Peggy Carter walked slowly into the dimly lit pub. The place was moderately crowded, but with the war’s end in Europe and many of the American GIs having gone back overseas to their homes or re-deployed to the Pacific front, the place was noticeably quieter than in the days immediately following V-Day.
She didn’t mind.
She glanced around at the faces. They all looked familiar in that way that denizens of every pub and every bar in every land looked. Some happy, some sad, some contemplatively staring down into a glass, others raising theirs and tossing the liquor back amidst shouts and laughter. She felt at home in places like this, probably an odd thing for a woman but there it was: she felt almost more at ease amongst men than women. No doubt it had something to do with the fact that most women she knew were planning weddings and baby showers and picking out curtains for their new flat or new cottage in the country and here she was, straight from the front lines, contemplating turning the Strategic Science Reserve into a full-blown protective peacetime organization, and, well, it must be said, trying to find a way to fill the hollow, aching void in her heart.
She walked to the end of the long mahogany bar and pulled back a stool. She sat down, adjusted her skirt so she didn’t flash a free peek for any man glancing her way, and nodded toward the barkeep as she dropped a handful of coins onto the bar top. He put down the glass he’d been polishing—do barkeeps do that in their sleep, she wondered—and sauntered down to her end.
“Ey up, miss, what’s your pleasure?” He had the broad accent of a Yorkshire man. Fancy that in London, but they were all feeling a bit misplaced these days.
“Single malt, neat. If you’ve any, that is.”
“I ’ave a bottle or two still. Only fair t’middlin slosh, wish I had better for a reight bobby dazzler like yourself but it’ll do.”
She smiled at the compliment. “Thank you. I’ve had far worse in recent times, so fair t’middlin will definitely do quite nicely, I’m sure.”
“Aye, ain’t none o’ us eatin’ shit with sugar on these days.” He gave her a curt nod and, thankfully without any further conversation, grabbed a bottle from the shelf behind the bar, poured two fingers into a tumbler, placed it before her. He pulled out the proper coins then wandered back to the end of the bar to resume his glass polishing duties.
A relief, that. She was hardly in the mood for conversation, and she was a bit too tired to sort out his uniquely Yorkshire turn of phrase.
No, she was in the mood for a quiet toast to the man she had loved and lost. She smiled sardonically. Bit dramatic, perhaps, thinking of it that way. She couldn’t even nobly label herself a war widow. They’d had only the one kiss and then he was gone forever. She felt her eyes burn and tossed back half of the drink, hoping the sting of alcohol in her throat would distract her.
She surreptitiously wiped a tear away from her right eye.
Today had been a hard one. Boxing up all the files was tiring enough, then came the moment Colonel Phillips silently handed her one in particular, his eyes filled with an even deeper sorrow than usual. She knew without looking at it whose it was. She had thought first to simply stuff it away with the rest of the records, but of course she’d had to open it. Had to touch the photo inside, pull it out, look again at the man whose body was once far too small and frail to house such a noble heart.
“Damn it,” she muttered, taking another sip, this one more discreet. She came here for a drink and to clear her head, not to foolishly drown herself in nostalgia. She looked toward the back wall, blinking furiously.
She heard the sound of someone settling on the stool beside her. Damn it, there is an entire row of empty stools, so why be daft and sit beside me? A quick swipe of her cheeks and deep breath and she turned to see who it was.
Dum Dum Dugan.
Her irritation vanished. If she must endure conversation over drinks with anyone, she could not have chosen better. “Dum Dum, so good to see you again.”
His eyes took in her surely still swollen ones but he didn’t comment. He just gave her a warm smile under that ridiculous mustache. “Union Jack, as I live and breathe.”
“I thought I told you not to call me that.”
He grinned wider, shrugged. “But it suits you so well.”
She rolled her eyes and decided to drop it. Some battles couldn’t be won. She’d learned that the hard way. “What brings you in here?”
“Same thing that brings anybody into a pub. A good beer and a sandwich.” He gave the barkeep his order and then when he left, continued. “I know the sandwich will be good, but I’ll just have to settle for the warm piss that you Brits think passes for beer.”
“Ah, you Americans and your love of cold, fizzy drinks.”
“Life’s too short for flat beer, ma’am, but in times like these, you make do.”
“So what will you be doing henceforth, in times like these? Heading back to… was it Baltimore?”
He looked affronted. “Boston,” he corrected her. “And no. Gonna stick around London a little longer. Waiting on a few possibilities that might open up.”
He grinned and shrugged. “The details are… murky.”
“Sounds rather mysterious.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“What’ll you do, now that the war is done?”
“The details are murky.”
“Well, whatever you end up doing, I bet it ain’t finding a man and settling down to have babies.”
“And why wouldn’t I want to do that?”
“Not enough gunfire.”
She suddenly laughed. Dum Dum was just what she needed right now. “I fear you may be correct.”
The barkeeper returned with a tall glass of ale. Dum Dum thanked him, then stared down into it. “And, well… you know.”
“Ah.” She did a little bit of staring into her own glass.
After a pause, Dum Dum cleared his throat. “He loved you with all his heart, you know.”
She nodded, but couldn’t find it in herself to put her own feelings into words. They were too precious to her to share even with a good friend like Dum Dum.
“He carried a photo of you in his compass, did you know that?”
“Yes.” She smiled fondly, remembering watching the newsreel with Colonel Phillips sitting beside her and the camera zeroing in on the photo in Steve’s hand. Remembered feeling Phillips’ amused glance boring into her right ear. “I saw a glimpse of it once, in a newsreel. Ridiculous, really.”
“We used to tease him about it, but I was always happy for him. Figured you two would get together after the war was over. Settle down and have super-babies that could toss cars around instead of baseballs.”
She laughed. “What a picture!”
He grinned, but sobered almost immediately. “Soon as we came back to London, the Howlies, we met again in the bar… you know the one, where you came in that night wearing that red dress that struck just about everybody dumb.”
“Yes, I remember.” The place had already been rebuilt, but she couldn’t bring herself to go into it yet. Too many memories of that heart-wrenching conversation with Steve after Sergeant Barnes’ horrible death. “I haven’t been back, though.”
“The old place had a lot of good memories. We weren’t sure it was a good idea to go there again, figured it’d be too different, but the owner fixed it up almost just like it was. So it still felt like our home away from home. Except a couple faces were missing, of course. I still can’t really believe the Sarge and Cap were both taken from us, but I guess that’s war.”
“I suppose so. We’re hardly the only ones to have lost loved ones.”
“We raised a toast to Cap. I wish you’d been there.”
She picked up her glass. “I’m here now.”
Dum Dum looked at her for a long moment, then nodded. He picked up his glass and raised it. “To the Captain.”
“To Steve,” she said softly.
After they drank, Dum Dum put his glass down. They sat in companionable silence, lost in thought. The barkeeper brought Dum Dum’s sandwich, then he turned to the wireless set and turned it up a little as the announcer introduced the Harry James Orchestra.
Dum Dum put down his sandwich as he nodded toward the wireless. “Cap, he used to talk about taking you dancing. Scared him worse than Red Skull.” He laughed softly. “He even had Sarge and me try to teach him the basics.”
“You know, I still don't know how to dance.”
“I'll show you how. Just be there... ”
“We’ll have the band play something slow …”
She cleared her throat. “I don’t suppose he learned.”
“Nope. Stomped all over our toes. Barnes cussed up a storm and refused to help him anymore, sayin’, ‘Maybe I used to let you stomp on my toes when you weighed less than my sister, but now that you’re as heavy as a locomotive, forget about it.’ Which left Cap lookin’ at me, all sad-eyed and pleading and of course I can’t say no to the idiot. He damn near broke my foot.”
Peggy laughed. “Perhaps it’s just as well we never got that dance.”
“I sure as hell wished you both had.”
“Well, sometimes chances go by when we’re too busy to grab them.”
Dum Dum took a swig of his ale and thumped the glass down so hard it sloshed out onto the bar. “Now, Peg, enough of that Brit stiff upper lip stuff.” He stood up as It’s Been A Long, Long Time started playing. He held out his hand. “I ain’t the Cap by a long shot, but you deserve your dance, Union Jack.”
She bit her lip, which had suddenly become anything but stiff. She didn’t trust her voice, so she just nodded as she took his hand. He took her to an empty spot in the corner. She saw out of the corner of her eye the barkeeper nudge the volume up on the wireless.
Dum Dum held her closely, and as they started to move to the music, she laid her head on his shoulder.
It was too ridiculous and too maudlin, really, but for a few moments, she forgot the war and the loss and the heartache of knowing that this man was not really the right partner. But maybe, just for this moment, he was. “Thank you, Dum Dum,” she murmured.
His arm tightened briefly. “My pleasure. I just wish it was Cap holding you.”
She could dream it, though, just for a moment…
“Oh, it’s you … it’s really you. Steve. It’s been so long …”
Beloved blue eyes twinkled. “Well, I couldn’t stay away, not when I promised my best girl a dance.” He pressed a button on the iPod speakers. It’s Been A Long, Long Time started playing softly. He took her hands. “May I have this dance, Agent Carter?”
He helped her stand and put his arms around her …
And it was everything she’d ever dreamt.