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For Want of a Nail - Part I: Fire

Title: For Want of a Nail
Fandom: Captain America/Avengers
Series: To Rewrite History
Pairings: Steve/Bucky, Peggy/Howard, other minor pairings
Warnings: Character death, angst, dystopia, minor violence
Word Count: 5197
Disclaimer: If I owned it, the good guys would have lost.
Summary: Hydra wins the war and then the world.  Seventy years later, the Resistance has a plan to win it back.


For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
-Historical Proverb of unknown origin; 14th century


When Captain America and his Sergeant fell from a train in the mountains, the war machine just kept on turning anyway. What did the Allies care about a single pair of soldiers, even if one had far more strength than that of normal men? Why should their enemies take notice when entire armies were camped upon their doorstep and the fighting showed no signs of slowing down?

Yet they should have cared because without Steve Rogers there to stop him, the Red Skull rained fire upon six continents. Every major city in Europe, Africa and Asia; every population center across the Atlantic Ocean disappeared within a few short hours, Hydra’s bombs leaving naught but craters in their wake.

He remade the world in the image of his madness and nothing would ever be the same again.

---

Europe fell to Hydra first, for the Red Skull’s soldiers were ready and waiting when the destruction started, black clad armies marching across the continent as triumphant conquerors. Indeed they were hailed as heroes by scores of terrified citizens, innocents who just wanted someone to put their lives right again.

Who could blame them when the death toll numbered in the billions and there was no one left to warn them about Hydra's true intent?

For those who had fought against the organization were the first to disappear, the greatest heroes on both sides of the conflict picked off one by one. Neither Ally nor Axis was spared from this reaping because Hydra cared nothing about national boundaries or the vagaries of history.

All it wanted was people who would kneel, and it found them far too easily in the shell-shocked soldiers who slowly staggered back to their homes and families. Though, in truth, those men who still had a home were few and far between and so the survivors were in no shape to doubt Hydra when its leaders promised peace. Instead they followed orders as they had been trained to do, finding refuge within the faceless mass of Hydra until the lines of the map were swept away beneath the unyielding boot heel of order over all.

Only once the old structures of government had fallen could the Red Skull rebuild the world with himself as god, king and executioner, and within a generation people forgot that there had ever been another way. For Hydra was the beginning of recorded history, the beginning of all civilization, and no one wanted to return to the bad old days.

Everyone knew that the fires of judgment had fallen on the wicked when the nations of the world stood locked in endless combat and that only the righteous had been saved. Everyone knew that obedience was a small price to pay for order and to ask questions was to bring down swift and unyielding fury on everyone that you had ever known or cared about. It was far safer to toe the line, far easier to pretend that everything was normal, and so the average citizen learned to follow, to conform and to obey.

Yet despite Hydra’s overwhelming power, people were not as complacent as the Red Skull tried to make the world believe.

There were those who resisted indoctrination in every country, small pockets of opposition that could not be rooted out no matter how many soldiers Hydra threw at them. For killing one only made the rest fight harder and there were always more men and women ready to stand in Hydra’s way. Indeed many of these guerrilla forces adopted the tyrant’s motto as their own – cut off one head and two more will take its place – and all of them were prepared to die in service of their cause.

So even if this battle could not be won in their lifetimes, even if Hydra’s armies swept away their friends and family in waves of ice blue lightning, the Resistance would go on.

How could it not when people were fighting for their very minds, not just land and blood and body? They were fighting for an ideal, a future that they could give to their children proudly, and the most effective of these factions was based in what had once been France.

Its agents called themselves SHIELD to remind the world that they were meant to be protectors and as homage to the man who had been the first to die. Because SHIELD's founders had fought against the Red Skull long before the Day of Fire and even if the US Army had barely noticed when Captain America had fallen, the Howling Commandos had known that Red Skull was preparing to reshape history.

Zola had said as much before he escaped their clutches and the guilt of this failure would haunt the squad until the day they died. For without the scientist they had no evidence of what was coming and even though Colonel Phillips believed their warning, the soldier’s hands were tied.

However, Howard Stark and Peggy Carter were not bound by the same regulations and they had never been the type to underestimate their enemy. So over the days that followed, the scientist packed up his lab into crates for transport and when the globe began to go dark, he and Carter disappeared. They stole Stark's prototypes, the Howling Commandos, and every soldier who would listen, and they survived when all their comrades fell. Because the Red Skull knew exactly who had been attacking his bases and he was determined to claim vengeance for the annoyance that Captain America had caused.

So the SSR’s encampment was one of the first places to be attacked; his tanks rolling over the Allied soldiers without mercy and leaving behind nothing but the ashes of the dead. For Hydra’s weapons had only grown stronger and there were few things in the world that could block their fatal light.

One of those was lost in the snowy mountains with the man who had carried it into battle while the rest were scattered across seven continents. These artifacts were the remnants of a war long forgotten, the detritus of a civilization in which few now believed, and like the Tesseract, their discovery usually preceded a violent change in history. But SHIELD relied on more earthly technologies to stand against its enemies and this is where Howard Stark proved invaluable.

Some of the men grumbled about him during that first long march through forests and across battlefields, the night sky lit up like a bonfire as the horizon burned. They complained about carrying the crates of his inventions through the mud and muck and bombed out buildings, but they stopped complaining after Hydra’s men attacked.

The company had been traveling for days without seeing anyone and it was just bad luck that changed this, one of Hydra’s patrols taking a different route that night. Black clad and sinister, the soldiers blended into the shadows like demons and they surrounded the remnants of the Strategic Scientific Reserve before they could even think to fight. But while their men were ready to give up then and there, Stark and Agent Carter had no intention of going down that easily.

Instead the pair made a show of surrendering, Carter distracting Hydra’s soldiers while Stark reached into one of those same crates that the other men had bitched about. The scientist had invented something for this exact situation due to Captain America’s unfortunate habit of getting himself surrounded and as he threw the metal sphere into the air, he felt a stab of grief.

Steve and Bucky had been there when he first tested this device – in fact it had been the Sergeant’s idea – and Howard would never forget the way that Bucky had cackled after Steve toppled to the floor.

The two men had been his friends as well as colleagues and their deaths had cut him deeper than he wanted to admit. Maybe that was why he had listened to the Commandos’ warning when everyone else did nothing; why he was determined to fight for this world the way that Steve would have.

But there was no time for further reminiscence when their enemies began to crumple, Howard's weapon sending out electrical shocks in a neat radius. Although the bolts didn’t manage to paralyze all of Hydra's soldiers, Agent Carter took full advantage of the opening and the rest of their captors were soon trussed and tied.

Most of the other survivors wanted to kill them, for the destruction they had seen lit a lust for vengeance in their hearts, and only the calm refusal of their de facto leaders kept the clearing from turning into a bloody slaughter ground. Instead the group left Hydra’s men in the forest, one last act of mercy before they learned that compassion no longer had a place in their world.

After that night, the company traveled onward through death and ruin and endless massacres for nearly a week and by the time Stark and Carter reached their goal, their allies numbered only twenty-five. But these men and women were twenty-five of the best and brightest, those who had seen Hydra’s villainy firsthand and knew better than to believe in the Red Skull’s pretty lies. They stayed because they knew that the war was far from over, that the war would never be over as long as Hydra ruled.

Though, in truth, Peggy Carter was never quite sure how she became the leader of their small group over the course of that journey, particularly since she never tried to make anyone join her cause.

Perhaps it was because her contacts in the French Resistance found the company their bolt-hole, an abandoned subway where Stark could tinker to his heart’s content. Or perhaps it was simply because she did not sugarcoat the truth of what this war might cost them and she did not try to stop those who could not stomach it. Peggy had seen enough death not to judge those who were unwilling to fight another hopeless battle and she knew that they would probably lose it in the end.

However, the agent had no family to protect now that London was a crater and her dearest friends were dead, so who better to fight against Hydra’s tyranny? Who better to stand for justice now that the countries of the world lacked even the barest form of government?

Because even the most detailed charter or constitution hadn't accounted for the death of everyone – from kings to queens to congressmen and presidents – and the news that trickled in from around the globe was worse than Peggy could have feared. Those few who remained in power were as panicked as their subjects and more than one attempt to take control of the chaos quickly devolved into a fight for supremacy instead.

Only Hydra was organized enough to enforce its will on the population and perhaps that was why the Red Skull’s coup succeeded so easily. For while his victory was not without bloodshed, the early resistance was too scattered to be effective and Hydra was quick to slaughter anyone who announced their dissidence. Those who survived were the ones who learned to hide their anger, wearing a mask of obedience in public even as they planned vengeance for the destruction of their homes.

They planned and they waited and slowly these rebels banded together with others who would not give up the fight. But while some of these Resistance groups lived within the new world order and some went underground instead, their leaders knew that there was nothing to be gained from wasting lives in reckless anger, no matter how tempting this might be. Thus, while no one was willing to stand by idly as innocents were slaughtered, even SHIELD was largely a defensive group at first.

The organization simply did not have the numbers or the technology to challenge Hydra face to face, not even with Stark's genius on their side, and so its agents worked from the shadows as best they could. Indeed SHIELD became known amongst the underground for spiriting away prisoners on the eve of their executions and for its ability to send messages that could not be traced.

The latter trick was actually the more difficult now that Hydra monitored all public forms of communication, one wrong word bringing the death squads down. For the Red Skull kept his conquered territories isolated in order to control them better and this distance was the first obstacle that his enemies were forced to overcome.

Which they did, using a combination of codes and tech and, on one memorable occasion, a flock of homing pigeons sent from the Americas. Because no matter how many hidden enclaves Hydra raided, no matter how many friends and allies were burned to ashes, the Resistance would never die.

However, as the fight dragged on and on, Peggy Carter came to realize that SHIELD’s efforts were little more than a holding action against an endless tide.

Two decades after the Day of Fire, Hydra was as unstoppable as ever and no matter how many people the Resistance saved, there were always more to die. SHIELD was trying to staunch the bleeding of a thousand tiny cuts, taking out the Red Skull’s agents one by one when what they really needed to do was burn their fortress down. For if SHIELD and their allies were to have any hope of ending this before their children’s children were forced into battle, they could not wait for their enemy to falter anymore. But this was far easier said than done and it was decades more before Carter’s plan was finalized.

During this time, the members of the Resistance learned to be more vicious in their fighting and squash whatever hint of mercy they might have felt for their enemies. Because even though Hydra contained a wide range of soldiers and only the most elite were fanatics for their cause, the grunts were just as deadly with a weapon in their hands.

In truth, the lower ranking soldiers were often more dangerous than their commanders since enlisting with Hydra was one of the few avenues for advancement left to someone with aspirations, ambition driving people to far worse crimes than their beliefs ever could.

It didn't help that the Red Skull had placed a bounty on the heads of the Resistance and while agents were hardly worth the price of bullets, the sum total for a leader would create a millionaire. So a number of bright young men and women had tried to infiltrate the Resistance over the years in order to collect these bounties, some relying on volume to make their fortune when skill failed. This is how the Mad Circus lost half its members and once that lesson spread through the underground, paranoia became an even greater way of life.

For SHIELD this meant decentralization: Stark’s lab moved to a new location and each squad sent away to find its own home base. The locations of these hideouts were known only to those who lived there so that not even Peggy Carter knew where her lieutenants might be found. What she didn't know, no one could torture from her, and this was not a difficult change for SHIELD to make. Because, in truth, her men had been operating independently for years, each of the former Howling Commandos and several promising young agents leading a team of their own under SHIELD's sphere of influence.

This caution protected them every time a mission ended badly, something that happened more often than anyone wanted to admit. For each death was mourned as fiercely as any other, the lives of the fallen added onto the ledger of blood and pain that Carter would make the Red Skull eat one day.

However, as bleak as the future often seemed, the years consisted of more than strategy and skirmishing – there was also friendship, joy and love. Morita was the first of SHIELD’s original company to find romance, the tech falling head over heels for a pretty French girl who supplied his men with food sometimes. Love at first bite he called it, though it took six months of pleading before she agreed to be his wife.

This was cause for jubilation, the first that any of them had had in far too long, and if soldiers knew anything, it was how to party like their lives were on the line. So that celebration had lasted far into the evening and the happy couple were not the only ones who felt love on the breeze.

A wedding was hope for the future, hope that there could be a future past this endless fighting, and it was amazing how living under tyranny destroyed old prejudice. Not completely since people held tight to their beliefs when their world was endangered, but enough that Morita was allowed to marry a white woman without more than a bit of drunken grumbling. Enough that no one threatened Gabe when he began courting an Italian, even though this relationship would have been grounds for lynching in the town where he was from.

But Agent Carter had made it known that SHIELD would not allow discrimination within its ranks, the organization accepting anyone who wished to fight no matter where they came from, and in return her people offered their unyielding loyalty.

How could they not when the Red Skull had continued his former master’s Holocaust under another name, Hydra’s soldiers known for taking undesirables from their homes at night? Its scientists always needed more warm bodies for their experiments and everyone knew that only Aryans were really human anyway. Queers, blacks, women, Jews, or Muslims – being different was to be threatened for the Red Skull did not care what else someone might have to offer if they did not meet his idea of what humanity should be.

Even those who were allowed to live were treated as second-class citizens in their own cities and Peggy gathered many of them to her banner through the years. Indeed one of her best sources of information was a skinny little fairy, her finest sniper was a Muslim and she had built SHIELD upon the back of Captain America's old team. But even if these people hadn't been useful, Peggy would have welcomed them anyway because she could not bear the thought of dishonoring Steve's memory.

No one had believed in that scrawny kid from Brooklyn until Erskine had worked his magic and she could do no less for those who wanted to face Hydra now. She could do no less for Steve and Bucky after they had given up their lives in search of peace.

Yet memory could not sustain a heart forever and Peggy gradually found herself turning to Howard Stark when her mood grew dim. The man was as irrepressible as ever despite the sharp change in his fortunes and no one else was so good at making her see the brighter side of life. Somehow he could find humor even in their current situation and his dark wit was just what she needed to keep from losing hope as the war dragged on.

Because Peggy might have been the anchor of their operation, but Howard was the idea man, the one who took death and made opportunity. He turned captured Hydra weapons into energy sources for their hideouts, built defenses that could block the Tesseract’s fell magic and still found the time to run a distillery somehow.

It was over one of Howard’s better efforts that Peggy finally kissed him, leaning forward to lick the alcohol from the corner of his mouth. She was never sure why that night was different from the ones that came before it, but it suddenly seemed stupid to keep on waiting when she liked Stark just fine and was well acquainted with her own mortality.

Sure they might not have had the kind of love that poets spoke of, but it was sweet and comfortable and neither of them could ask for more than that. So the couple fell into bed together without regret or awkwardness, their pillow talk consisting of as much battle strategy as lovers’ promises.

Weird as it might have seemed to people on the outside, their relationship made them happy and happiness was something to be treasured in those times. Even when it was unexpected, inconvenient and ruined all their carefully laid plans.

Because Peggy might have wanted children when she was younger, but she had never expected to have them after the Day of Fire; she was much too busy fighting Hydra to take time out for that and this was not the sort of world she wanted to bring a kid into. Besides, the agent was getting old – truthfully she was middle-aged already – and everyone knew that child-rearing was a young woman’s game.

But once she and Howard realized that they had created a spark of life between them, Peggy could not imagine giving the child up. After all, she was already retired from most active missions and just this once, she wanted to do something for herself.

So Agent Carter disappeared from sight for several months and on May 29th 1967, Anthony Edward Stark was born. Not into wealth as he might have been given his father's history, but into a family that loved him nonetheless. The boy grew up underfoot, tools and tech his toys as he sat at his father's knee and trailed his mother through the halls of SHIELD's main bunker. She gave him his first gun and taught him how to use it while his uncles taught him bombs and codes and other things.

By the time he reached his eighteenth birthday, Tony was one of SHIELD's most effective agents; although his first love would always be invention and he spent many hours tinkering in his father's lab. It was there that he made the breakthrough that Howard had been searching for for decades and the final strike on the Red Skull could finally move forth.

Tony was twenty-one then, too afire with the joy of knowledge and discovery to realize what his work would mean. For the Starks' device would allow an agent to pass through Hydra's security in order to reduce the Red Skull to dust and atoms, but no amount of science would bring that person back.

It was a suicide strike plain and simple and Peggy couldn't ask anyone else to pay that price even as half her men volunteered. Because this was the opportunity that she had been waiting for; this was personal and no amount of logic or pleading would turn her course aside. So she suited up one last time, tying back snow white hair before gathering her weapons and saying farewell to the family she had made. Neither of her boys tried to stop her – they knew Peggy too well to think that had a chance of working – and Starks never admitted to their emotions anyway.

Instead Howard just hugged her tightly, the fierceness of his arms belying the forced lightness of his smile, while Tony went over his mother's equipment one more time. He kept up a running patter the way he always did when he was nervous, the young man trying to drown his worries in a sea of words and rambling sentences. But Peggy just listened even though she didn't need the explanation, waiting until her son trailed off into silence and then kissing his forehead like she had done when he was small.

Perhaps she should have whispered false promises or reminded Tony about how much she loved him, but her dear child already knew everything that she might say. Because he was strong and brilliant and although he would grieve for her, he would not allow her death to keep him from the battlefield. Though, truthfully, Peggy hoped that her sacrifice might finally end it and give her son the life that he deserved.

So the agent had no regrets when she left SHIELD's bunker, her contacts within the Red Skull's fortress sneaking her inside. However, they could only get her through the first level of security, so the success of her mission was up to Peggy and the device her boys had made. For while true invisibility was still impossible, Howard's tech would keep her from being noticed as long as she was cautious and no one paid too much attention to old women anyway. To be honest, Peggy didn't entirely understand the science of it – something to do with energy fields and chameleons – but a Stark invention had never let her down before.

Indeed the eyes of Hydra's soldiers slid right past the agent as she slipped through the citadel's barren hallways carefully. Even if they couldn't see her, her enemies could still hear the sound of her footsteps and so it took Peggy hours to make her way to the Red Skull's inner sanctum, each locked door a challenge that must be overcome with skill or trickery.

However, Peggy Carter had earned her reputation and she could be patient for this prize.

She slipped through the final door behind one of the Red Skull's lieutenants, finally coming face to face with the man who had destroyed her world with the press of a button and a laugh. She had never seen him in the flesh before this moment and the pictures did not do justice to the true horror of his face. While he should be nearly ninety by now, the Red Skull did not look it, his features showing nothing but strength and the gleaming bloody marble of his skull.

Perhaps it was the serum that preserved him or perhaps Hydra's scientists had conquered death as well as life in the years since he had changed. Truthfully, Peggy did not care as long as her bullets could still kill him and when the Red Skull was alone again, she stepped forward to do exactly that.

A better hero might have given her enemy time to make peace with his sins before she shot him, but Peggy was long past mercy for this monster who had once been a man. So she snuck up behind him, pressing her pistol to the Red Skull's forehead even as her cloaking device finally died. Howard had warned her that its power source would not last forever but it had gotten her far enough and there could be no hesitation now.

“For Steve,” she whispered before pulling the trigger, the bullet tearing through her enemy in a spray of blood and bone that left him crumpled on the ground. Laying there, the Red Skull looked almost fragile, his death too easy for the destruction he had wrought.

But Peggy did not waste any more thought on her enemy, the agent stepping over his corpse without a second glance. Because no matter how much she hated him, the Red Skull had never been worth dying for – not when he had a score of lieutenants desperate for the chance to take his place. But the Tesseract? The Tesseract was worth everything. It was the foundation of Hydra's power and the Red Skull had never allowed it from his keeping, not in all the long decades that he had ruled.

Even now the cube stood near the window, glowing from within with an otherworldly light. Peggy could not deny that it was beautiful, though she knew better than to touch it recklessly. Such a touch would destroy her in an instant even as she could not destroy it with anything born of human hands.

She could not destroy it or steal it but Howard believed that she might be able to send it home instead. For his research had shown that it was less a weapon than a portal and she just needed to discover how to knock.

This was something that no one could tell her; something that no one had figured out in the past four decades, but Peggy had never been one to back down just because a task was hard. While the agent was no scientist to crack the cube's fell secrets, if science were the answer then Hydra would have solved this puzzle years ago.

As it was, Peggy was going to rely on something far more dangerous; she was going to rely on faith instead. So she pulled on her gloves and removed the Tesseract from its pedestal, setting the cube down carefully on the Red Skull's chest. It began to burn through his flesh almost immediately, his corpse made a sacrifice to the old gods of the Vikings and ancient history.

The agent had always been more concerned with earthly matters than the state of her spirit, but Howard believed that death could be the answer; death and sacrifice opened doors that would not budge otherwise. So for the first time in her life, Peggy Carter fell to her knees and prayed.

“If you can hear me, take it back. Take back your cursed treasure and leave our world in peace,” she pleaded, staring into the blinding glow of the Tesseract as a beam of light shot toward the sky. “We don't want it and we don't need it, so take the damn thing back!”

The Red Skull's corpse was nearly gone now, flesh and bone transmuted into ashes on the floor, and Peggy could almost see something – someone – at the far end of the beam. But the Tesseract was not moving; its cold shine a fixed point amidst the chaos even as everything else was sucked into the sky. She was about to die for nothing and that was unacceptable.

So Peggy reached into the light, her skin burning as though a thousand knives were slicing into her. It was all that she could do to keep from screaming when her fingers closed around the Tesseract and yet this fiery agony meant nothing compared to the peace within her soul.

“Freely given,” she whispered and the cube sang in answer to her sacrifice. Thus the last thing that Hydra's soldiers saw when they burst into the room was her smile as the Tesseract dissolved into light.

With the death of Agent Carter, her son took up the fight in earnest, slowly gathering the best and brightest of the new generation to his side. There was Dr. Banner, the renowned scientist who had been forced to research supersoldiers until his experiments went wrong, and Natasha Romanoff, who had been raised in one of Hydra’s facilities before she strode out bathed in blood.

Tony also expanded SHIELD's dealings with other Resistance groups around the world, finding allies among those who respected Peggy's legacy. While some people initially doubted that he could fill his mother's shoes, once the Mad Circus and the War Machine accepted his hand of cooperation, the work they did together soon brought the rest on board. Because the younger Stark combined the best of his father’s genius and his mother’s conviction and he was determined that he would win back their world.


Part II: Ice