Audrey only met Peggy Carter, Agent Carter, the one time.
It was in Italy, during the war, after Steve's last USO show. Steve ducked fruit and rotten tomatoes as he fled from the stage, pulled off his cowl, and took off with his sketchbook under his arm. Audrey followed, and found him sitting as far as he could get from the men in the company they were there to entertain, furiously sketching a cartoon of a dancing monkey in his Captain America costume.
"You okay, Steve?" she asked.
"Sure," Steve said without looking up. "I'm swell." He punctuated his words with a slashing line on the paper.
Audrey retreated, prepared to argue with the director to leave Steve alone if he didn't want to go back on stage for their second show.
She was checking her costume and makeup for that show, and wondering if she should go look in on Steve again, when she felt a tap on her shoulder.
"Excuse me," a voice said. The voice was female, British, and what her Christopher would have called posh. "Do you know where Private Rogers is?"
Audrey turned, and found herself looking at a woman around her age, or maybe just a bit older. Even in an American Army uniform with her hair a bit worse for wear from the rain that had been dogging them the last week, she somehow managed to look glamourous.
"I'm sorry, what?" Audrey said, vaguely thrown.
"Private Rogers," the woman repeated. "I was told he would be here."
Audrey had to think a few seconds about who Private Rogers was.
"Oh, you mean Steve," she finally said.
"Yes, Steve." The woman smiled. It was a nice smile, friendly, but determined at the edges. "You wouldn't be Audrey, would you?"
"It's so nice to meet you," the woman said, her voice suddenly much warmer. "Steve's mentioned you in his letters." She held out her hand and took Audrey's in a firm shake.
"I'm afraid I don't know who…" Audrey said, trialing off and feeling at a disadvantage.
"I'm sorry. I'm Peggy Carter." Audrey still couldn't place her, and Carter must have seen the confusion on her face. "Agent Carter," she said, and then it finally clicked.
"Oh, Agent Carter! Steve has mentioned you. But—"
"He didn't mention I was a woman," Carter finished with a laugh.
"He didn't. He did mention you were the best soldier he'd ever met, so I assumed…"
Audrey trailed off, feeling a bit of a fool. She never liked people making assumptions about her based on her sex, and was disappointed in herself for doing the same thing to someone else.
"It's all right." Carter patted her on the shoulder. "Steve's told me you're a good friend. And one of the best dancers on the tour."
Audrey brightened up immediately. Then remembered why Carter was here.
"Steve went that way." She pointed to the sodden tents Steve had been hiding behind.
"Thank you," Carter said, then turned to leave.
Before she could take a step, Audrey reached out and caught her elbow.
"You might want to be a bit gentle with him," she said to Carter. "The audience was rough on him this afternoon."
"I saw that for myself," Carter said. "And don't worry. I shall."
She gave Audrey a comforting smile and set off in the direction Audrey had pointed, her shoulders set, her stride determined. And that was the last Audrey saw of Peggy Carter.
When Steve first arrives in her dance studio, she and Peggy are his last surviving ties to the past. He waits nearly a month to tell her about Peggy, but then blurts out "Peggy's still alive," after dinner one Sunday, when Liz is in the kitchen cleaning up the dishes.
"That's wonderful!" Audrey says, but then she notices how tight the corners of his mouth are, notices the shadows in his eyes. "Isn't it?"
"She has Alzheimer's," Steve says, his tone blunt and flat, like it's something he's trained himself to say with absolutely no emotion.
"Oh, Steve," she says. She's had a few friends and distant family members hit with Alzheimer's, seen them fade away from her long before their hearts stop beating.
"It's okay," Steve says, then blinks a few too many times. "On good days she knows who I am."
"But on bad days?" Audrey nudges him.
"On bad days she doesn't." He shrugs. "On the worst days, she thinks I'm still in the ice and that I'm just some blond guy who looks like her Steve."
"Oh, Steve," she says again, and puts one bony arm around his shoulders and squeezes with what strength she has left. She gives him a shake, then pulls back and says, "I think that you need a second slice of Liz's lemon meringue pie." She shoos him towards the kitchen where Liz is still clattering around, and then dabs at her eyes with a tissue she retrieves from the sleeve of her cardigan.
Peggy's in a home in England, a nice place, Steve tells her. Steve borrows one of Tony Stark's fancy jets to fly over to visit her whenever he can. Sometimes he comes back smiling after one of his visits. Sometimes he doesn't.
When Steve gets his Bucky back, and Bucky gets a pardon and a passport, the two of them go visit Peggy together.
The first time they tell her they're going to England, Audrey's not entirely sure it's a good idea. She takes Bucky aside, and asks if he's knows what he's doing, visiting Peggy with Steve. (When he talks about Peggy, Steve's eyes light up exactly the same as when he talks about Bucky. Audrey's never asked exactly what he and Peggy were to each other, but Audrey figures it's as complicated as anything else connected to Steve. Bucky's never struck her as the jealous type, but he is only human.)
"She's my friend, too," Bucky says, his chin stuck out like he's taking lessons from Steve on how to be a stubborn idiot.
Audrey frowns and stares him down like she stares down her dance students when they've been lazy with their barre work and try to lie about it.
"Okay, not at first," he finally admits. "When I first met her, I was jealous as hell of her. Made an ass of myself, even. But then I realized she wanted the same thing as me."
"And what was that?"
"To keep Steve, well, not safe. There's no safe on a battlefield. But to keep him from throwing his life away on missions that didn't matter."
"How did that go?"
"Okay." Bucky's mouth twists into a shape somewhere between a grin and a grimace. "Peggy watched his back in the strategy meetings, made sure he was only used on ops where he could make a difference. I watched his back in the field, put a bullet in the head of any Nazi asshole who came too close to him.
"I bet you did," Audrey says, and pats his hand firmly. She suddenly wishes she'd known Peggy Carter when they were both young women. She has a feeling they would have gotten along like a house on fire. "You should go see Peggy, then," she says.
Bucky gets one of the older kids to cover his dance classes while he's in England, and then shows up at her door on Thursday morning with a smile and a shopping bag from Fortnum & Mason.
"Good visit?" she asks as he hands her the bag.
"Good visit," he agrees, then steps in to give her a hug. "Peggy knew who I was. Told me to look after Steve when he stepped out to get her a cup of tea. Even Steve was smiling when we left."
"That's wonderful." She shoos him into the living room as she sits and happily digs through her present. There are two jars of marmalade for Liz, and three of lemon curd for her. She smiles. Bucky was clearly paying attention to her stories of Christopher's sister sending them Fortnum care packages when the kids were young.
"Maybe she's getting better," Bucky says as he pops into the kitchen to make them both coffee.
Audrey doesn't say a word about that, just distracts him with an update from Katie on how his Dance for Tots class went the day before. She's positive he knows Alzheimer's doesn't work like that, but she's not about to take away his hope on this sunny morning. Time enough for him to see Peggy on a bad day.
Two visits later, Bucky doesn't get a bad day. He gets a worst day.
He shows up at Audrey's door looking like he just stepped off the battlefield, and the Fortnum's bag he hands her holds a bottle of sherry instead of lemon curd. She heads straight for her china cabinet and pours them both two crystal glasses of sherry without even asking. She figures, what the hell. Like Steve, Bucky can't get drunk, and she's old enough not to care about what it looks like if she's drinking in the morning.
Bucky demolishes the glass of sherry in one swallow, and she pours him another. He's halfway through that glass before he says a word, and Audrey doesn't push him.
"Peggy told me—" Bucky starts, and then breaks off.
"What did she tell you?" Audrey prompts when it doesn't look like he's going to continue on his own.
Bucky doesn't say anything right away. He swallows the rest of the sherry, but pulls the glass away when she goes to pour him a third one. He nervously twirls the stem of the glass between metal fingers. Audrey waits patiently for him to continue the story. She knows it never does to push him.
"Steve went to get her a cup of tea, same as he always does," he finally says. "It was a really bad day. She thought I was an orderly, and he was just a nice young man who looked like her Steve. And she told me—" He stops speaking, and swallows hard, like his throat has suddenly dried up. "She told me she wasn't surprised," he continues, "that Steve put that plane in the ice. That she'd been expecting him to deliberately walk into a Nazi trap after 'his young man' fell off that Goddamn train."
Bucky looks at her, his eyes wide with anguish. "What am I supposed to do with that, Audrey? Peggy as much as tells me Steve committed suicide when he thought I was dead. What the hell am I supposed to do?"
Audrey thinks back to the day Steve showed up at her door after the fight in Washington. Thinks of the damage he'd let Bucky inflict on him instead of fighting back against his fella. Steve will live for Bucky, but he's also more than willing to die for him. Peggy Carter has clearly seen the same thing, but saying that isn't going to help Bucky or Steve. So, she takes another tack.
"Forget what happened during the war. None of us were ourselves during the war. What about now? Does Steve seem suicidal to you now?"
"No." His voice is quiet.
"Are you worried he's going to harm himself?"
"Not unless you count him fighting all the super powered assholes who keep taking on the Avengers, no."
"Then I don't think you have to do anything with what Peggy told you. Except help me finish this bottle."
He lets her pour him another glass of sherry, and they both toast Agent Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers and Fortnum and Mason's Wine & Spirits department. And if she's a little tipsy when he leaves to teach his tots class, no one needs to know.
When Steve finally retires from the superhero business and comes home from his own personal war, Audrey thinks again about what Peggy told Bucky. She's grateful that both Steve and Bucky are out of the line of fire, that neither one of them is likely to find out what it is to live without the other for a very long time.
Bucky keeps teaching at the dance school, Steve settles into his work at the Pride center, and they both make regular visits to Peggy in England, even though the bad days start outnumbering the good ones.
Then, one Sunday afternoon, Steve's cell phone rings. He disappears into the backyard to take the call, his back tensing as he walks away from her. Audrey's not surprised when he re-appears five minutes later, his lower lip trembling, his cheeks just a bit wet.
"Peggy's had a stroke," he says. Sitting across from her, Bucky's whole body tenses up, and his arm whirs the way it only does when he's upset. "Sharon's with her. Tony's got a Quinjet ready to go."
"What're we waiting for?" Bucky says, and he's immediately up and on the balls of his feet.
She and Liz give both of them a hug in the front yard as they're leaving. She feels the roar of Tony Stark's Quinjet in her chest when it lands at the schoolyard a couple of blocks away, and everyone in the neighbourhood stands out in the street and watches as it takes off and streaks east, heading across the Atlantic. When there's no more sign of Steve and Bucky than the jet's contrail drifting across the clear blue sky, Liz links their arms together and guides her back inside.
They're gone for a week.
Bucky sends regular texts on the fancy smartphone Tony Stark gave her when Steve brought him over for a Sunday dinner a few months back. (Stark isn't a regular visitor like Natasha is, but he comes over every so often, and he set up a scholarship so kids who can't afford it can take classes at her school.)
None of the texts is comforting. Audrey knows from losing Christopher, and her parents, and far too many friends that dying can be long, ugly process, and it seems it hasn't spared Peggy Carter.
Finally, after nearly a week, she gets a final text. Two words.
She doesn't text back; this isn't the time for words on a screen. Instead, she hits the call button on Tony Stark's fancy phone and waits for five rings until Bucky picks up.
"I'm so sorry," she says before he can get a word out.
"Thanks." His voice sounds tight. Congested.
"How's Steve holding up?"
"You know Steve," he says after a few seconds pause, and oh, does she ever.
"Let me guess. He's gone all Captain America, insisting he's fine and looking after everyone else."
"You got it in one. He keeps trying to get Sharon—that's Peggy's great-niece—to eat soup."
"And you keep trying to get him to eat soup."
"Yeah, well, no one else realizes he's dumb enough to need a keeper," Bucky says, a little of his natural sass bleeding back into his voice.
"No one except you and me," she says.
"You and me and Peggy," he says, and she hears the tightness back in his voice.
There's a long pause during which neither of them say anything and Audrey pretends she doesn't hear the sniffing on the other end of the line.
"Audrey?" he finally says, his voice quiet and tentative, sounding, she guesses, not much different from what it must have when he was a raw teenage boy who hadn't seen any fighting beyond a neighbourhood donnybrook in Brooklyn.
"Yes, Bucky?" She keeps her voice gentle.
"Don't—" He stops, takes an audible breath, then begins again. "Don't you die on us for a good, long time, okay?"
Audrey clutches the phone with a hand that aches more often than it doesn't and thinks about all the friends and family she's seen go before her. Until Steve Rogers showed up in her school she'd thought she'd done all she needed to, that she would be content to shuffle off this mortal coil and join her Christopher, wherever it was he was waiting for her. But Steve and Bucky have given her new purpose, a new life.
"I'll do what I can, Bucky," she says, as much of a promise as an old broad like her can make.
"Thanks," he says.
"And you come to dinner as soon as you're back. Both of you. Don't wait for Sunday. We'll make all your favourite dishes."
"Bread pudding?" he asks, still sounding like a kid.
"Bread pudding," she assured him. "With caramel sauce."
"You're the best, Audrey."
Then he's gone, saying he's got to help Steve and Sharon with the funeral arrangements before S.H.I.E.L.D. and two governments take it over completely.
It's five more days before she sees them again. They turn up on a Thursday afternoon, both looking brittle and tired.
Bucky volunteers to help Liz with the dinner—"Cutting up stuff'll be therapeutic for me," he says—while Audrey drags Steve into the living room for a sit down.
Steve looks so done in, she's half-expecting him to fall asleep on the couch, her knitted afghan pulled around him, but instead he sits in front of her, hands clutched together, eyes glassy and red like he's been crying too much for even his healing powers to deal with.
She pours him tea from a pot Liz brings her, and makes small talk—about the dance school and Liz's high school students, and the Gutierrez kids down the street—while he sips from a cup that seems too small for his hands.
She doesn't think he's going to say a word all night, when he finally blurts out, "I might have married her, you know. If things had been different. If we'd all survived the war."
Audrey freezes in shock for a moment before she speaks.
"But you and Bucky…" she starts to say, her gaze darting over to the kitchen door.
"I loved her, Audrey. As much as I love Bucky. Might not seem right to some people, but I love them both." Steve sniffs and drags the back of one hand across his nose. "And me and Bucky, we had an understanding. If either of us found a woman we loved, one we could make a life with, we'd given each other permission to..." Steve looks down at the tiny porcelain teacup in his hands, unable to go on.
Audrey finds her own words have dried up in the face of Steve's pain. She puts down her own cup, and slides over until she's sitting right beside Steve, then takes his arm in a comforting grip. She holds him tight while his shoulders shake, passing him a tissue when he needs it and just being there for him.
This grief isn't as raw as the grief she'd seen when Steve had thought Bucky was dead, but it's no less real, no less important. And she knows there's nothing she can say to make it better, so she simply stays with him until Liz and Bucky loudly announce that dinner's five minutes away, giving Steve a chance to go splash water on his face and look a little less like he's in mourning for one of the two great loves of his life.
During dinner, no one mentions Steve's red eyes or the blotchy skin of his cheeks.
After the dinner dishes are cleared away, and everyone is sitting in the living room, Bucky stands, drags his right hand gently across Steve's head, fluffing up his hair, and heads for the foyer.
"You don't have to go yet, do you?" Audrey asks, as she strains to see where he's gone.
"Nah," Bucky says, before re-appearing with the knapsack he'd arrived with. "I brought something I thought you'd get a kick outta." He reaches into the knapsack and pulls out three old fashioned photo albums.
"What are those?" Liz asks, leaning across Steve's lap so she can see the top album, with its battered corners and overstuffed pages.
"Peggy's legacy," Steve says. His voice still sounds choked, but he's smiling now.
"You are looking at the biggest collection of photos of Captain America and the Howling Commandos outside of the Smithsonian." Bucky flips open the top album with a flourish, and there on the first page is a photo of Steve, Bucky and the rest of the Howling Commandos. They're all in uniform, and posing in what looks like some sort of photo studio. It must have been an outtake of an official photo shoot, because they're all laughing at some long-forgotten joke. She knows they'd already been through a lot before they were formed into this unit—they'd all been fighting before Steve pulled them out of that POW camp—but they still look so damn young. And the Steve in the picture is looking at Bucky like he's the only person in the world, like he hangs the moon for him.
"Well, would you look at that," Liz says, her hand reaching out to touch the page, then pulling back at the last minute, like a kid chided for touching a painting in a museum.
"Yeah," Steve says. "Would you look at that."
Steve's voice sounds so wistful that Audrey can't help but glance up from the photo. Steve's looking at Bucky the same way he is in that battered picture from seventy years ago, with an expression of such open adoration that Audrey quickly drops her gaze, struck by the knowledge that she's intruding on a moment not meant for her eyes.
They spend the rest of the evening going through Peggy's legacy. Any time Steve gets looking too sad, Bucky tells another story about the Howlies, about the time Dernier blew up a Nazi latrine because they thought it was a weapons cache, or when Morita outright lied to Colonel Phillips about how long it would take them to get to a target so they got an extra day's leave in a recaptured French town.
Then they find a few pictures of Steve with all the girls from the USO show, including one of him lifting Audrey and another girl whose name she no longer remembers right over his head. Audrey tries to flip past that one, but Steve doesn't let her, the rat.
"This is great," Liz says with a grin. "Rita and June have got to see this."
"Don't you dare," Audrey raps out, but Liz has already snapped a picture and texted it to her sisters.
"Too late," Liz says with a laugh.
Audrey doesn't complain, but she does make plans to bring out the album of Liz's baby pictures the next time Steve and Bucky are over. Revenge works both ways, and she didn't collect blackmail material of her children for nothing.
After they've gone through Peggy's albums, Audrey pulls out her own albums from the war, with pictures of her Christopher, so handsome in his RAF uniform, looking at her the same way Steve looks at Bucky.
It's a good night, sadness mixed with light, and a time for everyone to remember the loved ones they're missing.
In the weeks after Peggy Carter's funeral, Audrey starts thinking about her own legacy, about what she's accomplished and what will live on after her. And she gets an idea.
She talks to her children first, Liz and Rita and June, getting their blessings for the scheme she has in mind. Then she talks to her lawyer, a nice young man who works in Christopher's old firm. He frowns, and scribbles notes, and asks her three different ways if she knows what she's doing. In the end, he does as she asks, and she leaves with a sheaf of crisp, expensive paper folded into her purse.
She takes the sheaf of paper out after Sunday dinner, when she and Liz and Steve and Bucky are sitting around the table, drinking coffee and eating the bread pudding Bucky loves so much. She places the sheaf on the table and pushes it deliberately over to Bucky.
"What's this?" Bucky carefully puts his spoon down. His voice is calm, but he looks at the sheaf of papers like it's a mine he's about to step on.
"It's my last will and testament."
"No," Bucky says, pushing the papers away from him. His mouth turns down and his shoulders hike up around his ears. "You promised me, Audrey. You promised me you're going to live a good long time."
Audrey wants nothing more than to take back the will and give Bucky a hug and tell him she'll be around forever. But she knows he doesn't take to coddling very well from anyone but Steve. So, she goes for matter-of-fact over gentle.
"People have wills, Bucky," she says. "It doesn't mean that I'm going to die tomorrow. I just want to make sure my affairs are in order."
"Why now? And why show this to me?" Bucky still looks ready to run, but his shoulders have come down slightly.
"Because it's as good a time as any. And because you're my heir. Well, one of them, anyway." She kicks Liz under the table, and Liz nudges her back.
"My heir," Audrey confirms. "You know, a beneficiary of my will, due to inherit my worldly possessions."
"I know what an heir is," Bucky snaps out. "But I don't know why you made me one. I don't want your worldly possessions. Everything you have should go to your kids. And grandkids. Not me. I don't deserve anything from you. You tell her, Liz." He looks over at Liz, and Audrey sees something like panic in his eyes.
"Are you done?" Audrey asks.
"Maybe," Bucky says.
"You ready to listen to me?"
Bucky shrugs in response, and Audrey takes that as permission to go on.
"What with recent events, I've started thinking about my own legacy. Liz will get the house, of course. And I've got savings and investments that will go to the other kids and grandkids. But there's the school…"
"Oh." Bucky's eyes go wide, like he's been hit by a round from an unexpected sniper. "No," he says. "No, no, no, no, no…" He leans away from her.
Audrey turns from Bucky to Steve, looking for support. Steve also looks surprised, but his surprise is mingled with what seems to be satisfaction, so Audrey knows she'll have a willing ally in him.
"I own the building, you know." Audrey turns back to Bucky, keeping her tone calm and reasonable. "The school and the apartments above it. Christopher bought it for me when I started to teach. Real estate in Queens was dirt cheap back then and he wanted me to have my own school. If I leave the school to Liz and the girls, they'll close it down and sell the building."
Sitting beside her, Liz shrugs and nods with a grin. "Probably. What would we do with a dance school?"
"But I'd like the Smythe Dance Academy go on after me," Audrey continues. "And since you and your fella look to be around for a long time, I figured you were just the person to keep it running."
"Yes." She across the table and takes Bucky's hand. "Bucky, you love that school more than anyone. Maybe even more than me. I know you'll keep it safe for me. And for the kids."
"I don't deserve it," Bucky says. His gaze is directed down, and Audrey hasn't seen him look quite so, well, lost is probably the right word, since Steve brought him home nearly two years ago. He's done so well, she sometime forgets how far he's come. And how far he has yet to go.
"You listen to me, Bucky Barnes." She squeezes his hand as hard as she can with her bony old fingers. "You deserve everything. The school, and the kids, and Steve at your side. All of it. Don't you let anyone tell you differently. Not even yourself."
He squeezes her hand back, and when he finally looks up again, he's looking slightly less lost, slightly more himself.
"What can I say, Audrey?"
"You can say thank you. And then finish your bread pudding. You're practically wasting away." She nudges him with a sharp elbow. "Isn't he, Steve?"
"Wasting away," Steve repeats with a grin. "There'll be nothing of him left if he doesn't eat all his bread pudding."
"You two aren't as smart as you think you are," Bucky grumbles, but Audrey can already see he's looking better. Happier.
Bucky finishes his bread pudding, and they have coffee in the living room, and no one talks about the will or the school or Audrey's legacy for Bucky again, but Audrey can see Bucky relaxing into the knowledge of it. By the time they get up to go home, Bucky's as settled in his body as he ever is, and he gives Audrey a gentle, enveloping hug.
"Thank you," he says, his voice fond. "But I don't want to have to see that will again for a long time."
"I'll do my best," she says, before she turns to say goodbye to Steve.
It's a comfort to her, knowing that Bucky is her heir.
On nights when her hands hurt and she wakes up and can't get back to sleep, it consoles her that when she's gone (many years from now, she hopes) Captain America's fella will be there to teach the kids not only how to dance, but how to live and love in the best way possible.