being this close to her with only two thin layers of cotton fabric between them, as well as a certain amount of embarrassment that she now I knew exactly what was happening to him. But if she minded, she didn’t give any indication. In fact, she shifted her own hips so that he nestled more comfortably against her. He felt her hand slip under his shirt, up his back to gently knead and massage his skin and muscles. OK, that felt amazing. This was quickly getting out of hand.

Steve forced himself to stop for a minute and listen for Sam. Sam was still leaving the stolen truck somewhere far away, and it might be a while before he returned. Steve really hoped that he would not be caught driving the stolen vehicle, it could go really badly for Sam and Steve would feel horrible. But it did mean, if they chose, they would least have about an hour to themselves without anyone else in the condo. They could move forward if they wanted to. But did she? Did he? He forced himself to break the kiss and look down at her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, sounding worried, her eyes still hooded and her breathing sped up. Her hair was splayed out across the pillow, and her lithe body felt wonderful and warm under his. He really didn’t want to stop. But a few things had to be clarified first.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he choked out. “Are you sure you’re OK with this?”

She nodded, and then eyed him critically. “Are you? I mean, I know I’m not... well, I’m not...”

She broke off and bit her lower lip and looked away. That was disconcerting. He had never known her to be anything but cool and confident, especially, and even with, him.

He propped himself up on his elbows, though didn’t move off of her, and looked at her. “You’re not what?” he asked gently.

She looked back at him. “I’m not like other girls you might meet. Have met. I have... well, issues.”

Now he was worried. “Did, um, someone hurt you? Should I get off?”

“No, no,” she said quickly, “nothing like that. Well not exactly. Some have tried, back in college, but, well, she...Peggy... she had me and her kids, and probably her grandkids all trained in martial arts from an early age. By the time I was 14, I was going down to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters with her and training with some of the cadet recruits at the Academy. Anyone trying anything with me got a broken arm.”

Other men might have found that sentence off-putting. For some reason, Steve found it remarkably hot. He smiled at her. “Well,” he said, “hopefully they learned a lesson.”

She smiled ruefully. But then she looked serious. She took a deep breath. “The last guy I dated, it ended badly. Very badly. It’s why I’m not so…well…on board with romantic stuff.”

“What happened?” he asked.

“Remember when you first started working with us?” she asked. “How we went to that abandoned Hydra station, and I figured out that there must be a leak, someone who had tipped them off that we were coming? I told you later that we found the leak and it had been dealt with?”

Steve nodded.

“We were already broken up for well over eight months at that point,” she said. “I walked away. He kept trying to imply that now that I was dating him, maybe I shouldn’t be doing such dangerous missions. I told him where he could stick that idea. And apparently I have something of a scary reputation, because he thought it would be fun to brag to anyone who would listen that he was with Agent 13. And before you ask, no I didn’t tell him my real name. He only knew one of my aliases. But it turns out he was the leak. A Hydra agent nestled within S.H.I.E.L.D. We caught him turning over information to other Hydra agents at a known Hydra facility. When he saw us come in, he gave me this smirk, and then raised his gun right at me. He was dead before he hit the ground. I probably shouldn’t have shot in five times, once probably would have done it. The first one went between his eyes. I guess my reputation of never losing my cool on a mission kind of suffered that day. But it reminded me of why romantic entanglements with coworkers…anyone really…are probably best avoided. So I avoid them.”

Steve felt his heart twist. He could tell she was putting on a brave face, trying to pretend that the story she just told him didn’t affect her nearly as much as he knew it did. Even though the relationship had ended, even though she had been untruthful with the man about her name, he had been untruthful about everything that he was. It was no less a violation then if he had physically assaulted her. And some ways, the mental and emotional violation was just as bad.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. He hoped his voice didn’t sound too much like pity.

“I was well over him by that point, I assure you,” said Sharon, “but when I got home, I scrubbed myself in the shower for three hours. I still felt contaminated. There are few things I hate more than Hydra. I went over everything in my head and in my files from the day I met him to the day I walked away, hoping I didn’t give away any critical information. I know he must’ve been looking for it the two times I actually let him come over to my place. And even that was stupid of me. There hasn’t been anyone since. No one I trusted. And given what we know about S.H.I.E.L.D. now, I’m glad of that.”

“So I’m safe?” he asked with what he hoped it was a joking grin. To his relief, she smiled.

“Probably the only man in the world I would consider safe at all,” she agreed.

He leaned down and kissed her gently. “Glad to hear it,” he whispered. He felt her shiver.

“It’s, um, been a while, Steve,” she said. “I’m not sure how good at this I’ll be.”

He felt himself surge back to full rigidity at her words. Then he gave her a smile that was a little sad, and said, “Well I definitely don’t know how good I’ll be. Because it’s been zero for me.”

Now she looked surprised. “I know there hasn’t been anyone since you woke up,” she said. “You already know we’ve been watching, or listening, though I promise I would’ve turned everything off of it if it had come to that. I’m not a peeping Tom. But before the ice? You were a soldier in World War II. You were on a USO tour with a bunch of hot girls, everyone’s seen the pictures. And....Peggy... oh God, I’m not sure I want the answer to that one.”

“It’s no,” he said firmly. “It was too risky, and we had like zero opportunity or privacy. If we had been found out, she would have been severely reprimanded, I don’t even wanna think about it. And no to the USO girls, no to the handsy army secretary at the base, no to the numerous others who slipped their room keys in my hand on the tour, and definitely no to the French prostitutes that the guys in my unit couldn’t seem to stay away from on the battlefield. I wasn’t brave enough, and I didn’t want to, not with them. I might have with Peggy, I think your first time should be with someone you at least care about. But most of my life, I’ve lacked opportunity, and at a certain point, it doesn’t become as big a deal as everyone else seems to think it is. But it does equal zero experience here, so I’m not sure how much fun it would be for you. Fair warning.”

She actually laughed a little bit at that. “Well, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. But if it’s your first time, there are a lot of other scenarios you might want instead of this one. Someone else...”

He silenced her with another kiss. “You’re the one I want,” he said. “You have been for a long time. Before I knew who you were. Before I knew your name, anyway, I feel like I’ve always known who you were where it counts. And yes, I might choose another location other than the guest room of a guy I barely know who is returning a stolen truck a couple hundred miles away for me. And any scenario is better than being a wanted fugitive from the US government while hiding out in the capital city, looking to get ourselves killed later trying to expose Hydra within that government agency. But the way I see it, I can’t really choose my scenario. And while I didn’t have anyone particular scenario in mind for my first time, I certainly don’t mind this one.”

She nodded, and then looked at him. “I’m not her. I never could be. I hope you know that.”

“Good. I don’t want you to be her. I don’t want you to be anyone but yourself. You are what I like. You are who I care about. Sharon Carter is the one I want, not Agent 13. Not Peggy’s niece. As long as you can tell me truthfully that it’s me, Steve, you want in return, and not Captain America.”

“Oh no, Steve Rogers is far more interesting than that clown who parades around in red, white, and blue spangly spandex,” she said with a smile.

Now he laughed an honest laugh and dropped his face down, which happened to land right between her breasts. She inhaled sharply, and he stopped laughing. Then he looked up into her eyes again, and conversation time was over. He went back in for another kiss, and nothing else needed to be said. She pulled off his shirt, and he twisted his weight off of her to help her pull off hers. The next 30 minutes were careful instruction for him in how to go about doing this. She took his hands in hers, and showed him where to put them, how and where to go light, where to stroke, and where to be gentle or firm. Her own hands were not idle, and when they had finally divested themselves of their clothes, she wasted no time in exploring him.

When she wrapped her hand around him, Steve about lost it right there, and she held still while he fought a mighty internal battle for control. Finally, the urge to give in subsided, and she was able to explore him a little bit more before realizing he wasn’t going to last much longer. She rolled him on top of her, using her knees to nudge him into position. They broke the kiss just long enough to look at each other and confirm that nobody was hesitating. Then, with her hands on his hips, she urged him to push forward. He did.

Sharon sucked in a deep breath as he entered, moving slowly, letting her adjust to him. He wasn’t sure how long he was going to last, the sensation was unlike anything he had ever felt in his life, overwhelming and intense, but he didn’t want it to be over so quickly, for her sake if nothing else. So he moved slowly, gritting his teeth for control, until he was all the way in. Then he held himself still long enough for her to adjust, and let her set the pace. When she shifted against him restlessly, needing friction, he started to move in and out. As keyed up as they both were, neither one of them was slated to last long. Steve managed to salvage a little of his pride by holding off long enough for her to climax, but he was only a split-second behind her. Not knowing if Sam was back yet, they managed to stifle the loudest of their cries, but a few yelps escaped from Sharon that she was not able to hold back. Steve felt himself surge inside her again at the sound, and he was not quite able to bite back a groan that accompanied it. He collapsed on top of her, both of them breathing heavily. He finally moved just enough to turn his head and kiss her gently. She kissed him back.

“You OK?” she whispered to him.

“Best I’ve ever been,” he confirmed. “Especially considering I had a building land on my head six hours ago.”

She laughed.

They snuggled closer and drifted into a dozing sleep for a while, just holding each other. Her warm form was pressed against him, her skin against his, her head nestled against his. To Steve, it felt like heaven.

000

Sam knocked on the door. “I made breakfast. If you guys…eat that sort of thing.”

“We’ll be right out, Sam,” Steve called. He smiled down at her, kissed her nose, and she giggled, actually giggled, but then pulled him to her in a hug. They dressed quickly and headed into the kitchen, wondering if Sam would know or say anything about what they had been up to. But if he did know, he didn’t say anything. They sat around shoveling eggs into their mouths, trying to get to the bottom of who was calling the Hydra shots at S.H.I.E.L.D.

“So,” Sharon was saying, back in business mode, “Who at S.H.I.E.L.D. could launch a domestic missile strike?”

“Pearce,” said Steve, the answer obvious to him.

“Who happens to be sitting on top of the most secure building in the world,” Sharon responded. He and Sharon started bouncing ideas back and forth, about the Lemurian Star, and how Jasper Sitwell had been on board, about S.T.R.I.K.E. and Rumlow. Sitwell was the one they needed to get to first. But it would be nearly impossible for the two of them, currently America’s two most wanted people, to kidnap a S.H.I.E.L.D. officer in broad daylight. That is when Sam pipes up and offers his services. Steve and Sharon look at the file he gives them, and gape at him in wonder. Turns out Sam was not exactly a pilot in the Air Force. And his equipment was exactly what they needed. But Steve was reluctant to bring in someone else who could be targeted.

“I can’t ask you to do this, Sam, you got out for a reason,” he said.

Sam smiled. “Dude, Captain America needs my help. There's no better reason to get back in."

Sharon smiled. She liked this guy already. Small problem though, the equipment was at Fort Mead, behind 3 guarded gates and a steel wall.

Sharon shrugged. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” Steve said.

000

With Sharon’s expertise in hacking security systems, they are able to retrieve the flight suit, if not easily, then efficiently and without loss of life of active military personnel, which Steve was adamant about. They then break into the Smithsonian so Steve could steal back his original Captain America suit, having lost his old S.H.I.E.L.D. version of the suit earlier, but not caring, since it represented Hydra to him now. They are able to locate Sitwell meeting with crooked Senator Stern who had butted heads with Tony several times. Their audio tech was able to pick up the conversation, and Sharon heard them whisper “Hail Hydra” to each other. So Stern was Hydra. That surprised nobody. After some quick maneuvering him to a roof, they confronted Sitwell, and to get him to talk, Steve threw him off the roof and let Sam, now in his Falcon suit, catch Sitwell and bring him back to the top, which actually surprised Sharon a bit. Now frantic with fear, Sitwell started singing like a canary. He tells them that Zola’s algorithm could determine if, based on current actions, an individual would eventually end up being a threat to Hydra, and Project Insight was going to be used to eliminate these threats pre-emptively. However, it would also mean the deaths of millions, as collateral damage would be a real problem for the weapons on the helicarriers. Both Sharon and Steve had to refrain from turning the sniveling little weasel into a pulp as he carelessly talked about the deaths of millions of civilians, like it didn’t matter.

After leaving Sitwell tied up in a closet, the three started towards the Hub, not sure exactly what the plan was, but knowing they had to stop Pearce and the helicarriers from launching. On the way, however, the Winter Soldier appears and they fight. He deflects Sam’s attacks, and blocks Sharon’s bullets with his robotic arm. Steve fights him hand to hand, and finds they are rather evenly matched. But during the fight, the mask the assassin wears is torn off, and Steve freezes as he recognizes the face of his friend, his oldest friend from World War 2, and his childhood.

Bucky Barnes.

Distraught, Steve calls out to the man, calling him by his name. The Winter Soldier hesitates, seeming confused. He says “Who’s Bucky?” before running off and disappearing. Steve makes as if to follow him, but at that very moment, Rumlow’s team arrives and arrests all of them. They are herded into a waiting van with other masked agents. But as they travel down the street towards the Hub, one of the masked agents suddenly attacks the others, and when they are down, pulls off the helmet to reveal the familiar face of Maria Hill. Sharon laughs in relief. Steve wishes he could be surprised, but at this point in his life, he isn’t.

Hill takes them to a hidden facility where, to their surprise, Fury is waiting for them with Natasha Romanoff. They reveal that the director didn’t die in the hospital, that he had taken a drug developed by Bruce Banner to control the Hulk by slowing Fury’s heartbeat to one beat per minute, making him appear dead. He was severely wounded, but survived, only Pearce and the rest of Hydra believe him to be dead, which meant they weren’t looking for him. Hill and Fury tell them that Project Insight is only hours away from launching, and that they have to act quickly. The helicarriers would reach 3,000 feet, connect to the Insight Satellites, and zero all their targets before firing. The only way to prevent this is to use three special chips that would take away S.H.I.E.L.D.'s control over the helicarriers. A plan is hatched, one that Steve doesn’t completely agree with, because it involves Sharon and Natasha both going back into the Hub in disguise, each using a device called a photostatic veil, a mask that transformed a face and voice into an exact image of a face that had been scanned. Natasha would go in as a member of the World Security Council, coming in to watch the launch of Project Insight, and Sharon would go in as a nondescript technician working at the control room. Finding the actual people they were going to impersonate was easy for Sharon, she simply sedated the real control tech at her apartment, scanned her face, put on her clothes and left her lying comfortably on her bed, while it took both Hill and Romanoff to infiltrate the hotel room where Security Council member Hawley was staying, incapacitate her, scan her and dress in her clothes. Before they had gone out, though, Steve tells both Sharon and Sam about how Bucky had given him a place to stay after his parents had died, and how he wanted to capture him alive if they could. Sharon nodded, but Sam warns him that Bucky might not be salvageable. Steve tries not to think about that as he, Hill and Sam move to their places at the Hub to infiltrate the communications. He looks at his watch, figuring both Sharon and Natasha should be in place right about now. He watches from a security camera station as the helicopter carrying the Security Council members lands on the roof, and then switches to the control room where he spots Sharon in disguise at her impersonated tech’s terminal, keeping an eye on the helicarriers, and he feels a jolt in his chest at the sight of her. It was just about time.

At the designated time, Steve flipped the switch on the console, giving him access not just to the P.A. system at the Hub, but every single S.H.I.E.L.D. facility on the planet. It was time.

"Attention all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. This is Steve Rogers. You've heard a lot about me over the last few days. Some of you were even ordered to hunt me down. But I think it's time you know the truth. S.H.I.E.L.D. is not what we thought it was. It has been taken over by Hydra. Alexander Pearce is their leader. The S.T.R.I.K.E. and Insight crew are HYDRA as well. We don't know how many more, but I know they're in the building. They could be standing right next to you. They almost have what they want: absolute control. They shot Nick Fury, and it won't end there. If you launch those helicarriers today, Hydra will be able to kill anyone that stands in their way. They must be stopped. I know I'm asking a lot. The price of freedom is high; it always has been. But it's a price I'm willing to pay. And if I'm the only one, then so be it. But I'm willing to bet I'm not."

He watches as Rumlow storms up the middle aisle to the console where technician Cameron Klein is sitting and orders him to launch the helicarriers. When Klein refuses, stating “Captain’s orders,” Rumlow pulls his weapon. Sharon pulls off the photostatic veil and pulls her weapon, coming up behind Rumlow. Members of S.T.R.I.K.E. pull their weapons, but agents around the room also draw their weapons and level them on S.T.R.I.K.E.

“Like he said. Captain’s orders,” she says firmly.

Rumlow side glances at her in disgust, clearly pissed that she’s still alive and had snuck in right under his nose. “You picked the wrong side, agent.”

“That depends on where you’re standing,” Sharon says evenly.

Rumlow drops his weapon, but then twirls and slashes Sharon’s gun arm with a knife. Steve didn’t know he had cried out, watching, as he saw Sharon howl in pain and drop to the floor. But before Rumlow could react and shoot Klein, Sharon kicked Klein’s chair out from under him, knocking him out of the way as Rumlow fired at the console, and then began launching the carriers himself. Sharon rolled under the console, popped up and began firing. Rumlow ducked and dodged, and all hell broke loose. Sharon pulled Klein up and ordered him to try and stop the carriers. Steve and Sam began running. The fighting was intense. Up in the main office, Natasha was fighting Pearce, using her Widow’s Stings to take him down. She and Fury force Pearce to release S.H.I.E.L.D.’s classified files showing the Hydra infiltration, thereby ensuring S.H.I.E.L.D.’s downfall and disbandment. Steve and Sam fight their way onto the carrier to upload the chips that would bring them down permanently and fight the Winter Soldier who arrives to stop them. Sam’s suit is damaged and he crash lands on the Triskelion, unable to help Steve, who refused to fight his friend who beats him to a pulp. He tries everything to reach Bucky, somewhere inside this assassin, but when he falls from the carrier, his last thoughts were of Sharon, wondering if she got out of the Hub alive. As the carriers crash into the Hub, Sam jumps out of the 41st floor window into a helicopter piloted by Fury, and Sharon manages to lead the terrified techs from the control room to the parking garage, yelling at them all to get off the campus. Klein gives her a ride in his car and they flee the compound. But as they are rushing past the river, Sharon sees Steve’s inert form on the riverbank and yells at Klein to stop. She jumps out of the car and runs towards Steve, sliding down beside him and grabbing him in horror, thinking for sure that he must be dead. But when she sees he’s still breathing, that he’s alive, she practically cries with happiness.

Klein helps her get him into the car and they drive to the hospital. When Steve wakes up, Sam is in the room with him. He smiles and tells Steve what he knows. Rumlow was in the building when it collapsed. At S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities worldwide, Hydra agents fought with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents over control of the resources, and S.H.I.E.L.D. is fractured with pockets and groups hiding out. The government has declared S.H.I.E.L.D. a terrorist group, but apparently Tony Stark was pulling strings to get them all exonerated. Natasha Romanoff was going to testify before Congress about what had happened, and was talking about looking at a new identity given that everything about her past was released in the S.H.I.E.L.D. files, along with Sharon’s relationship to Peggy Carter. Sharon was ok, although she had needed 17 stitches to close up the wound on her arm, but was otherwise was fine, so she said when she popped in to his room to tell him that she had just talked to her cousins and that they, along with Peggy, were safely away in England. And he had a message from Stark asking that both Steve and Natasha come to the Tower in New York with the rest of the Avengers until the dust from all this settled. Steve wonders if that invitation can include Sharon.

000

They stand over Fury’s grave, looking down at the headstone, while the man himself stands amongst them. Fury is going abroad, looking for pockets of Hydra on his own, and Natasha is returning to the Avengers Tower as Tony had requested. Steve and Sam will go looking for the Winter Soldier, and Maria Hill is going to work for Stark Inc. in the security department. And Sharon? Fury has ordered her to apply for the CIA, so she won’t be coming along with him. Steve tries not to let the disappointment show.

“You don’t have to, you know,” said Steve. “You could…you could come with me and Sam.”

She smiled at him sadly. “I don’t often put love before duty, Steve. But you know why I have to do this. It’s a damn bureaucracy, but the CIA is the only serious intelligence community America has now. And if we’re all going to be hunting Hydra, someone has to be on the inside. Someone Fury trusts. I’ll look for evidence of Hydra using CIA resources, and you and the Avengers go after them. In between jaunts looking for the Winter Soldier. It’s really the best solution.”

“Love?” he asks, looking at her pointedly. To his surprise, she blushed.

“Something like it,” she said. “I…care about you. And it sucks that I’ll be here in D.C. and you’ll be in New York. But flying vehicles are a thing now. We can use them. We can visit, maybe make regular hang out plans? All work and no play and all that.”

Steve smiled and kissed her gently. “I’d like that.”

So they part ways, him going after Bucky with Sam, Sharon going to her new job. And they do try for quite a while. She gives up her apartment, next to his, in D.C. and arranges to have all of their stuff moved to storage, but takes a studio apartment not far away where he visits when he has a chance. And sometimes they meet up at the Tower in New York. But as missions to go after Hydra become more numerous, and Sharon is transferred to the Berlin office of the counterterrorism department, they slowly grow apart. Calls become less frequent. They see each other even less. Steve doesn’t want to admit it, but a relationship between them doesn’t look like it’s going to work out. Sam asks him, in that counselor way of his, how it makes him feel. He finds Sam easy enough to talk to, but it’s hard to articulate what he feels towards Sharon.

They stayed in touch here and there but Steve hated thinking about how they had grown apart. He missed her, and he wasn’t completely sure that she missed him. He thought often of that morning back at Sam‘s apartment, when Sam had left to hide the stolen vehicle leaving him and Sharon alone for a few hours, giving them enough time to consummate the relationship, for which they had not had much of a chance for a repeat since. He thought about her a lot, dreamed about her. Sometimes, he would wake up in the middle of the night, hot and bothered and hard, remembering their time together and imagining other ones. It caused a pain in his chest to think that she might have found someone else, or simply wasn’t interested in him, though that didn’t seem to be the case the few times that they talked.

“Some relationships just go that way, man,” said Sam. “It’s not anyone’s fault. She’s working at one job in another city, you’re working at another job in another part of the world. Long distance relationships can sometimes work, but typically you have to at least be in the same state. Relationships are kind of like plants, they need watering every so often.”

Steve’s mind immediately went to the gutter, so he turned away so Sam wouldn’t see his expression. He was still Captain America after all.

“Look, if she can’t take vacation time to come spend a week here with you or something, take some time and go see her wherever she’s at,” said Sam. “We can probably do without you for a week or so.”

“Honestly,” said Steve, “I’m afraid she’ll tell me not to come. She’s busy.”

“Well if you don’t ask,” said Sam in exasperation, “that’s definitely going to be the answer.”

Steve must’ve tried 100 times to pick up the phone and ask if he could visit her, try to have a conversation about where the relationship might be going, but each time he put the phone back down. He wasn’t sure what he was afraid of. Of his worst fear is coming true, maybe. That she didn’t need him as much as he clearly needed her. Thankfully mopping up Hydra cells after the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. kept him fairly busy, so he didn’t have to dwell on it too much.

Chapter Text

AUTHOR'S NOTE: To all my readers, thanks for hanging in there! With NaNoWriMo starting, and craziness at work, my fanfiction writing has slowed down a bit, but I never leave a story unfinished and I already have several more chapters for this one written, so never fear, I will still be updating this story until it's finished throughout the month. Keep reading! This chapter probably should have been two, and it's a roller coaster, but keep in mind, this is pretty much on par with how Steve and Sharon's relationship in the comics went over the years. They are complicated, flawed people, who don't communicate well and frequently have their ups and downs. But they keep on. This story is feeling a bit more disjointed than my previous ones, as if my muse doesn't quite know what she wants from it. I'm not entirely happy with it, but this is how it's coming out. I hope this chapter tides everyone over for this week, and keep those reviews rolling in! It's how I improve. Enjoy!

 

Chapter 7

 

 

In the year following the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Avengers reassembled at the tower in New York to begin operating independently to mop up the various Hydra cells. In one particular mission, Steve led the team against a Hydra unit headed by Baron von Strucker and discovered that not only had Hydra made off with Loki’s scepter during the Battle of New York, but had been using it to enhance other humans into super weapons. A set of fraternal twins from the small eastern European country of Sokovia, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, were discovered to have been the only humans to survive the Baron’s experiments with the scepter. The girl had telekinetic and telepathic powers, while the boy had superhuman speed. Both had apparently been thoroughly tricked by Hydra into helping them, unfortunately. The girl twin, Wanda, did not improve Tony’s personal mental health, when she caused him to see visions of all of the Avengers dead under another alien attack, which was one of his worst fears. It freaked him out enough to make him back off in the battle in which they encountered the twins for the first time. The twins got away, but the Avengers were able to retrieve the scepter. However, Steve and Tony had one of their many disagreements when they returned to America.

Tony had been crafting an army of automated androids controlled by his artificial intelligence, J.A.R.V.I.S. He called them the “Iron Legion,” and he was determined to use them to protect the Earth from another alien invasion like the one they faced in New York by using this automated army to keep the world safe when the Avengers could not. Steve was reluctant about them, though. Aside from the fact that he came from a different time, where one relied on living thinking humans to make decisions in warfare, he was not trusting of technology, even Tony’s, that took decisions in battle out of the hands of humans and put them into artificial intelligence. It made warfare too much of a game, and too much could go wrong. Tony, naturally, disagreed. Without reaching any kind of consensus, Sam told Steve to understand that Tony was traumatized by the events in New York, and wanted desperately to feel safe again, and creating the Iron Legion, and the intelligence that would direct them, Ultron, was his way of dealing with it.

“Yeah, well,” said Steve, running alongside Sam around the track at the tower, purposely slowing his pace to keep up with Sam, “I wish he would take up some other hobby, like golf or something. It’s far less potentially destructive.”

“Knowing Tony, he would just deck out the golf clubs or the bag or something, make everything automated,” said Sam. “You know, he says the same thing about you. Not that I’m breaking confidentiality or anything, I overheard him grumbling it in his lab. He says you either need a hobby or need to get laid. I think he’s personally rooting for the second one.”

“Obviously he doesn’t know about Sharon,” said Steve. Sam didn’t seem surprised, and Steve half wondered if the other man had known what was going on in his guest room that day he had knocked at the door. They had never talked about it. And most of what they had talked about since then had been either Hydra or the Winter Soldier, who they still hadn’t found.

“Well, in this particular case,” said Sam, “I’m going to have to agree with him. Not that getting laid solves a man’s problems, if anything it causes a few others. But you probably really could benefit from seeing Sharon again. Maybe try to salvage the relationship? It’s not too late, you know.”

“I don’t know, Sam,” said Steve. “Seems like she knows where to find me if she wants to talk.”

“She’s probably thinking the same thing about you,” said Sam. “And besides, keeping the channels of communication open are a major part of keeping a relationship going. You two just don’t freaking talk, and you should. She’s a spy, and you’re a guy from an era where talking stuff out was considered pansy. I get that communicating isn’t exactly a strength for either one of you. But she’s a great girl. And she tolerates your messed up ass pretty well. I can’t figure out why you’d be willing to let her slip away.”

“Can we change the subject?” asked Steve. “How come nobody’s telling Tony that he needs to get a hobby or get laid?”

“Well, probably because he already has both,” said Sam. “His hobby is turning out Iron Legion machines, and Pepper seems to be doing pretty well taken care of him on the other angle. That Sokovian girl really messed him up with whatever she did to his mind out there. It hasn’t made his PTSD any better. And clearly those two fixes are not working for him. So the only thing left is professional counseling. Which, incidentally, you could do with a couple of turns yourself.”

“I have you,” said Steve, “what do I need a shrink for?”

“I’m just a bandaid, not a fix. Hey, you should invite Sharon to the party,” said Sam suddenly. “She could probably get away with enough advance warning.”

“Drop it, Sam,” said Steve. Sam dropped it.

000

The party had been Pepper’s idea, even though a sudden emergency at the California headquarters of Stark Enterprises forced her to fly out there suddenly and not be able to attend. It made Tony especially bitchy that night, and fueled some murmurings about the two of them having relationship problems. Thor was spending some time back on Earth, and was eager to help them retrieve the scepter, so he had come along for the fight, although it seemed he and his human girlfriend Jane had broken up, lending another relationship problem to the Avenger’s team, on top of Tony and Steve’s own troubled relationships. It made for some interesting conversation between Thor and Tony regarding their significant others. Maria Hill was in attendance, as were most of the glitterati that Tony liked to hang out with, and Hill’s whispered evaluation of the pissing contest between Tony and Thor regarding their girlfriends was quite amusing. Steve had no idea that Maria Hill even had a sense of humor.

Sam had not been present for the attack on the Baron’s compound, he had been chasing down potential leads on what he and Steve called their “missing persons case.” He was sorry to have missed the fight, though he mentioned to Steve that avenging was “your gig, not mine.” But it got Steve wondering about including Sam on the team officially. The Avengers could always use another skilled set of hands, and everyone liked Sam. None of the others had said anything about it, despite knowing what Sam had done to help him with the battle at Washington DC, maybe they were waiting for him to say something. Steve wandered the party somewhat aimlessly, talking to Sam about trying to find an apartment in Brooklyn, watching Rhodey tell his War Machine tank story to various groups of people, some who laughed and some who didn’t, and then, watching Natasha and Bruce flirt unabashedly over by the bar. When Natasha walked off, Steve went over to Bruce to give him some encouragement and urge him to pursue it. He knew Bruce was hesitant because of his “health condition,” as he called it, but Steve hated seeing the two most isolated members of the team beat around the bush.

“Trust me,” he told the introverted scientist, “as the world’s leading authority on waiting too long, take it from me. Don’t. You both deserve a win.”

Bruce nodded, looking thoughtful, and Steve walked off feeling like the world‘s biggest hypocrite. He had waited too long with Peggy, and was now doing the same thing with Sharon. He probably didn’t deserve to be doling out relationship advice. Especially considering he hadn’t even gotten up the courage to call a woman who liked him over his fear that she was probably glad to be shot of him. He stopped and closed his eyes. He wondered what she was doing right now. Maybe he should have listened to Sam and invited her to the party.

And then, like magic, there she was. Standing next to Hill in the doorway, talking, about spy stuff probably. Steve froze in place and felt his jaw drop to his chest. What was she doing here? She was supposed to be in Berlin. Almost irrationally, Steve briefly thought about hiding. Maybe she hadn’t seen him. But she was either a really good spy, or a mind reader, because at that very moment, she turned from her conversation with Hill, and her eyes locked with his. Steve felt his breath catching his throat. He wasn’t sure what he would see written on her face when she saw him.

Would she be angry at him, that they had slept together and then suddenly drew apart for nearly a year? That he had not come to see her, or tried harder to keep in touch? Would she tell him to get lost, or yell at him for being a jerk? Or did she miss him as much as he now knew he missed her? He had told her once that he was always honest, and she had told him once that he was like an open book. Natasha had flat out told him that he was a terrible liar. So he knew that his joy at seeing her and how much he had missed her was probably not only inscribed across his face, but he might as well have taken out a billboard to wear over his head. Some women might find that fairly pitiful. But apparently not Sharon.

To his relief, she smiled at him, and Steve filled himself relax just slightly. At the very least, she wasn’t mad enough to punch him in the middle of this party. He gestured somewhat towards the bar, and she nodded, saying goodbye to Hill and meeting him halfway across the room at the bar where Natasha had seen them coming and had slid two blue colored martinis down in front of them, despite the fact that Steve couldn’t get drunk thanks to his high metabolism, and then took Bruce’s arm and led him off.

Sharon’s eyes raked over him appreciatively, and Steve fought down a blush. He knew he looked pretty good in his button up shirt and slacks. It hugged him in just the right places. But Sharon looked outstanding. Her blonde hair was slightly curled, and although she had never been much one for makeup, he could tell she was wearing just a little bit that highlighted her cheekbones. The dress she was wearing had a very slight sloping neckline, and showed off her figure nicely. Of course, he had always thought she looked good, even in her battle suit she used to wear at S.H.I.E.L.D. He felt his mouth starting to water, as suddenly his body remembered what hers had felt like against his, and what it might feel like again if he could get that dress off of her. He swallowed hard and tried to deflect his growing arousal. Apparently she had detected his thoughts, because her own eyes had widened slightly in response to his.

“So what’s a girl like you doing in a dump like this?” he joked.

“Fella done me wrong,” she replied in a fairly decent impersonation of a dance hall girl from the Bronx.

Steve snorted and smiled, and then his face fell. “So what, um, did he do?”

“Took my virtue, took my heart, then left me,” she said, though her face sported a slight smile and she leaned easily on one elbow on the bar.

Despite the fact that she said in a joking tone, Steve winced and looked down. “He sounds like a real cad,” he said. “Probably needs his butt kicked.”

“I don’t think he’s so bad,” she said, taking a sip of the martini. “He’s kind of a dork, a little clueless. Probably not real well-versed in how to treat the ladies. He’s kind of adorable, though, but irritating.”

“I can still volunteer to kick his ass for you,” said Steve.

“That might be kind of fun to watch,” she quipped, staring him in the eye. “You ever seen the end of Fight Club?”

He frowned. “What’s Fight Club?”

“It’s a movie,” she responded. “No no, don’t bother.”

She waved him down as he had reached for his notebook in his back pocket to write it down.

“It’s not good?” he asked.

“It’s not your style,” she replied, taking a long sip of her drink.

“Sharon, I’m sorry,” he said honestly, looking into her eyes.” I’m a jackass. I should’ve called more. But everyone was saying you were so lucky to get that job with the CIA. And then Sam, we’re still looking for a Bucky. And Hydra. And moving up here. And it’s just....”

“Steve, I get it, OK?” she said.

“No,” he insisted, trying to keep the panic out of this tone, hoping she wasn’t thinking he was sending her off. “It’s not like that. I still want to see you. I mean for all I know, you’re seeing someone else by now. And you have your work. And I have mine. But I, well, I miss you. I miss you bad. I miss talking to you, looking for that perfect cheeseburger. You stuck by me, and I’ll never forget that. And I hate to think I might’ve hurt you. Or that it’s over because of it.”

She sighed. “Steve, I’m not mad at you. And I miss you too. And no, there’s no one. I haven’t exactly been putting forth the effort to keep in touch with you either. I told myself it’s because there’s no shortage of terrorists to find, but truth is, I was afraid you got tired of me. I was irritated yes, still am really, but I don’t have any illusions about what we do or the time it takes. I just figured I wasn’t enough. Or that I didn’t live up to, well...”

“I hope we’re not going to spend the entire time we know each other with me having to convince you but I don’t think of you as a replacement for your aunt. I’ll always love her, but you’re the one I miss. You’re the one I want to see. You’re the one who was next to me when we had a building drop on our heads. What better bonding experience is that?”

She laughed, looking slightly relieved, and Steve felt himself relax as well.

“What do you want, Steve?” she asked. “Level with me.”

Level with her? This should be interesting. Steve cleared his throat.

“Uh. Well, going with the old man trope here, I know you kids tend to rush into things, and that’s kind of what we did, but in my day, there was this process called courting. Maybe we could try that?”

“You mean where are you show up at my parents’ doorstep, shake my father’s hand, spend at least 15 minutes talking about the stock market like you know what you’re talking about, ignore his veiled threats at castrating you if you lay the wrong hand on me, then, we go to the soda fountain, go roller skating, gaze at the stars on my front porch, and then you have me back inside by 9 PM? I wear your class ring, and you start telling your friends were going steady? Stuff like that?” she smiled.

“You make it sound like a Disney movie,” he said.

She looked thoughtful. “I think it was a Disney movie. Incidentally, all of that actually sounds delightful. There’s something to be said for old fashion dating, and you’re right, my generation tends to jump in the deep end with both feet still wearing the clothes. It’s just never been my style before. Too much spy stuff to do, too many asses to kick.”

“So, that means, we’re dating?” he asked hopefully. “Like, officially?”

“Yeah, I guess it does,” she said. “Stark has these holographic projector things, maybe I can take one with me. If we can’t be in the same room and hang out, maybe we can send each other holographic images. Put the same TV show on, and watch it together. Talk, pick up the same thing for dinner and pretend were sitting at a restaurant.”

“21st century dating,” he agreed. “Only I don’t have a class ring to give you. I don’t think I ever had one.

 

“Well my dad’s dead,” she said, “so he can’t shake your hand or threaten you.”

“Sorry about that, honestly,” he said.

“He was career military,” she said, “he died in combat. The family is proud of him if nothing else, he was Peggy‘s nephew. My grandfather, Michael, was Peggy‘s brother. I don’t know that she ever told you about him. He died in the war. But he’s the one that encouraged her to enlist.”

“They both sound wonderful,” said Steve. “I wish I could have met both of them. And no, I didn’t know about her brother. I guess he would’ve passed on by the time I met her?”

“Yes,” said Sharon, “so she didn’t know about her nephew until years later. Michael‘s girlfriend, my grandmother Sarah, told him she was pregnant right before they shipped him out. They married at the justice of the peace, and he registered her as his wife with the military literally the day before he boarded the boat. Good thing too, he was reported killed in combat not long after, and she was able to receive widow’s benefits. She knew he had a sister, their parents had passed on not long after. But Peggy was in America at that point, working for a highly secretive intelligence agency, so she wasn’t exactly easy to find. By the time Sarah found her, Peggy was married and had her first kid. Sarah moved herself and her son to America, where he grew up, met my mother, and the rest is history I suppose.”

Steve had been listening, fascinated, and said, “At some point I’m going to want to hear the lengthy history of the Carter family from you, when you have time. And if you ever feel like hearing about a nurse who was a single mother raising a sickly son in the Depression, I’ve got stories to tell of my own.”

Sharon smiled a soft genuine smile. “I’d like to hear them. Sounds like we have plenty of dinner time conversation while trying out some of the diners around town to see if they really have America’s best cheeseburger.”

Steve smiled, and then on impulse, leaned over and kissed her. She stiffened in surprise, and then kissed him back. Gently, trying not to get too worked up, until Tony Stark walked by, stopped and stared as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, then mentioned something about some rooms in the habitat level being free and they should think about getting one, and then walked off.

Sharon turned her head to watch him go. “He really is an ass. Pepper Potts is a damn saint for putting up with him.”

“That’s probably going to be true of anybody any of us Avengers end up with,” said Steve wryly. He asked her about her family and was relieved when she told him that they were all settled in London, Peggy was in an excellent care facility there, and that he should call her sometime or video chat with Peggy. Sharon video chatted with her twice a week. Apparently Peggy had taken up adult coloring books as a hobby and had something like $300 worth of colored pencils in her room and was driving the nurses crazy looking for them every time one rolled under her bed. Steve was going to say something about the therapeutic nature of art as a hobby.

But at that moment, though, Sam came up, greeted Sharon warmly with a friendly hug, and then let them know that Thor was passing around shots of some otherworldly Asguardian liquor that apparently had been aged for 1000 years in barrels made from some material from a wrecked ship fleet. Sharon decided she absolutely could not miss that, and they both got up to go watch.

A couple of hours later, Steve and Sharon were sitting around the now abandoned room, as the cleanup crew finished up their work and left, with all evidence of the party having been cleared away. All of the Avengers, Maria Hill and Sharon were all sitting around, trading stories, with Sam having left an hour earlier to catch a flight back to D.C. Sharon knew Barton and Romanoff from their days at S.H.I.E.L.D. of course, and although she couldn’t talk much about her own work, everybody wished her well working with the CIA.

“Yeah, good luck with all that red tape you have to cut through just to get a pencil sharpener,” Clint quipped at her. “Way I hear it, the CIA, you’re so much of a bureaucracy, the agents aren’t allowed to wipe their own butts without official approval.”

“You’re not wrong,” said Sharon downing the last of her second martini. “It’s kind of frustrating.”

She leaned a little bit on Steve, obviously relaxed. Steve wrapped his arm around her shoulders, ignoring the inquisitive looks of the other Avengers. They had heard about Sharon‘s role in the downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D., but apparently had either missed or didn’t believe the part where Steve said they had started a relationship of sorts. As the evening had wore on, and Sharon had become more and more relaxed around the Avengers, Steve was finding it extremely difficult to ignore how distractingly beautiful she was. It was already too warm in this room, and he was doing a bad job of fending off his growing arousal. He was beginning to wonder if maybe it was too early to convince her to go to one of the habitat level rooms like Tony suggested, when conversation shifted to Thor and his hammer, Mlonjir and how Odin had dictated that only the “worthy” could ever lift it.

They were all sitting around eating Chinese food and drinking Coke and rum, and everyone was something of a jocular mood. Clint was teasing Thor about the hammer.

“He whosoever shall lift the hammer shall have the power,” Clint was saying in a dramatic thunderous voice. “Come on, man, it’s a trick.”

“Oh please,” said Thor dressed in modern day garb and looking quite sure of himself, gesturing to the hammer with a smirk, “be my guest.”

Sharon and Hill met each other‘s gaze, and Hill mouthed the word ‘testosterone.’ Sharon snorted. Maybe she had had too many shots. Clint snorted too, stood up, and walked over to the hammer and grabbed the handle.

“Clint,” said Tony, “we know you’ve had a rough week, so we won’t hold it against you if you can’t get it up.”

Everyone laughed and Steve choked on an eggroll.

Clint grabbed the handle and pulled, and everyone giggled. After a moment of straining, he laughed and stepped back, saying, “Damnedest thing, how do you do that?”

“So I couldn’t get it up?” Stark quipped.

Clint gestured between Tony and hammer. “Let’s see you go.”

There were a couple of rounds of “ooo’s and oh’s” as Stark, now challenged, got up, adjusted his jacket, and walked over to the hammer, saying, “Never one to shirk away from an honest challenge. Now if I left this, I get to rule Asgard, right?”

“Oh, of course,” said Thor very unseriously.

Tony tried to lift it, and then not being able to budge the hammer, retrieved one of his Iron Man gloves, and tried to use that. When that didn’t work, Rhodes grabbed his War Machine glove, and the two of them pulled.

“Are you even pulling?” asked Rhodey.

“Are you on my team?” asked Stark.

“Just represent, man, pull!” said Rhodey.

Steve glanced over at Sharon who was now doubled over with laughter. He smiled at the sight of her so uninhibited, it was odd, but pleasant.

The two men gave up, and Bruce Banner took a turn. When he failed to lift it, he pretended to roar in anger like the Hulk, and everyone tensed a bit, and then relaxed when he laughed at his own joke. Stark looked at Steve. With a knowing smile, Steve got up, and rolled up his sleeves. There were some groans of appreciation, and Sharon noticed that Thor actually looked a little worried. Steve grabbed the handle with both hands, and pulled, grimacing with the effort. But everyone exclaimed in surprise when the hammer actually shifted a bit, and suddenly Thor was not smiling anymore, but actually looked a little worried. Sharon leaned forward, her eyes suddenly serious. Could Steve actually lift the hammer? Then Steve gave up, raised his hands in surrender, smiled and stepped back. Thor laughed in relief. Steve sat down next to her, and gently rubbed her back, and then she noticed that everyone was looking at her. Was it her turn now?

She got up, walked over to the strange object, remembering how Phil Coulson had once told her that a couple of rednecks in a pickup truck chained it to their back bumper and tried to drag it that way, and ended up destroying the truck. Shaking her head, she pulled on the hammer, but to no one’s surprise, especially her own, it didn’t budge. Maria Hill came over, and the two of them pulled at the same time. Still nothing. Sharon looked over at Natasha.

“Well, Widow?” she asked.

Natasha shook her head, laying back in her chair, taking a long pull from the longneck beer she held. “Oh no,” she said, “that’s not a question I need answered.”

Sharon and Maria sat back down, and she resumed leaning back into Steve. Whatever aftershave he was wearing smelled awesome.

“No offense to the man who wouldn’t be King,” said Tony, “but it’s clearly rigged.”

“Bet your ass,” said Steve, drawing Sharon closer.

“Steve, you said a bad language word,” said Hill teasingly.

“You’re going to tell everyone that now?” he joked back.

“It’s fingerprint protected, isn’t it?” asked Tony. “Isn’t the inscription something like ‘Odin’s fingerprint?’”

Thor got up. He walked over to the hammer, and said, “Oh yes, that’s it. Of course, there’s another explanation. You’re all not worthy.”

He easily picked up the hammer, tossed it in a loop and re-caught the handle, in a dramatic flair, and everyone groaned, but they were all smiling and laughing. Steve settled back into the couch and pulled Sharon against him. She relaxed against him and snuggled into his side. Everyone seemed to have become accustomed to the sight of Steve getting cozy with a woman, one they had just met that night except for Clint, Nat and Maria. Obviously Steve had known her for a while. Sharon had told Steve that she had flown in to New York that afternoon to get with Maria Hill on some sensitive issues regarding Stark Inc. and classified technology the CIA wanted to commission, hence her presence at the party, and her travel bag was downstairs in Hill’s office, where she had gotten ready for the party. They had used the party as an excuse to meet up, since so many pertinent people, like Rhodey, were going to be there. And for her to talk to Steve, she admitted. The plan was for her to crash on Hill’s couch this weekend, and fly back to Germany on Monday. Without thinking about it, Steve offered her a place to stay in his quarters.

“I mean, we’ll, we kind of only officially started dating a few hours ago,” he said, “so we don’t need to rush anything. Unless you want to, I mean. Well, there’s something to be said for just snuggling. Or I could sleep on the floor.”

“Snuggling sounds fine to me,” she said with a smile. “No need for anybody to sleep on the floor.”

Hill overheard them. “So does this mean you won’t be needing my couch?”

“I appreciate the offer anyway,” Sharon said. Hill only smiled. Tony overheard as well, and muttered something about Cap getting some tonight and he wasn’t, which had to be some kind of shift in the order of the universe.

Steve felt his heart leap in anticipation. Even though she had not agreed to anything more, and honestly snuggling was fine with him, the possibility of something more had him focusing on her with full attention. Which was why he was not completely aware of the noise coming from the elevator shaft at first.

Then, a high pitched noise screeched through the room and all laughter stopped as everyone winced in pain and held their ears. Then, some sort of mechanized creature emerged from the elevator shaft, limping as if it couldn’t walk straight. It almost looked like one of the Iron Legion bots, but unfinished without its outer shell. They all turned to look. Slowly everyone stood up.

“Worthy. How could you be worthy? You’re all killers,” the bot growled in a strange voice.

Steve stood up. “Stark?” he asked worriedly.

Tony was staring at the bot in confusion. “J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he asked towards the ceiling.

“Oh sorry,” said the bot. “I was asleep before. I was dreaming. There was this terrible noise....”

Tony started tapping on his phone muttering “Reboot, reboot.”

The bot still rambled on, “There were strings....movement....had to kill the other guy. He was a good guy.”

“You killed someone?” Steve asked, shifting into a defensive posture.

“Wouldn’t have been my first call,” the creature admitted. “But down in the real world, we’re faced with ugly choices.”

Thor spoke up, “Who sent you?”

The bot responded with a recording. It repeated Tony’s words, when he had been discussing his Ultron plans, the plan for the artificial intelligence that would oversee the Iron Legion army. “I see a suit of armor around the world…”

“Ultron,” said Rhodey.

“In the flesh,” said the bot. “Well no, not yet. Not this Christmas. But I’m ready. I’m on a mission.”

Everyone slowly started moving into defensive positions. Sharon carefully unsnapped her pistol from the thigh holster under her dress, as did Hill, and the two women, along with Natasha, slowly stood up and began spreading out into what Steve recognized as a carefully practiced defensive line, the likes of which S.H.I.E.L.D. agents liked to form in a crowded room of civilians.

“What mission?” asked Natasha, carefully moving to the right. Steve took several steps forward and came to stand right behind Tony.

The terrifying contraption, which had been looking off to the right, now suddenly turned and looked at them. “Peace in our time,” it said.

At that moment, several Iron Legion bots came blasting through the wall, directly at the assembled Avengers. Everyone immediately dove for cover. Those who had weapons elsewhere ran for them, and Thor slammed his hammer straight into the one that was unlucky enough to hurl itself at him. Rhodey was thrown through a window, and Bruce tackled Natasha over the bar and out of the line of fire. Sharon and Maria hurled themselves under tables and behind furniture and began firing at the turncoat Iron Legion bots swooping around the room, knocking aside anyone they came in contact with. One landed next to the recovered scepter in a containment field, easily deactivated it and grabbed it. Steve jumped on the back of one, but it immediately reversed its thrusters, slamming backwards into a wall and knocking him off to land behind a counter. Thor managed to hammer one and destroy it while Tony jumped onto the back of another and attempted to shut it down with a multitool to the neck.

Clint retrieved Steve’s shield from a corner

“Cap!” he yelled, tossing it. Steve caught it midair, twirled like a discus thrower and sent it directly into one of the bots, which shattered it. Sharon saw it from where she and Hill were firing at another bot. If she had not been coursing with adrenaline trying to stay alive, she would have found his maneuver extremely hot.

The bots were destroyed within a span of two minutes.

“That was dramatic,” said Ultron, sounding board. He began to slink away back to the elevator, picking up one of the destroyed Iron Legion bots. “I’m sorry, I know you mean well, you just didn’t think it through. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. How was humanity to be saved if it can’t evolve? Look at these, these puppets. There’s only one path to peace. The Avengers’ destruction.”

Thor reared back and threw his hammer at Ultron, shattering it. As the light in its eyes flickered out, it began to sing in a creepy voice, a song Sharon recognized from the old Disney movie Pinocchio.

“I had strings…but now I’m free…there are no strings on me…”

Tony walked over to the wrecked bot, looking stunned. Steve walked up behind him, but said nothing. There was no need to. Suddenly Hill came running back inside from the balcony.

“Dr. Helen Cho was taken by some of those bots. No idea where they took her,” she said.

“One of them took the scepter too,” said Banner, coming up behind Natasha, who was standing next to Sharon. Steve looked over and breathed a sigh of relief to see everyone, especially Sharon unhurt. But was Dr. Cho still alive?

He told Hill to get Stark security on it, tracking where the bots might have taken the doctor, and turned back to Tony. “What happened here?”

Tony looked up at the ceiling. “J.A.R.V.I.S. what happened? J.A.R.V.I.S.?”

The A.I. didn’t answer. Tony turned and ran for the stairs down to the lab. Banner followed him. Everyone turned to Steve. He immediately took charge.

“If J.A.R.V.I.S. isn’t answering, we have to assume that he isn’t monitoring the tower. Groups of two, spread out, start from the top and work your way down. We need to clear and secure every floor. No Iron Legion. Human eyes only.”

They divided into groups, Sharon went with Steve, and they each started on separate floors and worked down the levels below. Steve hefted his shield and Sharon reloaded her clips. They barely said a word as the moved through their floors, checking every room for trouble. After an hour, they all met back in Stark’s lab.

“J.A.R.V.I.S. is dead,” he said woodenly. “He’s not answering. He’s not anywhere. No sign of him on any of the servers, wiped clean.”

“Is he backed up anywhere?” asked Rhodey.

“He’s not like a normal program,” said Tony. “It’s not that easy. I have some of his information, but I can’t find his matrix anywhere.”

“Tony what was that thing that attacked us?” asked Steve. “Was it aware? It seemed intelligent, autonomous.”

Stark sighed and began to describe the project that he and Banner had been working on, a type of artificial intelligence designed to act as a guardian for the entire planet. It would control the Iron Legion, of which Tony had planned to build quite a few more, and could respond to problems facing the world and act as back up to the Avengers. It would free up J.A.R.V.I.S., whose primary function was to assist Tony, and had been thus far too preoccupied with monitoring and controlling the Iron Legion bots while they were in battle. Sharon thought Steve was going to hit the roof. Steve countered by saying that while he understood the need for backup, entrusting too much protection to automated systems was too dangerous, and Project Insight had been S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attempt to do the exact same thing and ended up falling to Hydra. It was too easy for miscreants to get a hold of that kind of system and make use of it, no matter how good of a genius you were. Tony grew red in the face and was about to launch back at Steve about how his system was not hackable, and how he would do a much better job than S.H.I.E.L.D., when Maria Hill deftly stepped between them and put her hands up.

“Gentlemen, at this point it doesn’t really matter what something was intended to do. Obviously that AI, Ultron or whatever, was warped. And until we know for sure that it’s completely disabled, I think it’s best to disable the entire Iron Legion army, wherever they are. For security purposes, Tony, I suggest you get on the phone and tell Happy Hogan over in California that his security team needs to start disabling the bots that are wandering around your facilities there, which, I remind you, is where Pepper is. I’m going to gear up our human security force here, and we’re going to start disabling any of the bots that are here. Now I need you to tell us how to do that, quickly and efficiently.”

Tony slumped in acquiescence. “Just yank their arc reactors. I’ve ordered them all to power down, so they should all be in sleep mode right now. Anything moving, it needs to be disabled. Taken out if you have to.”

 

“Then we all have a job to do, said Steve, grabbing a rack full of multi tools and handing them out. “I know it’s one in the morning, but nobody’s getting any sleep until this tower is secure. Hill will have her security team doing back up, but it’ll go faster if we all pitch in.”

Sharon took one of the tools, and once again she and Steve paired up as everyone else spread out across the building. Tony kept three of the bots in operation, after thoroughly checking their diagnostics to make sure they weren’t under Ultron control, and set them to work repairing the damage to the windows and the room in which the battle had occurred. Then he got on the phone with Hogan to ensure that the bots over there had been shut down and that Pepper was safe. Steve was grumbling about this process taking the entire night, but honestly, it went pretty fast considering that the bots were not moving and the arc reactors came right out, and that Hill had dispatched a 30 man team to cover and secure the tower now that J.A.R.V.I.S. was not operational and the Iron Legion bots were no longer reliable. The job was done and all of the bots accounted for, even the destroyed ones from the battle, by 3:30 AM.

Steve suggested that they all hit the sack, and Maria Hill agreed to stay in one of the unused habitat level rooms, because now was not a really good time to be driving back to her apartment. Steve make sure that everyone was accounted for and turned into their quarters before heading back to the rec room, now pretty much picked up, and the three bots that had cleaned it also disabled, to find Sharon dozing in one of the chairs. He felt his heart lurch a bit. This was a hell of a way to end the evening.

He knew better than to try and shake awake someone who had lived her kind of life with her kind of training. He once made the mistake of trying to shake Natasha awake, and almost ended up with a broken wrist. Though granted Natasha’s life have been far more abusive than Sharon’s apparently had been. Even so, he had earned enough bruises tonight, he wasn’t looking to get anymore. So he carefully said her name as close as he dared until she opened her eyes. She was a little disoriented, then focused on him and smiled.

“Sleep time?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Everyone’s turning in. It’s three in the morning. Might as well try to get some sleep in a bed.”

“Are you offering any particular bed? Or is there a general one somewhere?” she asked.

“Well, there was some mention of snuggling earlier this evening before a maniac robot got turned loose,” he said. “That offer still stands. My bed happens to be pretty comfortable, that is, if you haven’t changed your mind.”

“Snuggling it is,” she agreed, holding up her hand, which he took and pulled her up. She followed him wordlessly down the hallway. He had retrieved her bag from Hill’s office, and offered her the shower first.

“It’s regrettable that I don’t have your stamina,” she said taking it from him. “A joint shower and anything that my follow sounds kind of nice right now. However, given the events of the evening, and my general tendency towards paranoia, right now I’m envisioning us in the middle of a very nice pasttime, only to be rudely interrupted by us one of Tony’s robots busting in on us. It wouldn’t be a very glamorous way to die.”

He felt a stab of disappointment, but then smile. “Well, the headlines would be entertaining.”

“That they would,” she agreed, heading into the bathroom, alone, to take a quick shower. He took one after her, and when he came out, he smiled to see her sprawled out on one side of his bed, already asleep. He gently crawled in next to her, and carefully wrapped an arm around her waist. It struck him then, that in all the years he had known her, even the times they had been intimate, they had never actually had a chance to just sleep in the same bed. In fact, he had never actually slept with anyone in the same bed as him. Lying in bed rolls next to the snoring Commandos on the battlefield certainly didn’t count. He was half afraid that she might jerk awake and get him in a headlock before he knew what was happening. But instead, she seemed to relax under his arm, and despite being worried about another robot attack, he found himself drifting off to sleep.

Steve only slept about three hours, but it was still close to 7 AM when he heard soft knocking on his door, and Natasha’s voice gently warning them that they needed to get up. He called back to her softly that they were getting up, and he heard footsteps as she went down the hall back towards the kitchen. Steve looked down at Sharon. She was still sound asleep, which he knew was out of the ordinary for her given that she was a light sleeper by nature. She told him once that she had occasional bouts of insomnia, and tended to jerk awake at the slightest sound and have difficulty going back to sleep again. He figured it had something to do with her chosen profession. But now, she was sleeping on her stomach, the covers drawn down to her hips, and her hair spread out everywhere. She snored very lightly, and when he looked down at her face, he felt an over whelming rush of affection. She looked adorable while she was sleeping. He pulled her close to him, snuggling against her, and leaned down and kiss the tip of her nose. She jerked awake, causing him to jump back. He had forgotten for a second. But when she focused her eyes on him, she smiled.

“Sorry about that,” she sighed, stretching.

“No worries,” he said leaning down and kissing her. She immediately relaxed against him and kissed him back.

“We’re wanted out there,” he said between kisses.

“Hopefully no more mad robots,” she quipped back between her own kisses.

She was driving him nuts. He groaned and kissed her more deeply. She responded. Then she pulled away.

“How fast can you be?” she asked. “Because it’s seven thirty and my flight leaves in ninety minutes.”

He grunted in frustration. “At the risk of sounding like a responsible killjoy,” he said, “and I’m sure I could be fast, it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable as if we took her time, and we need to go find Dr. Cho and that scepter. I’m not convinced that robots that flew off with both of them shut down when we killed Ultron.”

Sharon frowned and sat up. “Are you absolutely certain that thing is dead? It was an artificial intelligence, wasn’t it? And Tony’s other AI, J.A.R.V.I.S., it was able to swap between his various buildings and his suit. How do we know that Ultron thing didn’t just upload himself somewhere else before the mechanical body it was in blipped out?”

Steve frowned. She was right. He was going to mention that to Tony when they went about their business. And as much as he hated to admit it, Sharon had a job to do and a place to be. It wouldn’t be responsible of him to keep her, no matter how much he wanted what she was offering. They both grumbled under their breath as they got out of bed and got dressed and headed to the kitchen. Tony offered the use of one of the Stark jets to fly Sharon back to Germany, but it didn’t mean they had any more time to themselves. They mentioned to Tony what Sharon had suggested, and he told them that, of course, he had already thought of that, but without J.A.R.V.I.S. to help him, cracking any uploads and signals within the building to another location was going to take some time.

Steve gave Sharon another hug and kiss, and watched forlornly as she climbed into the car with Hill, who was going to drive her to the airport where Stark had a hanger for his company jets. Word had already been given to fire up one of the Learjets to bring her back. Steve made a mental note to ask Tony if they were any personal aircraft that could make it to Germany that he could borrow on weekends to go visit her when she wasn’t hunting down terrorists. Then he got back to business. He almost wished that Sharon could have stayed with them, but there were diplomatic reasons why the CIA could not be involved with the Avengers at the moment. And Fury and Hill liked keeping them separate.

Which ended up being a good idea, given the next four days that followed. Steve, impatient with the lack of progress, frequently argued with Tony over to secrecy in the creation of Ultron, and how irresponsible it was in the first place. Then word came down the line about a problem in South Africa, which appeared to be and black market arms deal gone wrong, but then Steve recognized as Ulysses Klaue, the black market dealer he had come across before S.H.I.E.L.D. fell on the Hydra controlled ship Manchurian Star.

It appeared that the criminal dealer had an arrangement to meet with the twins that the team recognized as having caused them trouble at Baron von Struker’s compound and Sokovia. On a hunch that there was a connection, the team travelled to South America and ran into the twins, and once again Wanda Maximoff used her telepathic powers, which gave everyone nightmares, including Steve about the dance that he missed with Peggy, and Natasha had vivid flashbacks to her horrific childhood at the Red Room. Made worse, Bruce transformed into the Hulk and Tony had to break out his “Veronica” Hulkbuster armor to deal with him as he rampaged through Johannesburg, causing millions in property damage. Not only was the incident a massive PR nightmare for the Avengers, they also discovered that Ultron had in fact survived and had uploaded himself through the Internet back to the Baron’s compound, where they would later learn that he was building an army of Iron Legion robots under his control. Steve got a text from Sharon advising him that the CIA had been monitoring the situation, and were extremely upset with the Avengers. She told him that the best thing to do would be to lay low for a while, so they decided to go into hiding. That’s when Clint dropped his own bombshell.

They flew the quinjet to a remote farm in Pennsylvania, where it was revealed that Clint had a wife and two children and a third on the way. Furthermore, they all knew Natasha, and the kids considered her an honorary aunt. Steve and Tony tried not to be too thunderstruck as Clint offered them his undercover home for the time being. Considering the problems they would be causing if the Avengers were known to be hiding out there away from the media, they all went to work doing what they could to help out around the farm, with Steve chopping wood and Tony fixing broken machinery. He didn’t tell Sharon where they were, in fact she told him not to, but would only assure her that they were all safe. Steve found that chopping entire trees of wood into firewood was exactly what he needed to work out his frustrations over the situation with Ultron, and the fact that, once again, he was apart from Sharon when he wanted nothing more than to be at least in the same building with her.

Thor ended up leaving for a while, so concerned by the hallucination that Scarlet Witch had given him, that he felt the need to return to Asgard and enter a mystical grotto in order to come to terms with what he had seen. Steve and Tony agreed that the incident in South Africa had been a plot to lure them out, to lead them into a confrontation with the twins that Ultron had hoped would destroy them. Now, with public opinion manipulated against them, it amounted to the same thing. They were limited in the actions they could take, and without S.H.I.E.L.D. oversee the Avengers, and them appearing to act autonomously, causing damage and mayhem in the name of crime fighting, that could end up raising the ire of a lot of official entities in multiple governments.

Nick Fury arrived, to both chew out Tony and advise them to keep fighting Ultron, and the clues they were able to find led them to Dr. Cho’s laboratory in South Korea, operated at a Stark Inc. location, where Ultron was forcing her to use her expertise as a geneticist to build him a synthetic – organic body that was more durable than the last one they had seen him in. As luck would have it, this was also where the Maximoff twins suddenly realized that Ultron ultimately meant for the destruction of the entire human race and turned against him, helping the Avengers battle the evil robot’s minions as they attempted to destroy a train and kill civilians. Dr. Cho had used the Infinity gem in the scepter to implant in the new body’s head, and the Avengers were able to acquire it and bring it back to the Tower, where they discovered that J.A.R.V.I.S. had survived, having escaped into the Internet, and uploaded himself into the synthetic body, brought to life with lightning by the newly re-arrived Thor. Thankfully the resulting being, definitely different from Ultron, called itself Vision, and turned out to be friendly. It was decided that it was time to face Ultron, with their new allies in the twins and Vision, and the team headed to Sokovia.

The resulting battle was exceptionally brutal, with the multitude of minions controlled by Ultron hoisting an entire city into the air with the intent of dropping out of the sky and killing everyone. During the battle, Steve fired off texts to both Fury and Sharon, and was pleased to see a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier arrive to give back up, along with one of the quinjets that was piloted by Sharon. She told him later that she had to take vacation leave from the CIA to get away long enough to come join the battle without anyone from the CIA knowing that she had been involved, but there was no way she was going to be left out of this one.

Ultimately, they were victorious, though not without casualties, for one of the twins, Peitro, was killed in the battle protecting Clint from Ultron. Wanda was able to disable Ultron, and ultimately it was Vision, fittingly, who destroyed Ultron once and for all. They also lost the Hulk when he took the quinjet and flew over the ocean, seeming to vanish despite Natasha‘s pleas for him to return. The destruction of the Sokovian city ended up being a PR nightmare, and it was going to take a lot of effort to smooth it out. Yes, they had saved a lot of lives, but the destruction was horrendous, worse than any natural disaster, and enough people had died to make it a worldwide issue.

000

The Avengers had a lot to recuperate from following this incident. Clint, with a family to provide for her, decided that it was time to retire, and spend the rest of his days as a farmer. Thor returned to Asgard, and with the Hulk missing, that left three spots on the team needing to be filled. Steve quietly asked Sharon if she would be interested in joining, staring at her through the holographic display on one of their many virtual dates. He had placed the projector in a chair on the opposite side of the dinner table and they were both eating Italian at their respective locations, talking as if they were in the same room. It was almost believable. She smiled at him sadly and said that as much as she would like to, her skills were not really needed with Natasha on the team, and Fury and Hill had required her to hold her position at the CIA for some reason. Steve only nodded sadly, but smiled at her and told her about the Avengers moving from the tower to the new upstate New York facility where Sam was going to be joining the Avengers as Falcon, Wanda had decided to join them as well, and Rhodey would be joining as War Machine and as a liaison from the American military. And Natasha was going to help him to begin training everyone in two weeks after everyone had moved up to Ithaca, New York where the facility was located.

“You really should come visit,” he said. “It’s beautiful up there. And while I miss Brooklyn, I have to admit, I can get used to living in that location. We each have our own quarters just like at the tower. Soundproof, I might add.”

She laughed. “It sounds awesome. And I do intend to get over there soon. But I work for the federal government. And that means I have to use my vacation time, and if you recall, I burned through a week of it just coming to the firefight in Sokovia. From which I had to recover from after nearly crashing the jet. My supervisor isn’t really good about his counterterrorism agents just up and heading out. But I think I can get a weekend here in there.”

“Might want to ask him and Fury if they have any more of those shield flying vehicles you can have, although I don’t know if those things can make it across the ocean.”

“They can’t,” she confirmed. “I’ll probably need a ride.”

Despite the fact that they both knew a billionaire philanthropist, had access to government resources, and a multitude of other possibilities, getting a ride to either New York or Germany turned out to be one of the bigger problems they had in maintaining their relationship. The holographic communicators that Tony Stark had developed were indeed quite useful for virtual dates. When they couldn’t be physically in the same room, it was almost like actually being together using the holograms.

Sharon would put hers on the sofa next to her at her apartment in Berlin, she and Steve would DVR the same television programs, and sit and watch the same program at the same time while talking to each other about what was going on. If Steve was going to take his sketchpad out into the woods to sketch some nature scenes, he would take the portable holographic device with him and set it up on a log nearby so that she could visit with him while he was on his walk. There were exactly 6 hours time difference between Ithaca and Berlin, so they learned to set up meal dates with her having dinner at her apartment and Steve having lunch at his. They would set up their holocoms in the chair across the table from where they were sitting, and pretend to be on a date. It worked well enough for several months, keeping them from getting too lonely for the other. But it was still only a Band-Aid fix.

Always the good-natured meddler, it ended up being Natasha who floated the word to Tony Stark that Steve was missing his girlfriend, and lack of funds and access to cheap airfare was what was keeping them apart. Steve was willing to take a certain amount of good-natured ribbing from Tony if it meant Tony would be willing to let them use his aircraft, and agreed to shuttle Sharon back and forth on weekends she was able to get off from the CIA. She managed to get at least one weekend a month when she could come to New York, and with Natasha‘s help and getting permission to use the quinjet to drop him off, Steve was able to visit Berlin every so often himself.

The first time that Sharon was able to get off from work and spend four entire days at the compound in New York, Steve was practically beside himself with excitement. Even Wanda was picking up on his good mood and why he was in a good mood, and there were a lot of no one smiles in his direction. He went to pick Sharon up at the airport and it was another several minutes’ drive to the compound in the northern part of the state, which gave them some time together in the car to talk about what they had both been up to, security clearance allowing.

Steve told her that he was pleased at the way things were coming along with the new members of the Avengers, training them to work as a cohesive unit in accordance with their skills and abilities, which could change the dynamic of the team, depending on who came on a mission and who didn’t. If Wanda was not along, for example, they couldn’t rely on telekinetic interference to stop a bad guy. If one of the fliers was not along, it would mean changing what they did from aerial reconnaissance. Sharon talked about her days at S.H.I.E.L.D., how she had combined operations teams using people of different abilities, and how it was a bit like playing chess depending on what opponent you were facing, and Steve appreciated her input, especially since it reminded him of when they had first met and had gone on missions together, planning the details and working as a team.

Likewise, Sharon talked about what she could of her job at the CIA. Essentially, she was bored out of her mind. Despite the spy agency being willing to take her on, even after the government had declared everyone who ever worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. a potential criminal, an unfair assessment in Steve’s mind given that may be only 1/4 or 1/3 of S.H.I.E.L.D. had actually been Hydra, they still had not been willing to give Sharon the kind of clearance that she had formally had with S.H.I.E.L.D. That meant the majority of her duties was desk work and paperwork, and deciphering Arabic conversations between suspected terrorist suspects about their recreational activities, some of which was fairly disgusting. This was not to say that the CIA thought Sharon was useless. Despite the fact that she had to put up with a lot of mean-spirited jabs in her direction about the trustworthiness of former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, the same ones who sneered at her and left her out of Department excursions to a restaurant for lunch or water cooler conversations, they still had no problem coming to her when they needed help with something that they knew she would solve better than them, like organizing certain investigations and operations. They were willing to use her and her talents, but not at the expense of treating her like a colleague. She told him that must’ve been a lot of work Peggy must have felt in the early days of the SSR, when she faced ostracization and being left out of the loop because of who she was.

That ended up bringing up the subject of Peggy herself. Steve was afraid that discussing her with Sharon as they were trying to form their relationship into something more romantic would be awkward, but thankfully it ended up being nothing of the sort. He had been curious about how Peggy was doing ever since she moved to London with her family and he did not easily have access to visit her anymore. He tried video chatting with her, but it was difficult because she became easily confused and at one point thought she was watching a video of him. Sharon told him that lately, Peggy‘s health had not been doing too good. She couldn’t seem to shake a couple of coughs that the doctors were afraid might turn to pneumonia, and the few times that she was getting out of bed and getting around, she was even slower than before. Basically she was sleeping most of the day and the night, and sometimes had to be roused to eat or take care of herself.

Steve felt a chill go down his spine and his heart sink. Even though he and Peggy had moved in different directions because of what had happened to him and throughout her life, the thought that she might die soon actually filled him with dread nonetheless. When he looked over at Sharon, he could tell she felt the same. During their long talks over the hologram, she had told him about the summers that she had spent with Peggy, the influence that the older woman had been on her life, more of a involved grandparent then a great aunt, and he could tell that the thought of Peggy’s impending end of life was upsetting Sharon as much as him, though she was trying not to show it. Since they were in the same room this time and he could touch her, he reached out and squeezed her hand, and she smiled at him and squeeze his back. She must be upset, because she had never been outwardly affectionate by nature, although she could be, and he could tell she needed comfort just as he did.

“Do you think we should tell her?” he asked. “That we’re dating, I mean?”

“I guess that kind of depends on what year she thinks it is,” said Sharon. “I’ve been meaning to visit her soon, I wonder if Stark would be willing to leave me off at London when I go back? I could visit my family and visit Peggy, and then just make my own way back to Berlin.”

“I’m sure that could be arranged,” said Steve. “In fact, if you don’t mind, I might go with you. If you want to see her alone, I totally get it. But I’d like to see her again.”

“I’ll call my cousins and see what they think,” said Sharon, as Steve turned up the drive and came out into the Avengers facility. She whistled in appreciation as she got out of the car and took in the compound. Steve laughed and took her hand and led her inside. He gave her a tour of what he could show her before heading to the habitat building where they all had suites of rooms. He showed her the unused room that she could stay in, though they both suspected she would not be using it during this visit.

That suspicion proved correct, because after she had said hello to all of the other Avengers and spent some time talking to Wanda, Steve took her out to dinner at an Indian restaurant in town, but when they got back to the compound, and attempted to say good night to each other, they ended up breathlessly falling into each other‘s arms, staggering through the door to Steve’s room, and making ample use of the several hours of privacy they now had without a mission looming on the horizon or the need for anyone to go to work the next day.

They spent that night rediscovering each other, holding each other, whispering, even managing to get some sleep, in fact going so far as to sleep in a bit, something Steve could not remember doing in so long he didn’t even know if he ever had. When he opened his eyes to the hazy autumn morning light filtering in through his windows, feeling Sharon’s naked form wrapped against him, soft and warm, he could honestly say that he could not remember the last time he felt this contented. He woke her up gently by running his fingers through her hair and kissing her face. She smiled sleepily, and returned his kisses, and they made love slowly and passionately. For the first time in years, certainly since he had woken up from the ice, Steve felt the shadows around his heart retreat, and the void he hadn’t realized was there fill and become complete again. He was…happy. Truly happy. He hadn’t realized how unhappy he had been until he felt its opposite, now, in this moment. He hoped desperately that she felt the same. She was content to stay in bed all day, but Steve managed to drag her out and down to the gym for a few rounds with the other Avengers, and was pleased to see her huddling in a group with Natasha and Wanda talking animatedly. He supposed a part of him still hoped that she might give up on the CIA and come work at the compound, perhaps with Hill, since the two had worked together before. But Hill kept insisting that Fury wanted Sharon at the CIA, to Steve’s frustration. Was there no one else Fury trusted well enough to be his spy inside the CIA? Why did it have to be Sharon? And why did she have to be in Germany of all places?

Which was why when it was time for her to return to Berlin, Steve swallowed his bitter disappointment and let her go, although Stark did allow them to use of one of his jets to travel to London first to visit Peggy. They ended up visiting her separately, since she was having the kind of day where she wasn’t sure what year it was, and also had trouble recognizing Sharon, which Steve could tell hurt Sharon pretty deeply, even though she hid it well. Because of this, they opted to keep the relationship under wraps for now. Steve did get to visit a bit with Peggy’s grown children, and although it was a little awkward, they seemed glad to meet him. Although her grandchildren, endearing as they were, were a little disappointed that he had not brought the shield, he did manage to demonstrate some mad Frisbee skills with a Frisbee someone had in a trunk.

Steve returned to New York on the Stark jet and Sharon flew back to Berlin from London. A few weeks later, Natasha managed to wrangle the use of the quinjet and brought him to Berlin to visit Sharon for a weekend, and then pick him up on Sunday. It was a good weekend for both of them, helping to break up the monotony of daily life and giving them something to look forward to. They walked around the city and Steve pointed out how things had been different during the war, where a building had once stood but was gone, and where one still stood surrounded by new places.

The time spent with her in person was wonderful. In the years that he had worked with her, he had enjoyed being around her, even before he even knew her real name. She had a sardonic sense of humor that seem to counterbalance his good-natured seriousness. When he was an optimist, she was something of a pessimist. However, they had a lot in common as well. Their shared history of Peggy was only one experience that down them together. The Carters had known the Howling Commandos and the Starks for generations at that point, and Sharon had quite a few of her own stories to tell him of things that had gone down over the years. He came to know the person she was when she slowly started opening to him, telling him a bit about her childhood, as he told her a bit about his. They both had a strong sense of patriotism, both liked baseball, both loved working out, and even enjoyed some of the same shows. Despite their generational differences and different ideas about the nature of humanity and the world, there was enough in common between them to where they always had something to talk about. It was a dimension he hadn’t realized he had missed with Peggy simply due to lack of time and proximity during the war.

But the distance was difficult to handle.

It had been problematic even when they were on the same continent, with him in New York and her in Washington DC. Now that they were in different countries, separated by an ocean and six hours of time zones, it was even more difficult to maintain the connection. Steve found himself missing the days where the only thing separating them were a couple hundred miles of interstate along the eastern seaboard. He gently put out to Sharon the idea that maybe she should look into transferring back to the United States. She was thoughtful about it, but then told him that if she wanted to have any kind of career in the intelligence community with the bad name of S.H.I.E.L.D., staying where she was now was, sadly, the better option. She was proving her worthiness to the CIA as a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and she still didn’t feel as if they respected her enough to honor a request for a transfer. They would accuse her of bailing out on an important mission. Steve wanted to argue the point, but knew she was right.

It was conversations such as these, though, where Steve began to see a few wrinkles in the relationship, no matter how strongly they felt about each other. She had mentioned before where relationships had not worked out for her because the man she was dating thought that she should quit or alter some aspect of the job that she loved in order to suit his needs, and while Steve was nervous about the dangerous missions that she would sometimes go on, he knew that she had been doing them long before she ever met him, and he really didn’t have the right to suggest that she alter anything about her life for him. He knew he wasn’t required to alter anything for her either, but it did get him thinking about how long he wanted to be an Avenger, who would take his place if he stepped down as tactical leader for the team, and could he alter his life to fit into hers instead? After all, Clint had retired for the sake of his wife and family, for his wife had just given birth to their third baby, and Clint seem to be quite happy with the life he was now leading. Natasha occasionally went to visit him, and she always came back looking more relaxed than normal.

Was the domestic life something that Steve could be satisfied with? Could that include Sharon? He started to think seriously about handing over the reins to somebody, maybe Tony or Rhodey, and packing up and moving to Berlin to be with Sharon. But when he floated the idea to Sam, his friend look thoughtful but frowned.

“If that’s what you want to do,” said Sam, “nobody here will stop you or tell you not to.”

“But you don’t think I should?” asked Steve, feeling a bit deflated.

“I don’t think it’s a good time,” said Sam. “We still have a lot of mess to clean up all over the world, you’re still trying to train us into a cohesive team, and Sharon’s own career is pretty up in the air at the moment. She might still end up transferring back to the States at some point. Or they could end up sending her to Indonesia or something, and you’d have to move there to be with her. Point is, until she is in a position at the CIA where she’s going to be in one place for a long amount of time, doing less dangerous stuff, I don’t think you’ll be content to follow her and her career around. Not when there’s still so much going on in the world that you wouldn’t technically be able to do anything about. You might have a honeymoon period where everything is wonderful, but ultimately, given the situation right now, I think you would actually end up being pretty miserable. Not because of her, but because of the situation. And if she knows you’re unhappy, that will only make her miserable too. Sharon’s not one to give up her career for a man, but I seriously doubt she’d be content to see you give up the Avengers for the same reason. Not when she knows that we and the rest of the world still need you.”

Steve could only sigh and look out the window. He knew that Sam was right.

So far, this dimension of separation and moving and different career path had been something he and Sharon had managed to keep buried, focusing instead on the fact of how much they enjoyed being together, and what comfort they could have from each other through talking or spending time together. But as before, the distance became something of a barrier.

 

000

 

 

Things didn’t end overnight. It started in small ways. There was an occasional missing of a scheduled dinner/lunch date, because somebody was busy doing something. Somebody was on a mission and couldn’t make a conversation. Texting started happening less. Logistical and economic barriers that kept them from flying to see each other were not so quickly overcome, and the visits became less.

At one point, Steve realized it had been two whole weeks since he had even talked to her on the phone or the holo, and they had only texted a few times during that time. It hit him with a stab at fear and regret, to know that his relationship with Sharon was slowly dying a second time, and there wasn’t really anything either of them could do about it. It was discouraging, because he really wanted to make it work with her. He wanted something long-term from her, and he suspected that she wanted the same. But their circumstances were insurmountable at this point, and finally, she was the one who had the conversation with him, thankfully in person, in which they had to admit that it simply wasn’t working out, despite their feelings.

She had come to New York and instead of going to the compound, hey had met at the tower. They had found a little hole in the wall restaurant that had been featured on Diners, Drive ins and Dives” that purported to have the best cheeseburgers in New York and Sharon admitted they were pretty good and rated them around the second or third place on her personal cheeseburger quest checklist.

“What exactly are you looking for in a cheeseburger?” Steve asked.

“I’m really not sure,” she admitted “but I’ll know it when I find it.”

Steve just smiled sadly, and the conversation ground to a halt, neither one of them wanting to bring up the topic they knew they both had to discuss: why the relationship wasn’t working out. The longer they went on without talking, the more even Sharon seemed to be getting uncomfortable, like she didn’t want to bring it up either. It was disconcerting for Steve, as he had rarely known her to be flustered or unconfident in what she did. He supposed on a certain level it was a little flattering that he was the one that could bring out this type nervous uncertainty, and maybe even regret in her. He supposed that meant that she actually did care, he knew she did. It was simply that their circumstances were not workable, and how much they cared about each other and didn’t seem to make a difference in that.

Finally Sharon mustered up her nerve.

“Steve I…” she began

“Sharon you don’t, you don’t have to,” he started to say at the same time

She held up her hands, gently silencing him. “No,” she said, “I do. It’s been a long time coming. I think you know that.”

“I already know what you’re going to say,” he said miserably, looking down at his plate.

He heard her choke a bit on her breath, and when he looked up, she was looking down at her own place, like she was trying to hide the fact that she was trying not to cry. Something he had never seen her do.

“I never thought, I mean, when I joined S.H.I.E.L.D., I sort of expected it to be something of a lonely existence. Most of us in this profession don’t form long-term relationships. It’s either too dangerous or too stressful. Most people outside of life don’t really understand. Some manage, but those who do form relationships usually have them end. Peggy’s 50 year marriage until the day her husband died was extremely unusual. Very rare. I just figured, low casual dating maybe, but long-term stuff, it just wasn’t going to happen. And when Fury reassigned me to you, I was definitely not looking to take up with the man my great aunt once dated.”

“I wasn’t looking to take up with her niece,” said Steve ruefully. “And yet here we are.”

She nodded. “I wasn’t supposed to fall for you. I wasn’t supposed to like you. Goddamnit, you’re just so…good. I actually saw you help an old lady across the street. Like cliché.”

“It’s a sorry state of the world that anyone is surprised by that,” he replied.

“Yeah, I guess,” she agreed. “You’re a better person than me. No, it’s true. And it’s OK. That someone like you even considered someone like me, it’s flattering. And I appreciate it more than you can imagine. We work so well together when we’re together. I’ve never had a relationship like this one before. I wanted to be a better person, I think I succeeded, sort of.”

“You do,” he said, trying to keep the emotion from overwhelming him. “You still can.”

She shook her head sadly. “Steve, you deserve better than me. Someone who can actually be there. I can’t. I don’t want this to be over. I love you. And I always will, just like she did. But where we are right now, I don’t think were able to make this work.”

Steve felt his heart wrench. “I’ve been thinking about it,” he said. “I’ve been thinking, Clint retired, he decided to call it quits. I could do the same. I’ll take a leave of absence, come stay with you in Berlin.”

She smiled sadly and shook her head. “That will only work for a short time, and you know it. I know you, you’d be miserable if you had to sit out watching some world tragedy unfold and the Avengers going on, and you’re not with them. You’re not at a point in your life yet where you’re willing to give that up. And I would hate myself for keeping me from it.”

“I need something to do with myself,” he said, “that’s true. And maybe I could still work with the Avengers, find some way to meet them if they go on certain missions, but you’re what I need too. I don’t want to lose you.”

“You’ll never lose me,” she said sadly. “Even if you end up with someone else, I’ll still be there when you need me. I can’t imagine anything you could ever do that would keep me from being your friend. But you know as well as I do that we can’t keep on like this. It’s not working. No matter how much we care about each other and, we don’t fit in each other’s lives.”

He couldn’t answer, he could only stare at his plate, his food forgotten and his vision blurred and he started to forget how to breathe.

In the days that followed, Steve would kick mentally himself in the ass for not arguing more with her about the whole thing, trying to convince her that they didn’t need to break up, that there were ways they could spend more time together. He would think of a thousand different things that he should’ve said, ways she might have answered and ways he would have responded. In his imagination, these conversations always ended with them staying together and her conceding his point. Instead, the only thing he could do was try not to let the tears in his eyes fall, finish eating what he could, and then take her hand and walk with her down the street that towards the tower.

They stopped in the lobby, the tower basically deserted this time of night, and simply held each other. He could feel her shoulders shaking as she tried to hold back from crying, trying not to upset him. He only barely managed himself. When he kissed her the final time, it was one filled with tenderness and passion, showing that his desire for her had not lessened any, and he half wondered if they would end up in bed together despite the conversation that effectively ended the relationship. They didn’t. After holding him while longer, she gently pulled away from him and walked away to the quarters she was staying in, and left him to go to his own room alone. He hardly slept at all that night, and when he got up the next morning, she had already left, catching her flight back to Germany, her goodbye already said the night before.

Feeling numb, Steve gathered up his stuff and drove back to the upstate compound, barely noticing the road and almost missing a car in front of him jamming on its brakes which he barely avoided. The roads look blurry through his tears, and he felt a wrenching pain in his heart. He had no idea that breaking up with someone officially could hurt quite this bad. Even waking up 70 years later, realizing he had lost Peggy, while it had her tremendously, hadn’t hurt quite like this. That relationship had ended because of necessity and circumstance, this one had ended purposely.

He pulled up into the drive, pulled to a stop in front of the front door, intending to let one of the Iron Legion bots park the car, but he was suddenly overwhelmed with pain and sadness, and dropped his head to the steering wheel, not bothering to choke back his sobs, figuring the car was soundproof. But he had not counted on was Wanda feeling his despair all the way on the habitat floor of the main building. She came running with Sam and Vision right behind her, pulling open the door, and he tumbled out, and the next thing he knew her arms were around him and she was crying with him. Sam came running up and Vision floated down next to him.

“What happened?” Sam asked with worry. “Did somebody die? Peggy?”

Steve could only shake his head, his tears dropping onto Wanda’s sweater as Natasha came running out to see what was going on. Wanda waved everybody down.

“He and Sharon broke up,” she said gently as everyone stood there with their jaws hanging down.

“What happened? Why? You guys were doing great.” Natasha looked stunned

“Too far apart,” Steve choked out. He was feeling slightly ashamed of crying in front of his friends. So he didn’t look at them. He gently pulled away from Wanda, and looked out over the lake. “Can’t make it work.”

“Well Jesus,” said Natasha, “Stark and Pepper make it work and sometimes they’re on different coast lines.”

“They also have Lear jets and Tony’s Iron Man suit at their disposal,” Steve said bitterly. “Anytime Tony wants to be, he’s only two or three hours away from Pepper. He could be here all day and back at his California house by the end of the night. And Pepper isn’t working for a government agency that has her time accounted for nearly every waking moment of the day.”

“Well if transportation is the only thing keeping you two apart, Tony can probably come up with something. Maybe even a suit for you,” said Natasha.

“Nat it’s over and done with,” said Steve. “It isn’t just the transportation. We’re just going in different directions. And I don’t really wanna talk about it. I’m sorry guys, I know you’re just trying to be supportive. But I feel like I’ve been hit by a garbage truck, and I really just wanna be alone right now. Call me if anything goes down.”

He grabbed his bag from the trunk and handed the keys to the car to Sam who said he would park it for him. Then he went off to his quarters in the habitat building, closed the door and collapsed on his bed and let himself cry as long as he needed to.

While everybody went off to finish doing whatever they were doing, Wanda and Natasha stood at the front door just looking at each other, stunned.

Natasha shook her head. “This isn’t good. This could really set him back. He’s been having such a hard time adjusting to this time, getting used to what he lost, finding us and building his life. And this isn’t good for Sharon either. She’s never really been close to anyone. This has got to be messing her up too. They belong together.”

“Maybe so,” Wanda agreed, “but there’s nothing we can do about it now. Best thing we can do is be there for him, and hope Sharon has some support wherever she is.”

“She doesn’t,” said Nat ruefully. “Those government suits treat her like a coffee girl. She’s pretty much all alone over there. I need to call her.”

“She’s in the air right now,” said Wanda. “Call her later after she lands and has some time to settle back into her place. And try not to fuss at her for breaking up with Steve.”

“I won’t,” said Natasha walking off to try to find something to engage herself in.

And she did call, a couple of hours later adjusting for time in Germany, now irritated enough at Sharon to actually feel like fussing at her, but when her friend answered the phone in a choking voice, Nat immediately melted, wishing she could be there to get the other woman a hug.

“How are you, girl?” Nat asked.

“Not good,” Sharon admitted. “I didn’t want to break up with him. We just couldn’t make it work. And God, it hurts. I see why some people avoid this crap.”

“It might not be workable now,” said Natasha, “but don’t give up on him entirely.”

“How is he?” asked Sharon.

“In his room brooding,” said Nat. “Wanda is keeping an eye on him from afar, but it’s overwhelming enough that she’s avoiding walking down that hallway. Worried about you though.”

“I’ll survive,” Sharon responded a little bit wearily but firmly. The two women talk to little bit more, and then Sharon hung up. She tried to close the door on the hole in her heart. She knew it was going to take some time, and even then, she might never be able to.

Chapter Text

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Greetings all! Super thanks to those who are still reading this beast. This chapter is super long, hoping to make up for my lack of posting as often as I said I would. The last two weeks have included a wrecked car, buying a new car, facilitating NaNoWriMo events while writing my own novel on top of this story, a nasty cold and a mountain of work. And yet, still I managed to get this one out. Let me assure you, more chapters are coming after this one. I already have several of them written. Looks like, as with most of my stories, this one is going to be longer than I originally thought. Enjoy all!

 

Chapter 8

When Steve finally got a hold of himself enough to resume training a day or so later, he threw himself into it with vengeance and worked the others almost to the point of exhaustion. Sam had to gently remind him that not everybody was an enhanced super soldier who could run continuously for four straight hours at top speed.

It was Sam who talked him through all of the stages of grief over the loss of his relationship. Denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and then acceptance. For the first couple of days, Steve simply couldn’t believe that it was really over between him and Sharon, considering their history, the years they had known each other, the missions they had gone on, the friendship they had formed, and the strength of the relationship and heat between them. It just couldn’t be true. Maybe she just needed some space. Maybe she needed more of him around her. He was prone to isolating himself in his room, not really wanting to talk to anybody about it, though the other Avengers slowly started drawing him out with offers to go for a run, offers to watch TV, or even just being nearby when he felt like pounding on the heavy bags.

Then came the anger. Why did she have to just up and end the relationship? Sure, they probably needed to work on seeing each other more often, being more present to each other, but was that a reason to end the relationship? Why was she putting him through this? Was she even feeling the same thing he was? Was she happy he was gone? His imagination played all sorts of cruel tricks on him. Maybe she wanted him out of the picture because she had found someone else? Maybe she was disappointed in him and he wasn’t enough? Maybe after so many years of being a spy, she wasn’t capable of feeling anything? Though even as he thought these thoughts, he knew they weren’t true. Thankfully Sam was able to drag most of this out of him, and talk him through his anger at her for ending the relationship, by pointing out that Steve knew the relationship was over long before she ever said anything.

Then came the bargaining stage. Maybe there was some way to fix this. If he quit with the Avengers and moved to Germany, he could be there for her when she needed him. That would fix the relationship, wouldn’t it? If only she would quit the CIA and come work with the Avengers like so many other good S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had, the hell with what Fury or Hill wanted, or even go to work with Phil Coulson‘s group, at least they were around North America often enough and had their own plane. Word was a couple of the members of that team were able to maintain romantic relationships. They could go to counseling together. They could each take a leave of absence and go somewhere together and work it through. He ran all these by Sam who listened patiently, and then pointed out that it was not just the distance between them that had caused the relationship to end, so there really wasn’t much he could fix right now. Relationships were about emotions, and until those were fixable, none of his bargaining strategies would be well met.

Then came the depression. He found himself on the verge of tears at the sight of happy couples in fabric softener commercials. He didn’t feel like going anywhere or doing anything. He felt tired and sluggish all the time. Even though he had to take in a minimum of 4000 cal a day to maintain his metabolism on the serum, he hardly ever felt like eating. And then finally, after several months, came acceptance. It was over. She had her life, and he had his. And they had simply not fit into each other’s lives. Better to find this out now then after there might have been a marriage or children involved, he told himself. And if he was going to be mature about it, he just wanted her to be happy, and if that was going to happen with someone else and in another country, then that’s the way it was. He had gone through several stages of grief similar to this when he had first awoken from the ice. When he had learned that Peggy had lived in entire life with someone else other than him. When he had learned that there was no going back, that what was done was done, and the only thing he could do was accept and move forward as Peggy had implored him to. Because there was no other acceptable alternative, he was simply going to have to find a way to accept his lot in life and move forward in it.

But he still kept a picture of Sharon on his phone, in a folder of a few pictures she had allowed him to take of her, just as he kept his army compass with the old picture of Peggy in the lid. The two women he had loved and lost. Both named Carter. Different in personality but similar in the way they had his heart. With a firm resolve, he decided to swear off women for rest of his life. It was less complicated.

000

Throwing himself into his work seem to stave off most of the depression, and Steve was more or less able, with Sam‘s help, to claw his way back up to functionality again, enough to where the Avengers were able to go on missions, taking Wanda, Rhodey and Sam with them now. Stark had a few new toys for them, including a drone for Sam that he named Redwing.

Natasha felt that it would be a good idea to train the new members, especially Wanda, in some methods of subterfuge and spycraft, because even though Wanda was heavily powered up in psychic ability, Natasha felt that it was not a good idea for her to simply rely on this one major weapon, but rather have a set of skills and weapons in her personal arsenal. And so, Nat taught Wanda and some to Sam about blending into crowds, Steve taught tactics, and everybody traded off what hand to hand combat knowledge they had.

They had ample opportunity to put the skills to use, the Avengers continued to deal with problems around the world that threaten marginalized communities and humanity as a whole. Although it was never specifically spelled out for Steve, as most of their information came from Maria Hill, Steve knew that a lot of the intel they were acting on came from Sharon who was funneling it to Hill. Even before they broke up, she had been giving what information she could to Hill who then trickled it down to the Avengers to do something about. And Steve had to admit, though grudgingly, that Fury and Hill had probably been right in insisting that at least one former S.H.E.I.L.D. agent they could trust was firmly situated in the halls of the last competent intelligence agency in America, able to give information when needed, now that S.H.E.I.L.D. was defunct and trying to rebuild. But did she have to be in Germany?

It had been a year since the incident with Ultron, and the Avengers, and despite trying to do good in the world, there were sharply divided opinions from the public concerning their activities. Apparently it didn’t matter than an alien invasion of the world had been stopped in New York, that an evil Nazi takeover of America had been stopped in Washington DC with the battle at the Hub, that the President had been rescued following a terrorist plot and vice president collaboration to take over the US government, and that an evil robot bent on destroying all of mankind had been stopped at the battle of Novi Grad in Sokovia. The only thing the useless talking heads on the TV could talk about was what had gone wrong. The loss of life and property was impossible to ignore, nevermind how much more would have been lost due to the Avengers doing nothing. But when a grieving mother accosted Tony Stark at a college graduation ceremony over the loss of her son in one of the battles, and constant noise from the public on how the Avengers had no oversight, could just do what they wanted and the rest of the world be damned, Steve knew it was only a matter of time before something happened that caused a major political explosion.

That moment came when intel from Sharon warned them that a newly healed Brock Rumlow, now going by the code name “Crossbones,” was seeking to obtain a biological chemical weapon from a laboratory in Lagos, Nigeria. Suiting up, the Avengers headed out immediately to stop him. Sharon had tried to get them CIA backup, but there was too much red tape, too many rubber stamps that didn’t fall, and not enough time to send it. They effectively neutralized Rumlow’s team, but when Steve cornered him, the man tried to commit suicide with an explosive vest in the middle of a crowded marketplace with hundreds of people, not caring as long as he got his revenge on Steve and took down Captain America with him. Wanda acted fast. She used her powers to throw Rumlow into the air away from the crowd, but she wasn’t fast enough to avoid any damage. She was not able to contain the explosion and maintain upward motion on Rumlow at the same time. She slipped in her control and the explosion blew out from the containment field, destroying an upper level of a nearby building, resulting in the deaths of several aid workers from the small African country of Wakanda. Wanda was devastated, and there wasn’t much anyone could say to her to comfort her.

They returned to the compound and in the month that followed, Wanda did more to beat herself up emotionally than anything any politician or newscaster could say to her. Nat was able to talk to her a bit, and so was Sam, but the only one who seemed to be able to comfort her was Vision, as it was absolutely certain that the android did not judge her at all, due to his not being human. It was around this time that Tony came to visit, along with General Thaddeus Ross, whom Steve never liked, to discuss the actions of the Avengers. Steve had had enough dealings with Ross and heard enough about him to know this man probably would have gotten everyone in Steve’s unit killed during WW2. Banner had told Steve about Ross’ actions against him when he first became the Hulk, made worse by the fact that Banner and Ross’ daughter Betty had been romantically involved for several years, off and on. Apparently the man was also edging his way into being a politician more than a soldier, because he immediately began guilt tripping and berating them for their actions and the damage they caused, with no mention made of how much life could have been lost along with damage if the Avengers had not acted at all. As the general replayed video from their battles, ending with Wanda’s accident in Nigeria, which Steve could see was upsetting her again, Steve felt himself becoming increasingly irritated. But Wanda’s distress finally pushed him over the edge. The kid didn’t deserve this.

“That’s enough,” he says quietly but firmly.

Ross killed the video and told them that from then on, the Avengers would be monitored by an international panel formed by the Sokovian Accords, which all of them were expected to sign in agreement, or retire from superhero-ing and never take action again, under the threat of imprisonment. Steve felt his blood boil but said nothing. To everyone’s surprise, Tony is all for this. He says that when the Avengers were governed by S.H.E.I.L.D., it meant that someone could take responsibility for them the same way Tony himself had taken responsibility and action when it was discovered that Stane had been shipping Stark weapons to terrorist groups, and the way Fury and Hill and Cap had taken action when it was discovered that Hydra had infiltrated S.H.E.I.L.D. He told them about the grieving mother who had cornered him at MIT.

“We need to be put in check,” he snapped. “Whatever form that takes, I’m game. If we don’t do this, it’ll be done to us. If we can’t accept limitations, we’re no better than the bad guys.”

Steve listened as debate broke out. Rhodes agreed, Sam didn’t, and a heated conversation broke out between the two over whether or not American military personnel could be legally directed by an International governing body and whether or not that constituted allegiance to a foreign entity, which was against the oath every military member had taken, including Steve. Vision and Wanda remained silent. Natasha was talking with Tony. Steve was privately thinking that it would be over his dead body that he allowed an un-elected non-American authority of any kind to give him permission or withhold it to go in and save someone or prevent someone like Rumlow from doing what he did in Nigeria. Steve is about to stand up and silence everyone, and suggest that they all take some time to think about it and not fight, when he phone buzzes. He fishes it out and looks down at the screen. It’s a text. It’s from Sharon.

‘She’s gone. In her sleep.’

Steve doesn’t have to ask for further clarification. There’s only one person this could mean.

Peggy.

He excused himself abruptly, and heads for the stairwell, hoping to reach it before breaking down. He’s had quite enough of his friends seeing him cry over one of the Carter women. He makes it down two floors before he has to stop and cover his eyes. The tears squeeze out between his fingers and he swallows his sobs. She’s gone. She was really gone.

After all this time, after what he knew about Peggy’s life and legacy, he was surprised at how he hard her death hit him. In the grand scheme of things, he really had not known her nearly as long as he had known Sharon, but she had changed his life in such a profound way, that she represented to him everything about the life he had lost when he crashed the bomber. Aside from Bucky, who he had still not found, she was one of the last remnants of his old life, and now that she was gone, he felt more and more the loss of that life. He went to his room and cried even more, eventually allowing his emotions to run their course, and he laid there quietly staring at the ceiling. He finally was able to text Sharon back asking for details of the funeral, which she sent about an hour later.

Sam came looking for him and lent a sympathetic ear as Steve filled him in. As luck would have it, the funeral was going to be happening on the same day as the Accords, so Steve now had a good excuse to not be there as they were going on. He prepared to leave for London where the funeral would be happening, and Sam was going to go with him. Despite their differences of opinion, Stark loaned him the use of one of his company jets to take them, after Rhodey explained to him about Peggy‘s death and what it meant for Steve to attend the funeral.

With his backpack packed and his shoes on, right before he was ready to go, Steve was surprised to get a phone call from Peggy’s grown son Edwin, named after Edwin Jarvis whom Tony had modeled his artificial intelligence after. Peggy’s son asked him if he wouldn’t mind being a pallbearer, and Steve immediately agreed. He figured, ironically, that he could probably carry her coffin all by himself, but apparently some of the other pallbearers were going to be elderly, so Steve’s strength would be much appreciated. They were halfway over the Atlantic Ocean before Steve suddenly realized that he would probably be seeing Sharon again, unless she was on a mission.

Now, in addition to grieving for the loss of his first love, now he was faced with the possibility of seeing his ex-girlfriend again. And he was a little surprised to feel a flair of anger toward Sharon, for breaking it off, for not giving him more of a chance. Thankfully he mentioned it to Sam who pointed out to him that this was likely also part of the grieving process for Peggy.

“I can’t tell you how many times,” Sam said, “I spent explaining this to veterans and the concept of survivors guilt to those who come home from war. They snap at their children, older grudges they might hold in their families get brought up, and the people they’re mad at don’t understand why they’re mad. It isn’t necessarily the person themselves, it’s part of the process of them grieving for their combat buddies. You’re going to have to grieve for Peggy, properly. And that might mean processing all of the stages of grief like we talked about. And it’s natural to be angry at Sharon. Relationships don’t end for no reason, there’s usually anger, even if the separation is amicable. Just remember, Peggy meant the world to her too. I’m not saying her relationship is stronger or more valid and yours, but Peggy was like a grandmother to her, so she said. Was a major part of who she came to be, her role model and mentor. Sharon dedicated her life to the organization that Peggy founded. She’s been in Sharon‘s life since she was born. Sharon isn’t going to be at her best either, so try not to hold to personally anything she might say or anything that might happen. Y’all have to give each other a lot of space.”

“She more than gave me space,” said Steve. “I don’t actually plan on talking to her if I can avoid it.”

“I should probably edit my last statement to add try not to be an ass to her as well,” said Sam flipping through his tablet for something to watch.

Steve didn’t answer.

They checked into the hotel, which turned out to be a hotel where most of the funeral guests were staying, since it was near the church, and within walking distance. The next day, clad in their best suits, Steve and Sam walked to the Saint Ignatius Anglican church, where Steve served as pallbearer, barely able to look at the simple wooden coffin draped with the British flag, and hardly felt it as he carried it down the aisle. He sat numb through the ceremony, barely hearing the readings, the ceremonial words, the anecdotes of her life that he had missed given by former colleagues, until he felt Sam nudge him. He had completely missed the announcement that Sharon was going to give the eulogy. He looked up, and there she was, walking to the podium.

He hadn’t seen her in nearly 8 months, but she was still as beautiful as ever. Only her face was pale and drawn, he could see the deep sorrow in her eyes, as well as the nervousness. She had clearly taken note of where he was sitting, though he had forced himself not to look for her. Now, and she took her place to begin her speech, their eyes locked and he could see the nervousness, as he registered her presence and she registered his. She was quiet for a moment, gathering herself, and then she began to speak.

“Margaret Carter was known to most as a founder of S.H.I.E.L.D.. But I just knew her as Aunt Peggy. She had a photograph in her office. Aunt Peggy standing next to JFK. As a kid, that was pretty cool. But, it was a lot to live up to. Which is why I never told anyone we were related. I asked her once how she managed to master diplomacy and espionage at a time when no one wanted to see a woman succeed at either. And she said, "Compromise where you can. Where you can't, don't. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, 'No, you move'.“

Sharon went on to describe once asking Peggy what her most amazing mission ever was, and did a reasonable impersonation of Peggy’s accent in telling that her aunt had replied “sorry dear, that’s classified,” which actually got a small snort from Steve. He could totally hear Peggy’s voice saying that to a young Sharon. She spoke about Peggy’s struggle against sexism during the 20th century, rising through the ranks of the intelligence community, the founding of S.H.E.I.L.D., and the many other things that she did of which Steve had not been aware. She told about family gatherings at Christmas, how the Carter family cooked goose instead of turkey, and how they had developed a love for mincemeat pies. But because of Peggy, they all called sweaters ‘jumpers’ and cookies ‘biscuits.’ But then she diverted and talked about Peggy’s influence in her own life and the lives of her children and grandchildren. As she began to wind down her speech, Steve, who have been fighting down his anger at Sharon since leaving the compound, suddenly found it evaporating as he saw that she was struggling to maintain composure. She was starting to choke back her own tears, and he wanted to go up there and wrap his arms around her, in front of everybody if need be.

“So Godspeed to you, Peggy Carter,” Sharon was ending, “you’ve made the world a better place by being in it, and I hope I will make you proud. That we all will. I love you, and I will miss you.”

She choked a bit on the last words, and then gathered the papers in front of her and turn to walk down, back to the front row seat where Steve noticed the children she had been with in the grocery store sitting with their parents. They all moved over to make room for her, and she sat down next to a woman who must’ve been Peggy’s daughter, given her strong resemblance to Peggy. Steve had to look twice, and then look away. Sam was looking at him, and Steve felt his shoulders slump. And just like that, any anger he felt toward Sharon was gone. She was only human, and so was he. Was he supposed to hold a grudge over both of their circumstances forever?

The ceremony concluded, and they all went out back to the cemetery where Peggy’s coffin was carefully lowered into the ground, and the final words were said. Steve overheard Peggy’s son talking about having their father moved there to be next to her, since Daniel Sousa had been buried in whatever plot they had been able to find at short notice given the sudden nature of his death, and since he had no family that would object, it seemed fit to move him beside Peggy. Once the crowd began to disburse, Steve went back inside the church to look at the picture of Peggy on the stand, the one taken of her during the war, during her youth when she was still strong, beautiful, and young. Then suddenly, Natasha was there. She walked up as if she had just materialized. He just stared at the picture and shook his head.

“When I came out of the ice,” he told her, “I thought everyone I knew was gone. Then I found out she was alive. I was just lucky to have her.”

“She had you back too,” said Nat. She hesitated, then continued. “After everything happened with S.H.E.I.L.D., during my little hiatus, I went back to Russia. Tried to find my parents. Two little gravestones by a chain-link fence. I pulled some weeds and left some flowers. We have what we have when we have it.”

He nodded. Then he said “So who else signed?”

“Tony, Rhodey, Vision,” she said.

“And Clint?” he asked.

“He said he's retired.”

“And Wanda?” Steve asked.

“TBD... I'm off to Vienna for the signing of the Accords. There's plenty of room on the jet. Just because it's the path of least resistance doesn't mean it's the wrong path. Staying together is more important than how we stay together,” she said, looking sad.

“But what are we giving up to do it?” he replied.

She didn’t answer, but just looked at him understanding.

“Sorry, Nat. I can't sign it,” he said sadly, shaking his head.

“I know...” she said in resignation.

“Well then…what are you doing here?” he asked.

“I didn't want you to be alone.” She came over and gave him a hug, which he accepted. Then she pulled away, smiled and left the church. He stayed and stared at Peggy’s picture a few more minutes before following her. When he came out into the sunlight, Sam was waiting for him. Steve looked for Nat and saw her a ways down, hugging Sharon. The two talked for a bit, before Nat turned and left down the street. Sharon watched her go, then turned, not seeing him, and walked into the church hall.

“Reception?” Sam asked, asking Steve if he wanted to go. Steve just nodded. They walked slowly, going through the door Sharon had used. The hall was packed with people. Steve spoke a bit to all of Peggy’s family, including her grandsons who were a bit starstruck to meet him. He spoke to a few people who had known her later in life, and then found a corner where Sam found him and handed him some sort of punch made from lemon lime soda and lime sorbet. They clinked glasses together.
“Here’s to an honorable discharge,” Sam said, trying to keep the mood light.

“Sure you’re ok with this?” Steve asked.

Sam shrugged, “I’m not worried about me. I make a great civilian. You could too.”

Same gestured to the doorway ahead of them. Sharon was talking with someone Steve recognized as one of Peggy’s older colleagues from her days when S.H.E.I.L.D. was still SSR. She turned, saw him and gave him a hesitant, sad and slightly nervous smile. They locked eyes and he stared, wondering if he should go over and say anything, when one of Peggy’s young grandsons came over to her and seemed to be asking her a question. Her attention immediately turned to the child, nodded at him, and took the kid’s hand and led him down the hall, casting Steve what looked almost like an apologetic look. He watched them go.

“I’m gonna head back to the hotel, if that’s cool with you,” Sam told him. “Maybe think about at least saying hi to her before sneaking out?”

Sam clapped him on the shoulder and made a break for the exit. Steve sighed, trying to squelch the urge to follow him. It would be so easy to sneak out, not talk to Sharon. It’s not like he was obligated, he had already spoken to Peggy’s immediate family. But saying hi to her cousins and not her would be rude, and his mother would not approve from where she was undoubtedly watching from Heaven. And he was no coward, he wasn’t about to start now. He went looking for her. He thought he heard her voice in the kitchen, something about finding some more brownies for the boy. He rounded the corner as the kid streaked past holding a napkin with a huge brownie on it. It was the same kid who had hustled some cookies out of their store trip. He suppressed a grin, then headed towards the kitchen. He ran smack into her coming around the corner, just raising her own brownie to her mouth and the impact forced her hand up, smacking it into her face.

“Oh crap…I’m sorry…I didn’t see…you have brownie all over your face,” he blurted out.

She had yelped out a muffled “Ack!” when he smacked into her, and then began laughing hysterically at his words, turning away and heading to the sink in the kitchen to wash the brownie off. He followed her. She scrubbed her face in the sink, taking off the brownie and most of her makeup. He came up beside her.

“Do I have any on my face?” she asked, turning to look at him. His breath caught.

“Uh no, you look…fine…it’s off,” he stammered.

“Good,” she said in slight irritation, though still with a tense smile on her face. She turned and tossed the paper towel into the nearby trash, snorted a laugh, and then burst into tears. She turned away and clutched the sink.

‘Sharon, I’m sorry…” he tried to say. “The brownie’s off….”

She shook her head sharply. He wanted to put a hand on her back, or shoulder, something, but wasn’t sure he was allowed to now.

“What is it?” he asked.

“She’s gone,” Sharon whispered, “and now you’re here and…” and then suddenly wasn’t able to talk any more.

The hell with it. Steve gently pulled her into his arms and she let him. He nestled her against him, her head tucked under his chin, suddenly remembering how well she fit him. He felt his heart starting to pound, but also the sting of tears. They just held each other. Other people came in and out of the kitchen, some saw them and quickly left, others went about their business pretending not to see them. Sharon wasn’t a loud crier, hell she had rarely cried at all before meeting Steve, so she wasn’t loud now, but he felt her shaking, her shoulders heaving, and he held her tighter, letting his own tears fall into her hair. Finally they were able to get a hold of themselves, and he did rub her back slightly, but pulled away.

“I think I at least owe you some decent coffee for smashing a brownie into your face,” he said trying to keep his tone light.

She laughed slightly but looked away.

“Friends, not date, coffee date?” she asked.

“Sort of,” he said.

“Decent coffee actually sounds great,” she said. He nodded and they went around saying goodbye to various people, and then he followed her outside. She consulted her phone for the nearest coffee house, and then pointed down the street. Without a word, they walked. In fact they said almost nothing until they came to the small coffee place a few blocks away, ordered and found a table by the window. Sharon broke the ice by asking him how things were going, how long he was staying and when he was going back. He answered, and asked her how her own job was going. She was still in Berlin on the counterterrorism unit, with no sign of transferring back any time soon, though he got the impression she was growing weary of it. She had never really made any work friends at the CIA, and although she spoke German fluently, still didn’t feel at home in Germany. She had seen everything she wanted to see in Berlin and the surrounding countryside, had even ventured to the surrounding countries here and there, but he could tell she missed living in America. Her family, apparently, had settled in nicely in the UK, though, and would be staying in England. She was able to visit them regularly enough since they were closer, and apparently Peggy had kept her family’s home in the countryside where she had grown up in childhood. Sharon talked about visiting there, but then she trailed off, with little else to say on the matter.

Steve sipped his coffee, and then looked at her. He wanted to bring up their failed relationship, wonder if they could pick it back up, and he really wanted to ask if she was dating someone else, although he wasn’t sure if he wanted the answer, either way. So he went a different route.

“So when you were spying on me from across the hall that time…” he started.

“You mean when I was doing my job?” she interrupted, smiling at him but making it clear she wasn’t going to let him play that particular game.

He backed off but asked, “Did Peggy know?”

She sighed and leaned back before saying “She kept so many secrets. I didn’t want her to have one from you.”

Steve nodded, accepting that as a no, though noting that Sharon had not actually said no.

They smiled at each other. “Any chance the CIA will station you over here now? You could be closer to your family.”

“Berlin is where counterterrorism is focused, it’s a global central point,” she said, sipping her coffee.

“Sounds fun,” he said.

“I know, right?” she said softly. “So yeah, not likely.”

They were quiet for a minute before she asked, “So this Accords thing is happening?”

He nodded, knowing that Nat had filled Sharon in at some point. There was no point in rehashing it. She knew he wouldn’t sign, but it would mean the end of his Avengering.

“Maybe I’ll take some time off,” he said. “I’ve been saying I would for a while.”

She laughed in disbelief. “When was the last time there wasn’t a uniform hanging in your closet?”

He looked up at her and smiled and then looked down and snorted. “What, you don’t like the outfit?”

Now she eyed him appreciatively. She smiled that flirty smile he remembered loving and sat back. “Oh no it suits you. Believe me.”

OK, now she was looking at him the way she used to. And he knew his own look mirrored hers. He cleared his throat.

“Are we ever going to talk about what happened between us?” he asked.

Her smile faded and she looked away. “I guess we’d better. But not here. It’s a little too public.”

“In case something gets tossed at my head?” he asked.

“Don’t plan on tossing anything at your head, Steve,” she said. “I’m not mad, though I figure you probably are.”

“I’m a bunch of things,” he admitted. “Mad? I don’t know. Hurt, yes, confused, irritated, lonely, depressed, maybe a little mad, but nothing that would make me cause a scene in a coffee shop.”

“Then we should go. Talk on the way?” she offered.

He nodded. “Sure.”

They left quietly, walking back towards the hotel where he was staying, as it turned out, she was staying as well. They did talk, but it wasn’t about their relationship.

Clearly they were both avoiding it. Instead, they talked about Peggy. Sharon told him a story about how her mother had not wanted her to enlist with S.H.E.I.L.D., but of course, Peggy had supported her.

“She bought me my first thigh holster,” Sharon was telling him.

Steve squelched the mental image of her thighs, specifically them wrapped around him, that immediately blazed to life in his mind. “Very practical” he smiled.
“And stylish,” Sharon retorted.

They walked to the elevator and she punched a button. “Thanks for walking me back,” she said.

“Sure,” he replied, wondering if they just weren’t going to talk about their relationship, when he met her eyes. They both stared, and then he saw. She was shooting him an inviting look, giving him the option to come upstairs with her. They could talk there. Work out their issues. And then something more? From the look on her face, it seemed to be what she was thinking. But they never found out. At that moment, Sam walked up.

“Hey…guys? Something you need to see.” From the look on his face, they knew it was serious.

The elevator had arrived, so they shuffled in and followed Sharon to her room. Sam snapped on the TV, showing the chaos at the U.N. A bombing. And there were heads of state and dignitaries killed. This was bad. Very bad. Sharon tossed her stuff on the bed and grabbed her phone, punching in the number for her boss. Steve only vaguely heard her talking in the background with worry in her voice. His thoughts were with his Avenger friends, including Nat who had only flown out there just a few hours ago. He and Sharon had been talking most of the afternoon. Was Nat there? Wanda? Tony? Were they safe? He whipped out his own phone and tapped frantic texts to them.

Sharon was asking who was coordinating the response effort. Then she hung up and came to stand between them. “I’ve got to go to work,” she said.

She offered them a ride on the jet she was taking back. If they could be ready to go in 30 minutes, they could come with her. Steve and Sam dashed back to their rooms to change, pack and check out. She was waiting for them in the lobby, already dressed in dark pants, white shirt and a dark vest that experience told Steve was probably bulletproof.

“Ready to go, guys?” she asked. They nodded and followed her out.

They talked in the car about the bombing, who could have done it, and why. No known terrorist group was taking credit for it. Then they dashed through the airport, heading towards the private terminal where a government plane would take them to the site of the UN bombing, flashing their passports and getting a few raised eyebrows from the customs officials who recognized their names. Steve didn’t realize how tense he was until his phone buzzed with responses from his teammates letting them know that they were OK. Natasha was indeed at the bombing, but had not been in the room when it hit. Everyone else was safe and accounted for. But the king of Wakanda had been killed, and apparently his son, the crown prince, was not taking it very well. Steve had only just started to relax until the news broadcast on the screen at the front of the plane indicated that the primary suspect had been identified, due to grainy security camera footage, and announced to the world that James Barnes, also known as the Winter Soldier, was suspected as the culprit in the bombing. Steve felt his heart sink right down through his feet, and he and Sharon and Sam shared some glances. Sharon whipped out her phone and began typing furiously again.

There was a little more to do than sit back and wait for the plane to land. When they finally hit the runway, and their phones reconnected with the cellular network, Steve found he had a message from Natasha, stating that she had talked to the Wakandan prince T’Challa, who apparently had gotten it in his head to find his father’s killer himself, with intentions of killing him. Steve relayed this information to Sharon who acknowledged it, but pointed out that as the heir apparent head of state of Wakanda, there was little the CIA could do to order him to stand down. In fact, since Wakanda had no extradition treaty or treaties of any kind with America, it was quite possible that the prince really could kill an American citizen suspected of his father‘s murder and there was little that the US government could do about it.

They arranged to have their bags delivered to Natasha‘s room at the hotel where they knew she was staying, and then went directly to the UN properties, which were cordoned off by the authorities, but Sharon‘s clearance allowed the three of them to pass by uninterrupted. She told them to wait in a nearby food establishment, and she would come and tell them what she could when she could. Steve wanted to argue, but Steve felt Sam‘s hand on his shoulder in a gentle reminder that Sharon probably could get answers faster than he could. So they went to the bar to wait.

Although in reality it was probably only a couple of hours, Steve felt like he had been waiting for days by the time Sharon finally came through the door, deftly pretending like she didn’t know the two men sitting at the end of the bar, sidled up alongside them and looked the other direction. She slid a folder across the table to him, and he took it without looking at it.

“Tips flying in from all over the world,” she said. “Most of it’s just noise. Everyone thinks the Winter Soldier goes to their gym, but there are a few that are worth checking out. Our main one is there. They’re dispatching a team to Romania within the hour. Better hurry. We have orders to shoot to kill.”

Steve felt an icy chill go down his spine. Orders to shoot to kill? To shoot an American citizen, act as judge, jury, and executioner without a trial based on a single grainy CCTV image? He had heard that the CIA had long been capable of such things, but the America he had fought for in World War II did not operate that way. Barnes was only accused, not convicted. The only evidence against him was a single grainy CCTV image from the bombing, and it might be him and it might not be.

Shoot to kill? Well that changed everything. Before the moment Sharon said those words, Steve had been content to sit on the sidelines and perhaps let her and the CIA bring Bucky in, if they really knew where he was, in hopes that he would get a fair trial, consideration for having been mind-controlled all these years as Clint was given after the encounter with Loki who forced him to commit crimes and murders while under the influence, and Clint was able to walk away without charges, but now he had no choice. He had to act. The alternative was to stand back and watch a man who might be innocent of this particular crime executed for it without a trial. He turned to Sam and reminded him that involvement in this particular foray was not going to be compulsory, and even though Sam snarked that those who tended to shoot at Steve usually ended up shooting at him too, he was coming along, and Steve was grateful for his company.

Based on the information Sharon gave them, they were able to travel to Romania and find Bucky only a split second before the CIA did. It was clear that his old friend had started to regain something of himself again, trying to live undercover as a civilian, but had not been able to once the world began plastering his face on every screen they could. He had a bag packed and ready to go, and seemed to recognize Steve slightly when Steve showed up at his apartment trying to head off the assassination attack that they knew was coming.

And it all ended up being useless. The task force attacked anyway, and Bucky was forced to run. And out of nowhere, came prince T’Challa dressed as a black cat, wielding a vibranium suit, determined to kill Bucky himself. And just where in the hell had he come from? How did he know where to go? The vehicle chase that ensued ended up with everyone cornered by the CIA and arrested, even the prince, and the lot of them being flown to Berlin to be handled by the task force there. Steve was on edge, hoping they wouldn’t give in to their orders to simply shoot Bucky who was now restrained and unable to escape. Would they really shoot a handcuffed unarmed man? Steve had no doubt that some of them probably would.

Once they were in Berlin, and all of their gear confiscated, including the prince’s suit, they had the misfortune to meet Sharon‘s boss, Everett Ross. Steve took an instant disliking to the man, and though he knew there was probably no relation to the contentious general, he half wondered if there was, given his immediate dislike of anyone whose last name happened to be “Ross” these days. The man was clearly one of those overeager, by the books, ready to prove himself type of agents, and although Sharon seem to be operating as his second in command, Steve noticed a couple of winces on her face as the man talked, like she had had her fill of him as well, but kept trying to smooth everything over. When Ross told them that they would be waiting in an office instead of a jail cell, Steve had no doubt that that was Sharon‘s doing.

As they waited in the office, Steve replayed the conversation in the car with T’Challa in his mind. The man was more than a prince and king-apparent. He was highly trained in combat, it was obvious. So why did the prince of a third world African nation have such valuable gear and training? T’Challa had said “the Black Panther has been the protector of Wakanda for generations. A mantle passed from warrior to warrior. And now because your friend murdered my father, I also wear the mantle of king. So I ask you, as both warrior and king, how long do you think you can keep your friend safe from me?” His words had given Steve pause. How could he keep Bucky alive and safe when his fate had already been decided in the minds of so many, including this prince?

As they were led to the waiting office, Steve heard Sam murmur to everyone around him about his suit, “I better not look out the window and see anyone flying around in that.”

Nice to know that he could keep a sense of humor, even when Sharon returned a few minutes later with receipts for their gear, and Sam seemed unable to retain his outrage that his gear had been referred to as a “bird suit,” despite Sharon‘s insistence that she didn’t write it. But Steve wasn’t paying much attention. His mind kept shifting back-and-forth between the image of Bucky on a security screen in front of him, locked in some sort of containment pod, as well as the conversation he had with Tony only an hour ago.

Tony had showed up and once again practically begged Steve to sign the accords. Steve could tell Tony was agitated, especially after Tony admitted that he and Pepper had broken up, effectively putting their relationship on hold. Tony had mentioned before that Pepper had never really been able to come to terms with him putting himself in danger being Iron Man, and despite his attempts to stop, his efforts to create Ultron to do it in his place which backfired spectacularly, and his motivation for signing the accords which put the responsibility on someone else to tell him when to go and when not to, it had been too much for Pepper to take and they were now living separately. Steve shook his head, offering his condolences. But deep down he was somewhat fearful. Tony was self-destructive by nature, a literal mad scientist who got a whim in his head and ended up creating things like Ultron. Pepper served as a tempering force on him, keeping him grounded, cooling him down when his hot temper and impulsive nature would otherwise call him to do some real damage. Without her in his life, Tony was basically back to being dangerously unstable.

Despite all of this, Tony almost convinced Steve to sign. Steve wanted there to be provisions and conditions on whether or not he agreed, which Tony seemed amicable towards. But then Tony admitted that he had Vision keeping Wanda locked up at the New York compound until her intentions on the accords were defined, and Steve was painfully reminded what it would mean to go against the accords. It might mean being locked up. Like Bucky. Judged before he had a chance to defend himself or his actions. Killed, even. His anger couldn’t contain itself as he yelled at Tony that Wanda was just a kid, and did not deserve to be treated the way he was treating her. Steve put down the pen, once again resolved to never sign any document that would end up throwing him in jail for daring to help someone without the approval of some non-elected committee. He had turned his back on Howard Stark’s son and walked away. It was the only thing he could do.

Now, as he watched the psychiatrist arrive to talk to Bucky, and was once again grateful to Sharon for surreptitiously pushing a button on the console that let him listen, he stood with Sharon and Sam, thinking about what all of this meant. The psychiatrist’s line of questioning seemed a little strange, and he turned to Sharon and Sam in confusion, asking why anyone put out a grainy image purporting to show Bucky when it was not confirmed that he was actually the culprit in the bombing. Sharon responded that it was the way to get the word out, have all eyes looking for him. But Sam pointed out that that might have been a fruitless effort in the long run, as they had searched for Bucky for two years without success. Steve pointed out that they had not bombed the UN, which served to get everyone’s attention. It was looking more and more like someone had framed Bucky, but why? Sharon pointed out that it would only serve to ensure that the CIA found Bucky and no one else. And that’s when it hit Steve. What was so wrong about this whole scenario, what felt off. They were being played.

Just as he turned back to the screen that showed the psychiatrist questioning Bucky, the power failed in the entire building went dark. Within seconds, pandemonium broke out, and Steve and Sam left the office to go run down to where a Bucky was being held. If Steve was right, then that psychiatrist was no psychiatrist. And Bucky and all of them were in danger. Sure enough, someone activated Bucky’s Winter Soldier programming, and he went on a rampage through the building, confronting Tony, Natasha, and Sharon who squared off against him, easily dispatching Tony against the wall, Sharon into a table, and was in the process of choking Natasha when T’Challa jumped down and fought him. Clearly the prince had specialized martial arts training, because he was able to hold his own quite definitely, but Bucky still got away and headed for a helicopter on the roof. Steve cornered him, stopped the helicopter from taking off, but in a panic, caused it to crash into the water below. Apparently being submerged in water, as before, was what was needed to snap Bucky out of his Winter Soldier mode, because when Steve found him and dragged him on the shore, Sam came running to help, they collected the unconscious man, lifted a car and were off CIA property before the power was ever restored.

He sent a text to Sharon asking where she was and if she was OK, which she replied that she was sitting next to an ambulance with an ice pack on her head being checked for a concussion, but otherwise was OK, and so were Tony and Natasha, if a bit pissed off. He reported back to Sam that everybody was alive and mostly unhurt, and found that Sam had found an industrial device to stick Bucky’s robotic arm in, effectively immobilizing him until he woke up.

When he did, Steve took it as a good sign that the first question he asked was if he had hurt anybody, to which Steve could honestly say he didn’t think so, no, or at least nobody had been killed. Bucky seemed relieved, and proved that he was back to his senses by telling Steve that he remembered that Steve‘s mothers name was Sarah, and that when he was a kid, Steve used to stuff his second hand shoes with newspapers to make them fit. Sam was still tense, but Steve relaxed a bit, although they didn’t let buggy out of the vice just yet. He told them that the psychiatrist had used the code words programmed in his mind to activate the Winter Soldier, that he had wanted to know about previous missions and assassinations, and that he was heading to Siberia to release the other Winter Soldiers, as Bucky was not the only one, and there were at least 12 others in a facility in Siberia.

Bucky didn’t know who the man was or why he was doing what he was doing, but whoever he was, he was a mastermind at manipulation and getting people to do what he needed them to do, since whatever elaborate plan he had cooked up clearly required quite a few high-ranking people to take specific actions in order for his plan to succeed. Such a man who was willing to bomb the UN clearly did not have anything less than evil intentions, and 12 other Winter Soldiers amounted to an army of unstoppable assassins. It was going to have to be dealt with immediately, and there was no time for cutting through the red tape of the accords.

But they were going to need help if they were going to be heading off to Siberia to face 12 potential Winter Soldiers and a psychopathic mastermind. Steve fired off texts to Clint and to Sharon, asking Clint if he was up for another mission, and asking Sharon for his gear.

Sam also indicated that he had encountered someone else they might be able to ask, the man who had somehow infiltrated their upstate New York compound last year to retrieve something from Howard Stark’s technology vaults. They had upped security after that had happened, and the man had been identified as Scott Lang who could become large or small with whatever suit he was wearing, had fun with Sam and managed to get away. But Sam had made some inquiries, and discovered that the guy was actually a decent guy, and probably would have just asked for the object if he thought they would said yes. So Sam went about contacting Lang, Clint replied that he would retrieve Wanda, and Steve texted Sharon with plans to meet up near the airport where the quinjet was stowed at the airport.

Sharon: you know you guys didn’t have permission to leave the facility. At the moment, you’re wanted suspects, being charged with violating the accords. You know what you’re asking me to do giving you your gear back, right?

Steve: American citizens can’t be held indefinitely without charge. And that’s an American organization that arrested us and was holding us. If they held us another 24 hours without charging us, they’d have to release us. And since they didn’t charge us, they have no right to hold us. The gear is our property and they have no right to hold that either.

Sharon: Steve, you really are adorable sometimes. I miss that about you. And I’m not in disagreement with any of that. Just letting you know how it is with them, it’s the CIA, the laws don’t often get applied to them. You guys are wanted fugitives. If I help you, that’s what I’ll become.

Steve felt his heart twist. He knew what he was asking her to do, and only two days after she buried her beloved aunt. This is what it boiled down to between them. What had ended their relationship, drove them back together, and pushed them apart once again. Sharon wanted to be an intelligence officer, it’s what she had always dreamed of being. She had willingly taken down S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization founded by her aunt and mentor, because it was the right thing to do, but it had ended her intelligence career that day. Going in with the CIA was a means of reclaiming that career. Her trying to reclaim that career was what had ended the relationship when she had chosen work over him. Of course, he had chosen the Avengers over her too, effectively. Neither one had been willing to quit what they were doing to go be with the other. Now here was Steve being forced out of the Avengers, and he was asking Sharon to willingly destroy her career a second time, for him, but also because it was the right thing to do. And it would mean becoming an international fugitive in the process. There would be no finding work in another intelligence agency. Hell, she might not ever be able to return to the United States or ever visit her family in England again. And he was asking her to do this over a text.

But then her response came. She was going to do it. He felt his heart leap a bit. She was going to help him. She was going to choose him over her career. He felt a surge of what could only be love for her, wishing again, more than ever, that they were still together. He knew that her agreeing to this did not mean she was agreeing to come back to him, nor did it guarantee anything for the future, but the knowledge that she believed in him enough to do it made him feel like he was walking on air, and simultaneously made him wonder if he deserved it.

Satisfied that his plans were falling into place and Bucky was once again trustworthy, they let him go, found a small Volkswagen Beetle to use as a getaway car, and drove to meet Sharon. Later, he would ask her how hard it was to get their gear out of storage and walk out the door with it, and she only shrugged that it had not been nearly as hard as it should have been. She would not have been able to do it at S.H.I.E.L.D. But even with all of its safeguards, the CIA was simply not as effective as S.H.I.E.L.D. By the time anyone realized what she had done, she planned to not even be in the country anymore. She had stopped by her apartment to grab her own “bug out bag” that she always kept packed, fired off a message to her cousins about what she was doing on a secure server only the Carters knew about, and drove out to meet them, intending to be out of the country long before Ross even realized she was no longer in the building.

She was waiting for them when they pulled up, and when she got out of the Volkswagen Jetta and saw what they were driving, with three very large men folded inside of it clearly uncomfortable, she repressed a snort.

“I don’t think you quite understand the concept of a getaway car,” she snarked.

“It’s low profile,” he replied simply.

“Good,” she replied opening the trunk revealing their gear, including Bucky’s gear, “because this stuff tends to draw a crowd.”

Steve looked down at the contents of the trunk which also included some changes of clothes, what had to be a backpack of food and probably some false identities and passports and disguises. He was in awe of her, she had pretty much just insured a Plan B if they were not able to get out on the quinjet. He smiled at the sight, as well as the sound of Bucky asking Sam to move his seat up in the car, and Sam replying with a short “no.”

“Thanks,” said Steve, “I owe you one. I’m keeping a list.”

Sharon looked over at the Bug, taking in her first full glance of Bucky, then turned back to Steve. “You know he kind of tried to kill me.”

“Sorry,” said Steve sheepishly, “I’ll add it to the list.”

He looked back down at everything she had brought him, and look back at her. “They’re going to come looking for you.”

“I know,” she replied firmly. She looked back at him, almost sad, but determined.

“Thank you, Sharon,” he said honestly. He wanted to say much more, but he didn’t know how he could possibly convey the strength of emotion he was feeling. She simply smiled and nodded. And then, just as before, with no plan to it, he had pulled her to him and kissed her. She kissed him back. It was short, endearing, and filled with longing. She still felt the same, her scent still in his nostrils, and he felt a longing for her he thought he had managed to get over. And apparently she felt the same. They pulled apart, but not away, their heads close together. He wasn’t sure what he should say.

“That was,” she started.

“Late,” he finished.

“Damn right,” she said with a smile. And it had been. He wasn’t sure if they were meant to be together or apart, but the one thing they could definitely be was partners. As before, and maybe in the future. They worked well together, but he wasn’t sure if he would ever find out how long they could.

“I should go,” she said, giving him one last smile and heading for the door to her car. Steve looked over at Bucky and Sam who were both smiling encouragingly, and gave them an exasperated look.

But then Sam, seeing that Sharon was about to leave, gave him the pointed look. He mouthed the words “what are you doing, get her to come with us.” And then Steve saw it clearly. Where else would she go? He had just destroyed her career a second time. She was an international fugitive, just like them, why shouldn’t she come with them? By now Stark would have gotten permission to gather up the Avengers still on the right side of the law and attempt to stop them, if they had any idea what he was up to. The more hands he had on his side the better.

“Sharon, wait!” he said, turning to round the car and stop her from closing the door. She looked up at him in surprise.

“What?” she asked, her face showing genuine shock. “I have to get going. I only have a few minutes to cross the border,”

“Come with me,” he said, “us I mean. We’re all fugitives here. We might as well stick together. And where we’re going, well, it’s dangerous. I won’t lie. But we could use your help. Your skills. You don’t have to take off on your own.”

She got out of the car and stood facing him, looking at him like he had lost his mind.

“Are you serious?” she asked. “Just giving your gear back might get me off with a warning, maybe I’ll just be fired and slapped with a fine or something. Actually going with you is definite jail time.”

He smiled at her, “Sounds fun doesn’t it?”

She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “Why do you want me to go with you, Steve? Because you want me to come with you for personal reasons, or professional ones?”

“Both,” he admitted, meeting her eyes and hoping she saw the truth in his.

They stared at each other for a long time before she finally sighed and look down, shaking her head as if in defeat. “I’ll go with you, because I know you need my help. But that doesn’t mean anything has changed. I don’t know what the future holds, for any of us.”

“No, no,” he said holding his hands up. “Of course not. And thank you. I’m not kidding, we could really use your help.”

She nodded and went back to the driver side door. Steve motioned to Sam and Bucky to get out of the Bug, which they did in relief, and they all climbed into Sharon‘s car. It was roomier, and it would mean not having to unload the gear. She started up the engine and drove them to the airport, to where a half-deserted parking garage waited. They drove around until they found the van that Clint had texted him to look out for. Clint was there with Wanda, and a very jetlagged Scott Lang, who Clint said, would probably need a few cups of coffee before he was useful.

So this was the guy that had butted heads with Sam at the compound? He was over excited, over eager, and Steve hoped he was not going to be more of a liability than an asset. They shook hands, and Steve warned him that coming with them was a surefire ticket to jail. “Did he tell you what we're up against?” Steve asked. Lang said, “Something about some... psycho assassins.”

Steve nodded. “We're outside the law on this one. So if you come with us, you're a wanted man.”

To his surprise, Lang simply shrugged, smiled ruefully and said “What else is new.” Steve was about to ask further questions, but then an announcement came overhead, announcing that the airport was being closed, which Bucky translated and Sharon’s nod confirmed. Sharon and Wanda were studying each other, and then seemed to reach an unspoken agreement and nodded at each other. Steve turned back to Lang. He wanted this man’s backstory when they had more time. But not now. He instructed everyone to suit up.

He and Sam changed into their gear on one side of the van while the women changed into theirs on the other side, but when he came around and saw Sharon and her old S.H.I.E.L.D. outfit, once again Agent 13, he felt his mouth go dry and his heart begin to pound. In a flash, he remembered the sharp young agent he had fallen in love with, had worked with, and with a pang, realized how much he missed those days. He knew he had changed over the years, although so had she, and a lot of it had had to do with their relationship. They stared at each other, and she smiled sadly at him, clearly having similar thoughts as she looked him up and down. And then Wanda looked over at them, apparently picking up on their unconscious interaction, nudged Sharon in the back and the spell was broken. Making sure everything was out of Sharon‘s car, they all piled into the van and drove down to the tarmac. They had to get as close to the hanger with the quinjet as they could before walking across and possibly being spotted by security.

They need not have bothered. Tony’s group was waiting for them on the tarmac. Attempts at talking it through were useless, Tony didn’t want to hear about any more Winter Soldiers possibly being released, he was only determined to bring them all, especially Bucky, in to the task force. They were in violation of the accords. And to Steve’s chagrin, had apparently recruited a teenage kid with spider like powers and had brought him along. Great, now they were bringing children to adult fights. Steve also felt a pang of remorse as he saw the two groups regarding each other across their invisible line on the ground. He knew that Vision and Wanda had grown close, and that Wanda had been forced to attack Vision in order to escape.

Now the two stood across from each other looking at each other sadly, as Natasha and Clint, also close friends, stood across the invisible line looking at each other sadly, knowing they would have to fight. Natasha and Sharon also looked at each other in disappointment, and Nat shook her head, understanding, and Steve felt real sorrow as he saw how these two women, longtime friends, even before he had entered the picture, were now at odds with each other because of his decisions. The situation was also made worse by the fact that the prince Wakanda, T’Challa, had come along on Tony side, and anything that was done to him in a fight might mean an international incident. But he hardened his heart in resolve. No matter what anybody thought, they could not allow 12 Winter Soldiers to be released under the control of a psychopathic madman. And they didn’t have time to sit here talking about it.

Steve’s group attempted to continue to the quinjet, Tony’s group held the line to stop them. And the fight broke out. At first, it was almost like a sparring match at the facility, with everybody testing each other, and pulling their hits as they did in the sparring ring back at the Avengers facilities. Steve would be content to simply break through the line and make it to the jet without hurting anyone, though this didn’t seem to be the case for the prince or Bucky, who were going at each other with real intent to cause damage. Natasha and Clint were fighting but it looked more like a friendly sparring match. Sharon was taking on anyone who attacked her, which occasionally was Natasha, and occasionally the spider kid. Steve was momentarily distracted by the sight of her lean form executing beautiful martial arts maneuvers, evasions and hits, at one point easily taking down Clint Barton, and rolling out of the way when the spider kid tried to entangle her in one of his webs. Bucky and Sam ended up fighting alongside each other, Scott Lang turned himself into a giant and used a fuel truck to cause a major disruption in the other side, until the spider kid managed to tangle up his legs with webs and send him to the ground. Steve was growing exasperated, and ultimately it was Sam who laid down the truth of the matter. Steve and Bucky were going to have to make for the jet. The rest of them would remain behind and cover their escape. In order to win this fight, some of them we’re going to have to lose it.

Steve wanted to argue. That would mean Sharon being taken prisoner, leaving no doubt at all after her role in all this. It could go really bad for her. But it was Sharon who came through his doubtful thoughts, her voice in his ear on the comm, telling him that Sam was right. This was what had to happen, and they should go while they had the chance. Before he could change his mind, Steve grabbed a Bucky, and they sprinted for the quinjet, stopping when Natasha blocked their path. But to their surprise, she fired behind them, immobilizing T’Challa who had followed stealthily. She let them go, not willing to see them hurt, and they made it to the jet, as she fought with the prince to keep him from stopping them. Steve flew the jet into the air, leaving his comrades behind, finding out later that War Machine had followed and Sam had followed Rhodey, to which Vision had tried to stop them, and ended up accidentally hitting Rhodey who fell out of the sky and was severely injured. Everyone who had fought on Steve’s side was arrested and immediately sent to the Raft, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. facility designed for holding enhanced individuals like Wanda and her brother

Steve did his best to swallow his despair as they flew towards Siberia. Bucky lamented that he was not worth all this, despite Steve’s insistence that none of it had been his fault. Bucky was not convinced, even though he shared a memory with Steve about the time they had visited Coney Island, showing that the old Bucky was emerging more and more, reclaiming his memories and being willing to take responsibility for his actions, even if he had not chosen them.

Steve wanted to talk to him about Sharon, about how he had finally managed a relationship that lasted longer than a couple of months, but now it had gone south. But he held his silence. He wasn’t really sure Bucky would want to hear it right now, and he wasn’t even sure himself what he would say about his and Sharon‘s relationship. So the rest of the flight passed in silence. They arrived at the Siberian facility, made their way in, only to get the surprise of their life when Tony showed up behind them, having gotten their whereabouts from Sam, and discovering on his own that Bucky had in fact been framed by the man they later learned was named Zemo.

At first, it looked like there could finally be some reconciliation between them, as Tony seemed willing to work with them to catch the true culprit, was even willing to give Bucky some leeway, but when they found Zemo, in the room with the other Winter Soldiers who had all been killed, not released, everything went to pure and utter hell again. Steve locked eyes with a man who had been the cause of all this, and realized with dread that the man was from Sokovia, a member of their special forces, and had everything to fight for and nothing to lose, as he had lost his family, his wife and son and father in the Ultron battle, and had desperately and masterfully manipulated the Avengers into doing to each other what he could never have done on his own: destroy each other. He talked about how empires attacked from outside always rise again, but when they crumble from within, it’s gone forever.

Like his own country, and like the Avengers. They had played right into his trap, rendering themselves international fugitives, and creating a wound in the team that was probably unhealable once he played the video for Tony showing the murders of Howard and Maria Stark, and showing Bucky as the assassin who committed it. Steve’s pleas to Tony that Bucky had been under mind control, just as Clint had been, fell on deaf ears as Tony was enveloped in mindless rage and attacked them both. Zemo slipped out, later to be caught by T’Challa who had also followed them, witnessed Zemo’s plan to fracture the Avengers by framing Bucky and admitting to T’Chaka’s murder. His own need for revenge quenched at that revelation, T’Challa vowed to never use the mantle of them Black Panther in revenge ever again, as he had nearly allowed his hatred to consume him into executing an innocent man. Innocent of the murder of his father anyway. The only thing he could do was apprehend Zemo alive, to ensure he faced justice for his crimes. But in the meantime, Steve was not able to salvage anything with Tony, nearly killing Howard’s son in his effort to protect Bucky. In the end, they had beaten each other senseless, but into submission, and Steve, pulling Bucky to his feet, began to limp away.

But Tony called out after him, bitterly, telling him he did not deserve the shield that Howard had made, that he no longer deserved to be called Captain America. Steve felt his heart hollow in his chest as he realized Tony was right, knew his actions had not been worthy of his station, and with a heavy heart, dropped the shield behind him. He continued to limp out. Let Tony have the shield, what was left of his father. It didn’t matter now. When they went outside, they met T’Challa, who had restrained Zemo, who continued to glare at them with hatred.

He told them to take his own aircraft, a model from Wakanda, told them to punch in a certain code into the auto pilot. It would take them to a safe location. Meanwhile, he and Tony would take the quinjet back to the CIA and turn over Zemo. Steve was far too beaten and weary to argue, so he nodded, not bothering to wonder about the prince’s intentions, and hauled Bucky into the aircraft, and followed the instructions he had been given. It was only when the craft was airborne and heading south, apparently to Africa, that he really took a moment to look around and marvel at the technology. It was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Where had the prince gotten this aircraft? Obviously, as royalty, he was a man of some means and resources, if his suit was to be any indication, as well as his deft handling of information in order to find them. Where exactly was he sending them and why? Bucky was unconscious most of the way, having lost his vibranium arm and sustained several injuries. So he wasn’t awake when they flew over the African savanna, apparently straight into a jungle that dissolved in front of them, some sort of holographic illusion, and into a city that looked like it belonged on another planet. Steve’s mouth dropped open in surprise as the craft landed amongst a group of bald-headed women dressed in scarlet and carrying spears.

The one who was clearly in charge stepped forward and punched some controls on the side of the jet, opening it and climbing up, glaring at the two men. “The crown prince has sent a message that we are to accommodate you,” she said in accented English, clearly not happy with the order she had been given. “You will follow me please.”

Steve hoisted Bucky up over his shoulder and climbed down, wondering if anyone was going to offer to help. They didn’t. He wasn’t sure whether or not to be relieved or offended. The woman in charge, whose name he would later learn was General Okoye, head of the Dora Milaje, motioned for them to follow, which he did, and she led them to a medical wing where a team of doctors wearing white, all African, immediately laid him and Bucky out on tables and began scanning them with devices that Steve didn’t recognize. Within minutes, they had identified all of their injuries, stripped them out of their clothes and began treating them. There were a few fractured ribs here and there, Bucky had a concussion, and multiple cuts and scrapes that, to Steve’s surprise, were healed within hours using whatever technology these people had. It was amazing. They were given clothes to wear, and Bucky was kept sedated, due to his unpredictable nature, and Steve was allowed to rest some before a servant came to tell him that the prince had turned over his prisoner to the CIA, and was returning to the country within a couple of hours. Steve nodded and thanked him, and the man left. Nobody was answering Steve‘s questions, so he had to deduce that he was now in Wakanda. But what manner of place was this?

He and Bucky were confined to the medical wing until T’Challa returned, at which point the prince immediately had things to deal with. So Steve had to wait nearly a week in hiding in the palace with Bucky while the prince consolidated his rule, went through some sort of ritual christening him the Black Panther, and deal with his whacked out cousin in the process.

Fortunately, Steve and Becky were not in the country when a massive battle took place between the king’s cousin and his own forces, for during the process of consolidating his government, T’Challa had asked what he could do to help Steve, and that was when Steve had learned about his friends being imprisoned on the Raft. He asked the king if he and Bucky could get a ride to somewhere in Europe where Steve could try to garner up resources to break out his friends who were being held on the Raft, apparently without charge or legal representation. Between the CIA giving a shoot to kill order on Bucky without confirming he was the suspect they needed or without benefit of a trial, and now the government was holding the Avengers in prison without access to a lawyer, Steve was beginning to think he was not out of line taking the stance he had taken against the Accords. More than once he would wonder if he had truly been able to flush out all of the Hydra influence in the United States government, and more than once, he concluded that he probably hadn’t.

At any rate, T’Challa often offered the use of Wakandan resources, which Steve initially refused.

“Your highness,” he told the new king, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you giving me and Bucky shelter in your country, you’ve probably saved our lives. But I can’t ask you to help jailbreak wanted international fugitives. It could create a diplomatic incident for you the likes of which I don’t even want to think about. You’re a head of state. This could go really badly for your country if you were known to have participated in a jailbreak of this kind.”

To his surprise, the king shrugged. “The only one who doesn’t really need to know about it as my mother,” he said. “She is still of the old Wakandan isolationist mindset. It was my father who wanted to open our borders and begin interacting with the world, something our country has never really done. There are quite a few people who don’t think I should be sheltering you here, though granted the majority of the population doesn’t know there are two white foreign men living in my palace. Even my own sister thinks I’m nuts, though I think she is mostly intrigued by you. But the bottom line is this, the son of the last King is not automatically assumed to assume the throne. He is first in line, but he must prove himself worthy, honorable. If I had killed Barnes while wearing the mantle of Black Panther, I would not be honorable enough to represent my tribe and ascend the throne. My rule would be over before it even started. There would be chaos in Wakanda right now as everyone else decided to try for the throne. In truth, Captain, you have saved not only me but my country a lot of trouble.”

Steve wasn’t so sure he agreed with the explanation, but accepted it anyway. T’Challa tasked his girlfriend Nakia, a high-ranking member of his Wardog spy unit, to find someone to help Steve, and she assigned two Wakandan officers to help him and Bucky break out the errant Avengers from the Raft. Steve only talked to her once, but was awestruck at how much she reminded him of Sharon. A young woman, beautiful and powerful, clearly in love with a powerful man but holding herself back for the sake of her career, but still supportive. And it was clear that T’Challah was head over heels for her, he practically turned to Jell-O around her, which Steve thought was almost adorable were not for the fact that these two people were extraordinarily powerful in their own ways and just a little scary. Her deputies were able to acquire, though how Steve never knew, maps of the Raft, and the use of a submersible that could sneak up on it without being detected. Bucky commented that the Wakandan technology was actually a little scary when you thought about it.

They were away from the African country when its king faced off against his cousin to reclaim the throne, though Steve heard about it later, as apparently the two Wakandan spies helping them had heard from Nakia how it had all gone down. At the time, Steve had no idea it was all even happening, focusing instead on the mission to break out the Avengers.

He was adamant that he didn’t want to kill people to do it, though Bucky was less inclined to hold back, but it turned out that the Wakandan spies had an odorless undetectable knockout gas they could easily pipe into the atmospheric system, and within a matter of minutes, everyone on board was out cold and would be for at least an hour. Because the detention cell was a closed off unit, the prisoners were not affected, though it also meant that a few guards who had realized what was happening had managed to isolate themselves in closed off pods as well and had not succumbed to the knockout gas. There wasn’t a lot of time to get everybody out before those guards came looking.

Bucky covered the hallway while Steve ran down to the control room and began unlocking the prison cell doors. He came inside and went up to Sam’s cell first, letting him out and releasing him from the force field over the door of his cell. He let Scott Lang out next, and moved his way around to Wanda’s cell. He was nearly heartbroken at the sight of the young woman in a straightjacket with a type of electric collar around her neck that was poised to render her unconscious if she were to use her powers. Sam rushed in and began to undo her binds.

As Scott let Clint out of his cell, Steve ran to Sharon’s holding area. She was lounging on her back on the uncomfortable looking cot, her hands behind her head looking up at the ceiling with a slight smile on her face. She lifted her head slightly and locked her eyes with his, giving him that half smile he remembered from their days of S.H.I.E.L.D. when he only knew her as Agent 13.

“Well hello there, Captain Rogers,” she said. “Nice of you to show up. This joint was getting really boring.”

He slapped his palm on the button that disengaged the door to her cell, and it lifted up out of the way. “Are you planning on coming with us, or are you comfortable there?” he asked.

She sat up and swung her legs over the side, standing to her feet and bouncing a little bit on her toes.

“Well, since you asked nicely, and if I’m still invited, I’d love to come along,” she said, breezing past him.

Steve shook his head, suppressing a smile, but as soon as they were all out of their cells, all mirth in jocularity ceased. Sam had gotten the collar off of Wanda, and she was now free. She looked frighteningly forlorn, and almost haunted. Steve hope she wasn’t going to suffer any serious psychological damage after everything she had been through. But Sharon went over and put the gentle hand on her arm, giving the younger woman an encouraging smile, and Wanda smiled slightly in return.

“Let’s go,” Bucky yelled from the hallway. “Company is coming.”

Steve lead the way down the hallway, heading towards the exit, until Sharon stopped him and told him that she knew where their gear was being held, that if unless the layout of the Raft had changed since its days as a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, later handed over to the US government. Thankfully it wasn’t too far away out of their route to the exit. They found the storage area, and used a badge key off of an unconscious guard to open the door. Sam and Scott retrieved their suits, Wanda retrieved her favorite scarlet red jacket, and Sharon grabbed her favorite bulletproof black jacket and white pants. And the thigh holster that Peggy had given her. But there was no time to change. Although Clint slung his bow and quiver onto his back, the rest had little time to do anything but grab their gear and run. Once again, Steve assumed the lead, and lead his group out to the exit where the Wakandan submarine was waiting. The Wakandan Wardog officer tossed up the rope that Steve caught, hooked on to a stable surface, and it immediately took the form of a rope ladder. They all climbed down, though thankfully everyone held their questions until they were safely on board. The seas around the Raft were treacherous, with waves slapping alongside the facility as the storm around it raged. However, once they were all on board, and the submarine submerged, they didn’t feel the rocking of the seas, and breathed a sigh of relief when the vessel cloaked and disappeared from radar. The Wardog officer assured them that their signal would not be traced by anything on board the Raft, for Wakanda used a signal and identification for their vehicles that were not known to the rest of the world.

Steve had no doubt that they were professionals who knew what they were doing, though he would still breathe a sigh of relief later once he knew for sure that the king would not be held accountable for helping them escape and that nobody had tracked them. The last part of the plan included bringing them all back to Wakanda, until the two Wakandan spies received word from Nakia about the turmoil in Wakanda, and advised them not to bring the Avengers back just yet. So Steve asked if anybody knew where they could go.

It was Sharon who stood up and suggested that they use one of the safe houses that Peggy had set up for the Carter family, which she had never mentioned in any documentation in a sealed file, and thus would not be known to their enemies thanks to the releasing of the S.H.I.E.L.D. files on the Internet. Clint, of course, offered his farm again, but Steve was unwilling to put Laura and the children in danger, especially with a new baby on the scene. And with no other suggestions that could work quite as well, it was agreed that this would be where they would go. So Sharon asked the Wakandans to let them off in England, off the coast of Cornwall, near Tintagel. After profusely thinking the Wardogs for their help, and Steve writing an actual letter to the king thanking him personally, they bid the submarine goodbye and came ashore in England, completely illegally and without permission. Steve wasn’t entirely sure what he was supposed to do with his bedraggled crew, who only had a few personal possessions between them, were carrying contraband items that identified them easily as the fugitive Avengers, and no particular place to go that he could see. However, in hindsight, he realized later on that he should not have been surprised that Sharon had a plan. Apparently in addition to teaching her how to crack codes and Brazilian jujitsu, Peggy had also ensured that her niece, and her family, will always have somewhere to run. It made Steve wonder just how much Peggy had uncovered about the Hydra infection in S.H.I.E.L.D. before she was apparently purposely given dementia which caused her death.

Sharon rounded everybody up and made them to follow her, and since it was well after sunset, they would be traveling under the cover of darkness. Sharon seemed to know where she was going, so she rapidly hushed everyone’s questions, including Steve’s, easily slipping back into her Agent 13 persona. She was all business now, and Steve knew better than to needle her. Besides, it’s not like he had a plan himself past getting his friends out. Wakanda had been their assumed place of refuge, but not with the king facing the turmoil with his cousin at the moment. If they went to a small African country, it would be long after T’Challa had gotten everything under control and was firmly enthroned as king.

Sharon would tell him later that Peggy had three safe houses around the world, one in England, one in North America, and one in southeast Asia, all of them stocked with what was needed for her family to go underground if it became necessary. The safe house they were going to was the one that Peggy had always intended to retreat to if she needed to, her first choice.

It was the same location that Sharon had sent her cousins to during the Hydra takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. Her cousins had learned to love living in the UK, and when the danger has passed, had shut down the safe house and opted to stay in London with Peggy, which was where they were living now. That was why it was a major inconvenience for Sharon to call her cousin Edwin in the middle of the night from the submarine several hours away, and ask him to leave a vehicle for them in Cornwall that they could get to easily if need be. She knew she would owe her cousins something of an explanation soon, because right about now their pictures were undoubtedly being broadcast all over the world in effort to let everyone know they had broken out of the Raft. Ed had done as he was asked, left the vehicle in the previously agreed-upon spot, and then flown back to London in one of the flying vehicles invented by Howard Stark. He was back home before anyone even noticed he was gone, not even having to miss work. Although he had not followed his mother into the life, he had quite a few necessary skills.

They walked for four hours in the dark, and everyone was weary, grumpy, hungry and foot sore by the time Sharon turned purposefully off of the main road where they had been following along in the bushes, strode down a dirt road like she had been there several times before, and came upon a dilapidated barn only just barely holding itself up. But she walked over to the door, yanked it open and there was a van, nearly brand new, gassed up and able to fit all of them. Its only downside was that it was not one of S.H.I.E.L.D. flying vehicles. Nevertheless, Steve thought he was never so happy to see any vehicle in his life, and the others certainly seemed to agree. They all piled in, Steve letting Sharon drive, and they turned out onto the highway. Wanda was asleep against Scott‘s shoulder in a matter of minutes, Clint and Scott not long after, though both Sam and Becky remained alert. They drove for another four hours, and Steve could tell that Sharon was getting tired, though she waved off any suggestions that he take over, even if she told him where they were going.

Finally, just as the sun was starting to come up over the horizon, they turned down another winding narrow road, crossed a bridge that looked suspiciously rickety, and came out onto a small farmstead with a house that looked quite old, but in good repair. The carriage house behind it had been converted into a garage, and Sharon pulled the van into it, and jumped out closing the doors, hiding the van from anyone who might pull up. Everyone else staggered out of the vehicle, and followed Sharon up to the house.

“Where are we?” asked Steve. “Who lives here?”

“It’s a safe house,” Sharon said. “The Carter estate, British location. This is where Peggy grew up.”

Astounded with this bit of information, Steve took time to look around, noting the yards and the meadows beyond. This was where Peggy and Sharon’s grandfather had grown up? What would have been like to see Peggy as a little girl running around here?

Noting Steve’s interest, Sharon said “I’ll give you a tour later. Right now let’s get inside and get some rest.”

She put the pads of her fingers on what looked like a normal piece of wood paneling next to the door, but Steve noted that but knotholes in the wood arranged at the perfect distance for five human fingers. Sure enough, the knotholes glowed green three times, and Sharon leaned down to stare into another knothole that seem to scan her retina. The door lock clicked, and she pushed the door open and motioned them all inside. They all squeezed into the entranceway, and Sharon closed the door firmly behind them, re-engaging the lock.

They followed her into what looked like a modernized English country kitchen. She began opening cabinets until she found what she was looking for, a stash of non-perishable rations, canned supplies, and she walked over to a panel and pushed a few buttons, and the entire house powered up and came to life. She tossed everyone some ration bars, remarking that there would be time to get perishable groceries from the store in town about 3 miles away later. Right now, there should be enough beds for everybody in the rooms upstairs, so she announced that she was planning to shower get some sleep and encouraged everybody else to do the same. With murmurs of agreement, the rest of the Avengers followed Sharon upstairs. Steve started to follow, but was stopped by a series of pictures on the wall of a hallway. He stopped and looked at them. There were quite a few people he didn’t really recognize, but some he did. It was a picture of two teenagers, and one was unmistakably Peggy, and the young man next to her must be her brother Michael, Sharon‘s grandfather. There was an older picture of a couple, the woman resembled Peggy somewhat, and the man resembled Michael, which led Steve to believe this must be Peggy’s parents. Some more modern pictures taken in the 1950s showed Peggy with her two children, Edwin and Lily, as youngsters, and a modern one that looked like a picture of Sharon around five years old, with two adults, the man who must be her father looking remarkably like the picture of Michael, and the woman who must be her mother looking very similar to Sharon herself. That was another more modern picture of the entire Carter family, Peggy, now elderly, sitting with her grown children, their spouses, their children, and a teenage Sharon standing behind Peggy’s chair with her hands on her aunt’s shoulders.

One final picture caught Steve’s eye, and he moved in closer to see it. It was a picture of Peggy, on her wedding day, looking beautiful in a white gown and veil, with the man who had been her husband, Danielle Sousa, standing beside her, leaning heavily on his crutch. Steve knew that the man had lost a leg in World War II. He started to look away, but found himself unable to. In an instant, he imagined how this picture would look if it were him standing in Daniel’s place. In his mind, he found himself thinking a wandering thought that maybe that’s what should have happened. If he had not gone into the ice. But a little voice in the back of his mind whispered “would it have?”

The thought brought him up short. And with a stunning realization, he realized he had never had such a thought before. He always assumed that if he had survived the war, he and Peggy would’ve ended up together. But now that he really thought about it, he realized that was not a guarantee. Nothing in life was. Yes, they had loved each other, but they had never really dated, never really had any time together, never had that dance, and only kissed once. Sure they would’ve been able to do all that after the war, and probably formed an even deeper relationships than the one they had. But at some point, Peggy was going to go to work for the SSR’s headquarters. He would not have stopped her. And that would have meant following along the steps that drove her to found S.H.I.E.L.D. During all this time, she would still meet Daniel Sousa. Would she have recognized in him the man she would eventually marry? Would Steve’s presence change that? Or would they have eventually go on their separate ways, and Peggy would have ended up with Daniel anyway? It floored him to think that he had never considered this.

And then, just suddenly as the thought had come on, it vanished. He turned away from the photo. Although he was happy that Peggy had someone in her life, it was still somewhat painful to remember that it had not been him. He had only looked at the photograph for about 10 seconds, these strange thoughts went through his mind in half that time, but there was still the aftereffects for some time after. He followed the others of the stairs looking for a place to sleep. He didn’t think of looking for Sharon.

Chapter Text

Author's Note: I still have more chapters, folks! Don't give up! Once again, apologies for the less frequent updates. With the holidays and NaNoWriMo and work, I'm happy to have gotten this chapter done before the holiday week consumes my every waking moment. I hope you enjoy this one, and look for a new chapter next week! There's more to come. And as always, thanks for the reviews and for reading my humble stories.

 

 

Chapter 9

 

They stayed at the safe house for a long time. They often wore disguises to go into the village to shop for groceries, for apparently Peggy’s preparations for those who would use the safe house also included a substantial fortune at their disposal hidden away in Swiss Bank accounts, courtesy of Howard Stark. It provided the resources they need to purchase what they needed, including an extra vehicle, and Sharon took one of them to go visit her cousins in London to fill them in on what she could, and advise them what to do if the CIA came looking for her. Then she returned, and the Avengers spent a certain amount of time considering what their next move should be. Bucky was antsy, still nervous that the Winter Soldier programming in his mind could still be activated at any moment, and spent a lot of time outdoors roaming the property, as if to keep himself away in case he popped off again. Steve knew that Clint missed his wife and children, Scott missed his girlfriend and daughter, and Wanda missed Vision. He was surprised to get a phone call from T’Challa about a month later, advising him that Wakanda was now a friendly country again, if they wanted to return, but Steve told him that it might be better if they stayed where they were. It was Bucky, however, who insisted on returning to Wakanda, for the king had mentioned that his sister felt confident that Bucky could be healed of his brainwashing using their medical technology. It was not perfected yet, however, and until it was, Bucky asked if they had the ability to put him back in suspended animation. The king said that they did, and despite Steve’s being against it, Bucky asked to be brought back to Wakanda and put in suspended sleep until they could de-program him. Steve was despondent about Bucky’s decision, but felt that he should go to lend moral support, and announced that he would travel with him. He assured Sharon that he would return soon, and she nodded, saying she would keep the Avengers safe until he got back. T’Challa sent a Wakandan aircraft which arrived in the meadow for them the next day, and they boarded it heading towards the small hidden African country.

On the way, they stopped off in Romania so that Steve could mail a letter to Tony. He didn’t feel right leaving so much anger and hurt simmering between the two of them, and wanted to chance of being able to salvage what relationship he had with Howard’s son. Including a burner phone that Sharon gave him that would reach Steve when needed, Steve wrote the following letter to Tony.

“Tony, I’m glad you’re back at the compound. I don’t like the idea of you rattling around a mansion by yourself. We all need family. The Avengers are yours, maybe more so than mine. I’ve been on my own since I was 18. I never really fit in anywhere, even in the army. My faith’s in people, I guess. Individuals. And I’m happy to say that, for the most part, they haven’t let me down. Which is why I can’t let them down either. Locks can be replaced, but maybe they shouldn’t. I know I hurt you, Tony. I guess I thought by not telling you about your parents I was sparing you, but I can see now that I was really sparing myself, and I'm sorry. Hopefully one day you can understand. I wish we agreed on the Accords, I really do. I know you're doing what you believe in, and that's all any of us can do. That's all any of us should... So no matter what, I promise you, if you need us - if you need me - I'll be there."

— Steve Rogers

 

Tony would probably laugh his ass off at receiving a handwritten letter, saying something about how quaint and archaic it was coming from Methuselah himself, but Sharon assured him that handwritten notes were more prized and valued these days, because they took time and effort to do, not like sending a text or an email. Steve had no idea if his apology would be accepted, if Tony would call or respond in some way, or of Tony would simply dump the whole package into the trash without opening it, deciding to remain furious at Steve for the rest of his life. But as he told Sharon, at least his own conscience was assuaged by sending the letter. He had offered out a hand, it was up to Tony as to whether or not he would take it.

Thier return to Wakanda was different than their first trip. There had clearly been some sort of terrible battle outside the palace. The ones who had survived the battle were still cleaning up the aftermath. When Steve stepped out of the Wakandan aircraft onto the landing platform and looked out over the city and the surrounding plain, he was actually shocked at what he saw.

“It was pretty messy,” said T’Challa, coming up to him and Bucky and, surveying the scene in front of them. “It’s times like these that you learn who your friends and your enemies are. And astonishingly, the ones I thought were my friends were not, and the ones I thought were my enemies also were not.”

“You know, your highness,” said Steve shaking his head still looking out over the battlefield, “if this is a bad time, we can certainly make ourselves scarce until a more convenient time.”

The new king simply put a hand on Steve’s shoulder and smiled. “I assure you, captain, this is probably the best time to visit. There is still much discussion going on in my advisory Council about the wisdom of opening our borders and coming out of the mist into the world as my father wanted. Right now everybody is distracted with cleaning up and rebuilding. No one is going to notice if I have a couple of unexpected visitors.”

“Unwanted, you mean?” asked Bucky.

“Unwanted by some,” T’Challa admitted, “but welcomed by me. Let us go inside. I want you to meet my sister.”

Steve had to admit, he was quite stunned by the princess, as T’Challa told him he would be. At only 17 years old, Steve had a sneaking suspicion that this girl might actually be smarter than Tony Stark given what he witnessed in her lab. But unlike Tony, she had an attentive family, a mother who doted on her but still guided with a firm hand, a brother who adored her and obviously the two kept each other in line. Like Tony, Shuri had all of the resources and opportunities at her fingertips to develop her genius, but the home environment was making all the difference. Shuri was quite arrogant and cocky like Tony, but it was tempered with the love and guidance of her family. And unlike Tony, the young princess seemed to instinctively recognize that while she might be a genius, she was not exactly a leader, and if somewhat sarcastic to her brother, nearly always deferred to his leadership. Steve could see the leadership qualities in the princess that had undoubtedly been inherited from their father, and likely she could lead if she had to, but it was clear that T’Challa was the natural leader of the family, and his sister was smart enough to recognize that. Shuri was a useful tool that supported him and his rule, and the two clearly respected and loved each other. Adjusting for culture and age differences, Steve had to marvel at how differently two geniuses like Tony and Shuri could turn out based on their environment.

Steve was also shocked to hear that Sharon‘s old boss Everett Ross had been involved in the conflict, and listened surprised as the king filled him in on everything that had happened, assuring him that Ross had returned to America only the day before.

“He is not a bad man by any stretch of the imagination,” T’Challa told Steve at dinner that evening, attended also by his mother, the former queen, Shuri and Nakia, who was still working with the intelligence unit known as the Wardogs.

“I didn’t get the sense there was anything wrong with him like some of the miscreants I have fought in my lifetime,” Steve agreed. “But he wasn’t exactly prone to listening to reason.”

“He is over eager to prove himself,” said the king, “not so different for me I suppose. But his heart is good.”

The conversation turned to the king’s plan for his country now that Wakanda had made itself known to the world on a certain level, although only a few people knew that the country was anything more advanced than goat farmers like their neighboring countries. Shuri invited Bucky down to her lab to have a look at the containment pod they had built by reverse engineering the ones in which the Winter Soldiers had been found. After apprehending Zemo, T’Challa had dispatched a science team to the Siberian facility to study the technology, and not only had they done so in less than three hours, Shuri had scoffed at what she had called “primitive technology” and declared that she could build something just like it only better. Of course she could. While the two of them were down in the lab talking about putting Bucky under until the Wakandan medical community could analyze his brain and figure out how to de-program him, Steve and T’Challa walked the halls of the palace talking. The queen had retired for the evening, and Nakia had returned back to her own dwelling nearby, with a quick kiss for T’Challa and a shy smile before giving Steve and Bucky a firm nod and disappearing down the hallway.

“If it’s too forward of me,” said Steve, “then by all means say so. But.... Nakia...you and she are...?”

T’Challa smiled a rueful smile, but then it turned wistful. “When my father was still king,” he said, “she was sent by her father, the chief of the river tribe, to study with the Dora Milaje. And study she did. General Okoye said that she was one of her best pupils. But during the course of her training, it was clear that she would make a very good intelligence officer, she had the skills. So she was sent to England to study with M-16. It just so happened, I was sent there as well, to university, as is common for those of us who believe in coming into the world to send their children to study abroad. Of course, we maintained the fiction, everyone thinks we are nothing more than the sons of tribal chiefs in Africa who managed to trade in some good trinkets for the cost of university education. Historically, Wakanda has found it best to not disprove anybody of that assumption. But in sending me overseas, my father did not want to leave me unprotected. Of course we have technology that can monitor me anytime my father wanted, but since Nakia would also be getting her own education in the same location, and although not a full-fledged member of the Dora, was adequately trained by them, she was assigned as my security. You might say, being away from home, away from my parents, with only each other in a foreign country, no small amount of educational stress, it was natural that one thing should lead to the other.”

“Yes, I suppose it would,” said Steve with a smile. “A common background can draw two people together in strange circumstances.”

The king nodded. “When we were in England, the few years we were there, it was easy to forget who we were and where we came from, not that we ever really did. But while we were there, I wasn’t the crown prince, and she wasn’t the daughter of the river tribe chief. Not that we would not have moved in the same circles back here in Wakanda, in fact, she was one of several my father considered acceptable as a possible match for me. But there was also talk of arranging a marriage between me and the sister of M’Baka, the leader of the White Gorilla tribe who keep themselves apart from the rest of us. Traditionally, they have been enemies of my family, although they stepped up to stand by our side during the battle. Which I appreciate. And he saved my life when he could easily have let me die. A marriage between his sister and me might have created peace earlier, but I knew his sister to be in love with another man. I knew I would never have her heart. I did not consider Nakia much before we left Wakanda, because my heart and my head were filled with dreams of a woman I met on the plains during my manhood ceremony. She was also on her own journey, she gave her name as Ororo but we were forced to part ways and I have never seen her again. In time she faded from my memory, although I often say she was my first love. I was a foolish child of 17, not unlike my sister in some ways. One never forgets a first love, but the fates always send you someone who is meant to be your mate for life.”

“And you think that is Nakia?” Steve asked.

T’Challa stopped and sighed. “I believe so. I came to believe it when we were both in England. And then we both came home and continued to see each other. But then she was recruited with the Wardogs, and went on missions that often took her out of the country and around the world. It was difficult to even talk to her, much less see her. And I had my own obligations as the prince, learning the rules of statesmanship from my father, going on diplomatic missions with him. Occasionally I was able to beg and plead with my father to get her assigned to our security detail when we traveled, but it was plain by then that she was focusing on her career, we ended up going our separate ways, her call, not mine I might add. I told myself it was probably better that way, but it does not stop my mind from wandering in her direction.”

“Your story sounds alarmingly familiar,” said Steve with a frown, thinking of how both Peggy and Sharon had fit into his life at different points. Not to be undone, he filled the king in on his own background with Sharon, abbreviating the story when necessary, but giving him the gist of it. By the time he was done, T’Challa was looking at him with an almost disbelieving look, but smiled and shook his head.

“Truly, what a pair we are, my friend,” said the king. “Two unusual men, made unusual by our strange enhancements, who love a woman in the intelligence field, our respective paths constantly pulling us apart, but being unable to forget about the woman in question. But I still believe in Nakia. She is worth the trouble I assure you. I have told her before that she would make an excellent queen if she were not so stubborn.”

Steve laughed. “And would she?”

“She would,” T’Challa agreed, “except she does not want to be queen. Perhaps I should employ my mother to change her mind.”

“Admittedly my own experience is limited and not entirely relevant here,” said Steve, “there was never any thought to me becoming a king. But I’m pretty sure it’s universal across all cultures that it does not look good when a man’s mother talks to the girl for him.”

At that, T’Challa laughed a hearty and genuine laugh, and said, “You are probably right about that. So I will have to talk to her myself. But what are you going to do? This Sharon, she does not sound like one a man easily forgets. What are your plans?”

“Try not to get her arrested by Interpol, to start, and after that, we’ll see,” said Steve.

The conversation came to an end when they wandered into Shuri’s lab and sat to listen in on the plan for Bucky. Two days later, Bucky voluntarily climbed into the pod, shook his head sadly at Steve’s insistence that he didn’t actually have to do this, stating that he could not trust his own mind, and passively laid-back and allowed himself to be frozen again. Steve felt the familiar nostalgic sadness overcome him, but had to admit that his friend was probably right. Shuri assured him that they would get to work on something to help Bucky as soon as possible, and Steve joined the king at a window overlooking a lush and misty jungle, we are a large statue of a black panther was nearly hidden in the evening mist.

When Steve warned the king that keeping Bucky here could spell trouble, T’Challa simply shrugged and said “Let them come.” Steve supposed he should be reassured by the king’s confidence, but he half wondered if he was becoming something of a pessimist like Sharon, always preparing for the worst. Given everything that had happened so far, he was not exactly out of line for that.

He stayed another day in Wakanda, then bid his goodbyes to the king and his family, climbed aboard the cloaked airship that would bring him back to the safe house in England, and sat still the entire trip thinking about the king and the similarities he was facing much like Steve’s own, and how the king was willing to take as many chances as he needed for Nakia. Steve wondered if he had the same resolve. When they dropped him off in the nearby field, and headed off into the fading twilight, Steve walked back to the farm house and saw Sharon waiting for him on the porch. She smiled and waved, and Steve felt himself relax at the sight of her.

000

The two years that followed were a series of highs and lows for Steve emotionally. Within the first two months of them staying at the farm house, both Clint and Scott decided to turn themselves in. Steve vehemently opposed the idea, though he knew the two men wanted to see their significant others and children again, and he knew he didn’t have the right to tell them not to do so. But their minds were made up, so Sharon gave them instructions that they needed to surreptitiously contact Everett Ross with an eye to turning themselves in. The CIA agent was more than eager to facilitate that, as it was definitely another notch in his record to get two of the wayward Avengers to turn themselves in. They were promptly arrested and brought back to the Raft, but managed to secure certain plea-bargains that allow them to remain under house arrest for two years rather than stay in the Raft. Steve was glad of that at least, that that particular gamble had paid off for them. For violating the Accords, they could have easily had the book thrown at them and be locked up the rest of their lives. But to their surprise, it was actually lawyers hired by Tony Stark who pointed out that nobody had actually signed the Accords yet when everything went down, the bombing of the U.N. happened before the actual signing which happened a few weeks later, and thus because the Accords were not yet in effect, the errant Avengers could not actually be prosecuted under them. Tony Stark had paid for all of the property damage incurred at the airport battle, and the lawyers also pointed out that the actual culprit in the bombing, Zemo, had been caught by Captain America’s actions, and that Bucky Barnes was not guilty of the crime, despite possibly being guilty of others. The actions taken by Rogers’ side of the Avengers had prevented the release of 12 more Winter Soldiers, had secured the apprehension of the actual culprit, and had all happened before the Accords had been signed, so therefore turning themselves in should count for something.

It was clear that the prosecutors in the case wanted to make a name for themselves by nailing the two Avengers, but when the lawyers started splitting hairs, it was finally determined that it would be unreasonable to hold them accountable to a law that was not even in effect, which resulted in the capture of an actual criminal, especially since damages had been paid and both had avowed to give up Avengering and retire. They were given two years house arrest each, and told they were never again to take up superhero work. Besides, even with mixed public opinion regarding the Avengers, the majority of the world was not keen on seeing them locked up permanently, so the prosecutors had to make do with that offer.

Natasha, for her role in stopping T’Challah from apprehending Steve and Bucky during the battle, was now a fugitive herself. She managed to contact Sharon through secure leftover S.H.I.E.L.D. channels, and Sharon and Steve met her in London and brought her back to the safe house. Wanda perked up a bit when Nat arrived, having been brooding somewhat over the way things had gone, and her inability to see Vision. The two women already knew each other, and Sharon and Nat knew each other, so the three formed a bond of sorts, often going out on their own, or doing things together to pass the time, including working out and staying in shape.

Sam was restless without much to do, and Steve knew he was going to have to give his team some sort of function to keep them from going crazy. Sharon and Natasha began utilizing their intelligence skills to seek out situations that should be easily handled by the Avengers, but were now hamstrung by the fact that the Accords required permission from a U.N. committee to allow the Avengers to go in. That, and with Rhodes still recovering from his spinal injury and re-learning how to walk, Tony and the spider kid being preoccupied with their own personal issues, and T’Challa running a country, that did not leave many official Avengers left to handle situations such as human trafficking, bombings, recovery from natural disaster, or possible pockets of Hydra offshoots that were never completely squelched.

They began disguising themselves, with Natasha dying her hair blonde, Sharon dying hers light brown, Steve growing out a beard, and Wanda swapping her typical scarlet jacket for a darker one, Steve going by the moniker “Nomad” rather than the “Captain,” and they were off on their own, addressing some of the world’s problems.

It was actually rare that they all went out together, most often it was two or three of them, and sometimes Sharon went with them, sometime she didn’t. In the years that followed, they addressed many worldwide issues, occasionally working with Nakia’s team in Africa, sometimes in South America. T’Challa loaned them one of his smaller hovercraft which they parked cloaked in a nearby field, and it proved to be quite handy when they had to get about the planet undetected. Sharon would occasionally go to visit her family in London, and also occasionally disappear for a couple of days, claiming there were things she had to handle but wasn’t really forthcoming with what those things were. Natasha went away for six straight months, with no word about where she had been when she returned, and Wanda occasionally took off for a weekend or two, also coming back without telling where she had been. Steve learned not to question them too much, and Nat would only say that there were some things from her past she had to handle, that Wanda was trying to resolve some personal issues on her own, and Sharon had a lot of professional loose ends that needed wrapping up. At least Sam didn’t take off unexpectedly and return with no explanation. He took to running down the country lanes and across the parkways, early in the morning, keeping up his exercise routine, and occasionally Steve went with him. The few times he was able to talk to the king of Wakanda, T’Challa would say that Bucky was still under ice, but that their doctors were making good headway in the deep programming system, and hoped to wake him up soon.

As time went on, Steve had half expected that his relationship with Sharon would kick back up again, now that they were living in the same building. At first it sort of seemed like they were leaning that way. They spent a lot of time together, watching TV, working out, and planning missions, just as they had when they had first met. Sharon had given him the full tour of the farm house and grounds telling him all that she knew about the times in which Peggy had grown up, which parts of the property that were some of her favorite places, and some of the family lore about various holidays and events that have happened there over the years. But for some reason, when Steve tried to push gently for something more, she retreated, and he could not understand why.

She would let him hug her and hold her, but would always be the first to pull away, and usually sooner than Steve would have liked. It seemed as if she wanted to be close to him, but was afraid for some reason, as if she was waiting for something to happen like the events that pulled them apart before. Eventually, they ended up back in bed together a few times, but it was different than before. Previously, she had been fairly enthusiastic and passionate, but now it seemed as if, once again, she was holding something back. Cold dread filled Steve’s mind as it suddenly occurred to him that there might be someone else, someone she was meeting with during those times she went off on her own, and that he was losing his status of importance in her mind. But when he asked her point blank if there was someone else, she actually seemed shocked and denied it in such a way that he knew she must be telling the truth, and Steve felt in his gut that she was not acting.

“No, Steve, there’s no one else,” she said somewhat sadly once she had recovered her composure. “I’m sorry if it seems that way, if I’m not completely here. It’s just, I’m trying to learn who I am without being part of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the CIA.”

“You’re an Avenger,” he said in what he hoped was a convincing tone.

“Not really,” she replied quietly and sadly. “None of us are really. But I promise you, there’s no one else.”

Steve couldn’t understand what her problem was. It almost seemed as if she wanted to come back to him, wanted to be in a relationship with him, but something was holding her back. She was afraid, he realized, but of what? And Wanda was no help either. When Steve asked if she had picked up anything from Sharon that would explain her hot and cold behavior with him, Wanda would only shrug.

“Since becoming a telepath,” she said, “I’ve spent a good portion of my waking hours learning to tune people out, like not hearing someone’s radio blasting at full volume when you’ve pulled up to the stoplight. I’m not always successful, but some people are louder than others. Sharon is fairly quiet, as is Natasha, no less of what I would expect of two spies. I suppose I could get to the bottom of it if I seriously probed her mind, but that would be an invasion of her privacy. And I really don’t want to do that. I like Sharon, she’s a good person, but I can tell you that she was telling you the truth when she said there was no one else. I can tell you that she loves you, she really does, but she’s afraid of something, and I can’t see what it is. And if she won’t say anything when you ask her outright, I’m not going to dig. Sorry Steve. I’m trying to be ethical about my abilities.”

Steve only nodded and said he understood, and really he couldn’t fault the kid for her mindset. If the tables were turned, and Sharon were inquiring about him, he would want Wanda to behave just as ethically about his privacy. But ultimately it only confused him further. Why couldn’t she talk to him? They used to be able to talk pretty easily, considering the amount of time she spent hiding who she was from him. Given their past, he realized he had spent a significant amount of time trying to get answers from her that she wasn’t ready to give, but eventually she gave them on her own terms. He figured he was just going to have to be patient.

000

Almost as soon as the fight was over, Steve regretted it. He hadn’t intended to yell at her, but he was so frustrated. They had spent the night before together, the first time in a long time, for both of them he figured, and at first it seemed that there was finally going to be a breakthrough, that they were going to be able to move on together. She had come to him, to his room, not the other way around. It had been late at night, everyone was in bed, when she came into his room and asked if she could stay with him. He had said yes, so she had crawled in beside him and he had held her for several hours. Then, at some point before dawn, she had rolled over and found him ready. Deciding, apparently, to forget about whatever was bothering her, she had given herself over to him, and it seemed during the whole thing that whatever barrier she had put up these last several months was no longer there. She had kissed him back passionately, whimpering as she climaxed several times, and finally, they had merged together in one incredible explosion the likes of which Steve had never experienced before. It had caused something to burst forth in his heart, and he realized with a sudden understanding that he loved her. The thought coursed through his veins and straight to his mouth, which blurted it out before he could stop himself. And as soon as she heard him say the words “I love you, Sharon,” the windowshades had come back down over her eyes. She had closed them, sighed sadly, but didn’t say it back. Steve felt his heart squeeze as he realized he may have made a critical mistake, that maybe he loved her more than she did him. Maybe she didn’t love him at all. Maybe she was no longer capable of it, after all she had been through in her life. But she had simply kissed him, and hugged him to her, and not said anything.

Later, that morning, after they had dressed and were cleaning up breakfast dishes, for they actually had the house to themselves, Sam having gone camping on the moor by himself for the weekend, and Wanda off somewhere, and Natasha as well, they had been enjoying a little privacy, not that the farmhouse was cramped quarters. Finally he could take it no longer. He turned to her.

“Sharon, what I said last night, I, we need to talk,” he said.

“Steve, it’s OK,” she said. “You don’t need to worry about it.”

Normally her attempts of pacifying him were actually pretty successful, in the past he would have accepted her reluctance to talk about it and moved on. But this time, he was angry. So he had yelled. Told her not to turn away from him, to give him an answer as to why she kept drawing away from him, and to his surprise, she had turned around, her eyes flashing in anger, but tears running down her face.

“I can’t do this, Steve!” she had yelled. “I can’t be what you want me to be.”

“And what is that?” he asked through clenched teeth.

“Her!” Sharon yelled. “I can’t be her.”

“No, you’re not,” he said. “And I know I’ve told you before, that’s one of the things that I like about you. You are yourself. I don’t want any replacement for anybody.”

“That’s what you say,” she said.

“But you don’t believe me?” he asked. “How did she convince Daniel that he didn’t need to be me? That she loved him for who he was?”

“I don’t think she ever had to,” said Sharon, “or if she did, they worked that out long before I arrived. But they had something we don’t: a clear picture of what they wanted from each other. I don’t think either of us have that, especially you.”

“Sharon, I’ve done everything I possibly can, everything I know how to do, to make you understand what you mean to me. If you don’t believe me, there’s nothing I can do about that.”

“Then there’s nothing left to say,” she said. “We’ve tried to make it work, and it hasn’t. I’m sorry, I only know how to be me. And this is what I am.”

“I only know how to be me, too,” he said, “and this is what I am. It’s not that you’re not enough for me, maybe I’m not enough for you.”

That apparently actually hurt her feelings, for she turned away from him and didn’t answer. She threw the dish towel on the counter and left the kitchen. Steve immediately felt awful. Something was terribly wrong with them, he knew it, but he didn’t know how to fix it. As it would turn out, he never got the chance.

000

Wherever Wanda had gone, she wasn’t answering her communication devices. Her phone went immediately to voicemail, and her com unit did not reply. She had gone off before, several times actually, and while Steve worried, he was never alarmed. This time he was. Was she captured somewhere? He hadn’t seen anything on the news, and surely an official capture of a renegade Avenger would have been worldwide news. But that only left another possibility, either she had willingly gone off on her own never to return, or some shadowy force had gotten a hold of her, somehow bypassing her powers. Either way, Steve needed to verify that she was safe. Sam had returned the afternoon he had fought with Sharon, and had attempted to talk to both of them counselor style, but without much success. Sharon announced that she was going to stay with her cousins for a little while, she needed some time and space to think, so Steve let her go. Natasha had returned from wherever she had been, and shared Steve’s worry about Wanda. Her last known location was in Edinburg, Scotland, so this was where they would go to search for her signal.

Still being wary about talking to Sharon, he asked Natasha to let her know what they were doing, and he was thankful that the other woman did so without asking too many questions. They boarded the hovercraft, and flew to Scotland looking for Wanda. They had found her with Vision, apparently the two have been meeting secretly for some time now, and Steve fought down the flood of questions he had for both of them, just as some otherworldly hit team attacked. They were after Vision, for the stone embedded in his forehead, and apparently were not used to losing fights, for they actually seemed surprised when Steve’s team was able to drive them off.

Within a matter of minutes, Steve got an unexpected call from Bruce Banner, who had been missing since the incident with Ultron. Banner tells Steve to meet at the Avengers facility in upstate New York, that they were not going to be arrested, that something serious had happened. There was some discussion amongst all of them about whether or not to return to the facility knowing they were wanted fugitives, but Vision encouraged them to do so. As he pointed out, clearly something otherworldly was happening, and it was for this reason that the Avengers had been formed in the first place. This might be what they needed to come back together again. Steve swallowed his pride and sent a text to Sharon letting her know what had happened, and where they were going, but she must be asleep, for he received no reply. They used the Wakandan hovercraft to fly across the ocean back to America, landing easily at the facility and coming face-to-face with Rhodes and a holographic version of General Ross, who Steve had a great amount of satisfaction in telling off.

It was difficult to see Rhodey again, although he greeted them amicably enough. Seeing him now needing automated leg braces to walk around was hard, knowing they had all been the cause of it with their fight. Things went from bad to worse when Bruce explained what had happened to New York, that a Chuthari alien ship had come down, invading Earth looking for the Infinity stones. It took a while for Bruce to explain where he had been, that he had been with Thor, and the attack on Asgard that had rendered Thor’s people refugees. The attack on their ship was upsetting, but Steve had a hard time believing that Loki was dead, given the power the brother of Thor had demonstrated the last time they had encountered him, meaning that Thanos’ forces were even more powerful than before. They had several of the stones already, and had come to New York looking for the Time stone, and had come after Vision looking for the Mind stone. Banner explained that from what he had gathered, Thanos had come to the conclusion that destroying half a life in the universe was the only way to maintain order and balance and a wealth of resources for all, and if he got a hold of all of the stones, that’s what he was planning to do.

Vision wanted to sacrifice himself by having Wanda destroy the stone in his forehead, surmising that with it destroyed, Thanos could not complete his nefarious plan. Wanda looked horrified and immediately begins to argue for a way out. But Steve is already trying to brainstorm a solution. Could Shuri help? The girl was incredibly smart, and with Tony and Peter Parker apparently having been whisked away on the alien ship in the attack on New York city, that left precious few human geniuses left that could even attempt to remove the stone from Vision. Vision agrees, but only to see if Shuri can actually help. If she can’t, or if she can’t in a timely fashion, he makes Wanda promise to destroy the stone, no matter what.

They board the craft and head to Wakanda, sending a message to T’Challa about what had happened and what they needed. Recognizing the threat for what it was, the king promised that they would do everything they could to help. But when they got to Wakanda, the answer was not quite as simple as Steve would have liked. Shuri, as confident as ever, was sure that she could not only remove the stone, but could rewire Vision’s circuitry to be even more efficient without needing it, though he would lose many of his abilities that the stone gave him. The problem was, she needed time to do it, which was apparently what they didn’t have. Thanos’ forces showed up as they were speaking, having followed the stone signal across the planet.

Steve got a second surprise when Bucky emerged from the ranks of the imperial guard, having apparently not only been de-programmed from his Winter Soldier programming, but also have been in the process of going through some much needed spiritual healing. He had a new vibranium arm, and he looked almost serene, more like himself then Steve could remember in a long time. He gave his friend a big hug, genuinely glad to see him. He felt like something had been restored that he hadn’t even realized it was missing. But there was no time to celebrate. Thanos’ forces attacked. Wanda stayed up in Shuri‘s laboratory at first, guarding Vision, while the Avengers and Wakandan forces thought the invading aliens. At first, Steve thought they were fairly evenly matched, and when Thor arrived with a newly forged hammer and two other aliens named Rocket and Groot, Steve was sure that the battle was about to turn in their favor. But when Wanda joined the fight, leaving Vision unguarded, it was only a matter of time before the aliens realized where he was and attacked. Shuri gave up trying to get the stone out of his head in favor of fighting back with her panther gauntlets, and Vision joined the fight himself, looking for Wanda. Realizing that things were going badly for them, and that Thanos already had all but the stone in Vision’s head, Vision demanded that Wanda make good on her promise and destroy the stone along with him. Sobbing, she did as he told her, and destroyed him and the stone, but Thanos used the time stone to reverse the process, kill Vision himself, and apparently permanently, and take the stone anyway. Steve could only watch in horror as the alien warlord snapped his fingers and escaped, right as people all around him began to turn to dust and ash. Steve could only stare, stunned, watching as Wanda blew away into dust, Bucky collapsed into the dirt, and T’Challa and the alien tree named Groot all disintegrated where they stood. Steve couldn’t believe it. He just couldn’t believe it. What had happened?

000

Wakanda was an uproar along with the rest of the world. They had just gone through a traumatizing series of events that had included the king’s cousin attempting to gain throne, only to have T’Challa regain it and solidify his rule. But to have that same king who had such a difficult ascension to the throne suddenly disappear in a cloud of dust only two years later, along with his sister apparently, was a lot for the small advanced nation to handle. Queen Ramonda has survived, and was reinstalled as a temporary ruler by the council until it could be determined that her children really were gone, and who should rule in their place if they could not be returned. Steve and what was left of the Avengers, including the strange raccoon named Rocket, returned to the New York facility to try to assess the damage worldwide. Rocket got on the communicator he carried with him that apparently tuned in to galactic radio stations, and reported that what had happened on Earth had apparently happened on every inhabited planet in the universe. He spent hours listening to frantic broadcasts in unintelligible languages, with somber voices that ranged from disbelieving to screaming, describing what was happening on different worlds that Steve had never even heard of. On Earth, all stations were tuned to the news full-time, and the nearest they could tell, Thanos did exactly what he said he was going to. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of the human population as well as animal life seemed to have just simply vanished.

But the true horror of what had happened hit Steve personally when he tried to get a hold of Sharon. There was no answer. He called the farmhouse. No answer. He called her cousins. Still no answer. He took the Wakandan hovercraft to the farm house, and verified that no one was there. Breaking every rule of secrecy about keeping Peggy’s grown family secret, he travelled to London and looked in their apartments, hoping no one was squatting there. All he found were piles of ash. In Edwin‘s apartment, in front of the TV were three piles of ash, each one with a video game controller in front of it, and in front of one, a plate with a cheeseburger on it. He recalled how Sharon like to play video games with her young cousins, and he stared at the pile of ash in shock. She was gone. Along with Peggy‘s entire family.

Gone.

He dropped to his knees, pain searing through him, his breath coming in shallow bursts and a primal scream of despair and range clawed its way from his throat. It was unbearable, unimaginable. He had lost her, this time permanently.

Chapter Text

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm back y'all! It looks like once a week updates are working best with my schedule, so keep coming back! There's two more chapters left after this one, so keep coming back until it's done! And as always, thank you all for reading. Remember, I am a Staron fan forever. Keep that in mind.

Chapter 10

During the next five years, Steve experienced a state of mind the likes of which he had not experienced since he first woke up from the ice. At first, the Avengers scrambled for ideas about a way to reverse the damage that had been done. After all, Natasha had seen Thanos use the Time stone to reverse the destruction of Vision, so could something similar be done if they could find the alien warlord and retrieve the Time stone? Regrouping at the New York facility, The raccoon named Rocket tried to contact spaceship that had belonged to his group, who called themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy, but there was no response. Then, they had all been surprised by the sudden arrival of Captain Carol Danvers, who went by the codename “Captain Marvel,” who had come looking for Nick Fury. Apparently, before he and Maria Hill had been disintegrated, Fury had sent a distress call to her, as the two had met 20 years before when Danvers had been exposed to the Tesseract which had activated fairly substantial powers in her. She had gone off across the universe looking for good to do, but had come back at Fury’s call. After some posturing with Thor, they were able to fill her in on what had happened, and she left immediately to try and locate spaceship, the Milano, and discover what she could about Tony Stark and Peter Parker. She promised Rocket that she would try and locate the rest of the Guardians, and left. It would be another three weeks before they would see her again, but true to her word, she returned the ship, actually she carried it, and discovered that Tony and another one of the Guardians, a woman named Nebula were on it.

Apparently Tony was still miffed at Steve, because his near brush with death in outer space did little to quell his temper and he yelled at Steve for not being there when he was needed. Thankfully Pepper stepped in and was able to quell him, being obviously quite relieved to have him back. Steve followed them back inside, trying not to look at the holo projectors that were showing images of their friends and allies that they had lost in what people were now referring to as The Snap. Sharon‘s picture hovered with the others, next to Wanda, and Steve felt pain shoot through his chest. Why the hell had he yelled at her the last time he saw her? Now he would never know what had been bothering her.

It was Rocket and the other Guardians who found Thanos on another planet, however. Having recognized a certain signal that happened put out by the snap, rocket had aligned the Milano‘s sensors to look for similar energy readings, and another energy signal identical to that of the Snap came from a planet that was far enough away to make the journey in the Milano somewhat problematic, but doable. Figuring that Thanos was on the planet, they piled into the spaceship and headed out. Faced with the enormity of having to square off against Thanos again kept Steve from focusing too heavily on the fact that he was no longer on planet earth, that he was in fact flying through outer space in an alien ship going to fight a murderous alien warlord If someone had told him this as a kid, that he would be doing such things, he would have thought for sure that the person telling the story belonged in Bellevue. He forced himself not to think about losing Sharon and half of the Avengers.

It ended up being pointless, however. Thanos had destroyed the stones, using the Snap which Rocket had detected, and there was no way to reverse what he had done. Most of the Guardians of the Galaxy who Rocket had been looking for, including a woman named Gomorrah who had been sacrificed for one of the stones, were dead. Half the Avengers were dead. Most of Thor’s people were dead. And there was no way to change that. Infuriated, Thor decapitated Thanos with his new ax hammer Stormbreaker, and that was the end of it. There was nothing left to do.

Rocket gave them a lift back to Earth, and they all made plans to stay in touch, but those who did not belong on Earth climbed aboard the Milano and departed, except for the remainder of Thor’s people who settled in Scandinavia, in a culture that had previously had contact with them and was much like their own. After years of being in love, Tony and Pepper finally married and later had a daughter they named Morgan, after Pepper’s “crazy uncle.” Bruce went off somewhere on his own, ostensibly to come to peace with the Hulk, who had refused to come out during the battle at Wakanda, necessitating Bruce to have to fight and Tony’s “Hulkbuster” armor instead. Natasha remained at the compound, continuing to train and continuing to speak weekly with Danvers, General Okoye inWakanda, and Rhodes who went off looking for Barton, who had apparently gone rogue when his entire family had vanished in the Snap. Steve, fulfilling a growing longing to return home in some way, found a cheap studio apartment in the dive part of Brooklyn, and decided to busy himself with what Sam had done before he had also disappeared, leading support groups for survivors.

It actually took several years for Steve to come to terms with the fact that the world had changed so drastically and there was nothing he could do about it. At first, he couldn’t believe that the ones who were gone were really gone and not coming back. This of course included the lost Avengers, but it also included Sharon. When he thought of her, the pain was so vivid, it was almost unbearable. He would think about her, her smile, her voice, as well as the pain on her face the last time he had seen her, how they had fought after such an amazing night together, and how she had retreated to her cousins rather than deal with him.

When he had first woken up from the ice, he had gone through the stages of grief that Sam had explained to him, but what Sam had never explained that was that failure to process grief properly, and succumbing to posttraumatic stress disorder, had a strange way of affecting you without proper treatment. Tony had battled PTSD from the New York battle by going on mad inventing sprees, creating the Iron Legion, F.R.I.D.A.Y., and ultimately Ultron. It was only through getting counseling, and marrying Pepper, did he ever come to terms with the state of his existence. His wild bout with PTSD had almost cost him his relationship with Pepper, and they had separated for a while over it. Everyone was relieved when they got back together, since Pepper served as a stabilizing influence on Tony and he was even more unpredictable than usual without her in the picture. Eventually, Tony had been able to find balance. But for all that Steve was leading support groups intended to help others do just that, he didn’t pay proper attention to himself. He struggled with mixed feelings, on the one hand being very glad Tony had what he had after so long, but at the same time resenting him. In Steve’s mind, Tony had sold out to the U.N. over the Accords, had actually been responsible for creating so many of the messes that the Avengers had to clean up that had gotten them in trouble in the first place, and after the Snap, Tony was the one who had the woman he loved, a home and a child and peace. Conversely, Steve himself had sacrificed everything more than once, had stood by his principles which at one time had been the principles of the country he had vowed to serve, had done everything he had ever thought was the right thing to do, and now he was left standing alone, having lost both of the women he had loved, no family outside of the Avengers, and only a dingy one room apartment in run down Brooklyn to call home. He was an understanding man on most days, but he was also human, and in the darkest of nights when his insomnia was at its worst, he chafed at the unfairness of it all and allowed himself to feel the long suppressed anger that only fueled his own PTSD.

He only recalled once during a small moment of clarity that Sharon had once been concerned about him and his lack of processing of all the things that had happened to him. He had nearly forgotten that stormy night that she had showed up, having been listening to him from next-door without him realizing it, attempting to break him out of his downward depressive spiral by simply offering her company. When he wasn’t at his support group, he was isolating himself in his Brooklyn apartment, returning texts from the other Avengers as they came to him, but not doing well in keeping up with them independently.

If it weren’t for Natasha constantly insisting on weekly check-ins, he might have lost touch with all of them entirely. He was isolating himself and never recognized it, though sadly nor did they, so focused on their own issues after the Snap. Then, other odd things started happening. He found that the emotional pain of losing Sharon in the way he did, with their unresolved past, proved to be too much to handle, and his brain began thinking of her less and less. In fact, it was one day on a Saturday when he realized with a start that he had not thought of her for quite some time, but when he did, the pain slammed across him with such severity, that he forced himself to think about other things, distract himself by going down to the gym to pound on heavy bags, just as he did when he first awoke from the ice and thought of Peggy was too painful.

It wasn’t made any better by the fact that his relationship with Sharon, and result, had ended quite the way it had. With Peggy, it had not ended in a fight, it had ended with an unexpected goodbye. But with Sharon, the decisiveness of the end of the relationship had come before she had ever been Snapped. It created a new kind of pain, one that he wasn’t entirely sure he could deal with. In order to do so, he retreated. If he had ever thought about actually visiting a psychiatrist, he might have been told how painful events that might cause PTSD that were not properly dealt with by a professional could often result in dissociation, disconnecting from the people and events that caused the pain, even retreating into an idealized fantasy of a past part of the life and which one felt they had everything together, and were happy.

The last time Steve had ever felt even close to this was during the 1940s, ironically during the World War. But it was before Project Rebirth that he had last felt that he truly knew who he was, and maybe he had been scrawny, sickly and weak, but he had been Steve Rogers, and he had known who he was and had more or less been at peace with that. Then there had been Peggy, beautiful and bold Peggy, who had loved him and had given him strength. He had no doubt that she had loved him, and their separation across the decades had not exactly ended that for him. But as he retreated further and further from the pain of the modern world and upheaval and the loss of Sharon, he began to take refuge in what his traumatized mind began to construct as a safe haven for him: his past, and Peggy.

As the years passed, he thought less and less about the fact that Peggy had married and had children, thought less and less about the near seven years he had spent knowing Sharon, and comforted himself with the refuge of his fantasies of how his life might not be so painful if he had never crashed that bomber. The unfairness of it all was only manageable when he thought about the fantasy he had constructed in his own mind, to the point to where it began to edge out reality. He found himself obsessing about Peggy, something he had never done before, but only the image he had created of her, not as she had actually been. As his coping mechanism fantasies took a firmer hold in his mind over the reality of her history, Steve began to lessen the pain in his heart by focusing on the woman he had lost by accident, not the one who had purposely walked away. He didn’t even question it when he told the support group that he had lost the love of his life 70 years ago, though he realized several hours later that there was a time in his life when that might have referred to Sharon, and not her aunt. He thought he should probably be more disturbed by that, but again, when he thought of Sharon, the pain was so severe that he wasn’t able to, so he shut her, and everything, out. He started carrying around his army issue compass again with Peggy‘s picture in it, and started listening to 1940s era music again. He rarely looked at the photos on his phone, but one day, when he was scrolling through some images, and a picture of Sharon slid into focus, it was all he could do to keep from bursting out in tears. He had forgotten about this picture. It had been taken on the steps of the Carter farmhouse, the safe house, and it had been a cool fall day, as she was wearing jeans and a loose sweater, her hair falling around her shoulders and the smile on her face was genuine.

The pain hit him so hard, it was all he could do not to cry out, and felt tears stinging his eyes and sobs choking in his throat. He had to get away from this. Get away from the memory of her. He was never going to be happy again otherwise. His finger moved over the screen to the delete button, determined to delete every picture of her in his phone, but something stopped him. He wasn’t well-versed enough in phone technology to get those pictures back if he changed his mind. He was just going to have to avoid them. So he moved every picture of Sharon he could find into a folder so they wouldn’t show up in his regular scrolling of his photo gallery, and at least twice in the rest of the week, had to talk himself out of deleting the pictures. Every time he went to do it, something stopped him. And that was the first time he began to think that maybe he wasn’t handling her loss in a healthy manner. Obsessing about Peggy and wanting to delete pictures of Sharon couldn’t possibly be healthy.

Normally he would try to talk to Sam about it, as Sam was the closest thing to a psychiatrist he would agree to see, though Sam was only a volunteer counselor with moderate training, not an actual doctor. But Sam was gone too. And so was Bucky. So many gone, and he would never see them again.

000

Steve isn’t quite sure what makes him decide to visit Natasha at the upstate facility. She’s quite literally the only Avenger still there. After the Snap, most of the support staff vacated, having lost most of their families, or themselves were Dusted, necessitating the need to shut down most of the buildings on the compound. The habitat facility for the Avengers was still operational, though, and Steve walked in, whispering hello to F.R.I.D.A.Y., and went looking for Natasha. He found her sitting at a desk that had belonged to Tony, her feet up on it, a sandwich on untouched on a plate, her hands over her eyes fighting back tears. It was unusual for him to see the strong and capable Black Widow so downtrodden, so Steve announced his presence by offering to cook her dinner, but quipped that she looked pretty miserable already. She was glad to see him, though, and snarked back at him good-naturedly.

As they were in the process of catching up, there came a notification that someone was at the front gate. When they pulled up the security camera footage, both of them were astounded to see Scott Lang in an old brown van at the door asking to be let in. Lang had been out of contact following the Snap, so it was assumed that he had been Dusted with everyone else. But here he was. Where had he come from? Had something been done to reverse him being Snapped? They let him in.

Scott was a bundle of nervous energy and the story he told them was fantastical. The story he told them about where he had been was almost unbelievable, except at this point Steve had already flown through outer space in an alien ship to fight an alien warlord, so really what was anyone going to tell him at this point that would be unbelievable? As Natasha told Scott, she got emails from a talking raccoon, so she was thinking pretty much along the same lines. Scott had not been Dusted. He had been taking part in an experiment with Hank Pym and Hope, in which Scott had entered the quantum realm looking for Hope‘s mother Janet. They had found her and brought her back from where she had been for decades, trapped following an accident with her own suit that Hank had created. But in doing so, they had accidentally discovered an alternative dimension, which Hank had called the quantum realm, and it was plain that Scott only had a working knowledge of what this was, but the way he described it, it was quite intriguing. Because in his recollection, he had only been gone for a few hours, but in actuality, he had been gone for the five years of the Decimation.
“Have any of you guys ever even studied quantum physics?” Scott asked.

“Only in conversation,” Natasha quipped

“Alright five years ago before Thanos, I was in a place called the quantum realm. It’s like it’s own microscopic universe. To get in there you have to be incredibly small. Hope, she is my ah...she was my ah...she was supposed to pull me out, and then Thanos happened and I got stuck in there.”

“That must have been a long five years,” said Natasha

“It wasn’t,” said Scott excitedly. “For me it was five hours. See the rules of the quantum realm aren’t like they are up here. Everything is unpredictable. Is that anybody’s sandwich? I’m starving.”

He reached town and grabbed Natasha’s uneaten sandwich and started shoveling it into his mouth. Steve was still confused.

“Scott, what are you talking about?” he asked.

Scott swallowed. “What I’m saying is time works differently in the quantum realm. I can’t stop thinking about. What if we could control the chaos and we could navigate it? What if there was a way we could enter the realm at a certain point in time but then exit the quantum realm at another point in time like before Thanos?”

Steve’s head reeled. “Wait are you talking about a time machine?”

Scott seemed flustered. “No of course not, not a time machine. This is more like a... yeah like I a time machine. I know it’s crazy but I can’t stop thinking about it. What if we could travel back to before Thanos and...stop him?”

Steve felt a tiny flame of excitement burn briefly, before he clamped it firmly back down. He was an optimist by nature, Sharon had always been the pessimist, or the realist as she’s would say, and he wanted to believe that there was a possibility that they could reverse the horrendous damage that Thanos had brought down on them. But given everything that had happened to him over the last ten years, he wasn’t so quick to get his hopes up anymore. Even if Scott were right and such things could be done, the scientist who had originally conceived of the device that Scott had used had been Dusted, his fiancé’s father Hank Pym. They were going to need some big brains to make such a thing work.

They tried Tony first, but unsurprisingly, he was incredibly reluctant to start talking about time travel that could potentially change his current life, especially since he and Pepper were married with a daughter now. Scott told Tony that he understood his sentiment, but Scott himself had lost his girlfriend and had nearly lost his daughter who had survived the Snap. Other people had died that a lot of them would want back, and Steve tried not to let Sharon‘s name flutter through his brain. Steve also tried to back up Scott, trying to convince Tony to at least give it a try, that he believed it would work and they would be successful, and even better, not die in the process. Tony, somewhat the pessimist, said there were some days he missed Steve’s blinding optimism, but that he was unwilling to risk what he had in attempts to change the past. They could hardly blame him. They tried Bruce next.

This sort of thing wasn’t exactly Bruce’s forte, but he was willing to listen. Over the five years since the Snap, he had spent that time coming to terms with the Hulk, and was now in his Hulk form constantly, with Bruce’s brain, personality and intellect in control. It was a bit disconcerting at first but you kind of got used to it. After letting the off-worlders know what they were up to, the remaining Guardians returned, and Bruce and Rocket travelled to Norway to New Asgard to recruit Thor, who had slipped into heavy depression over the five years over the failure to defeat Thanos, and had become somewhat unkempt and overweight, though reluctantly agreed to join them in their quest. Natasha, using the information Rhodey had gathered on Barton, was able to locate him in Tokyo and avert him from his murderers quest of taking down criminals all over the world, and encouraged him to join them on what Scott would later call their “time heist quest.”

Scott was able to provide them with Hank Pym’s notes, and Bruce studied them carefully, though Steve could barely make heads or tails of it. The discussion over time travel, whether or not it was even possible, branched out into other discussions that Steve was not completely up-to-date on, since everyone kept referencing time travel movies he had not yet seen. But the hardest thing to wrap his brain around, was the fact that traveling back in time would not actually alter their present. When Rhodey suggested simply traveling back in time for enough to kill baby Thanos, and prevent his mechanisms from ever affecting anyone in the galaxy, Bruce simply said that that would not work, because all that would do was create an alternate reality, and by definition, there were probably millions upon millions of alternate realities.

“If we can do this, I mean, travel through time, why do we just go and find baby Thanos and…” Rhodey simulated strangling himself.
“First of all, that’s horrible,” Bruce Protested.
“It’s Thanos,” Rhodey said evenly.
“And secondly, Time doesn’t work that way,” Bruce continued. “Changing the past doesn’t change the future.”
“Look,” said Scott, “we go back in the past, get the stones before Thanos gets them. Thanos doesn’t have the stones. Problem solved.”
“Bingo,” Said Clint as Nebula adjusted the fit on his time travel suit.
“That’s not how it works,” she insisted.
“Well that’s what I heard,” said Clint.
“What?” asked Bruce. “By who? Who told you that?”
Rhodey started ticking off on his fingers. “Terminator, Time Cop, Time after Time…”
“Quantum Leap,” Scott added.
“A Wrinkle in time,” Rhodey continued.
“Hot Tub Time Machine,” Scott quipped.
“Hot Tub Time Machine,” Rhodey agreed. “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, basically any move that deals with time travel…”
“Die Hard?” asked Scott. “No that’s not one..”
“This is *known*,” Rhodey insisted.
“I don’t know why everyone believes that,” Bruce argued, “but that isn’t true. Think about it. If you travel to the past, that past becomes your future, and your former present, becomes the past. Which can’t now be changed by your new future!”
“So Back to the Future was a bunch of bullshit?” Scott asked dejectedly.
Bruce went on to explain how different timelines were created rather than altering the future from the past. Steve decided he’d had enough and went to locate some aspirin.

Despite everyone’s inability to agree on the effects of time travel on them and their timeline, they continued to press forward with creating the time device based on the quantum one created by Hank Pym that was in the back of Scott’s van. At first, they simply tried altering the way the device in the van worked. It was not successful. They only had enough of the Pym particles for everyone to make one round-trip, and a couple of test runs, well one test run after Scott accidentally activated the device on his wrist. The next test run was not really successful either, because Scott kept returning as first a young boy, then a baby, then an old man, and then finally back to his normal self. It seemed that time was not behaving the way they thought it should.

Thankfully, right about then, Tony arrived, having relented and decided to join them in their quest, driven by the memory of Peter Parker, his apprentice, who had also vanished into dust and who deserved a second chance on life, as did all the ones who had been Snapped. Tony had come up with a way to make the quantum realm work, by inventing what he called a “time GPS,” a device that would push them through time to a specific place and time in any timeline, rather than pushing time through them as what had happened with Scott causing his rapid aging and the aging. Tony told them that Stephen Strange, the human mage in charge of the Time stone who had vanished in the Snap along with most of the Guardians up on the planet where Tony and Peter have been brought by Thanos’ ship following the second attack on New York, had told him that there were over 14 million different possibilities in which they faced Thanos, but only one in which Thanos lost. This timeline was referred to as number 616. This was the timeline they were going to try to create with their “time heist.” Every other timeline they could be created by altering the past would be one in which Thanos would ultimately win and the Snap remained permanent.

Now that they had the means to travel to the correct point and location in any timeline they chose, they now had to come up with the mechanism that they would use to reverse the Snap and defeat Thanos. The one thing they could agree on was grabbing the Infinity stones before Thanos could get them in the past, which Tony insisted they could then use in their own version of the gauntlet, that he would create, to use the stones to reverse the damage. This would involve traveling back in time to appoint before the stones were acquired by Thanos in alternate timelines and grabbing them themselves. However, Bruce would later point out, there would have to be a means by which they could return the stones to that point in time, allowing Thanos to get them, otherwise the only thing they were doing were creating divergent alternative timelines. Without returning the stones, they would not remain in the 616 timeline, and it was not worth destroying other timelines just to save their own by not returning the stones. All of it made Steve’s head hurt. But the plans were drawn up anyway, including plans to travel to a certain point in time to New York City where at least three of the stones were simultaneously at one point in time.

Rocket and Thor would travel to Asgard in 2013 to get the Reality stone that was infused into Thor’s human girlfriend, Jane Foster. Nebula and Rhodes would travel to Morag in 2014 and steal the Power Stone before Peter Quill could. Barton and Romanoff would travel to Vormir in 2014, where the Soul Stone's keeper, the Red Skull, revealed that it could only be acquired by sacrificing someone they love. Banner, Lang, Rogers, and Stark travelled to New York City in 2012. Banner visits the Sanctum Sanctorum and convinces the Ancient One to give him the Time Stone. At Stark Tower, Rogers retrieves the Mind Stone, but Stark and Lang's attempt to steal the Space Stone fails, allowing 2012 Loki to escape with it. Rogers and Stark would end up travelling to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in 1970, where Stark would obtain an earlier version of the Space Stone and encounter his father, Howard, who thankfully was none the wiser as to who he was talking to, while Rogers would end up stealing Pym particles from Hank Pym to return to the present.

As they all gathered on the platform to go on their respective missions, Steve gave what words of encouragement he could. Steve was not sure why he was feeling so eerily disconnected as well as apprehensive and hopeful at the same time. He figured it was probably another mental defense mechanism, because if this plan failed, he still a very real chance of not only dying himself, but losing the rest of the Avengers. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to handle that. But Natasha’s encouraging smile at everyone, for some reason, put Steve at ease. And he could see it helped the others. If someone like Black Widow, with the kind of life she had lived and the sort of disappointment she had encountered, believed that this mission would be OK, he had to believe it too. They held hands, and then simultaneously pushed the buttons on the wrist devices that hurdled them into the quantum realm, into a rainbow tunnel at breakneck speed, in an environment that Steve had never even imagined let alone experienced. The mission in New York in 2012 did not go exactly the way they had envisioned. Bruce was able to convince the Ancient to give him the Time stone, and Steve was able to retrieve the next stone by pretending to be Hydra to the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents present who he knew were Hydra. He rather enjoyed the look of shock on their faces when he whispered “hail Hydra” to Sitwell. Although it would be much later after everything was said and done that he realized he probably created a pretty bad situation for himself in that particular timeline, since now all the Hydra agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. believed Captain America was Hydra himself. It was probably going to come as a nasty shock when they attempted to confront him about it later. And having to fight himself was extremely weird. He further complicated the matters by telling his past self that Bucky was alive, information that he should not have had for several years. And then Scott and Stark lost the Tesseract and let Loki escape, further creating a divergent timeline. Even though they got one stone, it was a disaster. Bruce took the one they had back home, and they sent Scott back as well, and Steve and Tony agreed to go to the next location where they knew they could get both the Tesseract and more Pym particles. The birthplace of S.H.I.E.L.D., where he and Sharon had discovered Zola living in a computer database. In the 1970s, it was still an active and functioning base, where S.H.I.E.L.D. would slowly be formed. That’s where they would keep the Tesseract, and that’s where Hank Pym created his particles. They could get both of the stones and more particles by visiting this point in time. They decided to go.

That mission was successful, and Tony even got to encounter his father, unknown to Howard Stark, but Steve got another jolt he was not expecting. While hiding from detection, he suddenly found himself in a dark office. Looking around, he suddenly realized that he was in Peggy’s office. The strangest sensation came down like a curtain over him, almost a strange feeling of unreality. He was simultaneously terrified that she might find him in there, and what he would say, while also hoping that she would. He looked around carefully. The office was dark, but there was something about it that was infused with her presence. Maybe it was a small china tea cup on the desk, indicating that she still drank English tea, or the jacket hanging on the hook near the door that was just her size. Then he saw the picture on the desk, a picture of him in boot camp before the Project, slightly off to the side, looking like it had been enlarged from a smaller picture. He picked it up and stared at it, feeling his heart beginning to pound. Why was this picture on her desk? Did it mean that she really had pined for him all these years? He felt a strong sense of urgency, as if he truly wanted to see her, ask her this question and find out the answer. He completely missed another picture on the other side of the desk, hidden in the shadows, but slightly bigger. It was a picture of her with her husband, and their two children in their late teens. His eyes glanced over it slightly, but for some strange reason, he couldn’t focus on it. It was almost as if his mind would not let him admit that it was there. He turned his back and ignored it and look down at the picture in his hands. She must have mourned him all these years, despite what he had been told about her moving on with her life. He put the picture down, and then he saw movement behind the blinds covering the window of the office. He looked through them, and there she was. Older, more mature, and apparently fussing at someone who probably deserved it.

He stared at her like a hungry man looking through the window of a restaurant. There she was. The one who had been his first love. The one his mind kept flooding back to anytime the trauma of the current world became too great. She represented to him the last time he was happy, the last time he knew who he was, the last time he believed in his purpose. He had thought he had put to rest his feelings for her and losing her, but seeing her again, alive and vibrant, threw him back into the emotionally crushing depression he had first felt when he had awoken from the ice, realizing he had lost her and his whole world. Forgotten in that instant was the life he had built with the Avengers, the relationship he had with Sharon, his friendships and his accomplishments in the 21st-century. The pain of losing to Thanos had been too great on top of everything he had suffered. But here in front of him was Peggy, the balm that soothed all of that pain that he had suffered. He was about to go to the door and walk through it, reveal himself, and do, he wasn’t sure what, when a noise in the hallway snapped him back to reality, just as Peggy left the room he was looking into through another door, and was gone.

No, he couldn’t reveal himself. They had a job to do. He was in the middle of a time heist, meant to save half the life in the universe. He had to focus. And it was going to mean leaving Peggy behind, once again. He replaced the picture, tried to leave the room exactly as he had found it, and snuck out to find Stark, apparently conversing with his father. Steve hoped he hadn’t caused too much damage in doing so. Then they returned. But when his feet hit the platform back in the 21st-century, only a few seconds in time after they had left it, he looked around. Nebula was gone, apparently captured by Thanos who now knew what they were up to, due to someone on his team being able to read her memory banks. Natasha was gone. Killed on Vormir to get the Soul stone.

Bruce went down to the lake to throw things in despair, and Steve could only collapse on a bench and choke back the tears. Natasha gone. The woman who had been like a sister to him. Sharon‘s friend. How many more were they going to have to lose? Ultimately it is Steve who has to pull everyone back in the focus, ironically, ignoring this newest cut on his soul that brought forth even more pain. He wasn’t sure how much more he could stand, but he was the team leader, he had to keep them focused. And he was damned if he was going to let those who had died die in vain. He forced down the agony of Natasha’s death until, like his feelings for Sharon, he simply refused to feel them any longer and could focus. He locked them away in his mental box.

Tony had been able to construct a new gauntlet to house these damned stones, these hell-touched creations that had been the cause of so much death and pain across the universe, in effort to control them and reverse the Snap. Thor volunteers to wield the gauntlet, but ultimately it is Bruce, with his immunity to gamma radiation, who is chosen. Bruce thinks very carefully about what he wants to happen, not just the returning of those who were Snapped, but also to have them returned in a safe location, for it would not do to have those who vanished on planes over the ocean suddenly appear midair over an expense of water and fall to their deaths. After getting straight in his mind what he wanted, Bruce puts on the gauntlet and snaps his fingers. There is an echoing jolt in the air that seems to vibrate everywhere, and they all hold their breaths. Had it worked? Were the ones they lost back yet? Scott wandered over to a window and saw some birds fluttering in the tree, mentioning something about it must have worked. Then Clint’s phone begins to ring, the image of his wife filling the screen. Clint’s wife was back. And his children. Clint hurriedly answered the phone, crying as he heard Laura’s voice. Amazingly, though, Steve didn’t have much time to register the fact that Sharon and her family must be back too, before the entire building exploded.

000

Thanos had found them, and he had come prepared to fight. Behind him was an army three times the size of the one that he had sent to invade New York in 2012. They were armed to the teeth, so numerous they could not be counted, and the Avengers base had just been destroyed and some of them injured before they had even begun to fight. They managed to claw their way out of the wreckage and take a stand against Thanos, but they are easily defeated, being out numbered. Not that they don’t cause some damage. Thor had managed to bring back an alternative timeline version of his original hammer, and when it look like Thanos was about to kill Thor, Steve walked over to the dropped hammer, and easily picked it up, revealing to his comrades what he had not revealed earlier during the contest to try and pick up the hammer back at the tower. He had always been able to pick it up. But not being willing to reveal that during the somewhat jocular and drunken contest that evening, Steve had pretended to not be able to move it to save Thor’s ego. But he had known from the moment he grabbed the handle he would be able to lift it. This time he did, and to his surprise, the matter of summoning and shooting lightning from the hammer was simply a matter of thinking it. But even his wielding of the hammer and saving Thor were not enough to put down the evil Titan. There were only half of the Avengers, and most of them were injured. Then a miracle happened.

From the unit in his ear, Steve heard Sam‘s voice. “On your left.”

He looked behind him as one of Stephen Strange’s portals opened, and Sam, as the Falcon, flew through it. Steve felt his heart leap in disbelief, his Snapped friend was back! And that meant...

Sure enough, portals began to open all around them, mostly behind them. Through one came they now returned Wakandan king, T’Challa, his sister Shuri and General Okoye, followed by his army of all the tribes of his country and, amazingly, Bucky. Doctor Strange‘s friend Wong who had been keeping the New York sanctum the last five years stepped through as several other portals opened and he was followed by other sorcerers who had been trained by the Ancient One. All of the now returned Guardians of the Galaxy came through another portal, as well as Spiderman, Tony Stark, and his wife Pepper who had thrown on her own suit and joined the fight. Steve hope that meant that little Morgan Stark was safe with Happy Hogan somewhere. The Ravagers who raised Peter Quill flew through another portal, though Steve did note that Phil Coulson‘s newly reformed S.H.I.E.L.D. and Sharon seemed to not be present. He would later learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. had detected the battle in New York, and had taken up defensive positions around the world to make sure no other invasions happened in other cities. He wasn’t sure why Sharon was absent, though, and he had to admit he was rather glad of it. He didn’t want to admit it, but he didn’t want to see her. And he didn’t want to see her injured or killed in the battle he knew was about to happen. He could still pretend that she was not a factor in his life, that way he would not be hurt by watching her killed.

Instead, he looked down the line of all these people, all these individuals who had in their own ways battled Thanos and his quest for the Infinity stones for years, and now stood together as one, all of them looking at him. Him. He was the uncontested leader, even with Stark and Pepper hovering above him, and Scott in his Antman suit standing next to his newly reconstituted girlfriend Hope. Steve was the leader. So he took a deep breath, hoisted his shield, took his place in the line, and called the hammer to him.

“Avengers... assemble!” he ordered.

Deafening defiant roar went down the line, and everybody charged. Thanos and his forces seemed overly confident in their ability to repel them, but received a nasty surprise when the combined forces of the universe stood against him. The battle was the most astounding one Steve had ever witnessed, and he couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of pride at his comrades who used their abilities to the fullest extent to repel the alien forces. Midway through the battle, Captain Carol Danvers showed up and single-handedly took down two warships. Valkyrie was leading the Asgard forces from her flying horse, and the Ravagers quickly and brutally took down an entire battalion on their own. Pepper, in the new suit Tony had made her, seemed especially deadly, aiming and hitting easily from above the ones who kept trying to sneak up on them from the rear. Scott and Hope, shrunk down to their bug size, did a certain amount of devastating damage by sneaking into the cybernetic suits of some of the aliens and disrupting them from inside. Steve had seen Bucky emerge from a portal, and sought out his friend, and saw him easily sweeping an entire line of Cthuthari with his Wakandan rifle. And speaking of Wakandans, T’Challa and his forces were laying down a serious ass kicking, T’Challa jumping easily from rubble pile to rubble pile, and Steve noticed that Nakia was not present. He would later learn that she had remained in Wakanda after being reformed to help Queen Ramonda maintain order while everyone had gone to fight.

Although there wasn’t much time during the battle itself, Steve had to wonder at the full extent to how Thanos had been able to determine their plans, especially through time travel. It all became quite confusing, since the Thanos they faced in the battle had not actually yet performed the Snap, but was from a different timeline. And yet, he still remained singularly focused on the destruction of half the life in the universe, until encountering the Avengers and telling Steve that he had decided to wipe out the entire universe, since it was better to just start over from scratch. Truly this creature was insane. He also knew they had the stones and their own gauntlet, so what started as a fight began became a race to see who could get the stones out of reach of Thanos fastest. The original platform they had used for time travel had been destroyed when the facility had been destroyed, but Scott’s van with the Pym device in the back of it was still serviceable. Scott and Hope made it to the van, but getting the gauntlet to the van prove to be an exercise in relay like it was a football at the Super Bowl. Everyone did their best to hand it off, from Clint, to T’Challa, to Spiderman, to Captain Marvel, but in the end it proved fruitless, for Thanos, realizing what they were doing, destroyed the van, although thankfully Hope and Scott were able to get free of it in time.

But it had all been a subterfuge, when Thanos grabbed the Stark-created gauntlet, slipped it on and Snapped his fingers, this time intending to kill every living thing in the universe, nothing happened. Because the stones were no longer in the gauntlet. They were in Tony’s Iron Man glove, a second gauntlet he had made and kept handy in the event of something like this. Tony had looked over at Stephen Strange, the only person who knew the fourteen million and more timelines, and which one would end in Thanos’ defeat, and the sorcerer pointed at Tony and Tony had understood.

“I am inevitable,” Thanos liked to say.

“And I, I am Iron Man,” Tony replied, snapping his fingers.

Steve had wanted to scream at him to stop, to not snap his fingers, the power behind all of the stones was too great for a normal human man, to wait for Bruce, to give him, Steve, the glove and let him do it, so Tony wouldn’t end up dead before seeing his daughter reach her sixth birthday. But ultimately, Steve understood as Doctor Strange did, that there was no other scenario in which Thanos would lose. And that’s how it went.

Thanos sat down in defeat as his vast army and all of their equipment turned to dust, leaving behind nothing that was not made on earth, even if it was wreckage. And finally, the mad Titan himself fell away into dust, at last, finally, defeated. Steve felt surreal, as if he were watching a movie. He could hardly believe he had just seen it, the defeat of Thanos, the real and final end, the reversal of the Snap, and now …Tony. Tony lay stricken, mortally wounded, and Steve became dimly aware of Rhodey on the com calling Pepper to come as fast as she could.

He felt completely helpless as he watched everyone say goodbye to Howard’s son, watched as all the off-worlders knelt in respect, watched as Peter Parker grieved in disbelief as his mentor faded away, and then finally, Pepper, sweet and brave and beautiful Pepper, kneeling beside her husband and smiling at him, telling him that she and Morgan would be OK, that it was OK for him to rest. And when he finally closed his eyes for the last time, only then did she break down and cry. Steve knelt down, and took Tony’s hand.

‘I’m sorry kid,’ he thought to himself, ‘I wasn’t fast enough. I’m sorry Howard. I couldn’t keep your son safe.’

They all gathered around, and stood there for several minutes, nobody saying anything, as nobody really knew what to say. During battles, wars, good people were lost. And you never knew who it was going to be. And it was at this point that Steve realized that he was good and sick of losing people.

000

Tony’s snap had taken care of all the alien bodies and debris, as it had all turned to dust, but there was still quite a lot of rubble that was going to need to be cleaned up surrounding the destroyed upstate facility. Steve had to admit, he was really sorry to see this facility in ruin. He had rather liked living in upstate New York, with nearby Ithaca providing what distractions they needed in the form of restaurants and entertainment. But it was so peaceful, surrounded by lakes and woods, with the fog settling amongst the trees in the autumn mornings. Tony had built a luxurious cabin for Pepper and Morgan not too far away on a similar lake like this one. The Wakandans offered to help with cleanup since they had more advanced technology that could make short work of the rubble, and Steve and the rest of the Avengers agreed. The sooner they could clean everything up and put it all behind them, the better.

Pepper was, as usual, amazing with the aftermath. Despite the fact that she was obviously in shock and mourning her husband, she set Stark industries public relations firm on the task to release a statement to the world about what had happened, what the Avengers had done, minus the time travel, and said only that they had found a way to defeat the alien invader and reverse the damage he had done. It had come at a great cost, including the life of Tony Stark, Natasha Romanoff, Vision, and an amazing amount of upheaval to everyone who had fought in the battle. Steve gave three interviews to carefully selected reporters whom Pepper told them would give as much of an unbiased interview as possible, and they left it at that, leaving the professionals to deal with the media. That was just as well, because Steve, along with pretty much all of the Avengers, were reeling from what had happened. They gave big goodbyes to the Guardians and the sorcerers and everyone who had come from another planet or another dimension to help. Steve personally said goodbye to every single person who had fought and survived the battle, asking them to keep in touch, the last one being Captain Danvers, who gave him an understanding salute before heading back off into space to help other worlds deal with the aftermath of what had happened with Thanos.

That left the Avengers to deal with the returning of the Infinity stones, and they began planning the return mission that would be needed, the exact actions that would need to be taken, to ensure that the stones they had acquired through time travel were returned without detection to the exact moment they had been taken in order to avoid branching off alternate realities. This actually was not as hard as Steve thought it would be, since everyone had given detailed reports of their experiences in time acquiring the stones in the first place, which gave a fairly decent picture of what would need to be done to return them. The only thing that they couldn’t agree on was who was supposed to do it, especially the Soul stone. Would returning that particular stone at the exact moment Natasha died allow them to retrieve her body? How would they get the Ether stone back into Jane Foster undetected? Return the Space stone into the Tesseract and put it back in the vault at the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility in 1970? It took a week of arguing before they finally had plans in place to answer all of these questions, but who would do the returning? Steve was not willing to let anybody else travel through time any further. They had enough particles for everybody to use for one more round-trip, but Steve pointed out that it might be better to send just one person instead, who would use only one device and only about half of the particles, leaving room for using the leftover particles should something go wrong.

That had resulted in another week of arguing, but it was just as well, because Bruce and Peter had to rebuild a travel platform from which to launch, and that took at least another month. During this time, some strange things began happening in Steve’s mind. He spent a lot of time with Bucky, time that probably should have been spent talking, coming to terms with everything that had happened to the two of them, since they never really had the chance before, but Steve hardly felt like talking at all. So they simply sat in silence, Steve not pressing Bucky for conversation, and Bucky not pressing Steve. Clint and Scott returned to their families, and the ones who had been Dusted begin the process of re-adjusting to a world that was five years in the future from their last point of memory. But Steve was not in the mood to talk to them about his own experience in waking up years later, despite Sam pointing out that he was the best person to give any kind of advice on such a situation at all. Despite that suggestion, Steve felt numb, as if he wanted nothing more than to avoid any kind of conversation with anyone that had to deal with the aftermath of Thanos. This was why he outright rejected the idea of contacting Sharon when Sam suggested it.

“What do you mean you’re not going to at least call her?” Sam asked in disbelief. “Don’t you want to know how she and Peggy’s family are faring? Check up on them to make sure they’re safe after Bruce snapped everyone back? Aren’t you even a little curious?”

“Sam, it’s over between us,” Steve said. “Everybody is rebuilding their lives, she’ll have to do the same. And that’s better done without me.”
Sam only looked at him like he had lost his mind, but Steve was firm. The thought of Sharon filled him with panic for some reason, just that one conversation with Sam had brought on a feeling of tightening in his chest, like his old asthma was coming back. And the thought of calling her and talk to her was almost paralyzing. He didn’t tell Sam any of this, he was sure his friend would have some psychoanalytical reason that would need a couple of counseling sessions to work through, and Steve wasn’t in the mood.

Bucky was less willing to let him wiggle away.

“I know I wasn’t there for everything,” he told Steve, “but Sam filled me in enough. He says you two have been hard for each other for years. And given what I know about your background with women, I’m not sure I understand why you would voluntarily walk away from this one.”

“She left me,” Steve replied dully, trying to force down the mental image of Sharon‘s face in his mind. “It was her choice.”

“Way I hear it,” said Bucky, “you both have done your share of leaving each other over the years and coming back together. This would be an optimal chance. Given everything that’s happened, she could probably really need you right now.”

“She’s never needed me,” said Steve. “She has always stood on her own.”

“Even better,” said Bucky, “she’s strong. Strong enough to handle you. Not the clingy type. That means she chose to be with you. That’s even better.”

“She’s also chosen not to be,” said Steve, turning his back and walking away. To his relief, Bucky didn’t follow.

He finds out later that Sam called Sharon to check on her, and that she was fine but shaken at everything that had happened, and that everyone in her family was present and accounted for and trying to readjust as well. Steve only nods but says nothing. Sam looks at him in concern.

Steve knows on an intellectual level that he really needs to talk to somebody about how he is handling the situation. Everything that he had lost in his life, the battles he had fought, and the emotional trauma all of these things left behind, realistically he knew that no one should be expected to handle all that on their own, nor should anyone think that such a person who had been through all of these things would be thinking clearly. Amazingly enough, when you are the one who is suffering mental trauma, you never think of yourself as having your judgment inhibited. It was probably why Steve didn’t think twice about the plan that had started to form in his mind right about the time everyone was talking about a plan to return the Infinity stones to the correct points in time.”

He was never entirely sure at what point he had even gotten the idea. It never would’ve occurred to him only a month ago before he knew time travel was possible. Perhaps the real moment the seed had been planted in his mind and had begun to sprout had been when he had seen Peggy in her office during his own mission to the 1970s to retrieve the Pym particles and the Space stone. He had just spent the last five years trying to come to grips with the aftermath of the Snap, losing so many more people that he had not been prepared to lose, and retreating into a safe zone in his own mind, an inner world where he had made up a comforting image of how his life could have been if he had never crashed that Valkyrie bomber. Rhodey had once asked him about that particular flight, the battle between him and Red Skull, and why he couldn’t parachute out of the plane before crashing it. Steve had not really had an answer to that, he had never really thought about it before, but after his conversation with Rhodey, it stuck in his mind. Could he have parachuted out? How different would his life have been if he had remained in the 1940s? Would he have married Peggy? What has life been happier than it was now?

He had begun to daydream then, thinking about how different his life would have been if certain cross roads had never come. Not just avoiding the 70 year nap in the ice, but refusing to join the Avengers after he woke up, refusing to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. Never meeting Sharon.

Sharon.

Anytime he thought about her, he became a jumble of mixed emotions. A part of him wanted to call her, talk to her, try to patch things up, but almost as soon as he entertained the thought, he felt a strange panicky feeling, pain, depression over having lost her for five years and how it had caused him to nearly not want to get out of bed. Anytime he felt these emotions, the thought of becoming close to her again and then losing her for good, it caused a feeling of such distress that he immediately retreated from all thoughts of her, back into the fantasy of Peggy that he had created as a safe zone in his mind. No, he told himself, it was better if they remained apart this time. If he didn’t talk to her or even seek her out. If he knew nothing about how she was doing or her family. Avoided any temptation to try to reconnect with her. She had a new chance at life, a chance to rebuild her life, and it was better if he didn’t interfere with any of that. The fact that she might even want to talk to him he would not allow himself to think either. So he pushed out all thoughts of her, avoided any conversation about her, and instead began to focus his mind on his plan, his plan to reclaim the life he felt he should’ve had, the one that would have made him happy. A life with Peggy.

000

It took a certain amount of convincing to get everyone to not only agree to let him be the one to return the stones and travel through time one more time, but to agree to let him go alone. They had to let him go alone. He couldn’t carry out his plan if anyone was with him. Well, perhaps he could, but it would be much harder. It would also be complicated by the fact that whoever his partner would be would end up using up all of the particles to try and find him or stop him, and they could both end up trapped in the past. No, it was better if he went alone.

When he suggested a single person, him, return the stones, ostensibly for the purpose of avoiding having more than one person quibble with time once more, most of them were cautious but didn’t argue. Sam was dead set against it. And Bucky gave him a sharp but knowing look, and Steve suspected that his oldest friend probably suspected what Steve had planned. It took several arguments and a lot of convincing before Steve finally had his way, and the team, even Sam, agreed to let him go by himself. It was not the smartest move tactically, the ones who had been in the military knew that the buddy system was always the best, and you never send anyone on a mission alone unless it was absolutely necessary. But Steve was adamant. He was focused. And he was prepared to be ruthless in order to do it.

Once it was finally agreed that he could go alone, he became single-minded in his focus, his determination to return to the 1940s and to Peggy. Of course, his single-minded focus didn’t extend to completely eradicating her family. He knew that she had married someone else in this timeline and had a family with him, he was not so single-focused and ruthless that he was willing to blink them out of existence for his own happiness, no matter what Bruce said about changing the past not changing the future. No, he was going to create an alternate timeline, that is if Bruce’s theories about quantum time travel were correct. He would use just enough of the Pym particles to complete the mission to return the stones to keep the primary timeline, the one given the number 616, intact. It was also theorized that timelines that had close numbers, such as 617 or 615, had quite a lot similar about them, such as the fact that Peggy had likely married Daniel in those timelines and had her two grown children as well. Only in those timelines, maybe Steve never met Sharon. At any rate, he had to travel to a timeline far enough away and number to where Peggy was still the same Peggy he remembered, but perhaps had not begun a relationship with Daniel. Steve chose timeline for 587, as it was far enough away from 616 to not affect his friends in the timeline where Thanos would lose, but perhaps he would encounter Peggy much as he remembered her, and she would have encountered him. He would return to the year 1948 in that timeline, although he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to say about his older appearance or where he had been, as he wasn’t entirely sure how much he could say to anyone about where he had been and what he had been doing.

No matter what though, he had to save some Pym particles for at least one more journey through time. He had another task he wanted to accomplish. Travel to a point in time where he could retrieve his shield from the Valkyrie bomber from his frozen self. His self in that timeline would likely think the shield was lost in the battle with Red Skull, but Steve intended to live his life with Peggy, and then after she was gone but before Thanos invaded that timeline to destroy it, he would use the device to travel one more time back to the moment he had left the 616 timeline and give the shield to Sam. Someone would have to carry the mantle of Captain America, and at first Steve considered Bucky, but then thought better of it. Bucky had too many demons within himself and was not feeling particularly patriotic these days. Especially after the US government planned to kill him for a crime he did not commit and hold him accountable for the ones he did not have control over. Sam on the other hand was a natural leader and would do well to lead the team. The shield would go to Sam.

The night before Steve was scheduled to depart, he made a point of spending a little bit of time with each member of the Avengers. He called Pepper to talk to her and little Morgan, but he was careful not to say goodbye to anyone lest they figure out that he was up to something. He also had to work hard to keep his thoughts and feelings under control anywhere in the vicinity of Wanda Maximoff, although the kid was fairly well wrapped in her own grief over Vision and was not paying close attention to his thoughts or feelings. If she had been, she could have easily discovered what he was up to.

Not that he was completely able to keep his efforts a secret. The night before he left, he was busy putting his room in order, expecting to never return to it. Not that he had much in it. Everything he owned had been destroyed when the main facility had been destroyed by Thanos. He still had some things back at the tower, clothes mostly and a few sketchpads, but nothing he felt the need to retrieve and bring with him. In fact, he wasn’t bringing anything with him. The structure the Avengers were staying in was a pre-fabricated Wakandan model that T’Challa had sent over, could be erected in a single day and was about the size of Tony Stark’s cabin minus the upper floor that he had built for Pepper on a nearby lake. They each had their own small rooms, a communal area and a kitchen, and a couple of bathrooms. It was handling their lodging needs for now, although the plan was for them all to move back to the tower until further notice. He knew the Avengers all hoped to rebuild the upstate facility at some point, they really liked the area, but for now, Pepper who now owned the tower, had given them leave to stay there, which eliminated the need for any of them to worry about paying rent somewhere. The temporary facility on the lake allowed them to supervise the cleanup efforts of the destroyed compound while rebuilding a temporary launch pad for a time travel device that Steve would use to return the stones. Now that everything was a go, he had very little to put in order except his clothes, which were not numerous.

Really, at this point, there was nothing to do except ensure that he had spent some time with everyone saying goodbye in his own way without actually using the words goodbye, getting some sleep and preparing to leave the Avengers behind forever the next morning. He felt as if he should feel a lot more sad about that than he was feeling. In fact, he was feeling very little at all except the urgency to return to the 1940s and to Peggy. When he thought about the Avengers, he felt oddly detached, as if he were watching something on a movie screen, or something happening to other people he didn’t know. He still felt love and concern for them as his friends, but when he tried to muster up the idea of leaving them behind of never seeing them again, and how that should make him feel sad, he felt absolutely nothing. It was a weird sensation. And if he had been more present in his own mind, he would have recognized what a serious alarm and flag that should have raised. But his single-minded focus refused to allow him to entertain the notion that there might be anything wrong with him. And he was in the process of breathing a sigh of relief that nobody seem to know what he had planned when there came a knock on the door. When he opened it, Bucky was on the other side of it.

He stepped into the room, closed the door behind him, and then stood and stared at Steve. “So what have you got up your sleeve that you’re not telling anyone?” his friend said.

“What are you talking about? Asked Steve, turning away to go sit on his bed. Bucky grabbed a small folding chair from the corner, dragged to the center of the room, and planted himself in it, staring at Steve hard.

“I don’t know why Wanda hasn’t picked it up yet, but I have. You’ve got something planned that you’re not telling us. Something that’s got you so adamant about going on the return mission alone, a mission you don’t want anybody else to go on. And yes, I heard your answers about not wanting to risk anyone else. But I don’t buy it. You’re planning on doing something that hasn’t been authorized by the parameters of the return mission. I want to know where it what it is.”

“Bucky, I’m planning on returning stones,” said Steve. “And I meant what I said about not wanting to risk any one.”

“You’ve always been lousy at lying, Steve,” said Bucky with a sad smile. “Admittedly some of my memories have not returned, but I do distinctly remember stomping on your foot when we were kids and hissing at you to let me do the talking when one of our mothers was about to bust us for being late or grill us about where we were when we didn’t make curfew. You always just melt down and told them everything, Honest Abe I called you behind your back sometimes. I don’t doubt what you just said is the truth, you really don’t want to risk anyone. That’s how you’re able to lie by omission with a straight face. But I’m asking you point-blank. What are you going to do besides return the stones? Because I know you’ve got something planned. Something you know none of us would approve of, or you would’ve mentioned it. Something that would make us stop you from going.”

Steve began to panic. No, he couldn’t be this close to finally returning to the time in his life when he was truly happy, not this close, only to have Bucky suddenly figure it out, tell Sam and everyone else, they all gang up on him to keep him from going, and maybe Sam returns the stones and comes back, having used up all of the particles and nobody could time travel again. Steve wouldn’t allow himself to consider that possibility. The idea that he couldn’t return to his origin time and to Peggy filled him with a sense of dread and panic, to the point where he actually felt himself start to hyperventilate a little. He was going to have to tell Bucky the truth while also convincing him to let him go. Steve wasn’t sure he had the right words for all that. He wasn’t sure he had those words for himself.

Bucky was staring at him, and Steve knew he was going to have to answer with something. So he took a deep breath and said, “I’m going back for my shield. It was destroyed in the battle with Thanos. There are millions of timelines that Doctor Strange indicated in which Thanos would win, probably quite a few in which I die in that ice. During the battle on the bomber, I thought pretty much everything was lost, I didn’t get my uniform and shield back until long after I woke up. I figure on going to one of these timelines, getting the shield from the bomber before that version of me wakes up, and bringing it back, and just letting that version of me think the shield was lost in the ocean.”

Buggy frowned. “Why is that so important? It’s just a shield. Tony Stark made several versions of it for you that you could use. And I thought you were retiring? You mentioned it during the planning stage for the return mission for the stones, that you wanted to do it because it would be your last mission. That you wanted to retire like Barton.”

“Well, I do,” said Steve. “And I will. But the shield has sentimental value. Howard made it for me. It’s made from vibranium and it’s the best version of the weapon I have ever used. No offense to Tony, but I sort of see his designs as back up. And I want to give the shield to Sam. Someone needs to carry the mantle of Captain America, and I think both of us are due some well needed retirement. But Sam could do it, Sam could carry the shield and make it work.”

Bucky nodded thoughtfully. “He’s a good choice. And I definitely get why you didn’t want to give it to me. I’m a psychological mess. But still, why couldn’t you just say so? I seriously doubt anybody would have prevented you from going to retrieve the shield from a different timeline. In fact, quite a few would understand. Why all the secrecy?”

Steve shrugged. “I just didn’t want to add complication to the matter.”

Bucky nodded, looked thoughtful for several moments, and then looked at Steve, his expression going hard again. “You know Steve, you were never a good liar, like I just said. The only time you managed to pull it off is when you tell some version of the truth. And I have no doubt you do intend to go back for your shield. But that’s not the answer to the question I asked, is it? You have something else planned. Now what is it? The truth now.”

Steve felt a jolt of emotion, as well as disappointment that his ruse had not worked. He had almost hoped that Bucky had bought his explanation. Now he realized he shouldn’t have even tried. He was going to have to level with his friend.

“I, I’m not coming back, Bucky,” he admitted. “I do intend to retrieve the shield for Sam, but I’m not going to bring it back here using the time device immediately after I get it. I’ll hold onto it, and give it to him for what will be years for me later, only a moment for him. I will come back to this location and wait until I push the button to go back in time, and then I’ll reveal myself, having already lived my life for several decades, hopefully. I’ll probably be pretty old when you see me. But I’m planning to go back to the 1940s. To the life I missed. The time travel device allows me to do that. I’m going back to Peggy. That’s where I belong.”

Bucky stared at him, disbelieving, and his mouth slowly opened in shock. “Are you serious?”

“Buck, I need you to understand,” Steve said almost pleadingly. “Ever since I woke up in this time, I have never felt like I belonged. That’s because I’ve always belonged in the 1940s. I had a job to do here, I see that now, holding the team together, assembling the greatest army this world has ever seen defeat the greatest threat it has ever seen. And we won. Now I’ll return the stones to where they belong, get my shield to give to Sam to carry on the mantle, and then I’ll retire. In the past. You’ll see me again, though for me it will be decades. But Tony Stark once mentioned something about getting a life after the Avengers, and that’s what I intend to do.”

“I get why you feel that way,” said Bucky, “I feel the same. After being used as an assassin for decades, I think I have the right to live my life the way I want. But it doesn’t involve time travel are going back to a decade that I know I wouldn’t belong in anymore. What makes you think you’ll belong in the 1940s after ten years of living in the 21st-century? Seems to me like it I’ll probably drive you nuts, and I’m talking about little subtle things you’re probably not even thinking of, like the way the girls we liked and respected were treated like children back then. Including Peggy. I know you don’t think I saw it, but I did. You think you don’t fit in here, but I seriously doubt you’ll fit in there. You’ve changed, man, this century has changed you, shaped you in ways you don’t even think about. I don’t think you’ll be happy in the 1940s.”

“I’ll re-learn,” said Steve, “and I’ll have Peggy. That’ll be enough.”

“That’s it? Your entire stability and happiness is going to weigh on one single person? Not that Peggy wasn’t wonderful, I know she was. But that’s a lot of pressure to put on her. You’d be going back to her a completely changed man, ten years older, formed by the 21st-century, having had a serious relationship that didn’t involve her, and now she’s got to be the source of all your happiness? And what about Sharon? You’re just going to leave without a backward glance? Not even a phone call?”

Steve felt that same odd cold sensation of disconnect settle in his chest at the mention of Sharon‘s name. “It’s over between us,” he said firmly, “and I don’t want to hear anymore about it. She walked out, she made her choice. She’s better off without me. And I figure I’m better off without her. It didn’t work out between us because I was with the wrong Carter. It wasn’t meant to be.”

A look of real alarm passed through Bucky’s eyes and he leaned forward. “Steve, what’s wrong with you? You loved that girl. I think you still do. Both Sam and Wanda have told me about how things were with the two of you when I was in Wakanda. You guys were more than just lovers, you were friends. Close friends. And just like that, you’re going to turn your back and never think of her again? If you go back to Peggy, at some point Sharon is going to come into the picture. She’s Peggy’s niece. What are you going to do, avoid Christmases at the Carters’ after she’s born? You’re going to be able to look at five-year-old Sharon running around and not feel a single thing? Furthermore, you’re going to sit on your hands while Hydra uses me to perpetuate some of the worst crimes in history? You’re going to be able to live for decades knowing I’m being kept on ice somewhere but you can’t do anything about it? You’re going to go to the 1980s and 90s knowing that Natasha is being raised in the Red Room and brutalized? You’re going to watch Kennedy get shot and space shuttles blow up without making a single phone call to prevent it? I don’t know about you, man, but that would drive me crazy. I can’t even imagine living with that kind of guilt. It would make me start looking at my gun kind of friendly like. And never mind Sharon, what about all of us? Me? You’re just going to walk away and never think of us again? Just like that? What about ‘til the end of the line’ and all that crap you said?”

“Bucky,” Steve said gently, “I realize it doesn’t make sense, but this is something I have to do. And I really need you to not stop me. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but it makes perfect sense to me. Just trust me, OK? You’re going to have a wonderful life now that you’re free. Now that we have the snapped Avengers back, they can live their lives too. They’ll be here for you.”

“And you don’t think they in the rest of the world could benefit from the wisdom of a man who knows what it’s like to go to sleep one day and wake up years later in a changed world? You have a unique perspective that could really help a lot of people, Steve,” said Bucky. “I know you’ve earned the right to rest, you don’t have to go on any missions or anything, but I don’t think going back to Peggy in the 1940s is going to solve all the problems you think you’re facing. And what about her family? You know she married someone else and had his kids. What about them? You taking up with Peggy in the 1940s pretty much ends them or any future with them.”

“In that timeline, yeah probably,” said Steve. “But that’s a timeline that Thanos will destroy. I intend to travel back here after Peggy passes away and, this timeline is the one that needs to remain unaltered, and they exist in this timeline. I won’t be affecting them at all.”

Now Bucky made a sound that sounded like a disbelieving gasp, stood up and stared at Steve. Steve stood up too. Buggy just shook his head in disbelief.

“Jesus Christ, Steve, I think that has to be the coldest and most inhumane thing I’ve ever heard you say. That’s not like you at all. What the hell is wrong with you? Have you snapped or something? You don’t feel a single thing saying those words? Peggy was never my girl, she was barely a friend, but on her behalf, I feel almost like I need to punch you in the face just for saying what you just did. You’re going to jilt Sharon to go back and live with her aunt after rolling her in the hay for years like you did? After all you’ve been through with her? And you don’t feel a single thing? Steve, I think we need to talk to Sam.”

“No!” said Steve, feeling his chest tighten in panic and his breath coming shorter. He didn’t want anyone else involved. He should have refused to answer Bucky. This was why he never said anything, he knew they wouldn’t understand. There was nothing wrong with him. Nothing at all. He was making this decision after careful consideration. This was what he needed to be happy again. The Avengers didn’t need him. Sharon didn’t need him. And he was not going to let them stop him.

“Bucky,” Steve said with an emotionless growl, “do not try to stop me. I’m warning you. I’m leaving tomorrow, and I’d rather it still be with us as friends. If you tell anybody and they try to stop me, I won’t forgive you. I mean that.”

Bucky‘s expression was stony, and for a second, Steve could see the Winter Soldier peeking out, not his childhood friend. Steve felt himself tense and his fist clenched together, wondering if it was going to come to a fight. Because he would if it meant keeping Bucky from telling anyone and then preventing him from using the time travel device tomorrow. The two men stared at each other for several long minutes, before Bucky finally relaxed and took several steps backward.

“Have it your way man,” he said sadly. “Tell Peggy I said hi.”

He then turned and left, closing the door behind him. Steve breathed a sigh of relief. And then felt a small twinge of sadness, which oddly suddenly dissipated and he felt that cold empty nothingness in his chest again. No, this was for the best. Feel nothing, regret nothing. Go back to the 1940s, find Peggy and everything would be as it had supposed to of been. He just needed to get past the next few hours without tipping off Wanda telepathically, or Sam, and hoping Bucky didn’t tell anybody.

Steve didn’t sleep all night, just paced restlessly wondering if the Avengers were going to come busting through his room at any minute accusing him of misusing the time travel devices, and telling him that someone else was going on the return mission. But they didn’t. He started to breathe a sigh of relief when the sun came up, and when he went to get breakfast from the kitchen with some of the others already up and nobody said anything. There was no sign of Bucky. Steve spent the day with Bruce going over the details of the mission, the logs of the Avengers who had gone on the initial missions to retrieve the stones, their description of the layout of where the stones had been found, where guards had been placed, and the actions that would probably need to be taken in order to put the stones back.

Jane Foster was going to be the most difficult one, aside from the stall stone on the, so they took a sedative with him to inject into her from behind where he could then inject the stone. The stones were packed into a carrying case with the necessary equipment underneath them. The parts of the Tesseract would have to be reassembled once he got to the place where he and Tony had retrieved it, and he was going to have to force himself not to go looking for Peggy in the 1970s, telling himself that he would see her again soon enough in the 1940s.

He went to grab some lunch, went to his room to make sure it was properly arranged for his departure, and then went back to the lab shed that had been constructed near the dwelling to put on the time travel device that had been loaded with the remaining Pym particles. He was surprised to see Bucky standing there in front of the case looking down at the stones and shaking his head sadly. Steve came up short. Bucky looked up and saw him, shook his head and walked away out towards the platform where everyone was gathering to see Steve off. Steve carried the case across the yard over to the platform, activating the suit. He made a careful effort to keep his mind clear to make sure that Wanda didn’t pick up his intentions. If everything went the way he hoped, he would see them all again in 80 years. But for them it would only be a few seconds

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Sam asked, causing Steve’s heart to leap. “Had Bucky said something?”

“No, I’ve got it,” he said. “A one-man team is less detectable than a multi man team. We’ve been through that. You’re a good man, Sam, but this one’s on me.”

But Sam just shrugged, and watched as Steve opened the case to verify that all of the stones were in there, and then closed it again.

“Remember,” Bruce told him, “you have to return the stones to the exact moment we got them, otherwise you’re going to open up a bunch of nasty other realities.”

“Don’t worry, Bruce,” he said, “clip all the branches.”

‘Except for one,’ he thought to himself silently.

“I tried,” Bruce said sadly, looking away. “When I had the gauntlet and brought everyone back, I really tried to bring her back. I miss her, man.”

Steve looked up at his big green friend sadly. For the first time in a long time, he felt another twinge of pain in his heart as he thought about Natasha, and what it meant for the ones who were lost and by those he was leaving behind. For the first time since he formulated his plan, he felt a little guilty. Vision, Tony, Natasha, the ones they couldn’t bring back with the stones. And here he was going to attempt to use time travel to put to rights the person he personally missed without doing the same for them. It wasn’t exactly fair. What if they could use the time travel devices to get versions of their lost friends from alternate timeline and bring them here, as the Guardians had done with Gamorra? Was he being selfish not offering this possibility to his friends when he himself was about to take advantage of it? He shook his head to clear his mind of the thought. No, the less time travel by everyone the better.

“Me too,” he confirm to Bruce, giving the scientist a friendly clap on the shoulder.
He walked over to the platform where Bucky was standing, looking at him sadly and gave him a sad smile. This was the most Bucky had looked like his old self that Steve could remember since discovering the other man was alive.

Steve smiled. “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back.”

Bucky smiled then. “How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.”

The two men hugged briefly, and then broke apart. “I’m going to miss you, buddy,” said Bucky.

“It’s going to be OK, Buck,” said Steve in what he hoped was an encouraging tone. Then he turned, and climbed up on the platform without hesitation. Bruce activated the machine and Steve activated the final phase of his suit.

“How long is this going to take?” Sam asked Bruce.

“For him?” said Bruce, “as long as he needs. For us, five seconds.”

Steve picked up Thor’s hammer, gripped the case in his other hand, for he had agreed to return the alternate version of the hammer along with the Ether stone.

“Ready, Cap?” asked Sam. “We’ll meet you back here.”

“You bet,” said Steve with determination. He was ready, he was going to do this. His thumb was hovering over the button that would activate his mask, hearing the machine gear up.

But just as they were about to activate the quantum field, Steve suddenly became aware of the sound of a whining hum, like an engine on fast approach. He looked around, and noticed that a motorcycle was approaching up the drive at top speed, ill-advised given the bumpy nature of the gravel road. It pulled to a stop right in front of the dwelling, and the rider jumped off. Bruce didn’t seem to have registered that they had a visitor because he was still starting the countdown.

“Going live in three, two…”

The rider jumped off the bike and removed the helmet, and Steve stared in shock as the tumble of blonde hair spilled out. Sharon looked around and caught sight of him on the platform. Their eyes locked and her expression was one of shock, disbelief, and then suddenly pain. Before Steve could take a breath to say anything, he heard Bruce’s voice.

“One.” And the quantum field activated.

Steve felt himself falling through the rainbow tunnel, tumbling back through time to the first point where he would return the Time stone to the Ancient One. But thoughts of the mission fled his mind as a crippling pain gripped his chest and his mind. The vision of her face flashed before his eyes, the look of shock and disbelief and pain.

Sharon.