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Faith and Trust

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"I'm gonna need a rain check on that dance," Steve says.

How dare he. How dare he. Peggy takes a fraction of a second to be unbearably angry at him. To have him ask her this, when they both know-- She lets the anger go as fast as it comes, because that's not how she wants to remember him. That's not how she wants to remember this moment.

"All right," she replies, and hates how her voice sounds. She swallows to try and get rid of the lump in her throat. "A week, next Saturday, at the Stork Club."

"You got it."

"Eight o'clock on the dot, and don't you dare be late." Peggy takes a small breath and tries to hold onto her faith, her trust in this man. If anyone could pull off a miracle, Steve could. "Understood?" she asks, trying to turn it into a sharp command and falling a little short.

"You know, I still don't know how to dance."

Peggy closes her eyes and tries to pretend. This is a perfectly normal conversation, Steve smiling at her self-deprecatingly and trying to give her an out that she doesn't want. Her lips quirk into a small smile.

"I'll show you how." She'll teach him any dance he wants to know, spend as much time with him until he gets them right. "Just be there."

"We'll have the band play something slow. I'd hate to step on your--"

The radio cuts out with a crackle, and Peggy isn't sure that she can pretend anymore.

"Steve?" she tries, her voice wobbling. Her eyes are hot and stinging, but she does her best to open them. The small lettering on the controls is blurry in her vision, so she fists her hands in her pants to keep from trying to fiddle with the radio for a clearer connection.

"Steve?" she asks again, because with the interference it's possible that he didn't hear her the first time. But he doesn't reply, and Peggy feels that vague, impossible hope start to die.

"Steve?" she tries once more, and this time she can hear her tears in her voice. She closes her eyes and puts her hands over her mouth, trying to muffle the harsh, wet sounds coming from her throat.

For a few minutes, all she does is breathe. In through her mouth, out through her nose. Peggy lets her mind blank, tries to think of nothing, and refuses to let the tears clinging to her eyelashes fall.

She stands, braces her hands on the equipment and takes a deep breath. This is no time for crying. She swipes her fingers over her eyes as carefully as possible to avoid smudging her makeup, and then strides to the door.

Colonel Phillips and Jim Morita stand together towards the end of the hall, and while she does appreciate the gesture, there is work to be done.

"Agent Carter," Phillips starts, and he looks as uncertain as she's ever seen him, while Jim Morita takes off his hat and tips his head in her direction.

"Colonel Phillips." Her voice is a marked difference from before. It's Agent Carter's voice, clear as a bell and belonging to a woman who brooks no nonsense. "I believe we have a war to win."

◊◊◊

Next Saturday, Peggy starts getting ready at five. Instead of her regular pin curls, she takes her time and sweeps her hair into beautiful victory rolls. She paints her fingernails to match her dress and carefully applies her face powder, eye makeup and lipstick. She steps into the red dress she had worn when going to find Steve at that pub in London and makes sure the collar is lying flat.

Opening her small red clutch purse, she takes out her watch and necklace and puts them on. She slides her feet into her heels and does a turn in front of the small mirror. The only thing missing is her stockings, so she packs up her things, turns off the lights and locks her door.

Private Emma Lorraine isn't surprised when she comes knocking, opening her door and letting Peggy inside without much fanfare. Long before Steve had been a part of the SSR, they had been good acquaintances, if not friends.

"Stockings, right?" Emma asks rhetorically. "Let me go find my eye pencil."

Peggy places her clutch on a side table and hikes her dress up to give Emma plenty of room to work.

"Straight to business, I see," she says when she comes back, dropping to kneel on the floor. Peggy feels the pressure of the eye pencil at her right ankle and stands as still as possible to make sure her stockings don't come out crooked. "Where are you going tonight, Agent Carter?"

It's not an unusual question, coming from Emma. She loves gossip, although she is remarkable at being able to keep things to herself.

"I have a date," Peggy says finally, just as Emma finishes her left leg.

Emma raises an eyebrow, before her face clears in recognition. "Good luck then, Peggy."

Outside on the street, Peggy sees at least five taxis waiting at the curb, and gives into temptation. She doesn't much feel like walking. It already seems as if it's taking all of her strength to move towards something that will only end in disappointment.

"3 East 53rd Street," she tells the driver as she climbs into the back of one of the cars.

"The Stork Club? I know it."

They arrive at the Stork Club at half past seven, so Peggy tips the driver and heads inside, her gut churning with anticipation. It's such a silly thing, to think that he'll come. She's not delusional, she knows what happened. But there's a small part of her that still has faith. That says maybe. Maybe there's a chance.

By the time her watch ticks over to eight o'clock, Peggy has seen all of the remaining Commandos. They have not come to speak to her, flitting around the edges of the club in their dress uniforms and presumably drinking to excess. At first, she had been angry, disliking the fact they felt the need to come watch over her and hating the knowledge that Morita had to have been listening to her conversation with Steve.

But while she simmers in her seat, she starts to think that this isn't about her at all. Arguably, the Commandos have even more reason to miss Steve than she does. Maybe they're here to hope for a miracle, just as she is. And if she's being fair, she knows that Morita and Phillips couldn't have gone far. They had been giving her the illusion of privacy only, and she understands the reasons behind it.

When the clock ticks over to half past nine, Peggy rises from her seat and walks toward Falsworth. By the time she reaches him, the other Commandos have inched their way closer to be within hearing distance, so she raises her voice to address all of them.

"Gentlemen. Would you care to join me for a toast?"

They claim a table and toast to the Captain, to Sergeant Barnes and to other good soldiers lost in this war. They are rough around the edges, but they are good men, and they have never shown her the slightest bit of disrespect.

A fair amount of time and drinks later, Peggy is feeling a little looser and a great deal more melancholy. She is aware more than ever that Steve will not be coming in through the door of the Stork Club.

Steve made his choice. And all things considered, it was probably the right one. (She had known Steve was a better person than she was, but his last grand hurrah only proved it.) He had died fighting for what he believed in, and now Peggy can do no less.

So Margaret Agatha Carter straightens her spine, reapplies her lipstick and marches back to war.

◊◊◊

Senator Brandt is the one most visibly upset with the loss of Captain America. As the one to have supported Dr. Erskine and Colonel Phillips, he had been cashing in as much as he could with Steve's successes, and now he puts on a pretty show about having lost his 'personal friend'.

Peggy wants to punch him.

The Howling Commandos should be the ones most upset, but they, like her, throw themselves back into the war with a brand new fury instead of sitting around whinging about their losses. They close ranks around her, asking if she would be willing to join their unit. She agrees.

While she still does intelligence work, she runs out on missions more frequently, pushing herself harder and becoming faster, quicker, sharper. She does things she would never have expected of herself, things that make her question her own morality. (There is never a time for her to sit and really regret about what she knows is happening, and she's not sure if she's thankful for that or not.)

The end of the war is looming, though who the victory will belong to remains unclear. This is no time to become complacent, but it's become more common for Peggy to overhear conversations about the future, about plans for after the war.

It's a topic that troubles her, because Peggy is far less certain about what she's going to do next.

Her original plan (before Erskine and Stark and a brave, stupid man stumbling into her life) was to go home to her mother, and hope that her brothers made it home as well. If one of her brothers made it home, they would inherit the house, but there was a possibility, however slight, that the house would've become hers, and tie her down to England. There is no doubt in her mind that her mother would have encouraged her to step further away from the war and find a husband, which she probably would have done, more out of familial obligation than actual desire.

Peggy isn't sure she could stomach home now, though. She's not ready to stop moving and start thinking about what she's lost to this war.

◊◊◊

Fortunately, she never has voice her uncertainty about the future, because Jones brings it up first.

"Stay with the SSR," Dugan says easily, shifting his large cigar to the other side of his mouth. "I'm going to. Just because the war's ending, doesn't mean there won't be work to do."

Dernier shakes his head, then says something in rapid French. Peggy only catches a few words, but understands enough to guess that he'll be returning to his family. Jones only confirms it with his translation.

Morita and Falsworth look thoughtful, though.

"Are you going to, Carter?" Falsworth asks, his eyebrows furrowed.

Peggy would, if she was sure the SSR wouldn't be disbanded. Despite their general success in taking down HYRDA, and the creation of Captain America, keeping the SSR funded has not been an easy battle. She expects that without the war, the support of Senator Brandt will disappear, as will the men whose strings he had pulled. There is no one with the desire and funds to support them, except...

"I don't think the SSR will continue in operation," Peggy says candidly, warming to her own thought. "But that's not to say I don't think it's a good idea."

"You've got an plan," Dugan rumbles approvingly.

"I have an idea," Peggy corrects. "And I will be sure to inform you as soon as possible about a plan."

◊◊◊

She talks to Emma first. There is no point in forming a new organization if the SSR isn't going to be disbanded. But Emma only confirms her own thoughts, that Brandt is already pulling back, and the only reason they are still in operation is because of Stark's support. While he still designs and builds weapons for all branches of the military, he has seemed to attach himself to the SSR, and the United States is loathe to upset him and loose his unprompted genius.

Well. That's just who she had planned on visiting next.

Peggy talks to Howard and finds him agreeable. While Howard has plans of his own for after the war, he admits that he would feel much safer if the SSR would continue in operation. While Steve killed Schmidt, and HYDRA is largely destroyed, there are still pockets of soldiers with weapons of incredible power running around.

"It's infuriating," Howard says, jabbing a finger at one of the stolen HYDRA weapons at his worktable. "I can understand how Zola put all of these components together, disassemble it down to it's pieces and use those pieces to build a new, functioning weapon, but I still don't understand what's powering it. How can it incinerate a person in one shot, but then not blow a hole into the wall behind them? This is a whole new form of warfare, and nobody is even acknowledging these weapons exist, except for the SSR."

Peggy visits Colonel Phillips next, who is not surprised by her audacity.

"Who do you expect to run this new show, Agent Carter?" he asks.

Peggy had rather hoped it would be him. He is an old hand at this war, respected in his position and well prepared to step into the shoes of a Director of a new organization. He is practically the head of command in the SSR, anyways.

He smirks at her pointed silence and says, "The war won't be over for a while yet, Agent Carter. Maybe you should use this time to think more about it."

Peggy does.

◊◊◊

The war gets worse before it gets better.

Peggy feels bits of herself chipping away as she does what needs to be done. She was never a soft girl, but when she looks back now she finds her younger self foolishly naive and idealistic. She's harder now, more ruthless and more capable.

She sees the same ruthlessness in the faces of her comrades, in the old eyes and grim smiles. They have lost so much to this war.

When the newspapers announce that they have won, it doesn't feel like victory.

◊◊◊

When the SSR disbands and their files are starting to be sent back to the various Allied nations that supported the venture, Peggy pulls her own strings in England and on Capitol Hill.

With Howard's help, she co-founds the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, and takes her place as Director. It's not a position she had expected or even wanted to hold, but those whom she would have preferred in her place had turned her down flat. They would work for her, work with her, but refused to be in that particular place of authority.

Peggy expects there to be more tension within the organization concerning her placement as a young female Director, but nearly seventy percent of SSR moves into similar positions at SHIELD, and they actually seem to prefer her at the helm. They know her, have been on missions with her, have used intelligence that she has gathered, and as such, they do not doubt her competence. It's a refreshing change. Even at it's conception, the SSR had been different when it came to female employment, and Peggy actively works to keep SHIELD the same. She doesn't slam her door in the face of ambitious women looking to make a difference.

Colonel Phillips hands her all of the classified files on Captain America and his Howling Commandos, and they disappear into the archives of SHIELD. The details they have of Dr. Erskine's formula and his success become as secret as they can make them, despite the Army trying to pound at their door.

SHIELD continues to do what the SSR did, and Peggy works to keep her organization in a position of power within the American and British governments. She meets with the Howling Commandos once a month for drinks, but spends most of her time in the field or in the office, working herself to the bone.

She and SHIELD are a good match. It's challenging and nerve-wracking at times, but she likes it that way. There is no time to sit and reminisce, because she is always grounded in the now, and thinking of tomorrow. Ten years go by and she thinks she could never have found a more perfect job.

◊◊◊

Howard invites Peggy to join him on one of his expeditions searching for Steve.

Peggy wants to slap him. He had never told her what he had planned to do after the war, and now she knows why.

"He's out there, Peggy. We just need to find him," Howard tells her, taking her hands in his. "I didn't ask before because I knew you were working to make SHIELD into a real success. And you have. But don't you have the time, now? Couldn't you come with me?"

Peggy can't. SHIELD has been growing exponentially as the tensions between the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc escalate. She has too much to do, even if she wanted to go with Howard, which she doesn't. She's laid Steve to rest within her heart. She has no desire to go digging up her own ghosts.

Howard says he understands when she refuses, but Peggy thinks he really doesn't. If he did, he would stop looking.

◊◊◊

Maria Carbonell is a brilliant young scientist, but Peggy doesn't think that SHIELD is for her. There's a soft quality in Maria that would not survive, a quality that Peggy dimly misses in herself.

It's why she sends Maria to Howard, knowing that her genius would be appreciated at Stark Industries. Howard may be a flirt, but he admires competence more than anything, and Maria appears more competent than most.

When she hears that Maria has worked her way up through SI, and is now working on an energy project with Howard himself, Peggy knows she made the right choice. They'll change the world together.

She can't say she's surprised when she receives the wedding invitation two years later, although it wasn't something she had planned or even hoped for.

Peggy is surprised when Maria and Howard ask her to be their son's godmother. Her interaction with Howard has been fleeting at best, and she doesn't know Maria on a personal basis. Nevertheless, she does agree.

Anthony Edward Stark is an active baby, and then a inquisitive child. He runs before he walks, causing no end of distress to his nursemaids, though his parents encourage his curiosity. Maria only laughs when Tony breaks her music box in an attempt to understand how it works, sitting on the floor with him to point out little gears and mechanisms.

The only time Tony seems to sit still is when Peggy comes to visit, bringing toys and stories with her. He always so seems disappointed when she has to leave, and Maria confides that he gets more excited about Peggy coming to visit than than he does about his own father coming home from his sea expeditions.

Peggy makes a point to visit little Tony whenever she's in New York.

◊◊◊

When Peggy turns forty-one, her mother dies. She goes back to England to attend the funeral with a heavy heart. Despite their infrequent contact, she did love her. But Priscilla Carter had never really understood her daughter, and Peggy had despaired of trying to make her understand.

Her younger brother, Wallace, attends the funeral with his wife, Shannon. While Peggy has seen surveillance photographs of her brother and wife, it feels better to finally meet them in person. They have tea in the old Carter house after everyone has left the reception, and Peggy is pleased to see her brother so content.

They make a promise to keep in better contact, and Peggy intends to keep it.

◊◊◊

Peggy uncovers the files on the Manhattan Project by accident. They take her by surprise, which is a terrible thing to happen to a woman who depends on her unflappability.

But who else could have helped developed atomic bombs? Who had the means and the genius and the support?

She doesn't understand how she could have missed it. How she could have blinded herself to the truth.

"Is it silly to be furious about something that happened years ago?" Peggy wonders, leaning back in her chair and steepling her fingers against her face.

Knowing what she does know, she's not sure how she's going to reconcile their friendship. She's not sure if she even can. Her capacity for trust and second chances is much smaller than it used to be.

So she skips visiting her godson for the first time in years.

"Just this once," Peggy tells herself. "Just until I get my feelings sorted out."

One month becomes two, and two become four, until she hasn't seen or talked to a Stark in over a year. She writes letters because they're safer. If she starts to rage on paper, she can toss the letter into the shredder and start again.

◊◊◊

Nicholas Fury is a driven young man. Peggy watches him and feels old for the first time. He's unpolished, a little too rash, but oh, the potential in him. She assigns him as her PA, which he chafes at for a week, before realizing what it really means. He goes out with her on missions and learns just as fast as she did, back when she had the opportunity in the SSR.

He also hates the World Security Council just as much as she does. Puffed up politicians who think they should have oversight over SHIELD. In theory, Peggy could agree that every organization needed oversight, even hers. In practice, she does all she can to keep the WSC's grubby, incompetent hands off her people and their technology.

The Commandos laugh when she tells them about Nick and their unclassified missions. He's just the kind of upstart that they like, and Dugan and Jones ask to have him on missions of their own. Falsworth thinks that soon Nick will start chasing after her job.

Peggy finds that she's not as displeased by that idea as she would have thought. (As long as it's in the future. Maybe the far future.)

◊◊◊

Jacques Dernier is found dead by his granddaughter when he failed to come down for breakfast. He had passed away in the night, and while it doesn't really surprise anyone (Dernier had been the oldest of the Commandos, married and with a child before he had been drafted), Peggy still feels the loss acutely.

She attends the funeral with Nick at her side and quietly sends some of her agents to make sure this was a completely natural death. There's no harm in being overcautious, after all.

The remaining Commandos, Peggy and Nick included, go to a pub later that night and lift their glasses to a fine man, an excellent soldier, and good friend.

◊◊◊

Peggy drops a mug of tea when her brother calls to tell her that Shannon is pregnant. She's happy for him, but she can't shake the feeling that something bad has happened, so she cuts their phone call short. It's never a good idea to ignore her instincts, no matter how absurd they seem.

She doesn't figure out what is bothering her until a week later, when the death certificates of Howard and Maria Stark are brought to her. They've died in a plane crash, and left their eighteen year old son behind.

Nick rearranges her schedule so she can visit Tony, who doesn't recognize her at all. Not by name or by face. He's angry and hurting, and all Peggy wants to do is hold him and let him scream, but to him, they are strangers.

Feeling her age, Peggy packs up her things and heads back to SHIELD, where she assigns teams of agents to check into the plane's crash, and to search the Stark Mansion and collect the materials that now rightfully belong to SHIELD. She feels a brief moment of disgust, knowing she's sending her agents to pick over Howard's bones, but there are so many classified things from the SSR and SHIELD that cannot reach the general public.

When she learns that Howard's been hiding something that he calls the Tesseract, but which he had discovered was the missing energy source in Zola's weapons, Peggy puts her fist through an expensive computer.

◊◊◊

Wallace asks her to be little baby Sharon's godmother.

Peggy says no. She won't do that again. She doesn't trust herself.

However, she does take the offer as a subtle suggestion to visit more, and sets aside time to return to England every month. When Sharon asks her about Captain America, Peggy takes a deep breath and tells her stories about a brave young man and a terrible war.

◊◊◊

With the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, now in her seventies, the subtle nudging Peggy has been receiving about retirement becomes much more blatant. The World Security Council makes her retire, and to add insult to injury, they give her a delicately engraved plaque to commemorate her long and dedicated years of service.

It makes her want to scream.

Peggy is old, and while she is no longer capable of moving like she had in her twenties, her mind is sharper than ever, and she is still fit and capable. She can't say that she hadn't seen it coming, though. She's been a thorn in the side of the World Security Council since they had formed.

So she accepts the plaque with the dignity of a queen, attends her retirement party and smiles at the WSC like she did when taking tea with known spies. Elegant, charming, and secretly plotting how to thrust a stiletto into their heart.

Nick sees right through her, turning his head to keep from laughing and giving away the game.

When she gets home, she walks straight into the kitchen to wrap the plaque in newspaper and then stuff it in the back of a drawer. She has no desire to set her eyes on the thing again, even by accident.

◊◊◊

Dugan dies on a mission not a month later.

Peggy is furious, and it takes all of the remaining Commandos to bank her rage.

She knows the little puppet director in charge of SHIELD is trying to clear her staunchest supporters from her organization.

Jones and Nick take her warning to heart, and she starts planning an offensive with Morita and Falsworth. Like hell is she going to let the WSC muck up her life's work.

◊◊◊

After five long years of covert fighting within SHIELD, Nick becomes Director. Peggy shoves an entirely too charming man named Phillip Coulson at him, after signing some of his beloved artifacts from World War II.

She sits on tenterhooks for a while, but the WSC seems to have given up the offensive for the time being.

When Jones retires, she relaxes, just a little bit. She feels much more assured with Nick and Phil running SHIELD. She has faith that the two of them will be able to muddle through any situation.

Though, without backstabbing political intrigue dominating her thoughts, her days are infinitely more boring.

Morita suggests that she take up gardening, and without any better ideas, she does so.

◊◊◊

Her garden becomes a new, calmer battlefield. Peggy knows absolutely nothing about gardening, and it shows. She researches proper tactics for attacking her garden and hires the local children to help her move the large bags of potting soil around her front and back yard.

Before she knows it, Peggy is hosting proper tea parties in her backyard with all of the children on the block. They seem to appreciate her stories of Captain America and his Howling Commandos, though it's possible they might only be there for the biscuits and petits fours. Either way, she enjoys their company. In return, they regale her with their own stories, some of their families antics and some of grand adventures in far off places.

Her neighbors regard her with a strange sort of fondness, but they trust her. Peggy is surprised, but pleased, when Matilda from down the road asks if it's alright if her daughter can call her Auntie Peg.

The name sticks.

◊◊◊

Peggy still visits with the Howling Commandos, though they are not much for drinking anymore. She talks to her brother and wife over the phone, who still live in the Carter house in England, and Sharon comes to visit her at least once a year.

Her garden grows beautifully, and every year carefully planted hydrangeas in her front yard blossom into the British and American flags.

She's on her knees, weeding her tomatoes when her phone starts ringing.

"Now who on earth could that be?" Peggy wonders, standing and brushing dirt from her pants. She pulls off her gloves and enters the house, picking up the handset and frowning when she doesn't recognize the number of the caller ID. "Hello?"

The soft breathing on the other side of the phone lets her know someone is there, but they don't deign to answer her.

"Hello?" she tries again. "This is Margaret Carter, may I ask who is calling?"

"Peggy?" an achingly familiar voice asks, even though it's been nearly seventy years since she's heard it.

The phone slips through her numb fingers.

She drops to the floor and grabs the phone as quickly as she can, raising it back to her ear with a trembling hand. "Steve?" she asks, feeling a lump form in her throat.

"Yeah," he replies, and it sounds like he's crying.

That's alright, though. Peggy feels a bit like crying herself. "You're late," she says, and then laughs.