Peggy sucks in a sharp breath and Angie smiles apologetically as she continues dabbing at Peggy's head wound with iodine.
"Sorry hon; I said it might hurt."
"You call this fine?" Angie asks with a raised eyebrow, gesturing at the sorry state of Peggy's body. She'd come home limping, covered in cuts and bruises and nursing a cracked rib or two—the product of a chase gone wrong. (She'd gotten her man, though. She always does.)
She tentatively pokes at her split lip with her tongue. "It was nothing I couldn't handle," she mumbles, grimacing.
Angie rolls her eyes and moves to get up from the couch. "Christ, English, sometimes I think you don't want to come home."
Peggy reaches up to grab Angie's wrist, holding her in place. "Don't say that. Please."
"Why shouldn't I? It's not like this is the first time I've had to patch you up."
"And we both know it won't be the last. But you have my word—I always, always do my best to come back to you."
Angie retakes her seat, reaching out to cradle Peggy's jaw gently in one hand. "And your best is pretty damn good, but you're still human, Peg. Ya gotta take better care of yourself. You're not Captain America, y'know? A bullet catches you, it'll go right through."
"That, I am very well aware of," Peggy groans, rotating her shoulder in residual discomfort. Angie hums, twisting Peggy's face back and forth. "…Darling. What are you doing?"
"Trying to find a place I can kiss you that won't hurt."
"I can think of a few," Peggy purrs, shifting her hips. And then flinching in pain.
"Not until your ribs heal, tiger," Angie says, having the good grace to only laugh a little bit. "Think you can make it to the bedroom, or are you just gonna conk out on the couch?"
Peggy experimentally gets up, then sinks back down with a wince. "Perhaps staying here for the night wouldn't be the worst idea."
"I'll get you some blankets," Angie says, looking over Peggy's face one more time before coming to a decision and kissing her gingerly on the tip of her nose. "Try'n rest, okay?"
Peggy does try—for nearly an hour, she tries—but she can't seem to get Angie's words out of her head as she nestles down further into the cushions, attempting in vain to get comfortable.
You're not Captain America, y'know?
She knows all too well.
Steve was never a trained spy; she's honestly not sure that he would have pursued a career at the SSR if he'd survived the war. No, odds are he would have stayed with the army, or worse, been roped back into the bond-selling business. A dancing monkey once more.
Still, she can't help but wonder. Would Dottie have gotten away if it had been Steve fighting her in that airplane hangar? Could Steve have saved Chief Dooley?
"You'll keep yourself up all night, wrestling with questions like that," says a voice at the end of the couch.
Peggy sits up—noting with interest that she feels no pain—to find Abraham Erskine sitting on her sofa, legs crossed and nursing a small glass of schnapps.
"Doctor," she acknowledges warily. She's dreamed of him before, but never like this. Never in anything other than a memory.
"Agent," he nods back, toasting her.
It's strange to see him whole and hale, smirking as he sips daintily at her alcohol. In her usual dreams of him, he's bleeding out on the laboratory floor. "You look good, for a man who's been dead for three years."
"Thank you. You, on the other hand, have looked better."
Peggy snorts. "Occupational hazard for those of us who weren't blessed with a super-serum, I'm afraid."
He looks at her curiously. "You regret getting rid of Steve's sample?"
"What? No. Of course not. But I suppose… I can't help but wonder…" She sighs. "Could I have stopped the Red Skull, if I'd gotten on that plane instead of Steve?"
Erskine blinks in surprise. "I have no doubt in your skills, Agent Carter. But have you considered the ramifications of that trade?"
"What's there to consider? I'm no Steve, and the world still needs him."
"What of your friends? Miss Martinelli?"
Peggy swallows. "She only needed to come live here because I got her kicked out of the Griffith. And I've hurt her so many times; I hurt her every time I go out on a mission. She deserves better than me. They all do."
"And you think trading places with Captain Rogers would do that?"
"What does it matter? It's not like there's any way to find out."
"Perhaps," Erskine says, and then everything goes dark.
When she blinks her eyes, she's standing with Erskine on a bustling New York avenue. It only takes a moment to recognize that they're on her old street, right in front of the walk-up she'd shared with Colleen.
Peggy's heart seizes. "Wait, what's happening? What have you done?"
"I haven't done anything. You've made an inquiry, and we're investigating the results. Basic scientific method." He grins at her, in that infuriating way he always did.
The rest of the question dies on her lips as Colleen O'Brien exits her building, purse in hand.
"Now do you see?" Erskine asks. She can't tell if the look in his eyes is kindness or pity.
"She's alive," Peggy breathes, fighting back tears. "We never met, so I never put her in danger. She's alive." As Colleen starts walking down the street, Peggy follows without thinking. Belatedly, Peggy takes note of her surroundings, noting that Colleen is wearing all black, as are many other passers-by. "Are people in mourning?"
"Why don't you ask her?"
"Certainly," Erskine says, waiting patiently as Peggy speeds up, tapping Colleen on the shoulder.
"Pardon me," Peggy gasps, trying hard not to scare off this friend who's never known her, "but has someone died?"
"Don't you know?" Colleen asks, eyes wide, and Peggy'd forgotten how vivid they were, how bright—"Oh, well you're British, I guess maybe you don't. Nothing's happened today; it's the one year anniversary."
Now Colleen's looking at her oddly. "Of Captain America's death, of course."
Peggy's stomach fills with lead. "R-right. Of course, how silly of me. Thank you."
Colleen nods and continues on her way, leaving Peggy standing stock-still in the street. Peggy's eyes dart around, gaze sharpening when she spies a newspaper stand on the other side of the street. She crosses immediately, oblivious to the traffic and deaf to the horns honking at her.
"Hey, you gotta pay for that!" the newsman hollers as she grabs a paper from the stand and starts reading. She ignores him.
A Nation Grieves
NEW YORK CITY, NY—Flags fly at half mast today in honor of the USA's most treasured lost son. It was exactly one year ago that Captain America lost his life in his heroic one-man siege on a Nazi weapons stockpile. A consummate soldier, Cpt. Steve Rogers…
Her eyes are too blurred to read any more.
"How?" she asks, feeling Erskine's presence behind her.
"I selected Steve Rogers especially, over all the other candidates, for his heart," Erskine sighs. "Losing both Sergeant Barnes and you within such a short time… it was too much, even for him. He got sloppy. Careless."
Peggy struggles to keep control of her face; it's getting harder and harder not to cry. "That's not fair, that's not—"
"You didn't ask what would happen had he lived. You asked what would happen had you not."
She can feel her heart hardening. "Who else?"
"What do you mean?"
"Who else have I hurt in this asinine flight of fancy?"
"You can't hurt anyone, Agent Carter. You're not really here."
"You know what I meant, I—forget it. Take me to Howard's."
"As you wish," Erskine says, and the blackness swallows them once more.
They land—if one could call it that—at the front porch of Howard's mansion. Peggy strides forward and rings the bell, already out of patience.
To her surprise, it's Anna Jarvis who comes to the door. "Sorry, the estate's closed to visitors, so—"
"I'm not looking for a tour, I'm looking for Howard. Do you know where he is?"
Anna laughs joylessly. "Monaco? Madrid? Messina? Depends on what tabloid you're reading."
The feeling of dread is back. "What do you mean?"
"Mr. Stark is wanted by the US government; he's been on the run for a month. Everyone knows that. Now if you'll excuse me, I—"
"Well what about Edwin?" Peggy asks, putting her foot in the door to keep Anna from closing it on her. "Can I talk to him?"
Anna's all but sobbing as she once again goes to close the door. "You certainly may not. I don't know you, now please—have a good day—"
"He bought a tie from you!" Peggy shouts, desperate to get some answers. Anna pauses. "You met in Budapest when you sold Edwin Jarvis a tie, and when you needed to get out of Hungary he and Howard forged your papers. You've been together ever since. I couldn't know that unless I was a friend, could I? Now please, Anna, this is important: where is your husband?"
Anna slumps against the doorframe, looking exhausted. "He's in prison."
Peggy's jaw drops. "I beg your pardon?"
"He was trying to clear Howard's name, and the authorities caught him somewhere he shouldn't have been. Some nightclub. I'm not an American citizen, so I couldn't… there was nothing I could do…"
Peggy has never been very good at comforting other crying women, but for Anna she does her best, drawing her in for a light hug. "I'll fix this. I promise you, I'll fix this." She turns back to Erskine. "I've got to get to the SSR. Surely there's something I can do."
"Very well," he shrugs, and they're off.
The New York Bell building is a pile of rubble.
"This can't be happening," Peggy breathes. She blinks; she pinches herself. The image doesn't change.
"Agent Thompson successfully recovered the nitramene bomb from Spider Raymond's vault—apprehending your Mr. Jarvis in the process—and brought it back here. It would seem no one realized the weapon was activated," Erskine explains, fussing with his cufflinks. No more perturbed than he would be if he were describing the weather.
"But that means—everyone is at risk. Leviathan could drop Midnight Oil over the city at any time, and there's no one here to stop them."
"Except as you've already reminded me, I don't exist!" Peggy cries, feeling the weight of the world crashing down on her all at once. She should ask to be taken to Russia, and put a bullet in Johann Fennhoff's brain. She should ask to be taken to Dottie, and incapacitate her before she can get her hands on anything dangerous. She should—she should—
She can't do this anymore.
Peggy doesn't even ask Erskine to take her this time—she just runs to the automat as fast as her legs will carry her. Her lungs are burning; everything in her is screaming for Angie.
She's out of breath by the time she barrels through the revolving door, drawing several looks. Angie is nowhere in sight.
"Goin' somewhere, doll?" a boisterous voice asks. Peggy zeroes in on the source immediately—the unpleasant customer she'd threatened with a fork, all that time ago. Apparently without her intervention, he's still a regular.
Her stomach twists unpleasantly as she realizes she still can't see Angie. "Excuse me," she asks, pulling over the first waitress that passes her by, "does Angie Martinelli work here?"
"Not anymore," the waitress says with a shrug. "She quit two weeks ago."
"And good riddance!" the rude customer cries, and Peggy restrains the urge to slug him. But the word quit is ringing in her head, and hope is surging in her chest. Quit means not fired, means it was her choice. Which means there's even the slightest chance that Angie's had her big break. That maybe Colleen wasn't the only person to benefit from Peggy's hypothetical death.
She turns to Erskine, who's standing calmly with his hands in his pockets—not even winded, though she's still gasping for air.
"Take me to Angie," she says, and in a blink, they're gone.
They end up in a nondescript hallway, all linoleum flooring and closed doors. For one horrifying moment Peggy thinks she's in a hospital—that Angie's been hurt, or worse, that she's been institutionalized for her 'unnatural desires.' But before Peggy can get too far ahead of herself, she notes the emptiness of the building, the lockers lining each wall. Not a nurse or a gurney in sight.
"I don't…" Peggy murmurs, turning to Erskine in confusion. He doesn't say anything; he just nods his head towards the door closest to them.
Filled with trepidation, Peggy approaches the door and glances through the small window inset above the handle. She looks in on what appears to be a classroom, filled with girls at desks learning touch-type exercises. Peggy finds Angie with ease, sitting in the third row with her head ducked down, looking more defeated than Peggy's ever seen her.
Secretarial school. She's ended up in secretarial school.
Peggy supposes she should be grateful that Angie's not jailed or dead, but this is the final straw—the tears she's been holding back since this began finally fall.
"Oh, my darling…" she breathes, feeling as though a vacuum has opened in her chest.
"Do you see now?" Erskine asks gently, stepping up behind her. "How very important your life is? Not a bauble to be disregarded or traded away."
Peggy whirls on him, incensed. "Was this a test?"
"If it was, it's of your own design, Agent Carter. A test of your own worth, perhaps. What you do with the findings… that is your choice."
I know my value. It's on the tip of her tongue, but the words get caught before she can say them. "I—"
The bell rings. Young women start streaming out of the hallway doors, and Peggy stands paralyzed as she realizes Angie will walk right by her. She no longer knows if what she's looking at is real or imagined, dream or nightmare—all she knows is that she needs to talk to Angie, needs to make sure she's okay. Needs to make this right, if she can.
"Miss Martinelli!" she calls when Angie's in sight. "Excuse me. You are Angela Martinelli, aren't you?"
Angie stops walking and eyes Peggy's proffered hand warily. "Yeah, that's me. Who's askin'?"
"Ruth Barton. I'm an agent for, er…" she racks her brain, trying to think of anything even remotely theater-related, "Sullivan, Gilbert and Associates. We'd like to set up an audition."
The smile she receives in return for this news is hollow at best. "Jeez, where were you a month ago?"
"There have been… back-ups at the office. Lost files and the like, I'm sure you understand. I went looking for you at your previous place of employment, but they told me you'd left."
"A few weeks back, yeah. The tips were okay, but I'll make more with the stuff I'm learning here," Angie says. It sounds rehearsed. "And, ah—just between us girls?"
Angie leans in close, not wanting to be overheard. "Once the number of overly affectionate customers hit the double digits it was an easy enough decision to make."
It's all Peggy can do to keep her boiling rage contained. "But surely you haven't given up on performing completely?" she asks instead, trying to keep herself distracted.
"Kinda have to, if I want to stay enrolled here. Look, Miss Barton, I'm real flattered and everything, but I think you've got the wrong girl. I've never had so much as a callback before; I ain't anything special."
Peggy's jaw works as she struggles to find something to say. All of those days in the automat when Angie'd been down after a poor audition, Peggy hadn't been there to cheer her back up. Not in this reality. It would seem that months and months of rejection, with no words of support to counter it, had had their toll.
At the time, Peggy had thought her encouragements to be a bit disappointing, really—useless platitudes, unhelpful no matter how deeply they were meant. She'd had no idea Angie had taken them to heart, but here's the proof. This Angie had no one to remind her of her talent, that success takes perseverance… and Peggy doesn't know how to talk to an Angie Martinelli who's given up.
"Are you sure you won't change your mind?" she chokes out, just to keep Angie from walking away. Even if only for a few more seconds.
"Yeah, I'm sure. It was nice meeting you, English," Angie says tiredly, before turning bright red as she realizes what's come out of her mouth. "I—I mean Miss Barton. Sorry, I—sorry. I'll let you go."
The wave of pure homesickness that washes over Peggy as she watches Angie all but flee from her is so powerful she sways on her feet. She wants the real Angie, she wants her life back, she wants…
"No more," she says, turning to her silent companion. "Just—no more, Dr. Erskine, please. You've made your point."
This time, there isn't any warning, no sudden fall of black. Peggy simply jerks awake on her own couch in her own apartment, skin singing with pain and chest throbbing. Unquestionably real.
When she reaches up, she can feel wetness on her cheeks—she'd been crying in her sleep. She tries to take deep breaths, but her cracked ribs won't let her. Panting in the darkness, Peggy counts the thump-thumps of her heartbeat in a useless attempt to get her emotions under control. Alive, alive, alive.
After thirty panicky seconds, she gets up on quivering legs and makes her way to the bedroom.
Angie is asleep in the exact middle of the mattress, limbs spread-eagled and sheets twisted hopelessly around her. Her hair is a mess of unruly tangles, her mouth is open against the pillow, and Peggy doesn't think she's ever seen anything more beautiful.
"Mmmm… Peg?" Angie mumbles sleepily as Peggy shakes her awake.
Peggy could cry all over again at the sound of her voice, but instead she gives a wobbly smile. "Move over darling, you're hogging the whole bed."
"Thought you were sleepin' on the couch," Angie yawns, even as she scoots over to one side and lifts the covers to let Peggy into her little cocoon. "Y'okay?"
"Fine." Peggy gets in, ignoring the sting of her injuries. They'll heal either way; right now she has a greater need. "I just wanted to be close to you."
Angie chuckles and rolls onto her side, wrapping Peggy in her arms. "You won't hear me complaining. …M'not squeezin' you too hard, am I?"
"No," Peggy says, breathing deep. The scent of Angie lulling her into a doze already. "This is perfect."