You know how dames are.
She kissed Stephanie for luck: her lips touched Steph's, just the corner of her mouth, really. But her mouth was open in protest, so Peggy felt for a moment the heat of Steph's breath against her cheek.
She pushed Steph onwards, smiling "Good luck soldier."
Smiling, "Baby, please be safe." There's no safety in war but Peggy wanted it. For a moment, she wanted it more than anything. She could drag Steph back down beside her and insist there was another way.
You know how dames are--what else did you expect?
Instead, she kissed Steph goodbye.
She didn't cry: she didn't cry when war was declared. Nor when her brothers died, one after another. Nor when she wanted to serve, truly, and was blocked at every pass. Nor when the bombardment began, her childhood reduced to rubble.
She'd made a policy of it, and damn their expectations.
She didn't cry over the catch in Steph's voice, over their silly plans, over the radio going scratchy, indecipherable, silent. She held herself tightly, but her body still bowed in agony. They all watched her, eyes locked on her, because she was the best friend. She was a dame, you see?
She wouldn't give them the satisfaction.
"But Cap weren't exactly a dame," he said with a wink, two weeks after they'd called off the official search. (The unofficial search, courtesy of Howard Stark, would go on for years).
"And what, exactly, do you mean by that?" She leaned heavily on exactly: come on soldier, tell me exactly what's on your mind.
He flushed, but his shoulders went square, his body stuck between embarrassed and ornery. "She weren't like other dames."
"Oh yes?" You know how dames are, was the subtext of his shrug, and his absent minded pawing at his receding hairline.
She let the soldier--who cared what his name was--defend himself, it was only fair, but it devolved into less a brawl than a beating, fairly quickly. He came out of it with a blackened eye and a split lip, and she, with at least minor satisfaction. Steph wouldn't have approved.
Three weeks after that she went to a special bar, ordered a stiff drink, with further orders to keep them coming. She sipped from her glass, careful not to smudge her lipstick, and flirted with the prettiest girl in the bar--who looked nothing like Steph. They went back to her place, the girl's, and it was no work at all. Peggy had the girl on her back, in the tangle of cheap linen and scratchy wool, in moments. Red hair, green eyes, tiny mouth that howled, thin lips spread wide in an o, as Peggy worked on her.
After, they shared a cigarette and a mirror. The girl watched over Peggy's shoulder as she combed and pinned her hair, rouged her lips.
"Do you want a dab of perfume?" She reached past Peggy to pull open the vanity's single drawer. The contents were a magpie collection of bottles and trinkets. "Boyfriends," she said to Peggy's raised eyebrow. "You know how it is."
The girl--Alice, Peggy reminded herself--pulled out a small green vial for Peggy's approval. Peggy hadn't so much as smelled perfume since before the war, and then only on her mother's skin. She'd been too young for perfume then.
"Some guys horded this stuff," Alice said into Peggy's skin. "Perfume, stockings, jewelry--whatever they thought would get a girl's attention. Might as well take advantage." Alice pressed wet kisses into the nape of her neck and shoulders, all the while blindly dabbing scent onto Peggy's wrists.
Floral, but no flowers Peggy had ever smelled. It didn't remind her of anything.
She kissed Stephanie for the first time: Stephanie blushed so prettily, and hell, they could be dead tomorrow, before morning even. That was the excuse she gave to herself.
They were being shelled. Their lean-to shook with it every few minutes, and still, Steph could manage a sweet blush. So Peggy leaned into her side, boosting herself with a hand on Steph's shoulder and kissed her cheek, brow, jaw, again and again. Even her breath going cold eventually, but never Steph's skin.
After, she stayed there and Steph let her, their bodies, faces, one line against the cold.
A great part of it was dumb luck, how Stephanie made it into the program.
She'd been ruled unfit to be a nurse. Even secretarial duties were supposed to be beyond her, fragile as she was. But Erskine saw something in her, and Phillips was desperate. The first round of experiments had already failed--why not a woman?
Or rather, Phillips was a pragmatist who saw the value of pleasing his superiors, and gaining an advantage for his country, all at once. If Erskine believed an XX chromosome would take better to his procedure than would an XY, Phillips was more than willing to let him try it. There was no political gain to be had in experimenting on women, but there was only one politician in the know, and he had less scruples than Phillips, who'd never spared a thought for the ethical considerations, so far as Peggy could tell.
Peggy herself had talked the Colonel into her candidacy, but it hadn't been much work. She could kill a man at a distance, or close up. Her hands never shook. Phillips signed the papers and wished her luck. "I don't know how Erskine's going to find even ten girls for his program, let alone fifteen," he said.
"I'm not the only woman who can kill a man." He raised his cup in a toast.
And wasn't that the truth. Soon, Phillips had more volunteers than he could handle, even with the details of the project obscured. "We wouldn't have a secretarial pool left, if I accepted all of them." It wasn't ladylike, but there were as many women clamoring to get closer to the action, as there were men. Steph was the least likely candidate of all of them, but Erskine had seen something, and there was no percentage in denying him.
Stephanie--who became Steph, as soon as they managed a full conversation--was ostensibly Peggy's competition, but it was never like that between them. At first, because Peggy had been so certain of her own success, but as their training progressed, it was because Steph was Steph. This girl, so unexpectedly strong in spite of everything, so terribly sweet, and never less for it.
Phillips' grey budget couldn't stretch far enough to cover a separate camp, so they trained alongside GIs and SRR agents, who all loved the show. They loved Steph most of all.
"Step it up sweetheart," as they lapped her. Less polite when she was bent over during calisthenics. Peggy had earned herself a measure of admiration--fear--but Steph was, apparently, hilarious. Until they met the iron that was at the core of her.
"Move along," she told them, but it was unnecessary. Stephanie could stare a man down like no one she'd ever seen.
They were best friends. No one, she thought, knew any different. Not Howard, who for all his worldly experience, couldn't see past himself to anyone else. Not the Commandos, who shrugged and said to each other, dames. Perhaps Bucky.
But for all that Agent Carter and Captain America, weren't dames like other dames, there were some things even they couldn't get away with.
Every time she kissed Steph, she kissed her for luck. Every time they could be certain no one was looking. Every time they could maintain the facade of friendship, just best friends, girls being girls. Even Peggy and Stephanie were still girls, weren't they? Every time it was for luck, and Peggy stole as many kisses as she could, as many touches, like she was addicted. She made every one of them a wish. Not one of them a promise.
She kissed Stephanie for luck: two days apart, as Steph grieved. Two days of Peggy cleaning her gun, doing paperwork, drinking lukewarm whiskey with the Colonel, and even cheaper swill with Lorraine, because she'd never achieved the kind of camaraderie with the men that Steph had.
"I can't do this," she said, words like buckshot into the quiet of Peggy's room. "He was my brother."
"I should have been there. I should have--"
"You can't save everyone."
"It's why they made me, isn't it?"
"Steph, no." Peggy pulled her in close, fighting for every inch. It would have been harder a day ago, or a day before that. Maybe Stephanie was ready to be held. "We don't have to talk now."
"Just sit with me," she said, tugging Steph down beside her, and then further down, until she had her back against the headboard, and Steph sprawled across her lap. "There," she said. "There." Words slowly turned into kisses against Steph's hair. Peggy held her through it, while she broke a little, and pulled herself back together.
Phillips found her on a balcony, looking out on the defeated--liberated--Austrian streets. The house was once owned by a party official. SSR set up shop partly out of convenience, and partly out of spite.
"Beautiful evening," he said.
"Victory will have that effect." But it was beautiful, loud with celebration, not shelling.
"You've been an asset to this agency."
"Thank you sir." It sounded too much like dismissal.
"At ease, Agent."
"I am at ease." She leaned a hip against the rail, though.
"With the war over, there are going to be some... budgetary changes. Politicians." His right hand sliced through the air between them, a kind of dismissal of its own. "Not every agency will continue in its current form."
"Is effectively dead, as of today."
Despite her efforts to steel herself, Peggy's gut clenched. Her work. Her last connection to Steph. But that was too maudlin, when there were practical considerations. (Steph wouldn't approve).
"I've got my orders, Carter." He grinned then. "Playing nanny to a bunch of scientists and their lab rats wasn't my choice of postings, but it grew on me."
"How do you feel about coming to America?"
SHIELD was headquarted in rural New York, but close enough for a day trip to the city. She put it off for weeks, but finally, things were running smoothly, there were no crises to address, and no politicians to finesse or bully, so she took the day and visited Brooklyn.
Bucky and Steph had talked about their neighborhood so much that it almost felt like they were with her. She found all their special places. At night she turned on the radio, but their favourite show had been discontinued the year before. They would have had a few things to say about that.
She didn't cry, because policy had at some point become character. But Steph would never have minded--she, better than anyone, knew just what kind of woman Peggy was. The marvel was that Stephanie loved her; that Peggy's love was returned in full.
"When it's over--" Peggy cut her off in the best possible way. It worked for a while, until Steph pushed her back, grinning. "I want you to come home with me."
"Don't give me that."
"Go home with you, Steph, really?"
"Well, if you don't want to see the wonders of Coney Island..."
"Steph," she chided.
"No one cares if two girls share a room, Peggy."
"Maybe you're right, but..."
"What?" Steph pulled her in against her side and held her. Peggy couldn't have fought her if she wanted. She never would have.
"I don't want to talk about 'after'."
"All right then," Steph said, and kissed her slowly, not for the first time, but as prettily, as thoroughly. She rucked up Peggy's shirt to brush her fingers against her belly--it was as far as they'd ever dared, with the men always the next room over--hands circling around so her fingertips could find the small of Peggy's back, making her shiver, holding her securely.
"We don't have to talk at all," Steph said, just kissing her instead.