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Closing Out the Books

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When Peggy arrived at work, she found her office full of flower arrangements. She turned to her secretary Kathy with a questioning look. Peggy sighed. “The announcement only went out yesterday, Kathy.” A simple memo sent out to all SHIELD offices stated that Associate Deputy Director Margaret ‘Peggy’ Carter would be retiring on June 30, 1989 and that plans were in place for the transition of job duties. Peggy never expected a flower shop in response to the announcement.

“We’re requisitioning a conference room right now,” Kathy said. She had worked for Peggy for the past twenty-five years and knew the associate director very well. They had been through some difficult times together. “I’ll send in the new girl to move them. To be fair, these are only from people in the building. Other offices will be getting the memo over the few days,” Kathy said cheerfully. She patted the stunned Peggy on the shoulder.

Peggy set down her briefcase on the side of her desk as she done every day since she had first arrived at Camp Lehigh to start up SHIELD. She would need to clear off her desk to get anything done, she thought. There were bouquets from assorted offices and colleagues. Pierce overspent as usual with a large arrangement of red and white roses. Fury had sent something more appropriate to the occasion. She kept the cards and decided to keep the flowers around for a day or two and then let the secretaries take what they wanted.

Connie had been after her for the past five years to retire, fretting over her health. “Mom, you’ve earned a break. The kids would like to see you more and you haven’t had a vacation since you broke up with Gabe,” Connie pointed out to Peggy after her knee operation a couple years ago. At the time Peggy laughed it off and said that a bum knee wouldn’t hold her back.

But then there was the funeral for a former deputy director, Cliff Williams. Cliff’s death hit her hard because he had been one of the first agents she had hired and trained for SHIELD. He didn’t die in the field, just from a heart attack six months after he retired. When she returned to work a few days later, somehow the work didn’t seem all that important anymore. She actually glanced through the travel brochures Connie sent.

Then Dum Dum Dugan retired suddenly, joking his fourth marriage had changed him for good. At his retirement party he showed Peggy pictures of his oceanfront house in south Florida. Looking around the room at the collection of Howling Commandos and SHIELD agents, he said, “We won’t be able to do this much longer, Pegs. Used to be we didn’t see each other, it was because we were all over the country involved in work and our families. But now it’s retirements, operations and funerals.” Peggy nodded. Dugan had always been a big bear of a man; now he was gray, easily tired and walked with a cane.

After that the decision was easy. She didn’t regret much in life and she wasn’t going to regret walking away from a job that completely defined her life. It was time to hand it all over to the next generation. Director Pearce had been very graceful when she told him her retirement plans and asked her if she could stay on. She just as gracefully responded that she needed to retire. They played a game because she had been a thorn in Pierce’s side ever since he came to SHIELD.

In the afternoon, after the flowers had been moved, Peggy sat down with Kathy and the new secretary, Michelle. They had six weeks to complete the transition that had already begun a few months ago. Michelle had been assigned to help Peggy wrap up projects. She came equipped with an associate’s degree in business and was still wet behind the ears. And she hadn’t come through the usual SHIELD training programs, so she had only a bare grasp of what exactly SHIELD did, much less what Peggy did.

Kathy went over the timeline she had drafted. “What about the wall?” Michelle asked, pointing to one wall of the office covered in framed photographs.

“The pictures go last,” Peggy replied. “Now I have to go through the files in the file room first.”

Before she left for the day, Peggy looked over the wall of framed photographs. It was her career in pictures, each one meaningful in its own way. Some were just pictures of her with presidents and dignitaries and government employees. Others were pictures of the SHIELD agents she had worked with since the early days. A long-time favorite picture was one of Chester Phillips in a tent in Italy just after they first arrived; somehow the photographer had captured him in mid-rant.

The picture dead center in the wall was a group picture of her, Howard, Phillips, Dugan and a handful of other agents at the first SHIELD headquarters at Camp Lehigh. She always had a soft spot for that old army camp, though it had changed a lot during the war and after. People always assumed that she hung this picture in the center because of the SHIELD connection. But it was also the first picture of her husband she ever had.

She could still remember Jack striding into headquarters for the first time, the cocky smile on his lips when he introduced himself. She didn’t think too highly of him at first, but Jack had a way of growing on a person. Another picture of Jack on his first day running the Special Ops section of the Field Operations Office held bittersweet memories for her. “Well, Jack, we had a good run, didn’t we?” she mused sadly. Dedicated to doing the best job he could, Jack cracked under the pressure and that destroyed their marriage, which ended in divorce after twelve years. She wasn’t even sure where he was these days, having lost contact a long time ago. She was still surprised at how conflicted she still felt over the father of her children; in love with the man she married, intense dislike for the man she had divorced.

 

Efficient and organized, Michelle was a great help in organizing Peggy’s old files. All the top secret and highly classified files had long been removed, and Peggy was left with years of correspondence, memos, newsletters and all sorts of paper to work through. Michelle boxed up files out of the file cabinets so that Peggy could sort through the files in the comfort of her office.

Sitting at her desk, drinking a cup of afternoon tea, a lifetime habit, Peggy ran across a folder of fan mail. She was not as famous as some people who worked at SHIELD; she was really an agent’s agent working her magic behind the scenes. But girls and teenagers somehow found her and wrote lovely letters praising her for her work and asking how they could work for SHIELD. A few had gone on to join SHIELD, mentioning to Peggy how a letter from her encouraged their dreams.

The office suite was dead quiet so Peggy heard Michelle answer the phone, “Director Carter’s office.” There was a pause. “She’s not available. May I take a message? No, she’s not available, uh, Mr. Stark. May I take a message?”

Peggy rolled her eyes and called out, “Michelle, I’ll take the call.”

“Are you sure, Peggy?”

“Yes.” She was going to have to talk to Michelle about phone calls. But Michelle did put through the call as directed, so she was teachable.

“Peggy!” Howard’s rich voice boomed through the phone. “What’s this about retirement? When I heard, I thought it was a vicious rumor, but I’ve been told it’s all true.”

“Howard, how good it is to hear from you.” Howard was one of her oldest friends, who still had the power of driving her crazy with his plans and jokes.

“I’m going to be in D.C. in two weeks. Free for dinner?”

“Make it lunch and I can.”

“Pick a day and have Kathy call my girl to set it up.”

Peggy smiled as she hung up the phone. Howard never changed. She then informed Michelle that she always took Howard Stark’s phone calls, and immediately felt very old when she had to explain who Howard Stark was. Peggy was beginning to wonder if Michelle was being willfully ignorant, because Stark was famous. Or maybe just famous to some people, she added ruefully.

 

The best part of Peggy’s last days at SHIELD was how quickly her usual tight schedule was freeing up. So when Gabe called to schedule one of their occasional lunch dates, they didn’t need to negotiate a date two months in advance. Gabe was taken aback when Peggy said was free that Friday for lunch. He joked that she would find an excuse to cancel, an old, but way too often true, joke.

As she got ready to meet Gabe for lunch, Peggy looked at a favorite picture. Visitors didn’t know what the event was, they just usually commented on Howard. It was Howard, Maria and Peggy at Howard and Maria’s wedding. A sharp-eyed person could see a few Howling Commandos like Gabe Jones in the background. Even after all these years, it was still the nicest wedding Peggy had attended. She had never thought that Howard would have gone the understated, small wedding route, but Maria insisted, saying that she was too old for the princess wedding. Howard had never stopped smiling all day at elegant and extroverted Maria.

At the wedding she had caught up with Gabe during the cocktail hour. Unlike most of the other Howling Commandos, Gabe hadn’t joined up with SHIELD. He had gone back to school on the GI Bill and gotten his PH.D in French. At the time he was teaching at Howard University, widowed with six children and utterly fascinating. They asked each other out and within a year they were inseparable.

Over their lunch of blackened salmon and tossed greens, Gabe asked her, “So, you have three weeks to go. Any big plans?”

“I’m going out to Austin to see Paul and his family,” Peggy said. “Then to Hawaii to see an old friend. I have a lot of books to read.” The years had been kind to Gabe, she thought, as she listened to him talk about his many grandchildren. He was still handsome and charming. Connie not so secretly had been hoping that Peggy would start dating him again since he had moved back to the States.

“You’ll be so busy during retirement that you’ll wonder how you managed to get to work before retirement.”

“That’s what everyone has been saying.”

“So any of the old crowd still around?” Gabe asked.

“I’m the last to retire. Dugan left a couple of years ago, and he was the last of the Commandos at SHIELD. We used to run into each other all the time at work. It’s a little sad that he’s now a phone call away,” Peggy admitted. “It’s probably as good time as any to retire. There’s a lot of talk about merging SHIELD with that new World Security Council. If that happens, there’s going to be a lot of changes. Might be hard.”

They lingered in the restaurant lobby talking about nothing much, but not quite ready to part. Gabe talked about a few veterans’ events while Peggy talked about lining up a volunteer job. Finally, he asked, “I’ll see you soon?”

“I’ll be retired so we can see each a lot more,” she offered.

A slight shadow of pain crossed Gabe’s aged face as he said goodbye. “Of course. Be talking to you,” he added as he left the restaurant.

She watched him get into a cab, feeling an echo of that same sadness of a similar lunch years ago. Gabe had asked her to move to Paris with him when he retired from teaching at Howard. But she wasn’t ready to leave her job, because there was so much more for her to do, and the work was still exciting and challenging. And she had been right – considering the important impact of her work over the past ten years in operations thwarting major terrorist organizations. During their last lunch as a couple, Gabe asked her to put them first instead of the job. And she couldn’t – her work was her identity, and she couldn’t see why Gabe and she couldn’t stay as they were. But Gabe couldn’t see how they could stay together if she wasn’t willing to compromise. At the end of the lunch, they parted as friends. While it was painful for a short time when they broke up, she didn’t long for him romantically any more and treasured him far more as a friend.

 

Kathy was planning her retirement party at work. Peggy had already nixed Pierce’s proposal of a large splashy event after hours. She had been low-key for all these years, making the occasional interview in regards to early SSR and WWII history. But she had not been the face of SHIELD, Howard and other Directors had been. Kathy was ordering a cake and had reserved a conference room for a couple of hours so people could drop in and say good-bye.

“What are your plans?” Peggy asked. Peggy had heard about various people vying to inherit Kathy, who had an excellent reputation, especially since she had worked for the demanding Associate Deputy Director Carter.

The secretary paused a minute. “I’m not sure – they’re talking about assigning me over in Records. But I won’t know until you’re, um, retired. I’m considering retiring too, not sure I want to break in a new boss.”

Michelle, in the doorway, said, “Howard Stark called to say that he will be picking you up in fifteen minutes.”

“Oh, door-to-door service,” Kathy teased.

“Guess I should be going,” Peggy answered. She needed the warning. She didn’t move as fast as she did when she was much younger and could easily chase down Hydra or Zodiac agents. Putting on her coat and a fresh coat of lipstick, she girded herself for a long lunch with Howard.

As usual, Howard picked her up in a the latest model luxury car. In all the years she had known him, he never drove anything older than three years or that could be bought by the average SHIELD agent. “Hello, Howard,” she said cheerfully.

“Looking as beautiful as ever, Peggy,” he said, opening the door for her. “I figured the usual place.”

They always had lunch at an old-fashioned, out-of-the-way steakhouse so that they would not be bothered. It was force of habit for Peggy to check their booth for bugs. This time, Howard didn’t tease her but looked on knowingly as she did her sweep. Peggy sat down, looked cursorily over the menu, already having her order ready. Howard took a little longer to decide, blaming his doctors for a new diet, which didn’t seem to include much of what was on the menu.

He set the menu down. “So, really, retirement?”

“Well, it’s time. Connie read me the riot act last Christmas when I spent more time on the phone than with my grandkids. And I barely know Paul’s kids,” she answered honestly. “But it’s hard to leave. I just had to transfer a recent project over to a new agent. Research on Neo-Hydra some agents pulled together.”

“Oh, Neo-Hydra. What a lovely set of words,” Howard said archly.

“Agent Willis is taking over. She’s the one I told you about – she’s the one who thinks that there is a group of mercenaries and assassins working under the codename Winter Soldier, as if they are one person.” Peggy found herself getting excited all over again, and told herself to get a grip. “But I need to let that go – retirement and everything. So what brings you to the East Coast?”

“Tony – the first summer he didn’t want to come home to Malibu. So I promised Maria that I’d check on him to see if he was still alive.”

“How is he doing? I haven’t seen him in ages.”

Howard shrugged. “He’s fine. Up to his eyeballs in research at MIT. I don’t understand him. He’s like this complex mixture of me and Maria, and I never know what I’m dealing with. Doesn’t help that he’s a lot smarter than me.”

“Is that possible?”

“If I didn’t think so before, I do now.” Howard paused. “I don’t know how you did it, Peggy, work and raising those kids practically by yourself. And they turned out great.”

“You’re seeing the end product, Howard. There were rough times, I tell you. Connie and Paul are married and settled in their careers. When Tony gets to their age, you’ll see. You might even be friends.”

The waitress delivered their salads. And they ended up talking for a couple of hours about the latest news in their lives and in their common group of friends. Grown distinguished in his old age, Howard still sat straight and used manners perfected in a long-lost time. But Peggy could tell something was bothering him, his jokes had an edge and he was easily distracted.

“What’s wrong, Howard?” she finally asked. “You’ve failed to flirt with the waitress during the entire afternoon.”

He didn’t answer for a long time, but looked out the window at the parking lot. Peggy drank her tea in silence, waiting to see if he would answer.

“I’ve been thinking lately that it was a bad idea to bring Arnim Zola into SHIELD,” he replied finally.

“I thought you were going to say something like your stock shares dropped, and you’ll have to sell one of the beach houses,” Peggy joked. Howard gave her a pained look. She then said seriously, “Zola’s been dead for years. What prompted the question?”

He drummed his fingers on the table. “I don’t know, something I overheard at a party a couple of months ago. And Pierce has been pulling strings behind the scenes about moving SHIELD to the World Security Council.”

“That’s what he does, Howard. He’s also likely to be nominated Secretary of State soon. That’s the rumor around town.”

Howard ordered more coffee. Peggy finished her tea and thoughtfully put the cup down. “You’ve never liked Pierce, and you seem to be the only one doesn’t. Fury thinks highly of him.”

“Hmm. What do you think?”

“I think he’s a politician. To be honest, we’ve never gotten along well, as you know. I seriously thought of retiring when he became Director. He has different ideas about where SHIELD should be going. But he’s left me alone lately.” She glanced up at an uncharacteristically pensive Howard. “What does this have to do with Zola? What did you hear at the party?”

“It was something about Pierce working with Zola when Pierce was liaising between State and SHIELD. I didn’t like the impression it gave about him.”

“Might be nothing, Howard.”

“Or a lot more. I’ve been around the block before, Peggy, and I’ve been involved in the spy game too long not to listen to my gut. And I don’t like my gut telling me that I should have fought Chester over Zola,” Howard said firmly.

Peggy sighed and turned over a spoon in her hand. “All we can do is make the best decisions with the information we have on hand. Looking back on decisions and how we could have changed things with what we know now just leads to regrets and dissatisfaction. You can’t change the past, you learn to live with it, bad decisions and all.”

Howard gave her a half smile. “Of all the people I know, you’re the only I know who has no regrets.”

“I have two or three,” she chuckled. “Otherwise I would sound like a saint, and you know that’s not true.”

After paying the check, Howard helped with her coat and drove her home. He parked the car and turned to Peggy. “Maybe this is a good time to get out. I’m going to fight Pierce with all I’ve got to stop SHIELD from reporting to the World Security Council,” he warned.

“I will enjoy reading about that fight in the papers.” She squeezed his hand. “Thanks for lunch. Don’t be a stranger, Howard. And don’t let our next meeting be at a funeral.”

 

A few days after her unsettling lunch with Howard, Peggy returned from a breakfast meeting to seeing Kathy and Michelle discussing the photographs on the wall. She walked into her now mostly bare office since she had given the books and some of the furniture away to friends in the building. She had a pang in her heart realizing that she had truly had come to the end of her time at SHIELD.

“Well, ladies, what’s the plan today?”

Kathy suggested, “Maybe it’s time to go through the pictures. There’s a lot on the wall. And you only have a few days left.”

“Do I have the time today?” Peggy looked over the wall covered in photos. She had already heard the jokes that she was only retiring because she had no room on the wall for more.

“Nothing on the schedule,” Kathy replied as cheerfully as she could. “Why don’t you sit over at the desk and we’ll bring you the photos.”

Michelle kindly brought Peggy tea and a footstool. Peggy massaged her knee. “If I knew that I’d have knee problems from drop kicking enemy agents when I was younger, I might not have done it.”

“Doubt that, Peggy,” Kathy said with a laugh. “Can’t imagine you doing anything different, even knowing what you know now.” She handed over the first photograph.

Peggy set the photograph aside. “Send this to Records. Next.”

Kathy and Peggy reminisced over the photographs, telling Michelle stories about the various SHIELD people in the photographs. Michelle took a photograph off the wall and said, “Who’s this? He’s really hot.” Then she blushed and covered her mouth.

“Give me that,” Kathy replied. “With the age of some of these photos, the hot guy could be your father’s age.” Her face fell when she saw the photo. She said in a subdued tone, “Here, Peggy.”

“So who is it Michelle thinks is hot?” Peggy asked. It was Steve, sketching on a seashore in his Army swim shorts. She set the photo down tenderly in the take-home pile.

Seeing Peggy’s reaction, Michelle asked, “What happened to him?”

“Plane over the North Atlantic, ‘45.” She looked at the photo again. “It is really one of the best photographs of Steve I’ve seen.”

“That’s Steve Rogers, Captain America?” Michelle asked surprised.

“Yes, photos of him not in his uniform are rare. A friend saw the original in the National Archives and sent me a copy.”

“Wow, I guess I never think of him like that when my grandfather tells me stories about him,” Michelle confessed sheepishly.

After that, it was hard to focus on sorting through the pictures, and Peggy decided to take an early lunch break. When she returned, Michelle said, “Kathy’s at lunch. When she gets back, she wants to pick up where we left off with the photographs.”

“Well, the job has to be done. No helping it,” Peggy agreed.

“Peggy, I’m sorry for what I said before lunch. I didn’t recognize Captain Rogers, and I didn’t know about your relationship with him or I wouldn’t have said what I did,” Michelle apologized.

Peggy smiled kindly at her. “Kathy explained everything?” The young woman nodded. “Then I can tell you it’s perfectly reasonable to think that, um, Steve was a very attractive man. Because he was.”

Michelle blushed. “Can I get you anything?” she offered.

“Just sit with me and I’ll tell you some more stories,” Peggy replied.

“I’d like that,” Michelle accepted gratefully.

“Bring me that photo on the right. It’s a picture of Bucky Barnes, Dum Dum Dugan and Steve at SSR headquarters. That’s him in his service uniform there …”

Retirement never felt so real until all the photographs where taken down. Kathy had called Connie to pick up Peggy and her three boxes of photographs. Connie was stuck at her law firm for a partners’ meeting and would be late in coming. So Peggy settled down in the lobby to wait with her book. But she couldn’t concentrate.

Only a couple of days more and she would be gone. No regrets at leaving. She had always been honest with herself because she needed the strength that self-awareness gave her to carry her through the dark times. She had been truthful with Howard – she did have one or two regrets.

She opened up a box to take out a picture of Steve and thought about earlier that day. She hated how she still stuttered over his name even this long after his death. Like she still was mourning the death of her boyfriend. And it had been many years before she felt comfortable even using the word ‘boyfriend’ for Steve. But with age comes wisdom and not giving a damn, and yes, she had loved him. Still loves him, she corrected.

In the last days of her marriage, Jack had thrown her feelings for Steve back at her coldly. He said that she had never loved him when they got married, that she had only married him because she needed a replacement for her sainted dead boyfriend. Peggy explained that her love for Jack was different and was as strong for him as it had been for Steve. But Jack never believed her, even when she said that she learned from her regrets over Steve to seize the moment and not wait. That’s why she had been willing to take a chance on Jack.

Peggy shifted in the hard lobby chair. She had not been involved in the design of the lobby, so she couldn’t complain. She heard a car stop by the door and she perked up. It was not Connie. A young man rushed by to jump into the car next to a young woman. Well, wasn’t that a sight to soothe her old heart, she thought ruefully.

She had been honest with Gabe the same way she had been with Jack. They never talked about Steve, with whom Gabe had served and still greatly admired. When Gabe asked her to move to Paris with him, she had no plans to quit work and follow him. She didn’t even really seriously consider his question. Because, while she loved him very much, she didn’t love him in a way that she was willing to change her life completely for him. Once she realized that, their relationship was doomed.

And the worst of it was that deep down inside, she knew that she would have ditched it all if Steve had asked her. She would have done anything for him. Because they had been young and passionate and in the fight of their lives against pure evil, and once that was gone with the static on the radio, she could never love like that again. It didn’t mean that she couldn’t love again, but it would be a different love. She didn’t regret loving Steve or Jack or Gabe.

Shaking her head, she checked her watch for the time. Sitting near the memorial wall was not helping her overly reflective mood much. She knew too many of the names on the wall memorializing those who died in service for SSR and SHIELD. The name at the top of the list was Steven Grant Rogers, Captain America, 1918-1945. She didn’t need the reminder, considering her melancholic mood.

Peggy blamed Howard for asking about regrets. She had one main regret, one that she never shared with anyone. How she dealt with that regret changed her life. But she would never tell anyone.

She regretted not telling Steve how she felt during the horrible last radio call. Yes, it made sense at the time to play it cool, avoiding actually saying what they both felt, assuming he understood her. She regretted that their only kiss was in a car as Steve raced after Schmidt’s plane.

And she regretted most of all that she never told Steve that she loved him. She had his number – he was awkward and bashful and couldn’t talk to women to save his life. When she was young she didn’t expect much from men and she kept waiting for Steve to disappoint her. He didn’t, except that time she caught him with the secretary, but she made assumptions without asking. He worked hard to prove himself to her.

Damn, she knew how she felt, and anyone could read it on Steve’s face. She should have just grabbed him and dragged him off to share a real kiss. Maybe more. And she would have told him that she loved him and that he was her best guy.

In short, she regretted being an idiot and not taking a chance when she should have. And nothing else in her life could compare to that regret.

Connie rushed in. “Sorry, Mom, the meeting ran overlong.”

Peggy smiled. “That’s okay, Connie. I didn’t mind the wait. Let’s go.”

A security guard loaded up their car and said, “Goodnight, Ms. Carter.”

Peggy looked around the lobby. It was time to go and seize the day in a new way.

“Goodbye, Henry,” she replied. And she didn’t look back.