Angie stared glumly into her cup of coffee, it tasted pretty terrible. She hadn't managed to find a good coffee anywhere in London, and she'd never managed to develop a taste for tea.
Across the cafe one of the other customers reached out to smack the waitress's backside, and Angie winced in sympathy.
Before she'd come to London Angie had thought that being surrounded by Englishmen was going to be just fine and dandy. It turned out that they weren't all gents; most Englishmen weren't any more like Jarvis than all Americans were like Steve.
Before the jerk could pinch Peggy's bottom she whirled around and brought the scolding hot teapot down on his hand. "Can I get you anything else, sir?" she asked with a smile that had a hint of snarl to it.
"That was a pretty neat move, Peg," said Angie when the guy had scarpered and Peggy was clearing away Angie's cold, half-finished coffee.
"Yes, well. I get plenty of practice working here."
Angie nodded knowingly. "Tell me about it."
"The men at your office are still causing you difficulties, then?" Peggy asked.
"Speaking of," said Angie, glancing at her watch, "I'd better get back."
Angie stuffed the paper bag that Peggy had brought over into her purse next to her pistol.
"There must be at least one man there that you like," said Peggy, "you bring him a bun every afternoon."
Angie laughed brightly. "Oh, English, you've no idea how wrong you are."
Angie tossed the paper bag onto the desk she shared with Edwin Jarvis at the Secret Intelligence Service. "I brought you something sweet."
"Ooh," said Jarvis, peering into the bag; he had a seriously sweet tooth. "Don't tell Ana."
Their desk was shunted off to one-side of the bullpen, where they were alternately ignored and sneered at by the rest of the office.
The traitor and the American hussy, that was how their colleagues viewed them, to be treated as a glorified secretary and a nice pair of legs.
Angie got hopping mad on Jarvis' behalf; if any of these fatheads had ever met Ana they'd know that Jarvis deserved a medal for rescuing her, not a treason charge. Jarvis' lips drew thin and white whenever he heard somebody remarking on Angie's, er, assets.
No matter what they did, the rest of the office insisted on believing that the charges against Jarvis had been dropped on account of of Howard Stark's American greenbacks, and that Howard had bought Angie her job as the SSR liaison to British Intelligence, presumably as payment for services rendered.
"Hey, Peg," said Angie, stepping in out of the downpour and lowering the newspaper she'd been using to protect her hair.
The cafe was empty apart from her and Peggy, who was sitting at the counter reading a newspaper of her own; Angie could see Howard's picture on the front page.
"Angie, good grief. I wasn't expecting you today. It's raining cats and dogs out there."
Angie almost hadn't come out, but she hadn't missed lunch with Peggy since one of her earliest days in London when she'd stumbled into the cafe in an attempt to get out of the rain.
Peggy ushered Angie into a seat, and went to pour her a cup of coffee. Angie waited until Peggy's back was turned before surreptitiously checking her curls in the back of a spoon.
"I can't say I think much of your English weather, English."
"You know," said Peggy, slipping into the seat opposite Angie, and sliding a cup of coffee across to her, "whenever you call me that I feel like I should have a nickname for you. Captain America, perhaps?"
Angie hid her wince at the mention of Steve behind a big, brassy grin. "Lieutenant Junior Grade America, thank you very much!"
Peggy's smile was a little skeptical. "Really?"
"I was a USO dancer in the Captain America Show. It started as a nickname..."
All the USO girls had been given fake army ranks, and Angie's had been lieutenant; Angie had also been the one to get caught up in a scheme to root out a suspected Hydra double agent.
Angie's part had mostly consisted of fluttering her eyelashes at the GI while the Howlies found proof of his treachery, and stole back the plans he'd hidden in his kit. She'd enjoyed it; she still remembered the look on the guy's face when his attempts to get up Angie's skirt had been interrupted by a tap on his shoulder and he'd turned to find Steve there to drag him off to Colonel Phillips.
She'd turned out to be good at it, too. It was all just acting; putting on a character and slipping into places that a Howling Commando couldn't go; flashing a smile and a bit of leg, and sniffing out secrets.
She'd been shot once, retrieving maps of a secret Hydra base from a safe in a French Château she'd sneaked into dressed as a maid. She'd woken in a hospital tent to find Bucky sitting by her bedside. "You're okay, LT," he'd said.
It was unofficial and didn't come with any real authority, and she'd always thought that Steve had put the guys up to it, but she'd been Lieutenant Martinelli till the end of the war.
"Angie, I'd hoped to see you today." Peggy looked up from the counter she was scrubbing; she'd been furiously focusing on one small spot and missing huge swathes of it. "I've something to show you. I have a friend who works in records at the War Office, and she looked these out for me."
Peggy produced a brown envelope and let a whole bunch of photographs slide out across the counter; they were all snaps of Angie from the war.
There was the famous one of Steve from when he was still with the Captain America Show. All the USO dancers clustered around him, and Angie's hand was curled around his bicep; what had in real life been a terrified thousand-yard stare made him look strong and stoic in the snap.
There was that one of Angie sitting on Steve's lap in her dancer's costume, her leg was curled up and she was flashing all kinds of thigh. Angie hated it, it made her look like a cheesecake pin-up. It had been taken before Steve had realised that he was the one who got to decide what Captain America stood for, back when he could be talked into practically anything by a fatherly voice saying: do it for your country, son. Angie had agreed to it because, hey, better her than any of the other girls.
Angie's brothers had given her hell over that picture; as though they wouldn't have been drooling themselves silly if it had been any other girl.
But there were less staged photos too.
Angie appeared in the background of a snap of Steve and Howard laughing over something; she wore a hand me down uniform that she'd only had to pin up a little at the wrists and ankles. Angie hadn't ever been able to reconcile the six-foot side of beef she knew Steve as with a guy who'd been only a little bigger that Angie herself.
There was a snap of Angie from soon after she'd been shot, with all the Howlies crowded round her wheelchair. She remembered the day it'd been taken; Bucky had been racing her up and down the hospital corridors at breakneck speeds, both of them laughing madly.
"I apologise if it seemed that I didn't believe you the other day, Angie."
Angie shrugged. "A USO dancer and wannabe actress turned spy? I wouldn't have believed me either."
Peggy tapped one of the pictures of Angie and Steve. Not the cheesecake one, thankfully; one of Angie standing on her tiptoes and smiling at something Steve was saying into her ear.
"Was Captain Rogers your... young man?" Peggy asked.
Angie couldn't help giggling. "Nah, English. He was the best friend I've ever had, though."
"I see, I think."
"Honest, Peg. We were friends, and some people back home got the wrong idea, and after a while it was easier just to let 'em think what they wanted to think. Steve was a bit gun shy of all the female attention he was suddenly getting; he always said he was waiting for the right partner. And he was doing me a favour because--"
"--the prospect of facing a jealous Captain America discouraged some of your more, ah, persistent suitors," Peggy finished.
Angie nodded. "Beat the hell out of saying that I had a sweetheart waiting for me at home."
It had been a joke, that Angie was the only one of them with a girl waiting back home.
"I got a girl waiting for me," Bucky had objected.
"I said one girl, Buck, not twelve," Steve pointed out.
Denise Romano, whose snapshot Angie had carried around most of Western Europe, and whose idea of waiting for Angie had been getting knocked up and marrying a shoe salesman from Armonk.
Angie limped along the street, trying to keep as much weight as possible off her bad ankle. Peggy was just locking up the cafe.
"Angie, whatever happened?"
"Jeez, it's silly. I turned my ankle on a cobblestone."
That much was true. Angie had been backing up from a guy the SIS suspected of selling wartime munitions; she'd been trying to charm the location of his stash out of him when her heel had caught on a cobble.
Whenever a mark got a little handsy there was still some little part of Angie that expected Steve's shield to come flying through the air to clean the guy's clock.
She didn't think that Agents Smythe and Carstairs, who had no chin and way too much chin respectively, had deliberately left her hanging, but they weren't neither of them Steve.
"Come with me." Peggy offered her arm for Angie to lean on. "I live just across the road, and I was a nurse for a time at the beginning of the war."
Angie hobbled across the street on Peggy's arm. "What did you do for the rest of the war?"
Peggy smiled grimly. "Loose lips sink ships, Angie."
Peggy's flat confirmed something Angie had guessed from the way she didn't put up with being groped and snapped back at rude customers: Peggy didn't need to be a waitress.
Her place wasn't fancy like Howard's places were fancy, but it was a proper flat with solid, comfortable looking furniture. Angie still lodged with Jarvis and Ana because the only places she could afford were single rooms with addresses in the East End that had Jarvis blanching and insisting that he and Ana loved having Angie to stay.
Angie stood with one leg cocked to keep the weight off her ankle while Peggy went into her bathroom looking for bandages. Angie picked up a framed picture of Peggy and three other women standing in some fancy grounds in front of a building that rang more than a few of Angie's bells.
"Sit down," said Peggy, taking the frame from Angie and setting it back on the dresser. She gestured for Angie to sit on the edge of her bed; Angie sat and toed off her shoe with a wince.
Peggy strapped up her ankle in a brisk, efficient manner that reminded Angie of every nurse she'd known during the war, and said, "Why do I get the feeling that you haven't entirely given up your wartime work, Angie?"
"You ought to be in my line of work, Peg," said Angie, a tactic admission that she wouldn't have made before she'd seen the photograph on Peggy's dresser.
Angie had sometimes wondered how Peggy, with her cut glass vowels, would get on in Angie's office; if Angie's being a woman would be less of a problem without her New York accent and Italian name.
Angie had taken off her stocking to allow Peggy to strap her ankle, and her skirt had ridden up revealing the bullet scar just below her knee. A line appeared between Peggy's eyebrows, and she traced the edge of the scar with her thumb, holding Angie's ankle in her free hand.
"It was actually pretty funny," said Angie. It hadn't felt funny at the time; she'd been terrified, and in pain, and convinced she was going to die. "I was dressed like a French maid, Steve lost his head totally, and if Dugan hadn't reminded him that the truck would be faster he would've tried to carry me all twelve miles back to base, and Sergeant Barnes was trying to get me to list all the curse words I knew..."
The funny thing was, Angie and Bucky hadn't really been friends before she'd been shot. He'd known Steve before the serum, and he was protective; he thought maybe Angie was taking advantage of Steve's good nature.
But in the back of the truck that day Bucky had been the one trying to keep Angie conscious by going: "You're from Queens, right? I've stepped out with girls from Queens, so I know you got a mouth on you. Come on, let's hear it."
They'd been fast friends after that, right up until Bucky fell, and Steve came back with the sort of haunted look that made Angie wonder if there was more to him being okay with Angie letting people think he was her fella than his good nature and total lack of judgment.
They'd never talked about it, and Angie wished they'd had a chance to.
Angie found a file on Margaret Carter in the records room at the SIS. She'd been a code-breaker at Bletchley Park (Angie knew she'd recognised the building in that photograph!) She'd applied for a transfer to field operations more than once, and she'd even gone through basic training, but she must've been a pretty good code-breaker, because there was a note from her supervisor saying that she was too valuable to waste in the field.
The door opened, and Angie slammed the file closed. It was only Jarvis, but Angie could live without his raised eyebrow at seeing her mooning over a wartime snapshot of Peggy.
"Hey, Jarvis," Angie greeted him.
They had tried, at Ana's insistence, addressing each other as Angie and Edwin; it had been so awkward that you'd have thought they'd walked in on each other pantsless.
Angie got herself invited round to Peggy's for a cup of coffee after work so that Peggy could check her ankle.
When it turned out that her coffee was even worse than the swill she served at the cafe Peggy pulled a half-full bottle of whisky down from a high shelf, and they sat on the edge of Peggy's bed drinking from mugs.
The booze loosened Angie's tongue and she tipped her head towards the picture on Peggy's dresser. "So how come you're waiting tables, Miss Fancy Code-Breaker at Bletchley?"
Peggy startled and only just managed to keep her whisky from flying everywhere; she had good reflexes.
"Hey, it's okay." Angie tried to ward off Peggy's suspicious expression with a winning grin. "I've been there, I recognised the building. I had to sign the Official Secrets Act in triplicate just to get in the front door."
Angie had tagged along to Bletchley Park with Howard. After Steve's plane had gone down Colonel Phillips hadn't known what to do with Angie, and she'd spent the rest of the war as part of Howard's retinue.
Peggy allowed Angie to convince her that she was in the know for real, and that it was okay if they talked about Bletchley just between the two of them. They discovered that Peggy had taken the few days of Angie and Howard's visit off and gone down to London. Angie got it; a big country house full of girls all preening for the arrival of Howard Stark would have sent her scampering for the nearest big city too.
"It must have been exciting," Angie said.
"You wouldn't say that, Angie, if you'd seen us all trying to dry our stockings on the Enigma Machine." Peggy looked away. "Cryptanalysis always came rather easily to me, and I suppose I wanted to be more in the thick of things. But Bletchley did give me a sense of purpose, do you know what I mean? And since then--"
"You never did tell me how come you ended up waitressing?"
"It was either this or the telephone exchange," said Peggy with a wan smile. "It was only supposed to be a stopgap to keep me from dipping into too much of my parents money until something more suited to my skills came along, but--"
"It's hard to get a reference from a place that isn't supposed to exist," finished Angie.
Peggy wouldn't have been the first girl to lose out to a less qualified man after the war was won. Angie had only been spared that fate herself because she had a friend in high places; low places too, probably, considering that friend was Howard Stark.
"I know what you mean, about the war giving you a purpose. Back then I felt good about what I was doing--" Angie stretched out her leg and rolled her ankle until she felt a twinge; she thought about the small-time thief who'd been trying to feel her up when she'd fallen "--now it just feels sleazy. I blame Steve, everything felt noble when you were doing it with him."
"Captain Rogers meant a great deal to you, didn't he?" Peggy squeezed Angie's knee in a gesture like she was trying to be comforting but didn't know quite how.
"Steve was how I knew that my Ma was wrong," said Angie, "that I was never going to like the fellas the way girls are meant to. Because if it was ever going to be a guy it would have been Steve, right?"
"Oh, Angie..." Peggy took her hand from Angie's knee, but then didn't seem quite sure what to so with it, and left it hanging in the air between them.
"I better go. My landlady worries about me if I'm out too late." Angie knocked back her last dregs of whisky and fled Peggy's flat.
Angie's mother really did think that her problem was that she just hadn't met the right guy yet.
Angie had been close with Captain America himself, she'd been friends with Bucky Barnes and the rest of the Howling Commandos, there was Jarvis, and even Howard on his better days.
A lack of first-rate male specimens wasn't Angie's problem; girls like Peggy Carter were her problem.
Angie almost hadn't gone to the cafe for lunch, but when she stepped inside Peggy looked up at her with a happy, relieved smile. "Angie, I was worried I wouldn't see you again. I do hope I didn't make things too awkward last night; I always was a maudlin drunk."
"You make things awkward? English, you blow me away--" Angie had never known how to pursue friendships, or anything else, any way other than straight ahead and at full speed, so she said, "Do you like Hungarian food?"
Peggy looked slightly baffled by the abrupt change of subject. "I don't believe I've ever had the pleasure."
"My landlady, she's a maestro of the black-market; honestly, English, you wouldn't believe there was any rationing going on. You could come to dinner tomorrow night, I could meet you here after you close up?"
"Er, yes, that sounds lovely, Angie."
The streets of London were growing dark around Angie and Peggy as they walked towards the Jarvis residence; Peggy had insisted on nipping up to her flat to change and fix her curls.
Angie was telling Peggy about her childhood ambition to be an actress. "I even had a meeting with this Hollywood bigwig back home after the war, but, uh, it didn't work out."
"Why not?" Peggy asked.
"He wanted me to do something I couldn't agree to."
Peggy stopped in her tracks and caught Angie's wrist in a viselike grip; it kind of hurt, but she was kind of charmed by it too.
"Nothin' like that," said Angie, and Peggy's grip on her wrist loosened. "He wanted to put my face on billboards: the girl so pretty she turned Captain America's head."
All Angie would've had to do to get everything she'd wanted since she was nine was lie about her relationship with Steve, and trade on the memory of the best friend she'd ever had. She couldn't do it.
"It's all right," she told Peggy. "What I'm doing now is a kind of acting too."
"No billboards with your face on them, though," said Peggy.
Angie laughed. "That would kinda defeat the point."
Ana Jarvis had taken to Angie like a kitten that'd been left on her doorstep, and she'd been delighted that Angie wanted to bring a friend around. So Angie was surprised when all Ana offered Peggy a tense smile before she grabbed Angie's elbow.
"We tried to call you at the office, but you'd already left," Ana hissed into Angie's ear. "Mr. Stark's here."
Howard and Jarvis emerged into the hall, and Howard was trying out his you know, I've been told I look a lot like Howard Stark act on Peggy, which Angie knew wasn't gonna fly even before she saw the incredulous look on Peggy's face.
Angie squared her shoulders and shoved herself forward. "Howie," she said in her best only-girl-in-a-family-of-boys voice; Howard always straightened up slightly when Angie used that voice. "You're a fugitive!"
"Perhaps," said Jarvis pointedly, "we ought to discuss this inside, with the front door closed."
Howard sidled up behind Angie as they all filed deeper into the house. "American charm seems to be lost on your friend; or is it just my American charm that's lost?"
"Howie," Angie hissed.
They ended up discussing things over Ana's famous goulash.
"I'm not a wanted man on this side of the Atlantic," said Howard.
"British Intelligence believes you innocent, then?" Peggy asked.
"Jarvis and Angie believe in me."
"The two least important people in the SIS," said Angie. "Gee, your problems are practically solved."
Howard was seated next to Angie and he threw his arm across the back of her chair, but he was looking at Peggy when he said, "Isn't she terrific? If only she'd agreed to marry me back when I asked."
Howard was saved from Angie's sisterly attempts to stomp on his toes by Jarvis clearing his throat and saying, "Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Stark, but what exactly are you doing here?"
Howard dug a piece of paper out of his pocket. "I managed to intercept a message about my inventions, but it's encrypted and so far I haven't been able to crack the code. I was hoping you two would know someone at the SIS who could help."
"May I see it?" said Peggy, and after she'd frowned at it for a few moments she added, "May I have a pencil and some paper?"
Howard rose to peer over Peggy's shoulder while she worked. Angie admired Peggy's elegant fingers clutching the pencil and her surprisingly scratchy penmanship, as well as her slightly pursed lips and the line between her eyebrows that meant she was concentrating.
"It's a one-time pad encryption," said Peggy eventually.
"I had my guys try that already," Howard replied.
"Did they account for the original message being in Russian?" Peggy asked. Her frown deepened. "It appears to be a message arranging for you, Mr. Stark, to sell an experimental weapons system to the Russians."
There was a pointed, awkward silence during which they all avoided looking at each other, until Angie said, with as much conviction as she could muster, "He's being set up!"
Angie insisted on walking Peggy home, which Peggy said was ridiculous because as soon as they reached her flat she would feel obligated to about turn and see Angie home.
"No need, Peg. I bet Ana waited five minutes after we left and then sent Jarvis to make sure I get home safe; I'm pretty sure I'll meet him on the way back. Plus, I wanted the chance to thank you."
"For not running for the nearest payphone to call the cops on Howard. Look, I know that he's..."
"An utter wanker?" Peggy suggested.
"I don't know what that means, but sure, it sounds about right. But I know him, he would never sell weapons to the Russians."
Peggy caught Angie's eye. "Did he really ask you to marry him?"
"We've known each other for years. He trusts me around his work, and he knows I wouldn't get jealous of all his other girls - at least not for the reason most wives would."
They reached Peggy's building, and Angie stood on her tiptoes to press a kiss to Peggy's cheek; Peggy turned her head to dig her keys out of her purse, and Angie caught the corner of Peggy's mouth. She blushed furiously. "See you soon, English," she said, fleeing the scene.
Howard really had asked Angie to marry him.
They'd lost Steve, Angie's dreams of acting had gone up in smoke, her girl hadn't waited, and she was back living with her Ma who didn't understand how Angie could've spent all those years surrounded by soldiers and not found one to put a ring on her finger.
Angie had been tempted, sure. Mrs. Howard Stark was guaranteed a nice life, and it wasn't like Howard didn't know that theirs would have to be a marriage with no hanky-panky. Angie had seen him looking at Steve the same way he looked at girls, the same way Angie looked at girls, the way she was looking at Peggy, only without any of Angie's catholic guilt and shame; they'd even talked about it some.
But-- "C'mon, Howie, what if you meet a girl you really want to marry some day."
Angie's move to London, her job with the SIS, and her introduction to Jarvis and Ana, that was all Howard still trying to do right by her.
"I want you to know that I'd usually take a girl to the pictures," said Angie. She and Peggy were sitting in a parked car at one end of an alley; Jarvis stood at the other end with his hat pulled low over his face, his efforts to appear inconspicuous making him all the more obvious.
Staking out some goon they suspected of trying to buy one of Howard's missing inventions wasn't exactly Angie's idea of showing a girl a good time, but apparently it was Peggy's.
It wasn't like Angie could've asked Smythe and Carstairs for backup anyway, and it turned out that Peggy was a pretty good shot; her father had taught her and her brother when they'd been children. They'd driven out of London one Sunday and shot empty whisky bottles with Angie's pistol and an old rifle that belonged to Peggy's family.
Angie had never cared much for guns; she only carried one because she wasn't allowed in the field without one, but she was an indifferent shot at best. She did like the strong way Peggy stood when she was holding a gun, the look of concentration on her face while she aimed.
Twenty minutes later and the goon had knocked Jarvis into a load of trashcans, and yanked Angie's gun straight up so that she fired into the air, when Peggy struck him across the shoulders with a dustbin lid. The guy turned in surprise and Peggy brought her knee up into his guts, and when he doubled over she clocked him right across the jaw.
The guy dropped to the ground groaning, and Peggy shook out her bruised hand. "Oh, good," she said, "I was rather worried I'd forgotten how to do that."
"Peggy Carter," said Angie with an irrepressible grin, "I gotta tell you, you're pretty much the girl of my dreams."
It was very early in the morning and Angie was fidgeting nervously outside Peggy's flat. Peggy opened the door still wearing a dressing gown.
"Angie, come in. Can I get you a cup of coffee?"
"You won't be offended if I say no, will you?" Angie took a deep breath. "Anyway, I'll be able to drink all the coffee I want soon. I'm going back to New York."
"Oh. I see," said Peggy, all polite, forced British reserve. "Well, I'll be very sorry to lose you."
"The thing is," said Angie, "ever since Howard cleared his name he's been toying with the idea of starting an agency of his own, to pick up where the SSR and SIS leave off, and he wants me to be part of it."
"Congratulations," said Peggy, "and what is your role to be?"
"Covert operations, but from the office. More directing than acting, which is a-okay with me." Angie bounced a little on her toes. "The thing is, and Howard was going to ask you himself, but I made him promise he'd let me do it: we could use a good cryptanalyst, as well as a girl who can throw a punch?"
"I know New York is a long way away, but I think you'd really get a kick out of it, and I'd be there, so that's not nothing--"
"Angie, I'll do it."
"Really?" Angie squeaked.
"I've always wanted to be in the thick of things," said Peggy, "and anything that involves both you and Howard Stark is certainly going to be where the action is."
Angie threw her arms around Peggy in a hug. All of a sudden she felt braver than she had since she'd lost Steve. Nothing had really happened between her and Peggy; that one half-kiss, a day in the country where Peggy had held her hand on the drive back down to London, Angie's awkward declaration of devotion in the alley. She pulled back and looked up at Peggy through her eyelashes. "No other reason for coming, huh?"
Peggy got right up close to Angie, till Angie didn't dare breathe. "Well, maybe one other reason." She cupped Angie's cheek, and the kiss when it came was worth waiting for. Peggy Carter had been worth waiting for.