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Would You Still Love Me If The Clocks Could Go Backwards?

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Malibu, six weeks after the Battle of New York

“I didn’t realize Stark Industries was an early pioneer in prosthetics,” says Bruce, dipping down to take a closer look at Howard’s notes. He raps the yellowing paper with one knuckle. “This is dated 1965 yet features a rudimentary microprocessor knee.” He pulls off his glasses. “Why not bring this to market? Amputees had to wait another 30 years for tech this good.”

Tony snorts. “Let’s see,” he says, rummaging through one of a dozen full-to-bursting filing cabinets, “what’s the profit margin for bettering lives?” He presses a finger to his lips, then wags it when Bruce opens his mouth. “Ah! Ah! Ah! I know this one.”

The scientist crosses his arms. “Tony,” he says uneasily.

“Nothing!” Tony says triumphantly, letting the file he’d been holding with the other hand drop, scattering his father’s papers all over the floor. “J.A.R.V.I.S., make sure those get incinerated.”

“Sir,” the AI pipes, “it’s Ms. Potts’ preference that you shred, then recycle. She thinks - ”

“Burn it, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony commands, casually tossing more papers from the drawer to the stack at his feet.

Bruce smooths his hand along one of Howard’s lab tables. “What did you say you needed the space for, again?”

Tony purposefully hadn’t. He scratches his chin. “J.A.R.V.I.S., what was it I was going to build?”

“A ballroom, sir. Or a swimming pool.”

Bruce, who’s been staying at Tony’s Malibu mansion in the weeks since the Battle of New York, nods once, twice. “This place already has a ballroom, Tony.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “And three pools.”

Tony claps his hands. “Now I remember. I was going to put in a ballroom that opens into a pool.” His chin jerks at the sound of footfalls in his own lab one floor above. Relax, Tony. It’s probably Pepper. He’d asked her to move in with him a week earlier, a decision in part fueled by caffeine and lack of sleep.

“What a wonderful life,” Bruce mutters, eyes tracking Tony across the cluttered room to a large, cloth-draped artifact. “What’s that?”

Tony shrugs, giving the sheet a tug to reveal an ordinary mirror. He stares at his haggard face for several seconds before quipping, “Mirror of Erised.”

Bruce shuffles over. “So what’s it do?”

Tony blinks. “It shows you the deepest desire of your heart.” Bruce’s hand pauses on the ornate frame. “Jesus, how long were you in Calcutta?”

Pepper enters with a little wave, which Bruce returns but Tony doesn’t. “He’s making a Harry Potter joke.” She gives her boyfriend a peck on the cheek. “There’s someone here to see you, Tony.”

Tony catches Pepper and holds her at arm’s length. “J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he says sternly, “did I say we were accepting visitors?”

“If I may, sir,” comes the disembodied response, “the upgrade you installed last week requires I defer to Ms. Potts when you have gone more than 48 hours without sleep.”

“Tony,” Pepper scolds, but he’s not listening. A shadow moves outside the lab.

“J.A.R.V.I.S., send the suit,” Tony commands.

“J.A.R.V.I.S., don’t send the suit,” Pepper overrides before pieces of Iron Man can come sailing down from upstairs. “Steve, it’s OK. You can come in.”

The worst part is, Bruce doesn’t look the least bit surprised to see Captain America shuffle in. “Traitor,” says Tony, and the scientist averts his eyes. “Cap!” he calls brightly, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Steve casts a sidelong glance at Pepper. “You invited me,” he says, muscles rippling as he folds his arms across his chest.

Pepper nudges Tony. “Ow,” he complains, rubbing the spot where her elbow connected with his ribs. “What was that for?”

“You know,” says Pepper. She clears her throat.

“Sure,” Tony says breezily, “you’re always welcome here, old man.”

“Play nice,” Pepper says, and she’s gone.

Steve waits until they can no longer hear the click of heels on the stairs. “You didn’t know I was coming,” he says flatly.

“Nope,” says Tony, already back to raiding his father’s lab. He chokes on dust as he rips a sheet off an armoire.

Steve watches Tony poke his head inside. “What is this place?” he asks, curious, and he does the same thing Bruce had done, hand skimming the edge of the mirror.

“My father’s old playroom,” Tony calls from the depths of the cabinet. When he emerges, Steve has taken several steps back, arms tightly wound again. “Forgot the two of you were pals.”

Before Steve can call Tony on the lie, Bruce waves the billionaire over. “There’s a switch back here,” he says.

Steve maintains his distance. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t go touching anything Howard invented,” he cautions.

Of course, Tony flips the switch. An old lightbulb behind the mirror buzzes for a few seconds, then bursts. He turns to Steve. “I could see how that would be startling for someone your age, yes.”

Steve’s expression doesn’t change. “Very funny, Tony. We had electricity in ’45.”

Bruce offers Steve a hand. “Welcome to Malibu,” he says diplomatically in a tone that says don’t mind Tony. “Are you hungry? I’m hungry.”

“I’ll alert the chef,” says J.A.R.V.I.S. “Will you be joining them, Mr. Stark?”

“C’mon, Tony,” Bruce urges.

Tony dismisses the AI. “Not at the moment, J.A.R.V.I.S.” He sticks his head back in the armoire, but it’s just as empty as it was before. “Well?” Tony prompts. “You heard him, Cap. You’re really going to keep the big guy waiting?”

That does it. He’s alone at last in his father’s workshop.

“Mr. Stark.”

Well, except for J.A.R.V.I.S.

“That’ll be all, thank you.” His throat burns from inhaling so much dust.

“Mr. Stark,” J.A.R.V.I.S. says again. “I’m afraid - ”

“I said, that’ll be all,” Tony snaps, yanking his head from the armoire so fast he bashes it on one of the shelves. His eyes water. “Holy mother of - ”

He stops swearing when instead of his reflection, he sees the shimmering, incandescent blue ball in the mirror. Before he can bellow for J.A.R.V.I.S. to send the suit, there’s a flash bang, and the room is catapulted into darkness. Tony can’t see six inches from his face, and still he knows he’s not alone.

Metal scrapes sickeningly across the floor. Tony slaps at the wristbands he’s refused to take off since New York. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, any minute now ...

“Peg?” calls a man’s voice. The intruder coughs. “Peg?”

“This isn’t funny,” she replies in a sharp British accent. “I demand you turn the lights back on this instant, Howard.”

Howard.

Tony stops trying to summon his armor, at least momentarily. Howard? He only has a second to ponder what this woman might want with his dead father before he’s being prodded. Tony seizes onto something lightweight, aluminum. He tries to jerk it away from his would-be assailant.

There’s a grunt, and the strange weapon is ripped from Tony’s hands. “What the hell?” the man demands. “Who grabbed my - ”

The first piece of the Iron Man suit overshoots Tony and flies into the open armoire. The doors swing shut, trapping the armor inside, where it begins to rattle. Tony dives out of the way just in time - the armoire tips, smashing into the mirror. He feels the sting of glass shards on his bare arms.

He’s not the only one. The female intruder cries out, too. Her worried companion calls, “Talk to me, Peg. Are you OK?”

Tony hears her wince. “Fine, Daniel,” she grits. “Stay where you are. I’ll get the lights. Somehow the room’s gotten even more cluttered.” Someone moves. “You’ll fall,” she chides. The faint glow of the arc reactor beneath Tony’s t-shirt illuminates her shapely legs as she strides past.

“Damn,” she swears. “He must have blown the fuse - ”

Too late. The man’s eyes fall on the bright orb embedded in Tony’s sternum. “Howard? Why’re you - ”

Another piece of armor whizzes in. It also misses its mark, smashing into the woman instead. The male intruder’s entire demeanor changes. He’d extended a hand as if to help Tony up off the ground, but now he drags the billionaire up by the collar, growling, “That’s it. You’ve really done it this time.”

Tony’s attempts to escape are thwarted when the man swings his weapon and catches Tony across the shins. Tony stumbles. He flops onto his back, but before he can scramble to his feet, he’s getting whacked again. The arc reactor takes the brunt of the blow, and it’s still enough to wind him. The assailant drops to his knees - there’s something jerky, unnatural about how he moves - and twists Tony’s arms behind him in compliance hold.

“Something’s wrong with Stark, Peg,” the man shouts. “He’s glowing.” No answer. “Peg?” Now handcuffs slap unmistakably around Tony’s wrists. “I swear to God,” the man snarls, “if you did anything to hurt my - ”

He doesn’t get to finish his threat because J.A.R.V.I.S. finally finishes rebooting. The emergency lights flicker on. The man - Daniel is what the woman had called him - stops digging his fingers into Tony’s bicep. He rises just as stiffly, and that’s when Tony realizes the weapon Daniel had utilized so effectively is actually a crutch.

Tony can’t help it. He laughs.

Daniel doesn’t look amused. “Think this is funny, do you?” He glares at Tony before limping off, presumably to find the woman. There’s a strangled cry. “Peggy!”

“J.A.R.V.I.S., a little help here?”

The door bursts open. In flies the Iron Man suit - and the calvary. The armor hovers awkwardly next to Tony, like it’s ill-prepared to handle handcuffs. “Useful, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony says snidely. “Real useful.”

“Tony!” Pepper cries, skidding to a stop next to him. Her hands cup his cheeks. “What was that? The whole house shook, then J.A.R.V.I.S. locked all the doors and powered down. Bruce just - ”

But Tony’s less interested in whatever Bruce did to restart the AI than what Steve’s doing, which is to say slamming the male intruder against the nearest wall. “What did you do to her?” Steve yells, red-faced. “Who are you? What are you doing here? How come that woman’s pretending to be Peggy Carter?”

*

Malibu, June 1949

“Remember,” says Daniel, navigating around the circle drive of Howard’s Malibu estate to where Jarvis is waiting to unload their bags, “no shop talk.”

Peggy pushes her sunglasses down her nose. “The whole weekend?”

“The whole weekend,” Daniel replies, watches his wife’s nose wrinkle. “C’mon, Peg. Two days. It’ll be good practice for when we finally make that trip back east.”

He pretends not to hear Peggy groan. “Not this again,” she mutters. She clears her throat. “If I’m not allowed to talk shop, then you can go two days without mentioning how we need to get back to Massachusetts so I can meet your mother.”

Daniel grips the steering wheel with both hands. “She’s starting to think I’ve made you - ”

“Shhh,” says Peggy, pressing her finger to his lips. “No shop talk, no mentioning your mother, and most importantly - ”

“ - no sex at Howard’s,” he finishes. It’s his turn to groan. He kisses her finger. “I hate that rule.”

“I know you do, my love,” she says affectionately as Jarvis opens the car door. Daniel gets one last sultry smile before Peggy’s embracing the butler. “So good to see you!”

Daniel opens his own door, much to Jarvis’ chagrin. “Chief Sousa, may I remind you this is to be a vacation?”

Daniel, a little stiff from the drive up, grips the frame of the Ford for support as he reaches for his crutch. “It’s good to see you, Jarvis,” he says, shaking the other man’s hand.

“Ana’s just setting out the Shabbat meal,” Jarvis says, lifting their suitcases from the trunk. “Fine spread, she’s prepared. We just need to summon Mr. Stark from his lab.”

“That sounds lovely, Jarvis,” says Daniel, and he reaches for one of the valises. “Why don’t I take one of those - ”

Peggy cuts in front of her husband. “Let him,” she says, straightening Daniel’s collar. He grabs her hand. “Mr. Jarvis is happiest when he has something to do.”

Sure enough, the butler hums all the way up the walk. “What about me, huh? I hate having to keep my hands off of you.”

“You’ll survive the one night,” says Peggy. Daniel pretends to pout. “Oh, I’ll make it up to you.”

“Deal,” Daniel says with a devilish grin. She rolls her eyes, hand slipping out of his, sashaying on ahead of him. He can’t complain, though. Not with the way she looks in her new navy skirt.

Peggy pauses at the front door. “If you’re done admiring the view,” she calls before disappearing into the enormous house.

Jarvis has delivered their bags to the first floor guest room. He bustles past Daniel in the foyer. “Wine?”

“Whatever Peggy’s having,” he replies, waving to Ana in the kitchen. “Anything I can do?”

“If you and Miss Carter wouldn’t mind fetching Mr. Stark,” he says, now wrangling what looks like a giant cookie sheet off of the stove.

Peggy catches Daniel by the elbow, but not before he hears Ana correct gently, “She’s Mrs. Sousa now, Edwin.”

“Oh my,” comes Jarvis’ frazzled reply, “I fear she’ll always be Miss Carter to me.”

Howard flat out refuses to come upstairs when Peggy tells him gazpacho’s on the menu. “It’s not soup,” he insists. “Soup’s supposed to be hot. Cold spaghetti sauce, that’s what it is.”

“It’s not - ” Peggy shakes her head, turning to Daniel to help.

“What are you looking at me for?” he says. “I like Ana’s cooking.”

“No one likes Ana’s cooking,” Howard says. He points to the reflection of a wrench in the ornate, full-length mirror he’s tinkering with. “Sousa, gimme that.”

Daniel limps around the table to drop the tool in Howard’s outstretched hand. He gives Peggy’s shoulders a squeeze, surveying their reflection. He can hardly believe his good luck most days. “So what is it?” he asks Howard.

The billionaire licks his fingers before flipping to the next page of his notes. “Just a little idea I had,” he says noncommittally.

“Howard,” Peggy prompts.

He looks up - not guiltily, Daniel’s not sure Howard feels those pangs of conscience - but like he’s been caught. “OK,” he says, “hear me out - ”

Peggy, who has a better view of Howard’s notes than Daniel does, exclaims, “That’s the Zero Matter file! Howard, I thought we agreed you wouldn’t bring that work home.” And she tries to snatch it out of his hand.

Howard jerks the file away. “That’s not hearing me out,” he complains. “Listen to me, Peg. I’m getting somewhere with this. What if we could move from one space to another without having to take a car or a boat or a plane?”

“Then you could stop buying yourself very expensive toys,” says Peggy. “Give it to me, Howard.”

“Translocation, Peggy. It’s the future. Forget flying cars. We’re on the verge of travel by portal.” Howard’s arm pans, like he’s unveiling a billboard. “Just think. Friday afternoon, you and Sousa cut out of work early, step through the portal, and voilà! You’re drinking poolside in Malibu. No sitting in traffic! If you wore a bathing suit under your dress you wouldn’t even need to change.”

“Just one problem, Howard,” Peggy says sweetly.

“What’s that?”

“Daniel and I never get off early.” She snags the file from Howard. “Chief Sousa, permission to repossess Stark Industries’ allotment of Zero Matter for violating the terms of the research and development compact.”

Daniel folds his hands on top of his crutch. “Permission granted,” he says wearily. He pretends not to notice Howard glaring at him. So much for a weekend away. “Is it here, Stark?”

“I’m proposing translocation via interdimensional portals, Sousa. Maybe you could be a bit more specific?”

Daniel sets his jaw. “The Zero Matter,” he says. “Is it in this room? Or anywhere on the estate?”

Howard blows a raspberry. “She was more fun before she married you,” he tells Daniel, though he’s already opening an old armoire. He pulls out what looks like a small, metal train case. But Peggy and Daniel know better: it’s an inconel alloy containment chamber holding one-hundredth of all the known Zero Matter in the universe. “Here,” Howard says in a bored, disinterested tone.

“Hey, Peg,” says Daniel, bumping the old mirror with his hip in his haste to intervene. He hates everything about Zero Matter, but especially it being anywhere near his wife. “Let me handle it.”

He reaches for the carrying case, but Peggy doesn’t let go. “Honestly, Daniel. So long as it stays in the containment chamber - ”

“Peg,” he pleads, “don’t make me pull rank on you.”

“Chief Sousa, need I remind you that SSR protocol for transporting Zero Matter requires at minimum two agents? Are you really going to call someone in on a Saturday when I’m already here?”

“I will if I have to,” Daniel grits. “Peggy, I’m asking as your husband.”

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to tell me as my boss.”

He swallows. You knew it would happen eventually. “Agent Carter, stand down.”

“You know what sounds good?” says Howard. “Gazpacho. How’s that sound? Some nice, cold tomato - ”

Then there’s a crack, and the laboratory floods with blue light. “Peggy!” Daniel shouts, unwilling to be separated. They’re both still holding the sample of Zero Matter when an explosion - or is it an implosion? - knocks them to the ground. “Peg?” He coughs. “Peg!”

“This isn’t funny,” Peggy answers, and Daniel floods with relief. “I demand you turn the lights back on this instant, Howard.”

Meanwhile, Daniel gropes for his crutch. His fingers make contact with something lightweight, aluminum. He uses it to drag himself up. But when he tries to swing his crutch forward, it’s like someone’s trying to tug it out of his hands. “What the hell?” Daniel demands. “Who grabbed my - ”

He doesn’t get a chance to finish because something’s whizzing through the air. With a sound like a cannon blast, it crashes into the armoire, which tips, shattering the mirror into a thousand pieces. Peggy cries out.

Daniel’s going to kill Howard.

*

Malibu, June 2012

She’s been in more pain, certainly, but that doesn’t make the throbbing in her temple any more pleasant. Peggy groans. “How long,” she asks, spying Daniel’s worried face, “have I been out?”

“Peggy,” he says after several seconds, though he doesn’t rush to her aid as expected. “Jesus, you scared me.”

“That’s not an answer, Daniel,” Peggy replies. His brown eyes are deep pools of concern, which means there is most assuredly blood caked in her hair. She sighs. Peggy knew she should have packed her hot rollers. She asks again, “How long have I been out?” It’s only then she notices she can’t move her hands.

In fact, her hands are bound.

So are Daniel’s.

Worse, his right pant leg dangles empty off the seat of the chair. He forces a smile. His jaw is bruised. “Trust me, I’d much rather have had you undress me.”

Peggy doesn’t have time for wisecracks. “Who was it?” she wants to know. “Where’s Howard? Did they get the Zero Matter? Do you - ”

“One question at a time, Peg,” Daniel cuts in. He exhales slowly. “I didn’t recognize the woman who tied us up, but she used that same knot Dottie did.”

Peggy inhales sharply at the mention of the Soviet spy. “Another Red Room operative?”

“Afraid so,” says Daniel. Now Peggy notices the ropes around his wrists are tinged pink. If he’s been working them long enough to draw blood -

“Daniel, how long was I out?”

“You were unconscious a while, Peg,” he says softly. “If you could stop scaring me like - ”

She’s not sure what he’d liked her to have done differently this time. They were on vacation in Malibu, for Christ sakes. “Howard?” Peggy prompts, not interested in a lecture on risk-taking.

She doesn’t like the look on Daniel’s face. “Here’s where it gets weird, Peg. There’s a guy here you could mistake for Stark in a dim light, but it’s not Howard. I think the others - ” he ignores it when she interjects to ask how many “ - were calling him Tony. He’s got a metal disk implanted in his chest. It glows blue.”

Peggy forces herself to laugh: a single, uncomfortable chuckle. “I thought I was the one was knocked out. What about the Zero Matter?”

“It’s not here, Peg,” says Daniel, tongue flickering over his lower lip. Like he’s not sure he should tell her this other thing. “But it’s the least of our problems.”

“The least of our problems?” Peggy repeats. Evidently her husband’s gone mad. “The least of our problems? Daniel, need I remind you there’s no such thing as a trivial quantity of Zero - ”

That’s when Steve Rogers enters the room.

Peggy blinks. Just how hard had she hit her head?

*

“Can’t you do something?” Steve demands, watching as Peggy comes to groggily on the closed circuit security feed. Not Peggy, he corrects firmly. Peggy’s in a nursing home in Bethesda. This woman, for all she looks like the fiery SSR agent, is about sixty years too young. “Look! She just said something.”

Tony cups a hand to his ear. “Bruce,” he says, “did you hear that? Because it sounded an awful lot like a 90-year-old man complaining about technology.”

“We’re still working on the audio feed, Steve,” Bruce assures his friend. “J.A.R.V.I.S. couldn’t boot properly with the disruption in the electromagnetic field.”

“So - ” Steve begins to pace, absently grabbing a fistful of hair “ - boot it again.”

“Reboot,” supplies Natasha, cracking her gum loudly.

Steve rounds on her. “You can lip read.”

“Clint can lip read,” she corrects.

It takes him a second to realize she means Agent Barton. Hawkeye. “Well, when’s he going to be here?”

Bruce’s hand on his shoulder about makes Steve jump out of his skin. “We’re working on it,” the scientist says firmly. “If we take the whole system offline, we’re vulnerable. So we have to restart each system one at a time. Just - ”

Steve’s not interested in being told to be patient. “Just fix it,” he calls over his shoulder.

Natasha grabs his arm. “You can’t just - ”

“Watch me,” he snarls.

Steve completely ignores the dark-haired man, whose mouth snaps shut when he enters. “Who are you?” he asks the Peggy-imposter.

“Who am I?” she says, and it’s Peggy’s voice all right. “Who am I? You bloody well know who I am. The better question is who are you. Pretending to be Steve Rogers, honestly.”

The woman even has Peggy’s scoff down. Steve shifts his weight uncomfortably. “I know Peggy Carter, ma’am, and while you would have been pretty convincing back in ’45, the war’s over.”

“Of course the war’s over,” she snaps. “It’s been over for four years.”

“Four?” Steve repeats. “Try 64.”

“Actually,” comes the disembodied voice of J.A.R.V.I.S., causing both intruders to jump a little, “It’s been 67, Captain Rogers.”

It’s the man who demands, “Who was that?”

“J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Steve says absently. He can’t figure out this con. He’s not sure what they stand to gain by pretending to be time travelers from the past.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” says the woman. “That’s not Edwin Jarvis. It sounds nothing like him, and Mr. Jarvis would never allow us to be treated like this in Howard Stark’s home.”

Steve’s not expecting Tony’s robot to chime, “Indeed, he would have found the confinement of Ms. Carter and Mr. Sousa most distressing.”

The intercom buzzes. “J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony commands, “do you know these people?”

“Of course, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replies, “as do you.”

“I do?”

The lights dim as the AI projects the intruders’ names and photographs on the wall behind the woman’s head. “Carter, Margaret Elizabeth,” J.A.R.V.I.S. recites. “Born April 9, 1921, in London, England. Currently resides in Bethesda, Maryland. Sousa, Daniel Edward. Born January 7, 1915, in Fall - ”

“Thank you, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony interjects. “That will be all.”

*

“Can J.A.R.V.I.S. be trusted?” Natasha wants to know.

“Of course he can be trusted,” Tony snaps. “I built him, didn’t I?” But he has to leave the room just in case his hammering heart decides to betray him.

He’d only flipped the switch on his old man’s science project to get a rise out of Steve. Time travel isn’t possible. “Talk to me, J.A.R.V.I.S.”

“What seems to be the problem, Mr. Stark?”

Tony begins to pace. “I almost believe you when you say that’s Peggy Carter,” he says, “but him? I’ve never met a Daniel Sousa in my life.”

“I assure you, Mr. Stark, you have. You even attended Mr. Sousa’s funeral.”

“The man died in 1986, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony points out. “How would you know if I was there?” He hadn’t started working on the code for the AI until the 1990s.

“It was in the source material, Mr. Stark.”

Tony stops pacing. That would mean Edwin Jarvis wrote about the funeral in one of his journals. “Still nothing,” Tony insists.

“You were wearing your new Hammer pants, sir.”

It’s enough to trigger a memory of riding through a rain-slicked town in the back of his father’s town car. The day had been notable not for the funeral they attended, but because the real Jarvis had snapped at Tony to stop being selfish. It’s one of only a few times Tony remembers the old butler raising his voice.

The door to the control room opens. “I think we should separate them,” says Steve, crossing his arms.

“Who?”

“Peggy and her male companion.”

“You mean Daniel Sousa,” Tony supplies, watching Steve’s jaw clench.

“Name mean anything to you?”

No, but it should. “There’s another room down the hall that locks from the outside,” Tony calls over his shoulder as he heads for his lab.

“Where are you going?” Steve wants to know. “Tony - ”

He’s already sealed himself in his lab. “J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony instructs, “access the source material.”

“I’m afraid you’ll need to be more specific, sir.”

“No shit,” Tony mutters, thinking of the dozens of journals he’d scanned when he was writing code for J.A.R.V.I.S. “Do a Boolean search, Daniel OR Sousa, see what - oh,” says Tony, when the AI displays more than 2,000 results. He blinks. “Well then.”

“Would you like me to narrow the search, sir?”

Tony’s not entirely sure why the first word that comes to mind is “wedding,” but J.A.R.V.I.S. only returns seven results this time. “Show me that one,” Tony commands. He snaps his fingers. “The video.”

“Very well, sir.” J.A.R.V.I.S. dims the lights as the old home movie begins to play. The coloration isn’t quite natural - too vivid - but it takes Tony all of two seconds to recognize the happy couple as the two people being held captive upstairs. Peggy’s radiant in a gauzy white dress, and Tony gets why Daniel can’t take his eyes off her. Tony’s eyes, however, follow Daniel, his jerky gait. Suddenly Tony understands why there had been so many prototype prosthetics in Howard’s lab.

But the biggest surprise is when the video jumps to Jarvis dancing with a stunning redhead. Tony leans forward in his seat. He only barely remembers Ana, and she’d been old, wrinkled and sick.

Tony hears Pepper calling for him a second before the lab door slides open. “There you are,” she says. “We were worried.” She stares at the still-rolling video for several seconds before she asks, “What are you watching?”

“Source material,” quips Tony as Pepper drops into his lap. “Recognize anyone?”

She gasps as the video pans to Peggy and Daniel feeding each other cake. There’s no sound, but the former S.H.I.E.L.D. director’s face lights up as she swipes icing off her new husband’s chin. “Oh my God,” Pepper says. “Does Steve know?”

Instead of answering, Tony narrates, “Oh look,” as Howard comes into view with a woman on each arm, “do you think the invitation was addressed to all three of them?”

“Because you have so much room to talk,” says Pepper, though at the same time she drapes her arms around Tony’s neck. “That’s Mr. Jarvis, isn’t it? That’s the youngest I’ve ever seen him. And who’s the redhead?”

“Mrs. Jarvis,” says Tony simply.

Pepper frowns. “I never knew he was married.”

“Why would you? She died when I was 6. Hey, where do you think I could get some of those pool loungers? That retro look is in again.”

“Tony.”

The video ends, and the lights come back on. Tony drops his chin to Pepper’s shoulder. He’d known his father knew Peggy, but it’s news to him she’d been close enough to Howard to have her wedding at this very estate. Tony swallows the lump in his throat. “So,” he says conversationally, “how do you feel about having houseguests indefinitely?”

“Tony - ”

“Because I have no idea how to send them back.”

*

“Anything else, boss?”

Fury’s voice crackles in Natasha’s ear. “Just ... remember why you’re out there.”

“Of course,” she says, disconnecting the secure line. She takes a deep breath before rejoining Steve and Bruce in the control room.

Steve stops pacing and lifts his chin in acknowledgement, but his eyes stay glued to the video feed of Peggy. “Did you find Tony?”

“I didn’t go looking for Tony,” Natasha informs him. “I stepped out to take a call from Fury. He’s asked that I keep him apprised of the situation.”

“What’s his take?” Bruce asks.

“He didn’t use the words ‘time travel’ if that’s what you’re asking,” Natasha replies. She settles her gaze on the soiled washcloth she’d used to mop up the female assailant earlier. “How long will it take you to put together a biometric profile to send back to S.H.I.E.L.D.?”

Bruce scrunches his nose. “An hour?” he guesses. “They got something of Peggy Carter’s to compare it to?”

Natasha nods.

“What about him?” Steve wants to know, eyes flickering to the video feed of the male assailant.

“What about him?” Natasha echoes.

“Well,” says Steve, and he rubs his jaw, “for starters, who’s he supposed to be?”

She shoots Bruce a warning look before the scientist can open his mouth. “J.A.R.V.I.S. says his name is Daniel Sousa.”

Steve declares, “I’m going in.”

“You sure that’s a good - ” Natasha steps on Bruce’s foot “ - ow! Jesus, Nat, what’d I do to you?”

She waits until Steve’s left the room. “Fury put Cap in charge,” she tells Bruce as they watch the supersoldier enter the room where Sousa’s being held. “Whether his instinct is right remains - ”

They both wince as Steve slams Sousa, still bound, against the table. Bruce boosts the volume just in time to hear Steve demand, “Who are you?”

“The disembodied voice got it right,” the man grits. “Name’s Daniel Sousa. ’Course, you don’t need an introduction, do you?”

Steve doesn’t let up. “Let’s pretend for a minute that woman actually is Peggy Carter. Who’re you pretending to be, huh? Because none of us have ever heard of you.” He grinds his elbow deeper into Sousa’s back. “Gonna answer me?”

“Think he’s noticed the rings?” Bruce asks Natasha.

“Or he’s ignoring them.”

“You know,” Sousa manages, his face getting redder by the second, “you were a lot nicer when you were rescuing my battalion in Belgium in the winter of ’44.”

“Oh, yeah?” Steve counters. “And which battalion was that?”

Sousa’s panting between words. “I - served - with - the - 35th - Combat - Engineers.”

“No kidding,” says Steve, and Natasha sees his muscles twitch. But whether it’s to ease up on Sousa or drive the elbow harder into his back, she isn’t sure.

“Plot twist,” says Bruce, “Captain America saved the man who would become Peggy Carter’s husband.”

“You’re supposed to be pulling a blood sample to send back to the lab,” Natasha reminds him.

She watches Bruce consider this. “That’s probably less disturbing than watching 200 pounds of man muscle beat up on an amputee,” he says.

“I don’t know,” says Natasha, watching Steve’s fist connect with Sousa’s face. Sousa responds by spitting a mouthful of blood at Steve. “I wouldn’t write him off.”

There’s a gasp as Tony returns with Pepper. “What’s he doing?” she wants to know. She rounds on Natasha. “Why did you let him - ”

“Fury’s orders.”

“Why would Director Fury order Steve to beat up Peggy’s husband?” Pepper asks, incredulous.

But Natasha’s less interested in Pepper’s concerns than in what Tony’s doing. “Where are you - ”

Tony rounds on the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. “My house, my rules.” He leaves Natasha no choice but to follow him.

“Bruce says it’ll only take an hour to confirm it’s really Director Carter,” Natasha hisses, following him to the room where Steve’s pounding on Sousa.

“You really think that poor bastard’s going to last an hour?” Tony asks. “J.A.R.V.I.S., open the door.”

“Sir, I would advise - ”

“Open the damn door, J.A.R.V.I.S.”

“If you insist, sir.”

The door swings open. But it’s a different sound that prickles Natasha’s ears. “Tony, we have a problem,” she mutters at Pepper’s little yelp of surprise.

“I know,” says the billionaire with a flourish. “It’s like he has no idea how to treat a guest.”

There’s a thump even as Steve’s beatdown of Sousa stops.

The color drains from Tony’s face. “Pepper,” he whispers.

But when Bruce steps out in the hallway, he’s still very much man-sized. “Relax,” he tells them as Peggy prods him with what appears to be a broken chair leg. “It’s me, not the other guy.”

“The other guy?” Peggy asks sharply. She doesn’t wait for an answer. She addresses Natasha. “What have you done with my husband?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Natasha can see Steve still bearing down on Sousa. “Peg,” her husband shouts, “it’s OK, I’m all right.”

“You’ll untie Daniel and return his leg,” Peggy instructs. “Then we will be leaving.” She prods Bruce for good measure.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” Tony warns.

Bruce looks annoyed. “How many times do I have to tell you, I’m not going to - ”

Natasha tackles Peggy to the ground just in time. The Iron Man armor whizzes by, securing itself to Tony. Natasha glares at him. “This is all your fault, you know.”

Tony swears as Iron Man’s mask slams forcefully into his face. “I’m aware,” he calls, his voice muffled by the armor.

There’s a thud and a crash, then Sousa pitches himself out into the hallway. “Peg, you’re not hurt, are you?”

Natasha glares at Steve. “Seriously?”

He’s too busy staring at the diamond glittering on Peggy’s left hand to answer.

*

“Peg,” Daniel pleads, “just let me see, OK?”

She sighs, clearly exasperated, though she finally lets him sweep back her hair to inspect the cut on her temple. “It’s not that bad,” she insists through a grimace.

“Your definition of ‘not that bad’ and mine are very different,” he says, hobbling over to the table where the Red Room operative had wordlessly dumped an armload of first aid supplies and left the room. His fingers brush something cold. “Is this supposed to be an ice pack?”

“Daniel, I don’t want you to - ”

He lurches back to the couch where she’s sitting. “Here,” he says, pulling out his handkerchief and wrapping it around the strange bag of blue gel. He presses it gently to the goose egg along her hairline. “Better?”

She drops her heads so her face nuzzles his neck. “We’re supposed to be on vacation,” Peggy mutters into his collar.

His arm curls protectively around her. “So we’re a little banged up,” Daniel says. “We’re OK. We have each other.”

“The Soviets have Steve.”

Daniel feels his chest tighten. He’s starting to think Captain America might be the least of their worries. But he doesn’t tell Peggy. “Tell you what,” he says. “We’ll get him out, too.” He doesn’t mention the dates that had been projected behind her head, which seemed to support Steve’s declaration that the war had been over nearly 70 years.

Peggy’s thumb skims Daniel’s fat lip. “He punched you.”

Repeatedly. He’ll be paying for it come morning. If they make it that long. “This is hardly the first time we’ve gotten out of a tough scrape,” Daniel reminds Peggy. “They’re willing to negotiate, or they never would have dropped off bandages.”

“I very much doubt we’ll like their terms.”

“Probably not,” Daniel agrees, and he starts to shift so she can more easily rest her head on his shoulder. The little groan of pain is involuntary.

Peggy arches an eyebrow. “Not that bad?” she guesses. “Come on, lift your shirt. Let’s see how you define it.”

Daniel knows better than to argue when she begins untucking his Oxford. “See?” He swallows. “Nothing’s broken. Just ... bruised.”

She clucks her tongue. “I am so sorry, Daniel. The Steve I knew never would have - ”

“Hey,” he cuts in, “this is hardly your fault.”

The door opens, and it’s automatic: they scoot apart. Daniel hastily tucks in his shirt. Peggy smooths her skirt.

“No, please,” says the man with the glowing orb implanted in his breastbone, the one who’d donned the strange iron suit in the hallway earlier. He holds up his hands in mock surrender, and Daniel swears this could be Howard’s son. “Don’t stop on our account.”

“Tony,” mutters the Red Room operative, filing in after him. She’s followed by the dark-haired man in the blue button-down Peggy had threatened earlier. He’s a scientist, Daniel thinks. Same twitchy energy as the lab techs, glasses askew on the bridge of his nose.

Finally, Steve shuffles in, an imposing 6-foot-1, the kind of arms Daniel hasn’t seen since he left the shipyard. He supposes a few of the guys in his unit might have enlisted looking like that, but a European winter and inadequate rations had a way of winnowing everyone down, fast.

Though, apparently not supersoldiers. Steve crosses his arms, refusing to make eye contact.

The man called Tony introduces the Soviet spy first. “Natasha Romanoff, Dr. Bruce Banner - ” doctor, scientist, close enough “ - you both seem to be acquainted with Captain America over there, and I’m Tony.” He pauses. “Tony Stark.”

“Stark,” Peggy repeats, and she laughs. “Are we supposed to believe you’re related to Howard? Because I know for a fact he’s an only child.”

“Funnily enough, so am I, which is sort of impressive when you consider what his favorite activity was.” No one laughs. “Oh, come on,” Tony complains. “That was a good one.”

“Oh, so you expect to convince us you’re Howard’s son?” Peggy intones. “So sorry, Mr. Stark, but we’re just not buying your ruse.”

It’s Natasha who steps forward. “You watched him - ” she jerks her thumb at Steve “ - a 5-foot-4 weakling, grow into the world’s first supersoldier, but you’re not willing to consider the possibility of time travel?”

“Not at the moment, no.”

But after everything they went through to stop Whitney Frost, Daniel’s at least willing to entertain the notion. “Humor us,” he says, “in what year have we supposedly landed?”

“I’m afraid we can’t - ”

“Nat,” interrupts Bruce, “I think we need to.” He pulls off his glasses. “It’s 2012.”

Daniel’s actually been punched in the gut today, and hearing Peggy outlives him by more than 20 years still hurts worse.

His wife, however, isn’t having it. “Preposterous,” Peggy says dismissively. “It’s 1949. Do you really expect us to believe - ”

“J.A.R.V.I.S., as discussed,” Tony commands. “Remember, just enough for them to get the gist, not enough to give anything away.”

“I can stop playback at any time, sir,” says the same strange, robotic voice that had interrupted Steve earlier. Definitely not Edwin Jarvis. The lights dim. A montage of home movies begins to play, though there’s no projector Daniel can see.

Peggy smashing cake in his face at their wedding reception some seven months earlier.

New Year’s Eve, 1948, Ana trying to teach Jarvis a swing dance with fancy footwork, camera jerking as Daniel laughs behind it. “The Balboa,” she’d called it.

Them arriving in Malibu that very morning, Peggy threatening Jarvis with a wag of her finger.

“These things have already happened,” Peggy insists.

But the same can’t be said about the next clip, in which a heavily pregnant Peggy waddles into frame to shut off the camera. Daniel feels his heart swell, though not as much as when a dark-haired baby with ears that stick out like his toddles across carpet into his wife’s arms.

The Jarvises teaching two children how to play croquet. This video has sound: the boy hits his ball with a tremendous crack, gleeful when it sends his sister’s skittering across the lawn. The film ends when the little girl begins to cry noisily.

The children - their children, Daniel corrects, and he gropes for Peggy’s hand - grow like weeds. Easter egg hunts and science fairs, Howard complaining over a papier-mâché volcano about a red ribbon that should have been blue. The kids are so close in age Daniel can’t figure out who’s the eldest. The boy, maybe. No, the girl. He and Peggy are getting older, too. His hair turns grey. His limp’s more pronounced.

Peggy, he thinks, only gets more beautiful.

Then Howard’s marrying a woman who could, yes, be Tony’s mother. The billionaire holding a baby like a football, Jarvis squawking indignantly at his employer, “Sir, you must use care when handling Master Anthony.” Peggy cradling baby Tony.

“Seen enough?” Tony drawls.

Apparently Captain America has. Steve leaves the room, slamming the door behind him.

*

Steve’s alive.

He has been all this time.

And I didn’t go looking for him.

Peggy’s feeling light-headed again, but whether that’s due to her earlier head injury or the panic that comes from being catapulted 63 years into the future by Howard Stark’s latest contraption, she isn’t sure. She forces herself to focus on the task at hand, which is to say she must push all thought of Steve aside, at least until she’s bandaged Daniel’s arms.

You tried, Peggy reminds herself. You begged Colonel Phillips for resources so you could locate the Valkyrie.

She thinks of the stricken look on Steve’s face as her life with Daniel played out in technicolor. Obviously you didn’t try hard enough. Peggy’s ashamed to admit she’d been more focused on Steve than Tony’s picture show.

“Peggy,” says Daniel, forcing her to snap back to reality. “Are we going to talk about it?”

Her fingers are wrapped loosely around his wrist. “Completely unnecessary,” she admonishes, flooding with white-hot indignation as she inspects the damage to Daniel’s forearms. Whatever her sins, it’s no excuse for how they’d treated him.

“It’s just rope burn, Peg,” Daniel insists, but she rises anyway, reasonably certain she’d seen a bottle of iodine in the medical supplies Natasha had dropped off earlier.

A wave of nausea forces Peggy to sit back down. “Oh,” she manages, doubling over. She feels her husband’s hand slide to the small of her back as she clutches her stomach.

He says her name once, twice, three times, the same frantic tone she recognizes from one too many missions gone awry. “Peg, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she insists when she’s caught her breath. “Just a little headache, that’s all.”

“You were clutching your stomach,” Daniel points out.

The door opens. Next to her, Daniel straightens, but Peggy makes a point of resting her knee against her husband’s prosthesis.

Tony gives Bruce a little shove. “You do it,” he’s saying. “You’re the one with ‘Doctor’ in front of your name.”

“Tony,” comes the weary reply, “we’ve been over this. I’m not an M.D.”

“They’re from the past,” Tony counters, “are they really going to know the difference?”

Bruce flashes the Sousas an apologetic smile as he pulls the door shut. “Ms. Carter, Mr. Sousa, I know Tony introduced me earlier, but I’m Bruce, Bruce Banner.”

“Chief Sousa,” Peggy corrects.

“I’m sorry, I - ”

“Don’t apologize to me, apologize to him,” says Peggy, and she nods at her husband. “He’s the Los Angeles Bureau Chief of the SSR and deserves your respect, Dr. Banner.”

Bruce looks flustered. Truth be told, so does Daniel. “Chief Sousa,” Bruce mutters.

“Call me Daniel.”

They shake on it. Bruce turns once again to Peggy. He points to the gash that had Daniel so upset earlier. “Director Carter, may I take a look?”

“I’m afraid I don’t direct anything, Dr. Banner.”

“Peg,” says Daniel.

He looks so worried she gives in. “Oh, all right.” Still, Peggy isn’t eager to have her personal space invaded. She finds herself holding her breath as Bruce lifts her hair. He’s a decent choice to patch them up, she supposes. No way was he involved in tying them up or Daniel wouldn’t have allowed him to touch her.

“Follow my finger with your eyes,” Bruce instructs, holding it several inches from Peggy’s nose. He moves it back and forth, up, down, side to side. “J.A.R.V.I.S., can you bring the lights down?” Peggy’s heart begins to pound as the room dims. “Try to relax,” says Bruce with a forced smile. “I just need to check your pupils for dilation. You can bring the lights back up, J.A.R.V.I.S. Any nausea?”

“She got dizzy earlier when she stood up,” her husband pipes.

“Daniel.”

“Stand up, Director Carter, and if you can, just walk in a straight line for me across the room.”

“I’m feeling much better now,” Peggy insists.

Bruce crosses his arms. “I still need you to do it, Director.”

“Oh, honestly,” says Peggy. “See? I’m just - ”

Except the same thing happens: Peggy feels immediately light-headed, only this time it’s Bruce who helps her return to the couch. This wins him no points with Daniel, who’s also risen jerkily to her aid. “Let go of her,” he says irritably. “Just because I’m an invalid doesn’t mean I can’t take care of my wife.”

He’s taken everything in such stride, but his words ultimately betray him. Daniel had long ago dropped self-deprecating terms like “gimp” and “cripple” from his vocabulary. To hear him call himself an invalid tells Peggy everything she needs to know about the effect Steve’s sudden reappearance is having on the man she married.

She reaches across Daniel’s prosthesis and rests her hand on his left knee. “Daniel,” she says sincerely, “I am so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?” he wants to know. “Not your fault that thing caught you in the head.” Bless him. He thinks you’re apologizing for being dizzy. Daniel’s lips graze her forehead. “Hey, Bruce. I have to ask. What was that strange suit Tony had on?”

“About that.” For someone who’s presumably a guest in Tony’s home, Bruce looks strangely like the one intruding. “So Captain America isn’t the only superhero these days. In fact - ” now Bruce fidgets nervously with the bottle of antiseptic solution he’d plucked off the table “ - you met most of the gang. Tony’s Iron Man. Nat’s Black Widow. Clint’s not here, but he’s an archer with aim so good the media’s dubbed him ‘Hawkeye.’” Peggy watches Bruce’s tongue flick over his lips as he pulls up a chair. “Mind if I - ”

Daniel, sweet, wonderful Daniel who’d rubbed his wrists raw trying to free himself to get to her, consents to letting the doctor bandage his arms. Peggy, knowing how much the smell of iodine reminds her husband of the military hospital where he’d recuperated after his amputation, drops her chin to his shoulder.

“So what’s your superpower?” Daniel asks.

“Me? I don’t - ” Bruce breaks off, and he sighs. “I was exposed to gamma radiation while trying to recreate the supersoldier serum.”

“And?”

“And now I turn into a green rage monster.” He pauses. “The Hulk.”

Peggy’s not sure what to say to that, but Daniel simply asks, “Why green?”

Bruce stops dabbing. “Thank you,” he says. “No one ever asks.” He clears his throat. “Anyway, we’re the Avengers, earth’s mightiest superheroes. Well, and Thor. You’re probably not going to meet Thor, though. Not unless you’re willing to go to Asgard.” He chuckles as Peggy and Daniel share a curious look. “Sorry. Nat doesn’t think I’m funny, either.”

Neither of them asks about Asgard.

Steve, Peggy wills herself. Ask about Steve.

“Red Room, right?” Daniel asks. Bruce nods. “Then I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself. They’re not exactly programmed to have a sense of humor.”

“Jesus,” Bruce mutters, securing a large bandage to Daniel’s forearm. “I forget how long they’ve been churning out assassins. I’m guessing you’ve met one?”

“Sure have,” Daniel replies, and Peggy knows he’s thinking about their latest Dottie Underwood encounter. “The missus here’s had the displeasure of meeting two.”

Peggy smiles grimly. “While on a joint mission with the Howling Commandos in Belarus after the war, we encountered a girl no older than 14. She killed both Junior Juniper and SSR Agent Mike Li.”

“That’s how old Nat was,” Bruce says absently. “Not that - she doesn’t - she defected. She was deprogrammed using what S.H.I.E.L.D. calls the Underwood Protocol. Which I’m sure you know all about. Since you invented it.” He says this to Peggy, a sheepish smile on his face.

She casts a sidelong look at her husband, his brow knitted. Then we’re on the same page. For two years they’ve pursued Dottie, always failing to take her into custody. Peggy can’t imagine catching the Soviet assassin at this point, let alone deprogramming her. “No,” Peggy says, “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“But you know about S.H.I.E.L.D., right?”

Peggy shakes her head. “Sorry.”

Bruce scratches the back of his head. “What year did you say it was?”

It’s the timing of the others’ arrival - Tony, Natasha, Steve and the woman who’d thrown up her hands in surrender when Peggy’d stormed the control room earlier - that has her certain she and Daniel are under strict surveillance.

“Peggy, guy whose name I’ve already forgotten, I’d like you to meet my girlfriend, Pepper,” says Tony, arm curled loosely around the blonde woman. “She lives here when she’s not in New York running Stark Industries.”

Daniel struggles to his feet, but Peggy stays seated. “You’ll have to forgive me for not standing,” she says, shaking Pepper’s hand. “I still seem to be suffering the ill-effects of being knocked out by Iron Man.”

It’s not a test, but Pepper passes when she whips her head to glare at Tony.

“Sorry,” he mouths.

“Not the one you should be apologizing to, Tony,” she says matter-of-factly. She clasps Peggy’s hand in hers. “I can’t tell you how exciting it is to meet you, Director Carter. What you did paved the way for women to work and run companies and - ” she trails off, practically vibrating. “Well, just know Tony and I will do everything we can to make your stay in the future comfortable.”

“Thank you, Pepper,” Peggy says primly.

“But not too comfortable,” says Tony. “Because we have to send you back. Obviously. So you can do all the things in the videos. Also if you could get back in time to found the world’s most powerful counterterrorism agency, that would be great. Since you kind of already did.”

“Tony,” says Pepper, “I thought we agreed - ”

“Causal loop theory, Pepper,” Tony interjects. “It doesn’t matter what we tell Peggy about the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, as long as we send her back to 1949 in time to get it up and running. Which we will,” he adds. “Because we already have.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Daniel supplies. “Isn’t that what you called it?” he asks Bruce.

The scientist blinks. “Yeah.”

“I’m sorry,” says Peggy, shaking her head. “This is all - ” overwhelming “ - fine and good, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about - about - ”

“The 93-year-old elephant in the room?” Steve supplies, stepping forward at last. He tucks his hands under his armpits. “Honestly, I’m not sure I can explain it.”

This appears to be Tony’s cue to lean over and stage-whisper, “They found him frozen in an ice cap. Get it?”

Peggy ignores Howard’s son. “When?” she demands.

Steve crosses his arms. “Couple of months ago,” he mutters. He lifts his chin. “So I can relate to waking up and it not being 1945 anymore.”

“1949,” Daniel corrects. “It’s 1949 now.”

Or, what Peggy hears, no disrespect, Captain, but ...

Four years. What a difference four years can make. She runs her thumb absently across the underside of the ring on her left hand.

Bruce misreads Daniel’s statement entirely. “Don’t worry,” he says reassuringly, “Tony and I will get you back to the right year. Right, Tony?”

“Right, Bruce,” Tony chimes, like an obnoxious radio host.

Peggy pays him no mind. “You mean for us to believe,” she asks Steve, “you were alive all this time, yet none of us found you?”

It’s a pat answer, one no doubt supplied by the ragtag team of superheroes standing in front of her. “Peggy,” Steve says, “these things, they’ve already happened.”

But that means she and Daniel would have to make it back to 1949 without ever acting on the knowledge that Captain America is out there somewhere.

Suspended in ice.

Suspended in time.

That’s exactly what happened.

*

“So how’s this going to work?”

Startled, Bruce starts to choke on the noodles he’d just crammed into his mouth. “Water,” he croaks, spewing bits of tofu and cabbage all over his work station. Natasha’s a surprisingly good sport about it. She thumps him on the back and passes him his cup. He drinks greedily.

“Better hide that,” she says, pulling up a chair next to his stool.

“Hide what?” Bruce asks.

“Didn’t they used to play in Brooklyn?” Natasha asks, nodding at his cup, a souvenir from the Dodgers game he’d gone to with Pepper the week before.

“Right,” says Bruce, and he drains the last of the water before tossing the cup into an empty drawer. “You know, for someone who grew up in a Soviet spy factory, your knowledge of American culture is sort of impressive.”

Natasha tucks her legs beneath her. “I was taught how to blend in.”

Bruce isn’t sure what to say to that, so he rubs his hands together. “How’s this going to work,” he mutters. “This is going to work - ” his hand closes in the air “ - it’s going to work because it already has.”

“Interesting theory.”

He pulls off his glasses. “But it is,” he replies. “I guess it all boils down to how you think about time?” Her face stays expressionless. “Which maybe you don’t do very often.” Bruce blinks a couple of times. He’s been rifling through Howard’s notes for so long he’s starting to go cross-eyed. “OK, up until now, we’ve never had proof that time travel was possible, but it hasn’t stopped anyone from waxing poetic on the subject. I tend to subscribe to Novikov’s self-consistency principle.”

“Is this different from what Tony and Steve were bickering about earlier? About whether it would matter if we told Peggy about S.H.I.E.L.D. when it wasn’t founded until the 1950s.”

“Oh, was that bickering? Because I remember yelling. Slammed doors.” He smiles, but Natasha doesn’t. Bruce clears his throat. “I tend to agree with Tony, and not just because I accidentally spilled the beans. Tony mentioned the causal loop theory? Then it wouldn’t matter whose idea S.H.I.E.L.D. was. We could inspire Peggy Carter right now in present day to take the idea back to Howard Stark. It’s basically saying it doesn’t matter which came first, the chicken or the egg.”

“Says the vegan.”

“What can I say? I’m green.” Bruce cringes inwardly. “I’m sorry. That was terrible.”

Natasha touches her comms piece, tucked discreetly behind her left ear. “Try to keep in mind I have to listen to Clint day in and day out.”

Bruce swallows hard. “And how is Agent Barton?” he asks politely.

“Officially? On an unrelated mission. Top secret. Classified.”

“And unofficially?”

“Fury has him digging around an abandoned S.H.I.E.L.D. base in New Jersey for anything he can find that belonged to the husband.”

“Like, for a genetic test?” Natasha nods. “But didn’t D.C. already confirm we have Peggy, live and in the flesh?”

She shrugs. “You know Fury. He likes to be thorough.”

“So … he’s still mad.”

“Bingo.”

“What about you?” Bruce wants to know.

“What about me?”

“When are you planning to tell us why you’re here?”

Natasha shrugs. “I’m the S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison to Stark Industries. I’m always here.” She clears her throat. “So you really think the two of you will be able to send them back?”

“Change the subject, nice,” says Bruce. He blows out a puff of air. “I don’t want to say I’m confident - ”

“ - but you’re confident,” she finishes. She glances around, but they’re the only ones in the lab. “Tony isn’t.”

“Maybe it’s time we stop pretending New York didn’t do a number on Tony,” says Bruce. He quirks an eyebrow. “Is that why you’re here? Keep an eye on him? If necessary, neutralize the threat?”

“That’s not my mission,” says Natasha, “but yes.”

Bruce rubs his mouth, surprised she gave him an even somewhat-honest answer. “So what we do is try not to tell Peggy and Daniel too much about what’s coming, though it’s fine if they know a decade before everyone else the Dodgers move to Los Angeles.”

“What if it’s bigger than a box score?”

“What, like the Kennedy assassination?” Natasha nods. “Well,” says Bruce, “they don’t stop it.”

“But they might try.”

“And they won’t succeed,” says Bruce. “Nat, these things have already happened. They can put a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent on the grassy knoll if they want, and the president still gets shot.” He stops for a second to consider this. “God, I sure hope S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t accidentally kill Kennedy.”

“What about Steve?”

Bruce pretends not to know exactly what she’s asking. “What about him?”

“He’s going to want to go back with them.”

He picks up his glasses, twists a fragile arm between two fingers. If he’s busted one pair, he’s busted a hundred. “Well, he can’t. He saved thousands of lives in New York. Steve’s a soldier. He’ll understand.”

“So you’re just counting on him to do the right thing.”

Bruce stares at her. “He’s Captain America.”

“He already lost her once. He’s not going to let her go easily a second time.”

Bruce thinks of Daniel, whom he’d left upstairs poring over Howard’s drawings of prosthetic legs. “Well, he’ll have to. She’s married.”

“What if it’s Peggy who doesn’t want to go back?” He’s about to point out they know Peggy returns to 1949 because she went on to form S.H.I.E.L.D. with Howard a year later, then realizes Natasha’s asking a rhetorical question. “You heard her ask if she was supposed to believe no one went looking for Steve. You know who was obsessed with finding Steve?”

This might also be a rhetorical question, but Bruce answers anyway. “Tony’s father,” he says, biting his lower lip. He never would have guessed Peggy and Howard were all that close. “Yet he was designing prosthetics for her husband well into the ’60s,” Bruce mutters.

“What?”

“Do you think she knows?” Bruce asks. “Do you think she knows Howard Stark will go looking for Steve?”

“It’s half the reason he founded S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Bruce massages his temples. “Are you telling me,” he says, “the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. knew where to find Steve Rogers but left him in the ice so he could be thawed just in time to fight in the Battle of New York?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” says Natasha.

“Damn,” says Bruce unthinkingly, “that’s cold.”

This time, Natasha laughs.

*

“Daniel,” Peggy is saying, clearly exasperated, and Pepper freezes, not sure if she’s about to walk in on a fight, “don’t be ridiculous. We’re obviously in the - hello? Is someone there?”

Pepper forces a sunny smile as she rounds the corner, but the Sousas certainly don’t look like they’re fighting. Daniel has his left leg propped up on the coffee table, and though Peggy could have taken any other seat on the couch, she’s tucked herself in right beside her husband.

She’s still picking at her Chinese food, Pepper notices.

“Hey, Pepper,” Daniel calls, “we’re hoping you can settle a bet. Do you know if this room used to be Howard’s smoking room, or are we in the old kitchen? Because I’m pretty sure the view’s - ”

“You don’t get to plead your case!” Peggy insists, and though she’s playing along, Pepper also sees she’s inching away from Daniel, pulling her knees back so they aren’t resting in his lap.

“Actually,” says Pepper, “you’re both wrong. This was originally the west ballroom, but it wasn’t added until the ’70s. But both of your guesses were good. Whoever said kitchen was closest. It was one floor below. Of course, it’s the sauna now.”

Pepper pauses, waiting for Peggy to claim victory, but it’s Daniel who squeezes her shoulders. “You hear that?” he says triumphantly. “I was right.”

“You were closest,” Peggy corrects, nudging her husband. Pepper doubts Daniel gets the memo because his response is to grab Peggy’s knee.

Pepper drops into a chair across from them. “So it sounds like you spent a lot of time here,” she says casually. “Or should I say you do spend a lot of time here?”

“Some,” says Peggy, then she whispers something in Daniel’s ear.

His foot immediately slides off the coffee table. “Geez, Pepper, I’m sorry,” Daniel apologizes. “I don’t want you to think I come into people’s houses and put my feet all over the furniture.”

“Oh gosh,” says Pepper, waving her hand, “don’t even worry about it. Tony’s far harder on the house than any guest could ever be. Please, make yourself comfortable.” Like it sounds like you did at Howard’s. “Actually, do you need anything? Any special accommodations? Because I can - ”

She breaks off, heart pounding. She feels she’s been rude. Has she been rude?

“Mr. Jarvis used to put us on the ground floor near a bathroom,” says Peggy, clearly taking pity on Pepper. “Thank you for asking.”

“Speaking of bathrooms,” says Daniel, reaching for his crutch, “did I see one just down the hallway?”

“Third door on the right,” says Pepper automatically, sure her cheeks are still burning. Still, she can’t help but watch as he lifts himself off the couch with practiced ease, dragging himself down the hallway. She waits until she hears the door shut before she tells Peggy, “I am so sorry. Was that inappropriate?”

“I’m hardly in the habit of pretending my husband has two healthy legs, Ms. Potts,” Peggy says, though she does so with a smile. “Honestly, it’d be quite refreshing if people offered help, not platitudes. Or - this is my personal favorite - the ones who tell Daniel they’d have their leg cut off if it meant getting me as their nurse.”

Pepper gasps. “Please say that’s only happened once.”

“Enough times Daniel has asked I refrain from punching people.” Peggy begins to twist her hair back. “I wish they could see Daniel as I do. He’s warm and kind and funny. He puts up with Howard and Mr. Jarvis and only asks that I not be too reckless, which I suppose is fair. I look at him and see an excellent husband. People look at me and see a woman who settled for a man with a crutch.”

Pepper thinks she’s safe assuming Peggy’s hair had been perfectly coiffed when she arrived at Howard’s that morning. Now the other woman’s curls tumble loose over her shoulders. “Well, for what it’s worth, I think I’m a little jealous. It’s obvious how much Daniel adores you. Me, I’m lucky if Tony remembers to come up once a day from tinkering with Iron Man to eat or sleep.” She clears her throat. She hadn’t meant to make this about her. “How long have the two of you been married?” she asks brightly.

“Oh, let’s see,” says Peggy, “seven months? Since October. It is June, yes?”

“Newlyweds,” Pepper says. She’d been expecting Peggy to say a couple of years at least. “How fun.”

“We’re actually supposed to be celebrating Daniel asking last year,” Peggy continues. “It was the first weekend of summer. I told Daniel we could go to the courthouse that afternoon, if he liked. But Howard swore up and down we’d regret not having a big party. October was the earliest he could tear himself away from Monaco to attend.”

“Well, it was a beautiful ceremony,” Pepper says diplomatically. Like father, like son.

“What you said about Tony and his work,” says Peggy, “sounds rather like Howard. Is that hard for you?”

It’s a question Pepper’s asked often, but her response (“Well, Stark Industries doesn’t exactly run itself,” she always says) isn’t entirely truthful, and she doesn’t want to lie to Peggy. Pepper, fortunately, is saved by the slow click of Daniel’s crutch coming up the hallway.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take me about three minutes to figure out how to flush,” he says, a sly grin on his face.

“Daniel!” Peggy exclaims, but she’s laughing.

“Just leave it alone,” he tells his wife, grabbing the hand she’s been carding through her curls. “You have beautiful hair.” To Pepper, Daniel says, “I tell her constantly, but she never wears it down.”

“It’s unprofessional!” Peggy insists.

“You know,” says Pepper, rising to her feet, “you should listen to him. Your hair is just gorgeous.” That’s when she remembers why she’d come looking for Peggy in the first place. “Clothes! Let’s go upstairs and see if we can find you something that fits.”

“Can you keep yourself out of trouble?” Peggy asks her husband.

Daniel taps a stack of yellowed papers. “I’ve got reading material.” The kiss is quick, chaste. “I love you.”

Peggy’s cheeks are faintly pink, but she does say, “I love you, too.”

“So,” asks Pepper, once they’re out of earshot of Daniel, “do you always blush like that when your husband kisses you? Because you’re allowed to act like you’re married, you know.”

“I wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable,” Peggy replies, following Pepper up the spiral stairs. “Oh.” She clutches her stomach.

Pepper grabs Peggy’s arm. “Are you OK?”

“Fine,” Peggy says, though her hand stays splayed across her abdomen. “I fear time travel’s made me a bit queasy.”

Pepper knows a forced smile when she sees one. “It wasn’t dinner? If it wasn’t to your liking, we can order in almost - ” She stops. Peggy’s a new bride. In 1949. At the height of the baby boom.

Time travel has nothing to do with it.

“Probably nothing a good night’s sleep can’t cure,” Pepper chirps. “Let’s get you some pajamas, and I’ll show you to your room.”

*

It’s Peggy’s laugh all right, drifting out of the entryway and into the kitchen where Steve’s picking at some leftover fried rice. He’s not so much hungry as restless. He needs something to do with his hands, something to stop himself from curling them into tight fists.

Which is exactly what he’s doing with his left hand. Steve unfurls his fingers, pressing his palm to the table. But this only makes him think about the Sousas’ matching wedding bands. “Peggy Sousa,” Steve mutters under his breath. It sounds wrong. It sounds -

“Talk to me, old man.”

Tony’s voice startles Steve, who sinks a little lower in his chair. “What are you doing here?”

“My house, last time I checked,” Tony replies, taking a swig of milk straight from the carton. “Though I suppose it’s possible I inadvertently signed it over to Pepper. Either way, I live here.” He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

Steve’s the one with a line of sight to the staircase Peggy had just followed Pepper up. “Where’s - what’s Pepper want with Peggy?”

Tony brings a pint of blueberries to the table and drops into the seat opposite Steve. “Clothes?” he guesses. “It’s not like they packed overnight bags.”

“Right,” says Steve, uncomfortable. He doesn’t trust himself not to blurt Peggy hasn’t said two words to me, so he shovels another bite of Chinese food into his mouth.

“I’d ask if you could spare something the husband could wear, but I get it,” Tony continues. “You don’t like to share.”

He has to thump Steve on the back to dislodge the partially-chewed piece of chicken from the supersoldier’s windpipe. “I don’t think anything I have would fit him,” Steve manages between coughs.

Tony flicks Steve, hard, in the bicep. “Because you’re so much bigger than he is, right.”

Steve should wait until he has Natasha’s ear or even Bruce’s, someone who might actually be sympathetic. But the words come tumbling out before he can stop them. “She won’t even look at me.” Let alone speak to me. He doesn’t like Tony’s gaze on him.

“Seriously? I get that you were frozen for a long time, but something tells me even in the ’40s women didn’t appreciate it when ex-boyfriends picked fights with their new beaus.”

“I wasn’t picking a fight,” Steve insists. “I was trying to extract information.”

“For a DNA profile?” Tony quips. “Look, I don’t disagree. The guy’s a menace. You should see what he did to my shins with that crutch of his. But you have to admit, the aesthetic isn’t good, big guy like you beating up on the disabled husband. Have you considered apologizing?”

“How am I supposed to apologize if Peggy won’t talk to me?”

“Not to Peggy, to the husband. Jesus, how is it that your generation managed to save the free world?”

Steve decides it’s best to just ignore Tony’s crack. “What if I’m not sorry? What if - ”

“What if you punched a guy and liked it? Gonna let you in on a little secret, Captain Rogers. In the 21st century, you can apologize and not mean it.”

Tony’s words trigger a memory of growing up in Brooklyn, of getting caught with a streak of chocolate on his face when his mother was saving the cookies for church. “Tony,” Steve says uneasily, “that’s not how apologies work.”

“Of course it is,” says Tony, and he holds up the now-empty blueberry container. “So Pepper is going to spend ten minutes rummaging through the fridge tomorrow looking for these because she’s on this smoothie kick. I’ll saunter in, and she’ll ask if I ate the blueberries. And I’ll apologize. Not because I’m sorry. I don’t regret eating the blueberries. They were delicious. So sweet and so cold. But because I don’t want Pepper to be mad at me. She gets her apology, I get a happy girlfriend. Everybody wins. Works in all kinds of situations.”

“I don’t know, Tony. It sounds - ”

“Look,” Tony interrupts, “you’re not sorry you punched the husband. Why would you be? That’s your girl. But you are sorry you upset Peggy. So while the girls are playing dress up, go tell the husband you were out of line. It’ll get back to Peggy. Let the forgiving commence.”

Steve blows out a puff of air. “Where is he?”

“J.A.R.V.I.S., help Steve find the sitting room.”

Peggy’s husband is wearing slacks, and just when Steve was starting to get used to wearing a t-shirt and jeans, he feels underdressed. He supposes Sousa’s sleeves are rolled up, though that could be because his wrists are bandaged where he’d rubbed them raw against his restraints.

Steve clears his throat.

He’d like to say this has the effect of startling Sousa, but the other man doesn’t even look up from whatever he’s reading. “Captain Rogers,” he says evenly.

Steve decides he can do this from a distance, and leans one shoulder against the wall. “Hey,” he says, shaking his head. “I just wanted to apologize. I was out of line earlier. I’m sorry.”

Except the words must ring false because Sousa blinks and says, “No, you’re not.”

“I’m not?” This is what you get for taking Tony’s advice.

“You’re not sorry your fist found my face,” Sousa continues. “You’re only sorry Peggy found out. So I’ll pass along your apology. But you should know - ” and his tone suggests this is something Steve should already know, not helpful advice “ - Peg doesn’t like it when messages for her are sent through her husband.”

Steve crosses his arms. “You mean through you.”

“I am her husband,” Sousa points out.

He’d sworn up and down he wouldn’t ask, that he didn’t want to know, and yet the next words out of Steve’s mouth are, “How long?”

“How long have we been married? Seven months.” Sousa rests the stack of papers on his lap. “But that’s not what you’re asking, is it? You want to know how long it took her to move on.”

Steve bows his head. Sousa’s not wrong. “You’re her boss?”

“Wasn’t always. We both started as agents in the New York office. I took a promotion, moved out to California. Needed help on a case.”

“Let me guess,” says Steve, lifting his chin. Sousa’s clenching his jaw. “You requested Peg.”

Sousa reaches for his crutch. “Sorry to burst your bubble,” he says, grimacing ever-so-slightly as he rises from the couch, “but she came out on her own volition. Stayed, too.” Sousa’s hand skims his undoubtedly bruised ribs. “I’m going to call it a night.”

“Ms. Carter is already in your room, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. pipes. “Would you like me to show you the way?”

Steve wishes he could take back what he says next immediately. “You’re bunking with Peg.”

Sousa’s crutch stops mid-swing. “Yeah,” he says. “I’m going to go share a bed with my wife. Is that why you’re here? You want me to apologize for marrying Peggy Carter? OK, Steve. I’m sorry. How’s that for a non-apology? And here I thought Captain America was the kind of guy who’d want her to be happy.”

Steve shifts his weight so he’s blocking the doorway. “Peggy Carter,” he says. “Not Sousa?”

“She’s wearing my ring,” Sousa retorts. “I don’t lose a lot of sleep worrying about what she calls herself.  Now can you move? It’s been kind of a long day, what with the time travel and all.”

Steve steps out of Sousa’s way. He can’t help himself. He waits until the other man’s halfway down the hall before calling, “Did you mean it? When you said you served with the 35th?”

Sousa stops, resting his weight on the crutch. “What can I say, Cap? You saved the guy who’d go on to marry your girl. Except she’s not your girl. Heck, she’s not even my girl. Peggy’s always been her own woman. I could see why that would bother you, knowing this was no one’s choice but Peg’s.”

Steve watches Sousa’s retreat, the drag of his bad leg, catches his muttered retort. “You know what I’m sorry for? I’m sorry I squandered Captain America’s rescue by taking a Kraut bullet to the thigh a day later.”

He actually sounds sincere.

*

She’s far too wound up to read, but Peggy goes through the motions of picking out a book from Tony’s library anyway. There’s a whole shelf of Agatha Christie novels - Daniel complains she ignores him whenever a new one comes out - and Peggy selects a battered copy of “They Do It With Mirrors.”

There’s something deeply unsettling about seeing her own name written on the bookplate above a copyright date some three years in the future.

“What is it?” Pepper asks.

“Nothing,” says Peggy, forcing a smile. She drops the novel atop the stack of clothes for her and Daniel, wondering how the book came to be in the Stark collection in the first place. Had she left it inadvertently at Howard’s one summer? Or had she bought this book specifically so she would have reading material tonight? “I guess I’ll read it before everyone else.”

“Would you like me to have J.A.R.V.I.S. summon Mr. Sousa?” Pepper asks.

“Oh, that really won’t be - ” Peggy starts before remembering it’s not her dear friend, Howard’s butler, but the strange, disembodied voice that apparently replaced him. “That would be lovely, Pepper. My feet are killing me.”

“J.A.R.V.I.S., would you tell Mr. Sousa his wife is headed to bed?”

“Of course, Ms. Potts.”

“If you need anything in the night,” says Pepper, ushering Peggy into a bedroom so large and well-appointed it makes their accommodations in 1949 Malibu look paltry by comparison, “just ask J.A.R.V.I.S. He can direct you to extra pillows, any toiletries you may need. He can change the temperature if it’s too cold or too hot.”

“Bring you a cup of tea,” J.A.R.V.I.S. offers, and Peggy has to swallow the lump in her throat thinking of the real Jarvis, who always catches her out of bed when she can’t sleep. She hasn’t worked up the courage to ask about him. He can’t possibly still be living. Why, he’d be 101.

“I’m sure Daniel and I will manage,” Peggy says. “Thank you, Pepper, truly. You’ve been so kind.”

“Me?” Pepper’s hand goes to her chest. “What about you, Peggy? You’re incredible. If it were me, I’d be impossibly freaked out.”

“But it’s not just me,” Peggy points out. “I have Daniel.”

She’s largely broken herself of dropping clothes wherever she undresses - her husband might find her unmentionables less sexy if one day he slipped and fell because of them - but tonight she doesn’t notice the trail she’s left behind until she’s already in the shower. Peggy sighs, too tired to care. She hears the click of Daniel’s crutch as the door opens and figures she better get on with it.

“Peg?” he calls over the running water.

“In the shower, Daniel,” she replies, willing the dull ache in her lower back to go away. Part of her thinks she should just invite him in, settle it already. It’s not like fight they’d had that morning - God, how long ago it feels now - hadn’t been brewing for quite some time. Perhaps that’s why Peggy would rather not have this conversation with blood in her hair.

She wraps herself in a fluffy white towel and stands there, hair dripping onto the tiles, as Daniel paces on the other side of the door. His worried walk. She hates being the cause of it.

“Peggy,” she hears him say.

There’s no point in dressing. She’s in need of physical comfort and suspects he is, too, so she opens the door, holding the towel up with one hand. She watches his Adam’s apple bob.

Daniel’s tongue flicks across his lower lip. “I don’t suppose,” he asks, “you’d be willing to bend the rules this once?”

It takes her a second to realize he means her admonishment that morning they wouldn’t be having sex at Howard’s. “Technically,” says Peggy, though she does scan the room very quickly for a portrait of the eccentric billionaire, “this house is no longer Howard’s.”

Then he’s sweeping her into a rough kiss, one that surely hurts his fat lip. Peggy stops worrying about holding the towel up, though they’re pressed so close it stays wrapped around her for the time being. His crutch clatters to the floor, but Peggy’s confident they’ll make it to the bed.

They always do.

Daniel grabs her by the hips, thumbs pressing hard enough to leave bruises. Peggy’s fine with rough. If he wants to take her apart, she’ll let him. She steers them backwards without breaking the kiss, asking him to trust her to get them somewhere good. He lands with a soft plop on the mattress.

“What if I’d tripped?” he asks breathlessly as she lets the cumbersome towel fall to the floor. Her breasts sway as she climbs into his lap. “What if - ”

He groans into the kiss, hips rising to meet hers as she grinds against his erection. She lets her teeth scrape his lower lip as she draws back. She loves how this makes him wrap her more tightly in his arms, like he can’t bear the thought of her wiggling away even an inch. She cups his face in her hands. “Daniel,” she scolds, “can’t you see I’m trying to undress you?”

“Sorry, Peg,” he mutters, hands sliding to the small of her back as she nimbly undoes the row of buttons and pushes the shirt off his shoulders. Her hands hover at his belt when she notices him staring hungrily at her pert nipples. She laughs.

“Oh, what do you think?” Peggy says, and she clasps the back of his head for good measure, forcing his mouth lower. Her other hand untucks his undershirt, fingers curling at his waistband. She considers teasing him, letting her knuckles skim the length of him until he’s spluttering, but it’s not the night for that. She pops the button and unzips Daniel’s fly.

Then hisses when he nips a little too hard at her breast. “Sorry, sorry,” he stammers, dropping a kiss instead. “Better?”

“Much,” says Peggy, though the sting hasn’t quite subsided. She’s not sure why her breasts are so tender. Usually she’s happy to let Daniel bite to his heart’s content. She gasps as he sucks her other nipple into his mouth.

Which reminds Peggy, she has business to attend to. She reaches for Daniel’s dick, palm sliding over his foreskin. Her husband shudders, but he doesn’t stop suckling her breast. “You’re still wearing too many clothes,” she informs him, and she starts to slide off his lap.

Daniel doesn’t like this, and he hooks an arm around her waist. His voice is husky. “D’you have any idea how lucky I feel when I get to do this with you?”

She uses her thumb to wipe a trail of spittle from his chin. He reddens. “I love you, Daniel, but we really must get you out of those pants.”

“Love you, too, Peg,” he mutters, and it occurs to her they hadn’t bothered to turn off the lights. Now she’s the one who blushes.

“Should I - ” she mimes flipping a switch.

Shockingly, the lights dim of their own accord. Peggy’s eyes widen, but there’s Daniel to keep her grounded. “Relax,” he whispers, and his lips tickle, “it’s just - ”

She squeezes her eyes shut. “Don’t say his name,” she says. The very real possibility of Jarvis interrupting is, truth be told, the actual reason she won’t have sex at Howard’s.

Peggy holds out her arm so her husband can shimmy out of his pants. She’d usually help him with his prosthesis, but she imagines after a day like today, so many people poking and prodding his stump, she should let him doff his leg himself. She slides behind him, impatient, pressing distracting kisses along his neck as he unlaces his prosthesis. She can think of better uses for those fingers, wonderfully blunt, slightly calloused from gripping his crutch.

It’s not long before she gets her wish. He pushes her back against the pillows, crooking one finger inside her, then two, her thighs quivering with the slow slide of his thumb over her clit. “Daniel,” she says firmly, “is your plan to tease me? Oh.” Her back arches off the mattress, ache forgotten. She supposes it would be OK if he only wanted to do this. She murmurs contentedly as her legs fall open still further. He slips a third finger into her slick folds.

But she finds herself wanting still more, so she gives his right hip a little push. “On your back,” Peggy orders, grabbing his cock. It’s not until he’s fully seated within her that she wonders if they should have checked the drawers for paper packets. She freezes. What’s to say condoms are still the preferred form of birth control in 2012? Not that they’ve had much use for rubbers since they got married.

Oh well. Too late for contraception now.

“Peg,” Daniel grits beneath her, “don’t feel like you have to - ”

She silences him with a quick kiss, breasts bouncing as she sets a punishing pace. Peggy’s content to do the work, to ride him, but she senses Daniel’s craving more to do. She pulls off him with a slick pop. “Peg - ”

“I want you behind me,” she tells him, flopping onto her left side. A moment later he’s slotting himself back inside. They end up in this position more often than not. It’s easy on his bad leg, and she loves the skin-on-skin contact, how he pins her to his chest.

“I can’t kiss you,” he complains, breath ghosting her ear.

“Not on the mouth, no,” Peggy agrees, “but surely you can find somewhere else to kiss.”

He settles on the sensitive flesh of her neck, cupping one of her breasts in his hand. But Peggy finds her nipples are still unusually tender, so she drags his hand down to the juncture of her thighs. Oh, that’s better. His fingers circle her clit, until every shallow thrust feels like a promise.

Peggy cries out. She feels Daniel start to draw back, but before he can, she’s reached back, grabbing his hip. “Stay inside me,” she urges.

Daniel nips at her earlobe. “If the lady insists,” he murmurs.

“She most certainly does,” Peggy says, biting her lip as she rides out the aftershocks. She feels his hand creep up to her stomach, where she covers it with her own. He finishes with a groan but doesn’t try to pull away this time. They lie there, breathing heavily, until Daniel’s soft and fluids begin to leak onto her thighs.

“I think we made a mess,” he says, withdrawing from her with a shaky laugh. But before he can scoot away, she traps him with one of her legs.

“We need to talk, Daniel.”

She feels his muscles tense. “OK.”

Peggy rolls over in his arms. “About earlier - ”

“Listen, Peg - ”

“The stunt I pulled with the Zero Matter is probably what got us into this whole mess in the first place,” she says bluntly. “I should have let go of the containment case the first time you asked. You’re my husband. You’re allowed to be concerned for my well-being.”

He’s slid his hand down to the ugly scar she’d gotten at Roxxon. “I still shouldn’t have pulled rank on you,” he mumbles. Now he spreads his fingers over her belly. “It’s always been hard for me to see you in any kind of danger, and it’s only going to get harder now that I know you give me two beautiful children.”

They haven’t talked about it, apart from their wedding night. Even then it wasn’t so much a conversation: he’d started to reach for a condom, and she’d pushed the drawer shut. To do so had been terrifying, given their history. But Peggy had wanted to give Daniel a family.

You still do, she reminds herself.

“ - poor kid,” Daniel is saying, “getting stuck with my ears.” He chuckles. But then the smile slides off his face. “Peg, are you listening?”

Her heart begins to beat very fast. “Of course I’m listening,” she lies. “Your ears, go on.”

“You’re not excited,” he says flatly.

“No, no,” says Peggy, “it’s not - I’m just - ”

But Daniel’s already withdrawn his hand. “Forgot,” he says gruffly, “I’m only the consolation prize.”

“Daniel - ”

“No, I get it,” he interrupts, swinging his leg over the edge of the bed. He digs around in the pile of clothes on the floor for his underwear. “He’s the love of your life.”

Peggy closes her eyes. “I married you, Daniel,” she reminds him, and she grabs his wrist to tug him back when he tries to stand. His crutch is still across the room. “Really? Do you want to fall and wake the whole house?”

“No,” he agrees, “can’t have that. Captain America might rush in and realize you actually have sex with the cripple.”

Peggy dutifully retrieves his crutch, though it takes considerable restraint not to whack him with it. She lets him snatch it from her. “We made vows, Daniel,” she reminds him as he hobbles into the bathroom. “Frankly, I’m offended you think I’ve forgotten them.” She plucks the still-damp towel off the floor. Daniel’s gripping the edge of the sink for balance, head bowed. She watches him shake his head in the mirror.

“I feel like I’m losing you, Peg,” he mumbles. “I feel like I’ve already lost you. What can I possibly give you that he can’t?”

She slides her hand down his bicep, resting it on his elbow. “Well, I believe you said something about two beautiful children.” Peggy swallows the lump in her throat. “Daniel, I won’t lie to you. It’s been jarring to see Steve again, but only because I thought that chapter of my life had ended. Not because I don’t love you.” Her other arm wraps around her husband’s chest, and she presses her cheek to his back. “Can you believe me when I say you make me so happy?”

“He’s a superhero, Peggy. An honest-to-God superhero. I can barely walk. I sure as hell can’t do what he did on the battlefield.” Daniel gulps. “Forget the bedroom.”

Peggy can’t help it. She laughs.

Daniel shrugs her off. “Real nice, Peg,” he mutters, and he leans against the sink. “Way to - ”

“Daniel, I’m going to assume you never had sex in a tent on the European front,” Peggy says, “because if you had, then you’d know you didn’t miss much. Steve was a 26-year-old virgin who barely knew his own body. He’d never even seen a woman naked before.”

Her husband exhales slowly. “Peg, you don’t have to lie to make me feel better.”

She wraps her arms around his waist. “But I’m not lying, my darling. You take such good care of me. You’re a wonderful husband and an excellent lover.” She strokes his cheek. “I absolutely want to have a baby with your ears because you’ll be a terrific father.”

Peggy watches some of the tension start to melt off his shoulders. “Be careful what you wish for,” he tells her.

“I like your ears!”

Daniel kisses her temple. “I suppose you want to get cleaned up a bit?”

Peggy nods, releasing him. Her thighs are starting to feel tacky beneath the towel. She cleans up with a washcloth, hesitating before throwing it in the hamper. Another good reason not to have sex at Howard’s - how on earth do you hide the evidence? Not that Jarvis hasn’t seen worse, but it would make her very uncomfortable, indeed. She hears Daniel moving around in the bedroom as she pulls on one of Pepper’s t-shirts and a pair of cotton panties. Peggy catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and snorts. She’s built much differently than Tony’s girlfriend, and her breasts strain the thin, grey fabric. Her hair’s tangled. Daniel’s left a hickey on her neck. She looks utterly wrecked.

She smiles.

It’s only when she leaves the bathroom that she notices the six paintings of Iron Man opposite the bed, identical but for the different garish colors. Hastily, Peggy calls, “J.A.R.V.I.S., hit the lights.”

“As you wish, Ms. Carter.”

She crawls into bed next to her husband, careful to avoid the wet spot. Her head drops to his chest. He’s found one of Bruce’s shirts, but Peggy thinks he still smells like the California they left, not the strange one they’d reached. The room is silent, still, until finally her husband says, “There’s no one in the world I’d rather get sucked into the future with than you, Peg.”

She lifts her head off his chest. “Was that you trying to be romantic, Chief Sousa?”

“No shop talk,” comes his sleepy reply.

There it is again, the unsettled feeling deep in her belly. She tries to focus on Daniel, on the small, comforting circles he’s rubbing on her back, but sleep is a long time coming.