Chapter 1: i.
Everyone knows the story of Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter.
Maybe you learned about it in a history book. Or one of the ten biographies on Captain America that have been published since his death in 1945. Maybe you watched one of the film adaptations of their lives—perhaps it was the classic Steve McQueen and Audrey Hepburn, or Joe Wright’s Oscar-nominated 2006 biopic. Maybe you listened to the radio dramas, or the interviews, or saw the exhibit at the Smithsonian. Maybe you grew up dreaming of an epic love; a romance for the ages.
But the story we know is only one story. There are infinite possible universes where the story of Steve and Peggy might have been very different.
These are some of these stories.
Chapter 2: ii.
At the ripe old age of 90, Peggy Carter is pretty sure she's too old for online dating.
Tony has other ideas.
At the ripe old age of 90, Peggy is pretty sure she’s too old for online dating.
Tony, apparently, disagrees; he sets her up with an online dating profile for Christmas.
“It didn’t take any time— I had Jarvis do it yesterday afternoon, all your information’s calibrated and we’ve set it to filter out guys you won’t like—”
“Has it occurred to you”—and it hasn’t because it’s Tony: he means well but he doesn’t ever think about how anyone else might feel about his schemes—“that I might not be interested in dating anyone? I’ve lived for nearly a century, Anthony. I hardly think any of these men are in my age bracket.”
“That’s the thing, you’ve been around a hundred years and now you’ve got to live a little! You’re retired, Pegs. You don’t look a day over twenty-nine. The world is literally your oyster.”
“I already have a life, thank you.”
Tony frowns. “Keeping tabs on SHIELD isn’t a life. It’s an obsession. Retirement means that you’re supposed to stop working. Not keep working through unofficial channels.”
Peggy didn’t choose to retire. Peggy had retirement forced upon her because Howard was paranoid and insisted on secrecy years ago. A woman in her seventies couldn’t run SHIELD—and, as far as everyone knew, Peggy was just that. She was tired of paperwork and red tape and lying, so she did what everyone expected her to do, but she wasn’t ready to stop doing her job.
The real truth is this: Peggy doesn’t know how to do anything else. Spying is all she’s ever known, for as long as she can remembers. She’s a chameleon; she sheds faces like most women shed clothes. She doesn’t have hobbies or interests. She doesn’t know how to let people in.
The number one rule of spying: trust no one. You never know who you might have to kill later.
“I get it, you know,” Tony says, and suddenly he’s the precocious child who begged her to stay with him until he fell asleep because he dreaded being alone. “I thought I had everything figured out before Afghanistan. Thought I didn’t need anyone because letting people in just meant you had more people to lose, and then I came back and I pulled my head out of my ass and realised that I need people, that I need Pepper, and then I couldn’t ever remember how I thought I could make it own.” He fidgets with his tablet, turning it over in his hands. It used to drive Howard crazy, all his restless energy. Peggy thought it was hypocritical of Howard; he had that same manic energy. “My dad thought the same thing, and it didn’t make him happy in the end.”
Peggy sees, with startling clarity, how this might seem like a problem for Tony. She remembers Howard’s last years: his obsessive work schedule, his utter disregard for his family. Peggy was obsessed with work, but she had nothing else to go home to; Howard had a family—a family he repeatedly cast aside. He didn’t stop working until the day he died; it makes sense that Tony would worry about Peggy falling victim to the same fate.
(She’s not like Howard; she doesn’t age, firstly, but she also has a fire in her bones that Howard never had—a desire for truth, for honesty, to do the work that no one else can do. She hates waste, and retirement feels like the biggest waste of all.)
(Tony would say she’s being ridiculous. That she can’t spend her whole life working—even as he struggles not to do the same. This is probably Tony’s way of saying so.)
You have to let people in, Margaret, Abraham Erskine said to her, a lifetime ago, when she was young and hurting and the chip on her shoulder was bigger. Otherwise, the loneliness will tear you apart.
So, she grits her teeth and promises Tony she’ll try it.
From: Meg Carter <email@example.com>
To: Steve Rogers <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: May 5, 2010 at 1:04 PM
I will admit, I’m a little apprehensive about emailing a stranger I met on the Internet, but I’m told this is how people meet these days, so there’s nothing else for it. Thank you for your message; it was very sweet and I was very flattered to receive it. I haven’t done this in a very long time, but it’s nice to know that I am still interesting to someone who isn’t family.
I must also confess that my godson stalked you on the Internet. I told him it was unnecessary and that if you were an axe-murderer it was his own fault for setting me up with the account in the first place, but he insisted. He’s a little paranoid and has many resources at his disposal. That said, he seems convinced that you aren’t a pervert or an axe-murderer (in fact, his exact words were something along the lines of “he sounds absolutely boring, Pegs, you’ll make a great match”), so I have his blessing to continue—not that I need or want it. It is a relief, though, to know that you seem like a kind, honest man. I expect you can meet all kinds of characters on these things.
I would like to meet with you in person; I much prefer it to all this electronic correspondence. Is there a time or day that you might be available for coffee?
All the best,
P.S. Apologies for the strange email - my godson set it up. Again, he was trying to be funny. He didn’t succeed, but I am stuck with the email. PC.
From: Steve Rogers <email@example.com>
To: Meg Carter <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: May 5, 2010 at 7:45 PM
Subject: RE: Hello
Please don’t apologise for being apprehensive; I’m honestly a little out of my depth here too. Internet dating is not my speed, but my friends have all been bugging me to try it for a while so I gave in before they went so far as to set up the profile for me. I am also decades out of the dating game — if I’m honest, I was never really in it, barring a few short-lived relationships in college — but trust me when I saw you are very much interesting in your own right.
I feel a little bit like I’m playing Russian roulette. I could in theory Internet stalk you as proficiently as you have stalked me, but all that would tell me is that Peggy Carter looks like the picture on your profile. Whether or not the person running the profile actually is Peggy Carter would still be a mystery.
I could still be a pervert or an axe murderer. Many high school teachers have been both. Not at the same time, obviously. (My best friend, Bucky, thinks that it’s a terrible idea to say this in an email because you’re going to think I’m some kind of psycho, but I think you can never be too careful on the Internet.)
I am free Saturday morning, if that works for you. What do you say we do breakfast? I know a great place in Brooklyn.
P.S. I wasn’t going to ask this, but does your godson happen to be Tony Stark? The email seems like a bit of a giveaway (unless you work for SI, in which case, apologies), and then you mentioned he was a tech whiz too, so I wondered—but then again, you guys are basically the same age, so that would be weird. Ignore me. SR.
From: Meg Carter <email@example.com>
To: Steve Rogers <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: May 6, 2010 at 5:32 AM
Subject: RE: RE: Hello
Breakfast on Saturday sounds lovely.
You are right about Tony. On all counts. It’s a complicated situation, but I promise, I will explain everything on Saturday.
I’m looking forward to meeting you.
All the best,
Peggy isn’t quite sure how to explain her situation to Steve. Her original plan had been to lie—at least until she knew more about him and whether this was serious—but she let slip that Tony had stalked Steve on the internet, and Steve is obviously perceptive—though it isn’t hard to put two and two together; the email alone is a dead giveaway. As far as Steve knows, she’s thirty—far too young to have a godson Tony’s age. (Impossible, actually; Tony would be older than her by almost a decade.)
“Just tell him it’s a joke,” Tony says, “because you’re so mature and I’m so hopeless. Or that it was a typo. Maybe you meant godbrother.”
Pepper rolls her eyes. “Lying will only make the situation worse. If you really think he’s worth it, you should tell him the truth.”
Peggy, personally, agrees with Pepper: lying to people you care about is almost never worth it. Professionally, however, Peggy does little else but lie, and since she’s had no personal life to speak of for the last seventy years, she isn’t entirely sure she knows how to be honest anymore. Tony and Pepper have gotten good at deciphering her half-truths and knowing when to press her lies, and Nicholas speaks in coded lies as well as she does. Peggy isn’t sure Steve will be able to keep up.
In the end, she resolves not to tell him yet. Let the first date go as it will. If there are more, she’ll reconsider, but there’s no point worrying about a problem that isn’t imminent.
By the third date, Peggy realises she’ll have to tell him the truth. The first two dates have gone smashingly, far better than Peggy could ever have anticipated. Steve is charming and witty, honest and principled, and possessing a magnetism Peggy finds difficult to resist. He’s been a perfect gentleman so far, but Peggy isn’t sure how much longer her own willpower can last. Fifty years, after all, is a long time to be single.
Nicholas would call her a fool for revealing her identity, but Peggy has been in the intelligence game long enough (she bloody recruited Nicholas) to trust her instincts. Her instincts say Steve can be trusted to keep a secret. Her instincts say she might need to trust Steve with her secret. (She’ll never admit it, but Tony might be right: she can’t spend her whole life keeping people at arm’s length.)
“I have a confession to make,” she says as they sit over coffee at some tiny hipster café on Bergen St that Steve loves. She wraps both hands around her coffee to steel herself. She’s surprisingly nervous. She hasn’t told anyone what she is: Howard worked on the project with Erskine, Nicholas deduced the truth when she never aged and Natasha and Hill know everything that Nicholas knows, and Sharon and Tony are family. She wants Steve to take it well; she isn’t quite sure what she’ll do if he doesn’t.
“Is this about Tony Stark being your godson?” Steve asks. There’s a twinkle in his eye, like he’s caught her out and he knows it. “I wondered when you were going to come back to that.”
Realisation strikes like a lightning bolt and Peggy wonders how she could ever have been so stupid. “You’ve known this whole time, haven’t you?”
Steve, at least, has the decency to look guilty. “I suspected when I saw your face on the profile—it was never confirmed that Margaret Carter was chosen for Operation Rebirth, but some historians and intelligence officers suspected it. I knew when you mentioned Stark was your godson; it’s in the historical record that you and Howard were close—there are actually people who think you’re Tony’s mother—”
Peggy snorts. “Yes, I did read about them. I think I’d know if I were.”
The corner of Steve’s mouth twitches wryly. “I told myself it didn’t matter. You obviously weren’t advertising the information; I figured if it was important to you, you’d tell me.”
Peggy hears what he doesn’t say: If you thought I was worth it, you’d tell me.
“And? Does it bother you that I’m almost seventy years older than you?”
Steve laughs. “Well, it’s certainly not what my mother had in mind, but no, I can’t say that I mind.” He rocks back in his chair, chuckling to himself. Peggy bites her lip to keep from scolding him. “Captain America was a Brit all along. Who’d’ve thought?”
(Howard thought it was hilarious at the time too. Phillips said that it was good for morale, and that they’d get a stand-in for the newsreels.)
“How do you know so much?” Peggy asks sharply. “About Rebirth. And me, for that matter.”
Steve smirks. “I am a historian, Peggy. And a former Army intelligence officer. I do know some things.”
He would, she supposes. SHIELD itself isn’t secret, though its operations are. Steve probably teaches about its origins in his class.
“Is it like you imagined? Meeting a face from history?”
Steve smiles. “Not at all. You’re much prettier, for a start.”
“Do you kiss your mother with that smart mouth?” Peggy asks.
He does kiss her with it, which is all that really matters in the end.
Tony insists on having Steve over for dinner.
“That’s hardly necessary,” says Peggy.
“He’s serious about you,” Tony retorts. “I have a right to meet him. Make sure he’s treating you right.”
Peggy rolls her eyes. Pepper laughs. “I think Peggy can handle herself, Tony,” she says. “But it would be nice to meet him.”
That settles it. Tony can’t be talked out of anything Pepper wants, and Peggy has never been particularly good at denying the two of them anything.
Steve looks rightfully starstruck when Peggy meets him in the lobby of Stark Tower. “I know you told me you lived here,” he says, “but it’s one thing to hear about it and another thing to see it in person.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Peggy says, punching the code for the penthouse with more force than necessary. “I am capable of living by myself.”
“I don’t think anyone has any doubts about your capabilities,” Steve replies with a smirk.
Peggy frowns at him. “Please don’t talk like that at dinner. It’ll only antagonise Tony, and he’ll already be spoiling for trouble.”
Steve places his hand on her waist. Peggy loves the boldness of modern dating, the freedom to be in one another’s personal space all the time, should one wish. “Well, now I’ll have to do it,” he murmurs in her ear.
The doors open.
“Well,” Tony says, grinning. “Looks like you two are having a great time already.”
Peggy scowls at him.
“I’m not saying I told you so,” Tony continues as they exit the elevator, “but I did tell you so.”
“What Tony means,” Pepper says smoothly, stepping forward with a smile, “is that we’re delighted to meet you, Steve. I’m Pepper. Welcome.”
Steve smiles and takes Pepper’s outstretched hand. “Peggy’s told me lots about you both. Nice to finally put names to faces.”
Tony scoffs. “As if he didn’t already know who we are. Everyone knows who we are.”
“Be that as it may, it wouldn’t kill you to be modest every now and then, Anthony,” Peggy says smoothly.
Tony grimaces. He hates being called Anthony. Peggy only does it when he’s being particularly tiresome.
Pepper exchanges amused glances with Steve. “Shall we eat?”
They make it through all of five minutes of dinner pleasantries before Tony says, “So what’s it like dating Peggy, Steve? A real relic from a bygone age.”
Steve frowns, his face a mask of perfect innocence. “What do you mean?”
Tony stares. Peggy tries not to laugh at the utter incredulity on his face. “You haven’t—?”
The corner of Pepper’s mouth twitches. Peggy sips her wine, one eyebrow raised. She never doubted Steve would be able to hold his own with Tony; she was only concerned what kind of trouble they might get up to together.
“Wait.” Tony glances between them, brow furrowed. “This is a joke, right? You’re being funny.”
“Oh my god. He has a sense of humour. Please teach Peggy what that’s like; she never laughs at any of my jokes.”
“Peggy has a great sense of humour,” Steve says with a wink. Peggy rolls her eyes and takes a long sip of her wine. She feels entirely too old for all this; it’s a little bit like watching Howard and Daniel at the dinner table—always trying to one-up the other, like Peggy was some kind of prize to be one. It always annoyed her; she’s a person, not a piece of livestock.
“Are you saying—? He’s saying my jokes aren’t funny, isn’t he?” Tony glances beseechingly at Pepper, who simply says, “Well, honey, they aren’t always funny.”
Tony clutches his heart in mock horror. “Pepper. Love of my life. Heart of my heart. How could you betray me like this?”
"Is he always so melodramatic?" Steve asks later, as they walk home, hand in hand.
Peggy laughs. "He gets it from his father."
"Really?" Steve grins mischievously. "And here I thought he got it from you."
Peggy cuffs him in the ear.
Peggy likes sex. A lot. Her mother would be rolling over in her grave if she knew, but Peggy has lived long enough to to know how to take what she wants when she wants it. Times have changed, and (in this regard), Peggy is perfectly happy to have changed with them. Men are much more considerate than they were seventy years ago; now, there’s no problem with a woman bossing a man around in the bedroom. Steve, to her surprise, quite likes it.
“I don’t have a lot of experience with women,” he admits the first time.
“I don’t have much more experience with men,” Peggy says, which is true, in a way—she only ever saw one with any degree of seriousness, “but I do know a thing or three about women.”
She might never have been married, but she’s hardly a nun. Seventy years is a long time, and besides, Peggy’s always liked doing things herself.
Steve is an excellent partner. He’s a quick and enthusiastic learner, eager to please and even more eager to show off, once he’s got it right. Peggy worried about the age difference, at first, but Steve doesn’t seem to care.
“You’re the youngest ninety year-old I’ve ever seen,” he murmurs, fastening his teeth onto her neck with just enough edge to make her groan. “And by far the most beautiful.”
“Flatterer,” she hisses and bears down with her hips. He doesn’t say much after that.
“Have you ever been in love?” Steve asks one night, after a rather enthusiastic bout of love-making. They’re lying on the carpet, clothes strewn around them like confetti. (They often don’t make it to the bedroom. Peggy feels a little like a horny teenager. It’s marvellous.)
Peggy’s heart somersaults. “Of course,” she says, because she has and Steve would never believe her if she tried to lie about it. And then, because she thinks she should, she says: “I was almost married, once. Well, twice, if you count Howard Stark’s repeated attempts to propose, which I don’t because I had no interest in accepting them. We would have been a terrible match.”
“Oh really?” Steve’s tone is casual, but there’s an edge to his voice, a possessiveness that tells her he doesn’t like the thought. “What was his name?”
“Daniel. We worked together, after the war.”
“Why didn’t you marry him?”
Peggy sighs. She hasn’t thought about Daniel in a long time. “I wanted to. I loved him and I think he could have made me happy, but he was moving to California and I was in New York, trying to set up SHIELD with Howard. We thought we could make it work long-distance for a while, but neither one of us wanted to leave our jobs and we couldn’t spend our whole lives apart, so we let each other go.”
“So it was a career move.”
“It was more than that, I think. Daniel was really serious; he would have moved to Washington, but I wouldn’t let him give up his life for me, his job.” She twines their fingers together, watches the firelight flicker against bare skin. “Really, I think I didn’t want him to give up his life for me. I was never going to age—or at least, not nearly as quickly—and it didn’t seem fair.”
“I think it’s up to Daniel to decide what’s fair and what’s not,” Steve says quietly. Peggy suddenly has the distinct impression they aren’t talking about Daniel anymore. “Maybe that was exactly the life he wanted.”
“Perhaps, but he married someone else. They had five children and a farm. It was everything he ever wanted, and it wasn’t until after he had it that we both realised I could never have given him that. Work was always going to come first, and while we might have been happy initially, I think that might have come between us in the end. He never wanted to change me, but he hoped that I might, and I knew that I never would.”
“You want someone to take you as you are. Someone who won’t ask you to change, but might make you want to change.” Steve smiles ruefully. “That’s what my mother always said. ‘A good partner will make you want to be a better person for them, but they will always love you as you are.’”
“Your mother sounds like a smart woman,” Peggy says. Her own mother would have said something along the lines of ‘a good partner will provide for you so that you want for nothing’.
Steve’s expression is wistful. “She was.”
She died, Peggy remembers. Steve mentioned it on their first date, when she asked about his family. His father died overseas, when Steve was very young. His mother died of cancer five years ago. She and Steve seemed very close.
Peggy’s mother died in 1958. Peggy was held up on a covert operation in East Germany and missed the funeral. She doesn’t think her mother would have been terribly upset about the development; rather, she might have been more disappointed if Peggy had turned up.
“And what about you?” Peggy asks, hoping to lighten the mood. “Surely, a young man like yourself has been in love before.” Young people are all about love these days, with their online dating and apps. When Peggy was their age, you were expected to marry someone from the parish, if you weren’t marrying for money. Love rarely factored into it. People didn’t have that luxury.
Steve shrugs, but his cheeks are flushed. “I never met a girl I was really interested in. My taste is a little— old fashioned, I guess. Buck says that’s what happens when you spend your life with your nose in a history book. After a while, it just didn’t seem important, so I figured I’d wait.”
He smiles crookedly. “The right partner.”
Peggy is sleeping when SHIELD falls.
She’s awoken at three in the morning by the phone ringing. Beside her, Steve moans and sticks his head under the pillow.
“Peggy.” It’s Natasha. “Turn on the news.”
She does. CNN is showing footage of the carnage in Washington, under the banner: BREAKING: SHIELD FALLS, HYDRA TAKEOVER REVEALED. She doesn’t know how long she watches the helicarriers fall from the sky. (They were Nicholas’ pride and joy. Peggy always thought they were ridiculous, and far too dangerous. She hates that she was right.) She never really thought HYDRA was gone, but she thought SHIELD was safe. She and Howard built that organisation from the ground up, and there was a viper in the nest from the very beginning. They engineered HYDRA’s return. They were nothing but a host body for the cancer they tried so hard to wipe out. Everything she did, her whole career, over seventy years in intelligence, and it amounted to nothing, in the end.
She can’t believe she and Howard were so naïve.
“Peggy.” Steve’s hand is warm and firm on her shoulder. He’s fully awake now. “What do you need?”
“Get the car,” she says. “And call Tony. Tell him it’s time to assemble the team. He’ll know what you mean.”
She calls Sharon on the drive. “Are you all right?” she nearly shouts when her great-niece answers.
“I’m fine,” she says. She sounds shaken, but in one piece, which is all that matters. “Everything’s fine, Nat’s gone to the Senate to sort everything out, but you’ve got to stay out of it, do you hear me? Fury doesn’t want—”
“You can tell Nicholas that if he thinks I’m going to sit by while my agency crumbles, he’s not nearly as smart as I thought he was,” Peggy snaps. She has to make this right. She started all this, she should have seen this from the beginning, and she’ll be damned if she has to stand by while they put everything to rights. No one knows more about HYDRA than Peggy Carter. No one.
“You know, it isn’t your fault,” Steve says quietly after she hangs up. “You did your best.”
Peggy wonders if she can ever believe that.
Peggy Carter returns to a world in chaos, looking younger than when she left it. The Internet abounds with theories about the secret of her youth (to Tony’s utter delight): that she’s a clone made in secret by Howard Stark, that she’s a long-lost cousin, that she’s an alien from another planet. No one can believe that the super soldier, the great American hero of Operation Rebirth, the infamous Captain America, is British, or worse, a woman.
“It’s ridiculous,” she says to Steve one morning over coffee. The New York Times headline reads “Former SHIELD Director: America’s lost hero?” “You’d think that after all these strides we’ve made for equality, people wouldn’t be up in arms about women doing things any more.”
Congress, naturally, wants to question her about SHIELD. They announced the inquiry the moment the news broke about HYDRA. So far, Natasha is the only one who’s testified.
“You don’t have to do it, you know,” she said, before Peggy revealed her secret. “We can handle things.”
“This is my mess,” Peggy replied firmly. “I got us into this and I’ll get us out.” She’s tired of playing games in the shadows, of hiding from threats that may never materialise. That was always Howard’s way of doing things: like it was a game of poker, always anticipating moves that might never come and bluffing your way through the rest. For once, Peggy wants to stand in the light and face the enemy head-on.
Congress questions her for hours: about Project Rebirth, about her work in the war, about SHIELD, about her relationship with Howard Stark.
“Why come back into public life now?” one Congressman from Texas asks. Tony’s always hated him, says he asks asinine questions at every hearing he’s been to—and there have been many; the boy never did know how to keep himself out of trouble. “Are you just trying to save face, now that everything you’ve built has fallen apart?”
Peggy catches Steve’s eye in the gallery. He’s come to the hearing every day, even though she tried to tell him it would be a waste of his time. A muscle twitches in his jaw. He’s been in the thick of this since it happened, helping wherever he can: cooking meals, coordinating search efforts, fielding phone calls from journalists and politicians alike. Whenever she comes home from the field, he’s there, waiting for her.
Peggy lifts her chin. “Are you implying I fancy this some kind of game, Congressman? That I’m here to mend my bruised ego?”
The Congressman flushes. “If you could answer the question, Ms Carter.”
“I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Peggy says sharply. “I’m not here to boost my ego, or save my image, and I’m certainly not here to answer impertinent questions. I know my own value. I don’t need anyone to tell me.”
There’s a whoop from the gallery. Peggy doesn’t need to look up to know it’s Steve.
It’s easier to go out into the field, the second time. The technology is newer, faster, better, and it takes a few months to get back into shape, but there’s a need for people like her now. The enemies are different—they fight out in the open, not in the shadows. She’s not alone, either; Tony has rustled up a rag-tag team from all across the galaxy. After decades as a lone wolf, it makes for a nice change.
And now, when she comes home, there is always Steve, waiting by the door with strong arms and a smile that makes Peggy’s heart somersault.
(They live another seventy years. They build a home together. Grow old and grey together. It’s everything Peggy imagined she’d have from life.
“You don’t regret it, do you?” Steve asks. It’s Christmas. They’re at home, hosting, as they always do, surrounded by the family they’ve amassed over the years: Thor; Carol; the ever-expanding Stark brood, now with grandchildren and great-grandchildren; Natasha and Clint and Kate, all wrinkled and grey-haired, but as sharp as ever; Bucky and Sam and Peter and Stephen. There’s magic and chaos and children running everywhere. Peggy loves it. “Living so long, I mean.”
Peggy looks around them, at the life they’ve built, the family they’ve found. Seventy years ago, she never imagined she’d have any of it. “Never,” she says.)
Chapter 3: iii
Peggy goes into the ice in 1945.
Tony finds her 70 years later.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
Chapter 4: iv
Peggy hates Christmas, but her neighbour might change her mind.
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.”)