“Last Thursday,” Daniel said out loud.
Jack glanced at him briefly before turning his attention back to the road. “What about it?” he asked as he navigated then up Amsterdam Ave.
“You asked when was the last we heard from Peggy. It was last Thursday. She called in with… womanly matters.”
Jack snorted. “Like she hasn’t ever used that exact same excuse to go rogue. Besides, that was a week ago. That’s well enough time, to get over, y’know.” He made a vague gesture that could have equally applied to fly-swatting.
Besides him, Daniel looked uncomfortable and exasperated. “Heck if I know; in any case, it’s rude to ask.”
“Well, here's your chance to muster up the courage,” Jack declared, finagling a parking spot right out from under a silver Chrysler. The other driver leaned out the window, swearing, but Jack flipped open his coat to reveal his holster, and the Chrysler quickly spotted another opening down the block.
Daniel watched all this with a long-suffering grimace. “Someday, they'll call your bluff,” he warned as Jack rounded the car and joined him on the sidewalk. Before them was the stoop of a magnificent, neo-classical townhouse with marble steps and white stone facade.
Rolling his eyes, Jack hopped up the steps to the door. “Then we'll get to have ourselves a real hoedown, won't we? C’mon.”
They rang the bell and listened keenly for signs of life. Nothing.
“Maybe she's not home?” Daniel said, sounding worried and Jack scoffed.
“Look at the size of this place; she's probably still stuck crossing the parlor,” he said, and rung the bell again, this time keeping his finger pressed firmly so that it continued to bing-bong-bang ceaselessly.
Mortified, Daniel glanced at the sidewalk surreptitiously and locked eyes with an older woman walking by. He tried to smile reassuringly. The grandma shot him a suspicious glare, clutched her bag closely, and hurried off. Daniel turned to Jack and hissed, “Stop that!”
Jack slid him an unimpressed look that spoke of the myriad times he'd had to beg extra barricades off the local precinct after Daniel and Peggy blew up a city block/warehouse/garbage scow. He lifted his finger to allow for one silent moment, then jammed it back again.
“She'll kill you,” Daniel said.
“Only if she's home,” Jack grinned.
“Oh, well better write your tombstone now, because here she comes,” Daniel said as heavy footsteps came stomping closer at increasing volume.
The words were barely out before the door was yanked open hard enough that Jack’s hat blew askew.
“Marge!” he said brightly, tipping the brim of his hat back in place, and to Daniel, “Go on, ask her your question.”
“Chief Thompson,” Peggy bit out icily. Her glare switched focus crisply. “Daniel. What are you doing here?”
“Hey Peggy,” Daniel said before Jack could open his fat mouth and get them both shot. “It's good to see you?”
Jack shot him a pitying look. “Carter, you've failed to check in for the last two days-”
Frowning, Peggy shook her head. “I left a message with Rose.”
“-and as a senior agent of SSR, with access to sensitive information, you might recall that unless on assignment, your physical presence is required in the office, or at the very least, your communication needs to happen directly with me. Your direct supervisor,” Jack said pointedly. “Codicil 4.45, SSR handbook.”
Peggy sighed, looking pinched, and continued gripping the door. “I promise you, Chief Thompson, there is nothing out of the ordinary to my absence. It really is a strictly personal matter, and I thought it best to take some time and resolve the matters at once.”
“Is everything alright, Peggy?” Daniel asked, a thread of concern in his voice. Sure, she’d turned him down, and they’d endured some awkward exchanges in the interim, and maybe he was considering that promotion and move across country to get away from the excruciating pantomime of we’re-all-just-friends-here-totally-ordinary-coworking-friends-here, but. Well, he still cared.
Peggy softened, just a touch. “Completely fine, Daniel, I promise. Trust me,” she swore.
Daniel nodded, but didn't reply. He noted that she still held the door half closed, hadn't invited them in. Wasn't dressed to go out, and her curls had gone loose, a sign that often meant she was distracted, anxious.
“Glad to hear it,” Jack said brightly, and brandished a manila folder. “In any case, you have a few case files missing a signature, and we're wrapping up first quarter reports.”
“Yes, of course, I’ll bring them back tomorrow,” Peggy said hastily and reached for the files. Jack pulled them away.
“I'd prefer if we go over these now; they’re time sensitive,” he said, a steel undertone in his words. Besides him, Daniel’s spine stiffened at the tone. “You understand, don’t you?”
“No, no I think…what...” Peggy blinked and cut herself off, distracted by Jack's finger tapping a frenetic pattern against the file. “What? No, oh for heaven’s sake. I'm not being threatened or held hostage!” she said indignantly.
Daniel exchanged looks with Jack, and didn’t relax his grip on his crutch. “Peggy, look, you can tell us what’s going on,” he said quietly. “We can help.”
“Thank you, Daniel, but it’s a- a family matter. That's all,” she said solemnly, holding his gaze with a steadiness meant to be reassuring. She reached out the hand not holding the door to pat his arm, and he smiled back uncertainly. Besides him, Jack went still.
“Who did that,” Jack said, very quietly. Surprised, Peggy looked down at where her sleeve had pulled back from her wrist, exposing a wide ring of vivid bruises that would exactly match a handgrip.
“Oh—nothing, no one,” Peggy said, shaking her sleeve down.
Jack’s eyes flicked behind her, into the shadowed foyer.
“Jack, I promise, it’s been taken care of,” she tried again.
“They’re still here, aren’t they?” Daniel said, low and taut, eyeing the tight grip she had on the door.
“Sousa, you have your piece on you?” Jack asked calmly.
Peggy looked ready to slam the door in their faces in frustration. “For Christ’s sake, you two. I’ve said to trust me.”
They both regarded her, Daniel somewhat guiltily, Jack with marked skepticism.
“Marge, since when have I ever done that willingly?” Jack replied, and earned himself a filthy glare. “Besides, you’re not exactly a fount of trust yourself.”
“Peggy?” someone said from the shadows inside the house. “It’s fine, let them in.”
“Are you sure?” Peggy asked, her brows drawing together worriedly. She darted a look behind her shoulder, then back at her colleagues.
“From the way the one on the left is holding his cane, I think maybe a new tactic is called for,” came the wry reply. Jack and Peggy both glanced down at Daniel’s feet, where he’d carefully levered the tip of the crutch against the doorway for better leverage, in case he presumably had to jam the door open and fling himself against a vile opponent.
“Just covering the bases,” Daniel said lightly, retracting his crutch. Peggy sighed, half-turning as the shadows down the hall shifted.
Into the afternoon light walked an in-person army recruitment poster painted in bold red (shirt) and blue (jeans) and golden wheat (hair), exuding solemn uprightness and robust physical health. His gaze wasn’t hostile, but cautiously alert. He was incredibly handsome as well, and curiously, curiously familiar. Even Jack went a little breathless with awe. To his side Daniel made a faint, strangled sound.
“This is Jack Thompson, chief of the New York SSR office, and senior agent Daniel Sousa.” Peggy waved cursorily at her colleagues, mouth pinched.
“Howdy,” Jack said, then immediately looked as though he regretted saying anything at all.
Peggy rolled her eyes, and motioned to the man behind her. She said stiffly, “This is Grant,” just as Daniel snapped out of his daze and stammered, “C-Captain America?”
“What?” Jack said, turning to stare at Daniel.
“No!” Peggy said, horrified.
“Oh, uh,” said the stranger, blinking.
“I know they look alike,” Peggy said hastily. “But this is Grant.”
Jack looked at the stranger, then at Peggy, then back to the stranger. “Grant is Captain America? What happened to Steve Rogers?”
“No, he isn’t! No one is!”
Next to him, Daniel seemed unable to look away from the stranger. “I- I mean Captain Rogers!”
“Wait,” Peggy tried.
“I’m just an old friend,” the stranger added helpfully and also a beat late.
“But he’s dead?” Jack’s head swiveled back and forth like he was watching tennis. “Captain America, he’s dead. Right? Plane accident? Drowned?”
Peggy nodded. “Yes, exactly! Captain America, very dead. It’s quite sad.”
Behind her, the man coughed.
“Sir, I—thank you, you saved my life,” Daniel said, heartfelt, and utterly oblivious to Peggy's desperate interjections.
Jack pointed. “How do you know him?”
Daniel barely glanced at him, too busy gawping, awestruck. “He pulled my platoon’s fat out of the fire at Bastogne—"
“Bastogne?” The man’s face went white, and his gaze sharpened. “Are you… you’re Daniel—”
“How do you know Daniel?” Peggy demanded, bewildered.
“Yes! Wow, how did you remember? I mean, I was pretty delirious when you and the Howling Commandos stopped by the infirmary after,” Daniel breathed.
“Just a good head for these things I guess,” said the man with a weak grin.
“You’ve met?” Peggy demanded, and in any other situation her confused horror would be hilarious, but…
“Okay, alright! Shut up, all of you shut up.” Jack broke in then, elbowing in between a flustered Daniel trying to offer his hand for a shake and the man, who Peggy was still barricading from the door. “Carter, who the hell is this? Who the hell are you?” He swung around and glared hard at the man. “You Captain America or not, and what the hell have you been doing to Carter?”
Put on the spot, the man just looked at Peggy and raised a pointed eyebrow.
With a sigh of frustration, Peggy threw up her hands and stepped aside. “You two had better come inside, I suppose,” she snapped.
“Thank you,” Jack said pointedly as he ushered Daniel in ahead of him.
“Don’t push your luck,” she grumbled, and slammed the door shut behind them.
Half an hour later found the four of them sitting around the breakfast table processing the impossible chain of events that had led to one Steve Rogers sitting across the table, sipping builder’s tea and absently contemplating the sea green wallpaper. Daniel stared blankly and Peggy fiddled with her teaspoon.
Jack, bent practically double, cradled his head like his fingers were the only things keeping his skull from cracking in half and spilling out his brains.
“So,” he said slowly. “So, you’re telling me. That you,” he thumbed at Steve without lifting his head from his left hand, “You’re from another timeline, where you were defrosted like a Thanksgiving turkey seventy years in the future, and fought in a- a group of- of super humans with... magic powers. Against aliens. And your friends invented time travel to defeat them? Am I getting this right?”
Steve sipped his tea again and nodded serenely. “That’s about the long and short of it, Mr. Thompson. Though not everyone's abilities were magical; some folks got 'em from science projects gone awry. Some were normal humans. And then there were the aliens. Good ones," Steve added reassuringly, as if that somehow made up for everything else that'd come out of his mouth.
“Jack, you alright?” Daniel asked, subdued. He looked like he might be nursing a headache too.
For a long quiet moment, Jack said nothing. And then, “I quit. I really, really quit. I don’t want to know all this—Sousa, take over. Or fight for it with Carter. I don’t care, I’m moving to DC and taking that job with the FBI. I’m done.”
“Oh, be serious, Jack,” Peggy sighed.
He lifted his head and glared. “How can you believe this- this crock of nonsense?! And what- what if he’s lying! An imposter! You know the Soviets have been experimenting with exactly the sort of- of shady, face-changing, identity-stealing stuff that could do this!”
“As if I wouldn’t have taken precautions,” Peggy hissed indignantly. “I've been running blood samples all week, and he’s able to answer correctly everything I’ve asked.”
Jack turned. “Daniel, tell me, do you believe this swill?”
“I—" Daniel’s gaze jumped between Jack and Peggy, then landed on Steve, who was smiling faintly. “Well, earlier, you seemed to recognize me—or my name, at least. Did you really remember it from Bastogne? Or did we—do we meet again?”
At that, Steve’s smile dropped off his face. “I—no,” he said quietly, glancing away. “Never. It’s… I'd heard your name before, from a mutual acquaintence.”
“Oh,” Daniel said uncertainly. “Right.” Across the table, Peggy caught his eye and shrugged helplessly.
“Christ,” Jack marveled. He took a deep breath. “Alright, so let’s say I believe you and you are some… immortal time traveler. This- this is an opportunity, isn’t it? We can do so much with your knowledge of what happens. Prevent wars and tragedies. Eliminate threats before they appear.”
“And who’s to say whoever’s at the top will just use this information to cause more problems? Or that trying to anticipate problems won't start bigger ones in unforeseen consequences?” Peggy pointed out. “We had this conversation three days ago.”
“Well, if you’d brought us in earlier, you wouldn’t have to do it again,” Jack snapped back, and they bristled at each other.
“Peggy, were you ever going to tell us?” Daniel asked suddenly.
She didn’t reply, and after a moment, his shoulders sagged a bit.
“It’s too dangerous,” Steve said. “It’s already…” he laughed then, a little frustrated. “There’s already been too many changes, already.”
“Besides the obvious?” Daniel asked. Steve shrugged, but the chagrined twist in his smile pointed to more things having gone awry for him that they suspected.
Jack eyed the fabled captain narrowly. “So, what now? You say you don’t want to bring this in, you say you don’t want to tell us anything. What are you gonna do? Get married, retire to one of those new Levittowns and hide out with your secrets for the rest of your life?”
“Jack, come on,” Daniel murmured.
Jack spread his hands. “It’s a valid question. I get not wanting announce it in the Times, but he’s an asset. We could be saving lives here.”
“Don’t talk about Steve like he’s an object,” Peggy snapped. “He’s been saving the world for nearly a century.”
“And he could continue saving even more! It’s- it’s a chance to make things right! Whaddaya say, Captain?” Jack asks instead, a defiant tilt to his chin and doing his best to stare down an American War Hero who was paying more attention to the delicate china cup in his hands than an excitable SSR chief across the table.
“I say that’s exactly what I was planning to do,” Steve said mildly, and when Jack began to smile, added, “Learn how to garden daffodils. Paint. Maybe get a dog.”
Peggy smacked his arm with the back of her hand, and winced. She’d clearly forgotten about her bruised wrist.
“Peggy, are you alright?” Daniel asked. “What happened there anyways?”
“It really was nothing,” Peggy sighed, even as Steve ducked his chin, sheepish. “This silly prat thought materializing in the kitchen pantry of a covert operative at midnight was a wise idea. And you two weren’t the first to have some serious, serious doubts. Some furniture was…”
“Rearranged,” Steve said. “I misjudged my timing and landing, not to mention my grip while I was holding her off. I am sorry about that, Peggy.”
“Oh, shut up, I know. He’s healed up already, but I shot him through the shoulder,” Peggy said frankly, pointing to the conspicuously unbandaged arm.
“It’s not even the first time she’s shot at me,” Steve agreed, sounding almost nostalgic.
Jack and Daniel exchanged another set of looks full of unexpected fellow feeling.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Jack said, finally, desperately trying to steer the conversation back onto solid ground. “What’re you going to do now? Am I going to have to worry about some- some super human vigilante sprinting through Yonkers when you get bored of pruning box hedges?”
Peggy side-eyed Steve, but didn’t deign to answer for him.
“…You might as well tell us,” Daniel suggested gently. “Look, you can trust me. Jack, meh.”
“Watch it, chucklehead,” Jack grumbled, crossing his arms. “I can keep secrets too. Besides, isn’t it pointless, by now?” He flapped a dismissive hand. “By your logic, that other timeline can’t happen again. We might as well make the most of the opportunity. We’ve got hindsight now.”
“It’s not as easy as that, Jack,” Peggy hedged, but Jack cut her off.
“Look, we both know that as soon as Danny-boy and I leave, you and Mr. America are going to jounce off around the world to put things in order on your own. Don’t even bother, Marge. I might’ve underestimated you before, but I think I’ve learned my lesson,” he drawled, leveling her with a sardonic eye.
Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Chief Thompson, but I highly doubt it.”
“Children, please,” Daniel sighed. “Not in front of company.”
“It’s nice to see you’ve made friends, Peggy,” Steve said, and faced down three doubtful grimaces.
“Unbelievable pain in my ar—”
“I sign your paychecks, sweetcheeks.”
“Call me that again, Jack, go on,” Peggy said with a distinct air of danger.
Daniel leaned forward again, breaking the stalemate and caught Steve’s attention. “Captain Rogers, we’ll keep this off the SSR books,” he promised, and ignored Jack’s indignant squawk.
Steve shrugged, his massive shoulders bunching up and down, and Jack seemed to rethink the necessity of his protest. “Thank you, Agent Sousa,” Steve said soberly, something briefly unreadable in his blue eyes.
“In return,” Daniel continued, “let us help you.”
“Count me out,” Jack groused, and Daniel absently thwacked his shin under the table.
“Jack will help too,” he said firmly, and when his so-called “boss” shot him an outraged glare, he leveled a skeptical eyebrow. “Would you really rather Peggy and Captain Rogers go off breaking into secret bunkers around the world without you knowing? Come on, Jack. They’re going to go whether you approve of it or not.”
“But without any kind of accountability? Look, Captain, I’m sure you’re a very dependable, upright guy,” Jack said. “But no one—not even you—has perfect judgment all of the time.”
That seemed to strike a nerve in Steve; his mouth thinned. The table went quiet and tense, but then he sighed a little.
“I’m no more perfect than anyone else,” Steve finally said. He caught Jack’s gaze and held it steadily. “I’ve never claimed to be. But here’s the thing, Chief Thompson. There’s not much on this earth that is, no one man or woman, organization or government. All you can do is hold yourself accountable to the only thing that matters. Yourself. Those you care about, and who care about you in return.”
Jack scoffed, but not loudly.
“In any case, I don’t answer to you,” Steve reminded him mildly, and bore his hard look patiently. “As you said, I’ve got a second chance at this. I can’t fix all the ways that the world goes wrong, but I think there are some people that can be saved, in a way that will go a long way to making things right. I won’t bring any organization into this, but I’d like your personal help, if you’re willing.”
He then fixed Jack with a soulful, solemn stare, while Jack frowned and grit his teeth and tried not to rise to his better instincts.
After a moment, Daniel leaned over to murmur quaveringly, “Jack, America is calling on you to do your patriotic duty.”
“This is not funny, Sousa!” Jack hissed furiously.
Daniel pinched an inch of air. “Just a little,” he grinned, and peered at him intently. “Are you… blushing?”
“No! Dammit,” Jack swore, and pushed back from the table. He stomped out of the room.
Peggy watched him leave before sipping her tea and making a face. Cold. “He’ll be back,” she told Steve, patting his hand gently. “Jack’s got to have a bit of a wobbly and talk himself around so he can feel he’s agreeing out of self-interest. I’m going to put the kettle on.”
The breakfast room fell quiet then, Steve’s smile lingering as his eyes trailed Peggy’s progress to the kitchen.
“It must have been hard,” Daniel said, and when Steve looked to him inquiringly, Daniel smiled crookedly. “Waking up in the future.”
“It was,” Steve said, and after a moment, quirked a bittersweet smile. “Not all bad though.”
Daniel wondered, “Why didn’t you stay? You’d been there a decade. Enough time to make a life, make friends. Have a family.”
Steve didn’t reply immediately, and when he did, his gaze was far off, in another time. “Yes, that’s true.” He turned, and his gaze caught on Daniel’s, brief and unreadable. “I guess I just wanted to come home. One last time.”
Daniel wasn’t sure what to say, and so they lapsed into a pensive quiet.
Shortly after, Peggy came back into the room, lofting a piping hot kettle of water. “More tea?” she asked, smiling at Steve like they were the only two people in the world.
A hard lump had lodged stubbornly in Daniel’s ribcage, but he distracted himself by examining his tea cup. Thankfully, Jack didn’t let him dwell on it for too long as he came striding back into the breakfast room and dropped back into his chair.
He began, as if picking up the conversation exactly as they’d left it, “Let’s say—let’s just say, the four of us. How- how are you planning to do this? How are you going to decide what will receive our special attention, and what not?”
“We’re hoping that by taking the least amount of action, we’ll be able to affect the most optimal chain of consequences,” Peggy said carefully, darting a look at Steve.
“What kind of actions?” Daniel asked.
This time, Steve was the one to straighten up in his seat and reply, with a spark in his eye. “Rescue operations,” he said simply. “Two of them.”
“That’s it?” Jack asked doubtfully. “You want to rescue two… people?”
“Not just anyone. People who have changed the course of history,” Steve said.
Jack and Daniel exchanged looks. “Well, who are they?” Daniel asked.
Steve held up one finger. “One is an American POW currently imprisoned in the USSR. In a few years, he will be brainwashed to be an assassin that will singlehandedly change the course of history. Several times. Unless we save him.”
Jack looked doubtful until he caught Peggy mouthing, “Presidents,” and drawing a line across her neck with a pointed eyebrow lift. Then, he just looked pained.
“And the second?” Daniel prompted, though he had some inkling about who it might be.
Steve huffed, head dropping forward a little with a little wry shake. He glanced up again, something self-deprecating twisting up his mouth. “Me.”