The first thing Steve knew, after the cold and the dark and the pain like being slammed into a brick wall, was the familiar cadence of a ballgame.
But no. That couldn't be right. He'd been steering the Valkyrie away from New York. And none of the dials on the planes dashboard looked like a radio. And why would HYDRA have programmed a radio to get the Dodgers station, anyway?
Besides, it was too warm. Maybe this was heaven, Steve thought. There had to be baseball in heaven, right? Though from the dour tones of Red Barber's voice, the team was probably losing. A point against heaven, then. That, and the metal springs digging into his back.
His eyelids fluttered open, against a barrage of warm afternoon light. Definitely not in the plane, then. And the expanse of beige above him could mean only one thing: military hospital.
Steve sat up and looked around the nondescript room. Small dresser, the uncomfortable bed, a view down Seventh Avenue. Seventh Avenue? Since when did the Army have high-rise hospitals in midtown Manhattan?
The door opened, and a woman walked in, a nurse with curly brown hair. She started, then smoothed the expression of surprise with a smile. "Good morning, Captain Rogers," she said, then checked her watch. "Or should I say, good afternoon."
Steve looked up at her, eyes narrowing. "Where am I?"
"You're in a recovery room in New York City," she said.
He looked at her, glanced back out the window, then back at her. Every nerve screamed that something was off. Not quite right. If she was a nurse, why was she dressed like an aide, in a brown skirt and a neat tie? "Where am I, really?"
The woman took a step back, flustered. "Sir--"
"Thank you Amelia, I'll take it from here."
Steve leapt to his feet. He knew that voice -- loved that voice. Had, he could now admit, been praying to hear it from the moment he'd awakened. And his prayer was answered as Peggy Carter walked into the room, stepping in front of the other woman.
"Hello, Steve," she said. She wore a royal blue jacket, bright red lipstick, half a smile. Her hair fluffed out around her perfect face. Maybe this was heaven, after all.
It was all he could do not to run to her, grab her, kiss her. But if he did that, he might break. And if she was an illusion or a dream, he would break even more. Instead, he swallowed and nodded. "Peggy? What happened? How am I..."
"Alive?" She finished his sentence, then glanced back over her shoulder at Amelia. "Go." The woman left, closing the door behind her. When she was gone, Peggy took a step forward, clasping her hands behind her back. "As best as we can tell, when you crashed into the ocean, some sort of hyper-cooling effect froze your body solid. Your metabolism protected you, brought you into a state of suspended animation."
"So..." Steve looked down at his hands. They looked the same as always. Well, as always since the serum, anyway. "That's how I survived?"
"We think so. As for why you're here--" Peggy glanced up at the ceiling. "Howard Stark found you. But it took some time. Steve." She came another step closer. "Today's date is July 23rd, 1948."
Steve took an involuntary step back. "19-- 1948? It's been three years?"
"Three and a half," Peggy said, with a short nod. "The war ended not long after you di-- disappeared. We've been rebuilding since, retrenching for different threats. The world moved on. But Howard never did. Even after we ordered him to stop looking." She bit her lip and looked away again. "For three years, I believed you were dead."
"Three years," Steve said again, softly. "My God. Peggy. I'm sorry."
She shook her head sharply. "You've got nothing to apologize for. If anything, I'm the one-- I--" Her mouth wobbled, and she pressed her lips together. "Dammit." She shook her head again, and met his gaze, eyes brimming. "I promised myself-- I swore I wouldn't do this. If you woke up-- when. When you woke up..."
Her voice broke and her shoulders trembled, and Steve felt his face crumple, tears pricking at the back of his own eyelids and ready to overflow. "Peggy," he choked out, and he enfolded her in his arms, pulled her into his chest, buried his face in her hair. So long, he'd been waiting to hold her like this; now he realized that she'd been waiting even longer. She nestled against him, and he pressed his lips to the crown of her head. "Peggy," he murmured again.
She looked up, face wet, and he lowered his mouth to hers. Peggy lifted a hand to his cheek and stroked it with her fingertips as she kissed him back.
"I'm sorry," she said. Her eyes were clear now, but still marred by loss and loneliness. "I'm sorry I gave up on you."
Steve shook his head. "There was no reason for you to think I'd survived. I'm-- I'm glad. I'm glad you went on with your life." He slid his hands down her arms and tangled their fingers together, and she grabbed tight, as if to a lifeline. "I want you to be happy. And that's all I want."
She stepped close to him, leaning into him, the scent of her perfume rich in the air. "Not all, I hope."
He leaned down again, touched their foreheads together. "If I'm not too late."
"Well, you are late." She tipped her head to the side and kissed him again. "But I forgive you."
Steve closed his eyes and embraced her again, so tight that he thought he might never let go.
Peggy was halfway back to her office before she allowed herself to breathe again, and she didn't really start thinking until she was on her way home, surrounded by anonymous strangers on the subway.
It had been the strangest week of her life, almost like a dream, and it had begun the moment that Howard called her with the news, his voice breaking over the wires. "I found him. I found him!"
Peggy held the phone away from her ear, shaking the shout out of her eardrum. "Howard? What the devil are you talking about?"
"Steve," Howard said. "In the arctic. I was out prospecting and-- he's alive, Peggy, you hear me? Frozen, in something like a coma, but alive."
She had refused to believe it, and then she had given him a dressing down for disobeying repeated orders, but her hands had started shaking, and they hadn't stopped until she walked into the viewing room of SHIELD's operating theater three hours later and saw Steve there, lying unconscious on the table, still half-encased in ice. "Dear God," she whispered, gripping the railing beneath the windowsill. "How-- how is he alive?"
"We don't know." Howard emerged from the corner of the room to put an arm around her; she leaned into his chest without really thinking about it. "And I'll be straight with you: I'm not a hundred percent that we can wake him up. But we'll do our damnedest."
Peggy raised a hand to the glass, traced the line of Steve's chin at a distance. "It's really him."
"It really is." Howard led her to a chair, and she sank down into it. "I assume you want to stay?" She nodded, absently, and he patted her shoulder. Probably he left after that, but Peggy didn't register that, or anything else but Steve's face, cold and still and tinged with blue.
The next thing she knew was a hand shaking her awake. "Peg. Hey, Peg. You all right?"
She twisted her head around to see Angie looking down at her, an expression of concern on her face and a steaming mug in each hand. "I got your message," she said. "Thought you might want some tea, and maybe company."
Peggy reached up and took the cup in both hands. She cupped her palm around the tea and inhaled the delicious scent wafting from the surface. Earl Grey with warmed milk, just a touch of sugar, exactly the way she liked it. "Thank you, Angie." She took a long sip, the tea warming her all the way down. Angie sat in the chair next to her and drank from her own mug -- coffee, probably; even after all Peggy's efforts, Angie hadn't developed a taste for tea. "This is perfect. As is your company."
Angie leaned forward and peered into the operating theater, where the nurses were still working over Steve's still form. "So, that's him? Steve Rogers? The one and only Captain America?"
"That's him," Peggy murmured. "Still alive, for now."
"Geez." Angie touched the glass. "How are they going to wake him up?"
"I didn't ask Howard for the details. I'm sure I'll be regaled with a full report soon enough."
Angie chuckled, then glanced at Peggy. "How are you? This has got to be a lot to take in."
"To say the least," Peggy murmured. "I don't really know. And won't, unless-- until. Until he wakes up." Because he had to wake up. He had to. To come this close, only to lose him again...
Next to her, Angie flinched; it was the subtlest of movements, but Peggy noticed it immediately, and she turned to look at Angie. "Hey. What is it?"
"It's okay, Peg. I understand." Angie rested a hand on Peggy's bare arm, running it lightly up and down her skin. As much affection as she dared show, here in the office. "You still love him. And he came first. I get that." She lowered her eyes. "I won't stand in the way."
Peggy covered Angie's hand and wound their fingers together. To hell with propriety; she needed Angie right now. "Let's not worry about that just yet, shall we? I'm not going anywhere." But even as she said the words, she wondered. Three years without him, two years doing all she could to put him out of her mind, and her heart fluttered each time she looked at him.
But how could she be without Angie? Her best friend, her port of sanity, her last touchstone to the world outside SHIELD. After a quick glance down to make sure no one was looking, she leaned closer to Angie and gave her a swift kiss. "I'm not going anywhere," she said again.
Angie smiled and touched Peggy's nose. "Thanks for saying it, anyway," she said. "We'll figure it out later. We always do."
It had been easy to say that, even believe it, when Steve's recovery had still been theoretical. But now he was awake. He was alive. And from the way he looked at her, kissed her, enveloped her in his arms, nothing in his feelings had changed. Peggy nodded to the doorman and stepped into the foyer, welcoming a few more seconds to be alone. Slowly, she hung up her coat and hat, then she hugged herself, remembering Steve's embrace. Just as safe and strong and welcoming as she'd always thought it would be.
Then she stepped into the parlor and was thrust back into her real life. The life where Angie waited for her, just as she did every night that she didn't have a performance. She was between gigs right now, back on the audition mill, so she would be home, surrounded by the remains of her dinner and a new batch of scripts. Peggy crossed the threshold from the dark sitting room to the bright, cheery kitchen -- the apartment had a formal dining room, but they almost never used it -- where Angie was indeed sitting, a half-empty glass in one hand, a script in the other. She looked up and smiled, gesturing toward the covered plate across the table.
"Chicken and vegetables," she said, voice half-hushed. "And a chocolate soufflé in the oven."
Peggy raised an eyebrow. "Souffle?"
Angie nodded. "Jarvis came by and made it, special. Said you'd had a busy day and would want a treat." She set the script aside and folded her hands across the table. "Does that mean the big guy woke up?"
"It does." Peggy took a seat, stepping carefully across the floor so as not to disturb the oven. She pulled the cover from her plate and took a deep whiff of the rich chicken gravy. Warm, comforting. God bless Edwin Jarvis. "And he's fine. A bit disoriented, but perfectly healthy."
"Good, I'm glad." Angie leaned forward, studying Peggy's face. "So, when do I get to meet him? Gonna bring him home for dinner?"
Peggy shrugged. "I suppose so. Once the doctors clear him to leave, anyway."
"That's exciting." Angie leaned back in her seat, wistful. "You'd think I'd be immune to all that by now, all jaded about meeting movie stars and war heroes, but-- Captain America! The actual, real live Captain America, here in my apartment." She looked at Peggy with a raised eyebrow. "Guess that's not how you think of him, though."
She chuckled around her mouthful of chicken. "No, not really." Setting down her fork, she raised her gaze back to Angie. "Are you certain you're all right with this?"
Angie looked back, smirk fading. "If I said no, what would you do?"
Peggy's heart turned to ice and she shook her head. "I... I don't know."
"And that's why I'm not saying it." Angie looked down at the hands in her lap. "You gotta see this through, decide what you really want, for yourself."
"I'm sorry," Peggy whispered.
Angie shook her head. "Not your fault, English. Just-- one of those things." She looked back up, and the sly look was back. "Don't you even tell me you're sorry he's alive. Not even you are that good of a liar."
"No." Peggy found the corner of her mouth turning up into an irresistible smile -- at Angie's honesty as much as anything. "But I can say I'm sorry that things will get complicated."
"Fair enough." Angie stood up and walked around behind Peggy, resting her hands on her shoulders. "Now you need to eat, and I've got a stack of scripts to get through. Don't wait up, okay? You didn't sleep much the last few days."
Peggy sighed and leaned back into Angie's warm hands. "I don't deserve you."
Angie dropped a quick kiss in Peggy's hair. "Nope. Save me some soufflé, okay? I'll see you in the morning."
She squeezed Peggy's shoulders and pulled away, and in the same motion Peggy stood up and twirled to face her, wrapping her arms around Angie's waist. "I'd better see you before that," she murmured, and came in for a kiss. "I'll come say hello before bed."
Angie chuckled, a warm buzzing against Peggy's lips, and brought a hand up between Peggy's shoulder blades to pull her closer. "You do that, English." And then she really did leave, running her hands down Peggy's arms, catching their fingers together as she pulled away. Only when the parlor door closed did Peggy sit back down to her dinner.
Despite everything, Peggy was hungry and the chicken was divine, and she set herself to finishing the plate in front of her. When the last scrap of gravy was gone, she leaned back in her seat with a sigh. Much as she hated to admit it, Angie was right. She loved Angie and didn't want to lose her, but she needed to pursue this question of Steve and how he might fit into her life. She would regret it forever if she didn't try. Glancing up at the calendar, she noticed the date: Friday. It seemed she had a date to keep.
The next day brought Steve a whirlwind of activity: briefings, debriefings, round after round of medical tests, and a seemingly-endless parade of people who wanted to see him with their own eyes, assure themselves that he was really back. Colonel Phillips came first -- General Phillips now, with two stars on his jacket -- filled with bluster and genuine affection. Then Howard Stark, several times, and the other Howling Commandos, hooting and grinning and slapping him on the back. It was good to see them, although the Bucky-shaped hole loomed large. It was odd to realize that, for everyone else, Bucky had died three years ago. In Steve's mind, it had been barely a week. It was harder to get used to that than anything, even the war being over. But Bucky was gone for good. No miracle rescue for him.
When he was finally alone again, Steve stared in the mirror, searching for some sign, any sign, of the time that had passed. But there was nothing. The last thing he remembered was a tremendous rush of cold as the Valkyrie struck the water. Between that and the ballgame, there was nothing. Not even blankness. Not even dreams.
Shuddering, he turned away from his reflection, then started at the vision of Peggy in the doorway. "Hi," he said.
"Hello, Steve." Peggy put her hands behind her back and smiled. "Just checking in. Sorry I haven't been around much."
He shook his head. "I understand. You have a lot on your plate. Getting this whole organization off the ground has to be a lot of work. And-- the rest of your life," he finished, the words falling heavily between them. She had greeted him with tears and a kiss, sure, but what were the odds that someone as wonderful, as beautiful as her hadn't gone on with her life and met someone else?
She lifted a shoulder in a shrug. "SHIELD certainly keeps me busy. Busy enough that I haven't got time for much more of a life."
Steve let out a breath. So was she saying...
Peggy squared her shoulders and looked up at him. "But I have some time tonight. And so I came to remind you: it's Saturday."
His heart skipped a beat. All this time, and she still remembered. He dared a step closer to her, close enough that he could rest his hands on her shoulders. "Then I guess we have a date. Assuming they'll let me leave."
She nodded, briskly. "Eight o'clock. There's a place down on Houston with an excellent dance floor."
"Not the Stork Club?" Steve asked, smiling at his memories, fond and painful in equal measures.
Peggy shook her head. "I'm afraid we'd attract too much attention there. This place is smaller, and not frequented by our agents or the military. Maybe this is selfish of me, but I want you to myself for a night."
Steve swallowed hard. "Selfish or not-- I'm not going to argue with that."
"Good," she said, rising up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. "I'm glad we're in agreement. See you there." She walked out, and Steve watched her go, wondering what on earth he was going to wear.
The answer was, of course, his dress uniform. Army, not Captain America. It was a miracle that it had somehow survived, and it smelled vaguely of mothballs, but still Steve took it, gratefully. He checked his reflection and straightened his tie. Were there more ribbons pinned to the lapel than he remembered? Someday he was probably going to have to sit through some sort of ceremony. Then again, he was officially inactive; could anyone even make him do anything?
Where did he even belong, anyway?
Steve shook his head and the thoughts away as he headed for the club, waving off the front door guard and his offer to call a taxi. The place wasn't far, and it was a perfect evening: warm, not too muggy. And he wanted a moment to connect with the city again. He'd spent years away, then three days cooped up in tiny rooms. Walking the forty blocks down Broadway to the Village was the perfect opportunity to clear his head, see the things that had changed while he was gone. It wasn't much, he realized with relief. A new building here or there, but mostly it was the Manhattan he remembered.
The club was in the basement of a brownstone, and the doorman nodded to him, tipping a salute-like nod as he opened the door to let Steve inside. He ducked through the doorway and into another world, removing his hat as he adjusted to the dim light, the smoky air. A polished bar ran along the right hand side, wood gleaming almost as much as the mirror behind it. Round tables clustered along the left wall, the small dance floor between them and in front of the band, who played softly right now, for ambiance -- no one was dancing yet. Steve scanned the room for familiar faces, but saw none. Most of the tables were full, as were about half the barstools. Casually, he moved to check his watch.
The soft English voice came from behind him, and Steve turned. There was Peggy, standing behind him, unbuckling her coat with a smile. "Fifteen minutes early," he said, smiling back as he doffed his hat. "Or three years late, depending."
Her smile started to wobble, and he cursed himself for making a joke in such poor taste. He hadn't felt the passage of those years, but for Peggy... He reached out and helped her take the coat off, draping it over his arm. Looking back at her, his breath caught at the sight of her in red -- the same red dress, in fact, that she had worn in the pub in London, all those years ago. The dress she always wore in his dreams. She lifted a manicured brow at him, a smile gracing lips adorned in that same red. "Everything all right?"
Oh yeah. "Um. Yes, of course. Here, let me..." He lifted the arm that held the coat, and went to the coat check to put up her coat and his hat, and to get a moment to collect himself. On his way out, he stopped by the doorway and checked his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
His reflection. Most of the time, he tried not to think about the tall, handsome, square-jawed half-stranger who stared back with his eyes. What was he even doing here? But Peggy had known him before, he reminded himself. She'd known the scrawny weakling, had even seemed to like him. Rubbing his jaw, making sure it still fit, he took a deep breath. "Keep it cool, Rogers," he muttered. "You know she likes you. Just show her a good time. We can worry about the rest later. All right?"
The man in the mirror nodded back at him. "All right," he echoed.
Steve adjusted the waistband of his jacket and stood up straight. "All right," he said one last time, letting the confidence flow. He strode back into the bar and saw Peggy at one of the tables, waving him over. Two martinis sat in front of her, and she stirred one with her olive before popping it in her mouth. "I look the liberty of ordering drinks," she said. "You can get the next round. Have you eaten?"
All he could do was nod. It was impossible to believe that he was actually here, in a club, Peggy sitting across from him in that fabulous red dress. Then he registered the question. "Um. Yeah, I did. But I could always eat again if you're hungry."
She laughed, leaning across the table. "Same Steve Rogers. Still a walking stomach, then?"
He looked down at the drink with a bashful grin. "'Fraid so. And this," he lifted the cocktail, "still won't get me anywhere."
"That's true." Peggy tipped her head sideways. "Would you like something else?"
Steve shook his head. "This is perfect," he said, and lifted the glass. "To dancing."
She lifted her own and held it up. "To the right partner," she replied, and they clinked the glasses together, their gentle ring filling his ears even as he stared straight into her eyes. Together they drank; Steve forced himself to sip carefully rather than gulping. He wasn't getting drunk either way. Might as well keep it classy.
"So," he said, setting his drink aside. "Catch me up. I've heard from a lot of other folks, but I'd love to hear what you've been up to, the last three years."
Peggy took another sip. "Not so much to tell," she said with a shrug. "Once the war was over, I stayed with SSR for awhile. But frankly, they didn't know what to do with me. Stuck me at a desk, gave me busywork. I had a few substantial missions, but nothing that lasted. Then Howard called with an idea."
"SHIELD," Steve guessed.
She nodded. "SSR had been designed as a war-time organization. Howard wanted something less hierarchical, more agile. Better able to respond to evolving threats, like the last of HYDRA, and the Soviets. And developing situations, closer to home." She leaned a bit closer and dropped her voice. "I don't mind telling you, I welcomed the opportunity to work a bit more closely with Howard. Not just for access to his skills and his intellect, but to keep an eye on him." She flicked her eyes to the side. "He gets just a bit too eager when we discover a new toy, if you take my meaning."
"Oh, I do." Steve leaned back in his seat. "I agree with you, absolutely."
"So, that was the start." Peggy spread her hands outward. "Howard, General Phillips, and myself founded the organization, brought in the best and brightest from SSR and a few other places, and here we are. We do good work. Not always the best work, but..." she shrugged. "Someone has to do it."
"I'm sure no one could do it better than you." Steve put out a hand and she took it, letting them rest together on the table. A light touch, so casual, her hand fitting perfectly beneath his.
She smiled, meeting his eyes. "Thank you, Steve."
"So, come on. You must have some good stories," he said, leaning forward.
"A few," she said. "You may appreciate this one, from back when they had me breaking useless codes in the back room of the SSR. Everyone else had gone home for the day when a call came in..."
The next hour passed swiftly, Peggy telling Steve about her adventures of the past three years while they ate. The band shifted from fast to slow, back to fast again, took a break and returned. After three speedy tunes in a row, they struck up a round of "Sentimental Journey." Steve looked at Peggy, and gestured toward the dance floor. "Even I know what this song is for." Tilting his head shyly, he smiled. "May I have this dance?"
She rose from her seat. "I thought you'd never ask."
He took her hand and led her into the dancing crowd. "So." He rested a palm on her waist, letting it curve over her hip.
"So," she answered, folding a hand into his free one and dropping her other on his shoulder. He looked into her eyes and she looked into his, and then they were turning around on the dance floor, Steve taking the basic swaying box steps that were the only ones he knew. She glanced down at his feet with a smile. "We'll have to teach you some new moves," she teased.
"At least I'm not stepping on your toes," he said, grinning; she looked back up at him and her eyes were wide, happy, sparkling. His own smile widened in response, and he twirled her around, maybe too fast for the music but just at the right pace to contain his own joy. Peggy was here, with him, in his arms, right where she belonged.
It was perfect; almost too perfect, like one of the dreams Peggy remembered from right after the war, the ones where she woke up with tears on her face when she remembered that Steve was gone.
Except Steve wasn't gone. He was here, with her, dancing -- after a fashion -- and smiling, a true smile that lit his entire face. It was like watching the sun rise after a night that lasted years, dawn finally breaking at last. She basked in the warmth of his joy and reflected her own back.
The song ended and the music shifted into a faster tune. Steve shuffled his feet, a bit uneasily, as if to leave the dance floor, but Peggy tightened her grip and pulled him around in a tighter circle. "You'll be fine," she said. "You've been watching the dancers all night; you know what to do."
"I'll give it a try," he replied, a smidgen of doubt creeping into his voice. He sped up his simple steps to keep time with the new music, and Peggy gently guided him around the floor with light tugs of their joined hands -- not leading, precisely, but not following either, the two of them coming into synch with no words spoken. Their bodies fell into the spell of the dance, eyes still joined. His were so blue, so clear -- she never wanted to look away from them, just lose herself in those depths forever.
He brought his hand around her back and lowered her into a tentative dip; startled, she tightened her hand on his shoulder to keep from slipping back, but of course there was no chance of falling, not with Steve -- he could, she was certain, balance her in the palm of that one hand forever. She laughed, and his smile grew, into a brilliant beam of pure happiness. Popping back up after the dip, she leaned forward and pressed her lips into his, a swift but firm kiss, a promise of many more to come.
His hand was still pressed into the middle of her back, and he pulled her closer. "How am I doing?" he ask.
"Just fine, my darling." She tipped her head to the side and moved her hand up his shoulder, with a light touch to the side of his neck. "We'll make a dancer out of you yet."
He chuckled, and then the next song began, another fast number. The two of them kept on dancing, making turns around the floor, in perfect tune with the music and each other, and the hours passed as though they were minutes.
The band played, and Steve and Peggy danced, fast songs and slow, always touching, smiling, laughing. Far from stepping on her toes, he felt perfectly in time with her, and his feet knew just where to land. He could have spent the rest of his life on that dance floor, but before the final song was played, Peggy took him by the hand, pulling him back to their secluded corner table. She sat down across from him and looked up, her eyes unexpectedly serious.
"What is it?" Steve asked. "Was I doing it wrong?"
"No, not at all." Peggy shook her head, then reached across the table to take his hands. "But before this goes any further, there's something I've been avoiding telling you, and you need to know it."
He licked his suddenly dry lips as he realized what she was about to say. "There's someone else," he said softly. "Right?"
She hesitated, then nodded, and his heart plummeted into his shoes. It had been too good to be true. Of course Peggy wasn't still single, not after three years. He started to pull away, but she stopped him. "Steve. Listen. I didn't want-- didn't mean--"
He shook his head. "Please. Please don't apologize. You had no reason to believe I was still alive, no reason to wait. I'm glad, truly I am, that you got on with your life. To think of you alone for your whole life-- no." He leaned closer, let himself smile. "I want you to be happy. And if this other guy makes you happy, then you should be with him."
Peggy answered his tentative smile with a quirk of her own lips. "Her, actually." Steve raised an eyebrow, and she nodded. "Her name is Angie. Angie Martinelli. We were neighbors, friends, and then we started sharing a flat. One of Howard's residences -- it's more secure than the rooming house where we had been living. We've been together for almost two years." She let out a breath and leaned back. "So, now you know. Are you-- all right?"
"You mean, does it bother me?" She nodded, and he shook his head. "Why should it? I mean, okay, yes, it does, but not because she's a woman." He glanced downward at their joined hands, such a perfect fit in the center of the table. "It bothers me that she isn't me." He lifted his chin and met her eyes, brown and liquid. "I want to be honest with you, Peggy, always. And when I say I'm glad you didn't wait, it's one hundred percent true. But--" He swallowed and tightened his grip on her fingers. "Well, I just wish things could've been different."
"Me too," Peggy whispered, then pressed her lips together in a tight small smile, years of loneliness compressed into two tiny words.
"Hey." Steve squeezed her hands. "I didn't mean to bring the mood down."
She flicked her eyes up to the ceiling, holding her gaze away for a moment. Then her gaze leveled. "No, it's all right. I’m the one who brought it up, because I wanted to make sure that you knew, to give you a fair choice. Because Angie knows. She knows about you, about us, and how hard it was for me to let you go. And when Howard found you--" Biting her lip, she looked down again. "She told me to be honest with myself about my feelings for you. She knows I'm here, and I have her blessing. And in truth, I don't know if that makes it better or worse."
"Well, if your happiness is that important to her, then I like her already." Steve grinned, and Peggy finally met his eyes again. "I'm not going anywhere, Peggy. Not as long as you'll have me here. And if we have to make a decision later..." he shrugged. "We can worry about that later."
Peggy let out a sigh, her shoulders slumping with relief. "Thank you, Steve. You're more understanding than I deserve. Both of you."
He tipped his head sideways. "I doubt that," he replied. "Now, shall we get back to dancing?"
"We could." She leaned forward, lowering her voice. "Or we could find somewhere a little more private."
He took a quick breath, pulse quickening. "Do you mean-- so you want to-- um--" He felt a flush rising to his cheeks, and he ducked his head, trying to fight it back.
Peggy pulled half away. "Oh, hell. I'm sorry, if you don't--"
"No!" Steve's head snapped up, and he grasped her hand like a drowning man. "God, no. I mean, yes, I do want to. Very much." He lifted her hand to his mouth and pressed her fingers to his lips in a lingering kiss. "I just-- I wasn't expecting-- but yes." Turning her hand around, he gently kissed her palm, then the soft skin at the underside of her wrist, taking a deep breath of her jasmine perfume. "I want to be with you more than anything."
She curled her fingers around his cheek, and Steve looked up, into her warm eyes and soft smile. "Good." Trailing a red fingernail across the underside of his chin, she stood up and drew him along with her, pulling him to his feet. "Follow me."
Steve had gone to collect their things from the coat check; meanwhile, Peggy stepped outside the club. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the cool night air, fresh in comparison to the smoky, perfumed atmosphere of the club. A light rain had started to fall, making halos around the street lamps, so she stayed back behind the awning, nodding to the doorman who stepped out into the street, arm raised. A cab pulled up just as Steve emerged from the club doors, holding out her coat. She let him put it on her, then threaded her fingers through his and pulled him into the backseat of the waiting cab.
He paused long enough to slide a bill into the doorman's hand, and then he sat next to her on the bench of the cab. Peggy leaned forward to the driver. "78th and Park, please."
"Yes, ma'am." The car pulled away from the curb, and Peggy slid the glass partition closed before leaning back against the seat. Steve sat in his corner, eyes out the window, and Peggy was suddenly reminded of the first time the two of them had ridden in a car together.
"Looking for more alleys where you faced down bullies?" she asked.
He started, and then his face mellowed into a smile. "My demons didn't usually chase me into Manhattan," he said.
"Only to Nazi Germany." Peggy slid across the bench seat, and after a tiny pause, Steve draped an arm over her shoulder to pull her into his side. She leaned her head against his chest with a gentle sigh, nestling into the crook of his arm, closing her eyes as he dropped a light kiss on the top of her head. She wanted more, wanted to tip her head up and kiss him all the way back, but the occasional glimpse of the cab driver's eyes in the rearview mirror stopped her. Dancing in public was one thing; snogging in the backseat of a taxi was quite another. Instead, she let herself luxuriate in the warmth of his embrace. He smelled just like she always thought he would -- soap, sweat, a dash of spice from his aftershave. She looked out the window and watched the streets rush by, the streaks of rain dance across the glass. It felt like being in a movie, she thought, perhaps one of the more far-fetched romance scripts that Angie sometimes brought home.
With the thought of Angie came a twinge of guilt, just as it had all night, though they had lessened once she came clean with Steve. Steve, who had been more understanding than she might have hoped; but why she had expected anything else from him? She sighed, and Steve tightened his hand around her arm. When she glanced up at him, he caught her eye and smiled, the sun breaking across his face yet again. She smiled back, then returned her gaze out the window and let her mind relax.
The question of what to do after the club had loomed large in her mind all day, until Angie had called to let her know that she had a engagement with her theater friends and would be out quite late, perhaps not returning until tomorrow. Her permission to bring Steve back to the apartment had gone unspoken, but Angie's intentions in taking her leave tonight were quite clear, and Peggy was grateful.
It took less than ten minutes to drive uptown, but it felt like forever, and not long enough, before the taxi was pulling up before the building. "Here we are," Peggy said, sitting up, reluctantly extracting herself from Steve's embrace. Before she could open the door, he was already out of the car and coming around the other side to open it for her, taking her hand and helping her over the puddle that had built up along the edge of the curb. Putting his arm around her, he shielded her from the rain as they rushed under the awning. The doorman had left his post to pay the cabbie, so Peggy opened the door, then led Steve inside.
"So this is your-- apartment?" Steve turned around in a small circle while Peggy put away her coat and his jacket, taking in the marble floor, the black damask curtains, the heavy wooden bannister on the stairway "It's a little more grand than I was picturing."
Peggy smiled as she removed Steve's hat and hung it on the rack. "That's Howard for you. Only the best." She ran a finger over the ornate flowers carved along the edge of the bannister. "Or the most expensive, anyway."
Steve chuckled, then took a step closer to Peggy. They were finally alone -- really alone, no club patrons or SSR agents -- SHIELD, now, he reminded himself, and his heart kicked up a notch at the realization. "So," he said. "Here we are."
"Indeed we are." Peggy reached for his hands, brushed them with her fingers, then pulled away. "Right here."
He swallowed, hard, against the sudden dryness in his mouth. "Peggy," he murmured, and lifted his hands to her shoulders. She raised herself up on her toes and laid her mouth on his; his eyes drifted closed and he kissed her, slowly, carefully, cradling her cheek in his palm, burying his fingers in her soft curls. She grasped his tie and pulled him closer, her other hand resting on his chest as he brought his free arm around her waist. Just like when they were dancing, but so much better now that he could kiss her, taste the tang of gin on her lips, let himself be overwhelmed by her perfume.
She sighed into his mouth, and he groaned softly in return. Then she pulled away, and looked up at him with big, bright eyes. "Would you like to come upstairs?"
He touched his forehead to hers, grasped her face in his hands, thumbs drawing circles on her temples. "If you'll have me."
Her answering kiss left no doubt. "This way." She ran her hands down his arms, tangled their fingers together, and then led him up the stairs, walking backwards, not breaking eye contact. Steve drowned in her eyes as he followed her, floating up the stairway as if he were in a dream, her golden brown hair in a halo around her face, all the love and desire floating in her gaze.
Peggy backed up the stairs one at a time, not willing to either drop Steve's hands or look away, secure in the knowledge that he would catch her if she stumbled. On the last step, she paused, then leaned forward and kissed him, nose to nose. He kissed her back, gentle and eager; she turned her hands and re-laced her fingers through his, pressed their palms together. She pulled him up the last few steps, giving him back the height advantage. They were in the hallway now, lit only by a few warm sconces; she glanced at the door to her room, then pulled him into the guest room across the way. Angie might be understanding of her bringing Steve back to their home, but she thought that taking him into their shared bedroom would be a step too far.
As he closed the door, she stepped to the bedside table and snapped on the lamp. Its warm light played over his golden hair and caught his blue eyes as he turned toward her. He stopped, and she could see his hard swallow. "You're so beautiful," he murmured. "Do you know how long-- how many times--" he cut himself off with a shake of his head. "I'm still such an idiot about women."
She smiled, the warm glow of her affection spreading into her fingertips as she reached for him. "I'd say you've done well enough so far." She wrapped her arms around his waist, then kissed him, harder than before, letting her mouth open beneath his. He groaned and pulled her tight, so tight she could hardly breathe, and she responded with a gasp.
He let her go, setting back with instant worry in his eyes. "Are you okay?"
In answer, she grasped his tie again and pulled their mouths back together. She worked at the knot with her fingers and pulled it free; then she started on the buttons of his shirt, kissing him all the while, luxuriating in the feel of his hands running up and down her back. The fabric of his shirt was slightly damp, from either the dancing or the rain; she could feel the tautness of his muscles beneath, every bit as wonderful as she'd imagined them.
The last button came free, and she slid her hands around his waist, covered now only by a thin undershirt. He was so warm, she thought; a side effect of that fast metabolism? His kisses were warm, too, and his hands-- she pressed her palms into the small of his back with a little gasp as his fingers slipped into her hair, caressing the back of her head.
She stopped, stepped back, looked up into his eyes as she ran her hands up his chest. Just like she'd wanted to do, like she'd almost done, when he'd stepped out of Erskine's contraption in Brooklyn. "Do you know how long I've waited to do that?" she asked, smiling.
He lifted an eyebrow, responding with a half smile of his own. "I remember," he said. "No one had ever looked at me like that."
She raised her hands to his neck, then pushed the collared shirt off his shoulders, catching it, carefully folding the fabric. "Never?"
Steve shook his head. "Not before, and not since. Not by anyone I wanted to look at me, anyway." He looked down with a swallow, hands sliding into his pockets. "You see, I haven't-- I mean, I've never--"
Peggy felt her eyes go wide, but she forced herself not to react further. "You're-- what are you trying to tell me?"
He glanced back up at her, with a look so innocent and charming that she almost rushed him and knocked him onto the bed right then. "Let's just say that the dance floor isn't the only place I've been waiting for the right partner."
She set the shirt on the bedside table, then picked up his tie from the floor and nestled it on top of the collar, folding it into a neat rectangle. "So-- do you-- are you sure?"
He smiled, and it was the most heartbreaking and beautiful thing Peggy had ever seen. "More sure than I've ever been of anything."
Peggy took a deep breath. "Good," she murmured. Without taking her eyes off his, she reached around to the back of her neck and pulled down the zipper in one slow, smooth motion. She could see Steve holding his breath, and so she gave it one last tug, stepped out of the dress, and pulled the slip off her shoulders, kicking off her shoes as the fabric fell to the floor.
Steve let out the breath he'd been holding, and she could see him shudder. "My God. You're perfect." He took her in, looking her up and down, but there was nothing lewd in his gaze, nothing possessive. Peggy felt instead like she was being admired, worshipped, in the most intimate way possible. "I wish I had time to draw you."
"Later," she said, and then she stepped back into his arms. He brought his hands to her shoulders but didn't pull her close, still drinking her in with his eyes. He traced the lines of her neck, shoulder blades, caressed her arms, enveloped her hands in his. Peggy lifted their joined hands and rested them on her breast, then let go, letting his hand rest atop the fabric of her brassiere.
He met her eyes again. "May I?" he asked, voice hushed, supplicating.
"Please," she responded, and he cupped his hand around her breast. He stroked it, squeezed it gently, and looked back up with a smile of wonder.
"It fits just right," he said. Bringing up his other hand, he stroked them both, lightly caressing the tops, the bottoms, the sides, sending shivers down her stomach and into her core. Peggy unhooked her bra; Steve moved his hands away just enough to let it fall. "Oh," he breathed. He stroked the curve beneath one breast, tracing its line up around to the top and then touched the tip of her nipple, a light caress at first, then harder. "Oh, Peggy." He brought his other arm around her and pulled her into a kiss, deeper than before, mouths open, the tip of his tongue just brushing the bottom of her lip. She wrapped her arms around her neck and pressed her breasts into his chest, welcomed his tongue into her mouth, enjoying his eager exploration of her body. Long minutes they stood together, kissing, touching, exchanging caresses and soft moans.
Eventually she lowered her hands and rested them on the waistband of his pants, brushing the metal of his belt buckle. Breaking their kiss, she leaned back enough to look at him. "Shall I?"
Steve took a careful breath. "Let me." He stepped away from her and began to work the buckle.
It was as much to slow things down as anything. Steve took the excuse to step back, look down at his feet, and break the intense lock between his eyes and Peggy's. First he took off his shoes, and then, breathing slowly, deeply, he willed his nerves to settle and his hands to stop shaking so he could undo his belt.
Why was he so nervous? Okay, he admitted, he knew exactly why. Because he was-- and there's no way that Peggy hadn't--
"Steve?" Peggy stepped close to him, her hand gentle on his wrist. "Are you all right? You're trembling."
He closed his eyes for a moment, smiled to himself. He should have known that he couldn't put one over on Peggy. He lifted his chin slightly, looked at her sideways. "I know I shouldn't be terrified. But, uh. I kind of, really am."
Peggy took his hands and led him to the bed, sitting next to him, not letting go. "Is it because this is your first time?"
He nodded. "And-- well, it's not yours. Is it?"
She lowered her eyes. "No. I hope that doesn't bother you."
"Not at all." Steve shook his head, hard, to underscore the point. "I guess I'm just-- nervous. That I won't-- that I'll--" He looked away, staring hard at the wall. "That I'll do whatever's the equivalent of stepping on your feet."
Peggy was silent for a moment; when Steve finally looked back at her, he could instantly tell that she was trying not to laugh. He flushed, the tips of his ears going hot, and she dropped his hands, placing her palms on either side of his face. "Oh, Steve," she said, smiling gently. "I do adore you." She leaned forward and pressed her lips to the corner of his mouth. "Don't even consider it. It's always different. Every time, with every person. I'm just as excited and nervous as you are. If, perhaps, in a different way," she added. "But whatever we do, however you do it, I'm going to love it. Because it will be with you." She tipped her forehead into his. "Do you understand?"
"I think so," he replied.
"Good." They shared a few breaths, just leaning together, before she kissed him again and then pulled away. "Now." She patted his hands. "We don't have to do anything you aren't comfortable doing. If you just want to sit here and talk, or lie quietly together--"
Steve cut her off by putting his mouth on hers, kissing her long and hard and slow; she cupped his face with her hands. "I want to be with you," he whispered against her lips. "So, so, much."
"Then what are we waiting for?" She pulled his undershirt over his head and tossed it into the corner, then dragged her hands down his chest, ran them up his back, her fingertips leaving sparks in their wake. He took her breast again, encircling it with his palm, and then he kissed it, lightly, just brushing his lips over the top of the swell.
Flicking his eyes up to her face, he saw her bright eyes, her lips just parted. "May I--"
She nodded, her hand coming behind his neck, drawing him down her breast as he covered it with small kisses, the top, the sides, and then finally fastening his mouth around her nipple. She gasped and pushed him closer, her chest rising up to meet him as he kissed and sucked, dared to touch her nipple with his tongue. When he looked up again, her eyes were closed and her head tipped back, and he shifted to place his next kiss on her neck, just where it met her shoulder. Groaning again, she twisted one hand into his hair as the other stroked his back. He kissed her neck, her shoulder, her ear, exploring every curve of the satin skin spread out before him.
Her hand was on his waistband again, and this time he didn't stop her; he let her unfasten his belt buckle and undo the top button of his pants. He had been aware of his erection for some time now, but at the nearness of her fingers his cock nearly lunged forward, pressing uncomfortably against the fabric holding it back. "Wait," he murmured again. "I'll-- let me." He stood up and turned around, pulling down the zipper and letting his pants fall to the ground. The bed squeaked, and Peggy was standing behind him, her hands on her waist. She kissed his back, right between his shoulder blades, and he shuddered.
"Ready?" she asked.
He nodded, and they pushed down his underwear together; it joined his pants on the floor, and he kicked them both aside. His cock sprang free, standing nearly straight outward. She kissed the back of his neck as she brought her hands down, one cupping each buttock, and he moaned. Every place she touched his body, he thrilled to it, but now he could think of only one thing -- about how good it would feel to wrap her hand around his cock, to feel her stroke it, to--
"My turn," she said, and pulled away; Steve turned to face her, and her eyebrows shot up. "Oh!"
Steve glanced down at himself, at the bare skin and muscles and cock standing at attention. "Is it-- all right?"
Peggy's brows twitched again, but now it was with a saucy smile as she bit her lower lip. "I should say so." She propped her right foot on the bed, and Steve admired the curve of her calf as she unfastened her garters and rolled down first one stocking, then the other. Then she shimmied out of her panties and they were both naked, together, Adam and Eve all over again, seeing and admiring each other's bodies for the first time.
"My God, Peggy." Steve stepped up to her again, stroking her upper arms. "You are so beautiful."
"So are you," she replied, grasping his hips and pulling him close for another sweet, wet kiss. "Every part of you," she murmured. A finger trailed down over his pelvic bone; she lightly nipped at his ear, and he almost jerked away with the surprise of it, the pleasure. But that was nothing compared to her hand wrapping around his cock, surrounding it, lightly squeezing.
She met his eyes, and he nodded. "Please," he said, through ragged breaths, and then he had to close his eyes and press his lips together against the waves of rapture as she stroked his shaft -- up, then down, over the tip and all the way down to his balls. He grabbed her shoulders and touched his forehead to hers, concentrating on the sensation, so like and yet unlike when he did it himself, the excitement of not knowing what she might do next adding to the feeling. "God, Peggy, my God, it's so-- ohhhhh." He shuddered, and then he kissed her, his mouth pressing hers open, his tongue plunging inside in crude imitation of everything else he wanted. He was close to coming, so close-- "Peggy, oh God, Peggy, wait, I can't-- "
Peggy's hand stopped moving, and then she let him go, her palm splayed over his stomach. She smiled up at him, laid a finger over his lips. "Right," she said. "Save it for later. But not too much later." His stomach turned over, and his cock surged, wanting to be closer to her, to be--
"Shit!" Peggy's brows shot up again, and Steve shook his head. "Protection. I didn't bring anything, I wasn't thinking--"
"Ah." She smiled. "Fortunately, I was." She pulled away from him and to the bedside dresser, and she pulled out a rubber in its small square wrapper. Steve melted just a little more, at his beautiful, brilliant, competent lady. She thought of literally everything. "Shall we?"
Steve's heart pounded in his ears. "Are you-- uh-- ready?" He glanced down at his erect cock, already beading at the tip. "I mean, I know I am. But how do you know?"
In answer, Peggy took him by the neck and pulled him down for another kiss, leading him at last to the bed; she tossed off the covers with one hand and lay down on the white sheet, drawing him with her. Then she took his hand and placed it on her gently rounded belly before leading it down between her legs.
He cupped her there, just like he had her breast, pressing against the downy brush of hair, and then he explored further with a single finger, finding heat and wet and such amazing softness. She arched her back as he pushed inside her, into her sleek sheath, and she sighed with contentment. "And that," she whispered, "is how you know."
Steve looked down her body, suffused with wonder at its silky perfection. "So, then, should I--" He gestured to the condom, which she'd set down beside her on the bed, still in its wrapper. She nodded, and he opened the paper, carefully, and pulled the bit of rubber free before unrolling it down his cock. Then he shifted, leaning over her, one elbow on either side of her head, nestling between her parted thighs. She took him in her hand and guided him inside, her hips rising to meet his as she brought him home.
"Ahhh. Oh. Oh God." Steve pushed inside her, groaning, his right hand buried in her hair, the left gripping the sheet. Peggy moved back against him, curving her hands around his ass to push him even more deeply inside, to touch her cheek to his, to feel him within her, atop her, surrounding her. "Peggy, oh Peggy."
"Yes," she purred back, almost no more than a sigh. She lifted her foot and stroked the curve of his calf with the back of her heel. Arching her back to press into him, she rubbed her cheek against the inside of his neck. "God yes."
"It feels so-- ohhhhhh, God." Steve turned his head and kissed her, mouth open and sloppy over hers. She could feel him fighting for control even as he moved inside her, short swift strokes, deeper with every small thrust. "I want to stay here forever, and I can't wait another minute."
Peggy chuckled. "I know the feeling," she murmured into his ear, pulling her body tighter against him, sighed at the answering twitch of his cock inside. At this rate, he wouldn't last much longer; she could feel him quivering while trying to hold still, fighting to maintain control. "It's all right, my darling; let go if you need to."
He needed no more encouragement; pushing up on his elbows, he moved inside her, deep and hard, her own hips rising to meet every thrust, both of them gasping with every stroke, his perfect blue eyes never leaving hers until he started to shake, and then he let go all at once, collapsing and moaning incoherently into her hair.
She lifted her hips again, holding him inside while he came, and then he relaxed on top of her, boneless and content. He sighed her name again and again, tracing the word with his lips against her temple. She smiled and tightened her arms around his back, cradling him close. He shook his head, and sighed. "Sorry, I didn't mean for it to be so fast, but--"
"It's all right," she said again. "We have all night for more." He lifted his head to meet her eyes, and relaxed when he saw the truth of it on her face, leaning down to kiss her.
"More?" he asked, against her mouth. "Do you mean, like-- again?" He shifted to kiss her cheek, her temple, her eyelid. "Or like doing something else?" He rolled off her, to the side, and placed a hand on her belly, fingers splayed downward.
She raised an eyebrow about him. "You know about other things?"
He grinned, and she suddenly realized that it was the first time she'd seen that sassy smile since his return. "I'm a virgin-- was, a virgin," he corrected himself, smile broadening, "not completely ignorant. I've heard things. Seen things." His hand drifted lower, covering her pelvis, fingertips brushing her inner thighs. "Guys talk, you know? Of course, I never knew what to believe." He dipped a finger between her nether lips, and she gasped as he found the tip of her clit, hot and full and ready. "Will you help with that?"
"God yes," she breathed, and her hips raised of their own accord as he dragged the pad of his finger across her nub, back and forth, her need rising at his touch, the wave building until it broke and she cried out. He paused, and she shook her head, still pressing herself into his hand. "Don't stop," she whispered, "oh please don't stop," and he kept stroking her, slower, lighter, the tremors coming again and again until finally she collapsed and brought a hand to his wrist. Opening her eyes, she looked up at him, saw him watching her, his smile softened into look of awe.
"Was that-- did I do it right?"
"You did everything right," she murmured, and she pulled him down for a swift kiss, then curled into his arms, resting her head on his chest, wrung out from pleasure. "I should bring virgins to bed more often." He laughed, and she tried to laugh in return, but somehow it came out as a sob instead. Finally, after so long, it was Steve, he was here, he was alive and in her arms, and it didn't seem real, it seemed like a dream, one of the dreams she would awaken from into the nightmare of being alone in a world where Steve was dead and all the light was gone, where nothing would ever be beautiful again.
"Peggy?" His voice was filled with concern, now. "Peggy, sweetheart. What's wrong?"
She shook her head as the tears welled up in her eyes. "I waited so long. So long. I never thought-- but you're here. You're here!" Joy, sadness, loneliness all crashed together and she lost the last words in a wave of tears and body-wracking sobs; he cradled her close and whispered her name.
"I'm here," he murmured, brushing her hair back from her face, kissing away the tears. She looked into his eyes, and they were wet, too. "I'm here, for as long as you need me to be."
She didn't say anything; nothing needed to be said. She nestled into his arms, let the last of the tears fall, and found her way into a sweet dreamless sleep.
Steve woke up slowly, drifting up out of warmth and darkness and vague memories of a pleasant dream. He had been with Peggy, touching her smooth skin and smelling her hair, wrapped in her embrace and knowing all was right with the world.
Then he took the last step into wakefulness, and Peggy was still there, really there, curled up in the crook of his arm, her naked back snuggled up against his chest. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back to the pillow, happiness and amazement flooding his heart. It wasn't just a dream. It was real. He was awake, alive, in New York, and living his dreams with her.
From the heaviness of her breathing, Steve thought she was still asleep. He propped himself up to check her face -- it was relaxed, eyes closed, a tiny smile on her lips. Nothing would be better than to turn on his side and nestle up behind her, like two spoons in a drawer, but Steve's stomach had other ideas. It gurgled, ready for a midnight snack; Steve shushed it, but it only growled again, louder. So he brushed his lips across Peggy's hair, then disentangled himself from her, taking care not to wake her up. He pulled on his pants and undershirt -- in the heat of the moment, he had forgotten to take off his socks, and he decided not to bother with shoes. He closed the door silently, then padded down the hall back toward the entryway, in the direction of what he hoped was the kitchen.
The hall led to the stairs, and after some thought he went down them, figuring that the kitchen was more likely down there than up by the bedrooms. The door next to the stairs opened into a darkened sitting room; Steve picked his way around the sofas and end tables to another door across the room, and there he found a large kitchen. He made his way to the refrigerator -- pale green, if the reflections from the street lamp were anything to go by -- and pulled out a bottle of milk. It looked like there was some lunch meat in here, too, and maybe some leftover--
Suddenly, the overhead lights flicked on, and Steve jumped back, the fridge door swinging wide. He whirled around, milk still in his hand, and found himself face to face with a woman. She wore a long plaid coat and a smart hat, peacock blue, perched on the back of unruly brown curls.
She recovered first, stepping out of the doorway as she tucked her purse under her arm, letting the door swing closed behind her. "Angie Martinelli," she said, holding out a gloved hand. "And you must be Captain America."
"Um. Right." Steve set the milk carefully on the counter and took the outstretched hand, shaking it. "Steve Rogers. And may I please say that this is not how I'd hoped to make a first impression?"
Her grip tightened just a little. "Apology accepted." She let go of his hand and stepped back. "So, you looking for something to eat?" She looked him up and down with a small smirk. "Worked up an appetite, I guess."
Steve was saved from having to answer one of the most awkward questions of his life by Peggy's appearance in the doorway. She had thrown on a green robe and white slippers, but her hair was still a tousled, sleepy, adorable mess. He wanted to run his hands through her curls, smooth them down, and kiss her until the sun came up, but he put his hands behind his back instead.
Peggy took a careful step into the room. "You're home," she said, looking at Angie.
Angie nodded, taking off her gloves. "Party broke up early, and the after party was really dead, so I figured I'd sneak back in. Didn't expect to interrupt anything." She raised an eyebrow, and Peggy blushed.
"Well." Peggy lifted a hand in an approximation of a greeting. "Angie, this is Steve Rogers--."
"We've introduced ourselves already." Angie nodded at Steve, then turned back to Peggy. "Anyway, it's okay. I'm not hungry -- just came in here because I heard noises. I'll take off, leave you two lovebirds alone."
"No, please, don't." Steve found his voice again, and stood up straight. "I don't want to put you out of your own home." He returned Angie's nod, then walked past Peggy and out the kitchen door. She followed him into the parlor and stopped him with a hand to his arm.
"Steve, you don't have to--"
"Yes I do," Steve interrupted. He covered her hand with his own. "It's all right, Peggy. It is." Maybe if he said it enough, it would become true.
"How will you get back to the office?" she asked. "You'll never find a cab at this hour, not in the rain."
"I'll walk." Assuming he could find the building, in the rain and the dark, when he hadn't been paying much attention on the drive from the club. But Manhattan was easy enough to navigate, he could--
"You bloody well will not." Peggy crossed her arms and glared up at him, an expression he found impossible to disobey. "If you insist on leaving, let me call Howard's night driver."
Steve shook his head. "I wouldn't want to put anyone out."
"You won't be," she said, managing a wry smile. "Knowing Howard, Mr. Edmunds is already out and waiting somewhere. It'll be a welcome break, I expect."
He looked away with a soft chuckle. "When you put it that way..." He met her eyes, and nodded. "Thank you. I appreciate it. This isn't how I pictured-- but then what ever is?"
She sighed. "Too true. Thank you, Steve. I had a lovely evening."
"So did I." He touched her cheek, and she closed her eyes. "Thank you, Peggy," he murmured, leaning close to her ear. "What happened tonight-- it means everything to me." He kissed her softly, first on the temple and then on the lips. "Thank you." And then he let her go, walking out of the parlor to make the long hard trek up the stairs.
After Steve left, Peggy placed the call to the driver, then sat on the edge of the sofa, her eyes focused on the door that had closed quietly behind him. She wanted to follow, to take his hand and convince him to stay, to spend the rest of the night floating in his arms-- but he was right. This was all terribly unfair to Angie, and it would be even more unfair to put her out tonight. So Peggy stood up and pushed back through the door into the light of the kitchen. Angie was sitting at the table, hat and coat still on, toying with her gloves. Peggy sat down across from her. "I'm sorry," she said.
Angie shrugged. "Don't apologize. You just did what I told you to do."
"True, but I didn't mean for you to run into him like that. This is your home as much as mine."
"Is it?" Angie glanced up at her. "It's not like I'm buddies with Howard Stark._"
Peggy flushed. "Howard likes you very much; you know that."
"Yeah, but he'd never let me live here without you." Angie pushed the seat back, the metal legs scraping loud against the linoleum. "That was a lie, before, about not expecting to interrupt. I mean, I wasn't planning it or anything. But I knew, deep down, that you'd bring him here. And I guess... I guess I just wanted to see him for myself, this guy who's gonna mess up my whole life."
A lump rose up in Peggy's throat. "Angie, don't."
"Don't what? Tell the truth?" Angie crossed her arms and finally looked Peggy in the face, mouth set in a hard line. "C'mon, Peg. I know how much you loved him. You don't just turn that off."
Peggy laid her hands on the table and leaned forward. "No," she said. "You don't. Any more than I can turn off how much I love you."
Angie flicked her eyes downward. "It's not the same."
"Like hell it isn't!" Peggy turned a hand palm up, and let it rest in the center of the table. After a pause, Angie reached forward and took it, the tips of her fingers curving around Peggy's wrist. Peggy closed her own hand around Angie's and held it tight. "All right, perhaps not exactly the same. You can't love two different people in the exact same way. But surely I don't love you any less. The past two years, with everything you've done for me, all we've been through-- how could I not love you?"
"That sounds like gratitude," Angie said. "Not love."
Peggy shook her head. "Not that I'm not grateful, but there's so much more to it than just that." She stood up with their hands still intertwined, and she came around to Angie's side of the table. "I need you, Angie Martinelli. And nothing is ever going to change that."
Angie stood up and leaned her forehead into Peggy's, then kissed her, gentle and slow. "I hope you're right," she said. "I love you, too. And before all this, I couldn't imagine my life without you, either. I still don't want to, but--" She glanced at the floor, and back up; the anger had drained from her face, replaced with a sadness that made Peggy ache. "I might be a dreamer, but I try to keep a foot in the real world, too."
Peggy touched Angie's cheek. "This is the real world."
For a long moment Angie didn't say anything, and then she let out a long, slow sigh. "We'll see, baby. We'll see." She kissed Peggy again, and Peggy hugged her close. Then she stepped away. "It's been a long day, for both of us. I'm going to bed." She took off her hat and headed toward the foyer. "Not to be petty or anything, but I'd rather be alone, if you don't mind."
Peggy exhaled, sinking back into the chair. "Of course," she said. "I understand."
"Thanks. 'Night, Peg."
"Good night, Angie." And Peggy sat alone in the kitchen with her thoughts for a long, long while.
Howard's driver dropped Steve at the front door of the SHIELD offices. He trudged up the stairs and down the hall, got into bed, and failed to sleep: eyes open, he stared at the bland beige ceiling, body satisfied but brain restless as he worried at the puzzle of a Peggy who cared about him but was involved with someone else.
She did care about him, or at least she wanted him. There had been no doubt of that, not in her eyes, her touch, her kiss, her... Steve closed his eyes and pressed a hand to his mouth, inhaling musk and jasmine, as though he could capture the exact feeling of her lips, her skin on his.
And yet, her life had gone on without him, which was exactly as it should be -- what kind of man would he be, to want her alone, lonely, pining for a lover dead and gone? She deserved to be happy, to find someone else to love, to share her life with. And yet, lying awake on a lumpy hospital cot, he looked into the darkest corners of his soul and admitted that he was jealous -- jealous of Peggy for moving on, jealous of Angie for getting to share Peggy's life.
Would Peggy choose him? How could he even ask her to make that choice?
At some point he must have finally dozed off, because suddenly it was daylight and he was opening his eyes, sitting up. And despite everything, there was a smile on his face, because he and Peggy Carter had made love last night, and nothing could ever take that away.
Everything had changed, and yet nothing was different. He got up, did his morning exercises, came back to the room after a shower, and his breakfast was waiting, just like the previous morning. Except this morning the tray of eggs and bacon and toast had company, in the form of Howard Stark sitting in the metal chair by the window, a cup of coffee in one hand and the newspaper in the other. "Morning, Steve," he said, lifting the cup in salute. "Mind if I join you?"
"Seems like you already have," Steve replied, but with a smile. That's how it always was with Howard -- demanding forgiveness rather than asking permission, acting on a whim. He'd gotten used to it, even come to appreciate Howard's forwardness and sarcastic humor. He took a seat and downed his first glass of orange juice before tucking into his breakfast.
"So." Howard folded the paper and leaned forward, eyes twinkling. "I hear you had a good night."
Steve stopped, a bite of eggs halfway to his mouth. "How did you--?" Then he sat back, putting down the fork with a glare. "Your driver." He knew he should have given the man a bigger tip.
Howard shrugged. "He was a little late coming to pick me up from my engagement, and I asked why. But hey, it's for a good cause." He punched Steve on the arm. "So now I have to ask, why the hell are you here, not there? You and Peggy waited a long time for this." Steve sent him a sharp look, and he spread his hands. "Don't give me the innocent act. Everyone knew; how could we not, the way you two always looked at each other? And after you were gone..."
Steve looked down at his plate with a hard swallow. He still didn't want to think about Peggy believing he was dead. "She-- was she okay?"
"I mean, she put on a good face in public. We all did." Howard met his eyes, his expression purely serious. "But it was hard, especially for Peg. And the few times she let that mask slip..." He shook his head. "I hate to tell you this, but I was glad when she found Angie. I think being around someone who never knew you was easier."
Steve raised an eyebrow. "And you never--"
Howard laughed. "Believe me, pal, it wasn't for lack of trying. But she shut me down almost before I started. When I first joined up with SSR, she was all business, all the time. No flirting, hardly even a smile. Not until you, anyway." He sat back in his chair, sipping from the coffee mug. "You were good for her. So I hope you can work things out, and that's the truth."
Steve took a drink of his own coffee. "What's she like? Angie, I mean. Do you know her well?"
"Not as well as I'd like," Howard said with a playful leer; Steve rolled his eyes, and he chuckled again. "No, but seriously. She's a good woman. A working actress -- a pretty good one, she does some off-off-Broadway, some radio work, commercials. And she's about as far removed from SHIELD as it gets." He leaned forward again. "Speaking of that, have you thought about what you want to do? Has Peg made you a job offer yet? Or will you get back into the Army?"
"I really don't know," Steve admitted. "I've been so busy just getting back into the swing of being alive again, I haven't considered what I might do next."
"Well, if you decide you want a change of pace, come talk to me. I'd be happy to find you a place at Stark Industries." Howard finished his coffee and stood up, tucking the newspaper under his arm. Then he laid a hand on Steve's shoulder. "If I haven't said this already, it's good to have you back. Really."
Steve shook his head. "Without you, I wouldn't even be back. I owe you everything, Howard. Don't think I'll forget that."
Howard grinned and clapped Steve on the back. "I'm counting on it. Okay, pal. I'll see you later." He got halfway to the door, then turned around. "And don't give up on Peggy, all right? You were everything to her. She'll remember that soon enough. Mark my words."
Steve raised a hand in acknowledgement, then turned back to his food as Howard left. No use facing the rest of the day on an empty stomach.
Peggy, too, had slept poorly, returning to the guest room to toss and turn in the bed, too big without Steve, reminded of him every time she rolled over and caught his scent in the pillows. She understood why he had gone, but she missed him. And at the same time, she missed Angie, her steady comforting presence, even her soft snore. Peggy's life had become an embarrassment of riches; she felt guilty even letting it bother her. But the same question echoed through her mind all night: How on earth was she going to get through this? How could she possibly choose between the two halves of her heart?
When she finally dragged herself out of bed and into the shower, Angie was already gone; Peggy winced at the empty bed, its twisted covers suggesting that Angie hadn't slept particularly well either. She got ready for the day and went downstairs, expecting to find an empty kitchen, perhaps a few dishes in the sink. Instead, she was greeted by the sight of Jarvis, whistling as he worked, wearing a bright yellow apron over his usual suit. The smell of fresh bread wafted out of the oven.
He paused at the sound of her entry, spared her a glance and a smile. "Ah, good morning, Miss Carter. Tea is in the pot, and the eggs are almost ready, if you'd like to take a seat. Bread will be a bit longer, I'm afraid. You may have to save it for dinner."
Peggy glanced at her watch. Almost eight; she was going to be late for her daily briefing if she didn't hurry. "Thank you, Mr. Jarvis, but I have to pass today. I have a meeting, I'm afraid."
Jarvis looked back at her with an arched brow. "On a Sunday?"
"The Director's work is never done." Peggy poured herself a cup of tea and added milk, and after a pause followed it with a generous spoonful of sugar.
"If you're the one in charge, no one can dock you for being late," Jarvis pointed out.
"I need to set an example--"
He looked at her, head tipped to the side, looking for all the world like her grandmother about to send her to her room without supper. Cowed, she sat down, resting her elbows on the table, breathing in the comforting fumes from the tea.
"You need to eat," he said. "You've had a hard day. You, and Miss Martinelli."
"All right, Mum," Peggy shot back, though without any real heat. He tipped a plate of poached eggs and toast in front of her, and she dug in. Then she stopped, turned to him. "All right, why did you say that? Who told you..." She narrowed her eyes. "Edmunds."
Jarvis shrugged with half a smile. "Can you blame him for sharing perhaps the best gossip he's had in a year?"
Peggy slumped in her chair. "I should have let him walk back," she muttered. "Stubborn men." Then she looked back up at Jarvis. "I don't care if you know, not really, but Howard will never let me hear the end of it." She put down her utensils and leaned her head into her hands. "Oh, Edwin. I've got myself into a right mess, and I haven't the faintest how I'm going to get out of it."
"I suspect there are those who would like to have your problems." Jarvis took the seat across from her, and she looked through her laced fingers at him. "A stable relationship with a good woman in one hand, the return of a lost love from the dead in the other. Some might call that lucky."
"Some might." Peggy lifted her head and straightened her hair. "Last night was wonderful. And then it all went wrong. Neither one is telling me to decide, but I can't put it off forever. It's not fair for either of them."
Jarvis took a careful sip of his own tea. "You're so sure of that, then?"
"Sure of what?"
He set down the cup and folded his hands. "That you have to decide."
Peggy stared at him. "Don't be ridiculous. Of course I have to decide. I can't just keep stringing them both along forever; that would be cruel."
"And if it weren't stringing them along?"
"You mean-- if I-- both of them?" Peggy shook her head. "I couldn't-- it's just not done."
Jarvis raised an eyebrow. "And you are so concerned with what's done?" He finished his tea and stood up. "Just consider it. Now, I have to get back to my duties; the oven is set to turn off, but do remember that the bread is still in there come suppertime?"
"Of course," Peggy murmured, still lost in the idea that Jarvis had planted. It was ridiculous; she couldn't have two partners. Could she?
He was halfway out the door before she remembered her manners. "Mr. Jarvis?"
He turned back. "Yes, Miss Carter?"
She smiled at him and raised her tea. "Thank you. For breakfast, and for the advice."
He returned her smile with a nod. "It is, as always, my pleasure. Good day, Miss Carter."
"Good day, Mr. Jarvis."
It was almost lunchtime before Steve got up the guts to leave his room and search out Peggy's office. Yeah, it was a Sunday, but she'd mentioned last night that she came to work most days, unless she was in the field. After five wrong turns and directions from a helpful janitor, he discovered that she was, indeed, in her office. The room had a glass door, and though the blind was pulled, the slats were open, and he could see her sitting at her desk, frowning into the phone. She wore a dark wine blouse with a bow at the neck, its soft sleeves puffing over her shoulders. He rapped his knuckles against the wood frame and she looked up, startled; then she acknowledged him by lifting her hand with a single raised finger -- the universal sign for "just a minute". He waved back and stepped to the side, leaning against the doorjamb and jockeying for space with one of the tall potted plants that screened her office windows from nosy onlookers. A spiky leaf flicked his cheek; he pushed it away and it popped back with a few of its friends, tickling his nose so that he sneezed. With a glare, he stepped out into the hallway and began fishing a handkerchief out of his back pocket.
Just as he started to blow, the door opened, and Peggy popped out. "Steve?"
He turned, stuffing the handkerchief away. "Hi," he said.
"Hi," she replied, looking up at him with a soft smile. He wanted to grab her shoulders, feel their warmth through the silky fabric of her top -- which was actually a dress, he could see now, draping all the way down the curve of her thighs -- and kiss her, but he didn't dare. For that and a hundred other reasons, this meeting should have been awkward, but it wasn't. It was perfect. He smiled back, and felt warm all the way down to his toes. "Come in," she said, stepping aside to let him past.
It was a small office, with one windowed wall looking out over the corridor, the other onto Seventh Avenue. He could see across the city to the bridges, a corner of Brooklyn in the distance. A few plants framed a couch underneath the window into the corridor. The wall behind her desk was emblazoned with the SHIELD logo, a stylized eagle silhouette much like SSRs but closed in a circular frame. He touched the edge lightly. "SHIELD," he murmured. They had found his shield with him -- it had survived the crash without any damage that he could see, and he had it propped up in a corner of his room. There was nothing personal on the desk that he could see, just another plant in a small pot. And, he realized looking more closely, a small photo in a wooden frame, Peggy and Angie sitting cheek to cheek, mugging in a photo booth. They were both smiling, laughing, happy. He wondered how many people at SHIELD knew about their relationship. Probably not many.
Peggy cleared her throat, and Steve jolted out of his thoughts. "Not that I'm not always glad to see you," she said, "but I do have to step out for a few minutes. Did you have something important for me?"
"Oh." Steve looked down at the gleaming metal desk, then back at Peggy. "Not-- nothing specific. I guess, I just wanted to say hello. See how you were. Um. Y'know."
She tipped her head to the side. "We're going to have to find you something to do soon. With all this time on your hands, you must be bored out of your skull."
"Well, uh...." Steve poked the ground with a toe. "I wasn't going to mention it right now, but, yeah. You know I like being useful."
"Of course." After a quick glance to ensure that the hall was empty, she came up on tiptoe and kissed him. "We'll talk about it soon. But for now, I'll be back shortly. Make yourself comfortable."
As if he could be comfortable, in a case like this.
Still, might as well try. He sat down on the sofa, next to a half-read New York Times; he picked it up and started on the front page, but he didn't get very far -- the places were familiar, and some of the names, but the contexts felt all wrong. He set it aside and began to pace around the room instead, trying not to look at the photo on the desk. Of course Peggy would have a photo of her-- girlfriend? partner? -- on her desk. His desire not to look at it pulled him toward it, and he accidentally bumped his thigh against the file cabinet.
As he pulled away, the top drawer slid open. He leaned over to take a quick look -- it was a slim drawer, not deep enough to hold files, and at first glance it seemed to be mostly a junk drawer, holding mementos and sundries: nail clippers, hair pins, a tube of lipstick, fortunes and unused chopsticks left over from late night working dinners. The corner of a framed photograph caught his eye, and with a noise of recognition, he pulled it free of the pile.
It was a photograph of him, of Steve Rogers. But it wasn't a photograph of Captain America. Steve stared at the face he knew as well as his own, because it was his own -- or it had been, anyway. Before Erskine, before the serum, before his life had changed forever. He'd never seen this photo before, but it had been taken at Camp Lehigh -- he recognized the barracks in the background, and he wore oversized fatigues, dog tags dangling around his neck. Steve's hand drifted up to his chest by reflex. What had happened to those, anyway? He'd been wearing them when he went into the ice -- he was almost certain. Did the SHIELD doctors have them, or Stark, or--
The sound of the office door opening snapped him out of his woolgathering, and he looked up to see Peggy entering the room, her eyes going wide as she saw what he was holding. "Why were you in my desk?" she asked, closing the door behind her.
"I'm sorry, it was an accident." Steve gestured toward the drawer. "I bumped into the drawer and it came open. I didn't mean to pry, but... well." He held the photo out to her, and she took it, gently. "You saved this? All this time?"
She nodded, eyes still glued to the photo as she walked up beside him. "When the war in Europe ended, we closed up the office in England, and General Phillips gave me your file to pack. And-- I couldn't help it. I wanted something to remember you by. I didn't think anyone would notice."
"But, Peggy--" Steve shook his head. "There's gotta be hundreds of better photos of me. Thousands, even. Publicity photos, professional photos. Why did you pick this one?"
"Because..." Peggy traced a finger down the edge of the frame, tapped her nail against the glass. "Because everyone knows Captain America. But not everyone knew Steve Rogers. The good, kind, strong man that he always was. Even back then." She set the photo on her desk, and her lower lip trembled. "Perhaps especially back then." She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. "I wanted to remember the man I first met, the man I first started to fall in love with."
Steve could barely breathe as he looked at her, the weight of her emotions, her memories, pressing down on his chest. She had known him before. And she had loved him, before. "I-- don't even know what to say," he whispered. "All that time, and I never knew. I never understood." He dropped his chin and shook his head again. "Forgive me Peggy, I--"
Before he could stammer out another word, she was kissing him, her hands clinging to his arms. He cradled her elbows in his palms and kissed her back, answering her need, her love with his own. "Peggy," he murmured. "I love you."
She slipped her arms around his neck and pressed her check against his chest. "I love you too, Steve."
He closed her eyes and stroked her back, holding her close. There were no more words, only the two of them, together, and at that moment he promised himself that he would do whatever it took to keep from ever losing her again.
They had spent the next few hours sitting on the couch in Peggy's office, Steve's arm around her shoulder, her cheek pillowed on his chest. No kissing, no lovemaking, not even any talking, really -- just the two of them, being together, breathing the same air. A part of Peggy would have spend her entire life there, subsisting on Steve's presence, but a quiet voice in her heart knew that it wouldn't be enough. Eventually she would have to get up, face the memos on her desk, the life and death decisions she made every day, and the smaller decision she had to make about her own life -- smaller and monumentally huge, all at once.
At last, she gave into the mounting temptation to check her watch. Quarter-past three. "Oh dear." She stirred out of Steve's embrace. "Darling, I'm sorry, but I can't miss any more meetings." He nodded, and she laid a hand on his cheek. "I know we have a great deal to talk about -- we haven't yet touched the question of what you're going to do next, and I'm sure that's much on your mind, not to mention... Well, all of this."
He looked down at her with a small smile. "I can wait."
She glanced away with a sigh. "Just because you're willing to wait doesn't make it fair of me to ask you to." Turning back to him, she kissed him firmly on the cheek, catching the corner of his mouth. "Please, come for dinner tonight. I'd like you to meet Angie properly, and then we can talk, figure all this out. All right?"
He stroked her arm, sliding his hands down to take hers. "Whatever you need, Peggy."
"Seven o'clock," she said. "I'll send a car for you."
Steve raised an eyebrow. "Howard's gossiping driver again?"
Peggy tipped her chin. "Edmunds tattled on you too, did he?" Steve nodded, and she shook her head ruefully. "You'd think Howard would put a higher priority on hiring employees who can keep their mouths shut. Although I suppose he values getting the gossip himself." Steve chuckled, and she squeezed his hands. "Well, our secret's already out, no point trying to hide it. You'll be fine."
"Good." He leaned down for another soft kiss. "And about the other thing... I haven't had much time to think about it yet. To work for SHIELD, to re-enlist, to do something else entirely?" He shook his head. "Not that I have any idea what that might be. Anyway, I'll want to talk it through with you before I decide anything."
"We will," she promised. She stood up and pulled him with her, contenting herself with one last kiss. "See you tonight."
He kissed her cheek, her forehead, and the crown of her head, and then he left her alone. She checked her watch one more time; she did indeed have a meeting, but she needed to make two calls first. For one thing, she should call Jarvis to request another place at dinner and his driving services for the evening. That was the easy part. The hard part... she decided to get out of the way. She took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and dialed home. "Angie? It's me."
There was silence for a long minute before Angie responded. "Hey, Peg."
"I'm glad I caught you." Peggy looked over at the framed photo she kept on the corner of her desk -- the two of them at Coney Island on their first anniversary, laughing at the camera, best friends to the world, so much more to each other. "I wanted to make sure you heard from me first that I've invited Steve to dinner tonight."
Angie exhaled. "So."
"I want to introduce you properly. Sorry to muck that up the first time." Peggy touched the photo frame. "And the three of us have a lot to talk about."
There was another pause before Angie spoke again. "You sure about that?"
"Yes," Peggy replied firmly. "I am. But it's not a conversation to have over the phone. I have one more meeting, and then I'll be home. Steve will be over just past seven, if that's all right."
"There's a part of me that wants to be petty and say no, but I won't." Angie's voice came close to breaking. "I never could say no to you, English."
Peggy smiled through the tears that sprang to her eyes. "And you know I love you for it." She cradled the phone closer to her ear. "See you soon, sweetie."
"Bye." Angie hung up, and Peggy leaned back into her chair, daring to hope that this scheme might actually work out.
At seven o'clock sharp, Steve exited the SHIELD building to see a the same Stark car but a different driver, this one a tall man in a brown suit. He doffed his cap as Steve approached -- in uniform again; he would have to expand his wardrobe soon. "Captain Rogers," the driver said, putting back on his hat and opening the door. "Good evening."
"Hi," Steve replied. "Thanks for the ride."
"Happy to be of service." The driver closed the door behind him before striding around to his own side.
Steve settled into his seat. "No Edmunds tonight?"
"Edmunds is chauffeuring Mr. Stark, as he usually does in the evenings," the man replied. "I more often attend to the estates instead of driving these days. I'm Jarvis, head of Mr. Stark's household staff."
"Edwin Jarvis," Steve said, mostly to himself. "Peggy's told me a lot about you."
"Has she?" Jarvis glanced at him via the rearview mirror. "I could say the same, of course, but a good employee does not gossip."
"Tell that to Edmunds," Steve muttered. Jarvis didn't answer, but Steve thought he caught a quick smirk in the mirror. "Anyway, thanks for taking care of her."
This time, Jarvis did chuckle. "As she will be the first to tell you, Miss Carter takes care of herself perfectly well."
Steve smiled. "I'm sure she does."
Jarvis nodded. "She's a remarkable woman. I'm honored to assist her when I can."
The rest of the ride passed in silence, Steve lost in contemplating the upcoming meeting, running all the scenarios, both good and bad. When the car pulled up to the curb in front of the apartment, Steve had his feet on the sidewalk before Jarvis even put on the brake. "Thanks," he said.
Jarvis leaned out the car, elbow resting on the open window. "Good luck," he replied. Steve tipped his cap, then made for the front door. Peggy stood there instead of the doorman, already holding the door open for him.
"Hello," she said, pecking him on the cheek, then holding her arm out for his jacket. "You're right on time."
"Wouldn't dare be anything else," he responded. "Is dinner ready?"
"Right this way," she said, leading him into the parlor.
And there, next to a sideboard by the window, was Angie, dressed in bright blue, a glass in her hand. She marched across the room, hand stuck out. "Angie Martinelli," she said. "Pleased to meet you. Again," she added, with a wry smile.
Steve took her outstretched hand and shook it. Firmly, but not too firmly. "Thanks for having me." He let go, taking a minute to look around. Now that he could see it in daylight, the room was every bit as over-decorated as the foyer -- heavy wine-colored wall paper, matching wine and gold upholstery, accented with dark woods and thick carpet. "Impressive place you've got here."
Angie shrugged, brown curls bouncing. "That's all Howard," she said. "I have the decorating sense of a ficus." She gestured to the crystal decanter on the sideboard. "Scotch? Rocks?"
"Sure. I mean yes, please. To the Scotch, and the rocks."
She set down her own glass and poured two more -- he noticed that Peggy took hers neat -- then handed the drinks around before lifting her glass in a toast. "To old friends," she said, no emotion on her face.
Peggy lifted her glass in return. "Old friends, and new," she added, and the three of them clinked their glasses together, drinking to friendship in silence.
Then Angie set her glass aside. "I'll get dinner," she said before disappearing through the kitchen door.
Steve turned to Peggy, who rested a hand on his arm. "We'll be in the dining room, over here." It was a doorway on the right, and it led into a huge dining room, more dark wood paneling on the walls and a matching table with seating for ten in the middle, three place settings at the near end, and Steve shook his head.
"How big is this place?"
"Too big for two," Peggy admitted, shutting the door behind her. "We barely use half of it. I don't even remember the last time we ate in here." She sipped at her Scotch. "Have a seat."
Steve pulled out the chair at the head of the table. "After you," he replied.
Peggy looked sideways at him. "I'll let you get away with that once." He chuckled, and she sat, smiling up at him. "Please," she said, gesturing to the chair on her left, and Steve took it, balancing on the edge. She looked him over and shook her head. "Relax." She rested her hand gently on top of his. "Angie doesn't bite, you know."
He looked down at their joined hands with a soft sigh. Then he turned his palm over and threaded their fingers together. "It's not Angie I'm worried about," he murmured.
Her eyes softened. "Steve--"
Just then, another door opened, swinging inward to reveal Angie carrying a large tray, laden with three dinner plates. "Suppertime," she said, setting the tray on the table.
"Ah, thank you." Peggy let go of Steve's hand and went to meet Angie, taking two plates off the tray. She was halfway back to her seat before the scent of home-cooked food wafted across the room: pot roast, mashed potatoes, fresh bread. He'd eaten a late lunch in the canteen after his visit to Peggy's office, but that meal seemed like a long time ago.
Peggy set the plates down, then caught his eye, resting a hand on her hip. "I was going to ask if you wanted to talk or eat first, but I have a feeling you've made your decision."
Steve looked down and noticed that the fork was already in his hand. "Guess so," he replied, sheepish.
"I don't blame you," Angie said as she took her own seat. "Jarvis is the best cook ever. Well, except for maybe Mrs. Jarvis."
"They are well matched. In life, as well as the kitchen." Peggy piled her fork with meat and took a bite. "Mmm."
He stirred up the mashed potatoes and gravy into a generous bite; it was, as promised, delicious, but after a few more forkfuls he realized that the food was sitting in his stomach like a pile of rocks. He set down the fork and looked at his plate, considering what to say; before he could say anything, Peggy's hand fell on his shoulder.
"Or perhaps we should talk first after all?" she asked.
Steve pushed his plate away. "I'm sorry. I'm just-- nervous, I guess. Maybe I shouldn't be."
Peggy exchanged glances with Angie. "I understand," she said. "Very well, let's talk. Dinner will still be here when we're done." She turned in her chair to face Steve. "I don't blame you for being concerned, or uncertain. So let me start by assuring you: I didn't bring you here to send you away, or to tell you that we can't be together."
The weight that lifted off his shoulders was tangible, but it didn't leave entirely, as Steve looked over Peggy's shoulder to look at Angie, sitting quietly in her chair. "But then-- but..."
"You have to understand." Peggy took Steve's right hand, wrapped it in both of hers. "After the Valkyrie went down, Howard searched for two months without finding a trace. So, I gave up on waiting, on hoping. I had to. It was that, or go mad." She let go and looked away. "But to actually let you go... that took much longer. It was a year before I finally allowed myself to start moving on."
Steve swallowed. "Why were you able to do it?" he asked, softly.
"Because of you," she answered, nearly as quietly, in a gentle tone that almost broke his heart. "You remember the blood samples the SSR drew from you, hoping to recreate Erskine's serum? Somehow, Howard got his hands on one and kept it away from the government. He was afraid they'd waste them, and he was right -- they used up all the others in their fruitless experiments. He said he had loftier goals, that he wanted to use your genetic code to cure disease, to help people. But... well." She looked down to her hands, wringing in her lap. "He didn't trust the SSR, and I didn't trust him. I didn't think you'd want to be the lab rat any more, not even for Howard. When Jarvis gave me the vial, I took it out to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, and I poured it into the river." Her voice broke, but her eyes stayed clear. She cleared her throat and looked back up. "I put you to rest, and I finally said goodbye to you."
Steve closed his eyes, overwhelmed by the image of Peggy standing alone the bridge, wind in her hair, tears on her face. "You were right, about what I would've wanted," he murmured, past a sudden lump in his throat. "You always did look out for me."
"Steve." He opened his eyes and leaned forward, took her outstretched hands. "I'm not telling you this to make you feel guilty, not for leaving and not for coming back. Crashing the plane was your choice to make, and I respected that, even as it tore me apart. And now fate has brought you home." She half-smiled. "Fate isn't always cruel."
"Isn't it?" Steve asked quietly. "Wouldn't it have been easier if Howard had never found me?"
"Easier, maybe. Better?" She shook her head. "Never. I'm happy you're back. So, so happy." She kissed the back of his hand. "But-- I can't just slide you into the empty spots of my life, because the hole you left behind is smaller than it used to be. Not gone. It would never have been gone." She squeezed his fingers again, and he let himself smile. "But the shape of it has changed. And I need to figure out how to make you fit."
He nodded. "For you, I'll wait. As long as you need."
"I don't need more time." Her answering smile was crooked. "I waited long enough." He lowered his eyes, and she touched his cheek, lifting his face up to meet her gaze. "I love you, Steve. I need you in my life. But... I need Angie, too. Can you be okay with that?"
Steve sat straight up with surprise, though he didn't let go of Peggy's hand. Was she suggesting what he thought she was suggesting. "You mean-- you'd be with her? And with me? At the same time?" Of all the scenarios he'd run, this one hadn't even come close to crossing his mind. And he was honestly not sure how he felt about it.
Peggy shifted around and looked Angie, who sat quietly in her chair, hands resting on the table. "Well, not at the same time." The corner of her mouth turned up. "At least, that's not what I intended to suggest."
"Huh." Steve leaned back in his seat and considered the idea. "I suppose... well, I suppose it makes sense." He looked at Peggy, then over at Angie. "But how would it even work?"
Angie shrugged. "Guess we have some negotiation to do."
"Yes." Peggy met Angie's eyes, then looked back at Steve. "I admit, I haven't thought through the practicalities yet. But we can figure all of that out. It's not like we aren't all used to forging our own path."
"Yeah." Steve stood up, and pulled Peggy with him. "I want to be with you, Peggy. If that means Angie is in my life too, if she makes you happy..." He looked across the table at Angie. "Maybe she's your right partner, too."
Peggy smiled at them both. "And who's to say there can't be more than one? It would be a poor world if we could only ever truly love one person."
Angie got to her feet, glass in free hand. "I'll drink to that."
Steve kissed Peggy, then picked up his own glass. "To the right partnership," he said, and Peggy and Angie repeated his toast in chorus. The clink of glass filled the room, the warmth of the Scotch spread to Steve's toes, and the last of the worry lifted from his shoulders. Maybe this wasn't the solution he'd imagined, but was the best answer for everyone. And as he studied Peggy's face, learned the tones of Angie's laugh, he decided he was going to enjoy figuring it all out.