Seasickness had run in the Carter family for generations, so it wasn’t altogether surprising when Peggy found herself stricken with it on the voyage home—or rather, the voyage to her new home, New York City, and her new position, another secondment to the SSR.
It certainly didn’t help that she was afflicted with a vile and acidic hangover, the aftermath of an impromptu wake held by her and the men of Steve’s unit. She hadn’t even drunk that much; she used to be able to hold her liquor with a little more grace and dignity, but time makes fools of us all.
It was her first time landing in America by sea—the last time had been in Howard Stark’s private plane, with the shining sky above and the white-peaked waves beneath. As conscious as she’d been of her duty, there was something about flying that made one feel carefree, indestructible.
This time, she arrived at dawn, the great lady of the harbour crisply silhouetted against a luminous crimson sky. The old rhyme floated up, uncalled, from the murky depths of her subconscious: Sailors take warning.
When she arrived, she had to submit to the intake routine for transfers, including a physical. The civilian doctor she was assigned was positively ancient, with a dry voice and papery hands, and persisted in calling her “Mrs. Carter” as he performed the examination.
The reason for which became clearer a few days later, when a nurse from his office called to congratulate her.
Peggy spent that night slumped on the floor in the corner of her hotel bathroom, a rough towel crammed against her face to stifle the bone-wracking sobs.
In the morning, after emptying her stomach at the customary hour, she pulled herself together, went to HQ, and informed Brigadier General Phillips of her predicament.
He spoke quite kindly about it, and said he’d be sorry to lose her. That she was worth any ten of the men he had working under him now. “Hell of a thing, Carter,” he said gruffly, and shook her hand.
“Yes,” she replied, stone-faced. “It is.”
Peggy went quietly away, and didn’t tell anyone else about the thing—which was how she referred to it, even in her own mind. She couldn’t possibly conceive of it as a reality, as a child.
The official story was that she’d refused the secondment and been sent home. She supposed people would ascribe to her a woman’s frail heart and fragile sensibilities. Which was just as well; no one must be allowed to suspect the truth.
The most decent thing to do would be to give it up. There were families, she was quite certain, who could give the child everything she couldn’t. Peggy knew she would make a very poor mother, having had—at best—a rather indifferent example in her own.
And what sort of career could she possibly aspire to—unmarried and saddled with a fatherless child, her curriculum vitae full of blanks as ordained by the Official Secrets Act? Shopgirl, perhaps, or typist, at the very best. For a woman alone, it was enough to live on; for a family of two, it would be just enough to starve.
She briefly considered not having it at all. She’d trained as a nurse, a lifetime ago; she knew enough to know that there were methods. If her calculations were right, it was still early enough.
All in all, it wasn’t as though she had no options.
If it had been any other man’s child, she might have been sensible about it.
America was vast, and it wasn’t difficult for Peggy to find a small town where there was no chance of encountering a familiar face. She bought herself a modest ring and became Mrs. Carter, respectable young widow to another of America’s brave, dead boys. She’d known enough American recruits to be able to fabricate a husband, a simulacrum constructed from snippets of cheerful, fresh-faced young lads, their dreams of home and hearth untainted by the reality of combat.
She found work in a florist’s shop, owned by a kindly older couple, the Buchmans, who had lost two sons of their own. She kept the books balanced and the floors tidy, and made polite small talk with the patrons, who found her accent just charming.
She fell out of the habit of subterfuge, mostly, but she managed a credibly blank face when the neighbourhood boys loitered outside the door of the shop, slurping at chocolate ice creams and arguing over whether Captain America could beat Superman in a fair fight.
That evening, walking home, she caught sight of her own reflection in the butcher’s plate-glass window. Beneath her shopgirl’s smock, already an undeniable curve.
What an utter mess she’d made of things.
That summer was the hottest one in recent memory for any of Peggy’s neighbours. It wasn’t a dry desert heat, which she might have been able to tolerate; it was the sticky, sweltering sort. It left her with the perpetual feeling of having stepped out of a steaming shower, her curls limp, her skin in riotous rebellion.
She was constantly hot. And… bothered.
It went against all logic. After all, she had obviously achieved her biological imperative—and she was grieving, for God’s sake. What reason would her body have to plague her like this? And yet, night after night, she woke breathless and trembling, desperate to feel his hands on her skin. He’d had such beautiful hands—large but fine, and so very clever.
Peggy eased her own discomfort as best she could, and tried not to feel too remorseful afterwards.
She missed him at other times, too. She wondered what he would have thought of it all—of her new hometown, her new life, her burgeoning belly and the tiny creature blossoming inside of it. The first time she felt it move, she imagined taking his hand and guiding it to the spot.
She wondered what he would have done when the war was over. Back to illustration work, perhaps—or else to school to learn a new profession, as many veterans were doing. She pictured their life, as it might have been.
The hell of it was, she was certain they could have made it work.
Steven Thomas Carter was born on a rainy Tuesday morning. Or so Peggy was told, when she returned to her senses well after the fact.
He was rather a homely child: red-faced, stick-thin and bald as a post, entirely unprepossessing. His only attractive feature was his large, slate-grey eyes—but the nurse who had remarked on them informed Peggy that their colour was liable to change in the first year.
He weighed five pounds, one ounce, and was seventeen inches long—figures which meant nothing whatsoever to Peggy, except that they seemed to occasion concerned tutting from every single member of the hospital staff who attended her.
Despite his small size, he showed no other sign of illness or defect, and after a few days, they allowed her to take him home. She had strict instructions on his care: four hours between feedings, no more than ten minutes per breast, and it was vital that she not pick him up unless it was to nurse him.
Whether through inability or sheer cussedness, Steven would not deign to feed from her breast at the scheduled times, leaving her uncomfortable and aching with unshed milk. He seemed equally offended at the notion of being offered a bottle of formula.
In the end, she abandoned the hospital’s instructions entirely: she let him sleep in the bed with her, cuddled him when he cried, and fed him whenever he seemed to want it. She was almost certainly an ignorant and unpracticed mother, but she found that she could not bear to be a cruel one.
She supposed the results were only to be expected. He yelled—not a whine, not a whimper, but a full-throated, indignant shout—whenever she had to lay him down for even an instant, or if anyone other than Peggy had the effrontery to hold him. He screamed bloody murder whenever she changed his diaper, and shrieked when she put him in the sink to bathe.
When she fed him, he expressed his satisfaction by clawing her breast with razor-sharp fingernails, too tiny for her to trim with scissors. If he sensed that she might be about to eat, or sleep, or experience a moment of blessed respite, he would contrive to interrupt it in the most ghastly manner possible, usually something involving bodily fluids.
The few friends she’d made in town came to visit her at home. All of them remarked on the baby’s eyes. No one could find another compliment to pay him, despite the mandate of politeness. He wasn’t sweet, he wasn’t pretty, he wasn’t even peaceful.
He was, quite simply, the most ill-tempered and unattractive child a mother could have had the misfortune to be saddled with.
And she loved him with a fierceness that startled her.
It might have been different if he’d been the perfect, fat blond cherub she’d been envisioning. But this skinny, angry starveling could only be hers, hers and Steve’s, and she fell hopelessly in love with him.
It was an item in the newspaper that caught her attention: Howard Stark, playboy engineer, had turned his attention to the search for RMS Titanic. Stark Industries was researching and developing a new kind of diving equipment to facilitate the location of the wreck.
Peggy knew that the salvage expedition was just an excuse, a cover for what Howard was really doing. What interested her about the article was that it implied he’d found something.
She placed a call—collect, naturally—and left her last name and telephone number with his assistant. She knew it was dangerous; he had the resources to trace the number back to her location.
He called her back in the middle of the night.
“Where the hell have you been, Carter?”
Steven squirmed on her shoulder and clenched his fists, gearing up for a good howl. She rocked a little, and rubbed his back consolingly.
“I didn’t know you had any family in the States.”
“Did you find it?” she asked bluntly.
“The bloody Titanic.”
Steven gave a loud squawk and yanked on her hair, pulling a fistful of it into his mouth.
“Nothing yet,” said Howard. “But we’re hopeful. What’s—was that a chicken?”
She clutched the phone between her ear and shoulder, and opened her shirt with one hand while she wrangled the baby with the other. “May I ask a favour?”
“Anything. You want to ask it in person? Whereabouts did you say you were?”
Steven had settled to her breast and was sucking noisily. She pulled a blanket over his head, trying to muffle the sound.
“If you do find it, I’d appreciate a call. You have my number.”
“I’ll shoot you if you come here,” she said, and put the phone down.
Time marched on, and Peggy returned to her job at the flower shop. She made an arrangement with the Buchmans, who lived above the store: Mrs. Buchman, who’d been deprived of the opportunity for grandchildren, would be delighted to mind “little Stevie” during the day while Peggy managed the shop on her own.
“It’s Steven, actually,” Peggy corrected, careful to keep her tone light.
As the months passed, Steven learned to hold his head up, to smile, to roll from his stomach onto his back. He was observant, interested in the world around him, and seemed intelligent enough, which was a mercy.
He was still tiny, but he’d filled out a little, lost that skeletal look. His eyes, as predicted, had darkened to a brown that matched her own; his hair, which was finally starting to come in, was dark as well. The only part of him that was Steve’s was his size, which was probably all for the best.
The call came from Howard one evening in the spring.
Peggy was seated on the sofa, reading the newspaper to Steven. The baby was draped contentedly over her knee, drooling on her skirt.
“I’m calling from Canada.” He sounded a bit out of breath. “We found it. The Titanic.”
“Oh.” Distantly, she said, “Thank you for telling me.”
“Peggy. Peggy. He—”
“Not over the phone,” she snapped. The truth was, she didn’t want to know the details. She had enough trouble sleeping as it was.
Howard gave a grunt of frustration. “We found a survivor,” he said, emphatically.
“A… you what?”
“A survivor,” he repeated. “The man on the ship. The one we’ve been looking for. He’s alive.”
In what was not her crowning moment in motherhood, Peggy stood up quickly, forgetting about Steven entirely. It was a near miss, but he slid off her lap and rolled onto the cushion next to her with that graceless fluidity that babies often possess.
She covered the receiver with one hand and whispered, “Sorry, darling!”
Steven said nothing, but merely lay on his back, sucking his thumb and blinking up at her accusingly.
Back on the phone, Peggy demanded, “Where is he?”
“I can’t say. Top secret. But tell me where you are and I’ll come and get you.”
“All right,” she said shakily, and gave him the address. “First, though. There’s something you ought to know…”
Steven woke during takeoff and whined tearfully the entire flight, hands clutched to his ears, face buried in Peggy’s chest with a force that suggested he was trying to burrow under her skin.
Howard was unaccustomed to children; Peggy caught him looking askance at both of them periodically throughout the flight. When they’d landed and the pressure had let up, she offered him a chance to hold Steven.
To Howard’s credit, he tried—grasping the baby awkwardly around the ribs, Steven’s little legs kicking at empty air.
“For heaven’s sake, Howard, he’s not a bomb,” Peggy chided.
“I know that. I know what to do with a bomb.”
“Look, just bend your arm—not like that—”
Steven, meanwhile, was having absolutely none of this, squirming and clawing in Howard’s grip until Peggy took him back.
“Skinny little runt bit me,” Howard complained, inspecting his hand.
“It couldn’t have been that hard, he’s only got the one tooth.” She pressed a kiss into the fluff at the top of Steven’s head. “There, now, my love. You’re all right.”
Inside the facility, Phillips gave off a lot of bluster about security clearances, but Peggy knew from experience that it was mostly for show. Unlike Howard, he wasn’t particularly ruffled by Steven’s presence, and offered to take charge of him while Peggy visited the patient. “Can’t have loud noises in there,” he informed her. “He can’t take it right now. Bright lights either—don’t turn on the overheads.”
She expected Steven to make a fuss, but he went to Phillips relatively peacefully, looking more surprised than anything.
The brigadier general had obviously handled a child before. As he bounced her son on his knee, Peggy remembered him alluding to small nephews, or perhaps great-nephews.
“Does Captain Rogers know I’m here?”
“We haven’t briefed him in detail,” said Howard, giving a nod in Steven’s direction, “but he knows to expect you.”
Peggy took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and smoothed her palms over the front of her skirt. “All right.”
The room was cool, and completely still apart from the click of Peggy’s heels. The windows were covered; the only light in the room was a small reading lamp, affixed to the railing at the head of the bed.
Steve was sitting up in bed, blankets pooled around his hips. He was wearing a pair of striped pajamas, and a housecoat that might have been either blue or black. His face was the colour of chalk, except for some painful-looking reddish patches on his cheeks and nose. His lips appeared dry and cracked; so did his hands, where were knotted in the covers.
She wanted to run across the room and fling herself into his arms. Instead, she walked, very deliberately, and seated herself in the chair next to the bed without waiting to be invited.
He opened his mouth as if to speak, then seemed to reconsider and closed it again. His eyes were very wide, and dark in the dim light.
All at once, Peggy wondered how she could have seen the same slightly stunned look on her son’s face a thousand times without reckoning how he had come by it.
“You’re staring,” she observed. “Am I very different?”
Steve shook his head. “Your hair is shorter.” His voice was thin, reedy, as if he couldn’t get enough air.
“Yes, I had to cut it off because—” she realized that it was going to be impossible to have any sort of conversation without mentioning the most important thing that had happened to her since their parting. “Steve,” she began, hesitantly.
“It’s all right,” he said.
“I understand. I mean… a year is a long time.”
He nodded at her clasped hands. It took her a moment to take his meaning: she was still wearing the plain band of gold she’d bought herself as camouflage.
“Oh,” she said, and twisted the ring off her finger. “Oh, no, I’m not married. Though I suppose you could say there is a man in my life, of sorts.”
Steve looked perplexed—even more so when she reached over and took his hand in both of hers.
“Steve,” she said, “I have a son.”
He cleared his throat and asked, “You had a baby?”
“That’s usually how it’s done,” Peggy said dryly, adding, “He’s seven months old.”
She waited for Steve to do the arithmetic, but he just looked at her blankly. He didn’t know what the current date was, she realized—only that time had passed.
She gave his hand an encouraging squeeze and said, “He’s called Steven. After his father.”
Steve’s mouth formed a silent “oh.”
“That’s really all the news I have,” she continued, compelled to fill the silence. “I haven’t had time to do much else.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s here. Just outside.”
Steve looked equal parts eager and terrified.
“We’ll give it a minute, shall we?” she said gently. “Phillips is making quite the fuss over him.”
“What’s he like?”
“He’s rather small. And extremely stubborn. I knew instantly that he must be yours,” she joked, then wondered if it wasn’t in poor taste to imply that it might have been otherwise.
Looking concerned, Steve asked, “He’s healthy?”
“He certainly has a well-developed set of lungs.”
As if on cue, a desolate wail erupted from the outer room, audible even through the heavy door. Peggy sighed.
“Can you bring him in?”
“If you like. I ought to warn you now, he’ll most likely cry. He’s not accustomed to strangers.”
Steve’s face fell.
“Oh, Steve—I wasn’t thinking—” She touched his arm. “I’ll get him.”
Peggy sat by the bed again, Steven perched on her knee. She found her handkerchief and briskly dried her son’s tears, then instructed him to blow his nose. Steven, who had suffered through this routine all winter, puffed out his cheeks and gave an obedient honk; Steve laughed, which earned him an indignant glare from the boy.
“Hi,” said Steve, very softly. “It’s nice to meet you.” (Peggy was relieved to note that he wasn’t one of those people who insisted on speaking to the child in a strange voice, or using nonsense words.)
“Shake hands, Steven.”
Steven didn’t move, but gazed up at Steve, his lower lip quivering ominously. He looked, if possible, even tinier in the presence of his namesake.
Steve pointed to the crisply knotted tie on Steven’s sailor suit. “I like your outfit,” he continued, as though they were having a perfectly ordinary chat.
Steven popped his little thumb into his mouth and sucked vigorously, obviously trying to decide what to make of the entire situation.
Peggy supplied the deficiency: “Thank you, it’s new. A gift from his grandmama. There’s a hat to go along, but he refuses to wear it.”
Indeed, at the mere mention of the word, Steven swatted at the air around his forehead with his free hand.
“Did your folks get to meet him?”
She shook her head. “I wrote shortly after he was born. I wanted to be certain he’d be looked after if anything happened. I’m not particularly invested in them meeting him, or vice versa.”
“Were they upset?”
“One imagines so, but they’re far too well-bred to say so in a letter. My brother was delighted. He wired me straight away: ‘Thrilled to be relieved of responsibility to produce Carter heir.’”
“I guess that’s one way to look at it.”
“He also said it was the most traditionally feminine thing I’d ever done.”
Steven was tugging insistently at the front of Peggy’s cardigan. She’d fed him on the airplane, to quiet him, but that had been hours ago.
Peggy glanced around. “I don’t suppose there’s anywhere I can…”
“Oh. Well, I don’t mind—unless you…”
They both floundered a bit, and then Peggy said, “All right,” and began unbuttoning her blouse.
Steve dutifully raised his eyes to the ceiling, looking as though he’d suddenly been called to prayer, and Peggy couldn’t help but laugh.
“It isn’t anything you haven’t seen before,” she remarked. “Obviously.”
While Steven tucked into his dinner, Peggy told Steve all about her new life: her work, her neighbours, her flat. She regaled him with a humourous retelling of her pregnancy and Steven’s arrival, conveniently leaving out all the little moments of despair and indecision and loneliness.
“Sounds like it was hard,” asked Steve—who, as always, was a more observant listener than his interlocutor gave him credit for.
“Yes,” said Peggy frankly. “But I wouldn’t—it sounds like the worst sort of sentimental tripe, but honestly, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Well—I mean, other than…” She couldn’t quite seem to get the words out. “I’m glad you’re all right,” she said instead.
He nodded, and passed a hand over his eyes.
“I’m sorry. You must be very tired, and I’ve kept you talking.”
“No, not too bad,” he said hoarsely, and she realized he was on the verge of crying.
Peggy waited, gave him time to get control of it. Then she asked, “Would you like to hold him?”
“He won’t mind?”
“Not right now, he’s just about to fall asleep. He’s a bit of a milk-drunk. Hold out your arms.”
Peggy bent over Steve, helping him settle the baby against his chest. Steven, his head lolling to the side, squinted up at them drowsily before snuggling into Steve with a profound, weary sigh.
“Yes, my darling,” said Peggy affectionately. “Your life is such hard work, I know.”
Steve looked down at him in wonder, brushing a finger lightly over Steven’s rounded cheek. Steven didn’t stir.
“He likes to be held while he sleeps,” she said, putting her blouse to rights. “He has a bassinet at home, but it’s hardly been used. Let me know if your arms need a rest.”
“I’m okay for now, thanks.” He said it without looking up, but there was a familiar stubborn set to his jaw—one that meant he would never admit to his arms hurting, even if they were to fall off entirely.
Impulsively, she leaned in and kissed his cheek.
He glanced up quickly, startled, then said, “Hi.”
“Hello.” They were practically touching noses now. Peggy was trembling and blushing like a schoolgirl, which was absolutely ridiculous, given the circumstances.
“Can we… try that again?”
She kissed him full on the mouth—carefully, mindful of his injuries and the baby sleeping between them. When they broke apart, Peggy was the one who had to close her eyes against tears.
“Hey,” he breathed, resting his forehead against hers. “It’s okay.”
“I’ve missed you so, oh, Steve—”
With his usual superb timing, Steven broke wind loudly.
Steve shook his head, biting back a smile.
Peggy couldn’t help it; she dissolved into helpless laughter, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Vile creature,” she stage-whispered, once she’d regained her composure. “Never a moment’s peace. Honestly.”
“He can’t help it.” Steve was rubbing Steven’s belly: slow, soft circles. “Good job, big fella.”
This was the kind of father he would have been, she thought. A bit over-indulgent, perhaps, but compassionate and thoughtful.
The kind of father he could be, still. It wasn’t too late.
“Where did you learn that?”
“You know, believe it or not, this is not my first baby.” The retort caught up to him, a second too late, and he amended, “I don’t mean—I just, you know, the Star Spangled Show, they—there were a lot of kids.”
Peggy perched on the edge of the bed, slid an arm around his broad shoulders. “I knew what you meant,” she assured him. “Well?”
“How do you like your son?” It was the first time she’d ever directly acknowledged Steve’s connection to the boy.
Steve was beaming. “I gotta say, Peggy. He’s pretty perfect.”
“Hardly that,” Peggy replied, though privately she couldn’t help but concur.
“Perfect,” Steve insisted. “Better than perfect. He’s… ours.”
“Sap,” said Peggy fondly, giving him a squeeze.
He leaned heavily against her shoulder, obviously flagging. She moved to gather up Steven, but Steve clung to him obstinately.
“Not just yet,” he protested.
“Here, let me…” She settled the baby on her shoulder, then shifted until her back rested against Steve’s chest. “There. I’ll hold him,” she said, “and you hold me. All right?”
“You don’t mind?” he asked, putting his arms around her all the same. “What if someone comes in?”
It took Peggy a moment to discern his meaning: for Steve, it had been only a short time ago that they’d been compelled to hide their love, to settle for what few stolen moments they could find together in the rare interstices of war.
“I rather think the cat’s out of the bag, darling,” she chuckled.
“You think I ought to make an honest woman out of your mother?” he whispered, ostensibly to the comatose baby.
“Hm. If that’s your idea of a proposal, Captain, quite frankly, I don’t think much of it.”
“I wasn’t talking to you. I was asking little Steve.”
“His name is Steven.”
Steve made a noncommittal noise.
“It’ll throw a bit of a wrench into my cover story,” said Peggy, carelessly, as though her heart weren’t trying to hammer its way out of her ribcage, “but we could give it a try. If you like.”
“Not just because of the baby,” he insisted.
He let his head fall forward, his face resting in the juncture of her neck and shoulder. “Okay,” he murmured.
A moment later, both of Peggy’s boys were fast asleep.