"Peggy!" Steve called when she came on the radio, Schmidt's airship already in a deep dive. "Schmidt's dead."
"What about the plane?" she asked, her voice crackling with static. Steve looked at the console -- completely dead -- and at the blinking lights that showed the engines shutting down one by one.
"That's a little bit tougher to explain," he said.
"Give me your coordinates, I'll find you a safe landing site."
"There's not going to be a safe landing," he said, with a sinking realization. "I can try and force it down. If I wait any longer a lot of people are gonna die."
"Steve -- "
"Peggy, this is my choice."
"It's a stupid choice," she said, and Steve smiled. That was Peggy. "Do you have any coordinates, Steve? Anything at all?"
"The console's busted," he said, angry suddenly -- at Schmidt for trying to fight a war he couldn't win, at himself for getting into this, at...at fate, for putting him here. "I can't get any coordinates," he said, punching the console. "I don't -- "
He slammed it with his fist again...and a single screen lit up.
"Jesus," he breathed.
"Steve?" she called.
"Peggy, I can give you last known coordinates," he said. "Ready?"
"Yes," she said, and he could hear the way she sat up straighter. "Coordinates, Steve, please -- "
"Latitude eighty degrees north...."
They found him in late April of 1945.
Peggy wasn't there; the war was mostly over by then, but she was still mopping up in Europe. Unlike Howard Stark she didn't have the financial or political clout to get leave to go sail around Greenland trying to recover what was probably only a body by then. She'd mourned, and she'd gone on, with the Commandos. Her best way of honoring Steve had to be destroying what was left of Hydra, what he'd worked so hard fighting.
They came in from the field muddy and exhausted, the boys trailing behind her, hauling half a dozen of the last of Hydra's weapons with them. She was ready for a hot bath and a long sleep, but one of Phillips' aides was waiting for her.
"There's a call for you, ma'am," he said. She frowned.
"Nobody knows I'm here," she replied.
"It's Mr. Stark. He's been calling for you. Every fifteen minutes," the man said.
Peggy swallowed. She knew what it meant; the only reason for Howard to call was if he had news of Steve. Probably that they'd found the body.
She followed him to the phone and picked up the receiver. The Commandos were carefully Not Watching, and she wouldn't allow them to see her hand shake.
"This is Carter," she said.
"Hey Peg," Howard said. "I got someone on the line for you."
"Howard, what -- "
"Peggy," a voice said, Steve's deep baritone, and her whole body tensed. "They tell me you've been winning the war."
"Steve?" she asked, high and thin, and Dum Dum dropped his rifle.
"Turns out the Serum has a few surprises up its sleeve," Steve said, and now she could hear how exhausted he sounded, how hoarse his voice was. "Guess they can kick me around but they really can't keep me down."
"Where are you?" she asked, as if she could get to him, as if he might be just down the road --
"New York," he said. "Howard brought me home. I made him call as soon as we got here. Looks like I'm not gonna be the one late to the Stork Club, huh?"
Peggy covered her face with one hand. "One week, we said."
"Peggy -- "
"I'll be there. Here," she added, desperately, "talk to Dugan," and shoved the phone blindly into Dum Dum's hands.
"What the everlovin' fuck is happening?" she heard Dum Dum ask, but she was running, down the hall, towards Phillips' office.
He met her at the door with a thick sheaf of paper, folded in half.
"Indefinite leave papers," he said, holding them out. "I think nobody's gonna argue you've done your part for the war effort, Carter."
She did something terribly unprofessional; she took the papers, pulled his head down, and kissed his forehead.
"Dammit, woman!" he called after her as she ran on, towards the little room next to the Commandos' barracks, where she slept. She had packing to do. "You got lipstick in my hair!"
It took her almost the full week to get back -- she had to drive out of Germany to France, catch a ferry to London, and wait two days for a transport flight to America. She landed with four hours to spare, got into a cab, and said, "Take me to the best place to buy a dress in New York."
The woman behind the wheel looked over her shoulder, gave her the once-over, and said, "You got it, Toots, I know a place. What's the rush?" she added, as she pulled out into traffic. "Your man coming home?"
"Sort of the reverse, actually," she said.
"It's entirely possible," Peggy agreed. "Remains to be seen."
"I'm Shelly. What do they call you?"
"Agent -- " she broke off, and then smiled. "Peggy. Peggy Carter."
"Nice to meet you, Peg. Stick with me, I'll get you to the church on time."
Shelly left her at a department store on a busy street, with the promise she'd return in an hour with shoes. The women in the dress department took one look at Peggy, nervous and still in uniform, and whisked her into a dressing room. She was just paying for the one she'd chosen, and slipping cash into one woman's palm for a pair of black-market stockings, when Shelly pulled up in front and blew the horn.
"I got you shoes -- black goes with everything -- and a meal, here," Shelley said, passing her a paper sack.
"Bless you," Peggy replied, digging in the sack and coming up with a huge sandwich. She devoured it, trying not to spill crumbs in the back of the cab.
"Where to next, soldier?" Shelly asked.
"Somewhere I can change and take care of my hair," Peggy said. "And then the Stork Club, if you don't mind."
Shelly dropped her off about half a block from the Stork Club with a good-luck and her cab number, should Peggy need her services again. Peggy smoothed her dress, made sure her revolver was in her purse just in case, and turned the corner, walking down the street as casually as she could. People swirled around her -- soldiers in uniform, men in plain clothes but with haircuts that said they were freshly discharged, women in dresses singly or with soldiers on their arms...
And there was Steve.
Arguing with Howard.
Peggy felt her chest seize up at the same time she rolled her eyes.
"Look, I respect Peggy as much as the next guy, more probably, but there's no way she made it here in a week," Howard was saying.
"She'll be here," Steve said stubbornly. He was still in uniform; she wondered if neither of the men had thought to buy him some real clothes. Or perhaps they were going to send him back to Europe. Captain America's triumphant return.
"You can stand here all night like a lamppost, Steve, I won't try to haul you away, but you'll just get disappointment," Howard said.
"She said she'd be here and she'll be here and I'm not going anywhere," Steve told him.
Peggy put her tongue behind her teeth and blew a shrill whistle. Heads in the crowd all turned; Howard twisted around, and Steve raised his eyes.
"Well, fuck me," Howard said, then staggered as Steve pushed past him, closing the distance and sweeping her up in his arms. Peggy laughed, arms around his shoulders as he whirled her around. She could hear people cheering in the background; presumably reunions like this weren't surprising anymore, but were still cause for celebration.
Steve set her down and kissed her, clutching tight enough that she had to squirm a little before he'd let go.
"You're still late," she informed him, when he finally released her.
"Got held up," he said, eyes sparkling. "Important war work."
"I think you were goldbricking," she said.
"I'll tell you all about it," Steve told her. "You look swell, Peggy. Howard, doesn't she -- " he turned, but Howard had disappeared. Steve blinked.
"Howard's being discreet," Peggy said, when Steve gestured at where Howard had been.
"Nuts, he was complaining about coming here with me instead of taking his new girl out on the town," Steve said. "He saw you were here and ran."
"Are you angry about that?" Peggy asked pointedly. The look on Steve's face was hilarious. Poor awkward boy.
"No," Steve said finally. "Not at all. Should we, uh -- " he gestured at the Stork Club's entrance. "I got us a table, they said it's a good one..."
She put her hand in his arm and smiled reassuringly at him. "Well, let's find out, shall we?"
"I still haven't learned to dance," he said, as they passed the doorman and stepped inside. "Howard only thawed me out a week ago -- "
"Thawed you out?" she asked.
"Let's get that table, and I'll get you a drink," he said vaguely.
"Oh, it's that kind of story, is it?" she asked.
"I have a feeling my whole life's gonna be that kind of story," he agreed.
Peggy woke the next morning to a mild hangover and the news that the war was over. V-E Day.
"Steve, wake up," she said, sitting down on the bed. Nice of Howard to arrange a penthouse suite for Steve; it was the first real bed she'd slept on in weeks.
"Hmm?" Steve managed sleepily, eyes slitting open. He blinked up at her, and then a triumphant smile crossed his face.
"You needn't look so smug, I'm not a mountain you climbed," she said, swatting his shoulder.
"You are definitely not a mountain," he agreed, sliding forward to wrap his arms around her waist. "What is it? Y'want breakfast?"
"No," she said, "Well, yes, but I think we'd better eat on the way."
"The way to where?" Steve asked, frowning.
"Well, I imagine we should probably check in with the SSR," she said, offering him the newspaper that had been left outside the door. The headline GERMANY SURRENDERS took up almost all of the front page. Steve startled upright and snatched it from her.
"You also have several telegrams," she said, sifting through them. "Dum Dum wanted to warn you I'm on my way, Phillips says you won't be needed in the European theatre after all, and Phillips also says please report to SSR HQ in Manhattan and bring me with you once I arrive. Well, that's sweet," she said. "I feel needed."
"I wonder if they'll send me to the Pacific," Steve said. "Howard said our boys have to fight for every inch they get over there."
"They've been using a lot of your tactics," Peggy said. Steve looked at her. "Small teams, going in covertly, committing sabotage. Raider teams are very effective."
Steve looked down and pink spread across the bridge of his nose, his cheeks. "It was what worked," he murmured.
"I know it's selfish, but I hope they don't send you over," she said. "I should think dying for your country gets you out of further service."
"If the war's still on and I'm fit to fight..."
"Are you?" she asked quietly. He frowned. "You've lost James."
"We lose men in war all the time," he said, like he was trying to convince himself.
"You've spent a year out of combat -- I know it hasn't really been a year for you, but it was for us, and...you died, Steve. For all intents and purposes. You thought you'd die; that you came back is just..."
"Miraculous," he said.
"I was going to say it's very you," she said drily. "Look, I won't fuss if you do go. But I think Japan will be a different kind of war, and I think there are other places you may be more useful. And either way, I doubt they'll ship you off this morning, so it's a discussion for another time," she added pragmatically. "Come on, get up and wash your face; I've got to go retrieve my luggage and uniform, I can't show up to the SSR looking like I'm on my way to a dance."
The SSR, it turned out, wasn't going to send Steve to the Pacific. Internally, Steve breathed a sigh of relief. If they wanted him to go he would, and happily, but he was tired of open combat, tired of men killing each other over who could push the furthest forward. And being back in New York reminded him that life existed outside of combat, outside of basement strategy rooms in London and muddy ditches in Germany and France.
"We will have a new mission for you, however," his temporary handler said, looking back and forth between him and Peggy, looking proper and professional next to him. He felt warm every time he thought about her, about the future together they might now get to have. "How fast can you learn Russian?"
"Russian!" Steve said. "I thought the Red Army had things well in hand."
"They do," their handler said. "That's what worries us. Russia isn't an ally; they're just the enemy of our enemy. The Soviet Union is a communist state. And in the coming days how we deal with them is going to be crucial in preventing a new chapter of the war."
"How does all this lead to -- ah," Steve said, interrupting himself. "You want me to spy on the Soviets."
"You want us to spy on the Soviets," Peggy said.
"Not precisely," their handler said. "We want you to enter Red Army held territory, locate a specific subset of Soviet prisoners, and bring them to Allied countries for transport to the United States."
"What prisoners?" Peggy asked.
"Scientists, mainly. Unfortunately, quite a few of them are Nazi party members, but the Nazis were ahead of us in technological terms."
"Funny how that didn't seem to help them," Steve said quietly.
"But it can help us. With the advancements they've made in jet propulsion, in ordinance, in human physiology -- we're looking at space within ten years. The moon within twenty. If this technology is applied outside of combat capacity..."
"Will it be?" Steve asked.
"Is that the guarantee you'd need to get onboard?"
"Is it a guarantee I'm likely to get?" Steve asked.
The handler shrugged. "Maybe. That's above my pay grade, Captain. But I can promise you if the Soviets keep these scientists, the only reason they're going to the moon is to build a military outpost there."
"I hope not," Steve replied. "I've met Red Army soldiers, sir, and they're pretty much the same as we are."
"Is that a yes, Captain?"
Steve looked at Peggy. She seemed to be considering the matter.
"If we are sent in to bring these people out, then we are responsible for them, and for bringing their...pernicious politics to the Allied side," she said. "We'll need clearance to track their progress in the programs where they end up, and to pull their files at any time. I'd like to ensure anyone with Nazi party affiliations is a permanent resident alien, refused citizenship. If that's arranged, then I can agree to this."
The handler looked at Steve.
"I go where she goes," Steve said.
"I think this can be arranged," the handler said.
"And we want the Commandos," Peggy added.
"I'm sorry, the...?"
"The Howling Commandos," Steve said, nodding. "My combat team. They come with us."
"Sure. Saves us the trouble of recruiting one for you."
Outside, once the handshakes and promises of intel and requests to report for duty in thirty days had all been taken care of, Steve sat on a bench, tiredly.
"For someone with the supposed best tactical mind in the war," he said, "I'm feelin' distinctly outpaced by you right now, Peggy."
"Well, I don't think they actually did a survey of who was the best," she said. He felt her smooth down a lock of his hair, a quick, private touch in this public place, and smiled.
"I have to go out tonight," Steve said to Peggy, as they made their way out of SSR headquarters. "I hope that's all right. Seems like you could use some time to settle in anyway."
"Am I settling in with you?" she asked, amused.
"I, what? No! Unless, unless you want to, I just meant..." he paused, collecting himself. "You look tired. You crossed half the world in a week and then slow danced all evening with me, and this morning woke up to the world changed. You should get some rest, Peggy."
"I can sleep when I'm dead," she said. "Worked for you."
"Never gonna let me live that one down, huh?"
"Not for quite a long time, no," she said. "Where are you going, anyway?"
"Well, ah," Steve said. Peggy lifted an eyebrow. "You know, they're kinda keeping it under wraps that I survived, but the news gets out, these things happen..."
"Are you giving some kind of interview?"
"No, not exactly. It's just that someone found out from, probably from Phillips, and they leaked the news to Bobby, the stage manager of the Star Spangled Show? And Bobby told the girls...and once the show broke up most of the girls ended up in New York, so...they found me and asked me to go out with them tonight."
Peggy cocked her head. "So you're going out tonight with several young female dancers?"
"I, I swear they're very friendly -- I mean they're just friends, is what I mean, and it'd be nice to see them again -- " Steve stammered, heart pounding.
Peggy burst out laughing.
"Your face!" she said, pointing at him. "Oh, Steve. I know I didn't really get to meet them, but I suspect if they really wanted to they'd devour you alive. You're a bit of a babe in arms, my dear. There'd be nothing left of you."
"I'm not a -- I've been in combat!"
"Not this kind," she said, patting his arm. "All right. I don't mind, you know, I think shooting at you once was probably enough."
"You could come," he said. "They're nice, they wouldn't mind. And I'd like it if you did. It's just that I thought you could use some rest."
"Gracious of you," she said. "Perhaps I will."
It turned out, after about an hour in their company, that Peggy rather liked the Star Spangled Show dancers. They were nice young women, and many of them were lesbians, which did allay some concerns she had that she'd carefully been ignoring. She reckoned she'd had more passes made at her than Steve had. Which was very flattering really.
They were so protective of Steve, too, as though he were a lamb surrounded by lionesses.
"Always had to keep an eye out," one of them said -- Joan, the high-kicker. "The scrapes he'd have gotten into if we weren't watching him. Honestly, Gert's two-year-old was less trouble."
"I resent that! I used to look after him. He was exactly as much trouble as me," Steve said. He seemed to be torn between pleased that Peggy got along so well with them and very worried that Peggy got along so well with them.
"You and a toddler? Is he still alive?" Peggy inquired gently. Steve grinned at her.
"Not only is he alive, he knows how to throw a punch," he said. "I'm empty," he added, holding up his pint glass. "I'll go to the bar. Orders, ladies?"
There was a riot of drink orders, some of them relatively complicated, but Steve just nodded along and stood up when they were done, heading for the bar.
"He likes to be gallant, don't he?" Stella asked.
"That's the thing, though, that's the real Steve," Joan said, and the other women nodded along. "He's just that way. Wouldn't you say, Peggy?"
"More or less," Peggy said. "He's a little less patient with the Nazis."
"Ain't we all," Stella drawled.
"Steve's not bad at holding his own, I'm sure," Joan said, "but get him in a roomful of people and he gets...shy."
"That's true," Peggy allowed.
"Which is why we had ta keep an eye on him," Stella added. "Keep the predatory ones away. Women and men. Plenty'a heartbreakers never got past Joanie and Gert and me."
Peggy could feel a change in the atmosphere of the table as Stella leaned forward.
"So you oughta know," Joan chimed in, "that we know what we're doing. And we like you, Peggy. You got gumption. But we won't see that boy hurt."
"I don't intend to," Peggy said.
"Because if you did, we'd have to come up swinging, and you might be a soldier but I guarantee I kick harder than you," Stella added.
Peggy looked at Gert, expecting a threat from her next, but Gert just smiled and studied her fingernails.
"Just so you know where we stand," Joan finished. "And so you know where you do."
"I appreciate the warning," Peggy said slowly. "It's not necessary. But I understand the motivation." She looked at Steve, who was slowly making his way back with a tray of glasses. "Don't worry. I know how to look after him."
"How's that?" Stella asked.
"Oh, you know. Gun in one hand, flag in the other," she said, and Stella and Gert gave her a half-second stare before bursting into cackling laughter.
"What's so funny?" Steve asked, arriving and beginning to set out the drinks.
"Nothing," Joan said, with an approving smile for Peggy. "Just girl talk."
They spent a month in New York, a really swell month. Steve took Peggy out dancing and followed her around when she shopped; the war had touched New York just like everywhere, but less than London, and Peggy seemed pleased with the city. They had drinks again with the Star Spangled Show girls, and went to the zoo in Central Park. And they finally had time alone together, finally enough privacy for more than kisses on the way to death.
They spent the time inbetween doing a crash course in Russian. Steve ate it up faster than Peggy did, but then, he had a few advantages. Still, they could both get along all right by the time they shipped out, boarding a transport flight to London with a group of veterans and fresh recruits on their way to serve as occupation forces in Germany.
One young private wolf-whistled Peggy as she passed, and was completely unprepared for her to turn, punch him in the face, and then keep walking.
"Shouldn't've done that," Steve said, coming up behind her, looming over the laid-out private. The kid stared up at him wide-eyed; he wasn't traveling in full regalia, but he had the shield on his back, and everyone knew who he was. "If I were you, son, I'd forget you know how to whistle."
"I think you like it when I do that," Peggy said, seating herself and strapping in. Steve took the seat next to hers, taking out his sketchbook for a little practice on the flight.
"I don't like that you have to," he said, "but you do look good in action."
The Commandos were waiting for them in London, at least what was left of them. Pinky and Dernier had both demobbed, but Dum Dum was raring to go, and Gabe and Morita were game for a new adventure.
"As much as I'm enjoying ribald recounting of your exploits while I was looking the other way, this past year," Peggy said at last, as the evening was winding down, "the boarding house they've put me in has a curfew, so I need to leave. You know how Phillips comes down on me for rule-breaking."
Dum Dum laughed. "Not like you need the beauty sleep," he said.
"I can walk you back," Steve offered.
"No need, it's not far. And I've got the little one," Peggy said, patting the bulge of her pistol in her purse. "Stay here, catch up."
"Don't worry, we'll take care of Cap, make sure he's up in time for the briefing tomorrow," Gabe said. There was an ominous note in his voice, however, and a look in Dum Dum's eye that confused Steve. Peggy gave them a short once-over, lips pursed, and then nodded.
"Right. See you in the morning, gentlemen," she said, and left. All four men watched her go appreciatively.
"Now there goes a hell of a woman," Morita said.
"Watch it," Steve cautioned, but he smiled when he said it.
"Believe me, I don't want a broken hand," Morita replied.
"Although, on that topic," Dum Dum drawled, "you know, at this point Peg's been our leader longer'n you were."
"And it sounds like she was a credit to the team," Steve agreed.
"We got to know her. Got to like her," Dum Dum continued.
"And we saw what losing you did," Gabe added. "She never showed it, but we could still see."
"Wasn't good for her," Morita said. "She did fine, but losing you really hurt her."
"So listen here," Dum Dum finished. "You hurt that woman, Cap, and we all know she'll be the first to let you know it. But you're a big fella and you can take on a tank on your own, so you oughta know she ain't standing alone. We'll finish off anything she leaves behind."
Steve looked around the table.
"I won't," he said firmly. "Ever."
"See that you don't," Gabe told him.
Steve gave them a faint smile. "I think we'd better leave it here this evening, fellas, don't you?"
"Sure. I'll settle up. No, I got a bonus coming for signing with the SSR," Dum Dum said, waving off Steve's reach for his wallet. "See you in the morning. Get some good rest, got an idea they're gonna work us hard."
Steve tipped an imaginary cap to Dum Dum, stepping outside ahead of the others and hustling a little down the street. He ducked down an alley and took a side-road, catching up with Peggy at the door to her hotel room.
"Boardinghouse with a curfew, huh?" he asked, as she unlocked the door. She slipped inside and held it open long enough for her to follow; once the door was shut he wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed his face to her shoulder, enjoying the touch.
"I thought you might want some time to catch up with the boys sans the female presence," she said. "Chauvinist of me?"
"Well, you don't seem to have taken me up on it."
"Turns out all they wanted to do without you was threaten me if I hurt you," he said, laughing. "I think they think we spent that whole month in New York sleeping with a sword between us, or maybe just holding hands in the park."
"Well, we did hold hands," she said, petting his hair.
"Yes, we did," he replied, pulling her further into the room, until he tumbled down onto a couch in one corner. She climbed into his lap and settled there, hands framing his face.
"Your dancers did the same to me, you know," she said. "We must be very lucky, to have such dedicated friends."
"Or we attract crazy people," Steve pointed out.
"Hm. No, I don't think that can possibly be it," she replied, kissing his mouth gently.
"You should know," he said, "I'd never hurt you. Hit your or force you or anything like that, of course, but -- I'd never do anything to hurt you...to hurt your heart. If I could avoid it. I'm not the running-around type."
"I know that, sweetheart. No more than I would. And I could, you know. I got quite good at fistfighting in the past year," she added, leaning back and putting her fists up in a boxer's pose. He laughed and rested his hands on top of them, pulling her arms down, tugging her in gently.
"I'll love you for as long as you'll have me," he said earnestly.
"I imagine that'll be quite a long time," she replied. "And tomorrow's the start of an entirely new career for us. We should rest."
"In a little while," he said, arms going around her waist. "We have all of our future ahead of us."
He leaned forward, resting his head against the hollow of her throat, and listened to the beat of her heart for a long time. He felt her smile into his hair, and when he leaned back, she kissed him.
"Come to bed," she said. "Let's live happily ever after."