This is not a story about science.
When a glowing blue portal appeared in the middle of Tony Stark's New York lab at two-thirteen PM on a Tuesday, nobody was very surprised. Alarmed, yes, but not dumbfounded. Certainly not Tony himself, who immediately began scanning, filming, recording, monitoring, and poking with pointy things. There was a monologue, of course. There always is.
"Faint gamma signature, uncomfortably familiar shade of mindfuck blue, localized weirdness... You know, I really hate portals. Have I mentioned how much I hate portals?"
The question was rhetorical, but JARVIS answered anyway. "You might have done, sir."
"Better call in the team, J, in case this turns out to be... you know."
A call like that got all the available Avengers to the lab with alacrity. There was quite a sizeable audience, then, when the portal shimmered and flexed, as if it were some kind of membrane and not a shining azure oval of otherworldly energy. Hawkeye tensed, his fingers cold against the bowstring, and Bruce fiddled restlessly with the cuffs of his shirt.
The portal bulged then, something pointed pressing against it low down, and with an eerie ripping sound it gave way. The pointed thing was revealed to be a foot, clad in a red suede pump with a bow over the toe. Clint didn't shoot the foot, but it was a near thing.
The foot was followed by a leg, shapely and covered in fine nylons, and then a red wool skirt, and then the rest of a body. Human. Feminine. Glossy brunette curls. Hands empty of weapons, nails perfectly manicured.
"Huh," Tony said.
The newcomer straightened and began to turn. Behind her, the portal rapidly shrank until it disappeared with a soft pop.
Tony blinked. "Hi, I guess. Who the hell are you?"
The stranger turned all the way around then. In the clustered group of Avengers, Clint lowered his bow, and Natasha frowned in confusion. Steve made a questioning sound and looked to Bucky — are you seeing this? — but Bucky only stood as if frozen, his face gone white with shock.
"I'm Agent Margaret Carter, Strategic Scientific Reserve. Where —" she glanced around the workshop, assessing. "When am I?"
In the stunned pause that followed, they could all clearly hear Bucky's rapid bootsteps, taking him out the door and down the hall.
Everyone stood frozen for a moment. Then Clint put his arrow back in the quiver, Natasha relaxed, and Bruce moved to a nearby workstation and started pulling up readings. Steve moved for the door, glancing over his shoulder as he went, as if he couldn't believe his eyes.
For her part, Agent Carter continued her survey. She took in the people, certainly, a visibly formidable bunch, but also the sightlines and exits, anything nearby that could be used for a weapon. She blinked at the clutter, the gleaming machinery and the ghostly images Bruce manipulated through thin air, the automaton whirring quietly in a corner...
Her eyes settled at last on Tony. "You must be a Stark. You have the look. I hope you'll be kind enough to explain all this." Her accent was clipped, unruffled, smoothly British, but her shoulders were tight under her tailored red blazer.
Tony jumped. "2015. It's two thousand and fifteen. Tony Stark, but let's not make a big deal of it. Call me Tony. That's Dr. Bruce Banner," he said, nodding toward the only other person remaining in the room, "physicist and all-around good guy. Uh, there was a portal. You saw the portal, right? That wasn't just us? What was it like on your end? Bruce, what do you got for us?"
Agent Carter raised her eyebrows. "Time travel?"
"Not even the third-weirdest thing we've seen this year," Tony told her. "And it's only February."
From his workstation, Bruce spoke up. "There's not much to go on. The faint gamma signature and color are similar to Loki's weapons, but only superficially. I don't think this is our area."
Tony cursed. "I really, really hate magic. JARVIS, find Thor, if you can. He might have some idea what's going on."
"We should call Dr. Strange, too," Bruce interjected. "If anyone can help..."
"Fine," said Tony, rolling his eyes. "If we must. In the meantime, Agent Carter —"
"Considering the circumstances, just 'Peggy' will do."
"Peggy, we have some testing to do." He gestured toward a nearby stool with a smile that was probably meant to be reassuring, but came out something like avid. "Please, have a seat."
This is not a story about magic.
Hours later, Peggy had been scanned, filmed, recorded, monitored, and poked repeatedly with pointy things. She remained cooperative and courteous, but a line had appeared between her eyebrows, and the way she held herself seemed to indicate that her head was killing her.
"Well?" she demanded. "What does all your testing tell you?"
Tony turned to her with his most charming grin pasted on. "As far as we can tell, you're not Kree, or Chitauri, or a mutant shapeshifter in disguise. Probably not a clone, either, although that's harder to tell. All the results indicate that you are, in fact, one Margaret Carter, late of London and New York City."
"I could have told you that." Peggy closed her eyes and rubbed at her temples briefly. "I did tell you that."
"Yes, but that's exactly the kind of thing a mutant shapeshifter would say, isn't it?" Tony pointed out. "We had to be sure. Also, although you're Peggy Carter, you're not our Peggy Carter."
Bruce looked up from his displays at this. "You checked?"
"Well, yeah." Tony waved a hand through the air. "We had to make sure she hadn't disappeared in a puff of logical impossibility. Not to worry; Peggy Carter prime is safe and sound in her nursing home, surrounded by pictures of her also-not-disappeared family."
Bruce slumped in his chair. "That's good to hear."
"You were worried I'd changed the timeline," Peggy said, her mouth tight.
"A little. Can you blame us?" Tony spread his hands and gave a little shrug.
Before Peggy could form an answer, though, Bruce sought to explain. "Everyone has trace chemicals in them in varying amounts, like a fingerprint of the environment they came from. Yours don't match up, not with your time and not with where we are now. Wherever you're from, it wasn't..."
"Wasn't this world," Peggy finished for him. She looked grim, and a little like she might throw up. "Can you —"
The doors to the lab whooshed open, and Peggy cut off her question. In strode Thor, complete with flowing red cape and Mjölnir in hand. Behind him came a smaller, swarthy man, his dark hair swept back from silver at his temples. Between the two newcomers, the spacious lab felt suddenly very small indeed.
"Thor!" Tony cried, stepping forward to greet the blond man with open arms. "Thanks for coming, big guy. And Dr. Strange," he added, visibly less enthusiastic. "Glad you could make it."
Bruce rose from his seat to shake Dr. Strange by the hand. "This is a little outside our areas of expertise. We'd be grateful for any insight."
It was Thor who noticed Peggy first. She had stood on their entrance, though from courtesy or self-defense her posture did not make clear. "My lady," Thor said, and gave her a short bow.
Peggy only raised her eyebrows, and looked inquiringly at Tony. The is this guy for real? expression was universal, it would seem.
Tony cleared his throat. "Yeah. Peggy Carter, allow me to present Thor, prince of Asgard, and Dr. Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme. Guys, Peggy Carter, fresh out of someone else's 1946."
Beside him, Bruce made a sound that was halfway between a groan and a laugh.
Thor frowned and asked, "The Captain's Peggy Carter?" at the same time as Peggy said, "God of thunder Thor?"
"Yes and yes!" cried Tony, pointing at each of them in turn. "She came through a glowy blue portal that disappeared behind her, and we're pretty sure she's not of this world. We ran tests. Also, we still have our Peggy."
"She is safe?" Thor asked. On Tony's nod, Thor turned to Peggy with a smile. "The Peggy Carter I have met is venerable, and much loved." Peggy smiled almost involuntarily back. "If I may?" he asked her.
Peggy lifted her chin, and Thor took that for acquiescence enough. He paced slowly around her in a wide circle, brow furrowed in concentration. When his examination was complete, Thor stopped before Peggy and addressed his words to her, though he pitched his voice for the room in general. "I am no magic user, but I have seen enough sorcery in my time to know what I look for. I see no trickery here, no illusions or hidden power, not of Asgard or any other kind." He turned to catch Tony's eye. "Blue, you say? You feared some trick of my brother?"
Tony only nodded, defiantly unabashed.
"Loki is dead; that has not changed. And this is no work of his. I hope I would know my brother's magic anywhere." Thor ran a hand over his face as he spoke, sounding suddenly tired.
Tony winced. "Sorry, big guy. You know we had to be sure." He clapped the Asgardian on the arm, then shook his hand out. "Jane back from her conference yet? She might have some insight here."
"She returns tonight." Thor grinned, all his good spirits returning. "I have missed her; I will be glad to welcome her home." He turned, nodding at Peggy, Bruce, and Dr. Strange. "My lady. Doctors," and was gone in a swirl of crimson cape.
With Thor gone, the lab felt a lot less crowded. Into the brief silence stepped Dr. Strange, his footsteps so quiet he may well have been floating on air. He fixed dark eyes on Peggy. "How do you do, Ms. Carter?"
Peggy gave him a tight smile. "I have had better days."
"I imagine so. Can you describe this portal? What did it feel like?"
"I was walking down a hallway in the office. It appeared in front of me so suddenly I practically fell into it. No, I did fall into it. It was just there, between one step and another. I saw a haze of blue light, my foot was pressing against some kind of membrane, and here I was." Peggy paused, considering. "I don't recall hearing, smelling, or tasting anything unusual. Just blue light, and then I was in a different world." She shivered, but kept her shoulders square and her chin firm.
Dr. Strange hummed, and walked the same circle Thor had. When he stopped, his tone was gentle, almost apologetic. "I can tell you nothing more, I'm afraid. I sense no energy signatures or sorcery at all. Where you came from and how you got here, my dear," he said, nodding at Peggy, "remains a mystery."
"But can you send me back?" Peggy asked in a voice that quavered, just a little.
"I am sorry," Dr. Strange told her, "that is not within my power." To Tony he said, "You know how to reach me if there are any developments," and was suddenly just gone.
Peggy sat down abruptly, staring at the place Dr. Strange had been standing.
"I hate when he does that," Tony muttered. "Magic users. Ugh." He wandered to a nearby workstation and began making adjustments to some electronic components there.
Peggy continued to stare blankly. She sat very still for long minutes, until Bruce touched her elbow, making her jump. He smiled at her, looking gentle and tired and sympathetic. "You've had quite a shock. I thought, maybe — Would you like a cup of tea?"
Peggy blinked up at him, once, twice. "Yes," she said, "that would be lovely," and burst into tears.
This is not a story about the past.
The sight of a weeping Englishwoman caused Tony to panic and scuttle for the nearest elevator. That left Peggy and Bruce alone in the cavernous lab, where the lights were too bright and the benches were filled with things that were shiny and pointed. Bruce shifted his weight awkwardly. "Would you like to go someplace a little less…”
Peggy wiped at her nose with the back of one hand. "God, yes." She stood, then looked around her feet with a questioning expression. "I don't even have my purse." That made a fresh wave of tears swell, but she ignored them and turned to Bruce. "Lead on, then."
The elevator ride to the Avengers' common floor was about as uncomfortable as one might expect. Peggy sniffled while Bruce politely avoided eye contact and offered a stained but clean handkerchief. Fortunately, the elevators in Stark Tower were quick, and the doors slid open before one of them might have felt pressured to talk.
The common room was empty, its lamps on low. Instead of feeling cold and unwelcoming, the space seemed cozy somehow, its pools of shadow softening the lights of the city below. Bruce led the way to the kitchen area and indicated with a gesture that Peggy should take a seat at the breakfast bar. A moment's rummaging in the cabinets produced an old-fashioned stovetop kettle, the kind that whistled, and he filled it at the sink and set it to boil. "What kind of tea would you like?"
Peggy seemed nonplussed. "What kind?"
In response, Bruce opened the tall cabinet next to the gleaming fridge. It held teas of all kinds, as well as a variety of coffees, hot cocoa mixes, and various ciders, flavorings and decorations. "We've got just about anything. And if you wanted some whiskey in your tea, I wouldn't fault you." He smiled. "We have a whole different cabinet for that."
Peggy tried a watery smile of her own in return. "Maybe for the second cup. Do you have plain English Breakfast?"
Bruce rummaged, and produced a box with the familiar Twinings logo.
"Perfect," Peggy sighed, and the two of them lapsed into silence until the water boiled.
When the whistle started to shrill, Bruce startled into action. He began opening cupboards seemingly at random, asking over his shoulder, "Milk? Sugar? Uh, lemon? I don't think we have proper teacups; is a mug okay?"
Peggy laughed. "I was in the war, Dr. Banner. I think I'd drink tea from an old boot if I had to." Her smile faded, though, as the gleaming kitchen reminded her again just how far she was from home, and new tears coursed down in the tracks of the old.
Bruce offered a small, uncomfortable smile. "Just Bruce is fine." He poured the water and pushed a mug in Peggy's direction, followed by the milk carton and a bowl of sugar cubes.
Peggy busied herself with doctoring her tea, then asked, "So tell me, what is this place, exactly?"
It was an obvious subject change, but Bruce fell on it with relief. "Stark Tower. Or, if you listen to Tony, Avengers Tower."
Peggy raised an enquiring eyebrow.
"Uh, it's a long story. The Avengers are a team of superheroes —" Bruce winced, as if he were embarrassed to admit it. "Tony's the bankroll, as well as a founding member, so now we all live here in the Tower."
Peggy wore an expression that indicated she did not believe this for a moment, but was willing to humor him. "Tony Stark. A superhero."
"He's got a flying suit of armor."
"Ah." Peggy nodded. "But you said we. You're on this team? And who else? Forgive me, but you don't..." She trailed off, waving a hand in his direction that turned into fanning her tea when she realized that might be rude.
"Seem that super? Yeah." Bruce gave a self-deprecating little laugh. "I'm stronger than I look." He lifted his own mug, sipped at it to buy some time. "There are, well, eight of us now, I guess. Depends how you count. Steve's mostly in charge."
Peggy dropped her spoon with a clatter. "Steve?"
Bruce frowned. "I thought you saw him. He was there when you... arrived."
"Steve Rogers is dead." Peggy said it firmly, to herself as much as him. "He died in the war, seventy years ago now. Steve Rogers is dead." She fixed Bruce with a hot glare. "I will thank you not to joke about that."
"He crashed his plane into the arctic ice," Bruce said gently, "but he didn't die. He froze, and when they found the plane three years ago, Steve was still inside. He's fine. He lives here, with us."
Peggy shook her head. "I don't believe you."
"JARVIS?" Bruce asked the ceiling. "Can you give us some recent footage of Steve? Something candid?"
Instantly, a glowing image appeared in the air between them. In it, Steve was laughing and throwing wadded-up paper balls at Tony and another man Peggy didn't quite recognize. They were sitting at the very same breakfast bar, the remnants of a pancake breakfast before them. A blueberry flew through the air and hit Steve squarely on the center of his forehead. He caught it on the bounce, popped it into his mouth, grinning all the while, and turned to speak to the man sitting next to him. That man seemed withdrawn, his long dark hair falling over his face as he turned to answer...
Peggy silently put her hands over her mouth in shock.
"JARVIS, that's enough, thanks."
"Steve," Peggy whispered. "I thought I saw, down in the lab, but... I told myself I must have been seeing things. Disoriented.” She turned to Bruce for confirmation. "Is that... Next to him?"
"Bucky Barnes. Yes."
"But how? He fell."
"You know when HYDRA held him prisoner, they did experiments." Peggy nodded, her face grim. "It seems like they were trying to recreate Erskine's serum. It worked well enough that the fall from the train didn't kill him, though he did lose an arm. HYDRA found him. They brainwashed him, wiped his memories, gave him a metal arm. They made him into an assassin. When he wasn't killing for them, they froze him, literally. HYDRA sent him to attack Steve last year in D.C., and that disrupted his programming just enough. It's been... a struggle. For him. For both of them."
Peggy still had both hands over her mouth, and the tears were streaming once again.
Bruce hesitated, then tried a smile. "Hey, at least you'll have some old friends." He set his mug down. "Steve knows what it's like, to suddenly be out of your own time. He'll be happy to see you. He missed you."
Peggy sniffed. "Did he have someone do this for him, when he first — woke up?"
"Do what for him?"
"Sit, and give him tea, and be there with him, and break it to him gently?"
Bruce shifted in his seat. "I don't know. I don't think so."
"Then I am lucky." Peggy took a deep breath in, held it, let it out. "I think I'll have that whiskey now, please."
"More tea, too?" Bruce asked, holding up the kettle.
Peggy's smile was small, but less unsteady than it had been. "That would just slow us down, don't you think?"
Bruce laughed, and filled the kettle anyway. "I'm having more tea," he said, then went to find a bottle of the good stuff for his guest.
Peggy turned to look out the windows as she sipped her doctored tea. "So much brighter now," she mused. "Did you know, I did this with Steve once, after Sergeant Barnes fell. I found him in a bombed-out pub in London, and the only light came from the moon. He drank a whole bottle of whiskey that night." She took a long sip. "For all the good it did."
"Steve can't get drunk," Bruce said. "He doesn't really bother any more."
"Yes, we know that now. But that night, it was just one more crushing blow." She turned to look at Bruce again. "Do you have any other surprises for me?"
"Uh... Did Tony introduce you to JARVIS?"
"Edwin Jarvis? Stark's butler? He must be, gosh, a hundred by now. Or did you freeze him, too?" Peggy's tone was light, joking, but the pinch around her eyes was not.
"No, no," Bruce hastened to reassure her. "JARVIS is an artificial intelligence. An electronic mind, so to speak. He's named after Mr. Jarvis, but it's an acronym. ‘Just A Really Very Intelligent System,’ I think. He runs the Tower, among other things. Edwin Jarvis passed away more than twenty years ago."
Peggy nodded, her eyes downcast. "He is — was a friend."
"JARVIS?" Bruce addressed the ceiling again. "This is Agent Peggy Carter. She'll be staying with us for —" he glanced at her, uncertain, "the foreseeable future."
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Agent Carter." The smooth, English voice came from everywhere and nowhere at once. "Please let me know if I can assist you at any time. I will be happy to direct you to your rooms when you are ready."
"Er — thank you," Peggy said, wide-eyed. To Bruce, she said, "Heavens, he even sounds the same."
"My voice patterns were modeled on those of my predecessor," JARVIS interposed. "I hope that will not be upsetting."
Peggy sat up straight and took another generous swig. "I'll manage. It's just —" she looked to Bruce, blinking rapidly, her fingers pressed white around her mug. Her voice cracked, ever so slightly. "It's just, I had a job."
This is not a story about the future.
When Peggy emerged from her rooms the next morning, she was wearing yesterday's clothes, seven decades of shadows under her eyes, and an air of determination. It propelled her down the hall and into the common area, but at the first click of heels on hardwood every eye in the room swiveled her way. Peggy was used to being an outlier, a curiosity, but stiff upper lip can only carry a person so far. On the threshold, she hesitated.
At the breakfast bar, Steve leaped to his feet. Steve, looking young and vital, with a familiar hopeful expression on his face. He opened his mouth but no sound came out, struck by the same old case of tongue-tie.
Tony beat him to it. "Good morning! Welcome! Have some bagels! A smoothie! Wonder of the future. Steve can explain." He was dressed in an immaculate narrow-cut suit, and had a cup of mysterious dark green liquid in one hand. He paused to take a sip, and frowned. "I thought I asked JARVIS to send up some clothes in your size."
"He did," Peggy assured him. "I wanted — I wanted something familiar."
Tony's smoothie left a line of green sludge on his upper lip. "Yeah, I can understand that. Well, gotta go. Late for a thing. Steve can handle the introductions, can't you, Cap?" He gestured around the room at the cluster of as-yet-unnamed watchers, and at Steve, who was still sitting mute. Without waiting for an answer, Tony disappeared into the waiting elevator, smoothie in hand.
One of the strangers, a woman, rose gracefully to her feet. She wore a pale grey suit that looked to be distant kin to Peggy's own, and her strawberry blonde hair swung shining and straight as she stepped forward. "I'll take it from here," she said, a kind hand on Steve's shoulder as she passed. "I'm Virginia Potts, but please call me Pepper. I run Stark Industries. I am also, for my sins, dating Tony." She stopped before Peggy and held out her hand, a genuine smile on her face. "It is a pleasure to meet you."
Peggy took the offered hand, nonplussed, and got a firm handshake in return.
Pepper took her hand back and gestured to the others in the room. "This is Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow, former master assassin and current superhero. She likes fast cars and meddling in her friends' love lives." A cool-looking redhead raised her coffee cup in their direction, and Peggy nodded back.
"Maria Hill, former Deputy Director of SHIELD, now overseeing security for Stark Industries." A tall, stern brunette inclined her head. "I imagine you two will have a lot to talk about." Peggy blinked, not quite following.
"Jane Foster, noted astrophysicist. She's done groundbreaking work on wormholes through space." Pepper's gesture indicated a slender dark-haired woman, intent on the journal she was reading, who did not react at all when Pepper said her name. The woman sitting next to Jane nudged her; Jane startled, then waved.
"That's Darcy Lewis —"
"Scientist wrangler and pop-culture expert," Darcy interrupted cheerfully. She had wild curls and a wide smile. "I'm a huge fan. Jeez, boss-lady, your introductions aren't intimidating or anything."
"Well." Pepper tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, looking a touch flustered. "It's not every day you get to meet your hero."
Darcy caught Peggy's eye. "We heard you'd had, like, the worst day ever, so we thought a little girl time might help you find your feet."
"With our combined expertise, JARVIS’s help and the resources of Stark Industries," Pepper continued, "we can get you caught up on everything you've missed, bring you up to speed on culture and technology, and help you get settled in whatever way you'd wish."
"It'll be fun," Natasha said, deadpan, but her eyes were warm.
Peggy tried a small smile. "Well, I don't seem to have any other plans."
"Great!" crowed Darcy, bouncing up and dragging Jane with her. "We thought we'd start the traditional way: mimosas, manicures, and cheesy movies." She made for the elevator, dragging all the other women, Peggy included, in her wake.
Their departure left a stunned silence behind it.
Clint was the first to rouse. "Hey! What are we, chopped liver?"
Natasha only flipped him a rude hand gesture and a smirk just as the elevator doors slid closed.
"...Hi, Peggy," Steve said to the empty air.
Gradually there formed a loose association in the living room, comprised of the various bewildered male Avengers. They drifted in and out according to their schedules, but always stopped to commiserate with whoever else was there.
"Have you seen Lady Jane?" That was Thor, looking lost. "I sought her in her laboratory, but all was dark and silent. Darcy, too, is missing."
Clint offered him a sympathetic look and half a cold pizza. "I know, buddy. Katie-Kate disappeared in there yesterday and I haven't heard from her since. She took my dog, too."
Early one morning: "Does anyone know why the gym is locked?" Steve, wearing distinctly un-sweaty sweats. "I went down for my usual workout and the doors wouldn't budge. JARVIS only said it was ‘otherwise occupied.’ I swear I heard pan-pipes."
"It's the ladies," Sam answered sagely. "They're teaching Peggy about yoga."
"How do you know that?"
"Not because I put my ear to the door, that's for sure."
"I was curious! I went down there yesterday and all I could hear was yelling and some weird thuds. I bet they need some relaxation after all that."
Steve slumped against the counter. "Well then, wanna go for a run?"
"Hell no," said Sam, but he stood and reached for his windbreaker anyway.
Late one night: "Please tell me there's coffee," Tony muttered, mostly to himself, as he stumbled off the elevator. He was wearing rumpled suit pants with a grease-stained t-shirt, and his hair seemed to suggest he'd been electrocuted recently. "And food. Is there food?"
Steve looked up from his sketchpad. "There should be. I keep seeing delivery people go past."
"Nope, they're all going to the penthouse," Tony said with his head entirely stuck inside the fridge. "There's nothing in here but Barton's pizza. Who the hell orders cream cheese and jalapeño pizza anyway?"
"If they're ordering food upstairs, why don't you just go up there?"
Tony emerged from the fridge with a box in one hand and a crust in his mouth. "So much food. They're keeping half the restaurants in the city in business, I swear. I take it back, cream cheese and jalapeño pizza is an excellent idea." He chewed appreciatively for a moment. "I can't go up to the penthouse."
"They kicked you out of your own penthouse?"
Tony threw his hands up, aggrieved. A packet of red pepper flakes went flying. "Right? It's a travesty! Why do you think I'm dressed like this?"
Steve looked him up and down. "To be fair, it's not that different from how you normally dress. Pepper really won't let you in? Not even for clean pants?"
"I tried, once. It's scary up there. Think about it. My lady love, your lady love, every terrifying woman they know, bonding..." Tony shuddered theatrically. "I've got a pants stash in the lab and a couch I can crash on, it's fine."
"She's not my —" Steve caught a flicker of dark hair, a glint of metal, deep in the shadows of the far hallway, there and then gone.
"Mm-hmm. Sure, Cap," Tony mumbled around a mouthful, not really listening. He balanced a full carafe of fresh coffee on top of the pizza box and backed into the elevator.
"She's not," Steve insisted, but there was no one but JARVIS there to hear him.
The next morning: Bruce was enjoying a quiet cup of chai when the elevator doors slid open and an avalanche of garment bags fell out. There might have been someone in a Stark Tower bellhop uniform under the pile, but it was hard to be certain.
"Sorry! Careful!" A small auburn-haired woman picked her way daintily over the mess and came to a halt in the entryway. She surveyed the scene with a critical eye, then fixed her gaze on Bruce. He shifted, as if he'd suddenly realized he was underdressed.
"Can I help you?"
The smile she gave him was dazzling. "Hi! I'm Janet van Dyne. I'm looking for Pepper. I brought swatches! And samples! She said we'd put on our own little show!"
Bruce couldn't help smiling in return. "They're in the penthouse."
"In that case," she said, and stepped back over the high-fashion debris field, now being hastily picked up by the bellhop. Her movements were quick and darting, her cheery attitude contagious. "Onward! Upward!" And to Bruce, as the elevator doors once more slid closed — "Purple's a good color on you!"
Later that day: a handsome man in an Air Force uniform marched off the elevator and flopped down on the nearest couch. "I'd like to report a missing person," he told the ceiling.
"Hey, Rhodey," said Clint, and passed him a beer. "Lost your girlfriend, too?"
Rhodey sat up just enough to take a swig, then let his head loll once more. "Yeah. Carol said she was coming here to give a lecture on "Innovations in Flight and Space Exploration," but that was two days ago. Wait, you said too?"
"The latest interdimensional portal spit out Agent Peggy Carter of the SSR, circa 1946."
Rhodey whistled, eyebrows almost to his hairline.
"Yeah, I know. Seems like she might be stuck here, so the ladies put together a whole girls' bonding/spa retreat/‘Welcome to the Future’ crash course. A whole bunch of deliveries go in, but no one comes out. The UPS woman is here so often she got a date with the cute receptionist downstairs."
"Well, you can't blame them," Rhodey mused. "The Peggy Carter, whose picture hung on every little girl's wall? Hell, I'm tempted to ask if they'll let me in."
"But what about us?" Clint cried. "Thor's bereft, Tony's camped out on the couch in his lab, Barnes has stopped speaking to anyone, and Steve keeps lurking by the elevators looking sad." He went to take a pull of beer, only to find the bottle was empty. "Bruce is fine. He mostly just laughs at the rest of us."
Rhodey chuckled. "No supervision at all? How come the Tower isn't on fire by now?"
"Only through the most diligent of measures, Colonel," JARVIS assured him.
"Laugh it up," Clint muttered. "They got my dog, too."
When Peggy emerged from the elevators on her seventh day in a new world, she was wearing a soft red sweater, exquisitely fitted dark jeans, stylish but sensible boots, and the same old air of determination. Her hair fell over her shoulders in loose waves, and the latest Stark Phone stuck out of one hip pocket.
There wasn't much of an audience in the common area for Peggy's triumphant return, but there was the one that counted. Steve leapt to his feet, just as before.
Peggy smiled at him. Somehow they'd managed to find the exact shade of red lipstick she always wore. "Hello, Steve."
Steve swallowed his tongue, but that was familiar, too.
This is not a story about missed chances.
"She's amazing, isn't she?" Sam slid into the seat next to Steve, who jumped and slapped his sketchbook closed. Sam smirked and rolled a knowing eye, but kept his comments to himself.
"Peggy? Yeah, she really is."
The two men sat in silence for a while, simply watching the wonder that was Peggy teaching Thor to cook a "proper English breakfast."
Sam took a sip of orange juice. "You know, in her shoes, I'd be a mess. I don't think I'd even be able to pick myself up off the floor. And there she is, learning her way around, making friends..." He shook his head.
"I know," said Steve. "I was in her shoes, and I was a mess." His mouth quirked up in an ironical grin. "Just going through the motions, like some kind of sad star-spangled ghost. Peggy's something else."
Over in the kitchen, Thor roared with delighted laughter at the accumulating stack of ingredients and the proliferation of frying pans on the stove. Peggy bumped him out of the way with a sway of her hips, her arms full of egg cartons and a smile on her face.
"You two getting reacquainted?" Sam asked.
"We're getting there." Steve picked up a pencil and spun it absently between his fingers. "It's — complicated, though. The history books all make it out to be some grand romance, but Peggy and me, we were only ever 'maybe someday.' I always thought there'd be time after, you know. Until there wasn't."
"That must have been rough."
"I mourned it, yeah, what might have been. And Peggy — our Peggy — was still there; she'd lived her life without me. Except for the days she didn't remember at all." Steve smiled a small, sad smile. "It took a long time, but I started to move on."
"And now this."
"And now this." Steve sat up straighter, took a deep breath. In the kitchen, Peggy supervised as Thor loaded what looked like several pounds of sausage links and bacon into two enormous frying pans. "I feel like we owe it to ourselves to at least try, you know? See what 'might have been' could turn into?"
Sam took a long drink of his orange juice, his gaze assessing over the rim of the glass. "Except?"
The scent of frying meats had begun to attract the hungry masses. Clint was the first to appear, Natasha slinking in at his heels. Next came Bruce, herding Tony, who was walking backwards and talking very rapidly. Sam smiled to see the exact moment the smell registered; Tony stopped mid-word and executed a neat pirouette to peer over at the stove. A series of quick text messages soon produced Pepper, Jane, and Darcy.
And almost unnoticed, a brunet shadow crept as far as the doorway before retreating back the way it had come.
Steve sighed, and his whole frame seemed to shrink in on itself. "Except."
"Bucky's having a pretty bad few weeks."
Steve let out a humorless chuckle. "That's one way of putting it. You know, Peg and me weren't the only 'might have been.' Me and Bucky, we lived our whole lives cheek by jowl, neither of us ever said a word. I never even thought it, him such a ladies' man and me, well — you've seen the pictures. Everyone's seen the pictures."
Sam was wearing his you're being stupid right now face, but he nodded.
"It wasn't until after he was gone I realized what it meant, that punch in the gut I felt every time he looked my way."
"But you got him back."
Steve set the pencil carefully on the counter. "Sam, we live in an age of terrible miracles. I can't tell any more what's a blessing and what's a curse. I got Bucky back, and it was awful, like something out of a nightmare. But it got better. He's doing so much better — Well, he was."
Music swelled as Steve paused to gather his thoughts. Frank Sinatra launched into a jazzy rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You," the opening number of Darcy's "Old People" playlist. Darcy was grinning as she grabbed Jane's hands and pulled her swaying around the living room. In the kitchen, Thor poked carefully at several pans of frying foods, while Peggy set Natasha and Bruce to work chopping mushrooms. Clint and Tony found themselves sternly admonished to set the table.
"Bucky and I, we were building toward something, I thought." Steve pitched his voice low, almost talking to himself. "It felt inevitable, almost, like it was only a matter of time. Then a portal appeared in Tony's lab and my 'tragic lost love' stepped out, and now Bucky won't even look me in the eye."
"You think he's jealous?" Sam asked.
"I don't know what he thinks." Steve scrubbed a hand over his face. "He won't tell me."
"Could be he's trying to get out of your way. Maybe this is his version of helping. You won't know until you ask."
Steve sat back in his chair. Behind him, "I'll Be Seeing You" segued into "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," and Darcy whooped with joy. "Yeah, you're right. Thanks, Sam. I'm sure you've got better things to do than listen to me worry."
"Not until the bacon's done," Sam smiled, and pushed up from his chair. "How 'bout you make it up to me with a dance?"
"What? Sam, no, you know I never —"
But Sam only stood with his hand extended and one eyebrow raised, wearing his I don't know why you bother arguing when you know I'm right face, until Steve sighed and took the offered hand. They failed utterly at performing any kind of recognizable dance, but Jane and Darcy cheered them all the same.
By the time the song ended, Sam was laughing (and limping) and Steve was scarlet with mortification. Clint and Natasha pushed the furniture aside and joined them on the makeshift dance floor with the synchronicity of long practice. From his position at the stove, Thor shimmied in place, broadly smiling.
The next song started, slow and easy, Dinah Shore crooning about coming home. Steve felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see Peggy just behind him, crimson lips upturned. "I believe you owe me a dance, soldier."
"But — what about breakfast?" Steve said, and immediately blushed even harder.
Peggy looked like she wanted to roll her eyes. "It's in the oven. It'll keep."
She simply stood there, in one of those soft sweaters, looking happy against all odds. What else could Steve do but put a hand on her waist, place his palm against hers?
Sam smiled in satisfaction as he melted out of the way and found a convenient vantage point to watch this long-awaited first dance. Except —
"Christ, that's embarrassing," muttered a voice just beside him. Bucky, his hair hanging in his face, and his voice scratchy with disuse. "He's so tense I'm afraid he's gonna snap his own spine."
Sam fought to keep his expression neutral. Bucky was right — Steve was rigid with tension. He stared fixedly over Peggy's shoulder, clearly concentrating very hard on the steps. For her part, Peggy's smile was slowly becoming more forced, and every once in a while she suppressed a wince. "No kidding," Sam replied. "Who taught that guy to dance?"
Bucky snorted, making his hair puff away from his face briefly. "Just no teaching some people."
"I guess," Sam said. "What I don't get, though — I've seen Steve talk to women. He and Carol have this weird flirtatious rivalry going. He dances with Pepper all the time at those stupid charity galas. He competes with Darcy in pun-offs, for pete's sake. Why is he just now forgetting how to act like a real boy?"
"She matters." Bucky looked down at his boots, his voice almost inaudible over the music. "She matters more, now. This is his big second chance."
Sam bit back a half-dozen possible replies before settling on "well, he is blowing it."
This time Bucky's snort had a touch of humor to it. "Big time."
"Tell you what. I'll cut in and rescue the damsel in distress. Then you can talk some sense into a Captain Small-Ass. Maybe remind him of the steps, or something."
Bucky paused, considering. Out on the dance floor, Peggy winced yet again. "Yeah, okay." Bucky pushed off the wall and sauntered silently into position, muttering something as he went. It might have been "Nothing wrong with Steve's ass," but Sam couldn't be sure.
Thirty seconds later, Peggy was being efficiently twirled by a smug-looking Sam. Steve stood looking after them with a weird combination of chagrin and relief, and Bucky used the distraction to slide right into his arms. Steve startled, then relaxed all at once.
They stood and swayed for a while, forgetting about steps or anything like a proper frame. Natasha and Clint swept by, looking effortlessly regal even in yoga pants and sweats, and Darcy dipped Jane and nearly dropped her. Peggy laughed at something Sam said, moving easily with the beat.
"You're an embarrassment," Bucky finally said, mostly into Steve's shoulder. "If anyone asks, someone else was your dance teacher."
Steve chuckled. "At least you tried. I'm just no good —"
"That's a pathetic excuse," Bucky cut him off. "You're dancing now, aren't you?"
Steve ducked his head, blue eyes earnest. "I missed you, Buck."
Bucky made no reply, but he angled his own head in a little, until their foreheads were almost touching. Neither man noticed Peggy, eyes sharp on them as she circled the floor to music from a time now impossibly out of reach.
This is not a story about old rivalries.
Peggy drifted down to the common kitchen for a late-night cup of chamomile tea. The space was quiet and dark, as it had been that first night, the city lights just as beautiful. Now, though, the place felt less like a wonder, less like an exile, and more and more like home.
The tea cabinet, though — that would always be a wonder.
So Peggy pottered around, mindlessly straightening items on the counter and admiring the arrangement in the fruit bowl (even if the bananas didn't taste right). It wasn't until the kettle began to whistle, piercing the stillness, that Peggy realized she wasn't alone. Someone was sitting in the corner with the deepest shadows, their back to the room, staring out into the night. The person shifted, and Peggy caught a flash of bright metal where skin ought to be.
Sergeant Barnes. Bucky.
Peggy hesitated, then found a second cup, filled another infuser with leaves. She poured, and stood for a moment wreathed in fragrant steam before she took both cups and went to join him.
Bucky was sitting on the floor, leaning against the back of one of the living room's couches. He was wearing loose sleep pants and an undershirt, and his expression was far away. Still, he did not flinch when Peggy sat down beside him; neither did he move to leave. She set his tea beside him, close enough to reach but far enough to not knock over.
"Even in my worst moments," Peggy said, her voice soft, "I can't help but find it beautiful. The city all alight. So full of life. It's reassuring, in some strange way."
Bucky didn't make a sound. He didn't even twitch.
"I didn't know you very well, Sergeant Barnes, back in the war. I regretted it at the time, because Steve thought so highly of you, but there never seemed the right opportunity. And then..." The memory was a painful one, so she let it lapse into silence.
Eventually, Bucky was the one to speak. "Bucky Barnes was already a dead man back then. He just didn't know it yet."
"Because of what happened in that HYDRA prison?"
"Only a matter of time, after that."
Bucky's head was turned away, but Peggy still caught the sardonic twist of lips. "Was a ghost for a while. Now I'm —" He huffed out a short, sharp breath. "Now I'm born again. Brand new life, all the same problems as the old one." He did turn his head at that, and his eyes glinted behind the fall of hair.
Peggy sipped her tea. "Am I one of those problems, Sergeant Barnes?"
"You remember that night in the bar, when Steve was first putting together the Commandos? You wore a red dress." Bucky reached for his tea, but didn't drink. Instead he circled the mug's rim over and over, metal fingers sending a soft screech into the silence. "I drank half a bottle that night and never even got buzzed. Steve was huge and healthy and there, when he was supposed to be safe at home —" Bucky shook his head, as if to clear it. "You were wearing a red dress, and he couldn't take his eyes off you. And you looked right through me to get to him, like you couldn't take your eyes off him either.
"Used to be I was the only one ever saw him like that."
The sentence seemed to hang in the air. Peggy's breath caught in her throat, and she hardly dared move.
Bucky lifted his head and caught her eyes squarely, possibly for the first time in any life. Even in the dark, his eyes were very blue. "Do you love him?"
"No," Peggy said slowly. "But I could."
Bucky let out what might have been a sigh.
"And what about you?" Peggy asked, holding his gaze. "Do you love him?"
Bucky dropped his eyes and did not answer, and that was an answer in itself.
Peggy sipped her tea, and the moment stretched. Eventually she said, "did Steve ever tell you about the time I shot him?"
Bucky's head snapped up. "No." He sounded halfway between intrigued and aggrieved.
"It was the day he chose his shield. I came out of the briefing room to find him being kissed by Private Lorraine, and — well, I can be a bit impulsive at times." Bucky scoffed. "He held up his shield and asked what I thought. He looked so proud. So I shot him."
Bucky frowned at her.
"I shot the shield," she clarified. "And the shield worked beautifully. I am a very good shot."
"I don't doubt it, ma'am."
"Just Peggy, please." She laughed, remembering. "You should have seen his face!"
Bucky considered for a moment. "Have you heard he's taken to jumping out of planes without a parachute?"
"No. But it doesn't surprise me. Our very first 'mission' he bailed out in the middle of heavy anti-aircraft fire. Did you hear about the time he jumped on a grenade in Basic Training?"
"It was a dummy, but he didn't know that. No self-preservation skills at all, that man." She sounded fond.
"I spent our whole lives pulling him out of fights, it felt like. Got to be where anytime I lost sight of him I just started checking alleyways, looking for a brawl."
"You certainly must have had a job of it, Sergeant Barnes."
"Bucky." He shifted, ducked his head. "'M not a sergeant any more."
"Bucky, then." Peggy smiled at him. "I got a tour, once, of 'Places in Brooklyn Steve Got Beat Up.' I have to admit, though, I can sympathize a little. I once threatened to disembowel a man with a fork for being rude to a waitress."
Bucky lifted his flesh hand to run it through his hair. "Christ, there's two of you."
Peggy laughed, briefly. "That was just last month. Or — almost seventy years ago. The waitress was a friend of mine. I suppose she's..."
Bucky made a sound in the back of his throat. "I try not to think about it."
"Nothing to be done now, I suppose." Peggy took another long sip of tea. "Can't sleep?"
"I get nightmares." Bucky shrugged, just a lift of one shoulder, and Peggy could hear machinery whirring.
"I feel like all my dreams are full of ghosts." Peggy grimaced. "Would you mind — ? The company helps, I find."
In reply, Bucky scooted a little farther into the corner, so there was room for Peggy to lean against the couch, too.
She moved over to the offered space. It was surprisingly comfortable. This close, she could smell Bucky, steel and gun oil, but also spearmint, coffee, a hint of soap: not a ghost. Peggy settled down to watch with him.
Some little while later, Bucky stirred. "I'm gonna yell at Steve about that grenade thing. Remind me later."
"All right," Peggy murmured. "I will."
When Steve got up for his early morning run, he found them still there, side by side but not touching, watching in comfortable silence as the first red rays crept across the gray pre-dawn.
This is a story about family.
Superheroes had game nights, Peggy was bemused to discover. Drawn by the irrepressible enthusiasm of Darcy and Clint —and the promise of snacks — all the available residents had descended on the common area. Bruce passed out drinks; Thor popped pan after pan of popcorn; Sam set a cartoon to playing on the big TV. Natasha put on music, something low and cheerful, humming along as she set out the Tower's impressive array of games. Most of them Peggy had never seen before, but that was nothing new. And she had no shortage of willing teachers.
Tony and Jane spilled out of the elevator, chattering seemingly at cross-purposes, and made a beeline for the snacks. Darcy stopped bickering with Clint long enough to raise a reproachful eyebrow at the scientists. "Forget to eat lunch again?"
"No. Well, maybe." Jane bit the end off a piece of red licorice and pretended to look chagrined. "We got busy."
Tony ignored the rebuke completely in favor of a bowl of violently orange triangle-shaped snacks. He grabbed a handful, then nudged the bowl toward Peggy. "Doritos. A miracle of modern science," he said, and then giggled, for no reason at all that Peggy could discern.
She tried one. It was surprisingly good, for all that it stained her fingers orange.
A slight scuffle over the games table ended in Clint emerging triumphant, an oblong box held over his head. "Pictionary!" he crowed. "Pick your teams! Dibs Natasha."
Natasha just settled down at the large dining table, looking quietly pleased with herself.
Peggy turned enquiringly to Bruce, who handed her a bottle of black cherry soda and said, "It's like charades, except with drawing. It's actually pretty fun."
She was about to ask him to be on her team when Tony swooped in and snagged Bruce by the arm. "Science Bros!" he cried, and towed his conscript/teammate to the table.
Peggy looked around, uncertain, until someone sidled up silently beside her and nudged her arm. "You're my teammate," Bucky said with an air of decision. He crunched a dorito and regarded her solemnly, a hint of challenge in his eyes.
"Wouldn't you rather have Steve?"
"Steve ain't here," Bucky told her. "Besides, he is lousy at Pictionary. Proper art's too slow — you gotta draw stick-figures. That's my forté." He offered her his arm, as if to escort her to the dining table, so Peggy took it. The metal was cool but not unpleasant to the touch; she could feel a very faint vibration from the mechanism, oddly soothing under her hand.
At the table, five factions had taken shape. Jane was paired with Darcy, and Thor had partnered with a wary but smiling Sam. The first few rounds served to explain the rules and get everyone comfortable. There were a few false starts — Thor broke his pencil ("It is so tiny!"), and Tony kept knocking over the timer until Natasha took it away. And then:
"What the fuck is a 'fax' and how am I supposed to draw it?" Bucky demanded.
Peggy raised her eyebrows, either at the language, the rule violation, or the question itself. "Fax" did sound kind of lewd.
"Okay! House rule!" Darcy proclaimed. "Team Time Traveling Nonagenarians gets a free new word anytime they need it. Mmkay?"
No one objected, except for Bucky, over the team name, and Clint, because he wanted a team name too. There followed a five minute break for more snacks and team naming. Then the competition began in earnest.
Peggy discovered that, under Clint's bombast and Natasha's reserve, they were eerily in sync. Bruce and Tony's guesses often made no sense at all, but somehow still managed to mostly be right. Jane and Darcy were paired out of affection rather than any real mutual communication, Peggy surmised, and Sam and Thor together were hilariously bad. The "all play" rounds were exhilarating, noisy chaos, and Peggy laughed until she cried.
Peggy and Bucky, it turned out, made a very good team indeed. Her drawings were crude, but apparently effective, and Bucky's "stick figures" were surprisingly expressive.
"What?" Bucky smirked at her over his sketch of a startled-looking pelican. "Everybody always forgets me and Steve took those art classes together. He's the talent, but it's not like I was snoozing, either."
Darcy leaned over to see Bucky's notepad. "That one's going on the fridge," she decided. "Here, sign it, Big-Shot Artist Barnes." He did so, with a flourish, and she stuck it to the refrigerator with a sparkly snowflake magnet.
Another thing Peggy learned was that superheroes were stupidly competitive. Not that that should have come as a surprise, but... Tony and Clint were arguing at top volume over the results of JARVIS’s slow-motion holographic replay when the elevator doors slid open and Pepper and Steve stepped out. They were dressed to the nines, and Pepper was leaning tiredly on Steve's arm.
"Pep! Pepper, my love, come join us! Pull up a chair! Barton, I clearly started speaking several hundredths of a second before Natasha did; your point is invalid. How was the gala — opening — ball — thing?"
"The gallery opening was lovely, Tony," Pepper said, crossing the room to kiss him hello. "But I'm exhausted and my feet are killing me. I'm just going to head up to bed."
Tony pouted, but there was adoration in his gaze as he watched her pad back to the elevator, shoes in hand. Natasha took advantage of his distraction to award her team the point.
"Steve?" Sam called. "You wanna join in?"
Steve smiled. "Nah, I'm good. You guys go on. We have any leftovers? There's never any real food at those things." Without waiting for an answer, he headed for the kitchen area and began assembling sandwich ingredients, stopping briefly to admire the pelican sketch on the fridge.
Peggy took a lingering look. Steve in a tuxedo wasn't something she'd been privileged to witness before. As she watched, Steve absently loosed his bow tie, toed off his shoes, and shrugged off his jacket to hang it over a nearby chair. Then he bent over in his exquisitely tailored trousers to take something from a low shelf in the fridge...
Peggy jerked her gaze away hurriedly, a faint blush rising on her cheeks, only to see Bucky looking in exactly the same direction. Their eyes met for one mortifying moment, and then Bucky smirked, gave her a conspiratorial nod, and turned back to the game.
Steve leaned against the kitchen counter to watch the gameplay while he ate his sandwich. The group was rowdy, laughing, comfortable with each other. Bucky and Peggy had teamed together, it seemed. Steve looked on as Bucky drew something, then stabbed the drawing repeatedly with his pencil, and Peggy threw out a series of wild guesses, smiling all the while.
They looked — friendly. Their chairs were pulled close enough together that their knees almost touched. Bucky bumped Peggy with an elbow; she laid a hand on his arm while she talked. Bruce cracked a joke, and Peggy leaned into Bucky's shoulder as she laughed. Bucky drank from Peggy's soda by mistake, so Peggy stole his without batting an eye.
Steve watched from the other side of the room and thought he had never felt further away.
Back at the dining table, Clint drained his soda and pushed back in his chair. "Anyone want a refill?" He counted nods and collected empties, then sauntered over to the kitchen recycling bin.
Steve heard bottles clinking, the fridge open and close, but he couldn't stop watching the way Peggy smiled into Bucky's eyes.
Clint leaned against the counter next to Steve and took a long pull from his fresh bottle. "You look like my dog does whenever I take away his toys."
Steve frowned. "You don't have a dog."
Clint rolled his eyes. "You've met Lucky. He's my dog, he just lives with Kate. But you're missing the point."
"I'm fine." Steve turned his eyes back to the dining table. "I'm happy they're happy."
Clint sighed and stepped away from the counter, then turned back to face Steve. "Do yourself a favor, Cap. Google 'polyamory.' "
Tony and Darcy bickered over whose turn it was. Clint passed out sodas. Natasha flicked tiny paper balls at Bruce. Sam taught Thor to play “Hangman.” Jane doodled constellations. Bucky rested a casual arm over the back of Peggy's chair.
Steve pulled out his phone.
This is a story about love.
"Nice day out today," Steve said no no one in particular, staring out the window with what was almost certainly faux-innocence.
Bucky fixed him with a Look.
"Well, for February," Steve amended. It was a quiet afternoon, and there were just the three of them in the common living room. Bucky was midway through that week's issue of New Scientist, Peggy had curled up reading a book in the far corner, and Steve stood looking out the window, rocking back and forth on his heels with his hands shoved into his pockets. "I feel like going out," Steve continued. "You wanna go out, Buck? Peg? Get some fresh air?"
Bucky and Peggy exchanged a glance over their respective reading material. Peggy gave a minute shrug.
"Sure, Steve," said Bucky. "What did you have in mind?"
Steve smiled, his eyes shining with enthusiasm. "It's, ah — You'll see. It's one of my favorite places in 'new' New York."
Bucky frowned, like he wanted to ask more questions, but Peggy was already standing. She smiled at Steve and placed a careful bookmark. "I'll just get my coat."
What Steve had in mind turned out to be a little park, improbably elevated over the streets below. "I remember this!" Peggy gasped, as they climbed a flight of stairs to reach it.
Bucky, too, looked around with confused recognition. "Wasn't this a railway line?"
"Yeah." Steve smiled. "The trains stopped running, so this elevated line just sat here abandoned. Then about a decade ago some folks decided to turn it into a park." They reached the top of the stairs and emerged into a long, narrow garden.
Being winter, the landscape was sere and bare, painted in shades of yellow and brown. Benches were dotted alongside the broad path, and here and there remnants of railroad tracks could still be seen. Strange, modern sculptures rose from unruly plant beds. It was a cold day, near to dusk; the park was still and peaceful, almost deserted.
"I love it," Peggy breathed, her exhalation clouding in the chill air. She stepped forward to run a hand lightly over a clump of spiky grass.
"I come here with my sketchbook a lot when it's warmer. It's great people-watching, and there are new sculptures every few months. The park's even more beautiful when it's green."
"I don't doubt it," Peggy said, and walked to the park's far edge to take in the view.
Bucky joined her, having made a silent circle of everything in their near vicinity. "I like it, too," he decided. "Old meets new. It's nice."
Steve beamed. "It's actually pretty extensive — you wanna come see?"
They hadn't been walking long, though, when Peggy started to shiver. She hugged her arms to herself, then laughed at the expression of dismay on Steve's face. "You know," she told him, "the last time I was outside was in 1946 — and it wasn't winter. I'll be fine."
That didn't stop Steve from trying to to warm her up. "Here, take my coat."
She held up a hand to stop him before he could shrug it all the way off. "You need that. Besides, it would swim on me."
“We could go someplace warmer. There’s a nice little coffee shop just down there,” he persisted, pointing.
Peggy planted her feet and glared at Steve in exasperation. "We've only just arrived!"
Bucky rolled his eyes at both of them. "Here," he said to Peggy, taking off his scarf and winding it around her neck. To Steve, he said, "Give the lady your gloves. And switch sides with me." That accomplished, he slid his flesh arm neatly around her waist and pulled her close. Steve, on Peggy's other side, followed suit, and draped a heavy arm across her shoulders.
Peggy stood stiffly for a moment between them, and then slowly relaxed. "That is better.” She cast a suspicious glance up at each of them. "You're very warm."
Steve gave a small self-deprecating shrug. "It's the serum." With a crooked grin: "I'm always running hot."
They proceeded down the path a little further, admiring the views in companionable silence. "If I didn't know better, Captain," Peggy said thoughtfully, "I'd think you planned all this."
Steve coughed. "Ah..."
"Really, Rogers?" Bucky rounded on him. "Freezing our girl to death was your plan?"
Peggy arched an eyebrow at Bucky. "Our girl?"
Bucky inclined his head and twisted his mouth in a peculiar sorry not sorry gesture. "Steve's the one who planned to freeze you."
Peggy narrowed her eyes at him, but turned back to Steve. "Yes. Please do explain."
"I wasn't trying to —" Steve sighed. "I learned something a little while ago and I thought maybe —“ He stopped talking to rub his forehead with his free hand.
Both Peggy and Bucky watched him, waiting.
Steve squared his shoulders and tried again. "Did you know that these days, a person can have a best girl and a best guy? At the same time? …If everyone's willing," he hastened to amend.
Bucky barked out a short, disbelieving laugh. "This a date, Rogers?"
"I'd like it to be."
“Yeah." Bucky took a slow breath. "Okay."
Steve's answering smile was brilliant. He lifted the hand that had been curved around Peggy's arm and used it to squeeze Bucky gently on the shoulder. For a moment the two men simply gazed at each other, smiling soft and a little uncertain.
Then Peggy found the full weight of both pairs of blue eyes on her.
Bucky slanted her a grin. "Well, Peg, what do you say? You and Steve?"
Peggy stopped in her tracks. "First of all, let's get one thing straight," she said, and twisted in their arms to take Bucky's face in both hands and kiss him very thoroughly indeed.
Very thoroughly. It took a while.
When she surfaced, Bucky wore a dazed expression, his eyes gone half-lidded and his mouth open in a perfect red-smeared "O." And there, on her right, was Steve, watching her. Watching them, his eyes hot and intent. Slowly, with wonderful inevitability, he reached up with one large hand to cradle the back of her head, fingers sliding gently through loose curls. She went on tiptoe to meet him, and it was everything a first kiss in a second life should be.
“Well,” said Bucky when they finally parted. "Okay, then." They began walking once more, wearing three variations on the same satisfied smile.
Soon, though, Peggy stopped them for the third time. "Aren't you men forgetting something?" she asked with a frown.
Steve and Bucky each sent her a quizzical look.
She looked at Steve, looked at Bucky, then back to Steve. Cocked an eyebrow.
Steve's look of incomprehension quickly changed to another expression entirely.
Bucky's mouth curved into something small and hopeful. "What the lady wants...?"
Steve rolled his eyes and reached for Bucky in the same instant Bucky reached for him. They met halfway, Peggy still between them, and if there was a better view in this new world Peggy hadn't seen it yet. She took the opportunity to slip her arms around them, close and secure, and bask in their shared heat.
"Gentlemen," she said, when Steve and Bucky broke apart for breath. Her eyes glinted wickedly in the fast-falling dark. "Now you may take me somewhere else to warm me up."
Steve swallowed his tongue again, and Bucky laughed out loud.