You should know something going in: This is not a love story.
It started in London in 1940. Peggy Carter was a specialist with the new SSR division and Howard Stark was a brash American who looked like a movie star and acted like some big shot, all flash and zazz.
His presentation to the military brass made her roll her eyes; his demonstration of the new weaponry to be used against the Nazis made her chest hurt for the possibilities, her hands ache to hold one of her very own.
She'd sought Stark out after the presentation, half-expecting him to brush her off as some dizzy dame (wasn't that they called useless women in America?), but he'd just sized her up with a glance, loaded the chamber with the over-large bullets, and placed the gun in her hands.
The kickback nearly put her on her back, but she hit the target clean, blowing a hole in the sand wall nearly the size of a dinner plate.
The sheer exhilaration pulled a laugh from her throat, at the possibility of pure destruction, and she saw Howard grinning at her like he knew exactly what she felt.
All things considered, it wasn't surprising they ended up in bed. The War had changed things in the social order. It wasn't the first time Peggy had taken a man to her bed, knowing she'd never see him again, and it wouldn't be the last. But she knew from the first moment she'd spoken to him that Howard was the same sort of person, and neither of them minded.
He was, however, one of the most considerate lovers she'd ever had.
The next morning, he was on his way out of London and she was back at work as if it had never happened.
Only he didn't disappear out of her life after all.
One year later in New York, Peggy faced Howard Stark across the table as Professor Erskine described his mad Super Soldier scheme. And of course Howard Stark was the only man who could build the equipment Erskine needed.
Peggy stayed behind when the rest of the military men departed, leaving Erskine and Howard to discuss plans and blueprints and materials. She didn't understand how this plan could possibly work, but she stayed and she listened, she got them coffee when they started to flag, and she very tactfully didn't point out how insane this all sounded.
She'd lived through the dreadful toll the Nazis were wreaking across Europe. Any plan, no matter how insane, was better than nothing.
New York wasn't like London; Peggy couldn't exactly bring a man back to her room in the boarding house, but if she and Howard grabbed a few minutes in the back room here and there, that was nobody's business but theirs.
She suspected that Erskine knew, but he never said anything.
Eventually, Howard was pulled back into his company, working to prepare for the upcoming Expo (on a flying car of all things; Howard was never happy unless he was flying) and Peggy was transferred into the subject preparation portion of the Super Soldier experiment.
She didn't see Howard for a long time, and she was fine with that. Sure, he was pleasant on the eyes and rather creative in bed. But he was only a distraction to her, as she was to him. It was just the way things were.
So Peggy went off to Camp Lehigh and got on with the mission.
And that's where Peggy met Steve Rogers.
Steve was a puzzle Peggy couldn't decipher. The majority of men were embarrassingly easy to read; Steve kept surprising her. Most short men were abrasive and aggressive as if that could make up for their height; Steve was unfailingly polite yet firm, never giving up or giving in. It took Peggy a long time to realize that Steve was always challenging himself and everyone around him to a higher standard, and that he meant it when he said he hated bullies.
She knew what Erskine saw in Steve, because she saw it too.
She just never expected the Super Soldier experiment to work.
That day was the first time she'd seen Howard in months and it barely registered. Not that it mattered; he was so intent on his machines that she doubted he even knew she was in the room.
Steve got into the machine.
Howard turned the dial.
The screaming began.
They opened the machine and Steve Rogers stepped out a changed man.
Peggy and Howard exchanged an incredulous look, because honestly, but then the HYDRA infiltrator shot Erskine and everything went crazy.
They sent Peggy back to Europe. She kept up on Steve's activities through the papers that made their way slowly down the line. But in reality, HYDRA was a more pressing problem. It was war, one that Peggy feared they were going to lose.
Howard drifted in and out of her life, making weapons and armor for the SSR to use, but it wasn't enough. Everyone knew it.
Then Steve Rogers made his way to Europe headlining a bloody USO show, found out his best friend was missing in action, and somehow managed to convince Howard to fly him behind enemy lines on an impossible rescue mission.
It was exactly the sort of insanity Howard relished and Peggy found herself along for the ride, her heart in her throat as Steve got ready, as Howard threw out remark after remark until Steve caught something, realized that the familiar camaraderie between Howard and Peggy wasn't quite so innocent after all, but then he smiled at her and flung himself out of the airplane behind enemy lines.
Peggy was going to kill Howard.
Impossibly, Steve made it back, bringing the wounded soldiers with him.
Now, they had HYDRA weapons. Howard took them apart, rebuilt them from the ground up, giving the Allies a fighting chance.
Steve Rogers gave them all something to fight for.
And Peggy fell in love.
She hadn't want to, but her infatuation with Steve Rogers grew and snaked its way into her heart and it wasn't fair.
She should have known it would end the way it did.
Steve stopped the weapons headed for America, killed Schmidt, and managed one last radio call to tell them the Tesseract had fallen into the ocean, that he couldn't stop the plane and was going to crash it into the water.
Peggy got to say goodbye to the man she loved. It was more than most women got.
The War grew worse, both in Europe and in the Pacific. Howard went back to America, a quick squeeze on her shoulder and a whisper to say he was working on something called the Manhattan Project to harness atomic energy.
HYDRA might be momentarily headless, but Hitler was still in ascendance and the final push began.
It was war. Peggy saw things, did things, that made her question everything she thought she believed in. She tried not to think too much about what they had to do, what she had to do, to win the war against the Nazis and the Axis.
Somehow, the Allies pushed through to victory in Europe.
The Americans dropped two atomic bombs in Japan.
The newspapers said they'd won.
Peggy left England in December of 1945, having been permanently assigned to SSR's successor, SHIELD, in America. She moved into a tiny flat by herself, lived with rationing, pretended she was just like everyone else trying to put their lives back together after years of war.
Howard showed up on her doorstep in March of the following year and stayed for a week. He didn't talk much. That was just fine with Peggy. She didn't feel like listening.
They were lying in bed one night, Howard's head on her stomach, drawing circles on her skin with the tips of his fingers. She had her hand in his hair, wishing that life could be this simple, that she could just marry Howard, not because she loved him, but because she could stop thinking and be done.
"D'you know what I think sometimes?" Howard asked into the quiet air.
"I think Steve was the lucky one."
His voice didn't crack, didn't waver, but Peggy could hear the pain lurking under his words.
She took his hand in hers, kissed his fingers one by one. "Me too."
The dead had their escape from war. The living never did.
She didn't see Howard for years, but there was much for a young woman with her background to do with SHIELD. She spent years gathering intelligence, in Europe and America and Asia. The war was over, but that just meant things had become so much more dangerous.
They called it a cold war, and that was what it felt like – a never-ending walk through the coldest of winters.
Rumors began to creep into SHIELD's hearing of the Soviets' ultimate weapon, a Winter Soldier, the man they would send in when everyone else failed. But the rumors were less substantial than a spider's web; no photographs or evidence surfaced. All they had were empty spaces where human beings used to be.
Peggy supposed she would have kept up the life of espionage until she died a bloody death at the hands of the enemy, but for one thing:
In 1949, Howard Stark pulled the Tesseract out of the ocean.
By now, Peggy had enough experience with SHIELD to know how to get things done – she simply walked into the SHIELD lab where Howard was working on the Tesseract and didn't leave.
They needed a project supervisor with Level Seven security clearance and the ability to never take ‘no' for an answer. The head of SHIELD was happy enough when he realized he had someone who could handle Howard Stark. Peggy suspected the man knew about the affair between her and Howard and planned to use it to his advantage one day.
Fine. Peggy had enough information about the man's sexual proclivities towards a certain class of prostitute to destroy him politically if it ever came to that.
Howard didn't care about any of it. All that mattered to him was the Tesseract, learning how it worked, what he could make it do.
He had a team of five, all good and brilliant men, and they worked together night and day on the Tesseract for three months before everything went terribly wrong.
Dr. Stoddard and Dr. Bane were in the shielded experiment room, door wide open, with the Tesseract on the table outside of its protective casing. Howard and Dr. Sloan were together with Dr. Templeton in the outer room, arguing about electricity and output. Peggy stood in the doorway to the Tesseract shield room, finishing her daily equipment audit, preparing for the hourly power analysis and wishing desperately for a cup of tea, when the room flashed bright blue and the screaming began.
She dropped her clipboard, looking into the shielded room just in time to see the Tesseract throw off blue loops of energy. One of loops hit Dr. Bane in the chest, and the man dissolved into ash.
Dr. Stoddard fell to the ground, unconscious or worse, and the Tesseract kept flashing.
Peggy didn't think, she just reacted. "Close the door!" she shouted at Howard, ten steps behind her. She ran for the Tesseract, remembering that it had killed Schmidt in the war, had just killed at least one of her colleague, could kill so many others if she didn't stop it.
The shield room door slamming was the loudest thing she had ever heard.
She knew the Tesseract would kill her, and she didn't care. If this was to be her death, at least let her actions save the lives of others.
This must have been how Steve felt, at the end.
Peggy's hand closed on the Tesseract, its cool edges sharp against her skin. She picked it up, waves of blue energy pulsing over and through her body like quicksilver.
She put the Tesseract back into its protective container. With one final pulse, the cube subsided, and went quiet.
She closed the lid and only then did she let herself collapse in the horrible stillness.
Her heart beat irregularly in her chest, pounding out a deep staccato; her ears roared with the silence. Peggy ignored the empty words the doctors mouthed at her, the empty touch of their hands on her as they guided her into the infirmary.
Halfway across the floor, the whispers began.
Snatches at first, half-heard words on a quicksilver breeze, darting around just out of reach.
The incomprehensible whispers drowned out all other noise in Peggy's head, louder and louder, until all she could do was curl up under the blanket and scream at the voices to stop, just stop, until her throat was raw, until the doctors held her down, until they injected something into her arm that both burned and froze as it spread through her veins, dragging her into unconsciousness.
The whispers followed her down.
When she woke, the whispers had retreated and she could hear once more.
She didn't care. She didn't feel anything. Not grief at Dr. Bane's death, not fear that she might soon follow suit.
All she felt was hollow.
Eventually, she realized Howard was in the room with her. He sat on a chair at her side, and she didn't know how long he had been there.
"What happens now?" Peggy asked after a very long time, throat raw.
Carefully, Howard took her hand. His touch was almost too hot. "We wait. Something else might.... they're not sure what might else happen to you."
Peggy swallowed. "What about you? You were exposed too."
"Not as much as you were." Howard's grip on her hand tightened. "Peggy... I had to close that door."
She blinked at him, feeling a faint echo of surprise from somewhere deep in her head. "Of course you did."
"Some of the agents think I should have pushed you out of the way and gone in after the Tesseract myself."
Peggy stared at him. "I was closer than you were. We'd have lost seconds, people could have died, we had no way of knowing what a delay might have done."
And in his expression, she saw that he did; he'd had the option to do the noble thing to save her and risk millions of lives. But he had chosen not to.
That was the man he'd become.
Peggy squeezed Howard's hand. "If you ever do something as stupid as that," she said, "I will personally bring you back from the dead and kill you all over again."
Howard barked out a laugh, short and shocked and not much better than crying.
Sometimes, Peggy thought it was good that Howard had her around, because she was certain that no one else understood the practicality of this man.
Dr. Stoddard woke up after a week and didn't say anything. Three days later, they found him on the floor of the infirmary; he'd sliced through the artery in his wrist and bled out in under five minutes.
The Tesseract remained dormant. No one knew what had happened. They likely never would.
SHIELD shelved the Tesseract project.
Howard went back to Stark Industries, began to build weapons to support America and their allies in the Cold War.
Peggy returned to her life of espionage.
She didn't get any older.