Chapter 1: Beyond the Sea
It was called Project Briar Rose.
An American experiment in prolonged cryogenic stasis, for use in long-distance space travel. They still thought extraterrestrial colonization might be the answer to the world’s problems in those days.
And because it would be colonization, with all that the term implied, they were particularly interested in the effects of stasis on women of child-bearing age. Fortunately, the end of the war had yielded a bumper crop of young, fit, spirited candidates, most of whom were persuaded to go through the screening process with the addition of a relatively small incentive.
Thousands of women were interviewed, hundreds screened, and twenty of the finest specimens were selected to undergo the full procedure.
Subject number thirteen was Margaret Carter.
“What in the hell is wrong with you?” Howard demanded.
Feigning supreme indifference, Peggy took a last long drag of her cigarette before tapping it out in the ashtray. “Perhaps that’s a question best directed to the head of the Special Operations Executive.”
Howard automatically retrieved a gold-plated cigarette case from some interior pocket of his white dinner jacket. He flipped the case open and offered it to her, but she waved him away. He was already paying for her drinks, and she didn’t like to feel too indebted.
It was a typical Saturday night at the Stork Club. Howard had taken her twice since she’d arrived in New York, although the first time had been (understandably) a fairly dismal affair. This time, she was determined to make a proper go of it, and had even bought a new dress for the occasion. Her companion obviously approved.
“No one’s pink-slipped you yet,” he pointed out.
“It’s only a matter of time.” Peggy’s style never failed to get things done, but it also didn’t win her any admirers. She also had reason to suspect that at least one of her superiors at SOE was a Soviet sympathizer. “I don’t fancy being a typist or working in a shop.” She’d done both before the war, before shedding her old life like it was a dress she’d outgrown.
He made a derisive noise. “You want a job? Hell, I’ll give you that. Come with me to California. I’ll give you more work than you can handle.” And, in case she missed the undertone of the offer, he raised a single, shameless eyebrow.
Peggy had been to bed with Howard twice already: once, because she’d been grieving, and he’d been comforting; and again, simply because he’d offered and she’d felt like it. She didn’t regret it, but neither did she intend to make it a pattern. Neither of them were the marrying type.
“I’d rather not,” she demurred.
“This is because of him, isn’t it?”
It was, and it wasn’t. The loss of Steve Rogers had been a blow, but the way she’d reacted in the wake of it was, she felt, symptomatic of something larger. She felt as though she’d been born in the war, born of the war—as though she’d been pushed out of it, covered in blood and gasping for air, never having known anything else. She wasn’t prepared to face this brave new world at peace. It terrified her.
However, experience had taught her that if she was frightened of something, the best way to conquer that fear was to embrace it, and take out the change in bad dreams if you had to. The future was the only undiscovered country left, and she was determined to meet it head-on.
“It’s because of me,” she corrected. In the periphery of her vision, couples were dancing. Celebrating. Falling in love. It made her feel tired. Perhaps, she thought wryly, the long sleep would do her good.
“Fifty years,” he mused, his tone laced with regret. “I’ll be an old man the next time we see each other.”
“And still a preening peacock, no doubt.”
“Still chasing unavailable girls, no doubt.”
“I mean it. Come with me.” He leaned forward, reaching out to clasp her hand between both of his.
“You know I can’t.”
“I think I’m in love with you.”
“Ridiculous. Get your elbows off the table,” she said sternly.
He pulled back, lit a cigarette without offering one to her, and smoked angrily for some moments, hunched forward as though someone were about to fight him for it. Peggy could feel her patience for his theatrics wearing thin.
She didn’t want to leave things like this. Not after everything they’d been through together. But soft promises and longing looks had never been her style.
“Well?” she said briskly.
He folded his arms and gave her a dour look. “Well what?”
“Shall we have another dance, or are you going to sulk for the rest of the evening?”
“I need a restorative first. Your mood swings are giving me whiplash.” Quick as a cat, Howard reached out and snagged a passing waiter by the sleeve. “Scotch on the rocks,” he said, “and a Dubonnet and gin for the lady.”
Peggy nodded her approval. Howard Stark was mercurial at the best of times, but at least he always remembered what one liked to drink.
The evening before her procedure, Peggy went to Coney Island.
She’d never been, but it was a place that Steve had spoken of with wistful fondness. She’d long since taken her leave of Captain America, at one of the numerous, hastily-erected monuments to Brooklyn’s favourite son; it felt more honest here, where where she knew he’d been happy, to say goodbye to Steve Rogers.
It had been a bright, blue-sky day, and even at dusk the beach was still littered with sunbathers. One young couple lay sprawled on a picnic blanket with the man’s head resting on the girl’s stomach. He was blond and broad-shouldered, his stomach and knees dusted with powdery sand, and as the girl’s hand tangled in his hair, Peggy looked away, embarrassed.
The amusement park wasn’t what it had been before the war—but then again, she reflected, few things were. Fire and neglect had conquered many of the landmarks Steve had mentioned, making it feel as though the edge of the war had somehow blossomed outwards and grazed this tiny patch of New York. But the Wonder Wheel was still there, as was the Parachute Jump, and the Cyclone. And—most relevant to Peggy’s interests—there was a shooting gallery.
She paid the exhorbitant price of twenty-five cents for the privilege of firing rounds of modified .22 caliber shot at several rotating rows of tin ducks. They made a very satisfying thunk! as they keeled over, one by one. The exercise put her in mind of an odd expression Steve had sometimes used: like shooting fish in a barrel.
The spotty teenage boy working the booth whistled admiringly, his shirt coming untucked at the back as he climbed up to fetch her prize. He was tall and raw-boned, long slender wrists poking out of gnawed cuffs. The slope of his thin shoulders reminded her of Steve, before the procedure. She couldn’t help looking at him appraisingly, wondering what infirmity or defect was keeping him out of the army—then she remembered, with a start, that the war was over.
“Fine shooting, for a dame,” said the boy, holding out a Captain America doll. She must have given him a strange look, because he asked cheekily, “You know who that is, yer majesty?”
“I’m from London,” she said archly, snatching the toy from his hand. “Not Mars.” Not yet, anyhow.
“Well, la-di-da,” said the impudent rascal, and tipped his hat mockingly. The grin and the sass put her in mind of some of the American soldiers she’d known—except, of course, that she would never have let an enlisted man speak to her like that.
She waited until she was some distance from the booth before sitting down on a bench to examine the doll. She turned it over in her hands several times, tracing the coarse stitching with a single finger. It was poorly-made and slightly overstuffed, the seams already threatening to pop. The details of its attire appeared to have been taken from Steve’s gaudy U.S.O. tour costume, rather than the sleek body armour he’d been issued for combat. She doubted that Steve’s estate would see any royalties—which was probably just as well, as he would have been uncomfortable with this use of his image for profit.
A dense weight seemed to settle on her chest, hot tears prickling behind her eyes. She was tempted to pitch the toy into the Atlantic where it could join its namesake, but it felt wasteful, to say nothing of disrespectful. He had done what any good soldier ought—what she herself had trained him for. It was despicably selfish to be so angry at him for leaving her.
She wondered, not for the first time, how he had met his end. Would it have been instant, his extraordinary body shattered by the violent impact? Or slow and painful, icy water like a knife lodged in his windpipe? Did he cry out? Say a prayer? Curse his maker? Call for his mother, as dying boys often did? Peggy had seen enough soldiers die to be able to picture the scene in gruesome detail, a thousand different ways.
In the end, she did for the Captain America doll what she could never do for the real Steve Rogers: she held it close to her heart, and she carried it safely home.
She lay in an egg-shaped cradle, naked but for a sheet. She thought of the way the steel pod had clamped shut on Steve like a giant metal hand—or like a coffin, she’d been unable to stop herself from thinking at the time, claustrophobic on his behalf even before the screams had started.
She wondered whether there was anyone in the gallery watching her with anything other than clinical disinterest. She hoped Howard hadn’t come; she’d asked him not to, but it would be just like the man to ignore what might very well be her last wishes.
They gave her a series of injections, then had her count aloud, backwards from one hundred. She made it to fifty before her eyes unfocused, as though she were wearing thick spectacles.
“Keep going,” the nurse encouraged, her features hazy and indistinct.
But Peggy had only the vaguest notion of what she’d been doing, what she’d been talking about. “I’ll try not to scream,” she said reassuringly.
The nurse nodded. “That’s very kind of you, dear. How do you feel?”
“Why don’t you go to sleep?”
The overhead lights were very hot and bright, and their haloes made Peggy’s eyes water. So she closed her eyes. Just for a moment.
Chapter 2: We'll Meet Again
The world had moved on while Peggy Carter had been asleep.
She woke to find that Project Briar Rose had been discontinued. No one in their right mind thought of space travel as a long-term solution anymore. Which was just as well, since the procedure had a number of extremely unpleasant after-effects.
Peggy couldn’t keep solid food down; she suffered from vertigo so intense she could barely stand, let alone walk; the lights hurt her eyes to the point where she had to wear dark glasses. She had to learn everything over again: grasping objects, going to the toilet unaided, moving her mouth around the syllables of her mother tongue.
She counted herself fortunate, however; she was the only candidate who had survived the procedure.
Lucky number thirteen.
To add insult to indignity, almost seventy years had passed. They hadn’t even been bothered to wake her up on time—“they” being SHIELD, a sort of modern-day bastard child of the SSR. Apparently, the Briar Rose subjects had simply languished in a subterranean vault, until a renewed interest in cryogenics had prompted someone to take a second look.
An endless parade of specialists seemed indecently keen to get a look in, and there wasn’t a single part of her that wasn’t inspected and recorded for posterity. Over the course of several weeks, as she slowly gained her land legs, they put her through the full gauntlet of tests—physical and psychological, invasive and exhaustive.
Eventually, once she progressed to the point of being able to cross a room without clinging to the wall for support, she was relocated to the long-term care unit of the medical wing. She had her own quarters, including an ensuite with a proper bathtub, and her specialized meals and medications were delivered at scheduled times and left outside her door.
She still had daily visits with her doctors: one who insisted that she move her aching muscles daily, one who told her she couldn’t smoke anymore, and an extremely patronizing one who told her she needed to grieve for everything she’d left behind—as if not blubbering like a schoolgirl meant she wasn’t grieving.
She soon had concrete proof that her newfound privacy was merely illusory. One morning, she fell into a protracted reverie while examining the pink plastic safety razor she’d been issued as part of her bathing supplies; the next thing she knew, she was being accosted by two burly attendants in white scrubs, one of whom wrestled the thing from her hand as though it were a pistol. It took a three-hour session with her psychiatrist before she could convince him that she could be trusted to shave her legs.
The entire exercise struck her as ludicrous, considering the number of everyday items in her room that she could have employed with deadly force, had she been inclined towards self-immolation. But she didn’t fancy having her reading lamp or her bedsheets confiscated, so she kept her observations to herself.
In between tests and treatments, her psychiatrist screened a series of educational films: historical documentaries, newsreels, biographies of prominent figures. This last included a short piece on visionary industrialist-turned-superhero Anthony Stark, during which his parents’ death was mentioned only briefly, almost as an afterthought.
Peggy waited until she was back in her quarters before indulging in a protracted cry. Stiff upper lip be damned.
“I’d like to meet him,” she told the psychiatrist the following morning. “Howard Stark’s boy.”
“He’s not exactly a boy,” said the doctor.
Peggy bristled. She hated this, hated having to sit and be handled, as though she were a particularly backward child. “I am acquainted with the use of the calendar,” she replied coldly. “I don’t care how old he is. I really must see him.”
“A little hostile today, aren’t we?”
He made a note. “I think we should adjust your medication.”
Peggy retreated into her chair and folded her arms. “I think we’d prefer not.” She didn’t see what the point was in always saying we when she obviously had no say in any of his decisions. (She was, however, pleased to note that the cameras obviously hadn’t picked up on the fact that she’d experimented with her pills for weeks, in order to find and weed out the blue ones that made her want to sleep the day away.)
He nodded, as if in assent, then said, “We’ll just tweak the dosage a little bit.”
“When can you arrange for me to meet Anthony Stark?” she pressed.
The doctor made a regretful sort of clucking noise. “I’ll check on that. But I think his calendar’s probably pretty full.”
There were two blue pills in her medication tray that night. She disposed of them in the sink while brushing her teeth.
It turned out that getting to meet Howard’s son in person wasn’t the insurmountable task she’d expected it to be—because, quite unexpectedly, he was just as eager to meet her as she was to meet him.
“So you’re the one that got away,” said Anthony (‘call me Tony’) mere moments after they’d been introduced.
“He told you that? How very inappropriate.” She knew she wasn’t supposed to smoke, but she thought it was rather rude of him not to offer her a cigarette. Even his father had been able to rise to that level of civility.
He glanced up at the ceiling and grimaced before looking back at her. He had the most remarkable set of features, and seemed forever to be pulling faces. She was tempted to tell him that his mouth would stick that way if the wind changed. He also had Howard’s piercing gaze, which was at this particular moment aimed at her bosom. She crossed her arms over said bosom and fixed him with a forbidding look.
“He left a provision for you in his will,” he explained, redirecting to look her in the eye. “I thought that was a little weird, even for him—leaving money to someone who’d been missing for such a long time. So I figured you two must’ve had something going.”
“He knew of the project,” she confirmed, deliberately ignoring the latter statement. “He was partially responsible for the technology that made it possible.”
“Yeah, Dad had his fingers in a lot of pies around here.”
Quietly, she said, “He was a good man.”
“Genius, philanthropist. Savior of the free world.” He said by rote, it as though he were reciting bible verses in Sunday school.
“No, I mean… he was a good friend. And I suppose—I suppose I cared for him, after a fashion.” For all the good it did either of them to admit it now, she thought. Seeing Tony smirk, she added, “Not in the way you’re thinking.”
“What was he like?”
The question caught her off-guard; Tony was an adult, or nearly, at the time of his father’s accident. He would have known Howard better than she, certainly?
“Oh, well. Rather like you,” she replied. “Handsome, self-assured, far too clever for his own good.”
Tony nodded, his face suddenly inscrutable. Peggy got the sense that she’d disappointed him somehow with her description.
“Daring to the point of foolhardiness,” she added.
“What do you mean?”
“Well… as an example, one night, he helped me fly another friend across enemy lines. Without orders, you understand—and Howard was a civilian. We were almost shot out of the sky. He thought the whole thing quite a grand adventure.”
“I heard about that. Steve Rogers, right?”
Peggy actually flinched when he said the name—she hadn’t been expecting it quite so soon. “Yes,” she said curtly, trying to still her fluttering hands. “Your father told you that story?”
“Steve told me.”
She examined his face, trying to discern where the joke was, what the punchline would be. “Bullshit,” she declared.
Tony looked impressed. “Don’t you mean ‘bollocks’?”
“I know what I mean, you arrogant bloody—” She paused and took a deep breath; she’d be damned if she was going to lose her composure in front of this man, this stranger mocking her with Howard’s smile. “I know to you he’s probably just a—a picture in a history book, but to me he was—”
“I’m not making fun of you. I thought you were all up to date on current events? We found him.”
She gaped at him.
“Well, I mean, I didn’t personally find him, but… yeah. They dug him up just off the coast of Greenland a couple of years back, and he’s been here ever since.”
Peggy felt as though she’d taken a blow to the chest, her heart stammering painfully against her ribs. He means the body, you silly thing, she told herself sternly. Steve must be buried somewhere nearby. She wondered whether the doctors would let her go and pay her respects. Whether it counted as part of her much-vaunted grieving process.
She braced herself and asked, very carefully, “What exactly do you mean, he’s here?”
“I mean he’s here in New York. Living, breathing, doing whatever it is he does. Wearing Haggar slacks with impunity. Going to diners for the early bird special. Yelling at kids to get off his lawn. We’ve been working on a little project together, maybe you’ve heard of it? The Avengers Initiative?”
She hadn’t, and in fact most of what he’d just said made very little sense to her, but through all of the nonsense she was able to grasp the most essential fact: Steve was alive.
Tony, meanwhile, was having an epiphany. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier,” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers. “You were friends with my dad. Of course you knew Captain Underpants. Was he as big of an asshole then as he is now? Because…”
Quite unexpectedly, Peggy started to cry—haltingly at first, then more steadily, weeping as though her heart were fit to burst. “Oh, damn,” she said helplessly, unable to stem the tide. “Oh, fuck.”
For the first time since she’d met him, Tony looked unsure of himself. “I said he’s alive,” he reiterated, loudly, as though she were hard of hearing or perhaps a bit dull-witted.
She dabbed at her face with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. She wished he’d do the decent thing and leave the room, give her a moment to collect herself.
Instead, he reached over and awkwardly patted her back. “I’m a big fan of the swearing,” he said encouragingly. “Rogers never curses.”
Inexplicably, this only served to make her cry harder.
Despite his relative ineptitude when it came to comforting crying women, Tony Stark’s famed mechanical prowess apparently extended to greasing the wheels of SHIELD’s bureaucracy machine. He telephoned the following afternoon to inform her that Steve was available to see her at her earliest convenience.
However, it was another, interminably long week before Peggy was able to summon sufficient rhetorical mastery to convince her psychiatrist. He finally agreed to a supervised visit, on the condition that Steve would meet with the doctor privately first.
“You aren’t going to tell him about that ridiculous business with the razor, I hope?” she inquired.
The doctor made a note. “Why shouldn’t I tell him about the razor, Margaret?”
Not for the first time, she wondered exactly how much trouble she’d be in if she belted her psychiatrist in the mouth.
The morning of Steve’s visit, she pulled out every item in her motley wardrobe and pored over them despairingly.
The only thing she had that wasn’t standard issue from the SHIELD medical wing was the plain, practical outfit she’d worn to the lab the morning of the procedure. This had been stored with the rest of the project materials, and included a threadbare wool walking skirt; an indifferent grey jumper that it had taken her most of the war to finish knitting; and a set of underthings, somewhat stiff and yellow with age. (Her nylons appeared to have vanished entirely, causing her to suspect they’d simply been pinched by some shrewd young female archivist.)
Moths had been at the waistband of the skirt during the intervening years; fortunately, that bit was hidden by the hem of the sweater, which had borne up rather well and still had enough ease to flatter her figure. It wasn’t exactly finery, but it was clean and tidy, and most importantly, it was her own.
She tried in vain for the better part of an hour to coax her hair into some semblance of a style, but in the end was forced to settle for pinning it back with elastics and kirby grips. She hadn’t been issued any makeup, but she still remembered the old tricks: she pinched her cheeks until they blushed becomingly, and bit the colour back into her lips. No one wore powder anymore anyhow.
The person watching the cameras in her room probably thought she was quite mad, she mused, stepping away from the mirror to survey the results. They were unimpressive in many respects: she was still too thin, too pale, too bare. But she was, unmistakably, herself.
At ten on the dot, Peggy was escorted to another level of the complex. Two SHIELD agents led her down a long, narrow hallway to a conference room. The door was ajar, and as she entered the room, she caught a glimpse of a long hand, resting on the conference table. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she was seized by panic—he wasn’t supposed to be there yet, she wasn’t ready, she didn’t know the layout of the room, she needed more time, she—
And then she was in the room, her feet having carried her there of their own volition while the rest of her was paralyzed by indecision.
And there he was.
He was exactly the same: an unyielding mass of strong, straight lines (chiseled cheek and jaw, stalwart spine and solid chest) tempered here and there by unexpected gentleness (soft rosy lips and gently curved brows, rounded shoulders, wide eyes fringed by dark, curling lashes). His uniform was different, and had obviously never seen combat, but he wore it the same way: tailored to the swooning-point and perfectly pressed, brass winking in the light. He’d been heavily decorated—mostly posthumously, she remembered.
She longed to say something, anything, but instead she froze, rooted to the spot at the crucial moment, gaping.
He rose from his chair and stared back at her, looking as stunned as she felt.
As she usually did when she was feeling nervous or vulnerable, Peggy defaulted to her strengths. “Close your mouth, Captain,” she said briskly, “before you catch flies.”
He snapped his mouth shut, colour flooding into his cheeks.
She smiled. “It’s good to see you.” Then, acutely conscious of the room’s two-way mirror, she walked over to him and took his hand.
“You too,” he said softly, his long fingers closing carefully over hers. Then, with more confidence: “You’re late.”
Peggy didn’t want a handshake and a quip; she wanted to launch herself into his arms and kiss him until her knees buckled. But this wasn’t the war, and he wasn’t running off to do something reckless. And people were watching.
“You didn’t leave me clear directions to the rendezvous,” she replied evenly.
It was an easy volley, but he let it fly by, confessing instead, “I tried to find you. Your file said you were MIA.” And that was Steve Rogers, all over: compulsively forthright. “I didn’t think…”
“I didn’t either.” Peggy could tell there was a very real danger of her bursting into tears if they continued in this vein. Casting about for a change of topic, she observed, “You’ve cut your hair shorter.”
He scrubbed his knuckles self-consciously over the top of his head, making the hair stand up in all directions. “Yep. What do you think?”
The truth was, it looked unkempt, sloppy. Even so, her fingertips itched to test the pile of those short blond hackles.
“It’s very… modern,” she said honestly.
He nodded, with a rueful grin. “Well, good news is, last time I checked, my name was Steven, not Samson.”
“Steve…” She paused, uncertain.
To her surprise, he reached out and enfolded her in a hug. He even smelled the way she remembered—carbolic soap and Clubman aftershave. Clean, warm, honest, safe.
She pressed her flushed face against his chest, blotting her tears on his lapel. “Steve,” she said again, and started to shake.
His big arms tightened around her. She felt chaotic, breathless, but also—paradoxically—still and quiet, as though she’d wandered into the eye of a storm. The trembling gradually subsided, and she could feel her breathing slowing to match his, the knot of anxiety in her chest beginning to unravel.
For the first time since she’d woken up in this strange place, she felt a sense of coming home.
“So,” he said, calm and sure. “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
Chapter 3: I'll Be Seeing You
I'm still not completely satisfied with this, but I've decided that I'm through fussing with it. So here you go! Whee!
Peggy and her psychiatrist reached a tentative détente: Steve was allowed to visit twice a week, two hours at a time, as long as it didn’t interfere with her treatment schedule or “cause too much trouble.” Exactly what variety of trouble the doctor expected a celebrated war hero to cause wasn’t made precisely clear, and Peggy sensed that this was not the hill to die on.
Truth be told, the discussions with the doctor were helpful in keeping her grounded; she’d had moments, in the hours and days after Steve’s first visit, when she’d wondered whether their entire meeting were simply a delusion, a sign that she had fully and irrevocably lost her already tenuous grip on her sanity.
As per the new arrangement, Steve returned bright and early Wednesday morning. His hair was windblown, his tie slightly askew, and he had an imposing stack of books tucked under his arm, giving the overall impression of a very large, very wayward schoolboy. There were dark spots of rain on the shoulders of his uniform jacket—a startling reminder of how long it had been since she’d been outdoors.
“Nice digs,” he pronounced, taking in the entire room with a quick, cursory glance. Then, rather unnecessarily: “Brought you some books.”
“Did you really? I hadn’t noticed.” She’d been aiming for a playfully innocent tone, but overshot the mark right into wide-eyed simpering.
“Mm-hmm.” He removed his jacket and carefully, almost ceremonially, folded it over her chair.
He sat next to her on the tiny bed, knees at an acute angle, and gave a concise, thoughtful summary of each book as he handed it to her. There were history books, philosophy books, books on modern political thought, books on popular culture, and books whose subjects were unclear.
Peggy perched, the books stacked between them, and listened. He moved and spoke with such compelling certainty; he seemed at ease in this new world, in a way he never quite had in the old one. Steve Rogers, it seemed, had been a man ahead of his time.
“It’s awfully decent of you to bring so many,” she told him, once he’d completed his review of the last volume in the collection. “I can’t thank you enough.” (The base, treacherous part of her mind had a few suggestions about how this might be accomplished, which she resolutely ignored.)
He ducked his head modestly, peeking at her through lashes that were even thicker than she remembered. “Happy to help.”
“I hope you won’t miss them too terribly?”
He smiled. “Plenty more where these came from.”
She’d forgotten how much he liked to read; there had been a running joke among the boys in his unit, something about there being no room under his new battle suit to smuggle books.
He explained about the SHIELD cultural immersion program he’d had to complete before they’d let him resume active duty. It was meant for defectors and the like (which, of course, it would be; how many people could there possibly be in Steve’s unique circumstances?) but they’d admitted him just the same, and the experience had been beneficial. He’d spent a couple of months in training, and then a semester of study at CUNY. “My grades were lousy,” he confided.
Peggy was perusing the back cover of a slightly rippled blue paperback with the bewildering title of Voltaire’s Bastards. “Tony Stark claims you never swear,” she mused, tapping the book with her fingernail.
Steve shook his head, smiling indulgently. “Tony Stark doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”
“I don’t know whether he told you about what I said when I heard you were alive? I quite shocked him.”
“People around here are under the impression that this generation invented swearing. Along with reefer and dirty pictures.”
“I wish they had,” she declared. “You have no idea how many French postcards I confiscated during basic training alone.”
Steve’s gaze flicked up to the ceiling, then to the wall behind her. He looked so decidedly culpable that she almost laughed. Instead, she kept a very straight face and watched him pointedly, until finally he cleared his throat, indicated the book in her hands and said, “Yeah, so. Let me know what you think.”
She nodded, not wanting to speak for fear of betraying her amusement. In some ways, he really hadn’t changed. She thought about reaching out, trying to tame his hair a little, but couldn’t quite summon the nerve.
“Hey,” he said softly, tapping a square of peach-coloured adhesive plastic on her forearm. “You mind telling me how this happened?” There was an undertone of concern in his voice. That damned razor, she thought.
“It’s not a plaster. It’s…” What had the doctor called it? “…medication, to stop me smoking.”
He nodded, looking relieved. “Nicotine patch.”
She touched a finger to her nose. “Got it in one.”
“Yeah, that’s good. Smoking… it isn’t good for you.”
“Oh, believe me, I’ve been made well aware. I have a crack squad of medical professionals here dedicated to keeping me alive, seemingly indefinitely. Regardless of my feelings on the matter.”
It was meant to be a joke, but Steve didn’t laugh.
“It was rather a frightful habit, I suppose,” she continued hurriedly. She wished that she could take back the comment, or that she could put her hand up to his face and smooth away the worried little wrinkle in his brow.
“But you miss it.”
“Do you know, I do? It steadied the nerves. It was a way of keeping the time. And it gave one something to do with one’s… ” Her voice broke before she could quite get the last word out. Wretchedly, she locked her hands together in her lap.
Steve reached over and covered both of her hands with his large one, the warmth of his skin seeping into hers.
They stayed just like that, not moving, not speaking again, until an orderly knocked on the door.
Later that night, after waking from a dream in which Steve’s hands featured prominently, she resented the cameras more than ever.
Like the other patients at the SHIELD recovery centre, Peggy’s personalized schedule included physical therapy. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, she was to use the gymnasium on her floor to work on rebuilding what she’d lost during her long sleep.
Peggy loathed the gymnasium. It wasn’t that she disliked exercise—quite the contrary—but doing it in this strange, sterile environment, surrounded by machines instead of people, made her feel quite depersonalized (a word she’d learned from her dreadful psychiatrist). And the whole endeavour struck her as rather silly. Who on earth would choose to ride a stationary bicycle when they could ride a real one and actually get somewhere?
When she arrived at her usual time, there was a man occupying one of the machines. He was lying down, pushing a relatively small amount of weight with one of his legs, gritting his teeth with the effort. He glanced up as she entered the room.
“Pardon me,” she said, checking her watch. She wondered whether she ought to go back to her room and look at her schedule again.
He swung his legs around and sat up, remarkably quickly. “Hey,” he said, wiping his face with a towel. “My new gym buddy. What are you in for?”
She gave him a blank stare.
“How did you hurt yourself?” He passed the towel quickly over his brow and brush cut before tossing it on the floor beside the machine. He had a canny sort of face, and clear grey eyes that followed her as she crossed the room to the treadmill.
“Oh, I’m not…” She wasn’t sure how much to explain, or whether she ought to explain at all.
He nodded. “Classified?”
“Yes,” she said, taking the easy out. She arranged her water bottle and her towel around her and pressed the buttons that started her usual routine. “And you?”
His eyes darkened, and he looked at her guardedly for a long moment. “You must be new,” he said finally.
If only you knew, she thought. Aloud, she said, “Hm. Rather.”
“I tore the shit out of my ACL,” he said, turning to lie on his back again.
Peggy nodded as though she knew what that meant.
“My knee. I had knee surgery.”
Which explained the ludicrously small amount of weight he was using. “Yes, of course.”
“Where’re you from?” he asked, the same way everyone asked the moment she said more than a couple of words—as though they weren’t really invested in any answer other than ‘not here.’
“Yeah. Where, though?” he persisted, pushing his weights again, slowly and steadily.
“Doesn’t sound like it.”
“And I suppose you’re an expert?” she retorted, before it crossed her mind that he actually might be. SHIELD employed all kinds of specialists, although the fellow’s formidable arms suggested he probably wasn’t a dialectician.
“No,” he grunted. “It was just an observation.”
“Where are you from, then?”
He tipped his head back and grinned at her, upside down. “Nowhere.”
“Are you a friend?”
“A friend of whom?”
“Okay,” he said, even though she hadn’t really answered his question. Peggy felt, not for the first time, as though she’d stepped through the looking-glass. She wondered whether anything in this strange place would ever make sense to her.
She decided it was best if she didn’t speak to him again.
By the time Steve’s next visit rolled around, Peggy was ready to attempt solid food, so he gallantly offered to escort her on her first outing to the main floor cafeteria. It was also her first glimpse of the larger SHIELD campus that existed beyond the medical wing, and she realized that she’d underestimated the sheer vastness of the facility.
The cafeteria was busy, but not crowded. They stood in line surrounded by all manner of people—Peggy couldn’t even begin to guess at what they all did, as all of their clothing looked so very strange. The snippets of conversation she was able to make out were peppered with unfamiliar words and phrases; even when she was quite certain that it was English they were speaking, the way they spoke seemed so very affected.
Steve loaded his tray with everything in sight: roast beef, green beans, broccoli, a mountain of mashed potatoes, sticky orange noodles. Cake and pie for dessert. Apparently his legendary appetite hadn’t lessened with the passage of time.
Peggy selected whatever looked most familiar: a cold ham sandwich, a bowl of vegetable soup, a rippling wedge of green jelly topped with a dollop of cream.
The cream turned out to be synthetic and the soup far too salty. The sandwich was fine, if a bit bland, the bread marshmallow-soft.
They were deep in discussion of the books Steve had loaned her when a young woman approached their table. She was absolutely stunning, with the fresh face of an ingenue and a sleek coppery bob just slightly too red to be natural, and she moved with a fluid sort of grace.
The stranger placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder, purring, “Nice uniform.” Her voice was low and smoky.
Peggy expected him to blush and stammer, as he usually did when a pretty girl paid him some attention. Steve, however, did neither, merely tipping his head back and smiling up at her. “Thanks.”
It was then that Peggy noticed: Steve was the only person in the room in identifiably military dress. This wasn’t what he normally wore, she realized. He was doing it to humour her. She wondered whether it was something her doctor had recommended—or, worse still, something he and Steve had decided on together.
Peggy had never put much stock in the power of prayer, but in that moment she actually, honestly prayed for a cigarette.
“How’s it going?” Steve was asking the girl, who shrugged eloquently. “That good?” he teased. Then, seized by a belated attack of courtesy, he made introductions: “Natasha, this is my friend, Peggy Carter. Peggy, this is Natasha, one of my colleagues.”
Peggy raised an eyebrow. Apparently, Natasha either did not possess or did not merit a surname.
The two women exchanged appraising looks: Natasha wore a sleek, skin-tight version of the standard SHIELD uniform, and Peggy felt suddenly self-conscious in her outmoded skirt and ratty jumper. Nevertheless, she said, “Lovely to meet you,” in as cordial a tone as she could muster, and offered her hand. Like the rest of her, Natasha’s fingers were small, slender, and ice-cold.
“Yes. I’ve heard a lot about you,” replied the other woman.
“How odd. I haven’t heard anything at all about you,” said Peggy, somewhat cattily.
Rather than responding in kind, Natasha simply nodded and said, “Enjoy your lunch.” She petted Steve’s shoulder a final time and sashayed off.
Peggy affected an air of disinterest and remarked, “She seems very nice.” The truth was, she had seemed nothing of the sort; Peggy had found her to be rather off-putting.
Steve popped in a mouthful of food, and bobbed his head enthusiastically as he chewed and swallowed. “Oh, yeah. She’s great.”
“Have you worked together long?”
“A little while. She was assigned to brief me when I first started working with SHIELD.” Seemingly as an aside, he added, “We dated for a bit.”
Peggy paused with her fork midway to her mouth, thinking she must have either misheard or misunderstood. “Pardon?”
“Natasha and I used to go out together,” he repeated, more slowly, and she observed that the tips of his ears had gone pink.
So, not a misunderstanding, then.
“I see,” Peggy replied. She set the fork down carefully, uncertain of where to look or what to do next. There was absolutely no reason why this ought to bother her, she told herself sternly. It wasn’t as though the two of them had made binding promises to one another—they’d kissed, once, and barely that. She saw that moment in her mind as Steve must see it: a curiosity, an artifact belonging to another life.
Steve asked, “Did you ever—was there anyone special? After the war?”
She toyed with the idea of telling him about Howard… but what was there to tell, really? She shook her head, feeling a bit surreal.
“Oh,” he said, a little too loudly.
Peggy didn’t really want to know the answer, but she thought she’d better get it over with: “Do you… I mean to say, are you seeing anyone now?”
“No. Are you?”
“Don’t be asinine,” she snapped. “I’ve been in hospital this entire time, I don’t know anyone here, who on earth would I—” She paused when she saw him struggling to keep a straight face. “You’re having me on,” she surmised, blushing angrily.
“But you do think I’m being silly, is that it?”
“I think we’re both doing a lot of talking to avoid saying what we really want to say.”
“I missed you,” he said simply.
She nodded, and tried not to show her disappointment—yes, of course she’d missed him, but there was so much more to it than that.
But it was different for Steve. He had a home, friends, work, things that tied him to this time. All she really had was him.
Peggy steeled herself. She had never been completely dependent on a man—any man—and she certainly wasn’t about to start now.
“When I come back on Friday,” he continued, “we should go out. Do you mind if I ask your doctor about it?”
“I suppose you could,” she said, offhandedly, as though the whole endeavour were of absolutely no consequence. With an acerbic little smirk, she added, “We’ll wear our own clothes, for a change, shall we?”
Steve appeared startled by her change of tone, but said, “Sure.”
She felt a sharp twist of remorse in her stomach. It wasn’t fair to punish Steve for her predicament, she reflected—not when her own stubbornness had propelled her here in the first place.
“I’m starting to sound like my horrid psychiatrist,” she told him, honestly contrite. “What I mean to say is, please wear whatever you like. Whatever you would usually wear.”
With a slow, sidelong smile, he asked, “What, you don’t like my Class As? Got my fruit salad on and everything…” He gestured to the array of ribbons and medals pinned to his jacket.
“Are you here to visit me in a professional capacity?”
“Well, then,” she said crisply, thereby pronouncing the matter settled. “Where do you think we ought to go on our outing?”
“Central Park? I was thinking a picnic, if the weather’s nice.”
“Do you mean you can’t simply order it to be sunny? You know, between that, the lack of flying cars, and the food I’ve just eaten, I must say I’m rather disappointed in this future of yours.”
“I don’t think cafeteria food was ever that good,” he countered, with a patient smile. “We just complained about it less.”
“If you can promise me a decent meal on this picnic, then by all means, let’s.”
“Okay,” he said. “Friday. It’s a date.”
Chapter 4: A String of Pearls
I swear this story will have a plot eventually. Maybe.
“I need new clothes,” Peggy announced.
Tony Stark was sprawled across her cot, flipping aimlessly through a dense tome about the Cold War. He couldn’t even be bothered to remove his shoes. “Sure. Yeah. I can make that happen,” he said, in a tone that made it quite clear he wasn’t paying attention.
She surveyed him critically. “Can you?” she asked, dubious. After all, the man was perpetually dishevelled, and was at this very moment wearing sunglasses indoors. “Are you now a couturier, in addition to your other accomplishments?”
He lifted his head and appeared, finally, to be listening to the conversation they were having. “Did you just call me something dirty in French?”
“Feet off the bed,” she ordered, in the clipped tones she had traditionally reserved for training new recruits.
He sat up automatically, tossing the book aside in a manner that suggested he didn’t particularly care where it landed. She wondered whether his inveterate carelessness, like that of his father, extended to other people’s hearts as well as their possessions.
“New clothes,” he echoed.
“Yes. Clothes, shoes, makeup. Where does one even begin?”
He appeared nonplussed for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “Pepper,” he declared, jabbing an emphatic index finger in Peggy’s direction.
“I assume you’re referring to a person of some sort.”
He nodded. “She’s my—associate.”
Peggy made no comment, but couldn’t help raising an eyebrow at his word choice.
“And she’s a fashion junkie. I’ll get her to come and take you on a shopping tour of Manhattan.”
Peggy wasn’t keen on the idea. Her past experience with so-called women of fashion—particularly the ones who attached themselves to men called Stark—had shown them to be vain, empty-headed creatures. “Isn’t Manhattan supposed to be rather expensive?” she hedged.
“I’ll give her my credit card,” Tony assured her. “Sky’s the limit. Go nuts.”
Peggy could feel her cheeks warming. “I didn’t mean you should…”
Tony flicked his hand dismissively—a gesture she’d seen Howard make a hundred times over, whenever she’d offered to pay for her own meals or drinks or cigarettes. “Just let Pepper take care of everything. She knows a lot about this stuff. And she’s pretty sharp. You’ll love her.”
It was obvious that someone certainly did.
“I doubt my doctor will approve two outings in one week,” she mused.
“Your doctor is a fascist.”
“Have a care,” said Peggy tightly. She had very little patience for the way modern people seemed to use words like fascist (or—heaven forbid—Nazi) so casually, as though despotism were merely a rhetorical concept.
“I’ll handle it,” Tony insisted, with such a stubborn look that she smiled in spite of herself. Despite his eccentricities and his complete and willful ignorance of common courtesy, he had been unfailingly kind. And, though she would never admit it, his antics amused her.
“Has anyone told you how very like your father you are?” she asked.
He rolled his eyes elaborately. “We’re having a nice time here. Don’t ruin it.”
Pepper Potts called for Peggy precisely on time. True to Tony’s description of her, she was smartly-dressed, and seemed very sweet, if slightly anxious. She apologized for things that weren’t her fault—the gloomy weather, her lack of foresight in not bringing an umbrella, the unavailability of parking in Manhattan, the nonexistent mess in her big silver car, the cacophony of noises on the radio that passed for music. She editorialized her own stories in the middle of telling them, veering off onto strange tangents or pausing to expand on statements that really didn’t need to be qualified.
Peggy had known, through the films she’d watched and the books she’d read, that New York was different, but the impact of actually seeing it hit her like a sledgehammer the moment they were away from the SHIELD campus.
She knew she must seem terribly thoughtless, but she couldn’t tear herself away from the window long enough to give her full attention to Pepper’s conversation. She felt as though she’d stepped into the pages of a novel by H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.
But there were parts of the island that appeared to have been bombed out—rain pelted the decimated hulls of buildings, broken glass and warped steel, ragged chunks of cement and concrete.
An awful thought occurred to her. “Are we at war?” she asked.
Pepper glanced over at her. “No. There was an attack,” she said quietly. “About eight months ago. We’re in the process of rebuilding.”
“An attack by whom? By what?” She tried to picture the siege engine that could have wrought such wholesale destruction. She hoped it wasn’t some small-scale descendant of the atomic bomb. Howard would be turning in his grave. (Which, she reminded herself, was owed a visit.)
“Would you believe me if I said extra-terrestrials?”
“Men from space, you mean? War of the Worlds?”
Peggy struggled with the enormity of this for a moment. “Does that often happen?” she asked.
“This was the first time. You should ask Tony about it, he was there. He helped to stop them.”
“I was out of town,” said Pepper, her voice breaking a little. Peggy sensed it was a raw subject, and opted to let the matter drop.
The rain had lessened to a misty drizzle when they arrived at Pepper’s favourite clothes shop. “I think we’ll be able to find you something here,” she said, pointing to a window display. A black lacquered mannequin—legs apart, hip saucily cocked—modeled a trim grey wool suit, not unlike what Peggy would have worn before the uniform became her daily fare. Further along, a white mannequin, posed even more provocatively, sported a chic pair of wide-legged sailor trousers and a boatneck sweater. For the first time, Peggy felt as though modern fashion made sense to her.
Then she spotted the sign over the storefront. “I’m not going in there,” she announced.
Pepper was clearly puzzled. “You don’t like the designs?”
“It doesn’t matter. She was a spy for the Nazis.”
“Coco bloody Chanel, that’s who!”
“I’m very sorry. I didn’t know.” Pepper, now slightly wilted in the damp, looked down at her own stylish pantsuit guiltily. “We’ll go somewhere else.”
Peggy’s face felt hot. She told herself she was being unreasonable—and what was worse, rude. “That was a long time ago,” she conceded, conscious of Pepper’s quietly sympathetic gaze. “One can’t hold the name responsible for the actions of the individual.” Deliberately casual, she added, “I suppose young Master Stark is living proof of that.”
“I suppose he is,” said Pepper. The faint blush that accompanied her smile appeared to confirm what Peggy had already suspected. Dryly, she added, “I hope you called him that to his face.”
“I’ve called him a number of things,” Peggy replied austerely. “He’s rather a preposterous man.”
Pepper’s narrow lips twisted, as though she were biting back a laugh. “I can’t argue with that.”
Pepper had a good eye for a frock, and made suggestions that were both practical and becoming. Peggy gravitated towards fabrics that felt familiar and cuts that were deemed conservative by modern standards. Under Pepper’s conscientious supervision, she soon acquired a solid week’s worth of basics: skirts, slacks, tops, a light jacket.
The key, Pepper explained, was to build a palette around a single basic colour, so that all of one’s pieces could be worn interchangeably. “With your skin tone and hair colour,” she suggested, “I think red is the way to go.”
While Peggy refused to modernize either her shoes (serviceable dress ties) or her cosmetics (specifically her favourite shade of lipstick), she did let Pepper talk her into a couple of purchases that were decidedly more daring than anything she’d ever worn.
One was a pair of jeans, her first: indigo denim, snug as a second skin, with a zipper in the front rather than at the side. The fabric was a bit stiff, and bulky at the seams, but Pepper assured her it would become more comfortable with wear.
The other item was a flouncy scarlet number that Pepper characterized as “a show-stopper.”
“And me without a show,” Peggy retorted, examining herself critically in the dressing-room mirror. The line of the thing wasn’t bad—a fitted bodice and a gauzy A-line flare, perfectly suited to her generous figure. However, the neckline was quite low, to the point where her entire brassiere was exposed.
“It’s perfect,” said Pepper reassuringly, patting her on the shoulder. “You just need a camisole underneath, and a different bra. I’ll get someone to bring you a few to try. What size are you?”
Peggy glanced down at her cleavage. “I’m… not quite sure. What sizes are there?”
Obviously not one to be caught unprepared, Pepper dug into her handbag and came up with a dressmaker’s tape measure. “We’ll figure it out,” she said, with such grim determination that Peggy couldn’t help but laugh.
After the shopping, Pepper conducted her to a coffee shop and treated her to a much-needed restorative; Peggy had the distinct sense that she was being handled, but it was done with so much respect and genuine good feeling that she really couldn’t bring herself to protest.
With her miscellany of bags and boxes tucked around her under the table, she suddenly found herself feeling considerably better-equipped to face the new world.
Peggy selected her outfit for the picnic with due care and deliberation. In addition to helping her shop for clothes, Pepper had provided her with a thick stack of glossy magazines to help her get up to date on the modern fashions. The titles were mostly ones Peggy recognized—Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle—but the contents were vastly different. She was accustomed to looking neat as a pin and twice as sharp, but nowadays it was the done thing to look as though one hadn’t taken any pains at all in dressing.
In the end, she chose a cap-sleeved sundress (crisp white cotton, with a pattern of blowsy pink-and-red camellias along the hem) and a soft grey cardigan which the label claimed was wool (Peggy had her doubts). She wore her hair loose, letting it fall naturally, and went without nylons rather than risk the indignity of cheap modern pantyhose rolling down around her waist. She’d gone bare-legged for the war effort anyhow, so it wasn’t really a hardship. At least now she wouldn’t have to draw the seams onto the backs of her legs.
She missed her tidy victory rolls, her hat and gloves, her uniform—not the most flattering, but solid and serviceable. She missed heavy fabrics, and sturdy shoes; most of all, she missed her structured undergarments. Even wearing both a brassiere and a camisole, she still felt as though her bosom was on display, to say nothing of her backside.
It wasn’t that Peggy was ashamed of her figure; privately, she’d always thought it rather admirable. But the plain truth was, a garment that she would have called a slip was now considered to be a dress. One couldn’t help feeling a bit self-conscious parading around in public in these flimsy, low-cut, ready-for-bed-in-the-street clothes.
She met Steve in the front foyer of the medical wing. She expected him to be appreciative of her efforts, or at least her décolletage, but he showed no reaction to her attire at all. He’d clearly had time to adjust to the modern aesthetic. (She couldn’t help but wonder how hands-on his experience of it had been, and whether the formidable Natasha had been his only tutor.)
For his part, Steve was wearing crisp tan chinos, brown penny loafers, and a blue gingham shirt, the sleeves carefully folded up to the elbows. He looked almost exactly as he would have seventy years ago—trouser cuffs were worn slightly longer now, waistlines slightly lower, but the essentials hadn’t changed.
She’d been to Central Park before—not that her previous experience counted for much. There was graffiti everywhere: some of it was quite lovely, if unintelligible, and much of it was plainly obscene. (Which, Peggy reflected wryly, summed up her thoughts on the modern world in general.)
Steve walked with purpose: he had a destination in mind, which turned out to be a large cherry blossom tree. He spread out a blanket in the shade, and they both sat down, a respectable distance apart.
“When I was in the cultural immersion program, I used to come here sometimes to study,” he told her.
It was a bright summer day, and the park was a popular destination; the whole world seemed to rush past them, loud and bright and alarmingly fast. Peggy couldn’t imagine being able to block all of it out with the level of concentration necessary to read a single word.
“It’s lovely,” she said distantly.
Steve started to pull food out of his rucksack: sandwiches, bottled drinks, packets of crisps, fruit in clear plastic boxes. She examined his profile, his head bent to the task, and thought about what it might be like to run her palm over the close-cropped bristles at the nape of his neck, or kiss the delicate scrollwork of his ear. How would he react—would he freeze, or startle and shy away? Or was this new world Steve Rogers a practiced hand at dealing with the advances of the women in his life?
“Hope you’re hungry,” he remarked, cheerfully oblivious to the turn her thoughts had taken.
“Ravenous,” she replied, in a husky voice that conveyed somewhat more enthusiasm than she’d intended.
Steve didn’t look up, but a faint blush coloured his cheeks. “I heard Pepper took you shopping,” he said. “Did she show you a grocery store?”
Peggy shook her head.
“The first time I went to one, it got a little out of hand. There was so much variety, and the packaging, the design of it is very alluring. The colours, the way it’s all arranged. A hundred different kinds of cold cereal alone—and I don’t even like cold cereal.”
She understood exactly what he meant. The thought of all that choice was thrilling, but wearying at the same time. Especially when none of the choices were what you really wanted.
“I wasn’t sure what you’d like,” he continued, “but I figure this beats K-rations.” The corner of his mouth quirked in a grin.
Fruit was much larger than she remembered it, and not quite so flavourful. Fizzy lemonade was far too sweet, and tasted of something chemical.
Peggy felt sun-dazed, and the cloying smell of the cherry blossoms made her head feel as though it were about to burst. She couldn’t quite break free of the nagging feeling that she ought to be doing something, that it was terribly wasteful of them to be outside picnicking in the middle of the day.
“When we were overseas, I used to daydream about doing this with you,” Steve was saying.
“Whatever for?” The words were out of her mouth the instant they’d formed in her brain. She hadn’t meant to sound critical—but the banality of the fantasy was so surprising. In her own daydreams about Steve, on the rare occasions when she’d permitted herself the luxury, the setting had been largely immaterial.
Steve’s body seemed to slacken, his broad shoulders folding inward; for just a moment, she caught a glimpse of the smaller man he’d once been. He shifted on the blanket, reached up and plucked a few petals off a branch overhead, scattering them to the wind.
All around them, people seemed to be exchanging easy caresses, taking pleasure in one another’s company. He was so close; it would have been such a small thing to reach out and touch his arm, to kiss his cheek, to wrap her arms around him. She had no doubt it was what an ordinary woman would do, a woman of this time. But she just sat there, limbs heavy as lead.
At length, she began, “It’s just all rather…” But what it was, exactly, she couldn’t quite put into words.
Steve was drawing breath to reply when, out of the corner of her eye, Peggy caught sight of a black-and-white object hurtling towards them. She started and grabbed at Steve’s arm, trying to yank him out of the way, her heart going jackrabbit-quick—then felt incredibly foolish when the projectile, a football, glanced harmlessly off Steve’s shoulder.
A teenage boy was moving towards them at a loose-limbed canter, calling out, “Little help?” As he approached, Peggy could see that his t-shirt had Steve’s shield stencilled on the front.
Steve held out the ball, gripping it in one large hand. “Be a little more careful, son,” he cautioned, in a voice Peggy had only ever heard him use onstage.
“Whatever,” the boy retorted, snatching the ball back and jogging away.
Peggy realized she was still clutching at Steve’s sleeve. Mortified, she released it and settled herself on the blanket again. Steve watched her quietly for a long moment.
“You’re doing much better than I did my first time out,” he observed.
“I went on a bit of a rampage when I first woke up.” He grinned ruefully. “Busted through a wall, smacked some guys around… caused quite a stir.”
“I imagine it would, yes.” She could picture it quite clearly; she’d had similar impulses upon waking, though not being able to stand or see had prevented her from having much of an impact.
He reached over and slowly, deliberately, freed a fallen blossom from her hair. “Let me know if it gets to be too much,” he said, tucking a few wayward strands behind her ear before lightly tracing the line of her jaw with his fingertips.
“I will,” she told him, and if her voice shook a little, it wasn’t only due to jangled nerves.
The sun was low in the sky by the time they arrived back at SHIELD. The city had already begun to transform, slipping from the hard clean lines of daytime into sparkling evening finery.
Rather than the main entrance to the medical wing, Steve walked her around to one of the side doors, where the foot traffic was less frequent. Peggy stood, toying aimlessly with the electronic pass card she’d been issued, and continued to chat with him for almost fifteen minutes.
She could tell by the way he was staring at her mouth that he was thinking along the same lines that she was. And thinking was marvellous, it really was—but it wasn’t quite in the same realm as doing.
“I had a lovely time today, Steve,” she prompted, stepping forward until her toes bumped the caps of his shoes.
He was nodding, a determined set to his square jaw.
“Thank you so much for suggesting it,” she continued, in what she hoped was an encouraging tone.
“I’d like to kiss you now,” he told her earnestly. His “May I?” overlapped with her “Yes, please,” and then he was smiling even as he leaned down.
Their first kiss had been a frantic push, a last-ditch effort to tell him everything she had never been able to put into words. This, now, was Steve’s response: a gentle brush of his lips against hers, a squeeze of her trembling fingers. He kissed her once, softly and slowly; and then again, a quick peck that served to punctuate the statement.
It wasn’t quite the passionate embrace she’d been dreaming about—but then, there was time for that.
Steve said, somewhat incongruously, “Your outfit is nice. Really pretty. I should have mentioned it before now.”
“Better late than never,” Peggy replied, trying not to laugh.
Chapter 5: I Can Dream, Can't I?
PLEASE NOTE: The first part of this chapter contains a scene which may be triggering for a variety of reasons: non-con, character death (sort of) and general awfulness. If you think it might disturb you, please scroll to the first asterisk and start reading from there.
If there's another or a better way I can make this a safe reading experience for you, please let me know.
P.S. This story has a plot. I promise.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
London lay in ruins: crumbled bricks, mortar dust, columns of ash. The invading aliens had been unexpected, unprecedented, and exceedingly thorough.
None of which mattered at present.
Her little room from before the war, above a seamstress shop, had miraculously survived the attack. It was furnished just the way she remembered it: scuffed chair, worn but workable vanity, stalwart brass bedstead. Simple, clean, comfortable.
She'd had a man in this bed before—saintliness had never been a virtue to which Peggy had aspired—but never this man. And she’d waited too long for Steve Rogers to let a trifling thing like the end of the world stop her.
His skin was quite cool—from being in the ice, he explained, blushing from head to toe like a shy young bride. No matter; she would blanket him in kisses, envelop him in her warmth.
He tried to sit up, craned his neck to look out the window, dusky amber light filling his eyes.
“No,” she said sternly, red nails biting into his cheek as she turned his face away from the carnage. “Look at me.”
“Please—I need—” He couldn’t seem to find the words, but his hips stuttered against hers, lovers’ Morse code. She bent to kiss his open mouth, rocking into him in a way that left them both gasping, breathless. She moved slowly, murmuring encouragement as he gained the rhythm and the counterpoint.
Outside, Armageddon raged on, unheeded.
But his body was colder now, ice-cold. She could actually see the chill growing and spreading through him—his skin turning pale, then paper-white, with a lattice of crisp white frost that fused them together anywhere they touched. Beads of perspiration glittered on his forehead and his throat; his mouth opened wide, its insides indecently red against his pale lips, but no sound came out. He gripped her tightly, holding her against him, impaling her on a shard of ice as sharp as a knife’s blade.
“Stop.” She struggled, tried to unseat herself, but his steely fingers clamped down on her hips. “Steve, it’s too—Steve, don’t.” Her palms were frozen to his chest—she could hear the flesh start to tear as she pulled away, an awful wet cracking noise.
His breath a puff of wintery air against her cheek, he whispered, “You won’t leave me again.”
And then his lips locked around hers and the room greyed out.
Peggy considered writing down the details of the dream for her psychiatrist, but she knew he would focus on all the wrong parts. He would tell her that she wasn't dealing with her grief, that her feelings of guilt were unnecessary—or worse still, that she was some sort of repressed sex maniac. Either way, there would undoubtedly be more pills and more restrictions.
She knew that if she were subconsciously worried about going to bed with Steve, she would have dreamt of something unrelated and seemingly harmless, such as dentists or gardening. And the end of the world struck her as a perfectly natural and reasonable thing to be afraid of.
As for feeling guilty... she'd been partially responsible for closing his file; she'd refused to entertain any hope that he could still be alive, and she’d tried her damnedest to convince Howard that he ought to give up too. The fact that Steve apparently didn’t hold it against her was immaterial; she’d abandoned him to the merciless iron sea, and it was only by chance that he wasn’t there still.
There wasn’t anything to be done but grit her teeth and bear it.
She tossed and turned in the sweat-damp sheets for the better part of an hour before accepting the fact that she and sleep had parted company for the night.
Her scheduled workout time wasn’t for another ten hours, but she decided to live dangerously.
When Peggy arrived at the gymnasium, there was someone already there, despite the ungodly hour. She recognized the man from before, the one with the injured knee. He was seated, puffing and straining into a weighted leg extension. He was wearing shorts this time, revealing a black plastic contraption that encased his leg around the injured joint.
“It’s the nowhere man,” she remarked, walking past him to the treadmill. “Hello again.”
He whistled a few melancholy notes, then looked to her as if expecting approval. When none was forthcoming, he inquired, “Don’t like the beetles?”
Peggy glanced around her curiously, but the question appeared to have been an entirely academic one. “I like them fine,” she replied, “as long as they stay out of my larder. Why do you ask?”
He gaped at her in exaggerated disbelief. “Where are you from again?”
“Still London, I’m afraid.” She punched in the access code for her preprogrammed routine. The treadmill shifted and whirred into place, and she started walking at a brisk trot.
“You’re up late. Can’t sleep?”
“No,” she said, slightly too loudly, willing herself not to think about ash and cinder and ice. “And you?”
“My regular time slot. Oh-three-hundred to oh-five-hundred.”
“How did you manage that?”
He gave a noncommittal shrug. “Unique circumstances.”
“You didn’t change it because of… anything in particular?” She recalled their last conversation, which had taken a couple of rather peculiar turns.
“Nah. You’re about the only person around here I can turn my back on right now.”
Peggy composed her features, presenting a neutral expression. She had read about people like this—paranoiacs, they were called. They imagined themselves constantly pursued, watched, persecuted. One had to remember, after all, that one was in a long-term care ward. The poor man obviously had some deep-seated troubles. “That’s rather a grim assessment,” she observed.
“You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, because it was the polite thing to to say, even though he didn’t seem to consider it a drawback.
Neither of them spoke again immediately. Peggy focused on her jogging, which shifted into running, and wondered whether she ought to speak to her physical therapist about creating a program that was a little more challenging. She’d obviously outstripped the current one; she wasn’t even out of breath. She considered attempting to reprogram the machine, though she knew from previous experience that this was almost certainly bound to end in frustration.
She’d already entered her cool-down routine when the man asked, “Where were you during the attack on Manhattan?”
Peggy was caught off-guard—he’d been so quiet that she’d almost forgotten he was there. “Pardon?” she inquired.
“It’s one of those questions people ask when they’re making conversation. Like, where were you when JFK was shot? Or, where were you on 9/11?”
Peggy was far enough along with her reading to know exactly where she had been during both of those events—underground, forgotten, along with nineteen other girls. “I was asleep.”
“Slept right through the whole affair,” she said, trying for a breezy tone.
He seemed to consider this, then nodded.
“I have friends who were there,” she admitted—and how strange it was, to realize that she thought of Howard’s insufferable son as a friend.
“Lots of people do.”
He took a long pull of his water bottle before replying, “I don’t have many friends.” It wasn’t particularly morose or dramatic; a flat statement of fact.
“Frankly, I’m not surprised.” Peggy had very little patience for wallowing.
He narrowed his eyes at her, declaring, “You’re kind of a ball-buster.”
She nodded. “When it’s called for.”
“What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t say.”
“I know. What is it?”
“Perhaps I don’t have one.” After all, two could play at that game. “Perhaps I’ve only a number.”
“I am not a number,” he intoned, in a very credible English accent. “I am a free man.”
“A peculiar man,” she retorted. It probably wasn’t very sporting of her to make fun if he was genuinely sick, but Peggy honestly couldn’t tell whether he was having her on or not. It was as though they were speaking entirely different languages that happened to use the same words.
“I could say the same about you.”
“I suppose you could, but it would lead me to question your powers of observation,” she said dryly. “Do you have a name, or shall I continue to think up insulting things to call you?”
He grinned; it lent a sort of rough-hewn handsomeness to his mismatched assortment of features. “Barton.” He watched her, warily, waiting for a sign of recognition, but the name wasn’t familiar. Nor had she expected it would be.
“Good man,” she encouraged, stepping off the treadmill and walking over to him. “Mine’s Carter.” She held out her hand; Barton didn’t hesitate before giving it a firm shake.
“And why are you here, exactly?”
She started to gather her things together, deflecting with, “I told you, I couldn’t sleep.”
“No, I mean—”
“I know what you meant. I think we’ll keep it at introductions for now. Have a lovely morning, Mr. Barton,” she added politely.
Barton watched her for a second, then nodded slowly. “You too.”
Peggy arrived back at her quarters to find Tony lounging in her chair. He was doing something with his tiny phone that apparently required a lot of attention.
“Nice shoes,” he said, without looking up. “Pepper has the same ones.”
“Yes.” She sat on the bed to unlace her cross-trainers, resisting the urge to hurl one at his smug face. “You’re up rather early.”
He grinned wolfishly. “I have a very persistent alarm clock.”
Peggy decided it was best if she didn’t unpack that particular comment.
“How might I help you?” she inquired, saccharine.
And then she saw them, on the windowsill beside him: a bouquet of the most luscious roses she’d ever seen, resting in a simple cut-glass vase. She supposed that flowers, like fruit, must have grown larger with the passage of time.
As she approached, she could tell that they still smelled the same, at least—like a summer window box, like expensive dusting powder. Like home, a home that now only existed in her memory.
She finger-combed the entire arrangement surreptitiously, searching for a card or note, but there was nothing. “Was someone here for me?” she asked.
“Yeah, me,” said Tony irritably. “And I hope you like them because I’m done walking around with them. I swear to God, if one more receptionist says ‘Oh, Tony, for me?’ and giggles at me, I’m going to sucker-punch Rogers right in his star-spangled codpiece.”
“That seems excessive.” She regarded the flowers with renewed interest. “He sent these with you?”
Tony nodded. “It can take a while to get this stuff through security. Since I’m on the approved visitors list, he asked me to expedite the process.” Grinning, he added, “You and Steve-o must have had quite the reunion.”
“Thank you for bringing them,” said Peggy. She wondered why Steve hadn’t sent a message with the flowers. However, she wasn’t about to open herself up to further ridicule by asking any follow-up questions.
“I was coming by anyway. Had a meeting with Fury.”
“Fury? Nicholas Fury?”
“You know him?”
“I met him once. I understand that he took over the command of Captain Rogers’ unit after he—afterwards.” Nick Fury had been part of another American experiment, a sort of red-headed stepchild of Project Rebirth, involving a French scientist who’d corresponded with Erskine during the early stages of his work. Peggy’s understanding was that the results hadn’t been as dramatic as Erskine’s, or as stable. But if Fury was still in the game, after all this time, they had to have been worth something. “What’s he doing now?”
“He’s the big cheese. Director of SHIELD.”
“Oh, I see. Good on him. Does he still have the…” She gestured to her eye.
Tony nodded. “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” he intoned solemnly.
She smiled. Tony had obviously inherited Howard’s love of colourful aphorisms. She was learning, however, not to voice such comparisons aloud.
“He said he was going to be stopping by to see you at some point this week. I told him he should probably call ahead, because your dance card was full of handsome superheroes.”
Peggy rolled her eyes at the anachronism.
“Dance card? No?”
“Good try. Bit shy of the mark,” she said briskly. “But you say he’s coming to see me personally? That’s your doing, I suppose?”
“Not me, Aunt Peggy.”
She grimaced. “I’ve asked you before not to call me that. I’m not your father’s sister, I’m certainly not old enough to be your aunt, and in point of fact, I want no part of you. I’m mystified as to why you keep turning up here when I’ve given you absolutely no encouragement to do so.”
He clapped a hand to his chest. “How can you be so heartless? I’m an orphan. Who’s going to cook me Thanksgiving dinner?”
“Idiot,” she said, not without a certain amount of fondness. “Why is he coming, then, if not because of you? You’re the only person I know who would have the director’s ear.”
“Aha. Not true. Your boyfriend has a pretty good grip on the other one.”
She felt her cheeks heating up, and tried to conceal her reaction by burying her face in the roses again. “Captain Rogers and I are friends.” It sounded weak, even in her own ears.
“Friends who send flowers?”
“You are aware that I’ve been in hospital? Don’t blame him because you happen to have deplorable manners.”
“Friends who kiss? He told me all about that, by the way.”
She raised her head and fixed him with her iciest glare. “He did no such thing.”
Tony shrugged, gleefully unrepentant. “Maybe not. But it took him about fifteen minutes to write this.” He produced a small white envelope from some inner jacket pocket and held it out with two fingers. “I didn’t read it. You’re welcome.”
She snatched the card from him and tucked it into the pocket of her sweater without opening it. She wasn’t sure why she felt the need to conceal anything—no one really cared, and it wasn’t as though she had a reputation to damage anymore. But she didn’t feel like sharing any part of Steve with whoever was behind those cameras. And Tony had a gift for exposing one’s vulnerable spots and making merciless sport of them—another trait he and his father had shared.
“I’m going to wash,” she told him, crossing the suite on a path to the bathroom. “You may do as you like. You will anyhow.” She didn’t feel a particularly pressing need to entertain him, given that he was uninvited and not overly attached to the rituals of common courtesy.
“So,” he said, stroking his goatee mock-thoughtfully. “Cap does like women. I owe Pepper fifty bucks.”
He dodged with remarkable agility as the running shoe whizzed by his head.
I borrowed the line about dentists or gardening from D.L. Sayers. She was such a fan of quotation that I don't imagine she'd take it amiss. :)
Chapter 6: Careless
There is a possible (non-graphic) self-injury trigger in this chapter.
Peggy only half-expected that Tony would still be there when she’d finished her ablutions—he tended to come and go rather abruptly, dropping in whenever his rather hectic schedule permitted.
However, she was not expecting to walk out of the bathroom and find an entirely new visitor seated in his chair.
Despite the fact that she hadn’t seen him in over sixty years, the interloper was easily recognizable: tall, long-limbed and lean, his close-cropped hair now completely shaved down to the scalp; good-looking, especially when he smiled, but with an air of menace that the years had only served to sharpen.
“Director,” she greeted.
“Ms. Carter.” As she approached, she could see that he had, in fact, aged, but only slightly. Nick Fury obviously still had a few tricks up his sleeve. “Stark had another appointment, but he asked me to thank you for your hospitality.”
Peggy felt quite certain Tony had said no such thing, but she nodded politely just the same. “He mentioned that you might stop by. I confess, I didn’t expect you quite so soon.”
“I had an opening. Hope your dance card isn't too full.”
She pretended to consider before allowing, “I might be able to spare a moment.”
“Nice flowers. Who are they from?”
After so many years working in intelligence, small talk invariably made her think of the code phrases she'd been drilled on when she got into the game: Lovely weather we're having, isn’t it? Did you see a man on a bicycle pass this way? I adore the smell of roses, don't you? Have you change for a pound note?
“Mr. Stark brought them,” she replied. The trick to a credible deceit, she'd learned, was to avoid actually lying whenever possible.
“Thoughtful of him not to trouble our security staff,” said Fury.
“Rather.” She wondered how much longer they were going to circle each other. Cheekily, she added, “I adore the smell of roses, don’t you?”
“Yes, but I prefer lilacs this time of year,” Fury shot back, using the traditional rejoinder.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Director?” She leaned on the title ever so slightly, emphasizing the formality between them.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to visit you sooner,” he replied evenly, sidestepping the question entirely.
Peggy nodded. “I should imagine your schedule is rather densely populated.”
Fury stood to his full, imposing height. “Let’s take a walk.”
The tone was agreeable, but Peggy knew an order when she heard one.
Fury led her through a staging area that put her in mind of the SSR war room in London—though the maps and paper files had been replaced by screens and computer terminals, and green and brown wool uniforms exchanged for sleek grey, black, and navy jumpsuits. Everyone wore headsets and appeared to be carrying on independent conversations with thin air. A few of the operatives glanced at her curiously as she walked by, but for the most part she was consistently ignored. Occasionally, agents would approach Fury with documents for him to read (which he did using a flat, portable screen) and approve (which he did by means of a thumbprint scanner).
The director’s office was more utilitarian than Peggy had expected. In her day, the walls would have been lined with bookshelves and filing cabinets. Three of the four walls of Fury’s office were glass, imparting the feeling of being the inmate of a large terrarium; the wall directly behind his desk was entirely occupied by a computer screen, over which scenes of conflict played at varying speeds. Peggy was starting to learn that it was commonplace in this time to have screens running in the background, unobserved. She found it very distracting. Overall, Peggy felt keyed-up, nervy—she suspected it was lack of sleep that had her brain buzzing, though she’d stayed awake for much longer stretches during the war.
Fury tapped the glass surface of his desk, calling up a keypad. He made a few hand motions; the lights brightened, and the clear glass walls became more opaque.
“Something to drown your sorrows?” he offered, taking a bottle and two glasses out of a soundless drawer.
“I’m afraid my sorrows have developed a discomfiting habit.” She accepted the tumbler of amber liquid—she very much doubted her doctor would approve, but she thought it might settle her nerves. “They’ve learnt to swim.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
Peggy tilted her glass in his general direction and said, “Your health.” Fury reciprocated, and then she sipped her drink in silence, honey and smoke lingering on her tongue as she swallowed. She was hard-pressed to recall the last time she’d had decent scotch; as a rule, she preferred to cut it with a little water, but she certainly wasn’t about to make demands on the director’s hospitality.
She paused, the glass half-way to her mouth, as a familiar blue-and-white silhouette filled the screen behind Fury. Captain America appeared to be giving instructions to a group of firemen, pointing to a building in the near distance. The firemen wore the same expressions of awed deference she’d seen on soldiers who followed Steve during the war. In an instant, the setting had changed, and Steve was lifting the front end of an overturned car and helping terrified passengers to climb out through the shattered windscreen. Next, he scanned the skyline, a determined set to his jaw, watching the approach of a swarm of insect-like creatures on airborne chariots.
It had been a long time since she'd seen footage of Steve in the field; she'd almost forgotten how swift and graceful his movements could be. Like a dancer, she thought, smiling to herself. While the new battle suit was a bit theatrical for her taste, she had to admit that it fit him beautifully.
"This isn’t happening now, is it?" she asked, wincing as Steve took a hit to the chest that propelled him into a nearby brick wall. Unfazed, he pushed off from the hole in the wall with his feet and launched himself towards the assailant at an inhuman speed.
Fury glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to her and shook his head. "These are from the recent incident in Manhattan. I have a team working on gathering and analyzing all of the visuals."
There was something very deliberate, Peggy thought, in the seating arrangements and the choice of viewing material. Nevertheless, she watched with renewed interest as isolated moments splashed across the screen in full colour: a sleeveless sniper on a rooftop, loosing a volley of arrows that exploded into brightly-coloured flares; a gigantic green-skinned creature leaping from one skyscraper to another, tearing through steel and crushing concrete to powder; a long-haired man, wearing armour and wielding an ornate hammer, soaring through the air completely unaided; a metallic burst of red and gold rocketing across the sky.
"Incident," repeated Peggy dryly, taking another drink. "Indeed."
The camera found Steve again, now with a smaller figure at his back. She moved too quickly to be seen clearly, but Peggy recognized the unusual copper hair. She didn’t have Steve’s raw power, but she was fast and precise, aiming herself like a projectile at the nearest enemy.
They fought as one, as extensions of each other, and there was something magnificent about it, something almost god-like. She must be like Steve, Peggy realized. Enhanced. Perfected.
“You've met Agent Romanoff,” said Fury. It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” she replied neutrally. “I didn't realize she was...”
Peggy held her breath as Natasha took a running start and leapt onto Steve's shield, using the added momentum he provided to vault into the air and catch hold of one of the flying machines.
“Different program,” said Fury cryptically.
Onscreen, the red-and-gold blur was projecting a blue-white energy blast that completely vaporized a section of the invading horde. The camera tracked the brightly-coloured object across the sky until it halted in mid-air, hovering. It was only then that Peggy realized what—who—it was. Tony had referred to his armoured exploits in passing, but this was the first time she’d actually seen Iron Man in his element.
Not for the first time, she wished it were possible to go back and write Howard a letter: You will have a son. Your time with him will be short. For heaven's sake, don't squander it.
“He's quite good,” she observed, as Iron Man executed a sharp turn in mid-air and dove towards a cluster of invaders.
“Almost as good as he thinks he is.”
Peggy could feel herself beginning to lose her temper—an odd reaction, given that she was in the habit of pitching similar insults at Tony every time they spoke. She retorted, “I had rather the same impression of you, the first time we met.”
Fury smirked. “Touché.” He reached into his desk, pulled out a thick manila folder, and handed it to her.
He tapped the front of the folder. “A little light reading.”
The folder, as it turned out, contained service records. She thumbed through the pages quickly, recognizing the faces of the Howling Commandos. “This information isn’t classified?” she inquired, unable to keep the reproach out of her voice.
Fury replied, “War’s been over a long time, Ms. Carter.”
His gravitas was impressive, for all that she doubted its authenticity.
The files made for interesting, if melancholy, reading. After returning to her room, Peggy spent the afternoon absorbed in contemplation of the crisp black-and-white pages—obvious facsimiles of the original documents. They were all there: Dernier, Dugan, Falsworth, Jones, Morita… Barnes’ file was missing, of course, but then, there wouldn’t have been any developments there.
She found it hard to read at first—not only because the subject matter was somewhat painful, but because her attention span was considerably lacking, and she couldn’t seem to sit still. She felt as though she’d been gulping down coffee all afternoon and was now suffering the miserable after-effects—except that she hadn’t touched a drop.
Despite a slow entry, Peggy became so engrossed in the files that the usual tap signaling the delivery of her evening meal caused her to jump out of her seat—and to bump the vase of flowers, which teetered before crashing spectacularly to the floor.
Cursing volubly, Peggy dumped the roses into the rubbish bin, and picked the glass out of the carpet as thoroughly as she could. Then she sullenly ate her cold dinner while continuing to read, pausing only briefly to dispose of her medications in the usual places. She found herself rereading the same lines over and over; she was unfocused, fractious, annoyed at herself for having been so careless with Steve’s gift.
Rather than trying to keep reading, she settled for paging through the photos that accompanied each file. There were dozens of them, ones she’d never even seen, and the process of reproducing images had improved exponentially since her time. She spent quite some time admiring a candid shot of Dernier with Steve; the latter had a grease pencil tucked behind his ear, and was peeking over the smaller man’s shoulder, raptly scrutinizing a cloth chart. Steve had been particularly enamoured of the rayon acetate maps—the ingenuity and artistry of them had appealed to his designer’s sensibilities. Peggy distinctly remembered a long walk through the snow, rendered somewhat more palatable by his animated nattering about the development of phosphorescent fabric and what that could mean for night-time operations.
A growing tension in her joints prompted Peggy to tear herself at last from her perusal of the files. She stood up, rolled her shoulders, and stretched her arms up over her head—then let out a sharp cry as pain lanced through her heel.
“Blast!” she exclaimed, hobbling across the room to her bed. If only she’d thought to buy slippers on her shopping trip, instead of a pile of useless frippery and a ludicrous dress that she would never dare to wear…
She pulled her foot up for a better look. It was strange—she wasn’t bleeding, but there were spots of fresh blood already soaking into the grey carpet. The sole of her foot didn’t appear to be perforated at all. She ran her fingers gingerly over the sore spot in her heel, pressing when she encountered an odd sort of lump under the skin.
Peggy pressed on it, then watched with a feeling of dull horror as a pebble of glass sliced through from underneath, breaking the skin like a cresting wave.
She dug out the glass with her fingernails; blood welled up, and the area stung for a moment, and then the skin closed and it was as though nothing had happened. No pain, no wound, flesh as soft and pink as a baby’s.
She’d seen this before, of course, but she’d certainly never expected to experience it personally.
She scraped and poked at the spot with her fingernails, trying in vain to break the skin again, but it was no use. After a moment’s consideration, she got up and walked into the bathroom, turning on the light and closing and locking the door. She moved swiftly; she knew from experience that she had only a short time to act before she was intercepted.
She set fresh towels on the counter and ran the cold tap. She took the razor out of the medicine cabinet, feeling her heart contract painfully as she turned it over in her hand. In a single, decisive stroke, she sliced the web of skin between her thumb and forefinger—a location that she knew from experience was likely to both bleed and sting a great deal. There was a brief moment of sharp pain; blood welled up and trickled into her palm, filling in the web of lines on her skin like a map drawn in red ink.
She shut her eyes against tears, and tried not to think of Steve and his particular fondness for maps.
When she looked again, the pain and the wound were both gone, though the blood remained pooled in her cupped hand, quickly drying. Rinsing her hand under the tap, she realized she’d made a critical error in not observing the process more closely. There wasn’t a lot of time; she would just have to try again, rather more emphatically.
It occurred to her that it was entirely possible that she’d gone round the bend, or that Barton’s paranoia was somehow contagious. She supposed she would know soon enough, either way.
Peggy held her breath as the blade bit into her wrist.
Chapter 7: Don't Fence Me In
Despite taking rather a dramatic turn, the rest of Peggy’s evening turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic.
She was, as she’d suspected, quickly apprehended by a flock of hospital staff. By this time, she had already swabbed up the majority of the blood with the towel and was calmly applying pressure and elevation. She didn’t resist or object to being taken into custody; having taken a decision, even one so potentially catastrophic, had given her a curious feeling of serenity.
She was escorted to the infirmary, where a young doctor disinfected and bandaged her wound. It was a clean cut, several inches long and quite deep; Peggy felt a measure of unseemly pride in her own efficiency.
After the work was complete, the doctor spoke to her, in what she assumed was meant to be a soothing tone. He assured her that her psychiatrist would visit in the morning, and asked her to promise that she would not try to harm herself again in the meantime. Once she agreed not to do so, she was transported to a place called the “quiet room.”
Here she was left, without any amusements or even such basic comforts as a blanket or pillows—only a hard, stale-smelling mattress, which was bolted to the floor. She was informed that if she made any further attempts to injure herself or others, she would be restrained.
They kept her in the quiet room for nine interminably dull hours, during which her arm itched relentlessly beneath the bandages. She could tell the wound was healing, or at least closing, but she didn’t dare look, in case her surveillants thought she was planning to renege on her promise. She lay perfectly still on her mattress, but didn’t sleep a wink; her body felt electrified, the blood singing in her veins. She felt ready, willing, and exceptionally able to storm an enemy stronghold single-handed or lead an offensive operation over a mountain range.
She waited as patiently as she could for a post-adrenaline crash, and the inevitable shaking and sweating that would follow—but these symptoms never appeared. At long last, morning broke, finding Peggy as wakeful and charged as ever.
Instead of her psychiatrist, however, it was a uniformed agent who came to fetch her from the cell.
The route they took was the same one she had walked before her reunion with Steve: she recognized each turn along the intricate maze of corridors, and the conference room with its observation mirrors and black paneled walls. This time, she took note along the way of various signs indicating emergency exits; one never knew when a hasty retreat might be in order.
Just like the first time, Steve was waiting, in uniform—but now, Tony and Nick Fury were present as well. Fury was seated at the head of the conference table, Steve and Tony occupying chairs across from one another.
Peggy wished that she’d been offered the chance to bathe, or at least to change her blood-stained clothes, before being thrown into what felt uncomfortably like an ambush. Nevertheless, she straightened her spine and levelled her most uncompromising gaze down at Fury. “I believe an explanation is due, Director.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” Fury replied. “Have a seat, Ms. Carter.”
Peggy slid into the chair beside Steve. His restlessness was palpable: he kept both hands pressed flat against the table as if to stop himself from fidgeting, but beneath the table his knee was ticking like clockwork. He glanced down at the bandages on her wrist, his eyebrows drawn together in a way that made her heart ache. She looked away, steeling herself for the worst; she had no idea how much he knew about all of this, to what extent he’d been involved in the deception. It didn’t seem possible, and yet… here they were.
“You went off your medication,” said Fury, like a schoolmaster reprimanding a wayward pupil.
“Perhaps you ought to have told me what it was for,” she shot back. She paused to take a deep breath before adding, more calmly, “I trod on a piece of broken glass, and the results made me rather curious.”
Fury raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You expect me to believe that you had no idea?”
“No, of course I didn’t, and more the fool me for it. How long?”
“The experiments, that’s bloody well what! How long have your lot been using me as a lab rat?”
Fury seemed momentarily nonplussed. Then, very slowly, he said, “Let’s put a pin in that for now.” He turned to Tony. “You said you had something?”
“I’ve been going through my dad’s old notes,” announced Tony, who seemed to have taken the view that they were all conducting a delightful academic exercise. “Nothing on Peggy, or Briar Rose, or anything from around that period. He must have shredded it—he was a little paranoid, nuts about secrecy. Don’t know where he picked that up.” Here he gave an exaggerated glance in Fury’s direction. “But I ran the situation by Bruce over Skype. He had an interesting theory.”
“I don't suppose there's much point in copy-protecting the documents I send you,” said Fury.
“Don't suppose there is,” was Tony's cheerful reply. “So. Twenty candidates: all young, healthy, female, all given the same infusion of radiation. But somehow, only one survives the big sleep. How does that work?”
Peggy ignored the subtle knife-point of guilt twisting in her stomach.
“With the data you gave us, Bruce and I were only able to think of one variable that wasn’t accounted for. Now. I don't mean to be indelicate,” he began, in a tone that suggested he most certainly did mean to be exactly that, “but I'm assuming you were exposed to Steve's genetic material?”
They all turned to look in her direction, and Peggy realized the question was directed at her.
“I beg your pardon?” she inquired.
“The theory is that Abraham Erskine’s formula altered Steve’s DNA using a retrovirus, and accelerated the process with Vita-Rays,” Tony explained. “Bruce thinks that the virus might have still been active in Steve’s system for a while after the treatment. Any contact with his bodily fluids... you see where I’m going with this?”
Peggy racked her brain, trying to recall a time that Steve might have ever bled on her. None came immediately to mind—they hadn’t been in the field together frequently, and he’d rarely been seriously injured.
Steve’s expression altered very little, almost imperceptably, but Peggy had the distinct impression that he wanted to crawl under the conference table. “You’ve got the wrong idea,” he told Tony, quietly but unequivocally.
Peggy’s cheeks blazed as the implication caught up with her; she felt foolish for not having picked it up sooner. “Not that it is any business of yours,” she said defiantly, “but I haven't been any more 'exposed to Steve’s genetic material' than anyone else in this room.”
“That isn't exactly true, either,” said Steve, still in the same low voice.
She swiveled in her seat to face him, and had already opened her mouth to ask what on earth he was implying when he spoke again.
“That last time we saw each other?” he prompted. “We were in the car, and you…?” He gestured vaguely in the direction of his mouth.
“Oh,” said Peggy, feeling as though she’d been struck. “But surely that—it was only a second…”
Steve didn’t say anything. He looked the way she felt: raw, defenseless.
Tony shouted, “Get it, Cap!” and held his hand up for a high five which went sadly unrequited. “And you too, Aunt Peggy,” he added.
Peggy shot Tony a dire look, which he ignored.
He began to reel off a seemingly interminable list of dates, the particulars of various government projects that had tried (and failed) to replicate the SSR’s success with Steve. Apparently, Tony’s contact was something of an expert in the field.
She felt sick with rage—at Tony for being so cavalier about the whole situation, at Fury for keeping her locked up and lying to her, at Steve for… well, there wasn’t a decent reason to be angry at Steve, not really, but that didn’t stop her.
A low but distinct crackling alerted her to the fact that she was gripping the armrests of her chair very tightly, enough so that they were on the verge of breaking. She let go and eased her hands into her lap.
Beside her, Steve appeared to be taking studious notes, until she glanced down and saw that he was actually making a list of names. The first name on the list was unfamiliar; the second was one she recognized as a girl who'd been on the USO tour. The next, Helen Lorraine, rang a bell, but it took Peggy a moment to place it. When she did, she felt herself reddening slightly, knowing what name was likely to come next. Sure enough, there it was: Margaret Carter, looking strange and formal in Steve's close, sloping handwriting. And after that, Natasha Romanoff. He scribbled a five-pointed star next to Natasha's name, then hastily covered the entire list with his forearm.
Peggy didn't know what the star meant, but she could hazard a guess.
Across the table, Tony paused for breath, and Fury seized his chance to regain control of the discussion.
“The medication was for your benefit, Ms. Carter. When you came out of hibernation, you were having problems adjusting to your enhanced abilities. There were some emotional outbursts, and your psychiatrist—”
“Sod my psychiatrist!” she exclaimed—acutely aware, even as it was happening, that shouting wasn’t exactly going to tip the scales in favour of her stopping treatment. “If I’ve had any ‘emotional outbursts,’ as you’ve put it, I would say they were appropriate to the circumstances. Wouldn’t you?”
“We need to get things under control and understand exactly what we’re dealing with here. I’m going to need you—both of you, actually—” here Fury indicated Peggy and Steve, “to report to the lab.”
“No,” said Steve—pleasantly enough, but with a hint of steel behind it.
Fury leaned in. “I don’t believe I heard you correctly, soldier.”
Tony, glancing up from his phone to spectate, looked impressed.
“Captain Rogers. You seem to be under the impression that I am making a suggestion.”
Steve shook his head emphatically. “You tried to trick me when I first woke up. You lied to my face about Phase 2. And you knew about Agent Carter’s condition this whole time, and you never said a word to warn her—or me. You haven’t been on the level about a single damn thing since the day I met you, unless it was to your benefit. I think that all of us have reached the outside limits of our patience with you keeping us in the dark about information that’s relevant to our lives.”
Across the table, Tony was nodding vigorously.
“Besides…” One corner of Steve’s mouth quirked upward, a seditious little smirk that Peggy remembered all too well. “I hate needles.”
Fury impaled Steve with a glare before directing his gaze to Peggy. “Ms. Carter?”
“It’s true,” said Peggy solemnly, unable to resist the urge to twist the knife just a tiny bit. “He hates them.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Fury declared. “Rogers, you have somewhere to be. Stark—I don’t give a damn where you go, just get out.”
Neither man stood up. Then Tony opened his mouth to speak, which Peggy was almost certain would end in disaster.
“It’s all right, gents,” she said, with as much authority as she could muster. “I’m sure the director will be quite civil.”
The two men rose to their feet and walked out, Steve shooting her a concerned glance over his shoulder.
Once they were out of the room, Peggy said, “I’d like to see the project files. In full. I assume Howard Stark’s were not the only copies.” She didn’t feel that she was in any particular position to make demands, but Steve had seemed to think it was strategic to push back, and she trusted his judgement enough to carry the offensive in his absence.
Fury cautioned, “They’re fairly technical.”
“That's quite all right,” she said, keeping her tone amicable. “I do have some medical training. And I happen to be acquainted with a rather bright engineer who can help me along. I'd like to make sure there aren't any more delightful surprises in store.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Smashing. Now,” Peggy rested her elbows on the conference table and leaned forward. “When am I to be released?”
“You’re not a prisoner.”
“Just so. And that means I can leave any time I please? Because my doctors seem to think otherwise.”
“Your doctors are a little concerned about the fact that you attempted suicide last night.”
“You and I both know that was not what happened.”
“Ms. Carter. Regardless of your… delicate mental state… a person living in the real world needs identification. Citizenship documents, social security number, that kind of thing. It’s not in your best interests for SHIELD to cut you loose without a place to live or any means of supporting yourself.”
“And you’ll be providing all of that for me?”
“That’s assuming a lot.”
“Oh, I never assume,” said Peggy blithely. “That’s why I asked.”
It was the first time she’d seen the director looking less than perfectly composed. “Any other demands?” he asked, with exaggerated deference.
“Yes, now that you mention it. I’d like to go to school. Like Captain Rogers did.”
“SHIELD was willing to invest in Captain Rogers’ education because he was a valuable tactical asset. You, on the other hand, are a pain in my—”
She held up a hand for silence—and to her surprise, Fury actually stopped speaking. “As flattering as I’m sure that statement would have been, Director, I think we can take it as read. Once I’ve seen the project files, I’ll report to the lab. Quid pro quo.” The idea made her skin crawl, but there didn’t seem to be any other way of getting the support she would need.
Fury said, “I think we’re done here.”
She waited. He looked at her expectantly.
“Aren’t you going to call your staff to collect me?” She knew the way, of course, but it was in her best interests not to lay all her cards on the table.
“Like I said, Ms. Carter… you’re not a prisoner. And you seem determined to ignore whatever advice I or my staff have to offer.” Fury bared his teeth in a humourless approximation of a smile. “Find your own damn way back.”
When she emerged, Steve was waiting—shoulders jammed against the wall as though holding it up, hands fisted in his pockets, eyes wary.
She knew she looked a sight, and had to resist the urge to tug compulsively at the front of her sweater.
"What's the verdict?" he asked. "Should I be asking for a blindfold and a cigarette?"
"You wouldn’t know which end to smoke if they offered you one."
Her barb had the desired effect: his spine slackened a little, and he grinned ruefully. "If we're in that deep, I might as well learn."
"I've had worse,” she informed him, squaring her shoulders. “He never once made reference to the natural deficiencies of my gender.”
Steve nodded. “That kind of argument has gone out of style a little.”
“I’ve asked to see the project files.”
“What’d Fury say to that?”
“He grumbled a bit, and turned a rather attractive shade of purple. But I think he’ll come round.”
“I did say I’d let them run their tests. Fair play, and all that.”
He nodded. "What about the medication?"
"Absolutely not. I'm off it now, and I haven't hurt anyone."
He looked down at her bandaged wrist pointedly.
She huffed. "I had to know, Steve. You’d have done the same, in my place."
He frowned, but didn’t contradict her statement.
“Besides,” she continued, pushing up her sleeve and peeling off the bandage, “it’s as though it never happened. See?”
He leaned in for a closer look. “How did it feel?” he asked, cradling her hand gently in his. “While it was healing, I mean.”
“Dreadful. Like insects crawling under my skin.”
He nodded thoughtfully, and she held her breath as he ran the tips of his fingers lightly over the soft underside of her wrist.
Reasoning that she may as well take advantage of her new-found liberty, Peggy asked, “Will you see me back to my quarters?”
He dropped her hand and moved a half-step away. “Actually, I—I have to run. They’re flying me to D.C.,” he told her, sounding harassed. “There's a... we're getting medals, for the thing in Manhattan. I'm accepting on behalf of the team. I get to meet the President.” He said it in the same tone most people would use to announce they were having exploratory dental surgery.
“Quite an honour.” She tried not to laugh. It was precisely the sort of situation Steve had handily managed to avoid during the war; now, however, he didn't have the Atlantic or HYDRA as an excuse.
“I just wanted to... did you get my card?”
Peggy had forgotten about it. She pulled the envelope from the pocket of her cardigan and started to tear at a corner.
Steve rubbed compulsively at the back of his neck, looking mortified.
"They were lovely," she said. "The flowers. Thank you."
"Don't mention it."
The outside of the printed card was fairly generic: a watercolour painting of chrysanthemums on a white background, “Thinking of you” written in flowing script overtop.
Inside was a drawing, done in blue biro: a boyish, cartoon version of Steve, brandishing a fistful of flowers at a girl that she supposed must be the corresponding version of herself. Looking closer, she noted that he’d managed to capture all the details of the outfit she’d worn on their date. The little Steve looked down at his shoes and grinned bashfully, crosshatched spots of colour on both cheeks. The little Peggy smiled at him, her dark eyes wide and fringed by thick lashes, her lips a perfect Cupid’s bow.
Underneath the sketch, he’d written, I had a nice time yesterday. I hope you did too. Looking forward to our next visit. P.S. Please ignore anything that Tony says about it.
When she glanced up, Steve gave her a pained sort of smile. She could see why he was embarrassed; already it seemed as though the outing in the park had been part of another lifetime, and the drawing betrayed an irrepressible idealism that hadn’t been tarnished by the war or anything that came after.
“You still draw,” she observed.
“You called me ‘Agent Carter,’ earlier.” It wasn’t what she’d intended to say, at all, and it caught both of them off-guard.
“You did. Is that still how you think of me?”
He dropped his gaze. “Guess I forgot.”
“It’s quite all right.” She placed a hand on his arm, lightly, and they exchanged smiles.
The rubber soles of her running shoes squeaked against the polished floor as she stood on her toes. She was aiming for his cheek, but at the last second, Steve glanced up unexpectedly, and her lips brushed against his chin.
“You could warn a guy,” he murmured, his colour rising. He leaned down, with definite intent, then quickly shied back as a herd of uniformed field agents rounded the corner and passed them. They were too well-schooled to stare, but it was nonetheless obvious that Steve had been made.
Peggy couldn’t quite suppress a frustrated sigh. “I suppose this isn’t really the time or place.”
“Yeah, you need to start picking your moments a little better,” he chided, mock-solemn.
She canted her head and peered around Steve’s shoulder. The field agents were clustered at the far end of the hallway, chatting and observing them surreptitiously. She waited, but it was obvious they weren’t going anywhere.
“Go on, Captain,” she said, patting Steve’s chest gently. “Don’t miss your flight.”