"This isn't the only chance we have at an interception," Nick said. "We can postpone until next week, if you're not feeling up to it yet—"
"Why, Nicholas," Peggy said, inspecting herself from a number of angles in front of the mirror until she was satisfied that her thigh holster wouldn't be visible to even the most eagle-eyed observer. "It's almost as if you're worried about me."
"You know me and my sensitive side," Nick said dryly. The fingers of his good hand moved rapidly over the keyboard of the laptop in front of him, setting up the programs needed to bypass the last of the security protocols. "Always comes out when an awful lot of people in this room know what you look like and you're intending to just waltz in there in front of them."
"Correction," Peggy said, leaning in to carefully fix a spot where her eyeliner had smeared. She knew that was somewhat of the fashion nowadays, but she'd never gone in for the slovenly look. "There will be at least seventeen people in this ballroom who at one point met Margaret Carter, former head of SHIELD. But since every single one of those seventeen people first met Margaret Carter after she turned fifty, and think she died not so long ago after celebrating her ninety-fifth birthday, I think I've got plausible deniability on my side. No one's going to think twice about me."
"Uh huh," Nick said, leaning back in his seat. There were pinched lines of pain around his mouth still, testament to the fact that he'd had no easier of a year than Peggy'd had. How much he'd changed from that earnest young man whom Peggy had first recruited. "Well, you tell that one to Cap if you're curious to see whether a super soldier can choke on his own spit. Something tells me he wouldn't agree."
Peggy rolled her eyes and slipped her lipstick, room key, and a spare tracking beacon into her clutch before heading for the door. "Let me rephrase, then. No one will be looking at my face. Don't wait up."
The door closed softly behind her, muffling the sound of Nick's answering "Oh, brother."
Peggy headed for the bank of elevators, marvelling at the tenacity of muscle memory—it had been years since she'd worn high heels but the gait came back to her as she strode along the hotel corridor, the way she could let her hips sway and her spine stretch. The hallway was chilly, and Peggy shivered a little as she waited for one of the elevators to reach her floor, but even that was welcome—the chance to feel goosebumps rising on her arms after years of climate-controlled placidity.
In the hotel's grand penthouse ballroom, festivities were already in full swing. A jazz quartet on a low stage, framed by great swags of midnight-blue velvet; bartenders serving up elaborate drinks in delicate glasses and waiters carrying trays of martinis to and fro; men and women in expensive formal wear, the men mostly older and the women mostly younger. Peggy was certainly not the most tastefully dressed woman in the room, but she was far from the least—and, as she had suspected, her outfit made it possible for her to walk past a retired four-star general whom she had once bawled out for gross incompetence without the least worry that he would recognise her.
Peggy ordered an old-fashioned and feigned sipping at it as she circulated around the room. Through the great picture windows which lined the space on three sides were fantastic views of the city: bright lights sparkling in the deepening darkness where thousands and thousands of people were counting down the last few days of the dying year. No sign of Lavoie yet, but she spotted one of the Chinese embassy staff in conversation with a young man speaking English with a strong Mumbai accent. That was new. A personal connection, or had things changed that much in the decade that Peggy had spent in a steadily thickening fog? She made a mental note to mention it to Nick later, and the very fact that she could was its own kind of shaky, relieved satisfaction.
Nick's recon had shown that the ballroom was blanketed with jamming equipment, which meant there was no point in her wearing an earpiece. This meant she didn't know exactly when Steve entered the room, but that was best. It gave things a little frisson of uncertainty that Peggy, frankly, found delicious—and which made her, inwardly, admit that Nick had been right about her needing to get back into the swing of things with a milk-run. She shouldn't have been this keyed up by the prospect of simply lifting classified information from a CSIS double agent.
For a while, she made small talk with a man who told her implausible stories about his prowess on the London Stock Exchange. He was a crashing bore and utterly fixated on her cleavage, but tall, which helped shield her from most of the room while she observed it unnoticed by him. Peggy finally ditched him when he asked her to dance—the jazz quartet had picked things up a notch and a few brave souls out on the dance floor were giving the Charleston their best, if entirely inadequate, shot—making an excuse about needing to powder her nose.
Instead she made a bee-line for the bar and ordered up another drink, a highball this time, watching in the mirror as Paul Lavoie finally made his appearance. He was in slightly dishevelled black tie, with more grey at his temples than the last time Peggy had seen him, and with an alcoholic's redness to his face that told her he'd spent the last twenty years in much the same manner as the ten before that. Peggy was so caught up in trying to figure out whether the thumb drive was in Lavoie's left pocket or his right that she didn't spot Steve approaching until he was right at her elbow.
"You, uh, you come here often?" Steve asked.
They'd all decided that it would be best for Peggy and Steve to arrive separately and pretend to be strangers who'd just met and were engaged in a holiday party flirtation: Peggy the femme fatale so obvious she was bound to be simply the lower-level Foreign Service functionary her forged ID proclaimed her to be, living it up for a night; Steve as an investment banker whose dark beard and stooped shoulders would hopefully not remind the other party goers too much of Captain America.
Steve's attempts at projecting an aura of practiced sleaze were always destined to go poorly, but vanished completely when Peggy turned around and he got his first look at what she was wearing. No jaded Wall Street executive would ever flush like that at the sight of cleavage, even when it was—and Peggy was no fan of false modesty—as spectacular as her own.
"Not so much, but maybe I could be persuaded to," Peggy said in her best Brooklyn accent, cocking her hip and leaning up against the bar. She bit the inside of her cheek to stop from laughing when that made Steve turn somehow, impossibly, even redder. "What's your name, sugar?"
"Uh, Steve… n. Steven Smith," Steve said, which was not at all the name on the driver's license that Nick had made up for him. Peggy repressed a sigh. Steve, after all, was a soldier, not a spy. He had many delightful qualities, but a facility for subterfuge was not one of them. "And, um. You?"
"Brenda Lou Bianchi, pleased to meet you." Peggy accepted her fresh drink from the bartender, and waited for Steve to place his order—a terrible light beer which she hoped was just supposed to be part of his cover identity. A woman could accept some flaws in her partner's character, but that was quite egregious.
"Brenda Lou: that's an interesting name. Run in the family?" Steve asked as they drifted away from the bar towards the dance floor, drinks in hand. He'd recovered a little of his composure, enough to be once more attempting to play the part of a cad. He kept sneaking looks at her cleavage, though he clearly felt bad about it and was never able to make his glances to last long enough to be truly lecherous. The tips of his ears were red.
"Oh yeah," Peggy said, inventing things on the spot with cheerful abandon. If they were going to go off script, well, might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. "My twin sister's Brenda Mae, my mom's Brenda Sue, there's my cousin Brenda Bobbi and her daughter Brenda Rae—that's just how things are where I'm from."
"Which, let me guess," Steve said dryly, "is Brooklyn."
"Wow," Peggy said, widening her eyes and swatting playfully at his forearm. "You are really good at guessing things, mister! You been to Brooklyn or something? Because that's where I'm from—me and this dress." Another untruth. It had actually been purchased last minute from a shop here in D.C. that specialised in charging a lot of money to help women look very cheap. "You like it? It's got pockets!" She stuck her free hand in one of the pockets and wiggled it around, thereby revealing that the dress was also slit to the hip.
They passed two men who were quite obviously Russian operatives. One of them paid keen attention to Peggy's cleavage; the other was tracking Lavoie out of the corner of his eye. Bingo.
"'Like' is a strong word," Steve said. He inclined his head gently towards the Russians, then took a long slug of his beer, tilting his head so that he could check out some other part of the room. He set the bottle down on a nearby table, then held out a hand to her. "Want to dance? I can't promise I won't step on your feet, but…"
"Now how could a girl turn down an offer like that?" Peggy knocked back the last of her own drink, wondering if she really could feel the alcohol start to affect her already, or if it were just a trick of the imagination. After all, who knew what her body could do now, or couldn't, now that she had been brought back; what it would do, now that Steve was so close and so warm and his arms were wrapping around her with a surety he wouldn't have been capable of seventy years ago.
They turned around the dance floor in a careful, stately foxtrot, moving to a four-four beat entirely out of time with what the quartet was now playing. Perhaps they'd win no awards for their dancing, but they were now safely out of earshot of any curious listeners.
"The men in the grey suits at your three o'clock," Peggy said, dropping the Brooklyn accent and pushing into the feel of Steve's hand against her lower back. "I'd bet good money they're Lavoie's contacts. I think the handover is planned for right here."
"Huh," Steve said, swinging her in a gentle arc around a cosmopolitan coterie of junior ambassadorial staff who seemed to have challenged one another to try twerking to a Cole Porter classic. "You know, Pepper's had me read some stuff about feminism, and Maria's told me some stuff about feminism, and I've spent time in the same room as Natasha—"
"You're feeling conflicted, I take it?" Peggy asked.
"I think if Ma was here now," Steve confessed, "she'd be asking me to bend down so she could clip me over the ear. I mean, they're your, uh, you know…"
"Nicholas rather thought you'd say something like that," Peggy said. "I'm not thinking of making a habit of dressing like this, you understand, but one only gets rejuvenated by mysterious alien technology once in a century or so. Why not take advantage of it when SHIELD's expense account will pay for the outfit and the accoutrements as well?"
Steve's brow furrowed in honest confusion, the way it once had when Howard had introduced him to the concept of fondue. "For the what?"
"Darling." They'd done nothing more than kiss since fate had given them both a second chance, but that was due to nothing more than a lack of opportunity and the somewhat pressing need to make sure that a disgruntled Canadian didn't manage to sell intelligence secrets to the highest bidder. Peggy intended to change that situation in the very near future. "I know it might not seem like it, but there are actually some very expensive items underneath this dress. How far lingerie technology has come since the girdle!"
Steve muttered something under his breath, but there was a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, and Peggy laughed with delight. She had him back; they had found one another again, wonderfully, impossibly, and Peggy hadn't enjoyed herself this much since 1977.
"Now, a modicum of spy shenanigans, I think," Peggy said, "and then, Steven Grant Rogers, I intend to render you utterly incapable of speech and thought before I make an honest man of you."
Steve squinted at her. "Was that… did you just propose to me?"
"Well, sex first," Peggy said, because a woman had to have priorities. "Then we acquire a marriage license, and then seek out some pissant little fascists and their would-be collaborators and punch them in the face for our honeymoon. How does that sound?"
"I think if Bucky and Sam don't get the chance to stand up as my best men, we'll never hear the end of it," Steve said. The smile on his face was quite spectacular—how everyone in the room wasn't looking at him just then, Peggy didn't know.
"Is that a yes?" Peggy asked.
"And Nat will want to bake us a cake," Steve said, twirling Peggy underneath his arm, making her skirts fly out and providing the distraction needed for Peggy to stretch out an arm and neatly lift the thumb drive from Lavoie's coat. She secreted it away in her dress's convenient pocket. "It won't be edible, but she'll want to bake one. She decided she needed a hobby, which is good. She's just not, well, any good at it."
"Steve," Peggy said.
"Peg." Steve slowed and stopped, swaying with her in the middle of the room. He closed his eyes, leaned into her touch when Peggy palmed his cheek. She'd lived the span of a whole life thinking he was gone forever. "Peg, when it comes to you, I'm always saying yes."
"Excellent," Peggy said, and stretched up to kiss him—which was of course the exact moment that all of the ballroom's north windows exploded inwards, and a dozen masked figures abseiled in, guns blazing. Oh well, Peggy thought, pulling her knife from her thigh holster—best to start as you meant to go on.