It wasn't that Peggy avoided the Howling Commando get-togethers over the years.
Nobody made it to all of them; half of the boys were in America and the other half were scattered across Europe, and God only knew where Howard was most of the time. Peggy herself was a rising star in the post-war, Cold War espionage community, and she traveled a lot. She never seemed to manage to be in London when the boys assembled there.
Maybe sometimes she took missions with the knowledge a reunion was coming up, but they were important missions. Really.
It was Howard who called her in 1954, fresh off a boat from the Arctic, still fruitlessly searching, trying to bring the Captain's body home. They didn't mention that part, ever, but she knew his ship had docked the night before, and where it had been.
"I'm in London for a few days," he said when he called. His voice had that odd New York drawl, the way he had of giving you the idea he was seducing you even when you knew he didn't mean anything by it. "Come out for drinks tonight. Aw c'mon Peggy," he continued, when she started to demur. "I need a friendly face, I nearly froze my damn toes off out there."
"No joy, eh?" she asked softly.
"No joy," he said. "But I got this new contraption I want you to have a look at, I designed it on the ship. Just a drink or two, Peg."
"Well, I'll see if I can open up my very busy social calendar," she said sniffily, but he caught the amusement in her voice.
"Fan-tastic, swell," he said. "Mack's Restaurant? Eight o'clock?"
"Fine," Peggy said. "If I'm not there by nine, don't wait up."
It did give her some small pleasure, threatening to stand up Howard Stark, when socialites across two continents would scratch her eyes out to get to the man.
"You're a gem, Carter. See ya tonight," he said, and rung off.
And when she showed up that night, that no-good lying Yankee son-of-a-bitch was sitting in a booth at the back with Dum Dum and Pinky and Morita and Jones and Dernier.
"You are an ass," she said under her breath, as Howard stood up to welcome her.
"Yes, but I'm a devoted, wealthy ass, and you know I could be your ass," he told her, kissing her hand.
"Not for all the tea in China, which I'm sure you could arrange," she replied. "Hello, gentlemen."
"Gabe, scoot yourself over," Howard ordered. "Dum Dum, get your elbows off the table and make room. Come on boys, Agent Carter needs a seat and a drink. What's your poison?"
"Dry martini, two olives," she said, and settled in at the end of the booth next to Gabe. "And it's Assistant Director Carter now," she added.
"Oooooh," went the boys. She rolled her eyes.
"So what strings did Howard have to pull to get you slovenly louts into this place?" she asked, grinning at them.
"Lied and said we were white," Gabe told her, solemn-faced.
Peggy stared at him. "Oh, my God -- Jones, Morita, I didn't mean -- "
Jim cracked first, sniggering into his drink, and then Gabe started howling with laughter.
"Very funny," she growled.
"Your face!" Jim laughed. "It's an integrated club now, Assistant Director Carter."
"Come on, Carter, we haven't seen you in years," Dum Dum said. "Gotta make a few jokes at your expense."
"And yet time has not touched her face," Pinky said with a dry smile. It made her hurt a little, remembering the last time she'd seen that smile. The last time she'd seen any of them smile. The only one she'd seen in at least eight years was Howard, and him only briefly.
"You're still a liar, I see," she said. "You look well, all of you. Howard didn't tell me he was plotting a reunion."
"You'd'a blown us off, same as always," Gabe said.
"I am a very busy woman with a lot of responsibility," she replied primly. "I can't simply go gallivanting about with a bunch of old soldiers."
"Only some of us," Howard said, returning with her drink. "I'm still as young as I look."
"And as wild too, I imagine," she said. "Your hair, Howard, honestly."
"Nothing wrong with my hair!" he cried, hand going up to smooth it down. "Anyhow, I'm still footloose and fancy free. So's Dum Dum."
"Ain't found a woman to keep up with me," Dum Dum replied complacently. "Jim here got hitched though."
"Morita, did you really?" Peggy asked, delighted. He held up his hand to show his ring, then reached into his pocket.
"Oh god, the baby picture," Gabe groaned.
"If you had a baby as cute as mine -- "
Peggy sat back a little, sipping her drink and watching the men banter and bicker, make faces as Jim passed around a picture of his daughter, razz Pinky for being, as the eldest of them, a confirmed bachelor (she knew what that meant, and so did they, but Pinky didn't seem to mind), and ask Howard if it was true he'd been seen out with Grace Kelly before she became Princess of Monaco.
"So, miss can't-be-bothered-to-visit," Dum Dum said, when they'd quieted down a little. "How ya been keeping yourself?"
"Oh, very well," Peggy replied, smiling. "I'd tell you all about it, but I'd be obliged to silence you permanently afterwards."
"Like fellas in the spy novels!" Gabe exclaimed.
"Nothing half so exciting. Just a lot of Official Secrets Act business," she said.
"No Mr. Peggy Carter?" Pinky asked, winking at her.
"Alas, no; you know my heart belongs to the Empire," she replied.
Dum Dum was glaring at Pinky, and Howard looked red and awkward; it wasn't until Gabe laid a hand on her arm, a strange gesture of comfort, that she realized they thought Pinky's question was rude.
"Boys," she said softly, and smiled. "It's been ten years and more."
Some hearts are slow to heal, Dernier said in French.
"Jacques Dernier, I know you can speak English perfectly well," she replied sternly. "And Gabriel and Howard both speak French, so you're not being nearly as subtle as you think. Listen, you lot," she continued, as they shifted uncomfortably, "we all lost someone in the war. I haven't let it run my life, and I hope to God you haven't let it run yours. Now there's a great big elephant in the room with a white star on his chest, so let's drink our toast to Captain Rogers and we can all stop pitying me and start pitying Howard instead."
"Why me?" Howard asked.
"Darling, honestly, that hair," she said. Pinky burst out laughing.
"Right, then," he said, lifting his glass. "To the Captain."
"To the Captain," they repeated, and drank to the memory of Steve Rogers.
"Good for you, Carter," Gabe said softly, for her hearing alone. "Goddamn good for you, pardon my language."
"I think I've heard worse from you, Jones," she answered. She raised her voice. "In fact, I seem to recall all of you coming back from a day pass and you, sir, swearing like a sailor with something to prove because -- "
"Oh! Because of the -- the canned beans!" Dum Dum said, roaring with laughter.
"Yeah, laugh it up, those beans were not my fault," Gabe retorted, and they were off: war stories and dusty old jokes. Peggy had spent a lot of time with soldiers during the war, and she knew they could go on for hours. Howard caught her eye and made a querying face. Peggy sighed and nodded.
Aren't you glad I lied to you? his eyes asked.
Yes, but you're still an ass, her expression answered.
It was a good night, though Peggy suspected she might pay for it in the morning, when she'd have to do three debriefings and an intelligence action report on only a few hours of sleep. Still, she'd done worse in the war, though she had been twenty-four and not thirty-four when she'd gone all night on no sleep and still had to look fresh and pressed in the morning.
"We did miss you, you know," Dum Dum said, helping her on with her coat at the door. "Whenever we have one'a these little parties, someone always says we oughta find you and frog-march you to the next one."
"I've missed you too," she replied. "I'm sorry, it's just..."
"Lady, if anyone understands, it's us," he said, forestalling her. He gripped her shoulder briefly, then stepped outside, where Howard was smoking a cigarette and arguing loudly about detonator technology with Dernier.
"Which way you headed?" Gabe asked, pulling on his own coat.
"My flat's not far," she replied. "Few blocks east."
"My hotel's down that way," he said. "Hey, you let a veteran escort you home?"
She smiled. "I'd like nothing better, Mr. Jones, thank you."
She saw the barest hesitation in his body before he offered her his arm. In America, she recalled, there was a considerable amount of unrest over race. She gave him a warm smile and rested her hand in the crook of his elbow.
"We were all glad to see you," he said, as they walked. "I know this probably wasn't that fun for you."
"You know, I never thought it would be, but it was quite an enjoyable evening," she said, ambling slowly along the pavement. "Honestly, it was lovely to see everyone again."
"Well, the men always thought the world of you," he replied.
"The Commandos did," she agreed. "Not everyone appreciated a woman so close to the ranks. The less said about the rest of the soldiers..."
"Yeah, well. Wasn't a picnic being the only Negro in the White divisions that wasn't peelin' potatoes and driving trucks," he said.
"You did drive tanks."
"Only the really big ones," he said with a grin.
"You men and your bloody phallic symbols."
"Hey, if you got a giant gun..."
"Now you sound like Howard," she said, laughing. "What have you been up to, anyway? I don't think I caught what you do for a living, now."
"Translator," he said. "Military, mostly. On contract -- Stark gave me a hand getting that set up. It's pretty good pay, but I'm thinking of making some changes."
"Well..." he shrugged. "Truth is, I'm just passing through London on my way to France to have a look around. I might be moving to Paris. Get to be one of those stylish expats."
"Really? What a lovely idea. Any particular reason?"
"I liked it when we came through with the Commandos. Pretty girls," he added, and she smiled. "Plus there's lots of folk like me finding it..." he hesitated momentarily, clearly working out how to say it, "...a little easier than America. Got myself set up with some savings, so it's a good time. And I can get work as an English translator pretty easily."
"I'm in Paris occasionally for work. You'll have to write and tell me when you get settled, and I'll call you when I'm in town," she said.
"No offense, ma'am, but you aren't much one for nostalgia. At least it seems that way," he replied.
"Perhaps tonight changed my mind," she replied. "At any rate, I think you may call me Peggy, now that we're both nominally civilians."
"Then you can call me Gabe," he said. "I wouldn't mind seeing you again. With or without the Commandos."
"No, I wouldn't mind either. I'd like to hear more about your work; the way the world is going, translators are going to be in more demand. I don't suppose you speak Russian," she said.
"Not yet, but I see the way things are running too, might have a whack at learning it. Thing is, sometimes I feel like...I did my hitch," he said thoughtfully. "War's not pleasant, even if we had it better than most. I translated dispatches and stolen documents for years and...last year I got hired freelance to translate some French poetry. And I thought, isn't it nice that nobody died on account of what I'm reading."
"You know I still work in military intelligence."
"And I got nothing but respect for that, Peggy. I just got tired, that's all. Don't you get tired of it sometimes?"
She thought about the last ten years, the work she'd done, the bodies she'd seen, the two times where she'd had to shoot a man -- not in battle but in reasonably cold blood. To save other lives, to keep Britain safe, but still. Murder in peacetime was different from death in war.
"Once in a while," she said softly. "Sometimes I miss the war, though."
"Me too. Funny, huh?"
"Perhaps it is." She slowed her pace, stopping in front of the block of flats where she was living. "And this is me. Thank you for walking me back, Gabe."
"Pleasure was all mine," he said, as she let go of his arm. "I still miss him too, y'know."
He wasn't looking at her; he was looking up at a streetlight, and it lit up his face, his keen dark eyes.
"So do I," she agreed. On impulse, she leaned in and kissed his cheek. "Look after yourself. Enjoy Paris."
"I will. You keep safe."
"Promise I will."
She let herself into the building and climbed the stairs to her flat. When she looked out the window, he was still standing there, looking up; after a second he smiled, saluted, and walked away.
Peggy didn't really expect Gabriel to write to her; those were the kinds of things people said they'd do but didn't always follow through on. She was surprised, then, to find a letter from him bundled in with her post when she returned from a diplomatic visit to Poland.
It was a cheery, funny letter, full of anecdotes about his experiences hunting for a flat and a job in Paris, and a few lines about what he was doing now that he'd found his feet. He talked about how the city had changed since the war, but I imagine you already knew that, and the bohemian American expats who lived across the hall.
Last night a French lady asked me to dance, he wrote. I think it's the first time since the war a white woman looked at me in a club and didn't think I was a waiter. Times are changing.
She copied Gabriel's address into her small red address book, under H for Howlers, and sifted through the rest of the post. There was also a letter from Howard, who Sat down to send you a few lines from Japan, but by the time I got to mail it I was in Egypt, so you get rice paper letter and Egyptian cotton envelope; don't I shower you with luxury? Dum Dum's with me, and sends his regards.
Peg, there are big things coming and I can't write about 'em here, but I want to see you next time I'm in London. I promise no party this time, just you and me and some words for your ears. For what I'm planning I need good people, and if I have to steal them from the Crown I will. It's not a job offer (not yet) but I want to put the idea in your head that there'd be a place for you in what Dum Dum and I are making.
She frowned, set the letter aside, and looked out her window, watching people pass on the busy London street. She'd worked hard to get where she was in the civil service, and starting over didn't necessarily appeal.
But then Howard knew how hard she worked, so perhaps she should consider whatever he had to say.
Beneath his letter was a telegram, also from Howard. LONDON NO GO STOP ARRIVING IN PARIS STAYING HOTEL CRILLON STOP COME PARIS NOV ELEVEN IF CONVENIENT STOP IF INCONVENIENT THEN PRIORITIES ALL WRONG STOP IF HAVE CLEVER DISCREET FRIENDS BRING TOO STOP WEAR BLUE DRESS I LOVE BLUE DRESS STOP WILL PAY HOTEL REGARDLESS OF DRESS STOP
She smiled. It was November eighth.
I have your letter now that I'm back from some travels and I very much enjoyed it, thank you! I'm glad to see you've found your feet so fast in Paris, not that I expected anything less.
I may beat this letter to you, but if you receive it first, please know I am en route to Paris by the next transport I can catch. I'm afraid this sort of thing is my lot in life now. I should be in the city by the eleventh of November, and I shall be staying at the Hotel de Crillon. You may call for me there or, if I don't hear from you, I shall look you up.
Howard will be in Paris as well; he's asked me to meet him and bring any "clever discreet friends" I happen to know, so if you'd like to dine on Howard, clear your evening. Dum Dum may be along, though I can't say for certain. Looks like our next little reunion will be sooner than expected.
I hope to see you while I'm there.
She put it in the post on her way to headquarters to arrange a flight to Paris.
Peggy landed in Paris on the morning of the eleventh, a Sunday, and when she went to check into the hotel she found that a room had already been booked for her by Howard Stark. The desk attendant gave her a knowing grin as she took the key from him. The room was airy, with a view to die for, and there was a spray of roses on the dressing-table with a card: Six o'clock, hotel restaurant in Howard's neat draftsman's script.
Gabe wasn't in the telephone book, but when she called the switchboard they had a number for the address on his letter; he answered with a cheerful "Bonjour!" on the second ring.
"Gabriel, it's Peggy," she said.
"Peggy! I got your letter, are you in Paris?"
"I am, I'm at the hotel."
"Swell. Hear from Stark yet?"
"Yes. Quite loudly, in fact," she said, regarding the roses.
"He's not a quiet man," Gabe agreed, amusement in his voice. "There's a secret meeting, huh?"
"Six o'clock tonight in the restaurant of the hotel. Can you come?"
"Sure. What's it all about?"
"I've no idea. Howard has some plan."
"He generally does. He know I'm coming?"
"Not yet, but if he knows you're in Paris he might expect it."
"Don't know if he does. Dernier knows, we've been palling around. Should I bring him?"
"Not yet," she said cautiously. Dernier was a lovely man and you couldn't beat him when it came to building bombs, but he tended to be indiscreet if he had a few drinks in him. "Just yourself."
"No problem. See you at six, then?"
"On the dot."
"Fine. I have to run, got some papers to deliver this afternoon."
"Goodbye," she said, and rung off. She went to hang her dress up -- not the blue one, why give Howard the satisfaction? -- and unpacked her suitcase: clothes, toiletries, makeup, and her service pistol. Then she picked up her phone again and made another call.
"Heelan's Pub," a voice answered.
"This is Agent Gloriana," she said. "I'm in Paris and available for any actions excepting eighteen hundred to twenty-two hundred tonight, local time."
"Acknowledged, Gloriana. Have a nice flight?"
"Tolerable, thank you."
"How long will you be staying?"
"I plan to return on the twelfth, but can remain if desired."
"Let me check." There was a rustle of paper. "No actions currently registered for Paris at this time, but we'll keep you informed. Have a pleasant stay."
"Acknowledged. Good day."
When she came down to the lobby that evening, Gabriel was there, seated in one of the chairs and reading a book; when he saw her he tucked the book away in his pocket and stood, offering his hand. She kissed his cheek.
"Didn't expect to see me so soon, did you?" she asked, taking his arm without waiting for him to offer this time.
"Guess I didn't," he replied. He looked dapper, in a slim European-cut suit with a dark waistcoat and a banker's collar. "Can't say I mind."
"Me neither -- "
"PEG," came a shout, and she turned to see Howard leaning out of the doorway to the restaurant, looking less dapper and considerably rumpled. "Good to seeya -- hey Jones!" he added, a smile creasing his face. "Where'd she turn you up?"
Gabriel glanced at her, amused. "I'm living in Paris now, Mr. Stark."
"Well, that beats the bank. Come on, I got us a private room, Dum Dum's setting up."
What Dum Dum was setting up looked like a small radio, of the sort they'd used for communications during the war.
"It's a jammer, 'cause the walls have ears," he said, when they walked in. "All working, boss," he added to Howard. "But it's serve-yourself dinner I'm afraid. Heya Carter. Jones, good to seeya."
"Sarge," Jones said, as Howard poured out a few glasses of wine. There was a sideboard with cuts of meat and steaming chafing dishes full of food; there were also two men in American military uniforms, standing nearby.
"This looks very covert," Peggy remarked, accepting a glass and seating herself at the table, the white linen crisp and smooth. "Why so much secrecy? I hope I didn't come all the way from London for a buffet and war stories."
"Not hardly. Peg, Jones, this is General Ofsheim and Colonel Kent; gentlemen, Assistant Director Margaret Carter of Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Gabriel Jones, formerly of the Howling Commandos."
The men looked askance at Gabe. He gave them a sardonic salute.
"Mr. Jones is a former contracted translator for the Army," Peggy added. "He's entirely discreet."
"Course he is. Well, dish up," Howard added. "We have a lot of ground to cover."
When they had their meals and had dispensed with small talk, Howard steepled his fingers over his plate. "Now, we got to bring Carter and Jones up to speed here, but I need to open this by saying that whatever you hear tonight is the kind of thing folks get killed over, so let's keep it between us. Kent?"
"The long and short of it is," Kent said, "that the balance of power is shifting."
"Hardly new," Peggy put in.
"Not in the usual way. There are people -- not always politicians -- who are gaining in political and economic power. These are people who are capable of pulling the strings on entire countries. Some of them know others, but nobody knows everyone. They've formed a conglomerate of sorts -- the Western Security Council." Kent tossed a folder onto the table. "That is the only copy of the only intelligence report on the WSC. Half of it is speculation. Any one of these people could be another Hitler, but without authorized political office. This is new war."
"Sounds like the same old Cold War to me," Gabe said.
"On a planetary scale," Ofshiem replied. "The American military isn't equipped to handle this. No single American intelligence agency is. And the Western Security Council needs a watchdog. Both for them, and around them."
"Security," Peggy remarked. "They seem to have stability in mind, yes?"
"For now. The point is," Howard said, "they need spies. They want the military to supply them with a personal espionage army. And America...well."
"America wants someone to watch this council," Gabe said, glancing at Howard. "That's right, isn't it?"
"He's quick," Ofsheim remarked grudgingly.
"If you have a problem with quick -- "
Howard held up a hand. "Look, this is all pointing one place. There's a covert organization of wealthy, powerful shadows out there. We need a group of very smart, very sneaky people who can straddle the line between working for them and making sure these shadows don't get too big for their britches. That's where we come in."
"You want to hold the watchdog's leash," Peggy said.
"He wants to train the watchdog," Dum Dum put in. He'd been silent, but now he leaned forward. "He wants you an' me -- an' Jones here, an' anyone else he can hook in -- to join up."
"You sound like you already have," Gabe pointed out.
"Wasn't doin' anything more important," Dum Dum said, shrugging.
"We're calling it the Strategic Headquarters for Investigation, Espionage, and Logistical Defense," Howard said.
"SHIELD," Peggy said softly.
"Thought you might appreciate that," Howard agreed. "I've done some asking around, y'know. If we bring you on, Peg, the Crown won't try to bully their way any further into it. More than that, I need you. Gabe, you too -- you'd be a welcome addition," he said. "So we can sit here tonight and hammer out a charter that might just save the world. But if you want to walk away, now's the time. No harm, no foul."
Gabriel looked to Peggy, but before she could make any kind of gesture, he turned back to them, taking a slim object out of his pocket.
"Can I have a few minutes to think about it?" he asked, holding up the cigarette case.
"Sure," Howard said.
"I'll go with him," Peggy added. Gabriel gave her a grateful look.
General Ofsheim stood to join them, but Howard waved him down.
"I trust them," he said. The general gave them a suspicious look, but he didn't follow as they strolled through the restaurant. Gabe led her through the kitchen, and out to the alley behind.
He offered her a cigarette, then lit it for her and lit his own. He leaned against the wall, face thoughtful.
"It isn't what you wanted, is it?" Peggy asked. "If you go back into this, it's dispatches and death all over again, Gabriel."
"You're going to say yes, aren't you?"
"Yes. Howard's rarely wrong, and I care about the security of the western world. Besides, there's not much room for promotion where I am now, and I don't fancy being let out to pasture in my prime."
"What if it all goes to hell?"
"Then it will have been one hell of a ride."
"I didn't want to fight any more," he said thoughtfully. "And...well, poetry's nice, literature's nice, but it isn't stopping any wars. Not yet. Maybe someday."
"You could give a conditional no. Come in later as a contractor."
He shook his head. "All or nothin'. Yes tonight or no forever. Can't keep trying to make up my mind."
"Gabriel," she said softly. He looked at her. "Quis custodiet custodies?"
"You know a lot of people get that wrong," he said. "It doesn't mean who watches the watchers. Well, literally. But a meaningful translation would say, who cares for the guardians. Who comforts the soldiers."
"The answer's the same, either way," she said. "We watch each other."
"Guess so. Ready?"
He nodded, dropping the butt of his cigarette in a puddle.
Inside, Howard was sitting back in his chair, chattering relaxedly at the military men, putting them at ease. When he saw them, he gave them a questioning look.
"So?" he asked. "Are you two in?"
"Would I need to leave Paris?" Gabe asked.
"No," Howard said. "Not permanently. Occasional travel. If it's a concern, we can minimize it. I don't think you'd blend very well in Soviet Russia anyway; if you're in, I've got you marked out for communications."
"Then I'm in," Gabe said.
"Peg?" Howard asked.
Forty years later, watching Dum Dum pack up the Director's office, she'd look to the framed paper on the wall -- the very first SHIELD charter, written out by hand on yellow military-issue notepaper -- and ask him, "You aren't taking that with you?"
"Nah," Dum Dum would reply. "Leave it for the next guy. Reassuring, y'know?"
And there would be the signatures: Ofsheim and Kent as witnesses, and below them
Director of Operations
Director of Research
The titles were a bit silly, of course, but they were good bland names -- and if only the four of them ever knew what they really meant, well, that was fine.
In the moment, however, in the dim little room in Paris, she just said, "It sounds like fun."
Getting SHIELD off the ground was fun, except when it wasn't. It was a lot of work, and a lot of politics. She went recruiting among the other Commandos, as well as her old SSR connections and the women's military auxiliary corps where she'd done her basic training.
SHIELD ended up with a lot more females than she thought Howard had intended; every time a background profile of a woman Peggy had spoken to crossed his desk, he gave her that suspicious, semi-indulgent eyebrow. Still, of the thirty she put up for postings, he only rejected two. When SHIELD finally lit up for the first time, it had more women in service than any other intelligence agency in the world. Peggy was pretty proud of that.
It took eight months to get the organization up and running. She spent a lot of time in Paris, which was more central than London and easier to get to than New York for most of them. She'd cross the channel, check into a hotel, and have dinner with Gabe, or Gabe and Howard if he was around. If he was, she'd know; her room would have roses in it.
She began to become aware that Howard really was hers for the asking, if she so much as nodded her head. She considered it one night in Paris, arriving too late for dinner but still finding roses on her dressing-table when she checked in.
Howard was, after all, rich. He was clever and charming. She didn't love him, but that meant his inevitable infidelities wouldn't hurt. She'd been with men since the war -- been in love, even -- but it hadn't lasted, and she was beginning to wonder if it ever would. Howard would provide stability, and he wouldn't demand she leave a job she loved. He was sweet and attentive, and they had the war in common. He would want children, which she wanted with a kind of low, often-ignored ache. He would want an heir, at least.
But...she didn't love him. And she found that more and more often she looked forward to the times when he wasn't in Paris, when it was just her and Gabriel at dinner without Howard trying to dominate the conversation. Howard's letters to her, when they didn't concern the work, were blatantly seductive; Gabe's were funny and dry, about the world around him and not the world he created in his head, as Howard's were.
She didn't want a man who could see the future. She wanted -- she wanted a man who could see beyond war.
Her telephone rang, startling her out of her thoughts, and when she picked up, Gabe was on the line.
"I heard you got in," he said. "Long journey?"
"Not so long," she replied. "A little bumpy. What are you still doing up?"
"Well, for now I still make my own hours. Listen, I know a late-night kitchen if you want a bite."
"I'm starving, but I think I'm too tired to consider putting shoes back on. Not to mention my hair's a disgrace."
He laughed down the line. "I can bring dinner to you, if you like. Or tell me to bug off, and I'll bother you tomorrow when you've had some shuteye."
"No, I -- I think I'd like to eat, if you don't mind putting up with me."
"I never mind," he replied, still laughing.
"Berk," she said. "All right. I'm in room four-twelve."
"I'll be there in half an hour," he promised, and hung up.
When she answered the door, in stocking feet and with a dressing-gown thrown over her traveling clothes, he had not only a paper sack full of food, but a bottle of wine in his other hand. She took the food gratefully and began laying it out while he uncorked the wine with his pocket-knife and poured into two chipped mugs he must have brought from his flat.
"I got an eyeballin' coming in," he said, handing her a glass of wine.
"Well, let them eyeball."
"That's my feeling on the matter."
"Ham...brie...mustard and bread," she said, settling into her chair. "Ham and cheese sandwiches, Gabe?"
He grinned. "This is fancy French cookin'!"
"Well, it's comfort food back in the states," he said, helping himself to some ham and using the blade on his knife to slice up the cheese. "Dig in."
"Thank God," she said, stuffing ham into the crusty roll, barely stopping to take some cheese off his knife before taking a huge bite. He grinned and ate his own more daintily, sipping at the wine.
They ate in silence until Peggy had taken the edge off her hunger, and then Gabriel cleared his throat.
"Nice roses," he observed. "Howard?"
"He always sends them," she said with a fond, slightly frustrated smile. "At least if he knows I'm coming. Knowing him, right now he's out at some terrible cabaret, with a girl on each arm."
Gabe settled back a little. "And you don't mind?"
"Mind?" she asked. "It's Howard. There's no changing him."
"Yeah, but...doesn't seem right."
"What, his wholesale lechery?" she smiled.
"If I had a woman like you," he blurted, "begging your pardon, but I wouldn't be -- "
"Gabriel," she interrupted. "Howard doesn't have me. I'm not had by men. If and when I choose, I do the having. And I've done neither with Howard."
He gave her a frown.
"But you and him..."
"We aren't anything more than friends," she said. "Good lord, do you think if I did have him I'd let him run around as he does?"
And it struck her, then.
"It would never work," she said, realizing it as she said it. "I shouldn't like a man like that, and I shouldn't like to be the kind of woman he'd try to make me into."
"Oh," Gabe said quietly. "I just always thought -- "
"No. Not between Howard and me."
"Oh," he said again, quietly. "But he sends you roses."
Peggy could feel the moment crackle, like the air before a raid, a few seconds before something was going to arrive and change everything. She'd felt it before, twice: the day she'd begun University, and the day she'd seen Steve Rogers coming up the road, leading four hundred missing-presumed-dead soldiers home.
It was always a precipice. There was still time to turn and run. But Peggy had never been one for running.
"And you bring me sandwiches," she said, the most banal possible phrase. He shrugged. "Were you stepping back because of Howard, Gabriel?"
He blinked at her and looked down at his hands. "Not so much stepping back," he said. He raised his head. "Just not so much stepping up, either. You know what they say in the Army. Never volunteer."
He gave her a half-smile. It was the sweetest smile, and she loved it, and that was probably a sign.
"Because of Howard?" she pressed quietly.
"Because of him, and I don't know if you've noticed but in our necks of the woods, a black man stepping up to a white woman doesn't make for many smiles."
"We're in Paris."
"We're not from Paris, Peggy," he said, but she kissed him -- warm press of lips, a soft noise of surprise, the smell of his Parisian cologne -- and that did shut him up, at least.
Gabriel was a good kisser -- Peggy wasn't going to say she was a connoisseur, but she'd kissed more men than her mother would be pleased with, and Gabe was high on the list. One of his hands came up to grasp the back of her neck lightly, holding her there, the two of them awkwardly bent across the space between their chairs.
"How long are you in Paris?" he asked, leaning back.
"Only a few days," she said, and his face fell. "Gabriel. Let's have dinner tomorrow. Take me dancing. I haven't gone out dancing in ages."
He smiled. "Sure about that?"
"Then it'd be my pleasure," he answered. "Meet you here at seven?"
"Seven is perfect."
Gabriel nodded. "I should go, or I'm really gonna get an eyeballin'."
"Go," she said, and took his hand, squeezing it as he stood. "I'll see you tomorrow."
He bent and kissed her lightly. "Wear your dancing shoes."
When he was gone, she smiled and got up, going to her suitcase, and took out a new blue dress. She did look good in blue.
Those were good days, perhaps the best days. She spent more time in Paris, and less in the field; she had command over men and women who did the job she used to do, and she loved what she did. Perhaps there was more paperwork than she liked, but then there always had been, even during the war. Slowly, she began to close up her flat in London, transporting a box or two of books and clothing whenever she crossed to Paris, and kept them in her office at Headquarters until she'd found a little place not far from Gabriel's where the rent was reasonable and the people were nice.
When the office wasn't too busy, Gabriel would knock on the doorframe of her office and invite her out, to walks or to lunch or museums. They went dancing in the evenings, and sometimes he stayed at her flat, waking her in the morning with breakfast from a nearby bakery and coffee brewed in her tiny kitchen. By the time he knew her place as well as his own, Howard had stopped sending roses.
She'd seen that moment, the moment Howard gave in -- at HQ one morning she'd been coming in when she saw the two of them talking in the hallway, a sheaf of translations in Gabe's hand. Howard's face had been resigned, Gabriel's triumphant, and when Howard offered his hand to shake, with a smile that was only half-false, she knew he was conceding the fight. Really, she thought, he should have conceded it to her; Gabriel didn't win her, after all. She chose him. But if Howard could be magnanimous, so could she.
A month later, walking along the Seine late at night, Gabriel stopped to lean against a railing, looking sidelong at her.
"I'm honestly not sure how to say this," he said, their shoulders touching as she leaned next to him. "Peg, you don't strike me as a woman who ever went looking for marriage."
She turned a little. "Well, no, I never went looking for it. I don't suppose I'd mind it, however."
"I'm thinking -- I'd like to marry you," he said. "But I didn't want to do all that hokey on-one-knee stuff. And if you'd rather, I can ask -- well, I can ask you to move in. Live in sin, kind of a thing," he said, with a hesitant smile.
"I wouldn't say no," she answered. "But I might regret not having a ring."
"Is that so?" Gabriel asked.
"That's so," she answered. He reached into his pocket and took out a little box, passing it to her. When she opened it, a small diamond gleamed out of it. Over the lid of the box, she saw his face, shadowed and waiting.
"How about it?" he asked. "Think you'd want to marry an old soldier like me?"
She leaned in and kissed him. "The least you could do is put it on my finger for me, you know," she replied, and he took the box back, removing the ring to slip it over her finger.
"I pretty much love you more than I thought I ever could," he said.
"Well, that's fine, because I feel much the same," she answered. He kissed her, an arm around her waist, hip hitched against the rail.
"To be honest," he said, "I wasn't sure you'd say yes."
"Why on earth, darling?"
"Don't know. Nerves, I guess," he said. "Last night I..."
He trailed off, and she touched his face, let him lean into the caress for a moment.
"I'm not much one for praying," he continued eventually. "But last night I sat down and had a talk with Cap, you know..." he pointed up, and she nodded. "I just said, straight out, I know you two had something -- it's all right, Peggy, we all knew it, and mostly it's nothing to me, over and done, I know -- but...I said to him, I knew you two had something, and I wasn't meaning to take his place. But I thought he oughta know you had someone now. And I told him I'd always be there for you. And then I was worried you wouldn't let me make good on that promise," he added lightly.
"You knew Steve," she said. "You know if he found I loved you, he'd be happy for us."
"Guess I do. But I also know he'd threaten to break me in half if I didn't do right by you."
"Yes, well, he always was a bit old-fashioned. And now," she added, kissing him again, "no more talk of something so very far in the past. I want to talk about the future. What do you say to an elopement?"
He began to laugh. "You aren't like any other woman, Peg."
"I daresay not. Let's run off to Italy. We'll spend the weekend in Florence. Or should we marry in London? Neither of us are citizens here. And then we'll have to find a new flat -- yours is much too small, dear, and mine's no better -- "
"And somewhere with room," he said. She cocked her head. "Room for a family. If you want that. I think you do. I know I do."
"Yes," she said. "I very much do. Come along," she added, stepping away and dragging him by the hand towards the street. "We have plans to make!"
Lying in bed that night, with Gabriel asleep next to her, one hand curled possessively over her shoulder, she thought about what he'd said. And she closed her eyes and thought about Steve. It'd been a long time since she'd seen his face in anything other than a photograph, but she was certain she could picture him grinning.
Old-fashioned, yes, but never small of heart, that boy. The boy she'd lost in the war. And now she had another man, and he would understand that. He'd be so glad it was Gabriel, she thought, just as glad as she was.
They were packing up the house in Paris, preparing to move to New York, when the question finally came.
Gabriel had been against going back to America for years; he'd followed all the civil unrest in the papers and he knew, certainly better than she did, what they'd face if they returned -- what he'd face, what their dark-skinned son would face, and what she'd go through for loving them both. But things were settling down now. The Fair Housing Act had passed and New York was, at least, somewhat progressive in these things. It wouldn't be easy, but it wouldn't be as hard as it could have been. Peggy had her own concerns about bringing her son to America, but after all, it was his father's homeland.
And SHIELD very much needed them in New York.
"Momma," Nicholas asked, four years old and too clever by half, so much of his father about him. "What's this?"
He was holding a framed photograph she'd put away years ago, of the Commandos on leave; all of the boys were there, and those who had uniforms were wearing them. She was standing near the center, Howard on her right, Gabriel leaning on Dernier's shoulder beyond Howard. Dum Dum and Bucky, the two sergeants, were standing on a bench behind the others, Bucky giving a salute while Dum Dum doffed his hat.
And there on her left was Steve, in his blue uniform (grey in the picture) with the star on his chest. Howard and Pinky were standing next to him, both leering a little at the camera. Steve's shield was at his feet, leaning against his leg, and in front of it was a little placard: HOWLING COMMANDOS, 1944.
"Is that daddy?" he asked, pointing to Gabe.
"Yes, my sweet, and who's this?" she prompted, gathering him onto her lap, holding the photograph in front of both of them.
"You?" Nicholas asked, looking up at her.
"Yes, that's me. This was taken during the war."
Nicholas turned to study the photograph again carefully. "And that's Uncle Dum," he said, poking Dum Dum in the face. "And...who's that?"
"That, darling, is Steven Rogers," she said. "You know your Captain America books Papa bought you?"
"Well, Captain America was a real person."
"Was so. Your father was a soldier in his unit. See that white star? And there's the shield."
"Captain America was real?"
"Yes, he was. We both knew him. So did Uncle Dum and Mr. Stark."
"But he was a superhero!"
Peggy looked up and saw Gabe leaning against the doorjamb, watching them. He caught her eye and nodded.
"He was a superhero," she said. "So was your daddy."
"Were you a superhero too?" Nicholas asked, twisting to look up at her.
"Your momma was the best superhero," Gabe said, and Nicholas squirmed out of her arms, running to him. He picked the boy up, propping him on his hip.
"What was Captain America like?" Nicholas asked gravely.
Gabe kissed his forehead. "Captain America was a brave, good man. And if you mind yourself and listen to your momma and grow up big and strong, you can be a superhero too."
Nicholas considered this.
"I wanna be Superman," he decided.
Nick met Tony Stark once as a child. Back then he was still Nicholas Jones, and he was sixteen years old. Tony himself was six.
By the time Tony was born, Howard Stark had moved out to California. Nick had seen him often as a child, but they didn't cross paths much anymore. His parents were busy with SHIELD in New York, and Howard had left SHIELD entirely. But Dad had been sent out to California to do some work at the big military base near Los Angeles, and he thought Mom and Nick would like to come along, so they packed up and flew out there for three weeks. And when they arrived, there was an invitation to dinner with the Starks waiting for them.
Tony was a cute kid, quiet and well-behaved. A little too well-behaved, if you asked Nick, but then what did he know about raising kids. The boy wore a tiny tailored suit and sat quietly at dinner, and was collected up by a nanny when the adults adjourned for cocktails in the lounge. Nick felt pretty grown-up to be allowed to have a ginger ale while the adults talked politics, but after about fifteen minutes he got bored, and wandered over to the bookshelf near the door, studying the titles. Engineering, politics, history...
Nick glanced casually through the doorway and saw Tony standing in the hall, dressed in expensive-looking pinstriped pyjamas. Tony gestured for him to come out, so he glanced back at his parents -- engrossed in chatter with the Starks -- and then slunk away silently.
"What's up, squirt?" he asked.
"You looked bored," Tony said, practically arching his back to look all the way up at Nick's face. "Wanna come see my workshop?"
"You have a workshop?"
"It's my dad's but it'll be mine someday," Tony replied, taking his hand and tugging him along. "You were bored, right? Grownups are boring. Well, my dad's not boring, but when he's with other grownups he is."
"Shouldn't you be in bed or something?"
"Yeah, but I snuck out. Lift me up," Tony instructed, as they reached a doorway with a locking panel on it. "Come on, lift me up!"
"Okay, kid, jeez," Nick replied, hoisting him by his armpits. Tony tapped in a series of numbers and the door swung open on a set of stairs.
This was not the polite, silent child from dinner.
"I'm building a robot," Tony continued, leading him down the stairs and into what must be Howard Stark's private workshop, somewhere he should not be. On the other hand, he shouldn't leave the kid alone in here, and dragging him back to his parents seemed somehow rude. Tony went to a low workbench clearly designed for a child and picked up what looked an awful lot like a circuit board. "See?"
Nick knew Howard could talk, but Howard apparently wasn't a patch on his son, who kept up a steady monologue explaining things while Nick settled in to listen. He had expected the robot to be made of legos or cardboard, but it was real metal. The kid had technical drawings, not well-done but pretty good for a damn six year old.
"When I grow up," Tony said at one point, "I'm gonna build robots to fight in wars."
"Why in wars?"
Tony looked up at him. "Cause then people won't have to. It can all be robots."
"Not sure that's quite how it works."
"What do you know? It could. In the comic books only the bad guys ever build robots, it's stupid. I think the good guys should build robots too."
"You like comic books?"
Tony nodded. "Wanna see?"
At least it got them out of the workshop; he ended up sitting on a smallish chair in Tony's bedroom, reading his remarkably complete collection of Superman and Straight Shooter and Bombardier Bill and Batman comics.
"You like Captain America comics?" Nick asked.
"Dad won't let me read 'em."
"Dunno," Tony said, unconcerned. "He says they're not any good, but I think that's a 'scuse. They're not s'posed to be about real life. Batman's my favorite because he's got gadgets," he added.
"Anthony, what are you -- " Mrs. Stark appeared in the doorway. "Oh my goodness, Nicholas, we were wondering where you'd gone. I hope Tony hasn't been boring you."
"No ma'am," Nick said. "We've been reading comic books."
"Silly childish things. Tony, look at the mess you've made. You should have been in bed an hour ago."
"I wasn't tired," Tony complained.
"Nonsense, you're six, you can't possibly know when you are and aren't tired. Into bed, go on," she chided, and Tony reluctantly put his comic book down. He offered Nick his hand, formally.
"It was nice to meet you, Mr. Jones," he said. Nick shook it with a smile and stood up as Tony climbed into the bed.
"Honestly, I'm so sorry," Mrs. Stark said, once they were in the hallway. "Babysitting is hardly why you came here tonight."
"I didn't mind. He's a smart little kid."
"Hm, a little too smart, I think. He's a terrible handful," she replied.
"Kid who likes superheroes can't make too much mischief."
"Tell that to the gardener who fished him out of the hedges last week. He'd jumped out the second-floor window to test the aerodynamics of a cape he'd made."
"How'd the cape work?"
She looked at him, perplexed. "I didn't ask. I was busy plucking leaves out of his hair. He's obsessed with comic books and robots at the moment, the silly child. Howard says computers are the future, but I do wish the future would wait at least a few years while Tony grows up. I've found him!" she added cheerfully, leading Nick back into the lounge. "Tony lured him out and made him read comic books with him."
"That kid," Howard sighed. "Sorry, Nick, you should have just handed him back to the nanny."
"It was fine," Nick said. His own parents were exchanging a look. He figured he probably shouldn't mention Tony had taken him down to the workshop. "We had fun. He said he wants to build robots when he grows up. He's a kick."
"Is he settled in now?" Howard asked his wife, who nodded. "Fine then. What about you, Nick? Following your parents' footsteps in a few years, huh?"
Nick wasn't supposed to know much about what Mom and Dad did for SHIELD, but he knew enough. "Maybe," he said cautiously.
"College, first," his dad said firmly. "That's enough of our footsteps for him to follow."
"Yeah? Where you thinking?" Howard asked. "I know some folks at Stanford."
"I think we can wait another year or so before we start pulling strings," his mother said with a smile, and Nick gave her a covert, relieved look. "And honestly, Howard, it's been a delight, but we should be going. Gabe's got an early morning, and Nicholas has studying to do."
Nick rolled his eyes, but he helped Mom on with her coat and shook hands and said all the proper things. When they were in the car, on the way home, Mom turned to Dad and said, "By God, I have never been happier I married you."
"Well, that makes two of us," Dad replied.
"Why?" Nick asked, leaning forward from the back seat.
"Back in the day," Dad said, "Mr. Stark and your mother were almost an item."
"We were not! Don't tell him that. We weren't," Mom said, turning to Nick. "Howard might have wished we were, but he wasn't the man for me. Poor little Tony," she added. "He's a bright boy and I'm sure he'll have every advantage, but Howard thinks he's some kind of automaton you can switch off when you don't want him around."
Nick thought about his own childhood, never lacking a parent to run to when he had a scrape or a question, and nodded. "Mr. Stark was nice, though."
"Howard's always nice, that's part of his charm. Still. I wouldn't give up the two of you for any amount of charm," Mom said. "He had a point, though, you should start looking at schools soon."
Nick swallowed. "I was thinking maybe the Marines," he said.
To their credit, his parents didn't flinch.
"Sure," Dad said. "After college."
"You can go to West Point or Annapolis if you want, but if you're joining the Marine Corps, you're getting your degree first," Dad replied.
"Fiiiine," Nick muttered, rebellious.
"He's such a cheerful, obedient child," Mom said to Dad. "You get that from me, I think you'll find," she added to Nick, and he couldn't help but grin a little.
Eight years later -- after college, after his first hitch in the Army, after Ranger training -- Nick turned up on their doorstep one evening on leave. And he brought a friend with him.
Peggy smiled. Nick was always taking in strays.
"Mom, this is Cheese," Nick said, slapping the smaller man on the shoulder. "Saved my butt in training and didn't have anywhere to go for leave."
"Cheese," she said, smiling. "I assume your parents didn't actually hate you."
"Phil Banachiewicz, ma'am," he said. She noticed, with interest, that he didn't do the subtle back-and-forth from her to her son, trying to gauge if Nick was adopted, as most people did. "I don't mean to impose."
"Nonsense, we have plenty of room and you can't eat that much more than Nick," she said, shaking his hand. "Come into the kitchen. GABRIEL!" she called, and there was an answering yell from the back of the house. "NICHOLAS IS HOME!"
"Where's my boy?" Gabe called, hurrying down the hallway. "Hey, soldier."
"Dad," Nick said, accepting the handshake and one-armed hug.
"Well, a Ranger now, huh? Who's this?" Gabe asked, offering his hand to Phil as well. Nick introduced him again while Peggy subtly shepherded them into the kitchen. Nick went straight to the fridge. Peggy and Gabriel exchanged a look as he took out sandwich fixings.
"So, how was it?" Gabe asked, settling in at the kitchen table and kicking out a chair for Phil. "Dirty details, kids, let me live vicariously through men whose knees still work proper."
Peggy listened, occasionally passing Nick the mustard or the jar of pickles as he fixed two large sandwiches. This "Cheese" seemed all right; respectful, soft-spoken, and obviously trustworthy, if Nick was placing his faith in him.
It was difficult, sometimes, to reconcile Nicholas with the baby she'd held in her arms the day he was born. He'd been such a noisy, enthusiastic, clever boy, and he still was -- but now he was tempered by adulthood and the military. This Nicholas, still beloved, was nonetheless enormous, thickly muscled, full of controlled attitude, and cocky with his latest accomplishment.
Harder still was to reconcile her feelings for her son as a mother with her directorial feelings for the young soldier in her kitchen, who a part of her kept saying would make such a very excellent addition to SHIELD.
"So, is it true what Fury said, that you knew Captain America?" Phil asked.
"Fury?" Gabriel replied, turning to his son.
"I bring the righteous rage," Nick replied. Peggy covered her mouth to keep her laughter to herself.
"Uh huh. We'll talk later," Gabriel said, and turned back to Phil. "Sure. I was one of the Howling Commandos."
Phil's eye grew wide. "You're Gabriel Jones!" he said, his voice suddenly awed, and less tough than it had been a moment ago.
"It gets better," Gabe said, despite Peggy making a chopping gesture across her neck. "That's Margaret Carter."
Phil looked at her like she might be the Madonna.
"He's a comic book fan," Nick said.
Peggy seated herself, crossing her legs and leaning back. "Well, Cheese," she drawled, "between Gabriel and myself I think we have enough war stories to keep even a comic book fan entertained."
Peggy wasn't in the least surprised, a few years later, to walk into the hospital room in Dhahran and find Phil Banachiewicz sitting next to Nicholas's bed. Nick might pick up strays, clean them up and send them on their way, but he'd only ever adopted one for life.
"Cheese," she said, and he gave her a halfhearted smile.
"Should have known you'd turn up, ma'am," he said, rising to give her his chair. She took it without comment, as her due. "How'd you get clearance?"
"SHIELD goes where it wants," she replied, picking up Nick's hand and holding it gently. He had a bandage around his head, looping down over one eye. "How is he?"
"Quieter than usual."
She glanced at him, lips twitching.
"He'll make it, ma'am. But..." Phil gestured at his own face. "They couldn't save the eye."
"My poor lad," she murmured. "Gabriel's on his way, but he had further to come than I did. I'd like to know if whoever did this is dead."
"Good man." She nodded. "Well. Looks as though it's time for Nicholas to change careers."
Phil was quiet for a while. "I can go, if you like."
"No. Stay," she said. "We need to speak, Phil."
"About what, ma'am?"
"Nick has never been entirely comfortable with the idea of following in the family business. Regardless, everything he has done up to this point has prepared him admirably. He should -- that is to say, I think he needs -- " she looked back at her son. Thank God he was alive, but...
"I need you to convince him to come to SHIELD," she said.
"You think I have that kind of influence on him?" Phil asked.
"I think, my lad, that he listens to you more than he does to me, these days. I may be a director at SHIELD, but to him..." she shrugged. "Well. I'll always be his mother first."
"I don't even know what SHIELD is, begging your pardon," he said. "I mean. You hear things. But I don't know what's true. Nick's never talked about it."
"We're an espionage and intelligence agency," she said.
"Like the CIA?"
"More global," she replied. He raised his eyebrows. "I'm afraid I can't tell you more than that, just now. But you know me, Phil. And I know my son, and I know he doesn't place his trust lightly. Believe me when I say that Nicholas would make an excellent addition to the organisation. As would you."
Phil glanced at Nicholas. "Can he? With..." he gestured at his face again.
"With one eye? Oh, yes, I don't see why not. It might limit his usefulness as a sniper, but I have higher ambitions for my son. In a few years, SHIELD will be facing a crisis of leadership; Gabriel and I are both reaching a point where we'd like to retire. The new director isn't as strong as he could be. I want to know I'm leaving the organisation in good hands, when I go. We need people like Nicholas, especially since the longer SHIELD lasts, the more politicians try to get involved. And Nicholas needs a good eye, you know."
Phil nodded slowly.
"I'll talk to him, when he's ready," he said. "I won't make any promises. Nick's his own man."
"Yes, I'm quite proud of that," she replied.
"I'll give you some time."
"Thank you," she said.
She didn't cry for her son, her poor wounded boy, until Phil was out of the room, and then not many tears. By the time Gabriel arrived, she had wiped them all away.
"He'll need a new name if he's going into SHIELD, y'know," Gabriel said later, when he'd hauled her away for a meal and some time to gather her wits. "Him and that Banachiewicz kid both. There are plenty of Joneses around but there's no point advertising he's our son. And it's just good protocol."
"Well, Banachiewicz is a mouthful, I doubt he'll mind," Peggy said with a wan smile. "As for Nicholas -- what was it they used to call him?"
"Fury," Gabriel said with a grin. "Nick Fury. Catchy. I like it."
A week after they brought Nick home to recuperate, Howard and Maria Stark died.
Nicholas wasn't in much condition to travel, especially after all the traveling he'd already done, and in soft voices that night she and Gabriel debated who should attend the funeral. One of them ought to stay there, and she felt she ought to go, but it was easier for Gabe to get free. Peggy didn't like not going to the memorial, but she had her own son to consider, and Obadiah had always given her a sense of unease. Besides, as much as she had been a part of the war effort, she hadn't gone on missions with the Commandos, and Gabriel would know more of the veterans who turned up than she would.
He came back from California looking old and tired and sad.
"It was a nice service," he said, sitting on the couch with her, curled up together, Nick and Phil out back grilling ribs for dinner. "Howard would have enjoyed it."
"Well, he loved things that were all about him," she said, and Gabriel managed a laugh. "How's Anthony?"
"Saw him briefly. Poor kid's only seventeen. Put on a hell of a face, but you could tell his world was coming down around his ears. I know you don't like Stane, but at least he's there for him. They're not shoving the whole company on the boy's shoulders too, at least not for a while."
"Well, Obadiah will look out for Anthony's interests, at least, even if he's a bit of a pig," she said. "Did you speak to him?"
"Yeah. He said new bids are on a freeze for a few weeks, but they should be on time with all their current contracts for SHIELD."
"Speaking of..." she said, and he looked at her. "Phil's having a word with Nicholas. Right now, actually, I should imagine."
"Took his damn time."
"Go easy on the boy, he knows the right psychological moment."
Gabriel rolled his eyes. "There is no right psychological moment, with Nick."
"I'll admit he's stubborn. But he's quite clever, you know, and he'll make the right decision. In ten years he could be head of SHIELD."
"Honestly? I'll be happy if in ten years he's not gettin' shot at anymore. We didn't put him through college to get himself killed in combat."
"I seem to recall you mentioning your parents felt much the same way about you enlisting." She patted his hand. "Let's go see how the boys are doing. It's only a small consolation to know that if one of them killed the other we wouldn't hear a thing."
Peggy and Gabe had both long since retired by the time Nicholas made Director; by then they were back in England, living a comfortable retirement in a house with a large garden for Gabriel and easy access to the local military firing range for Peggy.
Well, a girl had to have a hobby, and besides it paid to keep her skills up. She couldn't take the recoil on some of the larger pieces anymore, but she got along all right. Soon, she knew, they'd need more help than each other, but that day hadn't come yet, and she was enjoying her retirement with Gabe.
Directorship suited Nick, she thought; he affected a long black coat that secretly she believed a bit ridiculous, but she had to admit it did inspire awe in his underlings. He didn't visit as often as they'd have liked, particularly Gabriel, who kept up a more active interest in SHIELD than she did, but they understood. These days you had all kinds of superior gadgets for keeping in touch, so as long as she got to see his face on a video-call every so often, she didn't mind.
"Ma, I'm gonna be in England next week," he said on one of the calls, grinning wide.
"That's wonderful news," she replied. "What's the occasion?"
"You know, business," he said.
"Well, I'll clean the house."
"Ma -- "
"Darling, one must keep up appearances."
"Don't argue with your mother," Gabriel added.
Nick laughed. "Fine. We get in on Tuesday, thought we could do dinner somewhere. I got a team coming with me but they're not expecting to bunk chez Fury."
"Well, that's nice, because this is chez Jones," Peggy replied.
"You know what I mean. Anyway, there'll be a couple of us, then I get to send them off to play and I can spend a few days with the two 'a you."
"You and your strays," she said, laughing. "Is Phil coming?"
"Yep, and technically they're his strays," he answered. "Well, two of 'em."
"Good lord, Nicholas, how many people are you bringing?"
"A few," Nick said. "They all wanted to meet you."
"Hah! Young bucks," Gabe answered. "Nobody wanted to meet us when we were directors."
"They were all terrified of me," Peggy added, with no little amount of relish.
"Yeah, I'm sure that was an accident," Nick drawled. "Well, there's Cheese, and his two strays, and Jasper, you remember him?"
"The baby-faced boy tagging around after Phil?" Gabe asked.
"That's him, and he's got a couple of folks."
Peggy tilted her head. "What aren't you telling us, Nicholas?"
"You know I can't talk business over the phone."
"Or even when you arrive, but I'm not interested in some local mission," she said. "You're hiding something."
Nick grew solemn. "I need your advice. Both of you. About something I'm working on. It's not bad, just...risky."
Gabe nodded. "You know we'll do what we can."
"Thanks. Listen, I gotta go, I'll send the details by courier."
"Fancy," Peggy remarked.
"I get all the perks. Love you."
"Be safe," she said, and Gabriel said, "Love you too, boy," and they closed the little computer window. Gabe sat back.
"What in hell is he up to?" he asked.
"No good, as usual," she replied. "I'll call Phil, he'll spill his guts."
Phil was surprisingly reticent, but at least she was reassured that both he and Jasper were in on whatever it was Nicholas was planning, and he seemed reasonably unconcerned about potential fallout.
Nicholas rented a room in a nice restaurant for their dinner, and Peggy and Gabriel finally got to meet the strays -- Jasper's three were all young, silent-ish men who had the unmistakable bearing of soldiers, but Phil's were interesting. Clinton was a charming boy who, like Jasper's trio, screamed ex-military, but he was much more talkative. And he'd read some of Gabriel's old translations from his bohemian days, which pleased Gabriel enormously.
The sole woman among them, Natasha, was more of an enigma, but she was polite enough. She held herself with the kind of poise that Peggy recognized -- the young woman was uncertain of her footing, but far too professional to show it. It worked, at any rate; the other field agents (what else could they be?) deferred to her in an unconscious, almost fearful way. She reminded Peggy of herself, sixty years ago.
"What do you think of 'em?" Nick asked, standing on the little terrace adjoining the dining room, smoking a cigar.
"I think that's a filthy habit, and I'm proud you've finally developed one," she replied.
"About the strays," he said, nodding towards the doors.
"What precisely am I vetting them for?" she asked, watching Gabriel entertain the younger ones with a few war stories.
"I'm planning a new unit within SHIELD," Nick said. "The Avengers Initiative."
"Very dramatic name."
"Long story. It's meant to be a group of extraordinary individuals, prepared to face extraordinary threats. Everyone in there is a candidate."
"Including Phil and Jasper? They're wonderful men, Nicholas, but hardly extraordinary in the way you're thinking, I imagine."
"Phil's put himself up to run the unit. Jasper's helping him out. The little ones are their candidates for the Initiative. We're putting them through their paces this week."
"I'd like to see their dossiers."
"Brought 'em along for you and Dad to look at. But I want your initial thoughts before you know what they can do."
Peggy nodded. "The young woman, Romanoff. What's her story?"
Nick grinned. "Believe it or not, Phil flipped her. She was a mercenary; before that, Russian Intelligence."
"Really. She speaks English with no accent at all."
"Very good Intelligence."
"Yes, and do you notice how she dominates the room?"
"Hm?" Nick asked, cocking his head.
"If I only had to pick one of the five, she'd be the one. Can she be trusted?"
"I think so. Phil thinks so."
"He brought her in personally?"
"No. Another agent brought her to him."
"The Barton boy, Phil's other stray?"
"That's the one."
"They seemed close. What's he like?"
"He's more of a security risk than she is, some folks think. Discipline problems, kind of a loner. Can't fault his judgment though. Never made a wrong call yet. Had to put him with Phil because nobody else could stand his smug ass when he disobeyed orders to get the job done."
"I think you already know which of these agents should be on this extraordinary team," Peggy said gently. "And I don't think you need my approval, as a former director or as your mother, Nicholas."
"Kinda wanted it anyway, from both," he said. "Avengers Initiative is a gamble. The WSC doesn't like it. Capitol Hill doesn't either."
"Usually a sign you're doing well," she replied, and he laughed a little. "Who else?"
"Well, we got some possibles, nobody I could bring here. Surprisingly, Stark Junior's one of them."
"Anthony? Really? He's not terribly dependable, by all accounts."
"No, but he's got a kick-ass robot suit."
"True enough," she said. She'd seen the footage of Iron Man, even some of the classified footage. Dear little Anthony had grown up to be quite the unexpected warrior. "He was a sweet child. Do you remember him abducting you to read comic books with him?"
"Yeah," Nick said, snorting. "Kinda hoping he doesn't."
He looked down at his cigar, gathering his thoughts. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"You know Howard had those teams up north, looking for Captain America."
"I remember," she said quietly.
"Stark's still got teams up there. Officially they're not looking for him; they're testing cold-resistant technology. Still, I think everyone knows what the real purpose is." Nick shrugged. "Things are happening, Ma. People running around, shit going off...we need a symbol. We need to find him."
"Darling, if I could help you, I would have years ago."
"I know. But I want your blessing, 'cause if we do..."
"You think he survived."
"If he didn't, we might still get something from the body. Medical technology's come a long way since the forties. And we might get the shield. We can put another man in the uniform."
"It won't be him."
"I know. But it'll be enough. Barton's on the short list, actually. He's got the look, and he's a sharpshooter. Got the eye for it."
"There will only ever be one Steve Rogers," she said. "You can put another man in his uniform -- by God, I'd put Romanoff in his uniform, if I were you -- but it won't be Steve. And he carried a dreadful weight, carrying that shield. So you had best be sure, whoever it is, they understand the responsibility of following his footsteps." She studied him. "If you were twenty years younger, I'd say you ought to take it up."
He smiled. "You're my momma, you have to say that."
"And you are a hero too, my son," she said. "But as for the search, you have my blessing. And as for this new team of yours, I'd like to see the dossiers before I go any further. Now, come inside -- this is still your dinner party, after all."
Lying in bed that night, Gabriel reading in his thick glasses next to her, she said, "I wish I was a young woman again."
"I know the feeling," he replied, closing his book and taking his glasses off. "Exciting days ahead. Makes you want to be part of it again."
"Exactly that," she answered, as he set the book aside.
"But you know Nick's got things in hand."
"Oh, I know, and even if he didn't, one has to let children make their own mistakes, no matter how grown-up they are."
He smiled. "I don't think he's making a mistake."
"No, I don't either. It's just..." she sighed. "I don't know. The war was horrible, but we were doing so much good -- there was such a spirit of progress, and I see that in Nicholas now. I miss it, I suppose."
"Would you have changed anything?" he asked. "If you could change anything at all."
"No," she said. "Even the people we lost...no, I can't imagine. I wouldn't change anything."
"Not even Cap?"
"Not even Cap. Not even if they find him now," she said.
"Nick talked to you about that."
"A bit. In the end, though..." he slid down in the bed, lying on his side to face her. "I'd have fought him for you. I'd fight him for you now if he showed up tomorrow."
She smiled. "You'd win, too. You're my husband, Gabriel. I built my life with you, and I love you."
"You too," he answered. "And we've had a good life."
"Indeed. I couldn't wish for better."
He kissed her and leaned over her to turn out the lamp. "Good. Me neither."