The first time Melinda May met Margaret Carter, she was seven. Peggy Carter was fifty-seven.
The dependents of agents weren’t supposed to be on this level. Melinda knew that. Wesley had told her so, time and again, that if she wanted to play, there was a playground around the corner. But Wesley had been called away again and Melinda was bored because she’d already finished her math homework. She wandered, skipping and humming a nonsense song she vaguely remembered somebody, maybe Aunt Jun, teaching her once.
When she found it, the gym was empty, cavernous and tinted green and fascinating. Melinda wandered through the empty racks of free weights and machines she didn’t quite understand. She kicked a rubber ball and let out a swear that would have made Wesley give her the disappointed face when it proved heavier than it looked. There were treadmills in the corner and even a ping-pong table, though Melinda didn’t have anybody to play with.
She spotted the monkey bars and her face lit up. It only took a few seconds of scrambling before she’d reached the first bar. She kicked out with both legs, making her little body swing back and forth like a pendulum, reached for the next bar, and—missed. For one heart-stopping moment, she knew nothing but terror as she tried to hold onto the bar with her one hand, but she wasn’t strong enough.
Hands wrapped around her waist. “Whoa! I’ve got you.”
Melinda twisted and would have tried to punch like Wesley had showed her, but her rescuer set her gently on the ground instead. Melinda froze. It was a woman who seemed impossibly tall—all grown-ups were impossibly tall, though—with shiny brown hair and smiling brown eyes and wrinkles around her lips and on her forehead. She wore a SHIELD uniform like Wesley’s, though hers was gray instead of black.
“You all right?” the woman asked.
“I—” Wesley had told her that she must try and speak English, but Melinda couldn’t think of anything to say. She opened her mouth as the embarrassing heat of tears gathered behind her eyes. No. She was seven now. She was too big for this. She wasn’t going to cry. “Uh.”
“You’re not hurt, are you? Heavens, I’m no good with anything smaller than a new recruit. Let me try this again: are you well?”
Since words absolutely failed her, Melinda nodded.
“Good. That’s…very good, then.” The woman studied her and surprised Melinda by extending a hand. “I’m Peggy. And you are?”
That much, she was familiar with. Melinda shook Peggy’s hand like an adult. “Melinda,” she said. “I—thank you—for save me. I fall.”
“Just need to wait until you’re a little bigger, I suspect.”
Melinda shook her head. She didn’t want to wait until she was bigger. She wanted to beat the monkey bars now, to show them who was boss.
“No?” Peggy asked.
“No, I…” Melinda searched for the words. She knew them in her own language, but English was tricky, even with the flash cards that Wesley had given her. How could she explain to this stranger that she wasn’t about to let some dumb playground toy get the better of her? She was a May. Mays did better than that.
Peggy tilted her head slightly. “Your English is very good,” she said in Chinese, and Melinda’s eyes shot open wide. “How old are you?”
“I’m seven. And a half. And I’d like to try the monkey bars again, please.”
“Adventurous little sprite, aren’t you?” Peggy looked at the monkey bars over their heads. “Tell you what—you try again and I’ll help you.”
“I won’t need help,” Melinda said, though she couldn’t help but notice that the bars seemed even higher now.
Why that made the woman smile, she had no idea. “Very well,” Peggy said. “Get on with it if you’re going.”
This time, Melinda was careful as she climbed to the top of the ladder and grabbed the first bar. “How come you can talk like me?” she asked.
“I speak a lot of languages. Chinese is really hard for me, admittedly, but I do enjoy a challenge.”
“Do you work for SHIELD, like my brother?” Melinda took a deep breath and swung with all her might. She wobbled a little, but her hand wrapped around the bar. Through sheer determination, she pulled herself up and swung to the next one.
“Aha, you’re the littlest May,” Peggy said. “Yes, I work for SHIELD. Your brother works for me, actually.”
“He does? Does that mean you’re the boss?”
“I am indeed.”
“So you can tell him what to do?” Melinda paused in her swinging to give Peggy a measuring look. “But you’re a lady.”
“And? Why can’t ladies be in charge?”
Melinda gave her a long, confused look. “They usually aren’t.”
“Well, here in SHIELD, things are different.” Why Peggy sighed, she didn’t know, but Melinda focused on getting to the next bar. “Not different enough, some days, but better than out there, sometimes. Melinda, darling, are you doing okay? Are your arms tired?”
Melinda stiffened—nobody had ever called her “darling” before. And her arms were really sore, but she was near the other end of the monkey bars. She could do it, she thought. She could get all the way across. “I am fine,” she said, swinging to the next bar while Peggy followed along below her. “If ladies can be in charge, does that mean I could work for SHIELD and be in charge?”
“This meeting alone tells me your strength of mind is likely enough that you could do anything you prefer, young lady.”
Panting and sweaty, Melinda reached the end of the monkey bars. “Good,” she said, clinging to the pole and looking back with satisfaction. “Then I’ll work for SHIELD.”
“And be in charge?” Peggy’s lips twisted upwards, kind of like a smile.
“Maybe.” Melinda scrambled down the ladder and shrugged. “If I’m good enough. Wesley says I’m not supposed to be in here.”
“Dr. May is right. You could hurt yourself.”
Immediately, Melinda looked toward the door and shrank in toward herself. “Am I in trouble?”
“I think, this one time, we’ll let it go. Now, if I remember correctly, your brother’s briefing should be over, and he’ll be wanting his lunch. And I hear they’re serving up milkshakes in the cafeteria. What do you say we go get one of those and celebrate your victory?”
Melinda studied the stranger for a long moment. She wasn’t really supposed to talk to strangers, she remembered, but Peggy wore a SHIELD uniform and she spoke Chinese and she was in charge of Wesley. “Okay. A milkshake would be nice, thank you.”
“Wonderful,” Peggy said in Chinese. In English, which Melinda understood, though she didn’t want to say anything because she might have to start talking in English again, the woman said, “And I will see about putting pass-codes on the gym so that children don’t wander in and hurt themselves falling.”
Melinda tilted her head at the agent. “So, how about that milkshake?” Peggy asked, and they headed for the residential side of the base together.
Thanks to her older brother, Melinda grew up on SHIELD bases, shuttled around the world and never in one place for more than a year or two before she had to move onto the next base. She was never allowed to tell anybody in the schools Wesley enrolled her in about it either, so she usually had to make up some lame story about being a military brat. As a result, her education was piecemeal at best in terms of official schooling. On the base, however, she learned everything she pretty much figured she needed to know.
She never made friends with other kids her age. Instead, she trailed behind agents and support staff, learning everything she could from them. Patch Gunner taught her how to throw knives when she was ten. Dr. Kessler on the base outside of Munich taught her differential equations and spatial reasoning. She fired her first gun at age thirteen because she was bored and Peggy needed to spend some time on the range and she’d begged hard enough that Peggy eventually acquiesced. Other agents taught her how to disarm bombs—as a hypothetical situation, of course—and self-defense and a dozen other skills Melinda found far more useful.
Her lessons for her first driver’s license were on the SHIELD obstacle course in Utah, where she schooled a class of rookies several years older than her, and in Peggy’s Cobra on the back roads between London and Brighton. She was seventeen, and Peggy sixty-seven, and people gave the starchly-dressed elder woman odd looks for rambling about with an underfed-looking Asian teen wearing acid washed jeans and a scowl.
Peggy, of course, ignored them.
College was something that happened only because Wesley and Peggy ganged up on her. She went to class because it was expected of her, but she spent most of the time staring out the window at the sky, wondering how people found it within themselves to sit in these boring rooms all day and read boring things on paper. She studied and she occasionally talked to her roommate, but college held little of interest for her. The only time she escaped was Sunday afternoons, having tea at Peggy’s place in Brooklyn, and the long runs she took every morning.
The men thought she was strange. “You’re kind of surly, did you know that?” the guy her roommate had set her up with ventured to say. “Like, hardcore surly.”
“And?” Melinda asked.
“Nothing. I think it’s kind of neat.”
“Thanks. That means a lot,” Melinda said, her voice bone dry.
He didn’t seem to know how to take that. “So, uh, your place or mine?”
“Yours. My roommate talks too much.”
“Well, you are a bit close-mouthed,” Peggy said when Melinda relayed the conversation to her over tea. “Half the time, I do have to wonder what’s going on in that head of yours.”
Melinda shrugged. “I do not wish to fill the air with meaningless chatter. That doesn’t make me surly.”
“Of course it doesn’t. But people might find it off-putting occasionally.”
Melinda studied her mentor. Peggy had started out as a strange, grown-up friend who would show up for milkshakes every once in awhile, and Melinda had liked her because she didn’t always have to speak English around the woman. Over the years, dynamics had shifted so much that whenever Melinda came to visit her brother on base and Peggy wasn’t there, too, Melinda felt the loss like a hole to the chest. Not that she would actually confess that to anybody. There wasn’t anybody in the world Melinda looked up to more than the woman sitting across a too-fancy table from her in a chintzy apartment in Brooklyn. “Have people found you off-putting occasionally?”
“More than occasionally.”
“Would you prefer it otherwise?”
“Sometimes, in my weakest moments, perhaps.” Peggy’s hands were beginning to shake. It made the back of Melinda’s throat feel oily, that she couldn’t deny the signs of age, the gray hair or the wrinkles. “But not usually, no. You could, however, learn to play well with others. It might not be as lonely.”
“I’m not lo—” Melinda broke off as an alarm pealed through the apartment. She recognized that alert. In an instant, she was on her feet and heading for the telephone. In spite of her age, though, Peggy beat her there.
A few “mm-hmms” later, the woman hung up. The look in her eyes made Melinda’s world tilt.
“What is it?” Melinda asked.
“It’s your brother.” Peggy took a deep breath. “I’m afraid he’s been captured. We’re going to do everything we can to—Melinda, you have to let SHIELD deal with this.”
Melinda was already yanking on her coat. Her thoughts had telescoped down to the bare essentials: somebody had kidnapped her brother. Dr. Wesley May was one of SHIELD’s top agents and scientists, and somebody had taken him, which could only mean terrible things. Her wrists felt cold, but she pushed the fear aside. “The hell I do. Where is he?”
Peggy stepped between her and the door. “SHIELD can handle this.”
“Who has him?”
For a long, tense moment, the air hummed as the women stared each other down. Peggy’s shoulders seemed to sag a little. “You won’t listen to me if I tell you to stand down, are you?”
“No,” Melinda said.
A wealth of sadness crossed Peggy’s face in that splinter of an instant. “I wanted a different life for you. I didn’t want you to bear the burdens of this one.”
“Where is he, Peggy?”
“Madripoor. A group called the Seventh League has him. If you go after him, you’re disobeying a direct order from SHIELD.”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m not an agent.”
Melinda moved to storm past Peggy but the other woman stopped her with a touch on the wrist. “I won’t tell you to be careful,” Peggy said. “But I will tell you to come back.”
“I’ll do my best,” Melinda said.
Two weeks later, SHIELD answered the distress beacon she’d activated to find her standing in the center of the room, covered in blood and surrounded by dead terrorists. Dr. Wesley May was found two floors below and declared dead on scene. The only thing Melinda said when she walked into the base in handcuffs was, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Peggy looked at her protégé for a long moment, but Melinda didn’t look up and meet her gaze. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” Peggy said. “Gentlemen, please unhand Agent May. She’s done nothing that warrants being cuffed like a common criminal.”
Melinda looked up. If Peggy pitied her at all, though, there was no sign of it on the woman’s face.
“Welcome to SHIELD, Agent May,” Peggy said, and let the others lead Melinda away.
They never talked about being surly or off-putting ever again.
She trained hard, harder than she had even when she’d been trying to prove herself to the agents as a teen. It wasn’t a matter of proving herself better than anybody else. She just longed to be her best. Throwing herself into work meant that she didn’t have to think about the empty apartment she came home to on the base, the silence that her brother would have filled with muttering or his stupid vinyl record collection or any of it. They’d never gotten along—in a rare moment of openness, Wesley had told her that she reminded him of their father, whom Wesley had never seen eye to eye with—but they had been siblings and Wesley had been the only thing left of a life Melinda didn’t remember.
Missing him ached like a tooth.
Her dedication made her stand out among the ranks. She moved up quickly from grunt work to specialized ops, sent in on small teams that usually wanted nothing to do with her. She didn’t care. As long as everybody pulled their weight, it didn’t bother her.
And then it happened: another scientist like Wesley had been kidnapped and was being held by terrorists in Cape Town. It was an impossible mission because the leadership in that area put a new spin on paranoia. Sending in more than one agent meant they would notice and SHIELD would have another dead scientist on their hands.
Peggy took one look at the mission specs, one look at the expression on Melinda’s face, and said, “Send in the Cavalry.”
This time, Melinda arrived in time. Over the years, as her nickname as “The Cavalry” grew into something with its own body and mythos, she wasn’t always successful. Sometimes, the hostages were already dead before she arrived, sometimes they died in front of her. Saving one was a victory, but as the world changed, victories grew fewer and farther between until it felt like every good thought in her head had to be excavated with a shovel and a pickax. She was at the top of her game, her body honed like a well-balanced knife, but every day found her farther and farther divorced from her feelings.
To make matters worth, Peggy’s health began to fail. Melinda returned from piloting three hostages back to Oregon to find the base subdued. “What’s happened?” she asked the new guy.
Sitwell blinked at her, owlishly. “Uh, it’s—Agent Carter. She had a stroke.”
Melinda’s body temperature dropped twenty degrees.
“The doctors say it wasn’t bad, but she’s at St. Genesius, in the ICU. Agent Fury said I should let you know. I can—I can give you a ride, if you need it.”
“No need,” Melinda said before she turned on her heel and left.
She ignored the waiting hours and instead stole a set of scrubs and strode up to Peggy’s room. It was strange to be visiting SHIELD personnel in the hospital without a guard. The only enemy here was time.
Peggy was asleep when she slipped into the room. Melinda read the medical chart and studied the machines before she looked at her mentor. The oily-sick feeling came back full force. Peggy seemed so frail and small, a mere sliver of the sheer presence she’d always had for Melinda’s entire life. Her breathing was even and she wasn’t displaying major signs of a stroke, though, so maybe there was hope.
Melinda called herself foolish for thinking that. But she slid into the visitor’s chair and pulled her legs up against her chest, hugging her knees anyway. She woke two hours later because she sensed movement.
Fully awake, Peggy looked at her. “Shouldn’t you be in a real bed?” the SHIELD founder asked. “What are you doing, wasting your time on some old woman who can’t even do the dishes properly anymore?”
“You didn’t mess up your dishes,” Melinda said, rolling her eyes. “You had a stroke. And I’m here because I want to be, though if all you’re going to do is crab at me, I can go tell your doctor you’d like a sedative and a laxative.”
Peggy harrumphed. “You fight dirty,” she said, and even though her words were slow, there was a twinkle in her eye that settled Melinda’s stomach.
“I learned from the best.”
“Bring any booze?”
“I drank it all.”
“What kind of Cavalry are you, anyway?”
“The only kind you’re getting. You need rest.”
Peggy sighed, but Melinda could see the way her eyelids fluttered and knew she was fighting sleep. “So do you,” Peggy said.
“I can sleep anywhere. Go back to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
“You shouldn’t be,” Peggy said, but she fell asleep before Melinda could argue the point.
The stroke could have been much worse, the doctors told Melinda later that day when she finally tracked them down, but it still wasn’t a good sign. Peggy would need a live in nurse at best or ideally a transfer to an assisted care facility. For a woman who had been independent her entire life and who prided herself on that fact, Melinda knew it was going to cut deep.
Thinking of the woman who had rescued her from the monkey bars and had spoken Chinese to her when she was a little girl lost in a foreign country, Melinda signed a lease on an apartment two blocks away from Peggy’s nursing home the very next week. She was gone, rescuing people and running missions for SHIELD, more than she was present, but whenever she came home, she made sure to have tea with Peggy.
Peggy slipped away in her sleep, a peaceful smile on her face. That morning, Melinda put in an official transfer to be put in admin. With Peggy gone, she didn’t see the need to be the Cavalry anymore—couldn’t be the Cavalry anymore, if she were being honest with herself—because what was the point, with Peggy gone?
The last time Melinda May met Margaret Carter, she was forty-one. Peggy Carter was ninety-one.