“You need a cow.”
“Yes, sir.” Peggy took a moment to bless the sainted memory of her grandmother, whose blank expression of innocence she had inherited (so said her father, usually just after Peggy had managed to blame something on one of her brothers) and, she fancied, perfected in the past quarter-century.
And not a moment too soon, given the Colonel’s own expression. It was curious to note that he had a similarly difficult face to read; but whereas Peggy had practiced, she suspected that Colonel Phillips had been born perpetually irate.
“A whole cow?”
“A live whole cow?”
“And what exactly does Rogers need with a live whole cow?” he pressed, leaning back in his chair with the comfortable ease of a man who is planning to deny the request but has a certain morbid curiosity.
“Sir, my duties in this unit are not limited to supervising Rogers and his assorted rabble of—“
“It’s your fault he’s rabbled in the first place. I’ve agreed to this commando squad because you agreed to keep them in line. A live cow?” Phillips made an face that Peggy had only ever seen on a constipated cat. “Doesn’t sound like keeping them in line.”
She found the commandos, minus their leader, lounging about in one of the bombed-out warehouses currently being used as a barracks. It was high summer and they were all in various states of undress; Jim and Falsworth were both sporting ladies’ sunhats that they had stolen from God knew where, and Jacques was fanning himself with a much-folded poster of Steve as Captain America. Bucky had clearly dumped a bucket of water over his head a few minutes previously, given the way he was dripping.
She reported her failure; fortunately Gabe and Jacques (the masterminds) took the denial with good humour. “It’s not like we need a cow,” Gabe pointed out, using the book in his hand to scratch at his chin thoughtfully. The title was Quilting Through Antiquity. “There’re all those feral pigs in that thicket about three miles—“
“No,” Jacques said, in emphatic French. “Among the things I do today, they will not include the capture of a pig which is a thousand kilos and made entirely out of hate.”
“We’ll make you the bait,” Gabe said in a wheedling tone. “You would enjoy it!”
“That doesn’t seem likely,” Peggy felt obliged to point out.
But of course, she forgot her audience. Jacques was looking contemplative. “Perhaps if we found truffles,” he said.
“Hey froggies,” Dum Dum yelled from across the warehouse, “You plan on speaking English any time soon?”
“Soon as you do,” Gabe replied.
“The Colonel declined to approve our request,” Peggy said, handing over the paper to Falsworth (the one least likely to drop it or use it as a napkin) and taking a seat on one of the upside-down bathtubs used as chairs. “Meaning he’ll be on the lookout for something we’re doing that might require a cow or cow-like creature.”
“We could just use Hodge,” Bucky pointed out. He was perched in one of the windowsills, feet tapping softly against the wall. He often gravitated toward the windows; Peggy had read his official report of the torture he’d undergone at Hydra’s hands, but she wondered how much of his afflictions were claustrophobic in nature now. He was always in charge of escape routes, backup plans, other ways out of whatever mess Steve charged them into.
“Yes!” said Dum Dum and Jacques at the same time Falsworth, Jim and Gabe said “No.”
“Your hatred of the man is another sign of your excellent character,” Peggy assured him, “But perhaps it would be better to limit this to livestock.”
Bucky shrugged, grinning. “Suit yourself, Madge.”
Dum Dum had once been arrested for wrestling a bear in a zoo and Jacques climbed trees as a relaxation technique, so Peggy really shouldn’t have been surprised when she found herself in the forest three hours later with some mushrooms Jim had scrumped from somewhere and a large canvas sheet.
“We’re going to die out here,” Falsworth murmured.
“That’s a defeatist attitude that will let the Nazis win if you keep it up.”
“Does the captain know we’re out here?” Falsworth whinged. They were both lying flat on the ground next to Bucky, on a ridge and well out of danger: Falsworth because the commandos all agreed he was the most delicate of them all and liable to do something silly like be trampled to death, Bucky because he was as ever on sniper duty, and Peggy because she was supposed to come sprinting down the hill waving the mushrooms and canvas in case Jacques’s bait job didn’t work and and he and/or Dum Dum and/or Gabe and/or Jim were getting trampled to death. She never should have beaten them all at footraces; this was her penance.
“I certainly didn’t tell him,” she said.
Bucky, breathing in and out regularly and his eyes fixed on the horizon, tapped his nose in a “not me” gesture.
“So he has no idea we’re out here,” Falsworth concluded.
“Stop fretting,” Peggy ordered. “We’ll be back before he notices we’re gone.”
“You will?” Steve asked, from behind them.
Judging from the expression on Steve’s face, the comedic slow turn the three of them did was almost sufficiently amusing to make him forget his unit had abandoned him to go steal a feral pig in the middle of the forest. Almost.
“Hey Steve,” Bucky said, waving. “How’re things?”
“Oh, just fine.”
“I think he’s onto us,” said Falsworth.
“I’m just hurt you didn’t want me along,” Steve said, getting down on the ground next to Bucky. “Seems like a good team-building exercise, and all.”
“We didn’t want to disturb you?” Peggy tried.
Steve clearly had a great deal to say on that topic, but he was interrupted by the sound of the underbrush rustling below them in the valley. Bucky was already scanning the area through his scope. “Just Dum Dum,” he reported. “He’s signalling — they didn’t find anything. Also he needs to take a shit. Not sure why he told me, but hey, I’m conveying information here.”
“We’ll be here all night at this rate,” Falsworth groused.
“At least no one’s gotten trampled to death,” said Peggy.
“You really need to stop bringing that up as a possible outcome, Madge,” Bucky muttered. “Bad for morale.”
Peggy hoped no one ever found out that she liked Bucky best. “Excellent point.”
She woke up at dawn to find a half-dozen piglets snuggled between her and Falsworth. The bag full of mushrooms had been decimated and there was a fucking enormous mother pig eyeing her dubiously from across the clearing.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” she told her, trying not to flash back too hard on her University days.
On her other side, Bucky woke up. “Holy shit,” he breathed. “Bacon forever.”
Everyone agreed that the pigs should have matching names, but no one could agree on what set would be most appropriate. So the mother was given the name Monday and her six children were Gluttony, Sneezy, Australia, Caspian, Giza, and Four.
Steve was in charge of Monday. “Why am I in charge of a pig?” he kept asking. “I’m from Brooklyn, I don’t know a thing about animals.”
“You’ve been taking care of Bucky for — well, as far as I can tell all your life, but certainly for the past year,” Peggy pointed out. “A pig requires much the same consideration.”
“I’m offended and that’s also true,” Bucky piped up from where he was feeding Sneezy a carrot. “Besides, Gabe and Jim were talking it over and they don’t think it’ll work with a pig, anyway. Plus Dum Dum’s imprinted on the babies so no bacon for us.”
Steve narrowed his eyes. “What won’t work?”
Three weeks later the battalion passed Jacque’s grandfather’s farm, and they dropped off the pigs. “I can still breed them and eat those pigs, yes?” he asked Jacques, looking as dubious as Monday had looked that morning in the clearing.
“Yes. But not these pigs. And I will be back to check and if you have made them into sausages—“
“What will you do, let loose Captain America?” the old man scoffed.
“I will let loose Agent Carter,” Jacques swore.
It was the most wonderful moment in Peggy’s life, watching Jacques’s grandfather’s face go pale and blotchy. “My god, the war has made you vicious,” he muttered.
A month later they were all crowded around Dum Dum’s hospital bed — he’d taken a bullet to the backside and no one was there to comfort him, merely to mock his pain and make terrible jokes. Dum Dum, drugged up to his eyeballs and making more jokes than any of them, suddenly went teary. “I miss Australia.”
“I’m sure she misses you too,” Peggy assured him.
“We could write her a letter,” Gabe suggested. “Let her know you’re thinking about her.”
“Don’t tell her about the bullet in my ass,” Dum Dum begged.
“That better be the first line,” said Jim. “Dear Australia, I got shot in the ass because I don’t know how to crawl to cover and—“
“You’re not allowed to be mean to me! I was crawling after you — and how that bullet hit me and not you with your behind the size of a blimp—“
“My behind is a lovely size!” Jim gasped, scandalised.
Peggy and Bucky snuck out before the slapfight began. “Is it weird for you?” Bucky asked, holding the tent flap open for her and stepping after her into the night. “All these guys around all the time.”
“I grew up in a boarding school,” she told him, taking a deep breath. Hospitals — even the makeshift tents — always smelled of antiseptic and fear. “Your antics are nothing compared to what I got up to with my schoolmates.”
Bucky looked impressed with her for the first time she could recall. “We spent the past two months trying to get our hands on a live cow,” he reminded her. “And before that we were stealing all of Colonel Phillips’s left socks.”
“My senior year I snuck into Buckingham Palace during a party and gave the King a lapdance,” Peggy said. “Got forty quid for it, too.”
“What’s that in real money?” Bucky asked.
“A thousand dollars.”
In the end they never did get a cow, which was probably for the best. Their next mission took them into Italy for a long weekend and Gabe and Jacques reworked the entire plan between jumping out of aeroplanes and drinking wine. The night before they headed out they received a telegram from Dum Dum (still recovering from his be-bulleted backside) saying he might have connections toward getting a donkey.
The team was debating this hotly when Peggy noticed that Steve had wandered off. She followed after him, catching Bucky’s eye; he nodded slightly even as he passionately rejected Gabe’s assertion that a donkey would work just as well.
They were staying at some abandoned villa with a small pond and a truly monstrous flock of ducks. Steve was leaning against the balcony in that way he had, as though he were still a slight young artist braced against the world. She leaned on the balcony beside him and didn’t say anything. But she did look over at him.
He had the far-off expression that Peggy always held her breath over. She was a grown woman of twenty-seven and even if she wasn’t, Steve was never quite real enough for her, tangible. He still seemed to her so fragile. But when he tilted his head just so, his eyes focused on the clear blue horizon, he appeared so dreamlike as to be safe for her to fall in love with. Bucky saw this every day, she realised. Had seen it for decades.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
“I’m wondering,” he said slowly, “What the hell we need a cow for.”