Packing was always something Peggy found cathartic, while most hated it, she was a pro. Having done it on and off for years with boarding school, she loved it, as it symbolised a trip of some kind, a new place and new people.
Had it been a year? She thought, as she packed her bag for Washington, folding her freshly pressed blouses into her small case. Of course it had been a year, she had counted and been aware of every single slowly passing day between where she stood and then. But, she had a personal mission of sorts now, an action many might see as a waste of her time, or pointless, considering. But they were actions she needed to take. The fact that there was a grave at all was important, even if they never did recover his body, the grave was a symbol of his sacrifice. And as a mark of what he meant to her, she would vow to visit when she could but at the least once a year on the day he saved the world.
The summer of 1945 was one of celebration for the world, the war was won and a hero saved them all from utter destruction. He was hailed a saviour and there were posters and stories, interviews and countless questions. But as things go, time passed and people, as they do, moved on. The kids still played with toy shields in games of heroic fiction, it made her smile to see when she would pass one or two on the street still. He would have liked that, she thought. He would have blushed, but he would have liked that. While the world celebrated, she and those who knew and loved him mourned. Their jobs were done now; they could go home, start a life. But what life did she have when it was meant to be with him? What life now that every option, every suitor was unsuitable simply because they just weren’t him?
The first year had been the worst, the mostly lonely she could remember, as she packed up her life in London for a permanent move to the States, to Brooklyn. A small gesture, but one that made her feel as close to him as she could get, such as things were.
She liked the community there, and their warm welcome to her once they found out she had worked with one of their own, one that they now claimed as a gone-too-soon son of Brooklyn. Like most things when it came to Steve’s legacy now, it was meant well but did very little to ease her aching heart.
She took a four day leave from her work, the absence of the job not something she welcomed, but the absence of the men she was forced to work with, a blessing. Making the drive to Washington allowed her time to simply decompress her worries and stresses. Of course, as always time alone allowed her too much time to think.
As was all too often lately.
It had been raining on and off all morning, but she was determined to do what she came to the city to do. So, finding a store and choosing some modest but appropriate red roses, she drove herself off to Arlington. Dozens of people were scattered at various graves, all in a state of mourning or remembrance. It gave her tiny warmth to know at least, she wasn’t alone in her emotions, as it so often seemed in the dark cold of the night.
She wasn’t alone in the graveyard, and as soon as she came up to where the memorial stood, she realised she wasn’t alone there either.
James Barnes sat just to the side, on the grass, and truth be told she almost didn’t recognise him.
When he heard the footsteps approach, he stood and it was then she noticed the half empty bottle of whiskey in hand. He was a mess; physically his hair had grown longer – longer than regulation allowed, as was his week old beard. His clothes, once as shiny and straight as a new pin – even at the worst of times, she recalled he held himself to the same standard as Steve, uniform was always regulation perfection. Now, he looked tired and older than his years, his eyes rimmed red with tears or the alcohol, she wasn’t sure which. Both, she assumed. He looked as lonely as she felt.
“Agent Carter, this is a surprise.” He said in way of greeting, noting the flowers in her hands, and giving her the once over that reminded her of the way he had done so in that bar in London what felt like a lifetime ago.
“Sergeant Barnes, it’s nice to see you again.”
He cocked a brow at her then, a smirk dying on his face.
“Looks like we’re not the only ones coming to see him lately,” He commented and it was then she noticed, the memorial was covered in flowers, letters and ribbons, notes of thanks, and yet more flowers.
“Oh my…” she gasped, overwhelmed.
“I’ve been here a while, haven’t read half of what’s here. I guess people be a lot more appreciative than I give ‘em credit for.” He was damp, his hair slicked back, his clothes showing signs that he had been there more than the time he suggested. The image of him standing in the rain alone was one that chilled her heart.
“I suppose so. They have a lot to be thankful to him for, we all do.”
He was silent and she looked at him then, he took a small swig of his bottle, clearly not caring about decorum.
“If you say so.” He added bitterly.
She sighed, ignoring him while placing her flowers in a sign of respect.
“You know he was allergic to pollen?” Barnes commented with a small cold laugh, “Hell, that kid was allergic to just about every damn thing. It’s a miracle he made it as long as he did.”
She knew he didn’t mean to be rude, or, hell, maybe he did, but she hadn’t missed his utterly dismissive attitude toward her. When it came down to it, she knew James Barnes didn’t like her much, if at all, never had done. For a long time she couldn’t quite figure out why that was. Until the day Steve died. Barnes had been forced on medical leave, the incident with the train hadn’t just broken his arm in five places, and almost leaving it mangled, but had done a number on him psychologically. Not that he ever would have admitted it to anyone. On the Captain’s orders, and reorders, and a shouting match heard half way across the base, he was encouraged to stay behind as the rest of the unit took on the Red Skull. Much to his bitter disappointment and during the time of their absence, constant ranting at how it was ‘stupid as shit’ that he was left behind because of a few broken bones. He was healing faster than normal, she had noticed, but it was just one more thing he wasn’t willing to talk about, at least not with her. But he was in the control room with her when Steve made the heart-breaking announcement that he was trapped with no way out and no other way to stop the world from ending other than to put the plane in the ground. Distraught she tried to convince him with gentle suggestion and encouragement, whereas Barnes just flat out lost his mind. All colour drained from his face as she sobbed, as he yelled at Steve to stop being a ‘goddamn martyr’ to ‘let someone else be the hero and come home you idiot’, the spoken and unspoken bond and love between them both.In those last moments was obvious to her, as it was that it went far beyond any brotherhood love.
“Drink?” he offered her after several long minutes of silent reflection, the bottle he was nursing didn’t look so appealing.
“No thank you.” She replied, maybe a little too sharply for his tastes.
He frowned before taking a swig.
“You just looked like you could use something to warm your bones. And I was brought up a gentleman, no matter what you may think of me, I was taught to share.”
She wondered if things had ended differently that day, just how willing he would have been to share. She pushed that thought aside with a sigh.
“You look dreadful by the way.”
“Thanks. You Brits are real charmers anyone ever tell you that?”
“I prefer bluntly honest, but that in itself has its own charm.” She smiled then, before it quickly died on her lips, it felt false, it was false. “Is that all you’ve been living on lately?” She nodded to the bottle as he took another healthy gulp with a shrug.
“When was the last time you ate something proper?” She wasn’t worried about him, she wasn’t. She had no right to be.
“I’ve survived longer than this on a helluva lot less, don’t worry about me darlin’.”
“I don’t. I just know that he would have.”
That earned her a glare then, a hard one before he seemed to remember those hard learned manners and shook his head, blinking hard.
“Don’t. Just don’t.”
She broke contact with his bloodshot blue eyes then, focusing on the memorial text, which hailed Captain America a hero to the world. It left a bitter taste in her mouth.
“Well.” She said to no one or maybe to herself before she took a step back. “I must be getting back,” she didn’t need to. She was just going back to her hotel room to be alone, as usual, but standing there with him wasn’t doing either of them much good either. “It’ll rain again soon I imagine,” she looked skyward and then to Barnes, who was lost in thoughts staring at the same memorial text. She held out her umbrella.
“Here, you’ll need it more than I will.”
His face softened then before he shook his head.
“No ma’am that’s not necessary.”
She left it by his feet, taking another step back, and then another.
“I was taught to share too, use it, to stop you getting ill at the very least.”
With a few more steps backward she turned away from the sad figure by the pseudo-grave.
“Thank you.” He called after her and she just turned quickly, this time wearing a more genuine smile before nodding.
He scratched the back of his neck then.
“Yeah, be seein’ you, Agent Carter.”
And she would, though it would be later rather than sooner as it turned out, a year to the day to be exact.