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may your days be merry and bright

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Steve remembers lots of things about Peggy. The way she stood tall and spoke sharply, like there wasn’t a thing in the world that scared her. The curve of her smile, red like sunset. The softness in her eyes that was only for him. Bullets ricocheting off his shield with staccato prevision, at once the most terrifying and arousing thing he’d ever experienced.

The memories haunt him, twisting themselves together until he can’t think of anything else: Peggy and Bucky, falling from the sky, mouths open in silent screams. The two most important people in his life and he let them both die. Captain America can do many things, but he can’t keep his best friends alive.

Peggy’s death hurts the most. Bucky was a raw ache, a bruise under constant pressure—Buck, at least, was always on the front lines with him; one foot in the grave since ’43. Neither of them really thought they’d make it home alive, but Steve figured they’d at least die together. But Peggy— Peggy was never supposed to be on the front lines in the first place. She was always meant to make it out, to conquer the world with her sharp wit and her vermilion smile. Steve could have stopped her, he could have, if he’d only tried harder.

As if you could, Peggy scoffs. He can picture the raised eyebrow, the tight mouth, as clearly as if she were in front of him.

She’s right. No one could ever make Peggy Carter do something she didn’t want to do. It’s what Steve loved most about her.

It’s also what got her killed.

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Phillips wants a plan before they storm the HYDRA base. Steve tries to tell him, respectfully, that plans tend to go to shit immediately in the field, but he can’t shake the sight of Bucky falling from the side of a moving train, so he stays silent. If Phillips is right, this will end the war.

Steve really wants the war to be over.

Zola said the Red Skull has a plane and that he’s planning to attack New York. He doesn’t know what the plans involve (or at least, he won’t say so, but Peggy’s convinced he knows and isn’t telling them. Peggy doesn’t think he can be trusted.) Steve is about to volunteer to disable it—as a formality: they all know Phillips will ask him anyway—when Peggy says: “I’ll do it.”

There’s a stunned silence.

“Carter—” Phillips begins.

Peggy lifts her chin, as if daring him to tell her she’s not fit for the field. “Of the two of us, I’m the better pilot,” she says.

“You can’t fly that thing,” Phillips says.

“Sure, she can,” Howard pipes up from the corner. He’s grinning smugly; he loves proving Phillips wrong. “I taught her myself.”

Peggy raises her eyebrows as if to say See? “Besides, we can’t have Rogers crash-landing in the Arctic somewhere.”

Steve should have protested right then and there, but instead, he ignores the twist in his gut and says, “Right you are, ma’am.” Peggy would be formidable in the field. She’s wasted behind an intelligence desk, even though he’d much rather she stayed there out of harm’s way. If she’s determined to be in the thick of it, this is the safest place for her to be. Hijack the plane. Put it down somewhere safe. Easy as pie.

Only it isn’t—

“I can’t set it down, Steve.” Peggy’s voice crackles through the speaker, frightfully calm. “It’s on a programmed course for New York— I’m going to have to put it in the water.”

“You owe me a dance,” he says stupidly, like he can’t think of anything else to say.

A crackle of static—a laugh. “I’ll make it up to you. The Stork Club, a week next Saturday.”

“I’ll wear my best dancing shoes.” He hasn’t got any, but he’ll find them if that’s what it takes to save her.

“Eight o’clock on the dot—and don’t you dare be late.”

“You know I still don’t know how to dance, right?” There’s a lump in his throat, thick and heavy. It feels like one of his asthma attacks, only he can’t get those anymore.

“I’ll teach you.” Peggy’s voice is wet, but her tone is steady. She told him once that they would know when their time had come and that all they could do was face it bravely. Steve wonders if he’d be so calm when his own number’s up.

“We’ll have the band play something slow,” he says. His voice trembles. It’s like losing Buck all over again, only a hundred times worse because it’s happening in slow-motion, because he should be the one in that plane. “I’d hate to step on your toes—”

The only answer is the crackling of static.

She isn’t at the Stork Club. Steve knows she won’t be, but he goes anyways. He sits at the bar and downs three whiskies while couples dance around him, celebrating the end of the war, and wishes he could still get drunk. He doesn’t know what kind of dances she liked, but he can imagine: the fast ones, with the whole band playing and the girls twirling , feet moving like lightning. One many nearby throws his partner up over his head. Buck used to dance like that. He and Peggy would have made great partners on the floor: him in his uniform and her in that red dress. Steve can picture them, dark heads bent together. The white column of Peggy’s throat, thrown back in laughter.

They should be here together, the two of them. Steve would die a hundred deaths if it meant they could live. But he can’t, and they aren’t, so he finishes his whiskey and walks back to his apartment alone.

He’s left the wireless on; the Andrews Sisters’ recording of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoën” crackles through the apartment. Steve remembers the first time he heard it, at a dance hall in Brooklyn in 1938. Bucky laughed at the incorrect lyrics and made a point of singing along in Yiddish anytime he heard it.

“One day, Stevie,” he used to say, “you’re going to meet a girl who’s gonna knock your socks off, and you’re gonna take her dancing and they’ll play this song and it won’t matter that you’ve got two left feet. You won’t be able to resist.” 

He thinks of the couples at the dance hall, young faces filled with light and life, like the war had never happened, like they could forget all their loss and their suffering as long as the music played. If Peggy had been there tonight, he’d have danced his heart out, even if it meant stepping on her toes.

It hits him suddenly: the pain is so bad he nearly doubles over, grasping frantically at his heart as if he can somehow soothe it. Peggy is gone. Bucky is gone. He’d move heaven and earth to keep them safe, and instead, he’s all alone.

The first sob is torn from his throat; he almost chokes on it. The next one comes more readily, ripping from his chest like a bullet. He staggers to the bathroom and splashes some cold water on his face but it only makes the tears flow faster so he crumples to the floor and lets them fall.

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The SSR wants to keep him on. Apparently there’s all kinds of clean-up to do after the war and a whole new war that’s been started with the Soviets, like America can’t go ten seconds without an enemy to fight. (Steve begins to realise, decades later, that this might be true.) He accepts, because he likes to be busy and he might as well be putting Erskine’s serum to good use, but he never quite gets used to it. Spying was always Peggy’s speciality. This is what she wanted to do after the war, not Steve. Steve wanted to go home and buy a dog and a farm and have a family. Peggy wanted to tear down every piece of evil in the world, one brick at a time. She’d have done it much better, too, but she isn’t here, and Steve feels obligated to continue her legacy.

What would Peggy do? he asks himself. Most of the time, he doesn’t handle things with the same ease or grace and he punches his way out of a lot more conflicts than are strictly necessary, but he isn’t an awful spy. He gets the hang of pretending after a few decades.

Howard searches for the Valkyrie every year. Steve figures it’s some kind of atonement, a way to assuage his guilt. Every year, he invites Steve. Every year, Steve declines. He’s made peace with his ghosts. He’d rather do good in the world than go chasing after them.

Instead, he sets his sights on a ghost he can chase: the Winter Soldier. The intelligence community thinks he’s a Soviet myth; so did Steve, until he nearly lost his head outside Leningrad in ’58. Howard knows something and isn’t telling, but Steve figures whatever the secret is, he’ll learn it in time.

He never imagined the secret would be Bucky.

(He wonders, after the rescue and the rehabilitation and the endless debriefings, if this means that Peggy is out there somewhere too, waiting to be found.)

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Peggy goes on one mission with the Commandos: a recon to a HYDRA facility near the Soviet border. Steve doesn’t like it, but he doesn’t have a right to tell Peggy that the field is no place for a woman, not when she’s proved herself a dozen times over, so he keeps his mouth shut. He’ll just have to do his best to make sure she makes it out alive.

They make camp in the woods ten miles away from the HYDRA weapons facility they’re tasked to destroy. Steve takes the first watch so the others can get some sleep; he doesn’t need as much of it as they do. He watches the flames flickering in the darkness and goes over the plan in his mind: Bucky, Dum Dum, and Dernier will keep watch while Steve, Peggy, and Falsworth infiltrate. Gabe and Jim are going to monitor the radio and disable the alarms. They should be in and out in twenty minutes. He and Peggy will stick together; it’ll take longer to search the facility, but he can cover the extra floors at the end—

“Is this going to be a problem? My being here?”

The question pierces the night light a thunderclap. Steve’s head snaps up; Peggy is standing in front of him, arms folded across her chest.

“Peggy,” he says weakly. “I thought you’d gone to bed.”

“Because if it is,” she continues as if he hadn’t said anything, “you’d better solve it quickly. I’m going out there tomorrow, and there isn’t anything you can do or say that will convince me otherwise. I can take care of myself, Steve,” she adds more gently.

The flush starts somewhere under his collar and creeps up his neck, spreading over his cheeks until his whole face is the colour of a ripe tomato. He hasn’t been so embarrassed since he tried to ask Jane Howard to dance in ’38. 

“I didn’t mean— I’m sorry.” He ducks his head, eyes fixed on his lap. “I just— I worry.”

“About your trousers? They’re at the mercy of whatever you inflict upon them.”

Steve knows she’s teasing, trying to lighten the mood, but he can’t help thinking about the hundred ways tomorrow could go wrong. “Peggy, I just—” He balls his hands into fists, frustrated. He’s never been the most eloquent, not like Bucky, who spouts words like a fountain. Steve was better at talking himself into trouble than out of it. “I can’t lose you,” he whispers.

“I know,” Peggy says softly, placing her hand over his, “but neither of us can control what’s going to happen tomorrow. All we can do is do our damnedest to make it back in one piece. Which will be much easier if you aren’t trying to keep me safe all the time.”

Steve laughs humourlessly. “Buck said the same thing.”

Peggy blinks, surprised. “About me?” 

“Yeah.” Steve picks at his trousers listlessly. “He says I worry too much about you, that you could snap me in two with your little finger if you wanted and I’d never see it coming.”

“Well, I doubt I could snap you in two,” Peggy says reasonably. Steve doesn’t miss the way her eyes slide over his torso. He still remembers the way she touched his chest when he came out of Erskine’s machine, like she couldn’t help herself. “But he has a point.” She rubs her thumb over the back of his hand slowly. Steve closes his eyes and commits this moment to memory: the slide of her skin against his, the warmth of the fire, the wind in the pines. They might die tomorrow, but if they do, at least he’ll have this. “This is war, Steve. We all have to be willing to make sacrifices.”

Steve could insist she doesn’t have to make this sacrifice—he knows Phillips tried to—but he doesn’t. He, most of all, knows what it’s like to be told where he belongs and what he was meant to do. He knows little about Peggy’s life before the war, but her life during the war has been full of enough people telling her no that he can make a pretty good guess.

“I know,” he says grimly, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. Their eyes meet. Steve wonders if it would be inappropriate to kiss her.

She presses a soft kiss to his cheek before slipping back into her tent.

(He does kiss her soundly, after. Bucky wolf-whistles and Dernier makes obscene hand gestures and Gabe tells them to get a room, but Steve couldn’t care less.)

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Steve retires in 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of Peggy’s death. Howard begs him not to—he’s still in the thick of it, despite the fact that he’s aged and Steve hasn’t (barely, at least; he found his first grey hair in 1985. Bucky laughed until he cried. “You don’t look a day over 75, Stevie,” he says.), but Steve knows it’s time. He never wanted to spend his whole life in intelligence, and SHIELD is in far more capable hands than his now (or so he thinks). The world doesn’t need Captain America anymore, and Steve thinks it’s about time he earned a life. He’s tired of fighting enemies in the shadows, phantoms that may never be real. There are real causes to be fought, important things, that will make a difference in the lives of everyday people. Those are the things Captain America should be fighting for. Those are the things Peggy would want him to fight for.

It makes headlines, the first time he goes to a rally. They publish pictures of him the next morning, pushed up against a wall in handcuffs, with the headline “America’s hero arrested in New York”.

“You’d think you’d defaced the flag from the way they’re goin’ on,” Buck says when he comes to bail Steve out. “Then again, I s’pose you are a little like the flag, when you get that uniform on.”

Steve rolls his eyes. He hasn’t worn the uniform in decades. “I’m just doing the right thing, Buck,” he says.

“I know, punk. They shouldn’t be surprised—gettin’ into trouble’s always been your thing.”

Steve thinks of the compass tucked in his pocket, of the faded picture inside. You’re going to be big trouble when you get back, he said to Peggy once, on a cold night somewhere over Italy. And you aren’t? she replied, without missing a beat. She was never afraid of getting into trouble, not if it meant doing the right thing. If she were here now, he thinks, she’d be right beside him.

Of course I would, she’d say. Only I’d have the good sense not to get arrested doing it.

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Sixty-five years after Peggy’s death, Tony Stark finds the Valkyrie.

It's almost Christmas. Steve is underneath the tree, when Tony calls. Peggy Lee is playing on the radio (he’s never lost a taste for the old stuff, no matter how much music has changed) and Bucky is lounging on the couch with a beer, reading the crossword clues aloud.

“Forty-five down—oh, you’ll like this one, Steve—‘Atomic bombmaker, five letters’—”

The phone rings.

“’Lo,” Buck says. He listens for a moment. Several expressions flash across his face: shock, confusion, before settling into a familiar smirk. “Right. I’ll tell him. Thanks, Tony.”

“What did Stark want?  Steve asks. He’s tried to get along with Howard’s son for Peggy’s sake, if not for his old friend’s, but the boy tries his patience often. Buck, on the other hand, loves him—mostly because he sends Steve Captain America paraphernalia for his birthday every year.

“He’s throwing a Christmas party. 40s-themed. Says we have to be there, else it won't be 'period authentic'."

Steve rolls his eyes. "Is it too late to cancel?"

Bucky smiles mischievously. "C'mon, Stevie. You know how I love a good party."

It really is a good party. Tony pulls out all the stops: his penthouse is transformed into a replica of an old dance hall, like the Stork Club, complete with a big band like they used to have in the old days. Everyone is dressed up—even Steve, who changed into his old dress uniform after Bucky insisted (“It’s the only period dress we’ve got anymore, Stevie.”). Stepping off the elevator feels a little bit like stepping back in time. If Steve closes his eyes, he can imagine he’s in Brooklyn, in the spring of 1945, waiting to dance with his best girl.

“It’s really something, ain’t it?” Bucky says softly beside him. “Just like the old days.”

“Yeah,” Steve breathes. His chest feels tight. It’s a nice gesture, and Buck will have a great time dancing, but he wishes he hadn’t come. He’s too old, too tired, to stand on the sidelines of dance halls and dream about what could have been.

Bucky smiles, like he knows what Steve’s thinking. (He probably does; he’s always been good at reading Steve’s mind.) “C’mon, Stevie. Let’s find some dames and get dancin’.”

“You go,” Steve says distantly.

“You sure?” Buck asks. He’s got that smug look in his eyes, like he knows something Steve doesn’t. Steve is beginning to get the sinking sensation that this party might not be about Christmas after all.

“Yeah, you go on, I’ll—”

The crowd parts at the edge of the dance floor and Steve’s heart stops. This is all a dream, it has to be—

Peggy is walking towards him. She looks like a vision. Her hair is done up like she used to do it, loose curls tied back. There’s a red rose in her hair. Her dress is blue silk, with a full skirt and a bodice that clings to everyone of her curves. Her lipstick matches the rose in her hair: bold and red, just like his Peg.

“Merry Christmas” Buck murmurs in his ear. “I wanted to tell you, but Tony said the surprise’d be worth it.”

Steve can’t think of a single thing to say. This is a joke, or a dream. It’s too good to be true. Peggy couldn’t have survived all those years in the ice, she couldn’t have, unless—

You weren’t Erskine’s only test subject, Peggy said years ago.

“Hello, stranger,” Peggy says breathlessly.

“You’re late,” Steve replies. His brain feels fuzzy, like it’s full of cotton wool; he can’t think of a single sensible thing to say.

Peggy smiles. “Well,” she says, “I couldn’t call my ride.”

Steve laughs. He feels weightless, like the last seventy years were just a bad dream. “You know, seventy years is a long time to keep a guy waitin’ for a dance.”

“Plenty of time for you to practice,” she retorts, eyes sparkling. “As I recall, you were worried about stepping on my toes.”

Steve takes her hand. It’s shaking. “I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed, then.”

As if on cue, the band strikes up a slow song.

Peggy smiles wetly. “Shall we?”

They do. Peggy’s a great teacher; Steve only steps on her toes twice. He spots Buck dancing with Natasha; he grins at them like a loon over her fiery head. Across the room, Tony and Pepper are watching them. Pepper is smiling fondly. Tony looks unbearably pleased with himself. He’s probably never going to let Steve forget this day, but Steve couldn’t care less; he’ll happily owe Tony for the rest of his life because Peggy is here.

“You waited for me all this time?” she asks later, as they lie in bed together. (Steve was happy to wait, to do things properly, but Peggy shoved him down onto the bed and said, “I swear to God, Steven, if you say one word about ‘waiting until marriage’, I’ll scream,” and all he could say was “Yes, ma’am,” and put his mouth to work.)

Steve smiles. He feels stupidly happy, like he should be tethered down or he might float away. “I found the right partner. Why would I bother looking for another one?”

Peggy kisses him softly. “You’re a romantic fool, you know that Steve Rogers? And I, for one, am glad of it.”

It's the best Christmas he's had in a long time.