Peggy Carter hates Christmas. It’s a season of idiocy and liberal drinking that overcrowds the ER with victims of preventable accidents: squabbles over turkey carving; car accidents after too much eggnog, or shouting children, or Christmas shopping left to the last minute; belligerent, drunken cousins screaming at one another over politics or sports or ancient family history; well-meaning husbands and sons falling off ladders while trying to hang lights and wreaths; and, of course, food poisoning. Christmas means overtime hours and sick calls and the same tired faces at the vending machines. It’s turkey dinner from the hospital cafeteria and soggy egg sandwiches and jell-o cups on Christmas Day.
She used to love Christmas, but after Michael died and she broke off her engagement with Freddie and moved to New York, it didn’t seem worth mustering the holiday spirit anymore. Now, she volunteers to take the extra holiday shifts no one wants—after all, it’s not like she has family to spend the holidays with.
(Well. She does—Christine always invites her to Christmas dinner (which might be nice, if Christine’s husband weren’t an arrogant asshole—though admittedly less off an asshole since he got in an accident and had to learn to walk again), and every year Howard tries to convince her to spend the holidays in California (in a last-ditch attempt to convince her to marry him, she suspects) —but Peggy always turns them down. The hospital needs staff, and Peggy hates sitting around when there’s work to be done.)
Peggy’s downstairs neighbour loves Christmas. He hangs a wreath on the door and strings of coloured lights around the window and erects a picture-perfect tree in his front window. He sings Christmas carols as he shovels their walkway while his golden retriever watches from the front step, and sticks a Christmas card with an idyllic winter scene in Peggy’s mailbox every year. It always says the same thing:
Happy holidays and all the best wishes in the New Year.
Steve & Cap
Peggy never sends him a card in return.
Thursday, Peggy comes home to find a stranger on the porch. He’s sitting on the swing, the one that Steve bought three summers ago. His jeans are torn and his leather jacket is too thin for winter weather. Dark hair sticks out from under a fraying grey beanie. One of his hands is prosthetic, metal and shining and newer than anything Peggy’s ever seen. She wonders if it’s Stark’s; she heard a rumour he was developing a cybernetic prototype. His other hand is white and bloodless. There’s a military duffle bag under the bench. He must be looking for Steve; he’s a counsellor at the veteran’s centre and more often than not invites patients over for tea or a hot meal.
“Can I help you?”
The stranger’s head snaps up. His face is chalky, lips turning blue. He must have been out here for hours at least. “N-no, I’m, um, fine. Just w-waitin’ on a friend.”
His teeth are chattering.
“You ought to wait inside,” Peggy says. Steve gave her a key to his apartment when she first moved in. “For emergencies,” he said. She’s never used it, but she figures that preventing Steve’s friend from dying of a hypothermia is emergency enough.
The stranger opens his mouth like he’s about to protest—or worse, tell her he’s fine. Peggy hates that word. Fine. She hears it all the time, from patients, from family members, from coworkers. I’m fine, doctor, just let me go home. I don’t know what happened—he was fine a minute ago! It’s fine, Dr Carter. We’ll handle it. Fine usually means symptoms lurking under the surface and patients unexpectedly coding and secrets behind closed doors. It’s a word loaded with secrets and burdens that always come back to haunt you. No one who says they’re fine ever means it.
Peggy does not have time for fine on her days off. If she leaves the stranger to his own masochistic stupidity—which is obviously what he wants—she’ll have to call an ambulance in thirty minutes when he goes hypothermic. Peggy will fight with the paramedics for ten minutes to take him to Metro-General, but they’ll take him to Brooklyn Hospital Centre because it’s closer, and Peggy will spend hours waiting in an ER that isn’t her own, drawing a mental list of everything the staff are doing wrong. It will not be a pleasant experience for anyone involved.
(Peggy has developed a reputation in emergency rooms all over New York over the years. She once performed a full resuscitation on a patient in the ER at Cedars Sinai while she was waiting to meet a colleague for lunch. Peggy wasn’t about to let the woman die, but as Daniel reminded her, she doesn’t have any business sticking her nose in other people’s ERs.)
“Please don’t say you’re fine,” she says sharply. “I only have three days off between now and Christmas and I do not want to spend those in an emergency room—my own or anyone else’s—because you’ve decided you want to turn into an icicle. I see enough stupidity when I’m at work; I won’t tolerate it on my day off.”
The corner of the stranger’s mouth twitches. “Yes, ma’am,” he says. He retrieves his duffle bag from underneath the swing while Peggy wages her daily war with the lock. Steve has greased it several times, but it’s determined to be stubborn. Steve says it adds to the charm of the house. Peggy thinks it’s just another way the universe tries her patience.
“You must be the upstairs neighbour,” the stranger says once they’re inside, as Peggy tries to find Steve’s spare key. (It’s on the ring, and it should look like her key only it doesn’t.) “Steve’s told me about you.”
Peggy resolutely ignores the acrobatic feats being performed by her stomach. He’s being neighbourly, probably. “All good things, I hope.”
He chuckles. “He paints a pretty good likeness.”
Peggy’s (traitorous) face flames. Mercifully, she’s found the right key.
Steve’s apartment is lovely: high ceilings, exposed brick walls, old-fashioned carved banister leading upstairs. He has the two bottom floors; the top he converted into an apartment. “Too much space for one person,” he joked when she toured the place. Everything looks warm and lived-in; a stark contrast to Peggy’s sparsely furnished flat above. There are framed photos on the mantle and art hung on the walls—Steve, she remembers, is an artist. Peggy feels like a voyeur.
“You should have a hot shower,” Peggy says briskly. “Not too hot, mind; your body needs to adjust to the change in temperature or you’ll go into shock. I’ll, erm, make some tea.” (Angie teases her for this quintessentially English habit, but Peggy firmly maintains that nothing can solve a problem like a good cup of tea.)
The corner of his mouth twitches, amused. “Roger that.”
Peggy waits until she hears the water running before rooting around in the cupboards for a teapot. She should have just invited him up to her flat, but she figured if he was waiting for Steve and she had a key to Steve’s she might as well let him in. Steve certainly won’t mind; Peggy has never met a more accommodating, kind-hearted person in her life. A modern-day Mother Teresa. Besides, she has been curious to see the inside of Steve’s apartment, despite the fact that she’s turned down countless invitations to visit it.
Steve doesn’t have a teapot, so Peggy fills the kettle and grabs a couple of mugs. Another search of the cupboards reveals only green tea—horrible, but it will have to do. Peggy makes a note to leave some Earl Grey in his mailbox.
The stranger returns just as the water boils. Peggy’s relieved to see colour in his cheeks.
“Better?” she asks.
He grins lopsidedly. “You were right, doc. As usual.” He runs a hand through his damp hair. “ Shoulda introduced myself. I’m Bucky. Bucky Barnes. Steve and I grew up together.”
“Peggy Carter. I live upstairs. As you know.”
She offers her hand. Bucky hesitates for a moment, before awkwardly giving her his left. The metal hand stays curled by his side. After a moment, Barnes stuffs it in the back pocket of his jeans. It’s meant to be casual, but Peggy recognises a defence mechanism when she sees one. She wants to ask—Angie would if she were here, would prod and mother hen until she got to the root of the problem—but she figures that Bucky will tell her on his own time. She shoves a mug of tea into his good hand instead.
“Drink up,” she orders. “It’s not real tea, but it’ll have to do.”Bucky’s lip twitches again, like he’s fighting a smile. “Steve didn’t tell me you were a tea snob.”
“Steve wouldn’t know good tea if it clobbered him over the head.”
Bucky laughs. “I’ll be sure to tell him.”
Steve, as it turns out, heats his house with a woodstove; Peggy manages to rustle up a fire with direction from Bucky, who allowed himself to be bundled under the homemade afghan on the couch on the condition that she plays Scrabble with him.
“Steve always beats me at this game,” he says. “Somehow, I think I’ll have worse luck with you, but I’m willing to make a sacrifice for the greater good.”
Peggy raises an inquisitive eyebrow, but Bucky just shakes his head. “All in good time, Carter,” he says cryptically.
He’s right: by the time Peggy spots Steve coming up the walk, Cap in tow, she’s beaten him at three straight games. She slips away as he fiddles with the lock, in spite of Bucky’s protests that she should stay and tell Steve he has awful taste in tea. She hears Bucky shout, “Carter’s a keeper, Stevie, she beat me at Scrabble!” as she runs up the stairs. She has no idea what it means, but she’s blushing like a giddy schoolgirl by the time she lets herself into her flat.
She’s coming out of the shower when there’s a knock at the door. It’s Steve, with a bottle of wine and a sheepish expression. He’s wearing a white t-shirt and flannel pyjama pants. Peggy is immediately aware of the fact that she is in a towel and Steve has the upper body of a god. It’s all she can do to keep from reaching out and touching him.
“Hey.” He rubs the back of his neck. His eyes never leave her face, which she appreciates. “I, uh, just wanted to apologise for earlier. With Bucky.”
Peggy smiles wryly. “I deal with patients like Bucky all the time. Besides, it would have been far more inconvenient for me if he’d gotten hypothermia. I hate sitting in other people’s ERs.”
Steve grins. “Yeah, Buck mentioned something about that. Said you’d put the fear of God in his drill sergeant.”
Peggy’s lip twitches. “I’m good at getting what I want.”
“Oh yeah?” Steve’s tone is playful, but there’s a challenge in his eyes that unfurls something hot and wicked in the pit of her stomach. If she pinned him against the wall and kissed him right now, she doesn’t think he’d protest. In fact, she rather thinks he’d like it.
(Steve, she is realising, may not be so much of a saint after all.)
“Yes,” Peggy murmurs. She wonders if Steve can feel the current crackling between them, the palpable electricity in the air. It’s probably enough charge to power all his bloody Christmas lights.
Steve steps forward, like he’s drawn to her, like he can’t resist. The bottle of wine presses into her stomach, icy against the heat of her skin.
She leans in.
Steve’s breath hitches. His body quivers, taught like a bowstring.
Peggy wraps her hand around the neck of the wine bottle, one finger at a time. “Thank you,” she says, pulling away suddenly. Steve blinks, stunned. “For the wine.”
Her heart is still hammering long after she closes the door.
Peggy has had a shit day. She’s running on four hours of sleep, three cups of coffee, and a fifteen minute power nap halfway through her shift. The snow caused a six-car pileup on 12th Ave and Peggy lost four teenage patients who might have lived if they’d been wearing seatbelts. She’s angry and sad and sore from performing compressions and frustrated with idiots who don’t follow basic safety measures or drive more slowly in the snow. She wants to drink a bottle of wine and fall asleep in the bathtub.
Steve is outside shovelling the latest snowfall from the walkway when Peggy gets home. Bucky is bundled under blankets on the porch swing, watching. Cap dozes at his feet. Steve pauses and leans against his shovel as she approaches. His smile is warm. Peggy wonders, uncharitably, if he ever feels any other emotion. “Long day?”
The knot that’s been twisting in the back of Peggy’s neck since this morning spasms. She winces and rubs it absently. “Very.”
“Well”—He pauses and glances up at Bucky like he’s looking for confirmation before continuing.—“we’re just about to have dinner and trim the tree if you’re hungry.”
Peggy doesn’t remember when she last ate. She was eating a bag of Doritos from the vending machine when the ambulances rolled in. She doesn’t know what happened to it.
“If you’re too tired—”
She is. Achingly so.
She should say no. She’s exhausted and sour; she’ll be terrible company and she’ll drink all the wine and probably fall asleep after dinner—
“Dinner sounds lovely.”
She meant to say no, and yet, now that she’s said yes, she can’t bring herself to regret it.
“Great.” Steve smiles crookedly. “You look like you could use some Christmas spirit.”
“Are you calling me a Grinch?” Peggy raises her eyebrows. It’s a look that cows most belligerent patients or family members; if Steve is intimidated, he doesn’t show it. “Just because I don’t decorate my flat or engage in other holiday frippery doesn’t mean I don’t have spirit.”
She probably is a Grinch, but admitting it means letting Steve win, and she won’t let him off that easily.
Steve smiles. “Holiday frippery?”
Peggy rolls her eyes. “Some people might say you’ve got too much festive spirit.”
“Oh yeah?” Steve’s grinning now, but there’s a spark in his eyes, a darkness, that makes Peggy’s heart flutter. It’s the same look he gave her three nights ago when he brought up the bottle of wine, the look that makes her want to pin him up against the nearest wall and ravish him thoroughly.
“Definitely. All these lights and the wreath and the handmade Christmas cards—”
“Do you want me to stop giving you Christmas cards?”
“I want you two to stop flirting and come inside!” Bucky shouts from the porch. “I can’t feel my fucking toes.”
“Well go on in then, if you’re so cold!” Steve shouts back. To Peggy, he says: “We should probably go inside. I’ve got a lasagne in the oven and it’s just about ready to come out.”
“Right. Yes.” It occurs to Peggy suddenly that she’s wearing two day-old jeans and a t-shirt she found in the bottom of her locker. Heaven only knows how long it’s been there. “I’m just going to run inside and change. I won’t be a moment.”
She allows herself two minutes in the shower to panic about what she’s going to wear and say and how she’s going to keep herself from falling asleep at the dinner table. By the time she’s dressed—in a red cashmere sweater and dark jeans that hug every one of her curves (no holiday spirit, Steve says)—and trying to decide what to do with her hair, the panic receded, replaced by the steely determination that has seen Peggy through many a crisis.
“Buck up, Carter,” she mutters to her reflection. “You’ve been through worse on less sleep.”
She leaves her hair down, in the end. The ends are curling from the damp; on the whole, it gives her a rather sexy, tousled look that she thinks will do quite nicely.
The bottle of wine from Steve is on the counter. Peggy swipes it on her way downstairs.
Steve, it turns out, is an excellent cook. Bucky pronounces the lasagne “orgasmic”, which only makes Steve blush and mutter something about table manners and company. Bucky winks at Peggy across the table. Peggy herself has three helpings of the lasagne, which, she thinks, is a testament in and of itself to the quality of the meal.
After dinner, Bucky makes hot chocolate (“I can’t do many things well, but I do make a mean cup of cocoa, Carter.”), Steve puts Bing Crosby on the record player, and Peggy bundles herself on the couch. She has every intention of supervising the proceedings (Michael used to call her the “Christmas marshal”), but the couch is warm and the weight of exhaustion and three helpings of lasagne pushes her under. When she wakes, tucked underneath Steve’s afghan, it’s to the smell of coffee and the soft morning sunlight streaming through the window.
“Morning,” Steve says with a smile, appearing at her elbow with a steaming cup of coffee.
If the universe were to strike Peggy down right now, she would have absolutely no complaints. You’ve gone and done it now, Carter. The man invites you over to his house and you pass out on his couch. Smooth.
“Thank you,” Peggy mumbles. She takes the offered mug and inhales the smell of caffeine and spices. “I fell asleep right away, didn’t I?”
Steve chuckles. “Pretty much. You looked like you could use the sleep, so we just let you be. Buck was disappointed you didn’t get to try his famous cocoa, but not so disappointed he couldn’t muster the spirit to drink it himself.”
“I’ll have to make it up to him,” Peggy groans. “God, this is so embarrassing. Usually, I’m much better at staving off exhaustion.”
Steve’s smile is far away. “My mom used to do it all the time. She was a nurse. I could always tell when she’d had a bad day because I would come home from school to find her passed out on the couch. Most of the time, she could make it through until dinner, but some days really just took all the fight out of her.” His expression softens. “Yesterday looked like it was one of those days.”
Peggy stares into her coffee and tries to ignore the creeping feeling of guilt in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t have done any more for those kids, and dwelling on it will only do more harm than good. “I lost four patients yesterday. Teenagers. They were in a car crash on 12th Ave. None of them were wearing seatbelts; otherwise, they probably all would have survived.”
Steve squeezes her hand, his expression sympathetic. “I’m sure you did everything you could for them.”
“I did, but it didn’t make telling those parents that they’d spend Christmas planning their children’s funeral any easier.”
“My mom never forgot the names of any of the patients she lost,” Steve says softly. “She said it was important to remember them. That compassion made you a better doctor.”
Peggy thinks of Michael, of the wound in her chest no amount of lives saved can heal. Every patient she loses brings back the memory of his face, still and white in the casket. Compassion might make you a better doctor, but Peggy is motivated by grief, by the raw, gaping hole inside her that opens wider every time she has to deliver the news that she received years ago: I’m so sorry. We did everything we could. She’s opened that chasm in sixteen people. Twenty, now. Every single one of their faces haunt her dreams.
The sharp trill of her pager pierces the silence like a dagger. Peggy leaps from the sofa, nearly upending her coffee in the process. MVA in the Lincoln Tunnel. Sinai West overloaded. ETA 25 minutes.
“Bloody hell,” she hisses.
“Duty calls?” Steve asks.
“Yes,” says Peggy, halfway to the door. “I’m really sorry—for falling asleep, and for dashing out, I had a really lovely time, your couch is delightfully comfortable— What are you doing?”
“Giving you a lift,” Steve says, reaching for his scarf. “Go grab your stuff. I’ll get breakfast together.”
“You really don’t—”
“I want to.” His smile is warm and brighter than a hundred Christmas lights. It makes Peggy feel overwhelmingly fond. “Go on. I’ll meet you outside.”
Peggy goes. It’s more practical to accept, she tells herself; it’s faster than the subway, and she should have breakfast—God knows when she’ll get anything else to eat. It has nothing to do with the ridiculous warmth that fills her chest when Steve passes her three slices of toast wrapped in tinfoil and a hot thermos of coffee, or the way he belts out Christmas carols the whole way. And yet, it’s hard not to imagine an eternity of mornings like this: breakfast and coffee waiting for her as she flies down the stairs, always on the verge of being late; Steve singing along with the radio and wishing her a good day; a friendly face to come home to in the evenings, hot supper on the table. Peggy, who has always made a point to never rely on anyone for anything, is surprised by how much she likes the thought.
She kisses Steve on the cheek when he pulls up at the emergency room doors. “Thank you,” she says breathlessly.
He grins, cheeks pink. “Any time. Go save lives.”
Christmas Day is always quiet. There’s a brief crush of visitors in the morning, paying the dutiful visit to relatives in the hospital before heading off to Christmas dinner, but by supper, the hallways are empty. The ambulances will come later, but for now, everything is calm. Usually, the stillness sets Peggy on edge, but today she finds it surprisingly peaceful. Angie and Darcy, the Christmas regulars, brought Christmas crackers and cards for the annual Christmas Crazy 8’s tournament.
They’re sitting around the nurses’ station, playing card and wearing paper crowns, when the door opens.
“Here they come,” Angie mutters.
“Five bucks says carving knife in the eye,” Darcy declares.
Peggy laughs. “You say that every year.”
Darcy shrugs. “One year I’ll be right.”
It’s Steve and Bucky, armed with containers full of leftover turkey dinner.
Darcy whistles, long and low.
“Wow, English,” Angie says, in a tone that is far too interested for Peggy’s liking. “You never told me your neighbour was such a looker.”
“Or that he had a friend,” Darcy pipes up. “Who, for the record, is also hot.”
“Evening ladies,” Bucky purrs. “Who’s winnin’?”
”Peggy,” Angie replies. “As usual.”
Bucky smirks. “What’d I tell you, Stevie? She’s a keeper.” He glances conspiratorially at Angie and Darcy. “Steve always said he’d only marry a girl who could beat him at Scrabble. Carter’s already beat me three times, so I reckon she’s the one.”
Steve elbows him, red-faced. Peggy wills the blush off her own cheeks. Angie and Darcy aren’t going to shut up about this all night.
“Don’t encourage him,” Steve says. “His head’s full of too much hot air already.”
Bucky cuffs him on the back of the head. “Punk.”
Steve grins. “Jerk.”
“You really didn’t have to go to all this trouble,” Peggy says. Angie elbows her in the ribs. Peggy ignores her.
Steve shrugs. “It’s Christmas,” he says, like it’s really that simple. “Besides”—He grins mischievously.—“I heard you were a fan of my cooking.”
Peggy blushes so fiercely she thinks her face might burst into flames. Angie and Darcy are both trying not to laugh. Bucky is smirking. If they were alone, Peggy might be tempted to kiss Steve senseless. As it is, she has to settle for affected disinterest. “Well,” she says, slowly, like she’s considering it, “I suppose it would be a shame to let it all go to waste.”
It’s worth all the teasing, for the look on Steve’s face when she accepts.
“I swear, English,” Angie says as they leave, “if you let that one get away, I will kill you.”
“He’s like a real knight in shining armour,” Darcy says solemnly. “And he’s really hot.”
Peggy rolls her eyes. He’s lovely, but she’s not about to fall head over heels like some cliché out of a romance film just because he brought her Christmas dinner. Or let her sleep on his couch. Or sends her bloody handprinted Christmas cards. Her mother used to say she was too sensible for romance.
She believes it, too, until she catches sight of Steve outside the emergency room next morning, leaning against his car with a cup of hot coffee in his hand. He smiles when he sees her, like she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, like she’s the centre of the universe, and every last bit of her resolve crumbles.
“You really didn’t have to come,” Peggy says. It’s meant to be serious, but she can’t keep the ridiculous grin off her face.
Steve chuckles. “Merry Christmas to you too, Peggy.”
“Doesn’t mean I’m not glad you did,” she continues softly.
He smirks. “Oh yeah?”
There’s no ridiculous holiday magic when he kisses her, or angel choirs bursting into song, just a warmth in the pit of her stomach and the undeniable sense of being home.
(She doesn’t manage to stay awake for the tree decorating the next year, either. Steve jokes that festive spirit puts her to sleep. “I still love her,” he tells Angie and Darcy when he drops off Christmas leftovers at the hospital, “even if she’s a bit of a Grinch.”)