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It'll Probably Drown Me Before I'm Through

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Howard did not like the apartment, and that was the first indication that Peggy would buy it.

"Carter." With anyone else, it would be a form of address, but with Howard, it was a full-fledged sentence by itself, one full of disappointment. "S.H.I.E.L.D. pays you well. You could do so much better than this."

"This is where I need to remind you that your house is ridiculously gaudy," Peggy retorted.

"My house doesn't have neighbors."

"You have neighbors. I've met them," Peggy reminded him. "The Van Dynes on your left, the Stanes on your right."

"I don't care," Howard interrupted. "The only time that I care is when you shoot them and try to get me sued."

"If you can afford that house, you can afford the lawsuits that come from me shooting Obadiah Stane." Peggy had zero sympathy for him on this matter, and would continue to have zero sympathy. "And I told you already, he was being inappropriately close to your son."

"Your neighbors are close enough that they can hear you masturbate through a wall," Howard said dismissively. "That is inappropriate."

"If the neighbors can't hear me, then I'm doing something wrong," Peggy answered cheekily.

Howard rolled his eyes at her, but she was too busy signing the lease to pay him much mind.

~

Howard didn't want to help her move in, of course. It was just as well, because Peggy didn't need his help. Nor did she particularly want it, when she had other friends who were just as capable.

"I can't believe that he actually sent you a text warning you to look for bed bugs," Darcy said as they brought in their first load. "It's like he doesn't really know anything at all about science. My old boss would kick his ass."

"I can't believe you are so shameless about reading my aunt's texts," Sharon told her.

"Hey, I'm her trainee and/or sidekick. It's totally my job to read her texts," Darcy protested.

"It's your job to learn how to be part of the organization. Which means you should be a bit more stealthy," Sharon protested right back, in a voice that was supposed to be a whisper. For a thirteen-year-old, Peggy supposed it was a whisper.

"Says the woman whispering secrets in a hallway," Darcy retorted back, which was a fair point.

Basically, it was the argument between Darcy and Sharon that was to blame entirely for the fact that Peggy did not see her neighbor at all until she'd bumped into him and spilled the entire contents of her kitchen utensils and his painting supplies onto the hallway floor.

But he took blame for it. "Sorry about that. I should have paid closer attention to where I was going."

Peggy would correct him and she opened her mouth to do so as she knelt down to help pick up her utensils, but that was when she got a good look at him. Already on his knees, reaching for her spatula, blond hair plastered to his after a recent shower ...

Well, Howard didn't know what he was talking about, obviously, because who in their right mind would turn down having a neighbor who looked like that?

~

"Pretty hot," was Darcy's verdict once they arrived safely into Peggy's apartment.

"Pretty clumsy," Sharon corrected. The teenager looked at her aunt's once-stainless steel spatula, now covered in bright blue paint, and sighed. "There goes dinner."

"I'll remind you that the reason the accident happened was because you and Agent Lewis cannot go ten minutes without having a disagreement," Peggy chided.

The problem was that Sharon really was her favorite niece, something that would have been true even if she'd been blessed with any others, and when she pouted, it was the only form of torture that had ever worked on Peggy Carter.

"But you're the best spy there's ever been," Sharon told her. “It couldn't have been your fault.”

"This room is totally not secure," Darcy complained. Which, to be fair, was a good point, except -

"You think Aunt Peggy hasn't done a complete sweep of this place before she even moved in?" Sharon demanded. "It's like you haven't been working with her at all."

"I've worked with Natasha, too," Darcy said solemnly. "Best spy ever."

Before Sharon could react to that blasphemy, Peggy interrupted. "Since our spatula has been ruined, you can pick somewhere to eat for dinner."

"I vote Chipotle," Darcy said.

"American Mexican food is disgusting," Sharon informed her. "How you can mess up the food of a nation that is right next door, nobody knows."

"Because so many people think so highly of England's French food, right?" Darcy retorted.

Peggy sighed and went out to get another box. She tried not to be disappointed that there was no sign of her neighbor anywhere in the hall.

~

"He's probably a spy," Natasha said, when the story was relayed to her. "Did you bring the spatula, so we can run the prints?"

"Wow, how did we jump to spy?" Darcy asked as Peggy handed the spatula to Natasha.

"A convenient crash in the hallway when she's moving in?" Natasha made a face that looked as though she might be tasting something particularly distasteful. "There are no coincidences in the life of a spy, Agent Lewis."

"Of course there aren't." Darcy didn't roll her eyes - nobody was stupid enough to do that to Natasha - but Peggy was fairly certain that she wanted to. "So do we at least get to find out Tall Not Dark and Handsome's name?"

"He didn't tell you his name after he dumped your utensils all over the hallway?" Natasha asked.

"I didn't tell him mine," Peggy pointed out, "and how many times do I have to tell this story before someone realizes that it was my fault?"

"We'll determine that after we find out if he is a wanted spy," Natasha said firmly.

~

The prints from the spatula did not confirm any spy status, which either meant that her neighbor was not a spy, or it meant that he was a very good spy.

"Steve Rogers. Has a history of asthma and mysteriously became better after a treatment with Dr. Erskine," Natasha reported to Peggy and Director Fury. "Orphaned, served a tour in Afghanistan, won multiple medals for bravery, currently attending art school."

"You made him spill his homework all over our hallway," Darcy told Peggy. "That might be the harshest thing you've ever done."

Natasha smiled a small grin across the table. "It really isn't."

"Okay, that both creeps me out and intrigues me," Darcy admitted.

"He has a roommate," Natasha continued. "James Buchanan Barnes. Also served in Afghanistan. Most of his missions seem to be classified, but - "

"But if that's stopping anyone in this organization, I am going to fire them faster than you can say the full name of Rogers' live-in buddy," Fury interrupted.

"An assassin, essentially. Nothing particularly memorable," Natasha answered. "Currently unemployed and seeking therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."

"An assassin just happens to live next door to you?" Darcy asked. "Okay, I'm starting to see the need for paranoia, here."

"He was an assassin for our team, though," Peggy pointed out. "Well, your team. I hardly think that he is a threat simply because he's suffering from an understandable side effect from being stationed in that desert."

"He's not suffering from anything that every single one of my best agents hasn't had at some point, it's true," Fury acknowledged. "But sympathy has never made me a good spy, Carter. You have your orders."

~

As it turned out, she didn't have to make contact with Rogers, because he did that himself. The same night that she received her orders, he showed up at her doorstep with a shiny new spatula in mind.

"Since I ruined yours," he said, sheepishly. Peggy found herself hoping that he really wasn't a spy, because that was a nice look for him, and it would be a shame if it was an entirely scripted response.

"You didn't have to do that," Peggy told him. "But thank you. If you'd like to come in, I can give you the present I got you, as well."

"You got me a present?" Rogers asked, as he stepped into the apartment. Peggy watched him look around as she went into the dining room to retrieve his present. He was observant. Another check in the "possibly a spy" column.

"I did make you spill your art supplies all over the hallway," Peggy reminded him. She handed the bag to him and watched his face. He looked entirely delighted, as though people weren't offering him presents all the time.

Peggy found that difficult to believe.

"Oh, wow. These must have cost you a fortune, and you ... got exactly the right kind of paint."

"You sound surprised by that. I took my spatula to the crafts store and asked what kind of paint it was, and they gave it to me. It was not a difficult task." In truth, she'd taken it to the lab and asked Howard to identify it, and he had. It hadn't been particularly difficult.

"No, no. It's just, I give Bucky a list and he still comes back with the wrong kind," Rogers explained. "Bucky's my roommate. You'll probably see him, or hear him around."

Peggy already had seen him, of course. "Ah, so now I know your roommate's name, but I still don't know yours. Seems rather unfair."

Rogers gave her a smile that should have been in a spy's arsenal. "Oh, right! I'm Steve Rogers." He held out his hand.

Peggy accepted it and was not going to be won over by the fact that he shook her hand with just the right degree of firmness. There was none of that lightness that men sometimes gave her when they shook her hand.

"Penny Connor," she introduced herself.

~

"It's my favorite of your assumed names," Natasha remarked over lunch. Despite it being a lunch break, Natasha was looking over the surveillance photos that Peggy had taken of Steve.

"I rather like it," Peggy admitted.

"Not as much as you must like seeing this every day," Natasha remarked. "Does Rogers own no shirts that actually fit him?"

"Very few, apparently."

"Before I defected, my handlers used to make rude comment after rude comment about the importance of using your sexuality to complete a mission," Natasha remarked. "While I never minded employing such tactics when necessary, I am pleased to discover that, apparently, it's a trait we've started teaching male spies, too."

"Assuming he's a spy," Peggy said firmly. "I thought we were assuming that Barnes was the spy."

"I assume they both are. The Golden Boy and the Cut Throat. Really, it's such a cliche that it belongs in a Bond film."

"A Connery Bond film."

"Mmhmm." Natasha tapped one of the photos with her finger. "He has a dog. You should get one, too. It will give you better access to him."

"I prefer cats," Peggy protested. "And who will take care of it when I'm on actual missions?"

"That's what you have an assistant for," Natasha reminded her.

~

Steve had a Golden Retriever. Peggy's assistant bought her a chihuahua.

"He's deadly and nobody expects it. Just like you!" Darcy explained when she brought the creature to Peggy, in the middle of a meeting in Howard's laboratory.

"I don't know, Carter. I think you should be offended. That is the ugliest dog I have ever seen," Gabe Jones insisted.

"This is why you have always been my favorite," Peggy said to Gabe.

"Okay, this is not the response that anyone should be having to the adorable dog that I bought you with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s considerable funds," Darcy complained.

"Considerable funds, huh? Did you buy the most expensive mutt you could find? Because that is the only way that I could approve of a mutt that ugly," Gabe said.

"Ew, gross, no. I bought it from the shelter, obviously," Darcy answered, crossing her arms. "And I didn't buy it for you, Jones."

Peggy glanced down at the dog doubtfully. "It's only for a few weeks," she reasoned. "I suppose I can last that long with a dog."

"What are you going to name it?" Darcy asked, scratching his ears. He didn't seem to like that very much, because he pulled away and growled lowly.

"I'm not sure," Peggy admitted. "I didn't realize I was getting a dog until earlier this morning. Maybe I'll wait until I have a better feel for his personality."

~

She had noticed that Steve tended to take his dog out for a walk every day when he came home, which tended to be three o'clock. It was also the same hour that Barnes apparently spent at his therapist, according to Lewis' reports on that front.

Peggy took her dog out at exactly 2:55 and allowed him his stubborn lingering and general displeasure with the leash. She was still waiting on him to want to be cooperative when Steve exited the apartment building.

She absolutely refused to feel guilty about the fact that his entire face broke out into a smile when he saw her. It was entirely possible that the smile was nothing more than a well-placed lie.

It was entirely possible.

"Hi, Penny!" Steve waved at her using one hand, and Peggy envied the way that his dog allowed him to only use one hand to hold the leash.

"Hello, Steve." She wrapped the leash more tightly around her hand. "I didn't realize that you would be out this time of day."

"A little earlier than when I bumped into you," Steve teased. "But yeah, Thor and I always come out during this time of day."

"Thor?" Peggy asked innocently. "You named your dog after a Norse god? That seems unusual." And Peggy had certainly thought so when she'd first heard him calling Thor's name in the yard.

"Yeah." Steve relaxed the leash a little and Thor promptly went over to sniff Peggy's still unnamed dog, who seemed less than pleased by that turn of events. "It's a joke, really, from when I was in the army."

"Well, I can hardly laugh at the joke until I hear the punchline, Steve."

Steve pressed his lips together, and Peggy wondered if he was trying to make up something to tell her that resembled the truth. Peggy certainly had experience doing that.

She was better at it than he was, if that was what he was trying to do.

"One of the guys, Schmidt, he didn't handle combat very well," Steve explained.

Peggy made a note to look up information on this Schmidt fellow, but she nodded and was able to say, "I imagine there's something particularly wrong with the sympathy of anyone who does handle combat well, soldier."

He looked surprised at her comments, and Peggy reminded herself that having combat experience was probably not something he expected of his next door neighbor. Especially, Peggy suspected, his female next door neighbor.

Well, if he wasn't a spy, he could just get over it.

"That's true," Steve acknowledged, "But Schmidt's problems were a little worse than others. Anyway, to make a long story short, we were trying to bring him in, but we didn't have the right kind of cover. We got lucky, though, in that a big storm showed up and gave us plenty of cover, so that we were able to bring him back before he caused any real damage."

"A storm saved you, so you named your dog after the Norse god of thunder?" Peggy repeated.

"Sam - another one of the guys - always teased me about praying to the Norse gods. Because I'm so pale," Steve explained. "And because I'm Irish. So. That's the punchline. And... you're still not laughing."

Steve gave another sheepish grin, and Peggy returned it, not only because it was expected of her role, but because she wanted to.

"So anyway, what's your dog's name?" Steve asked.

"I hadn't decided yet. I just adopted him from the shelter," Peggy admitted. "Though so far, if I was naming him after Norse gods, I think Loki might be a bit more appropriate than Thor."

Steve reached down and gave Thor the kind of head ruffle that made the dog wag his tag and rub up against Steve. "You know... if you name your dog after Loki, that's kind of a guarantee that we'd have to let them spend more time together."

"Mm. Might even have to start walking them together," Peggy suggested.

There was no use denying it at this point. If that smile turned out to be a lie, Peggy was going to be disappointed.

"I'd like that," Steve admitted, sounding honest enough that it hurt.

In front of them, Loki leaned over and bit Thor's leg.

~

By the time that Peggy reported to work the following Monday, Loki had destroyed her entire couch and at least two pairs of boots.

"Really, what is wrong with that animal? Couldn't you have picked a dog that wasn't quite so rabid?" Peggy demanded. "I'd take it back to the shelter myself if it wasn't such an integral part of my cover."

"Yeah, sorry about that. They said he had some issues at the shelter, and well... I thought it was like a 'love him extra lots' sorta deal, but when they say he's got issues, they kinda meant 'Hannibal Lecter' style issues, not 'Mommy didn't hug me enough'. So there's that. Oh, by the way, I looked up the info on Rogers' men that you requested. Speaking of Hannibal, Schmidt was a real piece of work." Darcy handed the report over to her.

Peggy massaged her temples and took the report when it was offered. "Certainly appears to belong in Federal prison for the rest of his life."

"Yeah, but the rest of Rogers' team doesn't seem so bad. Sam Wilson is a social worker. Betty Ross teaches self defense classes with some Yoga instructor named Bruce Banner. Clint Barton owns an apartment building in Bed-Stuy."

"Interesting that Barton could afford that on a ... lieutenant's salary?" Peggy noted as she flipped through the report.

"Want me to check him out, Boss?"

"That sounds like a perfect idea, Agent Lewis."

~

It was during their second walk that Peggy broached the subject of his actual job.

"So, I have narrowed it down to either artist or kindergarten teacher," Peggy announced to him. "The amount of paint you were carrying through the hallway could very well indicate either."

"Mm. I could be a kindergarten art teacher," Steve pointed out, and Peggy was a seasoned spy, so she certainly didn't draw any conclusions about the way he'd behave around children based on the patient way that he was feeding Thor treats - treats that Steve even shared with Loki, despite the fact that the little beast had bitten Steve twice already.

Drawing such a conclusion would be ridiculous because the entire dog act could be just that - an act, and Steve could have a long history of killing children, along with other civilians. Or he could have a long history of recruiting children into ... Hydra.

She made herself remember Lieutenant Barton's Bed-Stuy apartment building.

"You could be," Peggy agreed. "Are you?"

"No. Never wanted to be. I did think about being a history teacher once."

That wasn't in any of the files, and since Peggy already knew what he did for a living, she pressed on. "Seems like a less creative occupation than kindergarten art teacher."

"Wouldn't have needed to be," Steve insisted. He turned to her, eyes full of earnestly that Peggy hadn't ever seen successfully faked before. "My grandmother used to tell these incredible stories about when she was younger. Stories about protests and unions and working for equal rights. She's gone now - she and my mom, both - and part of me wanted to tell those stories to someone else."

"Your grandmother sounds like an extraordinary lady," Peggy said gently.

"She was. She and my mom both were," Steve told her, and Peggy thought to herself that if the conviction turned out to be fake, she would really punch him in the teeth. "Mom was a nurse, and very practical, and it must have broken her heart that her son turned out to be the same kind of dreamer that she married. But she never let on, and always encouraged me to do what made me happy. Got me art lessons and that sort of thing. She'd be happy to hear that I finally made it into art school - that's what I do, by the way."

"You're a student?" Peggy asked, and she was particularly proud of how sincere her surprise sounded. As if she hadn't already known that for days. "Enjoying all of those pretty models that come through your school, are you?"

Steve ducked his head and his words were almost quiet enough that she couldn't hear them. "None of them are quite as pretty as you, Penny."

"Well, in that case, maybe I should serve as your model."

~

"You offered to serve as his model?" Darcy asked with a low whistle. "Wow. I want to be you when I grow up."

"Then this apprenticeship is a good thing for you," Peggy said dryly.

"Once, in a mission in Rome, I offered to pose for a spy who thought he was an artist," Natasha revealed. "He ended up telling me his entire plan before he even completed the outline for my head."

"I read that report," Peggy revealed. "Well-executed, Agent Romanova."

"I can't believe that the two of you are so okay with casually posing nude as part of the job. This is why I am going to make a terrible spy," Darcy confessed.

"Who said anything about posing nude?" Natasha rejoined. "Done properly, a fully clothed pose can be just as seductive as a nude pose. My job as a spy is to use people's weaknesses against them to get information. That's what I did."

"It's not everyone's method," Peggy told Darcy. "Natasha and I have your own methods, as do you and Agent Hill. As long as you get the information you need, it doesn't matter how you get it."

Peggy believed that. Mostly.

~

She didn't pose nude. The only thing she took off were her shoes. She sat on the small couch that looked like it doubled as a bed - it had to, since the apartment was only a one bedroom.

"Do you or Bucky get the bedroom?" she asked as she tucked her feet underneath her. A few feet away, Loki was trying to steal Thor's pillow and Peggy wondered why the commotion didn't bother Steve as much as it irritated her.

"We take turns," Steve admitted. "I tried to give it to him; he tried to give it to me. We finally decided we'd go every other week. This week is his week."

She watched him tap that paint brush and watched him study her before his hands began to move across the canvas. The long, steady gaze would have been good on a spy, Peggy tried to tell herself. Too many spies failed because they flinched away from what the job required, and she couldn't imagine Steve ever doing that.

"So what I have learned from this conversation is that you are both equally stubborn men," Peggy said to him.

Steve grinned at her. "Bucky's twice as stubborn as I am, the punk."

"Mm. I guess I'd have to meet him to see if that was true."

"Would you like to?" Steve asked. "You could ... come over for dinner sometime. If you'd like."

Peggy leaned back a little on the couch. "Sounds like a date, Steve."

Steve flashed her a smile before returning to his painting. "Yeah, a date. I'd like that."
~

"A date?" Darcy asked. "Wow, if he's not a spy, you are totally going to break his heart."

"No. If he is a spy, i am going to break his heart and several other vital organs," Peggy insisted. "Besides, even if Rogers is not a spy, there is still concern that Barnes might be. I need to have access to both of them."

"Wouldn't mind having access to both of them," Darcy quipped. "But alas, I'm stuck with one of the other hot guys on Rogers' team."

"How is Operation Lieutenants Don't Make That Much Money going, anyway?" Peggy asked, grateful for the change in subject.

"Oh, it's going pretty well. Apparently, Barton has no filter on his mouth at all? I just moved into the apartment complex two days ago, and I already know more about his supposed life story than I know about you," Darcy revealed. "He has these big, ridiculous parties on the roof of the apartment. Says he likes hanging out on the roof, because it gives him a better view of the city."

"Nothing out of the ordinary about that," Peggy conceded. "What else have you learned?"

"Supposedly, the money for his apartment complex came from his brother's life insurance policy. Did some digging. The brother in question is Charles Bernard 'Barney' Barton. Used to work for the FBI for a while. Went off the reservation. Money may or may not come from an actual life insurance policy, because it looks like Barney did some freelance mercenary stuff," Darcy said, tapping her stylus against the StarkPad.

"Just because his brother was a mercenary, doesn't mean that Clint Barton is. Both Agent Maximoffs are proof that family doesn't determine your allegiances. But it does ... raise some suspicions," Peggy admitted.

"Yeah. It's kind of sad, though. I mean, their childhood sucked. Abusive parents, time spent in an orphanage, ran away to join the circus ... " Darcy trailed off.

"Rule one of being a spy, Agent Lewis, is not to fall for the sad childhood sob story," Peggy said severely. "You can have sympathy for the child that he was, but never let that influence the way you deal with the adult that he is."

~

As it happened, Peggy was able to meet both Sam Wilson and James Barnes during her scheduled "date."

"Neither of them have much sense," Sam told her as she took a seat the small table that really wasn't equipped to serve more than two. "Both running into trouble with terrible plans. Barton too. Really, they gave me and Ross more work than the enemy ever did."

More than Schmidt, Peggy wanted to ask. But she didn't.

"Poor Sam, always having to catch us when we fall," Bucky said, not without sympathy.

"These are my friends," Steve murmured in a stage whisper to Peggy as he set the spaghetti down on the table. "Please don't let them scare you away, Penny."

"Please, Rogers. Your friends are the best part about you," Sam scoffed.

"I was thinking Thor might be the best part about me," Steve retorted right back. He sat down then, and Peggy could only appreciate the smallness of the table because of the enforced closeness that it brought.

"You'd choose your dog over us? Ouch. Keep it up and your lady friend is going to think you're a jerk," Bucky warned him. He winked at Peggy, full of the kind of brash confidence that contrasted with the self-conscious way he handled his prosthetic arm.

"I could never think that about Steve, I'm sure," Peggy told him, and Steve flashed a triumphant smirk in Bucky's direction.

"Even if Rogers prefers his hairy mutt to us, I feel obligated to tell you that this spaghetti sauce is made from scratch and took him six hours to cook," Sam revealed. "He won't brag about that, but somebody probably should."

"I can't take all the credit for it. It was Mom's recipe, and grandma's, before that," Steve replied.

"Yeah, but they aren't the ones slaving over it for hours to impress Penny here," Bucky pointed out.

Peggy took that, and Steve's embarrassed smile, as a sign to taste it. She'd already observed both Barnes and Wilson eating the spaghetti and she'd dipped her plate herself, so it hadn't been drugged or poisoned. "This was worth every hour that you slaved over it," she promised.

~

"Natasha says you are pretending to date your clumsy neighbor because you think he's a spy," Sharon remarked the next time that Peggy took her to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s shooting range.

She'd tried to take Sharon to a regular, civilian shooting range, but really, it wasn't as though Sharon didn't know about her life - nearly getting kidnapped because of her aunt's job role had ensured that - and civilian shooting ranges were full of people who wanted to instruct Peggy on how to shoot, as if she needed that lesson.

Peggy was sure that Sharon's parents would be horrified - the minute that they stopped globe trotting long enough to actually raise their daughter.

"That ... is a mostly accurate description," Peggy agreed. "Correct your grip, Sharon. You keep holding onto your gun that way, a surprise attack could easily disarm you."

"I bet that's never happened to you," Sharon said loyally.

"Second mission for S.H.I.E.L.D, fighting alongside the Black Panther in Wakanda," Peggy said simply. "Which is why I am able to advise you not to repeat my mistakes."

Sharon nodded and readjusted her grip. "Do you think he's a spy? The art guy?"

"I don't know yet. A good spy doesn't draw conclusions until she has all the facts. If he is a spy, he's a very good one, that's for certain."

"Not as good as you," Sharon said firmly.

~

She and Steve decided to be adventurous and take Loki and Thor to the dog park. Loki ended up confined to Peggy's lab and growling the entire time while Thor went off to play with the other dogs.

"So I'm supposed to tell you that you passed the Sam and Bucky test," Steve told her. "I'm sure you'll be thrilled to hear that."

She was finding herself enjoying the rare bits of sarcasm even more than she enjoyed the kindness that he seemed to have. Maybe because it was so unexpected, or maybe because it let her believe that this was a real person, flaws and all, and not a carefully constructed personality.

Though a good spy would give his personality flaws, because real life wasn't a James Bond movie.

"Oh, I'm very pleased," she retorted. "You can tell them that they've passed the Penny Connor test, too."

Steve leaned back onto his arms on the grass and laughed. It wouldn't have been as obscene, if any of his shirts actually did fit. "See, that makes me happy. I'm also supposed to tell you that you're the first date I've had since we got back who didn't stare at Bucky's arm. So, you know, that earns you points."

With both Bucky and Steve, Peggy suspected.

"Unfortunately, losing a limb is not unheard of for a soldier, Steve," Peggy answered. "I'd have to be a good deal more foolish than I care to be, if I was surprised by it."

Steve tilted his head and studied her again, just as he had when he'd been painting her. "That's the second time you've mentioned some casual - and accurate - facts about soldiers. Are you a vet, too?"

"No. My father was a soldier in your American army. He met my mother when he was stationed overseas." It was one of her favorite cover stories, primarily because it bore absolutely no resemblance to the truth at all. She also enjoyed it because she knew her father would have been horrified at the very idea that he was American or a soldier.

"I hope he was a gentleman," Steve said abruptly, which wasn't the response that she'd been expecting. "I mean ... sometimes my fellow soldiers aren't. When they get overseas. I mean, I'm not suggesting that your father is a bad person, I just ... " He trailed off and bit his lip, and Peggy took pity on him.

"I don't know if he was or not. He didn't stick around long enough for me to get to know him," she said, because Rogers' background suggested that Joe Rogers hadn't been around to see his son grow up, either, if for entirely different reasons than the ones Peggy was suggesting.

"So he wasn't a gentleman at all," Steve said huffily. "My dad wasn't around either. Died from friendly fire when I was a baby. From what Mom tells me about their marriage beforehand, that spared her a lot of grief."

"I thought you said your father was a dreamer?" Peggy pointed out.

"He wanted to be a writer, but that didn't pay the bills, so he joined the army instead," Steve explained.

"Is that why you joined?" It seemed bizarre to want to live up to a man he'd never known.

"No. I joined because Bucky did, and somebody had to watch his back." Steve paused. "And because ... I used to be sick. When I got better, I figured I could use this healthier body to help people, and the army seemed to be a good way to do it."

There was a reluctance there, under his voice, and Peggy almost wished that she didn't have to pry.

"And were you able to do that?"

"No." Steve leaned back onto his back and looked up at the sky. "All I learned was that I was very naive."

~

"So ... Barnes is getting treatment for his PTSD, but Rogers isn't?" Gabe asked at the next meeting. "That's what I am taking away from this conversation."

"Me too," Darcy agreed. "By the way, totally not jealous that you got saddled with Barnes duty after I got upgraded to Barton duty. Do you know how hard it is to be covert around a sniper?"

"Barton was also a sniper," Gabe reminded Darcy.

"Yeah, but I gave up the whole cover thing and just moved in with him. Into his apartment building, I mean," Darcy corrected.

"We probably should have sent Natasha after Barnes. She's the best at the covert stuff," Gabe admitted.

"Yes," Natasha agreed. "But so far, I am enjoying the Ross and Banner self defense and yoga classes too much to give them up and swap places with either of you."

"Who is watching Wilson?" Peggy asked.

"As thrilling as this entire conversation is," Fury said, completely ignoring her question, in a voice that left no doubt that he wasn't thrilled at all. "I expect better progress reports from my best spies. From what you've all told me, at the minimum, we should be looking into recruiting Barnes and Barton."

"Maybe Rogers, too," Peggy spoke up. "I did some research into the Erskine story. This is what he looked like before Erskine's 'treatment.' She slid the yearbook into the middle of the meeting table.

"Okay. There's no way that clearing up his asthma is responsible for this," Darcy protested. "This is like ... By the Power of Grayskull stuff."

"Or mutant stuff," Fury mused.

"You think Erskine made him into a mutant? Is that even possible?" Natasha asked.

"Is it possible that healing up asthma suddenly turns you into a Greek god?" Darcy asked. "Because both of those seem equally likely to me."

"It also seems equally likely that a treatment for asthma would have as many side effects as his seems to have," Peggy confessed. "We've taken our dogs out in 90 degree weather, running at a decent clip, and he's never broken a sweat or increased his breathing. Loki bites him one day, and by the next, there's no visible sign of the wound at all."

"Who is on questioning Erskine duty, then?" Gabe asked.

"Nobody," Peggy answered. "Erskine died two years after Rogers' mysterious treatment. From a gunshot wound. The killer was never caught."

"Where was Rogers at the time?" Fury asked.

"Overseas," Peggy answered. She didn't mention how relieved she'd been, because the man that she was beginning to think Steve Rogers was couldn't have committed murder.

She could be wrong about everything else in relation to the man, but she didn't want to be wrong about that.

~

Loki had claimed Thor's pillow, much to the larger dog's distress, and Peggy was patting him sympathetically while she watched Steve chop potatoes to go with their brunch. As far as dates went, Peggy could get used to being cooked for, and she could get used to watching Steve's arms flex each time he moved the knife.

"Hey, you know what I realized the other day?" Steve said abruptly. "I realized that I don't know what it is that you do. I mean, you don't give off any obvious clues, like kindergarten art teacher, or anything."

That was fair, but Peggy had a policy of only volunteering information when they asked for it. "I'm working on my doctoral degree in comparative literature," she explained. It had been one of her favorite classes as an undergrad, and probably would have been, even if "Dr. Phillips" hadn't turned out to be "Agent Phillips."

"Oh? What's your dissertation about?"

"I'm still working on narrowing it down. The overall theme will be gender and violence in the twentieth-century American spy novel, but Dr. Rushman believes that's far too broad."

"Sounds gory."

"I'm sure you've seen worse, soldier."

Steve's arms stilled for a minute, before he resumed chopping. "Probably."

"Though I'm sure it wasn't pleasant," Peggy commented, remembering the way he'd drifted away during their previous conversation.

"It wasn't," Steve said. "It's why I left the military. You know, not a fan of the gore, needed to leave."

His voice was short and clipped, but that wasn't enough to make Peggy unaware of the fact that he was lying to her.

~

"The question is, is he lying to you on purpose or getting sloppy?" Fury said at the next meeting. "Because this isn't the first time he's lied to you."

"What do you have?" Peggy asked. Better to get it over with, better for the band aid to hurt coming off, and better to just accept the fact that she'd almost fallen for his nonsense.

"I've been examining his record. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Fury answered. "Man's getting medals for bravery, when his record doesn't even have any indication of anything that should warrant that. His record makes him out to be a perfectly ordinary soldier, along with the rest of them."

"But if he was a perfectly ordinary soldier, he wouldn't have needed the company of two snipers and two weapons experts," Peggy pointed out.

"And that would be a shame, because I am definitely enjoying the free rent," Darcy remarked.

"If he was a perfectly ordinary soldier, he might actually have been stationed in Afghanistan," Fury continued. "But I've done some digging and some reaching out to a Colonel or two who owe me a favor, and it turns out he was in the Middle East a total of two weeks. There are, however, unconfirmed reports of him being in Madripoor and Latveria."

Natasha glanced down the table at her, and Peggy wanted to tell her that it was perfectly alright. She'd been preparing for this eventuality.

Because Natasha had been right - there were no "conveniences" in a spy's life, and there were no exceptions for handsome neighbors.

"None of this makes him, or his team, spies," Natasha pointed out.

"No. But it does make Steve Rogers chronically incapable of telling the truth," Gabe reasoned.

~

Peggy wasn't mad. She had no reason to be.

She'd admit to being disappointed.

But she wasn't mad.

She was, however, relieved, when Rogers called her and canceled their standing daily walk.

"Thor's not feeling very good," he explained, and oh, he sounded so apologetic about it.

"You should probably take him to the vet then," Peggy said, before hanging up.

Maybe she was a little mad.

Either way, she really could hear the muffles of two voices coming through the wall of their apartment, so she was not surprised to receive a message from Gabe telling her that Barnes had canceled his afternoon appointment with his therapist.

She spent the rest of the day in her apartment, waiting for any sign of any suspicious activity from next door, and when it didn't come by nightfall and she heard signs of both of them settling into bed, she did so too.

She was still trying to actually sleep when she heard the first scream, accompanied by a sound of feet running. Her gun was in her hand before the second scream, and she was halfway to her front door when she heard Steve's muffled voice.

"It's okay, Bucky. Shhh. Just a bad dream."

Right. Just a bad dream. Peggy wondered what Barnes had done or seen that was causing screams that severe, but spy or no spy, flashbacks weren't something that Peggy could judge.

They all had them, after all.

Peggy walked back over to the bed, but she didn't try to go back to sleep. If the muffled voices next door were any indication, neither did Steve or Bucky.

~

"I talked to Jane," Darcy mentioned, casually, in the middle of lunch the next day. "You know she's an astrophysicist and everything, but apparently studying storms and shit is part of that? I don't know, I'm not a scientist?"

"No, you're a brilliant spy in training," Peggy reminded her firmly.

"Right. So anyway, apparently, those two weeks that Fury gave us that Rogers was in Afghanistan? No actual storms were reported anywhere that there were troops stationed, especially not where Rogers was supposed to be. However ... the time we have for an unconfirmed Madripoor sighting, storms. Storms all over the place. Storms that just happened to be taking place where there were rural reports of gunfire and UFOs. The UFOs is weird, but hey."

Well, at least the storm story had some basis in reality. But then, that was how the best spies worked, wasn't it?

"That's good work, Darcy."

"Yeah. It's really too bad that Project It's Raining Men turned out to fulfill all the pessimistic guesses, huh?"

"If you're expecting optimism to win the day, you really are going into the wrong field, Agent Lewis."

~

Steve came to visit her the night after Bucky Barnes' nightmare.

"I heard you get up last night," Steve confessed, and Peggy wondered if it was the first bit of truth that Steve had shared with her.

"Our walls are rather thin," Peggy admitted as she let him into the apartment - the same one she'd been double and triple checking for bugs over the past two days.

Maybe she'd gotten a little sloppy about that, but she still hadn't found any new bugs, so her sloppiness hadn't resulted in any long term damage, she told herself.

"I wanted to - I'm not going to apologize," Steve said firmly, face set to argue. "Because there's nothing to apologize for, about Bucky."

"No, of course there isn't. Nightmares are nothing to be ashamed of, Steve. They're nothing to apologize for."

His facial features relaxed when he realized she wasn't going to argue with him. He turned, and Peggy thought he was going back to his apartment. Instead, he leaned his head on the apartment door and spoke softly enough that Peggy could barely make out his words.

"They're my fault, you know. I didn't get to him soon enough. If I had - if I had, the nightmares wouldn't be there. And the arm would be."

Peggy thought about Falsworth, forever unable to return to the field, for mistakes that she would always claim, no matter how much S.H.I.E.L.D. and Falsworth told her that she shouldn't.

"Did you force him to sign up for the army, Steve?"

"No, of course not. He actually joined before I did."

"Then you have to respect that choice. We all - " Chose this life and this is what we get for it " - we all have regrets, but you're trying to take responsibility for both Barnes' choices and for what the people who harmed him did. That's not only unfair to you, but it's unfair to them."

"Is it unfair to wish that I could do more?" Steve asked quietly. "When he wakes up screaming and I can't ... I can't do anything to soothe him."

"Yes, it's unfair. It's also untrue. Because he stopped screaming the minute he - and I - heard your voice. You make his life better by being there, Steve, and you should be glad that you are able to give that much."

Steve turned back to look at her, and his eyes were wet. "I'm glad you're here, Penny."

~

Peggy stared at her computer for a long time the next day, contemplating what she was going to report about the conversation.

She knew that Rogers was a liar. She knew that he hadn't been truthful for the bulk of their conversations.

But reporting his breakdown about Barnes ... Peggy could lie and say that it was irrelevant. She wanted that to be the case.

But in truth, it simply seemed like too big of a violation. Even spies had standards, Peggy told herself.

~

She wasn't posing this time. Not technically.

But Steve had his drawing pad out and he was sketching her, with Thor's head on her lap and Loki curled at the bottom of the sofa onto yet another pillow of Thor's that he'd stolen.

Peggy watched Steve draw, and for just a moment, she allowed herself to wonder what it would be like if circumstances had been different. She wondered if these drawing and painting sessions, these informal posing sessions, would lead to somewhere else.

No. She didn't have to wonder that, did she? As a spy, she had to lie to everyone else, but it was essential to be truthful to herself.

If circumstances were different, she'd be wearing the tight red dress she saved for special, non-spy occasions. If circumstances were different, she'd push Thor off the couch, unbutton the top of that dress enough that Steve could see that her bra matched her lipstick perfectly and that tight red dress even more perfectly. If circumstances were different, she'd wait until mid session before casually slipping off her heels, drawing his attention to her legs. He'd complain about her changing her pose, and she'd get up off the couch and ...

And do everything in her power to get him to put his drawing pad down and refocus his hands' attention onto her.

"So how is art school coming?" Peggy asked.

"Pretty great," Steve told her. "But then, I have a pretty great muse, so how could it not?"

~

With Natasha at "self defense" class with Ross, Darcy shopping for bows with Barton, and Gabe looking into the accident that cost Barnes his arm, Peggy took her lunch with Howard.

They ate in his lab, of course.

"If we had gone out, we could have had a proper lunch," she told him.

"Fondue?"

"Never fondue, no matter how many times you ask," Peggy retorted.

"Alas. Anyway, I can't take that much time off. I'm nearing a breakthrough on the material in Wilson's wings," Howard answered. "Have you seen them yet? They're miraculous." He gestured to the photos lining his work bench, and Peggy took a look at them.

In the photos, a pair of wings sat in what looked to be a small closet. But from the pictures that had been taken, they certainly explained the "UFO" comments. From far enough away, Peggy supposed that was what anyone wearing these might look like.

"They put you on the Wilson case?" Peggy asked. "You're hardly a spy, Howard. A pilot, yes, and an excellent inventor, but - "

"Of course not. They put Tony on the case. I'm just analyzing the sample of the metal that Tony brought back."

"You put a teenager onto a potentially dangerous mission? Your own son?"

"Of course. Wilson is a social worker. He was hardly going to listen to my problems, when his focus is on at risk youth and teens."

"Everyone knows who your son is, Howard."

"Which makes all of the daddy issues he's been feeding Wilson all the more believable. C'mon, who wouldn't believe that a rich asshole like Howard Stark is a terrible father?" Howard said enthusiastically. "It's a perfect story. Besides, it's a team effort. His friends, Rhodes and Potts, they've been selling daddy issues and mommy issues to Wilson, too. Fury's planning to recruit all of them when they're 18."

"Some days, I actually do not know what is wrong with you. Or with Fury. You allowed your son - and two innocent civilian teenagers - to potentially endanger themselves so that - "

"So that we could make sure the other civilians stayed safe," Howard interrupted. "Like you wouldn't do the same with Sharon."

"I wouldn't. She's too young to go out into the field."

"Yeah, Fury figured you'd say that," Howard mused. "That's why we sent Tony."

~

Peggy had every intention of going to Fury and telling him exactly what she thought of the Wilson plan. Unfortunately, her plans were interrupted by a call from Natasha.

"I don't know what's going on, but Ross just got an urgent call from 'her army buddy,' and left in a hurry," Natasha relayed. "I'm on my way over to your apartment now."

"I'll meet you there."

When she did arrive, she was greeted with the sight half a dozen men aiming their weapons towards the apartment complex, the sight of Wilson's wings in action above her apartment complex, the sound of gunfire, the sight of arrows flying from the roof, and Steve engaged in hand to hand combat on the roof of their apartment.

There was really very little other choice than to join the fray, really.

"Penny? You need to get out of here," Steve yelled when she made it to the roof, and in that instant, the fact that his file had his rank as a Captain made all the sense in the world, because he was certainly bossy enough.

"You're out-manned two to one up here. You need more gunfire."

"Gun - " Steve ducked a blow, and Peggy pretended not to see the way that his eyes widened when she shot the man he'd been fighting. "They teach that in your comparative literature department?"

"In S.H.I.E.L.D., actually. But I believe the time for discussion will have to wait."

~

Steve wasn't, it turned out, a spy after all. Which, after everything that had happened, was a much more unlikely outcome.

What wasn't an unlikely outcome was the fact that Steve, Barnes, Barton, Ross, and Wilson were taken into S.H.I.E.L.D. for questioning. They sat on one side of the table, while Peggy, Fury, Howard, Romanova, Jones, and Lewis sat on the other side.

"Dr. Erskine said there might be some side effects," Steve revealed. "I didn't really care, though. All I wanted was to be able to breathe without it hurting, and to be able to help my mom out with some of the bills that Dad left her with."

"What kind of side effects are we talking, son?" Fury asked.

Steve looked at her. "Your spies couldn't tell you that, Director?"

"This is your chance to tell your story, Steve," Peggy answered simply. "But yes, we are aware of the enhanced stamina, extensive healing abilities, and we saw the increased speed today during the battle. Are there any others we are missing?"

Steve gritted his teeth and looked down at the table. "Gave me extra strength. Vision and hearing are sharpened, too."

I heard you through the wall, Peggy thought.

But he couldn't have heard everything, or he wouldn't be so surprised and angry to know that she was a spy in the first place.

"I joined the army ... for the exact reasons I already told Penny, and because my powers were too late to help Mama after all... And the army gave me this team and Bucky and sent me on missions that I'd never dreamed of, back in Brooklyn." Steve looked at her again and gritted his teeth. "Anyway, the extra powers were a help, and caught the attention of Schmidt, who would have done anything to get them himself."

Steve glanced over at Bucky then and Peggy was suddenly very glad that she hadn't put certain things into her report at all.

"Including killing Dr. Erskine?" Fury guessed.

"Yes. Erskine wouldn't give him the formula of the treatment, so ... he killed him." Steve glanced down at the table. "Then he became obsessed with replicating the formula himself."

"I'm guessing he was probably responsible for taking Barnes' arm as well," Natasha guessed, and Peggy was glad she didn't have to bring it up.

Bucky rubbed the arm self-consciously again, but answered. "Yeah, he was trying to hit Steve's weak spot, because hey, when you're losing, it's fair to be petty, I guess."

~

The conversation lasted for five hours, after which, Fury extended an offer to join S.H.I.E.L.D. to each of Steve's team.

"What the hell am I supposed to do with one arm as a spy?" Barnes demanded.

"Wasn't holding you back today at all," Natasha pointed out. "Besides, we have much better therapists with much better credentials than the one you're currently seeing."

"Christ, you people are dangerous. I should probably join just to keep an eye on you," Barnes mused.

"Well if the seconded best shot on this team is joining, I guess I have to. I mean, I wouldn't want to leave you with second best," Barton said.

"Fuck you, Barton."

"I keep telling you that you're not my type, Barnes."

"As much as you need some actual rational people on your team, I'm going to have to decline," Ross said to Fury. "I only liked the military because joining pissed off my father. The set up Bruce and I have now is the life I actually want. But if you need a weapons expert, you know where to find me."

"They already have a weapons expert," Howard corrected.

"Yes, I've read your research and I've seen your weapons in action," Betty agreed with a nod. "Speaking of people who are second best."

"I'll join on one condition," Sam said, and Peggy tried not to notice the look of hurt that Steve shot him. "Tony still gets to come in and have his daily chats."

"But he doesn't need to have them anymore," Howard said. "That was just a ruse. Like everything else."

Peggy thought about punching Howard for that, but Wilson saved her the trouble. "Nah. You people might be trained spies, but I'm a social worker. Kid needs to keep coming to talk to me. He can bring his friends too, even though they've got real families."

"It's a deal," Fury answered.

"Hey, shouldn't I get that choice? I'm his dad," Howard pointed out. "And I should discuss it with Maria."

"Maria will agree with Wilson," Peggy pointed out. "Just like she agreed with me shooting Stane."

Peggy supposed the look on Howard's face would be worth almost everything. At least, until Steve got up and walked out of the room.

~

Natasha found Peggy when she was in the middle of reviewing her next mission. France was nice enough, and she'd worked with Colonel Danvers before. All signs pointed to it going more smoothly than the last one had.

"Paris is a nice city," Natasha told her. "I once danced in the rain there with a cute red-headed lawyer. I was on a mission at the time, but my poor foolish heart couldn't help but fall in love with him."

"What happened to love is for children?"

"I was undercover when I said that, too," Natasha reminded her. "But the point does remain: you're not the kind of person to choose love over duty. If Rogers was ever going to be right for you, he won't ask you to apologize for that."

~

Steve was actually waiting for her outside of her apartment, when she arrived home that night. He had a sketchbook in hand.

"I was thinking, I don't actually know your name," Steve said eventually. "I mean, it doesn't take a genius to know that Penny isn't it."

"Margaret Carter," Peggy answered. "Everyone but my grandmother calls me Peggy."

"Peggy. It's a pretty name," Steve told her.

"My parents thought so."

"Your parents ... anything you told me about them true?"

"Not a word."

Steve looked down at his pad. "I get why you lied to me. I do. I know that we have to do things to protect people sometimes that ... aren't nice. But the problem is, you're Peggy, and I just spent the past month falling in love with Penny. She ... I was going to tell Penny all about Erskine, all about what happened in Madripoor - everything. She was going to be the first person that I told those things to outside of my team."

"And now you know that she doesn't exist," Peggy finished for him.

"I did. Well, I do." Steve leaned his head on her apartment door and looked up at her. "Fury sent Bucky home two hours ago with a copy of your reports about the mission. I guess maybe it was his hope that it would get me to join S.H.I.E.L.D., or something."

"Did it change your mind?"

"About joining S.H.I.E.L.D.? No. My soldiering days are done and Betty and I are going to have weekly lunches where we mock the rest of the team's choices," Steve told her. "But you didn't put anything in there about Bucky's nightmares or ... what I said to you about them."

"I thought about it," Peggy told him. "You should know that much about me."

"But you didn't. And I think that means that you're not so far removed from the woman that I was falling in love with after all."

"I hate dogs," Peggy said abruptly. "I'm giving Loki away to Howard's son tomorrow morning and I am going to find a nice, reasonable cat. Possibly a fish."

Steve's lips turned up slightly. "I'll miss our walks."

"I will too," Peggy said truthfully.

"You could ... still come with me and Thor, if you wanted."

"I could," Peggy agreed, and she didn't want to sound too eager, but her lips were betraying her. "It was the best way for you to get to know Penny. It's probably the best way for you to get to know Peggy."

"And I'd like to get to know Peggy," Steve agreed. "So ... I'll see you tomorrow?"

"No, you won't. I have a mission tomorrow in France. I'll be gone for two weeks. Our walks will have to be post-poned until then."

Steve looked disappointed, and Peggy had never been so happy to see another human being look disappointed in her life.

"Okay, then, two weeks from tomorrow. Sounds like a date, Peggy."

Peggy smiled at him as she unlocked the door to her apartment. “A date. I'd like that."

~